Friday, December 31, 2021

Our Crappy Year 2.0: The 2021 Hangover in Words and Pictures

Dear friends, family, and everyone else who thought the Coronapocalypse would be over by now--

Once again it's time to dust off that relic of 2000's Internet media culture, post a few pictures, offer up a few thoughts, and put the finishing touches on 2021, in all of its brilliant, horrible glory. 

It is impossible to make sense of 2021 outside the context of the year it followed. We all seem to agree that 2020 was pretty terrible, an insulting and unrelenting parade of kicks to our collective groin area. Yet as I pointed out last December, I'll remember 2020 with a stubborn fondness because of the way I responded to many of those blows. I didn't expect 2021 to automatically replace trial and conflict with bacon-flavored sunshine, but I hoped that I would counter the new year's lemons with some vintage lemonade. The results have been mixed, and I have to admit that lot of 2020's energy has given way to fatigue over the last twelve months. I don't know that I completely agree with the sentiments of a local marquee I noticed this past fall--everything is most definitely not awesome--but when I weigh the good and the bad, I am happy to report that 2021 offered up its share of awesome alongside its awful.

- W I N T E R -

Before it rode off into infamy, 2020 left me one parting gift. Well, technically two. A couple of days before New Year's, during lunch in Kaysville I bit into a sandwich and cracked a tooth on the right side of my mouth. Then after dinner, while favoring the left side of my mouth, I bit into a cinnamon bear and lost another one. You know those nightmares where all of your teeth are falling out? I lived them.

So while political riots captured the national news, for me 2021 opened with with a generous dental bill to pay for my first crowns. Unexpected medical bills are never fun, but this one stung just a bit more since January also marked a year since my time began to wrap up with the Deseret News. With the paper in the rear view mirror and the pandemic shutting down major releases, I kept my toes in the water by posting reviews to my YouTube channel, and binged my way through a collection of Oscar bait releases since the Critics Association still wanted to vote on 2020's paltry offerings. But the experience just confirmed 2020's mulligan status on the big screen.

The best part of January was getting together with my family for my newest niece's baby blessing. Because of continuing Covid restrictions, it was an in-house affair, but it was also the first time I pulled out my camera in 2021. The second-best part of January was attending the temple for the first time since the pandemic started. My buddy Brian invited me to join his family at Jordan River one Saturday night as his oldest son Andrew prepared for his missionary service in Hawaii. Being back at the temple was great on its own, but joining one of my closest friends as he passed the missionary torch to his son was really something special.

Even though two different vaccines were making their way through the population, early 2021 still saw plenty of pandemic restrictions, and as a result my life took on a kind of remote quality. After teaching three straight semesters online, for Spring 2021 I taught English 2010 on the Zoom platform for the first time. Combined with the weekend broadcasts for church, I spent a lot of time in the new home office I'd completed late in 2020.

Spring was still a couple of months away, but the sun started to shine in mid-February when my mom qualified to get her vaccination series. The majority of my anti-Covid efforts in 2020 were targeted to protect my mom from infection, so it was a huge relief to see her get her shots safely. I knew it would still be a while before masks and the pandemic in general would fade into history (insert your favorite Omicron joke here), but for me, the victory had been won. After spending the last year photographing the signs of the Coronapocalypse, it was nice to start seeing images like these around town:

Photography was an afterthought during this stretch, as it often is at the start of the year. Between the cold and the creative hangover from the previous calendar year, I typically need some time to hibernate and work on other things. In late February, I forced myself out one promising evening to get 2021's creative juices flowing. But my best stuff was still to come.

- S P R I N G - 

Back in December, after a successful four-year run, I reluctantly decided to postpone my Christmas Break photo trip, since 1) time moves fast now that I'm old, and 2) saving money is a good thing. As a result, a mid-March trip to the Four Corners area was my first time out of the state in five months. The first stop on my desert loop took me to Moab, where I explored new territory in Canyonlands National Park and shot the sunrise in Arches at the Courthouse Towers district. From there I headed to New Mexico, where I photographed the famous Shiprock volcanic formation at sunset, and again the next morning. The weather was getting sketchy as I made my way west for my first "official" visit to Lake Powell, so the morning after a nice sunset shoot at Lone Rock, I decided to cut the trip short and head north before a rare Southern Utah blizzard completely cut off my path home.

After the extended wait to get out of town, the abrupt ending to the trip felt like history repeating itself after the botched end to my Yosemite trip the previous November. But I still made the best of my circumstances, adding a fantastic mural to my Signs of the Times project, and meeting up with my buddy Brian and his wife Natalie for dinner as I neared home. That dinner was a rare opportunity to jump start my Power Lunch series, which mostly lay dormant through 2020 thanks to the pandemic. Things were still pretty slow in 2021, but I did manage to add some choice friends to the project, including my friend Kris, who spent the year battling brain cancer.

The spring break trip represented the majority of the season's photography efforts, but I did manage to get out here and there. Along the way I officially added Farmington Bay to my short list of last-minute local sunset options, but the most "springy" spring shoot came when the cherry blossoms took off at the state capitol. I think there still would have been hundreds of people at the capitol in a normal year, but the crowds I encountered there and at national parks throughout 2021 were one of the more bittersweet effects of the continuing pandemic. The crowds were a pain, but at least people were getting outside more often.

Part of it was the natural effect of spring, and I think part came from the sense that the pandemic was finally on its way out, but things started to happen as the weather got better. I got a new calling in the 19th Ward Sunday School presidency, and by mid-April I rolled up my sleeve for my first vaccination shot. My modest social media efforts crossed an organic follower goal on Instagram, and there were even rumblings of a Thunderlips reunion to inspire my weekly drum practices.

But in spite of some fun pictures and a few scattered good times, Spring 2021 was primarily marked by some unexpected health problems which hit my mom around Easter, and led to knee surgery by the end of April. After a couple of weeks in a skilled nursing facility to start her rehabilitation, she returned home, and with the help of some home aides and excellent therapists, I took over some extra home care duties. 

As May drew to a close, I set out for one more spring shoot, and wound up on the northwestern tip of Antelope Island photographing a unique sunset. Even though the clouds were hanging low enough to leave me with some doubts, a timely glow on the horizon capped a worthwhile outing as spring took its last bow.

- S U M M E R -

The transition from spring to summer was mostly lost between the close of spring semester and the start of my accelerated summer course--my final virtual Zoom effort. But with my vaccination behind me and fewer and fewer businesses requiring masks for entrance, it felt like life was edging into a post-pandemic state.

It was a far cry from my pre-pandemic output, but a steady uptick in major film releases saw me dipping back into the world of film criticism, and to explore some new outlet options, Wounded Mosquito Productions once again took on an intern. Dani was invaluable to keeping me in the movie game amid the chaos of my 2021 life, and by the end of the summer we were both writing for a remodeled website and co-hosting a brand new podcast. The movies? They were OK. "F9" put a Pontiac Fiero in outer space.

Though it was nice to see some major movies again, my best moments still seemed to come behind the camera, and even though I couldn't justify a more traditional road trip, I still managed to catch a good local sunset here and there--preferably near a body of water like Bountiful Pond or The Great Salt Lake. One night I was able to shoot Utah Lake for the first time, alongside my longtime friend--and now aspiring photographer--Brian.

After taking 2020 off thanks to Covid, both my traditional Davis County fireworks displays were up and running again in July, and though the results were nothing new, it was nice to have some interesting local subject matter to shoot. Still, my biggest 4th of July achievement was running my first official 5K race in almost ten years, and as a bonus, netting a third place finish in my age division.

Once my mom got up to speed with her right knee, her doctor decided to perform the same procedure on her left knee, so I figured that the safest window for me to get out of town during the summer was going to be before that second surgery. With my summer class officially behind me, I packed up my gear and hopped into the Cheetahman's Toyota Tundra for a quick overnighter to Southern Utah.

Ever since I noticed a striking image on Instagram in mid-2020, I'd ranked the Utah Badlands high on my photo bucket list. So after shooting the sunset in Cathedral Valley, Randy and I woke before sunrise the next morning to photograph some rock formations that looked like they'd been pulled directly out of J.R.R. Tolkein's Middle Earth. By the time we returned home that night we added a pit stop at Goblin Valley State Park and an excellent lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Mount Pleasant to our itinerary.

2021 offered its share of body blows, even if they tended to be more personal than 2020's headline-grabbers. One of the hardest landed on a Tuesday afternoon in July when I learned that my gym buddy John had passed away only a week earlier. To add insult to injury, I discovered his obituary a day after his funeral. With my faith intact, I felt confident I would get another chance to visit with my good friend when the time was right, but after brushing off numerous promptings to call him over several weeks, I strained under the immediate consequences of my procrastination. I only knew John for a short time compared to many of my longtime friendships, but I can think of few people who could put a smile on my face the way he would whenever I'd walk into VASA and catch his twinkling, mischievous gaze from some random exercise machine. I don't think I'll ever get through a workout without missing my old friend.

I found out about John the day of my mom's second knee surgery, and luckily her operation had a more positive outcome. Still, it was hard for her to get knocked back into recovery mode after she'd made so much progress rehabbing her other knee. The hazy, smoky air and smothering heat outside didn't help, especially as water restrictions left me watching my 2020 landscaping efforts die off in big patches of brown grass. By the time my Honda dealer backed a brand-new CRV into the side of my car during my buyout inspection, I was just trying to roll with the punches, but when two of the bookshelves in my still-new office broke over the course of a couple weeks, I was left with the feeling that everything I'd worked to build in 2020 was going to fall apart in 2021.

Once again, I just had to find a way to seek out the roses along my checkered, crooked path. Often that involved hanging out with my nieces; other times, it was a lunch with a friend or a late practice session on a Saturday night at my drum kit. Eventually, those elements all came together.

Rumors of a Thunderlips reunion began circulating early in the year, and by spring members of the band were getting together to try out new songs and dust off old ones. Soon the event was confirmed: the band would perform at a party for Randy's wife Alex, who finished her MBA and earned her US citizenship during the pandemic. It would be our first public show in six years, and my first chance at redemption after a clumsy set at Viewmont High School's Class of 1995 20-year-reunion. Four months of grinding rehearsals followed, and finally on a Saturday night late in August, we set up shop on a basketball court in Farmington's Heritage Park as friends and family enjoyed catered Puerto Rican takeout and a foreboding thunderstorm gathered in the distance. We only made it through eight songs before the weather literally blew us off the court, but it felt like an accomplishment to play at all, and in an act of meteorologic mercy, we were able to get through both of the special songs that featured Alex and Randy's daughter Olivia on keyboards before the curtain fell.

Photo credit: Brian Smith

- F A L L -

By the time Fall came knocking on the door in early September, the new semester at Weber State had me face-to-face with students for the first time in 18 months, and back on the Ogden campus for the first time since Fall Semester 2019...all in spite of the Delta variant-driven pandemic resurgence. It was nice to see my English department friends in person again, and crazy to navigate through the updates and changes that had taken place while I was teaching over Zoom. But all that took a quick backseat to one of the biggest highlights of the entire year.

On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, my family gathered in a Kaysville chapel to witness Niece #2's baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A week before the event, we did a portrait session over at the Bountiful Tabernacle, and for the baptism itself, she asked me to give a brief talk on the Holy Ghost. Unlike so many plans over the last couple of years, the baptism came together perfectly, and thanks to Zoom, my mom was able to watch the ordinance from home while she continued to recover from her surgeries. The event kicked off a run of niece-related outings that produced some of my happiest photographs--and memories--of 2021.

Compared to 2020, my efforts to hike new trails and photograph the fall leaves fell off dramatically. I only made one drive along the Alpine Loop in 2021, which produced some nice sunrise photographs of Mount Timpanogos, and I only went on one real hike (a return to Lake Blanche), which produced a week of sore calves since I was so out of practice. But an evening visit to the Lagoon Trail and an outing to Brigham City gave me an excuse to expand the portfolio a little bit, and a ward talent show gave me an excuse to frame a couple of favorite shots from the last few years.

By the time October rolled around, Mom had made enough recovery progress that I felt OK heading out on a road trip for a few days. My number one option was a long-planned return to the Oregon coast, and I considered a return to Yosemite, but eventually weather and financial considerations led to a more local itinerary. But even as I returned to Moab and the Four Corners area, I zeroed in on different destinations, enjoying time in Dead Horse Point State Park, photographing a cool sunrise at Corona Arch, doing some tentative off-roading through Valley of the Gods, and touring Upper Antelope Canyon outside Page, Arizona. Luckily, instead of driving through a snowstorm, this time I finished the trip with a visit with my aunt and uncle in Cedar City before enjoying a relaxing cruise home on Utah's scenic back highways.

After leaving Valley of the Gods, I stopped at a famous turnoff to check a special image off my "to shoot" list. When I saw a Funko Pop rendering of Forrest Gump while browsing Amazon back in September, I knew I had to photograph it at the famous straightaway outside Monument Valley that was featured in the movie. It was a tricky shot to pull off, and I don't know that the effort justified the money I spent on other Funko Pops over the last few months of 2021. But it was fun to add a creative twist to a favorite location.

Less than a week after getting back from my Fall Break trip, I was on the road again, this time with my longtime friend and fellow ex-Chicago missionary Brad. Ever since Chicago's most celebrated pizza franchise expanded into Las Vegas, he and I had considered a quick getaway, and on the Wednesday before Halloween our speculation became reality. In addition to some spectacular deep dish pizza, we enjoyed a visit to the Las Vegas Arts District, and we burned off a few of those pizza calories on a hike through the petrified dunes in Snow Canyon State Park on our way home. Best of all, I enjoyed the company of a great friend who I've known for many years.

It was great to get out of town and take pictures, but it took a while to get my Fall Break and Snow Canyon shots edited thanks to a rush of portrait jobs that came up around the same time. Over several weeks I spent time with some fun families--including my own--and though I still don't think of myself as a wedding photographer, I really enjoyed shooting engagements and bridals for a young couple before attending their sealing in November. As always, I was grateful for the work, since there are so many other portrait photographers to choose from.

By the time I reached November, the photo jobs, the Weber classes, and even the movie reviews were clicking along at a steady pace, and 2021 finally felt like it was hitting its stride. With the holiday season in sight, I photographed one more echo of 2020 when the tree stump remains of last year's windstorm were removed from my parents' backyard. Then I capped off my fall efforts in a familiar spot, photographing the Bountiful Temple with a ward friend who had just enough interest in photography to scramble around game trails on a steep hillside at dusk while his neurotic neighbor hunted for the perfect composition angle. It was a perfect lead-in for 2021's well-earned finale.

- H O L I D A Y S -

I put up the Christmas lights a week before Thanksgiving, and tried to get an early jump on my Christmas shopping, too. But the holiday season didn't officially arrive until my sister and I drove into Lehi early Thanksgiving morning with approximately 10.6 million other runners for a holiday loop around the Thanksgiving Point golf cart track. Though my weekly run was only a 5K, I pushed through the 10K, and combined with the stifling crowds and hills throughout the course, the experience left me more proud of my finisher medal than for my 3rd place ribbon from July's 5K.

With Thanksgiving behind me, the Christmas season arrived in full force, as my movie coverage and teaching duties crashed headlong into the holiday festivities. For a stretch, it felt like I was driving into Salt Lake every night to review some award-hopeful prestige release, but I would have gladly watched a dozen more depressing "House of Gucci's" to discover the heartwarming "CODA," my favorite movie of 2021. My composition classes delivered their obligatory final grading hassles, but a group of enthusiastic students made my English 0955 course an especially happy return to face-to-face teaching. I tried to squeeze in holiday activities like a fun outing to Fuji Sushi between all the routine "to-do" items, and I crossed off a 2021 bucket list item early in December when I photographed a brand-new temple in Saratoga Springs. But nothing felt as significant as watching Mom hike a flight of stairs on two surgically repaired knees on the way to get her first back injection in mid-December.

Once I wrestled Fall Semester into submission and capped off my movie marathon with a three-hour UFCA voting session, I was free to get out of town one more time before Christmas. Over three December days I logged 1,400 miles looping through Cathedral Gorge State Park on the way to Las Vegas before heading west to Death Valley, and then I caught the International Car Forest coming up through rural Nevada before capping things off with a sunset shoot at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Along the way, armed with a couple of new purchases, I turned that Forrest Gump shot into a budding series.

The Christmas holiday was packed with family activities, making cookies, attending concerts, and of course, exchanging gifts. At times this year I felt like I let my obligations get in the way of the season, so I was especially grateful on Christmas Eve when my family took a quiet moment to watch a special church video on The Nativity. Then, a few days after Christmas, as the year drew to a close, I set up one last holiday shoot, and officially put a photographic bow on another checkered year.

*    *    *

For better--or more likely--for worse, 2021 will always be tied to 2020. Even twelve months removed from its bitter conclusion, the effects of that infamous year ripple and linger. On Netflix, Jim Gaffigan compared 2021 to changing a diaper, only to feel your baby immediately make a second deposit, and maybe that's why more often than not I felt like surviving 2021 was the best I could do. I won't miss 2021 with the same peculiar nostalgia I hold for 2020, but I will be grateful for the way I was able to navigate through its trials and challenges, rather than simply be spared them. If 2020 was about resilience, maybe 2021 was about enduring to the end. 

Looking ahead to 2022, I'm feeling pretty positive. It will take some time to resolve our current issues, and I'm sure the new year will bring plenty of its own challenges. But every December when I compile these posts, it's easy to see that life has a way of delivering a lot of good alongside its bad, and I'm excited to see the good 2022 will bring. 

Happy New Year, everyone, and congratulations for making it through 2021.