Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Spare a Little Change?

Change. It happens to all of us, all of the time. I look in the mirror, and that brown mop on my head seems to have more flecks of gray every day. People enter the workforce, people retire. People are born, people die. It’s all a big wheel, turning around and around.

Now I have to be careful as I write this that I don’t come across as a slide rule holdout who advocates riding around town in a horse and buggy. (“Back in my day, we had to walk 15 miles to school in three feet of snow year-round, and dagnabbit, we liked it! Now get off my lawn you kids!”) This is not some rant against new technology, nor is it about the natural changes that come with the passage of time. I know that people age and move on, and that physical things eventually deteriorate and need replacing. And there is no doubt that advances are made in technology almost every day. What I am talking about is what might be termed “change for change’s sake”, also known as “fixing what isn’t broken”.

A good example is the Star Wars series of films. The first movie was released in 1977, and special effects technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since then. Compared to the latest J.J. Abrams sci-fi flick, the original Star Wars looks downright quaint. But you know, that’s okay! When I sit down to watch Star Wars, I have a certain set of expectations, based on the movie I first watched with slack-jawed wonder at age 7. I want to see robots that look like trash cans on wheels, and space ships that look like they are hanging from thin strings and being moved across a black background. That’s what the movie was. If it was released in its original form as a brand new film today, I’d be disappointed. Today’s technology demands more. But for a 1977 movie, it’s terrific.

But no. George Lucas has messed with it, not just once, but now twice. His first set of remasters on Star Wars and its two sequels was done in the late 90s, just before we were subjected to the three prequel films. The latest set of tweaks was completed this year, in time for release of a Blu-Ray boxed set. The story is that Lucas wanted to use today’s technology to help make his original vision for the movies more accurate. Riiiiiight.

It’s not just George Lucas doing this. Musicians are as well. Recently, the Rolling Stones have released a remastered version of their classic Some Girls album from 1978. What was once a single album is now a double album, with the original tracks tweaked, and 12 unreleased ones included. I suppose some might see this as a good thing, but I don’t. Some Girls, as it was released in 1978, was a reflection of where the Stones were at that point in their careers, and now that has been obscured. The songs sounded that way because it was what the band wanted at the time. If tracks were unreleased, there was probably a good reason for that. Likely it is because they were not as good as the ones that were included.

Writers are not immune either. Stephen King’s The Stand is arguably one of his most loved novels. It also originally came in at about a million pages and the same weight as a Volkswagen. Nonetheless, a few years back, King decided to add more to it. Yes, more! Again, the official story is that he wanted to make it closer to his original vision. I think he either invested heavily in paper company stock, or has something against trees, since now it comes in at about a million and a half pages, and the same weight as an SUV.

Speaking as an amateur writer myself, I cannot deny the power of revision. I have always advocated strongly for revisiting your writing after a short time away. Being able to dwell on something for a bit, to get a fresh perspective, is a valuable thing for the creative process. I am sure the same applies to other creative arts as well. Painters see a great place to include another tree. Musicians come up with a terrific new bridge for a song. At some point, however, I feel that it needs to stop. Step away.

Revision is not an endless process, though it easily could be. I have no doubt that any creative person, upon revisiting something they have made, could see something they could change or do better with it. You don’t think Paul McCartney doesn’t hear things in old Beatles songs that he’d like to go back and retool? Changing a few words here, a key there? I’ve looked back on some of my older writing and seen places where I could have added something or changed the wording. It’s hard to resist doing so. But, once you have created something and reached a point where you release it to the world, I believe that it should be finished. It should stand as it is. You set it out there for a reason, let it be.

There is an elephant in this room however: money. Specifically, I mean the publishers, film producers and music companies that are always looking at the financial bottom line. There is little doubt that the money guys monkey around with the creative process of their signed talent in order to extract maximum profit. Cut this, add that, tweak these things. A new version of an old favorite is going to sell. If that’s the case I sympathize with the creators.

To a point.

Once your work is out there to share with the world, it takes on a life of its own. The originally released version of The Stand is the one that became a beloved modern classic, just like the original Star Wars films and the original release of Some Girls. Even if those were not the original visions of the artists, they got out there in the world and took on lives of their own. If the artists were not happy with the version that was proposed to be released originally, then they needed to have the integrity to stand their ground prior to letting their work out there, not later. It takes a certain degree of courage to let your creativity out there in front of the world.

And as far as using new technology on old works, just don’t do it. The only exception in my mind is to preserve them for posterity, as has been done with many very old films. But that’s it. You wouldn’t want someone to Photoshop some rouge and eyeliner onto the Mona Lisa and hang it in a museum, would you? People want to see that painting for what it is, not what it could be. You don’t go back in your family photo albums and pencil more hair on your dad because you think he would have looked better with it. That would not be an accurate reflection of who your dad was at that point. It would be a sham.

So, if you are a creative type, whether amateur or professional, then by all means revise, revise, revise! But once you’ve set your work free on the world, hands off! Let it take on a life of its own. Just because you CAN change something does not mean that you necessarily SHOULD.

And I said stay off my lawn you kids!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Save the Idioms?

id•i•om/ˈidēəm/ Noun: A group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.

I’ve always been a fan of language. I was a very early reader, and developed a talent for speaking in my early teen years that turned into stints as a radio announcer and master of ceremonies at functions and events through my twenties. And then there is this writing thing I like to do. Writing is a pastime of mine that I’ve been told I have a flair for, but one from which I have never directly made a penny to this point.

As a language fan, I often notice things in how people write and speak. One of the things I have noticed is that idioms seem to be fading from common use, especially among people under the age of around 50. You rarely here some hip twenty-something in a coffeeshop observing that it’s “raining cats and dogs”, do you? I am not entirely sure what the reason for the fading of idioms might be. It could be the result of our texting society, where any use of excess words in writing is frowned upon. If so, this may have also spilled over into speaking habits. Or, it might just be a generational thing. People of Generation X and younger, in order to distance themselves from the overwhelming cultural juggernaut that was and is the Baby Boom Generation, avoided using idioms so as not to sound like the older folks.

Personally, I think that it’s because a lot of popular idioms are just wackadoodle crazy when you stop and think about them. The following are some cases in point:

“A piece of cake”: This phrase commonly means “something that is simple”. In reality, this makes little to no sense. I have attempted to bake a cake on many occasions. Well, okay, by “many occasions”, I mean “once”. Getting all those ingredients together requires, first of all, a trip to the supermarket, which is the very opposite of simple. Then there is the whole “following the recipe thing”, which is kind of a pain in the neck, but important, I’ve found. And then, to literally top it all off, there is the frosting application. I turned an average-looking cake into a broken pile of crumbs in no time flat just trying to frost it. There is nothing simple about a piece of cake, except maybe eating one. I probably won’t screech too loudly on this one, since my baking skills leave much to be desired, and a piece of cake may actually be easy for some people.

“In a pickle”: In other words, “to be in some kind of trouble”. This is something in which I am an expert. At no time, however, did I ever feel like I was encased in an edible product, such as a cucumber, that has been preserved and flavored in a solution of brine or vinegar. First of all, I am much too big, as are most people I know. Secondly, pickles are not usually hollow. This idiom obviously was created by someone who lived in a household with a lot of flaking lead paint. I think it should be changed to “in a room full of pickles”, since the strong smell of vinegar might be considered trouble for some people. Revision is definitely in order.

“Let the cat out of the bag”: It means “to reveal a secret”. It’s a piece of cake to get yourself in a pickle if you let the cat out of the bag. Now I work with cats every day in my job, in addition to being the owner of two. Even if a cat stays in a bag, there is no secret involved whatsoever. In general, cats do not like being held in a bag, and will make their presence within abundantly clear. I’d suggest we change the meaning of “let the cat out of the bag” to “inflicting great personal harm on some poor sap nearby, requiring him or her to go to the local emergency room”, since that is often the end result of doing so. I wonder to whom I would speak about that?

“Up the creek without a paddle”: Another way of stating that someone is in trouble, but with no apparent way out of it. Now stop and think about this: You are in a canoe on a creek somewhere. A crazed bear storms out of the woods and, instead of eating you (maybe you looked like you might be stringy), this bear steals your canoe paddle and leaves. You have, therefore, lost your paddle. Where would you rather be, vis-à-vis your intended destination, up the creek, or down the creek? Seems to me, if you are up the creek without a paddle, you could just drift downstream until you reach your campsite or whatever, and all is good. If you are down the creek without a paddle, then there’s a good chance you will drift downstream, maybe even out to sea to become a snack for a hungry squid. Far-fetched? Sure. Possible? I think so. “Down the creek without a paddle” would be a much more appropriate idiom for trouble. Perhaps I should start a petition.

“More *blank* than Carter’s got liver pills”: This one has always mystified me. Evidently, it means one has a lot of something. I’ve got a bunch of questions about this one. Who is Carter? How do we know what is in his bathroom cabinet? And what’s wrong with his liver anyway? Should I send him a get-well card? Do I need to get my black suit dry-cleaned? A typical prescription is around 60-90 pills per month, I would guess. Why not just say “more than 90”? It would be much more direct and clear. I’ll add this to the petition.

It saddens me to see any development that makes our language less descriptive and interesting, though it is not really a surprise. If you read published personal letters written just in the past 200 years, you can detect a distinct decline in the use of vivid description and interesting vocabulary. Idioms have their purpose. However, if idioms are to survive, I think they need to make more sense.

At least, that’s what I think. Who knows? I might just be crazier than a bedbug.

I hope you’ll still sign my petition.

Monday, November 14, 2011

"Out Home"

I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ place growing up. These particular grandparents were my father’s parents, and they were pretty cool. Every school vacation, they let me stay with them for several days. I grew up as the oldest of four boys, and my mother took in other people’s kids to babysit as well. It was a full house, and I think my grandparents sensed that it was probably in everyone’s best interest to get me the heck out of there for at least a while, or there would be blood.

Ours was a typical middle-class 1970s household, but my grandparents’ place was stuck in the 40s, which is when they moved into it. It didn’t strike me as odd though, since it had always been that way, as long as I could remember. Their house was kind of stuck in time. Black and white TV with no cable, no electricity directly run to the upstairs (though there was a very long extension cord that snaked up there), heated only by a wood stove…you get the picture.

Take the bathroom, for example. There was none. They had a two-holer out back. It wasn’t exactly an outhouse, per se, since it was attached to the house in a manner of speaking. You had to make your way through a rickety woodshed full of gigantic spiders and nasty stray cats to get to it. In the warm weather, it smelled absolutely horrible, and in the winter, you literally froze your ass off. And the thought of those gigantic spiders was never far from your mind (or other parts of your body), especially when a “number two” was unavoidable. And don’t even get me started about the flies.

The males of the family often made it a habit to do what bears are noted for doing in the woods whenever it was practical. My male cousins and I even went so far as to keep a package of toilet paper in a sealed plastic bag in the back seat of an old car way out behind the house, just in case of emergencies. During the winter, this was not a viable solution however. It was during those times that I developed an amazing ability to hold my breath for extended periods of time without passing out.

Most of the time however, we made sure our bathroom needs were met before we went out to visit my grandmother and grandfather. When I was visiting for several days, I tried to time my “number twos” to coincide with my grandfather’s daily trip into town, so I could use the facilities at the supermarket or hardware store.

Interesting side note: In the baby book my mother kept to mark the various milestones in my life, the first complete sentence she recorded me as saying was uttered in that two-holer on a winter’s day when I was just a toddler. I will not quote my first known full sentence directly, but the gist is that I stated to my mother that a certain sensitive portion of my anatomy was very cold. (Some might say I haven’t stopped complaining since.)

That two-holer was the only bathroom in that house for the first twenty-five years of my life. My grandfather reportedly shoveled out the gruesome contents two or three times per year, well into his 80s, though I never once witnessed it. And to this day, I do not know what he did with what the contents he shoveled out. It’s probably best not to think about it.
In spite of the bathroom situation, the times I spent visiting my grandparents as a child are among my fondest memories. There were endless things to discover “out home” as my father called it.

One of those things I discovered at my grandparents’ house I was reminded of just the other day.

I am a regular user of mouthwash. I typically get some “cool mint” or “orange citrus” flavor to cleanse my palette after brushing my teeth. On a whim, however, I grabbed some good old original flavor Listerine the last time I was at the store. It was probably on sale or something.

On the hot water heater next to the kitchen sink at my grandparents’ place there was always a large bottle of Listerine. It was always slightly mysterious to me. I could smell its sharp, alcohol odor from all the way across the room when my grandfather rinsed out his mouth with it and then spit it into the sink before he went to bed at night. Smells can be strong memory triggers, and whenever I smell the menthol of original flavor Listerine to this day, I think of my grandfather and those late nights just before bedtime.

I also think of something else.

One time, when I was about eight, my cousin Dennis from downstate was visiting at my grandparents’ house. He was two years old than me, and we always found it entertaining to put each other up to things.  On this occasion, while our family was all outside having a cookout, he told me that I ought to take a great big mouthful of Gramps’ Listerine. If I could hold it in my mouth for a full minute, he’d give me the five dollar bill he had in his pocket.

I never got an allowance as a kid. Turning down five bucks for something that seemed so easy was just not an option. My grandfather used this stuff every night. How bad could it be?

Dennis seemed awfully enthusiastic for me to do this.  I reached up and got the large glass bottle from the top of the hot water heater. It was nearly full. Dennis grinned an evil grin. In hindsight, I don’t know why I went through with it, given the warning signs I was getting.

The bottle was too heavy for me to hold in just one hand, so I took it over to the kitchen table to wrestle off the supposedly child-proof cap. At that moment, my cousin Lori, Dennis’ sister, came into the house to get something. She was the same age as me, and had quite a bit more common sense, as female children often do compared to their male counterparts. She also had ample experience in dealing with Dennis’ antics.

“What are you guys doing in here?” she asked.

“Nothing,” we both said in unison. It was the stock response for boys up to no good.

“Is he trying to make you try that stuff?” she asked me.

“Maybe,” I said hesitantly.

“Don’t do it! He’s probably up to something.”

I hesitated for a moment. I should have listened to my sensible cousin, but Dennis took charge of the situation.

“Get out of here!” he hissed at her.  She was wise enough not to get mixed up in the train wreck she could see coming, so she left, knowing that she had at least warned me.

“Don’t listen to her.” Dennis told me in a comforting tone.

I was a bit more hesitant than before, but I nonetheless went ahead and got the top off the Listerine.

The strong scent of the mouthwash filled my nose. I grasped the huge bottle with both hands and lifted it toward my mouth. Then I stopped and set the bottle down.

“Let me see the money again,” I demanded.

He pulled the five out of his jeans and set it on the sideboard.


I raised the bottle again. A little of the pungent stuff sloshed onto my face and even a little down my neck. I hurried so as not to spill more and wound up with a huge mouthful of Listerine.

To that point in my life, I had experienced sweet, sour, salty, and the various other common tastes, but nothing whatsoever prepared me for the tsunami of horrible that sloshed into my mouth with that swig of Listerine. It was like something out of a mad scientist’s lab. If Hell could be distilled in liquid form, it would taste like that. The thing I remember most is the BURN. It felt like it was melting the inside of my mouth. The fact that I had just eaten a bunch of barbecue flavored potato chips minutes before probably enhanced the pain. (Spicy stuff will do that if you use an alcohol-based mouthwash too soon after eating it. Try it!)

Dennis counted off the seconds while my eyes watered and a low whimper emanated from my mouth. I don’t think he got much past ten when I could take it no longer. I spewed the evil elixir out with as much force as I could, covering almost every surface around the kitchen sink. The faucets, my grandfather’s shaving mirror, various of my grandmother’s dishwashing things, the bar of soap in the pink dish, and even the ceramic frog with the scrubby thing in its mouth were all dripping with a mixture of mouthwash and my spit.

I grabbed a plastic cup and began slugging back water like my mouth was on fire, which is exactly what it felt like. Dennis, of course, thought it was all a big laugh and I probably would have agreed it it wasn't ME going through it. I was literally trying to drown my sorrows, and the worst part was, I didn't get the five dollars.  Fair was fair, after all.

We cleaned up the mess around the sink as best we could, though we didn’t even come close to getting all of it. The nasty odor of Listerine still lingered in the room. Just as we finished cleaning as best I could, my grandmother came in to get something from the kitchen and sensed that something was not right. The fact that my eyes were red and watering, that my shirt was drenched from gulping so much water so quickly and that I smelled strongly of menthol was probably a giveaway.

My grandmother knew something untoward was up, but being the kindly grandma she always was, she merely shooed us outside without asking any questions. To this day I think she knew what had happened. The smell of the Listerine hung too heavily in the air (and on me) not to. Fortunately, swimming down at the brook nearby was on the docket of activities for the afternoon, so any trace of Listerine on me was soon washed away. She never let on her suspicions, as far as I know.

After that day, I was convinced that my grandfather was more of a man than I could ever hope to be. Anyone who voluntarily subjected himself to something like Listerine on a nightly basis, in my opinion, was as tough as they come.

For nearly ten years after that, I avoided mouthwash entirely, until I was in college and it became imperative to use in order to hide the smell of other things I had been drinking, and gum just wouldn’t cut it.

It would be easy to fill post after post with stories of the things that happened at my grandparents' house during those visits as a kid. Who knows? Maybe in time I will.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Getting All Booksy

Hey kids! I've been posting book reviews for a number of months over at GoodReads.com, which is an excellent site for learning about and sharing books and authors. I just discovered that I can easily share my reviews THERE on my blog HERE. Woo-hoo! So, I'll be posting them on here from time to time. This first one is actually a book I finished over the summer, but I thought it was worth sharing here. I use the nom-de-plume "Phoenix Colter" on GoodReads, so friend me up if you are on board over there.

Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale SingsFluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a big fan of Christopher Moore, and have been for some time. He has the gift of being able to mix the sophomoric humor of a teenage boy (which I never really outgrew) with sophisticated subject matter and then weave it into a coherent plot with interesting characters. In other words, Moore can keep a lot of plates spinning at the same time.

Fluke is, essentially, about a bunch of whale researchers in Hawaii who get caught up in some things about whales they never imagined. I will leave it at that to avoid spoilers. Keeping one foot grounded in real science and the other in whacked out gonzoliness, we follow the members of this research team through an adventure that is both hysterically funny and thought-provoking. The environmental conservation message is always lurking just beneath the surface, but Moore never really comes out and slaps the reader in the face with it. The reader just kind of comes to it automatically.

Christopher Moore can be a bit of an acquired taste for some people. This book might be a good place to start if you are not familiar with his work. Likeable and interesting characters, a well-researched but accessible scientific foundation, and Moore's "out there" humor make Fluke a great choice for anyone with the mind of and adult and the heart of a 15 year old kid.