Thursday, July 31, 2008

An Evening of Cocker Power

I hope that by the time I get to be Joe Cocker's age, I can still scream the way he can. Because I'm pretty sure my next career move is to be a bearded British blue-eyed soul singer.

I caught Joe at the front end of a double-header Wednesday night at Usana Amphitheater with some longtime friends and about 10,000 of Utah's most colorful characters. Since Joe was technically the opening act, he got to play the obligatory "stare into the sun and sing while people walk around aimlessly" role. Kind of sad when you think this was the guy that electrified 400,000 people at Woodstock.

But nearly forty years after that performance, Joe can still deliver the goods. In a set that lasted just over an hour, he played all his favorites, which in most cases were covers. For the uninitiated, Joe Cocker not only built a career off of covering other artists, he built that career by being one of the most original cover artists of all time. Wednesday night he played covers of Traffic's "Feelin' Alright", The Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City", Billy Preston's "You Are So Beautiful", and The Beatles' "Come Together". He also played that duet song from "Officer and a Gentleman": "Up Where We Belong".

This was the second time I've seen Cocker live, and sadly, I think the first round was a bit better. Of course, during that first concert I was on a date with my friend's fiancee, so it was a little more memorable, but the real reason was that the first event was indoors in front of a more attentive audience. Watching Joe in broad daylight while half a dozen middle-aged couples made out on the grass in front of me left something lacking.

The highlight of the performance, just like last time, was Joe's epic performance of "With a Little Help From My Friends" (that song that opens "The Wonder Years"). Technically that one is a cover, too (another Beatles one), but like Aretha Franklin's take on Otis Redding's "Respect", Joe pretty much steals the song. From the initial wandering melody on the Hammond, through the Jimmy Page penned solo line, the passionate call-and-response vocals from Joe and his backup singers, up through the climactic jam where the drummer goes hog wild, "With a Little Help From My Friends" is ten minutes of epic awesomeness.

It helped to have three of my longtime friends with me at the concert. Randy, Breto and "The Other Josh" were in attendance, which is a rare opportunity given that each of them is married with at least two kids. But our advanced age and their advanced social responsibilities didn't stop us from having a blast just like we were in high school again, especially Randy, whose boogie was so infectious that he accidentally lured over one of the dance-happy middle-aged post-hippie women who always show up at these kind of events. She kept trying to dance with us for the rest of the night, and was disappointed when we couldn't keep up with her alcohol-charged enthusiasm.

Most of this dancing took place during the actual headliner of the show, which was The Steve Miller Band. I can't say I'm a huge Steve Miller fan--I've got a song or two--but I can say that he puts on a fun live show. Half the time he was covering old 50's blues numbers, and the highlight for me was when he strapped on a Gibson Flying V and started jamming out a chunk-a-chunk tribute to Bo Diddley, who only died about a month ago.

After Steve and Co. played a psychedelic-charged super jam of "Fly Like an Eagle", those domestic responsibilities kicked in, and we made an early exit. For a moment Breto and I stopped at the top of the grass section and took in the night air for a few seconds, watching all our fellow patrons groove under the stars. The Jazz may be the only act in town that can truly unite all Utahn's, but guys like Steve Miller and Joe Cocker do a pretty good job, too. And it's always nice to have good friends along for the ride.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Making TV is Easy!

I've been producing the KJZZ Cafe for about six months now, so I think it's safe to say I pretty much know all there is to know about TV news. With that in mind, I thought it would be very considerate of me to pass on some of my newly-acquired wisdom, in case any of you ever want to steal my job.

What follows is a simple guide for producing a morning TV show, organized into ten easy steps:

1. Arrive early

The thing that sucks about morning news shows is that they take place in the morning. Therefore, in order to get the show ready to air on time, you have to get to the station really early. Really insanely early. Really "isn't this technically the day before?" early. It would be really nice to just write the Wednesday morning show on Tuesday afternoon, especially when the daily headlines are so predictable ("gas prices suck", "Barack Obama is way awesome", "some guy is walking across _____ to raise awareness for _____"), but that whole "timeliness" thing always gets in the way. Meaning, you never know when the Jazz might make a late afternoon trade for a journeyman point guard.

2. Select quality stories

Your main job as producer is to put together a rundown of the stories you'll cover during the broadcast. For a regular news show, this isn't super hard, because you just repeat a basic cycle, such as:

A. Building fire
B. Shooting
C. Weather
D. Building fire
E. Shooting
F. Weather
G. Fat guy at elementary school

But if you produce a current events show, you have to come up with more thoughtful material. You can still repeat a few of the early stories at the end of the show, since only the criminally insane will watch your entire 2 1/2 hour broadcast, but the quality of the stories has to be at a different level. It helps when you have other people to contribute story ideas; then you just have to judge worthiness instead of waste a lot of time clicking links on the Drudge Report.

For example:

Man wrecks semi on freeway = Lame story

Man wrecks semi while dodging group of vegetarian eco-terrorist Ralph Nader supporters holding seance on freeway = News worth talking about

3. Fill down time

If you've planned ahead, you should have a window of time after you've finished the rundown, but before any of the anchors arrive for your editorial meeting. If you haven't planned ahead, you probably dragged yourself into the station two hours late because you figured if you hung around the previous night's party long enough you would get a good chance at getting the blonde's phone number, and you didn't, and you overslept, and now you have to come up with a creative way of explaining to your news director why your rundown looks suspiciously like yesterday's lineup on E! News.

But if you did manage to preserve a window, you have some time to fill. Here are some constructive options:

A. Get a jump on writing your stories
B. Meditate
C. Update your Facebook profile
D. Make prank phone calls
E. Visit the Master Control people on their smoke breaks
F. Jog naked through the cavernous, empty hallways of the KJZZ studios

4. Hold editorial meeting

Once the news director and anchors arrive, it's time to gather everyone together and help them try to wake up. If the majority of your team are non-coffee drinking Mormons, the best way to do this is to provide energy drinks and the latest ACLU itinerary. In the editorial meeting, you present your rundown and make assignments for different stories. Sometimes one of the anchors will suggest doing a different story that they feel passionate about. As producer, it is your responsibility to listen with an open mind to all suggestions, nod thoughtfully, then go ahead with what you planned to do in the first place. If your news director suggests a change, your responsibility is to make a nasty face and obey begrudgingly, thus preserving both your job and your image as a stubborn journalist.

5. Write stuff

Once you've broken down the show and made all the assignments, it's time to get down to business. Here the newsroom becomes a hive of activity as anchors, interns, associate producers and groupies shuffle back and forth around a cluster of low-rise cubicles, printing scripts, running video orders, and deciding what ties look best with blue shirts.

If you've done a good job of making writing assignments, this part of the day should be a lot of fun for you; as producer, you have first call of what you want to write, and thus it's your own stupid fault if you don't give everyone else the crap stories. Your job should consist of writing clever teases, crazy kicker stories, and looking up funny videos on YouTube. Let the anchors write the boring economic stories; that's the trade-off for getting a clothing allowance. At the same time, don't be afraid to challenge yourself. If you can get an anchor to read a gushing praise of Barry Manilow one day, see if you can get them to read a quote from P-Funk pioneer George Clinton the next day.

Since you are not on the air in most situations, this is your opportunity to put your own signature on the show. This can be done in a variety of ways:

A. Insert clever inside catch phrases that will be recognized by family and friends.
B. Reference personal obsessions like William Shatner and "Baywatch".
C. Use running gags, like tagging stories with clips of radioactive spiders and the Bat Child.
D. Have the anchors reference your personal blog on a regular basis.
E. Hang your tasteful oil paintings on the wall behind the anchor desk.

6. Visit editing guys

Another dynamic of your job is to keep track of the video assignments and make sure the requested clips are ordered and produced. Video tends to be an important part of a news broadcast, as most people feel that watching the same talking head for ninety minutes straight tends to fall on the boring side, no matter how pretty or surgically-enhanced that face might be. Therefore, it is usually a good idea to wander back to the editing room every half hour or so to check progress. Always be considerate and offer to help the editors with whatever they need. Of course, since you have no idea how to edit, you should also pray that nothing serious happens. And when they do tell you about problems, nod thoughtfully again, then go tell the news director.

7. Get Focused

Producing live television is a serious business. You can't just walk in off the street and expect to be any good at it. It's not like networks just grab random English teachers and tell them to produce the morning news. If you want to be ready for the big time, you need to prepare yourself mentally, physically, and spiritually. A good producer knows how to bring his/her total self into balance and harmony, for even though he/she is not in front of the camera, he/she must perform just the same. The best way to do this is to duck out of the newsroom about a half hour before air time and take a nap on a couch somewhere.

8. Stay awake during broadcast

A typical morning newscast will last anywhere between two hours and three hours, and after staying up all night getting the show ready, there is a high risk of dozing off, even on live television. While everyone on the set is sweating and nervous under lighting systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars, you are cooling your heels in the back room, staring at a wall-full of TV monitors. When these monitors are telling you about a housing crisis at 6:30am, sleep is usually a preferable option. To keep sharp, bring a pocket Yahtzee game for entertainment, or text some close friends about your current relationship struggles. Or you could just keep track of how many times the director swears at the cameramen in sixty seconds.

Once the show goes on the air, the Producer becomes more of a manager, and even more of a timekeeper. It is your responsibility to make sure that the segments finish on time so you can get all the commercials in. You have a big ugly headset that is plugged into little earphones that the anchors wear, so you can tell them to hurry up or to fill time or to stop saying things that are going to get you sued. You can also talk to them while they are trying to read the TelePrompter, then laugh quietly at the funny faces they make.

9. Expect the waste matter to impact the motorized wind circulator

When you're putting together your rundown, you will make a deliberate effort to organize the stories and the timing to produce a broadcast that will be tight and sharp. Special care will be taken to design a show that can run with flawless precision, with stories that flow logically from topic to topic and allow for effective execution behind the scenes. This, of course, will never actually happen.

Plan on encountering at least one obscene catastrophe to occur during each broadcast, along with 4-5 minor catastrophes. One of the toughest, yet most important, responsibilities as producer is to learn to make quick decisions on your feet, because in live TV, you can't just yell "cut" and go for a second take. Well, technically I guess you could, but it would look funny, and you probably couldn't convince your news director that it was a deliberate reflexive postmodern commentary on the self-aware nature of contemporary media. No, it is not a question of whether something will go wrong, it is only a question of when.

Here are some of the crazy things you can expect over the course of a broadcast:

Guest arrives late

On the one hand, having guests on set means you have less to fill in the rundown. On the other hand, having guests on set means you risk some unexpected act of God--like an earthquake or road construction--delaying your up-and-coming psychic romance novelist for a half hour, then an additional fifteen minutes because she couldn't remember whether she was going to be on KJZZ or FOX (whose studio is conveniently located across the street), while in the meantime you juggle half your script and frantically try to rearrange story-specific block teases until she safely arrives for a three-minute interview which your audience never hears because the battery in the guest microphone died thirty seconds in.

Guest wanders into set background and stares vacantly at camera ten minutes before his segment is to air

Not that this has ever happened...

Major tape comes up missing

Sometimes, in spite of the best of efforts, vital video clips and even full story packages will go missing. Orders don't get turned in, orders get misplaced, orders get stolen by magical bearded gnome mercenaries hired by rival networks. Often you will catch these omissions early and give the editing guys plenty of time to re-cut or get a new tape. More often, you will hear the director say something like, "no tape" approximately 3.2 seconds before you are to air said tape.

Here are a few more gems to keep an eye out for:

Tape runs, but includes tasty bit of profanity editors forgot to censor
Peripheral cast member disappears microseconds before cue
Anchor explodes
SWAT team enters building

10. Hold post-mortem meeting/Plan next day

Congratulations! You've made it through the broadcast. Now it's time to gather in all your co-workers and listen to lots and lots of complaining in the post-show wrap meeting. Here you offer constructive criticism, occasional praise, and bribes for anyone willing to sabotage the set so you can have a week off. If you have time, you can also plan for the next day's show, assuming you still have jobs the next day.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stalker Songs and Pseudo-Hippies

Just before 10:30 Saturday night, as a yellow moon rose over the horizon in the east, Andy Summers stood alone onstage at the Usana Amphitheater and beckoned his bandmates out for one more encore. Finally, as the cheering and clapping persisted, Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland emerged to send us off into the night with "Next to You", one of their very first numbers as The Police, from thirty years ago.

Granted, it was a bit strange to listen to 90 minutes worth of romantic angst from a guy who could probably woo any woman on the planet inside of sixty seconds, but that's just part of the charm of The Police. Aside from all those cool reggae beats and repetitive choruses, you had simple songs about pent-up romantic frustration, and we can always relate to that.

I was too young to get into The Police when they made their initial run to glory. Unlike most of my favorite bands, who had either broken up or had one key member die of a drug overdose long before I was born, The Police were around and in their prime during my youth, even if I only knew Sting as that guy with the funny hair who wore the inflatable speedo in "Dune". It wasn't until I had gone through my initial Beatles phase that I went back and began to discover some of the music that was playing on the radio while I was playing with my GI Joe's. The Police were another one of those bands I never thought I'd get to see, but like with Simon and Garfunkel, life surprises you sometimes. Ever since the Red Sox won the series, all bets are off, I guess.

The opening act Saturday night was Elvis Costello, a contemporary of Sting and Co. who had the unfortunate role of starting his set with the sun in his face while several thousand concertgoers were still wandering around getting their first beers. Maybe he wanted to get it over with, or maybe he's just a really cool guy, but in a dramatic reversal of every concert I've ever been to, Costello walked on stage five minutes EARLY and kicked off a 45-minute set that featured all his big hits like, "Radio, Radio", "Walking the Detectives", and "What's So Funny (About Love and Understanding)". Either way, my appreciation for the 1970's Buddy Holly look-a-like was bumped up a notch.

About a half hour after Costello wrapped up, Stewart Copeland ran out on stage wearing white gloves and a huge vintage 80's headband and started pounding on his 6-foot gong like a junior high band student. Then Sting and Summers emerged, and the band whipped into "Message in a Bottle". The whole concert, including encores, only lasted about an hour and a half, but that was more than enough time to squeeze in the greatest hits lineup of a band that was only together for about six years. They covered the big ones like "Roxanne" and "Every Breath You Take" (the coolest song ever about stalking someone) with all the requisite energy and stage lighting. I was also happy that they chose to avoid doing a lot of post-Police solo material from the Sting camp. Unlike many of my peers, I prefer the energy of speedo-era Sting to the guy that started hanging around with Elton John and Princess Di.

But that's just me.

This was also my first visit to Usana, which was a refreshing change from Energy Solutions Arena. The sound wasn't immaculate or anything, but it was more than sufficient to remind me of why I love songs like "Can't Stand Losing You" and "Don't Stand So Close To Me", and the venue itself is a very cool place to see a show. I saw The Who in Houston several years ago in a similar amphitheater, and the crowds of people packed onto grass give the events a kind of Woodstock feel, only with about 500,000 fewer people.

Then again, I don't think a lot of the hippies at Woodstock tucked their tye-dye T-shirts into Docker shorts, and they certainly didn't blow a lot of money wasting their time on $5 beers. The cute brunette on the row in front of me did look a little hippie-ish, but even she was wearing a CamelBak, so there you go.

For several months now I have been hearing about how rotten the traffic is at Usana, mostly because there is really only one road in and out of the venue, and partly because any time you get more than five Utah drivers in one spot you have utter chaos. But even though I probably wasted about four dollars worth of gas idling my way across the fifty yards I needed to get out of the parking lot, the total travel time wasn't so bad overall. Which is good, because I'm heading out there again to see Joe Cocker and the Steve Miller Band next week.

Yep, overall Sting, Stewart and Andy turned in a fine performance, and they even remembered to shout out the name of the right city every once in a while. With all the crap we put up with from NBA free agents, it's nice to have some rock and rollers come and make us Utahn's feel cool every once in a while. Plus I was reminded that Sting used to be a school teacher, which is another thing I have in common with him besides raw sex appeal.

Now if only I were a better bass player...

The Dark Knight takes a Back Seat

The Dark Knight
3 1/2 stars out of 4

The highest compliment I can pay "The Dark Knight" is to say that Heath Ledger made me want to act again. As much as I love Jack Nicholson's turn as The Joker in 1989's "Batman", I'm afraid Mr. "Here's Johnny" just got his behind handed to him with extreme prejudice.

At the same time, Ledger's performance as the Joker might also be "The Dark Knight's" tragic flaw; it's so overwhelming you forget that there is anyone else in the movie. And aside from a few exceptions, few of the other actors do much to make their presences felt.

Christian Bale's Batman may take a backseat to Ledger everytime they're on screen together, but at least he's got plenty of cool action scenes to keep him busy. Gary Oldman does a great job playing an understated Commissioner Gordon, but that's actually kind of sad, considering Oldman's talent (see "The Professional") and the number of crazy characters in the Batman universe he could have played. The most disposable character of all is Maggie Gyllenhall's Rachel Dawes, who doesn't have much of anything to do, yet is supposed to be one of the prime motivations behind the events of the film's third act.

But in a movie like this, a few underused characters don't make a huge difference. Overall "The Dark Knight" was a blast. Unlike some recent films (Indy 4!) the action was incredible without being unbelievable, the acting was fantastic, the story/plot was a lot of fun, and the movie was packed with the kind of memorable moments that separate the great movies from the throwaway ones. Let's just say the first act features the best use of a writing utensil since John Cusack got that pen from the lawyer in "Grosse Pointe Blank".

Still, any long-term evaluation of this movie is going to start and end with Heath Ledger's Joker. People have asked me if I thought his performance is magnified because of his death earlier this year. It's not. It didn't need it. And that makes it all the more sad that the guy died. I'll be the first to admit that I was skeptical when I first heard that he was cast; to me he was just the "Knight's Tale" guy. Now I know better.

That being said, people should know that Ledger what is doing such a great job of is portraying a fully depraved merciless sociopath. This is one dark movie. Little kids shouldn't see it (that's what that PG-13 is for, remember?). Jack Nicholson's Joker was definitely a bad guy, but as macabre as Tim Burton is, he's not nearly as dark as you'd think. Nicholson's character was comic in a quirky way; Ledger's is comic in an unsettling way.

A lot of this comes from what has made the new Batman movies so effective. They are a deliberate attempt to portray a superhero scenario in a real-life context. Everything that happens is connected to some kind of plausible reality. There are no unexplained super-powers. Everything unfolds as it would in the real world. That's why it's so jarring; there's no surreal gloss to separate you from the story. It's unquestionably real. Unfortunately, it also makes Batman look a little silly whenever he shows up in the light of day, because, well, he's some dude standing around in a bat outfit in the light of day.

But like the Tim Burton movies, these new Batman films also draw their audience by playing the outsider card. These are movies about misfits, and few of us have never felt like misfits before. Granted, we don't all dress in black and wear eyeliner to the opening of "Nightmare Before Christmas", but the outsider oddball theme isn't a hard one to sell to a broad audience. These may not be characters to aspire to, but they are easy to relate to.

Or maybe I'm just really screwed up.

"The Dark Knight" is rated PG-13 for lots and lots of brutal (but not bloody) violence, some extremely morbid makeup (and not just The Joker), the pain of watching a Lamborghini get totaled, and one seriously ill-tempered pencil.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Axis: Bold as Hate

A couple of weeks ago, North Korea decided to blow up its big cooling tower to show the world that they aren't trying to build nuclear weapons anymore. Now, we'll set aside the question of whether Kim and the Jong Il's are lying, and assume for the sake of argument that this move is sincere. So where does that leave the Axis of Evil?

With North Korea going anti-Nuke, does that officially take them off the bad guy list? Iraq obviously can't be in the Axis anymore, and that just leaves Iran. So should we promote Cuba or Florida to fill the open spots? Or should we come up with another way to categorize our mortal enemies?

I'm inclined to think we should stick with the Axis concept, as it is easy to remember and sounds really cool. Plus you can apply it to other aspects of our day-to-day life. For example, in professional sports, the Axis of Evil is made up of the New York Yankees, the Oakland Raiders, and the Los Angeles Lakers. In corporate America, you have Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and McDonald's. In the Game Show Host division, you have Regis Philbin, Alex Trebek, and Pat Sajak.

I brought up this whole Axis of Evil question with a couple of my friends, and we ran into a problem. Namely, does every axis always have to have three members? Because in mathematics, an axis only consists of a line between two points. A construct of three points would be a plane, and a construct of 26.9 would constitute the scoring average of Hakeem Olajuwon for the 1995-96 season. But the expression "Plane of Evil" doesn't work, unless you're talking about US Airways Airlines. So wouldn't a true Axis of Evil be just two bad guys? Wouldn't that be more of a "Tandem Bike of Evil"?

Yet there still seems to be some significance to the trio concept. When Christopher Reeve fought the super-villains in "Superman II", there were three of them. Rocky Balboa fought Apollo Creed, Mr. T and Ivan Drago before the series officially entered La-La Land. The Karate Kid fought Johnny, Mike Barnes, and that Howard Cosell guy from "Better Off Dead". I went on three dates in 1999.

The last three movies I rented at RedBox have been super lame, and I returned all three without finishing them. So does that mean that if I rent the Owen Wilson vehicle "Drillbit Taylor", I will automatically enjoy it because I have already passed the three-item threshold, even though the New York Times says it is a, "ploddingly directed...lazily written...diffuse collection of second-hand gags and jokes"? I'd certainly like to think so.

But maybe I'm looking at this all wrong. Maybe I should just be happy that two of the three nations President Bush named to the Axis have gone inactive, and cross my fingers that Iran will decide to be more like Canada, and just do weird stuff like sell decaffinated Mountain Dew. Maybe, in his old age, Fidel Castro will realize that Communism is really not the way, and will tell his brother Raul to open a McDonald's in Havana while retaining the rights to his iconic beard. Maybe the day will come when all nations will join hands, forget our differences, and eliminate modern country music from the public sphere. Maybe, like Rodney King hoped, we can all just get along.


Not as long as Kim Jong Il keeps wearing that leisure suit. And I'm not making peace with nobody till Jordan apologizes for pushing off Russell in the '98 Finals.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Chicago 2008, Vol. VII: Going Out in a Taze of Glory...Almost

Now that I've been home for nearly three weeks, I may as well wrap this epic up...

Randy is one of the few people who have known me long enough to make informed observations about my behavior. For example, about five years ago he pointed out to me that I have a peculiar habit of ordering chicken fingers every time we go out to eat. Or at least I did at the time. Because once he pointed it out, I became self-conscious about it, and stopped.

On the trip, during candid (and solicited) conversation, Randy also mentioned my habit of dictating itineraries, which I already sort of gathered. So I went out of my way to let him pick the last place we ate out at, and was rewarded with some all-time top five jumbo shrimp at Petterino's. Here's to letting other people decide things once in a while.

Another observation Dr. Randy made was that I am easily agitated sometimes. This is going to strike some people as funny, because I can come across as so laid back most of the time. But that's just because I'm not agitated. Randy got a perfect front-seat view of this little phenomenon when he and Breto and I took a road trip to Yellowstone and I got a speeding ticket in Afton, Wyoming for trying to race a Buick with my '83 Honda.

Speeding ticket = Josh agitated.

Sad to say, Randy got to see Josh get agitated yet again on the trip home, but ironically, his presence stopped my agitation from becoming anything more serious, like an airport tazing. Allow me to explain...

By the time Randy and I boarded our tasteful Chevy HH2 and departed from Freeport on Sunday afternoon, it was clear that it was time to wrap up the trip. The trip was awesome, but at some point you realize it is time to go home. Unfortunately, US Airways didn't feel the same way. When we made it to our gate at O'Hare in preparation for our departing flight to Las Vegas, we learned that our airplane would be delayed by three hours. I should have known the speedy cruise through security was too good to be true.

A delay by itself was no big deal, if not for the fact that we had to grab a connecting flight out of Vegas to get back to Salt Lake. And a three hour wait in Chicago would effectively kill that connection. Which is why shortly after arriving at our gate, we heard someone get on the PA and tell anyone who was planning on connecting in Vegas to come back to the front desk for rebooking.

Cue Stage One of Josh's agitation.

As we hustled back through security, Randy and I tried to think positively, hoping that maybe we would wind up rebooked on a direct flight for later that evening that might prove more convenient than our original itinerary. But that hope was effectively muted as the guy at the front desk repeatedly shook his head and muttered things like, "you don't want that" and "that won't do you any good" as he scanned his monitor and typed away at his keyboard.

It was beginning to look like we would be stuck until morning. Randy was tired enough to accept fate. I, on the other hand, was determined to preserve the special day off I'd set aside before returning to my graveyard shift at KJZZ.

Then...a break. Somehow the front desk guy came up with a solution: there was an American Airlines flight leaving in one hour that had two available spots he could transfer us to. But he didn't have enough time to complete the full transaction, so he gave us a partial printout and told us to hustle over to the American terminal and have them finish the deal so we could make the flight.

Keep in mind that we have already checked our bags onto our original US Airways flight...

So Randy and I busted a move outside and next door to the American terminal. I hate running with a backpack on, because it bounces around a lot and makes you look like a goober, even if you usually look totally awesome in running stance like I do.

Over at American, Randy and I got in line, frantically looking at our phones to see how much time we had left. About forty-five minutes. Somehow we made it through the line without our heads exploding and stepped up in front of an American Airlines employee in an old Sammy Sosa Cubs jersey. By the look on her face, we could tell she wasn't very interested in helping a pair of faithful Priesthood holders with their rush transaction. Then she got a worse look on her face when she looked at our print out, and after criticizing the US Airways guy for not knowing what he was doing, she demanded that we return to the other terminal and get him to finish the transaction, transferring the proper dollar amount so she could print our boarding passes.

Enter Stage Two of Josh's agitation.

Instead of have both of us sprint over again with our overloaded backpacks, Randy left me and his pack behind and took off like a bolt of lightning back to the US Airways terminal. I stayed behind, looming to the side of Cubs Lady's kiosk, glaring at her and coming up with creative ways of serving her with vegetables if cannibalism ever became a necessity.

Around this time, as I watched Randy sprint away, knowing he now had the full line of displaced Vegas passengers in front of him at the US Airways terminal, I figured we were toast. We'd picked up a glimmer of hope when we learned that the flight we were shooting for had been delayed by an extra 25 minutes, but even that felt like it wouldn't be enough. If Cubs Lady could have helped, we could have made it. Now we were going to be stuck. Plus we were going to have to go wait in that dumb US Airways line to get booked for another flight out tomorrow as well.

But then...a break. Somehow Randy came flying back across the terminal with a brand new print out in his hand, one that actually had the necessary info. Plus, he was carrying our checked bags. Yep...somehow Randy had managed to accost the US Airways manager guy, fix our transfer, run down the stairs to the baggage loader, get our bags back, and make it over to the American terminal in about fifteen minutes.

We were back in business, even though Cubs Lady finished our transaction like it was causing her physical pain. I don't know, maybe she was suffering from some kind of government implant that was giving her electric shocks in her kidneys or something. Finally she printed our new boarding passes and with about a half hour to go, we dashed away over to the security check, which by some miracle didn't have a substantial line.

There was only one problem. My boarding pass was for some guy named Bob who was flying into Los Angeles. The last Sosa fan in Chicago had printed up the wrong boarding pass.

At this point I jumped past Agitation Stage Three and went right on to about Six.

I wanted to run back and impale Cubs Lady with one of the boot shoes Randy bought at the Guess Store. But I couldn't do that. Instead, Randy told me to zip over to the self-serve kiosk and print off a new boarding pass, since in theory my name should still be on the transferred ticket. So I dropped my bags at the head of the security line and ducked under the ropes to go to the kiosk.

There was only one problem. I had absolutely no idea how to get the thing to print off a new boarding pass, and Randy was still back in the Security line. Enter Stage Seven.

I started sticking Bob's boarding pass under the scanner in a blind effort to get something magical to happen. Nothing did. I hit random buttons on the touch screen to see if something magical would happen. Nothing did. Then I heard a voice from behind me.

"Sir, you can't leave your luggage unattended."

I ignored the voice and kept sticking Bob's boarding pass under the kiosk scanner. Of course, nothing happened. Stage Eight.

"Sir, you have to come and get your luggage."

Stage Ten.

OK, I would love to say that I suddenly found my composure and was able to regroup my thoughts in an honorable and upstanding manner. Maybe someday I will be able to do that. This was not that day. Let's just say nothing coming out of my mouth at that point could be used in any keynote addresses, Sacrament Meeting talks, or John Denver sing-a-longs. It did, however, perfectly illustrate my reaction to the security guy's suspicion that I was planning to blow up O'Hare International Airport with a small tub of exfoliating soap.

I stormed over past the security guy, grabbed my bags, ducked back under the nylon stretchy divider things, and slammed them to the ground at the foot of the kiosk. Here is where Randy's presence really helped out. While I continued to glare at the kiosk and deliberate whether my best option was to rip it out of the ground and use it to kill the Cubs Lady, Randy assured the security guys that there was no reason for them to remove their tazers from their holsters.

"Really guys," he said, "Josh is a pretty mellow guy most of the time."

Then...a break. If this story were Cinderella, and I suddenly had a thing for glass slippers, then my fairy godmother would be the old fellow that came up next to me and offered to help run the kiosk. I managed to downgrade to Stage Eight and communicate my name and destination, and he was able to successfully punch up my itinerary on his terminal.

There was only one problem. You couldn't print up a boarding pass less than forty minutes before a flight.

Stage Nine.

As I went back over to security--bags in hand, of course--to tell Randy that he had to come back and that we were finished, the old man wandered over to another computer. It was now time to contemplate our need to return to US Airways and get a morning flight, and a hotel to crash at for the coming evening.

Then...a break. The old guy came back with a boarding pass in his hand. It had my name on it. It had my destination on it. And we had fifteen minutes before our plane left the tarmac.

But before we went through security, we had to clear out all the liquid and goo stuff from our bags...the ones we had checked through US Airways but had to take as carry-on's through American. Randy lost some expensive eye lotion made from salt taken from the Dead Sea. I lost some hand lotion I picked up for my sister from the same place. I also lost a practically full bottle of sunblock that smelled like banana popsicles, and enjoyed so much I considered applying it even on cloudy days.

And so we moved on to security, which by some miracle had no line. No one tazed me on the way through, though I'm sure they wanted to. I considered telling them that I was now down to Agitation Stage Three, but I didn't figure that would help. I just pulled off my shoes, dumped all my crap in the little plastic bins and made a mental note to buy my sister some hand lotion online when I got home.

There was only one problem...Randy's bag got flagged.

Apparently the airport X-Ray had picked up a curious star-shaped object in Randy's bag, and the security folks decided that they needed to open the bag up and rub a little dust cloth on it to make sure it wasn't a nuclear bomb. What it was was a cheap promotional metal clock that eBay had given him at one of his seller appreciation events.

When they finally turned over Randy's now nuke-safe bag, we had ten minutes to get to our gate, which was at the extreme far end of the left wing of the terminal, about a quarter-mile away.

You ever see those scenes in the movies where people are running frantically through a terminal towards their gate, dodging carts and bags and kids, praying the doors don't close and leave them stranded? That was me. Only I did it for real. And I looked a lot cooler doing it.

After a one-hour stretch that nearly saw a full public meltdown, I was suddenly granted one of those thrilling vista things that President Hinckley used to talk about. As I flew down that corridor, side-stepping travelers and motorized carts and little kids, I felt like an NFL running back on overdrive...only sped up to about 3X speed. I can't really describe how fluid and speedy my flight was, cutting and dodging and accelerating, only to say that it was truly exhilirating, and it almost made the whole thing worth it. The only hang-up was that my backpack kept coming unzipped, threatening to dump my cargo in one final stab at my agitated soul.

But it didn't happen. Not this time.

With sweat pouring down my forehead and Randy only a few steps behind me, I rushed up to my gate and thrust my boarding pass into the hands of the lady standing at the terminal, hoping she could still turn around and open the locked door behind her.

"Actually," she said, "we haven't started boarding yet."

For a second I wasn't sure what she meant. Then I found out that they were still waiting for a stewardess from another flight to come over and join their crew. The huge crowd of people standing a few feet behind me, some of whom I nearly knocked over as I burst through the front lines to dive at the gate desk, were my fellow passengers. The lady handed me back my boarding pass, and Randy and I shuffled off to the side to wait for the other stewardess to arrive.

Four hours later, Randy and I were pulling our bags through the long term parking lot at the Salt Lake Airport, looking for the green pickup we'd abandoned only a few days before. It was about 11pm on Sunday night. According to our original itinerary, with the Vegas stop over and connecting flight, we were supposed to land in Salt Lake at 2:30am on Monday.

We'd picked up almost four hours. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. To feel grateful or to feel guilty. To acknowledge the hand of divinity or curse the people who tried so hard to thwart it. All I knew was I was dictating the itinerary again.

So I just went home.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

10 Desperados

One of my favorite "Seinfeld" episodes is the one where Elaine dates the guy who goes into a trance whenever the Eagles' "Desperado" comes on the radio. The song is so moving, you see. He gets all angry whenever anyone tries to disturb the moment, and when Elaine tries to come up with a song they can share (like "Witchy Woman" or "Oye Como Va", he refuses to accept it. Because, you know, you just can't fabricate an experience like "Desperado".

That episode nearly ruined "Desperado" for me and nearly every other self-aware person who doesn't hate the Eagles anyway (as much as I love The Dude, I have to begrudgingly admit that I do like a handful of Eagle tracks). But luckily Jerry Seinfeld didn't make a whole series of different versions of this episode that would ruin all the other songs that inspire similar trances. Here, then, are a few of my "Desperado's".


1. "A Change is Gonna Come", Sam Cooke

I've already acknowledged that Sam Cooke may possess my favorite singing voice of all-time, which makes it all the more tragic that he was shot and killed back in December of 1964. The fact that he was murdered doesn't make this song any more poignant, because frankly, it doesn't need anything to make it more poignant. This song is amazing. Some people call it the greatest Soul song ever recorded. I think that's kind of limiting.


2. "Tiny Dancer", Elton John

Great example of context and timing. I heard this song for the first time while watching one of the best scenes in "Almost Famous", during a time in my life when I could have used a sappy singalong on a bus. That being said, it's hard to get the full impact without watching the whole movie, but the song holds up pretty much on its own, too. Even though it was written by the guy in the duck suit.


3. "Someone to Watch Over Me", Katie & Friends

Can't post a YouTube clip of this one. Yet. I'm sure there are great versions out there, but posting any of them would be an injustice to the hands-down winner, which my sister Katie sang for her Junior recital a few years back with her friend Mel and a trumpet player named Jeremy Lundberg. And if anyone accuses me of saying that just because my sister is singing it, I dare you to listen to it. I do have it. You will eat those words.


4. "All the Young Dudes", Mott the Hoople

With a little help from David Bowie, Mott the Hoople became one of Glam Rock's most celebrated one-hit wonders. This song contains the line "Is that concrete all around, or is it in my head?" that I use to lead this blog. Not much more I need to say.


5. "Don't Dream it's Over", Crowded House

It kind of bugs me that they used this song in a Stephen King mini-series when Molly Ringwald and the guy from "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" are trying to remember their lives before the apocalypse, but even that can't diminish the impact of this song. Just don't click on the video for "Something So Strong" afterwards. At least not right away. You want to be able to enjoy this one for a while first.


6. "Where Did I Go Wrong With You", Martin Sexton

Strangely enough, I was introduced to Martin Sexton while playing with that Neil Diamond cover band up in Logan. When we all got tired of playing Neil's tunes (correction: when THEY got tired...I love playing Neil tunes), someone from the audience requested "Glory Bound". As much as I love "Glory Bound", "Where Did I Go Wrong With You" is almost more powerful. Seems like a perfect song to play around the holidays. Probably because Martin mentions a Christmas carol in it.


7. "Vienna", Billy Joel

As my sister can tell you, most of the time I don't judge songs by their lyrics. Most of the time I don't even know what the lyrics are (I listed "Jumping Jack Flash" as my favorite song ever for about ten years before I finally found out what all the lyrics in the last verse were. Luckily they weren't telling me to worship Satan or anything). But "Vienna" is an exception. It's almost like Billy Joel is connecting to me personally, inasmuch as the guy who wrote "Uptown Girl" can. In fact, "Vienna" is more than enough to justify eliminating "Uptown Girl" from existence.


8. "One", U2

I'll be the first to admit that the first time I saw the video for "With or Without You", I thought Bono was a pony-tailed pansy and dismissed him and his Irish buddies immediately. But after hearing "One" for the first time, I flip-flopped firmly into the U2 camp. Of course, you can't take my initial rejection too seriously. It came during the same phase of life when I had a Paula Abdul poster on my wall.


9. "You Can't Always Get What You Want", The Rolling Stones

The closest thing I have to a specific context for this song is when they played it over the funeral scene at the beginning of "The Big Chill", one of those movies that has an awesome soundtrack then shocks you years later when you finally are old enough to figure out the message it's sending about surrogate parenting. It became even more poignant when years later, another Stones song came on the radio while driving to my grandmother's funeral earlier this year ("Shine a Light"). But even without all that, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is one of those great ones that combines a killer message with an inspiring, almost overpowering sound. This is one of those songs I point to as evidence that the Stones were abducted by aliens after 1975; there's no way the same guys that wrote this are the same people touring now (it would also disqualify that annoying airplane story that I keep hearing about Mick). When the organ jumps in intensity and the boys choir elevates during the last passage of the song, you've got yourself a little piece of rock and roll heaven.


10. "God Only Knows", The Beach Boys

This may be just about the most beautiful song I have ever heard, and not just because I'm glad that "Run, Run Rudolph" wasn't the only time The Beach Boys used sleigh bells in a song. Nope, this song just brings it, every time, and especially when they played it at the end of the "Wonder Years" episode at the moment Kevin finds out that Winnie Cooper is dating another guy at her new junior high. I especially love the stories about how Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys held prayer sessions during the recording because they wanted it to be a spiritual song. Yep, prayer sessions. Kind of encouraging to hear that about a band now and then.

(Admittedly, the YouTube videos I picked for this piece don't always do the songs justice, especially when it's a live version or lifted from a movie clip. You should really just go to iTunes and download them all. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Chicago 2008, Vol. VI: The Photo Essay

My trip to Chi-Town was the first real testing ground for the Canon 40d I picked up a month ago. For the camera-uninitiated, the 40d is a really nice entry-level professional camera that is totally over my head. Seriously, I was afraid to shoot with the thing for the first week because I thought I was unworthy.

Luckily, Chicago loosened me up, and here are a few of the highlights from the trip, as seen through the eye of my magic lens:

Here are a pair of Chicago's most celebrated landmarks, The Sears Tower and Buckingham Fountain. This was actually the first time I'd ever seen the fountain up close. It is quite a bit larger than I expected. From this angle, the Tower doesn't look that huge, but if you back off the skyline several miles, you see how much taller than everything else it really is. Super cool-looking building, that Sears Tower.

Most of what I saw in the eBay Live! convention was pretty conventional, for lack of a better term. But one striking image was the setup for the morning keynote address (the one everyone tried to leave halfway through). From the back of this huge warehouse-room, it really looked like some kind of Big Brother affair, with lots of monitors and dramatic lighting. I'm pretty happy with the way this one came out. The mood actually comes through pretty accurately.

The mood doesn't come through as strongly with this shot, mostly because of this stupid swath of sunlight that cuts through the middle of the wall (first lesson of photography: timing is everything). Still, this super-huge painting on the side of Harry Caray's Restaurant is too classic not to post. (Again, for the uninitiated, Harry Caray was the longtime play-by-play man for the Chicago Cubs up at Wrigley Field. And yes, he had a reputation for "enjoying" his job.)

On the other hand, this shot is a great example of both timing and luck. I didn't bring a tripod along, which makes it next to impossible to get a decent "motion" shot. (Usually your hand shakes too much and everything gets blurred). But somehow I managed to keep the bridge in focus while nailing whatever kind of car that is slashing through the frame.

This is one of the newer Chicago landmarks, a huge reflective art piece up in Millenium Park that the locals have dubbed "The Bean". I don't even know what it's really called, all I know is that it makes for some sweet photographs.

Another motion shot, this one was taken out at Navy Pier during a two-hour period where I was panicking because I had forgotten to put any sunblock on the top of my head. In case anyone is wondering, there is no place to buy sunblock at the pier itself. Hopefully this shot was worth sunburning my dome for a day or two.

I really like the mood of this one. Taken over by the Water Tower (reportedly the only building that survived the legendary Chicago fire of 1871, which was started by Mrs. O'Leary's cow), there aren't any real landmarks in it. I just liked the shadow of the trees on the sidewalk and such.

The Hancock Building is the second-tallest skyscraper on the Windy City skyline next to Sears, coming in at 100 stories tall. Two years ago I visited the observatory on the 94th floor. They've got this section that isn't glassed in where you can feel the wind. Pretty freaky...especially for a guy who isn't keen on heights.

Another lucky one, since I didn't plan on keeping Eddie in focus while letting his drummer get blurry. Come on, why would I ever intentionally blur out the drummer? I like the mood in this one too, though it reminds me that I should have taken my camera to the Blue Chicago, too. Dang.

The tough thing about shooting skyscrapers is keeping them in the frame, but it also has the side effect of creating some interesting shots if you mess with the angles. The building on the right is one of the Marina Towers, these corn cob looking things that have open-air parking for the first twenty stories or so. Kind of cool, I guess, though you really need to be careful when you back into your spot.

This may be my favorite shot of the whole trip. No one will every pay big money for a print, but you can't deny the charm, baby. I have no idea who these guys are. They just walked through my frame when I was trying to do motion shots of the swing ride (as you can tell by the blur in the upper left corner), and when they jumped back out of the way, I invited them in for a little immortality. Obviously they were up for the opportunity. I didn't get their names, but maybe if fate has a hand in it, I will be able to eat at Giordano's with them someday.