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?"


He lived long enough to see Neil Armstrong stand on the moon, on television.


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

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Eleven



Don Callender ~ Marie Callender's founder


   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 the stories of how these extraordinary people succeeded 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, nearing completion. After contacting the restaurant manager, she mentioned that the founder of the restaurant chain, Don Callender, would be at the restaurant 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 shiny-shoed city inspectors 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, 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.”

    Callender was generous with his time as we ate lunch, telling me how his parents, Cal and Marie Callender, began a wholesale pie business in 1947 to help supplement the trailer park family’s meager income. They operated out of a rented 20-by-20-foot Quonset hut in Long Beach. Callender delivered his mother’s pies on his bicycle.

   “I grew up on dirt streets and outhouses,” Callender told me. “We started with a rolling pin and 700 bucks. I used to go to work at 11 o’clock at night and work till 5 the next afternoon.”

   The first Marie Callender’s coffee and pie shop opened in 1964, in Orange. In 1986, Callender sold the chain of 120 restaurants to Ramada Inc. for a reported $80 million.

   Callender said his success was born of a strong work ethic and a close-knit family. “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.”


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

Renegade

 

It was not hard to be renegade in the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of West Covina during the 1960s.

Emerging from the conservative ‘50s, all you had to be was a disagreeable teenager, especially in this Anglo-Saxonite community where most of the local power brokers attended Rotary Club pancake breakfasts with an alarming regularity. Come to think of it, regularity was also a big deal during this era.

My home town was very much like the place portrayed in the movie, “American Graffiti.” It was a teenage car culture, and after I turned 16, I had a driver’s license. Not long after, I had a car. My parents were upper middle class, so I did not have to actually earn the money to buy a car. And my mother was eager to be free of having to take me places, and then, pick me up and bring me home. Her life was busy enough, what with Women's Club luncheons to plan, bridge parties, country club appearances and the ongoing burden of supervising housekeepers and gardeners – all this along with a husband who actually expected her to make dinner on a regular basis. Yes, regularity was a pretty big deal during this era.

Nowadays there are lots of restrictions on young drivers, but when I got my license, I was free, turned loose on the streets without any restrictions or guidelines. Just a few hours of driver’s ed. But I was a pretty good driver. I’d had experience, what with all those times I took my parents’ cars out on the road when they were away for a weekend trip. Yes, I remember learning how every intersection was not necessarily a four-way stop as I propelled my mother’s lumbering, razor-finned Cadillac straight toward a passing car who, much to my surprise, had no stop sign. I hit the brake pedal just in time.

Then there was that lesson about road rage, what we used to call, “mad” or “angry.” I thought driving was a competition, and that the object was to beat the other drivers. After all, I wasn’t actually going anywhere. So I jammed down the gas pedal and managed to pull the great white whale in front of this other guy in an old, compact car who had tried his best not to let me into his lane. While I was waiting behind another car at a stop sign, he got out and walked up to my car, signaled for me to roll down my window, which I did, then punched me in the face. 

By the time I had my own car, a dark green 1965 Ford Mustang – the fastback model – I was seasoned. I’d make my car too fast to catch, and I certainly would never roll down my window again for anybody.

In those days it seemed like most of my friends and rivals were working on their cars, customizing old Chevys, putting in big carburetors, high performance shifters, custom exhaust systems, giant racing slicks – even whole new engines. This was long before the state-mandated smog check. Nobody checked the condition of our cars when we renewed their registrations, so all modifications went undetected. I was not one of the more talented kid mechanics around, although I could gap a spark plug. I was a musician, a guitar player, and I did not like getting my fingers stained with grease. So I took the money I saved from teaching guitar lessons and working in a  local pizza parlor and went to a speed shop in a neighboring city to let the experts juice up my horsepower. The first thing they did was rip out all the smog prevention equipment.

“You don’t need all this stuff,” I remember the mechanic saying. Years later, when I tried to trade the car in on a new model, the local Ford dealer would disagree. “You’ve got no smog equipment! We’re going to have to replace it all just to put the car on the lot.”

Oops!

Except for a little cash for dating and guitar strings, I’d put all my money into my car – a nice racket for the speed shop – and after a while I began racing my car on Saturdays at the nearby Irwindale Speedway along with all the other high school amateurs. But as a renegade teenager, the real thrill was street racing. It was like being a gunslinger in the Old West, just prowling around town, looking to challenge somebody to a shootout.

Yes, I had my share of speeding tickets, but I was never caught racing. Most of us weren’t. There were not that many police officers cruising around town in those days.

There was always the occasional race during the day, when I’d just happen to pull up next to another kid in a hot car after school. Who was faster? We just had to find out! But weekend nights were the real prime racing time. It was like jousting, trying to prove our nascent manhood to our girlfriends, or to somebody else’s girlfriend.

Sometimes the races were organized.

Some guy with greasy hair had a new Camaro 280z and swore he could take me. Bets were made and the next Saturday night my friends blocked off both ends of a sleepy suburban street about a half-mile long while we lined up our cars. About twenty high school kids gathered at the finish line. Camaro boy couldn’t catch me, even though his car may have been faster. I was always incredibly quick off the starting line.

That’s what won me the race set up by the speed shop at Irwindale Raceway. There was another kid, a rich kid whose father owned a shopping center, who was already out of high school, who came to the speed shop with a Mustang pretty much like mine. The speed shop mechanics figured this guy would be good competition for me. After they’d done their best to expand his horsepower, we set a date.

The early part of the afternoons at Irwindale were spent doing practice runs, called “qualifying.” You had to turn a good enough time in your particular class to compete in the early evening, before the actual professionals did their stuff for the audience who sat in bleachers on either side of the quarter-mile track.

Rick – my well-financed opponent – and I both qualified at the top of our class and were set to compete. I had the advantage of nearly a year of experience, while this was Rick’s first time at a professional raceway. He was a little nervous, especially since we had an audience of friends, girlfriends and the speed shop mechanics. It had just turned dark as we pulled up to the starting line, facing the “Christmas Tree,” a series of lights mounted on each side of a central bracket that indicate when the cars are in the right starting position. Then, once the cars are positioned, the yellow lights count down to green. If a driver started too early, a red light would signal disqualification.

We both edged our cars into starting position, our engines almost window-shatteringly loud because we’d opened up our “headers” (high performance exhaust systems) to bypass the mufflers. From experience, I knew the slight lag time of my car – from the time I hit the gas pedal to the car’s forward surge – allowed me to start a half second before the green light flashed.

We waited, then the first yellow light flashed on, moving down toward the green light. The moment Rick’s brain told him the light was green, I’d already jumped out from the starting line. He was momentarily stunned, and even though he turned a faster time, he never caught me. It wasn’t really about how fast you went, it was about who got there first. Mind over horsepower. I made it to the finish line first, won the trophy and renewed admiration from my girlfriend.

Yes, it was a moment.

Of course now as a responsible adult I am appalled at my behavior, risking accident and injury on the streets of my sleepy suburban town. Perhaps that’s why it made so much sense for all of us to go just outside of town to the Chicken Ranch.

There was a long, straight road inside the Chicken Ranch property, made for trucks to pick up eggs and chickens, I suppose. Nobody stayed with the chickens at night, especially not on Saturday nights. This particular night had not been the first time high school hot rods had raced there, but it was my first time.

There were dozens of competitors from area high schools and junior colleges, and dozens more who just came to watch. It is a solemn testament to the short-range saturation of the teenage brain that none of us had entertained a single thought about potential consequences. Rubber burned and smoked and engines spit and roared as pair after pair of racers hurtled down the improvised racetrack. After I made my run, the growing chaos of beer-swilling youth amazingly enough triggered some fledgling sense of adult apprehension, and so I left. As I exited the entrance to the Chicken Ranch, I was passed by a long line of police cars.

That was the last race ever held at the Chicken Ranch. It was my senior year, and before long, I’d own a more practical car, have a more practical girlfriend, and grow a little less renegade as the wild anarchy of my teenage years passed. After all, I had to prepare for the wild anarchy of my twenties.



~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Collections


The first things I collected were stuffed animals, but only two of them slept with me at night. Of all my furry friends and playmates, I dearly loved the little gray cat and flop-eared brown dog who slept under the covers and kept me from feeling lonely at bedtime. I sleep with a little calico cat named Sally now who likes to snuggle into the crook of my arm.

I’ve never lived anywhere very long without cats. My grandmother collected stray cats, and so did I, having about a dozen when I lived next to a farm.

I collected small metal cars and loved to drive them around cities I made from colored blocks.

When I was 17 years old I raced my Ford mustang at Irwindale Raceway and won a few trophies.

I collected 45 rpm records, songs I heard on the radio. I listened to them over and over again. Each week when I went to the music store for my trumpet lesson, I bought a new “single” to add to my collection. I pretended I was a disc jockey and would announce each record I played.

One summer I won a contest on radio station KFWB by being the first caller. I talked to disc jockey Gary Owens and he sent me a Gary Owens coloring book and KFWB bumper sticker.

 When I was a newspaper reporter in Newport Beach, California, I also did daily newscasts for a local radio station. Someone told me they heard my broadcast in a supermarket where the station was playing.

 I collected coins and stamps, ordering them from catalogues and putting them into albums. I looked through everyone’s pennies, trying to find  a 1909-S VDB, the rarest of Lincoln pennies. It never turned up. I learned that the reason certain coins and stamps were worth so much money was the same reason I’d never find them.

 As I grew up, my collections shifted from things to experiences. I collected friends, lovers and accomplishments. I collected books I’d read—favorite stories and favorite poems. I collected knowledge and learning. I collected songs and poems I wrote. I collected performances I played as a musician. I collected the talented musicians I played with. After I became a newspaper reporter, I collected my best published stories. I collected every famous and interesting person I met.

I collected family photographs, all the way back to stiffly posed portraits of great-grandparents, arranging them in albums. I collected my family, my parents and grandparents, my sisters and brothers, my wife and the many years of our marriage, the companionship of my sons, the infectious laughter of my blonde-haired, blue-eyed granddaughter.

I collect memories, and as I grow old they reveal meanings I’d never fully understood. I collect the acts of kindness I’ve received and try to pass them on to others. I collect wisdom and continue to learn and relearn the lessons I’ve been taught from those still living and those who have passed on, their words still speaking to me.

I’ve collected my many shortcomings, my failures and my sins, for which I ask forgiveness in my many prayers.

 I collect the joy and the sadness in this world, the tragedies and victories of the spirit, the damnations and the revelations. Sometimes it’s all too much and so I pack some of my collections away in boxes, knowing I can always unpack them if need be, knowing I’ll never look inside some of those boxes again, knowing all things change and life should move forward, mindfully forward.

My house is full of things useful and decorous, impractical and silly, remnants of a long life. I look at these objects and they remind me who I’ve been, who I still am. Someday I’ll leave all my collections behind, passed onto others to forge new meanings, so grateful for having lived here on Earth awhile.



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

Punishment





I  must be a bad person.

That’s what I thought, because I was punished so often. My mother was uncontrollably angry with me, but it was anger without explanation. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong or why I was being hit.

I lived under a cloud of near constant disapproval, always in trouble.

One day when I was very young, my mother was furiously hitting me when my grandmother who lived next door came unexpectedly into our house. I can still hear her loud, clear voice: “Do not strike that child!”

That was the day I learned I did not deserve to be hit. That was the day I learned it was my mother who was doing something bad.

It is interesting that some childhood memories remain so vivid. For me, it is the acts of cruelty and kindness that stand out.

I remember my grandfather holding me in a rocking chair as I fell asleep, singing:

“Home On The Range.”

I remember my grandmother buying me a toy rifle at a department store, even though it was neither Christmas nor my birthday.

I remember seeing my mother’s face in the bathroom mirror above mine as she shook me violently while I was trying to brush my teeth. I was beginning to understand my mother’s inner demons had nothing to do with me.

I remember when my enraged father was hitting me one night, hearing my mother scream: “Not in the face!” That taught me something about guilt.

I remember the last time my father spanked me. I was getting older, and as he started hitting me I decided I would not cry, no matter how hard he hit me. He finally gave up trying to make me cry. I’d been silent the entire time. He never spanked me again.

As I grew older, my mother found more sophisticated, psychological ways to be abusive toward me, to demean me. But I was learning to defend my own soul and I became strong with understanding.

After I’d left home and was married with two sons, I confronted my mother about her behavior. She never acknowledged what she’d done.

Some people get better, some get worse. It’s taken much of my life to rid myself of the damage that was done, but I recovered and made a new life, freeing myself from the ghosts of my childhood. Mostly.

My mother died at age 91, never facing the truth about her life. I took care of her during her last years, treating her with as much compassion as I could, compassion I’d never received, and in so doing, saved my soul.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Four




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 snarky 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 March 2014)


~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved




Tombstones


When I was eight I dreamed I was standing outside my school on the grass with my classmates, waiting for my mother to pick me up. The boys and girls around me began to sink silently into the ground. Where each had stood, a tombstone rose. I was alone, surrounded by tombstones.

Now that I am older, the tombstones are real.
© 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.


~ 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

Poetry Class


“Nothing beats an 18-year-old pair of hips.”

It’s from a poem. Her poem. That blond-haired girl in my college creative writing class, reading her poem out loud, a poem about her love of sex, of having sex, preferably with lean 18-year-old boys at the zenith of their sexual energies.


Within a few days of her recitation I noticed she began coming to class with the professor, a man not quite twice her age who evidently was quite willing to submit his hips to her critical assessment. 

Yes, they had definitely paired off, but unfortunately, the adademic quarter came to an end before she had a chance to construct a poem about this new sexual experience.

But why should I let that fact limit my own imagination?

You Are Not My Daddy

Yes, you are not my daddy.
Yes, you are not my boyfriend.
Yes,
Yes,
Yes.

Oh my God,
Yes!

~ © Blond-haired College Girl

There’s nothing like a college education to expand one’s imagination.


© All Rights Reserved

After I Died I Saw My Dog



The first thing I saw after I died was my dog Nova, wagging her tail madly and wriggling like a salamander with delight.

She was my only dog, a border collie and Australian shepherd mix given to my family when I was twelve years old. There were two puppies, Nova and Scotia.

We got Nova.

The dog donors were people of wealth and standing in the community and so my parents felt they could not refuse, accepting the gift with feigned appreciation.

About a year earlier my parents' English bulldog died. He was a snorting bowlegged drooler named Charlie. He did not enjoy going for walks or companionship of any kind. Charlie was an ornamental dog. Eating, scratching, snoring and rubbing his genitals on the back of an old black cat too feeble to escape his advances—that was Charlie’s life.

I essentially grew up a dogless boy until Nova came into my life. She was my dog by default due to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of my late middle-age parents whose hobbies were dining out, ice cream and television. My older sister was too busy with the demands of high school society to spend time with a dog. But I was in dire need of canine companionship. I was an indifferent student on the low end of the popularity totem pole in a snooty private school that was a freeway away from my neighborhood. My only friends were our three family cats, and they could take me or leave me.

Nova and I were boy-dog, dog-boy soulmates. We were constant companions; the Lewis and Clark of our neighborhood. By summer Nova had grown and loved to run. We were creatures of the summer, awakened early by the excitement of eternal youth. We would never grow old and the day would never end. I see us still, taking the long hike to the foothills, running through unsubdivided fields, collapsing under a shady tree, finding secret places. We will be there forever.

Nova was smart. I taught her dozens of tricks. I'd place a cracker on her nose and she would hold perfectly still until I said, “OK!”, then she’d toss the morsel into the air, catch it and eat it. Each trick she learned reinforced the fact that we could communicate directly with each other. We knew how to say all the things that dogs and boys need to say to one another. We were sincere, and our sincerity was a river of love that flowed between us, through us.

The years went by and I moved away from home, no longer a boy. Nova was always overjoyed to see me when I returned for a visit and she never forgot any of her tricks, always so proud to perform them. One day, I returned home to take her on a last car ride, to the veterinarian. She was dying and my parents decided they could no longer take care of her. When I led her into the veterinarian’s office she was nervous and shaking as I had never seen her shake before. She knew, somehow. I never forgave myself for not being with her when the assistant led her away for that fatal injection.

~ ~ ~

"Welcome to heaven,” Nova said, extraordinarily delighted to see me, yet still remembering her manners and restraining the impulse to jump on me. I’d been in the hospital, fifty-seven years old, with a bleeding ulcer, my skin turned too, too white. After days of weakness and decline I awoke in a place between life and death. I heard a dog barking. I saw her. I crossed over.




~ Text and photograph 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 ?
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Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Eight



Carlos Vega ~ drummer







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 Two



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.

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


~ story and photo 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 the speaker is indeed much more learned, articulate and insightful than you, humble reader, could ever be.)

 Excuse me for a minute, I have to get something from the attic.

          [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 brandish in my discussion 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 the chore of writing more relaxing this 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 its index, I stumbled upon the entry: “Neo-Platonism,” 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 few years on preparations alone, laying the groundwork for some really serious and incredibly important writing. 

First, I had to buy a computer because the writing machine I purchased shortly after the age of reptiles required cranking by way of foot pedals. Then there was the moving. I had to move to a more literary city where I was less likely to have neighbors who rebuilt 55 Chevys in their garages late into the night. 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. And then there were those photo albums I’d always meant to organize. 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. I learned that one can invent a plausible literary theory for  anything. For example, Hamlet is really a dog afraid to bite his evil master. Bad Hamlet! Bad, bad Hamlet! 

            It’s not that I believe that traditional storytelling is that passé. I love a good story, especially when it has the word “that” in it a lot. I myself 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 to 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!). 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. But then, you had to know it was coming, didn’t you?). 

Was it not some philosopher employed by the Hallmark greeting card company who once wrote, “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey.”? Or is this just an excuse to demonstrate 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-quote marks? (Take that you funky wagnalls.) 

        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