Sunday, December 29, 2013

Behind the Lens: My 2013 Post-Christmas Photo Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's to the best in 2014...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The 10 Best Christmas Songs in My iTunes Collection

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

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

10. Christmas Must Be Tonight, The Band

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

9. Please Come Home for Christmas, James Brown

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

8. What Child is This?, Mormon Tabernacle Choir

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

7. Merry Christmas, Baby, Otis Redding

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

6. Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Crystals

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

5. Overture from "Scrooge," Leslie Bricusse

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

4. Sleigh Ride, The Ronettes

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

3. Christmas Time is Here, Vincent Guaraldi Trio

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

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

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

1. O Holy Night, Mormon Tabernacle Choir

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

Sunday, December 15, 2013

An open letter to my brand-new English students

Dear brand-new students,

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

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

Ready? Here we go:

1. You are no longer in high school.

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

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

Which leads us to number two...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. General courses are good for you.

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

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

"Generals are stupid!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

See you in class,



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

Sunday, December 08, 2013

My Toughest Calling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We know that you are struggling..."

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Surviving Turkey Bowl 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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