Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thursday Scramble!

Thursday Scramble! is when I take an older post from one of my other blogs, and repost it to all my blogs so you can see what you're missing. Today's post first appeared on The Best Of Everything on January 13, 2009. It's called

The Best Pizza Topping:

Yesterday, I had a lot of time to think. And this topic is one of the things I thought about. Specifically, here's what happened: I was driving home from Milwaukee, about a 1 1/2 hour drive, and I put on the song "This Guy's In Love With You" performed by Herb Alpert & His Tijuana Brass. You know the song, right?

And as I listened to that song, this thought suddenly occurred to me:

When does a thing stop being that thing and start being something else?

Which doesn't immediately, I know, make sense, but it will, if you bear with me as I do a little thought experiment.

Picture a ray. You remember "rays" from math class in high school, right? A line extending from a point in space off into infinity, represented by an arrow with a dot at one end.
Yeah, the middle one. Picture that ray, and assume that point "C" represents "pizza" the way "pizza" originally was intended to be represented, like, say, this:And maybe that's not your idea of a pizza. Maybe your idea of a pizza is something thinner crusted or square or with anchovies or whatever, but that's not the point. Or it is the point but I'm not yet at the point where I'm ready to make my point, so whatever your idea of a pizza is, of the quintessential pizza, get that picture in your mind, and picture your own Quintessential Pizza as the point at which the ray begins.

Got that? Now, picture, in your mind, making more and more changes to the Quintessential Pizza, each change moving you a little further along that ray, each change not a big deal, in and of itself, not so far removed from what came before, but each a change nonetheless. As that happens, as you keep making little changes here and there to your Q.P., this mathematically- and scientifically-accurate diagram gives an idea what happens:

As you can see from that Scientific chart, at some point, you, the Q.P. creator, have moved so far away from your starting point that we, as human beings/scientific observers, have to ask, in the interest of philosophical, intellectual inquiry, this question:

Is what you've got really a pizza anymore?

Which begs this question:

What is the essence of a pizza?

Which begs this question:

What is the essence of ANYTHING?

Which is how you can get from Herb Alpert to questioning the very foundations of human existence via pepperoni.

But this is a serious question, albeit a serious question I am choosing to answer via the method of "pizza-as-demonstrative-example." (I was about to say "Pizza-as-allegory," because that sounded good, but the pizza isn't really allegorical in this article, it's demonstrative.)

Which begs this question:

Which sounds better, "Quintessential Pizza" or "Allegorical Pizza?"

I think the answer is "Allegorical Pizza." But anyway, the pizza in this article is not allegorical, it is demonstrative of the question of when a thing stops being that thing, a question that actually was on my mind because I read the "novella" Disquiet on Saturday. Disquiet, by Julia Leigh, is a very, very good story. After I read it, though, I questioned whether it is a novel or novella or a long short story, and then I wondered whether that matters.

I decided that it is a very long short story, and that yes, it does matter.

Here's how I decided it's a very long short story: the transformations that the characters go through are ambiguous and not clearly explained, and much of the plot occurs offscreen or is left untold. That's the criteria I apply to a short story, as opposed to a novel. A novel is not only longer, but has more development, more wrap-up, more explanation.

In a short story, a character might (as one of mine did, once) get in her car and try to drive away from her house with her young daughter, only to rethink her actions as a thunderstorm starts to set in, and go back. And the reader might (as my readers were) be left to wonder or fill in the blanks as to why the woman is leaving, why the thunderstorm makes her change her mind. The short story shows an episode in the woman's life with some explanation but with little change in her and with little beyond that episode explicated.

If that story were a novel, though, we would expect more detail, more plot, more description, more backstory, more of everything. The short story is a snapshot; the novel is a photo album.

That's not to say one is better than the other; it's to say that each label carries with it a set of expectations and rules that guide the writer, and the reader, and determine how they should interact with each other through the medium being used. A short story cannot be said to be better or worse than a novel any more than a sculpture could be said to be better or worse than a painting.

The problem, if there is one, arises when we use the wrong terminology to describe something. If I told you to come to my house to see a sculpture, and showed you "Red Yellow Blue,"

you might be mystified. That's a painting, you might say, and while you might like "Red Yellow Blue," you may find yourself befuddled because you were expecting a three dimensional sculpture only to be presented with a two dimensional painting.

Or maybe you think you did see a sculpture, because "Red Yellow Blue" is three canvases separated from each other so that it is more than a two-dimensional splattering of paint on a canvas, it takes into account the space between the canvases and can be rearranged and in that way fully inhabits or more fully inhabits a three-dimensional world than a "painting," but is it a sculpture? When I say sculpture, do you think of "Red, Yellow, Blue," or do you think of this:

And if you do think of that, why didn't you think of this

when I said "sculpture?" Aren't they both sculptures? Of course they are: but one is more sculpture-y than the other. One is more a quintessential sculpture.

Which is my point again, here. At some point, a sculpture stops being a sculpture. As it gets bigger, and more made of metal, and more standing-in-a-harbor-in-New York, it stops being a "sculpture" and starts being a "statue" or "monument." And as it gets flatter and more primary-color-ish and on canvas, it stops being a "sculpture" and starts being a painting.

And as Disquiet failed to tie up all of its storylines, it stopped being a novel and became more of a short story. Which in Disquiet's case was not actually a bad thing. It wasn't what I expected, because I was told it's a novel, and so I expected more wrap up, but given the nature of the story and the general feel of the story, being left hanging somewhat at the end despite expecting more resolution wasn't a bad thing itself, either -- it made the story more of a meta-story, instilling in me one last time the exact feeling (of disquiet) that the author was going for.

So maybe messing with one's expectations can work, in some instances. But in pizza? That's where we began, after all, to consider whether a thing can ever stop being a thing, and as this discussion is important, it will help to keep it rooted in the things of reality: Herb Alpert and pizza.

So when is a pizza no longer a pizza? Is a breakfast pizza a pizza? I had a sample of breakfast pizza at the store two weeks ago -- miraculously, given that pizza samples are amazingly rare in the real world, and I had to wonder is this pizza? It was round -- like a pizza, except that sometimes when I make pizza at home I run out of pans and have to resort to making some of them square or rectangle. It had a pizza crust on it, which is like a pizza. But it had eggs and cheese, and while pizzas have cheese they don't have breakfast-y kind of cheese on them, they have pizza-y kinds of cheese on them: mozzarella, which I think is chosen for the way it can hold everything on the pizza while not having much actual flavor, which is why I usually substitute in some other kind of cheese on my homemade pizzas, because I like the stronger flavor, and because I also had a goat cheese pizza and liked that, too.

The breakfast pizza was toasted in a toaster oven, but aren't pizzas supposed to be cooked in pizza ovens? I sometimes grill mine, too, making them using the broiler setting.

All of which leads to much confusion: was this a pizza at all? And if it was a pizza, why is it a pizza?

What about the "mashed potato pizza" that I sometimes make using an idea I stole from a pizzeria -- making a pizza crust and then putting mashed potatoes into it and then topping it with pizza toppings and baking it? Is that a pizza?

And if it is, what about the "fruit pizza" my mother-in-law makes -- that's a sugar cookie with fruit and frosting on it. Is that a pizza?

And if that's a pizza, then isn't everything a pizza? If all that's required of a pizza is that it be round, more or less, and be called a pizza, then isn't this:

A pizza if I call it a pizza?

I come down on both sides of that issue. I understand the allure of saying that things have to be what we call them, that everything has to have a category, that a pizza must have some definable quality or qualities that makes it a pizza and that if something doesn't have all or most or enough of those qualities, then it's not a pizza, because then everything makes more sense and expectations are not dashed and we all know what we mean when we invite each other over for pizza -- nobody will be invited over for pizza and be served eggs on a crust, or fruit on a cookie.

But on the other hand, I see, too, the side that says anything can be a pizza if we want it to be, for two reasons.

First, the practical: I want to be aligned with the anything can be a pizza crowd because my pick for The Best Pizza Topping is mashed potatoes. Ever since coming across the potato pizza as an appetizer in that restaurant, I've loved the potato pizza. Done right, it is (as the pigeon might say of the hot dog) a taste sensation. It combines the mushy-but-crisp-edged creaminess of a twice-baked potato with the gluey cheese and savory tomato sauce and spicy sausage and fruity pineapple and zing of the onions that I like on my non-potato-pizzas, and does so in a way that creates a new feeling, a new thing that is both pizza and not pizza at the same time.

And that is the impractical, esoteric reason why I see the appeal of the anything can be a pizza argument: Because if we rigidly define life's categories, if we say a statue is a statue, and a pizza is a pizza, and things that aren't quite statues or pizzas aren't statues or pizzas at all, then we are limiting ourselves and our thoughts. We'll be saying to our imaginations: no, you can't put that on a pizza, or no, you can't sculpt that or no, Herb Alpert, you can't have the Tijuana Brass play with you (it'd been a while since I'd mentioned Herb) and we'll say that because pizzas don't have that, whatever that is, on them -- so pizzas will never have that on them, and limiting ourselves like that raises the prospect that we'll stop innovating at all.

After all, it's easier to take tiny steps than giant leaps. It's easier to decide to move a city away than a continent away. It's easier to move from painting to sculpting if a painting can kind of be a sculpture. And it's easier to try to mix something into your pizza than to create an entirely new dish... but doing all those little steps leads you into a direction that you might not have tried, had you had to do it whole hog right off the bat. How tough was it, do you suppose, for Columbus to get on his ship and sail towards the edge of the world? Pretty tough, I imagine. What if, instead, Columbus had known of five, six, seven island chains all stringing off into the west, and had decided he was just going to follow them and see if there was an eighth and instead of finding the Eighth Islands, he found America?

What if the space program, instead of trying first to get to the moon, had set off for the nearest star outside our solar system, Proxima Centauri? That's only 4.2 light years away. Voyager, our fastest spaceship, moves at 17.4 km/second. At that rate, it would have reached Proxima Centauri in 7 million years. Why would we have even tried to go into space if we wouldn't see results for 7 million years?

Tiny steps, incremental changes, minor modifications, shifting standards, can lead to big things. And not pigeonholing things into one category lets people experiment with tiny steps and incremental changes. And, not pigeonholing things into one category allows the mind to wander. It allows people to expand their mental horizons, to picture more than one thing when just one word is used, to play with the shifting sands of our imagination and in doing so, create something new, something wondrous, something that challenges our expectations and makes us think, at the end of our novel, or as we bite into a pizza, or look at a painting: "Hmm. Well, that was interesting. That wasn't what I expected at all."

In the end, that's one of the best things about Mashed Potatoes being The Best Pizza Topping: allowing mashed potatoes to be pizza opens the door for a world where one can move from pondering Herb Alpert to questioning the very basis of reality -- and that kind of world is the kind of world I want to live in, the kind of a world where a thing never stops being that thing but can be that thing and something else, entirely, all at once.

Here's a little more Herb to play you out:

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the After
Saoirse's life didn't really begin until it ended: When a plane crashes, Saoirse wakes up in 'the After,' a place where everything is exactly what you want, unless what you want is to not be there.

Confused at first, Saoirse's new... life?... takes a turn for the (more) unexpected when William Howard Taft knocks on her door and says he knows a way out. From there, Saoirse travels through scenarios that are fantastical and mundane at the same time, trying to discover not just a way to end this new existence, but also whether she wants to do that in the first place.

'the After' is a heartbreakingly sad and funny mystical journey through one version of what happens after we die, told through the eyes of a woman clinging to the memory of a life she didn't know she cared about. Thoughtful but action-packed, 'the After' presents an entirely new and not always comforting view of what comes next for us all.

Click here to buy it on Kindle, or here to buy the paperback from Amazon.


Rusty Webb said...

Well, I enjoyed the way back machine. Thanks for sharing. I'd point out that, while I like your thoughtful look at what makes a novel, novella, or short story, I'd point out that, at least for awards, it's determined by length and nothing else.

Of course, your point still stands, I'm just being contrary.

Well, as long as I'm being contrary - i.e., a jerk - I'd point out that you might be off by an order of magnitude concerning a trip to Proxima Centauri. I think 50,000 years in the figure bandied about, not 7 million. Maybe you did your calculation from Kps to 4.2 light years but somehow figured for kph instead - that would give you a number in the millions of years.

Okay, yet again, your point is well taken though. When is my car not a car, and instead a truck? That El Camino from the 70's really got the ball rolling on that question, but now all sorts of 'crossover' vehicles fill our roads.

My wife's car, er suv, um, whatever, is clearly and suv, but it was built on the chassis of a car, it has a car's engine, in fact, everything about it is a car. So why is it clearly an suv? Well, because all you have to do is look at it. It just is.

I shouldn't be doing this when I'm sick. I should have just said, 'nice post' and went about my day.

Andrew Leon said...

I was just having a discussion with a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago about the nature of the novel and how that has changed over time. 20 years ago, for something to be a novel, it needed to have at least 80-100K words. These days, it only needs 40K words to be considered a novel. However, when the novel was first "invented," it had nothing to do with length. It had to do with subject matter.

I feel like I should have something more deep to say about all of this, but, right now, I don't.