Sunday, December 31, 2017

Life in '17

This past November I was editing a few images from my annual family photo shoot when I came across a shot that seemed to capture the entire year. I caught it while I was getting the rest of my family situated on a picnic table off the Lagoon Trail in Farmington. Everyone is kind of fidgeting around, getting settled in, and up on the right, my sister is just kind of gazing off in the half-distance, with this curious grimace-smile on her face. As I stared at my monitor, I realized I was staring into the face of 2017.

Looking back at the last twelve months, I remember moments that felt exhilarating, and plenty of others that felt exhausting. There was ample good to go with the bad, like every year, yet 2017 was different somehow. It's too soon to get enough perspective to really understand everything that's happened in the last year, let alone how it will impact us moving forward, but combing through 2017's aftermath makes it clear that we've just finished a year to remember.

Of course, as I collected the images I felt would best tell my story of the last year, I realized that I was only taking pictures during the good bits. I also realize that a lot of the bad bits didn't happen to me so much as around me, even thousands of miles away from me, which somehow still felt very draining. So what follows feels like only part of the story of 2017. Such is life, I suppose. Like last year, you can also click this link (preferably on something other than your phone) to see a slideshow of these and other related images as I really want you to see them.


Things were different right away. For one, I wasn't marking another anniversary on the KJZZ Movie Show, because it had been canceled the previous summer. For another, I had a new suit for the first time in 13 years. So I took some pictures of myself in it.

Other traditions held up. I followed up 2016's run to glory at Sundance with a parade of misery and mediocrity in 2017. I can only see so many movies at the festival every year, and somehow I missed out on all the really good ones this time around. I did take my camera along to get a few shots on historic Main Street one afternoon, so that was nice, and on another night I almost drove headlong into an anti-Trump protest, recovering in just enough time to get a few shots of everyone marching away from me.

But even if Sundance was a drag, my second semester teaching for Weber State University was fantastic. Somehow my Spring '17 English 0955 course managed to achieve a level of chemistry by about two weeks in that most of my courses never achieve after an entire semester.


Things stayed pretty quiet on the photography front until March, when I set out for my first big trip of the year. My Spring Break road trip took me to Moab, where I photographed the Milky Way in Arches National Park, down to Monument Valley, where I spent half a day on a solo tour with a Navajo Indian guide named Henry, and back up through Kanab and Zion and Cedar City to complete my four day loop. I had fantastic fish and chips at a remote spot in Bluff, Utah, took pictures of Angel's Landing from the safety of the ground, and probably got my most interesting shot of the trip while hiking the trail to the Horseshoe Bend overlook.

Later that spring I made a long-awaited creative purchase--a Canon macro lens--and a less long-awaited and highly agitating purchase--buying my Volkswagen GTI at the conclusion of my three-year lease. The macro lens allowed me to see tiny things from a new perspective. The GTI reinforced my long-held perspective that all car dealerships are cheats.

After parting ways with my 0955 class and signing off on my first full school year at Weber, it was time to plan my traditional tax-deductible between-semesters photo trip. After a lot of deliberation and an exhaustive amount of time pitching ideas to, I decided to spend a few days in San Francisco, where I did some extensive photography of the Golden Gate Bridge, and spent the better part of a day in the Mission District with my old friend Jordy from grad school. But the most vivid experience of the trip was my first trolley ride, hanging off the side of the car taking pictures while chatting with a giddy group of middle-aged Australian tourists.

It was around this time that I decided to take a break from social media. For the previous several months I'd been posting to Instagram on a daily basis, and sharing regular content to Facebook as well. But halfway through May I got a little burned out on the process, and was embarrassed to note how often I would come back and check on how many likes or comments a specific post had picked up. I started questioning why I was posting photographs, and even wondered why I was taking pictures at all. It wasn't intended to be a final decision, but even though I continued to view and "like" other posts on social media, and continued to head out and take pictures as often as I could, I didn't post anything of my own for the rest of 2017...until now, I guess.


As spring worked its way into summer, I frequently found myself out under the stars, staring up into the night sky. My spring break trip had yielded some of my best Milky Way photography to date, and that enthusiasm continued on camping trips to Farmington Canyon and Willow Flats, up in southeastern Idaho. The last night in Willow Flats, I followed my longtime friend Brian and his oldest daughter out to the Cub River around sunset, and got some images that seemed built for Father's Day.

The original plan was to start teaching again partway through June, but my class was canceled due to low enrollment. I was still staying busy--after getting a new editor in the spring, I started covering about twice as many films for the Deseret News as usual, and I was still taping YouTube reviews with my buddy Chidsey as often as possible. I tried to get out and shoot whenever I could, and I especially enjoyed hiking up above Eaglewood Golf Course with my old friend/roommate Paul to watch the annual 4th of July fireworks show, where I grabbed some gorgeous sunset views while waiting for the celebration to begin.

Around the midpoint of 2017, the Cheetahman asked me if I would join him for a 90-day calorie counting challenge. At first I bristled at the notion--counting calories didn't seem like a very manly thing to do--but I knew that I needed to lose weight. I was still going to the gym regularly, and lifting more than ever, but bad eating habits had put me over a weight threshold I'd never crossed, even beyond the startling weigh-in that inspired me to lose 20 pounds back in 2011. I told Cheetahman I was in, and 183 days later, I've lost about 25 pounds and counting.

Not long after starting my calorie challenge, I set out on a road trip up into the Pacific Northwest. My sister and her family were heading up in that direction to visit some friends and extended family, and I decided to put together a kind of concurrent route that would cross paths with them periodically along the way. While they went straight up I-84 through Boise, I went west to Crater Lake National Park, then continued north to meet up with them in the Portland area, where we all stayed with my Aunt Barbara before further into Washington for a couple of days in the Seattle area. Besides my aunt, I was able to spend time with some of my cousins in Vancouver, and see my old friend Shane and his family in nearby Camas. Then up in Seattle I was able to reconnect with my longtime friend Scott, who if memory serves, was the guy who got me started on this blog over ten years ago. Along the way, I made my first visits to places like Multnomah Falls, Cannon Beach, and Mount Rainier National Park.

It was only a couple of weeks later I was headed back north, this time with my mom up to Island Park for my first visit to the family cabin in two years. Wild land fires had covered the area in a deep haze, but I was still able to get some cool images in (and around) Yellowstone.

About a week after getting home, the news was all about something that wasn't hugely divisive for a change: the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017. We were only at 90% coverage down in Davis County, so rather than get photos of the eclipse, I got pictures of the people looking at the eclipse, which turned out to be pretty fun, too.


Things got very busy once the school year started, thanks to a section of English 2010 I picked up in addition to my 0955 course a couple of weeks before the start of the new semester. Altogether I wound up commuting to Ogden Monday through Friday, then doubling back into Salt Lake for press screenings several days a week, since I was still covering so many movies (about 200 total by Christmas). Any mileage I'd conserved during my lease was eaten up pretty quickly, but I enjoyed teaching English 2010 again.

The busy schedule left me determined to make good on Fall Break, so a few days before my birthday, I drove south to Joshua Tree National Park (It seemed like an appropriate destination). On the way back, I stopped at the #vegasstrong memorial that had sprung up on the south end of The Strip following the tragic shooting earlier in the month, and enjoyed one of my most peaceful and spiritual moments of 2017 at the doorstep of Sin City.

Things stayed busy as the holiday season approached, and after my Joshua Tree trip, I found less and less opportunity to get out and shoot. I handled my aforementioned family shoot, which yielded a great shot of my sister and niece #3, and as the fall semester mercifully came to a close, I forced myself out in the cold to shoot another Bountiful area icon.

December is a pretty crazy month for me, with the end of fall semester running headlong into the Christmas release calendar, all while juggling the pomp and circumstance of the holidays. Every year I try to remind myself to enjoy the little things along the way, rather than tell myself that I'll do the fun Christmas stuff once the last papers are graded, the last reviews are written, and my Christmas shopping is finally taken care of. You can guess how well that works out.

Once I'd turned in my "Last Jedi" review, finished grading papers, and at least started my Christmas shopping, I flew back down to Las Vegas to help the Cheetahman with the Cowboy Christmas trade show, where he was promoting his Rockagator waterproof backpacks. One of my prime motivations was to eat at the new Giordano's franchise, and it was great to have some of my favorite Chicago deep dish pizza again. Sadly, I also got word that the #vegasstrong memorial had already been removed, and the headliner show at our hotel--which used to be the Hilton where Elvis played--suggested that things were largely back to business as usual in Sin City.

For all the craziness, though, Christmas 2017 actually turned out alright. Once I ground out the to-do stuff, I finally was able to get down to the stuff I really wanted to do. I spent time with friends, with family, and even set up my drum kit for the first time in over 18 months (unexpected discovery: playing the drums along to old school rap tracks from the late '80s/early '90s is very fun). Rather than go on another routine Temple Square photo shoot, I brought my camera along to my family's return trip to Tepanyaki two days before Christmas.

The downside of losing weight is that your clothes don't fit anymore. It's not much of a downside, but twelve months after getting my first new suit in 13 years, I had to get another one, justifying it as a congratulations gift to myself for losing the weight. One night a few days after Christmas, before heading over to take a few pictures at Station Park, my buddy Tyler and I teamed up for a "Suit Shoot," since he'd recently picked up a new suit, too. It was the last shoot of what turned out to be a fairly prolific year, in spite of my lack of social media activity.

*   *   *

Throughout the year, the Bountiful Temple has been under construction, and for a long time one of my hometown's most iconic buildings was headless. Apparently the temple has had a leak issue for years, and this year church leadership finally decided to just rebuild the building's spire and fix the problem for good. One night last summer my inner photojournalist got the best of me again, and I drove up to document the transition.

Staring up there night after night at a building that has looked out over Bountiful for the better part of 25 years, topped with scaffolding and missing its head, I felt like I was looking at an architectural metaphor for everything going on in my own life for the last few years. I don't know that I've ever felt like I had everything figured out in life, at least in terms of a career, and certainly in terms of dating, but a lot of the things I did have in place have been moved around, if not scrapped altogether. Yet, looking at that temple, it's comforting to note that the foundation is still in place, and inside everything is business as usual. And if that's the case, it's probably OK to endure a facelift now and then.

Looking back at 2017, I couldn't even begin to guess what we've got coming next year. But every December when I sit down to put this post together, I start out thinking about all the craziness, then have to admit that I've seen some pretty generous blessings, mostly in the form of friends and family, and of course in the peaceful reassurance of the gospel. I imagine 2018 will bring more of the same, as long as we keep the foundation in place. The temple spire is back in place now, and maybe that means something, too.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Musings: John Cusack, Sheer Cliffs, and 15-Year-Old Christ Figures

Angel's Landing, March 2017. Those little dots in the upper-right corner are a couple of brave souls posing on its precipice.

In the summer of 1990*, Troop 649 out of Bountiful, Utah spent its annual Scout Camp in Zion National Park. I was thirteen years old, midway between 8th and 9th grade, and still hoping to play football for the Raiders someday.

The centerpiece of the camp was a 17-mile trek through the Zion Narrows, a gorgeous red rock slot canyon and one of my first lessons in the principle that you can have too much of a good thing. The hike was split over two days, with a sleepless overnight camp in a miserable rock alcove jammed in-between.

My most substantial memory of the camp came a couple of days after we finished the Narrows, when the whole troop decided to scale Angel's Landing, a breathtaking precipice that many consider the highlight of any trip to Zion. I'd never heard of the place before--that camp was, as I recall, my first official trip to Southern Utah--so I spent three-quarters of the hike in blissful if winded ignorance before turning a corner and stopping in my tracks before a narrow, winding ridge with 1,000+ foot drops on either side sitting in front of me.

Now, I'm not a fan of heights. I can't really remember any specific pre-Angel's Landing experiences that drove this point home, but I'm fairly certain that by age 13, I ranked extreme heights somewhere around contemporary country music and tuna fish sandwiches on my list of things I'd just assume never have to deal with for the rest of my natural life. And staring at that crazy zig-zagging ridge ahead of me, with its helpful chains driven into the rocks for optimal clinging, I realized that I was about to face the one thing on that list that could actually threaten my natural life.

Luckily, I had Brad.

Brad was my scoutmaster's teenage son, a year or two older than the rest of us, safely on the opposite side of the tumultuous sea of puberty. Brad tagged along on our camp, and quickly became something of a mentor for me, mainly because he'd brought along a cassette copy of Van Halen's "5150" album for the drive down. We'd spent much of the hike up until that point shooting the bull and getting to know one another, and without realizing it, I began to take on some of his determined enthusiasm.

That's why I only had about a split second of sober hesitation before I followed Brad headlong up that horrifying little ridge. His confidence was infectious, and the difference maker between me completing the hike and staying back at the landing with several of the other scouts. I was terrified as I scrambled over that last red rock incline, clutching those chains, but I never let up, and Brad and I finished the ascent well ahead of the rest of the group.

Naturally, the view was beautiful, and I'm pretty sure we took some discount 1990's-era photographs that have become buried in storage somewhere in my parents' basement. I even got a commemorative award at our next Court of Honor for "First Place up Angel's Landing," so someone must have been aware of how petrified I was on that stupid hike.

But while my ascent of Angel's Landing initially felt like a personal accomplishment, in the time since I have begun to see it in a different light. Over time, it has become one of my most vivid, if imperfect, metaphors for the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was drawn to Brad because he represented the big brother I never had. As a kid, I remember watching "Stand By Me," a Rob Reiner adaptation of a Stephen King novella about four boys who go on a journey to find a dead body. The protagonist, Gordie, is haunted by memories of his big brother, played by John Cusack in flashback, who had died in a car accident. For decades afterward seeing that movie I have had this odd perspective on the Chicago actor as a consequence. Without any older siblings of my own, Cusack projected the big brother I wish I had, and Brad projected the big brother I didn't realize I had.

I'm not sure we can ever comprehend the Atonement of Jesus Christ, but I think that in little ways, at least in part, we can understand it. I think it's safe to say that without Brad inspiring my effort, I likely would have second-guessed myself into staying at that last landing, one frightening ridge away from one of the most memorable accomplishments of my adolescence. I don't necessarily think Brad would have saved me from falling if I'd slipped, but his leadership, encouragement, and support felt like everything I've heard described about the Savior and the role He's supposed to play in our lives. With Him leading the way, we can do things we could never do left to our own devices. At the same time, He won't do the task for us. We have to exercise enough faith to follow His lead.

I've been to Zion several times in the years since that summer camp, but I've never been back up Angel's Landing. I've thought about it, wondered if another ascent would confirm my adolescent conquest, but never followed through. As of right now, my favorite view of Angel's Landing is the one I posted at the top of this article, the one I photographed with my feet firmly planted on the ground.

It's more likely that, rather than worry about facing the exact same fear I already faced almost thirty years ago, I should apply the lesson I was given that day to my more immediate fears, and see what new heights I can achieve with a little help from my big brother.


*Or maybe it was 1989?