Monday, June 20, 2016

God Loves Cleveland

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my dad returning from a Cleveland Browns playoff game while we were visiting my family in Ohio one Christmas. I didn't know anything about Brian Sipe throwing an interception to Lester Hayes in the end zone, bringing a stunning and crushing close to a season so full of last-second finishes that year's team had been dubbed, "The Cardiac Kids." But I do remember that it was so cold at the stadium that my dad's jacket had literally cracked open.

A few years later, I watched on TV as John Elway led the Denver Broncos 98 yards through Cleveland Stadium on the way to crushing the Browns' Super Bowl hopes, and a year after that I watched Ernest Byner fumble on his way into the end zone at Mile High Stadium. It was a little less painful to watch Michael Jordan elevate over Craig Ehlo and hit a last-second shot to take Game 5 and a first-round NBA playoff series over the Cleveland Cavaliers, since my hometown Utah Jazz held exclusive rights to my basketball loyalties, but I still recognized the patten: as far as sports were concerned, my mother's hometown was a city of heartbreak.

In those kinds of situations, you learn to appreciate the little things. My favorite memory of watching the Browns came a year after The Fumble, as a 40-year-old career backup QB named Don Strock led Cleveland to the playoffs after the team lost three other quarterbacks to injury. On the last game of the regular season, Strock threw a strike to wideout Webster Slaughter in the middle of a Lake Erie snowstorm, clinching the win a play so photogenic I wish I could take my camera back in time to capture it. They lost the wild card game down in Houston the next weekend, but the triumph in the snow is all I can picture in my mind's eye.

As the years went on, I saw Cleveland hearts ripped out again and again, whether it was watching Art Modell pull up stakes and move the Browns to Baltimore, or LeBron James put a stake in the heart of Cavs fans when he told them on national TV that he was taking his talents to South Beach. It seemed like the only place Cleveland could catch a break was in a Hollywood movie. And in the meantime, the only hometown team I had was enduring heartbreaks of its own, most often at the hands of the same guy who hit that jumper over Ehlo.

Last year, my mom and I headed back to Ohio for a family reunion, and in the middle of a gorgeous green city park, about a dozen diehard fans and I gathered around a tiny portable TV and watched the Browns lose another heartbreaker. It was a likely narrative: we celebrated when the San Diego Chargers missed a tie-breaking field goal at the end of regulation, only to see a Browns penalty give them another shot. The second chance sailed right between the uprights, and the Browns tacked one more onto the loss column.

Things were looking a little better on the NBA side, though. After winning a pair of titles in Miami, LeBron was back in a Cavs uniform, and only the lights-out shooting of Stephen Curry and the suddenly stable Golden State Warriors had kept him from bringing Cleveland a title in his return season. A lifetime of cheering for underdogs and also-rans kept me from committing to the Lebron Bandwagon, but if my Jazz couldn't be in contention, the next best thing would be a title for my family out in Ohio.

That's why I smiled last night as LeBron crumpled onto the court in tears seconds after the Cavs took the rematch series from Golden State, erasing a historic 3-1 deficit in the process. I had just watched him spend two and a half hours desperately chasing his elusive destiny, squeezing out extra efforts that should have come up just short, and finally grabbing hold of the Larry O'Brien trophy with a sincerity he never had in Miami. It was a reminder of why it's so easy to translate sports into movies: the Herculean winner-takes-all effort fits so nicely into a clear, three-act format, unlike the lives of the Regular Joe underdogs in "real life" who adore it.

It was also a reminder of that age-old question of just how much God cares about sports, which comes up whenever a bombastic athlete points to the sky after a touchdown or a player like Tim Tebow shines in the limelight. The answer is yes, of course God cares about sports. But not because he loves LeBron James more than Steph Curry (who is about as likable an NBA MVP as we're going to get), or because my tithing funds the college football team for a university I never attended. God cares about sports because He is a master storyteller, and a master teacher. Sometimes the lesson is that hard work pays off, and sometimes the lesson is that you have to persevere through a lifetime of setbacks, and hope the trophy comes in the next life, even while everyone else takes home the spoils.

Last night, the lesson was that it ain't over till it's over, even if it takes 52 years for that triumphant buzzer to finally sound.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The 2015 Post-Christmas Photo Essay: First Time in a Long Time

As I look through the photos I shot throughout 2015, a theme emerged. There were traditions I continued, and subjects I encountered for the first time. But often I found myself experiencing something--a place, an activity--for the first time in a long time.

The Beard

Shortly after the end of the fall 2014 semester, I stopped shaving for a bit. Then a bit became about four months. Mostly I was curious to see how much gray was in my beard, and there was plenty. But there was still lots of red, too. I took a few self-portraits early in the year to document the first full beard I'd grown in six years, and my favorite was the black-and-white image below.

Sundance #3

January marked two years at the KJZZ Movie show, and at the end of the month I attended my third Sundance Film Festival up in Park City, Utah. By the end of the year I'd reviewed 116 movies, and even wound up on the Rotten Tomatoes critic list. I snapped the photo below in the press tent outside the Village 4 Cinemas multiplex, where we all get into long, winding lines as we wait for different press and industry screenings. On a Saturday morning, I arrived to see a documentary called, "In Football We Trust," about LDS Polynesian football players. Apparently I didn't need to arrive so early.

The Move

In early March I moved out of my loft apartment in Bountiful after 21 months and approximately 21,000 hikes up two flights of stairs. When I moved in I only signed a three-month lease, anticipating a quick stop before buying a house. It was a bittersweet moment, but it helped to have the generous assistance of numerous friends and family, not to mention a cheerful cleanup crew.

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day the whole family visited my dad's brand-new headstone at the Bountiful City Cemetery. My family was a constant throughout 2015. A month earlier, a book called "Unselfish" was published in response to Kim Kardashian's collection of selfies. I was asked to contribute to the project, and wrote a brief essay about my paternal grandparents.

The Rockwell Relay

Summer brought a variety of photo opportunities, starting with a bike race called the Rockwell Relay that I covered with a couple of friends during my semester break in June. The route wound hundreds of miles through Southern Utah from Moab to St. George, giving us plenty of opportunity to see the best of the state along the way.

Chaos at Eaglewood

Towards the end of shooting the 4th of July fireworks up at Eaglewood Golf Course, I started messing around with exposure times, and wound up getting this shot of the finale. It isn't the kind of thing you'd find on a patriotic poster, but I was excited to see how the timing managed to catch the chaotic explosiveness of the spectacle.

The Kawababy

My buddy Travis has always provided some of my most unique photo opportunities. Thanks to him, I've shot everything from State Fairs to giant slip-'n-slides, and the photographs I took of his marriage proposal even wound up with TV coverage. During the summer I documented the brave moment he and his wife learned--in front of family and friends--the gender of their first-born child. The shot below captures the exact moment Mom and Dad found out they were having a baby boy (which arrived safe and sound in December).

The Retirement

One of the most significant events of the summer was my mom's retirement from the University of Utah after over 20 years of service. I took this portrait of her outside her building after a farewell reception. I think the smile has a lot to do with not having to drive up to campus on cold winter mornings anymore.

The New Drum Kit

Thanks to logistics and adult obligations, it has been a couple of slow years for The Atomic Thunderlips. But the band saw a little action in early August when we were recruited to perform at Viewmont High School's Class of 1995 20-year reunion. It was our first show in a year, and the event gave me just enough justification to buy my first new drum kit in 15 years.

The Milky Way

Right before leaving on my annual trip to Yellowstone, I launched a brand-new photography website that provided a massive upgrade over my previous online presence, mainly in that it allows customers to purchase prints online. Maybe it was this excitement that helped me get my first shots of the Milky Way in Island Park after three years of failed attempts. Towards the end of the trip, I chose to spend my traditional sunrise shoot on the shores of Henry's Lake.

The Classroom

Fall semester 2015 marked six years since my return to teaching at Salt Lake Community College. These days I teach most of my classes at the South City Campus, and more often than not I wind up in classroom 2-169. But not everything was routine at SLCC. Back in the spring I taught my first section of English 2100 (Technical Writing) since I was teaching the firemen for the USU Salt Lake Center in 2007.

The Ohio Trip

The most significant "first time in a long time" might have been my first return to Ohio since the summer trip I took back in 2000. Mom and I went back to attend the Turk family reunion, and I also took advantage of the opportunity to go see Ringo's drum kit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and take a rented Ford Mustang convertible down to Canton to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Neighbors

Around the time I was passing the 20th anniversary of my arrival at the Provo MTC, I was cranking through a series of family portraits, including three separate sessions up at the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in North Salt Lake. My favorite results came from a shoot for my longtime friends Steve and Sarah, who also became my neighbors in 2015. About a month after the shoot that yielded the image below, Steve took things up a notch and accompanied me to my first church basketball game for the Bountiful 19th Ward since the late 1990s.

The Force Awakens

Nothing quite felt like coming full-circle more than screening the new "Star Wars" film on a cold Tuesday morning after a massive storm buried the Wasatch Front under two feet of snow. "The Force Awakens" felt like the sequel I had been waiting for ever since "Return of the Jedi." It was the first new "Star Wars" movie in ten years, and the first one starring Han Solo in 32. There was plenty of marketing and promotion running up to the release, and in this group photo below (taken by our MVP editor Scott Terrill), the Movie Show crew posed with some cosplayers and a familiar R2 unit.

The Ogden Temple 2.0

As Christmas drew near, it was hard to find the time to enjoy the holiday as I scrambled to finish my grading for fall semester, buy the requisite gifts, and handle the ramped-up holiday movie release schedule. But I was able to make it up to the Ogden Temple to get a slightly more colorful version of a shot I first tried last year.

Christmas Morning

Since all of my family Christmas Day activities were scheduled for the afternoon, I decided to spend the morning out at the Farmington Bay Bird Refuge, in search of a Davis County sunrise. As the photos below show, the sun failed to make an appearance. But I did get a few nice shots of 2015's White Christmas, including a shot of a flock of birds that was swarming around a huge tree on my way out.

Christmas Afternoon

Later that day, the family gathered for some traditional gift giving and food eating. We made my grandmother's famous BBQ beef recipe and my favorite cookies, and in the middle of it all we took some luminaries out to my dad's headstone.

The Shot Not Taken

Thanks to my sister and brother-in-law, I was able to join in on some Christmas activities in the middle of the season's manic craziness. On one night, we all took the FrontRunner train into downtown SLC to see the lights, and on another, we took my nieces to see Santa Claus at Station Park.

But my favorite activity was probably the night we grabbed some sleds and headed over to Mueller Park Jr. High to take advantage of December's snowstorm. We brought my nieces along, and thanks to the dark and the cold we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves.

After laughing our way through a few runs through blinding white powder, I dropped onto my back, settled into the soft snow, and stared up at the stars I'd finally captured up in Yellowstone. I thought about what I was doing, how great it was, and how simple it was. It wasn't a big production, it didn't cost money, and yet because of the people I was with, it held more value than any expensive gift I could have been given.

More and more, adulthood just seems to be a delicate tug of war between life's trials and life's blessings, and often the difference between happiness and sadness is deciding which side of the fence most deserves your attention. If I'm being honest, 2015 had plenty of evidence for the trial side, but moments of clarity like the one I had on that huge, white expanse of snow are great for grabbing just enough perspective to carry you into the next day.

The last couple of years of my life have seen some dramatic changes, and I can't say that any of them resemble the life I once imagined years ago at the MTC. But the important stuff is still in place, and even the trials have had the unexpected effect of strengthening my testimony of the things I know to be true. So in that sense, warts and all, 2015 was a success, and 2016 has every reason to follow suit.

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.