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Drinking Beer While the Alligators Roam

I’m not one to give much thought to dreams, assuming I even remember them, which, most of the time, I don’t. And I certainly have no wish to bore anyone by rambling on about the warped movies that run behind my closed eyelids at night. God, is there anything more tedious than somebody telling you about a dream they had?

But…

I had a dream a week or so ago that just won’t leave me alone, so I’m going to become one of those tedious bores for a moment. Sorry.

In this dream, I was in the kitchen of my Grandma June’s old house on the west side of Salt Lake. Grandma’s been gone for years, and she didn’t live in that house for years prior to her death, but my parents still own the place — they use it as a rental property — and I’ve helped my dad remodel and freshen it up several times, so it’s as familiar to me as my own house. In the dream, though, I knew — in that weird, ineffable way you simply know stuff in dreams — that this was not my parents’ rental, but rather Grandma’s house. She was there in it somewhere, and if I’d walked around, I likely would’ve found her. Perhaps in that front bedroom that used to be her office, seated at the fabulous antique roll-top desk I always loved as a kid, punching keys on her old-fashioned adding machine. (I never did figure out how that thing actually worked.)

I did not go looking for her, though. I was occupied with my guest: President Barack Obama. He was leaning against the bar that separated the kitchen from the tiny dining area, his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow. We were both drinking beer — plain old Budweiser from long-necked bottles, nothing fancy — and laughing about something, just shooting the shit like old friends.

Now, here’s where things get weird. (Really? Drinking cheap beer with the president in your dead grandmother’s kitchen — which hasn’t been her kitchen since you were a teenager, and yet somehow you’re a grown man in this scenario — isn’t weird yet?)

It was raining outside, and by raining, I mean raining. Cats-and-dogs, how’s-Noah-coming-on-that-ark rain, the sort we very rarely get out here in the desert, and when we do, it lasts only minutes. But this was sustained, rather like a storm I got caught in a few years ago in Washington, D.C. (Briefly, my buddy Robert and I were on foot, exploring the FDR Memorial, which is pretty spread out and also a good walk away from the parking lot; we were soaked to the skin by the time we got back to our car, and I ended up throwing away the waterlogged shoes I was wearing that evening.) Enough water was coming down that the four-lane road in front of the house had become a shallow river, and leisurely swimming up and down in that river — leisurely in spite of the fast-moving currents, mind you — were a number of day-glo green alligators.

And… that’s about it. There’s no punchline here. Nothing actually happened in this dream that I can recall. I have the impression that Barack and I were amused by the alligators, which we could see through the little window over the sink, but I don’t think we said anything about them.

I have no idea what any of this could mean, if it means anything at all. Which it probably doesn’t. But I have no idea where this little tableau came from… what inspired it, I mean. And I have no idea why the image keeps haunting me.

Maybe I need therapy.

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Things My Dad Says on the Occasion of Dismantling a Tree

I spent much of this fine, breezy springtime day helping my dad take down a tree that was overhanging the Bennion Compound’s property line. He’s become increasingly concerned over the past couple years about a branch coming down on the patio furniture at the rec center next door, and the potential damages he doesn’t want to be liable for.

At one point, as he was trying to gingerly back his way up a near-vertical limb that he once would have just fearlessly Tarzaned, he stopped, wiped his brow, and said to me, “I guess it’s pretty silly for a 70-year-old man to be scrambling around a tree like this.?”

“Yeah, it is,” I agreed.

Cramming his hat back on his snowy-white hair, he responded, “Good thing I’m not 70 yet, isn’t it?”

And that’s not even the funniest thing he said to me today. That came first thing this morning, when he asked me for my help. “This should only take an hour,” he said…

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Friday Evening Videos: “The Heart of the Matter”

Don Henley has long struck me as rather a horrible person, dour and self-important and (it would seem) a real pain in the butt to work with. A few years ago, I read a book about The Eagles, the band that delivered him to stardom, and he did not come off well at all in that volume. (Although, to be fair, his bandmate Glenn Frey didn’t either; he and Henley are polar opposites in many ways, but they apparently both orbit a common center of asshole-ishness.)

And yet in spite of his perceived shortcomings as a human being, I enjoy quite a lot of his work, both with The Eagles and his solo efforts. He’s got a knack for creating memorable phrases as well as an insightful eye for the ways that life beats you down. Yes, his music is often pretty melancholy, if not downright sad… but it also frequently feels just plain true.

This week’s Friday Evening Video is a song from his third solo album, The End of the Innocence, which came out in 1989… yes, the same landmark year when I got rained out of a Steve Miller concert and discovered Bonnie Raitt. What can I say? It was a memorable twelve months… for a lot of reasons.

“The Heart of the Matter” was the third single from The End of the Innocence. It came out in early 1990 and made it to number 21 on the Billboard chart, which means I heard it a lot during that winter and spring. And it broke my heart a little bit more every time I did, too. It’s possibly the best track on the album… and it’s the one I always used to skip, because I just couldn’t take hearing it. It cut a little too close to the bone, you see, and after several middle-of-the-night spins of that album when I ended up sitting in the dark with a metaphorical knife sticking out of my chest, I decided it was better for me to simply avoid that one. Quite honestly, I didn’t think about this tune for years.

Just lately, though, it’s been on my mind again. I’ve realized it’s finally time to let go of some things I’ve been carrying around for far too long. I finally can let go of them, and I think it’s possible I already have without even realizing it. Now when I hear “The Heart of the Matter,” it still resonates for me… but the frequency has changed. The verses that I used to not want to hear are now the ones that make the most sense to me.  Make of that what you will; it’s probably doesn’t mean anything to anyone but myself.

So let’s play the damn song, shall we? As far as I can determine, there isn’t a music video for it per se, but I did find this lovely performance of it from Farm Aid IV, a benefit concert held on April 7, 1990… probably just about the time I was deciding I never wanted to hear this song again. Well, tonight I not only want to hear it, I think maybe I kind of need to…

Hope you all enjoy it, and have a good weekend.

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“I’m a Heritage Mormon”

I just ran across an interesting quote from the historian Will Bagley, who specializes in the American West and is probably best known for his book on the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, a very touchy topic here in my home state of Utah:

…I’d also like to address the charges that I’m an anti-Mormon. They’re preposterous, because I am still a Mormon. I’m a heritage Mormon, and I have a great-great-grandfather, grandfathers and grandmothers on all sides, who crossed the plains, most of them before the railroad, and I’m very proud of that heritage, and very proud of the Mormon people.

 

That said, I’ve never believed the theology since I was old enough to think about it.

“Heritage Mormon.” I like that. As someone who has occasionally struggled with how, exactly, to define myself relative to the culture in which I was born and raised but never truly felt a part of, I think it’s a useful term.

Like Mr. Bagley, I trace my ancestry to the intrepid Mormon pioneers who walked across the Great Plains in 1847 in search of a remote place where they could practice their faith in peace, and I honestly take a fair amount of pride in their grit and determination. I can’t help but respect what the early church accomplished out here in the less-hospitable corners of the country. Also, I’ve seen the place where my family’s homestead once stood on the banks of the Jordan River in the central Great Salt Lake Valley and felt a deep connection with that legacy. And I feel no shame at all in admitting that my lineage includes polygamy, as do those of many of the long-established families in this state.

That said, I’ve never been a member of that church, and I do not believe in its teachings. I have a lot of problems with the Mormon culture that dominates Utah, and with the church’s deep involvement in local government. (Briefly, it often seems as if the laws here are being written by the men in the Church Office Building, not the people on Capitol Hill.) But I try not to let my frustration and, yes, occasional anger morph into outright hostility. That would be… counterproductive… considering I have a lot of family and friends who are Mormons.

With all this ambivalence about Mormonism in general, what am I supposed to call myself when people ask me if I am one, and if not, what am I? (This is not hypothetical, by the way… I’ve gotten those questions, in more or less those terms, many times, both here and when I travel.) I need something that accurately describes my outsider status without disparaging the thing I am claiming to be outside of.

“Gentile” — a term which is pretty commonly used in Mormon culture to describe people who aren’t Mormon — has always struck me as odd, probably because it seems like that one ought to be exclusive to our Jewish friends. “Ex-Mormon” doesn’t apply; as I said, I was never actually a member. (Although I did attend “primary” classes — i.e., the Mormon Sunday school for kids — when I was a small boy.) And “non-Mormon” doesn’t really seem right to me, either. To my thinking, that implies someone from a completely different tradition, a polar opposite. And you can’t grow up in this place, immersed in this culture and these beliefs, surrounded by so many loved ones who are members, without being informed by it. I may not be a believer, but there’s no question in my mind I was shaped by Mormonism and its traditions, whether that shape was in response against it or an embrace of it.

So… “heritage Mormon.” Meaning “of Mormon heritage,” but not necessarily implying membership. Yeah… that works for me. What do you think?

(If you’re wondering, the source for that quote is here.)

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Times Past

It’s a gloomy, cold day here in the SLC, and as I watch a light flurry of snow flutter past my windows on the 13th Floor, I’m feeling a little melancholy and nostalgic. (“What?!” you’re probably thinking, “Bennion? Melancholy and nostalgic? The deuce you say!” Yeah, yeah, I know… but it is true.) Seems an appropriate time to post this, a moody image from days not that far gone, but which may as well be a century ago…

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I miss these old girls, and the future they once represented… the one I once imagined…

Photo source here; thanks to my buddy Mike Gillilan for passing me the link.

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Friday Evening Videos: “Thing Called Love”

in the summer of 1989, which seems a lot nearer in my mind than it really ought to, I took my then-girlfriend to see the Steve Miller Band at a place called ParkWest. She didn’t care much for the classic-rock stuff I’ve always loved, but Steve Miller was a particular favorite of mine at the time — like a lot of dorky young guys with delusions of coolness, I’d adopted “The Joker” as my personal theme song — and she indulged me.

ParkWest was located in the mountains above Salt Lake, only a couple miles outside Park City. Its main function was as a ski resort, but for years it hosted outdoor concerts during the summer months. It was a beautiful setting for live music, if a little on the rustic side. As I recall, there was no permanent seating, only grass that rose up a steep hillside with the stage positioned at the bottom. All shows were general admission, and if you wanted to be at all close to the stage, you had to show up early in the day and wait until the gates opened. Most people brought picnic lunches and a party attitude to pass the time. The worst aspect of the place was the parking — there really wasn’t much, at least nothing formal, just empty fields accessible by a two-lane road that led back to the main highway. If you did arrive early for the show, you’d find yourself waiting around again after the show for the traffic jam down below to clear out, a process that sometimes took hours. And of course, being outdoors, the venue was susceptible to the weather… something my girl and I learned in a pretty spectacular fashion the night of the Steve Miller show.

Miller had only been on a stage a short time — it seems like he’d only played three or four songs — when heavy, slate-colored clouds started boiling up over the mountainside behind us. When the wind started gusting high enough to set the hanging light rigs swaying, Steve announced that he and the band were going to go backstage for a few minutes and wait for things to blow over. Except they didn’t blow over. A few minutes later, a roadie rushed up to the microphone and said something along the lines of, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re very sorry but the Weather Service has just announced a major lightning storm is about to hit. The show is cancelled. Be safe going home.” And just to emphasize the point, a tremendous crack of thunder split the air as he finished speaking.

My girl and I hadn’t even made it out of the fenced-in seating area when the first drops of rain started to pelt down. And then it was like someone opened a sluice gate. We were soaked to the skin by the time we reached my car, a VW Rabbit with a sunroof that served as my commuter special. Between the blinding rain and the parking lots rapidly transforming into muddy bogs, the traffic jam was worse than usual, and it soon became obvious we weren’t going anywhere for some time. So we passed the time as passionate teenagers have from time immemorial, steaming up the windows to the crackling music of a distant radio station and the drumming of rain on the car’s roof, shivering from both the cold and our own raging hormones, the outside world occasionally glaring white as lightning stitched across the sky…

The Steve Miller portion of the evening may have been something of a bust, but I certainly got a fond memory out of the evening. And I also discovered a new musical artist that I would soon become obsessed with. The opening act that night was a woman named Bonnie Raitt.

I was dimly aware of Bonnie before that night — I’d heard the name at least — but I really didn’t know much about her, and neither, I’d dare say, did many other people. She’d been around a long time at that point, chasing after the brass ring but never quite catching it, never quite breaking through to mainstream popularity. What I saw in her hour-long set prior to Miller’s, though, told me I wanted to know more. Her music seemed curiously timeless to me, as if it had just always been there waiting for me, and I liked how it resisted categorization. Rock, certainly, but heavily infused with blues and country… it was a sort of music I found myself gravitating more and more toward in my college years, music that was stripped down, authentic and human. It was music that suggested smoky juke-joints and long-neck beers, a mileau that was at once familiar and comfortable even though I’d never really experienced anything like that, like the sprung and duct-taped seat-back of a booth in a roadside diner. I found Bonnie Raitt’s music and the atmosphere it conjured deeply seductive… and Bonnie herself was incredibly sexy, a mature woman who knew her way around the world, leaning way back and smiling a playful smile as the bottle on her fingers slid across the strings of her guitar… all of which is nicely captured in tonight’s video selection. Which, for the record, I had not seen yet when Bonnie’s music filled my head with all those images:

“Thing Called Love” was first written and recorded by John Hiatt two years earlier, in 1987. Bonnie’s version appeared on her tenth album, Nick of Time — the album that would finally bring her the attention and acclaim she’d worked so long to find, as well as three Grammy Awards. A couple days ago, I saw on the Ultimate Classic Rock blog that Nick of Time was released this month 25 years ago. Twenty-five years. Incredible. As I said, ’89 doesn’t seem so far away to me.

In case you’re wondering, yes, that is the actor Dennis Quaid giving Bonnie the eye in the video. If I remember my trivia, they were an item for a while.

As for that girl I took to the concert, our relationship was over by the time Bonnie accepted her Grammys in April of 1990. ParkWest underwent a number of ownership and name changes — it was called Wolf Mountain for a time, and is currently known (rather unimaginatively, in my opinion) as The Canyons. I can’t remember when they stopped hosting concerts up there, but it’s been a very long time… decades, I believe. I can’t recall the last show I saw up there… but man, I still remember the Bonnie Raitt/Steve Miller show, the night of that huge rainstorm.

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Star Wars Played on the Mighty Wurlitzer!

I’ve written before about one of Salt Lake City’s hidden treasures, a nifty little establishment called The Organ Loft, which is a monument to one man’s lifelong fascination with an outmoded technology:

So the story goes, Lawrence Bray fell in love with the sound of the pipe organs that once provided musical accompaniment for many old-time silent-movie theaters and, beginning in the late 1940s, he started acquiring components of these old organs as they were scrapped out of Salt Lake moviehouses. He assembled them in his uncle’s chicken coop, adding onto the building several times over the years as his instrument grew. Today, that much-enlarged (and improved) chicken coop is The Organ Loft. Owned and operated by Lawrence Bray’s nephew, Larry, it is one of the few venues in this country, and probably in the whole world, where you can see a silent movie in something close to the way our great-grandparents must’ve experienced it.

Thanks to Anne’s and my long patronage of the Loft, I’ve developed quite an appreciation for these theater organs myself. They’re amazingly complex instruments, capable of generating sound effects and taking the place of an entire orchestra. But the sound they produce is decidedly old-fashioned. When you hear one, you immediately think of a more buttoned-down age, when automobiles had crank-starters and men always wore hats. One consequence of that effect is that more modern, familiar pieces of music become unexpectedly novel when played on a theater organ. Case in point: the Main Title from the Star Wars Symphonic Suite, played on an absolutely beautiful Wurlitzer at the Sanfilippo Foundation‘s “Place de la Musique” in Barrington, IL. Give this a listen and tell me it doesn’t make you smile to imagine my favorite movie as it might have looked in hand-cranked sepia tone, with no spoken dialogue and inter-title cards explaining what’s going on:

Incidentally, Anne and I were lucky enough to see the organist, Jelani Eddington, in person at The Organ Loft a number of years ago. He’s an incredibly talented young man, who was honored by the American Theatre Organ Society when they named him the 2001 Theatre Organist of the Year. I can’t remember what film he accompanied when we saw him, though. I love middle age…

Hat tip to our colleague Jaquandor, who first posted this video over on Facebook…

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Leonard’s Turn

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I can’t let this long and hectic day end without attending to one final duty, albeit a pleasurable one, and that’s wishing the unsurpassable Leonard Nimoy a very happy 83rd birthday. (He is unsurpassed, in my opinion, despite a new generation thinking his signature character — the logical Mr. Spock — now belongs to a kid named Zachary Quinto. Despite all the fuss people have made of Quinto’s performance as in the Abrams-Trek movies, I can’t see that he’s doing anything more than an impression of Nimoy’s Spock. And Chevy Chase did that much in that old SNL sketch some 40 years ago!)

Sadly, Leonard is not quite as hale and hearty as his castmate, Bill Shatner. “Grandpa,” as Nimoy has taken to calling himself on Twitter, has lately been seen in public toting around an oxygen tank, the consequence of a lifetime of smoking. It saddens me to think of time and unhealthy choices catching up with my childhood heroes, and I sincerely hope he’s not in too much discomfort…

(I also hope there’s a chance he might show up at the Salt Lake Comic Con FanX convention next month, as I suspect I may be running out of chances to meet him…)

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Ever Have One of Those Days?

angry-tuskenI seem to be extra surly today, owing to too much work for the allotted number of hours in my day, and a threatening headache that’s lurking just on the fringes of my perception. Apologies to anyone who’s found out the hard way.

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