Sunday, March 31, 2013

The 10 Most Embarrassing CDs in my Music Collection

Earlier this year I put together a list of my most embarrassing DVDs. As a film critic and self-avowed movie snob, I think this was a good exercise to keep me humble. But my effort to do the same thing for my CD collection has been more complicated, because a) I no longer own a lot of the humiliating CDs I ordered from the BMG music club back in the '90s, an b) thanks to iTunes, I can download all the goofball songs I want for a buck under the guise of ironic appreciation. There's a big difference between downloading "Ice Ice Baby" as a joke for 99 cents and throwing $15 at an entire album's worth of Robert Van Winkle's early '90s mayonnaise raps.

So I am left with a choice: construct the list as a retrospective of inept musical appreciation, or make it a warts-and-all confession of albums I still own and cherish (or just forgot to run down to the Tom-Tom Music exchange back in 1998). After careful consideration, I think it might be more revealing to know what I still own on CD today...

1. Right Said Fred, "Up"

I bought this CD during my first year of grad school in order to use "I'm Too Sexy" for an English 1010 writing activity. iTunes hadn't happened yet, so I had no choice but to pick up the entire album for seven bucks out of the used bin of a local Hastings. On the plus side, this demonstrates the great lengths I will go to serve my students. On the downside, I have listened to "Don't Talk, Just Kiss" more than once.

2. Avril Levigne, "Let Go"

I don't know if I should even try to excuse this one. Avril Levigne's first album is guitar and drum-driven, which kind of helps--I do think it would be fun to play the drums to "Sk8ter Boi," and I seem to recall that being the primary impetus for the purchase--but beyond that, I think my defense runs out of gas.

3. Dolly Parton, "White Limozeen"

No need for a summary here. I've already given this little gem its own post. And yes, the ball is back in my court.

4. Milli Vanilli, "Girl You Know It's True"

The one CD from that fateful first round of BMG acquisitions that has survived to this day. I traded in Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson, but something told me that Milli Vanilli was worth holding on to. And let's be honest, "Blame it On the Rain" is a pretty great song.

5. Roxette, "Look Sharp!"

Whenever I think about bands that would have sounded awesome if they weren't dragged down by dated production techniques, Roxette usually springs to mind. I think it was my friend Mark who pointed out that hits like "Dangerous" and "Paint" would work fine today if you stripped away the '80s-ness of the recordings. But even with the kitsch intact, "Look Sharp" has enough high points to stay on my shelf.

6. Pras, "Ghetto Supastar"

If it was available on iTunes, I would have bought the title track for a buck. But Pras didn't want his one hit available for a ninety-nine cent download. So how else was I supposed to get a hold of the song that reminded me of my favorite Aggie-ette? Sometimes sacrifices must be made for the greater good.

7. Bread, "Anthology of Bread"

I genuinely like Bread. "If" in particular is a fantastic song. I think I just struggle with the idea of owning a CD by a band with such a sissified name. If it were a joke, I'd be OK with it. But Bread is a legit name. You can tell because the music sounds like bread. White bread, specifically. Probably Wonder Bread. And that doesn't help my argument at all.

8. Various Artists, "Serendipity" Soundtrack

Originally I had listed my 3-CD Burt Bacharach boxed set here, but as I think about it, it's much more difficult for me to explain my ownership of the "Serendipity" soundtrack, so I decided to man up and make the switch. To be fair, no one should ever have to strain to justify a soundtrack that includes music from Nick Drake and Louis Armstrong. But judging from the reaction to my DVD list, I should probably come clean on my total "Serendipity"-related purchase history.

9. The Carpenters, "The Singles: 1969-73"

There's a semi-famous* scene in "Tommy Boy" where David Spade and Chris Farley begrudgingly acknowledge their love of the song "Superstar." And hey, it's a pretty great song (I happen to favor the original artist's version from the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" soundtrack**). But I would be lying if I didn't admit that there were plenty of other Carpenters' songs I liked.

10. Various Artists, "Pretty Woman" Soundtrack

I'm trying to remember why I picked this up used for five bucks a few years ago. It may have been because I wanted a copy of the Roxette song. I don't think it was for the Christopher Otcasek song (which was also featured in "Crocodile Dundee II," by the way). The funny thing is that I don't think I've ever seen the entire movie.

BONUS: Hulk Hogan and the Wrestling Boot Band, "Hulk Rules"

I can't include this on the main list for two reasons. The first is I can't find it, so I can't confirm that I still own it (trust me, I searched). The second is that I'm not sure it really qualifies for this list since, unlike the other entries, I wouldn't be all that embarrassed if anyone came across it while browsing through my collection***. In fact, I think I would go out of my way to point it out to guests during dinner parties. The fact that I picked it up (for free, as I may have been a white elephant gift) already knowing how awful it would be probably disqualifies it.


*Semi-famous because apparently it isn't on YouTube.

**Also not on YouTube. But worth looking me.

***This feels like an oblivious thing to say in a voluntary blog post that publishes my musical sins to the entire planet, but somehow taking the initiative feels much more empowering than merely waiting for disaster to strike on its own.

Friday, March 22, 2013

One Shining Moment...

I never played college basketball. Never knew what it felt like to stand at the free throw line during March Madness as thousands of co-eds and die-hard college basketball fans screamed at me. But in the first basketball tournament I ever entered, in the first game I ever played, I did something at the age of eleven that no one ever did in the tournament of 64. Not Walton, not Magic, not even Jordan.

I scored every single one of my team's points for an entire game.

Granted, we lost that game 72-4, but I'll take whatever credit I can get. My shining moment came on the first night of the Bountiful North Stake's Deacon's Basketball Tournament, a two day ecclesiastical bonanza that would match up the 12 and 13-year-olds of six wards in a pre-pubescent bloodbath. It was my baptism by fire into the cultural curiosity that is LDS church basketball. Thanks to a massive age gap that left my ward with only two deacon-aged boys, I was recruited along with another half-dozen of my eleven-year-old peers to fill out the roster. Just enough for the 19th ward to field a team of 6th graders against five teams stacked with kids on the opposite end of their junior high growth spurts.

I can't remember who we played in that first game. It might have been the 13th ward, or maybe the 10th. They were all older than I was, so I didn't know any of them anyway. What I did know was that from the opening tip, my team's challenge was not to score points. It was to get the ball across the half-court line. We'd barely inbound the basketball before a merciless full-court press would pressure us into turnover after turnover, easily converted to quick layups by kids who may as well have been 7-feet tall from our perspective.

I don't know that any of us had serious aspirations going into that tournament, but any hopes we had were quickly hammered into the hardwood. It was the first of many games I would play at the A-frame church up on the hill that overlooked the radish and bean fields of Bangerter's farm (where I would earn my first professional wages two summers later). The lighting inside that tiny basketball court was bad even for church gym standards, and the whole place had a distinctive orange tone that was a far cry from the bright Celestial glory of our spacious home court down the road. Not that any of that would have made any difference.

At some point late in the first half, we still hadn't put a single point on the board, so I followed in the time-honored tradition of many NBA professionals and decided that playing defense was pointless. As our opponent picked up another steal and made their way down to another easy basket, I lingered back. Our point guard Phil Johnson took the inbounds pass and spied my 4'9", 75-pound frame all alone and uncovered at the other end of the court. He lofted a cross-court pass that I grabbed just past the opposite foul line, and in a single motion I turned and tossed up a 10-foot jumper before anyone could get back and slap it into the next week. In my mind, it looked just like this play.

When the shot went in, the crowd erupted like we had just won the national title. Shutout averted.

At halftime, my coach pleaded with the other squad to let us at least get the ball past mid court, but there must have been some kind of BCS-ranking applied to the tournament standings, because when the second half started, the carnage continued. I do seem to remember our team getting a few shots off, either because we were playing better or because the other team was getting bored. But we didn't convert another field goal for the rest of the game.

As the clock finally wound down on our sad debacle, somehow we got the ball past mid court, and I took a pass near the top of the key. Again I turned to throw up a prayer, but this time the defender clipped my arm, and I was sent to the foul line.

The cheer that came after I made the first free throw was almost as loud as the cheer that came with my first-half jumper. The cheer that came after I hit the second was definitely louder.

A few seconds later, the buzzer sounded, the slaughter finally ended, and I walked away from my first church basketball game feeling conflicted. The defeat was excruciating, total and humiliating, yet it offered just enough hope to make me think I could hold my own with real competition. We fared better over the course of our next four games, though I don't remember winning any of them. By the next year, we were all on our way through puberty, and just another group of awkward pre-teens. A few years after that we were offering beat downs of our own, though I don't remember any of them being as lopsided as 72-4.

I never went on to play college ball. Heck, I never even went on to play for my junior high team. Like most wanna-be jocks, my basketball "career" was spent in rec leagues and pick-up games. But I had a pretty good time. And I'd put my highlight reel up against anybody's.

The world may have spent the last thirty years wishing they could try on Michael Jordan's shoes, but just about everybody has taken a stroll in mine.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Cafe Confessions

The first time someone ever suggested I eat at a Hard Rock Cafe I wanted to punch them. I was packed into a tour bus with sixty of my classmates on a high school science tour of southern California, and we had just completed our 12-hour+ journey from Bountiful, Utah to San Diego. Two girls tried to convince our teacher to let us grab lunch at the Hard Rock, presumably so they could buy one of the souvenir T-shirts that had infested our school hallways since we were in Kindergarten. At that point, any suggestion that didn't include the words "go to our hotel so we can get out of this (expletive) bus and sleep in a normal bed for three hours" would have inspired the same violent reaction.

Yet over the last ten years, eating at the Hard Rock Cafe has actually become one of my two regular traditions for a visit to any of our nation's major cities. (The first is buying the single most obnoxious fridge magnet for that city I can find). But I no longer seek out the Hard Rock Cafe because I want to stare in wonder at an autographed guitar that used to be owned by an obscure guitarist for The Romantics back in 1985.

I go to the Hard Rock Cafe because I like the food.

For a guy who has become a acknowledged snob in several important cultural areas, this seems like a significant confession, like admitting that I had a poster of Paula Abdul on my wall in the eighth grade, or that I own "Pearl Harbor" on DVD. For pop culture museum-restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood*, actual food quality is an afterthought, and endorsing it feels like Michael Scott's proud tradition of grabbing a "New York Slice" at Sbarro on his corporate trips to Manhattan. But the truth is that I have developed a taste for Hard Rock Cafe chicken fingers, and the spicy-yet-tangy reddish-brown dipping sauce they come with. I order the chicken fingers every single time I go, along with an order of fries, because the chicken fingers are considered an appetizer. At around $20, it's my most shameful meal, just ahead of Taco Tuesdays at Del Taco.

It's possible this tradition would not exist if Salt Lake City hadn't lost its Hard Rock Cafe several years ago. I don't know if it was because of its obscure non-tourist-friendly location in Trolley Square or just that there really aren't a lot of people who want to look at displays of old Osmond brothers stage outfits, but losing Hard Rock became another sad piece of evidence to suggest that Salt Lake City most definitely does not rock.

The hard-rocking Cafe image did always feel like an odd fit in pioneer-settled Salt Lake City. For years I half jokingly kept track of the number of Hard Rock Cafes where I had dined, assuming that as long as the number was equal to or less than the number of LDS temples I had attended, my net righteousness would be safely in the black**. This dynamic was never more vivid than the day my sister and I followed up a visit to the Las Vegas temple with a late lunch at the Hard Rock off the Vegas strip. Up until that point our strangest one-two punch was the time we visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Amish Country on the same afternoon during a family trip to Ohio in the summer of 1998.

The Hard Rock has consistently provided some of my strangest travel memories. Aside from the Vegas two-step, there was the time in Niagra Falls where I inadvertently insulted my waitress during a discussion on Canadian currency***. Then there was the time in Chicago where I tried (and failed) to ask out a cute waitress named Paige because I was feeling adventurous and lonely. But the topper has to be the time I was seated by the front window at the Seattle Hard Rock and looked up from my chicken fingers just in time to see the two-dozen buck-nude participants in Seattle's annual Naked Bike Ride pedal down the street. I hadn't seen that many tiny pee-pees in one place since my junior high gym class.

Altogether, I've dined at Hard Rocks everywhere from San Francisco to Times Square, and yet in all these years, I've never dined at the San Diego location. Maybe I'm afraid I'll run into a tour bus full of high school biology students. Maybe finally taking my classmates' advice will confirm the fact that I'm not as sophisticated as I'd like to think I am. But as long as they still have that chicken finger sauce, I'm sure I'll make it there eventually. And I'm hoping that a Paula Abdul video will be playing on a monitor nearby.


*Does Planet Hollywood even exist anymore? Does it matter?

**Current count: 10 to 10. Hmm.

***Seriously, do you base your tip on Canadian currency rates or American? I'm never going to leave the lower 48 again.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Deleted Scenes

We're barely over two months into 2013, and I've already posted more columns to this blog than in all of last year. Part of this is because of my unofficial goal to get out one post a week. But a bigger reason is because over the course of 2011 and 2012, I left a lot of half-finished posts unpublished.

The problem is that publishing columns to a blog hardly anyone reads is a low priority next to...well, next to just about everything else I do. It's good to keep in practice, but since I am writing for other outlets, as well as teaching and taking pictures and doing whatever else I can to make money under the mighty banner of Wounded Mosquito Productions, blogging is only slightly more important than keeping up my basketball skills. And anyone who has seen me on the court in the last two months knows that isn't saying much.

Thing is, I've started numerous posts over the last couple of years that I just never got around to finishing, either because I never felt good about them or because they were way too time-sensitive for me to post a week or two after the event they were referencing. So I've got this massive archive in my Blogger portal of never-before-seen-and-probably-for-good-reasons material.

Some of the posts were interesting enough that I still wonder if I should finish them:
  • A post about the end of the Hostess company.
  • A post about Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow, and whether God cares about sports.
  • A post about my last night as a Utah Jazz season ticket holder.
  • A post about running my first 5K.
  • A post about Deron Williams' return to Utah after his trade to New Jersey.
  • Multiple posts where I rant about blind dating.
  • A post where I try to justify skipping the Paul McCartney concert during the same stretch where I attended shows from KISS, Public Enemy, and Bon Jovi.
  • A post where I try to respond to the accusation of being "Baby Crazy" after posting numerous pictures of my now two-year-old niece to Facebook.
  • A post about my aforementioned declining basketball skills, which I tried to combine with a commentary about Jerry Sloan's sudden retirement, then tried to combine with a commentary about Deron Williams' trade to New Jersey, then finally abandoned.
I guess I try to write about the Jazz a lot. See what I mean about timeliness, though?

As I look back even farther, I find more curious examples:
  • A post from September 2006 about working in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building Bakery.
  • A post from 2009 about the new Star Trek movie.
  • A post from January 2010 about my inability to lie (and consequently, pull effective pranks).
  • A May 2010 post where I outlined different points of advice I'd offer myself if I could go back in time ten years.
  • A laundry list of important things I have learned over my many years of dating.
Looking over this list, there are some obvious reasons many of these posts never saw the light of the Interwebs. There were others I didn't post because they turned out to be far more personal than I feel comfortable sharing. But it is a curious archive if nothing else, and my guess is that much of the worthwhile content will find life in a different post or project down the road.

The single strangest thing I can take from this exercise is that once again I find myself fighting this idea that if something isn't posted on my blog or uploaded to Facebook, it didn't really happen. It's a completely bizarre and ludicrous idea, and I'd feel a lot more comfortable thinking it had more to do with closure, or just finishing what I start. Because why would I care whether random net surfers in Singapore know about my feelings about Jerry Sloan's retirement two years ago?

If an image or an article isn't published online, does it truly exist?

In the meantime, I'll keep trying to give the blog enough of a priority to get out one column a week. Maybe once I get my rhythm going, I can start worrying about how to get more than a dozen people to read them.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Instant I Became a Photographer

I've had an artistic impulse ever since the moment I started drawing Star Wars characters with my crayons and markers when I was four years old. In fact, this impulse was so defining that if you browse through my junior high school yearbooks, about half the hand-written entries say something like, "you are so good at drawing!" or "you are the best artist!", because most of my peers didn't know what else to write about me.

But my interest in photography didn't come until much later in life. I took a basic photo class at the University of Utah, but my fumblings in the developing room and my mediocrity in the darkroom ensured that any professional aspirations remain safely subdued.

It wasn't until summer of 2006 that my passions hit a significant milestone. I had returned to Chicago for the first time in seven years to show my father around the areas I served as a missionary. For a week we toured the better part of northern Illinois, from Freeport to Kankakee, and spent several days downtown in the Loop, where we enjoyed Giordano's pizza and live blues at the Blue Chicago.

Over the course of that week we also found out that half a dozen of my old friends and contacts from the mission days had died, none more colorful than Dan Giles, a retired 6'2" CTA driver from Chicago's south side who was a spot-on doppleganger for James Earl Jones. News of his and others' passing wove a sad subplot through an otherwise great trip, which was mirrored by a rainstorm downtown one afternoon as my dad and I were staying at the Allegro Hotel in the Theater District.

It wasn't a heavy rainstorm, but it was enough to discourage us from setting out on any major tourist efforts. Still, I was determined to go stretch my legs, so I grabbed my dad's 3.2 megapixel Olympus point-and-shoot and went for a stroll. The storm had calmed, but the rain was still coming in intermittent bursts, so I was able to catch a number of simple shots that were accented perfectly by faint streaks of water.

Here are two of my favorites, where the rain complements the dingy, dreary age of Chicago's L-Train system:

As I came to one street corner, I noticed the Chicago Theater District logo stamped in the concrete. But as I got down at a nice angle and took the picture, an oblivious pedestrian walked through my shot.

At first I was annoyed, because I wanted a clear picture of the sidewalk. But as I looked at the result, I couldn't help but be impressed. The pedestrian had created a motion blur with his outstretched leg that was perfectly composed to the right of the sidewalk logo. The picture looked far more "artistic" than anything I'd ever shot before. In some ways, you could argue that it was the first time, even if by dumb luck, I had taken a real photograph.

In the months that followed, I eventually picked up a point-and-shoot camera of my own, and continued to take shots that had a lot more to do with documenting my surroundings than they had to do with creating art. I wouldn't pick up my first SLR for a couple of years, and it wasn't until many months after that that I finally learned how to use it. Even now, more than a decade after that misfire of a photo class, I still feel like I'm weak in some of the fundamentals that my peers grasp so easily.

But it's still fun to retrace my steps and land on that downtown Chicago sidewalk, and realize that I can pinpoint the moment I became a photographer. Even if it was just by dumb luck.