Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Bacchanalian Binge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 19, 2014

My Most Powerful Movie Moment of 2013

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

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

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

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

But O'Connell never takes the shot.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

Five years ago I was confronted with a difficult choice. After spending ten years of my life attending young single adult wards, I was asked to move on. My options were to attend a traditional family ward, "upgrade" to the mid-singles ward, or just stop going to church altogether.

Going inactive was never an option, so the choice came down to whether I wanted to continue the marital-status-segregated tradition in the mid-singles ward or take my chances with a traditional family ward (there was also a half-joking notion that I would start a geriatric biker gang, but sadly that never came to fruition). After mulling things over, I began attending the family ward at the end of my street, sucking in my gut and preparing for the crying-baby-chaos of Mainstream Mormondom. Out of obligation, I made a token visit to a mid-singles ward in Salt Lake, but quickly decided that I would rather feel out-of-place with the married people. At least at the family ward I still felt like I was in the game. Plus I actually liked having all the little kids around.

Throughout the transition, and even at times today, I felt resentment at an unspoken message I had been hearing ever since my old YSA bishop announced that they would be clearing the records of anyone over the age of 31. The message was that I didn't fit anymore, and needed to go off with my own kind.

Of course, no one ever said this, at least in those words. My YSA bishop initially invited all the old-timers to continue attending activities, and bristled at the notion that we were being "kicked out." But whenever I swallowed my pride and dropped by occasional YSA activity, it always felt like I was welcome, but out of place, like I was going back to prom after having graduated high school.

I said "no one ever said this, at least in those words." But they did say it in other words. One person responded to the blog post announcing my departure by saying guys in their '30s shouldn't be chasing 18-year-olds anyway. Months later, when I didn't quickly endorse a friend's regular get-together that featured guys and girls exclusively in their '30s, she remarked, "well, unless you would rather chase 18-year-olds." Both responses were understandable, but based in rhetorical fallacies. Just because I didn't feel like going cold turkey and dating women in their '30s exclusively didn't mean I wanted to chase 18-year-olds. I didn't even have a problem dating women in their '30s, anyway. I just wanted to make the decision on my own, not be pushed off into some social category by cultural mandate. As a grown man, I resented the idea that my social circles were being dictated to me.

My experience confirmed an idea I'd long suspected: that YSA culture is a simultaneous blessing and cursing. If you get into a good ward (as I had), your entire social life never need extend beyond the doors of your weekly sacrament meeting. There are more than enough activities and more than enough dating options to keep your social calendar active and vibrant throughout the year. This is great if your desires for marital success are fulfilled in a timely fashion. But if you put all your eggs in one social basket, then get too old to stay on the farm, well...

In the time since I left the YSA ward, I've seen my social life take a drastic turn. A routine of almost daily activities and weekly dating has become a lot of empty weekends and a dating pool that is shallow at best. People I thought were going to be lifelong friends have redefined the concept of "out of sight, out of mind." But while the frequency may have flatlined, the people I have maintained friendships with and the girls I have dated have been as high if not of higher caliber than the people I encountered during my YSA firehose years. At times I've wondered if passing on the overcrowded mid-singles scene was wise, if not an act of outright rebellion. But that wonder has never led to conviction.

Readers have debated the sentiment of Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken*" for decades. Is Frost happy he chose the less-traveled path, or is his poem a statement of regret? Five years after getting off the LDS singles ward train, I'm inclined to say "both."

(Note (1/10/14): OK, it turns out I misquoted the name of that Frost poem when I first published this post. It's fixed now.)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Behind the Lens: My 2013 Post-Christmas Photo Essay

Dear friends, family, and cyber-stalkers...

The time has come for the obligatory 2013 recap, and for the second year in a row, I have opted to do it in photo essay form. This blog almost bit the dust in 2012 (I only posted seven times all year), but for some reason I decided one of my goals for 2013 was to publish one decent post a week. As of this posting, I have reached that goal (cue mild applause). Still, in spite of my weekly posts, I feel like I barely scratched the surface on this year, so maybe these images will fill some of those gaps:

(To see more images from each of these shoots, check out my Facebook page, and feel free to "like" it while you're there. Unless you don't like it, in which case I apologize, and will try harder to produce better images in 2014.)

"Pimping 'Lincoln?'" Park City, Utah, January 2013

In January I covered my first Sundance Film Festival for the D-News, spending a day up in Park City watching a number of indie flicks. In the early evening, I took a break from all my screenings and grabbed my camera for a few shots on Historic Main Street. We were already past the "Celebrity Sighting" phase of the festival at that point, but I did come across a familiar face or two. I don't know if this guy was trying to drum up Oscar attention for "Lincoln" or if he just thought wandering Park City dressed as the famous ex-president was just a natural use of his spare time.

"Baldies Buffing," South Jordan, Utah, April 2013.

While I was wandering around Sundance, my old "KJZZ Cafe" boss called to recruit me to do weekly film reviews for the KJZZ Movie Show with host Melanie Nelson and Standard Examiner critic Steve Salles (we air every Sunday at noon and 10pm). As a result, I spent a good part of the year bouncing around to different Megaplex theaters taping review segments, and of course, seeing lots and lots of movies (over 50 this year). It was a lot of fun getting to know my new co-stars and crew, and reacquainting with some old KJZZ friends as well. Even when they had to go through the weekly ritual of buffing down my too-shiny head prior to taping.

"Operation Smile Celebrity Ski Challenge," March 2013, Park City Utah.

In March I was able to team up with T-Squared Action Sports to photograph a charity ski race up at The Canyons in Park City. It was a benefit for Operation Smile that featured Zachary Levi from "Chuck," Mark Eaton from The Utah Jazz (back in the '80s), and several Olympic-level skiers and athletes whose names escape me, such as the aerodynamic-looking fellow in the shot above.

"Niko at the Depot," Salt Lake City, Utah, April 2013.

I really only photographed one concert this year, but it was special for a few reasons. It was my first shoot at The Depot, and over the course of the evening I got pictures of four different bands. The first act was a local band named King Nico, notable (for me, anyway) because their new drummer was a student of mine at SLCC a few years back. Call it bias, but I went out of my way to make sure I got some good shots of a role that is traditionally the most difficult to photograph in a live setting.

"Thunderlips Promo Image," Farmington, Utah, April 2013.

Later in April I was able to do something I hadn't done in over ten years: get a paying gig for one of my own bands. Thunderlips made its professional debut at the Orchard Lanes bowling alley in North Salt Lake as part of their weekly Rock and Bowl Series. We did a special group photo shoot to mark the occasion, and were good enough that we got invited back for a repeat performance in June. You can see highlights of the show on YouTube.

"Supercross Chaos," Salt Lake City, Utah, May 2013.

Another opportunity via T-Squared came later in the spring at the Supercross Championships up at Rice Eccles Stadium. "Chaos" is the only word that feels appropriate to describe an event that has so many simultaneous subjects performing at once, especially right after the opening gun, when pileups like the one pictured here are liable to occur.

"Bon Voyage," West Valley, Utah, May 2013.

Yet another example of how my teaching experience spills over into other aspects of my life. In May, one of my former students joined the Navy, and asked me to cover a farewell party for her friends and family. The party was pretty routine until she and her friends got into a water fight. This little present from her boyfriend was a surprise, and I was just grateful I was in the right spot to catch it.

"Bizarre Bazaar," Bountiful, Utah, June 2013.

This summer I was recruited to do a little volunteer coverage of my stake's Youth Conference event. Before heading up the canyon for the full event, the kids participated in an elaborate bazaar staged in the Stake Center's gym. That's where this happened.

"Bracing for the Burnout," Bountiful, Utah, June 2013.

This is easily the least action-packed image I caught at Bountiful's annual "Burnout" event, but it's probably my favorite. For the uninitiated, the event is little more than a bunch of cars with big engines taking turns squealing their tires and trying to create as much smoke as possible. Judging from the reaction of Tiger-Boy here, it's a pretty loud event. Big thanks to my old roommate Rhee for scoring me the press pass on this one.

"The Happy Fishmonger," Seattle, Washington, June 2013. 

At the end of June I joined the Cheetahman for my third trip to Seattle in four years, which was my justification for seeing movies on two of the days we were there (in my defense, re-watching Vin Diesel's flying "Fast and Furious 6" head-butt at Seattle's remodeled Cinerama was a noteworthy event). This time, instead of spending 20 minutes trying to freeze airborne fish at Pike's Market, I tried to get a wider perspective on the spectacle. I love this one mainly for the expression on the employee's face.

"The Shriners," Centerville, Utah, July 2013.

I wasn't able to photograph the Bountiful Days of '47 Parade this year due to a schedule conflict, but luckily I got my fill of "zany people parading in public" earlier in the month at Centerville's 4th of July event. I'm not sure the Shriners even participate in the Bountiful parade, so I might have gotten the better end of the deal.

"Lightning on 89," Bountiful, Utah, July 2013.

When I first moved into my loft apartment in Bountiful back in the summer of 2012, I thought my west-facing deck would be an ideal spot for photographing electrical storms. But I didn't get a decent shot until July of this year, and even then it only happened because I went outside and pointed my camera south over Highway 89.

"The Wild Ones," Bluffdale, Utah, July 2013.

Later that same month I did my first official engagement shoot, for my buddy Jeff (Thunderlips guitarist) and his fiancee (now wife) Allison. I wanted to do something a little different, and they wanted to do something a little different, and that's how I wound up hanging out the back of a speeding SUV in Bluffdale one night, trying to hold my telephoto steady enough to get some action shots of the happy couple on Jeff's motorcycle. When we finally wrapped up, it dawned on me that I'd been doing the whole shoot without my neck strap on. Sometimes you dodge bullets, and sometimes you dodge really expensive bullets.

"New Niece," Kaysville, Utah, August 2013.

Just before leaving for my annual trip to Island Park in August, I got the best news of the year: I was an uncle...again. Congrats to my sister and brother-in-law, and condolences to all of my Facebook friends who will continue to be inundated with niece photos for the foreseeable future.

"Rodeo Rejection," outside West Yellowstone, Montana, August 2013.

Even after years and years of visits, somehow I can always find something new to shoot in the Island Park/Yellowstone area. This year I visited plenty of old haunts, but before calling it a trip, I was able to shoot my first rodeo at a spot outside West Yellowstone one night. The lighting was rough, but I still caught some chaos.

"Sad Jedi," Salt Lake City, Utah, September 2013.

Photographing Salt Lake City's first-ever Comic Con event was like shooting fish in a nerd-shaped barrel. I got so many images I wound up creating separate Facebook albums for the "posed" shots and the "candid" shots. I also met Lou Ferrigno, but that's another story. Of all the images I took, this might be my favorite, though. The turnout on Saturday was so massive that hundreds (if not thousands) of people had to be turned away. I don't know if this aspiring Jedi ever made it in or not, but man…he just looks so darn sad.

"Terror at the Fair," Salt Lake City, Utah, September 2013.

There was a common theme operating in many of the shots I caught at the State Fair this year: abject horror.

"Christmas Chill," Salt Lake City, Utah, December 2012.

When I picked up my submissions to the Fair's photography exhibit, I found out that one of my shots will be touring the state with the Arts Council this year. I caught it last December at Temple Square while shooting with my friend Dennis, who brought along a flash remote that produced some fun results. Arts Council-worthy results, anyway.

"'Supermassive Black Hole' - Live Muse Cover," Layton, Utah, September 2013.

Later that month Thunderlips (now modified to "The Atomic Thunderlips") played a benefit show with Shanna Taggart and Danny Wood up at the Ed Kenley Amphitheater in Layton. Thanks to some generous help from friends and family, I was able to get enough coverage to patch together a few concert videos, including this Muse cover featuring Shanna on lead vocals.

"Ms. Volleyball in Action," Layton, Utah, November 2013.

I did a number of portrait sessions for individuals and groups in 2013, but in early November I got one of my most unique opportunities. A friend from high school hired me to do an "in action" portrait shoot for her niece, who plays volleyball for Layton High. Lucky for me, her niece turned out to be Eliza Katoa, who went on to be named "Miss Volleyball" by the Deseret News shortly after her verbal commitment to play for the University of Utah next year.

"The Western Shore," Antelope Island, Utah, November 2013.

Early in November, Dennis and I teamed up with his uncle for a personal backcountry tour of Antelope Island. The shot above was taken on the west side of the island, and the little dots near the bottom of the image are a pair of riders on horseback. The funny thing about Antelope Island is that it is part of the backdrop of most any day along the Wasatch Front, yet few people realize the kind of natural beauty that is right in their backyard.

"Dinner Conversation," Kaysville, Utah, November 2013.

November saw another big family milestone as my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, my sister and brother-in-law hosted a massive dinner party up at their new home in Kaysville, stocked with the friends and family who contributed to the success of those four decades. I can't remember what my dad said that provoked this reaction from my mom, but maybe leaving it to the imagination is the better option anyway.

"Turkey Pull," Bountiful, Utah, November 2013.

One of my most satisfying experiences this year was actually playing in a football game without sustaining some kind of injury. After putting in my time at the 7th Ward's annual Turkey Bowl, I grabbed my camera to fire off a few action shots before moving on to my other Thanksgiving festivities. As you can see here, my teammates took a few liberties with the whole "flag" part of "flag football."

"Candid Christmas," Salt Lake City, Utah, December 2013.

By December, another busy year stayed busy even as it wound near its close. As fall semester wrapped up with a marathon grading session, I knocked out a few more photo gigs, including the last of several I was able to perform for the LDS Missionary Department throughout the year. I was kind of dreading my assignment--take close-up candids of people on Temple Square at Christmastime--for multiple reasons: 1) The air is terrible, 2) December was even colder than usual, 3) Getting recognizable photos of individuals on TS at night is almost impossible, and 4) If I do get a recognizable image, I have to ask the person permission to use it, and I'm actually a very shy person (which is what led me into the loner art of photography in the first place). But the shoot turned out great, and I even talked to strangers without any problem.

"Frigid Nativity," Salt Lake City, Utah, December 2013.

With the pro job out of the way, I returned to Temple Square with Dennis later in the month to work out our creative muscles a bit. He brought along his flash remote, just like last year, and also just like last year, it led to some gorgeous results. By the time I got done firing dramatic images of the reflecting pond Nativity, I could barely feel the fingers on my right hand. But as they say nowadays, "Pain is temporary; a high-resolution digital RAW image is forever, provided you back it up properly and avoid the inevitable crash or long-term deterioration of your hard drive."

So there you have it: a handful of heartfelt moments that represent the best of the year that was. As I look back through these images, I can't help but notice that I didn't wander too far this year in terms of mileage, but I think I made the most of what was going on close to home. I picked a lot of these images because of subtle details instead of showy presentation, and I do think there's a lesson there: often happiness comes from appreciating the little things instead of getting all the big things we want. 2013 was a year full of ups and downs, and at the end of it, I'm pretty happy with the ups I was given.

Here's to the best in 2014...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The 10 Best Christmas Songs in My iTunes Collection

There is no season more inseparable from its music than Christmas. It doesn't even matter if you aren't a Christian; both the secular and religious bring the musical goods when December rolls around. I briefly considered making a list of the worst Christmas songs of all-time (hello, Mr. McCartney and Wham!), but this is supposed to be a season to celebrate things that are awesome, not awful. So here is my heavily-biased top-ten list of the best Christmas songs on my iTunes account. You're welcome. Merry Christmas.

(Half of the fun in making this list was listening to all of the non-Christmas tracks I came across by the same bands.)

10. Christmas Must Be Tonight, The Band

I never find myself binging on The Band, but every now and then I'll hear one or two of their tracks, like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" or of course, "The Weight," and I'll just kind of zone out to their own unique vibe. I think that's the best way to enjoy these guys: a little at a time, so you don't spoil it. I was pretty excited when I dug up this song, which carries a different tone to the rest of the tracks on this list. And also unlike much of this list, its subject is the actual nativity story itself.

9. Please Come Home for Christmas, James Brown

Listening to selections from the James Brown Christmas Album has become kind of a running gag of a tradition ever since I discovered the thing back in high school. And with tracks like, "Hey America" and "Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year" (be sure to listen to the ending!), who could blame me? But in all seriousness, The Godfather of Soul's manic delivery is a pretty good match for this number. A better match than "The Christmas Song," at least.

8. What Child is This?, Mormon Tabernacle Choir

One of those transcendent Christmas melodies, the linked clip features a guy rockin' it pretty hard on the oboe (Or is that a clarinet? Cut me some slack...I'm a drummer). If MoTab ever snags Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull to do a guest spot on this song, I may jump into the annual bloodbath competition for choir concert tickets.

7. Merry Christmas, Baby, Otis Redding

Otis Redding just has one of those voices. To be honest, this isn't even that great of a song. But it's Otis Redding, man. OK, fine, just listen to this instead.

6. Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Crystals

The first of three selections off The Phil Spector Christmas Album, also known as the greatest Christmas album OF ALL TIME. Forget everything you know about Phil Spector, because that will depress you. (OK, you can remember the anecdote about pulling a gun on The Ramones, because that's pretty cool.) Just know that his Wall of Sound technique combined with the Girl Group Era creates a perfect vibe for a (mostly) secular Christmas album. The beginning of this song is a little goofy, but just wait for that first heavy drum fill...magic time.

5. Overture from "Scrooge," Leslie Bricusse

The soundtrack from Albert Finney's musical version of "A Christmas Carol" was my family's Holy Grail of elusive albums for years until a family friend was able to use some cutting-edge technology to rip the musical tracks from a VHS copy of the movie. I later found an original vinyl copy of the soundtrack at Randy's Records in downtown Salt Lake and thought I'd cemented my status as "World's Greatest Son" for at least the next five years. None of the individual songs work alone quite as well as they do in the context of the film, which my family has watched every Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember. But it deserves inclusion on this list even as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

4. Sleigh Ride, The Ronettes

Selection number two from the Phil Spector album, this take on a Christmas favorite comes via the same group that brought us the immortal "Be My Baby." Not much more to say than that, but do I need to?

3. Christmas Time is Here, Vincent Guaraldi Trio

For a season of celebration, Christmas does have its melancholy side, and I think this track off the "Charlie Brown Christmas" captures that as well as anything. Its wandering piano and haunting vocals are charming and kind of creepy at the same time, but the total effect is pretty remarkable. Of course, fans of "Arrested Development" will always love this one, too.

2. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Darlene Love

The third and best entry from the Phil Spector album, and a heavy contender for my top spot. It for sure takes my "best secular Christmas song" title. This one is the perfect blend of the joy and heartbreak of the Christmas season, driven by the Wall of Sound and some desperate vocals from Darlene Love. There are lots of other versions of this song, including a passable take from U2 during their Bad Hat Era, and crap versions from Mariah Carey and Michael Buble, but none of them measure up to the original.

1. O Holy Night, Mormon Tabernacle Choir

This one lingered at the back of my musical mind for years until it was immortalized on my last night in the Missionary Training Center. The Missionary Choir performed it during the evening's Christmas Devotional, and combined with the atmosphere and drama of my impending departure, it became my all-time favorite Christmas song the moment they hit the high note in that final chorus. By that weekend, I was trudging around Kankakee, Illinois in 40-below-zero weather wondering how on earth I was going to get through the next two years. "O Holy Night" is one of the songs that helped me get through that first Christmas, and many others since.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

An open letter to my brand-new English students

Dear brand-new students,

Congratulations and welcome to my English class. I'm happy to make your acquaintance. Not just because your desire for education translates into my paycheck, but because I am one of those strange people who actually enjoys teaching. No, really. It's true. I've been teaching for over ten years now, and I've even passed on some higher-paying opportunities to keep doing it. Kind of nutty, eh?

Anyway, there's no reason to expect anything less than a fantastic semester together, just like many I've enjoyed over the years. But just to be safe, I thought I should give you a heads-up on a few items. As much as I love teaching, there are a few things that consistently muddle up every semester, and maybe addressing them now steer you clear of some headaches down the road.

Ready? Here we go:

1. You are no longer in high school.

This should be obvious, right? I mean, the simple fact that you are choosing your own classes and major and schedule and even campus has probably tipped you off to the fact that you are in a completely new and different world. And trust me, it is a better world.

But let me tell you what else this means. It means that you are expected to behave as an adult. Not in terms of throwing spit wads in class, more in the sense that I will not be treating you the way some of your high school teachers did. If you blow off an assignment, I won't say anything about it. If you decide to skip class for a day or two or twenty, that's your business. But things add up, and when you find out at the end of the semester that a missed assignment or several missed days of class have knocked you from an A- to a C, the fault is yours.

Which leads us to number two...

2. You actually need to attend this class to pass it.

Throughout your college career, you may come across a class or two that is so routine all you have to do is study enough to show up for the midterm and final in order to get a passing grade. Not so with me. I actually do this thing in class every day called "teaching," and we do activities in class to help you do something called "learn." Participation points are given for these activities, and trust me, they add up. Now, if you feel like you have already mastered the skills you need for my class, well, why didn't you already test out of it? Besides, do you honestly think that there is nothing I can teach you? If you don't want to attend my class, take it from someone else online. Because one of the things I love about teaching is interacting with human beings who want to learn.

3. Plagiarism is stupid. Don't do it.

I know that the internet is a wonderful thing. I know that it makes research super easy, even if the super easy sources like Wikipedia are about as reliable as the electronic goods you might buy out of the trunk of a Buick. I also know that life gets busy, and in spite of your most noble intentions, sometimes you just don't have time to get the job done right. But you need to understand that in those situations, cutting and pasting some article off the net and slapping your name on it is a very bad thing. A "get kicked out of school" type of thing. You also need to understand that cutting and pasting chunks from different web sites without a citation is still wrong, even if most of the paper is still your very own writing. They aren't your words. Don't pretend that they are.

4. Don't text or do other stupid things with your phone while I'm talking.

I know that smart phones are a wonderful thing. I know that they make socializing and communication super easy, even if that communication is mostly a bunch of cute acronyms and emoticons you share with your BFF that have nothing to do with class. I also know that sometimes emergencies happen, and that you need to let your mom know where to pick you up after class so you can go get a Happy Meal.

But here's the thing: English is a very subjective subject. For example, imagine I'm grading your paper, and I notice you've neglected some important concept, like say, including in-text citations on your MLA research paper. Now, if my primary association for you is, "that kid who keeps playing with his phone all through my lectures," do you think I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt? Of course not. I'm going to nail you to the wall. And I'm going to enjoy it.

If it's a real emergency, step outside and do your texting or calling in the hall. You don't need a pass. You can even go pee all on your own. But when you're in class, and I'm talking, put the phone away.*

5. Realize that "passing" this class is not necessarily "passing."

Technically you can pass my English class with a D. Technically the Toyota Prius is a fart on wheels, but I digress. Most programs, even if you don't plan on transferring to a university, require at least a C+ out of your English composition courses to avoid re-taking them. You know what that means? A handful of students every semester who do just enough to not get credit for my class.

The ones who go down in flames are much better off: at least they flunked in style. But I feel for the sorry suckers who come to just enough classes and turn in just enough assignments to get a C-. C's may get degrees, but in the English department, they don't give you transfer credit.

6. General courses are good for you.

This may be a good time to talk about why you are in college. Or maybe, how you may not realize why you are in college. Nowadays a lot of people think that the only function of college is to get a job and make money. And really, that is a big part of it. But people limited to that narrow mindset get frustrated when they have to take general classes in Biology or History to get their degree in Accounting or Engineering.

"I'm never going to use this for the rest of my life," they say.

"Generals are stupid!"

"Why should I include outside sources when my passion gives me credibility?"

(Sorry, that last one was unrelated...)

Now, to be fair, I don't get a lot of flack from my students on this topic, because most sane people understand that even if you don't spend your professional career writing research papers, you will be using communication skills in some form pretty much every day, and that's really what my classes are about. But I still hear this complaint all the time, and it is annoying.

Here is why it is annoying: you are not in college to just get a job; you are here to be educated. A liberal education--not liberal in a Sean Penn sense, liberal in a "look at all this variety!" sense--is meant to train you as a human being. Not just a cog in some corporate machine or factory. If all you want is a job, that's what trade schools are for. That is what all those colleges are for that advertise quick degrees on TV and go out of business in a year. They just believe that college=job, and if that's what you're looking for, and you feel good about putting all your professional eggs in one basket, even if those eggs are going to be replaced by some other fantastic yolk-based product in five years, and your regular yolks are going to be about as useful as the handful of zip discs I still have in a box somewhere at my parents' house, then awesome! Good luck to you!

Do you want to have any clue about what is going on in the world around you? Do you want to be an educated citizen who can be trusted with things like voting and driving on the right side of the road and not sounding like a complete ignorant fool when commenting on some internet article like this one? Then stop complaining about general courses. No one expects you to be able to break down cell mitosis after a long day of writing case briefs. And really, knowing the difference between Mexico and Canada on a world map is not the key to personal fulfillment. But the fools who can't do it are the same people who have been giving Jay Leno cheap sketch material for the last 25 years.

7. Sometimes life is hard. Take responsibility for it.

Every single semester I encounter a laundry list of excuses for missed assignments, chronic tardiness, long stretches of absences, and any number of other gaffes. Sometimes it's because they work full-time, or that their job suddenly changed their hours so they can only attend my class once a week. Sometimes they've taken too many credit hours. Sometimes it's because they HAVE to get two classes done this semester, but the only way to make it fit in their schedule was to sign up to take them back to back, even though they are on different campuses with a half-hour drive in-between. So why can't I just soften my icy heart and give them some special exemption?

Because everybody's life is hard. Everybody has to make sacrifices. And once I start changing the rules to accommodate one hard case, the degree ceases to mean anything.

Here's a thought: are you the only person whose job required them to get a college degree? Did someone force you to go back to school even though you have a full-time job and kids? Did someone force you to have the kids in the first place, or to dump a full load of classes on top of all your other responsibilities? Don't get me wrong: I love kids. I also love school, and making money and paying my bills. But my point is this: just because you've chosen to put too much on your plate doesn't mean I am obligated to change the rules to fit your circumstances. Everybody can make excuses. Everybody has it tough. But we all have to meet the same standard, and sometimes that means taking a little longer to graduate, or accepting the B you earned instead of the A you wanted. You may as well get used to it now.

*  *  *

OK, take a deep breath. Nice job. If you're still here, you're probably fine. The people who weren't ready should already be out the door. Please understand that I'm not even kidding when I say a great semester is in front of us. You have to write papers, but you get to choose your own topics, as long as they aren't dumb (and I still let a lot of the dumb topics slide, to be honest). Plus I use lots of music and video clips in class, because they are so much more entertaining than I am. You will have to do a group project, but that's OK. At some point in life, we all have to learn to work with other people. Good luck on your new semester, and as always, let me know if you have questions.

(Just try to pay attention so that your questions aren't about things I've already answered, because...oh, never mind.)

See you in class,



*Yes, I know that sometimes students can download the textbook on their phone and follow along. That's great, but you can't tell me that the students who are zoned out are zoned out because they've become lost in the virtual pages of the Harbrace Guide to Writing (Second Edition). If you've got the book on your phone, come tell me. Otherwise, put the dumb thing away.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

My Toughest Calling

I've held plenty of callings over the years. I've cracked the Home Teaching whip as Elders Quorum President, and taken notes at disciplinary counsels as a Ward Clerk. Welcomed new ward members as the Fellowshipping Co-Chair, and expounded on the Word of Wisdom as a Sunday School Teacher. My first calling was to lead the 11-year-old Blazer Scouts, and my toughest calling was a close cousin: Duty to God advisor for the Deacons Quorum.

For the four months I served as Duty to God advisor last year, my primary function was to teach a lesson to the Deacons one Sunday a month. No problem, right? It's not like I'd never been a teacher. I've got more than ten years experience teaching English composition to college students. I used to teach Sunday School lessons to rooms of 200+ young single adults in my U32 days. So what's the big deal?

The big deal was that I remembered being a Deacon. From the age of 12 to 14, 98.7% of my time in Sunday School or Priesthood was spent staring at my feet, ignoring the routine questions I'd been asked for almost a decade, refusing to give the obligatory answers (pray and read your scriptures!) or offer insight lest I come across as even more of a nerd than I already felt.

The only exceptions were the teachers who were funny, like Pat Reese, who could use his comic timing to make something as mundane as collecting Fast Offerings fodder for standup comedy, or the teachers who drew on relatable experiences, like the time the Bishop's son-in-law used his experience trying out for his high school basketball team to illustrate the pain of disappointment.

I knew my challenge going in, and a vague idea of how to address it. I needed to relate to my audience. But that was just the problem. I remembered how miserable it was to be a Deacon. My junior high years were filled with the greatest writing material a writer could ask for: church basketball, Boy Scouts, my first paid job on a neighbor's vegetable farm, and the high comedy that filled the halls of Centerville Junior High for three years. But that material could only be appreciated by my adult self. Living it was horrible, horrible reality. An inescapable vortex of infantile behavior, awkwardness, and hopeless despair.

Standing in front of the Deacons last year, a big part of me wanted to be direct and honest:

"Look...I've been where you are. It sucks. I know it sucks. Truth is, junior high is an awkward, savage transition we all have to endure, and the best thing I can tell you is you're not alone. It will all be hilarious to you someday in the future, but that day is so far off that it won't help you at all right now. If you can stick it out to 16, things will get a lot better, though then you'll start dating, and the less said about that, the better. Driving is pretty cool, though, if you can get a car. But until then, well, good luck. Just know that I'm here for you."

But I couldn't say that. Church isn't supposed to be a place for blunt negativism. I knew that from sad experience.

Shortly after my leaving my YSA ward five years ago, I dropped by a mid-singles ward in Salt Lake. It so happened that my drop-in occurred on a Fast Sunday, which meant I would get a chance to see the best and worst of the ward right away. As per tradition, a member of the bishopric was the lead-off hitter, transitioning the formal part of meeting into the open-mic portion of the agenda with a brief testimony.

Twenty minutes after starting his "brief" testimony, the Bishop finally turned over the mic to the congregation, and I felt like I knew all I needed to know about that ward.

"We know you're not where you expected to be in life..."

"We know that you are struggling..."

"We just want you to know that we are here for you..."

I looked around at the other 400 mid-singles sitting quietly throughout the chapel and overflow, and got the distinct impression that we had come together to wait for a storm to pass. All the testimonies that followed confirmed it. I asked myself: why would I want to attend a ward that just reminded me of what I wasn't happy about in life? Wasn't church supposed to elevate my spirits?

I decided to stick with the traditional ward...which led me to the Deacons.

Looking back at it, I now understand what my message to the 12-year-olds should have been: Reinforce the good. Make the best of where you are at, and be excited for the future. Damn the torpedoes of miserable reality, and choose to be happy. But before I could figure that out, I was released after four months and called into the Elders Quorum Presidency. The few lessons I taught the Deacons managed to connect here or there, but I was met with plenty of the same blank stares and empty silence I offered when I was sitting in their ill-fitting shoes. At least I never gave them the blunt diatribe I had in mind. It was a relief to get back to familiar ground, but even now, my experience with the Deacons feels incomplete. Maybe it's because I needed the lesson more than they did.

Or maybe I'll just teach it the next time I face a class of preteen mini-mes.