Monthly Archives: July 2014

Life Is a Highway

Due west of Salt Lake City, out past the big smelly pond that lends the city its name, and beyond the outermost fringes of suburbia, the landscape seems to open up. The dome of the sky, which feels much closer back home, suddenly pulls away from you and soars up to an untouchable height. You find yourself in a dried-out, otherworldly place, with few signs of human encroachment. A line of telephone poles, their bases crusted white with salt left behind by the receding lake. A lone factory refining minerals from that same dead sea. A 1950s motor lodge, long since boarded up and abandoned, the painted doors of its rooms bleaching into pastel shades in the sun. And the road, of course, the endless double ribbon of a divided highway unrolling across the floor of the basin, then slanting up into the hills in the distance before dropping to the bottom of the next valley over, rinse and repeat all the way to California.

Traffic is different out here too. The tight, congealed knots of cars you endure in city driving relax, and the space between the vehicles increases almost imperceptibly until you realize there’s a half-mile or more between you and the next one ahead, and the last one behind. That constant sense of defensive urgency you feel while commuting fades.

Out here, the outpost towns are a hundred miles apart with nothing in between, and you and the other drivers around you are long-haulers. The college-age kid in a Subaru station wagon, its windows obscured by boxes and garbage bags of possessions, on her way to a new, exciting phase of life. The middle-aged, pot-bellied salesman in the ten-year-old sedan with a couple of dress shirts hanging from the hook above the back seat and a quota to meet. A family in a mini-van, with Disney princesses on the flatscreen monitor in the rear to placate the bored kids. An RV towing an economy car, which will become a shuttlecraft once the big mothership docks someplace for the week. And the big rigs, of course, the eighteen-wheelers that snarl and claw their way up the inclines while you roll right past them like mobile cliff faces in a range that spans the country.

I’m barreling along in my Mustang with the cruise control holding the speedometer at 80. The top is down and  a hot crosswind tugs at the steering wheel. A mild stinging sensation is beginning to penetrate into the skin on my cheeks and my bare shoulders. I’ll slather on some Coppertone in another few miles, but for now, I let the sun have its way with me, ravage me with its delicious warmth. I fancy I can smell my own flesh cooking in the heat.

The famous Bonneville Salt Flats spread out around me, the eternal road like a pencil mark on an endless sheet of white paper. My breaths are deeper and slower than they’ve been in weeks, and something inside me has finally unclenched. Out here, alone behind the wheel with that road reaching toward the distant Pacific, I feel like I’m not so much of a screw-up, like redemption is possible, like maybe all kinds of things are possible. I feel authentically myself. I want to drive until I reach the sea and then stand on the beach or the pier or the edge of a cliff — whatever may be there at the end of this road — and watch the sunset, and then in the morning, drive on to some other place…

I want to be just another long-hauler in the open spaces between the outpost towns…


This Makes Me Happy…

guardians_4_daysGuardians of the Galaxy — the next entry in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” that comprises the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America films, as well as the team-up movie The Avengers (not to mention its much-anticipated sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron, coming next year) — looks utterly ridiculous… and that’s a good thing.

Seriously, summertime movies are supposed to be fun, something a lot of film-makers (and film-goers, too) seem to have forgotten in recent years. Guardians looks like exactly the antidote I’ve been craving for all that Grim ‘n’ Gritty stuff…


What Are We Doing?

I noticed this morning that I jumped the gun a bit when I posted my annual reflection on the anniversary of the first human footsteps on the Moon. I know, of course, that the Eagle landed at Tranquility Base on July 20, 1969, but for some reason, I got my dates confused and I threw my post up on the 19th. So mea culpa on that.

Phil Plait, a.k.a. the “Bad Astronomer” (not “bad” as in “bad at his job,” but as in “bad-ass astronomer who years ago started a blog to discuss the astronomy mistakes in movies and the popular consciousness, which he called bad astronomy“), did not make that mistake. His annual post went out on the correct day, curse his hide.

Now, he always writes a thoughtful call-to-arms on this subject, but I thought this year’s sentiments were especially stirring… and timely, considering that the U.S. has been without its own human launch capability for three years and public interest in putting people in space seems to be at an all-time ebb, even as SpaceX and the other commercial companies, as well as venerable old NASA, are making huge steps toward getting us back up there. Phil’s entire post is worth your attention, but I especially liked his concluding paragraphs:

When I look back over the time that’s elapsed since 1969, I wonder what we’re doing. I remember the dreams of NASA, and they were too the dreams of a nation: Huge space stations, mighty rockets plying the solar system, bases and colonies on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. Those weren’t just the fantasies of science fiction. We could’ve done them. Right now, today, those dreams could have been reality.


Instead, we let those small-minded human traits flourish. We’ve let politics, greed, bureaucracy, and short-sightedness rule our actions, and we’ve let them trap us here on the surface of our planet.


It needn’t have been this way, and it still needn’t be this way. There are those who still dream, who understand the call to space, and who are devoting their lives to make it reality. We’ve faced adversity before, and have not let it stop us.


I think we can overcome our own petty blindness. Sometimes we humans look up, not down, and see not just the Universe stretching out before us, but also our place in it.


We’ve done it before and we can—we must, and we will—do it again.

Something to ponder over the weekend…




And Now for Something…


When I was about fourteen or thereabouts, my best friend was a kid named Kurt Stephensen, who lived a couple doors up the street from me. I suspect this convenient proximity was the major reason we became friends in the first place, but no matter… we shared a lot of good times at a fairly pivotal age, the time when we’re most open to discovering and adopting new tastes. While I can’t speak to any influence I might have had on him, I know he contributed a great deal to my developing aesthetic, particularly in the areas of music and comedy.

I don’t recall which of us was the first to become seriously obsessed with comedy as a thing, a fandom, to use a modern term that didn’t exist when I was fourteen. Possibly we came to that place independently, and our mutual interest in it was one of the things we bonded over. But however it happened, there was a period when Kurt and I collected and swapped comedy routines like other kids collected baseball cards or comic books. George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams were our heroes, their records and VHS concert tapes our totems. They were our mentors in wordplay, attitude, and innuendo, our spirit-guides to the often baffling adult world we were still grappling to fully comprehend, and frankly they were our relief valves, too. Their irreverent voices and funhouse-mirror perspectives — not to mention their naughtiness and outright vulgarity — were a transgressive antidote to the alienation we often felt growing up in buttoned-down, uptight Mormon Utah.

And then there was… Monty Python.

Kurt was very definitely the one who introduced me to the seminal British comedy troupe. I’d never heard of them; in fact, my ignorance of them was so complete that the first time he mentioned their name, I asked, “Who the hell is he?,” mistakenly believing this Monty person to be a single individual. My familiarity with British comedy at the time consisted of Benny Hill and a couple of decade-old sitcoms that were running on our local PBS affiliate, Good Neighbors (a.k.a. The Good Life) and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (all of which I loved, incidentally). Monty Python’s Flying Circus was on PBS as well (very late at night, I might add!), and at Kurt’s urging, I checked it out.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of the show at first. I’m not ashamed to admit that I flat-out didn’t understand much of it. Many sketches didn’t strike me as funny so much as just plain weird. But the bits that connected… oh, those were good. And the Python movies — Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — were much better, in my opinion, especially Holy Grail, which still has the power to reduce me to tears. Gradually, with time, repeated viewings, and a deepening grasp of British history and culture (not to mention my own), I too became a Python fan… although nothing they’ve done has ever made me laugh quite as hard as the time my old buddy Kurt, with a wickedly mischievous gleam in his eye, recited Eric Idle’s “Penis Song” verbatim.

I’ve been reminiscing about those days with Kurt a lot this week, ever since Sunday afternoon when Anne and I saw Monty Python Live (Mostly), the last of 10 on-stage performances the surviving Pythons delivered this month in London. No, we didn’t hop a plane and go to London in person (although that would’ve been awesome); the show was broadcast in real time to movie theaters all across the globe, so we were able to see it from the comfort of our regular cinema in suburban Utah, which is pretty awesome itself, when you think about it. And more than a little absurd, too. Our species has devised this amazing 21st-century communications technology that enables us to beam a high-definition video signal around the world, and we’re using it to watch 70-something-year-old comedians perform 45-year-old material. Absurd indeed!

As you may have gathered, Live (Mostly) was essentially a medley of greatest hits from the old Flying Circus program. Some of them updated to be a bit more current — for example, the aforementioned “Penis Song” now has new verses that celebrate the female genitalia as well — and the whole thing was stitched together by video clips from the old days and song-and-dance numbers performed by sexy young people. While many reviewers cast a jaundiced eye on the show, complaining that the Pythons were cynically rehashing the same old stuff to make a fast buck off nostalgic fans, I saw it as more a celebration of their legacy. Yes, the guys are old now, a long way from the peak of their powers (a line of 20 dancers performed John Cleese’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” moves, presumably because he no longer can). And yes, they blew their lines from time to time. And I can’t deny there was something ridiculous about seeing these antiquated duffers performing some of this material (John Cleese in drag was never a pretty sight, and it’s far worse now, while Eric Idle’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink routine is… odd… coming from a geezer). But there was also a pleasant warmth underpinning the proceedings, and my overall impression was that they were really enjoying working together again. My understanding is that the Pythons have had rocky personal relationships over the years, and there were rumors going into this show that they never got along and never liked each other, but you wouldn’t have known from the energy they were radiating on this stage. In particular, Cleese and Michael Palin — my favorites of the bunch, for what it’s worth — had the easy fellowship of people who’ve been through thick and thin and come out the other side with a shared wisdom and affection for each other.

A number of surprise guest appearances, from Stephen Hawking to Warwick Davis, enlivened the show, and even the late Graham Chapman, the sixth Python, who died way back in 1989, was present in the form of video clips from the old days. Of the five surviving Pythons, Eric Idle was the most polished, which is no surprise as he’s been more or less constantly immersed in the old material for years, between his solo tours (Anne and I saw him in person a few years back) and his adaptation of Holy Grail into a musical stage show, Spamalot!. Michael Palin retains his boyish demeanor and energy, but occasionally seemed a little flustered, especially during his signature “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. (Honestly, though, that one always had a manic air to it; it’s really not one of my favorite Python routines.) Terry Gilliam seemed rather uncomfortable being in the spotlight after many years behind the camera as a film director, but then, his contributions always were primarily behind the scenes anyhow. (He was the animator behind all the warped little interstitials that have always been a Python trademark.)

It was Cleese and Terry Jones who appeared the creakiest to my eye, and they were the ones who notably blew their lines a few times (causing Cleese to ask “Where were we?” to an uproarious response). But this show wasn’t about getting the lines right; I daresay the audience knows them better than the Pythons at this point anyhow. This show was about seeing the band together again, for one last time. (Supposedly this was the final time the Pythons ever plan to perform together.) Even Carol Cleveland, the so-called “Python girl” who appeared in so many of their classic sketches and, most memorably, played Zoot, the sexy nun who menaces the chaste Sir Galahad in Holy Grail, showed up to do her parts. (She still has fabulous legs!)

In the end, Live (Mostly) was like a family reunion. Hearing “The Lumberjack Song” and “Spam” and “The Dead Parrot Sketch” for the umpteenth time was pleasurable not because of the material itself, but — like those stories of our parents’ first meeting, or Uncle Joe’s war exploits — because we find value in the ritual of telling the familiar old stories, and of spending time with the tellers. And when the show wrapped up with a bittersweet rendition of the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” I was both smiling and a bit teary-eyed. It felt like Anne and I had witnessed something truly historic… the end of an era. The last opportunity we’d ever have to re-enact that ritual. I’m glad we chose to take it.

It’s been a long journey from my old buddy Kurt’s basement…



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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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…