Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hot February Nights

Every semester, whether I am teaching English 1010 or 2010, I have my students write a short memoir of a turning point in their lives. Sick individual that I am, sometimes I'll do the assignment along with them to give them an example. What follows is my interpretation of my own English assignment...

Hot February Nights

Joshua Terry

As I clutched my brand-new souvenir DW drumsticks and took my seat behind the foreign kit, I gazed out into the smoke filled room and reminded myself that the audience was probably too intoxicated to know how good I would play. But the strangers on the stage with me were another matter. Thirty seconds earlier I had talked my way past the Open Jam MC at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Chicago’s premier blues club, and in a few more seconds the seasoned bluesmen around me would realize that this white boy from the Utah suburbs didn’t belong on their stage. I figured I had about four seconds after the lead guitarist started the riff to figure out what the beat should be, and I prayed that I’d get it right. If life is really about taking chances, then I was never living more than the night I crashed the Open Jam. And I never would have tried it if it weren’t for Neil Diamond.

*   *   *

I never felt the power of school unity more than the night I did the Pogo with a hundred other USU co-eds in a Logan, Utah living room the size of a broom closet. But the music of Neil Diamond has a way of bringing people together, and Dreamy Phil and the Diamond Dazzlers’ live cover of “America” during a January 2003 house party was one of the fondest memories from my first year of grad school. So when Dreamy Phil called the next week and asked me to join his band, I knew it was an invitation I shouldn’t take lightly.

“You want to play the drums for us?” he asked.

The Diamond Dazzlers had been recruited to headline USU’s Valentine’s Dance after their stunning house party performance. I had been so moved by the experience of jumping up and down in a crowded living room that I told them to let me know if they wanted to jam sometime. I didn’t know it then, but Dreamy Phil wasn’t all that attached to his current drummer, so “sometime” became “next month at the school dance.”

I don’t think Dreamy Phil understood the weight of his invitation. My rock drummer resume was tenuous at best. It had been eight years since I took my first drum lesson from a heavy-set lawyer who moonlighted as an Elvis Impersonator in grocery store parking lots when the mood struck him. But drumming was always a casual pursuit, and the sum total of my stage experience consisted of a church talent show and a birthday party performance for a bedridden handicapped girl who couldn’t stop us from playing our full set if she tried. Saying no Dreamy Phil would keep me safe in that world, jamming with friends in venues where everyone was just happy to be listening to real people play real instruments in a real mediocre way. But saying yes meant that in under a month I would take the stage with legitimate musicians to play for people who weren’t obligated to cheer for me. People who could boo and throw stuff if they wanted. I was scared. But I also knew I had to do it.

“Yeah,” I said. “Count me in.”

I soon learned that Dreamy Phil and his crew weren’t actually a Diamond cover band. The house party was just a favor to a girlfriend who talked them into playing some Neil Diamond songs, and they really favored an acoustic sound that offered a better fit for their earth toned clothing, environmentally sensitive demeanor, and used Subarus. Still, we were recruited to play Neil, so for the next month we practiced Neil. I managed to keep up with my new band mates on Diamond standards like “Shilo” and “Soolaimon,” laying down beats that were solid if not flashy. Phil, a lanky crooner with brown shaggy hair, handled lead vocals and rhythm guitar. His toe-headed sidekick Haas handled the bass while strutting around in his tight pants. Matt was the contemplative bearded one, pulling tunes out of everything from a mandolin to a banjo for additional texture. Dave was the funny quiet guy, which was perfect for someone playing an accordion, and Melissa the violinist was the most musically talented of all of us. As long as I didn’t pull the rest of the group down, we were a formidable lineup.

My concerns weren’t just music-related. After the church talent show and birthday party gig, I left my first band over creative differences. My next band showed potential, but our debut performance at a church toga party was cut short when a lightning bolt hit a transformer and cut off power to the building. We put together a follow-up gig a few months later, but our half-cocked garage show (meaning, we literally performed out of our lead singer’s garage) was so bad that my would-be girlfriend dumped me before the blood on my knuckles had dried. 

Yet, by mid-February, there I was, up on stage with the Diamond Dazzlers, embracing destiny before a modest crowd of semi-interested USU college students. As we whipped into our “You Baby,” a deep track with an easy 4/4 beat, I looked out into the audience and tried to muscle through the inevitable nerves that greeted every live performance. Dave was smiling as he tapped his accordion. Matt strummed away at his mandolin, glassy-eyed and ignoring the audience. Haas grinned and shimmied as his fingers plucked the bass, while Melissa worked her violin with the concentrated gaze of a professional. Up in front, Dreamy Phil did his best to channel the voice of the legend himself. 

Somehow, sitting back there under a tacky suede cowboy hat and bad aviator sunglasses, I held the Diamond Dazzler ship together. 

Three hours later we were crowded around a bright plastic table at Beto’s, waiting under lifeless neon lights for an assortment of tacos and burritos that would take their vengeance on us by noon the next day. The gig brought me to a new level as a musician, but failed to capture the energy of the house party. It was clear that 100 people packed in a living room created an energy that 100 people spread through a student center commons area couldn’t match. It was also obvious that while the other guys still planned on making music together, they weren’t planning on making Mr. Diamond a part of that future. 

“Man,” said Haas, shaking his head, “I’m never doing that again.” 

The others nodded knowingly. Even a $300 payday wasn’t enough to convince my new band to succumb to the limitations of a Neil Diamond-only set list. As they began to pick at their Mexican fast-food delicacies, it was clear that they were at the end of their road. But as I sat there with them, I knew mine was only beginning. 

*   *   * 

Seven years later, I sat behind that drum kit at Buddy Guy’s, hoping to wing my way through a couple of blues numbers and escape unharmed into the Chicago night. Earlier that evening the Legend himself made a cameo appearance and sang a few numbers for the thrilled crowd. I hadn’t seen him in an hour, and didn’t know if he was sitting out there in that foggy haze, nursing a beer and wondering who that bald white kid was on his stage. But one way or another, it was too late. The lead guitarist started in on a standard 12-bar-blues riff, and it was time for me to play.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Mac vs. PC

My phone is stupid. Or maybe it's just old. Either way, after a year and a half of decent performance, it has spent the last 12 months rotating through a variety of disobedient behaviors. Apps crashing, texting malfunctions, and every once in a while the touch screen decides to stop working.

Since my phone is an Android, and since I have owned Mac computers for over thirteen years, I'm wondering if I should make the jump to an iPhone once I can't take the crap from my Droid Incredible anymore. And that gets me thinking about that old Mac vs. PC issue again.

In the years since I first dropped about two grand into a G5 tower that boasted a 10 gig internal hard drive, the compatibility issues between Macs and PCs have improved, but the animosity is as intense as ever. Some Mac users still believe they are separated from their peers because they are "creative," unlike the tacky lowlifes who plug away on useless virus-infested junk boxes running mindless accounting programs. And some PC users still see themselves as enlightened computer science geniuses who would never stoop to petty peer pressure and pay twice as much for a computer just because it looks pretty. I don't expect either sentiment to die down anytime soon.

But I do have one thought to toss in the mix. As I've observed and absorbed the different arguments from both sides, there does seem to be one common thread at work. If I had to make a broad statement that would divide Mac and PC users into different stereotypical camps, I would say this: the difference is not that one group has no taste, and the other is overly concerned with it. The difference is the outcome each group is interested in.

Mac users are concerned with the end result of the computer's function, the product, which is probably part of the reason Mac users tend to emerge from the graphic design and video editing fields. They aren't concerned with what goes on behind the scenes, they're only concerned with getting the result they want.

PC users are more like motorcycle enthusiasts. For them, half the joy of using the computer is tinkering around with it, maybe even drawing the satisfaction from having built it themselves. They're interested in all the coding and the testing, and don't mind running a dozen different test programs when something goes on the glitch. It just makes the ride on the Harley that weekend that more satisfying.

There's obviously a lot more to it than that, and clearly there are exceptions to either side, but this does explain one of the reasons I've been a devout Mac user for more than a decade. I don't care about the mechanics. I don't want to run a thousand programs and troubleshoot all day long, and I don't want to slave over deciding what components to buy to upgrade my system. I just want the dumb thing to do what I want it to do.

Which is why I'll probably wind up buying an iPhone.

A few years ago, when I was still in a singles ward, a member of the Stake Presidency stood at the pulpit and offered an interesting analogy: women were software and men were hardware. The women were all ready to go; they just needed to be uploaded to some guy's hard drive. It was meant to illustrate the simplicity of the male-female dynamic, but it offered me a piece of clarity I don't think the speaker intended. It's true that men are hardware, and that women are software. It's also true that I'm a Mac.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Day One Interview

Over my years of teaching I've developed a few go-to activities. I use an activity called The Fallacy Bowl to teach my students how to avoid rhetorical fallacies in their writing, and on the last day of class we play a twisted form of a Jeopardy game for extra credit that combines course questions with questions from "essential" popular culture (such as: Name three people that Rocky Balboa fights in "Rocky III").

I use the Day One Interview to kick off every new semester. After calling the roll and reading over the syllabus, I have my students pair off to interview each other. They are free to talk about whatever they want, but at the conclusion of the interview, they must be prepared to introduce their new classmate and identify three items:
  1. If their classmate could have lunch anywhere in the world, where would it be?
  2. If their classmate could invite two people to this lunch (alive or dead, real or fictional), who would they invite?
  3. What music would be playing in the background during this meal?
You can learn a lot about a person by how they answer these questions. In each case, my class answers are split along familiar lines.

About half the answers to the first question identify geographic locations instead of specific restaurants, and most of those are pretty generic, like, "Darlene would have lunch in Italy." In these cases I think the student is more interested in going to a place they want to visit on vacation than worried about menu options. I actually enjoy the food-specific answers a little more, especially the students who, given all the options in the world (literally), still wind up eating at Beto's.

The second question ups the ante a bit. Here, half my students opt to meet historical figures (or pit them against each other, like the obligatory "Mike would want to have lunch with Jesus and Hitler" answer), and the other half choose to have lunch with family members. I'm on board when the student chooses a relative who died before they were born, but when they say something like, "my wife and my brother," I wonder if their papers that semester are going to bore me at an equal level.

The music question is typically the one I have to push them on, since half of their answers are way too broad or indecisive. Answers like, "whatever happens to be playing at the restaurant" or "rock" are unacceptable. And as much as I hate country, I'd take "Garth Brooks" as an answer any day over, "I wouldn't want any music playing; I'd just want to hear the natural sounds of the ocean."

Overall, the activity is a fun icebreaker, and lest anyone worry that I'm judging my students unfairly with these on-the-spot interrogations, keep in mind that most of the time I can't even remember their names until six to eight weeks into the class, let alone whatever random lunch spot they chose before I even have a final roster for the class. It might be smart for me to start tracking the answers and see if the students who refused to follow directions on the getting-to-know-you activity turn out to be the same ones who are begging me to fix their grades at the end of the semester when they forget to turn in assignments.

There is one last 50/50 split on this activity: at the conclusion of the introductions, a student will ask for my own answers in about half of my classes. They're never the same from semester to semester, but here's what springs to mind right now:
  1. I would have lunch at a place called Beanie's in The French Quarter in New Orleans. Nine years ago I had a BBQ shrimp dish there has yet to be topped.
  2. I would invite pop culture author Chuck Klosterman and the late Godfather of Soul James Brown to my lunch, for conversation and entertainment purposes, respectively.
  3. The Clash would be playing in the background, specifically "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," and "Armageddon Time."
Feel free to judge all you like. Just remember who will be issuing the grades at the end of the semester.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Comic Con Closure

Last Saturday, eight weeks before Halloween, I spent seven hours mingling with several thousand pop culture fanatics dressed as everything from storm troopers to Superman. I had two objectives: first, get some great pictures; and second, confront my most vivid childhood fear. At 3PM that afternoon, I left with over three hundred images in my camera, an autographed 8X10 of The Incredible Hulk, and the suspicion that I was focusing on the wrong fear.
When I heard that Salt Lake City was hosting its own Comic Con, I assumed the event would be a poor man's version of my San Diego experience six years ago. Taking a drive downtown for a few hours to see Jonathan Frakes wouldn’t measure up to the epic road trip pilgrimage my sister and I took to Southern California to meet Ray Bradbury. Nevertheless, just before 8am on a quiet Saturday morning in early fall, I found myself standing at the back of a Honda Civic in the near-empty City Creek parking garage, trying to help my friend Jared decide which backpack he should bring into the conference.
One was a standard Jansport bag, safe and anonymous. The other was a replica of the pack Luke Skywalker wore in “The Empire Strikes Back” while he was training with Yoda on the swamp planet of Dagobah. Which wouldn’t be a big deal if a life size plush version of the 900-year-old Jedi Master hadn’t been sewn into it.
 “A decision like this will tell you where you draw the line,” I told Jared.
I knew where my line was. I was wearing jeans and a “Seinfeld” T-shirt. The closest thing I had to a costume was my vague resemblance to Bruce Willis. The bag I carried was my camera bag. But Jared was the kind of guy who paid a man to etch a Boba Fett tattoo onto his shoulder. With grim determination, he strapped on the Yoda pack and slammed his trunk shut.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Comic Con and its related incarnations have become legendary for Cosplay, the official term for fans making elaborate character costumes. This is what I anticipated for the Salt Lake event, and that is probably what convinced the photojournalist in me to attend. As I approached the Salt Palace with Jared and his brother Richard, taking our place in line, I passed Wookees and Hobbits and superheroes, and in many eyes I recognized a familiar look. It was the same look I had every time I went to grade school in a Halloween costume or a piece of clothing that was slightly out of my comfort zone. It was a fear that I would be judged or mocked for exposing my true self to the world. Outside the protective walls of the Salt Palace, attendees were still in the "Real World," and I could sense their anxiousness to get to where the lobsters of the world could no longer drag them back into the barrel.
Just before 10, the doors opened, and the game was afoot. We crossed the obligatory garish carpeting of the main hallway before flashing our wristbands and entering the Heart of Geek Darkness. I wandered the conference floor, armed with $5,000 worth of overpriced camera equipment, poised to capture the insanity. As a naturally shy person—not unlike most of the attendees—I was nervous about approaching people to take their pictures. But getting pictures at Comic Con was like shooting fish in a nerd-shaped barrel. Any fear of approaching a patron vanished as I filled my memory card with Boba Fetts, Lords of the Rings, and the myriad residents of Marvel and DC Comics.
After a complete loop of the floor, objective number one was well in hand, and as a bonus I’d shaken off a distracting fear. But that wasn’t the fear I’d come to face, and as the clock wound to High Noon, it was time to man up.
Among the scattered memories of my early childhood, the most vivid remain the frights I would sometimes experience in front of a movie screen or a glowing television. My parents told me that I was terrified of the Jawas the first time I saw "Star Wars," and I remember taking Indiana Jones's advice in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as I turned around in my seat and pressed my face into the plush red cloth of my seat during the Nazi face-melting climax. Those experiences resonated in the dark of a cavernous movie theater, but a weekly terror took place in my parents' basement as I crouched on the red shag carpet of our TV room. That was where my parents would watch "The Incredible Hulk," a weekly drama about a kindly, well-kept homeless man who would drift in and out of small towns, only to change into a green, beady-eyed monster when provoked. Unlike the monsters of the 21st Century, or even those of the 20th, the Hulk was not a rubber suit or a CGI insertion; The Hulk was a real human being in green makeup; he was a very real threat.
The Hulk was my own monster under the bed, a creature whose technical identity as a good guy was lost on my young imagination. I remember watching a behind-the-scenes piece on the show in an effort to overcome my fear, but seeing actor Lou Ferrigno sans makeup didn’t help, nor did the knowledge that the object of my horror suffered from hearing loss. The Hulk still scared the crap out of me. I don't know whether I just grew out of this phase or if it just went away when the show went off the air. But I can say that when I saw Ferrigno would be making an appearance at the Salt Lake Comic Con, the writer in me recognized an opportunity for poetic closure. So I got in his autograph line and prepared to do something brave for the five-year-old I left behind so many years ago.
Thirty years down the road, Lou Ferrigno was still an imposing real-life figure. His chest may not be quite as broad, but his long, veiny arms and large hands still suggest a man who knows how to handle himself. Down the celebrity row, David Prowse and Peter Mayhew sat at tables as wheelchairs lingered behind them, far cries from their glory days behind the masks of Darth Vader and Chewbacca. But Ferrigno still bounced from his chair to take photos with guests, glaring confidently from deep-set eyes under a dark head of hair as if we were all a cross word away from a green nightmare. The one thing he did have in common with his pop culture peers was a steep asking price: $40 for an autographed 8X10, and another $40 to pose for a picture. I chose the 8X10, and had him add a small dedication:
To Josh,
Don't be afraid.
Lou Ferrigno.
Before I reached for my expensive 8X10, I shook Ferrigno's massive hand as a final peacemaking gesture. Then, my work accomplished, I returned to my barrel-shooting activities.

Events like Comic Con make me feel like I’m straddling an ideological fence. On one side are the diehard uber-geeks who swallow pop culture whole and use public events to release their alter egos in a flurry of painstaking Cosplay. On the other, grown men and women stare back at the geeks with disdain, mocking the juvenile silliness of their passions and reserving their own mania for socially-acceptable contexts like college football games. It’s hard to see the investment of the first group and not be simultaneously impressed and repulsed; just as it’s impossible to see the eye-rolling condescension of the latter group and nod in agreement while mourning their loss of innocence. I got off the road to Cosplay on Christmas during the fifth grade, when I ran into my living room and found a basketball under the tree instead of a pile of Star Wars toys. But that doesn’t mean I ever forgot my roots; I still saw “Phantom Menace” a dozen times in the summer of 1999.
At one point in the middle of my photo frenzy, I spotted a pretty girl standing beneath a tremendous mop of black and white dreadlocks. I asked if I could take her picture, then admitted my ignorance:
“So who are you?” I asked.
“I’m just me,” she replied.
I couldn’t tell if she was messing with me.
“Really?” I asked.
“What better place to be yourself, right?” she asked.
I muttered some response, smiled, and kept moving. She had me stumped. Was I hiding who I really was? Had I come to photograph the freaks because I secretly wanted to be one of them? Was it time to pull that leather fringe jacket out of my closet and start wearing it on a regular basis, not just when I had a Halloween party to crash? That night after I had uploaded my photos, I scrolled through them one at a time, marveling at the fascinating craftsmanship of some while shaking my head at the abject awkwardness of so many others. I pitied and loved and admired all of them, and couldn’t decide whether I related to them or whether I had outgrown them. I watched “The People vs. George Lucas” on Netflix later that evening, a documentary about a man simultaneously adored and despised by the same people who pack plastic Lightsabers in public, and in the morning I read an article on the 20th anniversary of the first season of “The X-Files,” a long-dead TV show that still sends pangs of excitement through fans’ spines whenever David Duchovny hints at another movie. Finally, I thought of the man I met at the convention, the Mr. Hyde half of The Incredible Hulk’s archetypal tandem. Who was real: Dr. Banner or The Hulk? And who was I playing?
I should have asked the girl with the dreadlocks when I had the chance.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

My Third-Favorite Band

Two summers ago I was taking a sketch writing class in Chicago when my instructor asked us a getting-to-know-you question:

"What is your third-favorite band?"

Not favorite, not even second-favorite. Third-favorite.

"The Kinks," I answered when it was my turn to respond.

Looking back, it's very possible that what I said wasn't true. I didn't lie; to me, lying is a conscious thing, and The Kinks were the first band that sprung to mind when Jen (my instructor) asked the question. But with the benefit of hindsight, there's no way that in the history of music, I can only name two bands I like more than The Kinks, though I do sincerely love their music. The more precise truth is that I put The Kinks in more of a third-favorite band category.

The "favorite band" category is easy to define. This is a first-love type of affection. You own all the albums/CDs/illegally downloaded music files. You know all their songs, the lyrics to those songs, and the alternative versions to those songs that turn up on weird bootlegs. You count the days to their next album, even if it's just a re-compilation of previously released material because the band hasn't produced anything new in decades. You know the names and personal histories of all the band members. You go to all their shows if they're still together, and if not, they're the band you think of when some friend like me asks you which band in history you would pay the most money to see live, and during which year/tour would you most like to travel back in time to see them. For me, like so, so many, this band is probably The Beatles, if only because they are Ground Zero to my musical appreciation.

The "second-favorite band" is an easy category to define once you figure out the first. It's all the bands you considered for that first level, but couldn't quite justify. For one reason or another, some critical component was missing, and even though you still know all the songs and the albums and the names, and would still pay a lot of money to travel through time and see them in their prime*, they just can't replace that first band. Here I find the Stones, Zeppelin, The Who. The bands I love dearly, but just can't bring myself to rate above The Beatles. The Fab Four and I just have too much history.

Then we come to the "third-favorite bands." A category full of Hall of Fame-worthy bands, but none that would make you second-guess those first two categories. Bands with tons of great songs, bands where if you think hard, you can probably remember all the guys (or gals?) names, bands that can still surprise you because you aren't so well-versed in their material that you've actually listened to every single album. My third-favorite bands? Creedence, The Ramones, The Velvet Underground...and yes, The Kinks. Maybe U2, depending on the day.

As I think about it, I'm actually kind of surprised that I was able to answer my instructor's question so quickly. Even though I'm just the kind of guy who will ask you questions like, "what's your favorite band?" or "what's your favorite movie of all-time?" I'm also the kind of guy who has become so saturated in music and media over the years that I can barely answer my own questions. Some days my favorite movie is "Star Wars." On others it's "The Blues Brothers." Then every once in a while I'll watch "Raising Arizona" and wonder if it could ever get any better. Then I'll re-watch "Cool Hand Luke" and want to chastise myself for considering a comedy for such a lofty title.

Sometimes it's not easy being an elitist pseudo-hipster pop culture junkie jerk. But it makes for some interesting conversation in getting-to-know-you exercises.


*I'm actually kind of a hypocrite, though. Because even though I can't justify replacing them as my number-one band, the Beatles wouldn't be my first choice to catch in a time-travelling rock tour. I'd probably rather see the Stones in '69 or The Who in '68. Outside of seeing The Beatles during their Hamburg residency, they don't really seem to have any particular tour that distinguished them as a great live act. I think mostly it would be just a bunch of screaming teenage girls.