Monday, June 30, 2008

What exactly is a 'Donkey Kong', anyway?

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
3 stars out of 4

Any movie that manages to get Joe "Bean" Esposito's "You're the Best" onto its soundtrack is going to get a positive review from me. But "King of Kong" doesn't need a killer soundtrack to get a good review. It is one of the most compelling films I've seen in a long time, and the most compelling documentary I've seen in a really long time. At least since "Crocodile Man".

It's the kind of movie that makes me resent the term "Reality TV" even more. Because even though everyone knows that Reality TV is just a pretty term for "Game Shows for Attention-Hounds Without Agents", people still try to pass it off as some kind of genuine socio-cultural mirror. And it is. It's a mirror of that segment of our population that actively seeks to debase itself in order to get on TV.

"The King of Kong", on the other hand, is sincere reality. There's nothing staged about it, and the film's subjects don't necessarily want you to see their real selves. The subjects are a pair of Everyday Joe's who have had their lives changed by the seminal 1980's video game "Donkey Kong". They're supposed to be competitors, but their only mortal enemies are themselves.

The first man profiled is a guy named Billy Mitchell. He's very easy to spot, because he's the guy sporting one of the single most amazing haircuts I've ever seen on film. It seriously looks like the wig David Spade wore in "Joe Dirt". (News Flash: Josh actually saw "Joe Dirt".) The hair is as enigmatic as the man; on the one hand, you wonder just how cocky a guy has to be to go out in public with that kind of a 'do. He certainly talks a good game. But on the other hand, it becomes pretty obvious that his hair is merely a mask designed to conceal a dramatic inferiority complex...and his neck, and his shoulders, and his back.

Part of the reason Mitchell has embraced his retro hairdo is because he really hasn't evolved past the mid-1980's. That's when he set the all-time Donkey Kong scoring record. As the film shows, he's been living on that glory ever since, even though in the meantime he's managed to become some kind of hot sauce tycoon. It's as if Uncle Rico got in the high school football game back in '82, threw the touchdown pass, and still wound up living in the van lobbing pigskins at his video camera.

The second man profiled is Steve Wiebe, a science teacher from Seattle. Wiebe is trying to challenge Mitchell for the scoring title, and he's driving his wife and kids crazy trying to do it. But Wiebe is not a "gamer" in any sense of the term. (In some ways, neither is Mitchell; you get the feeling he wouldn't know an X-Box if it hit him upside the head). To Wiebe, Donkey Kong is just a means to an end, and that end is what makes this movie so real. It has nothing to do with video games, and everything to do with personal struggle.

Don't get me wrong; this documentary is a crazy send-up of gamer culture (at least vintage 80's gamer culture). But after doing the requisite round of "aren't these people weird" clips (the best being a profile of "Official Competitive Gaming Referee" Walter Ray, who describes how he used to think beautiful women would be attracted to him because he was really good at "Centipede"--and you get the sense he still believes this), the documentary goes to effective lengths to show you how these two are not very different from you or I.

For Mitchell, you see a conflicted character whose whole life seems to hinge on that scoring title. He's an arrogant jerk, but you still sympathize with him, because you really get the sense that his life will be over if he ever loses his mark. It would be easy to just make jokes about how pathetic it is that some guy is basing his life on a Donkey Kong score, but the video game is merely occupying a role here. He's no different from anyone who has ever clung to a past accomplishment, whether it was a beauty crown, an athletic achievement, or in my case, the 2006 homemade salsa title.

For Wiebe, you see a talented but troubled young father who is trying to find some kind of niche that will bring him the profound success he has always expected out of life. He's an ex-jock, a solid musician, and a hard-working science teacher, but nothing has brought him to the top of the heap in any meaningful sense. Between the two, Wiebe is clearly painted as the hero, and the guy you want to pull for, even though in reality Mitchell is the one who is most at risk. Mitchell's unlikable, but he clearly has much more to lose. Wiebe comes across as a really good guy who, while crushed at the time, will just find something else to do with himself.

The most sympathetic victim in all this is Wiebe's long-suffering wife, who dutifully puts up with her husband's vain pursuits and wears the anguish of the documentary on her face. She offers the lone voice of reason, and has key role in one of the film's most amusing sequences, where several "reputed gamers" show up at the Wiebe home to validate a scoring record Steve recorded in his garage.

As I've looked at other reviews of this film, the complaint that comes up most often is that watching guys playing video games for 90 minutes is boring. But I didn't feel that way at all. There may not be much action coming from Wiebe's wrists as he toggles the joysticks at the "sanctioned" arcade in Florida, but there's plenty of action in the eyes of the veteran gamers who loom over his shoulder and make small talk while they secretly hope he will fail. Because if Wiebe does waltz in and destroy his mark, they have about as much to lose as Mitchell does. The outsider/insider dynamic is one of the most compelling aspects of the film. The fact that the insiders are 1980's video game enthusiasts is one of the funnier aspects of the film. But the most tragic aspect of the film is that in spite of their unquenchable passions, no one outside of that confined circle seems to care. There are no throngs of fans, no jubilant crowd cheering Mitchell or Wiebe. There are about a dozen people in a lonely arcade in Hollywood, Florida.

Some people may dismiss this movie because they dislike gaming, but they're really rejecting it because it shows that whether it's video games, sports box scores, or shoe collections, we all have our obsessions. "The King of Kong" is a perfect mirror for our culture, and in some ways that reflection may be scarier than anything Reality TV has put on the air yet.

"The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" is Rated PG for delusions of grandeur, seriously obscene hair styles, and the moment every viewer will have when it dawns on them that they have something deep and psychological in common with either Mitchell or Wiebe. Or maybe both.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Chicago 2008, Vol. II: eBay Undercover

Since the eBay conference was the catalyst for my Chicago pilgrimage, the four days I spent in the land of my mission nativity was peppered with auction-related activities, entirely made possible by my longtime friend and traveling partner Randy. Not only did Randy register me for the conference, but he registered me as a top-rated Power Seller, which means that a guy who has purchased a total of two items on eBay in his lifetime got to enjoy the kind of exclusive perks only a narrow percentage of conference attendee’s would ever see. Namely, I got an extra doughnut after the Friday morning keynote address.

Most of my eBay experience was food-related, but since I covered that in Vol. I, I can focus this entry on my less gastro-intestinal encounters. I’ve been to a handful of conference-conventions in my time, each of which seems to draw a very specific demographic of attendee; Comic Con 2007 brought out hordes of overdressed sci-fi geeks, the 2004 Hero Conference for the department of American Studies brought out a lot of academic geeks who used big words to describe Superman’s inherent Jewishness, and the 1994 Phil Collins concert at the Delta Center brought out an astounding array of middle-aged housewives who liked to get their groove on.

eBay Live! brings out Middle America in all of it’s vast diversity. This is not a typical business convention by any means, packed with MBA grads and slick egomaniacal go-getters (I assume this is who attends business conventions…as I have no interest in business, and never attend such conventions, I can only assume that movies like “Wall Street” and “Weekend at Bernies” are correct in their depictions). The eBay conference is made up of people who have a business impulse, but in a nerdy way. They founded their individual empires by being computer geeks, and mastering an interactive forum where they market to other computer geeks. This is the accountant who sells comic books on the side, the grandmother who sells oil paintings of cats, or, according to one promotional film I saw, the lesbians who built an empire selling African tribal art.

In Randy’s case, it’s a young guy who got an idea after his boss at the pager company told him to get rid of a bunch of old cell phones. These are people who are ambitious, who are successful, but who didn’t take the Harvard MBA path to do it. In short, they are down-to-earth. And that’s why the keynote speech I saw on Friday morning was so funny.

Since we’re talking about an Internet company, clearly one would expect a bit of a techno-geek feel to the event, so when I walked into the main assembly hall and was greeted by an empty warehouse decorated to look like it was pulled straight out of Orwell’s 1984, I felt completely at home. Our shuttle was late, so by the time we shuffled in and grabbed our complimentary doughnuts, the eBay CEO was already most of the way through his obligatory rally speech. Like other conferences of this sort, eBay Live!’s keynote addresses were constantly punctuated by rhetorical questions and emphatic declarations that are supposed to illicit enthusiastic applause, such as, “isn’t that great?”, “You are the heart of what we do”, and “My face is being simultaneously projected on seventeen digital screens; YOU WILL OBEY ME!” What makes the experience even more fun is that everyone involved is extremely nerdy, which basically turns the keynote address into the rough equivalent of what it would have been like to have the stage crew in junior high handle all aspects of your school assemblies.

This is what occurred to me while watching the second speaker in the hour-long address, after the CEO guy was done and they had shown the video about the lesbians. I’m sure that the woman who spoke is a very successful eBay person, and very engaging and enthusiastic in person, but watching her rally the attendees was kind of like watching my friend’s mom host the MTV Video Music Awards. It was also the only such address I’ve ever seen that had lots of booing (when this poor woman had to bring up the recent controversial decision to discontinue the “negative buyer feedback” option to sellers).

But the most classic moment came immediately after another short promotional film. This one was about a housewife in California who has used eBay to build an extravagant collection of extremely rare and beautiful Chinese art pieces. Now, by extremely rare and beautiful, I mean hundreds of 300-year-old pieces that probably cost thousands of dollars each, which places this ultra-wealthy buyer in a laughably different demographic than the classic eBay small businessman sitting in the audience. So when the video wrapped with this uber-rich art collector saying, “my motto is she who dies with the most toys wins,” and the maternal keynote speaker lady exclaimed, “wasn’t that story great?”, the awkward silence that followed was deafening…and hilarious. I mean…nobody clapped AT ALL. Brilliant.

Always the erstwhile trooper, our speaker rolled on with the production, maintaining a defiant enthusiasm in front of an increasingly agitated and confrontational crowd. Even when she started using “wrap-up” words and half the crowd got up out of their seats and started walking out, even though she and the CEO still had 20 minutes of eBay Hall of Fame awards to pass out.

Afterwards Randy and I wandered over to the Power Seller’s Lounge, which was just one corner of the main hallway that had big monolithic promo barriers in the way. I wondered what would happen if I were to try to infiltrate the sacred ground without my Power Seller badge. Would a 53-year-old computer programmer who sold Beanie Babies of his basement in Milwaukee wrestle me to the ground? Was anyone there carrying tazers? Just in case I got into any awkward conversations, I prepared a fraudulent response should anyone ask me what I sold. But luckily I never had to tell anyone that I sold Burmese prescription drugs inside hollowed-out GI Joe dolls from the 1970’s.

The primary feature of the lounge (other than the obligatory ugly carpet that was made mandatory at all major convention centers by the Convention Center Carpet Act of 1973) was a table that had all the leftover doughnuts from the keynote address. It was also the location of the big free shrimp fest I enjoyed later that night, which I covered in my last entry. There also appeared to be a number of special consultation booths, similar to those on the main convention floor, only better I assume, since this was the Power Seller Lounge and not the Generic eBay Grunt Lounge. Like the convention floor, these booths were staffed with people in long white lab coats, suggesting a surgical aspect to the eBay selling process. Randy seemed to know these people, and I wonder if at some point they have performed cosmetic surgery on Randy’s auction page. I didn’t talk to any of these people in lab coats, because I assumed that a) they were business people, and thus meaningless to me, or b) they were really medical people, which would mean they were meaningless and had hospital-smell.

But even if I didn’t really relate to the eBay Power Seller crowd, I did relate to at least one member of the event planning staff. That would be the staff member who decided to book five members of the Second City comedy troupe to perform after the free shrimp fest on Friday night. Second City has been doing their thing for fifty years, and was the launching pad for the careers of people like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and tons of others. I mean tons. In the 70’s, Second City put on a TV show called SCTV (Second City Tele-Vision, for the acronym-challenged), which was kind of like a cross between Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Saturday Night Live. In short, watching the Second City people is kind of like getting a sneak preview of who might wind up on SNL in the next couple of years.

While we were waiting for the Second City show to start, and admiring the promotional eBay photo frames we found on our seats, Randy told me the Bruce Hornsby Story. See, one feature of each of the seven eBay Live! conventions is the Saturday night concert. Weird Al headlined the first one Randy attended, and he's also seen Huey Lewis and the B-52's. (This year's headliner was Chris Issak, but we opted out of seeing Mr. Wicked Game to drive out to Freeport so I could reconnect with some old mission friends...see "Josh controls the itinerary" reference from Vol. I).

Anyway, one year Bruce Hornsby was the eBay guest of honor, and he took the "honor" part very seriously. VERY seriously. As in, the guy waited outside in his limo for 40 minutes and refused to get out until the event staff could find a red carpet to roll out for him. A real red carpet. Bruce Hornsby.

Bruce. Hornsby.

I'm really sorry, but when I think of someone walking the red carpet, I don't think Bruce Hornsby. I think Gary Busey.

Fortunately one resourceful member of the event staff actually managed to come up with a red carpet, and Mr. "and The Range" was spared the embarassment of having to sit in his limo any longer. So instead he promptly got up on stage and started making eBay jokes in between immortal classic songs like...well, I actually don't know any Bruce Hornsby songs. But these weren't fun eBay jokes, they were "you guys are dorks" eBay jokes.

The Second City people, on the other hand, showed great skill in their eBay jokes (though I guess you'd expect them to win a comic showdown with Bruce Hornsby), put on a fantastic show (heavily sanitized for a professional audience, I’m guessing), and demanded no red carpets that I am aware of. For a shining moment I didn’t resent the event staff for issuing the brightly colored tote bag that I had to carry around downtown Chicago for much of the day. I can’t say that the experience persuaded me to use eBay for much more than to occasionally check out the retro Air Jordan’s (I’m still in the market for a nice pair of VI’s…black and lazer red, size 8.5-9, for any eBay-types that Google this column), but I do feel a certain degree of camaraderie with this little sub-culture now.

Whenever I see a spread of exotic African tribal art, I will remember them fondly.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Chicago 2008, Vol. I: My Taste of Chicago

Sunday night I returned from my third pilgrimage to the Windy City since I finished my mission in November of 1997. This time around I went with my longtime friend and conspirator Randy Pinson of Rocket Auctions, Inc., who was attending the e-Bay Live! conference in the Loop. I have documented our adventures by topic.

One highlight of any great trip, and certainly any great trip to Chicago, is feeding your face. There is no shortage of quality venues that are up to the task, and there is even less of a shortage of venues that are eager to tell you that they are up to the task. Indeed, one’s challenge in Chi-Town is not finding a spot with reputation, but sifting among them to find the ones that deserve it. Here is what we found:

Giordano’s (4 stars out of 4)
About 700 North and Rush Street
Cost (per person): $12

The first night we got into town, we went to the only place I consider an absolute mandatory stop on a trip to Chicago: Giordano’s. I have already documented my interest in the place, but it deserves every possible mention. Besides, this time I had their Bruschetta appetizer. In spite of the recent tomato scare, Giordano’s still piles the Bruschetta with three inches worth of diced tomatoes and onions. Then they follow that with a deep-dish pizza stuffed with meat and sauce that only the manliest of men (or, to be fair, the manliest of women) can handle for more than two slices. This stuff is for champs, and once again, I am depressed to have to face a pizza anywhere else.

Devon’s Seafood Grill (2 ½ stars out of 4)
39 E. Chicago Ave.
Cost: $20

The next day, while Randy was eating an overpriced sandwich at the eBay conference, I wandered into a little place called Devon’s Seafood Grill. It looked kind of swank, but not too swank to refuse service to a guy in a T-shirt and shorts, so I opted to venture inside. They sat me at the bar, and I ordered their chipotle grilled shrimp appetizer along with a bowl of spicy creole gumbo. The gumbo was great, and the grilled shrimp was quality, but far from “Top Five” status (more on that later). Overall, the food was good but mostly priced for the show. My only gripe was that every interaction I had with the bartender was kind of awkward. I really don’t know what his deal was. I was just trying to be friendly, but he kept acting like he wanted to hide under the bar, so I don’t know if he was just shy or if I reminded him of a bald-headed authority figure who used to make him do extra push-ups in his 8th grade gym class.

Which brings up another thing: I hate sitting at the bar, the counter, or whatever you want to call it. Just because I’m by myself doesn’t mean I want to sit up on some tall stool and let all my blood rush to my feet, especially after walking for blocks and blocks around the city. It totally blows, and I want my own stupid booth.

eBay Promotional Banquet #1 (2 stars out of 4)
McCormick Convention Center
Cost: Free

On Thursday night Randy and I attended a special banquet for the eBay “Voices”, a group of sellers that contribute to informative discussions with eBay employees about how to make their site run better. The upside was that it was free food; the downside was that you had to sit at big tables with people you didn’t know and listen to eBay topics the whole time. But like I said, more on that later. The food was pretty good, the desserts were better, etc. etc.

Buddy Guy’s Legends (2 stars out of 4)
About 700 South Wabash
Cost: $15

After the Voices banquet, Randy and I made our first music stop of the trip, at Buddy Guy’s Legends. In spite of the fact that I had just come from an all-you-can-eat banquet, I still felt constrained to order the Blackened Bourbon Shrimp and a slice of Key Lime Pie while enjoying the strains of Eddie Shaw and the Wolfgang. The pie was pretty good, though far from the quality of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building Bakery (hereafter referred to as the JSMBB, though I don’t think I’ll actually be referring to it again). The shrimp was another story. The shrimp themselves were quite large and wide, which was good, but the “blackened bourbon” sauce tasted kind of funky. Like bourbon, I suppose. Or like a sauce that may-or-may-not have alcohol in it still, I guess. So there’s a solid chance I broke the Word of Wisdom on Thursday night while eating jumbo shrimp.

Ed DeBevic’s (2 ½ stars out of 4)
Somewhere by the Hard Rock Café…like 700 North and LaSalle or thereabouts
Cost: $17

The next morning, while Randy was being wined and dined by a group trying to convince him to outsource his customer service responsibilities to China (which I think everyone should be able to do even if they aren’t technically a business), I went to a 2nd tier “must-visit” spot in Chicago: Ed DeBevic’s. Ed’s is kind of like a more authentic, more fun version of the Galaxy Diner that used to be by the 5th south freeway entrance in Bountiful. I think it’s some generic Chinese buffet place now. Ed’s place is very lively, where the help interacts with you and expects you to play along with their snappy 50’s-esque attitudes, their table dancing (to James Brown, quite nice), and their constant singing. Which is why it is so ironic that every time I go there I’m in a “don’t bother me; I just want to eat” mood. And once again, due to the crowd, they tried to get me to sit at the counter. But I denied them, and got my own booth, and I took their silly hat off after about 30 seconds. I just wanted to enjoy my bacon burger and my five-dollar shake. And I did.

eBay Conference Banquet #2 (At first ½ star, but later 3 stars out of 4)
McCormick Convention Center…different room
Cost: Free

Friday night’s food festivities were a potential disaster that turned into triumph. This little shindig was for the top-rated eBay Power Sellers, which of course meant I had no business being there. When we first arrived, a quick scan of the offerings led us to believe that the event was more of a finger-foods collection, consisting of pasta and four different types of mushrooms.

I was horrified.

But then I spied a meat station, where someone was dispensing turkey and roast beef. And then I saw a guy walk by with all kinds of jumbo shrimp on his plate, and things got way, way better. After ten jumbo shrimp and two Sierra Mist’s, we hit the dessert bar for some key lime things, some fruit tort things (good but not as good as the JSMBB—Ha!), and even a chocolate covered strawberry. I did not eat my roll.

Pizza Due (3 stars out of 4)
Somewhere between 700 North and Clark and 500 North and Rush Street
Cost: $8

After the banquet, Randy and I hustled over to the Blue Chicago to catch 1 ½ sets from the John Primer Blues Band. After the music, we walked out into a perfect downtown summer night, marveled at the lively streets and warm summer air, and concluded that since we were heading to Freeport the next day, we should make the most of our last night in the Loop. So we went to this spot called Pizza Due, which turned out to be the little brother to Pizza Une, both of which are famed Chicago pizzeria-pubs on a par with Giordano’s. Pizza Due is tucked away underneath some building, arranged pub style with dim lights and tons of cool Chicago-related photos on the walls. The pizza (deep dish, of course) was not quite as good as Giordano’s (which is no sin), but it was still far superior to anything that doesn’t originate on the western shores of Lake Michigan. Cool atmosphere, great food, and the joint is open until 2:30am. I really, really, really wish we had places like this in Salt Lake.

Conrad Hilton Restaurant (2 ½ stars out of 4)
500 North and Rush Street (5th Floor)
Cost (without complimentary coupons): $20

When we checked in late Wednesday night, the concierge had given us complimentary breakfast coupon-things for every morning of our stay, but due to sleeping in or being rushed, the only time we used them was on Saturday morning. So around 10am on Saturday, Randy and I sauntered into a posh little restaurant on the 5th floor and tried to figure out what we could score off the menu for free. Well, actually that’s what I did, because I am cheap. Randy makes money, so he just ordered what he wanted and paid the difference. Over a fine spread of fresh fruit and bacon, Randy and I discussed some of the finer points of life, such as my tendency to throw my weight around when it comes to itineraries and how my bad fashion sense might be keeping me single. I realize that the last statement might make Randy sound like a jerk, but let me say first that the advice was solicited, and second, I think he might be right on both counts. Though in my defense, I don’t quite think it’s fair to judge my wardrobe based on what I brought on a trip to Chicago or what I usually wear when I stop by Casa Pinson, meaning: I don’t get dressed up for married guys.

Petterino’s (3 ½ stars out of 4)
150 North Dearborn
Cost: $40

My original plan was to hit Giordano’s for a second time before heading out of the city, but after considering Randy’s opinion above, I elected to let him call the next shot, and just pray that we didn’t wind up at a place that exclusively dealt in tuna fish and macaroni and cheese. After lots of walking, we landed at Petterino’s, which may just become the second “must-visit” food stop on any future Windy City pilgrimages. Judging from all the autographed celebrity caricatures that cover the walls of the place, I’m guessing Petterino’s is a place of no small reputation. The food was awesome. I got a skirt steak that was about a foot long, and the jumbo shrimp cocktail we had ranked a cool #3 on my all time Top Five. Here are the current standings:

1. BBQ Jumbo Shrimp, Deanies (French Quarter, New Orleans)
2. Old Bay Jumbo Shrimp, Bethesda Crab House (Bethesda, Maryland)
3. Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail, Petterino’s (Chicago)
4. Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail, Alioto’s (San Francisco)
5. Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail, McCormick and Schmick’s (Washington, DC)

What got Petterino’s on the top-five list was not just that the shrimp were really large, but they also had a meaty texture that set them apart from most other venues. It’s very hard to describe, but very obvious to the taste, so you may just have to trust me on this one. However, I doubt any shrimp will ever take over the top spot from Deanies.

Casa Jeffrey (4 stars out of 4)
Loras Drive, Freeport
Cost: Free

After stopping by the Freeport Ward Sunday morning to reconnect with some old mission friends (I spent five months there back in the summer of ’96), Randy and I were invited over to the home of a former stake missionary couple with the bait of fresh watermelon. As I have a fond weakness for watermelon (one of my most vivid childhood memories is buying a 40 pound watermelon from Dick’s Market with my friends Brian and Breto), we indulged ourselves. The décor was wonderful, the service personable, and the watermelon excellent. Truly a perfect way to wrap up a trip to Chicago.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mosquito Bites, Vol. III

A few observations and radar blips before I head out on a Chicago pilgrimage...

Sherpa Time!

One of the drawbacks to my job is that I never get to meet any of the guests we have on the show. Since my primary on-air role is to be timekeeper, I’m pretty much stuck in the control room for the duration of the broadcast, and unless a guest makes a rare detour through that room on their way out, I just see them the same way everyone else does at home.

One recent exception was a guy named Apa Sherpa. Apa is a fairly nondescript guy, pretty short, really quiet, totally humble, and to be honest, most people would probably mistake him for a member of the cleaning staff if they didn’t know better. He also happens to have climbed Mount Everest eighteen times.

When Apa finished his interview out on the studio floor, he walked back through the control room on his way out, making sure to wave and give a big smile to every single member of the staff. He was a remarkably friendly guy. I was very impressed. I was also amazed that the guy who has scaled Everest more times than every other human, and according to dossier is physically capable of carrying incapacitated members of his climbing party down the mountain if necessary, probably stands about 5'2" and weighs ninety pounds.

A Compulsive Milestone

I hesitate to toot my own horn too much here--though some might suggest that's all this blog is for--but I'm getting ready to celebrate a pretty significant milestone. It's not even a joke, either. As of June 24th, I will have made consecutive journal entries for ten full years. Meaning I haven't gone to bed in the last decade without at least writing some fleeting blurb in one of six hardbound journals. Naturally, that June 24th, 1998 entry was about some girl.

The Monilith

While on the topic of compulsive behavior, this might be a good time to mention another little side drama that has been evolving in the Life of Josh. A few months back, I got into the habit of dropping my scripts into a pile on my desk at the end of every morning broadcast. These scripts started to pile up, and soon the practice began to take on a life of its own. They say that over time, actions become habits, and habits become character, but I'm really not sure how the four-foot stack of scripts on top of my KJZZ cubicle constitutes character. And neither do any of the people I share office space with.

The Weinermobile

You can't have a huge life-changing experience everyday. The human psyche can only take so much. But if you learn to pay attention and look for the little positives, each day can at least put a smile on your face. Now, before you think I'm dangerously close to picking up a job writing Hallmark greeting cards, keep in mind that the little detail that made me smile the other day was seeing the Weinermobile outside the Centerville Wal-Mart.

There, see Centerville residents? You were so bent out of shape when you heard Wal-Mart was coming, but now don't you feel silly? If they had never built the store, you never would have gotten your own personal visit from the Weinermobile, and then you'd just be another middle-American no-Weinermobile-having po-dunk town. So be grateful.

No Pico for You!

The tomato/salmonella crisis has officially infringed on my way of life. Last Friday I swung by Barbacoa to pick up my weekly burrito bowl, only to discover that they had voluntarily suspended use of their mild salsa (essentially a pico de gallo) because of the tomato scare. My usual routine is to get rice, pinto beans, spicy pork, two scoops of mild salsa, and one scoop of hot salsa, so you can see how significant an impact this ommission would make. So I walked out brokenhearted, grabbed some takeout from Yoshi's Japanese Grill instead (along with a large order of spicy fries and a Butterfinger shake from Eat-A-Burger, cause if I'm going to drive all the way out to Holladay for my lunch, I'm going to make it worth my while), and wondered how soon this crisis will pass.

To Dig or Not to Dig

In my constant search for new and exciting ideas for blog entries, it occurred to me that most of the items on my Dig/Not Dig list on the right-hand column of this blog are completely unexplained. So I'll explain a few.

No Dig: Atmospheric Pressure Changes

Whenver a front moves in, triggering any kind of significant atmospheric pressure change in anticipation of a storm, I get headaches. Yes, you heard that correctly: I can predict weather patterns with my skull. They aren't migrane-level, thankfully, but they do hurt. And they do hurt badly enough that I always maintain a source of ibuprophen for quick and easy access.

Dig: Yahtzee

I'm not real huge on game-playing. Mostly because I'm really competitive, and games tend to bring that side out of me. Plus I find a lot of games boring, frankly. But Yahtzee will always hold a fond place in my heart. Yahtzee will forever go hand-in-hand with my childhood excursions to my grandparent's place up in Island Park, Idaho (which is about ten miles outside of Yellowstone). My family was never a really outdoorsy family, at least in terms of going on long hikes or camping, so when we weren't driving through the park or taking pictures of Old Faithful, and when I wasn't out climbing around the side of the hill with a dozen of my Star Wars action figures, my family was gathered inside my grandparent's trailer (this was back before they built the cabin), playing us some Yahtzee.

To this day, one of the hardest decisions to make comes late in the game when confronted with a third roll that has netted absolutely nothing. Do I take a zero on my Yahtzee, and basically forfeit any chance of getting the big 50 point score, or do I put the zero on my fives, which will prevent me from getting the 35-point bonus from getting three of each number in my top bracket?

No Dig: People who try to get you to look up scriptures during their sacrament meeting talks

I try to be charitable when it comes to criticizing the public speaking skills of my ecclesiastical peers, especially since most people are not egomaniac publicity hounds like myself who actually seek out opportunities to speak in public, but this is seriously one of my biggets pet peeves, and for the sake of those same peers, I must address it. The premise is simple: there is a difference between giving a talk in sacrament meeting and giving a lesson in Sunday School. One is meant to be a prepared address; the other is an interactive facilitated discussion. When you give a talk, you are supposed to be the one doing the talking, so write your scripture references into your talk, and deliver them in a fluid fashion with the rest of your text, just like they do in General Conference. Don't ask me to pull out my scriptures and look stuff up. You're supposed to be delivering a message. Not a lesson.

Dig: Peanut Butter Cookies with Hershey's Kisses in them

I feel 75% confident in specifying these as Christmas cookies. I do remember seeing them on a few other occasions in my time, but by and large my memory of these little delicacies is tightly bound to my childhood Christmases. In fact, these cookies have been so impressed on my mind that I have actually taken the initiative to make them on my own...more than once. I even took some pictures of them:

The funny thing is that I'm not a huge fan of Hershey's Kisses otherwise. Not that I don't like them, but more that I'm just not very likely to buy a bag of them unless I'm planning on making the cookies. So there you go.

No Dig: People who insist on warming up on one side of the basketball court while the pick-up game is still in progress on the other end

This phenomenon is as entrenched in pick-up basketball as deeply as hard fouls and the token old guy in sweatpants. Whenever you have people waiting on the sidelines for the next game, there will inevitably be one or two who are convinced that in order to perform at their peak level they must run out onto the empty end of the court and shoot half a dozen jump shots while the game is still going on at the other end. They always think they can grab their rebounds and get out of the way before play gets back to that end, but inevitably the players actually playing the game will take off on a fast break that will have to be cut short because some idiot's long rebound came bouncing through their passing lane.

If you're not playing, stay off the court, morons.

Dig: Hammond B-3 Organs

Last weekend I got into a conversation about favorite sounds, and other than the sound of my old 64 1/2 Mustang driving through a parking garage, I noted the sound of the classic Hammond B-3 Organ (with rotating Leslie speaker). Of course, there's no real way to describe the sound of a Hammond B-3, so here are a couple of sample clips of one in action:

All Hail the Techno-Viking!

I may have to apologize for this one in advance. I will say that a bad word is superimposed over the very end of this clip, so you might want to stop it before you get to the end. But to be honest, I'm guessing most people will stop watching well before that point, because this is just one weird mother video. describes its star as "the Pied Piper of drugged up ecstasy e-tards". That's about as good a description as I can come up with, other than to suggest that he's also got some hybrid Hulk Hogan-Patrick Swayze action going on, and he reminds me of a guy I see at the gym all the time that my old roommate nicknamed "Dr. Death". Either way, I can't run this thing for Catch of the Day, I can't really explain why I find it so funny (it's kind of a Josh 4.0 level of twisted humor sophistication), and I just can't sit on it, either. It has to be shared.

So consider yourself warned.

ALL HAIL TECHNOVIKING! - Watch more free videos

If it will make you feel any better, we actually did run the clip below for Catch of the Day. I'm guessing it won't.

Membership has it's privileges

About a month or so, I was walking on the sidewalk outside the Salt Lake Institute Building with my buddy Micah when we had an encounter that could best be described as “curious”. As we were strolling along, we heard an insistent voice call behind us.

“Hey, you two!”

The voice sounded quite angry, and when we turned around, we expected to see some weirdo who wanted a fight or something. Instead, we saw a weirdo standing still. He was dressed normally, looked a couple of years younger than us, and didn’t look all that out of place otherwize. He just had a strange way about him, like you could tell that something was off.

We gave him a quick acknowledgement, wondering what on earth he had to say to us.

“When you’re endowed," he asked, "does that mean you can take cocaine? I NEED TO KNOW.”

Now, I wrote the statement above word-for-word as I remember it, with special all-caps emphasis on his last sentence. But I'd like to reinforce the fact that he said that last sentence with a very sincere degree of passion. As in to say he wasn't joking. He really needed to know whether taking out his Endowments would allow him to do blow.

I began to wonder what train of events led him to this inquiry. I had heard plenty of bizarro "Mormon-Rumors" in my time (my favorite was the one about how we juggle squirrels in the temple, which, to be honest, might increase my attendance if it were true), but I had never heard anything about a temple recommend granting someone amnesty from following the Word of Wisdom, particularly when it came to Hollywood party drugs. Near as I could figure, someone might have decided to have fun with this guy--he did look a little bit, ahem, "slow"--and told him some crazy story about faithful LDS crackheads. It would also make sense to think that he'd confused LDS with LSD, just like William Shatner did in "Star Trek IV", and then confused LSD with cocaine. It would be a totally honest mistake. But I think the most likely scenario is this poor fellow was contacted by some dude from West Jordan who woke up one night after a rough go at Beto's and convinced himself that he'd received divine instruction to immediately build a reinforced bunker in his basement that could hold ten years of food storage, seventeen cages of live poultry, a full arsenal, and a small meeting room for the breakoff sect he needed to found that would reinstitute polygamy, canonize the first printing of Mormon Doctrine, and allow for senior members to get buzzed on a weekly basis.

That's just how these things go.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Spoiler-Filled Review of "Iron Man"!

Iron Man
2 ½ stars out of 4

In order to be fair, I should admit that I saw “Iron Man” at the Drive-In, which is not the best way to do justice to a film that relies on special effects and sound presentation. On the other hand, that also means that:

1. Drive-In’s still exist in the United States, and
2. I am still attending them

Enough disclaimers. Viewing context aside, I still really enjoyed “Iron Man”, and not just because they cut directly to the killer guitar solo from the Black Sabbath tune of the same name while rolling the closing credits. I’d say “Iron Man” was a good comic book movie, but that would be a backhanded compliment at best, since most comic book movies blow serious chunks. No, I will say that not only was “Iron Man” a pleasant surprise, but it’s a pretty good flick on it’s own.

The premise here is pretty simple: ultra-rich capitalist jerk becomes noble humanitarian after life-changing abduction by terrorists, then uses his techno-prowess to create a flying suit of armor, then using it to kill aforementioned terrorists and a bald version of Jeff “The Dude” Bridges. Sorry, I just gave away one of the major twists of the movie.

Robert Downey Jr. plays the Iron Man, which I’m sure is a welcome change of pace over spending the last decade in and out of drug rehab. In a way, that makes his redemptive lead more sympathetic, and more real. Real is good.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays Downey’s loyal secretary/eventual girlfriend (dang…another spoiler), and provides the biggest unanswered question of the film. Namely, “what is Gwyneth Paltrow doing in a comic book movie?”

As previously mentioned, Jeff Bridges is also in attendance. But I already blew his backstory, so we’ll move on.

It’s hard to say what makes this film work while so many other comic book flicks don’t. Characters like Batman and Superman have evolved well beyond their comic roots, and are more of an accepted part of popular culture. I think that’s part of the reason they’re more successful. (Another reason is that “Superman II” is absolutely hilarious). But Iron Man is in more of the X-Men, Fantastic Four category…heroes that non-comic-fans have heard of, but who are still considered comic territory.

Still, the “X-Men” movies were really good, and I didn’t even bother watching the second “Fantastic Four” movie, even though it had Jessica Alba in it. I think a lot of it had to do with story, as in, “X-Men” had a cool one. And so does “Iron Man”. Plus, as I said, it had a bald Jeff Bridges.

So there you go. “Iron Man” is good because it has a good story and a bald bad guy. Well, a bald guy that is eventually revealed to be bad, anyway. Sorry to blow that one again.

“Iron Man” is rated PG-13 for general mayhem, a stripper pole joke, the strangest superhero casting decision since “Michael Keaton as Batman”, and the near-unforgivable act of destroying a replica of the single baddest car of all-time.

Monday, June 02, 2008

An Open Letter to my Facebook Friends

“This aggression will not stand.”
-George Herbert Walker Bush (to Saddam Hussein, 1990)

“This aggression will not stand, man.”
-The Dude (to The Big Lebowski, 1998)

Dear Facebook friends,

There comes a time in a man’s life when he can no longer stand silent in the face of an ongoing travesty. When he can no longer choose pacifism when he is surrounded by unadulterated hatred. When he must speak up to those closest to him and plead for reason, even as his most trusted peers shun basic human logic. I’m speaking, of course, of your Flixter Movie Ratings.

Actually I’m only referring to one of them. One that has continued to baffle me over and over and over. Through the years I’ve come to understand that when it comes to artistic taste, I am, more often than not, in the minority. That’s fine. I know I can’t convert all of you from country music. I know not all of you will dig Ray Bradbury.

But for the love of all that is holy, why do you hate “E.T.” so much?

As I’ve scanned through that little movie rating comparison thing, over and over I’ve seen this movie get consistently low ratings. One star. Maybe two. Doesn’t matter if it’s a girl, a guy, a transvestite, or an inanimate object. Most of you don’t like “E.T.”, and for the life of me I can’t understand why. Hating “E.T.” is like hating puppies.

Have you no souls? Do you not bleed red? I mean, I can understand if you don’t like Wes Anderson’s movies. The humor is dry as day-old toast. In Tooele. But “E.T.”? What’s the problem?

Is it the presence of Drew Barrymore? That can’t be…she filmed “E.T.” when she was still young and innocent, years from saying “I do” to Tom Green and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle”. Back before the drug years, the partying years, and the pre-teen years that followed them.

Does “E.T.” look too funny? That doesn’t work, either. HE’S AN ALIEN. He’s supposed to look funny. If you had been traveling thousands of light years across the galaxy in a giant basketball on a lifelong mission to collect plants, you might look a bit odd, too.

Are you angry because the producers went with Reese’s Pieces instead of M&M’s? Well guess what? M&M’s had their chance, and they said no! That’s right, folks: the geniuses in M&M land looked Steven Spielberg right in the eye, less than a decade after the man directed “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and said “no thanks, we don’t want to sponsor your little alien movie that’s marketed for kids.” Besides…I’ve got news for you…Reese’s Pieces are way better than M&M’s. Way!

Do you have a problem with Steven Spielberg? Come on! “E.T.” was made in the middle of Spielberg’s golden era, when he would still show up on set dressed in nutter shorts and trucker hats, with a gleam in his eye (behind his aviator sunglasses) that seemed to say, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid millions to make movies!” This was when he was young and full of life, long before he decided to go Judas on the Boy Scouts, long before “A.I.”. Give the man a break.

Look, it’s not very often that a movie gets to me anymore, but this one does every time. When I saw it as a kid I dismissed it because I didn’t want to look like a sap. Seriously, I was six years old…what six year old wants to admit he has emotions other than “I must destroy all competition and consume candy”? But now I'm an adult, and secure in my sensitive feelings. I can even hug another man without guardedly slapping his back. “E.T.” brings together the best of Steven Spielberg and John Williams, combining a story that embodied Spielberg’s childhood (meaning the separation of his parents, not the time he met a fat little alien with a cowbell-shaped head) with some of the best music Williams ever wrote.

Really, listen to the theme swoop in when Elliot rides his bike off the cliff, during that one millisecond when the bike lurches forward before ET’s telepathic guidance system kicks in and flies him off into the night, past the moon in that iconic poster shot. Or the emotional rollercoaster of ET dying, then coming back to life and setting off that dramatic bike chase that was every kid’s dream. The chase where the kids were the heroes. This wasn’t Indiana Jones riding a horse, this was a bunch of kids you probably knew from school, racing their bikes against cops so they could rescue the little alien dude that only they seemed to understand.

See, that’s what “E.T.” is really about: kids. Being a kid. Dealing with grown-ups who don’t get you. Connecting with someone who does. Being young. I just don’t see how we can’t relate to that. When I watch Eliot in his darkened bedroom, proudly showing ET his collection of “Star Wars” action figures—because that’s exactly how a kid would introduce an alien to our culture—Eliot is me. I even had the same guys Eliot was showing him—Greedo…Lando…Hammerhead. Maybe it’s just about timing. Maybe you had to be there.

I still don’t buy it, though. If anyone dissed on “E.T.” because they haven’t seen it in years, I say go watch it again. Remember, I gave “The Office” a second chance. If you still hate it, fine. I’ll still be your Facebook friend. At least you tried. Go watch “Titanic” again. But if you decide you love it, then welcome aboard. When it comes to phoning home, this wagon has unlimited minutes.