45 Years

apollo-11_Aldrin-and-flagA lifetime ago (literally, as I was born just under two months after this photo was taken).

Whatever you might be up to today, take a moment… look up to the sky… maybe you’ll even see the Moon looking pale and small in the daylight… and think about we’re capable of as a society, and as a species.

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Occupational Hazards

So I’m at work just now, reading along in a case study about some technological solution to a problem I don’t really have, when I run across this phrase:

Sensors can also alert transporters…

And it took me a second to process that the rest of the sentence has nothing to do with Star Trek. Seriously.

I tell you, it’s tough sometimes for a nerd. And for the record, yes, I did hear those words in the unique cadence of Leonard Nimoy. Sen-sores.

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Dancing As Fast As I Can…

Well, I’m doing an absolutely miserable job of blogging these days, aren’t I? I’ll be honest, I’m feeling pretty discouraged about the whole damn thing right now. Maybe I went too long without doing it while the server was out of commission, or maybe chores and life and work have expanded to fill in the spaces blogging used to occupy. Whatever the reason, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day for everything I need and want to do, and I’m once again struggling with a huge load of anxiety because I can’t get on top of it all. Even when I do find the time to pay attention to this little hobby — usually late at night, after Anne’s gone to bed — I can’t focus and I end up flailing away on the same paragraph for 20 minutes, unable to articulate whatever the hell it is I’m trying to say, and then I give up in disgust and self-loathing, remembering how the words used to flow so effortlessly and at such volume, I feared I’d never be able to get them all down. Now I fear the spigot has been shut off and I can’t find a wrench to re-open it. I hate feeling like this… constantly busy but with nothing to show for it, everything melting day to day into an undefined blur. Feeling like I never manage to finish or accomplish anything. Hell, I have four friends waiting on replies to emails they sent me days (weeks) ago, and I can’t even manage to do that. And we won’t even speak of my long-dormant ambitions to write things other than blog entries.

Gaaah.

Anyhow, if anybody is still bothering to follow this blog, my apologies for letting you down in the content department. I have a couple draft entries in the works that I hope to finish and post soon, and of course I have lots of ideas for things I’d like to do here. Whether or not I ever actually do them…

For right now, for this afternoon, the best I can offer you is this momentary diversion:

That Artoo… the little bastard can do anything, can’t he?

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Well… Crap…

As you may recall, I’ve lately been watching the TV series Babylon 5 in its entirety for the first time. It’s not currently available on any of the streaming services I’m familiar with, so I’ve been utilizing the old VHS recordings my lovely Anne made for me when the show ran on the TNT cable network back in the late ’90s… recordings I frankly have never gotten around to viewing before now. I don’t mind relying on these old tapes. They’re available, and the quality of them is good enough for my current purpose, which is merely to see the series. But I have run across a few cock-ups — missing episodes, or hour-long chunks of other programming that was captured instead of B5, so I have to occasionally fast-forward to the next segment of my show. These haven’t been a big deal, as I’ve been able to follow the story well enough… until tonight.

Babylon 5 was one of the first TV series to tell a single, unified story in a serialized format, something we now more or less expect. The first three seasons detail the coming of a massive intergalactic war between two ancient species, the Vorlons and the Shadows, with the “young races” — humans and our various allies and rivals — caught in the middle. Everything has been leading to a final confrontation between the three sides, as well as a resolution to several other plot threads, taking place in a fourth-season episode called “Into the Fire.” I was looking forward to tucking into that one tonight after Anne retired, to finally getting the payoff for all that build-up.

But as it turns out… somehow…. because of some innocent error made nearly 20 years ago… I’ve only got about 10 minutes of that episode. I checked the following tape, just to make sure Anne didn’t realize the last one had run out and thrown a fresh one into her machine midway through the episode. No such luck. That tape starts with the following episode. So no “Into the Fire.” And now I’m left with no idea what happens, except that the war somehow ends. Of all the episodes to miss out on!

I am feeling very… unfulfilled… right about now. Twenty years after the fact.

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No Such World Should Ever Exist!

The mind-boggling and unexpected (well, to me, at least — I really didn’t think it’d fly) success of Salt Lake’s first-ever official Comic Con last fall, followed by the even-bigger Comic Con Fan eXperience (or FanX) this spring, has inspired another promoter to try their hand at throwing a big party for Utah nerds. FantasyCon will be held this coming weekend, July 3 through 5, with an impressive line-up of celebrity guests that includes many of the hobbits and dwarves from Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, as well as genre favorite Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead and, sadly, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot… but I won’t hold that against him!), who is making his first convention appearance anywhere. Considering that Pegg is British and will have to spend a lot of time on a plane to even get here, that’s quite an honor for my little backwater city.

To help spread the word about the fledgling event, FantasyCon has commissioned a series of amusing TV spots in which a group of familiar character types — an elf, a knight, a cleric, and an orc — are engaged in a role-playing game called “Cubicles & Careers,” with a white-bearded wizard as their “Cubicle Master.” That’s right, the premise here is that their imaginary game world is our ordinary reality. And as you might imagine, these rollicking freebooters who live lives of romance and adventure, who are accustomed to solving problems with magicks and steel and strength, have a bit of difficulty navigating through the mundane horrors we face every day. My favorite of the ads is “Episode 3: Cleric”:

The lovely cleric’s increasingly exasperated expression and simmering attitude as she roles the dice over and over without getting anywhere crack me up. I know exactly how you feel, fair lady.

There are five of these ads, all produced by a local Salt Lake agency called The Brute Squad. Here are links to the others, if you’d like to check them out (and you know you do!):

Episode 1: Orc

Episode 2: Elf

Episode 3: Cleric

Episode 4: Knight

Episode 5: Wizard Cubicle Master

Anne and I are on the fence about whether we’re going to this — honestly, I’m still trying to pay off what we spent at FanX — but if nothing else, I wanted to share these clever ads that gave me a chuckle, and to wish the organizers success…

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The Moments You Wish Could Stay

If you also follow me on Facebook, you might recognize the little passage below. I originally posted it over there about this same time last year, after a midnight drive down Provo Canyon. I’d been in Heber, a small town in the mountains above Provo, Utah, for an annual car show my parents attend there. It’s become a bit of a tradition for Anne and me to spend the day with them, but last year, for some reason that now escapes me, I’d gone alone and stayed quite late, and my mental gears started to turn during the trip home, resulting in this little exercise in scene-painting. Not to toot my own horn, but I really like the mood I captured in this post, and I received a lot of nice feedback on it, mostly variations on “why aren’t you writing a book?” (A question, by the way, for which I have no good answer, or even a good excuse.)

Well, this past weekend was the Heber show again, and that got me thinking about what I wrote last year, and how one of the most frustrating things about Facebook for me is the inability to easily access old posts. They’re still there, if you care to scroll back through your Timeline, but there is no search feature or other convenient method to quickly recall your good stuff. Fortunately, I saved a screenshot of the post — as I said, I was proud of this little chunk of writing, and frankly, I thought I could use it and the supportive comments as an ego-booster on those occasions when I start doubting my abilities — so I have a local copy available. And now I’ve decided to post a copy of it here as well…

Coming around the back side of Deer Creek [reservoir], the surrounding hills black shadows in the night. Alone except for a monstrous full moon hovering just behind my left shoulder; it fills the car with silvery light almost bright enough to read by. The top’s down, of course, and the heater struggles against wind that flirts on the edge between “chilly” and “downright cold,” while Springsteen sings about girls in their summer clothes.

 

These are the moments you wish could stay…

 

If you’re curious, the Springsteen song I referenced is “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” a lovely, somewhat melancholy tune from his 2007 album Magic. Listen here, if you’ve a mind to.

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Alternate Universe TV Title Sequence: Game of Thrones

So, one of the hottest things running right now is the HBO television series Game of Thrones, based on a series of massively popular (and just plain massive) novels by George R.R. Martin. If you don’t know, it’s an epic fantasy set in the imaginary world of Westeros. The focus is on the intrigues of several noble families all jockeying for political power, while, in the background, is the ominous approach of a decades-long winter… and with it, mythical monsters who aren’t so mythical, and aren’t at all friendly. The series is handsomely produced, well written and acted, and it stars a number of actors whose work I really enjoy, notably Sean Bean and the amazingly charismatic Peter Dinklage. Sounds like it ought to be right up my alley, doesn’t it? And yet, in spite of all that, I really don’t care for it much.

Like so much of the dramatic television that everyone has gushed about in recent years — The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, the Battlestar Galactica remake — its tone is just too damn bleak for my tastes. It is, as our colleague Jaquandor has said, a show about awful people doing awful things (or something like that… my apologies if I’m not quoting him accurately), up to and including the murder of a child after he discovers a brother and sister making the beast with two backs. No matter how fine the quality of a TV series, regardless of how many awards it’s won or rave reviews it’s received, I just don’t enjoy the Grim ‘n’ Gritty™ enough to invest a large chunk of my life in it. Yes, Shakespeare wrote about rape, incest, corruption, and murder, too… but Hamlet is only three hours long, whereas Game of Thrones has aired 40 hours’ worth of episodes with two more 10-episode seasons in the works. It’s just too much time spent in the company of people I don’t like and an atmosphere I find revolting.

But it occurs to me that perhaps it isn’t the story being told so much as the idiom in which it is told. In other words, I don’t care for the modern trend toward Grim ‘n’ Gritty™ storytelling… but what if Game of Thrones had been told in a different way… perhaps… the way stories used to be told on television?

Behold the following video clip, which apparently comes from an ancient VHS tape that somehow fell through a wormhole into our world… the opening credits of a Game of Thrones series that was produced in the 1980s of a parallel dimension:

Now that’s a Game of Thrones I could get into!

(Here’s the actual series opener, just for reference. Thanks to my friend James Cole for finding the “pre-imagined” version.)

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Friday Evening Videos: “Lick It Up”

In the early ’80s, right around the time MTV was reaching its full ascendancy, the band KISS decided to abandon their trademark make-up and fantastic costumes. I suppose you can’t blame them. After a decade of performing in that stuff and never letting anyone see their true faces, the gimmick was probably feeling pretty stale. Also, it seems reasonable to imagine they might have had concerns about wanting to be taken seriously, and that the make-up might have seemed like a barrier to that. Or perhaps the “unmasking” was a gimmick in itself, just a stunt to draw attention back to themselves and boost sagging record sales. Whatever the reasoning behind it, it must’ve been a huge risk for them. Essentially, they chose to become less visually distinctive just as the visual was becoming enormously important to the music industry.

Whether or not they hurt themselves either commercially or artistically with this “unmasking” is a question for genuine connoisseurs, rather than a greatest-hits dilettante like myself. But I do know that KISS continued recording hit singles for many years after they revealed their faces, including one I was hoping to hear at the concert the other night, the title track from their 1983 album Lick It Up. Alas, it wasn’t part of the setlist. So I’m going to play it for you here instead:

This is admittedly a stupid video. Skanky women squatting in what is presumably supposed to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland but looks more like the back alley behind Safeway… the interminable shots of the band’s crotches as they, um, walk… a couple of little plastic skulls laying in the road, trying hard to look ominous… everyone eating cake and frosting or something squirted out of mustard bottles (yeah, I know, phallic imagery was never subtle or especially clever in heavy-metal videos, but this was just dumb)… seriously, what the hell, man? Things improve somewhat when we cut to just the band playing in the burning ruins, but all the scenes that take place in daylight… oy. Even Gene Simmons looks embarrassed, and that takes something. It’s hard to imagine how a band that had always been so conscious of the power of visual imagery could have been so out of their depth on this one.

So yeah, not a fan of this video… but I do like the song. It’s catchy, and there’s that cool little guitar thing just before the second verse. And I’ve got to be honest, I enjoy a good innuendo. Although this song is blunt enough that I’m not sure it even qualifies as innuendo. It’s just plain suggestive. But that, of course, was irresistible to a naughty boy growing up in the buckled-down atmosphere of small-town Utah in 1983…

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Well, I Can Cross That Off the Bucket List…

KISS_in_SLCI cannot recall a world without the rock band KISS in it.

Seriously.

By the time I started becoming aware of popular culture as this big swirling thing that existed out there in the world — this would’ve been the early to mid 1970s — KISS was already there, looming over the landscape in those monstrous platform boots of theirs, casting shadows that reached even as far as my small-town home of Riverton, Utah. Everybody in my elementary school knew who they were. Their fearsome black-and-white visages were as familiar to us as those of Bert and Ernie. They were on lunchboxes and in comic books. They were on television, too, appearing in the infamous Paul Lynde Halloween Special (if you haven’t seen this little piece of disco-era variety-show insanity, you really ought to; just make sure you’ve got something really strong in your glass before you press “play”) and their own made-for-TV movie, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. It seems like they were making guest appearances on shows like Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk, although my memory may be fooling me about that and I’m too lazy to Google it. They even haunted our playground mythology, in the form of lurid stories whispered by the older kids, who no doubt got their dubious intelligence from their teenaged siblings (you knew the letters of the band’s name stood for “Knights in Satan’s Service,” right?).

KISS was so ubiquitous, in fact, that it didn’t seem to matter if you knew their music or not (which I really did not back then, even though they performed their hits of the day in those TV shows I mentioned; hey, I was a kid… I wasn’t paying that much attention). But that’s kind of always been the point of KISS, hasn’t it? Their image selling the band more than their music? I don’t mean to be snide. I’m merely acknowledging my suspicion that many more people could probably identify the band from a photograph than from any of their songs.

These days, I do know and like a number of their best-known songs… maybe enough to fill out a complete CD. Probably not enough to really call myself a fan. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling a certain affection for this kitschy, long-lived circus act, precisely because they’ve been around for so very long. They’re a part of my happy junk-food childhood memories, right up there with The Fonz and candy cigarettes and collecting Looney Tunes glasses from Taco Time. A few years ago, I started thinking that it might be fun to actually go to a KISS concert sometime, even though I’m not a fan, purely for the experience. When I heard they were touring this summer with Def Leppard, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I figured even if KISS didn’t measure up to their reputation, I’d at least enjoy Leppard, a band I’d already seen twice before.

I shouldn’t have worried about it. I was entertained before the show (which was this past Monday night) even got underway, simply by watching the gathering crowd. Given the — ahem — increasing maturity of the musicians I tend to like, I long ago became accustomed to the idea of multi-generational rock concerts, but there’s still something incredibly endearing about the sight of a pot-bellied fiftysomething hard-rock fan walking hand-in-hand with a ten-year-old boy, both of them in full KISS make-up.

Def Leppard took the west-facing outdoor stage following an opening act that so failed to impress me, I can’t even recall their name. Wearing sunglasses against a setting sun that painted them in shades of gold and washed out most of their video and light effects, the five-member ’80s megaband played for just over an hour. Their setlist was heavily weighted with material from their 1987 smash album Hysteria, while the two big hits from the previous record Pyromania — “Rock of Ages” and “Photograph” — were kept in reserve for a brief encore that left the crowd fired up and ready for more. In other words, they played essentially the same setlist this band always plays. Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily. As I said, I enjoy seeing these guys, even though I know what to expect. But whether it was due to this show being the opening night for the tour, the record-breaking attendance of over 20,000 people (both Leppard and KISS seemed a bit awed by that little factoid!), or being paired with a legendary band that the boys in Leppard probably listened to when they were growing up, they played with an energy I’ve not previously seen from them. They turned in a great performance, possibly the best of the now-three times I’ve seen them.

Then it was KISS’ turn.

Wow. I mean, Wow.

Those guys put on one hell of a show. From the moment a giant black curtain emblazoned with the KISS logo was whisked away to reveal the band descending to the stage on the back of a giant steel-frame spider, to the thundering finale when there was so much confetti flying that it looked like a white-out blizzard on a summer night, the only word that applied was spectacle. There were fireworks and fire-jets. There were lots and lots and lots of flashing lights. Gene Simmons spat fire and drooled blood and levitated on a wire harness. Lead singer Paul Stanley rode a zipline out over the audience to play one song from a little satellite stage, and later smashed a guitar to pieces, Who-style. The drum kit rose about 30 feet on a scissorlift contraption. And that silly steel spider was constantly flexing its legs. It was all perfectly ridiculous — more than once, I thought we were about to witness a malfunction straight out of This Is Spinal Tap!, and Gene’s face during the blood gag was less that of a contemptuous demon mocking the peasants than of a 64-year-old man wondering why the hell he was still doing this silly stuff at his age — but good lord, it was fun. Oh, sure, the actual music wasn’t so great. I didn’t recognize much of what they played, and honestly, Def Leppard’s lead guitarist Phil Collen could play any of the KISS guys into the ground (not to mention my man Rick Springfield… no, really!), but their showmanship is something else entirely. KISS has been at this for a very long time — this tour is being billed as their 40th anniversary, in fact — and they’ve become very good at what they do. And I was completely, willingly, happily swept away by it. By the time the band wrapped up with its signature “Rock and Roll All Nite,” I was throwing the goat horns, waving my fist in the air, stomping my feet, and singing along with the drunken middle-aged dude behind me. I was snatching bits of swirling confetti out of the air and handing them to Anne to keep as souvenirs (I’m not sure, but the individual pieces looked a lot like wrapping papers to me… appropriate, given how many whiffs of grass I caught during that song). And when the band took their final bows and the floodlights came on to guide the enormous mob back to the parking area, I was sweaty and grinning. It was a summer night, a work night no less, but I wasn’t tired at all. I had my girl at my side and a tender, cooling breeze in my face. Somebody standing in the bed of a pickup was belting “Shout It Out Loud” like the anthem it was meant to be, the Harleys were rumbling freely between the long lines of idling cars, a drunken blond sprawled across the hood of our car before her friend dragged her away, and somewhere I could hear young girls laughing. I was energized, ready to go out and do… well, more. And while I didn’t feel like I did at 17, exactly, that ineffable state of untested bravado and fragile optimism felt like it wasn’t so very far away for a change.

I don’t know that I’ll ever go to another KISS concert… but I’m very glad I went to this one. It was exactly what I’d always imagined. It was an experience

Photo source: KISSONLINE.com

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Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

 godzilla-2014_chinatownI’m not a Godzilla fan the way some people are Godzilla fans. I can’t discuss the three eras of Godzilla filmmaking with any degree of expertise (although I suppose the fact that I know there have been three distinct eras in the history of this long-lived franchise says something about me, doesn’t it?). I don’t know the names of all the Big Guy’s adversaries and allies. And I can’t even keep the titles of all the individual movies straight in my head; the ones I have seen out of the 30 or so produced since the character’s first appearance in 1954 all blend together into a big kaiju-shaped blob in my mind. (Hell, I didn’t even know the term “kaiju” until I saw Pacific Rim last year.)

Nevertheless, Japan’s favorite movie monster occupies a warm place in my heart. I have fond boyhood memories of staying up way too late to watch his adventures on Nightmare Theater, Salt Lake’s local creature-feature show. Later, when the start-up channel KSTU launched its Saturday-afternoon Sci-Fi Theater with a seemingly endless package of cheap Japanese imports, I whiled away a lot of happy hours when I should’ve been outside playing in the sunshine. One of my favorite sweatshirts for a time featured an image of old Gojira (his original Japanese name) in a tuxedo shirt and tailed coat, with a tophat perched on his scaly cranium and a diamond-topped walking stick in his hand, er, claw, all summed up with the caption “Dressed to Kill.” And I’ve had a tiny articulated action figure version him (complete with roar!) sitting on my desk for something like 20 years now. Yes, the G-man and I have a history together.

Which is probably why I approached his latest feature-film adventure with a fair amount of trepidation. The last time an American production company got its hands on this property, we ended up with that god-awful 1998 train wreck that starred Matthew Broderick. Title aside, there was very little in that movie that resembled the Godzilla I know. Not the creature’s appearance, not its behavior or origin, not the rhythms of the story (the formula, if you will)… nothing. And that includes the sheer entertainment factor. Whatever else you may say about the old zipper-up-the-back Godzilla flicks, they were fun. The ’98 movie, on the other hand, was a complete slog. So I was concerned about another American attempt to reinvent this quintessential Japanese character. Would this one understand who Godzilla is and what he’s about? Even more of a worry: given the current popularity of grim, brooding storylines, would this one be any damn fun to watch? It was difficult to tell from the trailers

Well, I’m happy to report that this long-time casual Godzilla fan, at least, was completely and thoroughly pleased by this movie. This is my Godzilla, no question.The protagonists are American, the battlegrounds are on American soil instead of Tokyo, and the special effects are stunningly realistic… but this is recognizably the same creature who stands watch over my keyboard even as I type this.

The storyline will be familiar to fans of the series: a Japanese nuclear plant experiences an accidental meltdown that’s later revealed to have been caused by a gigantic creature of some kind taking up residence in the reactor. Fifteen years later, the creature emerges from its chrysalis and begins journeying across the world to meet up with a mate, leaving devastation in its wake. Human military might and scientific knowledge isn’t enough to stop them. Enter a third giant creature, the “alpha predator” Godzilla, who is hot on the trail of the other two kaiju. The three of them, along with the U.S. military and our various human protagonists, are on a collision course for an epic smackdown in the middle of downtown San Francisco. But is Godzilla on our side, or his own? Is there even a difference?

The film works in large part because of director Gareth Edwards’ skill at building suspense. Even though the story largely adheres to an old formula, he generates a genuine sense of curiosity and dread about what’s happening and where it’s all leading. He also cleverly keeps his titular monster/hero mostly hidden for the first two-thirds of the film, showing only glimpses of his body until a final reveal — complete with a theater-rattling updated version of his signature roar — that frankly brought tears to my eyes because it was just so right.

I’ve read some complaints that the characters are one-dimensional and the human drama is thinly sketched, that in the end this is just another big, stupid, special-effects-driven blockbuster with no heart or brain underneath the pretty wrapping. Personally, I disagree with all of that and wonder if these critics saw the same movie I did, but hey, let’s be honest: this is a Godzilla flick. What did those people expect? What I expected — or at least hoped for — was a fun time at the movies watching some giant monsters duke it out. And I got it. At the film’s climatic moment, when, in true Godzilla fashion, the Big G has finally had enough of getting kicked around and his fins start to glow in preparation for his unstoppable hold-out weapon, the atomic fire breath, I let out an involuntarily “YEAH!,” even as my inner twelve-year-old squealed with delight. And for the record, so did my lovely girlfriend Anne, who has no particular knowledge of or affection for Godzilla beyond this movie. For whatever that’s worth.

That’s what movies like this are really about. Not characterization or dialog, not finely nuanced explorations of the human condition, but simply making us feel for a few fleeting moments like the little kids we used to be, sitting on our knees in front of our giant console televisions on sunny Saturday afternoons, completely absorbed in a story about good guys and bad guys that leaves us breathless and happy. One of the early ad campaigns for Star Wars, way back in the ’70s, used the tagline “It’ll make you feel like a kid again.” And that was seen as a good thing. Somewhere along the line, we’ve become way too serious for our own good.

Bottom line: Godzilla effectively captured the spirit of the classic Japanese series and wedded that to cutting-edge special effects and an American sensibility. It appealed to the kid in me and made me happy. I walked out of the theater feeling completely energized and ready to go on the ride again. Highly recommended.

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