Tuesday, November 27, 2007

VHS Gems

Last weekend while everyone else was watching the annual BYU-Utah football game, I was up in Farmington with my buddy Dan, working on a couple of interviews for upcoming film projects. In the process, we figured out how to import old VHS footage directly into my computer.

With my newfound techno-power in hand, I started digging through some of my old VHS tapes to see what kinds of old gems I could come up with. Here's a sample of what I found:

1. "If You Could Hie to Kolob" (electric)

When my buddy Breto and I started putting together our first band back in '98, we mostly played along to original riffs he'd plucked out on acoustic guitars during his mission in London. He also picked out the tune to that astro-physics classic hymn, "If You Could Hie to Kolob". Once we added electricity and drums, we discovered that "Kolob" is a killer track, so we added a few ward members and filmed the following for the 2nd Stake Film Festival in the summer of '99. Watch for the "Blair Witch Project" reference at the very end.

2. "Dung Beetle", Zebedee Coltrane

A few months earlier, Breto and I had debuted our first real band (Zebedee Coltrane...lifted from an obscure Doctrine and Covenants reference) at the U32 Talent Show. After months of practice, we decided to go with Breto's original song "Dung Beetle". Here's our first performance (Breto's the tall guy in the hat):

3. "UTA Documentary"

This "man on the street" piece was shot for a public relations course I was taking at the U back in spring of '99. I wandered around downtown Salt Lake with my sidekick Sean (a bass player for a speed metal band at the time) interviewing random bus users. Naturally, we targeted the most colorful prospects. Regretfully, we had to edit out their best comments.

I still can't believe I let my hair get this long...

4. "Jumping Jack Flash", Lionel Ritchie

Before my sister took off on a study abroad to New Zealand back in 2003, she held a Variety Show fund raiser with her best friend Jessica to stir up some more cash. Somehow I conned my way into getting her to let me on the play list with my current band (Lionel Ritchie). The lead guitarist was one of my English 1010 students the previous semester.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Retro Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

When I had dinner with my friend Brad and his family a couple of weeks back, I left with more than a nice prayer story. I also got a special compilation of the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. Brad had been recommending it to me for months, and I finally decided to sit down and read the first installment.

Technically, I did listen to the book on tape while still working at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, but I didn’t remember much about it, other than thinking it was nice. I also saw the recent movie version of the book, with Sam Rockwell and Zooey Deschanel, which I also thought was nice, but I kept thinking that I still really needed to sit down and actually read the thing.

I was right.

Though I enjoyed the movie version, I now understand why so many devout Douglas Adams fans weren’t too keen on it. Turns out the film adds quite a bit to the book that wasn’t there initially. (Now, to be fair, they might have added elements from the later books, but since I haven’t read those yet, I can’t judge accurately). I’m guessing most of the additions and changes were for film theory/three-act format/let’s get John Malkovich involved reasons. Think “Lord of the Rings” and Peter Jackson, only not as good.

For the uninitiated, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the story of a lonely Brit named Arthur Dent who gets teleported off of the Earth seconds before it is destroyed by an intergalactic construction crew. (They want to make room for an expressway). The story follows Dent as he is whisked around by his new alien friends, adapts to his new situation, and ultimately learns the reason for his home planet’s existence. He also learns that it turns out humans are only the third most intelligent species on the planet.

The “Guide” is an electronic super-book/manual that intergalactic hitchhikers use to reference pretty much anything in the universe, whether it is providing simple descriptions of planets (The Earth is summed up as “mostly harmless”), or warning you of what you should never do upon meeting a Vogon (let them read you their poetry).

While the movie did convey Adams’ dry British humor to a point, the book really brings it out in its full glory. In the movie, the humor comes off as cute, whereas in the novel, it’s a little more sly, and a little more ironic. It also doesn’t seem to have any interest in developing the “love connection” between Arthur and the only other surviving human (Trillian).

It’s definitely a story that needs to be read more than seen, since the vast majority of the material is Adams’ expository work on the context of this quirky universe he’s created. It’s kind of hard to put that kind of thing on screen. I’d give a specific example of my favorite passage in the book, but without the context of the full novel it wouldn’t make any sense. So I’ll just say it has to do with the coast of Norway.

The one criticism I have of the book (and I’m not sure if it’s a true gripe) is the utter abruptness of the ending. The close of the novel feels much more like a segue into the next book than the completion of the first. This may have to do with the fact that the story has also seen life as a radio serial, and may have lent itself to a more episodic style.

Again, it’s very hard to say anything conclusive without reading all of the books, but I can say that I genuinely liked reading the first one finally, and I’m sure Brad will be happy to hear that. So if you are short on time, go ahead and check out the flick, but if you really want to get the undiluted Adams experience, read the book.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The King and I

It’s been great to play the drums so much lately. Before this month’s little Talent Show event, I hadn’t played with a whole band in over two years, and even then, we only formed for the one gig. You’d have to go back to my days with the Neil Diamond boys in the spring of 2003 to spot my last regular band.

Since the Talent Show, Greg and I have been getting together off and on to record some demo’s of our songs. He and Dan had already put down scratch tracks of the guitar parts, but never really added any drums until I came along.

I don’t know if I’d call it an enthusiastic hobby, a passionate dream or a huge tax write-off, but I know that Greg has invested more money in recording equipment than I’ve probably spent on dates in the last ten years. While I stress out about whether to drop $200 on a microphone for my video camera, I show up to Greg’s place and see that he’s already got a different microphone looming over every single piece of my drum kit, all hooked up to this vast computer setup in his basement. The miracle of it all is that when he plays back one of my tracks, I actually sound like I can drum worth a darn. All this time, all I needed to do was hook up seven grand worth of microphones to my kit…

I’m sure Elvis would be proud.

Well, let me rephrase that: I’m sure Randall would be proud. Randall is the guy who taught me how to play the drums. I met him about a week before I entered the MTC (that’s “Missionary Training Center” for the benefit of the random non-Mormon blog surfers who will stumble onto this piece after running Google searches for “The Wonder Years”, “The Great Divorce”, or “Mosquito Flatulence”—currently the leading tags to my site). My buddy Breto and I had concluded that our post-mission destinies would center around our construction of a rock band, and since I couldn’t play anything on the piano besides “Get Back”, we thought I should learn to play the drums.

Enter Randall.

Randall was a friend of Breto’s from his home ward, a middle aged heavy-set fellow who had built a reputation for being a…”colorful personality”. By day, he was a lawyer, but by night, he acted in local plays, loved loud rock music, and played the drums like nobody’s business. Legend had it he also ran for student office at BYU under a totally bogus campaign, then had to immediately resign after the inspired student body voted him into office.

For the first hour or so after we arrived at his home, Randall entertained us with an extensive lecture on what music is good (Three Dog Night), and which music sucks (pretty much everything else). He provided examples from his extensive record collection to provide evidence (remember, he was a lawyer).

Then he set up his massive drum kit and began to play along with the songs to further illustrate. About the only thing that could match his knack for wisecracks was the manic pounding of his drumming. It was clearly out of my league, but with his patient persistent instruction, I managed to pick out a basic four/four beat that I would tap on tables, desks, and Ford Escort Wagon dashboards for the next two years.

When our drum lesson was complete, Randall decided it would be necessary to go out for ice cream, so we hopped into the back of his minivan with a couple of his kids and set out for the Arctic Circle that used to be in front of the Albertson’s in Centerville. On the way back, as I worked on my vanilla cone, I met with one of the watershed moments of my young existence.

As we drove east on Pages Lane through the quiet evening, still talking about the finer points of rock and roll, Randall suddenly lurched the minivan into the Dick’s Market parking lot and stopped.

“I’m sorry,” he declared, “I have to do this.”

Breto and I watched in confusion as Randall reached over and turned up his car stereo as loud as it would go, then stepped out of the minivan and faced the street. As numerous commuters drove by and looked over in perplexed curiosity, Randall gyrated his hips, waved his arms, and lip-synched to the Elvis Presley classic, “Burnin’ Love”.

I can’t quite imagine what people must have made of this portly fellow who dancing at them at the side of the road, as he’d point at their passing cars and rock his knees when they’d go by, especially since they couldn’t hear the music he was doing it to. But inside the minivan, Breto and I could hear the music, and we saw a thing of divine, albeit twisted beauty. It was a joyous statement of anti-social enthusiasm. In a way, I saw what I wanted to be when I grew up.

When we returned to his house afterward, Randall matched his eccentricity with his generosity, and gave me his copy of the Blind Faith album from 1969. I was especially grateful because it was the alternate edition that had the photo of the band on the cover instead of the photo of the naked chick holding the airplane.

Three days later, after listening to “Presence of the Lord” three-dozen times, I entered the MTC, and put Elvis, the drums, and my dreams of rock and roll superstardom on hold. When I got back, I made a couple more visits to Randall’s house to fine-tune my developing skills and listen to more cool music. Then he took a job in Nevada and moved away, and I haven’t seen him since.

I got word a couple of years ago that he took another job in Utah, and was back in the area, but I haven’t seen him yet. I should probably look him up. It’s been a while since I’ve had some ice cream.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The last ride of Redbeard...

There’s one thing I hate about “Lost”, and every other TV show about people stranded on desert islands. I call it “Whisker Memory Syndrome”. No matter how long they are stranded, or how removed from daily niceties like straight edge razors or shaving cream, the guys always have perfect scruff-beards, and the girls always have smooth legs.

Well, check that; I guess I only really hate the guy’s side of the equation.

If I ever get stranded on a desert island, I’m going to look like a Wookiee monk within two weeks. All the beautiful survivors are going to vote me off the beach, and I’m going to have to go hang out in the jungle with the poisonous snakes and wild hogs. Back in the eighth grade, I thought shaving was cool, even if it didn’t matter whether my Bic saw action once a day or once a month. Now shaving is a curse. A daily reminder that if I don’t watch my grooming on a daily basis, someone’s going to throw me in a monkey cage when my guard is down. I swear I’m starting to shave so high on my cheeks I’m going to give myself corrective eye surgery by accident.

Long gone are the days when Dustin Harrison could show up the first day of junior year and blow everyone’s minds with a full beard. Long gone are the days when I got a reputation at Viewmont for being the first guy to embrace the sideburns trend (inspired by the half-episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210” I caught one night). Those same sideburns have survived in one form or another through to today, aside from a one-week hiatus in 1996 when a misguided Mission authority demanded I shave them in spite of the officially stated rule that sideburns could extend to the mid-ear.

Since then I’ve tried a myriad of combinations whenever the mood hit me, turning my own face into a creative palette for laziness. Immediately after quitting my job at Dick’s grocery in Centerville, I grew a full beard just to see if I could do it (Dick’s had a strict no-facial hair policy). At the tender age of 18, I had all sorts of people mistaking me for 26.

Then I’d cut it back into a goatee for a while, and usually just for kicks I’d shave the middle of my chin and go with a smokin’ Fu Manchu moustache for a day before shaving the rest of it. I come from a veteran moustache family (note the 1972 shot of my parents at right), but I’ve never really embraced the solo upper-lip action myself.

These days, the most I go with is a subtle Soul Patch to keep me feeling edgy, though most of the time I even chop that off out of boredom. Even though it’s a tremendous pain in the arse, I prefer to be clean-shaven over all other options.

Unless I’m in an anti-social mode, of course. A couple of days before this year’s run of Halloween parties, I let my beard grow out to enhance my pseudo-funk master hippie costume, and when it all finished, I decided to go ahead and let the whole thing run wild for a while. Suddenly longtime friends and acquaintances discovered that I do in fact have a lot of red in my hair. And I discovered that I have a little gray in my beard.

And thus began the 2007 equivalent to my favorite sequence in the early 80’s classic “Mr. Mom”, where Michael Keaton slowly loses his grip on reality (and on household maintenance), lets his beard grow out, lives out of the same flannel shirt every day, and gets himself hooked on “The Young and the Restless”. He puts on a little pot belly and starts regular poker nights with all of the local housewives, too, for good measure.

Luckily he snaps out of it in time to fend off the advances of his divorcee neighbor (Ann Gillian-attractive in a twisted Betty Crocker kind of way), get the house back together, and save his wife (Terri Garr-attractive in a "Young Frankenstein" kind of way) from her boss (Martin Mull-attractive in a not really attractive way). All set to the theme from “Rocky”. It’s a great flick. I highly recommend it.

I haven’t been wearing flannel near as much as I did back in the 90’s, usually going with a hoodie instead, but as the beard kept growing, I kept on watching daytime TV (all those online shows I mentioned a couple of weeks ago). And my semi-regular visits to the gym haven’t helped me get rid of my ab yet. Keaton lives today, and he is me.

Which may be part of the reason I decided to set aside the freelance stuff for a bit, and take a producing position on a new TV show KJZZ is working on. We won’t go on the air for a few weeks, so I’ve got some time to put on the “Rocky” theme and take care of some unfinished business. I’ve still got a couple of weeks left on my USU broadcast course before I hang up teaching for a while, and I’ve been working hard on a memoir project I’ve been trying to get in the mail for a year now. Maybe shaving this beard will trigger a little action, too.

If you see a Wookiee monk hanging out in the produce section in a few months, you’ll know things didn’t go so well.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

It's a Turkey BOWL, not a Turkey CUP

You know, my grandmother grew up in Woods Cross, and it's really depressing for her to see Bountiful Jr. High and Davis High School, because the schools she attended have been remodeled and updated as to be completely unrecognizable to her. To say nothing of the housing developments that have been moving out towards the Great Salt Lake and up over the mountain side on the new "Davis County East Bench".

Then again, she is 87 years old. You have to expect some of the familiar stuff to drop by the wayside in that time.

But I'm starting to feel the same way, and I'm only 31. Now, not only am I losing favorite restaurants like Manuel's, favorite beef jerky outlets like Bob Kellersburger's, and even favorite radio stations (like when Z-93 switched to K-BULL), but this afternoon I got this text:

"Football turkey bowls are lame & cliche. Soccer turkey bowls are cool & improve your self-esteem! We r thinking 8a on Thurs."

This comes 24 hours after finding out that one of my most longtime faithful football-playing cohorts is playing ULTIMATE FRISBEE on Thursday instead.

The horror...

Here was my response to the soccer text (I didn't bother replying to the ultimate one):

"People who play soccer on american holidays should be deported after confessing to their bishops."

You're killing me people...you're absolutely killing me.

Monday, November 19, 2007

"You see...it's a cosmic thing"

You know, it’s bad enough that my first order from the BMG Music Service included the likes of Janet Jackson, Milli Vanilli and Richard Marx. It’s bad enough that over the next six months I added CD’s from Bobby Brown and MC Hammer to that list. And it’s bad enough that for a brief window in junior high, I actually had a poster of Paula Abdul on my wall.

I was supposed to know better. I was the kid who was listening to The Beatles in the fourth grade, while my peers were listening to Bon Jovi. I was the kid who bought the Sgt. Pepper album when it was still an album, and got into Simon and Garfunkel a good ten years before my high school peers decided that was a cool thing to do.

It’s been hard enough to live with the fact that for two years in junior high, I abandoned my promising upbringing to indulge on a lot of top-40 crap, but now the situation is worse. It turns out a lot of the CD’s I picked up during that era were better than I thought. “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em” may not be a keeper, but The Fine Young Cannibal’s “The Raw and the Cooked” was. So was Peter Gabriel’s “So”.

This would be all well and good if I had kept my entire collection, but during that three-year period when you could actually get a few bucks selling used CD’s to music stores, I cleared out the junior high era. And now I’m buying all the best stuff back.

The newest entry on the “Doh!” list is the B-52’s 1989 classic, “Cosmic Thing”. Thanks to Saturday night’s concert at The Depot, I am now an official B-52’s fan. And I really feel stupid that I didn’t hold onto that CD.

About three months ago I was driving on the freeway when “Love Shack” came on my stereo. As I listened to the zany lyrics and enjoyed the driving dance beat, I thought to myself that this might be a fun band to see live, and remembered seeing a listing for them on the Depot’s Web site.

I was right on both counts.

So an hour into the University 32nd Ward’s Thanksgiving Dinner and Service Auction, I politely excused myself and left to go stand in line outside The Depot for forty-five minutes before the doors opened. I expected a pretty eclectic crowd for a band like this, but save for a few die-hards who dressed up in their best quirky 80’s gear, most of the crowd looked like the same middle-aged group that shows up to all of my concerts.

Noting the growing crowd, a group of pre-teen skaters dressed in chains and tight black clothes asked what we were waiting around for. Our answer triggered looks of disdain and smart remarks, but as they turned to go, I resisted the temptation to tell the little EMO inbreds to go home and take another shot at slashing their wrists, because I figured they’d probably do it.

Finally the doors opened and the eager crowd entered the venue. Unlike my other visits, this concert had strict festival seating, so it was easy for me to muscle up to about five feet from the stage, front and center, where I cooled my heels for an hour before the B-52’s took the stage.

When they did, I quickly noticed three things:

1. They are one of the shortest bands I have ever seen. I wasn’t quite looking eye-to-eye with them, but I swear none of those guys is over 5’7”. That might be why they always wore those wigs.

2. The band has been together since 1976. It turns out the B-52’s formed the same month I was born (October ’76), had their first album come out in ’79, and have been touring off and on ever since. So yeah, they’re looking kind of old. This explains the middle-aged crowd.

3. It didn’t matter that they’re getting older, or that I only knew three of their songs. Call me a half-cocked fan (until last weekend, I was), but I only went into the concert knowing “Love Shack”, “Roam”, and “Private Idaho”. However, thanks to some killer riffs and some incredible energy, I had a blast with every song. This is a FUN band to see live.

The band was so good, in fact, that I spent their entire 90-minute performance shaking my usually inhibited booty up front with the rest of the crazy fans. This was not a concert where everyone plays cool in their seats while one drunk dude wanders up and does some kind of weird acid-groove by himself in front of the stage. This was a concert where anyone on the floor who wasn’t grooving looked like an idiot.

Of course “Private Idaho” and “Roam” sounded great, but Saturday night I became an equally big fan of songs like “52 Girls”, “Strobe Light”, “Give Me Back My Man”, and especially “Channel Z” (which was on the “Cosmic Thing” album—DOH!). “Love Shack” ramped things up into a frenzy, and during the “Rock Lobster” encore we all crouched down to boogie. Even thirty years after getting together, the band rocked hard and brought fresh enthusiasm to their weirdo grooves. Cindy Wilson did her yoga moves while the stage fan blew her blond hair, Kate Pierson shook her hips under a flaming red tower of hair, and Fred Schneider tapped his Glockenspiel and brought his flaming…well, yeah.

Through it all, Keith Strickland led a killer rhythm section with a barrage of killer Fender Strat riffs that were every bit as Bad-A as anything Keith Richards ever cooked up. In every measure, The B-52’s lived up to their title as “World’s Greatest Party Band”. But in spite of the killer grooves, the outer space lyrics, and all the hokey gimmicks with pennywhistles and walkie-talkies, the band never lost track of their focus, which was to have fun.

The only evidence you’d need to back up that one would be to see this guy dancing in the middle of it all.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A laggard as usual...

I figured I had to get around to it eventually.

Here's my official "Simpsonized" photo:


*The accuracy of my deathly pale complexion.

*The choice of soul patch over the full beard I've been sporting for the last two weeks.

*The enigmatic upraised right hand, as if to say, "hey, I am holding an imaginary cup of yeast".

*The slight gap between the front two teeth (hmm...well, it was there when I designed it).

*The painfully inaccurate wire-rimmed glasses, as opposed to the black-rimmed specs I really wear.

I think I need to fix that hand thing. It's seriously bugging me.

There...that's much better.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Snatching modest victory from the jaws of brutal, total annihilation

After writing about my 15-year-old Jr. Jazz heroics earlier this week, I was reminded of another old war story that managed to teach me a lot more about life. It didn’t involve any comebacks, and it certainly didn’t involve any championship seasons, but it was an important victory nonetheless.

My athletic achievements in life have been few and far between for sure--most often I have tried to make up for a lack of skill with a generous dose of brutality (see photo at right)--but there is one mark I can claim that few have ever attained: In my very first church basketball game, I scored all of our team’s points. Not even Kobe Bryant can claim that one.

We lost that game 72-4.

See, during a little window of time in the late 80’s, my ward—the Bountiful 19th—only had two kids between the ages of 12-14 (the qualifying age for the annual Deacon’s Basketball Tournament). Legally we couldn’t reach up a level to recruit more players, but we were allowed to reach down into the minor leagues and call up a few 11-year-olds to fill out the roster. Hence, a full year before puberty and the Aaronic Priesthood, I was called up with half a dozen of my peers to enter a basketball tournament that was literally out of our league.

Over the course of a cold weekend in the winter of 1988, our rag-tag squad played five games against rival wards in the Bountiful North Stake, squads of players who were a good year and a half into puberty, players who had each of us by about six inches and fifty pounds.

In the years to come we would forge rivalries and play with competitive passion to stake out our athletic territory in the region, even though any player who was good enough to play on the school team was automatically ineligible to enter the church leagues. But that Friday night in February, the Bountiful 19th Ward only showed hints of our glory to come.

For most of the first half, we failed to advance the ball farther than the opposing three-point line. It was like we were playing football instead of basketball. We weren’t even getting any shots off. The opposing guards were stealing the ball and picking off passes before we could even get into position, let alone try to run our offense.

The 13th Ward (I think it was the 13th Ward, though it really doesn’t matter) gleefully ran up the score throughout the first half, piling on the points on fast break after fast break, hitting three-point shots with abandon, shooting in the assurance that if they missed, a teammate would grab an easy rebound and let them try again. My rogue band of teammates tried to stay competitive, tried to play with fire in our bellies, but it didn’t do any good. There was no way to stop the bleeding.

At halftime our coach approached theirs and tried to talk him into letting us at least get the ball past half court. I don’t know how he responded, but it was a church game, so he probably told him to go jump in the lake.

Eventually I decided that we might stand a better chance if I stopped playing defense. So I hung back at our end of the court as the 13th Ward continued their assault, then waved frantically at our point guard when we got the ball back. Phil Johnson gave the ball a tremendous heave, and somehow I was able to chuck the ball up at the basket before the other team could swat it out of the stratosphere.

The crowd erupted. We were finally on the scoreboard.

Our relationship would become more strained later in life after I accidentally drove through Phil’s family rabbit cages on his motorcycle, but at that moment, we were Stockton-to-Malone. (Well, actually we were more like Montana-to-Rice on that play. I always was a better football player.)

Our new strategy lasted about five more seconds, as our opponents immediately adjusted to my cherry-picking ploy and prevented any further embarrassment. Their shutout hopes had been dashed, but they weren’t about to go down without a fight.

As the second half wore down to its final seconds, the brave players of the 19th Ward kept on plugging, kind of like when Cool Hand Luke keeps taking half-conscious swings at Dragline even though there’s no way in the world he’s going to win their boxing match. With under a minute left, I took a pass somewhere inside the three-point line and turned to throw up a shot as a rival player hacked me on the arm. The whistle blew and my shot bounced off the iron. It was the first time our team had taken free throws all night.

Lots of people debate back and forth about whether God has any interest in the outcome of sporting games. My feeling is that He understands how irrelevant most of it is, but will allow success in certain situations in order to encourage or inspire others to deal with the more pressing matters in life. He doesn’t care who wins the Super Bowl, but He does care about teaching us that sometimes hard work pays off, or in other cases, that we have to be satisfied with our own efforts because the world won’t always give us what we deserve.

In this case, I’m pretty sure He was looking down at this punk eleven-year-old standing at the free throw line and thought to Himself, “this kid can’t shoot for beans, and when he gets home from his mission he’s going to get stuck in singles wards for ten years. But his team has put up a good fight tonight. This ought to be pretty funny.”

For the first (and probably only) time in my organized basketball career, I hit both of my free throws. Each score was met with a spirited cheer from the audience, and luckily my team was too young to feel embarrassed by it.

Looking back on that experience, I’ve realized that my first church ball game was a pretty effective metaphor for the Atonement, and for life in general. It even clarifies the age-old debate between Grace and Works. When you consider everything we have to face in life, and all the weaknesses we bring to the table, there’s really no way we are going to live up to everything we are asked to be. We can’t beat the 13th Ward. We can’t knock out Dragline. In spite of all the “Rocky’s” and the “Hoosiers”, this underdog role is pretty much set in stone. But if we put up a good fight anyway, and play with sincerity, our best will be enough, because in the end we’ll get the help we need. And we’ll probably wind up with some good stories to tell when it’s all over.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Repentus Maximus

I've been working on getting a few more of my old films onto YouTube lately. This is one that I originally shot with Fabian Jakins for a Sunday School lesson on "finding joy in Temple and Family History work" back in fall of 2005. The first version was little more than a clip montage entirely set to Wagner, but later I took all the footage and tried to re-order it into a rough storyline, then added a variety of music cues and special effects. The results are below:

The Prayer Pantheon

Last night an old mission buddy of mine invited me over for dinner with him and his family. Without hesitation, I accepted and entered the house to find his three children lined up dutifully on one side of the dining room table. After a round of introductions and a little preparation, Brad (my friend) asked his oldest daughter—round about five years of age—to say the blessing on the food. She obliged, and about halfway through the job I picked up this line:

“…and please bless that while Daddy’s friend is here, Braden and I won’t show off.”

I tried hard to stifle my laugh, since I didn’t want to send her the wrong message. But when the prayer was finished, I looked up to see Brad and his wife Jamie grinning broadly.

“We had a little talk this afternoon before you came by,” I was informed.

That gem of a blessing automatically made my all-time top-three Prayer Pantheon, along with a pair of candidates that not so surprisingly occurred while a missionary in South Chicago. Here are the others:

1. The Exorcist

At one point late in my stay on Chicago’s South Side, I teamed up with another missionary named Munson to visit a teenage girl who had recently become very religious. Her family was very supportive, though as we spoke with them it almost seemed as if they were a little intimidated by her newfound zeal. After we taught the family a first discussion and delivered a copy of the Book of Mormon, the girl asked that we all stand and join hands for a closing prayer.

This was nothing new to us, so we obliged, joining hands with the other half-dozen people in the room, and when the girl calmly intoned, “Our Heavenly Father…”, we thought we’d soon be out the door on a nice spiritual note.

Then her voice jumped from about one to eleven on the volume knob as she screamed, “IN THE MIGHTY NAME OF JESUS!” and proceeded to belt out a prayer that reached not only God, but most of her immediate neighbors.

At this point her six-year-old sister screamed, broke ranks, and ran out of the room in terror. So her dutiful older sister began to pray on her behalf as well, that she would “come back to the family”.

Munson and I, on the other hand, stayed faithful up until the end of the prayer.

2. The Penitent

My favorite entry in The Prayer Pantheon took place in Kankakee, Illinois, while visiting a local less-active family. We had a nice visit with them, and requested that we conclude with a prayer. The father asked one of his young sons, a diminutive youngster that couldn’t have weighed more than fifty pounds at the time, to do the honors.

So this poor little kid knelt on the carpet in front of us, squeezed his eyes real tight, and gave it the old college (or in his case, second-grade) try.

“Our Heavenly Father…” he started uncertainly.

A pause.

“We thank Thee for this day…”

Another pause.

And another pause.

“We thank Thee for this day…” he repeated.

Now a real loooong pause. We were really feeling for this kid by now.

Then suddenly—


Possibly one of the most sincere prayers I have ever come across.

It’s hard to be critical of anyone who is sincerely doing his or her best to commune with Deity. There are those I’ve witnessed that have been a little low on the sincere side and high on the performance side, but that’s really not my place to judge, particularly when I’ve been guilty many times of going through the motions and tossing out a repetitive yawner at 2AM myself. I’m pretty sure God hears all of them, regardless. And I’m guessing that when it comes to kids, the message always gets through loud and clear.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Start the revolution without me

Last night I got a bit of a shock during my weekly English 1010 broadcast: one of my students showed up for class.

He didn’t show up to his classroom in Logan, where my stunning visage is broadcast to he and his twenty-odd classmates every Wednesday night. He showed up to MY room, in Salt Lake, where my course is originated. It was the first face-to-face contact I’ve had with a student this semester and, in all likelihood, will also be the last.

It was yet another reminder of why I have a tough time with distance education. I appreciate the advent of educational technology, and the access it gives students who live in rural areas who still want a college education. And I certainly appreciate the opportunity to make money and pay my bills.

But when you add up all the pros and cons, and divide the total with a healthy dose of honesty, I’m still not a fan of distance ed courses. I’ve taught both online and via satellite, and neither comes close to the experience of teaching in the midst of twenty real live human beings.

From the fall of 2002 to the spring of 2004, I taught English 1010 and 2010 on campus while I was going to grad school in Utah State University’s American Studies Program. For two years I wandered the campus, teaching basic composition courses wherever the English Department could find room for me, whether that was in the library, the rec center, or even in a dorm at one point.

After I graduated, I spent three semesters with Salt Lake Community College, doing much the same thing at several of their Salt Lake area campuses. My nomadic existence continued, in science labs and even in a strip mall, but always on a face-to-face basis.

Through this experience, I forged several long-term friendships, getting to know my students while interacting in class or while catching up in my office on off-days. I even wound up playing in a band with one of my first students, and stayed in touch with him throughout his LDS mission to England and subsequent marriage a year after he got home.

I left SLCC two years ago to return to my Aggie roots, this time as an adjunct for the University’s extension program for local firefighters. For two years I hung out at the West Jordan Fire Station with a dozen of Salt Lake Valley’s finest, talking English and making many more friends. It was very cool to take one of the few redeeming jobs I’ve ever had and combine it with a truly redeeming element of our workforce. More than ever, I felt like I embodied the role of blue-collar academic.

Then last spring, around the time the higher-ups at USU were deciding they didn’t want to continue the firefighter program, I shifted over and started doing the broadcast courses. Instead of pacing in front of two-dozen warm bodies, I was sitting at a desk in front of a web cam, speaking into a microphone and hoping that enough people would speak back to fill the two-and-a-half hour slot time. I still played music, and still had them compare the car chases in “Blues Brothers” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, but I felt detached. I grew to recognize some of the voices, but most of my students became little more than names on e-mailed papers.

Suddenly all my strengths as a teacher were replaced by my weaknesses. The rhythm and interaction of the face-to-face course stood aside for my scrambling inability to keep track of the assignments and e-mails and faxes coming to me from four different sources. The atmosphere I created with jokes and anecdotes may exist out at my locations, but I am left with the silent response of a heavily pixilated image of my classroom from the projector, and only the chuckle of my TA to acknowledge my punch lines.

It's kind of like a gross exaggeration of a self-absorbed nightmare, where I exist in my own existential plane with a dozen Josh clones, acting only on my own impulses, performing only for myself. I'm the Star Wars Kid with a Master's Degree.

I think the biggest problem is that I feel like I’m not doing my best job as a teacher. When a student asks me to explain a point, I don’t know if my answers are understood, or if the student just doesn’t feel like asking the question again. I don’t know if the comments I make on their papers are enough when I can’t look them in the face and explain what I really mean. I don’t know if most of them are on Facebook through most of class, leaning on the same three classmates to make comments every time after the obligatory post-question silence.

Here again, I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me. Teaching classes, whether face-to-face or via IP Video, has been one of the big reasons I’ve retained enough freedom to explore my options in film and writing for the last few years. I might still be stuck framing multi-million dollar homes in Eaglewood for $8 an hour without them.

But in spite of the golden age of technology and all it offers (like real-time blog posts), I will still opt for the face-to-face over broadcast any day. Via satellite, I can do my job. I can get the material through. But in person, I can do it in style.

Besides, my new band really needs a bass player.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

You, too, can be a rock and roll star...

I made my friend Steve do a lot of embarrassing things when we were kids. There was the time I was pretending to be The Emperor from “Return of the Jedi”, and I made him roll around on the ground like he was Luke Skywalker, howling for his daddy while I shot him with imaginary lightning bolts. When “Star Wars” got boring, we played “The Actors”, meaning he was Mark Hamill and I was Harrison Ford. We always had to have imaginary girlfriends, but since we both had a crush on the same girl from our second grade class, I called dibs on Shelbi and demanded that Steve make do with her lesser imaginary twin named “Shelly”. Steve’s married with three little daughters and living in Vegas, now, so I guess his dues paid off.

Somewhere around the fourth grade, I enlisted Steve in another of my delusional ventures. Thanks to my mother’s record collection, I had become obsessed with The Beatles, even while most of my friends were listening to Def Leppard and watching the WWF. Any stroll through our household in the late 80’s would be guaranteed to feature a constant stream of tunes from Revolver, Rubber Soul, or Help!

But listening to John, Paul, George and Ringo wasn’t enough. In my mania, I sought to re-create the Beatle experience as close to fourth-grade reality as possible. That’s why if you were to wander into my basement, you might discover two youngsters standing around strumming tennis rackets while lip-synching “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” into the handle of our vacuum cleaner. The random pile of boxes, crates and barrels behind us was supposed to be a drum kit.

Years later I actually got to see one of the Beatles in the flesh, when Ringo came to Weber State University with his All-Starr Band. Seeing a real Beatle was incredible, but the pure, raw energy of the live experience left me with a much more important conviction: I had to play in a band.

Without the benefit of years of disciplined study, my musical options were pretty limited. Six years of piano lessons had bottomed out when I decided to put my focus on Boy Scouts and Church Basketball, and the guitar my parents scored me in the fifth grade drew even less attention. But the drums…the drums I could handle. After a couple of unofficial lessons from a local drum guru named Randall Edwards, I was competent enough to hold a steady beat, as long as it never strayed outside of basic 4/4 time. And when my buddy Breto thrifted a secondhand kit off the Deseret Industries dock for $25, my first band was born.

Thus began one of my favorite pastimes. Over the next nine years, whether jamming in Breto’s parent’s basement, pinch-hitting for a Neil Diamond cover band at the USU Valentine’s Dance, or performing an electric cover of “If You Could Hie to Kolob” for a Stake Film Festival, I’ve had several chances to pull out the drums and make like a rock and roll star. Most of my bands never lasted past a single gig, and it never really helped with my dating life, but it was still enough to quench the inner rocker, to get the live fix I needed.

Most of these spots came at ward talent shows. That was where Breto and I first debuted Zebedee Coltrane, and I played with a pair of bands at a Logan talent show four years later. Two years ago I came full-circle and got together with a couple of friends for the University 32nd Ward FHE Freak Show and played a cover set that featured “Back in the USSR” off the Beatles’ White Album. We called ourselves The Tony Danza Experience.

Then about a month ago I got word the U32 was holding another show, and I had a perfect excuse to get another band together. When the recruiting dust settled, I joined a songwriter named Greg Smith and a Chicago native named Dan Carlson to form a power trio titled The Last Starfighters.

We didn’t have a bass player, but we did have a PA, and when we really played loud you couldn’t really tell we had no bass line anyway. Through three or four rehearsals I rediscovered why playing in a band was so much fun, and last weekend we took the stage to play a trio of songs no one had ever heard before.

We didn’t care. We just wanted to play real loud.

And that we did. After blasting out “Ultimatum”, the first of Greg’s three originals, I cracked my sticks right into “Antipathy”, and when Dan refused to stop playing, we rolled right into “Money” just for the heck of it. I even played my first public drum solo. We rocked loud and we rocked hard, with Dan jumping and strutting all over the stage (and even pulling out the old Eddie Van Halen neck tap) and Greg screaming into the microphone to be heard over all our racket. I pounded away at the skins, slowly letting my nervousness ebb into confidence, and my serious glare transform into a gleeful smirk. When we finished, I stood and saluted the audience, unsure of whether they were entertained or getting ready to throw their chairs onto the stage.

“I feel like I just got away with something,” I told Dan.

For about an hour I felt like a real rock star, only without the drugs, the money, and the women. Most people didn’t know I was a hack drummer, so it was fun to show a new side to the repertoire, just like when I won the chili cook-off. I even videotaped our performance so I could stick it on YouTube and play it over and over again ad nauseum.

Speaking of which, here’s “Ultimatum”:

…and “Antipathy”:

…and “Money”.

I’m not sure I’ll ever go on tour. I may never put a CD on the charts. I did get an offer to join one of my students out on the Duchesne bar circuit, but I didn’t feel like driving out to the Uintah Basin every weekend. Truth is, I’m pretty happy playing now and again, rocking in the basement for a bit, then dragging the kit onto a stage every once in a blue moon. Ringo’s probably never going to call me up to join one of his All-Starr bands, but at least I’ve been able to get a little taste of what he gets to experience.

Just without the drugs. And the women. And the money.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Subway film now available on YouTube

Last September a short film I made of a trip down the Subway in Zion National Park was featured at the 2007 Epic Summer Film Festival. In spite of rain, the festival saw about a turnout of one-hundred-odd people (meaning 100, give or take, not 100 odd people).

The film was very well-received, and the entire experience was very encouraging. (It's nice when people that don't know you laugh at your stuff...unless you're not trying to be funny, that is). Up until now the only version of the film available online was the compressed mini-version I posted on Planet Venison, but today I decided to cut the thing in half and upload each section individually onto YouTube so I could come in under their size limit.


Part I:

...and Part II:

Friday, November 02, 2007

Fun with gravity!

When I dislocated my finger last summer playing volleyball, the physical therapy people gave me this green playdough stuff to squeeze. Either they thought this was funny, or they figured that if I did it enough I'd strengthen my finger.

Whenever I got done with one of my squeeze sessions, I'd wad up the ball and stick it back in its little plastic container. The next day I'd notice that it had gradually melted from ball shape into the shape of the container. Apparently the consistency of this stuff makes it maleable, but still subject to the laws of gravity.

So I started to wonder what would happen if I stuck the ball in random places around my house, then let gravity do its work. This proved to be much more interesting than actually exercising with the stuff. The results reminded me of the sliming escapades of the Canadian mid-80's Nickelodeon classic "You Can't Do that On Television".

Here's what happened after I stuck it on my bed post:

...and on my dresser:

...on my entertainment center:

...and on my towel rack:

It did this when I stuck it to the top of my USU stress ball:

...and here's what it did to a bottle of Stewart's Lime:

I also stuck it on top of my Indonesian CD rack:

...this little lamp thing in my living room:

...and my Dick Cavett DVD set:

The coolest results came from my Easter Island tissue box:

...the little souvenir Buddah I bought in San Francisco:

...my Lord of the Rings bookend:

...and the photo of Joseph Heller over my toilet:

Was I hard up for ideas for blog posts? You bet!