Friday, April 14, 2017

I Promise I Don't Have a Lego Problem

The day my wife and I got married, her family followed us home to carry all our gifts up the three flights of stairs to our apartment.

We'd moved in just a week before. Washed and put away our dishes. Set up a card table in our dining room. Selected tributes in a lottery to deliver our massive antique piano. But we still weren't totally unpacked.

My wife's younger siblings noticed the boxes stacked halfway to the ceiling in our bedroom. "Know what's in all those?" my wife said. "That's just Nathan's Lego."

Their eyes got as big as Lego baseplates.

We had regular visitors after that.

Image credit: CinemaBlend

I've gotten a wide range of reactions when I've opened up about my Lego addiction. I've gotten even more diverse reactions when people have seen the size of my collection for the first time: awe from some, eye rolls from others.

But the one question people ask whether they think I should be high-fived or institutionalized is: Do you have a freaking problem?

And, naturally, I get all defensive and threaten them with Kragle.

I've blogged before about how liking something should be enough reason to enjoy it. But the reasons for my choice of hobby go beyond just liking it. Lego isn't a mere toy to me; it's an outlet for expression, and it always has been.

For third grade writing assignments I drew inspiration from stories I read about characters like Johnny Thunder in Lego Mania Magazine. I played out the things I wrote with Lego sets I had at home.

Image credit:

In sixth and seventh grade I built scenes and wrote a script that would become a novel and push me toward higher goals for many years to come. To this day I still use Lego to help me describe characters and scenes, or create brand new ones.

In high school I expressed my faith through Lego models of selected scripture stories. I got to share this project with the world thanks to the Internet, and on top of all the pleasant conversations it inspired, it found recognition in my Church's popular media.

Lego also helped me in my English classes. It got easier to focus on assigned reading like Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby when I imagined how I could build each scene in Lego.

Spoiler alert.

But why not express myself through charcoal, paint, or clay?

Other than the obvious explanation that I suck at every other form of visual art, I can reuse Lego. I can build whatever I want, snap some pictures, take it all apart, and start on something else--all without regular trips to the craft store, goopy messes, or running out of room to display my work.

You might say Lego actually saves me space and money. I don't really have a problem.

Lies! All lies!

Okay, so I may have sold a kidney to afford an Ultimate Collector Series Millennium Falcon and leased a second apartment just to keep my Lego in.

But it's all about the art. I promise I don't have a problem.

Friday, March 24, 2017

That Time I Made a Promise to an Imaginary Friend in My Living Room Because That's What I Do

You have to be at least a little crazy if you want to be a writer. That's the only way you'll listen when your characters show up to talk to you.

And they will show up to talk to you. If you spend enough time in their world, I guarantee you it will happen. Thanks to a novel I've been working on for more than half my life, I have friends in my head who I've known longer than most of my friends in real life. They're real to me; we visit often.

Enough, at least, that I can make Lego versions of them.

Even though I usually extend the invitation first, every now and then my characters drop in unannounced. It usually happens when I'm showering or trying to go to sleep, but a recent encounter happened in my living room with the Enchanted soundtrack playing.

"Hey, I like this song," the character said.

"Oh, hi Philo," I said. "I didn't see you come in. Yeah, isn't the piano part great?"

"It's something I would play. Just, uh, so you know." (In my novel, Philo works with other entertainers as a piano accompanist, but he really wants to be recognized as a great pianist on his own.)

"Consider it done. I know just when to have you play it, too."

Philo doesn't like to show how much he appreciates when people do nice things for him, but the light in his eyes betrays him. "Thanks," he says. But then he looks down and shifts from one foot to the other.

"Philo, what's up?"

Philo hesitates. "I've been thinking," he says.

"A dangerous pastime," I answer. Philo doesn't crack a smile. He and I don't share a sense of humor. "Sorry. Go on."

"Well . . . I don't think it's fair what happens to me."

"Drama, Philo. We're going for an emotional reaction."

"I get that. But why does everyone in the book end up happy except me?"

I blink. "Did I . . . tell you about the others? I'm not sure 'happy' is the word I'd use."

"No, Philo has a point," Em says. I have no idea when she got here. "You pretty much destroy him."

"But he lives."

"Only because he's your favorite. Yeah, we all know. You put more of yourself into him than you put into Roy." (For those of you keeping score at home, Roy's kind of a big deal. He and Em are the novel's POV characters.)

I restart the music at the part Philo likes. "So what do you want me to do?" I ask.

"Give me a happy ending," Philo says. "Please."

I think about the things I make him go through in the story. His life does take a rather tragic turn . . . but what can I do about it? "Do you have anything in mind?" I ask.

Philo closes his eyes and soaks in the music. "What if [spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler]?"

This is Philo in his element.

I fold my arms. "Hmm. . . ."

"I think it's a good idea," Em says. "And the others are on board."

"All of them?"

"Well, you-know-who had to roll her stupid dice. But everyone who could think for themselves agreed."

I turn to Philo and lean in, as if I can make him think harder about what he's asked me to do. "Your life will still be difficult," I say.

"I know."

"I'm not going to change what happens to you."

"I . . . I know."

"And you'll have to keep your guard up. You know how I like things bittersweet at the end."

". . . Yes."

"But let's try this out. I like it."

Philo raises his head. I can trace the path tears have made on his cheeks. "You mean it?" he asks.

"I mean it."

In a rare display of unbridled joy, Philo hugs Em and shakes my hand. "Oh, thank you!" he says. "Thank you."

And so, here I am, working extra frantically to finish my novel. Because I have promises to my characters to keep.

Promises to friends who don't exist.

Am I insane? Perhaps a little.

But it comes with the job.

Friday, March 10, 2017

How Video Game Music Makes a Strong Case for the Arts

Want to shock your parents? Tell them respected symphonies play video game music now.

Most people who haven't spent a lot of time playing video games may be surprised to find that game soundtracks have come a long way from the undeveloped bleeps and bloops they might expect. Even 32 years ago, the iconic Super Mario Bros. theme music featured a carefully balanced calypso rhythm that's harder to perform than it sounds (take it from someone who printed off the piano sheet music).

Cultural institutions have taken notice. Over the past few years, I've attended performances in Salt Lake City's prestigious Abravanel Hall where I've heard the music of franchises like Mega Man, The Legend of Zelda, World of Warcraft, Sonic the Hedgehog, Halo, Castlevania, and--of all things--Tetris. I can't wait to go back in June for a Final Fantasy concert.

Here they play everything from Pachelbel to Pokémon, Mahler to Mario.
Image credit: Broadway World

I've written quite a bit on classical music. The works of great composers spanning the ages between Bach and Gershwin inspire me in a way few other things do. But if you asked me for my favorite music genre, I'd answer in a heartbeat: video game soundtracks.

I don't even call myself a gamer. I've never beaten a Legend of Zelda game. I have a high score of negative seventeen in Halo multiplayer. I've spent years chiseling away at Chrono Trigger--not because I don't adore the beautiful storytelling and mechanics, but because I only actually sit down to play it once or twice a year.

You'd think I had the time, though.
Image credit: Donna Vitan

But I have to appreciate video games as the unprecedented art form they are. And if I could only choose one aspect of video games to prove their artistic quality, I would choose the music.

As with film scores, video game soundtracks turn visual media into a more sensory, immersive experience. Composers in both genres employ leitmotifs--place and character themes--to help viewers and players form emotional connections to a story. But video games add another factor to the equation: interactivity. Gamers don't just watch characters on a screen; they become those characters.

That's why, for example, my heart still breaks whenever I hear "Aerith's Theme" from Final Fantasy VII. Playing as the game's protagonist, Cloud, I talked with Aerith, fought with Aerith, and traveled with Aerith. But in the end, I couldn't save her. If Aerith had died the same way in a movie as she had in the game, I wouldn't have been as devastated. But in the game, I was there. And so was the music. You only need to hear it once to be convinced that Final Fantasy is art.

If you played the game, you can't picture this scene without the sad music.
Image credit: Final Fantasy Wiki

Game music makes an argument that goes beyond video games, though. In a society where arts programs increasingly face defunding and neglect, video game music makes a strong case for the relevance--and necessity--of the arts in general.

I can illustrate my point with the Utah Symphony's Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions concert, which I attended with my wife last Saturday.

As one might expect from a Pokémon concert, we encountered a variety of colorful characters throughout the night. On our approach to Abravanel Hall, I pointed out a giant, yellow, bobble-headed figure outside the doors.

"Check it out," I said. "They've got a Pikachu statue!"

Then it moved. It high-fived passers by. It posed for photographs.

We found more costumed fans inside. As we waited to enter the auditorium, two kids passed by as Charmander and Squirtle. A man in line ahead of us sported a Magikarp hat. A woman in the foyer had stuffed her vest pockets with all the evolutions of Eevee. And when a couple came in dressed like the nefarious Team Rocket, I'm sure everyone prepared for trouble.

Image credit: Rubie's Costume Company
(Costume designed by my sister-in-law; it was fun to see her product at the concert!)

The crowd inside the auditorium buzzed with energy. As the Utah Symphony tuned their instruments, I envied and adored them for having a string section more than three times larger than my own community orchestra's. Flanked by lights and backed by a screen that displayed appropriate scenes from all the different Pokémon games, the orchestra made an impressive sight.

The crowd's excitement surged when the concert hall darkened and the orchestra commenced its Pokémon journey where so many of us started on our Gameboys twenty years ago--in quiet Pallet Town, with a homey flute melody. The audience cheered as the visuals took us into Professor Oak's lab and Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur in turn appeared onscreen. Then the crowd laughed as the weird high strings and menacing low strings, brass, and percussion sneaked through Team Rocket's secret headquarters. From scene to scene, the audience responded with nostalgic enthusiasm as the Utah Symphony replayed the favorite memories of all our childhoods.

Soon--too soon--the orchestra had traveled over all the regions of the Pokémon world. They enchanted us with the soothing clarinet and piano themes of Ecruteak City, the dancing oboe lines of Mount Chimney, the intense drumbeat of the Kalos gyms.

And for a grand finale, over two thousand voices in the audience sang along as the Utah Symphony played the beloved theme song from the Pokémon anime:

I wanna be the very best,
Like no one ever was. . . .

In an auditorium full of people who had never met--people whose beliefs and lives and backgrounds varied like the different types of Pokémon--magic happened. Together we sang a song we'd all grown up with--a song that meant something to each of us. My heart swelled with the music. My skin tingled with the energy. A lump formed in my throat.

I didn't know the people sitting in my row. But I felt a sense of brotherhood with them. I didn't know the folks behind me, or on the terraces, or on the stage. But we bonded. Every one of us.

Image credit: TV Tropes

We came from different homes, different circles, different income brackets. But no matter where or when we played the games, many of us had chosen our own starter Pokémon. We had fought Team Rocket. We had trained to battle in the Pokémon League.

We came together over video games. Over favorite characters, a beloved story, music tied to common memories.

We came together over art.

And for that one evening, for those two thousand people all together, raw humanity emerged. What we shared was stronger than our phones, stronger than our fears, stronger than our differences. You could feel it in that concert hall.

That's why we need the arts. Our understanding of the universe could multiply tenfold. We could eradicate disease, build more efficient roads and homes, clean up the oceans and the air. And I hope that all happens. But if we don't have each other, what do we really have?

The arts connect us to each other. The arts remind us who we are.

And if a night of music from a video game can do what I described, imagine what can happen on a trip to the museum. Or at a community theater production. Or at an open mic night at the local coffee shop.

Imagine what can happen if we give the arts the value they deserve.

Friday, March 3, 2017

How to Get the Most from a Buffet

Ah, birthdays.

Each one of our kids' birthdays inspires joy and wonder in our hearts. For our oldest child, though, birthdays come with the added reminder of how long it's been since we've slept, as well as the sense that we have no idea what we're doing as we drive further into uncharted territory. So we're ecstatic, but also worn out and slightly terrified.

Our oldest son turned three this week, which means he's finally old enough to choose what he wants for his special birthday dinner. Mostly. We talked him out of Wendy's, which I still feel somewhat guilty about, but when we rattled off a list of restaurants, he liked the sound of the local buffet because we said it had grapes (turns out it didn't, but he was still happy with his choice). 

I love buffets. While pretty much any other restaurant will rob you blind, buffets give you the opportunity to really get your money's worth. Where else can you have steak, orange chicken, tacos, salmon, pizza, and Jell-O in the same meal?

Image credit: iFunny

But you have to be prepared. Before I go to a buffet, I train for it the same way a healthy person trains for a marathon. (I assume a marathon involves mac and cheese and breadsticks. I've never looked into it, personally.)

So how do you get the most from a buffet? Well, you don't achieve an abundant physique like mine without knowing a thing or two about stuffing yourself. Here's what I do to make the most of every trip to the buffet:

1. Don't Starve Yourself Beforehand

While it may seem like common sense to hit the buffet with an empty stomach, you set yourself up for failure by fasting. But it's not because your stomach will shrink if you don't eat, because that doesn't really happen. No, it's because your stomach will cramp up if you suddenly bombard it with twelve plates of every kind of meat known to man.

Eat a normal breakfast and lunch on the day of your conquest. Your stomach will reward you with the endurance you need to make it through that fifth rack of ribs.

2. Dress for Success

You likely already know jeans are your enemy. This is true everywhere, but especially at the buffet. Wear some loose-fitting pants with an elastic waistband instead; it could mean the difference between eating only two plates of General Tso's chicken or eating seven.

Worth it? Worth it.
Image credit: Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

And here's a trick I learned from my days in the hospitality business: A lot of restaurants keep their air conditioning up in order to discourage you from staying too long. It's not that they don't like you; they just want to get you out so they can bring more guests in. If you bring a light jacket, you can stay--and eat--much longer.

3. Use the Restroom Before Your Meal

Make whatever room you can. Moving on. . . .

4. Follow a Plan

Before you start filling your first plate, do a dry run of the entire buffet so you know everything that's available to you. Then make your battle plan.

I like to fill my first plate with fruits and vegetables because my stomach processes them easier, so they'll spend the least amount of time in there. Starting with the healthier stuff also staves off the guilt when I go back for eight helpings of meat.

Image credit: Dump a Day

Take small portions. Not only is it the polite thing to do, you can always go back for more of what you like. It's also easier to devour a variety of little things than it is to conquer an entire heaping plate of just one item, so you can trick yourself into eating more.

Finally, save the breads for last, if you must have them. They take up a lot of valuable stomach space without offering much return on your investment. And speaking of stomach space . . .

5. Drink Water

Soda fills your stomach with gas bubbles that will make you feel full when you really aren't. And milk is just too thick. If you want to completely destroy the buffet, sip water with your meal; it'll help with digestion without making you feel too full.

6. Skip Those Tiny Dessert Bowls

Dessert is your glorious finish line, so don't fizzle out with the little bowls the restaurant puts by the ice cream machine. Go across the buffet and grab a soup bowl and a dinner plate! Pile it on. Pile it all on. You earned this.

7. Do Something Nice for Yourself When You're Done

The one great rule of buffets is this: if you don't hate yourself, you're doing it wrong. So do something nice for yourself when you're done. Block out the rest of your night. Take off your pants and sleep for twelve hours. You've worked hard, you buffet champion, you.

Image credit: PandaWhale

If you do the buffet right, you'll actually save money by not having to eat for a few days. Or you'll die. But you'll probably take a whole city block with you, so you'll never be forgotten, at least. Either way, you'll thank me.

Do you have any awesome buffet tips to add to these? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Tragic Tale of George Butterworth

My community orchestra has a fun concert coming up. Our concerts are always fun, of course, but I especially love the theme for this one: British composers. We've enjoyed rehearsing a wide range of tunes, from Ralph Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite to Elgar's first Pomp and Circumstance march and Gilbert and Sullivan's overture to H.M.S. Pinafore. We even got someone to play bagpipes.

We're moving up in the world.
Image credit: Zazzle

My favorite piece for this concert, though, is George Butterworth's Banks of Green Willow. I love that song for a few reasons. It's fun to play. It carries the beautiful combination of hope and melancholy characteristic of so many folk songs of the British Isles. And then there's the story of the composer, George Butterworth himself, that gives the music extra meaning. Have a listen while I share that story with you*:

George Butterworth was meant to be a musician from the very beginning. He started composing as a child and played the chapel organ for services at his prep school. In college, he served as President of the Oxford University Music Club and formed a close friendship with fellow composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who traveled the English countryside with him to collect the folk songs that so heavily influenced both of their work.

In fact, we might not have Vaughan Williams' London Symphony as we know it today if not for George Butterworth. Vaughan Williams recalled:

We were talking together one day when he [Butterworth] said in his gruff, abrupt manner: ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony.’ I answered . . . that I’d never written a symphony and never intended to. . . . I suppose Butterworth’s words stung me and, anyhow, I looked out some sketches I had made for . . . a symphonic poem about London and decided to throw it into symphonic form. . . . From that moment, the idea of a symphony dominated my mind. I showed the sketches to George bit by bit as they were finished, and it was then that I realised that he possessed in common with very few composers a wonderful power of criticism of other men’s work and insight into their ideas and motives. I can never feel too grateful to him for all he did for me over this work and his help did not stop short at criticism.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1913
Image credit: Wikipedia

The Banks of Green Willow premiered the same year as Vaughan Williams' London Symphony, on February 27, 1914. Butterworth's piece was performed again three weeks later in London.

That concert was most likely the last time Butterworth ever heard his own music.

The promising young composer joined the British Army at the outbreak of World War I later that summer. He proved himself as well on the battlefield as he had on the concert stage, and a series of promotions (plus rotten luck, in my opinion) eventually led him to the Battle of the Somme.

If you're unfamiliar with what went on during World War I, let me take five seconds to fill you in on the Battle of the Somme: It was not a good place to be. The battle lasted four-and-a-half months and 1,054,000 people were killed or wounded--minimum. But not only is the Somme famous for having been one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history, it was also the first time anyone used tanks in war. I can only imagine the terror those gigantic machines inspired in the hearts of men who had never seen anything like them before.

German officer Friedrich Steinbrecher put it best when he said, "Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word."

Machine gunners at the Battle of the Somme
Image credit: BBC News

George Butterworth--the talented mind behind The Banks of Green Willow--fought at the Somme.

I want that to sink in.

Do you know why I hate war so much? Why I can't fathom the ugliness the human race is capable of? I can sum it up in just two words: George Butterworth.

Early in the morning of August 5, 1916, Temporary Lieutenant George Butterworth, 31 years old, took a sniper's bullet to the head. Far from home, far from the idyllic music he composed, he met a sudden, bloody end.

Butterworth's men hastily buried him in the side of the trench where they fought. His body was never recovered, and his beautiful Banks of Green Willow has come to be seen by many as an anthem for all Unknown Soldiers.

George Butterworth, 1914
Image credit: Wikipedia

Why do I mourn for a soldier I never knew? Why does my heart break for a man who died a hundred years ago?

George Butterworth had talent. He had potential. He helped his friends. By all accounts, he was an honorable, hard working man. And he left some truly breathtaking music behind him.

He could have been as great as Ralph Vaughan Williams. Maybe even greater.

He just didn't have enough time--but he didn't waste it, either.

None of us know when our number will be called to leave this world. I could live to be a hundred. I could die tomorrow.

All I know is that whatever time I have, it's up to me to decide how to use it. And I don't want that dash on my gravestone to represent a high score or a browser history. I want it to represent my family. My friends. My concerts and service and jokes and love.

My writing.

I wish George Butterworth had been given more time . . . but I'm glad he used the time he had the way he did.

I only hope the same could be said of me.

*All research was done on Wikipedia here, here, here, and here.

**If you're in the Salt Lake City area and want to hear The Banks of Green Willow live, come see the Taylorsville Symphony at Bennion Jr. High School, 7:30 PM on March 10. It's free!

***Edit: The Banks of Green Willow has been pushed to our May concert, but come see us in March anyway!
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