Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Interview with Chris Difford and Aimee Mann: 1994



This is the second time I was allowed to interview Chris Difford. I had seen Squeeze on their previous tour for the release of Some Fantastic Place. That show was in October 1993 at Lisner Auditorium in D.C. The show was full band with Paul Carrack on keyboards and Pete Thomas (from Elvis Costello's band) on drums. It was a fantastic show. 

So I was surprised to see the band was touring the states again in July 1994.

What I didn't know was that this show was an acoustic show with no drummer. Well, I say "no drummer" but in reality Paul Carrack played both keyboard and drums. He had a snare, cymbal and bass drum with which he kept a rudimentary beat while playing keyboards with his other hand. Incredible.

So of course, I had to see the band again. I bought my ticket for July 7 and decided to see if I could interview the band again. Since I was no longer in college, I improvised. The local alternative station WHFS was the only one that ever played Squeeze. I knew they put out a monthly music magazine so I decided to call them up and see if they would accept a freelance article/interview. 

The person I spoke to said they would be willing to consider anything I submitted, so I didn't waste any time calling Squeeze's record company and telling them I was a freelance writer etc. Now I wasn't exactly lying since I had every intention of writing something up and submitting it. In fact, I did just that, but as far as I know they never used it. Ah, the ups and downs of a freelancer. 

Anyway, when the day of the show arrived, I found myself falling victim to a near-paralyzing migraine. The was compounded by the fact that we were in the middle of a terrible heat wave and my little Toyota Tercel chose that day to conk out. I sucked it up, took my migraine medicine and headed out to Hammerjacks.  

Hammerjacks was an odd venue, by the way. No closed, it was usually reserved for heavy metal and other hard rock acts. I didn't know that, but when I got to the show, more than one person commented on it being an odd choice.

After driving through ridiculous (for a midday) traffic to Baltimore, I spent probably another 30 minutes or so trying to find the location. All I had was a paper map and I wasn't really the best at reading those. After asking several puzzled old men if they could direct me to Hammerjacks, I finally remembered it was near the Camden Yards. Asking that question got me where I wanted to go. 

I was excited to do the interview. I was particularly excited to interview/meet Glenn Tilbrook, since I had interviewed Chris already. Unfortunately, the band's manager told me Glenn had fallen ill and was in his hotel room trying to recover before that evening's show. She went on to say that I would be interviewing both Chris Difford and Aimee Mann. While I knew Aimee was the opening act, I had no idea they had collaborated and were in fact doing most of the Squeeze portion of the show with Aimee as band member. In fact, as it turned out, Aimee only did a handful of songs alone, the rest she did with Squeeze as her backing band during their portion of the show. Awesome!

The bad news was outside of the song Voices Carry, I knew absolutely nothing about Aimee, her music or career post 'Til Tuesday. While the idea of offending her or being rude was horrifying to me, I didn't really have much of a choice. 

Aimee Mann circa 1985.
I made it clear that I hadn't realized Aimee was part of the interview since the record company had said nothing about it. I was assured it would be all right and led back stage to wait. It wasn't long before a woman approached me and said I should follow her to the tour bus. 

It was only as we were walking, that I realized it was Aimee Mann herself escorting me out. She looked nothing like I remembered from the music video. She was incredibly tall, which I didn't expect. Her hair was darker than the bleach blonde look she had before and she had it all pulled back. Oh yeah, she also had glasses. To me, she looked like a grad student earning extra money working for a band for the summer. 

Anyway, I managed to compose myself to tell Aimee that no one told me she would be there, but she seemed unconcerned. We got on the bus and walked past the rest of the band, minus Glenn. 

Aimee was cool in that she actually contributed and helped me do the interview. I think she was (almost) as big of a Squeeze fan as me. I wish I had known her solo work at all because I've since heard a lot of it and am definitely a fan, but sadly I didn't. When the interview was over, I asked her if she would be doing Voices Carry in her set. She kind of teased me for asking, saying it wasn't really an acoustic song. But during her set she said, "A guy asked me backstage if I would do this song, so blame him." We were then treated to a verse and a chorus of the only Aimee Mann song I knew. 

When I told my cousin Steve that Aimee played my request, he said, "Yeah, you and every person she saw between the bus and stage asked the same thing." Bastard! Also, when she came out on stage, she had affected an entirely different look. Her hair was teased out and the glasses were gone. Her I would have recognized. 😀

Anyway, that show is in my top five of all time live concerts I've ever seen. The interview that is below. 

Interview with Chris Difford and Aimee Mann

July 7, 1994

Baltimore, Md.

Craig Moore: Both Squeeze and Aimee Mann's music go beyond mindless pop ... 

Chris Difford: Yeah. 

From L-R: Keith Wilkinson, Pete Thomas,
Glenn Tilbrook, Chris Difford and Paul Carrack.
Aimee Mann: Do you know why that is Chris? 

Chris: It's an attention to detail in lyrics according to Elvis Costello. He quoted that in a Q Magazine interview two months ago which kind of drew Aimee and I together. 

CM: In 1987, you commented to Musician Magazine that you were envious of the success your drummer Gilson (Lavis) had in turning his life around. 

Chris: Yeah. 

CM: He used to be overweight and had a drinking problem ... 

Chris: That's right. Well, he shaped up his life at that point in time and he'd gone, you're right, from crawling about on the floor to not drinking and not drugging and just being happy with in himself, which is the way that I feel now. I wish I'd done that a long time ago. 

CM: You look about ten years younger. I hope that's not too personal ... 

Chris: No, it's not at all. I mean, I feel good because of that. And I think Gilson was a big influence, but I was too dumb to see it at the time, which is always the case. And now I've got a lot to thank him for, but sadly he's not here to be thanked. 

CM: What happened? 

Chris: Well, Gilson's not in Squeeze anymore. He...We had a kind of falling out a couple years ago, about five years ago which is very sad and totally unnecessary at that point in time. But it's the kind of thing that happens. You know, a band is like a family and it's around a long, long time. And you know like in all families if you don't discuss things, it's quite often that you'll create a growth, a cancerous growth that will explode at some point and somebody's got to be cut away and that was Gilson unfortunately at that point in time. I mean he's doing really well, he's (laughs) I say that he's only ... he's just got through a heart attack. 

CM: Really? 

Chris: Yeah. 

CM: I'd like to talk for a minute about your latest album, Some Fantastic Place, excuse me Aimee we'll get back to songwriting in general in a moment. 

Aimee: Oh, no that's fine. 

CM: I've noticed your songs have taken on a certain introspection and spirituality since the album Play. You even mentioned people walking with you in the garden in the liner notes of Some Fantastic Place

Chris: Yeah. 

CM: Were you meditating, did that bring about the change? 

Chris: Umm, no. What happened was ... Actually the Play album I thought was a very dark album. There was change about around the corner at that point in time. It wasn't until after the Play album that I decided to clean up my act so to speak. So I went off and spent 12 weeks working on myself which I figured was more important than being in a group. And indeed it is more important than being in a group. And you know, I maintain what I've done and try to carry that through. 

CM: It carries over into the music. I do sense a definite lift in this album. There was a song on the EP release of Some Fantastic Place called "Discipline." It wasn't on the album, but it should have been. 

Chris: Oh, yeah. 

CM: Will the rest of the EP material be released on an album? 

Chris: We're putting a B-sides album out in six months and it will be on that. 

CM: The song "Discipline" seems to reflect these recent changes in your life. Was it written during your 12-week hiatus? 

Chris: Uh, I think "Discipline" was written around that time. I can't remember the lyric off the top of my head. I haven't got total recall in that way. But I do remember it was about not having any discipline and that finding discipline was a thing. So, yeah it was probably written around that time and influenced by what happened then. 

CM: There's a world of difference between you first two albums and Argy Bargy

Chris: Yeah. 

CM: It seems that since Babylon and On each album has been a logical progression. I always wonder when I'll burn out on Squeeze, but I suppose your philosophy of writing songs which serve as "mini-films" holds one's interest. 

Aimee: That's so funny that you said that. Because I was just thinking about ... I have this theory about, like Chris and I have a songwriting approach that's sort of a narrative or cinematic, especially Chris. But then I was thinking about "Up the Junction" and I was going to ask him if it was written based on the move Up the Junction. 

Chris: It was written on a flight about a play I saw that was written by the same person who wrote Up the Junction. 

Aimee: Really? 

Chris: A Wednesday play, but it wasn't called "Up the Junction." 

Aimee: There was sort of like a tradition in British film making that you echo in your songwriting. 

Chris: Yeah! 

Aimee: A certain type of narrative ... 

Chris: Well I was brought up on that. I mean the Wednesday play was a thing on television every week that my parents watched and that was something they didn't mind me watching because it was fine, you know? I used to be drawn in by all these half an hour vignettes of people's lives. 

CM: It comes through in your writing. I often find myself what happens to these people when the song ends. 

Aimee: Yeah, absolutely. 

Chris: I did start writing a book about that. 

CM: Really? 

Chris: Yeah. On one page it would have the actual lyric of like, "Up the Junction" and on the next page it would have what happened. 

Aimee: The thing that's interesting about "Up the Junction" is that it's always in the present tense. Every verse is in the present tense, none of it is in the past tense. It's like, "This morning at 4:50" and it's like, "Now I'm sitting in the kitchen" and now I'm sitting here miserable. It's always like every verse is exactly now. It's current which is like, bizarre. I've never heard anybody do that. But it completely works you know, from verse to verse time changes and two years have gone by. It's really interesting. 

Chris: And it's still there. 

Aimee: And it's still in first person, so you're sitting here telling it right now. 

CM: That song marks a turning point for me in the music of Squeeze. It stands out among the other songs on the Cool for Cats album. It begins the Squeeze journey into detailed narratives and painful honesty. In a past interview you mentioned country music as a big influence. 

Chris: Yeah. 

CM: There's a similar honesty in country music. People like Johnny Cash don't pull any punches. You don't either. Has country music effected your writing style? 

Chris: Yeah and it still does. I've just started writing with country people and the influences that they bring to the songs, you know real emotions. Real emotions that happen in real people's lives and I think I draw to that naturally. I really enjoy that kind of story telling. 

CM: I think our radio stations lose out in the United States because everything is so segmented now. When I was growing up, radio stations played every style of music as long as the song was good. Now even rock-and-roll is segregated. In England you don't do that as much. 

Chris: No. There's very little of that. Which is in some respects not so good because country music, for instance, gets half an hour a week on one London radio station. That's it. You can't get it anywhere else. There's no country stations. It doesn't get played on the main Radio One, unless you're Garth Brooks. So you know everything else, which is all of country music does not get played. 

CM: Do you like Garth Brooks? 

Chris: Uh ... I like what he's doing for it, yeah. Country, he's opening it up. I think that's a special thing. 

CM: I like his lyrics, but to me he doesn't represent country music like Johnny Cash. He seems to personify the genre. 

Chris: Yes. And his new album is Redemption. Have you gotten that yet? 

CM: I've heard it, but I didn't buy it yet. 

Chris: Excellent album. 

CM: Do you thing the sales of Some Fantastic Place were hurt by being released the same week as Nirvana's In Utero

Chris: By who? 

CM: Nirvana's In Utero. I think they came out in the same week. Did you feel overshadowed? 

Chris: Well... no I don't think so. I think we have very different fans. 

CM: It's just that alternative rock music stations play both bands. I think they out-hyped you. 

Chris: Well, I think that ... No, it didn't really ... it didn't really mean anything to me. I don't see that at all. I think if anything happened it was probably ... I think we get played whatever else is being played at the time. It's down to how much push you get from your company at any one given time. 

CM: Anthony Burgess said he felt doomed that A Clockwork Orange is continually held up to praise while works he values more are all but forgotten. Do you ever feel that way, because I've seen critics refer to Squeeze as an 80s review band. 

Chris: No. You see if I was to dwell on that, and it's very easy to do that, you know I wouldn't ever want to come out on tour. i'd just say, "Well, sod it if that's what people think!" But I don't think that so I don't let it affect me. 

CM: I think it's an inaccurate observation, but nevertheless I've heard it said. 

Chris: Yeah. No, I've heard it everyday when we're on tour. 

Aimee: I'd like to hear the songs people who say that write. 

CM: Good point. What's next. I understand you both took a break from recording for this mini-tour. 

Chris: No. Both Aimee and Squeeze are writing albums at the present time. 

CM: When can we expect your album Aimee? 

Aimee: I'm going to start recording in September, they're probably going to start recording in November. So my record, with any luck, should be out in February. 

CM: Any special guests? It's you solo now. 

Aimee: Yeah. 

CM: Not 'Til Tuesday. 

Aimee: No. I have a single coming out in England (That's Just What You Are) that's sort of not on any record. It might be on the next record, who knows. But Glenn and Chris sing on it so I would be happy to reprise them as background singers on my record if there's a song that makes sense for it. 

CM: They're a good backing band. When you were backing Paul Carrack on "How Long" it was incredible. 

Chris: Yeah. We did a good version last night. 

CM: You get away with lyrics no one else could pull off. For example, many singers have probably tried to describe the sound of an acidic tongue waggling in someone's head. But you not only articulate it, but you spell it out in the lyric sheet. No self-consciousness at all. 

Aimee: Attention to detail. 

Chris: Attention to detail. We get back to that again. 

Aimee: That's really what it comes down to. 

Chris: The acidic tonguing in the head, I mean... I know who that song was about so it was very easy to write that lyric. 

Aimee: Who was it? 

Chris: I'm not saying. 

Aimee: You can whisper it to me. 

Chris: Some other time. 

Aimee: Whisper it in my ear. 

CM: Glenn told Creem Magazine in 1981 that he felt most people in bands can't write songs. Do you think that's still true? 

Aimee: Yeah. Absolutely. It is for me. I think it's absolutely true, but I'm much more of a fascist than Chris is. Chris cuts people a lot of slack. Chris is a very generous person. 

CM: Who do you listen to? 

Aimee: For me? The Loud Family made the best record in the last five years. 

Chris: I've never heard it. Isn't that sad? 

Aimee: Betty Seveert, Freedy Johnston I think is great. Those are sort of my current favorites. 

CM: How about you, Chris? 

Chris: Um ... Geez. I suppose I'm listening to female singers more than anything I've ever done. Joni Mitchell, Aimee Mann. 

Aimee: I'm also a big Liz Phair fan and I know for a fact Glenn is too. So we can speak for him once. 

Chris: Shawn Colvin ... 

CM: Are you aware of the Squeeze knock-off band called Blue Train? 

Chris: No. 

CM: They're an LA band. They had a single on KROQ. 

Aimee: Is it a tribute band? 

CM: No they're called Blue Train. They had a single called "All I Want." I thought it was Squeeze when I first heard it. 

Aimee: They just sound Squeezey? 

CM: It's that close. Octave vocals, everything. Really amazing. 
Aimee: That's funny. 

CM: I'm being given the hook so I better go. I'm looking forward to the show. Thanks for the time. 

Chris: Thank you. Those were good questions. 

If you want to get an idea about what the show sounded like, check out this recording of the Chicago show from a few days before.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Chuck Berry: 1926-2017

I was sad to hear of Chuck Berry's passing today. The first song my dad tried to teach me on the guitar was Chuck's Memphis, Tennessee. Maybe not the easiest choice for someone who didn't play guitar at all yet, but it always stuck with me.

Chuck had his flaws as a person, but don't we all? The fact remains that what we know as rock and roll would never have existed without him. He took the best parts of blues, jazz, jump and country and turned it into something new. He was the catalyst that launched a thousand riffs. RIP Chuck:


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

RIP Brent Johnson

I received word last night that an old friend and bandmate Brent Johnson passed away yesterday. I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around it since he was a relatively young man. I was lucky enough to play in THEATRE OF ICE with Brent on and off for a few years back in the late 80s. Brent was one of the smartest, funniest people I ever met. I always thought of his lyrics as being like Stephen King set to music. He could weave a tale of terror with the best horror writers out there. Here are a some of my favorite memories with him.

He spent the night in my apartment in Provo back when we were doing a show somewhere. Dale was there too for a while, but since he was single he left us and went out on the prowl. We stayed up late into the night talking about music and life. As conversations with Brent often did, the subject turned to the macabre. One of my favorite things to do as a kid was stay up late telling scary stories. I thought I was too old to be scared by ghost stories, but I was so very wrong. Brent knew stories that would make your hair stand on end.

Once when we were being interviewed for a music magazine, the writer was making some not-so-subtle digs at Brent’s Mormon faith. Rather than get angry or defensive, Brent handled it with grace and skill that I always wished I possessed.

One of my favorite shows we did was a Halloween extravaganza. We played at a place called Cinema in Your Face. This was an old style movie theater with a big stage and balcony. I’m not sure if it’s still around, but it was the main place in those days where you could see art films in Salt Lake. We played through the night while they showed monster movies behind us. A video of that existed at one time, but sadly it’s lost now.

The last time I saw Brent in person was when George and I were crashing at his place in Arizona so we could catch Paul McCartney in concert during his 1990 tour. Brent’s answering machine had a Theater of Ice song on it at the time. Brent told us he was going to have to change it because his boss had called there, but thought he got a wrong number because all he heard was “some guy screaming.”

Over the past several years, we’ve talking about reuniting for a show or two. I wish we had been able to pull it off.

Rest in peace Brent. To quote you, “Life is a wild and scary thing, who knows what tomorrow brings?”


Thursday, October 6, 2016

Interview with Chris Difford – 1988

On two separate occasions, I had the privilege of interviewing one of my musical idols, Chris Difford of Squeeze. The story below is how the first one came about. The interview follows the story.

Squeeze was a British rock band that had their biggest success in the early 80s, though by 1988 they were having a comeback of sorts. I was a huge fan and always wanted to meet the band.

A couple of years before, I dated a woman who had pretty much met every musician she ever wanted to meet. She told me the key to it was never taking no for an answer. I should mention here that she turned out to be a bit of a stalker, which explains her success in meeting people who didn't really want to meet her. Nevertheless, she emboldened me and thinking of her words, I decided to try and interview Squeeze for my college newspaper.

The biggest snag of course, was that I didn't actually work for our college newspaper. Nor did I know anyone who was on the staff. Still, I figured that would be a minor detail that I could work out later.

I called A&M Records in New York and I told the publicity person I was interested in doing an interview with the band for Brigham Young University's Daily Universe. Note my brilliance in not claiming to actually work for the newspaper. (O.K., not necessarily brilliance. I was just worried they'd call the editor and verify my lack of credentials.)

To my surprise, delight and relief, they did no such thing. Instead, the person on the phone started looking at schedules for an interview. I guess since it was a college newspaper, they assumed it would be a good place to promote the new Squeeze album and tour.

Unfortunately, the idea of a face-to-face interview was quashed right away. She never said why, but I know now it was because they were going to be shooting a video for a new single from the album up in Park City:

Instead, the publicist recommended I do the interview in advance via telephone. That way, we could publish on the day of concert. This would help to promote the new album and the local concert at the same time. I readily agreed and was given information about when and where to call. I was going to be interviewing Chris Difford from the band.

I think it's important to point out again that I didn't work for the school newspaper. Not even a little bit. But drawing inspiration from my stalker ex-girlfriend, I told the publicist that would work perfectly.

So armed with that information, I called the school newspaper and told them I had arranged an interview with a member of Squeeze. I explained that the band would actually be in town and that they requested that the article be published on March 2, 1988. 

To my astonishment, the editor thought this sounded like a great idea and agreed immediately. Now, I knew it was still possible that they wouldn't publish it, but I figured if that happened and I got any static for it, I would explain that it got bumped for something more pressing. I wasn't aware at the time how desperate for relevant content many newspapers can be. I guess the editor of the Universe also saw the appeal a band story would have for the paper's audience.

On a snowy day a few weeks before the show, I called up Chris Difford at his hotel. I had to use a code name which I guess all of the members of the band used when they toured. That way, they wouldn't be pestered by fans. Chris' code name was "Terrance Bag." I thought that sounded Dickensian, though that was probably because I'd never actually read any Dickens. 

The interview as it appeared in print is below:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

President Beecroft

Pres. and Sister Beecroft, 1984
My mission president is dying. I knew he wasn’t well, but I heard the news this week that his hospice nurse thinks it’s the beginning of the end. She told the family that in her opinion he has about a week left. 

What’s a mission president anyway?

If you aren’t Mormon, you’ve probably seen the missionaries with their name tags and bikes. The guy who wrangles them is a mission president. He and his wife spend three years overseeing the missionaries and the missionary work in a specific region. 

Jack T. Beecroft was the president of the Mexico Veracruz mission from 1984-1987. This area included the states of Veracruz, Puebla, Tlaxcala and Oaxaca. Jack was a Texan who grew up in the Mormon Colonies in northern Mexico, so he spoke Spanish like a native. 

As a missionary serving under his direction, I didn’t have much to compare him to. My first mission president was only there a month before Pres. Beecroft took over. I didn’t know the first guy at all. I think we had one awkward conversation — awkward because I could barely speak Spanish at the time. Imagine Tarzan attempting a religious conversation and you’ll get the general idea.

Aside from my time as a missionary, I only saw Pres. Beecroft a handful of times in the ensuing years. Most recently, I saw him at a mission reunion in Utah in 2010, it was clear then his health was starting to fail, though his mind seemed sharp as ever.

There was another reunion in May of this year. This time, the former missionaries went to him as he was unable to travel. It was clear from the message from his daughter inviting us all that he had good and bad days. She couldn’t promise he’d be coherent the whole time. I thought about going, but in the end a family vacation ended up being scheduled during the same weekend and I couldn’t go. I was relieved in a way because in my mind, the reunion was more for the “office elders” than for the rest of us. 

Beecroft and his assistants at a pizzeria in Poza Rica, Veracruz.
For those unfamiliar with missionary life, there is a mission office from which the work of the mission is managed. The president calls two assistants who are his right and left hand men for a period of time that varies depending on the mission president. There are also other missionaries who work in the office in finance and other administrative areas. These missionaries typically work during the day in the office and do regular missionary work at night. The assistants also travel when the mission president goes to the various areas throughout the mission. I was never an office elder, though I did spend a week with the mission secretary because I was sick enough to be sent to the mission doctor. 

I’ll be honest and say that though it never happened, I wished I could work in the mission office. I thought it was only my pride at the time –– it’s a high status calling –– but I think that’s only part of it. The other was that office environment felt more like being normal. I would have done very well there, I think. Plus, for at least eight hours a day, I would have been relieved of the stress and pressures of regular missionary –– trying to talk people out of their and into our religion.

See? Camaraderie!
I also wanted the camaraderie of other missionaries. Except for a few months, I had never served in any mission area that wasn’t remote. I missed hanging out with other missionaries and speaking English with the rest of the americanos. Although working in the office and then going back to a regular zone would probably have been a tough adjustment, maybe as hard as starting over. I don’t know. I never found out other than during that brief week.

Anyway, based on the RSVPs, the most recent reunion felt like a gathering for iniders, rather than for the rest of us riff raff. As I often do, I allowed myself to be negative and I imagined that the mission president didn’t really even like me anyway. In 2010 when I saw him, the only thing he really said to me was to ask me if I was still active in the church. I don’t know why he asked, it might have been my beard and the longer-than-is-typical-for-a-Utah-Mormon-hair. Maybe he thought I was a crappy missionary and bound to be headed for apostasy anyway? I don’t really know what, if anything, he remembered about me. 

Not exactly a problem elder

I don’t think I was that memorable of a missionary in the first place. I had a good conversion rate and was always above average in my various stats. I wasn’t in any way what some people would call a “problem elder,” but I did have issues. Almost all of them stemmed from the fact that my dad died the day I sent in my papers to apply to be a missionary. I never really allowed myself to deal emotionally with that loss before leaving so as a result, that grief and emotion combined with the stress and pressure and homesickness which is as much a part of missionary life as the Book of Mormon. 
Maybe I was a bad missionary.

The other thing is I’ve never been the kind of person who keeps his mouth shut. As every one of my teachers from grade school will testify, I share my thoughts and opinions pretty freely. One time, a group of missionaries who knew our previous mission president better than I did were talking about his interviews. Every month or so, the mission president meets with the missionaries one on one to assess how they are doing personally and spiritually. “Presidente Lozano was amazing!” the missionaries explained. “When you left his interviews, you felt like you could conquer the world!” They went on to compare those interviews with President Beecroft who tended to be a little more succinct in his technique. Because I’m a dumbass, I thought President Beecroft should know that his interviews  seemed rushed and were thought of as less than motivational. So I told him. I even used the term “wham-bam thank you m’aam.” To his credit, he didn’t get offended or angry with me. Instead, my (and only my) interviews became a lot longer than everyone else’s. At the time, I thought he might be trying to teach me a lesson for running my mouth, but I can see know he was trying to accommodate what he thought were my needs. In retrospect, I see it as a very kind gesture.

So I suppose my feelings about my mission president’s imagined feelings about me are more in my own head than anything else, but I can’t help but have this weird inferiority complex about my place as a missionary in that world.

Not a lover or a fighter 

I’m not the kind of person who says he loves other people at the drop of a hat. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett says, “There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it …” 

But I was a bird whisperer.
That sums up my attitude about people fairly well, though I would flip the first sentence and say there are few people of whom I think well and still fewer whom I love. If I don’t dislike you or think you’re stupid, you’re doing pretty well. I also know this has to do more with me than what people actually are. 

I bring that up because when the news of Pres. Beecroft’s imminent demise was posted on Facebook, there was an immediate outpouring of love from his former missionaries. I thought about it. Do I love President Beecroft? I think fondly of him. I’m sad he’s dying. I think it’s likely the world and the church will be worse off without him, but do I love him? I don’t really know how to answer it to be truthful. But I will say this, I thought he was awesome. I thought he was a great man. I admired him, but love? I don’t think I can say that, at least not as I understand the meaning of the word love. But I’ll share what I learned from him.

Make adult decisions

I’ve heard enough mission president horror stories to understand exactly how lucky I was to serve with Jack Beecroft. 

President Beecroft was a believer in free agency. He believed that as adults (which technically we were), we should be able to make decisions without having everything dictated to us. One example of this, and one that mattered to me, had to do with music. The previous mission president restricted music for missionaries to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Pres. Beecroft told us to use our best judgement about musical choices.

This was great news as far as I was concerned. I'm a musician so melodies, songs and lyrics go through my head all day long. I was more than capable of maintaining a missionary spirit while listening to music I liked from time to time. I was often asked to sing/play the guitar in ward functions and the only songs I knew how to play were rock songs. It's not like I sat in my room listening to death metal all day, but it was nice to be able to listen to regular music if I wanted to. It's not like we didn't hear music all day long anyway. Mexicans love music and they love it loud. So I couldn't walk down the street (or even be in my apartment sometimes) without being serenaded by the popular music on the Mexican charts. Some American tunes snuck in there too. At least now, I could choose what music I heard.

Still, it was unorthodox from a missionary perspective. I asked him once why he didn’t just spell out what was and wasn’t prohibited. His response was, “you’re adults, you can make adult decisions.” This tells me that he understood that each of us were different and would make those choices based on our own beliefs and understanding about what was correct and what we could personally handle. This is a pretty progressive attitude for a mission president. But in Mormon theology, the concept represents the entire reason we’re here on earth in the first place: The freedom to act without being compelled. It’s the only way to truly learn. Nevertheless, I think congregations and often the church as a whole have problems applying the concept of free agency. There is way too much compulsion and unrighteous dominion going on. I’ve heard enough stores from other missions to know it isn’t widely practiced. We were way lucky.

Don’t get in over your head

Once a week, missionaries have a (partial) day off to take care of personal activities like writing home and doing laundry. Time permitting, they can also go sightseeing or play sports. One activity that is typically forbidden for missionaries all over the world is swimming. The state of Veracruz is located on the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the missionaries who lived near the beaches would congregate on the beaches to play soccer, American football or volleyball. I can tell you from my own experiences on these beach days that a lot of missionaries “fell” into the water. 

But I was surprised to find out that one time the missionaries from the Veracruz zone were having an outing at the beach with the president in attendance and were doing the same thing. One missionary, apparently conscience stricken, walked over to where Pres. and Sister Beecroft were on the beach and said he was sorry for getting in the water, even if it was just in the shallow surf. Pres. Beecroft told him that he wasn’t worried as long as no one went in over their heads. Good advice, both literally and metaphorically.

There's no place like home ... there's no place like home ...

Your problem is you

Another time, I was very unhappy with an area where I was serving. I really wanted a transfer to somewhere else and I let him know about it multiple times. During one of my longer-than-everyone-else-to-the-point-everyone-thought-I-was-a-chronic-masturbator interviews, I broached the subject again. I hated Huajuapan de Leon, Oaxaca and wanted a change of scenery. President Beecroft looked at me and said, “I’m going to speak to you now as if you were my son. Your problem is not Huajuapan. Your problem is you. Until you see the good instead of focusing on the bad, you’ll never be happy and I’m not transferring you until you are happy.” I was devastated at the time, but in reality, the advice has helped me when I find myself unhappy in a work or other situations. The problem is usually me. If it isn’t, it’s time to get out of that situation or find a new job. 

Sidenote: I ended up getting transferred out of Oaxaca because I became dangerously ill. I never really loved it, but I did stop hating it which is almost as good. 

Those lessons have served me very well throughout my life. So que te vaya bien, presidente! Whatever comes next, you deserve the best of it. I’m a better person for having known you.

Jack Beecroft departed from this mortal life on July 3, 2015. RIP.

Mission reunion Salt Lake City 2010.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Easter

My wife and I were buying Easter candy the other day, despite the fact that our children are well past easter basket stage. They like it and it's a fun tradition.

It's not like it's new this year, but I really only just put it together how much Easter candy offerings have changed since I was a kid.

If you grew up in the 70s, you might remember the old cellophane-covered, prepackaged Easter baskets. The basket usually had some creative pastel colors woven through it. In each basket was usually the following: A stuffed bunny, a chocolate bunny, jellybeans, Peeps, Robin's Eggs (malted milk candy) and bubble gum eggs.

The Easter bunnies were always hollow. So as soon as you bit into it, it sort of crumbled. The chocolate wasn't all that good either, but hey, it was chocolate. Now, they have solid chocolate bunnies in exotic flavors and brands. You can get a Dove Chocolate rabbit, you can get a Reese's rabbit, you can get a White Chocolate rabbit. The choices are seemingly endless. Jellybeans are varied too: Starburst, Sweet Tart and lots of others.

I was never much into Peeps, so I have trouble understanding the modern enthusiasm for them. Someone at my office brought in a package of chocolate Peeps once so I tried them. Nope. It just tastes like Peeps with a vague chocolate hint.

Another Easter memory is the annual showing of the 10 Commandments which, in those days anyway, always ran during the Easter season. It was a win/win for the networks. You had the Christian and Jewish people covered with religious programming during both high holy days. Sometimes they'd even show one of the many Jesus-themed movies like The Greatest Story Ever Told. I miss those traditions, but truth be told I don't have the patience to watch them now. It's faster to read the four Gospels in one sitting than watch either of those movies.

One of my favorite Easter stories is the short story "Easter Weekend" by Eugene England. I took a writing class from him in college and love his writing style. He taught me more about writing and finding my voice than any other teacher. I'm sure he would love the explosion of blogs and independent writing that is so much a part of the modern writing landscape, particularly those that feature LDS voices and stories. He felt it was important that all the stories get told: faithful, faithless and in between.

Happy Easter everyone!


Monday, April 8, 2013

Dummies Talking to Each Other

After my grandfather's funeral, I was standing at the cemetery waiting for a ride back down the hill. My younger brother had gotten ill halfway up and I had to carry him the rest of the way. There was a truck giving people rides back down and I was going to be on that truck one way or the other.

As I sat there waiting, two of my grandfather's brothers were nearby having a conversation. A third brother approached and by way of greeting said, "One dummy talking to another." My grandfather and his brothers were boisterous, fun-loving men. This was just a playful greeting, not intended to be taken seriously. I laughed and thought about how brothers are brothers no matter how old or young.

I've often thought of that greeting as I see people talking, especially if they are particularly dumb.

It's even more relevant now in the digital age. The internet, particularly social media, is full of dummies talking to each other, oftentimes passionately arguing over things about which they have little or no actual knowledge.

If people made an effort to think before they post, we'd have a lot less cyber noise. The problem is everyone has a soapbox. While some people use Facebook, Twitter and other social channels as a method for staying in touch and sharing news and photos about themselves and their families, others have decided that every two-bit cheesy photo with a dopey quote should be shared liberally. They seem to think every half-formed thought is worth sharing.

I'll admit to being guilty of trying to be funnier than I actually am and sharing way too many photos of my dogs. I do try to think about what I post before posting it. That's more than some people seem to do.