Monday, March 26, 2018

Dragon Lights, Dragon Lies

Dragon Lights is a Chinese-themed festival running through May 6th at the Utah State Fairpark. I saw something about it on Facebook, thought it looked pretty cool, and bought tickets for the family. Our tickets were for yesterday, Sunday, March 25th. I bought the tickets only a couple of days in advance, on a day when Weather.com showed absolutely nothing worrisome in its Sunday forecast. The plan was for us to have an early dinner at one of our favorite Utah Chinese restaurants (located about 25 minutes away) and then backtrack to the fairgrounds. It would be a fun and different way for us to spend time together as a family. I was really looking forward to it.

Sunday morning came and went. The weather was nice. Then, around the time we were to head out, it started snowing. And then it started to snow harder. And harder. While this was disappointing because it didn’t sound fun to walk around in such bad weather, we didn’t have the option of changing our plans. The tickets were date-specific, and as the Dragon Lights website reports in their FAQ section, the festival would be held come “rain, snow or shine.” Plus, even when the snow started coming down fairly fast and furious, Weather.com showed nothing in the hourly forecast about snow. Probably, it would all let up quite soon.

Melanie, the boys, and I piled into our car and headed to the freeway. As we cruised down (up? We were going north, after all) the Interstate, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with our commute. I suggested we go to a much closer Chinese restaurant, one I had been to a couple of times but that Melanie and the boys had not. Nobody had any objections, so I exited the freeway and quickly found the alternate restaurant. It was closed for the Sabbath. Damn!

I shrugged and figured I’d try again to head to Bountiful, the location of our first-choice Chinese restaurant. Meanwhile, Melanie started searching for nearby Chinese restaurants on her phone. My rekindled determination to get to Bountiful quickly fizzled when, once again, I found it very difficult to see through the snow while driving on the freeway. Melanie suggested that we eat at Sampan, a nearby Chinese restaurant Melanie and I were quite fond of back before we got married. I had no interest in driving all the way to Bountiful via city streets, so I agreed. Within a few minutes, we were safe, cozy, and relaxed, sitting at a table and looking over our menus.

Our food was great. It’s probably the best Chinese food I’ve had since moving back to Utah. I don’t know why we haven’t revisited Sampan before now. I’ve tried several other Chinese places since moving back, and only a few have seemed adequate, much less quite tasty. Perhaps because I so loved the Chinese restaurant we used to frequent while living in Tallahassee, I had zero hope of finding anything of note in Utah. Adequate was the best I had hoped for. And maybe I just assumed that Sampan would be as mediocre as anything else, after being disillusioned by my first few forays into Chinese cuisine as a recently returned Utah native. But, man, Sampan was yummy. The boys thought so, too, as did Melanie. Hanging out together at a restaurant in-and-of itself was also quite lovely. We really enjoyed our time. And, wouldn’t you know it, the snow let up quite a bit while we dined. It didn’t stop snowing completely, but it had been reduced to small flakes falling in slow motion. Nothing to worry about whatsoever.

With full bellies, we climbed back into our car and headed to the Utah State Fairpark. A minor detour was involved, thanks to a slow-moving freight train—a common occurrence in that neighborhood, as I remember from my childhood. (I grew up relatively close to the fairgrounds. A junior high field trip even involved walking there, which I thought was nuts at the time and perhaps even more nuts now.) But, despite arriving nearly 90 minutes later than I had wanted and planned to, we finally made it.

Then we saw the sign. Dragon Lights had been canceled for the evening, I can only assume due to weather. The bastards.

As I said, the festival runs through the beginning of May, and according to the posted sign, we can use our tickets for any other day. But the only reason we fought through the snow in the first place was because the Dragon Lights website had ensured us that it would not be canceled due to inclement weather. It wasn’t pee pee in my Coke, but it felt like a joke, that’s for sure.

Oh well. We still had a good time.


Friday, September 22, 2017

Trimming the Fat

As much as I wish this were a post celebrating weight loss, it’s not.  I’m probably heavier than I was when I last wrote a blog post, which was back in February.  Heavier physiologically, but not heavier emotionally or psychologically.  And that brings me to the real point of this post: the simplification of life and the joy it brings.

Though there is not a single defining moment to point to, the summer of 2017 was a revolutionary one for me.  In some ways, it was a time of embracing.  In other ways, it was a time of letting go.  The end result is that I am more happy and satisfied in life than perhaps I have ever been as an adult.  Or maybe ever.  And because I’m quite pleased with the ways in which I’ve fine tuned my life, I have every reason to be optimistic about the future.  The course I am on is a rewarding and fruitful one.  I am eager and excited to travel further down this road.

So as not to be obnoxiously vague, allow me to say more about the changes that have taken place over the last few months.  The most important is my involvement with music.  Every year, the guitar school from which I take private lessons offers various summer programs that are meant to supplement one’s private lessons.  I did not participate in any such programs in the summer of 2016, at which point I had barely become a student at the school.  But for Summer 2017, I enrolled in a program that put me together with three other guitarists and a drummer (none of whom I had ever met).  Every Thursday evening, we got together to learn and rehearse songs that we would eventually play at an end-of-summer outdoor concert.  I absolutely loved it.  Almost every time we got together and played, I found myself thinking, “This is me.  This is who I am.”  I felt more connected to my “true self” than I ever had before.  Not that I don’t play guitar on my own, but it’s different to be in a band setting.  And the fact is, playing with others made me so much better.  We’re not talking about minor improvement here.  It’s hard to put into words, but if the player I was at the beginning of summer could see the player I was by summer’s end, I would scarcely have believed it.

In a similar vein, I have made great strides as a vocalist.  I actually sang one of the songs we did at the end-of-summer concert—a cover of The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues,” which isn’t the most flattering song for my voice, really—but that’s not what I regard as an accomplishment.  You see, once I knew I would be singing a song at the concert, I started paying even closer attention to my vocal abilities.  Not only did I spend a fair amount of time singing along with the radio on my way to and from work, as I had always done, but I started doing things like recording myself as I sang and then listening back to it.  The outcome?  Soul-crushing heartbreak, to be quite honest.  I sounded so much shittier than I expected.  I never thought I sounded amazing as I was singing, but playing it back on a recording, I sounded so much worse than I had ever realized.  And it devastated me.  So, in desperation, I started looking into some vocal exercises.  Truth be told, I didn’t even do that much in this department.  But the extremely little that I did—and I’m telling you, it was next to nothing—had instantaneous results.  Seriously.  There were like two or three little things I did, but from the moment I started doing them—and I’m not kidding, I really mean within the first 30 seconds or something—I noticed things about my voice or what I was doing with my throat, etc., that gave me better control and more awareness of how to use my voice.  And so, once again, if the me from May or June could see where I am at today, I would have been a bit flabbergasted.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m nowhere near incredible.  Nobody’s ever going to want to listen to me sing just because my voice is so gosh darn beautiful.  But I am way, way, way, way better than I was just a few months ago.  It’s quite shocking.  And now I drive home from work singing my guts out and not even sheepishly trying to hide it when other cars get too close, like I used to do.

My involvement with music has definitely played the biggest role in making me happier than I’ve ever been.  But so has the general overall focus my life has taken.  That is, outside of work, music, and my family—which I list in no particular order, so don’t read into it—I have almost nothing else on my plate.  And it’s blissful.  It’s such a 180 from how life felt one year ago.  As my poor wife can tell you, I spent so much time complaining and freaking out last year because I never had time to do anything that mattered to me.  I was constantly stressed, and I never felt able to get done the things I “had” to do, much less the things I actually wanted to do.  In hindsight, I’m not even sure what it was that occupied so much of my time.  But I know my to-do list was always a mile long, and I know it felt like at least 50% of the items added to that list would not be completed before another 10 or 20 items were added on top.  It just felt like chaos, and it seemed like there was never any time for me.  Well, focusing on music, which has always been my first love, certainly helps matters.  It ensures that I don’t feel like an ignored aspect of my own life.  But it’s the cumulative effect of focusing more on music and less on other things that really makes life grand.  And there have been many things I’ve cut back on.  Purposely, intentionally, and giddily.

One thing I have proactively reduced in my life is ecclesiastical responsibility.  The church I attend has a rather small congregation.  Because we are small, simply being a member of the church provides one with ample opportunity to help out.  On the other side of that coin, it provides one with ample opportunity to feel guilty and/or stressed out.  I’ve never had the time to commit to the church that some of my more enthusiastic (and less-employed) cohorts do, but I’ve tried to be very involved since I started attending this church nearly three years ago.  For almost two years, I’ve served in the pastorate.  I’ve had many wonderful experiences that I sincerely cherish, and depending on whom or what you compare me and my situation to, a case could be made that my church responsibilities are not all that burdensome or time-consuming.  Be that as it may, church had recently become a consistent source of anxiety for me.  Many weeks, I found myself thinking that, if not for church-related duties, life would be well-balanced, wholly manageable, and rather pleasant.  The addition of those church duties, however, was just enough to make everything spiral.  Time and time and time again, church was the tipping point between calmness and chaos.

Eventually, I realized that my mental and emotional wellbeing were not a tithe I could afford.  In late August, I reneged on my agreement to preach an upcoming sermon and declared myself unavailable to preach or preside (i.e. oversee a worship service) at any point between now and the end of the year.  In and of itself, I don’t see this as a huge deal.  I still attend church regularly—though I also skip it regularly, and usually with great satisfaction—and I am even teaching one of the Sunday school classes this week, a responsibility for which I volunteered without having to be asked.  (I’m the one in charge of asking people to teach Sunday school, as a matter of fact).  So, it’s not like I’ve decided church has no place in my life.  Far from it.  But as simple a change as this is, it feels tremendously freeing.  I feel so at ease, so content.  I look forward to preaching and presiding again at some point in time, but my involvement is going to be significantly scaled back for the foreseeable future.

There are other ways in which I’ve reallocated my time, but nothing quite as noteworthy as what’s already been discussed.  A lot of little changes have contributed to a more satisfying life.  This includes minor adjustments to my work schedule, adjustments that have come about in response to a variety of factors.  Long story short, I tend to get to work a little bit earlier than I used to, and often I’m not staying as late into the day.  Consequently, I get a surprising amount of things accomplished in the evenings, and I feel much more connected to my family.  It’s a win-win, and it’s definitely part of why I’m loving my life right now.

As I draw ever nearer to being a middle-aged man, I am repeatedly convinced that adulthood is—or should be—about fine tuning one’s life.  Call it living authentically.  Call it self-awareness.  Call it confidence.  Call it a combination of the above.  Call it whatever you want.  I just think it’s great.  I still get my hopes up that my best years are ahead of me—which may be naïve and may be a recipe for utter disappointment.  But if these past few months are any indication, I think it’s quite possible that my greatest joy is yet to be experienced.  After all, if you had asked me at the beginning of summer, I would’ve said these last few years have been my most satisfying.  And look at how much it’s improved since then.  This is what a focused life can do for you.  I don’t “want it all,” as the saying goes.  That strikes me as immature.  No, I want relatively few things.  And usually, I have too much.  But the beautiful thing about cutting out the excess is that you suddenly find yourself with a shitload of the relatively little that you want.  And that is when you know you’re living the good life.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

2016 in Review: Television

Let’s talk TV.

Polygamy was a major interest of mine when it came to what I watched on the small screen during 2016. Melanie and I discovered three new—and, in the case of two of them, already cancelled—cable series about the polygamous lifestyle. First up was My Five Wives, a kind of post-religious, secular cousin of TLC’s Sister Wives. My Five Wives features a family who is no longer religious but whose polygamous beginnings were rooted in religious conviction. I mentioned this family when I wrote about my adventures at the Sunstone Symposium back in the summer. Like Sister Wives, this show focused on the day-to-day practicalities of living polygamy: the husband’s efforts to balance time between the wives, tensions that arise among the wives themselves, etc. The post-religious component of the show gave it a unique bent, one that resonated with me as a person who has gone through a significant faith transition. Unfortunately, the show was canceled after just one season.

Next up is Escaping Polygamy. This quickly became my favorite “reality TV” polygamy show, even though it is far more sensationalized than the others. It can be a bit over the top in that regard, but at the heart of the show is something genuinely fascinating. The series follows the efforts of three women, all of whom defected from polygamy as teenagers, as they help others to do the same. The most beguiling aspect of the show is that it strikes so close to home, both literally and figuratively. Though I wasn’t raised in polygamy, I spent nearly 40 years in the LDS Church from which these polygamist sects sprang. There are often surprising similarities between the polygamist groups and the LDS Church, culturally speaking, which mesmerizes me as an ex-Mormon. Additionally, so much of what takes place in the show happens in or very near Salt Lake City. It’s amazing the wild things that are secretly going on all around me, masked by a façade of pleasant valley suburban America. Of the three polygamy shows I discuss in this blog post, Escaping Polygamy is the only one that has not been discontinued.

The final polygamy show we watched was Polygamy, USA. It was featured on the National Geographic Channel, which means the tone was vastly different from the other polygamy shows I’ve mentioned. It was more of a legitimate documentary. I am a fan of documentaries, but this one sometimes felt like the educational videos I remember watching in school as a kid—very dry and very subdued. I was bored during some of the earlier episodes. However, I was sufficiently engrossed by the end of the season (which also marked the end of the series). Unlike any other reality TV series, Polygamy, USA focuses on those living loyally the fundamentalist Mormon polygamist lifestyle. The polygamists of Centennial Park broke away from the FLDS Church, the latter of which is what many Americans imagine when they hear the word “polygamy”—women in prairie dresses, strict obedience to church leaders, a strong sense of patriarchy, private communities, child brides, etc. Centennial Park is a slightly liberal version thereof, forbidding marriage to underage girls, placing the responsibility of choosing a spouse on the women rather than the men, and (clearly) allowing cameras into their otherwise isolated community. Want to see what it’s like for newlyweds to engage in awkward conversations where they are trying to learn some of the most basic facts about each other? This is a good show for you.

Most of the TV shows I discovered in 2016 had nothing to do with polygamy, of course. Let’s take a look at what I found.

WINNERS

Ash vs. Evil Dead
I was stoked when I learned that Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy would receive a sequel in the form of a television series. Ash vs. Evil Dead, which is as ridiculously hyperviolent as you’d expect, does not disappoint.

Making a Murderer
I know, I know. Making a Murderer is so 2015. Well, Melanie and I were late for the party. So what? We can see why the show was so compelling, and we’ll definitely be on board when Season 2 finally makes its premiere—whenever that will be.

Mr. Robot
I have mixed feelings about this show. I quite liked it whenever I watched an episode, but I rarely felt eager to watch it. Even now, Season 2 remains completely unwatched despite being on our DVR for months. Although it qualifies as a thriller, there is something very slow-moving about it. I think this is a case of the show being slightly better than it is enjoyable, if that makes sense.

Stranger Things
See, we’re not always late to the party. Like everyone else, we loved it. Melanie and I watched the series once on our own, and then again with our boys. They liked it, too. Win-win.

United States of Tara
We had to reach way back into the 2009 vault to watch this one. I don’t know what mental health experts or those with dissociative identity disorder would say about this dramedy, starring Toni Collette as a woman balancing DID with the typical challenges of suburbia. There’s always a risk of treating these topics poorly. Admittedly, there were outlandish aspects to the plot, especially near the end, but overall I quite enjoyed the series’ fairly brief three-season stint. That being said, it is the weakest of shows I am putting into the “Winner” category.

RUNNERS-UP: Flaked; Love; Master of None; Red Oaks.


ON THE FENCE

Casual
This is probably the least enjoyable show that I haven’t completely given up on. None of the main characters are likeable. I’ve watched this one only when I’ve somehow managed to catch up on others and don’t yet want to start something new.

Fuller House
Okay, let me explain. I wouldn’t say I like this show. But I’ve seen several episodes, and that’s just me being a forthright and honest guy. We tried it one night as a family, wondering if our kids would enjoy it. They kind of do, so we’ve had it on a few times. In all fairness, we haven’t even watched the full first season. We watched two episodes in July, and another three in November. Clearly, we’re not chomping at the bit.

The Man in the High Castle
This is a critically acclaimed show, and Melanie and I watched the first several episodes. We then lost touch with it. It’s another one of those shows that is pretty good, but just so slow and tranquil that it often puts me to sleep. Hence, I’ve never been super motivated to watch it.

Speechless
Speechless received positive press for putting a special-needs teenager—one who can’t speak, hence the name of the show—at the forefront. Unfortunately, the family around which the show revolves is not particularly likeable. The mother, played by Minnie Driver, is particularly obnoxious. Furthermore, the family as a whole hasn’t gelled in terms of who they are. Sometimes they come off as trailer trash, and sometimes they come off as domineering elitists. I honestly don’t know if we’re supposed to consider them good guys or bad guys. Sometimes such ambiguity is the strength of a show. Here, it just seems sloppy and ill-formed.


DUDS

12 Monkeys
The movie 12 Monkeys was great. I had high hopes for the TV show. I got through one episode and just didn’t want to continue with it. It wasn’t terrible. It just didn’t click with me.

Documentary Now!
Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in a mockumentary television series? Sounds like heaven! And that’s what I thought, until I watched the incredibly boring and unfunny first episode. I will probably give it another go sometime, but the humor in that first episode was just way, way, way too understated for my tastes.


The end.

Monday, January 30, 2017

2016 in Review: Movies

In recent years, I have dedicated the majority of January blog posts to a review of the previous year. I have typically broken up the previous year into a variety of subjects, only one of which was addressed per blog post: books, music, etc. I will continue this trend as I review 2016, but compared to years past, these reviews will be much more condensed. I simply don’t have time to go into great detail.

I will start my review of 2016 with movies. In 2016, I saw 102 movies that I had never before seen. Rating them on a standard four-star scale, with zero stars being an absolutely crappy film and four stars being an undeniably excellent film, I gave an average score of **½. That keeps in tradition with years past, I believe.

My personal favorite film of 2016 (which isn’t necessarily the absolute best film of 2016) is Sing Street. This independent charmer is about a group of boys who start a band in 1980s Ireland. It is an ode to everything I love: music, the 1980s, twitterpation, and dreaming. I probably shouldn’t admit how much the mental life of the teenage protagonist mirrors my own. Full disclosure: if I’ve interacted with you more than a few times in real life, chances are you’ve been part of an ultra-cheesy dance sequence in my head.

Other personal favorites that were actually released in 2016 include: Zootopia; Hell or High Water; Kubo and the Two Strings; Deadpool; Swiss Army Man; Moana; and The Nice Guys. Favorites that predate 2016 but weren’t seen by me until 2016 include: The Big Short; The Revenant; Inside Out; The Lobster; Spotlight; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; and Hello, My Name is Doris. Honorable mentions seen in 2016 (but released whenever) include: Bridge of Spies; Brooklyn; Sicario; The Hateful Eight; Straight Outta Compton; and La La Land.

The very worst film I saw in 2016 (and also from 2016) is a no-brainer, in more one ways than one: Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers. Other films I saw last year that fall squarely into the crap camp include: Nine Lives; The Night Before; Once I Was a Beehive; The Brothers Grimsby; and Sisters.

It’s a shame I don’t have time to go into further detail about movies. I actually kept slightly better notes on movies in 2016, and I tracked how my critiques compared to the aggregate scores found on Metacritic and IMDb. In theory, then, I have much more that I could say. Even so, I’ll keep my final comments brief.

The most overrated film I saw in 2016 was the 2012 documentary Room 237. I thought the film was rather bad, but it has a Metacritic score of 80, meaning the average movie critic rated it the equivalent of 80 out of 100 points. According to the critics, then, it’s essentially a ***½ movie. Wrong. The documentary showcases what are basically conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece The Shining. Unfortunately, the interpretations offered by those within the film are not compelling enough to make their lunacy entertaining.

Deadpool was the most underrated movie I saw in 2016, according to my own scores, but since I’ve mentioned that film already, I’ll instead mention the 2015 thriller No Escape. No Escape stars Owen Wilson, which may explain the film’s rather poor Metascore of 38—essentially *½. Wilson isn’t the type of actor you’d expect to see in a high-intensity thriller, much less as the lead character: a man whose vacationing family finds themselves in the midst of a violent overseas rebellion in which Americans quickly become targets. I myself was quite leery, but found the film sufficiently gripping. I thought it was good. Not great, but definitely good.

The end.

Friday, January 27, 2017

BOO!

It’s me! I’m still here! It’s not over yet, folks!

That’s what I’d say to the readers of this blog, if I had any. As it is, I suppose I’m just talking to myself. That’s fine.

I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of getting my first real job since leaving grad school. I guess I needed a one-year sabbatical, because lately I’ve been itching to reclaim many aspects of my life that I feel like I lost when I got a job. I just looked back on my 2016 blog entries, which are few, and apparently I never wrote about these feelings publicly. I did write about them in my private journal, however. While many great things came from my being employed, I also felt like a big part of me was lost. So many things that had defined me, aspects of my life and personality that I felt were being richly developed, things that were exhilarating and meaningful to me, quickly fell to the wayside. I just didn’t have time for them, and because I was so busy and preoccupied with other things, I hardly cared that those major parts of my life and personality had seemingly vanished. The one exception was music, which I made a greater priority in 2016 than it had been in years, possibly decades. I started taking guitar lessons again, and it has been a wonderfully fruitful endeavor. I’m loving it. But other things were lost, some more gradually than others, and I am only now starting to yearn for them again. Case in point, I read one book in 2016. One. A single book! I used to read between 40 and 50 books per year, and in 2016 I read one. Insanity! Well, now I really want to read again. I’m actually craving it, and I’m actually halfway through a book already. (Hugely impressive, isn’t it?) I also feel a strong desire to rekindle my spiritual life, which has been severely lacking over the last several months. And yes, I have a renewed interest in writing. Hence, this blog post.

It’s always temping after a long break in writing to try to sum up everything that’s happened between the previous entry and today. That ain’t going to happen. I’m stopping here. But there will be more to come. I truly believe this. We’ll see if I’m right.