Sunday, December 29, 2013

Perl blog post #23 + Hoilday Redux

In my ongoing series on my Other Blog, this week I’m talking about the relationship between coding and fiction writing.  It’s probably the least technical of the series, so don’t be afraid to hop on over and check it out, even if tech stuff isn’t your cup o’ tea.

In other news, I can now report from firsthand experience that having the entire family sick for Christmas really sucks donkey balls.  We were actually at urgent care on Boxing Day.  (Nothing serious, as it turns out, but we did get some antibiotics, so that’s nice.)  Still recovering, as various family members go into mini-relapses, sleep for 11 hours and feel better for a while, etc.  Hopefully we’re all better by New Year’s.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Perl blog post #22 + Happy Holidays (again)

Primarily this week I will refer to you my ongoing series on why I program in Perl, over in my Other Blog.

However, it’s also Christmas-time again—my fourth since starting this blog—so I will also take a brief moment to wish you happy holidays and merry christmahannukwanzaakah.*  You may recall my “happy holidays” rant from two years ago (and, if you don’t, I highly recommend you check it out, for the awesome Christmas mix I provide if for no other reason).  I mentioned then (as I did the year before as well) Fox News’ “War on Christmas” meme that they trot out every year in the hopes it will get some traction.  This year it’s gotten very silly indeed.  Gretchen Carlson bitches about a Festivus pole.  Megyn Kelly informs us that Santa just is white, children.**

But my favorite clip was Bill O’Reilly pointing out that, since Hannukah came in November this year, saying “happy holidays” didn’t make any sense because Christmas was now the only holiday left.  I suppose if you celebrate Kwanzaa, Yule, or Pancha Ganapati, Bill considers you beneath notice.  Somehow I can’t help but feel that’s contrary to what is generally considered to be the Christmas spirit.

This year we introduced our kids to A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time.  Aside from having awesome music (interesting side note: I heard “Linus and Lucy” on a radio station playing Christmas music the other day—is that really a Christmas song?), it has a really sweet message.  Here’s a show which has been airing since before I was born,*** and they were already railing against the commercialization of Christmas.  How would they react to the situation today?  There were several places around where I live that actually trotted out the Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving this year.  But the special makes some cutting remarks about commercialism (we had to explain to our kids that aluminum Christmas trees were a real thing), folds in the religious message with a moving monologue by Linus, and ends with a touching scene of unity, as all the kids who have been verbally abusing Charlie Brown the entire episode now gather together and sing around his little-engine-that-could Christmas tree.  Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, he may be the Charlie Browniest, but he still deserves love and respect and fellowship, especially at this time of the year.  Perhaps Mr. O’Reilly has forgotten that.  Or perhaps he never learned it.

In any event, I wish you all the very best holiday you could possibly have, no matter what it may be, no mater whether it’s come and gone or is yet to come.  And, if you celebrate Christmas as I do, I hope you really enjoy the Mystery Days this year.


* ™ Jon Sime

** If you click on that Daily Show link, be sure and watch the second video that pops up as well, for maximum cognitive dissonance.

*** Okay, not very long before I was born, but a bit.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Perl blog post #21

Continuing my series on why I use Perl (as opposed to some other language), today on my Other Blog I talk about object-oriented programming and what’s nifty about it, with some shout-outs to some of my previous blog posts here along the way.  Wander over and check it out if any of that sounds intriguing.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Perl blog post #20

Today I’ve done another technical blog, although it’s not very technical.  It’s the story of why I’m a Perl programmer (as opposed to a C programmer, or a Java programmer, or any other sort of programmer), and it’s part 1 of a long series I’ve been wanted to do for a while now.  If you’re interested in those sorts of personal history details (or comparative language studies for computer code), hop on over and check it out.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

You are Who You Choose to Be

I started out this post by looking for a good quote to expand on, but what I found was that many of the quotes I’ve collected through the years seem to be interrelated.  This makes sense, if you think about it, since I am of course attracted to quotes which reflect my own outlook on life; thus, many of the quotes touch on various aspects of that.  In fact, insofar as we do trust quotes to illuminate Truth for us (and I’ve also talked about why we shouldn’t), we must be cautious in trusting overmuch the quotes of any one individual, for there’s a certain amount of editorial censorship going on.

But when several quotes from disparate sources start to form a pattern, supporting each other and giving credence to the idea that a deeper Truth is here embedded, you may want to take notice.

Let’s start simply.  Here’s my favorite line from Men in Blackthis is from the scene where K first explains to the soon-to-be J about aliens, and J wants to know why all the secrecy:

J: People are smart.  They can handle it.
K: A person is smart.  People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.

Here K (played by Tommy Lee Jones) makes a crucial distinction between a person as an individual, and people as herd animals, prone to mob mentality.  J (played by Will Smith) is a New York City cop: he does know it, and has no answer to this.

I like this quote because it’s a bit of a meditation on individuality.  As primates, we’re not exactly herd animals, and we’re not exactly pack animals, but we’re definitely not loners.  If you have cats (or have ever interacted with them in more than superficial ways), you know that cats are, by nature, solitary.  They tolerate other cats, sometimes, like they tolerate you ... sometimes.  I am one of those rare people who is perfectly balanced between loving dogs and cats, so I’ve had my share of both, and had the opportunity to observe them in domestic situations.  Every cat is different, as every dog is different, as every human is different, but there are fundamental natures of each.  My favorite Just So Story is “The Cat That Walked by Himself”, and whenever I interact with cats I hear my grandfather intoning that excellent Kipling line: “I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.  I will not come.”

But humans are not like this.  Humans have an instinctive need to belong, to cluster together against the dangers of the big, bad world.  Sometimes this goes too far, and we develop an us-against-them mindset that becomes toxic.  But, in measured doses, this instinct of ours can produce loyalty, self-sacrifice, and a fierce protectiveness of our friends and family—of our tribe.  So this is something that’s neither good nor bad.  It just is.

Of course, there are exceptions.  One of the great things of being a firm believer in balance and paradox is that I can tell you in all seriousness that people are all the same and that all of us are different.  Depeche Mode tells us that people are people, and they’re not wrong.  And Ray Stevens tells us that everyone is beautiful in their own way, and he’s not wrong either.  Indeed, it is the very paradoxical nature of humans that makes them simultaneously capable of such togetherness and such individuality.

Or I could say that it makes them simultaneously capable of conformity and disruptiveness.

There’s no doubt that some value conventionality and orthodoxy, while others value individualism and originality.  Actually, it’s probabaly more accurate to say that most of us value both, just in differing proportions.  I of course favor a position somewhere between the two, and also I value both at once.  But I doubt anyone who’s met me would fail to agree that I come down more on the side of individuality.  If I were a role-playing geek (which, you know, I am), I would tell you that my alignment is Chaotic Good (with leanings towards Chaotic Neutral).

If you find it too difficult to draw deep philosophical meaning from a science fiction movie which was (let’s face it) a bit silly (even though it was lots of fun), how about we look to something Steve Jobs said (this is from a Wired article in 1996):

I’m an optimist in the sense that I believe humans are noble and honorable, and some of them are really smart.  I have a very optimistic view of individuals.  As individuals, people are inherently good.  I have a somewhat more pessimistic view of people in groups.

Notice that while this is slightly more learned-sounding, it’s exactly the same sentiment.  Now, I’m cheating a bit here, because I’m reusing both these quotes: I used them in my explanation of Cynical Romanticism.  But there I was concentrating on the downside of people.  Here I want to take the opposite approach: the upside of person.

E. E. Cummings once said (in his Advice to Students, 1958):

To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

and I think this sums up my attitude towards conformity in as concise and complete a manner as possible.  Being different is hard ... this is why we end up with cultures like goths or punks, with gangs of people trying so hard to look different that they all end up looking alike.  Being different requires figuring out what “different” means: for you, in your family, in your town, in your society.  “Different” is different for everybody.

In fact, probably the biggest obstacle to people being themselves is not knowing who “themselves” is.  Before you can shine as a unique individual, you’re going to have to figure out who you actually are.  “Know thyself” advises the inscription at Delphi, but it’s a terribly difficult task.  We humans have a tendency to think we understand our own minds, but it turns out we’re pretty terrible at it, in general.  We lie to ourselves, we exaggerate our strengths and downplay our weaknesses, we avoid the darker corners of our psyches because we’re afraid to find out what’s in them.  But if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you can come to understand yourself reasonably well, and then you can start truly becoming who you were all along.

And then it gets really hard.

Because, no matter how much we claim to celebrate individuality, we do a damn fine job of ostracizing anyone who doesn’t fit our definition of “normal.”  And “normal” is boring.  In fact, it’s a bit scary.  Jodie Foster once said:

Normal is not something to aspire to, it’s something to get away from.

But of course the farther you get away from it, the more dirty looks and eye rolls and disapproving sniffs you get.  This is why Cummings describes it as a battle.  And all he did was throw the rules of grammar out the window and decapitalize his name every now and again.

So I’ve fought the good fight for much of my life.  I’ve stood out even when it meant sticking out, and I’ve gone my own way when going along would have been much easier (and safer).  Mostly I haven’t done this out of any particular moral imperative, or pride, or anything of that sort.  Mostly I was just too stubborn to conform when I probably should have.  But I’m not unhappy with how it’s all turned out.  I don’t have too many regrets, at least not on that score.

Being yourself is a worthwhile endeavor.  You will stand out in people’s minds, and make an impact on them even when you can’t remember ever having met them.  You will occasionally annoy, and occasionally frustrate, but you will also occasionally delight, and occasionally inspire.  That makes it all worthwhile, in the end.  At least it has to me.

Another quote I’ve always found thought-provoking, even though it’s somewhat trite, is often attributed to Confucius (which, like most things attributed to Confucius, is beyond unlikely and into ludicrous), and sometimes attributed to someone named Patrick Bryson (whoever that is).  But I’ve often thought its pithy simplicity held the promise of something more.

Always be yourself.  Otherwise, who are you?

Good advice indeed.  Along with the advice in the title of today’s post, which comes from The Iron Giant, which is an excellent film about being yourself.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you should seek it out.  Some things are worth the effort.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Everything Old is New Again

I was looking for a poem today.

It was the first poem that I ever wrote, or at least the first I can now remember having written.  It was nearly fully-formed in my head when I woke up one morning, and I remember the experience very clearly.  It was after I dropped out of college and after I moved out of my parents’ house, in that first non-familial dwelling where I lived with countless roommates whose faces were constantly changing.  The quality of light in my bedroom was strained: the sun had no doubt lightened the sky as best it could before actually emerging above the horizon, but there were also curtains to mute the brightness even further.  Everything in my room seemed to have a grainy quality, like a badly filmed movie.  I got up and grabbed one of my college notebooks, which I had not thrown away because there were still blank pages in them, and I wrote it all down.  I believe I had to make up part of it, so the last few verses aren’t nearly as good as the intial ones, which were a gift from my subconscious.  I can still recite the first two stanzas nearly perfectly, after all these years ...

But now I can’t find it.  I know I still have a copy; probably more than one.  I transcribed it several times, in different media.  (No doubt it exists on a few dead hard drives as well.)  At the very least, I should have the copy that I submitted for my poetry class, during my second tour of college, since I saved nearly everything I ever wrote for any of my writing classes: two semesters of fiction, two of non-fiction, one of poetry, and one of advanced writing.  My poetry professor said it reminded him of Poe’s poetry.  I said, thank you.  He said, that wasn’t a compliment.

I never cared much for poetry.  It’s dense, and difficult to parse.  Fiction has a flow to it; once you get properly cranking, you can just write it forever.  Or at least I can.  Poetry is more about agonizing over every word.  It’s spare, and exacting, and needs to communicate one thing while saying another.  If you’ve ever wondered if poetry is as difficult to write as it is to read, the answer is yes.

Oscar Wilde once said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.”  My poetry professor certainly believed that.  His attitude was, if you want to pour all your personal feelings out on paper and call it poetry, that’s fine.  But, as soon as you bring it into my classroom, you give me permission to tell you it’s crap.  He made at least one person in the class cry, that I recall.  I made sure that any emotions I tried to capture in my poetry weren’t my own.  Much safer that way.

While I couldn’t find my first poem, I did find the first poem I submitted for that class.  Rereading it, I suppose it isn’t terrible, though it certainly isn’t great either.  It was based on someone I’d met my first year back in school, and it was an attempt to capture a more complex emotion than just the simple one-word things we typically use in our everyday speech.  I don’t know how successful it was at that, but at least it recaptures that emotion for me, as I reread it.  But then I knew what I was trying to say in the first place, so it may not work as well for you.  But judge for yourself:

I am not in love.
I mean, he’s a sweet guy and all, but
it’s just a fling.
A brief encounter.
A few weeks of passion.
It’s just shallow.
You know?

I met him
where I work.
He comes in a lot.
The stale, smoky air,
the cool green felt,
the constant clack of the balls—
it has an undeniable attraction for some.
Like him.
I remember noticing him.
I liked the easy way he moved,
his long, blonde hair tucked under a hat
or a bandana.
His intense concentration,
his confident style:
he was like an artist at work.
He has good hands.

We never really spoke, he and I,
until that night.
I was drunk and he was drunk
and we were together
and he was intelligent
and witty
and charming.

And I was surprised.
I mean, a lot of guys wear their leather
and their long hair
and play their boyish games,
and they think they’re cool.
But they have no substance.
But he ...
he was different.
He is different.

What?  Yes, I know.
He has a girlfriend.
But she’s far away,
and it doesn’t really matter because
it’s just shallow.
You know?
Am I wrong?
Don’t sit there so quietly,
tell me what you think.
You won’t hurt my feelings.
It’s not like I love him.

The other night I was alone.
It was the first night I’ve spent along since
that first night.
But I didn’t miss him or anything.
I sat around, I did some homework,
different stuff.
And I dreamed ...
I dreamed I was a little girl
and I was standing in a field
and the field was full of beautiful flowers
and the sun was shining—
I remember how warm it felt on my skin—
and birds were singing ...
it was really pretty.
And off in the distance,
way far away,
was a tree.
It was the most perfect tree—
it was a maple,
with perfectly shaped green leaves
and strong, straight branches
that started close to the ground and went up
almost like a ladder.
It looked so cool and inviting,
and I wanted to climb it so badly,
so I started running
and I ran and I ran
and the tall grass whipped my legs
and the wind tugged at my hair
and I was going faster and faster
until everything around me was a blur of sound and motion
but that tree never moved.
It never came any closer.
It was exactly as far away
as it was before.
And when I woke up,
very suddenly,
I felt out of breath
and my legs ached.
Isn’t that odd?

He’ll be over again tonight.
I’ll be glad to see him,
even though I wonder
He’s going away for the summer.
He’s going to saty with his girlfriend.
And by the time he gets back,
I’ll be gone.
Didn’t I tell you?
I’m moving.
To Vermont.
It doesn’t really matter anyway—
it’s just shallow.
I hear him on the stairs now,
so you’ll excuse me.
The time we spend together won’t last long,
so it’s very special.
I treasure each moment.
But, in a way,
I’ll be glad when summer comes.
One can only take so much intimacy.
After all,
I am not in love.

From the condition of the copy I found, I suspect this was a first draft, so it might have gotten better; I can’t recall.  But it still has a certain quality that I like, despite the fact that it was written when I was young and foolish, and (to plagiarize They Might Be Giants) I feel old and foolish now.  It could have almost been a prose piece, but I think the linebreaks actually add something to the flow (or non-flow) of it that makes it more interesting than it would be if it were just written in paragraphs.  But of course I’m biased.

I’ll keep on looking for the original poem that I actually wanted to share with you.  Or maybe the rest of it will come back to me.  In the meantime, I revisited my cento from a few months ago and produced a key for the original references.  I was starting to feel bad about not crediting the original authors.  Plus it’ll save you some Googling, if you really wanted to know the sources.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Clock Ticks Life Away

The Mother took a brief (and well-earned) vacation this weekend, and I’ve also had a few lingering work issues to take care of, so there’s no post for you this week.  Too bad so sad for you.  Next week should be a bit lighter.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Horror of Advancing Age

No time for a proper post, but I will leave you with a thought I had this weekend.

In general, I don’t feel old.  My beard is almost completely white, my oldest child is taller than I am (and has a moustache now), and, every time I stand up after sitting for any length of time, I have to crack my ankles before I can take a step.  Yeah, it’s true that I’m generally the oldest person on my tech team (although at my current job I suspect I have at least a fighting chance at “second oldest”).  And, yeah, I’m in many ways crotchety, creaky, grumpy, and falling apart.  But I’ve refused to grow up my whole life and I’m not really about to start now.

Still, every once in a while something sneaks up on me and catches me by surprise.  This weekend we watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which (if you haven’t seen it), is one of those very serious lives-of-high-school students movies, somewhat like The Breakfast Club, which is certainly one of my all-time favorite movies.  (Interesting side note: John Hughes wrote the original screenplay for Perks and was going to direct the film as his comeback, before his death kinda put a damper on that plan.)  This movie stars Hermione Granger and Percy Jackson, which is a pretty awesome combination, at least in the magical powers department.

Possibly because I re-watch Breakfast Club on a pretty regular basis, high school movies still seem relevant to me, no matter how old I get.  This is a pretty good one; I definitely recommend it.  The problems the kids have to deal with don’t seem trivial, but neither are they overblown.  And the acting is quite maginificent—I was especially impressed with Ezra Miller, who I only knew previously from his brief but appropriately disturbing turn in We Need to Talk About Kevin.

So it was by turns funny and touching, and I thorougly enjoyed it, and there were no problems at all ... except.  Except there’s this part where first Hermione, and then later Percy, stand up while riding in the back of a pickup which is going full speed through a tunnel.  You know, when Teen Wolf went “van surfing,” that didn’t bug me at all, but, man, I must be getting old, because the whole time I was watching this pickup thing I was so nervous that one of those damn kids was going to go tumbling out of the back of the truck and get smushed by a semi cruising along behind them or something.  At the very least it was a serious case of road rash waiting to happen.  I kept wanting to shout at the screen “sit down, you stupid kid! you’re going to break your fool neck!”

So ... yeah.  Getting a bit old, I guess.  As Twain says, “It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it.”

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Genethlian Cartography

Today, I spent the time I normally would spend writing a blog post for you building a new Heroscape map.  If it makes you feel any better, it’s a really cool one: Avalanche, by Hero-X, from the now-demised Shadowlock site.  I have no idea whether it’ll be any good to actually play on, but I intend to find out, if the boys are willing.  The sprite helped.

So it’s a me-focussed weekend (mainly becuase my birthday is coming up).  Come back next week and perhaps I’ll have something more entertaining for you to look at.

On the off chance that you are a fellow ‘Scaper, and want to build this map for yourself, you can download the instructions here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Sop of Originality

Quick, which band is the originator of grunge music?

I bet most of you—something on the order of 97 to 99% of you, in fact—replied “Nirvana.”  Which is a lovely answer: their radio anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is what introduced grunge music to the world.  I can remember the first time I heard it: it was Industrial Night at the Roxy, in downtown DC, in 1991.  I won’t go so far as to say it changed my life—I was already very much into alternative music, otherwise why would I have been attending Industrial Night?—but it certainly jolted my system.  I had no idea it was about to take the airwaves (and, shortly thereafter, the nation) by storm, but I knew this was something ... special.  Something profound.  It’s 22 years later now and I’m still listening to new songs from the Foo Fighters coming on the radio: that’s a decent run for any modern band and its descendants.  It doesn’t rival the Beatles or the Stones, but it’s a damn fine run, and it ain’t over yet.

But of course Nirvana didn’t invent grunge music.  The first incarnation of Nirvana came together in 1985 or ‘86.  Soundgarden had already been around for at least a year, as had Green River, who begat Mother Love Bone, who begat Perl Jam.  Green River’s roots, in fact, go back as far as 1980, and the roots of the Melvins go back to 1983, at least, and they together spawned Mudhoney, who is certainly the best Seattle grunge band you’ve never heard of, hands down.

And Seattle is the birthplace of grunge, right?  Here’s what Kurt Cobain said about writing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Rolling Stone:

I was trying to write the ultimate pop song.  I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.  I have to admit it.  When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.  We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.

And the Pixies, you see, were from Boston, whose grunge scene is underrated nearly to the point of being unknown, even though it included great (but little-known) bands like the Pixies, Buffalo Tom, and of course Dinosaur Jr., who formed in 1983 and not only wrote what is arguably the best grunge quatrain ever:

I know I don’t thrill you
Sometimes I think I’ll kill you
Just don’t let me fuck up, will you
‘Cause when I need a friend it’s still you

but also what is surely the greatest remake ever.

But what is the point here?  (Other than to re-educate you on the finer points of grunge music, naturally.)  I think the point is that some Nirvana fans may be offended by my pointing out they didn’t invent grunge, they merely popularized it. As if that somehow takes away from their genius.  Am I saying that Nirvana is just a rip-off of the Pixies?  No, Kurt Cobain said that.  I think I’m saying that originality is overrated.  It’s held up as some sort of sacred cow, and, if a thing isn’t original, it’s therefore inferior.  But Nirvana is not inferior to the Pixies ... I’m not saying they’re better, merely that they’re not any worse.  Coming in second or third or fifth or tenth in the chronological list of grunge bands doesn’t make them any less insanely good than they truly are.  Everyone had done what they did before, but no one ever did it like they did, before or after.  Why do we care if they were first or not?

We can move into the wider world of music.  Can there be a Lady Gaga without Madonna?  No, not really.  Does that make Lady Gaga a “Madonna rip-off”?  Certainly not in the pejoritive way that the phrase is generally used.

We’ll expand to movies.  Can Dark City exist without Metropolis?  No, certainly not.  Hell, I’m not sure Dark City could exist without The City of Lost Children, but that doesn’t make Dark City any less brilliant.  Hell, I’ve heard it argued that The Matrix doesn’t exist without Dark City (although their releases are close enough together that it’s more likely a pair than a rip-off), but that doesn’t take anything away from The Matrix either.

Comic books: I’ve always loved Moon Knight.  Moon Knight is a rich guy who fights at night with a mysterious, scary costume and uses a lot of gadgets ... sound familiar?  Yeah, Moon Knight is pretty much a Batman rip-off.  So what?  How does that make him any less cool?

Literature: I’ve already talked about how I feel about the Wheel of Time series being accused of being a Lord of the Rings rip-off.  I’ve also heard it accused of being a Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) rip-off, which is amusing, since the first book of Wheel of Time was published before George R. R. Martin even started writing the first book of Song of Ice and Fire.  But let’s say you’re willing to flip it around and accuse Martin of ripping off Jordan instead: I still say, so what?  If it were true that Martin deliberately and consciously sat down and said “I’m going to rewrite Wheel of Time, only better” (and I truly don’t believe he did), who cares?  What Martin produced is still awesome.  You could argue whether it’s better than Jordan or not, but, in the end, it’s different, and they’re both very good.  They could have been ripping each other constantly throughout the respective series (which, although it’s true that Jordan started first, were being published simultaneously), and I would only be grateful for the cross-pollination.  It’s not like whoever got there first gets more points or something.

In my discussion about the Wheel of Time question, I made another analogy: Harry Potter being described as a rip-off of James and the Giant Peach.  I chose it for a number of deliberate reasons.  The most obvious being that James and the Giant Peach was published 4 years before J. K. Rowling was even born, so it completely eliminates any question of whose idea came first.  Also because I don’t think it’s a criticism that’s ever actually been made; rather it seems to be the case that any series which is even remotely like Harry Potter is proclaimed to be a rip-off of it: A Series of Unfortuante Events, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Artemis Fowl, the Bartimaeus trilogy, the Septimus Heap series, Children of the Red King, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, The Wednesday Tales, etc etc ad infinitum.  But of course the one that concerns me is the one that I’m currently engaged in writing (assuming I ever get back to it), Johnny Hellebore.

So this question of originality hits home for me, and I must admit I have an ulterior motive.  It only occurred to me after Johnny Hellebore was completely fleshed out as a character that he shares a lot of similarites to Harry Potter, especially physically.  He’s a white, English-speaking, male, teenaged boy, thin, with black hair and eyes that are some shade of green.  The differences, particularly at this level are so slight as to be laughable: American instead of British, a bit older, eyes more blue-green than Harry’s piercing green.  They’re both parentless, although Johnny isn’t an orphan, and one might even go so far as to make a comparison between Larissa and Hermione (although I feel that’s unflattering to Hermione, really).  The farther along you go, of course, the more you have to struggle for the similarites against the profound differences instead of the other way around, but by that point you’ve established your foundation, and your audience is more likely to grant you the benefit of the doubt.  And, while I’m telling you that all of this only occurred to me after the fact, you only have my word for that, no?

For that matter, while I can assure you that I was not consciously trying to “rip off” Harry Potter, how can I make any definitive statements about what my subconscious may or may not have been up to?  I certainly had read the Harry Potter books—several times—as well as listened to the audiobooks and watched all the movies.  And I respect the hell of out J. K. Rowling: she’s a dead brilliant author with an envy-inpsiring talent for both characterization and plotting that I certainly could do worse than to emulate.  So was Harry kicking around in the back of my brain, casting an influence on this idea?  I’m sure he must have been.

Still, Johnny Hellebore is an entirely different story than Harry Potter.  One is aimed at younger readers, though it’s good enough that older readers will appreciate it as well; the other is aimed at older readers, and, though younger readers may certainly appreciate it, it requires a much higher maturity level.  One focuses on a sense of wonder and a fierce joy that only slowly becomes eclipsed by the darker themes of the series; the other is dark from the very first page, and it’s the joy and wonder that serve as the counterpoint.  One is a story of a boy growing into a man; the other is a story of a boy who is in many ways a man already, but who exists in a state of being “stuck”—not necessarily stuck in childhood, but just in a deep a rut in his life, which is a state that all of us experience, at many different points in our lives.  One was very likely influenced by Roald Dahl; the other is more likely influenced by Stephen King.

Still, the comparisons will inevitably be made, and, on one level, I find it flattering.  As I say, Rowling is a brilliant author and even to be mentioned in the same sentence as her is quite nice.  Still, one doesn’t want to be thought of as a rip-off, right?  But then that got me wondering ... why not?

It seems to me that we’ve somehow elevated originality into some Holy Grail.  Everything has to be original.  Except ... nothing is original.  At this point in human history, everything can be said to be derived from, descended from, influenced by, or in the vein of, something else that we’ve seen or heard or read before.  There’s just so much out there ... how could you not sound familiar, even if only by accident?

So, I say, let’s set aside originality.  Can we not rather ask—should we not rather ask—it is good?  Who cares whether it’s original or not, as long as it’s valuable, inspirational, emotionally involving, socially relevant, philosophically touching, mentally engaging ... does it speak to you?  If it does, then doesn’t it deserve to be evaluated on its own merits?  I think it does.  I’ll take my Nevermind and my Doolittle, thank you very much.  They’re both pretty damn rockin’.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

National Heroscape Day 2013

Well, it’s October, and you know what that means: another National Heroscape Day tournament.  If you need to refresh, Heroscape is one of my favorite games, and last year was the first year my middle child (a.k.a. the Smaller Animal, from when he was the younger of two) was old enough to attend.  He decided not to go this year, as he wasn’t feeling well, but my eldest (currently 15) decided to invite his current Band of Merry Men, so yesterday we took a road trip to Van Nuys for the annual get-together.

Last year we had our record low for attendance: only 8, 3 of which I brought with me.  This year was better—we were up to 10 total participants—but I provided 5 of them.  So I’m happy that attendance is on the rise, but I’d prefer it if more of it could come in from other quarters.

One bright note for this year: we’ve finally allowed Valhalla Customs units, which you may recall are the community-developed continuation of our beloved (but discontinued) Heroscape.  I think this is the future of the game, and, inasmuch as its the only future we’re likely to get, I’m glad to see my fellow ‘Scapers embracing it.  We should be happy there’s a future at all, really.

With so few attendants, we only needed 3 rounds to settle the standings.  Up to now, I had come in dead center of the pack 4 times, and next-to-last once.  This year I came in dead last, so I suppose I’m now at 4 and 2, in terms of acceptable performance.  I’ve never been super-competitive with the game: I’m in it for the fun.  So I’m happy enough with finishing up in the middle.  Being at the end is a bit of a bummer.  But I drew another newbie for the first round (he’d never played anyone other than his son before), so I spent a fair amount of time helping him out, and my last game was against one of my son’s friends, who was even newbie-er than that, so I wanted to help her do well as well.  So I don’t really mind those losses, both of which were close games (one of them down to 20 points, out of a possible 520).  The middle game was the big bummer though: I got the bad luck to go up against my son, and he’d been practicing against my exact army all week.  He ended up completely crushing me, handing me my only total defeat of the day.  Ah, well: he was happy enough, and beating me helped him finish up right in the middle of the pack (5th place, getting the very last of the prizes we had).  So I can’t really complain.

The newbie who I played against in the first round brought his 8-year-old son with him (which makes him, as you may recall, just a year older than the Smaller Animal).  He wasn’t going to enter the tourney itself, but we would have had only 9 without him, so he did.  And that went really well, despite the fact that he seemed to have the exact same focus issues that my son has (although I think he took losing much better than mine would have).  I hope to get these two boys together soon, either for Heroscape or just for hanging out; I think they’ll hit it off famously.

As we usually do, after the tournament we stuck around and played more games.  The four teenagers played a two-vs-two game of Heroscape, while the other father, his son, our host, and I played Fluxx.  Fluxx is one of those games that can either go fast or take forever, and this one went on for quite a while.  The teens finished up their Heroscape game and started up a massive round of Munchkin.  Father and son had to leave, so our host and I worked on tearing down the Heroscape maps while the kids finished up Munchkin.  Then we ordered some pizza and played two medium-length games of Fluxx with the 6 of us left.  This is the Monty Python version, and we went through the entire deck at least 3 times, so we got to play nearly every card at least once, including the Fake Accent card (which got played about 3 times) and the I Want to Sing! card, which unhappily was cancelled before it got around to me, or else I would have been pulling 2 extra cards every turn, potentially for the remainder of the game.  “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay, I work all night and I sleep all day!”  Ah, well, I guess they didn’t appreciate my singing.  Not as much as they did the outrageous accents of our host, which ranged from something I can only describe as Scottish-brogue-with-throat-cancer to actually barking (which I promptly dubbed his “Labrador” accent).  As for the teens, they eventually decided that the most outrageous accent they could think of was Valley Girl, and spent at least 15 minutes trying to out-ohmahgod! each other.

So another excellent year was had, despite all of us ending up in the bottom 60%, and we hope to have just as much fun next year.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Salad Days

                  My salad days,
When I was green in judgement,
— William Shakespeare

When I was in college (for the second time), I was invited by a friend of mine to a picnic with some folks he worked with.  We were typical college students (by which I mean that the word “picnic” typically implied several twelve-packs and maybe a few bags of chips, if you were lucky), but this was to be an adult picnic.  I’m still not sure why he brought me.  Probably just for moral support.

You may remember that I talked before about how I don’t socialize well with strangers (even though I’m quite gregarious with people I know).  So in this particular setting, I mostly just watched and listened.  I, who’d never really been an “adult” in the conventional sense—and still haven’t been, I suppose—was essentially a visiting anthropologist observing a strange tribal culture.  And, while I was dutifully cataloguing greeting rituals and parental models for acceptable public behavior, I heard this phrase:

“I simply must have that recipe!”

Now, you must understand that, at that age, I had no clue that real people actually said that.  Out loud.  In front of other people.  Sure, you see it on televsion, but television people aren’t real people, after all.  I thought it was a phrase found in old movies from the 50s, and possibly in ironic treatises on the illusions of domestic bliss, but never spoken by real people.  Out loud.  In front of other people.  It was like I had been transported into some alternate universe.

Well, now I’m older.  Now I understand ... that real people still don’t actually use those words, but the sentiment, at least, is occasionally genuine.  So, somewhat oddly, I’m going to give you a recipe.  Which you simply must have.

Once upon a time, I rarely ate salad.  Not that I disliked it—salad was just one of those foods that I had a strong neutrality towards.  I was happy enough to eat it—in fact, I very occasionally craved it, which always seemed to stun my friends, no matter how many times they saw it—but there were just lots of other foods that I liked more.  So why not eat them instead?

These days, I make a giant bowl of salad twice a week.  The Mother helps me eat it, mostly, but the baby will leap into my lap when I have some, and even the eldest will partake occasionally.  (The middle child is still in that picky eater phase.)  This change is due to two very important factors.

The first is that I moved.  I never really liked fruits and vegetables until I moved to California.  Of course, I’m older now, and we do begin to appreciate such things a bit more as we get older.  But mainly I believe that the food is just plain better here.  I used to live on the East Coast, remember, and I’m guessing that a lot of the fruits and vegetables I was eating were coming from California anyway—just after a very, very long trip, which doesn’t do much for the taste.  And (at least when I lived there) you could get organic food, but you couldn’t actually afford it.  Now that I’m here on the West Coast, I’m closer to where a lot of the food is actually grown, and the organic choices are not that much more expensive than the regular ones.  Organic celery, for instance, is less than 50¢ more than regular celery where I shop.  Will I pay a couple of quarters more per week to get celery that is better tasting and most probably better for me?  Of course I will.  Even across all my items, I can buy 100% organic fruits and vegetables for well under $20 more than if I didn’t, per week.  A few yuppie food coupons per month to eat healthier—yes, yes, some people will dispute that, but even more importantly, in my book: to enjoy it more.  If there happen to be health benefits, I consider that gravy on the cake.  Sure, the quality is inconsistent.  Sometimes you get something that’s less than stellar.  But the awesomeness you get the rest of the time more than makes up for it.  Trust me on this: even if you can’t, where you live, afford to eat organic all the time, do it occasionally, just to treat yourself.  You’re worth it, right?

The second factor, though, is due to the discovery of the right accoutrements.  A salad is composed of three basic ingredients: vegetables, dressing, and ... other.  The extra bits that make different salads different.  It can be meat, like a chef’s salad or oriental chicken salad.  It might be fruit, or nuts, as in the case of a Waldorf, or cheese, as in a Cobb or a Caesar.  If you’re just stuck with veggies and dressing, you’re missing out.  At the very least slap some croutons or bacon bits on there.

But, for me, the ultimate salad accompaniments were a gift from our Sister FamilyThe Mother was having a salad one day, and I saw her putting pistachios and feta cheese on it.  This struck me as terribly odd, so I asked about it.  This was the favorite salad of her best friend (matriarch of the Sister Family, in case you didn’t follow that link), she explained, so she was giving it a try.  Now, I was pretty sure that I didn’t like pistachios, but I couldn’t really remember why.  (Later I decided it was probably because I don’t like pistachio ice cream, which is a pretty stupid reason, if you think about it.)  And I’m certainly always encouraging my children to retry things they decided they didn’t like a long time ago, because your tastes change over time.  So I tried it.  And it was good.  Seriously good.  Better than seriously good: like into the “fucking fantastic” range.

So now I’m going to tell you how to make your own salad that you will enjoy just as much as I enjoy mine.  Unless, of course, you are a totally different person than I am with totally different tastes.  In which case I refer you yet again to the name of the blog (q.v.).

Vegetables  The base of any good salad is its veggies.  Now, different people like different vegetables.  For instance, some people like radishes, while I think radishes taste like dirt.  So, while I’m going to tell you the veggies that I like, the exact types aren’t that important.  Use whatever you like.  Mainly I want to give you some general tips.

If vegetables are the base of the salad, lettuce is the base vegetable.  Most salads are concocted of a whole lotta lettuce and a few other veggies.  This is presumably because lettuce is cheap.  However, you’re not looking to make a cheap salad; you’re looking to make a delicious salad, so don’t overdo the lettuce.  Let it be a supporting player: it’s not strong enough to pull off a leading role anyway.

For years I was a staunch supporter of iceberg lettuce.  It’s simple, and it tastes good.  Other people would say it’s boring.  I don’t care: I don’t want exciting; I want yummy.  When you hand me a big ol’ plate of arugula, or micro-greens, it certainly looks exciting.  But it tastes like eating grass.  I am not a cow.  Don’t serve me grass.

Romaine is fine.  It’s not my favorite, but at least it doesn’t taste like grass.  The Mother prefers it, and disdains my beloved iceberg.  So it was always a bone of contention when creating salads.  Lately, however, we’ve reached a compromise: butter lettuce.  Butter lettuce is as crisp and dependable (and tasty) as iceberg, but not as boring, so it makes a good choice.  I typically buy it by the bag and I use about a bag and a half for the base of my salad.  If there’s any leaves which are even the least bit brown or wilted, I just toss them to the side and feed them later to the guinea pig (lizards or turtles are also good for this purpose).  You may ask, why a bag?  Mainly because that’s how my store sells it.

For the rest of the vegetables, there are just a few tips.  First, get what you like.  Don’t try to fool yourself into eating veggies you wouldn’t eat separately by sticking them into a salad and hoping you won’t notice.  You will.  Buy them as fresh as you can, because there’s no way you’re going to go to the store every time you want a salad (especially since you’re going to want this one a lot).  Sure, fresher is better, but let’s be realistic too.  I buy enough to make two big salads every week.

Lastly, buy organic.  Seriously.

Here’s what I use:

  • 1 large bell pepper (green’ll do, but red or orange is nicer, for color)
  • 1 large cucumber (American or English)
  • 3-4 small cucumbers (Persian)
  • 4-6 ribs of celery
  • 4-5 green onions or scallions (which in some places are the same thing, but even if different should be interchangeable)

Buy whatever you like that you can reliably find.  Outside of not being able to find American cucumbers for part of the year, everything on my list is available year-round where I am.  (And, when I can’t get American, I just substitute English instead.)

Then chop all that shit up and throw it in a big salad bowl.  I peel my cucumbers first, but you don’t have to.  Chopping is a big pain in the ass, but once you taste this salad, you won’t mind it so much, because the end will justify the means.  But that’s why I always make much more than I can eat: so I don’t have to chop so often.

For storage of leftovers, a gallon Ziploc bag will do fine.  Maybe add just the tiniest splash of water to keep it moist.  It won’t sit in the fridge long enough to go bad, trust me.

Extras  Like I said above: pistachios and feta cheese.  I suppose you could experiment a bit here—slivered almonds, maybe? goat cheese, perhaps?—but don’t, at least not until you’ve tried the original.  It’s pretty awesome.

For pistachios, I buy dry roasted, unsalted, shelled halves and pieces.  Raw wouldn’t be as good, in my opinion.  You can also get them organic, but honestly the taste difference for nuts is not nearly what it is for veggies.  But you certainly don’t want to have to shell them yourself, and you don’t need the extra salt.

I buy pre-crumbled feta with “Mediterranean herbs.”  I have no idea what that means, exactly, but it tastes good, so I go with it.  You can also buy it in blocks and crumble it yourself—it’s a little bit cheaper, but not enough to be worth it, if you ask me.  Plus then you don’t get the “Mediterranean herbs” ... whatever those are.

Add your extras to the individual servings.  Your pistachios and feta will get soggy if stored with the leftover salad.

Dressing  I like lots of different kinds of dressing.  My absolute favorite is bleu cheese.  But that’s not what I use for this salad, because this salad really shines with Thousand Island dressing, and that’s what you should use too.  You can use your favorite brand of Thousand Island if you like, but what’s really awesome is to make it yourself.

I taught myself how to make Thousand Island dressing because I didn’t want all the sugar and MSG and other various crap in the store-bought brands, and my local Trader Joe’s doesn’t carry a healthy version.  But, as it turns out, it’s easy to make, and I get to buy mostly organic ingredients, which is nice.

Now, I don’t measure things when I cook, for the most part.  I mean, think about it: whose is the best cooking you’ve ever had?  Your grandmother, right?  Now, did your grandmother ever measure anything?  No, of course not.  Grandmothers have better things to do with their time than fiddle with measuring spoons and whatnot.  So, when I say “tablespoon” below, I don’t mean an actual measured tablespoon; I mean just take the big spoon out of your silverware drawer.  Likewise, “teaspoon” means the little spoon—I actually use a baby spoon, since I have a baby around, but I also heap it pretty high, so it’s probably the same as a normal teaspoon if you fill it closer to level.  And “3 count” means you pour at a reasonable rate for a count of three (like mixing a drink).

  • Mayonnaise: 5 tablespoons (not heaping)
  • Ketchup: 9 good squirts
  • Yellow mustard: 1 good squirt
  • Dijon mustard: 1 little squirt
  • Sweet pickle relish: 9 teaspoons
  • Vinegar: 3 count (I use balsamic white vinegar)
  • Sugar: 2 heavy pinches
  • Salt: 1 heavy pinch
  • Pepper: 12 grinds

Throw that all in a big bowl and just stir it up.  Now grab one of those 12 oz squeeze bottles they sell at the store (or get ’em on Amazon) and a funnel, pour your dressing into the bottle, and you’re pretty much set.  The only other bit you need to do is to cut the top of the nozzle pretty low, or else the pickle relish will get stuck in the tip.  I also cut it at a bit of an angle, as that seems to give me a wider opening.  The amount above is pretty much exactly enough to fill the bottle (sometimes I’m a bit over, but I just dollop that on my current salad).  When you run out, just make more.  Easy peasy.

Hopefully you’ll give this a try and come to love salad as much as I do.  I used to eat a little bowl of salad before getting a bit plate of spaghetti, or burritos, or whatever.  Nowadays I eat a big bowl of salad and then check to see if I even have any room left over for the “main” meal.  That’s gotta be more healthy in the long run, right?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Perl blog post #19

This week I saw a cool Perl blog post that I just had to respond to, so I did, over on the Other Blog.  If you’re into Perl, hop on over and check it out.  If not, go amuse yourself for another week and check back in then.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Cento for a Sunday

When I was in college, I took a Shakespeare class where we had to do a group project.  For our group’s project, one of my fellow students suggested that we put on a short skit, talking about the plays, but using the Bard’s own words.  We carefully culled bits and pieces of dialogue from the plays, put it in the mouths of our characters, and, by putting exisitng things into new context, we created new meaning.  I was fascinated by this process and have occasionally found myself doing it for other occasions.  One of my best friends asked me to do a reading at his wedding, of anything I liked, and I cobbled together several different quotes on love and fashioned a complete speech out of it.  It was generally well-received.

I’ve also tried my hand at creating poems like this.  It turns out that poetry created thus actually has a name: it’s a cento.  I’ve done a few over the years (despite the fact that poetry isn’t truly my forté), but none of them were particularly good.  Today, I give you a new cento that I “composed,” which I think is better than my previous efforts, although perhaps still not great.  The lines (or in some cases half-lines) here are mostly quotes from other poems, books, songs, or movies, although some are old things other people have recycled before me.  Most are quotes that appealed to me and ended up in my quote file, but a few I had to hunt down specifically to fit parts of the “narrative.”  All I personally added were a few connecting words here and there, and the first half of the title, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything (contrast with the second half, which is rather deliberately chosen not only to offset the first half euphoniously, but for its meaning in its own source).

I thought of listing all the sources here, but I’ve decided against it, mostly because it’s more fun to let you discover them on your own.  I’m pretty sure that judicious Googling will turn them all up, so I don’t worry that the original authors will fail to be attributed.

Consider this a first draft and be kind to it.  It’s new, and doesn’t much know what it’s saying yet.

Cobblestone Fray, Cottleston Pie

Once upon a time, when we all lived in the woods,
on a dark and stormy night,
all of the animals are capably murderous—
still, you may get there by candle-light.

You got devils living in that head,
watching the whites of your eyes turn red
by the pricking of my thumbs.
Where’er we tread ‘tis haunted holy ground,
like someone trying not to make a sound.
At sunrise, there is the sound of drums ...

It’s all sex and death as far as I can tell,
drinking the blood-red wine.
Fear is the mind-killer; blood is compulsory.
And I’ve made an enemy of time.

No less liquid than their shadows, speaking with the speech of men,
Satan must be our cousin, and does his crossword with a pen.
What noisy cats are we,
with the perils of being in 3-D,
and why the sea is boiling hot?  He’s won a lot of friends ...

There’s no such thing as the real world, but
there’s a hell of a good universe next door.
Little things are infinitely the most important.
Respite and nepenthe: to die, to sleep no more.

We’re all alive for a reason.
People need good lies.
Thou wast not born for death, but
when you stop dreaming, it’s time to die.

I recommend pleasant, but we’re all mad here.
I am the king of the cats!
Dance like nobody’s watching,
cry, ain’t no shame in it,
and that is the end of that.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Media Trip

There are many of you out there who have never had a hallucinogenic drug, and never intend to.

Which is fine: it’s not every person’s cup of tea.  It probably involves dealing with unsavory characters, and who wants that?  It definitely involves lack of control—if you’re the sort of person who can’t stand being a passenger in a car, you must never drop a tab of acid.  It involves a certain amount of risk as well ... probably not as much risk as you take when you get into your car every day to drive to work, but different people evaluate risk differently, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

On the other hand, if you’ve ever wanted to feel like you were have a drug-fueled hallucination without all the bother of having to consume potentially dangerous chemicals, that too can be arranged.  There are many things you could watch and get the exact same feelings of disorientation, paranoia, and a conviction that the world is not what it seems.  I would start with Naked Lunch—really, just about anything in the Cronenberg ouevre will do: eXistenZ is good, and Videodrome or even Dead Ringers will do in a pinch.

In fact, certain directors just have a flair for this.  Peter Greenaway is good (I would go with Drowing by Numbers or 8½ Women, even though The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is more famous), as is Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man probably most of all, but Mystery Train and Broken Flowers have leanings as well), or even the Coen Brothers—Barton Fink is a full-on trip, and The Hudsucker Proxy a lesser one, whereas Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski are just a minor marijuana high.  And dare we forget David Lynch?  Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart are twisted journeys, and Lost Highway is just a bad trip.  Honorable mention to Spike Jonze (for Being John Malkovich) and Tarsem Singh (for The Fall).

What really disturbs me though (even more so than the insectile typewriter in Naked Lunch) is that many of these experiences can be gotten from watching television with your children.  If there is an adult anywhere in the world who has ever watched their first episode of Teletubbies and not said to themselves “dude, whoever came up with this idea was tripping balls!”, I can only assume that they simply don’t know the meaning of the phrase.  And don’t even get me started on Yo Gabba Gabba!, where even the name of the show must have required a serious LSD hangover.

I was sitting around watching television with my middle child (current age: 7) and my youngest (current age: 1) and we were searching for something colorful and distracting to keep the smaller one from destroying the house.  (And if any of you fellow parents out there are looking down on my use of television as a babysitter, I can only assume you have nothing breakable in your house.)  I was hoping for something educational, like Sesame Street, but I was willing to settle.  Cruising through the cable listings, what to my wondering eyes should appear but H.R. Pufnstuf, which I remembered very fondly from my own childhood.  I quickly switched over to it.  The baby didn’t seem to care much for it, but the middle child was fascinated.  Then my oldest (current age: 14) came in, stared at the screen for a few minutes, and then looked at me with wide eyes.  “What the hell are you watching?” he asked.  I couldn’t really explain.  Seen through adult eyes, it was just as insane as any Yo Gabba Gabba episode, even down to the bizarre outbursts of singing, although H.R. didn’t seem to have as many morals prepared as DJ Lance Rock typically does.

(After Pufnstuf was over, whatever channel we had stumbled onto immediately launched into The Land of the Lost.  It was like the Sid & Marty Kroft all-the-time channel or something.  I fully expected to see Sigmund and the Sea Monsters next.  Unfortunately we had chores to get to, so I never found out.)

I wonder how many more of my treasured childhood memories of televsion shows would play like bad acid trips to my adult brain?  Man, I’d love to find some old Electric Company reruns: Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader and Rita Moreno yelling “Hey You Guys!” at Bill Cosby.  You can’t get more trippy than that, right?  Or Captain Kangaroo ... dropping thousands of ping-pong balls on somebody’s head because a talking moose tricked you into saying the magic words is not something you come up with without some sort of chemical stimulation.  And those Hanna Barbera guys were certianly on something ... Hair Bears? a talking air-breathing mystery-solving drummer shark? Captain Caveman? really?  And as much as I loved shows like Blackstar or Thundarr, I’m not sure they make any more rational sense than my little brother’s He-Man or the slightly-before-my-time Herculoids.

So, today, I’m watching Ruby Gloom.  For some insane reason, my middle child really loves this show, which he discovered through the magic combination of Netflix and Roku.  Ruby Gloom has been described as a goth version of Strawberry Shortcake, which I suppose is not too far off (although I have to say that, for me, mainly what it triggered was vague memories of the Groovy Ghoulies).  So I have no idea why he likes it, being neither a fan of Strawberry Shortcake nor goth, as near as I can tell.  But he’s really into it.  I think he’s watched every episode at least once and is on his second tour through.  In Ruby Gloom, there is a character called “Scaredy Bat” (get it? oh ho ho!), who is a talking bat with an Indian accent.  Why does he have an Indian accent?  I mean, I know why Baljeet on Phineas and Ferb has an Indian accent: he’s actually from India.  And I sort of get why Raj on Camp Lazlo has an Indian accent, being an elephant and all.  But the talking bat?  That I don’t get.

Drugs.  I’m telling you: we have drugs to thank for all this.  Yes, like Bill Hicks, I’m positing that chemically-induced hallucinatory experiences may have had some positive impacts on our lives.  I just don’t see any other way to explain something like Aqua Teen Hunger Force or Squidbillies.  In fact, I think the very existence of Adult Swim owes quite a lot to narcotics of questionable medical value.  And then there’s the Japanese, who apparently are getting high off all the squid ink and crab brains they consume (I’m going by Iron Chef on this point).  There’s Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, which has a character who uses the martial arts style “True Fart Fist,” and then there’s Fighting Foodons, with its Pokemon-like food, including an anthropomorphic plate of fried rice.

Right now, in fact, my children are watching Cartoon Planet, as hosted by Brak and Zorak—whose journey from cartoon supervillains to talk show co-hosts to surrealist children’s show presenters is a strange trip itself—with numerous commercials thrown in for Thomas the Tank Engine, who carries “hallucinatory” well into the territory of “creepy,” heading hard into “terrifying.”  It’s all around us.  There are screens everywhere these days: the gas station, the doctor’s office, the breakroom at work, restaurants, bars, hospitals, gyms, family rooms, bedrooms, our children’s rooms ... everywhere we turn.  And, on many of those screens, we’re caught up in somebody else’s freaky acid dreams.

It’s something to ponder, anyhow.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Perl blog post #18

Had an interesting conversation at $new_work that I parlayed into a new tech blog post.  If you dig Perl (especially modern Perl), hop on over and check it out.  If not, then you can try back next week, if you’re so inclined to be that persistent.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Birthday Time Again

Well, it’s birthday season at our house again, starting with The Mother‘s birthday last weekend, the Larger Animal’s birthday today, and continuing on through the raft of Scorpio birthdays next month, including myself and several of my best friends.

Today in particular we spent the day at Universal Studios with both Smaller Animals and four teenagers.  As I’m sure you can imagine, I’m exhausted.  So no blog post this week.

I’ll come up with something exciting next week.  Unless I don’t.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Here's My Beard; Ain't It Weird?

It’s almost time to shave again.

I grew my beard at age 19, to make myself look older—or at least that’s what I told everyone.  My family hated it: mother, father, both grandmothers, aunts and great-aunts and nearly everyone who bothered to notice at all.  I sort of liked it, but I always claimed I was willing to shave it off if I didn’t need it any more.  You know, to look older.

When I turned 21, I reasoned that now I was older: old enough to buy beer, anyway, and what other reason is there to look older?  So I shaved off the beard.  I left the moustache though: I was afraid I’d look a little too young without some sort of facial hair.  That only lasted a few months.

I look like a complete goober without a beard.  My original conclusion was that I just had too much of a babyface.  This was overly optimistic.  What I came to realize, eventually, was that I have no chin.  Not just a weak chin, but practically none at all.  I get it from my mother.  Turns out it’s not so awful on a woman, but for a man to have no chin is pretty bad.  And it gets worse the older you get.

A lot of people have told me that, when they try to grow a beard, it itches too much and they eventually give up.  My beard has never itched when it’s coming in.  In fact, it hardly ever itches at all, except for one sort of curious cycle: about every 5 years or so, it starts to itch something fierce.  So, every 5 years or so, I have to shave my chin completely ... just to air it out, so to speak.  Twice I’ve gone for the General Burnside, which let me tell you will get you some strange looks.  Once I did a sort of droopy moustache and soul patch combo, like Ben Stiller in Dodgeball.  I can’t recall what I did for the other one.  It probably won’t be long until the next cycle rolls around, although that’s not the sort of shave I was talking about.

No, I meant just the regular sort of shave.  My pattern, you see, is to let the thing grow for several months: basically until it’s so long that it gets annoying.  The beard will, if left untended, start curling under my chin, creating a sort of shelf under there.  I can understand why people put beads and shit in their beards—I’m sure it’s just to get the stupid thing to grow straight down.  I can’t imagine how much effort it takes to grow a ZZ Top or somesuch.  But that’s mostly irrelevant to me, because long before I have to worry about that, my moustache will get so long that it starts getting in my mouth.  When I’m trying to eat, certainly, but even when I’m just trying to talk, or stick my tongue out so I can concentrate, or sometimes for no good reason at all.  Once that starts happening, it’s time to shave.

I had a friend (my boss on my first professional programming gig, as it happens) who grew a beard for a while, but he eventually shaved it off.  When I asked him why he gave up on it, he said it was too much trouble.  I was perplexed by this answer.  What do you mean, too much trouble, I asked.  Well, you have to trim it, and shampoo it, and condition it ... he went on and on about all the beard grooming he was putting in.  I had no idea how to respond to this, other than to say: you’re doing it wrong.

I mean, if we’re going to be honest here, most of the reason I grew the damn thing in the first place was sheer laziness.  The whole “it makes me look older” thing was mostly a convenience.  And, if you’re growing a beard because you don’t like shaving, then you better not be shaving very often, or else what’s the point?  I shave once every two or three months.  Something like that.  I don’t keep track; as I mentioned, I just wait for it to get annoying, then I shave.

But I don’t shave it all—did I mention that I have no chin?  Basically, I start at about the top of my ears and go all the way down until I have just a smallish goatee.  Then I thin out the beard a bit, square off the moustache so it’s not in my mouth any more, and that’s it for another few months.  Now, if I’m doing this for a special occasion (funeral, job interview, that sort of thing), I may follow that up with some shaving cream and a safety razor, but typically it’s just clippers.

The clippers I use to trim my beard are the same sort people use for shaving their heads—which is handy if you have friends who are skinheads, or Neo-Nazis, or Sinead O’Connor fans, or just guys who are going bald but still need to look tough, like bouncers in dive bars or Bruce Willis.  I’ve tried special beard trimmers and that sort of thing as well, but a nice simple pair of clippers is moderately cheap, does a great job, and they’ll last forever.  Well, they will if you oil them regularly.  My first pair of clippers I didn’t oil them.  The clippers come with a tiny little bottle of oil, and a recommendation to oil them after every use, and to use only the special oil with the manufacturer’s name on it, and if you’d like to order some more, it’s only $30 a bottle.  This sounds like a rip-off—which it is, but not because the clippers don’t need the oil.  I found out right quick that the clippers will rust on you in a heartbeat if you don’t oil them.  The rip-off part is needing to use the special oil.  Just get yourself some sewing machine oil: it’s the exact same stuff, except cheaper.  The Mother‘s mom is the one who taught me that trick: she bought me a 3 or 4 dollar bottle of oil some ten years ago or so, and I’m still on the same bottle.  I don’t know if you need to oil the clippers after every time you use it, but, since I only use mine once every few months, I do.

For me, shaving is a whole big ritual.  I only do it before I shower (otherwise you wander around with little stray beard hairs down your shirt all day).  I only do it over the toilet—I only had to clog up my sink 3 or 4 times before I learned that one.  So I always start by cleaning the toilet first.  Not necessarily the toilet bowl, I mean, but the outside of the toilet and the seat and all that.  Then I get my mirror and prop it up on the seat.  Then I double over my ponytail and tie it up out of the way ... one wouldn’t want to shave off one’s ponytail by accident, now would one?  Then I do the shaving, which is fairly simple.  Then I use one of those barber’s brushes to sweep all the stray hairs into the toilet.  (Maybe those things are easier to come by these days, but it took me about 15 years to manage to get one when I first started looking.)  Then I have to brush the stray hairs off me.  Then I have to brush the stray hairs off the clippers.  Then I oil the clippers.  It takes quite a while, really, for the whole procedure.  But then again I’m only doing it every few months, as I say.  So it’s not that bad.  And, you know: you get it down after a while.  Becomes sort of second nature.

So I start with the goatee, and it gradually fills out to a full beard.  By the time it gets shaggy, my moustache is in my mouth again and it’s back to the goatee.  It never really itches (except for the every 5 - 7 years thing), and it’s not particularly stiff, so I never bother conditioning it as my former boss did.  Oh, I shampoo it when I shampoo my hair, but conditioning?  That’s way above and beyond.  I’ve also never had any problems growing it.  I don’t have nearly as much hair on my head as I used to—my once-cool widow’s peak is now more of a Phil Collins sort of look—but the beard has always grown in nice and thick.

When I was younger, it was brown, with reddish highlights.  It got darker as I got older, nearly black ... and then it started to go gray.  First a salt-and-pepper look, then almost all white except for a black stripe down the center of my chin.  Yes, for a couple of years I was rocking the reverse-skunk look.  Now you can barely see any black at all.  No gray in my hair, but my beard is almost completely white now.  Hopefully it looks distinguished.

Our title today is from George Carlin’s famous poem about his hair.  (And where is the hair on a pear?  Nowhere, mon frère!)  Mr. Carlin always had a flair for language that I envied.  I’ll lean on him a bit to offer my final thoughts on the topic of beards.

Don’t be skeered,
It’s just a beard.