Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why I Still Listen To Guns N Roses

*Note: I initially meant to write this a few months back to add onto a post a good friend wrote, but it ended up getting put on the backburner as life took a turn in a very busy and productive direction.

Back in the mid-late 1980s, I was going to a public school in a very rural area. I was depressed, angry, and frustrated. I was frustrated because most of what I was learning was repetition of things I'd learned years before, and my young mind just didn't see the point in going through all of that (again) just for the sake of grades. (In retrospect, I probably should have, but I was young and thought I knew everything.)

My friends were non-existent at that point in my life. The closest person to my house was more than a mile away, and proximity doesn't always imply friendship. People pretty much started to fall into two categories: People my age who actively tried to do me harm (either physically or verbally), or those I could tenuously keep from doing so.

To zoom out from the picture a little bit, this very insular community also had some of the worst teachers I'd run across. This didn't spring from my (at the time) naturally contrarian mindset, nor did I have a problem with authority at that time (though that would change). The teachers wouldn't stick to the curriculum, and would use the classroom as a personal forum, without imparting any of the things we were supposed to be learning (which would be reflected on standardized exams, unless you ignored what was happening in the classroom and stuck to reading the textbooks instead).

To zoom out even more, This was the beginning of the late-80s. The Cold War was in its death throes. The halcyon days of the Reagan Economic Period were starting to feel the big hangover. Increased reports about violence and drug use were inescapable.

I was outgrowing the music I was raised on (classical), and was looking for...something, anything to help me retreat inward. My closest friends (at the time) were books, but music was a close second. Most of what I'd heard on the radio (the closest music store was a 40 minute drive - which is a long way for a 13 year old) was garbage, and nothing was putting me at ease.

Then I heard it.

The opening notes to Welcome To The Jungle sent a cold bolt of electricity down my spine, and once the gasp/scream of the vocals started to build, I couldn't turn away. I needed to know what band this was, and if they made more songs (like this one).

I remember getting my hands on a cassette of Appetite for Destruction, and listening to it over and over again. This was a take on America that was nothing short of scary. Even more, I wanted nothing to do with the outside world. Los Angeles seemed like a place where vices, dreams, and people were traded and thrown away - but it wasn't just L.A. - those elements were everywhere, and symptomatic (or so it seemed at the time) of what the "Feel Good 80s" had ignored and allowed to fester.

The cassette played on and I began to write anything and everything that came to mind - experiences I had, fiction that drew from said experiences, my hopes, and even poetry and songs. I got my hands on a discarded copy of G n'R Lies, and was introduced to the range that the band had - from punk to blues, and even a tender ballad.

I was still lost in this rural area, without friends, and few positive interactions at school. The best place - or most comfortable, I should say - was inside my own head. Maybe it was a shared unease, or misery trying to make the best of a bad situation combined with similar interests, but I ended up hanging out with my friend Shane, and our small group of misfits.

Sarcasm reigned along with a taint of bitterness toward our geographical location, the people we dealt with, and the angst that accompanied our youth when faced with a school where we weren't learning anything, and a great big world "out there" that seemed to be spiraling downward before we were even prepared to deal with it on a rudimentary level. To paraphrase a song, "Indiana wasn't our kind of town."

Shane's brother played the guitar, and when we were all hanging out one day, I decided to drop all inhibitions for a few minutes and sing. I can't tell you exactly what it was, but something worked, and a creative venture was born.

Shane and I went from writing on our own to collaborating on songs and stories. I wasn't just keeping my writing in an overflowing desk drawer. I was sharing it - and when put to music, it felt like I'd hopped on a train, and there was no holding back.

In a sense, Guns N' Roses both figuratively and literally gave me a voice.

When the Use Your Illusion set came out, I bought it on the release date and pored over every note, every word, and every intonation. I memorized the liner notes and credits. Both albums contained such a vast array of material, that I couldn't find at least one track for every overarching emotions, thought, or sudden mood swing I experienced.

As I wrote, sang, and tried to muddle through social interactions (while dealing with the chemically induced emotions and irrationality that come with hormonal adolescence), these songs were a solace, of sorts, that let me know that I wasn't the only one thinking immediate and higher level situations were messed up (for lack of more accessible words) - and that what I was feeling, thinking, and writing shouldn't be invalidated before they leave my head. I still think the track Don't Damn Me is one of the most powerful songs to have come out of the Use Your Illusions tracks, and it's that song that's stayed with me while others waxed and waned with less temporary situations and feelings.

Whether it was closing my eyes and letting the songs wash over me so I could forget the outside world for a bit; writing at a fevered pace; or caterwauling and using my voice to exorcise whatever was welling up inside of me (both good and bad) until I damn near collapsed after either a live performance or in my own room - the music was always there.

I'm no longer a kid (chronologically speaking). I'd like to think I've matured, learned how to play with others (to a degree), and lead a much quieter, calmer life than I did in my 20s and even 30s. In that time, I saw Guns N' Roses go from an unstoppable force to an ever-changing line-up of band members, to utter disintegration.

I last saw Guns N' Roses live in 2002, shortly before their tour was cancelled. They were only mildly late to the stage, but the show was well worth it - three hours plus of music, including the various asides and rants against everything from Slash to the state of digital media by Axl.

While I'm no longer the wiry kid with anger issues, I certainly have held to the credo of expressing myself. I've had my writing published in various places (outside of this neglected blog), and I still belt out a song (or ten) when so inspired. I've gone through some tumultuous times (often by sticking my foot in places it didn't belong, despite what better judgement might have said), and at times I've chosen the uphill fight when I shouldn't have tried to go against gravity in the first place. I'd like to think I'm a bit wiser, slightly more cautious, and not as headstrong (or heartstrong, as the case may be) about proving that I can do a thing when logic and odds tell me I shouldn't have a dog in the fight. I'm a little worse for wear, ragged  and torn in certain places, and have probably shaved years off of my life due to various stressful situations and relationships, and how I managed it in my younger years. However, the important thing is to take lessons (no matter how bad they may seem when you're standing in the middle of the aftermath), learn from them, and apply that wisdom down the road.

While Slash has stuck to blues rock and Axl's relationship with his former bandmates has pretty much stayed on the level of bitter divorcees for the past decade or so, I can look back and say I've grown, but the music and lyrics of Guns N' Roses fueled the initial fire that still hasn't been extinguished. I still listen to those songs with more consistency than other artists I enjoy (of which there are quite a few - many of which have remained relevant), and I never forget what took me from a quiet kid with too much on his mind that he never said, to who I am now.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

I Survived Bigfoot

A very good friend of mine runs a podcast over at Less Than Credulous. In the premier episode of 2013, he went over an interesting article that brought to light the possibility of more branches on our evolutionary tree than we previously thought existed.

Because of that episode (and persistent insomnia combine with a dash of poor taste), I decided to overindulge my curiosity and watch various "documentaries" and television series on ancient civilizations (the ones that weren't influenced by aliens, anyway), ghosts, legendary monsters, and the eternal hunt for Bigfoot.

Most of these shows were created with a simple formula:

Outlandish presumption + bad science + cheap camera equipment/terrible reenactments = ratings!

If it's a ghost, then it very well could be the dead trying to contact the living. If it's a possession, then it has to be demonic forces trying to control a young child. If it's one (or more than one) UFO sighting, then it must be of extraterrestrial origin. (As an aside, the aforementioned shows are all on a network that also has a series dedicated to the joys of bacon - and eating as much of it as possible - so take from that what you will and extrapolate what the viewer demographics are like.)

Then I turned to Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot. I'm not even sure why I watch this, other than to see the mental gymnastics the cast jumps through to get from Instance A to "IT MUST BE A SASQUATCH!" (Or 'squatch, as is the preferred lingo of the show.) My problems with this show are twofold. The first is that we're not even given the premise of if Bigfoot exists. The premise the show runs with is that Bigfoot exists, an we can't believe how crafty it is at remaining hidden when there's obviously evidence all over the place (except when people are actively looking for it - because Bigfoot obviously travels along some kind of scalar telemetry). The second issue I have is that there is one biologist (as in a person who possibly once knew a real scientific field at one point) to offer a balanced point of view - which is done in such a way as to show the lack of 'Squatch presence is the exception that proves the rule that they are everywhere.

This is not to say that Finding Bigfoot isn't an educational show for the Sasquatch enthusiast. In fact, I've put together a short list of things I've learned about Bigfoot since overdosing on the series:

  • If you hear noises in the woods at night, it's probably a Sasquatch
  • If you hear animals that aren't Bigfoot, they're probably alerting one another about the presence of a Sasquatch
  • Bigfoot is omnivorous, but we've never figure out how many calories it needs to sustain its weight/height/active lifestyle
  • There are often forest fires in northern California that drive animals out from the wild. Those left behind typically die. Why have we never seen a Sasquatch trying to escape these wildfires? On the other side of things, why haven't we found any remains (not just where fires have taken place - but anywhere)?
  • Given the last point, Bigfoot is probably a pyro. Also, Bigfoot's a bit of a jerk. (See how I applied good science there?)
  • If you can't find something you swear you might have seen, it's most likely Bigfoot. My keys (and one of my socks, when I did laundry the other day) exhibited some pretty classic 'Squatch behavior.
  • From re-enactment footage, Bigfoot has not evolved much past mid-90s computer renderings.
Now, apart from ripping on Sasquatch - an if he existed, he damn well would show up to defend himself - I want to bring this back to proper skepticism (something that the cast of Finding Bigfoot does not employ). We hear something along the lines of "I saw Bigfoot" and we tend to scoff. People everywhere experience things they cannot immediately explain. I don't know military and commercial flight patterns - much less satellite orbits - so if I see something in the sky that doesn't immediately fall into the aircraft/balloon/bird/Frisbee category, then it is unidentified (to me). Does it make it extraterrestrial in origin because of my lack of facts? No. (Everyone knows most UFOs come from inside our hollow earth, anyway.) But with a little research - much like carving an elephant from a block of stone - I can tell you what I didn't see, without using "aliens must be visiting our planet" as my starting point.

What I'm saying is people everywhere see things they can't explain, an applied skepticism can help narrow down the probable subjects. This is not to be confused with cynicism, which will lead us to scoff at any outlandish claim of "I saw a thing!" (no matter how much fun it is to take that route). 

Let me draw it back to the opening of this post. Sasquatch, the Orang Pendek, the Yeti, or any of these other Bigfoot-esque creatures that seem to be very prevalent - but whose existence is never (as yet) verified - probably don't exist. We cannot stack anecdotal evidence against scientific proof and say that because the former outweighs the latter, then science is wrong. That's a scary road to travel down when we apply it to things that aren't Bigfoot (such as when human life begins, if people have souls, etc.). 

However, the evidence that there might be more branches on our evolutionary tree does open up the possibility that there are more things on Earth than are dreamed of in our philosophies (a bad paraphrase). There is a chance that Sasquatch-esque beings existed at one point - and possibly never died out. Does that mean they definitely exist? No. Nothing definitely exists unless there's actual proof - and a broken tree or a few howls in the night do not make for scientific evidence. 

Besides, I'm pretty sure Bigfoot owns a bunch of burrow owls. They're in it with the aliens! And we have definitive proof of what the queers are doing to the soil!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Rilke And Other Poets

I've been on a bit of a poetry kick, lately - revisiting old friends in their residence on my bookshelves and becoming acquainted with new ones. With exception, I've never really had a mind for poetry. No matter how wonderful, or what it meant to me a poet's work is (at its core) personal expression that is rarely meant for public consumption on the same level as when it was penned. I enjoy good songs, and apart from certain works, that's pretty much where rhyming should end. I've tried my hand at poetry, and my years spent writing lyrics to songs tells me that the two are not interchangeable.*

When I lived in New Hampshire (the first time - because I can't get enough of any climate that my body dislikes), I lived a few minutes away from Robert Frost's farm. In the United States, Frost is held up as a great American poet (usually without an apology to American poets). I drove out to the Frost Farm a few times to see if it had anything that would allow me to peer inside the poet's soul - and to get a glimpse of the inspiration he used in his poetry.

There were stone walls and fences. (I'm not sure if it was a commentary of the passing years or the initial craftsmanship, but neither were really holding up to the test of time.) There was indeed a yellow wood (though yellow woods with roads diverging in them can be found all over New Hampshire). There was not, however, any inspiration - which reaffirmed my opinion of Frost's poetry: He was the equivalent of someone who who calls himself an artist simply because he picks up a book on impressionism  and starts drawing still life portraits of the things in his refrigerator.

Of all the poets I've met (which is quite a few - I used to spend more time in bars than in my home), the decent ones never decided to become poets and then write poetry. More times than not, these people were writing poetry well before they ever thought of themselves as poets.

Poets have subject matter. They have something to say - no matter how outlandish it may appear, at first blush. Frost wasn't a poet - he was an Almanac reporter who felt the need to put everything into stanzas so people wouldn't realize how boring contemplating a birch tree really is.

Then one picks up a copy of The Duino Elegies (Rilke was a contemporary of Frost's) and the difference is like comparing apples to plutonium. There is passion and madness in Rilke's work - the likes of which very few, even in their most fevered moments, achieve when setting pen to paper (says the person who writes advertising content for a living).

Where Frost drones on describing some mundane memory like the elderly relative you are hoping will just drift off to sleep so you can go out and have some fun, Rilke writes the following while observing a torso of Apollo on a museum:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze now turned so low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Wait. What? Whether that last statement is Rilke's self-reflection, or if he is chiding Apollo - or something completely different - the description is deep and the last words are almost a punchline that comes out of nowhere to stun the reader.

At this point, one cannot tell if many "good" poets off themselves because they cannot get over that wall that impedes full expression through words, and the ensuing madness is too much to bear; or because they pick up a poetry anthology and see their works included with some guy who has promises to keep and miles to go before his NyQuil kicks in.

At best, Frost is a pale imitation of Emily Dickinson (and her rhyming and subject matter actually worked). I often question whether I hate nature, and not Frost. No. I love trees, and rocks, and lilacs, and birds - but they do themselves more justice by existing, without me attempting to turn an Audubon entry into rhyming stanzas.

I have nowhere else to go with this post that doesn't contain differently worded jabs already stated in the above paragraphs. Go now. Read Rilke (preferably the Stephen Mitchell translations, because the others just fall flat - which leads me to question whether I like the poet at all, instead of the one who's doing the translating). Hell, read everything you can get your hands on - poetry, prose, the financial section of the newspaper, ingredient lists on cereal boxes - everything!

I'll just leave with the poem that got me back into reading poetry. This one does resonate with me on a number of levels - though I can almost guarantee it in no way comes close to what the author meant or felt at the time it was written:

[You who never arrived]

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don't even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of the next
moment. All the immense
images in me -- the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers and bridges and un-
suspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods --
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.

You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house --, and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me. Streets that I chanced upon, --
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back
my too-sudden image. Who knows? perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening...

*This is not to say I eschew poems where the author plays with words as a cat plays with prey - and the perfectly chosen rhyme or pun to drive home a point or to succinctly express what would otherwise take volumes are always appreciated.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bread: From Alchemy To Science

I want to abruptly shift gears today, and write about bread. What? I can almost feel the bounce rate on this site increasing, because this post isn't about games or random thoughts that a man with too much time and a fully (well, half) stocked bar is prone to sharing.

I've been able to conquer any recipe or cooking concept that inspires me with the "let's try this, it'll be fun!" feeling that leads to every appliance and utensil being used in the kitchen and producing something that (more times than not) is edible. Sometimes those creations even slightly resemble food that one might enjoy.

The one thing that has managed to elude me is baking - and not the kind where you dump a mix into a bowl or stir together flour and eggs. Cakes, zucchini bread, cheesecakes, and the like - these are all in my monkey-sphere, and can be created at the drop of a hat, when I am so moved. What I'm talking about is baking that involves yeast, precise  measurements, and methods that require patience and a decent amount of labor.
This cheesecake contains almost a full liter of chocolate-espresso liqueur. I made an entire store staff tipsy.

When I was young and learning things in restaurants, the one commonality I picked up from professional chefs is that very few of them enjoyed baking, or would even acquiesce to doing so. Baking for the masses wasn't beneath them, per se, but (as I believe the charter of the Cordon Bleu puts it) a huge pain in the ass.

Every time I've attempted to make a thing that involved yeast (other than beer or soda - I managed to conquer those on the second or third try), it either never rose, partially rose, or ended up in the garbage shortly after things were mixed.

In December, my brother sent me a book, The Kitchen As Laboratory, which (apart from giving insight into molecular cuisine - which is the next fun project on my list) tells the reader exactly why ingredients work the way they do. How exactly does sugar work? How do you make a perfect grilled cheese and what makes it better than any bachelor food you've ever had?  What is the science of bacon?

Over the centuries, our species has stumbled upon some amazing scientific processes, and turned them into rituals, because the end results were great tasting, and sometimes intoxicating. Did we understand the chemical reactions the first time we, as a species, made wine? Probably not. Bread? Odds are against it, but we knew how to combine things ad what motions to make in order for these mysteries to reveal themselves.

Let's call it culinary alchemy.

Back to baking - it's a very precise science. Given my many previous attempts at bread, if this had been an earlier era, my colony of settlers or nomads would have died may times over. That, or I'd learn to "invent" flatbread at spear point.

Luckily, I do not live in such a time, and to help with my adventures in chemistry, I acquired a bread machine (it was also a gift). Cheating? Not in the least. I think of it as a lab station unto itself, in which the compounds are unaffected by outside influences such as ambient temperature, air pressure, experimental noise blasting from my computer, or even the occasional feline house guest. The bread machine I use can create anything up to a 2-pound loaf of bread. I do not know what this means, exactly, I just know that volume-wise (perhaps a more accurate measurement) the results can equal almost two loaves of bread that you'd normally find in the bakery section of your grocery store.

The first thing I learned about using a bread machine, was that while it is a fantastic piece of technology, there are times when one should not follow instructions. The recipes that came with the contraption do, in fact, make a dough - but depending on which recipe is followed to the letter, the results are either crumbly or soupy, neither of which make for bread, but it was almost comforting in a Stockholm sort of way to see that I couldn't make bread even by following the experts' directions.

Where does one turn when the correct information isn't staring you in the face? The Internet! It's full of (mis)information, and if you know how to not deviate form your goal, you can sometimes turn up useful nuggets of knowledge.

After skimming various sites pertaining to bread machines, I found some guidelines and ingredient proportions that actually seemed reasonable. In fact, there is a basic recipe for any bread machine that will allow you to be adventurous:

1.5 Cups of water
3.5 Cups of flour
1 Teaspoon of salt
0.25 Cups oil
3 Tablespoons of sugar
2 Teaspoons of active dry yeast

Note: Many bread recipes will require dry milk, but this is totally a lie.

In the bread machine, add your wet ingredients and salt. On top of that, add your flour, and mace a small indentation where your sugar and yeast will rest (and add them, of course). Close the lid on the machine, and let the magic happen.

The device will pre-heat and mix the ingredients, at which time you should peek in to see if the dough needs more flour or water, depending on its consistency (it should be elastic and pulling away from the edges of the baking pan). Now let it go through the rising, kneading, rising kneading, and (eventually) baking stages.

In about 3-4 hours from when you started this whole process, you should have a warm loaf of fresh bread.

The science!

It really isn't much more impressive than a basic organic chemistry class. When warm water and sugar meet yeast, a party starts. The yeast ferments the sugar and gas is released. If that reaction is happening in flour, the dough created from the entire combination rises. It's an S&M party, with very little of the psychology that's typically involved. The dough rises, gets beaten down, and enjoys it so much that it rises a few more times. Apply heat, let the final product set for a few minutes, slice, ad enjoy!

Now that you have bread, and a new feather in your cap, you might sit down and think to yourself, "Well, I know how to make a boring loaf of bread. What else can I do?"

Sun-dried tomatoes and garlic bread

ANYTHING! (within reason)

The neat thing about that bread recipe is that you can add just about anything, and and up with something that will impress. Just make sure they go in with the wet ingredients before you add the flour, sugar, and yeast. Sun dried tomatoes? Add as many as you'd like! Fresh rosemary or basil? Yes, but those are very strong herbs, so use them in moderation. Minced garlic? Oddly enough, whatever you think is enough garlic triple the amount. (I'm not saying this because of my lifelong love affair with garlic, but because the flavor mellows as it cooks, so it's easy to "lose" a flavor by not adding enough of it.) You can even create a culture so you have your own sourdough starter (another project I hope to accomplish in the near future).

A few words about cheese

It is perfectly fine to add cheeses to your bread mixture, but don't let them outsmart you. The average store-bought cheddar contains a lot of oil, which will result in a soupy dough. This can result in large air bubbles when the yeast starts to rise.

Hard cheeses, such as Parmesan, Romano, or any thoroughly aged cheese will add a lot of flavor, while also not making the dough too oily - you just have to add quit a bit of it for the flavor to permeate the entire loaf.

Rosemary and Asiago 

Ingredients to avoid

While a basic dough recipe is a blank canvas, there are certain things that will just kill the yeast when mixed. Anything that's highly acidic and without much sugar content will leave you with a veritable yeast burial ground. Vinegar, low-sugar citrus fruits, and things of that nature would fall into this category. You should also avoid adding meat or things which have too much sugar (some juices, for example), which will just burn on the heating element of the machine.

You just put up a sign that says "Don't walk on the grass." I want to walk on the grass!

Fine. Then let me guide you in your petulance. After the dough it thoroughly mixed and kneaded, but just before the bread machine starts baking the concoction, remove the mixture. Now you have a bit more freedom. Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Now you can roll out the dough and turn it into a pizza. Sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on the dough, roll it back up, and cut it into small pastries. Use it as a crust on a pot pie. Whatever strikes your fancy! Ball up the dough. Braid it and make an herbed glaze to blush on it as it bakes. Try your hand as becoming the world culinary version of the Plaster Casters. There's a whole world of baking open to you, and limited by only your imagination and science!

When not playing games, writing or reading books, Jonathan can be found in the kitchen - wearing goggles, a lab coat, and laughing maniacally at his creations (and sighing in relief when things don't blow up).

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