The Lower Lights

This weekend we took a trip to the big city. We didn’t tell the kids what we were up to, we just packed them a bag, put some treats into little Christmas sacks, and piled into the van. Once we were saddled up, we told them that we were going to Salt Lake to see The Lower Lights Christmas show at the Masonic Temple.

We’d do a little shopping (we tasted most excellent chocolate and fifty-year-old basalmic vinager at Caputo’s), then see the show. We’d sleep in a hotel and in the morning get breakfast at our favorite little café. (If you have a chance to get breakfast at Pennyann’s Café, you won’t regret it). After that, we’d head home and get ready for the last week of school before Christmas.


The concert was fantastic, especially after five years of listening to their music on Sundays and holidays. If you don’t know who they are, The Lower Lights is a kind of local Utah supergroup of Latter-day Saint musicians who have been making records of traditional hymns in a style I’d call it roots or Americana. Some might call it folk, others country, maybe old-timey. Many of them have their own bands and their own gigs. They aren’t Christian musicians in the traditional sense, and not really traditional Mormons: there were a lot of beards and jeans on stage.

With The Lower Lights there is a wonderful sense of community between the audience and the band. The show was full of foot-stomping revelry, huge layers of vocal harmonies, screaming Telecaster chicken pickin’, ethereal pedal steel guitar swells, good humor, and a reverence for both the gospel music tradition and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Their music is the one of the few times I feel a through line between my faith and art that touches me. I love my adopted church, which I joined in college when many young people are finding their way out of the faith traditions of their familes. Mormon theology is both and ancient and modern, conservative and really trippy, and in almost every way it’s made me a better person than I would be if I was left to my own devices.

I have to say, however, that I really can’t stand Mormon aesthetics. It’s actually more accurate to say that I don’t like Christian aesthetics, which in my opinion, are almost entirely lacking in subtlety. Christian art leaves very little room for me, as an individual, to think my own thoughts or to have my own reactions.  For me, Christian art is almost always a sermon when I need it to be a friend. Art that shares my aesthetics usually doesn’t share my faith. Conversely, art that shares my faith usually doesn’t resonate with me aesthetically. I used to get mad about this. These days, I just realize that it’s not gonna happen, and move on with my life. 


The Lower Lights is one of a few exceptions. There is an earthiness to their music—stringiness and stompitude. Like the spirituals played by blues and country musicians, I get a sense that their love of God is coming from the mouths of sinners like me. They are David dancing for joy. For all the power of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and for all of their technical perfection, I do not feel like I am supposed to sing along with them. With The Lower Lights, it is expected. 

My publisher, Zarahemla Books, is another haven. Folks like Joanna Brooks, the guys in the band Fictionist, the Segullah bloggers, the Modern Mormon Men bloggers, my old Sugarbeet gang: they are all out there being the in the world but not of it. When I feel like there’s no room in the church for a scruffy ex-Catholic now-Mormon fiction writer like me, I look around at these people and my friends near and far, inside of the church and out, and realize an important message we used to sing about at YMCA summer camp: “All God’s critters got a place in the choir/some sing low and some sing higher.”

Are You My Mummy?

NOTE: this is an old post that got hung up in the draft phase for over a year. Ever since I first saw this Diane Arbus photograph, about twelve years ago, I have been enamored of it. I have also been envious of it, upset by it, even obsessed by it. It seems like this kid caught Arbus off guard. He challenged her. It lacks the ironic distancing that is so common in her work.

It's so crazy looking and off the cuff and weird and in your face. It's a pretty famous image, so I know that others have had some kind of similar response to it, maybe not the same identical one that I've had, but something that punches me in the guts.

Today at a Halloween party, I got the chance to get into that Arbus territory with a picture of my son, Ike, in his Doctor Who inspired costume.

It's from the 2005 episode "The Empty Child" The boy Ike is dressed as is named Jaime, a child who was killed during the Blitz but who was resurrected (sort of) by some alien creatures but had his gasmask genetically fused to his face. He goes around asking everyone, "Are you my mummy?" It's pretty chilling in the show.

This costume was Ike's idea. My wife, Alisa, put it all together. She made the gas mask herself, which is pretty impressive.

And I got the shot.



Summer Reading List Challenge

I'm planning to read like a monster this summer. The idea is one book a week, netting me 16 books before I have to jump back into things. Some of them will be school books, but most of them will be things I've been collecting, as well as some new things coming out. This list isn't in any particular order.

  1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
  2. The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (First 1/2)
  3. The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (Second 1/2)
  4. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch
  5. The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch
  6. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier
  7. Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle
  8. Voodoo Heart by Scott Snyder
  9. Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
  10. Count Zero by William Gibson
  11. Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
  12. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
  13. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  14. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
  15. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  16. A World Beneath by Aaron Gwyn

I'd also do Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist, but it is 700 pages. I'm buying it today, but I'll be reading it this fall, I think. I'm really excited about this book.

So, it seems I've started a movement. My friend Rae English has started her own list and a challenge to others. So, I'm issuing the same challenge to you all: what kind of reading can you squeeze out of the summer at the rate of one book a week?

Look at Those Bad Boys

On Superbowl Sunday, we made all the game day food (wings, guacamole, etc.) and then Alisa watched Masterpiece Theater. I read Proust. And, oh, yay, without any help from the Petersen family, Manning took a dive so New Orleans could win, selflessly healing the country, just like Sandra Bullock.

Sorry, America. Football is boring.

Good Point from Jon Ogden

This snippet from an excellent argument on Mormon Artist.

We Mormons have the same expectations of Church members in almost all other professions. We expect, for instance, that dentists will favor dentistry over promoting religious orthodoxy while they are at work. To illustrate, we don’t expect dentists to give the missionary discussions to clients strapped, mouths agape, in the dentist chair. Nor do we expect accountants to slip copies of their testimonies in with their client’s tax returns. Dentists and accountants may be inspired in certain instances to share their beliefs, but we generally don’t expect such acts to be a mainstay of their professions. We shouldn’t expect it from artists either.

This saves me a blog post, really. What's more important, though, is why so many assume that artists should be doing more evangelical work than a dentist, because they do. My wife's Uncle Joe has been making this same argument about "uplifting work" for a long time.

My 15 Minutes of Punditry

I had a great 40 minute conversation with Lisa Carricaburu at the Salt Lake Tribune. She was working on an end-of-the decade piece on shifting cultural values and demographics in the state. It was cool that I'd come up on her radar. Here's an excerpt of my part in the whole thing. I'm keeping company with a U of Utah research economist, a BYU polysci prof, and a Salt Lake City community activist.

Cedar City writer Todd Robert Petersen explores Utah's changing landscape in his newly published novel Rift , the story of interconnectedness, conflict and isolation in a small Sanpete County town.

He is not surprised Utahns, such as those he portrays in his novel, are upset by changes occurring around them.

"You can't blame people for being scared," Petersen says.

But slowly, with enough time to think about it, "they come to realize maybe all this change isn't as dangerous as we think it is."

He sees the promise of a more diverse Utah in the young people he teaches at Southern Utah University.

"Their attitude, whether they're what I'd call 'high faith' or already on their way out [of the LDS Church] is 'bring it on,' " he says. "Utah is amazing. I'm so interested in what's next."

Here's a link to the full article. Should be live for a while.

Lists and Lists

It's the time of lists (end of a year, end of a decade). I spent a really interesting forty minutes or so today being interview by Lisa Carricaburu from the Salt Lake Tribune about the last decade in Utah, outlining the cultural shifts that have brought the state to the place it is right now. What place it that? Who knows, but it's definitely a different place now than many people are used to—what, the LDS church supports anti-discrimination legislation for sexual orientation? I've actually been getting kind of sick of the lists, in many cases because they are depressing, but especially when they are outlining all the great books I don't have the time to read because I am raising children and teaching English courses at a university.

(I do see the irony in this. Don't even start.)

But today I found a best books list that was really interesting. It's from the most excellent literary review website The Second Pass. They propose a list of the books people will likely be reading a hundred years from now.

Some of the books from the 2110 List that have really caught my fancy.

This list really put some new stuff in my face, and made me want to settle in and turn off the Battlestar Galactica and disappear into some pages. I think there are some good mentions of things well off the beaten path and some writers you might expect as well. Lydia Millet's comedy on the Manhattan Project seems like a pretty great next purchase for me.

Check it out. The 2110 Club List at The Second Pass.

They also have a DIY list here. Throw your hat into the ring, eh.

A Night (or two) in the Gallery

I recently spent a couple of days in Salt Lake for the opening of a show I did with Utah painter, Jennifer Rasmusson. I've been mentioning this project for the last few weeks on Facebook and Twitter. Jennifer and I have been wanting to collaborate for a couple of years, and eventually one of the galleries that represents her agreed to the experiment. It was really one of the most enjoyable and challenging things I have ever done with my writing in a long time. Todd and Jen at A GalleryThe process began a couple of months ago. We shared our work and had a few long conversations about what was possible. After those first meetings, we set a few ground rules. First, we didn't want to create the show around the idea of illustration; the images and words had to be on an equal footing and not duplicate each other too much. Second, we wanted to influence each other so that we all wound up in a new place. And third, we wanted to explore the relationship of reading and looking, which is a really complicated matter, one I am really interested in looking into a little more deeply.

Once I had written a few of the prose pieces, we started thinking about how to represent the writing so that (a) it would present itself as something to be read, and (b) it would seem like a painting and not a book, zine, or other printed matter. We naturally went first to the idea of letterpress, which looks great, but has the problem of "aura."

Aura was described by Walter Benjamin as the quality in a work that comes from its uniqueness as opposed to having been mass produced through mechanical means. Items that are one of a kind demand a different aesthetic response than ones that are reproduced or even commonplace. He would have had a ball with the internet.

In any case, we didn't want things to look printed, but we wanted them to have the look of type so that viewers would be encouraged to read them rather than to take the words as images without meaning attached to them. This led me to some interesting thoughts on something writers at one time or another have to really address. I might have been primed by Michael Chabon's recent interview with Teri Gross in which he discusses the idealized reader every writer has to construct, the entity who will get the jokes and puns and allusions the writer puts on the page.

Books are mass produced and distributed (many copies of one thing), and in the case of a blog, like this one, many readers are brought to a duplication taken from a single copy stored in a server, so that an infinite number of temporary copies exist at any one time.

In a gallery there is, however, only one painting. That is, I gather, the whole purpose of the gallery. Yes, paintings can be reproduced, but the whole thing about a gallery, the aura they are trying to create, is uniqueness. When you buy this painting, you're getting an exclusive deal—that's the arrangement the gallery is selling.

One other interesting thing I had to consider in working on these stories meant to be seen in a gallery and not read in a book, is that the gallery is a social environment, like a theater. The other people in the gallery, the other works adjacent to it, all exert a force on the reading. We don't read in a vacuum, but we do often read alone, or in pseudo-loneliness: on trains, in waiting rooms, or on flights.

The NestI got the first sense of these pressures on the night of the opening. We have one large collection of work called "The Conversation" in which we matched small paintings with small story paintings that consisted of a short bit of dialogue. Some dude came in and bought two of the stories, effectively splitting them from the context of their partner image. As he walked off with one of the gallerists, the small crowd of about ten people went into an outrage. They said things like, "You can't split them up, you just can't. Make him come back and buy the nest."

Then, the next day, the night of the gallery stroll, a man came in right as the gallery was closing. He looked like a speed metal A and R guy, drove a white BMW, and his girlfriend looked like a cross between a bond girl and a cocktail waitress at Caesar's Palace. He took a look at the large diptych of Jennifer's on which I had written a field of words in charcoal (pictured above). It sold early the night of the opening to a beautiful young woman and her hip husband, who also bought my favorite story/image combination.

This guy took one look at the little red dot that means the painting was no longer available and said, "Aw, shit, man. I wanted that one." He stuffed his hands in his pockets and then walked around the gallery and said, "Who bought it?" When he realized it was uncool to be asking that, he said, "You don't have to tell me." One gallerist named the couple. Our guy said, "Her? Dammit."

The amazing part about it, was the painting was still there and would be for the rest of the show, setting the aesthetic. The works which were off limits were still there, flaunting themselves. Except in the rare book market, there will always be many other copies of a book, so it's not a big deal. With a painting, there is one, and that creates a lot of desire, in that context. It's really interesting to watch those pressures at play.

Needless to say, this experience was not only interesting but slightly intoxicating. My wife (she and I collaborated on paintings—a future post on that is coming) and I left, wanting to create, and you can't ask for a better experience then that.

Where I'm From

This photo was taken by Steven Frank, the president of Portland-based Panic software. It is representative of the whole Portland attitude that has been branded and buzzed to death in the last fifteen years. When I found it, I felt a really great feeling, like homesickness without the anxiety. The spirit of my home town, Portland, Oregon

The Portland of my youth is something I can't shake. It was this immensely cool place, so cool, in fact, that 10 years after leaving, I still haven't found anywhere with quite the same attitude, not even Austin, Texas, I'm afraid.

I have tried and tried to write about the things that happened there, the things I remember from my teens and college days. I simply can't make a coherent pattern of it all. But when I tell the stories out loud, as I did this morning in over cheese burgers in St. George, Utah (which has to be one of the least hip places on earth), I realize that people are captivated. I might as well be explaining what it is like in Dar es Salaam. It is as if places like this are only possible in McSweeny's.

Increasingly you'll notice that lots of hipsters have been moving to Portland, as if it is the last place a person can live, which is, in and of itself an ironic expression: I can't live in the crushing poseurism of some place like San Francisco or Hollywood or Boston or New York, so I will live here, where it is almost-but-not-quite cool. That will be cool, the quintessence of cool. Because your cool is has been played out.

Portland has always been like that — not interested in anything that anyone has already decided on or made a play for.

And that is how I grew up.

Good Ideas of AY 2008-2009

The end of the year the pundits round up major accomplishments and newsworthy ideas and such and use them to fill a few news cycles. It's time for person of the year, gadget of the year, story of the year. Instead of aggregating other ideas, I thought I'd go through my notebooks and generate a list of my ten best ideas of the last academic year. Why not? Who else is going to? I also thought that for teachers the calendar year isn't as important as the academic one, so here goes.

1. Library Economy vs. Bookstore Economy.

One of my good friends and colleagues, Matt Nickerson, is a librarian. Through my association with him, I have learned that library use has changed a lot over the last decade or so. A lot of that change seems to be due in part to computer use. In any case, one thing librarians want to achieve is getting books and students together.

This has led us to a number of discussions on the subject of how professors get students into libraries. I responded at one point by saying, "They don't. Teachers bring the books to students in the form of text books. Then once or twice a semester they send them off to the library to find support materials."

The big idea is this: what if the library was the primary text? What would happen in a class in which you said that on a certain day the discussion would be on the subject of "first person narration," use the library and be ready for discussion? I am also imagining all kinds of hybrid assignments where I assign one text and students need to add two more two the mix—their choice.

2. Using Cloud Computing On-line Applications in the classroom.

This is now a no-brainer. Google Docs is my number one choice for managing tons of documents. The searching means that the Google Docs account can really be one big bucket into which I throw these documents. No complex filing directory is necessary. It is kind of a blunt instrument, though. It's almost just an online text editor. I don't think Google Docs is a good composing tool, but it is great for sharing documents and collaborating on them as well.

Adobe's Buzzword, is really beautiful and actually easier on the eyes than most on-line apps. It outputs really nicely to a PDF, which I can have students integrate very nicely into a digital portfolio. I have tried Zoho tools, and they just don't seem to work quite right for me and from my perspective. I have tried to like them.

The use of online apps for collaboration makes the most immediate sense, but once I gained a little facility with the tools, I started to learn a little about how to hack the basic use for some interesting results.

My best discover is the use of what I'm calling the Standing Evaluation. Because I use narrative rather than quantitative evaluation in my courses, I need some way to communicate my responses and feedback to the students. I have discovered that if I instruct a student to share a google document with me, we can use that document as a platform for the evaluation. It's ongoing, so I get to see everything I've written for that semester, and whenever I add anything it's within a context of continuity. I can really chart growth. Students like it because they have a chance to respond, like with your credit report, it's just less difficult: they are free to respond to any comment. The best students do, and it's a real joy to have a conversation about their performance.

3. The Hobbit is a heist narrative.

I have been working on ideas about heist films for a while now, and it hit me over the head like a sack of money: The Hobbit is a heist, Gandalf's 14, if you will. More on this later. I have the seeds of a conference paper germinating at the moment. I does foil my initial heist paper thesis that the heist isn't a good genre for fiction but that it works best in film.

4. Putting an old lampshade iMac in the kitchen.

It's not the fastest, but man, that rotatable, tiltable screen is great for brining up a recipe or watching the Daily Show on Hulu when you're cleaning up.

5. Not getting a snow blower.

We're getting to the point that (a) I can be outside without worrying that the kids will kill themselves, and (b) Alisa's been helping, and it's kind of nice to be out there shoveling with her. It can be quite lovely, in facr. Not an issue, though, for another six months probably. I do have a leaf blower, which I pretty much can't do without.

Proud Parenting

The other day my kids were having breakfast in the kitchen, perched on stools at the counter. My youngest looked at his sister, swallowed a bite of his cereal, and said, "It's duck season."

Rabbit Season

Zoë, without a pause, said, "Rabbit season."

Just as quick, Ike said, "Duck season."

Back and forth they went until Ike said suddenly, "Wait, stop. Okay, Zoë now it's rabbit season. Boom!" Then they both collapsed into fits of laughter. It was a pleasure to watch.

I was beaming. This meant that my labors had been successful, at least partially so. You see, this is a triumph in parenting for me. I have been trying to give my kids what could be called a classical education in cartoons. I started them with Steamboat Willie and moved them on to Felix the Cat and Fleisher Brothers Superman serials. They are well acquainted with the more contemporary Pixar and Miyazaki. Thanks to YouTube and Netflix, I have been able to widen the survey to include Warner Brothers.

I had no idea if any of this was working until that morning. I am so proud of these kids. Nothing shows me a literate mind more than getting a joke. And, did they ever get it. Bravo, kids. Bravo. You make your old man proud.