General Ramblings

When the World Came to Salt Lake

A random Facebook post this afternoon reminded me that the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, which were held right here in little ol’ Salt Lake City, opened 20 years ago today. Hard to believe so much time has passed already. The Olympics were perhaps the biggest thing that’s happened to this place — which I’ve always thought of in very similar terms to Luke Skywalker’s description of Tatooine — since the Mormons first arrived here in 1847. The stakes were impossibly high. The bidding process that landed us the Games had been tainted by allegations of bribery, and there were budgetary shortfalls on the order of several hundred million dollars. Mitt Romney — yes, that Mitt Romney, the future governor of Massachusetts and current US Senator from Utah — was brought in to assume control of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and get things back on track. Local scions like the Eccles family contributed money to help, as did the federal government, and a crash program was implemented to build venues and infrastructure, including the TRAX light-rail transit system connecting downtown Salt Lake to the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley and an ambitious expansion of I-15. In the end, much to the surprise of… well, everyone, I think… we pulled it off. The 2002 Winter Games were a financial success, ending with a surplus of $40 million. Moreover, the Games were a cultural success, viewed by some two billion people around the world (according to IOC estimates) and putting Salt Lake on the map, as it were. In my travels prior to 2002, nobody ever knew where I was talking about when I said I was from Salt Lake; afterwards, everyone responded, “Where the Olympics were held?”

It’s funny to me that I’m thinking about all of this with such nostalgia now, because in the beginning, I was solidly opposed to the whole damned thing. When Salt Lake was awarded the bid in 1995, I imagined that hosting the Games would be nothing more than a nuisance. Ungodly traffic jams and a small handful of hustlers, er, entrepreneurs getting rich while the rest of us got stuck with the bill. Later, as the event grew near, I became concerned about security (remember, the Games took place only a few months after 9/11), not to mention the very real possibility that my parochial little home — then one of the least diverse places in the United States, whose greatest culinary highlights were fry sauce and funeral potatoes, and whose religious, unworldly citizens prided themselves on being “a peculiar people” — would fall on its face in front of the entire world. I didn’t know how Salt Lake would fall on its face, but I just didn’t think the city or its people were up to such an enormous undertaking, and I didn’t want to face the collective humiliation that certainly awaited. Or the traffic. I hadn’t forgotten the traffic. To be honest, I gave serious thought to planning a vacation to coincide with those two weeks.

In spite of all my big curmudgeonly talk, though, I stayed in town after all. And before it was all said and done, I couldn’t resist making a few treks downtown to experience everything that was going on. I was pretty oblivious to the actual sporting events — you know, the whole reason for hosting the Olympics! — but the Games had also attracted a lot of ancillary cultural offerings, many of them limited-time things that had never visited Utah before and, for all we knew, would never come again. Anne and I saw Savion Glover dance and took in an exhibition of glass artist Dale Chihuly’s work. (I knew about Chihuly from a PBS documentary I’d seen, but this was the first time we’d encountered his work in person, and we both became fans almost instantly.) As I recall, we attended a couple of special film screenings. And most of all we were just there, soaking in the atmosphere. There was an irresistible crackle in the air, the electricity of something big and novel and seemingly historic.

For two weeks, this boring, buttoned-down, beige-stucco’d outpost of conformity on the edge of a vast desert wasteland felt… important. Not only that, it felt different. More diverse, more active, freer, somehow more grown-up. Cosmopolitan. As impressive as the Chihulys and Glover’s tapping were, the thing I most remember is just walking around downtown, marveling at familiar skyscrapers transformed by those giant banners you can see in the photo above, immersed in a stew of different languages and accents from all over the world.

The first trip I took anywhere as an adult was to San Francisco, way back in 1991 when I was a mere babe of 21 years old. I remember experiencing a bit of culture shock at suddenly being surrounded by so many different kinds of faces and languages after coming from such a whitebread place as Utah. It was exotic and it was exhilarating. And for two weeks, I got to experience that same feeling right here in my own back yard. That’s what the 2002 Winter Games were for me. I can’t tell you who medalled or in what sport. But for two weeks, Salt Lake was an exciting place to be.

According to various think pieces I’ve read, Salt Lake City has become surprisingly progressive in recent years, at least relative to the rest of the state. It’s now home to a vibrant LGBTQ community and you see a lot more people of color in downtown than you used to. And SLC is now a political outlier, too, a pocket of Democratic blue in a red, red state. I don’t know if these changes have anything to do with the city hosting the Games or if they would’ve happened organically over time anyhow. But the one thing I do know is that Salt Lake is no longer invisible to the rest of the country, or the world. It’s no longer “the planet farthest from the bright center of the universe.” And I am relatively certain that that, at least, is the legacy of the 2002 Olympics.

There’s talk about Salt Lake bidding to host the Games again. I don’t know how I feel about that. On the one hand, we’re in a much better position now to do it. The venues are already in place and have been maintained. We know what to expect. But somehow I just can’t imagine that it would be as much fun as it was the first time. No matter what happens with another Games, though, I still get a warm glow whenever I glimpse Salt Lake’s very own Chihuly installation — originally just a loaner that became a permanent fixture — through the windows of Abravanel Hall. And I still have my Roots beret, too.

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Five Years On

Carrie Fisher died five years ago today. I still mourn for her, still get teary-eyed when this day rolls around and I read her daughter Billie’s annual tributes, and on some level, I know it’s crazy because I didn’t really know her. I met her once and spoke with her for about 90 seconds. I had a boyhood crush that became a middle-aged-manhood crush when she flashed those deep brown eyes at me across a book-signing table. But… it feels like I knew her. It feels like we all did. And how could we not? We grew up with her. Princess Leia was our big sister, our first crush, our hero. General Leia was our mom… and our hero… and maybe our continuing crush, too. And figuring out where Leia stopped and Carrie began was very, very difficult, even for Carrie. Maybe especially for Carrie.

I’ve written a lot of dead-celebrity posts on this blog over the years. Some of them have been quite good, if I say so myself. And they’ve all been from the heart; I always feel genuine emotion about the loss of the people whose work matters to me. But not like Carrie. Not like her. I’m not ashamed to say that when Carrie Fisher died, a big part of me went with her. A part that came from childhood and from adolescence, from my imagination since I was seven years old, and from the reality of the woman I once met and wished I could’ve spent more time with and really gotten to know as a friend. I don’t know how I could’ve loved her any more if I’d actually known her.

Here’s a photo of her that I particularly like.

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The Town Christmas Tree

There used to be a mansion down the street from my house when I was a boy.

Well, it seemed like a mansion to me. Really, it was just a large, old two-story home that stood in a prominent location near the main intersection in town, back when there was only one intersection in this town that really counted for anything, the one everybody referred to as “the red light.” The red light, the only one in town, the traffic semaphore that switched to a flashing mode late at night instead of cycling through the green-yellow-red sequence for an empty street. When giving directions, you’d say things like, “Go down to the red light and hang a left… ” I still remember what a big deal it was when the town’s second traffic light was installed a half-mile to the east. That happened when I was ten or twelve maybe, and it felt like a seismic change. Yeah, I really did grow up in a small town. Me and John Mellencamp.

That old house, though… it was grander and showier than the humble bungalow where I lived, or any of the other assorted bungalows and farmhouses on the street, so naturally I thought it must be some kind of mansion. It had a short wrought-iron fence out in front, more decorative than functional as you could hop over it easily enough, but you had to be careful of the spikes on top. None of the other houses I was familiar with had one of those. More evidence of mansionhood. And then there was the tree in the front yard. An immense pine tree, taller than the house itself and probably as old. A century tree, surely, one of those serene giants that you wish could tell stories of all the history it had witnessed.

The house and its great tree were surrounded by the town’s business district, such as it was back in the 1970s and ’80s: a bank with multiple drive-through lanes to the north, a mansard-roofed single-story commercial building to the south, a rock-clad dentist’s office and grocery store behind it, to the west. Across the street to the east, a row of brick buildings that looked like places Bonnie and Clyde might once have robbed if their reign of terror had extended to Utah.

I don’t remember anyone living in the house even when I was very young. At some point in the ’80s, it was converted into a restaurant space, first a fine-dining establishment that didn’t last long — a misjudgment of the market — and then a Chinese takeout that did considerably better. Or maybe the Chinese place came first? I honestly can’t recall anymore. Eventually, I think it became a realtor’s office for a few years. I think. It irritates me that I no longer have perfect recall of this stuff. But I clearly remember the tree… in a sense, that tree was the town’s mascot, visible from the intersection no matter which direction you were coming from. It was also the town’s communal Christmas tree.

Every December, a truck with a cherry picker would snuggle up alongside it and workers would hang strands of big light bulbs vertically down the tree’s body, surrounding the evergreen in stripes of color. I’ve never seen another tree in another town festooned in quite the same way. It was ours, that tree, our town’s, a point of civic pride. It was like an old friend, the first thing you saw that welcomed you home after you’d been away. And it was beautiful. I loved that old tree, especially in snowy years when the branches would become caked in white and the bulbs glowed beneath, suffusing the snow with soft color.

There was one night in particular… I was in my twenties, driving home from my movie theater job. I was running projectors by then, so my nights were late, late enough that I had the intersection all to myself. Conditions were bad. It’d been snowing for hours, the roads were packed and slick, and a fierce wind was hurling flumes of snow past my windshield. They looked more like ragged puffs of smoke than collections of distinct snowflakes. The old tree was mostly invisible in the storm, just a dark mass obscured by all the blowing white, but the light strands were still visible, the points of color glowing defiantly, the vertical lines of them rippling in that wind as if they were underwater, as if they were tall columns of sea weed being stirred by an churning current.

My long-time readers know I’m not especially fond of Christmas, not since my teens anyway. It was different when I was a little kid. But once I grew up past a certain point, the season started tending to fill me more with anxiety than any sort of contentment. Right then, though, at that moment, sitting alone in a chilly car with all the sounds of the outside world muffled except the whooshing of the implacable wind, watching the sea-weed strands of colored lights, I had a rare moment of peace. I might have even smile a bit.

I sat and watched that hypnotic motion of the lights for a long time, long enough that someone behind me would’ve started honking if anyone else had been stupid enough to be driving in that mess. But there was no one there but me. Me and the lights and the snow and that old tree in the middle of those old commercial buildings. As Springsteen once declared in a pensive growl, my home town… this is my home town. Mellencamp and Springsteen in one essay. Who saw that coming?

Then came another evening evening when I was driving home and the tree was gone.

It was removed without any announcement, cut down by unsentimental workmen, chopped up, run through the chipper, and trucked away in the course of a single day. It had been there that morning, and by evening there was only a pile of mulch and a depression in the ground to suggest it had ever existed. A hundred years of life, of witnessing the lives around it, gone in a single day. My heartbreak was as keen as if I’d lost a relative. Something died that day besides just a tree. My home town was never the same again.

The old house I used to think was a mansion still exists, but not in that location any longer. It was moved some years ago… sawed free of its foundation, jacked up and placed on a trailer, hauled a mile or so away. It’s on a quiet cross-street now, alongside the town’s old cemetery — as opposed to the new one on the other side of town — and after all that effort to save it for posterity, it’s now serving as a Montessori school. They put a Taco Bell on the site it used to occupy, over there in the center of the old business district. The Taco Bell didn’t last; the building is still a Mexican fast-food place, but now it’s a local chain.

All the commercial buildings that used to surround the old mansion are gone, replaced by different commercial buildings and a much enlarged intersection. The two-lane road that used to run past the town Christmas tree is now a full seven-lane highway. Surprisingly enough, the Chinese takeout that started in that old house with the giant pine tree in front is still around. It’s situated in a strip mall on the other side of the red light where it’s been for 30 years.

And of course… I’m still here too.

It’s raining, not snowing, as I write this on the night before Christmas Eve. And there’s precious little left of the town I grew up in. Nothing looks remotely the same anymore. But as the traffic has died down tonight and the house has grown quiet around me and I’ve started to feel the solitude pressing in against the windows, I’ve found myself feeling something like the way I did that other night so many years gone when I sat at the red light and watched the town Christmas tree dance with the wind. I miss that time, all those simpler, smaller, quainter times. Those ghosts of Christmas (and summer and fall and all the other times of year) past. I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing them.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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A Gen Xer’s Lament

There was a meme floating around Facebook earlier today that said something to the effect of “I was born in the 1900s, I’ve seen some things.” Leaving aside the depressing connotations of coming from “the 1900s,” as if I used to wear a straw boater and a fur coat while I motored about in my flivver, I was inspired to have a bit of fun with Rutger Hauer’s famous “tears in the rain” monologue from Blade Runner. I’m rather proud of the result… and a bit wistful about that vanished world where everything was harvest-gold and wood-paneled…

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… television consoles the size of sofas… I’ve stood in shag carpeting and breathed secondhand smoke in public spaces… all these moments will be lost in time… like… dimes in broken payphones…

 

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Words to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self

In the never-ending stream-of-consciousness that is Twitter, a hypothetical was proposed: “You meet 16-year-old you. You have 10 seconds only. What do you say?

And here is my wistful response, speaking as a white-bearded middle-aged man who can look backward on more than a few regrets (just imagine me studying the light shining through a glass of single-malt as my words slowly unwind in a Harrison Ford-style grumble):

Don’t be so afraid of making the wrong choice. Take the risk. If it doesn’t work out, don’t sulk, move on. Travel more. Write more. Give more serious thought to moving away for college. And above all, don’t just assume you’ll “get around to it someday.”

Why are these things so clear in hindsight?

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Don’t Come Around Here No More

There are multiple reasons why this blog has kind of petered out, but this is a big one:

You can write the most interesting stuff, make the most beautiful music, perform the most incredible entertainment, but if there’s no audience to receive it, it starts to feel a little pointless. Facebook is where the people are, and something I post there is seen by hundreds of thousands of people, while something I post here is seen by a few thousand at best. Facebook is also where the conversation seems to have moved, and I genuinely enjoy the conversation that used to happen in blog comments, way back in the before times.

Wil Wheaton

Now, obviously I do not and never have had the kind of reach Mr Wheaton does, even in the most rollicking heyday of this blog and even with a few hundred contacts on FB. But the principle applies. I’ve felt for a long time that my writing here was just shouting into a void. Mental masturbation. And there are other contributing factors as well <gestures at… everything…>. I don’t want to shut this place down entirely, but I no longer feel much compulsion to write on it either. And so it goes…

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It’s That Season Again…

Somehow this time of year, when the clouds snuggle down against the rain-slicked earth and the yellow lantern lights start to glimmer from shadowy front porches at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, somehow that seems to call for something more… lo-fi… than all that high-definition digital stuff. Or maybe it’s just me…

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Twenty Years On

I slept late this morning and awoke to the milky grey light that hints of a rainy day ahead. I got up, checked my blood sugar, fed the cat. I pondered whether I wanted to go to the trouble of making waffles for breakfast or just pour a bowl of cereal.

Glancing out the window, I noted there was a group of people with garbage bags and work gloves spread out along the road, pulling weeds from the park strip that no government agency seems to want to maintain. Probably a church volunteer group, I thought. Good for them.

My mom and dad are out of town at the moment, so I walked out to their house to feed their cats and their horses. The rain started while I was out there, so I sat under their covered patio for a while, watching it pelt down. It’s been a long, hot summer; it feels good to sense moisture in the air again. I reveled in the low rumbling of thunder.

It never even occurred to me that this was the anniversary of 9/11 until I hopped on Facebook and saw all the posts that begin with “I remember… ”

I remember where I was too, the day the towers fell. Anyone who was alive and old enough to be aware of what was happening that day remembers. But as I’ve written a number of times, I honestly think it would do this nation good to remember it a little less. I’m sure that sounds disrespectful to many, if not outright blasphemous. But tell me: What purpose does it serve to wave the bloody shirt every September and insist that we “never forget” (as if we ever could)? What comfort is it for those who lost someone and those who were near the attacks to see the horrific photos all over again? To read the transcript of Todd Beamer’s final phone call from doomed Flight 93 (which seems to be the social media meme of choice this year)? For traumatized people, surely all this “never forgetting” just reopens old wounds and stirs up the PTSD. And what about the rest of us, like those of us here in Utah, 4000 miles removed from the scenes of the crime, where the “healing fields” of American flags start popping up in mid-August every year as predictably as Spirit Halloween stores opening in the shells of defunct Kmarts? I’m sorry if those displays are meaningful to you, but it’s hard for me to see that stuff as anything other than nationalistic chest-thumping, and haven’t we had quite enough of that over the last 20 years?

Well… maybe we have. Today, a generation after that other September morning, it seems to me that the commemorations are less fervent somehow. Oh, the websites for CNN and NPR are covered in the expected retrospective headlines, and many of my friends are posting their usual patriotic and religious stuff on Facebook. There’s the ceremony happening in Pennsylvania with Presidents Biden, Obama, Bush and Clinton. But scanning through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I’m seeing lots of other things too… completely unrelated things like jokes and gripes, birthday celebrations, hype for the upcoming Dune movie and discussions about Shang-Chi and the current state of Star Trek. One of my writer friends has written a nice remembrance of that time his dad introduced him to a particular Steely Dan album. Another friend is sharing photos of his Funko Pop collection. Just ordinary, everyday life. Life going on. As it should.

It’s good to see that. Finally.

I think maybe I will make waffles today. And just enjoy the sound and smell of the rain.

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The Hardest Day

“It never fails to astonish me. You’re alive, you’re dead. No drums, no flashing lights, no fanfare. You’re just dead.”
— Margaret Houlihan, M*A*S*H

Yesterday morning, I noticed a weird raw spot on the side of Uggy, the semi-feral kitty who mothered our boy Evinrude and who has spent much of her life living under our deck. By nightfall, it was visibly swelling and we decided we’d better take her to the vet in the morning to get it checked out.

This morning, the damn thing was the size of a golf ball. Hoping it was just a cyst or an abscess that could be drained, we took her in to the emergency clinic.

The news wasn’t good. It was a tumor, and it was moving fast. The vet said it ran deep, too, and that to surgically remove it would probably take out a big chunk of her pelvis. In addition, she had a serious heart murmur suggesting some other underlying problem. The vet figured that, left untreated, she had maybe a couple weeks left, and given her outdoor lifestyle, we feared that she’d likely disappear beneath something in my dad’s junkyard to die and we’d never find her again. There really were no good treatment options. So we made the hard call.

I’ve never had to do that with one of my animals before. They’ve always spared me this decision.

I have no idea where she came from or what she might have endured before she showed up here in the Bennion Compound, very young, very afraid… and very pregnant. I’ve long suspected that someone dumped her and she just got lucky in finding her way to a friendly port. I think she basically had a sweet nature and wanted to be loving but whatever she’d gone through made it hard for her to trust anyone, and you could only get so close to her. But she trusted me, at least more than she did anyone else. She was on my lap at the end, one of the very few times she’s ever allowed that.

Tonight I’m struggling with the idea that she trusted me and I basically gave the order to have her killed. Even though I know it was the right, best thing I could do for her. And I’m also wrestling with whether I gave her the happiest life I could have, if I was too impatient with her, if maybe I didn’t trust her enough. Ultimately, I just wish I’d had more time… time with her, time to be good to her, time to make the final decision.

Anne and I both want to thank the compassionate staff at Copper View Animal Hospital for making this as easy as possible for both Uggy and us.

Rest in peace, Mama Cat. Wherever you are, I hope you find all the cheese you will ever want, and that your boys Hannibal and Jack are there and you’re all finally able to get along.

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Happy Birthday, Bill!

I don’t think I realized how long it’s been since I last checked in around here. Assuming anybody is still following this blog and still cares, sorry. I hope I didn’t worry you. There’s nothing’s wrong. I haven’t been sick or anything, just busy… and perhaps filled with a touch of fatalistic “what does it matter” ennui. But I don’t want to talk about that right now. Instead, let us observe our silly annual tradition of wishing the one and only William Shatner a very happy birthday. The actor who portrayed my childhood hero, Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, turns an incredible 90 years old today.

Ninety.

That’s difficult to believe, as he remains more engaged with the world than many people half his age. He’s active on Twitter, for one thing, sparring with trolls and fans alike on a daily basis. He’s still working, too. The image above is from his upcoming movie Senior Moment, in which he stars with the equally iconic Christoper Lloyd. (The trekkies among us will no doubt remember that they previously worked together in a little thing called Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, way back in 1984.) Judging from the trailer, Senior Moment will probably be the sort of thing that’s best described as “cute,” a by-the-numbers exercise in life-affirming treacle. I don’t have very high expectations for it at all, but I think it’s admirable that Shatner has found a starring role at this stage of life, and I hope it’s a success for him.

And here’s an interesting project that was just announced today, no doubt to coincide with his birthday: Shatner has become the “brand ambassador” and will be the first subject of a new service called StoryFile that will use recorded interviews and AI technology to create interactive video simulations of people that others can converse with, just as if they were talking to the real person. I’ve had a look at the company’s sizzle reel; it seems entirely plausible, and they have a lot of interesting potential applications in mind. But the one I’m really intrigued by is the idea of creating a legacy, some hint of a person that will remain after that person is gone. Journals, photographs, personal possessions, even film and video can only go so far in giving you the sense of an actual person, but one of these StoryFile simulacrums could capture an inkling of someone’s actual personality. It reminds me of the old Max Headroom concept, where a computer-generated TV personality was created from a scan of someone’s brain. Of course, that was more akin to downloading someone’s mind, which this isn’t. But some of these AI chatbots are getting pretty difficult to distinguish from actual human customer service agents. If we could create that level of realism… well, like I said, I’m intrigued. Where I never got around to having children, the idea of living on in even a video simulation form is… appealing.

I know start-up companies with these grandiose, would-be revolutionary ideas are a dime a dozen. StoryFile could easily be vaporware, this year’s version of that Mars One debacle a few years back. But like I said, I’m intrigued. And I love that William Shatner, 90-year-old William Shatner, is involved with it. He is still a role model to me in so many ways… still curious, still engaged, still grappling with the human adventure. I aspire to that.

Happy birthday, Bill.

 

 

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