Mike was younger than me by almost 18 months. When you are 7 that is basically a generation’s gap of time. However, he always seemed more mature. He would steal cigarettes from his Dad for us. We would sneak them up into the far back of my yard where my big brother and his friends had built a fort. The two of us would sit in that little hollowed out area in the dirt among the weeds, the bushes, and the trees and pretend to be Cowboys out on the trail. We would light up some cigs and go through the motions of smoking them while chatting about the herd of cattle we had to drive. We would then stub out the mostly unsmoked cigarettes on the ground with our Department Store Sneakers and pretend to break camp. One time, we decided to build a real campfire. We collected branches and dead wood, piled it all up and used the matches we had for the cigarettes to lite a little fire. And we settled back confidently and basked in the warmth of our manly achievement. Because we were just little kids, the fire was soon bigger than we expected. It snuck and slithered into the weeds surrounding our little private spot and started smoldering, putting out smoke. We panicked. Mike said he heard his Dad calling and bolted home. I ran down to the house and circled to the front door. I stepped into the kitchen nonchalantly and looked out the back door and turned to my Mom who was at the sink. “Mom, I think I see smoke in the woods…” After the Firemen arrived, I told them I thought I saw a teenager playing around back there earlier and they looked at me bemusedly and thanked my Mom for calling them so quickly. I confessed to her a couple of years ago. She just smiled at me and pretended not to hear.
The Seminary President looked out over his desk at me, pinning me to my chair with his serious demeanor. In my High School in Utah, Seminary was an approved free study hour to attend a religious class taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) during school hours. I joined the Mormon Church at age 15 when my older brother, Sam, was leaving on an LDS Mission to Taiwan. It was my first extended connection with organized religion in my life. As a much younger kid in Oklahoma, we had some minor religious engagement – my Dad’s family were all very religious and lived their Southern Protestant Christian Spiritual lives deeply and sincerely, while he personally was less enthused about it. However, he didn’t stand in the way of us kids making those decisions for ourselves. I, mostly, just followed Sam as he looked for where he fit in and then I just did what he did. That is how, at 16, I was sitting there in what was considered a Personal Priesthood Meeting – a one on one meeting in which a male Church Ecclesiastical Leader would meet with young male members and make sure they were doing well personally, scholastically, morally and mentally. This was my first time sitting down with him. I don’t think we had ever actually spoken at all prior. I squirmed uncomfortably while trying to meet his gaze, unsure of why he had called me in. He smiled gently, reassuringly at me and said, “Ben…. are you struggling with masturbation.”
Steve and I were the senior students in Kung Fu class. We saw it as our job to encourage Shifu (our teacher) to blow our minds with his skill any time we could get away with it. We would then dissect and argue about it endlessly afterwards. Contextualizing a certain kind of algebraic personal physicality was sometimes the only real way to learn and internalize what we were being taught. Northern Kung Fu can be a complex subject that marries philosophy, mind set and body mechanics in a way that can be taxing on one’s brains and muscles simultaneously. While I was probably more intellectual in how I approached this stuff, Steve was definitely bolder and hungrier about all of it, which meant we paired up well. One night we were laughing about some brick and board breaking tricks we had seen on video. Those and Magic Chi videos, the ones where “Masters” knocked students over without physical contact, always made us laugh till our bellies hurt; more so than crunches or planks. Shifu joined in the conversation that night, which made it that much funnier because there was nothing he hadn’t seen in his already long career as a teacher. And then he told us about a trick where he could snap a long piece of wood in two with a wood sword without creating any pressure on the ends. We were sold. One of the other students grabbed a 3 foot wood dowel from the craft shop a couple of doors down, and Shifu retrieved his hard wood practice sword and a couple of disposable paper cups from the water cooler. We got in our lowest horse stances – the cup rested perfectly on Steve’s head (he was shaving his head at that time), while it laid a little unevenly on mine. The dowel was then laid gently across the cups. Shifu focused and traced the sword path overhead into the middle of his target. The next thing I know Steve is on his face on the floor and I am looking around confusedly trying to process what had happened. Both cups are laying on the ground, completely demolished. Everyone is gathering around Steve to see if he is okay. The knot on the top of his skull is huge. Shifu is looking closely at the unbroken dowel in his hands and shaking his head. “This wood has not been dried properly,” he said in his most sage Teacher voice. “Next time let’s be sure to get a properly dried one.”
“I read that Libertarians are basically just Republicans that like Pot…” I said. Bill Clinton was running against George H. W. Bush’s second term. Emotions were high, as they always are during election years. Andre Marou was running as the Libertarian candidate, and if you know me even a little you know that there is no lost cause that I won’t support. I was working for Time Warner Cable in Pinellas County, Florida. I was one of the Production Coordinators and Instructors for the Community Access channel. I helped oversee production, scheduling and taught classes – 3 Camera Live to Tape, ENG, and Linear Tape Editing. I often tell people it was my most favorite job ever. I was paid next to nothing, while being surrounded by the fringiest of the fringe, the weirdest of the weird, and the conspiracy-y of the conspiracy-est. I had days that seriously would start with the production of an episode for the local chapter of B’Nai B’Rith – A Jewish Service Organization, followed by an episode for a thinly veiled White Supremacy Organization, and finish with an episode for a local Nation of Islam non-profit group. And the crews would work on each other’s shows!! It was pretty amazing, and definitely weird, both reasons why I loved it so much. The community volunteer that was proselytizing me to become a Libertarian shook his head judgmentally, and then responded, “No, it isn’t like that at all. You should come to next week’s Hemp Rally and see.”
We were driving back from visiting my parents in Springhill, Florida. Li’l Ben was riding shotgun and Nik was in the backseat. I don’t remember why – Nik was always so good at talking himself into the front seat. When I first moved back out to Utah after the divorce, Nik pretended to get car sick so he could sit up front almost the entire way, while Li’l Ben was relegated to the tiny open spot in the back seat with all that was left of my worldly possessions packed in like Tetris around and over him. However, Nik always tended to hide himself a little more than Li’l Ben. He would keep his head down until he had a grasp of the situation and how he would fit into it before jumping in. Li’l Ben, on the other hand, was always advocating for himself right out of the gate. He would boldly stomp into any situation, simultaneously being his own best friend and worst enemy while making as much noise as possible. Regardless, this was a good moment. Just the three of us coming to the end of a long drive, laughing at something silly together; teasing each other and singing fake songs along with the radio. Nik was leaning forward, his head sticking between the seats as far as possible while still being buckled into the middle section of the back seat of the rental car. And then I saw the flashing lights behind me. As the Policeman was walking away after giving us a warning, Nik caught my eyes in the rear view mirror and with barely suppressed panic said, “It’s not funny! It’s not my fault! Don’t tell, Mom?”
We were known for being a tough room with no audience. We were there every Tuesday for 4 years. The amount of cigarettes smoked on the patio during the sets in front of an empty room would have supported Charlie Company in their headlong rush through Europe in World War 2. I started the show because I wanted to know how to put one together, and I had ideas on how that should be done. The local comedy club would have never given me that opportunity. Luckily my niece’s husband was in the process of building a new venue in downtown SLC and they were interested in filling stages as much as possible. As long as liquor sales could cover staff costs for the night, they said I was good to go. We rarely covered staff costs. I railed and thrashed against living in a one club town. A small market mindset. I wanted us all to be more ambitious and bold. I hated the thought of having one Gate Keeper standing between us and our ultimate artistic fates – good or bad. In the end, I closed the show with little to know fanfare. I booked and hosted the last night. Most of the comedians learned what was going on as they lined up to sign in for the show. I shared stories about the people that I asked to perform, and I hugged them and thanked them. So many smart, funny, talented individuals that were poorly served by a small, unambitious market in the middle of the mountains. I was blessed briefly to have a vision of how to break free of that, before I settled back down and rejoined the crowd; swallowed into the comfort of their anonymity.