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 Steven 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.