Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Disturbing Dream

I very rarely have nightmares or unpleasant dreams, but last night's was kind of disturbing.  I dreamed I was meeting this professor and to get there I was directed to take a road which was along side an ocean.  As I took the road in my silver Honda Accord the road went from pavement to dirt and eventually it became hard to tell where the road even was as it was covered with shrubbery and water.  Because the ocean was level with the road, they became hard to differentiate.  I crossed what I thought was a puddle, but it was the ocean itself, and my car was swept away and began to sink.

Suddenly, my perspective changed.  I was on a bridge above the sinking car, but I knew I was still in the car.  I watched as the rear end of my silver Honda (with me inside) disappeared under the water.  The me on the bridge tried to call the me in the car, but I didn't answer.  I then knew that I must have drowned and died, and all I could think of was, "How will Jonah be able to survive without me?" and I just felt so concerned about him.

Anyway, it was a strange dream, but my death felt very real even though I seemed to witness it from an outside perspective.  Anyway, it seemed worth recording.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Great Big World

Well, I know it's been an enormously long time since I posted, but I have a lot of thoughts swirling around my head. I’m not sure if this will come out as coherently as I would like or if it will just come out as prattle.  I hope it will be the former.

So I heard this song recently by the group A Great Big World (they’re the ones that did the hit song “Say Something,” which I also really liked).   

Their newest song is called “Hold Each Other,” and I immediately liked it the first time I heard it (in fact, that song and “Say Something” have inspired me to listen to their lesser known stuff, which I’ve discovered I also really like).

“Hold Each Other” starts out as a traditional sounding song as Ian Axel sings the first verse:

“I miss the words we used to say

I miss the sounds of yesterday

I miss the games we used to play like ohhh

I was trapped inside a dream

I couldn't see her next to me

I didn't know she'd set me free like ohhh

Something happens when I hold her

She keeps my heart from getting older

When the days get short and the nights get a little bit colder

We hold each other

We hold each other

We hold each other, mmm,”

but then the song takes an interesting turn as Chad King (born Vaccarino) sings the second verse (and these are the words that really resonated with me):

            “Everything looks different now

All this time my head was down

He came along and showed me how to let go

I can't remember where I'm from

All I know is who I've become

That our love has just begun like ohhh

Something happens when I hold him

He keeps my heart from getting broken

When the days get short and the nights get a little bit frozen

We hold each other

We hold each other

We hold each other, mmm"

I remember when I first heard the song I was taken aback by a male singer singing about his love for another man, but it also touched me deeply.  I later learned that Chad King is gay, and that Ian Axel convinced him to change the lyrics (which were originally “she” and “her”) to reflect his own truth.  King was originally hesitant, but realized he had to do it, and so that’s what he did.

When I read the above lyrics they easily describe the feelings of my own heart when it comes to Jonah.  I think about my life growing up in the LDS Church and how I tried so hard to live that life and be that person, and Jonah is the person who “came along and showed me how to let go.”  And it is true, in a sense I have forgotten how it felt to be in that world and the pain, confusion, and heartache that was so much a part of my life trying to live in a box I just didn’t fit in.  All I know now is “who I’ve become” and how happy I am.  Jonah is my support and my rock, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

That being said, let me say something that is true (for me, at least): being raised a Mormon is one of the best things that ever happened to me, and I owe so much of my life and good qualities to the way my parents raised me with those particular beliefs and standards.  But it is also equally true that being excommunicated from that religion is one of the best things that has happened to me, and I owe so much of my happiness and emotional well-being to not being tied to those religious obligations and practices any more.  Many of the standards and values of the LDS Church are still very much a part of my life, but there are others that aren’t, and that’s okay.

It so happens that Jonah and I won the lottery for $25 front row tickets for the touring company of The Book of Mormon recently.  I really felt it would happen, so much so that I dressed up as if I would be attending.  My name was the second one called, and our seats were fabulous.  You could see the performers up close and so many details that would be missed if you were in the back somewhere.

At a party once I was able to view a bootleg copy of the Broadway version of The Book of Mormon.  I liked much of it at the time, but was offended by some of it and also bothered by the fact that I felt like audience members were laughing at my religion in an unkind and less than loving way.  I didn’t feel that way about the writers; if anything, I actually think they admire Mormons even if they think their beliefs might be a little kooky.

At the time I saw the bootleg copy I had been excommunicated for a little over two years, I believe, and I was still attending church.  Now it’s been more than six years, and I feel like I was able to watch the show from a more removed perspective.  I reread my thoughts from three previous posts (1, 2, 3) regarding the show which talked about how I felt upon listening to the score for the first time and seeing the bootleg copy.  Those thoughts actually haven’t changed much.  The things I found sweet I still find sweet.  The things I found clever I still find clever.  The things that made me cringe and uncomfortable still make me feel that way.  The things I found funny I still find funny.  I think the difference this time was because I knew what I was getting into I was no longer shocked or surprised by the things I don’t care for and was just able to sit back back and watch and appreciate it.  I laughed and smiled a lot, and there were also times when I shook my head in disapproval.  But I liked it, and I thought the cast did a really great job, particularly the actress who played Nabulungi.  She had a killer voice.  I was entertained and it was certainly worth what we paid.

I think this quote from this post is still quite accurate: “While not always a fan of the crass humor that Matt Stone and Trey Parker exhibit…I do think they have a gift for satire and are sometimes quite clever. Often they push the envelope too far for my personal taste, but I guess that's what satire is often about…I guess what I'm saying is that I actually appreciate some of the things Parker and Stone have to say; I just don't always appreciate the way they say it. And I'm sure that would be the case if I ever saw this show (which, I do not hesitate to add, I would do if given the opportunity - I don't think you can really judge the value of a show without experiencing it yourself).”

So now I’ve seen it, and I think the show uses satire well to raise some valid points both about Mormonism and organized religion in general.  One thing that hit me a little differently this time around that I wasn’t expecting was towards the end of the show was this exchange that occurs after the missionaries have been told they must go home for teaching false doctrine:

ELDER PRICE: Woa –woa Elders where are you going?

ELDER MCKINLEY: What do you mean “Where are we going?” We’ve been shut down.

ELDER NEELEY: Yeah, we have to go home.

ELDER PRICE: “Who says we have to?”


(PRICE gets in the middle of everyone.)

ELDER PRICE: Look, we all wanted to go on a mission so we could spend two years of our lives helping people out.  So let’s DO it!

ELDER NEELEY: But the mission president said we’re all as far from Latter-Day Saints as it gets!

ELDER PRICE: No… You know what guys? F*** HIM.

(Everyone looks a little shocked.)

ELDER PRICE: We are STILL Latter-Day Saints.  ALL of us.  Even if we change some things, or break the rules, or have complete doubt that God exists… We can still work together to make THIS our paradise planet.

And tears came to my eyes because I had always believed that when I was excommunicated somehow my life would implode or that the powers of hell would descend upon me, and you know what?  That just isn’t true.  And regardless of how my life has changed since I was excommunicated or the choices I have made I will always have Mormonism deep in my heart and being, and that’s a good thing.  Much of who I am, both good and bad, is because of the religion I was raised in, and I value and cherish that.  When I look back on my life, both the good, bad, pleasant, and unpleasant, I don’t think I would change a thing (well, maybe I would have stuck with piano lessons and maybe I would have tried to be a little less lazy as a kid) because all of my experiences have made me the man I am today, and I like the person I am.  My positive and negative experiences have shaped this life and each one of them is valuable.

Recently, I also came across a video in my Facebook news feed which featured a man I met and had lunch with several years ago.  Prior to this lunch, I did not know him in person. I don't even remember how we met (I know it was online and was based on our desire at the time to live according to the teachings of the LDS Church and not give in to our homosexual attractions). Our meeting with each other was simply born out of a desire to connect with someone who was going through the same issues. Our lunch was was not super long, and this was the only time we ever met and talked to one another in person. He was in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the time, and it was just nice to connect and discuss with someone the issues we were each having; to not feel so alone because someone else understood what the other was going through. As I came across this video I recognized John immediately. I am so glad we are both in a place of greater peace today and that we both have managed to balance our Mormonism and our sexuality. I always wondered what became of John, and now I'm glad I know that he is in a happier place (as am I) than we were when we first met. If you have the time, watch the video. I was really moved by it.
 If you watch 6:12 to end, that's what really resonated with me.  I actually relate to so much of what he says.

                When General Conference happened this week I was initially feeling critical.  Three Apostles have died since the last conference (L.Tom Perry, Richard G. Scott, and Boyd K. Packer), and I thought it might be a great opportunity for the LDS Church to demonstrate some diversity that more accurately reflects its worldwide presence.  Instead, all three were white men from Utah.  If the LDS Church is indeed run by and inspired by the Lord himself, it does trouble me why he seems so sexist, racist, homophobic, and exclusive based on the decisions the leaders of the Church make on his behalf (I’m not saying God is those things; I’m saying that the way the LDS Church is run, it gives off that pereception).  I was also initially critical because there have been rumors that Thomas S. Monson is not physically or mentally in a place where he can effectively run the Church anymore, and it hearkened back to days when Ezra Taft Benson or Spencer W. Kimball were so sick and frail and made you wonder if they were really able to effectively act as President of the Church.

                But my heart eventually softened.  Greg Trimble recently wrote on his blog, regarding Thomas S. Monson’s recent conference address where his strength began to fail him, “I can’t imagine what the last couple years, let alone months have been like for President Monson. His amazing wife Frances who has supported him and been with him through everything, passed away. The world’s values are exponentially declining and effecting members of the church. He feels a responsibility to be there for them and comfort them.

“It has now become commonplace for people to show up at conference to show their opposition to him in person. This sweet 88 year old man has done nothing but serve people for an entire lifetime and now has to deal with hearing the phase ‘the vote has been noted’ over and over again every 6 months. That has had to take a toll on him.

“He has had to watch three of his best friends pass away within the last few months. He’s had to speak and preside at their services, attend to their families, and is expected to be the one that is lifting others spirits. He’s had the monumental task of not only presiding over the church ‘short handed’, but calling three new apostles. He’s the one that mentally has to bear the scrutiny, the questioning, the speculating. All of this has had to take a toll on him.

“How does a person get to sleep at night with that kind of burden…and yet here he was Sunday morning, speaking first, ramping up the strength to stand up once again and bring messages of goodness to all of those that love, respect, and look up to this Christian soldier.”

                Now I’m not saying the LDS Church doesn’t have its flaws or challenges, but it brought back to me something disparaging a friend recently said about Pope Francis.  A lot of people were praising the Pope because he seems to “walk the walk” a lot of the time, whether it’s helping the poor, embracing the diseased, and trying to be more inclusive and loving.  My friend said, “Ok, so Pope Francis might be more awesome than most of his crappy Catholic predecessors but let's take it easy on the worship and keep in mind that he still works for an organization that won't let women hold positions of authority and is openly against birth control (aka the freedom for women to choose their futures and have real opportunity in this world). I get that he's better but let's be honest, that's not saying a whole lot. I figured out most of what he says a long time ago and no one sings my praises. Then again, I have a vagina, and according to this same awesome Pope, that means I'm more inclined to be good at cooking for my litter of children than using my brain, so what do I know.”

Okay, she’s right in that the Catholic Church holds an antiquated view toward women, for example (and the same can be said for the LDS Church), but there was a part of me that just thought, “Can we at least try to focus more on the good he’s doing than on what he or his church might lack?”  I see both the Catholic Church and the LDS Church becoming more progressive (okay, it’s been really slow), but there have been changes even in my lifetime in some of the attitudes I see in both leaders and individual members.  There has also been frustration, too – I get it.  I guess my point is that none of these people are perfect; they’re doing their best and I think they’re also really trying to do what they believe is right (now whether you or I believe it is right may be another story).  I’m not saying we should just cut them some slack and settle for the status quo.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t sound off our voices when we feel injustice is being perpetrated.  I’m saying that we should at least celebrate the good in addition to criticizing the bad.

I actually like this pope.  I think he has a genuine heart and is trying to practice what he believes Christ taught.   Even when I thought he might have met with and supported Kim Davis (she’s a piece of work, but at least admire that she’s fighting for what she believes in even if I vehemently disagree with her), I still liked him because one bad move doesn’t erase all the good a person can do. I think Thomas S. Monson and the leaders of the Mormon Church are good men, too.  I don’t always agree with them, but I don’t think they’re bad or ill-intentioned men.

                I don’t know what I’m trying to say.  I guess it goes back to “Hold Each Other” by A Great Big World: a few days ago I watched the music video for the first time, and I just loved it.  The whole thing starts in black and white and gradually moves into full blown color.  It seems to be about love and inclusiveness, and I just adored that message.

My former neighbor, who attended my excommunication, once said about me, “[Cody] was kind of a black-and-white movie. Then Jonah came into his life, and it was like that scene in the 'Wizard of Oz' that goes from black-and-white to color. I felt like light and happiness had come back into his life.”  This video reminded me of that quote.

With all the things that are happening lately (gun violence, political differences, anti-gay sentiment, terrorism, etc.) it just reminds me that the problems of the world are so often the result of fear and hate, and I love that this song represents the opposite of that.  I love the symbolic heart they make at the end of the video.  I think there is too much hate, derision, and tearing down in this world. I'm all for love, peace, and building one another up. Sometimes I fail, but I strive to do what I can to make this world a more uplifting and loving place. I think this song captures that spirit.

Just read the online comment section of a newspaper or the comments on a controversial Facebook post and it’s clear to see that we often are in the business of tearing people down or ridiculing each other.  I’m tired of it.  I just wish we lived in a kinder, more compassionate world.

There is too much hate and divisiveness in this world.  Look at the political landscape or the recent shootings in Roseburg (just fifteen minutes from my sister’s house) and Arizona or the racial divides or sexual divides in this country.  Look at all the war and terrorism.  Look at all the name-calling and immaturity.  It’s just exhausting, and I think, “Is this the kind of world we want to live in?”  There is too much selfishness, pettiness, greed, and hate in this world.  I just get tired of it.  All I can do is try to put as much positivity and kindness in my own corner of the world as I can.  We each can influence others for the good or for the bad; I try to be a force for good.  I hope I am.  I know I fall short sometimes, too.  I can be impatient or selfish or lose my temper.  But I try to be a force for peace and love and optimism.

Anyway, I’m not sure I got out what I even wanted to get out, but those are my thoughts for today.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Green-Eyed Monster Rears His Ugly Head Again

Some time ago I wrote these two posts (here and here) about a friend of mine.  If you've read my blog on a consistent basis you'll know that this friend (Jake, I call him) served time in prison and blew his chance when he was in a work-release program (which I talk about here and here).  Jake has been a constant source of frustration for both Jonah and me.  He can often be so self-centered and selfish and often uses people to his own advantage.  We both helped Jake when he got out of prison.  We helped arrange his bail.  I put up my own money to cover his bail when his parents' check was made out to the wrong court.  We housed him when he was paroled.  We attended his hearings.  Another of his friends gave him a job.  And we just feel that Jake kind of put his own interests above those that helped him once he got what he needed from them, including us.

Jake and I were in the same graduate program and his arrogance and ingratitude really turned me off.  Although I corresponded with him while he was in prison, I always felt guarded with him; always afraid his pride would get the best of him, which it sometimes did.  Jonah, who is such a giving person, wanted to help Jake, but like me, Jonah eventually discovered that Jake can be an unappreciative user.  We're both kind of over him.  We remain cordial, but distant.

I was reading Jake's Facebook post and saw that he had been cast at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this summer.  I'm not proud of it, but my first feelings were annoyance and jealousy.  I have auditioned for the Utah Shakespeare Festival probably ten times now.  I've always wanted to work there, but it is very competitive.  While a couple of my auditions were not as up to snuff as I would have liked, most have gone well.  The casting directors have always been very complimentary, and each year I am hopeful that it will finally be my year to work there.  So I admit when I read that my friend had been cast, I admit my feelings were not very congratulatory.  I always feel like Jake just sort of floats into good luck without ever really having to work for it, and I often find it frustrating, and it especially stings when I have so wanted something and tried for years to get it, and he gets it so easily so quickly, it seems.

So many of his Facebook friends were so congratulatory and complimentary, and I just wasn't in the mood.  I know it's petty of me, but it's what I was feeling at the time.  I had to remind myself that I have a job I like, and maybe that's where I'm supposed to be right now.  I'm also teaching, and there is something gratifying about that, and maybe I'm meant to be with these kids right now.  I also reminded myself that I am an Equity actor and Jake is not, and there are less Equity spots (which are also more competitive) than non-Equity spots.

Still, at the time I actually felt like crying.  I'm not one to normally cry, "woe is me" or feel sorry for myself, but for a bit yesterday that's exactly how I felt.  I admit it.  Now I'm moving on.  Maybe soon enough I'll feel happy for Jake, but I'm not quite there yet.  Fortunately, I usually get past stuff like this pretty quickly.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Clark Johnson

Clark Johnsen is an acquaintance of mine.  I've always liked him and many of his thoughts and philosophies echo my own experiences and way of thinking.  He's a good guy and I've often admired his views.

When I was dealing with my own coming out trials, he had some videos on YouTube called "A Gay Mormon Perspective" that were of great comfort to me and helped me feel less alone.

Clark recently did an interview with John Dehlin, and I liked much of what he had to say, particularly in the first episode.  Here are both episodes.  They are worth a listen, although there is some very strong language that some listeners may find offensive.  Watch and listen at your own risk.



Well, it's been awhile since I've written.  My apologies; I've been busy.  In addition to my normal job I've also taken a job as an adjunct professor of acting at a local community college.  I'm teaching three classes (two on Tuesdays and Thursdays and one on Saturday).  I'm enjoying it, but both jobs leave very little free time.

I did want to write about the LDS Church's recent announcement regarding gay rights and religious freedom.  For those who may not be aware, the LDS Church came out in favor of statewide anti-discrimination laws for gay people in Utah and encouraged the state legislature to pursue that.  Heading a press conference were Apostles Dallin H. Oaks, D. Todd Christofferson, and Jeffrey R. Holland as well as Neill Marriott, second counselor in the Young Women's Presidency.  You can read about it here and here.

There is a catch, however.  The LDS Church also wants laws put in place that will protect them and other faith-based organizations and individuals from religious discrimination if they desire not to marry a gay couple, for example.  The LDS Church admits that drawing the line won't be easy and could get "murky."  You can read about that here and also watch D. Todd Christofferson and Dallin H. Oaks respond to questions in this video:

Some media outlets, such as the New York Times and the Huffington Post (here, too), have accused the LDS Church of making this move simply to gain the legal right to discriminate, and there may very well be some truth in that.  Some of my friends applaud this move by the LDS Church; others view it with a more cynical eye.  I can see both sides.

Here's my point-of-view: when I think about where I was 25 years ago, a young, confused, very-in-the-closet, gay-but-not-wanting-to-be-gay Mormon and how little the issues I was dealing with were even addressed in the LDS Church (and on the rare occasions they were, it was always in negative terms), I never would have imagined that three apostles from my former church would be talking openly about these issues at all or that the LDS Church (regardless of the reason) would be supporting gay rights of any kind, let alone even talking about them.  To me, progress is progress.  With the LDS Church, progress regarding gay issues or gay rights has been slow and, often, filled with ignorance.  25 years ago anything dealing with homosexuality seemed so taboo in the LDS Church.  Nobody talked about it, and it was a very lonely time for this particular Mormon boy.

It seemed very far from my world then that I would ever be able (or even want) to marry another man and even a couple of years ago, I never would have thought I could do so (and eventually did) in my home state of Utah.  I never could have imagined an LDS sponsored website called (or even an internet, for that matter).  I never would have imagined a group called Mormons Building Bridges marching in Gay Pride parades.  I never would have imagined church leaders could be at all sympathetic to the plight of gay members.  I never could have imagined that the LDS Church would ever change its views on encouraging gay people to get married heterosexually to "fix" their "problem."  I never would have imagined that an openly gay individual might serve in a leadership position as someone like Mitch Mayne has done.  I never imagined that church leaders would soften their rhetoric on homosexuality (Boyd K. Packer notwithstanding). 

My point is, regardless of where the LDS Church currently stands on its treatment of LGBTQ individuals, progress has been made in the last 40, 30, 25, 10, 5 years.  Who knows where we'll be in another 10 or 20?  Gone are the days of electroshock therapy, using The Miracle of Forgiveness as gospel truth, and never hearing anything about homosexuality in church meetings.  Gay couples can get married in Utah and in many other states; gay characters abound on TV, so many gay celebrities are out, Mormons openly and secretly are supporting gay rights; church leaders have become more sympathetic and less ignorant (they still have a ways to go, but hey...); reparative therapy is less in style, etc.  The me 25 years ago never would have thought I'd be where I am now.  There is progress.

I totally agree that this push for religious protection can possibly open a can of worms that allow people to continue to discriminate against gays.  I mean, where do you draw the line?

But this is how I feel: I think the photographer that won't photograph a gay wedding or the baker that won't make a cake for a gay couple or the landlord that doesn't want a gay couple living in their basement are being prejudiced and sometimes unreasonable.  I mean, are you supporting gay marriage just because you take a photo of a gay wedding or make a cake for a gay couple?  What about the photos you're taking or the cakes your baking or the apartments you're renting to people who are doing all sorts of unseemly things you don't even know about?  You can still believe what you believe.  No one is taking your right to believe homosexuality is a sin.

But here's the thing.  Those people live in a free country where they can believe whatever they want to believe and if they want to deny a service that they feel compromises their religious beliefs, I suppose that is their right.

But here's the other side (for me, at least).  Why does the gay couple even want that person to take their photos or bake their cake or to live in a place where they are not meant to feel welcome?  I say, move on.  Give your money to someone who values and respects you.  When Jonah and I were looking for somewhere to have our commitment ceremony, we encountered a couple of places whose owners felt uncomfortable agreeing to let us have our ceremony there.  I suppose I could have been offended or tried to fight it or sue them; instead I just moved on.  If they want to discriminate against me because of their religious beliefs, it's their loss, not mine.  I'll spend my money elsewhere and have my ceremony somewhere where I know it will be valued and honored.  And that's what we did.

Just as I think it sucks that gay people are denied the right to live where they want to live or where they want to work or denied services of some kind because some bonehead can't look past a supposed "sin" and just be charitable enough to treat the gay people with love, I also think it sucks that someone who feels uncomfortable marrying a gay couple or taking photos of their wedding or supplying them with a cake should be made to do so.  I think it's equally sucky that a person loses their own livelihood simply because they speak out against gay rights or sign a petition or donate money to a gay rights cause.  Do I agree with them?  No.  But if they want to believe my "lifestyle" is sinful or wrong, I suppose that's their prerogative.  I don't think they should be fired or forced to resign because of it (and I know of instances where that has happened).

But again, where do you draw the line?  Will I be denied health services because some doctor doesn't approve of my sexuality or will some fireman refuse to put out the fire in my house because a gay couple lives there?  If the Church is in favor of anti-discrimination laws that protect gay people from housing or job discrimination but won't hire them to work at the Church Office Building or if individual members refuse to rent out an apartment to a gay couple, then doesn't the line become "murky?"  On the other hand, why does a gay person want to work or live where he doesn't feel loved or supported?  Why does the gay person want someone to marry him and his partner if that person doesn't respect or honor that marriage?

I don't know all the answers.  We have two sides that believe very strongly what they believe and who both believe they're in the right.  Somehow we have to find a compromise.  I just don't believe an "all-or-nothing" approach.

I know there will be those who disagree with me, but this is how I feel.  Anyway, that's my two cents on this situation.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A Most Magical Trip (Expectations vs. Reality)

I work for a rather large corporation specializing in entertainment and guest service.  When I was first hired for my job, I had to go through a lot of training.  One of the things I most remember about my training was the idea of meeting (and exceeding) guest expectations.  We were given an exercise in which we were to close our eyes and imagine our dream vacation.  The instructor took us through different scenarios such as how we would get there, where we would stay, where we chose to eat, what activities we did, etc.  In each of our imaginations our trip went a certain way, according to our desires.  But once we finished, the instructor gave us new scenarios as to the reality we might face such as a delayed flight, a sub-par hotel room, traffic, bad food, entertainment that didn't fulfill our desires, etc.  This was to show that a guest's expectations might not to be met by the reality they face and our job is to help resolve problems or do our best to meet a guest's expectations.

For example, a guest might see an empty beach or swimming pool in a brochure, but discover it to be crowded when he actually gets there.  He might order a specific kind of hotel room, but get something else.  He might be late to a show or discover that the show was not what he thought it was.  One of my jobs is to help meet a guest's expectations as best I can.

This experience was reinforced for me when Jonah and I took our latest trip to Disneyland and Universal Studios.  We had been planning this trip for a long time and had worked hard to save up for it because we knew it would be more expensive than our average getaway.  Jonah has always wanted to stay at the Grand Californian on the Disney property and I have always wanted to take the VIP tour at Universal Studios.  Both are somewhat costly, so we saved and saved and saved, plus I reserved some of the money my mom and dad left me.

In my mind, we would take a nice leisurely trip to L.A., check in to our room, which was supposed to overlook the California Adventure Park, and the weather would be its normal sunny self.  Alas, none of this occurred initially.

Jonah said we should leave very early on Sunday because of post-Thanksgiving traffic.  However, we both get home from work fairly late, and I require a certain number of hours of sleep to be able to effectively drive.  So we left later than we ought to have.  I don't know if you've ever driven to L.A. the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  It's one of the worst possible days to drive.  It took us 2 hours and 45 minutes to get from our house to a nearby town (a drive that normally takes about 45 minutes) and about 8 and a half hours to get from our house to our hotel in Anaheim (a drive that normally takes about 4 and a half hours).  It was a long, long road trip with an exceedingly high amount of traffic.  Many times it was bumper to bumper and it would take a couple of hours just to go a few miles.

When we got near L.A. it was pouring rain and dark.  I actually was glad that traffic was slow at times because it felt safer to drive.  The rain was relentless.

We had planned on attending a Michael W. Smith concert in Anaheim, but due to our lateness and a snafu at our hotel, we missed it.  The hotel snafu was that our room was not at all what we had expected.  We had paid for a premium view overlooking the park and instead we got a corner room that provided an obscured view of the hotel pools.  We were very disappointed, especially since we had put down so much money and this was probably our first and only time to attend the Grand Californian.  Fortunately, the folks as Disney do their very best to make your trip as positive as possible, so they were able to switch rooms.  We got a view of the park, though not as cool a view as we had hoped, but still a nice view nonetheless.  We were even able to hear and see parts of the World of Color presentation done at the park each night.

 Our view from the hotel

We had to pay for valet parking, which I wish were included in the hotel price.  Jonah was a bit upset, more so than I was, with the end result.  Even though we had originally ordered a room with a king-size bed, we ended up with 2 queens.  The room itself was nothing special, other than the fact that it was on Disney's property and is close to the parks.  I guess that's what you're paying for.  But, overall, it doesn't seem worth what we paid.  It was fine, but there are much cheaper hotels nearby and it's not that far of a walk.  It's what we usually do, and it meets our needs.

Still, we wanted to stay at least once at the Grand Californian, and now we can say we have.  After finally working out the room situation (and to their credit, the staff at the hotel was very accommodating) Jonah and I went to Downtown Disney and browsed the various stores and then had dinner at a Mexican restaurant (whose enchiladas were just a wee bit too spicy for my taste).

So our first day wasn't very magical.  Nevertheless, I tried very hard to have a positive, upbeat attitude.  I wasn't going to let traffic, rain, hotel snafus, or spicy food ruin my trip.

After dinner we looked around a little more and then went to the hotel lobby and took pictures of the headshot of one of Jonah's friends as a joke and then went to bed.

The next day was much better.  We were our psychedelic cat t-shirts that my sister and niece had given us (and which I got quite a few compliments on).

 Happily, although it was overcast, it didn't rain once the whole day.  We had purchased a park-hopper pass for each of us, and being guests of the hotel enabled us to enter California Adventure through the hotel entrance an hour before the park opened to the general public, so that was a nice perk.  The line getting into the park was long, however, and filled with a lot of loud (and sometimes crying) children, so even that perk didn't always seem worth the price we paid.

We did end up getting into the park about 50 minutes before it opened and once we were in it was very pleasant and uncrowded for the most part.  We first got a fastpass for the World of Color show.  We were going to go to the Cars ride, but it seemed like everyone had the same idea, and that line was way too long.  Last time we were in California Adventure, we waited in line for ninety minutes for that ride, and while it was fun, it wasn't worth 90 minutes.  We decided to try to come back later in the day.

We went to Soarin' Over California, which I like a lot.  We didn't have to wait in line at all and got on immediately.  Two very nice gentlemen suggested we use the singe rider line to ride Cars.  They said "if you don't mind riding alone, it's only about a ten minute wait."  We later took them up on their suggestion, and it was very good advice.  I will likely never ride the Cars ride any other way again.

After Soarin' Over California we rode the Tower of Terror, a ride which we didn't have to wait long at all to ride.  I was surprised Jonah was willing to go on it as he doesn't like falling from heights, but he did it and seemed to enjoy it.

We really wanted to go to Disneyland and make sure we got on the rides we really wanted to ride, so we went over there after California Adventure officially opened.  Of course, we had to stand in line again, but once we got in, things went well.  We rode Pirates of the Caribbean first, then went on the Haunted Mansion (a favorite of Jonah's, especially at Christmastime).  I'm always amazed at how different the Haunted Mansion seems with its Nightmare Before Christmas theme.  Near the Rivers of America we saw cast members dressed up as Jack Skellington and Sally, which I hadn't seen before.  We headed over to Tomorrowland and got a fastpass for Space Mountain and then rode Star Tours, one of my favorites (Jonah also pointed out that one of the robots sounded like Allison Janney, which it was, and I hadn't known that before).  We still had time before our fastpass kicked in, so we rode Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters (another of Jonah's favorites).

Then we rode a favorite of both of ours, Space Mountain (probably my favorite ride in the park).  I love it.  All throughout our day, we took pictures with the headshot of Jonah's friend.  We also did some window shopping at various stores.  After either Space Mountain or Star Tours, two cast members were dressed as Hiro and Baymax from Big Hero 6.  The guy who has to dress up in the Baymax outfit must be hating life.  It looks like the most awkward outfit to move around in.

We decided to get some lunch.  We thought about the Blue Bayou, a place we've both wanted to eat at or the Plaza Inn but ended up at the River Belle Terrace, which is the scene of what I call the "Disneyland miracle."  A few years ago Jonah and I were vacationing in Disneyland and the River Belle Terrace was closed, but evidently they were trying out a new menu or something because we asked the person out front if they were open and were invited to come inside and eat anything we wanted for free.  So we did.  I notice some of those menu items we tried are not available now because we both distinctly remembered a chocolate cake that we both enjoyed that was not on the current menu.  Still, we had a nice lunch.  We both had a turkey dinner, which felt right for the holidays.

Jonah's friend was performing in a Newsies street show (we thought) at California Adventure, so we headed back over there to watch it, but it turned out he was in a different show, which was the Disney Junior show, something he felt we wouldn't want to see.  So we met him backstage and talked for a bit (and took a picture of him with the headshot) and said goodbye.

We used the single rider line to get on the Cars Radiator Springs ride and, sure enough, got on within about ten minutes while the general crowd waited about 45.  It was fun, and Jonah and I even ended up in the same car (just not together).  We also rode Mickey's Ferris Wheel, which I got sick on last time we rode it because we got in the swinging gondola instead of the stationary one.  This time we rode the stationary one, and it was a much more pleasant experience.

 View of California Adventure from the Ferris Wheel.  You can see the Radiator Springs ride at the right and the Tower of Terror in the middle left area.
 Here is a view of our hotel room at the Grand Californian from the Ferris Wheel.

  The California Screamin' ride at Disney's California Adventure from the Ferris Wheel

After the Ferris Wheel, Jonah wanted to charge his phone, so he went back to the hotel and I rode the roller coaster.  I did the single rider line for that one, too, but I think I would have gotten on just as fast using the regular line.  Besides, the single rider line was a little confusing and more complex than it probably needs to be.

I wanted some ice cream and was going to head back to Disneyland, but Jonah wanted me to come back to the hotel and pick him up so we could go together.  We ended up spending about an hour in the hotel, which kind of irked me because I really would rather have been spending some time in the park.  Sometimes Jonah is a little obsessed with his phone.  I suppose I can be the same way at times.

We went back to Disneyland and rode Space Mountain again.  We had to wait longer this time (no fastpass).  We also saw some of the Christmas Fantasy Parade and got our ice cream.  And we saw the lighting of Sleeping Beauty's Castle for Christmas.  I got really sentimental and weepy during that.  It made me miss my parents.  As part of the lighting it "snowed" on Main Street and I always enjoy that.

As we left Disneyland, Jonah was invited to take part in a survey, which is ironic since of the two of us, I am the one who really enjoys doing surveys, but they picked him, so I waited until he was done.  We went back over to California Adventure and found our spots for the World of Color show.  We had a good view and the show felt so magical.  Disney does such a good job of making things feel like magic.  A lot of the show was Frozen-themed, which I liked.  There were also huge "snowflakes" made of soap bubbles, I think.  They were cool.  There was also a medley in the show sung by Celine Dion (I think) which consisted of "Believe," "Thankful," and "I See the Light" which made me teary as well.

Children sleeping, snow is softly falling
Dreams are calling like bells in the distance
We were dreamers not so long ago
But one by one we all had to grow up

When it seems the magic slipped away
We find it all again on Christmas Day

Believe in what your heart is sayin'
Hear the melody that's playin'
There's no time to waste
There's so much to celebrate

Believe in what you feel inside
And give your dreams the wings to fly
You have everything you need
If you just believe

Even with our differences
There is a place we're all connected
Each of us can find each other's light
And at last I see the light
And it's like the fog has lifted
And at last I see the light
And it's like the sky is new
And it's warm and real and bright
And the world has somehow shifted
All at once everything is different
Now that I see you

Now that I see you 

 Not recorded by me, but this is the segment I'm referring to.

I wish we could have ridden the Grizzly River Run or Splash Mountain, but it was too cold to get wet.  Splash Mountain was closed anyway, we later found out.

After the show, which was truly lovely, we left the park via the hotel exit and decided to get dinner at the Storybook Cafe.  It was expensive, but all-you-can-eat, and it was very good food.  We had been splurging on this trip anyway, so why not?

After that we went to Downtown Disney and saw the movie, Big Hero 6.  It was okay, not as great as I was hoping.  It wasn't bad; it just didn't fully meet my expectations.

Our original plan had been to go to the parks both days, but we pretty much did what we wanted to do, so we decided to go to L.A. and use our extra day to do something we'd never done before, a tour of Paramount Studios.  It literally rained all day.  It never let up once.  I was actually kind of glad we didn't go to the parks.

Driving in the rain was not fun, but we did manage to get to our destination okay without too many traffic issues.  We had bought two tour tickets for the 1:00 pm tour.  We got something to eat at McDonald's and then parked at the lot across from Paramount and battled the rain to get in the security office.  Due to some computer glitch, we were actually booked for a tour that wasn't supposed to be held.  They tried to get us to rearrange but we explained we were already at the studios and this was our only day to take the tour.  A very kind tour guide named Allison volunteered to do the tour and it ended up being just me, her, and Jonah in the pouring rain.  It was like getting a VIP tour.  She showed us the original Paramount gate seen in the movie Sunset Boulevard,

which is one of my favorite movies, so that was really cool.  We also saw Lucy Park, built at the behest of Lucille Ball as a place where she could take publicity photos of her and her children in what looked like her backyard so that critics would stop accusing her of being a bad mother.  
This park was also used in several "Brady Bunch" episodes.

Apparently "Glee" was filming while we were there.  So was "Real Husbands of Hollywood, " and we saw Kevin Hart shooting something, so that was kind of fun.  We also saw some of the exterior sets from a show called "Marry Me" and actually walked on the set of "The Doctors," a show I've never actually seen.

It was a pretty small studio space.  Actually, the only show that was currently shooting on the Paramount lot that I watch is "American Horror Story," and this season is being shot in New Orleans (although we did see Ryan Murphy through a window having a meeting with someone).

On the backlot it was kind of fun to see the apartment facade where the famous "Marble Rye" episode from Seinfeld takes place.

We also saw another facade that was used in Friends.


Paramount rents its backlot to other studios to use and that fee doesn't include any set dressing.

One thing I found fascinating was an area of the studio that is used for parking, but is sometimes rented to productions and filled up with water to be used for ocean or water scenes.  It's a more controlled environment to work in.  The parking lot is slanted on all four sides, so it's essentially a four foot tank.  There is also a cyclorama depicting a blue sky with clouds that is used for background.  It was used in Orange County, Star Trek IV, and Patriot Games, among other movies.

I asked Allison where people park when the tank is being used.  She said there is a lot of parking on the lot, but that the executives who do get displaced are not terribly happy about it.

We saw the Paramount Theatre, where they screen or preview movies and also sometimes shoot scenes from movies.  We also saw a display of props from well-known movies.  They wouldn't let us take any photos, so I have no pictures to share from our Paramount tour.

The tour was so much fun.  We were drenched and cold by the end, but I didn't care.  I think Jonah did.  I always remember a trip my family took when I was young to Universal Studios where it poured buckets of rain.  My family didn't care.  We spent the whole day being tourist-y and I think Mom improvised some ponchos out of garbage bags.  The bus that had brought us was filled with annoyed tourists who had all wimped out and were waiting for us, the last group, to return.  We didn't feel bad, though.  We were using our whole day, come rain or shine, to do what we had come to do.  A little rain wasn't going to stop our fun.  I felt the same way at Paramount, but I think Jonah was a bit miserable.  He was a good sport, though.  We both got a hot drink at the gift store, looked around a bit, and then drove to our next hotel, the Sportsmen's Lodge.

The hotel is nothing special, but it was very close to our destination the next day, Universal Studios.  I stayed at the Sportsmen's Lodge in 2007 when my fellow grad students and I were in town for our graduation showcase.  The hotel had a bit more charm to me then.  It's undergone some renovations since and looks more modern, but is almost unrecognizable from where I stayed in 2007.

Although the room was simple (and cold, unfortunately (not good when you're soaking wet)), I was happy the water pressure was a lot stronger in the shower than the Grand Californian had been.  I dried my jacket with a hair dryer and Jonah changed clothes.  We then went out again to Ikea and bought ponchos and umbrellas in case we had a similar day the next day.  Jonah also bought some lights and power strips for our house.  

We went to the nearby mall and did some shopping.  I bought a gift for my younger sister because it was a good deal and I think it is something she will like.  

We had a really neat experience while at the mall. I share this experience not to aggrandize myself in any way, but because it reminded me what this season ought to be about. I hope it will be taken in that spirit because I think it's important to be reminded.

At the mall in Burbank, Jonah and I encountered this lady working at a Hickory Farms kiosk. She was really nice and complimented Jonah on the Nightmare Before Christmas scarf he was wearing and in talking to her we discovered she was quite a Nightmare Before Christmas fan and loved all things Jack Skellington. 

She asked Jonah where he had gotten the scarf, and Jonah told her he had gotten it at Hot Topic in Las Vegas, but that there was one just like it at the Hot Topic in the mall where we were. She asked how much it was, and Jonah said he wasn't sure. The lady (who we learned was named Nettie) clearly admired the scarf and mentioned that maybe when she got her next paycheck she could get the scarf.

As we talked with her, we told her about our trip and we discovered she collected Nightmare Before Christmas stuff. We also learned she was divorced and that this seasonal job was her only job. She was so nice and yet, both Jonah and I sensed there was much pain and hardship behind her smile and kind demeanor.

She asked if we wanted some samples and let us taste some turkey, garlic spread, and chocolate mints. We shook hands with her, told each other how nice it was to meet one another, and wished her "Happy Holidays."

As Jonah and I walked away, we both (without realizing the other was feeling the same thing) felt impressed to go to Hot Topic and buy the scarf for Nettie. We bought it and brought it back to the kiosk, handed it to Nettie, and said "Merry Christmas." She looked shocked and said, "Are you sure? I don't even know you." We affirmed that we wanted to do something kind and that's what Christmas (heck, what life) should be about. She said, "You're going to make me cry," and gave each of us a deep, heartfelt hug.

We told her we just hoped she would pay it forward, and she said she would and gave us each another hug. We said goodbye. She looked so happy, and it truly made us feel good to see her happiness.
People need hope and kindness. We both sensed this woman was going through some hard times and probably wouldn't have ended up buying the scarf for herself. It was such an easy thing for us to do, requiring little effort. My only wish is that it brought her some joy and that she will pass that joy on to others who will do the same. That's what this season and our existence ought to be about, isn't it? Do something nice and unexpected for somebody else. It will bring joy to both you and them. Everybody's a winner.

After window shopping some more, Jonah and I ate at Panda Express in the food court and then went back to our hotel and watched a bit of TV and then slept.

The next day was my favorite part of the trip.  When I was a little boy my parents took my siblings and me to Universal Studios. As a child who loved movies and acting, Universal Studios and Movieland Wax Museum in Anaheim had a huge impact on me (more so than Disneyland, which we also visited and which I loved as well).

 Yep, that's me at Universal about 1977.

My favorite part of Universal Studios was the studio tour on the tram. We went many more times and that was always what I looked forward to most. As a boy, I had two dreams regarding Universal Studios: 1) that I would be able to get out of the tram and explore and touch the sets on the backlot and 2) that I would one day act on one of those sets.

When I found out about the VIP tour a few years ago and realized I could realize dream number one, I wanted to do it so badly. But the cost just seemed too prohibitive. However, after Mom died and left me some money, and after Jonah and I saved up for this dream Disneyland/Universal trip, we finally felt like we could do it.

The VIP tour helped me experience one of my dreams, and it was just as wonderful as I hoped it would be.We drove to Universal Studios.  It was wet, but not nearly as rainy as it had been the day before.  We got free valet parking as part of our tour and then walked over to the VIP area.  We were given VIP lanyards and told to go upstairs to the VIP Lounge.  There was a small breakfast waiting as well as the other VIPs taking the various tours.

The lounge was filled with memorabilia, photos, costumes, etc. from Universal pictures. 

 The above pictures are from the VIP Lounge restroom.

The Emmy from "The Office was in the Lounge area as well as was a costume from Snow White and the Huntsman.

Artwork from The Phantom of the Opera.

We got breakfast and on the TV screen was playing different scenes from Universal produced movies.

Mmmm, breakfast!

Soon our personal tour guide, Bobby showed up and took time to chat with each of us individually and get to know us.  He also gave us a gift bag with a poncho, sanitizing wipes, sunscreen, mints, and a keychain.  Then we were on our way.

Bobby first wanted to take us on the rides.  As VIPs, we got seating priority on all rides, which is probably more of a perk when the park is really crowded.  As it was, we probably would have gotten on the rides just as fast, VIP or not.  Still, it was nice not to have to wait in line for anything.  

We first rode the Simpsons ride, which I think took the place of the Back to the Future ride.  We had never been on it before, and it was actually quite fun and entertaining.  I also liked how it poked fun at other attractions such as "It's a Small World," "Pirates of the Caribbean," Sea World, and even Universal itself.

 Bobby, our tour guide, is in the middle with the umbrella.  Jonah is at left, closest to the camera.

After the Simpsons ride, we went down to the lower level and rode the Jurassic Park ride.  It was fun, but wet.  I used both my ponchos and managed to stay pretty dry.  The two Swiss guys sitting in front of us weren't so lucky, but they didn't seem to care.

We took a detour to a display area with all sorts of pictures, costumes, and props from various Universal movies and from the park.  I would have liked to have gone back later in the day to look at it again, but I forgot to.  It was pretty interesting, though.

The car from Back to the Future


Cylons from "Battlestar Galactica"  The one in front was pretty popular when I was a lad.

We rode the Transformers ride (Jonah wasn't too impressed with that one, but I thought it was fine), the Mummy ride (that one makes me nauseous because it goes backwards), and the Despicable Me ride, which was entertaining.  Aside from The Mummy ride, we had never been on any of the current rides in the park, so that was fun.
Bobby then released us to watch the animal show and the special effects show or to shop.  Jonah and I used the time to purchase an annual pass to Universal Studios.  It was only $20 (as part of our VIP package), so even if we only use it once this year, it will have paid for itself.  We're in L.A. enough that we thought it was worth getting.  We skipped the animal show.  I enjoy it, but I've seen it numerous times, but we did watch the special effects show, which was both funny and interesting.

I was happy to see that the World of Harry Potter will be coming to Universal Hollywood in 2016.  I'd love to go to that.

Then we had lunch.  It was a gourmet lunch, buffet style, and it was to die for.  Just the lunch was worth the VIP experience.

They had lobster risotto, smoked salmon, deviled eggs, asparagus, sushi, shrimp, really tender roast beef, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, ravioli, glazed carrots, salads, and so much more.

They also had some great desserts, among them, tiramisu and rasperry chocolate ganache.  So good.

 And the staff (everyone in the park we encountered) was so nice. 

After lunch we did my very favorite thing at Universal Studios, the studio tour.  Normally, you take a tram for the studio tour, but as VIPs we got a personalized bus of our own.  Bobby talked about the studios, and we got to walk on the set of a TV show called "State of Affairs."  I'm familiar with the show, but have not seen it, but what was cool was the set was a replica of the White House, so it was kind of cool standing on a set that looked like the Oval Office.  Sadly, no pictures.  That was one of the conditions of being allowed on the set.

We went to the backlot and actually got to get out and take pictures and touch the facades, something I always dreamed of doing as a boy.  I was surprised to discover (although it made sense) that everything that looks like stone or concrete or wood is actually made of fiberglass.   We got to get out on Brownstone Street and New York Street in the backlot and touch walls and stand on staircases.

Bobby told us all about different movies and TV shows that had been filmed in various areas of the lot.  It was beyond neat to walk around the backlot.  Such a dream come true for me.

 This alley is often used on "CSI" as a place where a dead body might be found.

 They had either just filmed or were preparing to film scenes for "The Mindy Project."

Some of the backlot has changed due to the fire that burned down some of the facades.  They've rebuilt and updated, though, so maybe that's a good thing.

One of my favorite facades at Universal, the Courthouse, popularized in the movie, Back to the Future and also seen in one of my favorite episodes of "The Twilight Zone," the first episode: "Where Is Everybody?"

I was actually able to stand inside one of the facades I had always looked at from afar, so that was cool.

We also got to visit the costume and props department.  I think the costume department was Jonah's favorite part as he is really into that.  No pictures were allowed there, however.

Both departments were huge.  I guess a lot of people rent props from Universal's props department, which is the largest in Hollywood.

 Outside the costume/props building.  This mountainside was used in the opening credits of the TV show "M*A*S*H."

 This is a rhinoceros horn.  Universal no longer loans this out and is looking to get rid of it.

 from "Dexter"

 "Leave It to Beaver"

 Not used in the actual movie, but was used as a stand in during shooting of it.

 Also used as a stand-in during the filming of Jurassic Park


I guess the King Kong studio attraction was damaged during the fire as well so it's been replaced by an updated 3-D version which is probably better.  Less cheesy looking.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the tour was after we had driven through Wisteria Lane (used in "Desperate Housewives") and went to the original Bates Motel/Bates Mansion sets from Psycho.  I actually got to stand on the front porch of the Bates house.  How cool to be that close to a piece of movie history.  I wish I could have lingered longer.

Yep, that's me.
This is what the Psycho house looked like when I was younger.

It was so secluded, which added to its creepiness.  Now it's surrounded by stuff.  It's amazing how much the park has changed since I was young.

We walked through the War of the Worlds set.

Pretty soon our tour came to an end.  We chatted with Bobby a bit and then went to ride the Simpsons ride again and do some window shopping.  And soon it was time to leave the park. Dreams do come true. Now on to dream number two (actually acting on that backlot).

Jonah and I went to Universal City Walk and looked around.  We also got some ice cream and something to eat and then we went to see Jonah's friend.  She wasn't home, so we missed her.

The next day we left way early because we both had to work that night and wanted to beat the traffic.  And we did.  It was a pretty smooth ride home (much smoother than the ride to L.A.).  It was such a great trip and probably the last one for a while.  It didn't start out great, but it ended up being so fun.