Friday, October 31, 2008

My evening among the sensitive bearded men...

I expected a lot of things from the Ray LaMontagne concert Tuesday night, but I didn't expect to have high school flashbacks. I saw more flannel and plaid last Tuesday night than I've seen since Kurt Cobain was still alive. But instead of depressed crowd-surfing grunge freaks, the crowd at Saltair were super-mellow, at about a 2 to 1 bearded-to-non-bearded ratio (referring to the men, of course...the bearded female .003 to 1, and that gal might have just been a dude with unfortunately soft locks.)

Of course, Ray himself is a sensitive bearded plaid-wearing guy, so it would make sense that the crowd would reflect his look. That leads us to the obvious question: do people like Ray LaMontagne because he's a sensitive bearded guy, or do people grow beards so they can be more like Ray LaMontagne?

I myself have sported a smashing beard from time to time, as the accompanying photo will attest, but that doesn't really matter, because what gets me about Ray LaMontagne is his voice. From the moment he took the stage and started into "You Are The Best Thing", right through for an hour and a half until he finished his "Jolene" encore, he sounded as if he were right on the verge of losing his voice. He has this dark husky voice that sounds like a projected whisper, not as gravelly as Rod Stewart, but more mournful than Joe Cocker. It's just cool, and I wish I could sound like that.

The concert was originally scheduled for the Murray Theater, but was shifted out to Saltair when it became clear that the consumer demand was outweighing the Murray supply. Apparently there are a lot of sensitive bearded men in the greater Salt Lake area. I hadn't been to Saltair since I scored fifty bucks as a young adult dance bouncer about eight years ago, so it was cool to take in the new venue. The sound system was great, the atmosphere was great, and it was super cool to be out on the edge of the Great Salt Lake. Driving out on I-80 as the sun set, I felt like I was heading for something special, and the concert more than delivered. I even liked the opening act.

I only knew a handful of Ray's songs going in, but that wasn't a problem. His style is usually enough to make most any song enjoyable (which is good, because he only played about two of the songs I knew). Outside of his acoustic rhythm guitar, Ray's band was made up of a drummer, a bass player, a keyboardist, and a guy who switched back and forth between lead guitar and pedal steel.

The pedal steel was one of the highlights for me. Anyone who knows me well knows I despise the abomination that is contemporary country music, and Ray's pedal steel guy reminded me of how good country can be when it's done right.

But the most special moment of the concert for me was when Ray started into his second song, "Hold You in My Arms", which I used in my sister's wedding video two months ago. The song has come to embody that whole experience for me, and appropriately, Katie and John were sitting next to me there in the Saltair while Ray played it.

I'm sure all the bearded guys appreciated it, too.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

31 moments from 31

Tuesday night as I was driving alone on I-80 towards the sunset, Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" played on my stereo, and I was reminded that most of life's best moments are the simple ones. Last Friday I turned 32, and though I can present plenty of evidence to suggest that 31 was a lousy year, I can count a lot of blessings, too. So I've assembled a list of 31 of my most memorable "moments" at age 31. A few are bittersweet, but most are just sweet, and even if they aren't very interesting for anyone else to read, they make me feel better for acknowledging them.

1. November 3rd, 2007: Halfway through The Last Starfighter's performance of "Money" at the U32 Ward Talent Show (Not the Pink Floyd version; our own original song), I perform my first ragged drum solo.

2. November 17th, 2007: After ducking out of the ward service auction, I dance in a crowd of oddballs at the feet of the B-52’s at The Depot in Salt Lake City.

3. November 22nd, 2007: 10 years to the day after returning from my mission to Chicago, I catch a touchdown pass in my first Turkey Bowl in four years.

4. November 25th, 2007: After figuring out how to render old VHS tapes onto my computer, I watch a taped interview with my grandparents from my 12th birthday party.

5. November 29th, 2007: After a lifetime of musical influence, my entire family attends our first concert together when we see Billy Joel perform at Energy Solutions Arena.

6. December 15th, 2007: Following a Red Iguana dinner and a tour of Temple Square, a dozen of my close friends and our dates gather in my living room and fight over a two foot white porcelain cockatoo while Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” plays in the background.

7. January 4th, 2008: Three hours after entering the Thaifoon at The Gateway, my date and I are still at our table chatting away when a vacuum cleaner starts in the distance.

8. January 6th, 2008: While transitioning into my new graveyard work schedule, I stagger up to the U32 pulpit during fast and testimony meeting and out Katie and John’s dating status in the middle of a sleep-deprived ramble.

9. January 21st, 2008: Andy Waits says "the KJZZ Cafe is now open for business" live for the first time, and I officially become a TV producer. The next day Scott Pierce of the Deseret News rips us a new hole. Ten months later, we're still going strong.

10. February 2nd, 2008: I drive through Bountiful to Grandma Terry's funeral listening to The Stones play "Shine a Light".

11. March 8th, 2008: On a sunny day in winter, Dad and I weave a red Honda S-2000 at 85mph through Saturday traffic on I-15 with the top down.

12. March 17th, 2008: High up in the upper bowl, I jump up and snag one of those promotional balls that are fired up from the court via slingshot at Jazz games. My one-handed grab becomes a symbolic transitional point in a difficult year.

13. March 20th, 2008: Breto and I get down with 150 other people in Kilby Court in Salt Lake while Jonathan Richman plays "I was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar" a few feet away.

14. March 23rd, 2008: A number of confused ward members laugh as Bishop Greg Kjar sustains me as the U32 English Tutor.

15. April 11th, 2008: An employee at Barbacoa gives me a free lemonade because I had to wait for the transition between the breakfast and lunch menus. Within the hour I am at home enjoying one in a long line of Barbacoa burrito bowls w/pinto beans, spicy pork, two scoops of Pico de Gallo, and one scoop of the hot sauce.

16. April 13th, 2008: After giving an abridged talk at the U32, Mike Driggs tells me he’s never heard anyone refer to dropping acid in a sacrament meeting before.

17. April 22nd, 2008: As I complete a wait that began in the seventh grade, I stand in Randy’s office and try on the pair of Air Jordan IV’s I ordered off eBay…and discover that they are about a half-size too small.

18. May 16th, 2008: I stand in a crowd of 20,000 raging fans in Energy Solutions Arena prior to Game 6 of the Jazz-Lakers series as the pre-game intensity rises to a level I haven't ever experienced in any previous playoff game.

19. June 13th, 2008: After taking Katie around Salt Lake following a string of elaborate clues, I give her a hug and drop her off at the entrance of Red Butte Gardens, where John is waiting to propose by the duck pond.

20. June 18th, 2008: Randy and I enjoy a genuine Chicago Deep Dish Pizza at the Rush Street Giordano’s.

21. June 20th, 2008: Five minutes after grabbing a table at the Blue Chicago, the John Primer Blues Band whips into a cover of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me", and I lay eyes on one of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen sitting at the next table...drinking a beer with her parents.

22. June 21st, 2008: I confront director George Lucas at a Michigan Avenue Nordstrom's after he's done trying on a topcoat and mumble an awkward "thank you" while shaking his hand.

23. July 18th, 2008: Heath Ledger pulls the “pencil trick” in “Dark Knight”, and as I leave the Gateway Theater I realize that I want to act again.

24. July 30th, 2008: I stand in a small group with three of my longtime friends at the Usana Amphitheater while Joe Cocker sings “With a Little Help from My Friends”.

25. August 1st, 2008: I make my live television debut on the KJZZ Café, doing a short editorial about Techno-Zombies.

26. August 25th, 2008: I sit alone atop a mountain in Island Park, Idaho and watch the sun rise over Henry's Lake.

27. September 11th, 2008: On a perfect night in early fall, I pull out a borrowed HD video camera and record Katie and John as they dance to the music of a professional jazz combo.

28. September 15th, 2008: While driving home from my right-leaning morning show on the newly opened Legacy Highway, I head to Wal Mart and totally embody Rocky Anderson’s worst nightmare.

29. September 27th, 2008: I take aim at an apple with Glock 9mm near Francis Peak in Farmington and in a moment of rare accuracy, blow it to smithereens.

30. October 7th, 2008: Several hundred fans and I jump up and down in a suffocating mass at the feet of Rivers Cuomo, singing along to “Pork and Beans” at the Weezer concert.

31. October 18th, 2008: I watch Bruce Campbell laugh as he takes a chainsaw to his possessed hand in “Evil Dead II” during Zombie Fest 2008.


Of course these weren't all my favorite memories from the year I was 31. I don't put everything on the Internet.

And neither should you.

Here's to 32.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Simple Pleasures

We live in a crazy world, and it's gotten a lot crazier in the last few weeks. But if you spend all your time focusing on your problems, you're going to miss a lot of simple pleasures.

As I look back on the past week or two, I've got plenty of reasons to feel discouraged about life:

--Every day the boys and girls on Wall Street toy with my life savings like they're playing pinball on speed.

--We're three weeks away from the most important presidential election of my generation, and the only guy who's speaking his mind is a bald plumber in Ohio.

--Lower fuel prices make me happy…until I realize I'm getting excited to pay $3 a gallon for gas.

--On top of all that, last weekend I got laid off from my student ward cause I'm too old.

Sometimes it feels like the world is circling the drain of the cosmic porcelain throne. But I know these problems are going to pass. As I take a good look at the world of Terreality, I realize there are still plenty of things to be grateful for:

--Every Tuesday after 3pm, you can get three hard shell tacos at Del Taco for a buck-nine.

--We're only two weeks from the new Jazz season.

--I can go up in the mountains and shoot stuff whenever I want.

--The last hour they're open, Top Hat video puts all their movie rentals at 60 cents. Even the new releases.

--There's no rush hour traffic when you start work at 1am.

--Best of all, six days before Christmas, I'm going to be sitting in the upper bowl at Energy Solutions Arena while Neil Diamond rings in a little Hebrew Yule.

Patience is a virtue, but waiting for your problems to go away is stupid. Mick Jagger was right:

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need…"


The above post was written for one of my KJZZ Cafe editorials, which you can see here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The End of Evolution

The world markets are failing, the country is buried in partisan hatred, and if that wasn't bad enough...a scientist in England says human evolution has ceased.

But that might just be a mutation of common sense.

Professor Steven Jones* is an geneticist with University College London, and in a lecture earlier this week, he** claimed that we are at the tail end of the evolutionary donkey. He says that evolutionary forces like natural selection and genetic mutation are no longer operating in our modern society.

"If you are worried about what Utopia is going to be like," he says, "don't. At least in the developed world, and at least for the time being, you are living in it now."

So drink it in ladies, you're looking at the zenith of human progress.

In memoriam, I've listed the five mutant-powers I will never have:

1. X-Ray Vision
2. Supersonic Capeless Flight
3. Kung-Fu Action Forearms
4. Super-Telepathic Traffic Manipulation
5. Spontaneous Hair Regeneration

I don't mean to come across as someone who rejects science because I hold a religious belief. I have a deep respect and appreciation for science, though the theory of evolution does have a strange way of debasing and exalting the human race at the same time. On the one hand, hard-core evolutionists believe we evolved from apes, and reject a divine hand. Yet according to these same people, any theory or belief that can't be explained or comprehended by the empirical study of these advanced simians is automatically rejected, even though that study and evidence evolves on a daily basis. Thus man becomes God...and a fluke at the same time.

I think it's sad that when it comes to science and religion, people feel like they have to make a choice between the two. They forsake deeply held religious belief because it doesn’t line up with the latest study. Or they toss aside scientific learning to feel loyal to their religion. From what I understand, even Darwin didn't feel that was necessary.

Either way, it's pretty arrogant to assume that anything which falls outside our own personal realm of understanding is untrue. As Hamlet told his friend Horatio,

"There are more things in heaven and earth, ...than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5).

We still have a lot to learn about science and about religion. It is extremely shortsighted to think you have to cast off one in order to retain the other. Neither side is really asking us to. When we get to the bottom of it, we might find the two sides are a lot more in harmony than we supposed.

But in the meantime, I'm still hoping for those Kung-Fu forearms...


*NOT the Steve Jones who grew up across the street from me in Bountiful

**Also not the Professor Jones who used to teach at BYU and thinks 9/11 was a conspiracy. Totally different guy. British guy, in fact.

The Zen of Weezer

There's something about being crushed in a crowd of 2,000 people that makes you feel acutely alive.

Up until last Tuesday, the only general admission concerts I'd attended were comparatively tame. Up until last Tuesday, the bands I had gone to see in concert had already been performing for forty years. Maybe that's why seeing Weezer this week made me feel like I was sixteen again.

The year after I graduated from high school, back when people bought CD's, I worked at the old Wherehouse Music on 5th south in Bountiful. One of the new CD's we listened to over the store PA was an obscure collection of power-pop hooks that sounded like they were sung by our high school's physics geek. They were catchy and fun, but many of us thought the band would be little more than a flash in the pan.

"A year from now," said my friend Cody, "the used bins are going to be filled with copies of this CD."

For a while Weezer did fade away, until their green album in 2001 launched them back into the spotlight. Considering that they've been recording for 14 years now, it's a little strange to think that when I saw them at the E-Center Tuesday night, they were probably the first band I ever saw "in their prime". But I think that has more to do with what Weezer represents. Rivers Cuomo may be pushing 40, but he's still the undisputed voice of adolescent nerd power-pop. So in a way, seeing Weezer this week felt like I was reclaiming a portion of my lost youth.

Tuesday's concert started shortly after 7:30 with a half-hour's worth of music from Alkaline Trio. They were followed by Angels and Airwaves, the spin-off band from Blink-182. Their music and performance was a lot of fun--they sound a lot like The Killers--but I still struggle with Tom DeLonge's deliberate off-key vocal style.

It was around the time AVA took the stage that the crowd scene got interesting. I'd picked up general admission tickets thinking that Weezer might be a fun band to experience in a throng of people. My buddy Tyler and I got there early enough to get about fifteen feet from the front railing, but when AVA kicked into gear, people started shoving around, and suddenly Tyler and I found ourselves staring at the back of a lot more heads. Heads that were inconveniently tall.

So when Weezer took the stage and the shoving got even more intense, I resolved to take advantage of the situation. Instead of let the crowd move me back, I muscled my way forward as Rivers sang "My Name is Jonas" and "Say it Ain't So", and within about ten minutes I was five feet from the front railing, and fifteen feet from where he stood on stage. I couldn't breathe or move, and the rest of the night was spent pushing in one direction or another to offset the force of the crowd.

It was a blast.

Throughout the concert, security had to reach in and pull people out of the crowd who couldn't take the pressure. Some kids were getting mashed against the front rail, others crowd-surfed their way out, and a few poor saps were there on dates. One girl fainted right in front of me, and I had to pull her back to her feet before she got swallowed up in the melee. I just went with the flow, twisting with the crowd and jumping up and down to "Pork and Beans" and "Hash Pipe". It didn't matter that I was sweating like crazy, or that everyone around me was sweating like crazy. The music was great, the night was great, and as everyone's daily grind was forgotten for three hours, we all felt happy.

In a way, the experience was a metaphor for life. When I tried to avoid the conflict, people shoved in front of me and I suddenly found myself out of the picture. But when I started pushing back, a little persistence and patience eventually landed me in a position that was more promising than I had expected going in. Instead of get bent out of shape because I was shorter than the tall dudes in my way, I used my size as an advantage to get ahead of them. Weaknesses became strengths.

Rivers would have been proud.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Retro Review: The Catcher in the Rye

I never had to read Catcher in the Rye in high school. Like 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five, I read Catcher because it had a cool reputation, and felt like I needed to have it under my belt if I wanted to maintain any credibility as a half-cocked beatnik intellectual.

Unlike 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye isn't science fiction. It is set in the stark reality of the 1940's. Even though the story is set thirty years prior to my birth, I'm not sure I've ever related to a main character the way I did to Holden Caulfield, the teenage narrator who has just been kicked out of another in a series of high-class private schools. I don't relate to Caulfield's social status, or his east coast environment. What I relate to is his relationship to the world around him.

It actually took me about two-thirds of the book to decide I liked it. The story is told in first person, and after a while I got the distinct feeling that I was spending a weekend with the kind of person I hate talking to at parties: people who hate everything and everybody, and won't shut up about it.

(OK, I realize that I've already told you that I totally relate to Caulfield, and also that he reminds me of the kind of person I hate talking to at does that mean I would hate talking to myself at a party? Perhaps that's an existential question for another time...)

The narrative picks up shortly after Caulfield has been expelled, and follows him as he kills time for three or four days until he has to return home. One by one, he encounters a number of characters from his past, old roommates, classmates, girlfriends, and a few other sad souls along the way. Each of these encounters is half-cocked and quickly runs out of gas. The novel is almost a stream-of-consciousness rant from a frustrated kid who pretends to hate the world in order to cover up the fact that he cares about it so much. Caulfield claims he doesn't like anyone he encounters, though his actions suggest a deep desire to be accepted by them, and even when he encounters someone he doesn't admire, he still feels horrible when he realizes he may have offended them with his aloof persona. Everything he says is designed to promote an insensitive image, when in reality he's hypersensitive to everything he comes into contact with.

I think that's what I like about the book the most: Through Caulfield, Salinger illustrates a very human need to be accepted and loved, while simultaneously hating ourselves for it. Most of the time, it feels like the world doesn't care about anything we do, and we wish we could return the favor. We wish we didn't care, either. But we do, and that fact eats us up.

In that way and others, Caulfield is no different than anyone, especially in our teenage form. He lives in Pete Townshend's "Teenage Wasteland" as a smart but unmotivated underachiever. He doesn't seem to know what he wants to do with his life, and isn't sure how to make a career out of the few things he does genuinely appreciate. In a way, he's wise beyond his years, but still to young to understand the true meaning of what he knows. He seeks out advice from people around him, but doesn't really listen to them.

One of the most powerful sequences in the book is when he seeks out his old teacher Mr. Antolini, who sits him down and tries to talk some sense into him. Antolini is one of the few people who seems to understand Caulfield, and is deeply concerned about the path his former student is taking.

"I have a feeling that you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall," he says. "But I honestly don't know what kind."

He goes on to share a pretty deep proverb from a psychoanalyst named Wilhelm Stekel:

The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.

Sadly, even this powerful exchange ends badly, and you get the feeling that this valuable advice is lost in the confusion.

Caulfield's anchor is his little sister, whom he finally seeks out late in the book. Phoebe is the only person who seems to be able to cut through his wall and get him to open up about everything that's tearing him up inside. After farting around in clubs and badgering old girlfriends and school buddies for three days, Caulfield sneaks into his parent's home to see Phoebe, and when he breaks down at her bedside, the reality of his character comes to life in a heartbreaking way.

It's sad that one of the only reasons I've ever heard of this book is because Mark David Chapman had a copy of it on him when he shot John Lennon. Understanding that infamous connection was one of my primary motivations for reading it. I don't know if Chapman related to Caulfield or if he was just nuts. It probably doesn't matter. But considering how Caulfield's character turns out, it's sad Chapman had to opt for the path he did.

It's very possible that without the benefit of a Lit professor or outside research, I have missed some critical theme or message in this book. But that's almost intentional. I didn't want to look for what everyone else had already picked out; I wanted to find what I found on my own, and that's what I've written here. So there's a pretty good chance that everything before this is just me transposing the plot and character on my own life. Some might say that's what literature is about. I'm just warning you in case anyone is reading this as research for a book report.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

"Traitor", and the Perception of Reality

The first time I saw "Star Wars", I wanted to be Han Solo. The first time I saw "Bourne Identity", I thought the CIA was out to get me. And the first time I saw "Gone in 60 Seconds", I drove a little bit faster on the way home.

We don't always mimic what we see on the big screen, but movies do have the power to shape our reality. That's why I'm still thinking about the movie I saw last weekend. "Traitor" is about an American Muslim who sells weapons to terrorists. It stars Don Cheadle, who played "Basher" in the "Ocean's Eleven" movies. But this time there are no swank suits, and there's no hip soundtrack. "Traitor" is about the conflict between faith and duty. It is an excellent film…it's smart, stylish, and it's got a great story. In fact, I can't tell you much more about it without giving too much away.

But when I walked out of "Traitor', I wasn't thinking about acting, I wasn't thinking about directing, and I wasn't thinking about special effects. I was thinking that the guy by the garbage can could be planting a bomb. I was thinking the girl on the elevator could be packing a .45. And I was wondering how many Muslims really believe in Jihad.

Now most of us understand that the media plays things up for effect. The only thing real in reality TV is that the people aren't computer-generated. Yet. But we spend a lot of time watching the media. We've all heard the numbers on that. So I wonder what it's doing to me. Our culture loves stories. We love true stories, made-up stories, and stories about Britney Spears, which are a little of both.

But we have to be careful. Lots of time people wish their lives were more like the movies. But sometimes, deep down, we really believe they are.