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.