Sunday, November 08, 2015

November 8th, 1995

In September of 2000 I had a little time to kill in Provo on a Monday afternoon. I was just a few months removed from a University of Utah bachelor's degree, and for the sake of context, my trip south did involve a girl. But that's another story.

With some time on my hands, I decided to take a walk past a place in Provo that held some fond memories for me. A few blocks and a few minutes later, I arrived in front of the Missionary Training Center, the springboard for my two-year adventure as an LDS missionary in Chicago back in the '90s.

I didn't go inside; I just stood out on the sidewalk near that big concrete sign where everyone takes their picture. I don't think they would have let me roam the campus anyway, but I didn't need to. The memories were happy to come out and meet me.

*     *     *

I had never been to the MTC prior to the day my family dropped me off with a couple of brand-new black suitcases and a gray suit from Mr. Mac. November 8th, 1995 was sunny and unseasonably warm, deep into a fall that had strewn dead leaves across the still-green grass. I was my parents' oldest child, the first missionary in the family since my grandfather, and I was so high on fortune and glory I didn't even cry when I said my goodbyes after orientation. It was only after we had parted ways and I'd stepped into the next room to get my crisp, untouched set of missionary discussion books that I realized what I'd done.

By the time I walked out the back door of the administration building onto the MTC campus, a bright orange dot on my shiny black name tag betraying my fresh meat status, the enormity of my two year commitment was slowly tightening around my 19-year-old skull (which still had hair back in those days). As I stepped onto the sidewalk to start hunting down my dorm, one of my suitcases tipped over, and in approximately .7 seconds another companionship was at my side to pick it up, shake my hand, and offer directions. The moment was such a cliche I half expected to find a camera crew hiding in the bushes filming the sequel to the "Called to Serve" video.

My dorm was located inside one of a dozen hexagonal buildings that dotted the campus, and it was there I met Kenneth Ure, a toe-headed country boy from Kamas, Utah. Elder Ure would be my companion for the next four weeks while we learned the missionary ropes, and he was the only other member of my district who was being sent to Chicago. My now longtime friend Randy was only a few rooms down the hall, three weeks into his two-month training for a mission in France, and a few months shy of the infamous night that would earn him the nickname "Cheetahman." But we didn't figure that out for another three days.

That first night, only a few hours after I'd arrived and a few hours before Elder Vigil's rooster alarm clock would crow the first of 28 unforgettable morning wake-up calls, I lay on my bunk under a cheap orange blanket and wondered what I'd gotten myself into. For three years I'd attended mission farewell after mission farewell, lusting after the moment when I could finally ride off into that glorious wool-suited sunset myself. A late birthday left me with over a year and a half to wait after high school graduation before I turned 19 and qualified to send in my application papers. But now that I'd arrived, I'd found two years of hard work waiting for me in that setting sun, and I didn't know if I was really up to it. All I could think about were the friends I had who were doing the same thing all over the world, in Spain, in Canada, in Australia, in Brazil. If they could do it, surely I could, too.

From there, the memories start to wash together. Plenty of classes with my district, plenty of meals in the infamous MTC cafeteria. (For the record, I never got the runs, and I neither gained nor lost weight during my one-month stay.) There were lots of prayers and lots of studying and lots of role playing, and even a few letters, though never near enough--especially from girls. There was a sprained ankle and a trip to the campus hospital, some time at the Provo Temple, lots of trips to get pictures developed from our archaic point-and-shoot film cameras, and a couple weeks' duty in the telecenter calling real investigators who had ordered the Book of Mormon off the TV. Finally, after a classic Christmas devotional and a MTC choir performance of "O, Holy Night" the night before most of district 45A headed out for the Salt Lake Airport, there was one last district prayer and a late-night conversation with Elder Hunter Moore that lasted long past curfew. A day later I was in Chicago.

The thing I miss the most about the MTC, the thing I wish I'd enjoyed more back when I was there, was the focus of it all. The years to come would be full of competing priorities: school, work, girls, money... but the mission was one time to focus on one thing, one really, really good thing, and the MTC was my one chance to be surrounded by people who were all dialed in on that same goal. It was the first time the Gospel became something to get excited about, rather than the routine I'd run since childhood. That's probably why I left Provo with every intention to return and teach when my mission was over.

*     *     *

As I stood there outside the MTC, a few years later, a few years older, fighting to turn cynicism into wisdom, I wondered if I should go inside and see if a teaching job was still an option. Maybe I could get a small taste of that focus again. By the time I returned from two years in Illinois, my dreams of MTC employment and early marriage had been replaced with a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah and a crazy idea about being the next Stephen Covey that lasted two weeks into Winter Quarter. But even with my degree in hand, I had no real direction, and no concrete skills to brandish on my resume. Maybe the MTC could be my key to finding a path again.

I said I never went in, but now that I think of it, I might have gone up to the front desk of the administration building to ask about getting a teaching application. Even if I did, I know that I never followed up on it. Eventually I just kept walking around Provo until this kid tried to recruit me into a multi-level marketing company, and that's when I figured that my trip to Utah County was at an end.

I don't know if working at the MTC would have changed my life, or just ruined the perfectness of the four weeks I spent there the first time around. I haven't been back since, and from what I've read and heard, even my old dorms have been wiped away in the face of a bold architectural facelift. Time just moves on, and nowadays my epic wait to leave for missionary glory would have been cut down to just a few months. Missionaries don't use my old discussion booklets anymore, and I hear a lot of them get iPads and use email and Skype. I think a lot of them are even skipping Provo entirely, and going directly to MTCs in countries around the world.

But whatever the changes, the Gospel of Jesus Christ stays the same, and I hope that to one degree or another, today's missionaries are getting the same experience I had. Even better, I hope they can realize how great they have it. My time in Chicago was incredible, but it wouldn't have been the same without my time in Provo that set those Midwest wheels in motion.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014: My Year in Pictures…and Words…and GIFs.

The blog hasn't seen a lot of action this year. After setting a goal in 2013 to post something every week, 2014 saw a focus on other priorities.

That's not to say I wasn't writing. In addition to penning weekly movie reviews for the Deseret News (over 80 by year's end), I started a lot of posts I never finished. Partly because I wanted to raise the standard for what I put out. Partly because life kept getting in the way.

But even without any posts since September, it's still been a busy year, so here's a quick recap:

January saw my second trip to cover the Sundance Film Festival and the first anniversary of my time on the KJZZ Movie Show. Gradually I adjusted my teaching schedule (I'm still teaching English composition at SLCC) to make room for more evening screenings, and as 2014 got up to speed, I found myself averaging about two film reviews a week and four TV broadcasts a month.

Then in February I got to trade the merciless Salt Lake winter inversion for the decadence of Sin City, thanks to a weekend trip to Vegas with two of my oldest and closest friends. The trip resulted in lots of pictures and an evening at Caesar's Palace that inspired one of this year's few blog entries.

In March I was able to shoot a Utah Jazz basketball game for the first time since 2009. Photographing professional basketball is no easy task, but five years of general shooting experience made a big, big difference. After spending most of my life watching games on TV or from the perspective of the upper bowl of the arena, seeing NBA action at ground level is always fascinating.

About halfway through the month, during SLCC's Spring Break, I dropped by a Nissan dealer to look at a few used cars. One month and two dozen test drives later, I cleaned out my old 2002 Honda Accord and drove off in a brand-new 2014 Volkswagen GTI. The capstone of negotiations was my offer to stop by Graywhale and buy a CD of my salesman's local band. I finally followed through in December.

Right around the time I was finishing up my car search, I took a quick weekend trip to Hollywood to appear on "America's Got Talent." It was an odd move for someone who emphatically despises reality television, but back in February I'd appeared in a friend's viral video, and after one absurd thing led to an even more absurd thing, by June I was watching myself get my head slapped around on national TV in front of Howard Stern. The night before our performance, the guys and I took a stroll down Hollywood Boulevard, and I caught this little display:

Once I wrapped up spring semester, I jumped on the chance to break in my new car, and took the GTI on a four-day road trip that covered five national parks, two national monuments, and landed me a $275 speeding ticket in Arizona. By the time I got home, I had well over a thousand landscape images in my camera, including this sunset shot at Delicate Arch:

In spite of all the scenic material, my favorite shot has to be an image I caught on the southern rim of The Grand Canyon, as a group of Europeans crashed the amateur photographer's party with a couple of pizzas while we all took in a dramatic sunset.

The ironic thing about my 2014 car-buying process was the emphasis I put on features I knew I probably wouldn't use. The inspiration for checking out the GTI came from the numerous times I heard rave reviews for it on BBC America's "Top Gear," a TV show filled with action footage of high-end cars sliding around the dramatic turns of a practice track. Given the cost of the low-profile performance tires on my new car, the last thing I have sought to do is annihilate them, but luckily the boys at June's annual Bountiful Burnout were more willing to lay rubber.

I've gotten sour on shooting parades over the last couple of years. Covering the same parades quickly reveal their repetitive subject matter, and these days it seems like the events have become little more than local business throwing candy at greedy kids. But I still managed to get a few interesting images at this year's Bountiful Days of '47 Parade, such as this shot of Ronald McDonald doing an impression of Richard Nixon for a few local teens.

Right after the Bountiful parade, I hustled up the mountain and hiked up behind the Bountiful Temple, acting on a hunch that I might be able to line up the city's most recognizable landmark with the fireworks at Mueller Park Jr. High nearby.

Once my summer classes were wrapped up, I only had a ten-day window before the start of the fall semester, so I had to act fast. The first priority was to make my yearly trek up to Island Park, and this year turned out to be the first time since before my mission that my entire immediate family was up there at the same time. It was also the first trip there for my nieces. We had a great time visiting some old haunts and hanging out at the family cabin, and the day we left, I got up early and made a solo run into the park to catch some early morning mist.

We didn't headline any bowling alley gigs this year, but The Atomic Thunderlips stayed plenty busy, playing a bar in January, a wedding in June, and kicking off the summer concert series for the Springville Public Library. A few days after getting back from Yellowstone, we played a birthday party for Cheetahman's sister, and this happened…

Playing the birthday party also gave me a convenient excuse to skip my 20-year high school reunion, which I'm still not convinced actually took place. But the rash of personal updates that were posted to our class Facebook page in the aftermath of the event triggered enough interest that I might consider attending the next reunion in 30 years or so.

*     *     *

On the afternoon of Thursday, September 4th, a couple of weeks into the new semester, I was driving home from Salt Lake when I got a call from my mom. About twenty minutes later I was standing in the Lakeview Hospital Emergency Room listening to a doctor tell me my father had just died of a heart attack. The rush of support from family and friends that followed quickly turned a long-feared parting into a bittersweet reminder of the meaning behind our mortal existence.

A couple of months earlier, I was taking pictures of my nieces in my sister's backyard when I turned the camera on my dad and told him to smile. When I took a closer look at the results later that day, I was almost hesitant to post the image. This looks like the kind of picture someone posts as a memorial, I thought to myself. It was too late for a Father's Day post, but I went ahead and posted it anyway.

Sure enough, the following September, we used the shot for his obituary, as well as the funeral and viewing. I had to shake my head at the element of foreshadowing in the whole sequence, but I am infinitely grateful to have caught the image.

The day after he died, I decided to follow through on my plan to attend the Salt Lake Comic Con, hoping a little distraction might be good for me. I would up spending about half the day wandering around the Salt Palace taking pictures of diehard fans dressed to their geeky nines and wondering why Bruce Campbell couldn't just show up and sign an 8X10 for me so I could move on to more important things back home. Bruce never showed, but I did manage to shoot a bunch of tag-team wrestlers I found performing on the conference floor. I can't help but think my dad would have been amused at the situation: he wrestled in high school.

Everything that happened in the wake of Dad's death took on a different tone for the rest of the year. Not so much because I was angry or depressed or confused about what was happening. Rather because the weight of the experience made everything else--social life, pop culture, job issues--seem painfully insignificant. I mentioned before that I've penned several drafts of potential blog posts in the last few months, but next to what I wrote about my dad in September, they almost seem silly.

Silly or not, life had to move on. A couple of weeks into September I stopped by the Utah State Fair and learned that one of my submissions took First Place within its division. The Fair Theme was "Greatest Hits," so I entered a favorite shot from a concert shoot I did last year at The Depot in downtown SLC. I called it "Gibson + Hair = Rock."

Throughout the year I was also able to do a number of formal portrait sessions, which means a lot in Utah. Around here, everyone has a dozen different friends and family members they can choose from, so when someone tags me for the job, my heart and my wallet are extremely grateful.

But of all my subjects, my favorites are always predictable. Neither of my nieces were especially excited to be taking family pictures out at Wheeler Farm this past Halloween, but I managed to get one shot that my sister can use as consolation when they are at each other's throats in the coming years:

As the holidays arrived, my family knew things would feel a bit off, so we tried to come up with a few new traditions to liven things up. On the Saturday before Christmas, a few of us went up to the Bountiful Temple, and I was able to go through for one of my great-grandfathers, which was very cool. In the middle of the shopping and the end-of-semester grading and the usual chaos, I stopped by a couple of area temples to take some night pictures, and came up with some fun results.

Here's the newly remodeled Ogden Temple:

…and here's the always picturesque Salt Lake Temple:

For Christmas itself, my mom and I stayed over at my sister's house, which meant we were on hand for the big morning event with my nieces. Chaos may have ruled in the living room, but outside the first legit snowfall of the season came just in time to make a White Christmas.

2014 will always be marked as the year my dad died, but it was also a year that was full of blessings and opportunities. In fact, his death only served to remind me of blessings I've enjoyed my entire life, and will continue to enjoy in the future. My experience this Christmas echoed what I encountered while preparing for Dad's funeral: often the process and the logistics and the to-do lists and the formalities leave you wondering when you will actually have the chance to step back and appreciate the point behind everything you are doing. A recent church video underscored this idea quite well.

It's easy to tell yourself that, "once I take care of X, I can sit back and enjoy Y," but when the Xs keep coming, eventually you realize that you just have to make time for Y. That's probably one of the biggest reasons my family was able to cope with Dad's death. Over the years we've made plenty of time for Y.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here's to a great 2015.

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 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.