Tuesday


















I found a piece of paper in a parking lot.

It had been run over numerous times, torn and trampled, faded by the sun and still damp from a light morning mist.

Because I was not in a hurry; because I was not wearing earbuds and distracted by music; because I was not staring at a cell phone screen; because I was not talking to anyone; because everything has design, color, shape and texture, I picked up the square piece of paper.

It had been some kind of glossy, card-stock advertisement for a nightclub, probably stuck under the windshield wiper of a parked car long ago.

Looking closer, I saw the face of my lost love, a strand of her curly long auburn hair falling across her bare, thin shoulder and finely sculpted collar bone.

She was smiling and looking skyward, as if she could see all the way to heaven.

That was Tuesday.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Artwork by a parking lot
© All Rights Reserved

Gigs — Part Two



When I first began performing in public, it was at high school sock hops—yes, they called them sock hops because they were held in the gymnasium where you had to remove your shoes so you wouldn’t scuff the polished wooden floor. One of our high school gigs was called the “Heaven and Hell Dance.” The gymnasium was partitioned in half, and a loud, raucous, rock-and-roll band played the Hell side. We were the heavenly band, the Crescendos, playing soft, romantic songs for amorous young high-schoolers who wanted to dance close together. Very close together.

I will always remember my best friend and piano player John Baer pounding away on an old upright piano that had been moved onto the stage for us. Its only amplification was by way of a bad microphone. It would be a long time before he actually owned an amplified keyboard. He had to hit the keys so hard for the sound not to be buried by the drums and electric guitar that his fingers bled.

After a year spent learning how to sing in Men’s Chorus, I joined the high school folk music group called the Travelers. In addition to numerous school and community functions, we also played a few gigs at local folk music clubs, including a one-nighter at the relatively famous Ice House in Pasadena, owned by the husband of my half-sister who I did not know existed. I would meet her for the first time 39 years later.

After high school I formed a rock band named Pride (Click here for website), playing my original music at various high school and college concerts. Then it was on to various nightclub and hotel gigs playing the popular songs of the time. I cannot count the number of times I played “Proud Mary” during my gigging years. But the most intricate torture came from repeated performances of “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around The Ole Oak Tree,” a tune that stubbornly resisted any kind of creative interpretation.

I spent six months on the road playing in the Midwest and Alaska, but soon tired of living in hotels. Perhaps the worst part of the six-nights-a-week life of a club musician was playing the same sets of tunes with no variation, no improvisation at all. And so I left the road and went back to performing at nightclubs and hotels in Southern California, interspersed with many recording sessions and concerts of original music at small clubs around Hollywood.


I’d always written songs and short compositions, and was under contract for a while as a songwriter after high school, but nothing came of it. I eventually asked to be let out of my contract, as I could not manufacture the inspiration to write the kind of commercial tunes my producer was so fond of. He’d had successful artists in the past, and years later transformed his Southern California schoolteacher wife into the popular country western persona known as Donna Fargo.

In the years that followed I wrote and recorded hundreds of songs and compositions, but never launched an actual career as an artist. Nobody was interested, and I’ve always been rather unambitious. The fun of creating and playing music always seemed like enough for me. The only way I made money from music was as a guitar player doing gigs.

As I approached the age of thirty, I’d been doing one-nighters for about five years with a group that was consistently booked by some very high-end clients. It was great fun and on occasion some very accomplished and famous players joined our group.

On one particularly memorable evening, we were playing at The Bistro in Beverly Hills, an exclusive restaurant and watering hole whose parking lot was filled with Rolls Royce automobiles. Our drummer that night was studio musician Ralph Humphrey (Click here for website), who had played on Frank Zappa's "Overnight Sensation" album. The Bistro was the hangout of Johnny Carson, who just happened to be in the bar that night. We were playing for a private function in a banquet room. Anyone from the bar who wanted to use the restroom had to pass through a corner of the room where we were playing. When Johnny Carson suddenly appeared on his way to the restroom we were in the middle of a song, but piano player John Baer quickly jumped into the Tonight Show theme. Johnny laughed and pointed at us as if to say, “OK, you got me.”

The musician years were great fun and there is a special kind of bliss one feels being inside an energy-filled, spirit-filled musical performance, playing with other inspired musicians for an appreciative and sometimes intoxicated audience. Unlike club and hotel gigs, the one-nighters allowed us to do far more improvising. With no club owner or hotel manager looking over our shoulders, we were very free to have a lot of fun with the music.


At some point, adolescence, no matter how protracted, must end. For me, it was the approach of the birth of my first son, Joshua, that signaled I was overdue for a life change.


There are so many illusions the amateur and professional artist share, making it especially hard to objectively measure one’s talents and potential for success. But by working with so many talented musicians, I knew I was not among the more gifted or accomplished players. I remember sitting up late one night, taking a cold, hard look at what I’d been doing all those years, trying to see where it all would lead. I could not see a future for myself in music.


My best talents were in composing, yet I was self-taught and way too esoteric to achieve any kind of real success as a popular songwriter. So at age 28, the only way forward for me was to return to college. I eventually decided to major in journalism, knowing I had greater gifts as a writer than as a musician. I was determined to study the most intricate details of writing, not to skip any steps, to dissect the craft as I’d never done with music.


Music was always more of a lifestyle than a career for me, an adolescent lifestyle. I’d put it off as long as I could, but alas, it was finally time to grow up. Yet after my journalism career came to an end, I started composing and recording again, made so much easier this time by the advent of keyboards that can emulate so many different instruments, and digital recording technology: Russ Loar Music.com (Click here for website) I've even been under contract to a sound library and had some of my music used for cable television. And so music is not completely absent from my life, although as the years go by, it is receding.

Music has always been one of the toughest life lessons for me, in that no matter how strong my passion, no matter how strong my desire, there is no substitute for talent.

It's the hard, hard lesson all aspiring artists eventually learn—especially hard for those of us who have not been struck by lightning.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Gigs — Part One






M usic has always been the strongest drug for me, one of the only things in this world that could clearly express the complex tangle of my emotions, so it was quite natural that I wanted to be a musician, to live in this ethereal realm of sound.


I spent a substantial part of my life as a guitar player and occasional singer, my vocal talents being the weaker of the two. I started playing guitar at age twelve after summer camp. My camp counselor played guitar and I was impressed. He was the older brother I’d never had, and his skills on the guitar were so rudimentary that I was not intimidated.

I started out with a horrible guitar from Sears with the strings so high off the fret board they cut into my fingers before the necessary calluses formed. I’d taken trumpet lessons earlier in life, but never bonded with the instrument. After all, it was 1963 and the Beatles were invading popular music. The guitar was the way to learn their songs.

During my first year of high school, I often looked over my backyard fence to watch my next door neighbor Keith rehearsing with his surf band. He played drums. I could see and hear them through the house’s sliding glass doors. O yes, that’s definitely what I wanted to do. I wanted to play in a band.

At various times of my life I’ve seen the future just before it’s come. When my wife was pregnant with our first child we went looking for a house to rent. Finding a "For Rent" sign in front of an old house sitting high above the street in San Pedro overlooking the Los Angeles Harbor, I remember walking up the stairs for the first time, knowing that my young family would be walking up those stairs many more times in the future. Before even seeing the inside of the house, I knew we would live there. I knew the next chapter of our lives would begin there.

It happened again after I’d graduated years later with a degree in journalism. During one of my many unsuccessful job interviews, the editor of a small newspaper had me sit behind a desk in the newsroom while I waited. Looking at the computer keyboard at my fingertips while reporters around me answered phones and typed furiously, I knew that was where I belonged. I knew I’d be working in a newsroom somewhere.

So in the same way, looking over the wall at my neighbor Keith’s surf band, I knew the next chapter of my life would be spent playing music.

I’d met a gifted piano player during summer school before my freshman year at West Covina High School by the name of John Baer. He had astounded students gathered in the music room one day by playing an improvised version of “Lullaby of Birdland” on the baby grand piano. The high school music director, who had spent his early years as a professional piano player, also watched in awe. After this 15-year-old prodigy finished his jaw-dropping performance, the students asked the music director to play, who promptly said, “I’m not going to follow that!”

John and I joined with our neighbor Keith and a saxophone player named Gary to form my first band, The Crescendoes. Our first gig was a dance for young people at the South Hills Country Club. We played “Moon River,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” and other light jazz tunes along with our best imitation of rock & roll and surf music. But we steadfastly refused to play “Louie Louie.” After all, we had artistic integrity. That wouldn't last long.


It was the beginning of a long and often amusing musical collaboration for John and I. We would perform, compose and record music together for the next 15 years, until I finally abandoned my haphazard music career for another stab at college.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Lost In The Desert
















I was in Egypt when I was 15, but it took many years for me to realize
where I'd been and what I'd really seen.



~ by Russ Allison Loar (1st camel on left!)
© All Rights Reserved

I Slapped My Father, Hard



















I  slapped my father hard, a clean open-fisted slap that sent his bifocals skidding across the kitchen floor.


It was the culmination of my accumulated rage against that man. It was a reaffirmation of the difference between us, of the vow I’d made to never, ever become anything at all like him. It was complete rejection, without hesitation.

It was a vow often repeated but first intoned when I was eight years old, the morning after The Dream. It was a dream that would both instruct and haunt me for the rest of my life. In The Dream, I saw my parents as I’d often seen them late in the evening, from behind a canvas shade pulled down to cover the glass-paneled door that separated my tiny bedroom from the family room where they spent their evenings watching television. My makeshift bedroom was originally a den. Although their house was built by an architect, it was not designed for two children. I was the second child.

By curling the edge of the shade back a bit with my thumb and forefinger, I could watch television shows that were on past my bedtime, and I could watch my parents. I discovered my mother smoked. She had never, ever smoked in front of me or my older sister, and especially not in front of her parents who lived next door, who would have been horrified. I also saw my parents drink. Sometimes they filled the house with strangers who talked loud and drank and talked louder and drank more and filled the house with smoke and loud frightening laughter surrounding and invading my tiny dark room.

My parents acted gracious and kind when observed by others, but alone at home they were troubled and angry. I was often jolted out of sleep in the middle of the night by the sobbing and screaming of my mother, anger and accusation from my father. I knew this meant I would be severely disciplined the next day for the smallest transgression. I would be hit. It might be a slap across the face, a spanking or repeated blows during the frenzy of unharnessed rage.

I spent most of my younger years assuming guilt, wondering why I was such a bad child, deserving of so much punishment. But as I grew older, I developed a growing awareness I was not really the cause of their anger, just the excuse.


THE DREAM:

I was standing next to the glass-paneled door in the dark of my room and pulled back the shade just enough to see my parents turning off the television. They began pulling at their hair, finally with much effort pulling off what turned out to be masks, revealing their true faces, the faces of wolves. After removing their clothing, they were fully transformed. They snarled and snickered as they walked on four legs toward their bedroom and out of my sight, malevolently amused at their success in hiding their true identities.

The next morning I vowed I would never give in to these wild beasts, these devourers. I would fight them. I would defend myself. I knew their secret.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Artwork by Kevin Hensels
© All Rights Reserved

Life On The Moon?
















M y grandfather Herman Allison, born August 4, 1885, in Morgan's Mill, Texas, once told me that when he was a schoolboy, a topic for debate was: "Is the moon inhabited?"



~ Words and artwork by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Seven



Don Callender


I was always a rather small cog in the wheel of American journalism, yet I was lucky in meeting notable and accomplished people. I sought them out whenever the opportunity arose, wanting more than anything to hear them speak, to observe and understand the making of these extraordinary people and how their thought processes worked.

I was lucky at the very beginning of my journalism career. I’d only written a few stories during my internship in 1984 at The Orange County Register when the editor suggested I write a story about a newly remodeled Marie Callender’s restaurant in Tustin, California, just being completed. After contacting the restaurant manager, she mentioned that the founder of the restaurant chain, Don Callender, would be visiting the new location in a few days and I could interview him then. I jumped at the chance.
































When I walked into the restaurant for my lunch meeting with the 57-year-old Don Callender, he eyed me suspiciously until I told him I was the reporter from The Orange County Register he was expecting. He said, “When I saw your shiny shoes I thought, Oh no, here’s another one of these guys from the city." He said city inspectors imposing a labyrinth of regulations were making it difficult for him to open the remodeled restaurant.

The luncheon interview lasted several hours. He was eager to tell me about the origins of his 112-restaurant chain, how it began with his mother, Marie Callender, making pies for restaurants. “My mother was a good cook at home,” Callender said. “She made good pastries and she was working for a place that had a little lunch counter and she made pies.”

The family’s wholesale pie business began in 1947. “We started with a rolling pin and 700 bucks,” he said. “Dad did the delivering and I was making the pies with mom’s assistance and guidance.” In 1964 the family opened their first restaurant, in Orange, California.

Callender grew up poor, but always believed a strong work ethic and a close-knit family would bring success. “There is more opportunity than ever before in America,” he said. “Every time you see a kid in a workplace with his parents, I guarantee you, you’ll see a happy kid. They’ve got a sense of worth.”

Callender sold the Marie Callender's chain in the late 1980s but remained active in the restaurant business, creating several new restaurants throughout California. He died in 2009 at age 81.



~ to be continued


~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Photo by Mark Rightmire for The Orange County Register
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Nine




Tom Hayden ~ Anti-War Activist



I met Tom Hayden during a press conference in the early 1980s attended by a large, outdoor crowd of students at Cal State Long Beach where I later earned a degree in journalism. I can’t remember if Hayden was already a state assemblyman, or running for the office at that time. He served in the Assembly from 1982 to 1992 and as a California state senator from 1992 to 2000.


Hayden was one of the Chicago Eight, later called the Chicago Seven after defendant Bobby Seale was tried separately. The anti-Vietnam War activists were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy and incitement due to their involvement in the violent protests at the notorious Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968. Their conviction was later overturned. Hayden was also one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a left-wing oriented group that was active in the 1960s. He was married to actress Jane Fonda from 1973 to 1990.


Fresh from my transition from musician to college student, I asked Hayden if he thought marijuana should be legalized. He was reluctant to answer the question and joked, “You’ve got to give me a minute. I’m too high to answer that question right now,” prompting laughter from the assembled students. At the end of his extensive joking, he said quietly, “It should be the same as alcohol.” I don't think he wanted to be known as a pro-legalization advocate during that time of his career.



Abbie Hoffman ~ Anti-War Activist


Abbie Hoffman was also one of the Chicago Eight. I interviewed and photographed Hoffman in 1987 at UC Irvine when I was a reporter at the Irvine World News. Though Hoffman was a respected anti-war activist, author and university lecturer, his speech at the open-air campus rally was comedic as well as political.


He railed against then President Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal, and urged students to protest university research in Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as the “Star Wars” missile defense initiative.


Diagnosed as bipolar, Hoffman committed suicide two years later in 1989. The New York Times reported that a coroner found the residue of 150 phenobarbital pills in his system, along with evidence of alcohol ingestion.


Though Hoffman did his best to encourage the college crowd that day to help create a new generation of student activism, I remember his speech best as a superb standup routine. He could have killed at any comedy club in the country. Thirty years later, I can’t remember the event well enough to quote his humorous remarks, but no doubt about it, inside this scruffy rabble-rouser was the heart of a funny, funny man.



~ to be continued

~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Monster Trucks and Sausages



S omeone gave me free tickets to the monster truck show at the county fair, entitling me to be among the privileged few to witness a huge, elevated truck smash into a motor home.

As I chewed on the tougher parts of my fat-laden giant sausage, I surveyed the enthusiastic monster truck audience, watched them cheer for the wheelie-popping trucks, and mused on just how fragile our participatory democracy truly is.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Photograph by FlagWorld.com
© All Rights Reserved




My Afternoon With Alex



The charming and erudite host of Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek, is surprisingly sardonic off camera. The studio audience—about 100 split between members of the general public on the left side of the theater, friends and family of the contestants on the right—had plenty of opportunity to ask him questions during down times between segments, sampling his slightly cynical sense of humor.

I got in the first question, a technique I used as a reporter, knowing that even at a major press conference there is often a reluctance to ask the first question. So I prepared my question in advance, rehearsed it mentally and was ready to go when Trebek asked for questions from the audience.

I asked if he'd ever been a game show contestant; if he would ever be a contestant on Jeopardy! before he retires; and how did he think he'd do as a Jeopardy! contestant.

He said he'd been a contestant on a few game shows, but would not be a contestant on Jeopardy! because then someone else would have to host the show, and "he might be better than I am." How would he do as a Jeopardy! contestant? Trebek said he would probably do well against his "peers." Then, looking directly at me, he said, "I see by your white hair that you might be one of my peers. I would crush you!"

A middle-aged man in the mostly middle-aged audience asked, "How do you pronounce all those foreign words?" Trebek answered with overemphasized, drawn out speech: "W-i-t-h M-y M-o-u-t-h."

I also talked to crisp-toned announcer Johnny Gilbert, asking how many tapings per day the winners do. He said they tape five shows a day. For Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings to win seventy-four consecutive games, he had to win five games in a row, then get up the next morning and go win another five games. Whew indeed! The show tapes Tuesdays and Wednesdays, three weeks a month, nine months a year.

Gilbert introduced two of the three Clue Crew members who were at the taping—Sarah and Jimmy. When the pair stood up and waved to the audience, I saw that Jimmy was wearing a maroon hoodie with "HARVARD" emblazoned on the front in big letters. Yeah, OK. You're smart.

A Few Candid Moments

A fortyish woman asked Trebek what his favorite karaoke song was. He replied, "My favorite karaoke song?" then turned his head to the side and pretended to spit on the floor, saying: "I hate karaoke."

Another audience member asked him what he thought about rap music. As he began to criticize it, he seemed to pause and take a quick scan of the audience, then said he disliked most of it because of the bad language and negative references, adding that he thought it was a bad influence on youth. "Not all of it is bad, but most of it," he said, apparently not wishing to condemn the entire black youth culture.

Surprise! Trebek Doesn't Know Everything

When one of the contestants incorrectly answered "era" instead of "eon" in response to a science question requiring a three-letter word with two vowels, Trebek told the young man that "era" was not a scientific term. One of the fact checkers disagreed.

(Era can be generic, such as the era of horse and buggy, or scientific, such as the Paleozoic era.)

Trebek seemed to think "era" had only a generic meaning. But after the fact checker disagreed, he walked over to the front of the stage where a semicircle of fact checkers are located in a pit behind computer screens and telephones, and picked up one of their dictionaries. He seemed genuinely interested in making sure he had the correct information, although the staff photographer who took candid photos during the taping of the show moved quickly into position to take a few shots of Trebek studiously peering into the dictionary. He lingered just long enough to ensure a good publicity shot.

Trebek Is 73

When asked what books he's read, Trebek said he reads a lot of nonfiction, "political stuff," and also likes novelist "John . . ." and then couldn't think of the author's last name until an audience member called out: "Grisham." Then he mentioned finishing a book during a recent trip, but could not remember what it was. "It'll come to me," he said. It didn't.

So even the sharp-witted Trebek, adjudicator of all knowledge, cannot escape the symptoms of an aging mind. Or perhaps it was just overload, considering all the data that had passed through his brain by the last taping of the day. It was the fifth and last show during a day in which he'd already articulated 264 questions with but a very few misspeaks. Is this reassuring to those of us who worry about occasional memory loss? I don't know, but I'm gonna keep playing.



(Written in March, 2014)



~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Eight








CarlosVega is perhaps best known as the drummer who played with James Taylor for about 13 years. Among musicians, he was known as a premier recording session drummer, having played with the best session musicians on albums for many of the most popular artists.



Click on this link for his biography.

Click on this link for his drum solo video.

Carlos was about 19 years old when I played my first gig with him. It was about 1976 and we were playing for a private party at the legendary Hollywood restaurant, Ma Maison, a favorite celebrity hangout.

I was a guitar player and singer in a quartet called The Entertainers that was often booked at upscale locales for a very wealthy clientele. We played with a variety of drummers, including the legendary Ralph Humphrey who played with Frank Zappa and just about everybody else in the upper crust of musicians.

When Ralph was unable to do the Ma Maison gig with us, he recommended young Carlos Vega, who was already making a name for himself by playing gigs with famous jazz players such as Freddie Hubbard.

We were blown away by his remarkable balance between technical virtuosity and natural feeling. He was always right in the pocket, deep in the groove. I played with a variety of musicians during my fifteen years of gigs and recording sessions before changing careers, but I’d never met a young man so gifted and yet so humble about his talents. He was incredibly polite, 
the kind of young man you’d want to bring home to meet your sister.

Carlos was a joyful soul on the brink of a great career. Sadly, he committed suicide in 1998 at age 41. I am so glad our paths crossed, and so sorry he left this world too soon. I will always think of him as the eager young musician I knew, with so many great years ahead.





~ to be continued

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Six




Ray Bradbury


Bradbury at Fowler Brothers bookstore in 1975

I was lucky to have met Ray Bradbury on several different occasions through the years, at book signings and talks.


The first time was July 16th, 1975, at Fowler Brothers bookstore in downtown Los Angeles where he was signing books. My wife and I happened to see a small notice of the event in the newspaper, but it was poorly publicized and we were just about the only ones there.



He agreed to the book signing for sentimental reasons. The bookstore was where he'd met his wife, Maggie, in 1946. She was a knowledgeable salesclerk, according to Bradbury, quoted in a Los Angeles Times story: "There are not that many bookstores left where you are going to get that kind of service or that kind of intellect." Sadly, the store closed in 1994.

He signed a few books for mesome old editions from home, and some new books which I purchased at the store. Perhaps because there was no one there except my wife and I, he took the time to write personalized messages in each book. In my copy of "Dandelion Wine" he wrote: "To Russ ~ Good wishes from the boy who became the man who made this wine.”

I asked if I could photograph him and he said yes, explaining that years ago when he'd met philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell he wished he'd taken his photo. I timidly took a few photos using my terrible Kodak 110 camera.

The last time I saw Ray Bradbury was in October 2000, at Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena. My wife and I were browsing when we heard his unmistakable, enthusiastic voice. He was looking at a display of Halloween gifts, shopping for his grandchildren. I walked over to him and said, "My goodness, it’s the father of Halloween, shopping for Halloween gifts." (He's author of the novel, “The Halloween Tree.”) It was like finding Charles Dickens shopping for Christmas gifts.

He was very friendly, seemingly glad to be recognized, and a bit frail, walking with a cane. He showed me his tie, emblazoned with small pumpkins on a black background. A young female bookstore employee was helping him reach some of the gifts, but she seemed impatient. She asked if he wanted to purchase any books and he said: "No, I've got plenty of books. You know, I've written quite a few of the books you have here on your bookshelves." She didn't know.

Have you read Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine"? It begins with an ode to the beginning of summer, seen through the eyes of youth. The copy he signed for me will always be one of my most treasured possessions. Although Ray Bradbury is known for science fiction, "Dandelion Wine" is not really a science fiction book. It's a deeply felt chronicle of his own youth, seen through the eyes of a boy who begins the summer with a revelation: He’s alive, really alive! What follows is a series of awakenings and realizations in rural Green Town, a magical small town based on Waukegan, Illinois, where Bradbury was born.

Bradbury is a writer who, like Steinbeck, sees everything through a magnifying glass; sometimes through a microscope. Like all the best writers, he teaches his readers how to see, how to think. “Dandelion Wine” taught me so many things when I was first coming of age. His stories remind me of the stories told by my own beloved grandparents, lessons from another place and time, where people are thoughtful and kind by nature. Home.


~ to be continued

~Ray Bradbury died June 5, 2012, at age 91

~ story and photo by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved




My Father Among The Chinese



The Chinese children watched the funny fat American in the ridiculous sport coat try to blow up the balloons.

He was a tourist in his late 60s, wearing a gray floppy hat. His face was a fleshy sagging caricature of itself, accented by an unkempt bushy salt-and-pepper mustache intended to disguise the steady loss of masculinity from his features.

Someone back home had told him that Chinese children love balloons. But what really caught the attention of the children was the exuberant vaudeville of this short-winded man in the funny clothing who was having a terribly difficult time inflating the balloons which were too small and thin for such an amateur. Each balloon he attempted to inflate flew from his lips into the air with the sound of a small fart, prompting laughter and applause from the children gathered around him.

My father, a man who once made deals with some of the most influential businessmen in America, had successfully transformed himself into an amusing street monkey.

Later that day he would show a group of Chinese university students how to peel an orange.








~ Story and artwork by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Complete Honesty





I was an honest man when my father-in-law began to die.

It took me the first twenty-seven years of my life to become a consistently honest man, a scrupulously honest man. I was not a habitual liar, but I grew up wanting to stay out of trouble with my parents who were not of a forgiving nature, and so I lied. During my teenage years the fabrications multiplied as I tried my best to live free of parental rules and regulations. I didn’t lie to get anything in particular, I lied to stay out of trouble.

Do you realize what time it is young man?
I ran out of gas.

I started lying for personal gain during the early years of my marriage when money was hard to come by and even harder to hold on to. I would tell any number of tall tales about automobile repairs and broken-down refrigerators to convince my wealthy yet retentive parents that their money, so painful for them to part with, was at least going to some practical use.

I need $150.
What? More money? Again? We just gave you $400 to fix your car!
The refrigerator stopped. The repair guy is here right now. I’ve got to get it fixed so the food won’t spoil.

Then, one day, the lies stopped.

I was no less impecunious, but something happened that changed my perspective. I became a father. I began to question just what kind of father I would be in the eyes of my son. I knew what kind of father I wanted to be, and so I set out to become that idealized person. I had many weaknesses to address and redress, but the first, most important task was to become a completely honest man. Honest in all things, at all times. I knew the foundation of morality, character and wisdom had to be honesty. Without honesty life is a house of cards, susceptible to the slightest breeze of truth.

I began to test myself. If a waiter forgot to charge me for some item of food, I insisted that it be added to my bill. If a cashier gave me too much change at a store, I returned it. In fact, I paid particular attention to the most trivial transactions and interactions. I had much to atone for. And I was tested. An inordinate number of people dropped money from pockets and purses whenever I was around.

Clerical errors in my favor abounded. The kind of happenstance I constantly wished for during my most poverty-stricken years now occurred with peculiar regularity. I still do not know if this was an odd coincidence, a divine test, or just the sort of thing that happens all the time, a normal state of affairs which I became acutely aware of only because of my near obsessive desire to make amends for a lifetime of ethical lapses.

You only charged me for three of these cookies, but I’ve got four.

That’s OK. We’ll catch you next time.
No, please, let me pay you for this other cookie.
Don’t worry about it. It’s OK.
I cannot leave here without paying you for this cookie.

By the time I was forty-two, my honesty was habitual. A reflex. It must also be said that no being of human dimensions can achieve perfection, but I tried. I became prideful of the opportunity to display my honesty at every turn. In my professional life as a newspaper reporter, a career begun after my first son was born, I sought out dishonesty with a missionary zeal. I would recount the lies of various miscreants, their attempts to cover up their lies, their false claims of being misunderstood and quoted “out of context,” and finally their apologies. I was instrumental in destroying their reputations and shaming their families. They were ultimately responsible for their own behavior, but I was merciless. There’s no more fierce advocate for the truth than a reformed liar.

Former school superintendent Peter Snyder, convicted last year of embezzling $2.7 million from the Valley Unified School District, was stabbed to death in a San Diego County prison yesterday. “He was a good man who made a bad mistake,” said ex-wife Theresa Snyder who divorced her husband two months after his conviction.

~~~

Does honesty have limits? Should an honest person lie to avoid hurting the feelings of friends and family? Does honesty require you to tell your mother her new outfit is forty years out of date and her hairdo makes her look like Bozo the Clown? Surely we are not required to voice every subjective opinion in order to fulfill the requirements of honesty. A reluctance to express opinions and preferences, after all, is not a masking of truth, it is a refusal to engage in momentary, subjective assessment.

You’ve changed your hair.
How do you like it?
I think it brings out the real you.

And yet when it came to my personal beliefs, I never put the slightest tarnish on the truth. My late father-in-law, a physician, was a deeply religious man. Soon after I began dating his only daughter, I felt no reluctance in telling him just how medieval I thought his particular religion was.

How can you actually believe your religion is the only true religion?

We trust in the teachings of our church.

Did it ever occur to you that your self-serving religious leaders just might be wrong?

We have no reason to doubt them.

My wife and I were subsequently married without her parents’ blessings, and only over the course of years did my relationship with the two godly souls that were her parents, soften. Most of the softening came with the birth of my first son, their first grandchild. And so were we all changed by the miracle that is a newborn child. I learned to hold my tongue while simultaneously developing a genuine interest in the weather as a topic of conversation.

I returned to college and majored in journalism, a profession which is supposed to be about the truth. My father-in-law admired my determination to finish college while working odd jobs to support my family. He had entered medical school late in life after serving in the Army and knew only too well how hard it was to attend classes, study, be an attentive father and still earn some kind of living. My second son was born three years later, between semesters, and the bond between our families grew stronger. Religion was not a subject for conversation, but in all other matters, our relations became cordial.

About five years later, Grandpa Doc, as my father-in-law became known to our sons, retired from medical practice. He was a kind man who left many brokenhearted patients behind when he moved to the small Northern California town of Paradise. Yes, it’s actually named Paradise. Moving was his wife’s idea, for she was the font of all religious discipline in the family and believed the big cities would soon fall into chaos, what with the Second Coming nearly here. The small town of Paradise was indeed a beautiful, if not remote, place to live, but it left him bereft of friends and familiar landmarks. It was a cold turkey retirement. And a few years later, his isolation grew as his mental faculties failed.

And so Grandpa Doc traveled between comprehension and confusion, never fully surrendering to confusion, always fighting his way back for a while. I watched his struggle, and it was during our last visit when he asked me The Question. He was in the hospital and we were alone together. His wife had left the small, sterile room to get a drink of water and my wife went with her. He was lying flat on his back with only a small pillow under his head, confused, but not scared. He looked at me and smiled with the same unassuming manner that had always been his way with patients, especially when broaching the subject of bad news.

How does it look? Do you think I’m going to pull through?

He was counting on my honesty, asking me to confide in him. As a physician, he was only too aware of the fiction of reassuring words from friends, family and medical professionals who have decided the patient is no longer in a sufficient state of mind to process factual information. But this was one of Grandpa Doc’s clear moments and he wanted to know the truth. He figured I was the most likely person to give it to him—straight.

And what was the truth? Could I really predict the future? Was I medically qualified to give any kind of diagnosis, much less prognosis, to this man so cruelly cast adrift by old age? Of course, we all knew that his condition was not reversible. But how could I tell this religious man there would be no miracle for him?

Torn between the obvious and the miraculous, given this grave honor of rendering some kind of truthful information to a man momentarily clear enough to want to know what was really happening, I put my hand on his shoulder, smiled, and summoned my best imitation of the offhand remark, my best imitation of his own reassuring beside manner.

You’re doing OK. You’ll pull out of this. You’ll be going home soon.

He looked into my eyes and at least for a moment, he knew the truth.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Fever




I was about 12 years old and my fever kept rising.

I suppose it was a bad case of the flu. I can’t remember precisely. It may have been mononucleosis. As my temperature rose unchecked, I slipped into a place between life and death, a hallucinatory place. There before me was an immense stone floating impossibly in the air.

After all these years I still have a precise memory of that vision. It was a message that took me many years to understand, something hard to put into words, something about faith, something about a spiritual place, an eternal place where the normal laws of physics do not apply.


A few years ago I put my vision into a poem.


There is wildness here,
Raw and raging
Beneath this exterior,
Pulsing.

There are visions here
Of soaring over lifetimes of leaf-filled trees
And rust-colored hills,
Over yellow fields,
Over oceans.

There is forgetting here
Of the small things people say,
The small things people do.

There is a last angry echo
Of the unheard voice,
The deeper self,
The truer self,
The wilder self
That wearies of all man-made things.

There is a silence here
That grows and infuses,
Like the melancholy tint
Of an old photograph,
An old photograph you walk around in,
Examining with wonder the frozen, yet flowing
Moments of a life.

There is a wildness here
That rises like an immense stone,
Floating impossibly
In the pure blue sky
Of a secret spring.


~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Castle in the Pyrenees by René Magritte
© All Rights Reserved

You Are Here



You are here.

I am here.

I am writing this for you to read. How do you like it so far? Not too interesting, eh? Well, you see, there’s a very important theory behind this rather unorthodox way of beginning a . . . of beginning a . . . of beginning this.

You see, blah, blah, blah, and et cetera ad infinitum. (Imagine a long-winded, deeply serious lecture, punctuated with those very special words that immediately give you the impression that the speaker is indeed much more learned and insightful than you, the humble reader, could ever be.)

Excuse me for a minute, I have to go get something.

[Time passes.]

Back again.

Thanks for waiting.

I had to go look for this book on various schools of literary criticism, because I was going to look up a suitable word to use as an example of the kind of word that would be used repeatedly in the abovementioned discussion on the theory of just what in the hell it is I’m doing here. But it seems I’ve brought down the wrong book. You see, I keep all my books on literary criticism packed in boxes up in my attic. I find it more relaxing that way.

Anyway, the word I was looking for was mimetic — an all-time favorite with those who would rather discuss reading than read — but I’ve got the wrong book. Please excuse me for another moment because I must take this book back to the attic, for in browsing through the index, I stumbled upon the entry: “Neo-Platonism, in Plotinus,” and it’s making me queasy. I’ll be right back.

[More time passes.]

Back again.

Sorry I took so long, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and because I am a bit obsessive-compulsive, I nearly got sucked into cleaning my carpets, because the steam cleaner is also in the attic, near my box of books on literary theory.

I do get distracted by the ephemera of everyday life.

In fact, I’ve spent the last five years on preparations alone, laying the groundwork for some really serious and incredibly important writing. First, I had to buy a new computer, because the primordial computer I purchased shortly after the dawn of time simply would not do. Then there was the moving. I had to move to a more literary city. And you know what a time-consuming task moving can be. It was. Only last week did I finally finish decorating my den slash office. Then, there were those photo albums I’d always meant to reorganize. And so forth.

You get the idea.

So anyway, I was about to explain that this rather freeform manner in which I am writing is actually based on my experiences in graduate school, which taught me that you can invent a plausible literary theory for anything. For example, Hamlet is really a dog who is afraid to bite his master. Bad Hamlet! Bad, bad Hamlet!

It’s not that I believe that storytelling is really that passé. I love a good story, especially when it has the word “that” in it a lot. I have many ideas for stories, like the one about how Mozart is reincarnated into the 1970s as a slovenly piano player in a suburban steak house. He can play pretty well, but this time around, he attracts more flies than attention.

But the minute you (I) start writing a story like that, you’re just (I’m just) chained into this traditional structure of character and plot development and so on and so forth, until you just think (I just think), “Why bother?” Because in the end, it’s just another gimmicky story of the type that one sells to the movies (make me an offer). And where’s the fun in that?

Huh?

[Insert interjection here.]

So if one (don’t worry, I’m not going to do this anymore, after this one last time) does not engage in storytelling, then what is the point? And there (here) we have arrived at the crux of the issue (sorry, I could not resist one last parenthetical aside).

Was it not some philosopher employed by Hallmark Greeting Cards who once wrote, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”? Or is this just my way of employing the use of punctuation outside quotation marks, since the question mark in question would alter the original intention of the quoted material if placed within the close-quotation marks?

Which reminds me of a story:

Once upon a time, there was a little brown mouse with tiny black eyes who was very, very hungry. He was searching for something to eat in old Mr. Shimelplatzer’s house when he happened upon a bottle of Minoxidil. Old Mr. Shimelplatzer was trying to grow some new hair. The little brown mouse with the tiny black eyes pushed the plastic bottle off the bathroom counter falling to the floor cap flying contents oozing puddle.

The little brown mouse with the tiny black eyes scampered over to the towel rack, lowered himself paw-over-paw down the bath towel and tiptoed across the throw rug, leaping over the bathroom scale to inspect the strange-smelling pool of liquid. After the little brown mouse with the tiny black eyes licked it all up, he awakened the next morning to find himself transformed into a super-steroid, red-eyed, 23-foot monster mouse. He subsequently killed a lot of slow-moving senior citizens before being blown up with microwave radiation by the National Guard.

Excuse me for just a moment.

[A brief interlude, passes.]

I had to open the door of my den slash office for Inky, my swaybellied black cat who spends many long hours in the faded adobe-colored recliner where I once spent many long hours writing something I called poetry. Inky will not stop meowing at my door until I let her in, then she meows at me for a minute or two before settling in on the seat of the well-worn recliner, where I once spent many long hours writing something I called poetry.

Ah yes, sigh, those heady, ennui-filled days of youth. Now, I sit wearily on this adjustable office chair and type assorted letters into this computer that appear before me on this screen where they line up to become words and sentences, where they all gather together to do this funny little dance called, “Pretending To Matter.”





~ Text and artwork by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved