Sunday, December 29, 2013

Behind the Lens: My 2013 Post-Christmas Photo Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's to the best in 2014...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The 10 Best Christmas Songs in My iTunes Collection

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

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

10. Christmas Must Be Tonight, The Band

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

9. Please Come Home for Christmas, James Brown

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

8. What Child is This?, Mormon Tabernacle Choir

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

7. Merry Christmas, Baby, Otis Redding

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

6. Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Crystals

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

5. Overture from "Scrooge," Leslie Bricusse

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

4. Sleigh Ride, The Ronettes

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

3. Christmas Time is Here, Vincent Guaraldi Trio

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

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

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

1. O Holy Night, Mormon Tabernacle Choir

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

Sunday, December 15, 2013

An open letter to my brand-new English students

Dear brand-new students,

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

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

Ready? Here we go:

1. You are no longer in high school.

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

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

Which leads us to number two...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. General courses are good for you.

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

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

"Generals are stupid!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

See you in class,



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

Sunday, December 08, 2013

My Toughest Calling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We know that you are struggling..."

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Surviving Turkey Bowl 2013

With the sideline on his right, and the rest of my team closing in on his left, the running back had no option but to come straight at me, which was just what I wanted. If we'd been playing tackle football, my job would have been easy: square up, pick a point on the other side of my target, and plow through the running back on the way to that point, wrapping him up and dropping him on his back. Simple.

But we weren't playing tackle football. The running back sweeping around towards me under the glow of the playground floodlights was wearing flags at his hips, which meant that unless I wanted to start a fight, a straightforward tackle was not an option. But I knew from long experience that snatching at those flags carried a problematic success rate. So I compromised: I squared up, let him come at me, and prepared to wrap him up, getting him in my grasp as if I was going to tackle him, then pull his flags instead.

And that's pretty much what happened. Pretty much. The problem is that a split second after I'd pulled my opponent's flags, one of my teammates collided with us from my right side. His momentum, combined with the remaining momentum of my opponent, flipping the running back head over heels, and specifically, heel into my chin. As my opponent's cleat smacked my jaw, I felt a surge of adrenaline at the ringing pain that jolted through my body. It energized me, and I hopped back to my feet, annoyed that my teammate couldn't control himself, and stalked back toward the line of scrimmage, eager for the next play. But as I did, I noticed people giving me strange looks. Something was wrong.

"Dude, you're bleeding," someone said.

I reached up to my chin and came back with fingers coated in blood. A mirror inside the nearby church bathroom revealed a three-inch gash that started on my chin and made its way up the right side of my jaw. I was mad. I wanted to play my game. MY game. But now my night was over. My game...had been taken from me.

I love playing football. Ever since the 6th grade, football has far and away been my sport of choice. I have logged hundreds if not thousands of hours playing pickup basketball over the years, but basketball is a consolation prize, burdened with an irreconcilable height disadvantage. Football is the game that makes me feel like I'm playing on my home turf. A game where a well-timed forearm shiver has a way of leveling the playing field.

Football was the first game I felt good at. By the time I started throwing around an imitation youth-sized pigskin, I was in my sixth year of rec league soccer. But soccer never caught my imagination, and I couldn't dribble for beans, anyway. Basketball was a passion, but one that always left me feeling a step behind. Football, though...I may not have been the biggest guy (or even a big guy at all), but I was quick, and I had good hands. I loved the explosive nature of the game--ten seconds of high energy at a time, a blast of speed across the middle, and I was either catching a spiral or hammering the guy who did. In football, passion was an equalizer.

I can't remember any specific moment that sparked my love of the game. There was no pass caught or hit delivered that flipped a switch inside. I just remember countless pickup games on the playground or in the neighborhood, and when there weren't enough guys to play, my buddy Greg and I would run pass patterns up and down an empty field, putting the finishing touches on our 187th consecutive Super Bowl Championship. Greg was a diehard Miami Dolphins fan, and tried to channel Dan Marino with every tight spiral. But I identified with the outlaw Raiders, and would spend my off hours listening to the immortal John Facenda narrate highlight films of their great 1970s teams since, ironically, I got into football just about the time the Raiders went in the tank.

This lasted through junior high and high school, where I played my one and only season in pads, for Viewmont High School's sophomore team. That single "legit" effort produced a lot of memories, but it pretty much killed my NFL aspirations. It was clear that my home would be the playground. My love of the game persisted while I was in the mission field, logging games in Joliet and at Gage Park in south Chicago, and once I got back, the centerpiece of my season became the annual Turkey Bowl, an all-out tackle football slug fest without pads. We left those games with plenty of scrapes and bruises, but even more glory.

Those Turkey Bowls were local classics, ground out in the fields behind Centerville Junior High School in a range of conditions. One Thanksgiving we were playing in the rain under a gathering thunderstorm. I'll never forget the image of my friend Jason Johnson taking a deep kickoff and starting up the field toward me as lightning crashed in the distance behind him. Another game was preserved on video, a brutal defensive standoff that saw a single touchdown scored in over 90 minutes of playing time, unheard of in games that usually deliver scores in Arena ball ranges.

As my twenties rolled on, the games started to dwindle. Tackle football became flag football, and a half-dozen pickup games a year became one at best. Some of my peers started playing soccer instead of football on Thanksgiving, and to my shame, I spent more than one holiday morning kicking a soccer ball instead of catching a deep post route. After I passed 30, I began to suspect that I had come under some kind of anti-football curse. Starting with that cleat-to-chin collision back in 2009 that left me with eleven stitches and a Harrison Ford-like scar for posterity, my gridiron encounters became both few and violent. A year later, I got back together with the same group of guys, and promptly dislocated the last knuckle of my middle finger catching a touchdown pass. The year after that my roommate invited me to play indoor soccer on Thanksgiving, and since I didn't know anyone hosting a football game, I joined him. Then last year I played my first Turkey Bowl with my new home ward, and pulled a hamstring returning a kickoff ten minutes into the game. I was so miffed that I refused to leave the game for another half-hour, limping around the field and catching three touchdown passes on five-yard outs because I couldn't run any farther in a single stretch. And I worried that my favorite game was being taken from me forever.

So when this season's 30th Ward Turkey Bowl rolled around, I felt a combination of excitement and apprehension.  Surviving a game without incident would prove that it was OK for me to still play football, that the window on my favorite game still hadn't closed. I drove up to the field last Thursday morning with a simple plan: suit up and play for an hour or so, then grab my camera out of my trunk and get some action shots for the portfolio.

The 30th Ward plays on this miserable hole-dotted, square-shaped field just west of the church that is about two-thirds grass and one third dirt, and feels like cement when you run across it in cleats at 8:30am (and you have to get there early, lest some other group claims your spot). We were playing flag, but flags wouldn't stop a bad fall from messing you up. By the time we started, it was still cold, but we also had about 25 guys, which is kind of a mess on a field that might be 60 yards long at best. Getting any quality action out of this game would be a challenge.

A half-hour in, I still hadn't been targeted for any passes, even though coverage was loose on my end of the field. A friend gave our quarterback a heads-up on the situation, and as I took off on a deep post on the left side of the field, he unloaded a bomb in my direction. I felt the rock-hard dirt underneath my cleats, but I had my man beat, and I tried to focus on the spiral as it descended towards me. Four feet from contact, I stepped in one of a dozen holes in the field, and almost tripped, but somehow I reached out and made the catch, staggering past the cones as my man desperately tried to pull my flags.


About ten minutes later, we were getting ready to set up after another score when someone called halftime. I paused for a second, and decided that was my cue. With 45-minutes of injury-free football and a long touchdown to my credit, I figured it was time to pull out my camera. I walked to my car, pulled my rig out of the trunk, and started shooting, satisfied that I was doing it because I chose to, not because a hamstring pull left me no better options.

I had survived Turkey Bowl 2013. I was free of my curse. My game was still my game.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

No Habla Espanol...Yet?

The events of the past week have left me wondering if it is my divine destiny to learn Spanish:

Exhibit A: I was recently considered for a photo job that would have taken me to Mexico City to cover this weekend's open house for the new visitor's center at the LDS temple. As it turned out, the missionary department preferred a Spanish speaker for the task, which makes sense. As exciting as the job would have been, I can't help thinking that I would have wound up lost in a back alley somewhere, using desperate hand signals to convince a man with a gun that my bag wasn't filled with thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment.

Exhibit B: With Mexico City crossed off the itinerary, I was free to drop by the Bountiful Temple on Saturday night, and somehow I wound up assigned to a group of Spanish-speaking ordinance workers. I'd been through the routine enough times that I just decided to run with it, and was able to fake my way through without tipping anyone off that I didn't speak the language. As I finished up, one of the ordinance workers shook my hand in gratitude and said something to me in Spanish. For all I knew, he said, "may the flames of a thousand dragons rain vengeance on your ancestors," but he seemed pretty sincere, so I just nodded my thanks and went on my way.

Aside from encounters like those, I live in a world of English. I speak it, I write it, I even teach it. I justify my bubble by noting the considerable amount of time and energy I have invested perfecting the fluency of my single language, but I can't help but think somewhere down the road I'm going to have to bolster my linguistic resume.

One of the biggest reasons I have never become bilingual is that I was called to a stateside LDS mission. While my friends wrestled with new dialects in France and Russia and Taiwan, I enjoyed a different kind of multi-cultural experience in South Chicago. Of course, it's easy to make jokes about urban or even Midwestern accents (imagine the cast of the old "Da Bears" SNL sketch blessing the sacrament every Sunday), but the reality is that language was the least of the barriers I had to deal with in the Windy City.

Not that I was relieved to be spared the total cultural immersion. Prior to my mission call, I was a devout drinker of the "fortune and glory" Kool-Aid when it came to my mission destiny. As a starry-eyed 17-year-old, I became convinced that when my time came, I would be sent to break new ground in Vietnam, serving my two years out of a series of primitive mud huts, spending my days hacking through obscure jungles with a machete in one hand and a Book of Mormon in the other, spreading the Gospel while "Gimme Shelter" and "All Along the Watchtower" played softly in the background. It was an image born of naive idealism and too many late night viewings of "Apocalypse Now."

In a way, I think I was more surprised that I wasn't given a European assignment, since I had spent two years in junior high under the hand of Madame Sharpe, the Centerville Junior High French teacher. I even won an award for those efforts, though I never continued my education past the minimum two-year requirement for high school graduation.

I can guarantee that learning a second language would result in more international travel for Team Terry. To date, the sum total of my foreign experience is Canada-based:
  1. In the summer of 2000, I drove across a bridge to the Canadian side of Niagra Falls and ate at their Hard Rock Cafe.
  2. In 2005, I made a series of fact check calls to Canadian businesses on behalf of Rand McNally, who was compiling a guide to highlight tourist attractions in Canada.
  3. Two years ago, I helped translate several Allen Communication instructional courses into Canadian for use by Canada-based clients.*
Add it all up, and toss in the caveat that if I ever decide to get a PhD, the vast majority of programs require a two-year equivalent fluency in a second language, and it becomes clear that my English-only days are numbered. I just don't know what language will complete the countdown. But whether it comes in Spanish, French, or Klingon, somehow it's going to happen.


*This is not a joke.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Best English 1010 Students I Never Had

About a year back I was in a Sunday School class when the instructor opened with a routine question: what is the best piece of advice your parents ever gave you?

I thought back on the potentially thousands of conversations I've had with my parents over the years, and it occurred to me that for all of our talking, the best advice my parents ever gave me rarely came in words, but always rang clear in action. They seemed to inherently understand the concept I would teach my English 1010 students years later, that it is better to "show" than to "tell."

It was this reflection that led me back to the childhood larceny I recounted in this year's Mother's Day post, where my sharp-eyed mother taught me a lesson in honesty that resounded far more than any cross-stitch worthy one-liner ever could. And that was just one example:

  • My parents showed me the value of hard work when, instead of hand over the object of my seven-year-old desires--a plastic battery-powered replica of Han Solo's laser blaster--they made me earn every penny of the toy's nine-dollar price tag by taking out the garbage, cleaning my bedroom, and sweeping the dead cherries off our driveway that fell off our neighbor's tree every year.
  • They showed me charity when, upon discovering a stranded couple in Yellowstone National Park during our annual family vacation one summer, we brought them back to stay at my grandparents' place until their car could get fixed. I'll never forget lingering at the edge of their late-night conversation that covered everything from religion to international politics, made all the more poignant by the fact that the young woman we were hosting was from Russia, and the Cold War was still four years shy of its expiration date.
  • They showed me sacrifice when, only months after buying a brand-new Honda CRX, my dad realized his declining eyesight was too far past the point of safe driving, and handed the car keys over to my mom for good.

This past weekend my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, which reinforced yet another lesson. They met in the early '70s when my dad was going to graduate school at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, and my mom was taking the missionary discussions thanks to a referral from a close friend. They were set up on a blind date for a ward softball activity, hit it off, and waited a full year after my mom's baptism to get married in the Salt Lake Temple. Call it patience, call it commitment, call it trust, call it whatever...the lesson stuck.

Maybe the best example of my parents' success is the fact that to celebrate, my sister and brother-in-law teamed up to host a special dinner in their honor, demonstrating that the teamwork my parents have always embodied has now passed on to their own children, echoing the teamwork my grandparents displayed before them. There was food and friends and family, and a couple of wide-eyed grandchildren to centerpiece the whole thing. I forgot to fire up the custom Motown-only playlist I'd prepared on my iPod until the rest of the guests had left for home, but I did get plenty of pictures to mark the event.

So Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad, and thank you...for being great parents, even better friends, and the best English 1010 students I never had.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Remembering the KJZZ Cafe: Five Years Later

This past Thursday marked five years from the cancellation of the KJZZ Cafe. I was the producer of the Cafe during its brief on-air run from January of 2008 to November of that same year, and I have often marveled at the memory of what was easily one of the most unique professional experiences of my career.

I joined the team in the fall of 2007, after spending several months as a contributor to a small variety show called "B All Over" (named for its host, a local actor/comedian named Johnny B). KJZZ was developing a roundtable show to analyze current issues, built around a trio of hosts who would spearhead discussions on a variety of topics mined from national headlines. I was recruited to linger behind the scenes, organizing and managing the overall on-air narrative. As producer, I was more or less ground zero for the daily broadcast, arriving at the KJZZ studio around 1AM to start sorting through story pitches and checking online to see what we would use in the show. Our on-air anchors and Executive Producer would arrive by 3AM, when I would present a skeleton rundown of our 150 minute broadcast, and following that meeting, we had until 6:30 to produce our content before the show went on the air.

As a career night owl, it wasn't hard to get to work on time, or to stay attentive during the early morning hours on my own before the rest of the team arrived. But sleep was another issue. In the ten months we were on the air, I usually never got more than 3-4 hours of sleep a day. Not because I was busy, not because of the 24/7 nature of the modern news cycle...I just couldn't sleep. I'd go to bed knowing I had an 8-10 hour window before having to get ready for the next "day," but 3-4 hours later I would wake up unable to get back to sleep.

The schedule inadvertently led to my most embarrassing moment during the show's run. Once the show went on the air, my responsibility shifted from writer to timekeeper, monitoring our schedule, making sure we were covering our material at the right pace, and telling the on-air talent when to lead to a commercial break. If a guest was late for an interview or if we found out five seconds before a story that we didn't have a piece of video ready, I had to adjust the master plan on the fly. It was a challenge for a guy who usually likes to take his time making decisions, but it was good for me.

One morning, Steve Anderson, one of our anchors, started a routine guest interview. I can't remember who the guest was, or what the topic was, which might explain why sixty seconds into the segment I nodded off. This in and of itself was no big deal. Usually when something like this would happen, I would pop back up within a couple of seconds. The problem was that this time, I didn't pop back up, and no one tried to wake me. I was out for a full fifteen minutes, during which time poor Steve was out there desperately trying to continue a conversation that was only supposed to last about five minutes. Fifteen minutes may not sound like much in real life, but in TV time it was a veritable eternity.

But eternity eventually came to a close, and a few weeks later, so did the show. We were canceled less than a week after the presidential election, which almost seemed appropriate since so much of our time was spent following the primaries and the campaign of the previous year. I don't know if the show went off the air more because of ratings or because of the economy (I'll never forget sitting in the control room one morning during a broadcast and watching the DOW free fall on an adjacent monitor only seconds after the market opened), but it was an unforgettable experience...even if I wasn't technically awake for the whole thing.

My time at the Cafe was actually only one of several standout experiences in 2008. Unfortunately, our time on the air was bookended by a pair of deaths on my dad's side of the family. My grandmother died from complications from diabetes about two weeks after we went on the air, and a week after our cancellation, my grandfather passed away also. By the end of the calendar year, I had lost my job, my remaining grandparents, and I even got kicked out of the singles ward I had been attending for the better part of ten years. Plus there was that whole recession thing. If it hadn't been for my sister's wedding and a timely trip to Chicago with the Cheetahman, it would have been a miserable stretch.

In a strange twist of irony, I gave an on-air editorial during our last broadcast entitled, "The Liberation of Losing." (Ironic because we didn't know it was our last broadcast until after the show.) And, from an outside perspective, it would be fair to see a show that was only on the air for ten months as a loss. But over the course of its brief run, the "KJZZ Cafe" evolved considerably, and was on its way to becoming what we'd originally envisioned before starting the project. And when I think about where I started at the beginning of the experience, there's really no way for me to look at the experience as anything but a success.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Friday Night in the Lights

In recent weeks I have wondered about my reasons for playing in a band. Is it just a creative outlet? Does the fact that I need to be on stage say something about my self-image that I don't want to know? Do I still secretly think that chicks dig guys in bands, and that somehow playing the drums on a lit stage will offer the solution to my dating efforts? Maybe. On a Friday night this past September I played a benefit concert with some friends up at the Ed Kenley Amphitheater. But as fun as it was to take the stage and release a little rock and roll, my best moment had little to do with playing the drums.

Around 8pm, just after the sun had gone down and the stage lights gained their full illumination, I sat on a small cement retainer at the edge of the grass with my two-year-old niece perched next to me. Her degree of calm was impressive given her typical toddler energy level. We quietly watched Danny Wood play his guitar alone on the stage, bathed in the reds and purples of those lights, sending his music out into the night. Nearby, several children wandered back and forth on the grass, alternately pausing to watch the stage, then returning to their exploration, taking in the full freedom of their Friday night. I knew all of these kids, because they were my friends' kids, my own auxiliary nieces and nephews that broke me in over the last few years before I became a bona fide uncle almost three years ago. These were the same friends that played in the band with me, friends I have now known for over twenty years.

Me and Niece #1
Becoming an uncle has been the most substantial event in the last three years of my life. Partially because it came so much later for me than others--I have friends who have been uncles or aunts since before they could walk--but mostly because of the sea change it has triggered in my day-to-day perspective. For years I would get annoyed when a friend would cancel our plans because he or she needed to attend a niece or nephew's birthday party. But now, with nieces of my own (my sister just had daughter #2 in August), and with my gradual separation from the singles scene that has dominated my social life for the last decade and a half, I get it.

In the months that followed the birth of my first niece, I expressed my elation through photography, as she became my favorite model in a string of Facebook albums that would make most obsessed parents look conservative. On a trip into Salt Lake during that period, a friend asked in confidence if I was "Baby Crazy." It was a fair question, but the truth was that even though I was pretty crazy about my new niece, I wasn't chomping at the bit to get a baby of my own. It will be great to have my own kids one day, but there are enough steps between me and a maternity ward that the idea of being a parent myself almost feels like an abstraction. For now I'll just enjoy my campaign for the title of World's Greatest Uncle.

As I do, I realize the true motivation behind my efforts. In a way, my first run as an uncle has been an opportunity to connect with my Aunt Sandy, who died of cancer back in 1983. I had just turned seven when she passed away, but even though she lived more than 1,500 miles from our family, she left an indelible influence on me. She was always writing me letters, sending me care packages with "Return of the Jedi" T-shirts, or talking to me on the phone. Even though I only spent time with her on a handful of occasions, I had no doubt in my mind that my aunt loved me very much.

Niece #2
One of the few crystal clear memories I have of my early years is being woken up late at night by my father. I was sleeping in my parents' bed because my mom and sister had flown back to Ohio to be with Sandy before she died. I clearly remember sitting on my mom's side of the bed under the glow of her bed stand light as my dad sat down next to me and told me my aunt had passed away.

The morning after the concert, my sister and I took my eldest niece into Salt Lake to attend a "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2" screening. Ever since she was born I've been looking forward to taking her to the movies, hoping her reaction would mirror her mother's when my family took her to see "Return of the Jedi" from the front row of the Center Theater in downtown Salt Lake. I'll never forget seeing her perched on my dad's lap, eyes gaping at the larger-than-life screen, overwhelmed at six months of age.

Along the way to our screening, my sister told me that my niece sat transfixed through my band's performance, and that she is officially my "biggest fan." I wouldn't have it any other way. When you're up on a lit stage, the audience kind of fades to black, and you have plenty of time to think. But whatever my reasons, knowing my niece was out there watching me in wonder with her huge brown eyes just kind of makes everything else irrelevant.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die

A couple months back, the staff of put together an opinion poll designed to infuriate their readers. The topic? Best song of the new millennium. They set up four brackets matching the 64 candidates they felt best represented the last thirteen years of popular music, and let the fans go at it.

The resulting hate and vitriol that teemed on the comment boards may have been intentional, but Grantland does deserve its reputation for being preoccupied with hip-hop and top-40 pop music. This latest spectacle wasn't the first time I found myself scrolling down their list of music favorites and wondering who exactly they were trying to impress. Aside from Steven Hyden (who wrote an excellent--if kind of depressing--series on "The Winner's History of Rock and Roll"), I have little use for the site's musical commentary.

But that has as much to do with me as it does them. As a Bicentennial Baby, I have the distinction of being both too young for Generation X and too old to be a Millenial. Because of this dissonance, these days I often find myself straddling the perspectives of two distinct generations of music fans:

The first is the surly, aging rock fan who dutifully listens to Classic Rock radio and insists that "they don't make music they way they used to." I meet members of this group all the time. My boss at KJZZ feels this way, and so did a woman who approached me in the aftermath of one of my blues band gigs two years ago (I think she was happy because we covered ZZ Top). Of course, now that the Classic Rock powers-that-be have shoehorned the likes of Def Leppard and U2 into their playlists (suggesting Classic Rock should be defined as "guitar and drum music that's more than 20 years old" instead of "that period between Hendrix igniting his strat at Monterey and the night John Bonham took 40 shots of vodka and killed Led Zeppelin"), their territory is officially under seige.

The second group is mostly* made up of post-millenials who love all things pop and hip-hop, and give you blank stares whenever you ask them about something that was released more than ten years ago. This is the same group that sneers with distain at the mention of anything that was created before they were born, implicitly suggesting that the only relevant popular culture is the popular culture that was created after the dawn of civilization (IE, their birth). This is the group exemplified by Justin Long's Creedence-hating techie-nerd character in "Live Free or Die Hard."**

My lot comprises a third group which holds a deep personal affection for all the classic music that came from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, but also holds that the last three decades have brought the goods as well. Maybe not in terms of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, but certainly in terms of Ray LaMontagne or The Black Keys. This group feels like there is plenty of good music out there; you just need to know where to find it. (And where do you find it? The soundtracks of indie movies and cult TV shows that only snobs like. Oh, and "Top Gear.")

On behalf of the third group, I would like to offer groups one and two a sample list of music they should consider adding to their own personal canon, for the expansion of their experience, and the betterment of mankind.

For group one, ten songs from the last ten years that may not be "as good" as your weekly Classic Rock rotation, but deserve your consideration:

1. "How You Like Me Now," The Heavy
2. "Hold You In My Arms," Ray LaMontagne
3. "Tighten Up," The Black Keys
4. "Never Give You Up," Raphael Saadiq
5. "You Only Live Once," The Strokes
6. "Typical," Mutemath
7. "Delicate," Damien Rice
8. "Love is a Losing Game," Amy Winehouse
9. "Unaware," Allen Stone
10. "All These Things That I've Done," The Killers

For group two, ten songs from before 1980 that you may not have already heard ad nauseum on your parents' car stereo, but that deserve your consideration:

1. "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," Jimi Hendrix Experience
2. "A Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke
3. "Rudie Can't Fail," The Clash
4. "Try a Little Tenderness," Otis Redding
5. "Miles From Nowhere," Cat Stevens
6. "Presence of the Lord," Blind Faith
7. "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City," Bobby "Blue" Bland
8. "Maggot Brain," Funkadelic
9. "Ooh La La," The Faces
10. "Sweet Jane," The Velvet Underground

The funny thing about the Grantland poll is that the finalists (Outkast's "Hey Ya" and Adele's "Rolling in the Deep") were actually pretty reasonable choices, and at least in Adele's case, might even appeal to the "they don't make 'em like they used to" group. Which suggests that good taste will eventually rise to the top no matter where (or when) you are. I'd like to think that's true.


*I say mostly because there are plenty of people my age or older who behave the same way.

**This may be the first time this movie has been referenced in anything other than a "disappointment to the franchise" context.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Life Lessons of the Zombie Apocalypse

This weekend I hosted my eighth annual Zombie Fest, a simple celebration I started with my roommates back in 2006. The formula is simple: gather a few like-minded zombie fans, and watch a couple of zombie movies. That’s pretty much it.

Over the years I’ve wondered what it is that makes me such a fan of zombie movies. Is it the thrill of the scares? Is it the black humor or the incisive social commentary? Maybe it’s just the fond memory of watching the original “Night of the Living Dead” in my parents’ basement all alone Halloween night back in high school.

Whatever makes the connection, it’s pretty clear that, judging from the number of annual zombie-themed movies, not to mention a top-rated cable TV show, I’m not alone in my affections. But even if you write it off as a passing trend or a sick fascination with gory makeup effects, a little digging will reveal a surprise beneath all the prosthetics: the zombies want to teach us.

Here are some of the life lessons I’ve taken from a few of my favorite zombie movies:

(Note: Readers should expect spoilers in the following analysis, though I’ve tried to be as discreet as possible for anyone still hoping for a fresh viewing).

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The Movie: Ground Zero for the modern zombie film genre takes place in a farmhouse where a group of strangers gather to fight off an advancing pack of the undead. George Romero’s low-budget film almost singlehandedly took horror from the camp of the 1960s to the gore fest of the ‘70s, and in the process, “Night of the Living Dead” drew the template for zombie-fighting male archetypes.

There are two principle leads: Ben, the African-American who leads the effort to board up the farmhouse, and Harry, who Ben discovers hiding his wife and injured daughter in the cellar. Ben is all business, and understands that survival will only be possible if the refugees work together as a team. Harry is paranoid and unwilling to trust anyone but himself. Eventually this friction comes to a head, and Ben shoots Harry in one of the film’s few violent exchanges between living characters.

The Message: If you want to survive, work as a team, and be willing to trust others.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The Movie: Ten years after ushering in the modern zombie era, Romero delivered “Dawn of the Dead,” about a group of apocalypse survivors who hole up in an abandoned shopping mall and try to establish a normal day-to-day existence while fighting off competing survivalists and the undead. Surrounded by the finest of material goods (for 1978, anyway), the protagonists of “Dawn of the Dead” are often interpreted as a metaphor for first-world materialistic consumption and its oblivious attitude toward third-world suffering.

As in “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn” focuses on two leads: Peter is an echo of the previous film’s Ben, a practical-minded African-American who acts as the group’s realist. Stephen, the other lead, is a helicopter pilot who holds out hope for a traditional domestic existence with his girlfriend Fran. When a group of looting bikers break into the mall, Peter’s plan is to lay low and wait for the survivalists to leave once they’ve finished indulging themselves. But Stephen is unable to overcome his own pride, and the misguided sense of ownership he has developed for his new materialistic surroundings. He opts to confront the looters, and loses his life in the process.

The Message: Let go of material things.

Evil Dead II  (1987)

The Film: Long before he helmed the first Spiderman franchise or sent James Franco to Oz, Sam Raimi staked his reputation with this celebrated cult film about a group of youngsters who unleash a demon in a remote cabin that turns its victims into a possessed, chaotic breed of walking dead.

 “Evil Dead II” features future B-movie hero Bruce Campbell in the same role he introduced in the first film in 1981. As Ash, the leader of the ill-fated cabin group, Campbell is forced to take a chainsaw to his own arm when it becomes possessed with the demon. Ever the optimist, Ash attaches a chainsaw to the stump as an added convenience.

The Message: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

28 Days Later (2002)

The Movie: For decades after “Night of the Living Dead,” traditional zombies were by definition a slow-moving and dim-witted bunch, until Danny Boyle decided to break the rules in his 2002 film about a virus outbreak that turns Britain into a quarantined island full of sprinting rage-fueled monsters. Some traditionalists refuse to accept Boyle’s masses into the zombie canon, but like the possessed victims of “The Evil Dead,” they should be considered close cousins, at least.

The primary protagonist of “28 Days Later” is Jim, a bike courier who wakes up in an abandoned hospital four weeks after the outbreak. He teams up with a handful of other desperate survivors, including Frank, who shelters everyone in a tower flat where he has been hiding out with his teenage daughter. Unlike Harry from “Night of the Living Dead,” Frank is a father figure who is willing to trust outsiders, and eventually the group sets out on a journey to locate the source of a mysterious radio signal. But in a fit of frustration along the way, he strikes out at an irritating bird and winds up with infected blood in his eye.

The Message: Be quick to action, but slow to anger.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

The Movie: Almost all zombie movies have a degree of campiness, but “Shaun of the Dead” was the first all-out satire of the genre, focusing on yet another band of British survivors who fight their way to the local pub in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse.

The titular Shaun, played by Simon Pegg, is the poster child for the stunted man-child modern society has created (and Art of Manliness has sought to cure). Sitting at plus or minus 30 years old, Shaun is going nowhere in life, working at an electronics store, playing video games with his best friend, and wondering why his long-suffering girlfriend dumps him when he tries to take her to the local pub for their anniversary. Fittingly, once the zombie apocalypse hits, Shaun opts to take his group of survivors (including the girlfriend and the best friend) to that same pub. But in Shaun’s case, the worst of circumstances brings out the best in the man. Simply by creating and sticking to a plan, Shaun is able to steer (most of) his comrades to safety, and the apocalypse makes a man out of him in a way normal life never could.

The Message: Have a plan.

The Walking Dead (2010-Present)

The TV show: “The Walking Dead” is based on a graphic novel series of the same name, and has been eating up the competition (pun intended) in the ratings for three seasons on AMC. Like many of the films on this list, it is less interested in the origin of the apocalypse and more focused on its survivors (in this case the ones just outside of Atlanta, Georgia).

Walking Dead features a laundry list of interesting male characters, but by season three, the focus centered on a pair of rival faction leaders. One is Rick, a former police officer whose leadership experience and access to firearms placed him in charge of a group of survivors that is trying to hold down an abandoned (and sometimes zombie-infested) prison. The other is The Governor, a former schoolteacher who has managed to create a facsimile of pre-apocalypse life for a few dozen survivors inside a portion of a small town that has been walled off to the outside world. In many regards, Rick and The Governor are almost identical: both have lost close family members, both are distrustful of outsiders, and neither is much of a saint. But you don’t need the Governor’s eye patch to make it obvious that while one man is fighting the temptation to descend into madness, the other set up camp in Crazy Town long ago.

The Message: Hang on to your humanity.

Warm Bodies (2013)

The Movie: With over four decades of zombie movies in the rear-view mirror, originality has become a challenge. Yet early in 2013 we have been favored by what could be considered the first zombie romantic comedy, and certainly the first zombie romantic comedy told from the perspective of the zombie himself. This story of young love in the zombie apocalypse is heavy on wit, but also strong on message.

The first true zombie lead is R, who spends his days wandering an abandoned airport with his fellow undead and having funny interior monologues until one day he encounters a group of human survivors searching for medical supplies. The humans are led by a striking blonde with a knack for heavy artillery, and with a little help from John Waite’s “Missing You,” R is smitten, triggering one of the strangest love stories in recent years. Along the way, “Warm Bodies” suggests that the zombie condition may not be irreversible.

The Message: Redemption is possible, for even the most unlikely of candidates.

World War Z (2013)

The Movie: Based on Max Brooks’s exhaustive novel of the same name, “World War Z” takes on the zombie apocalypse on an unprecedented worldwide scale. Where most zombie movies center their stories on the plight of a handful of scrappy survivors, “WWZ” gives viewers the chance to watch the apocalypse tear down civilization as we know it, in country after ill-fated country.

“WWZ” is told from the perspective of Gerry, an ex-United Nations operative played by Brad Pitt, who spends the film on a globe-trotting detective hunt, narrowly avoiding the zombie rampage all around him as he desperately searches for a solution to the epidemic. As he does, he learns that sometimes the answers can be found in the chaotic midst of an adversary’s perceived strengths.

The Message: Pay attention to the details.