Sunday, September 14, 2014

Six Degrees of Gratitude

(Adapted from an address I gave at my dad's funeral in September 2014)

The night my dad died I had a hard time sleeping, but not for the reasons you might assume. I wasn’t lying in bed crying, or shaking my fist at God and wondering why he took my dad away. I had told him I loved him many times, so I wasn’t mad that we didn’t have one last moment to share things unsaid. I wasn’t thinking about all the ways my life was going to change without my dad around, either. For hours, all I could think about was how lucky I was to have my dad as my father. I thought about all the time we spent together, and the talks we had at concerts and on test drives and on our staircase at home when I couldn’t sleep. I thought about how talented and gifted he was, and how he seemed to draw from an infinite pool of information whenever I’d bring up almost any topic. He was brilliant, he was kind, and I could talk to him about anything.

He just seemed to know everyone. I’m pretty sure that 1950s Val Verda is the cradle of civilization for south Davis County, because it seems like everyone I know has some kind of connection to my dad’s home ward. I don’t know if that makes him the Kevin Bacon of Davis County, but I digress.

The point I want to make is that I am so infinitely grateful to have been raised by my father.

When it comes to defining my dad, a number of images spring to mind. If he had a logo, it would have to be a mustache. He was a science guy, and loved Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons. He loved Ray Bradbury's stories and the poetry of Mason Williams. He spent the last twenty years of his life with a cassette player on his hip, listening to enough books on tape to fill the Library of Congress. My mom used to read books onto tape at the Utah State Library for the Blind, and I think she did it so she could sneak in messages about grocery shopping and fixing our sprinklers because she was tired of telling my dad to take off his headphones all the time. 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…Honey, take out the garbage. It’s Tuesday.”

A lot of people know my dad as a car guy. He had a BMW before BMWs were cool, and one of my most vivid childhood memories is the sight of him flying past the rest of my family in his brand-new red CRX on the intersection where 4th North in Bountiful curves into Main Street. After his eyes went bad and I got my license, we made it a tradition to go test drive cars together, and when I finally bought a ’64 ½ Mustang, I think he was more excited that I was. I always swore that one day I was going to drive him out onto the Bonneville Salt Flats, toss him my keys, and tell him to go for it. I was going to try it one time, too, but the flats were too wet and I almost got my car stuck off the side of the freeway.

I’d like to be able to zero in on one thing that would define my dad, but it’s a fruitless exercise. He’s the brilliant guy who would come do science presentations for my first grade class, and the gifted photographer who would inspire me to follow in his footsteps. He introduced me to Apple computers, taught me to drive a manual transmission, and looked a lot like George Lucas when he grew out his beard. Together we saw Simon & Garfunkel in concert, watched the Jazz come back on the Bulls from 8 points down in 40 seconds at the Salt Palace, and one of my greatest trips ever was when I got to take him back to Chicago and show him all the places I served on my mission. He was an example of patience, waiting a year after my mom’s baptism to get married because they wanted to get married in the temple. He was a classic example of a priesthood holder, dutifully taking me along on home teaching appointments even when I couldn’t understand why we had to visit the people who didn’t want to come to church, and showing me the power of a priesthood blessing over and over and over again. And when he became a grandpa, he was thrilled to teach my little nieces how to pray.

When I put together my father’s obituary, I realized that his life wasn’t built on a lot of traditional achievements to list off in a bunch of bullet points, like job promotions or major awards. What I found was that my father’s greatest achievement was his character, his passion for life, his impact on other people, and a barrage of intangibles that can’t be expressed in words. And maybe that’s the point.

A couple months back, he and I were on our way home from Brigham City after I’d dragged him along on one of my summer pilgrimages to get a burger at the Maddox Drive-in. I’m sure I had been talking his ear off about some irrelevant thing I was tossing around in my head, but as we drove south on I-15, we hit a quiet spot, and after a moment, my dad said, “you know, I've been really lucky.”

This was coming from a man who had fought diabetes since his 20s, lost his vision back in the ‘80s, had a kidney transplant and bypass surgery in the ‘90s, and capped it off with a stroke about ten years ago. In spite of that, my dad could look at all of his blessings and be humbled. My dad never wanted to be defined by his health problems, and in that moment, somewhere around Farmington, he defined himself. He was lucky, and we were lucky to have him. My dad is my hero.

This whole experience has been a challenge, and I know there are going to be times in the coming years when I’ll miss my dad a lot. But I know this separation is only temporary. I have been comforted by my testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the last few days have been a testament to the power of the many prayers that have been offered on my family’s behalf. The Gospel is the key to our happiness in this life, and the Atonement is what is going to bring us together when it’s all done.


Monday, September 01, 2014

An open letter to Viewmont High School's class of 1994

(In the wake of my 20-year high school reunion last month, my classmates began posting life updates on our class Facebook page. It's been some of the most compelling reading I've come across in a while. And naturally, I had to kick in an update of my own…)

Once upon a time in the winter of 2002, with a two-year LDS mission to Chicago and a BS in something or other from the University of Utah on my resume, I considered a position as Utah’s Public Affairs Officer for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

I said to myself, “Josh, dirt is a wonderful, wonderful thing. But you know this isn’t your future, right?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied. “And frankly, I’m getting a little concerned about this talking to yourself in public thing. Your date looks awfully uncomfortable, and those Chick-fil-A employees are starting to stare.”

And so, the next fall, I found myself in grad school, writing seminar papers on Chicano cinema and teaching fraternity pledges how to use MLA citation on their plagiarized papers about marijuana legalization. I graduated just in time to attend my 10-year high school reunion unemployed, single, and living with my parents. The world was my Vegas buffet quality oyster.

Things happened. Stuff was done. Trips were taken. Then one day, my friend said, “Here is money. Will you take pictures of my family in this idyllic public park?” and I said yes. Then my buddy’s wife said, “Do you want to join this band and play loud music for a bunch of kids at a charter school?” and I said yes. And I met George Lucas in a mall.

The years went by. Drums were played. Photos were taken. Speeding tickets happened. I taught firefighters to use MLA citation on their papers about marijuana legalization, and I spent an uncomfortable amount of time thinking about Fidel Castro’s beard.

Then one day my lawyer friend said, “All this random stuff you do is going to get you killed on your taxes. From this point on you shall become incorporated.” So I became Wounded Mosquito Productions, because that was the best name I could come up with on the phone. And taxes were paid.

Another day, a different friend said, “will you come talk about movies and stuff on my TV show?” and I said yes. Then a friend from another job said, “will you read these words into this microphone so social workers can be trained in suicide prevention?” and I said yes. The lady at the community college said, “would you like to teach Salt Lake area students to add MLA citations to their papers on marijuana legalization this semester?” and I said yes. And Howard Stern told me I gave him a headache.

Then one day I heard that my 20-year high school reunion had arrived, and I dismissed it as government propaganda designed to trick me into enrolling in Obamacare. “There’s no way The Man is going to convince me it has been two decades since I finished high school,” I said. “Besides, I have to play a show for an empty bowery in West Bountiful that night, so I cannot come.”

But I looked at the pictures, and I read all the updates, and I thought to myself, “These old people have done many things, and have given birth to many small children. I will post too, but I will only include a current photo, because pictures of me with hair are way too depressing, and my yearbook is in storage.”


Stay gold, class of ‘94.


Monday, June 02, 2014

Fifteen Minutes of Infamy, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reality Television

January 31st, 10:00pm
It's late on a Saturday night in Salt Lake City, somewhere between the Bar Deluxe and the Sears parking lot just down State Street. I can't remember if it is before, after, or even during my band's gig at the Deluxe, because I'm on a contact high from rocking out The Black Keys' "Little Black Submarines" for seven people. In my weakened condition, Chidsey tries to recruit me for his latest viral video project, a percussion piece where one guy with hair will play the heads of three bald guys like bongos. It's a natural progression from his previous percussion video where three men in tuxedos slapped the belly of a massive, shirtless Polynesian. I accept his offer.

February 19th, 9:30pm
Twenty minutes earlier I was in a plush seat at The Gateway Megaplex, attending a press screening for "Three Days to Kill," but now I'm heading up the darkened back stairway of a nearby studio on my way to tape Bald Man Bongos for the Sqwak.com YouTube channel. I've listened to the audio recording of our piece several times, but the sensation of performing while a man stands behind me and slaps the top of my head in time complicates the experience, and leaves me with a sore scalp for the next week. This is a stretch of my comfort zone, but as I pocket my performance check, I figure it was good for a laugh.


March 18th, 4:30pm
I'm sitting on the couch in my living room, trying to decide whether to sign the basic performer contract for "America's Got Talent," a reality television show I have never actually watched. The Bald Man Bongos video only had a modest response, but Chidsey was able to parlay some of his industry contacts into a slot on the coming season's opening round competition. I pause at a passage informing me that the show's interpretation of my performance may lead to public ridicule, and I wonder what William Hung is up to these days. I am torn. Half of me thinks the bongo act is debasing and insulting to my true talents. The other half of me thinks performing this debasing act on national television could be a subversive and satisfying mockery of the entire reality television genre. Finally, out of loyalty to my friend, I sign the contract, and vow to hold it over his head for the rest of his natural life.

April 20th, 1:00pm
I am on an airport shuttle between LAX and Hollywood. Twenty minutes earlier my comrades and I got off a flight we shared with Patrick Stewart and Nathan Fillion, who were returning home from Salt Lake City's FanX convention. Stewart is a newlywed, but not to another man, as the misinterpretation of his friendship with Ian McKellen has led some to believe. We are sharing our shuttle with three reasonably-baked teenagers who travel the country performing extreme pogo stick stunts. During my time as a Utah Jazz season ticket holder, I would often watch the halftime performers and wonder what led them to a life where they could make a living shooting arrows with their feet or using magic hula-hoops to change their clothing in a split-second. I realize that I have now entered this world.

April 20th, 2:00pm
I am seated at a table at the Hollywood Hard Rock Cafe with the rest of the Bald Man Bongos crew, listening to our waitress tell us about her efforts to make it as an actress. Because she is latino, she tells us, she often gets cast in gang-related roles, but for now she is OK with it. When she leaves, I wonder aloud whether it is better to be a small fish in a big pond like Hollywood or to work in a place like Salt Lake, where there might be more opportunity but less exposure. Sitting next to me is Ritchie T., a comedian who produces one of Salt Lake's most popular radio morning shows. Across from him is Clint, a professional percussionist who coaches drum lines for the Utah Jazz and for Utah Valley University. He's sitting next to Chidsey, who became one of the youngest NBA Directors of Video Operations ever right out of college. There are certainly pros and cons to working in Utah, but the beehive state has no shortage of talent.

April 20th, 10:00pm
Technically, I am literally neck-deep in a Hollywood pool party. Four white guys from Utah, milling about a hotel pool at 10pm on a Sunday night, throwing a pair of oversized silver plastic pool balls at each other while the extended coda from "Layla" glides over the outdoor PA system. Only one other guest of the Loews Hollywood Hotel shares the patio, sitting alone and reading a book far from the water's edge, privately hoping we wouldn't acknowledge his presence. Up in the distance, in the darkness, the famous Hollywood sign rests on the mountainside, overlooking the odd scene, and a little closer by, various curtains open as different hotel guests gaze down into the pool and its out-of-town occupants. We laugh and joke and pull stunts and eventually get into serious discussions about life and marriage and what on earth we were doing there in the first place. Tomorrow is our big day.

April 21st, 9:00am
The green room wraps around in a half-circle, filled with random bunches of people, and dotted with little interview stations and video cameras resting on tripods. Employees, dressed in all black, filter throughout the chaos, herding and coordinating the myriad of contortionists, musicians, and glorified circus freaks who are stretching, rehearsing, or just meditating nervously as they await their calls. One microscopic woman looks like your everyday gymnast, until she pulls off a wig and reveals the effects of the cancer she is fighting. Two Asian girls mill around in Kabuki makeup, and in another spot a married couple rehearses some sort of modern dance routine. An older woman wanders around dressed like Marie Antoinette, lugging a homemade ventriloquist doll that is supposed to be Britney Spears, and right as we walk past the orientation desk, a 60-year-old farmer drags a state fair-quality hog through the middle of the room in a wagon. All around the room, on everything from mirror stickers to broad red, white, and blue banners, the "America's Got Talent" logo marks the territory of our nation's most beloved talent show. The performers around me sense their big chance, the potential payoff for years if not decades of practice and preparation. Their hopes and dreams are on the line. I am with them, but I am not one of them.


April 21st, 5:45pm
After an awkward exchange with a man in a yellow suit named Nick Cannon, I walk out onto the stage of the Dolby Theater to perform the Bald Man Bongos routine in front of 10,000 screaming teenage girls. A month earlier, Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Oscars on this same stage. Out in front of the stage is a massive, brightly lit table with four seats. I recognize Howard Stern, Heidi Klum, one of the Spice Girls, and the bald version of Howie Mandel. I have a modest touch of the butterflies, but in all honesty, I felt more nervous playing at the Bar Deluxe.

April 21st, 5:47pm
The performance does not go well. Ten seconds into the act, Howard hits his buzzer, and it feels like the entire stage is going to crumble to the earth. But we know we can still keep going until all four judges have buzzed us out, so we press on while Heidi and then Mel B. drop their hammers. Finally we stagger to the finish line, saved only by the empathetic Howie Mandel, who is coaxed into joining us on stage for an encore performance. As Clint dives in for a bonus round of head-slapping, I glance out of the corner of my eye to see my friend attacking Howie as if he were guilty of war crimes. You would have thought Howie ran over Clint's dog with an H2. When he can finally take no more, Howie flees the stage and dives towards his buzzer like he's trying to avert a nuclear holocaust. 0-for-4. Bald Man Bongos will not be advancing to the second round.



April 21st, 5:49pm
The crowd still hasn't calmed down from Howie's beating, but now we're standing in front of the judges listening to the creator of Fartman explain that our performance gave him a headache. I nod in agreement, because that was kind of the point. Heidi Klum chimes in, declaring that we "are not a million dollar act." I ask her if she thinks we might be a $20 act, but she doesn't respond. Mel B. says something, but I wasn't really listening to her. I was just thinking that The Spice Girls fell into that same two-year pop culture vortex that claimed The Macarena, Hanson, and George Clooney's bat nipples while I was on my LDS mission. Howie also says something, but I'm distracted by the strange looks on Heidi and Howard's faces. They don't seem to understand that our act was supposed to be a joke. I've struck out with plenty of girls over the years, but my failure with supermodel Heidi Klum has brought me into a brand new level of futility.

April 21st, 5:52pm
We shuffle off the stage and have an awkward exit interview with Nick Cannon. Now that he's seen us for what we are, his cool skepticism has been replaced with an awkward sense of obligation to finish our bit without telling us to our faces that he thinks we're idiots. I'd be hurt, but I don't care, and as some of the stage and production crew express their sympathies, I still get the sense that no one got the joke.

April 21st, 7:00pm
We're still waiting around in the green room. Supposedly the producers still need to get some additional interview footage for our segment, but after the results of the performance, we aren't feeling super motivated. None of us are disappointed that we are out of contention for the grand prize, but we all wish we could have executed our act more smoothly, silly or not. We are also very tired; a little Hollywood goes a long way. Chidsey and I are camped out by the entrance while the others hunch over their smart phones.

"I really appreciate you coming down to do this," he says.

"It's OK, man," I reply. "You've done a lot of stuff for me over the years."

Chidsey smiles and gazes out into the chaotic green room once again.

"We're even, by the way."

April 21st, 10:00pm
We have relocated to an Italian place called Miceli's to cap off our Hollywood experience with some vestige of class. The dimly lit restaurant, just off Hollywood Boulevard, has a gorgeous, romantic interior, and the walls and ceilings are covered with used wine bottles left by previous customers. As we shuffle into our table, we notice the old man playing a piano nearby while a tall black man named Boise sings old standards. A few seconds after we gaze into our menus, Boise hops down off the riser and asks us if we would like to start with some drinks. Boise is our waiter, and he is also an actor. He is not from Idaho. Ritchie T. pays the piano player five bucks to play "As Time Goes By." Time goes by.

May 27th, 1:30pm
A month later, back in Salt Lake, we are in another studio. We are now being interviewed for a KSL news segment to promote our performance. We've gotten word from Hollywood that our bit will air on the season premiere, only six hours away. The KSL reporter, Mike, dutifully asks us questions about the act and where it came from and where we see it going. We smile and make jokes and I accuse Clint of being the Mormon George Clooney. Mike asks us if we could see our act converted into a full Las Vegas-style theater show. I don't think he's ever actually seen the YouTube clip.

May 27th, 7:30pm
I am sitting in the living room of a modest Provo apartment, surrounded by a few dozen people I have never met before, as well as Chidsey and Clint and Chidsey's friend Stacey. Clint has decided to throw a viewing party in our honor, and so I am watching "America's Got Talent" for the first time. I feel confident that we will not become William Hung 2.0, but I still wonder how the show's producers will choose to portray us. At the very least, I feel assured that if we do look bad, we will only look bad in the midst of people I will likely never face again. Early in the broadcast, there are lots of clips of performers chatting backstage with excitement about how the judges "are looking for something they've never seen before." None of our candid footage is used, probably because instead of chatting excitedly about the visual extravaganza that is "America's Got Talent," we were discussing the timeless influence of Captain Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters and making jokes about getting Heidi Klum's phone number. A smug nine-year-old plays a brilliant piece on a keyboard, and a middle-aged man with a per mullet sings a slow-jam off-key while Howard mockingly slow dances with Heidi. Suddenly I see my face on TV, and a minute later, a rapid-cut montage of our entire on-stage sequence has come and gone. Bits and pieces of our full performance, the follow-up with Howie, and our stage exit are all whittled down to a surprisingly charitable blip on the season premiere radar. I am relieved. When it ends, everyone in the apartment applauds, Chidsey, Stacey and I stand up to stretch, and then we leave for home.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Long and Winding Road

Halfway through Spring Break last March I stopped by a downtown Nissan dealer and started a marathon. I have loved cars and driving since long before I was old enough to have a license, and it is only that love that sustained me through the month-long torture that was my car buying process.

I'd wanted a new car for quite some time, but it wasn't until recently that I felt comfortable with the idea of getting serious. There's something comforting about driving a car that is paid off, even if it has a laundry list of cosmetic defects that would cost twice its blue book value to fix. But even if paint jobs and upholstery tears could be tolerated, things like belt changes and dead alternators can't be ignored, and as the tally from those expenses began to add up, the red light on my car search finally turned green.

Over 29 days, I test drove more than a dozen cars, some multiple times. I revisited old favorites, like the Nissan Maxima and the Honda Accord, and I explored new territory with a Mercedes C300 and an Infiniti M35. I rounded blocks in the Mazda 6 and the Volkswagen CC and the Acura TL at dealerships from Murray to Ogden, collecting business cards and engaging in negotiating showdowns with impatient salesmen all along the Wasatch Front. At one point I was a nine dollars a month from a return to my Maxima roots, but a night's rest later, I was back on the search.

It wasn't that I couldn't find cars that I liked. Every car I drove had its positives, which is no surprise when you're coming from a 12-year-old Honda with 175,000 miles on the odometer. But often the cars that impressed me most were too far out of my price range (IE, the Mercedes), or carried the threat of future expenses down the line (IE, the Mercedes). Even the best cars still had concessions (as impressive as it was, the Mercedes was burdened with an automatic transmission), and the process left me feeling like I couldn't get what I really wanted, and ultimately would have to find the best possible option to "settle" with.

It was starting to feel a lot like dating.

At least in this case I didn't have to worry about the car liking me back. I did, however, have to deal with car salesmen, the cantankerous mother-in-laws and disapproving father-in-laws of the car-courting world. Or, more accurately, the "good friend who totally knows this awesome girl who has just got to be your soulmate and just happens to be single even though her only apparent qualification is an additional X chromosome." Over that month I heard more lies than an audience at a campaign stump speech. Obviously everyone was going to sing the praises of whatever car they were shilling; that I was prepared for. What I struggled with were the transparent pressure lines:

"My boss is angry with me for offering you this deal." 

"I've got a friend who has been asking me to tell him when we got one of these in; he'll be coming by later today." 

"We've got a mechanic at our Orem location whose mother has agreed to buy this car depending on what you decide to do before 8pm tonight."

"Hi, my name is Bob."

If I like a car enough, I can look past the sales BS (see: Jerry Seiner Nissan, June 2000). But it's a stretch. And four weeks in, I still hadn't found a car worth the sacrifice. What I did have was a vivid illustration of the argument and persuasion tactics I had been teaching my students for ten years. You may never write a research paper again for the rest of your life, but the principles of English 2010 can come in pretty handy on a used car lot.

Another challenge I had was figuring out what I really wanted. I was torn between the practicality and reliability I'd usually favored (Go Japan!) and the driving enthusiast inside me who leaped to life when zipping a 2005 Mini Cooper S down a back road in Murray. After all, if I'm still single, why not have fun while I can?

Five years of watching "Top Gear" on BBC America probably wasn't helping, but it was actually those three crazy Brits who guided me home. For five years, I'd watched Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond bicker and clown as they tore their way through six-figure sports cars that should play into my budget right around the time Amber Heard shows up to ride shotgun. But whenever they've come down to earth to take a look at options for the unwashed masses, the one car they almost universally praised was the Volkswagen GTI.

So I bought one.

My journey ended at a Volkswagen dealer in Salt Lake shortly after leaving my English class on Thursday morning. A test drive at a Layton VW dealer early in my search stuck with me through all the Nissans and the Mazdas and the Acuras, and a little online research led me to a brand-new discounted GTI with a manual transmission, a color that fit me, and just enough features to balance the practical stuff with the fun stuff. And when I redlined it between second and third, popped the clutch and stomped on the gas, I completely forgot that I was giving up a sunroof and leather upholstery.

When the last of the haggling and the signing was finished, I went out to the parking lot to clean out my old Honda. As I dug through eight and a half years of memories and hidden "treasures" (including a pair of unopened contact lenses from 2008…???), I went through that odd separation anxiety that happens when adventures connected to an intimate object make you think that object has real human feelings and consciousness. In those eight plus years I'd made numerous trips to Yellowstone, an epic cruise up the Pacific Coast Highway, and several swings to Vegas. I'd been in and out of Salt Lake a million times over for various jobs, and when one of those jobs took a sour turn a few years ago, I drove that Honda out to the foot of Devil's Tower in Wyoming to get my head back together. We had our issues, as I've openly acknowledged, but even the Millennium Falcon had its issues, and you could see how Lando and Han felt about that old piece of junk. As I cleared the last of the salvageable scraps out of the trunk, I stared at the University of Utah Alumni license plate frame on the back bumper, and briefly considered whether I should pull out a screwdriver and take it off.

I left it. It's time for a fresh start. And I'm sure the Top Gear guys would agree.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Classic Hollywood Entertainment


Took a stroll down Hollywood Boulevard on a recent trip to LA*. Turned this little sequence of photos into my first animated GIF in about 10 years.

The guy jumping over the volunteers is obviously the first visual draw, but the closer I look, I also notice:

  • …the guy loses his hat mid-flip.
  • …all the people who turn their heads to watch him.
  • …the people he jumps over first look up to see if he lands.
  • …wait…there's a cop watching the whole thing?

---

*A more extensive post on the reason for this trip will appear in the coming months.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Bacchanalian Binge

We were gathered around our table near the edge of the buffet floor when the fatigue took hold. Randy staggered off to the dessert bar to pick out the capstones of his evening meal. Brian was slumped across the table, staring through me with a look that said any attempt to finish the last half-dozen cocktail shrimp on his plate might keep him from returning home to his wife and five kids alive. And as I gazed at the half-full plate in front of me, I realized that if I wanted any dessert, I would have to waste some of the unfinished shrimp, flank steak, sausage, salmon, sushi, and edamame I'd gathered on my last run.

"I think I've hit the wall," muttered Brian. "I may have to skip dessert."

Brian was officially down for the count, but I remained determined. I knew I was near my limit, but I also knew that I couldn’t justify the price of my meal without at least sampling the Caesar's Palace dessert buffet. Yet if I didn't want to feel like an oblivious first-world heel, I at least had to try to finish what I had on my plate.


Our trip to the buffet was the climax of a quick weekend trip. 36 hours earlier we'd thundered into town in Randy's black V8 Hemi-powered Dodge Challenger. For him, the excursion was work; he was making his yearly pilgrimage to Sin City to attend the annual vendor's expo at The Venetian, and he had $40,000 worth of outerwear and $6,000 worth of yoga pants to prove it. For Brian, it was a rare timeout from the responsibilities of work and family. For me, it was a chance to spend the weekend with two guys I'd known for over twenty years. Plus I was curious to see if there was a difference between Salt Lake City inversion and enough second-hand smoke to choke three chorus lines of showgirls.

The Caesar's buffet was probably the most Vegas-like event of our trip. When you’re a non-drinking, non-smoking, non-gambling, non-strip clubbing Mormon on a budget, Sin City is kind of a useless destination. Sometimes you can build a trip around a concert—I’d made the trip in the past to see the likes of James Brown and Eric Clapton—but the 25-foot billboard of Faith Hill's road-weary stare outside the Venetian wasn't doing much for us. Still, when you’re a photographer, you don’t need high-priced events for entertainment, and I had become obsessed with immortalizing the sad hooker-peddlers that lingered on street corners clapping pass-along cards at you. After two days of taking pictures, hanging out in the hotel hot tub, and watching our food budget, our last night in town felt like a good time to hit up a traditional Vegas buffet.

The trouble is the Vegas buffet means different things depending on where you are in Vegas. On your way into town, billboards advertise rock-bottom prices for prime rib and seafood, and usually inexpensive room rates as well. The theory is that bargain-basement food and lodging will translate into more money in the slots, but once you hit the heart of the Strip that theory busts like a bad hand of Blackjack. The top-ranked Caesar's Palace buffet is priced at a staggering fifty-bucks a head, and the only reason Brian and I agreed to get on board was that our gracious leader offered to spot us $20 each so he could get his crab legs fix.

With that in mind, you might assume that no matter how quality the experience, the price is too high to get a clear thumbs-up. But for $30? That was a more compelling discussion. The buffet at Caesar's, dubbed "The Bacchanalian" after the Roman god of wine, is located at the west end of a vast web of casino rooms, ensuring that casual patrons of Caesar's Forum Shops at least get a brush of temptation before dining. We arrived around 7:30pm and found a bank of automated reservation kiosks, just one feature that made entrance feel more like going through airport security than grabbing a bite to eat. The plus side is that once we confirmed our reservation and the little computer told us we had a 102-minute wait for seating, we were free to wander around at our leisure rather than shuffle through a massive herding line for an hour and a half. My comrades and I used the window to take in another Bellagio fountain show and add a hundred extra photos to my portfolio.


When we did get back, we still had to pass a series of checkpoints before landing at a remote table on the far side of the establishment. Along the way we posed for a group picture that was anything but complimentary, and were given a small flap of rubber that was supposed to keep you from burning your fingers when you picked up the hot plates. Eventually we placed our drink orders with our waitress (wine enthusiasts should note: Bacchus doesn’t include alcoholic drinks in the $50 head price) and set out in search of food.

The forgettable set-up didn't appear to have any symbolic design in mind, and unlike the rest of the multi-acre complex, the buffet area wasn't littered with the half-to-fully naked statues that generate that odd “tasteful, yet tacky” vibe you encounter so often on The Strip. Maybe concrete naked bits aren’t good for the appetite. Tables were strewn throughout a mood-lit main room, and on its far left-hand side, the buffet wound around a perimeter that transitioned through genres from seafood to Italian to "that place where a guy chops up random pieces of meat for you." For my first run, I went straight to the seafood area, loading up on oysters, crab legs (already halved for easier access), cocktail shrimp, and a cocktail sauce that I'm happy to report featured a generous proportion of horse radish. Later I would sample the sushi bar and the cutting table, taking care to work in a cornbread muffin or a piece of cantaloupe to offset my massive meat binge. The buffet offers plenty of non-meat alternatives, including an extensive salad bar and a pizza bar, but any sucker who fills up on buffet-quality pizza and romaine lettuce after dropping $50 on a buffet deserves to lose big on the casino floor.

Throughout our meal, the atmosphere was consistent. Our drinks were refilled and our old plates were removed promptly, though the annoying "thump-thump" beat of the elevator-style electronica playing over the buffet's PA system seemed to drive you to eat faster than you wanted to…probably so the staff could usher in the next wave of mega-diners. The buffet was always well-stocked and clean, and the quality of the food was well above average, though like at most buffets, you got the feeling that no individual item or genre is quite as strong as it would be at a restaurant that chooses to specialize in that item or genre. I've had better shrimp, better sushi, and better steak in other places, but never all at the same spot. $50 is still a stretch, but the Bacchanalian is still a notch above the other Vegas buffets I’ve sampled over the years, including the Bellagio and its underwhelming “Gourmet Night” special.

Once I finally wandered over to the dessert bar, located in the middle of the main room, I grabbed some berry cobbler, a mini-crème brulee, a cookie, and something else I can't remember that apparently wasn't as good as the other stuff. The dessert quality was a good reflection of the buffet quality: excellent for a buffet, not as good as a specialist.

What my comrades and I determined by the end of our meal is that the value of the Caesar's Palace Bacchanalian has less to do with the quality of its food than your capacity for gluttonous consumption. Ten years ago I would have been able to put away two more plates, and even the $50 price tag wouldn't have felt like an unfair hit. But that was ten years ago.

“Gentlemen,” I declared solemnly, “I hate to admit it, but I’m not the man I used to be.”

Nowadays, the buffet experience is justified more by the occasion than it is the food I managed to put away. And as the capstone of a weekend away with two of my oldest and closest friends, it was a price I was more than happy to pay. Brian was, too…right up until the moment he sent Randy and I to Walgreens the next morning to score him some Pepto Bismol.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

My Most Powerful Movie Moment of 2013

I reviewed well over 60 films in 2013. That's only a fraction of the total films that were released last year, but still a generous total. For a recent episode of "The KJZZ Movie Show," I was asked to identify the most powerful moment I encountered out of all those films. Not an easy task, especially when any potential candidate will have to compete with Vin Diesel's flying torpedo-skull.



The clip I finally landed on took place late in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which came out on Christmas day late last year. Since (at this writing) the movie is still in the theaters, I couldn't elaborate too much on that moment on the show. But I can afford a little more liberality on my blog. So consider this a spoiler alert.

"Walter Mitty" is the story of a shy daydreamer (played by Ben Stiller) who finally decides to take charge of his life. Part of this charge-taking involves finally engaging his dream girl, but most of it involves tracking a mysterious photojournalist (Sean O'Connell, played by Sean Penn) across the globe in search of a missing negative. (Walter works for LIFE magazine and needs the negative for LIFE's final print cover.) Over the course of the film, Walter goes from Manhattan to Greenland to Iceland, back to Manhattan, then to Afghanistan, and finally up into the remote Himalayas in search of his target. And that is where my favorite moment takes place.

When Walter finally catches up to his man, he finds him perched behind a telephoto rig high up in the mountains. O'Connell is on a hunt of his own, trying to photograph the elusive snow leopard. The two men have an amusing exchange about the negative, then the leopard appears.

But O'Connell never takes the shot.

To Walter's confusion, the cryptic photojournalist merely gazes at his muse through his viewfinder. He explains that sometimes, in situations like this, he chooses not to take the shot, opting to stay in the moment instead. On the surface, it's a completely illogical if not insane decision. All that work, and you don't even take the shot?

But after several years of shooting on my own, it makes perfect sense.

As a photographer, you can find yourself in the middle of a situation and completely removed from it at the same time. I can't tell you how many times I've gone back to my computer after a shoot and scanned through the results, wondering what it would have been like to actually participate in the experience I just documented. I've photographed three different Holi Festivals, and never thrown chalk in the air myself. I photographed several friends at the Dirty Dash a couple of years ago, capturing the elation of diving headfirst into a pool of muddy water, yet never felt that cold, jarring sensation on my own. Photography is one of my deepest passions, and most important creative outlets, but it is not a substitute for living life. That's what "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is all about.

Luckily, that lesson didn't come with a rush of regret after a wasted life. Even if at times I've let my camera separate myself from the world, I've taken advantage of other chances to engage my surroundings, whether it was hiking the Zion Narrows, driving up the PCH south of Big Sur at sunset, or talking my way onstage at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago. But sometimes I do need to remind myself to get out from behind the viewfinder and suck in the moment for myself, and at the end of a long year of reviewing movies, "Walter Mitty" provided that valued reminder.