Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Deadhead

It was the spring of 1995, and I was sitting on the grass in front of the Student Union at the University of Utah talking to my friend Mike. I can't remember if he was talking or if I was talking, but either way, our conversation paused when a cute girl wandered by on the sidewalk. After a second, we regrouped and smiled as we realized we'd both been distracted by the same girl. It was a great moment, and the reason I remember it so well is because Mike was my writing professor at the time.

Spring Quarter 1995 still stands as one of my favorite academic experiences ever. I was in my first year of college, basically killing time before leaving on my LDS mission, and my lack of academic motivation was threatening to disqualify me from my scholarship before I could even get a dozen classes on my transcript. Winter Quarter had been miserable, so when it came time to register for spring, I decided I was going to have some fun. I signed up for an acting class, a basic sociology class, a weight lifting class, and a creative writing class. Plus I think I took "Preparing for Celestial Marriage" over at the Institute.

The first day of class, I was in a stale second floor classroom in Orson Spencer Hall when this shaggy-haired kid came walking in and sat down at the front of the room. He was wearing a multi-colored tie-dyed T-shirt, bermuda shorts, and flip flops. His long, unkept hair dropped down to about his shoulders, and even though it was thinning a little on top, it was clear he was in his mid-to-late twenties.

This was Mike, my creative writing professor.

This was also way back before I knew anything about what qualifies a person to teach a college course, or that graduate students would often teach introductory courses as part of their programs. All I knew was that Mike was a very cool guy who told us right off the top that we could never find him in his office.

"I think my chair is still sitting on top of my desk," he mused. "If you want to get together and talk writing, let me know and we'll go talk outside or something."

Mike was a grad student in the university's creative writing program and a seven-year Deadhead. This was music to my ears, as I was around the peak of my pre-mission pseudo-hippie period*, but this little factoid became even more significant in retrospect, since the Grateful Dead actually made a weekend stop in Salt Lake that season on their final tour before Jerry Garcia died later that summer. It was almost like the Dead had swung through town and given me Mike as a parting gift before driving off into the sunset in one of those cool VW hippie buses.

I say "gift" because if you can't tell already, Mike was one of my favorite teachers. Aside from the obvious out-of-the-ordinariness, his daily writing exercises spurred a creative flurry in me I hadn't experienced from any other instructor. One day he told us to freewrite about a smell, and I turned the stench of burned rubber into a short story about a car chase between two street gangs fighting over a vat of Tang. Another day Mike told us to write about anything we wanted as long as every other sentence had the word "sprinkler" in it, so I conjured the dramatic tale of a middle-aged suburbanite who went out to his yard one morning only to have his sprinkler system come to life and try to kill him. For all I knew, it was total crap, but I felt like I had made a connection with Mike.

That connection was solidified a couple of weeks later when the same girl stopped both of us in our verbal tracks out on campus. Mike was less of an authority figure than he was a mentor and a kindred spirit, and maybe even a friend. I've built my teaching style from a variety of the teachers I've encountered over the years, but without that experience with Mike, I doubt I ever would have played in a band with Brett, who was one of my first English 1010 students, or gone to see Allen Stone perform in Seattle with Scott, who was in the last English 2010 class I taught before leaving Logan. Whenever I think of a long-term friendship that started in one of my English classes, I see roots that trace back to the spring of '95.

When I got back from my mission, I looked Mike up in the campus directory. It's been so long I can't remember if I called him or emailed him, but I remembered him saying/writing this:

"Yeah, you were one of the few bright spots that quarter."

That was probably one of the coolest compliments anyone has ever given me.

I think he was still in the grad program at that point, but we lost touch again, and I haven't contacted him in several years. Every once in a while I'll punch his name into the Facebook search bar, but my lack of results gives me the feeling his opinion of social media is roughly the same as his opinion of offices.

Maybe I'll just have to find a grassy stretch on campus some time and take a walk, see if I run into him.


*Meaning I wore tie-dyed shirts and had multiple Jimi Hendrix posters, but the closest I came to experimenting with drugs was buying Pink Floyd's first album and actually listening to the whole thing.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dating and Driving, No. II

The other day I was online trying to find out how long it takes a speeding ticket to get dropped from a Utah driving record. I'm about three years removed from an incident that took place on the 400 South overpass by I-15, and was wondering if it was about to expire.

Of course, any traffic incident inevitably takes me back to my first ticket experience, which took place the night of my Senior Prom. It was a surreal event to cap off a surreal time in my life. Aside from the usual craziness that surrounds high school graduation, my comic supporting role in the school play had been getting big laughs, and for some reason Cheetahman--the junior class president at the time--decided that it would be a good time to nominate me for prom royalty. In a rare fit of social confidence, I called up the captain of the drill team--a girl I'd exchanged maybe a dozen words with in three years--and asked her to go to the dance with me. Inexplicably, she said yes.

And that's how we wound up sitting in my parents' Honda on a gravel parking lot at the west end of Smoot Park round about 11:30pm the night of the dance. The early stages of the evening were pretty standard: our group had gathered in downtown Salt Lake at Benihana for dinner, then migrated over to the State Fairgrounds for the dance itself. After getting pictures and doing a few obligatory dances, we drove back up north to a home in Centerville we'd designated as a way-station to get out of our formal clothes before meeting at the park to hang out for a couple of hours.

But even though we were the last couple to leave the changing house, when we got to the park no one was there. What I didn't understand was that Smoot Park was an elongated strip of property that stretched from west to east, and I was only familiar with the west end, where I'd meet friends to play football. The east end had a traditional paved parking lot and a jungle gym for little kids, and that's where everyone else went.

If we had cell phones back then, it would have been easy to address the problem. But we didn't, and in my teenage zeal, I came to the conclusion that everyone else must have driven their cars into the park to form some kind of automotive drum circle. No really, I actually thought this.

"Maybe they all pulled up on the grass," I said.

My date didn't have any better ideas, so I flipped on my brights, stepped on the gas pedal, and began driving through Smoot Park, searching for my friends. I was very careful to go slow over the foot bridge that crossed the creek that ran through the park--after all, I was in my parents' car--and after a while, I saw some lights up ahead.

The drum circle, obviously.

But when I got a little closer, my lights illuminated the words "Centerville City Police Department" on the side of a large white squad car. The police had already arrived to break up the party, which was taking place in the normal parking lot next to the jungle gym, about five minutes before I pulled up on the grass.

After a brief awkward exchange with the officer, I handed over my license and my parents' registration before he walked back to his squad car, leaving my date and I to wonder if I was going to be arrested. My friend Dustin came over to check on us and see if I wanted to give him my last will and testament, or just give my date a ride home. But then the cop came back and stopped at my window.

I didn't feel like scanning in  my Prom photos, so instead
 I'll let this image act as a metaphor for my evening.
"Would you step out of the car, please?" he asked.

Quietly I got out and followed the officer over to his squad vehicle.

"Get in," he said, pointing to the passenger seat.

I opened the door and got in next to the officer, who ignored me for ten full minutes while running my name through the system and filling out some paperwork. The distorted robotic voice of the dispatcher--which mentioned my name a time or two--was the only sound in the car amid all the blinking lights and the flashes of static. I kept waiting for the officer to start reading me my rights, but eventually he just got my signature and gave me a court date before kicking me out of his car and driving off into the night, presumably to break up another of Viewmont's wild prom parties.

A couple weeks later I found myself in the Centerville City Courthouse with my dad, waiting to visit with Judge Jensen about my citation. The room was more of an office than a courtroom, smallish and packed to the hilt with offenders, all of us waiting on the judge who sat against the wall in front of a window behind a massive wooden table in his vast black robe. For an hour or so we sat quietly while the city's finest felons filed up to the table to address their various DUIs and other violations. At one point a county inmate in an orange jumpsuit and shackles was led into the room to discuss some kind of heinous crime I've since blocked out, though I think it had something to do with armed robbery or murdering seventeen people or maybe just using an Arby's for illicit purposes, and I got the feeling that I was just a little bit out of my element.

But then Judge Jensen called me up to his table. He sat there for a moment looking over my citation, looming in the tall frame that had fathered some of the area's most successful basketball prospects, then sighed and asked me this question:

"Josh, are you familiar with city statute 347Z-211B?"

I squinted my eyes and concentrated for a second, as if there was a chance I actually had encountered that statue in my travels.

"No," I replied.

"It pretty much says you can't drive through public parks."

Five minutes later, the verdict was official: $40 fine and nothing on my permanent record, since it wasn't a moving violation.

It wasn't a moving violation because I wasn't driving on a paved surface.

And so I walked out of the courthouse a free man, my father by my side, tasting the pure spring air. Now it was time to dial back in and finish up my high school career, maybe work a couple of extra hours at the grocery store to make up for the citation money, and look forward to a bright, criminal record-free future. To be honest, my biggest surprise during the whole ordeal was how easily my parents had taken the news of their son's socially deviant activity.

They let me borrow the car again, but I never did get another date with the drill team captain.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Ladies (Don't) Love Zeppelin

"Now this is most important, Rat. When it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV..."
-Mike Damone, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"

Every time I hear a song off Led Zeppelin's fourth album, I am transported to my junior year of high school, the year I started dating, driving, and depending on your definition of employment, working. That winter was one of the heaviest in recent Utah history, and many of my junior year memories are connected to me trying to navigate my parents' 1983 Honda Accord across the frozen tundra of the Viewmont High School parking lot, all while my uncle's copy of Led Zeppelin IV rambled out of my tape deck.

As I've swapped stories with friends over the years, I've come to believe that becoming a Zeppelin fan is a teenage rite of passage for every red-blooded American male. For whatever reason, Led Zeppelin is the ideal band for the impotent adolescent rage of the teen years. When I first heard the opening growl of "Whole Lotta Love" while crouched on the orange shag carpet of my parents' music room, I had finally found the music to match the image my cousin's KISS album covers had conjured years earlier. KISS's music turned out to be as dark and dangerous as a vigorous game of whiffle-ball, but Zeppelin burned and strutted. I wouldn't exactly call it rebellious--after all, I found "Whole Lotta Love" on one of my mom's compilation albums--but soon after my basement epiphany I borrowed my uncle's cassette tape, and before long picked up the four-disc CD set with the crop formations on the cover. My initiation was complete.

Recently I decided to test out my "rite of passage" theory by posting a simple inquiry to all my male Facebook friends: are you a Zeppelin fan, and if so, when did you join the club? In no time I had eight passionate endorsements for a band that had rocked into their lives sometime during adolescence, and stayed for good. Here are my favorites:

"My dad used to have me listen to Led Zeppelin as long as I can remember. Alongside ZZ Top, it was the soundtrack of my in-car-childhood."

"I borrowed Led Zeppelin (4) from my friend when I was in 9th grade and I listened to it non-stop for about a year. My other friend then got a copy of the four disk box set and I listened to it for another 5 years..."

"Rooting around through some of brother's stuff in the attic over our garage (I know. I shouldn't have been going through his stuff.) I found a tape with funny symbols on the front followed by a number 4. I put it in the Walkman that I also found in the attic and turned it up. 'If it keeps on raining, levee's going to break' was the first thing I heard. I was an instant convert..."

And of course this one just warmed my heart:

"Although I liked Zeppelin before I think they reached the status of one of my favorite bands in high school hanging out with none other than Josh Terry..."

Eight responses off a status post is far from scientific evidence, especially when you consider that my Facebook friends number in the hundreds. But after considering the mysterious algorithm Facebook uses to determine who actually sees my posts, and wondering which of my friends have unsubscribed from my posts after getting sick of me pimping my photography business, I still thought my theory had some weight. So I decided to survey a more captive audience: my English 2010 students.

18 of the 31 guys who participated said they were Zeppelin fans, and most of them were very emphatic about it. Many shared anecdotes about how their fathers or a friend got them into the group, and one elaborated on a pack of "weird lookin'" cigarettes he discovered hidden behind a Zeppelin album that led to an experience I probably shouldn't repeat here. Many who didn't identify as fans at least demonstrated an awareness of the band's music, only a couple specifically said they didn't like it, and a couple of my foreign students had never heard of the band before. Then there was my student who responded that "I wouldn't call myself a fan but a supporter."

Maybe he was just worried about his grade.

Overall, my theory seems to have traction, but not enough to call it doctrine. Zeppelin has surely been a rite of passage for many American males, just not every male. But in the process of exploring one theory, I have formed another that seems to hold a lot more potential:

Ladies don't love Led Zeppelin.

A few days after my Facebook post, I decided to poll my female friends on their Zeppelin fandom, and I got exactly one response. This felt significant, given that my guy-to-girl Facebook friend ratio is about five to four. When I surveyed my 2010 students, only two of my nine female students identified themselves as Zeppelin fans, and neither was very emphatic about it. So I can't say with any certainty that all guys get into Zeppelin in high school, but I do think I can say that most girls don't care much for Jimmy Page and the boys.

Realize here that the emphasis is on the word "most." Obviously Zeppelin has plenty of female fans; I'm talking percentages here. And any fool knows that Led Zeppelin was more than happy to take advantage of their rock-god statuses. A quick glance at any live concert photo reveals costumes clearly designed to create sex appeal, even if it's a creepy skinny-hairy-guys-in-tight-jumpsuits kind of sex appeal. Rock stars are rock stars, warts and STDs and all. I also realize that there is a whole host of other mitigating factors that could be impacting my research, such as the fact that as a Mormon male in Utah, chances are my female friends are considerably less likely to embrace blues rock and considerably more likely to embrace Tim McGraw and songs about skydiving. Ever since that horrible moment years ago when Z-93 dropped its classic rock format and became KBUL-93, I have known that when it comes to music taste, I am a Utah minority.

But I do think that in general, Led Zeppelin's music doesn't crossing the gender gap, and if you asked me why, the first thing I'd do is cite the band's lyrics. My sister has a simple theory about lyrics: girls listen to them, guys don't. And if you listen to Led Zeppelin's lyrics, you notice a couple of things:
  • Zeppelin doesn't sing about love all that much.
  • They do like to sing about JRR Tolkein characters.
Now to me, that doesn't sound like a recipe for female fans. At least on a massive cultural scale. The simple answer is that Led Zeppelin's music doesn't appeal to female fans because unlike Bon Jovi's, it wasn't designed to. And maybe that's why the quote that leads this article is so funny.**

So what does this all mean? Besides the fact that I was willing to survey my English students and tabulate the gender ratio of my Facebook friends for the sake of a blog post on Led Zeppelin? It could just mean that I need to get a life, or should at least stop over-thinking things like when people get into particular 70s classic rock bands. Or maybe there really is something to be said about how popular culture influences our identity, and this is only making a tiny, tiny scratch on the surface of a much larger beast.

But mostly I think I just enjoy the idea of flagging a shared experience. As much as I hated dealing with all the snow in the parking lot and all the uncertain awkwardness of my high school experience, when I think back on those days rolling around in my old Honda, listening to "When the Levee Breaks" and "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll," I smile. They really were good times. And I think I'm not alone in saying that.

What is the point of a blog if it isn't to bring together people with similar experiences?


*It just dawned on me that my male students outnumber my female students three to one this semester. Interesting.

**Though to be fair, I have never actually tried this. Maybe it works like a charm?

Saturday, February 02, 2013

"Warm Bodies" Keeps the Zombie Genre's Heart Beating...For Now

It's been six and a half years since a small group of my like-minded friends gathered in an unfinished basement in Woods Cross for the first official Zombie Fest. As much fun as the yearly tradition has been, over the years I've started to wonder how long it would be before our zombie passion would burn out. Every once in a while a fresh face like "Evil Dead II" would breathe some life into our routine of old standards like "28 Days Later" or "Night of the Living Dead," but in spite of our efforts, the Zombie Fest Apocalypse may still be at hand.

2012's event felt like the last bullet to the undead-brain: after the first feature, a screening of the so-so "Quarantine," most of the fest attendees decided to call it a night. Only my friend and fellow head-shaver Spencer and I stuck around to watch "Dead Snow," a Norwegian film about a group of skiers who encounter a raging band of Nazi Zombies on the frozen tundra.

"Dead Snow" was either the greatest camp zombie movie I have ever seen, or a desperate effort to squeeze original blood from the zombie stone. It had all the craziness and creativeness that make zombie movies fun (plus a POV shot that might cure you of zombie flicks on its own), but while watching it, I couldn't help but think to myself, "where do we go from here?"

Now I know: zombie romantic comedies. This weekend I took a spin over to the Centerville Megaplex with some friends to see "Warm Bodies," which boasts one of the most unique zombie breakthroughs since Danny Boyle asked, "what if zombies could run fast?" For the first time, we see the film from the zombie's point of view.

Specifically, we see it through "R's" point of view. Played by Nicholas Hoult (the kid from "About a Boy," if you can believe it), R spends his days wandering around an abandoned airport, scavenging for brains and having periodic grunt conversations with his only friend (played by Rob Corddry). It's been about eight years since the outbreak, but he can't remember what caused it, being undead and all.

R is a special kind of zombie. He's dead, but there's still a personality flickering around in his own brain, enough to give us some voice-over narration throughout the film. He's more or less staked out an abandoned passenger jet as his new home, filled with odds and ends he's picked up in his slow, lethargic travels. He's even got a working record player and an impressive vinyl collection. Rrr is basically an EMO zombie hipster.

One day, on a search for brains with some of his undead friends, Rrr stumbles onto a band of humans in search of medical supplies, led by Julie (Teresa Palmer) and her PTSD-suffering boyfriend Perry. The angelic vision of Julie brandishing a shotgun while her blond locks flow in slow-motion triggers something in R, so after beating her boyfriend to death and eating his brains, he whisks her off to the safety of his passenger jet, and the romance begins.

Now, I don't mean to discard the whole "beating and brain eating" thing too casually. One of the more interesting aspects of "Warm Bodies" is how it tries to negotiate its lighthearted zombie-in-love premise with its more macabre realities. "Shaun of the Dead" was able to keep its entire satiric narrative on an even tone, but "Warm Bodies" tries to offer a philosophical metaphor to the idea of eating a person's brains. I guess you have to do that when you're trying to make a sympathetic protagonist out of a corpse that sustains himself on the living, but it's a stretch, if nothing else.

Still, when you get right down to it, "Warm Bodies" is more a metaphor for the awkwardness of love than it is a zombie movie, and that's what makes it so relatable, and so fun. I doubt there is a guy out there who hasn't felt like a staggering, creepy, tongue-tied oaf when trying to have a conversation with a girl he was attracted to. And I'm guessing the film is pretty relatable from the female side of the equation as well. Though I can't say for sure, being undead and all.

The film has its faults, but if you have felt a little burned out by the zombie genre and were debating whether to say goodbye (or if you just need something to tide you over until "Walking Dead" starts up again), this one would be worth checking out before you go.