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Sunday Announcement

Due to unforeseen medical circumstances, I may be taking a hiatus from the site, or at least re-running select articles for a while. Note: The medical issue is not related to COVID-19 in any way, as far as I know.

But there are two main issues that leave me in the dark here at the moment.

The first: I don’t have Kaiser medical insurance right now. I had that with a former employer and then via Covered California, and it was great. Of course, Kaiser is a not-for-profit medical group and, while it’s an HMO (which a lot of people hate) I loved it for exactly that reason.

Make an appointment, go to the medical center of your choice, and all of the specialists, diagnostic equipment, and in many cases hospitals, are all right there. So are the lab and pharmacy.

The second: I do have insurance through my employer right now, but the company is in one state and I’m in another. It’s also a PPO, which I don’t have a lot of experience with. I guess the key is making sure that any provider I’m referred to is “in network.” That wasn’t a problem with Kaiser, because if it said that name on the building, then it was in network.

The challenge has been trying to find one provider to start with that is in network, and that search hasn’t been successful. Once I get to that point and get admitted, that’s when I hope that the doctors can get to work and fix things, which aren’t that different than last time.

But I just don’t know yet how long that’s going to take to get the process started. So… I’m going to try to pre-program various existing posts to re-run again for the next couple of weeks. I’ll try to avoid anything that’s too topical, but it’s not always easy.

And, as opportunity presents itself, I will pop in with an update on what’s going on.

Thanks for your understanding and yes, I know — medical care in the U.S. sucks.

Friday Free-for-All #2

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know!

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What small thing makes you angrier than it should?

The one thing that consistently makes me angry is other drivers — particularly when they’re doing stupid things or just not paying attention. Or, worse, when they don’t get the concept of how to let another lane that’s forced to merge into theirs.

“Oh no. Those cars want to get in. Better ride the bumper of the car in front of me!”

And when the green left turn arrow turns green, as soon as the other a-holes who are still turning left through what’s now a red light for them clear, move your goddamn ass. Every day, I see a left-turn light that’s timed to get at least half a dozen cars through in a cycle manage two, or maybe three, all because the first person doesn’t go as soon as they can, and then the next two people leave gaps before they get going.

I have actually counted a full six seconds between the time I’ve made my left turn and am fully in the new lane and the time the car behind me is just crossing out of the crosswalk to start the left turn.

But these aren’t small things. They can really screw up traffic and make everyone late or, worse, they can cause accidents.

I also get angry at the human version of this — i.e., the one that happens when people are on foot, and I’ve ranted about that one as well, but again I think it’s justifiable to get angry when people are so oblivious that they manage to single-handedly block everything from a doorway to an escalator to a grocery store aisle. Put them in groups, and they can block an entire sidewalk.

But when it comes to things that are probably trivial that make me angrier than they should, the winner is people leaving shopping carts all over the parking lot at stores. And I know how they justify it. “Well, they pay people to bring the carts in, why should I do their job for them?”

Except… this isn’t automated checkout I’m referring to here, because that truly is an abomination, and an attempt to save money by making the customers do the work for free and reducing the actual paid staff.

Unless and until they create a cart-retrieving robot that can do it without missing any carts, accidentally grabbing anything that isn’t a cart, or ramming into cars or people, it’ll be that underpaid and increasingly a lot older than high school bagger/stocker who has to go out into whatever weather there is to make up for all those lazy asses who just dump their carts wherever.

Regarding that automated cart, Walmart was floating the idea back in 2016, but there’s been no hint of it happening since then. And since shopping cart theft is a major problem and expense for grocery stores, why spend even more money on something that might still manage to wander off despite its “go home” programming?

But let’s get back to that justification, because there’s another reason that “Well, they pay people to bring the carts in, why should I do their job for them?” is just plain wrong.

They don’t pay them to bring the carts back from everywhere. They pay them to bring them back from those cart corrals that are conveniently located all over the parking lot. Chances are that a shopper is never no more than thirty feet from one, if that, and it should be no big deal to roll that cart right on over and in.

But, no. And I’ve seen people dump carts everywhere. The more considerate among the lazy will try to place them out of the way at least, but I’ve seen people leave them right in the middle of an empty parking spot, behind someone else’s car or, worst of all, in the blue-striped section right next to a handicapped space.

Each one of these is heinous in its own way. Leave it in the middle of a spot? That means someone else can’t park there without stopping — potentially blocking other cars in the lot — then dealing with someone else’s laziness to make room for their own car.

Leave it behind someone else’s car? What if they happen to not see it before they back out? I’ve seen that one happen, and it can cause a huge mess, from damage to that person’s car (that the store winds up paying for, meaning that the customers ultimately do) to the cart being propelled to who-knows-where, slamming into other cars, moving or not, or people, or possibly even rolling into the street.

All because someone couldn’t be arsed to walk a few yards.

The worst though, as mentioned, is the handicapped space, and people who dump carts in the striped area immediately to either or both sides of the spot. Why? Because these areas are designed to allow entry and exit access to vans equipped with wheelchair ramps.

Generally, these areas are eight feet wide because that’s the amount of space needed to lower the ramp at a shallow enough angle that the person in the wheelchair can exit the van and still be in the striped zone once they’re on the ground.

If someone puts a cart there, it can make it impossible to deploy the ramp, and if the disabled person happens to be the only occupant of the vehicle, there’s no way that they’re going to be able to pop open a door, hop out to move the cart, then jump back in their wheelchair and use the ramp. I mean, come on. Think about it for one second.

Anyone thinking, “Oh, they can just call for someone to help” is the exact opposite of what the Americans with Disabilities Act is all about. It was designed so that people with disabilities or who are differently abled shouldn’t have to ask anyone for help.

And anyone especially thinking, “Oh, there are way too many handicapped spots anyway, they can find another one,” A) May your genitals suffer a scorchingly painful, regular, and incurable outbreak of shingles combined with either jock itch, a yeast infection, or both, and

  1. B) A handicap is what golfers get. That word should be expunged. Even “disabled” is iffy nowadays, seeing as how most people who are differently abled are still quite able to function in society because, well, you know… some people figured out and fought for how to make that possible.
  2. C) If someone takes advantage of the disabled parking placard system when they’re not — e.g. convincing a less than ethical doctor to sign the certificate when the only problem is that their patient is too lazy to walk an extra twenty feet — may they always wind up in the line that looks short, but is actually jam-packed with complaining Karens, and old people with lots of coupons who pay by check, and then be sandwiched between the two single parents with the pair of toddlers each that they won’t control, with both of the kids being screamers and throwers. Every damn time they go to the store, and so that it never takes less than twenty minutes to make it through check-out.

And you know what? I’ve now convinced myself that the whole “not returning the carts” issue is, in fact, not really a small thing, either. It does have a big effect on people. It’s just invisible to most of the inconsiderate class who doesn’t think ahead and empathize.

Which makes me reflect back on my driving anger and point out my own possible blind spot. How do I know for sure that the driver in front of me didn’t get T-boned when making a left turn, or got slammed into when someone merged abruptly into their lane, or they slammed into someone else, or they’ve had too many speeding tickets, or they’re just having a bad day, or have a cold, or…

I could go on, but there are probably reasons that those people aren’t assholes at all. Instead, they’re just human, and I’m the one being the asshole. After all, despite all of the “stupid” I see on my daily commute, I check out Google Maps when I get up, calculate the proper time to leave, and I’m never late to work. So it really doesn’t affect me at all.

Or, in other words, maybe that was the answer all along. A small thing that makes me angrier than it should is drivers just being human.

Image source: Image Howard Lake, used via Creative Commons (cc) 2.0.

The Saturday Morning Post #1

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know! Here is the first even installment of The Saturday Morning Post.

* * *

THE ROCKY ROAD FROM WALGREENS

I can’t believe how crowded it is at four in the morning in the 24-hour Walgreens on 7th in the Jewelry district. It’s your typical urban storefront business, taking up the entire ground floor of a 12-story building erected in 1923. Once upon a time, its footprint probably comprised multiple stores. Then again, in those days, specialization was everything, so that the bakery, butcher, deli, dry goods, grocer, liquor, newsstand, pet, pharmacy, stationary, and toy departments were their own individual businesses.

There’s a reason they call them supermarkets, superstores, big boxes and… face it, those terms are retro. I really mean Amazon Alphabet. Same idea. Everything available under one big metaphorical roof, delivered by the same drone army. Except for those of us, rich and poor, who buy local. Like me, this very morning.

Above the store are tons of apartments. I’d read somewhere one time that this building has the equivalent of just over five acres of living space in it. For some reason, most likely the lack of proximity to schools, there are also several hundred registered sex offenders living in it. This might explain why this particular Walgreens has adult magazines, although they come wrapped in discreet black plastic with only the title logo, date, price, and UPC code printed on the outside in stark white. Well, UPC in black bars in a white box, but there’s nary a VQR or AQR code showing, for reasons that should be obvious.

As I wait in line, I glance out the windows, not missing the irony that this Walgreens is directly across the street from a similarly-situated Rite Aid — they’re direct competitors — although it’s only the Walgreens that is open 24 hours a day.

I can’t believe that anything down here is open all night long, but a few years back, right when they finished the Purple Line extension, the city started paying pharmacies in certain areas to stay open, providing them with armed, on-duty LAPD officers, two per storefront.

The real razón de ser for the extended hours is that the city also subsidizes them to keep a good-sized supply of naloxone auto-injectors on hand to be administered for free by the rotating staff of ever-present nurses (these subsidized by the county) in order to prevent yet another needless opioid death. Yes, this sort of defeats the whole “auto” part of “injector,” but by the time most of these people make it in the door, they’re on the edge of not being able to do anything ever again.

Before the program, it wasn’t uncommon to walk down certain city blocks in the morning and have to step over the bodies. They were as prolific as those e–rental scooters had once been, and just as annoying. At least the scooter companies had all folded after the perfect triple disaster. First, pissed-off residents had started vandalizing and trashing the things almost from the beginning, one annoyed citizen becoming an infamous folk hero for tossing them into the Venice canals. Certain cities banned them outright, starting with Beverly Hills, then extending to Burbank, Glendale, Malibu, and West Hollywood. Next, an endless parade of hackers kept pumping out what they called “Scoot Free” apps that would fool the system into not charging riders, and they would defeat every new patch as soon as it came out in the longest known run of continuous Zero Day Exploits ever perpetrated.

This was just about the point that the original scooters that had survived started to hit 5,000 miles of use, at which point a terrible flaw suddenly revealed itself. Because some manufacturers had gone cheap, the batteries in the things would explode with enough force to launch the entire handlebar assembly into the air at least a hundred feet — or about thirty-two if the average hapless rider didn’t think to let go. Ironically, this was one of the few times that obesity saved lives by reducing the launch altitude to a survivable height (yay, physics?), although dislocated shoulders were very common.

Those companies had all either gone bankrupt or moved to other endeavors before the summer of 2025. But that really has nothing at all to do with why this Walgreens is so crowded at four in the  morning on a Tuesday in April. I’m thirteenth in line with two checkers on duty behind the dozen registers and, it being four in the morning, everyone looks extra bad — especially more so under the fluorescent lights. I’m trying to imagine what circle of hell this resembles through the 16K HD cameras that are watching us all from every direction when I notice the customer in front of me.

He’s twelfth in line, and he has only two items — both of them family-size twelve-packs of toilet paper that I can see are labeled “triple-ply” and “ultra-absorbent.” (Ah, “ultra” — that super meaningless advertising buzzword!) I look at his face, general demeanor, and hollow desperation in his eyes, and put it together quickly. Junky. Up until probably this morning, when for some reason he couldn’t score, and the inevitable end result of suddenly going off of a powerful constipating agent is probably just starting to kick in and he knows it.

Well, isn’t this going to be fun?

I shift the pint of Häagen-Dazs rocky road from my right hand to my left to warm up my fingers and wonder how long this is going to take. My ice cream run is an occasional indulgence, although it’s usually just in and out. I have no idea why tonight is so different. Still, I know I have time, since they keep the freezers cold enough here that the ice cream stays at brick consistency for ages.

On the other hand, the glacial pace of the line isn’t giving me any confidence. I have to wonder what the hell all these people are doing up at this hour. In my case, it’s simple. I had business to conduct online in real-time with Hong Kong, Melbourne, and London simultaneously, and the only time that synced them up was a window that had started two hours ago, even if it meant that Melbourne had to stay a bit past office hours. I’m used to it, everything turned out very well, and so my ice cream run was a bit of a celebration of a job well done.

As for the rest of these people, though? It’s doubtful that any of them have just completed a multi-billion dollar deal. Most of them seem to have come here desperately seeking relief from some great physical malady. I can see that a lot of them clutch small cardboard boxes that are strapped to security devices three times their size.

Small enough to steal easily, expensive enough to care about — ergo, cures for the torments that steal the sleep of humankind. You never see those security devices on playing cards or Scotch tape, either of which can vanish into a pocket in a second. And the customers’ distresses were etched deeply into their faces and even distorted their bodies. Hell, if I were a casting director, half of these people would make it onscreen for the next Zombie or Medieval Plague thing to be shot. The other half would probably land on the exciting new reality show Poor Life Choices!

Meanwhile, the flat screens are everywhere around us, scrolling through a series of happy images of stock-photo people of all possible demographic combinations as they enjoy freedom from acne, allergies, arthritis, athlete’s foot, bloating, constipation, cramps, depression, diarrhea, ED, hemorrhoids, migraines, social anxiety, and more. (Name your malady, it’s up there.) All of these seem to involve exuberant poses on stark white backgrounds or frolicking somewhere in nature with an implied loved one or family. The predominant color palette outside of white and various tones of human flesh involves “serious medicine” blue and “snap out of it” red, both of which happen to be Walgreens logo colors.

What? I’m in the psychology of marketing. I know how this shit works: All too well, especially on those who haven’t been vaccinated against it. But as I stand here waiting for the line to take one more Sisyphean step on its way up to the summit of catastrophe, I realize that I’m standing in a pile of anti-vaxxers, to use the quaint term from my college days before we got real and called them what they really are: pro-diseasers. Except that these people don’t avoid vaccinations against the diseases we finally did kill (again) like measles and polio. They embrace the ones we still can’t kill, like capitalism, commercialism, and corporatism, all of which are ultimately fatal.

Well, fatal unless you’re actively spreading them, in which case they confer a weird immunity on you which is called wealth. But that’s neither here nor there. And, anyway — ooh. Look at all the shiny hope they’re advertising on those screens!

And as the people in line distract themselves with the magic totems of HEALTH and HAPPINESS and SATISFACTION and LOVE and SEX and POWER being projected at them, I start to distract myself with the people in line and, sure enough, it’s a parade of all of the typical personas we create and manipulate in the lab before we take them into the field.

Oh. Pardon my jargon. A “persona” is a profile created by marketing people to describe a segment of the target audience for a particular brand, product, or industry. Generally, a company will have three or four, ranked in order from most loyal customer down to “not loyal, but still buys our shit.” And yes, thank the Lords Zuckerberg and Brin, because creating personae became so much easier once social media exploded and everyone became all the more willing to unknowingly complete marketing surveys with every single click. What? You think those free personality quizzes are there just out of the kindness of someone’s heart? Nope.

Remember these important words: “If a company is willing to give you something for free, then you are the product.” If you’re fine with selling yourself for nothing, then great. It makes my job much, much easier.

A consequence of this, though, is that I’m always hunting personas in the wild and, like I said, this place is full of them.

Look right now — there’s a “Karen.” She’s with checker number two. Well, Karen is the general industry term. In my shop, we refer to her as “Expired Yoga Pants.” I watch as she wastes a good ten minutes predictably bringing up the “Nordstrom Argument,” as in, “You should give me what I want because Nordstrom will refund anything without a receipt!” I wonder if she knows that a policy like that would drive a company out of business fast.

TL;DR: Nordstrom was infamous for allegedly actually giving refunds for anything, whether they sold it or not, with the classic example being a tire, or tires, or snow tire, or snow tires, returned for a cash refund from either an experienced clerk, a new and confused clerk, or the founder of the store himself, in either Nome, Fairbanks, or Seattle. In other words, the story is complete bullshit, even though you’ll hear it in business classes to this day as an example of “The customer is always right.”

By the way, “the customer is always right” is also bullshit. The correct version is “you should always make the customer feel like they’re right.” A huge difference, because you maintain goodwill either way, although the correct version is generally impossible to achieve with a Karen.

Now, while I’m watching Expired Yoga Pants go into high dudgeon at the young woman behind the counter, I realize that the guy in front of me has started nodding up and down, and I can hear him saying the rosary under his breath in Spanish, picking up the words “Santa Maria, madre de Dios ruega por nosotros los pecadores…”

“Perdóneme, señor,” I ask him, “¿Usted está enferma?”

He glances at me with a mixture of surprise and suspicion — white guy speaks Spanish? — then replies quickly, “No, no señor. Estoy bien. Sólo es que está muy temprano.”

Before I can reply, our conversation is ended when the customer at the counter pulls the ultimate “Karen” and screams, “I want to talk to your manager,” I can almost hear some of the other people around me shrug in glee when the tiny transwoman behind the counter, who can’t be more than 19, quietly replies, “I am the manager. I won’t be talked to like that. Get the fuck out of my store. And don’t come back. Bitch.”

So much for the customer always being right. Sometimes, the business is so much more right.

Expired Yoga Pants huffs out without her goodies and, I suppose, if everyone in this line at four in the morning on a Tuesday in April weren’t so desperate to check out and get relief, there might have been some kind of applause. Or at least smiles.

All the time that “Karen” was taking up the manager’s time, the other checker is being monopolized by… well, there’s no marketing persona for this one in my industry because, frankly, we don’t care, so we don’t even spend time collecting their data. At least my shop came up with a creative name for them — “Bathtubs.” As in… they’re usually white, mostly empty, going out of style, and circling the drain.

Yeah, cruel maybe, but they’re not a victim of marketing, they’re a victim of capitalism and time — although not quite a victim in the sense you’d think. My grandfather told me that what I’d heard about his father was true: When people back then retired, they could afford to do all kinds of shit. Travel. Maybe go back to school and learn new things. This bathtub’s generation wasn’t victimized by capitalism and time by having too little of either. Rather, he was victimized by having too much of both.

People like him are also victims of themselves. They grow old and die because they refuse to stay young and think.

Casinos, cruise lines, hotels, manufacturers of all kinds of assistant devices, pharmaceutical companies, and resorts market to these people hand over fist. Why? Because the good times of three quarters of a century ago meant that they actually retired with lots of money and pensions they could live on and they probably owned real estate that they bought for a few thousand dollars that is now worth a few million. I don’t deal with those industries, although I’d guess that they probably call their versions of their personas Thurston and Lovey — either that or Rich Uncle Pennybags.

But those people must have been a total fantasy, right? I’ve heard rumors that they existed, but I think they all finally died out around the turn of the century. The ones that survive now, the bathtubs, are their kids more likely. And it’s really sad to see how being forgotten by society grinds them down to… stubs, really. Or… no, there’s probably a better word (note to self: pitch this idea tomorrow, although we’ll never market to it) Yo-yos. An alleged toy from their youth that describes what they do — they keep coming back to what they know.

Which is why I watch this old man pause for at least twenty seconds between every step of this fucking transaction, and it makes me want to throw things at him.

Clerk: “That will $55.23.”

(Take your time to view a streamer on your dev here.)

Yo-Yo: “Fifty… fif… uh?”

(Loop that vid about four times, we’ll get back to you.)

Clerk: (heroically) “Yes. Yes. How do you want to pay?”

Yo-Yo: “Oh… kay…”

And then begins the epic drawing of the sword. No, sorry… the wallet. The ancient wallet full of actual money that is laboriously pulled Excalibur-like from one of the pockets of the ill-fitting and ridiculously colored shorts that this Yo-yo wears over black socks and sandals. Yes, it’s on a chain. Yes, it has too many snaps and zippers, and yes, it’s as much a mystery to him today as it was the day that his granddaughter gave it to him ten years ago because she had no other ideas and found it when she stopped to get FroYo in a strip mall on the way to his 75th birthday party.

This is about the point where I resist the urge to ask him how he even got here or if he knows what year it is. Hell, what century? And if you think that’s being snarky, sorry. But by the time I’m that old, I’m pretty sure we’ll have cured it, and migrated off of the planet anyway.

Or we’ll all be dead. Did I mention that, a week ago, it snowed here? And today it was 110. Four in the fucking morning and it’s still 85 degrees out. In April. A week after it snowed.

Between the time that “Karen” has come and gone and Yo-Yo is halfway to counting out two dollars, some kid who’s probably about fifteen hits the other counter. He’s riding a one-wheel, busily dictating a text into the headphone/mic dangling from his left ear, and has about fifteen items in his basket. Damn if he doesn’t get them all out to be scanned in something like ten seconds, is swiping the pring on his left hand over the paypoint even before the checker announces the total and has bagged everything before she smiles and says, “Have an okay day!”

He was in and done in less than half a minute. God, I love this generation, whatever they decide to call it, although one commentator, I forget who, suggested Generation Yuzz, because that was the first letter “Beyond Z” in the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. I suppose it would also work as Generation Yass, because these kids get shit done fast.

Oh yeah — kids his age fall under a persona we call “Jacobella,” named for the two most common baby names of the decade they were born in, and nicely also delineating the idea that they really don’t believe in any kind of binary designation, whether it comes to gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, political belief, religion, or… anything. They are definitely not generation “Either/Or.” They are generation “Yes, and more.” And they are the first generation which we have not broken down by gender or sexual orientation because, honestly, that would be impossible and pointless.

They’re a tricksey bunch for marketers because they’d rather spend their money on experiences, preferably ones they can share with their friends, or spend it on loved ones or give it away to charity. Of course, the oldest of them are only just about to graduate high school, so they’re living at home, and the youngest of them haven’t been born yet, but they’ve been monetizing their lives since at least fourth grade and will probably either live at home until well into their 30s or move into group homes with at least twenty people sharing an open loft or warehouse space in the seedier parts of the edges of the centers of town, like DTLA.

In other words, in five years, about six blocks south of here, between Pico and the 10 and Hope and Lebanon, is going to be full of Yuzzes, but that will only last for about five years before the Millennials smell money and gentrify the hell out of that place, too.

But I do digress… The end result of a Jacobella following up the “Karen” and beating out the Yo‑Yo is two customers down, eleven to go, and I could continue to tick off the marketing personas all night long, except I won’t, because when we got to ten to go (another Yuzz, only buying one thing, in and out, five seconds), something I should have predicted happened.

Remember the guy in front of me? The one buying bulk TP and nothing else at that hour? The one with the wild eyes and desperate look? I pegged it — a junky who’d suddenly been knocked out of the saddle, and was soon going to face one really, really major need.

See, when you’re on any variation of the opiates that don’t kill you, a very interesting thing happens. Your intestines nope out, your asshole shuts up for the week, and everything in your digestive system turns into cement. Boom. Locked. Your anus treats your shit like it’s the gold in Fort Knox.

All well and good, until somebody lets the Night Watch go, at which point it doesn’t take long before the dragon melts the walls, the castle gates open up and the troops all flee. (Sorry about the old streamy metaphors, but I had a nostalgic rewatch of that classic HBO tits and dragons series a couple of weeks ago. )

The tub of ice cream in my hand has just barely started to soften, but I can tell by El Vaquero’s expression that his stool has gotten a lot softer, and he’s not going to make it through the gauntlet of remaining personas, which include such gems as All the Things, Chatty, Coupons, another Karen, Price Check, Sloth, and “What?”

When he’s about eighth in line, I hear the quiet but unmistakable, “¡Chingadas!” so I calmly step back…

If you’d like more from the rest of the book, let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading.

Photo Credit: City Hall, DTLA, taken by the author, © 2017 Jon Bastian

Friday Free-for-All #1

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know! For this one, we go back to the first Friday Free-for-All ever.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to decide what this theme would be. On the surface, it seems like “just write whatever you want to” would work, but I tend to do that otherwise, constrained only by the subject of the day. But then I ran across a site that generates random questions, and realized that this was the way to go. In a sense, I’d be letting AI interview me. But to make it truly random, rather than take the first question, I pulled ten, and then used Excel’s RANDBETWEEN function to pick one from that list.

And you’re all invited to play. Feel free to answer the question yourself in the comments and let’s see what we all come up with. Now with no further ado, here we go…

What personality trait do you value most and which do you dislike the most?

This is a very interesting question because there are so many possibilities for the first one — sincerity, intelligence, punctuality, honesty, integrity, and so on. But beyond all of those, which are all very good things to have in my book, I think the one that anchors them all is curiosity about the world, and a desire to constantly learn new things.

All of the most interesting people I know are still students, whether they only graduated from high school six months ago or whether they’ve been retired for ten years. And they don’t necessarily have to be taking classes, but if they’re reading, listening to podcasts, studying on their own, whatever… it shows. And that kind of interest in self-growth extends to every other part of their life.

These are the people who actually remember things that I tell them when, for example, they can’t figure out how to do something on their computer. Their minds are definitely in “one and done” mode.

Me: “To do thing X push keys Y and Z, and then follow with A and B…”

Them: “Ah, got it, thanks.”

And the truly curious ones do, and never ask me the same question twice. The incurious ones, though? Every five goddamn minutes. “How do you do that thing, again?”

“Jesus, Mildred. I told you. Hit control-whatever, click on particular box, done.”

The great thing about curious people is that they never create the mindset of “oh, this is hard,” or “I can never learn that.” Instead, they dive in with a hearty and enthusiastic need to know and confidence in their ability to know it.

I’ve experienced both sides constantly in my own process of re-learning Spanish again and learning improv for the first time as an adult way out of college. The fellow students I encounter fall into two camps. One group asks questions and accepts answers. The other group complains and whines — “What I said should be right because…” This is always followed by a wrong example, and then they don’t listen to explanations.

The absolute classic version of this for students of Spanish is this: “It should be la agua, because agua ends in ‘a’ so it’s feminine.”

Except… this is one of those rules you just have to know. Yes, agua is feminine, but Spanish doesn’t like to put “la” before a word that starts with a stressed “a.” It’s exactly the same reason that English uses “an” instead of “a” before a vowel sound. It’s just easier to say.

So… the singular version of agua, which is still feminine, uses the masculine article to avoid the “a/a” crash: el agua. Other examples include el águila and el arpa. Note that with indefinite articles, it’s okay to go either way.

But, yeah. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen someone who is clearly only at a ¿Qué Hora Es? level of  Spanish insisting that they’re right. It’s… cute. Infuriating, but cute.

Now, when it comes to the one I dislike the most, you might think that I’d go for the easy opposite, which is “incuriosity.” However, that’s not it. I can just ignore incurious people and let them go on with their empty little lives. The personality trait I dislike the most is what we could probably classify as flakiness. That is, making a commitment to doing something, and then bailing out with no advance notice or explanation.

Now, this is different from saying you’ll come to something and then letting me know, last minute or not, that you can’t. That is totally fine. If you send a text an hour before with literally any reason in it, or even not a reason, then we’re cool.

“Sorry, stuck at work.”

“Sorry, forgot I had this other thing.”

“Sorry, I really don’t feel like it tonight.”

“Sorry, my S.O. surprised me with other plans.”

Those are all fantastic, and so is something as simple as the no reason, “Sorry. Can’t.”

That’s cool, too, because at least you’ve told me not to wait for you to show up, so you’ve respected me by doing that, and you’re awesome.

But… if you’ve told me, and especially if you’ve done it enthusiastically, “Oh, yeah, I’ll be there for sure,” and then your place is taken by crickets at time and date, and then you don’t bother to catch up later and say why… WTF, really?

That’s flakier than a bowl of morning cereal, and it’s not an attractive look for anyone. Want to know how to get fewer invites to anything? To paraphrase Archer, “This is how you get [fewer invites to anything.]”

Okay, I think they said ants, but whatever. The point is… if someone asks, you answer, and a simple “Yes” or “No” without excuses is acceptable. This is modern life. Enjoy it.

Image source: Image Howard Lake, used via Creative Commons (cc) 2.0.

Theatre Thursday: Remembering my real second language

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know!

As this time of lockdown and uncertainty goes on, what does become clear is that large, live events are probably not coming back soon. Live theatre, movies, concerts, and sports may take the rest of this year off, if not longer. Likewise, the fate of amusement parks of all kinds seems uncertain, or at least will be drastically changed.

Right now, we do have certain areas that have insisted on becoming field experiments, and by the time you read this, it may become clear whether the people who ran out to bars without masks last week did the right thing or made a stupid sacrifice.

Concerts may survive on live-streaming pay-per-view events for a while, and movie theaters may rediscover the drive-in, although those take a lot of real estate. Then again, indoor malls may now be officially dead, so look for their parking lots and large, blank walls to be easily converted.

Live sports are another matter because, by their very nature, they often involve full-body contact, and nobody is going to be going all-out on the field while wearing any kind of mask. Without quarantining every player, official, and support staff member, and testing each of them constantly, it’s just not feasible.

Even then, what about the live fans? It might be possible to limit attendance and assign seats so that social distancing is maintained, but that relies on trusting people to stay in the seats they’re put in, and as we all know, if someone is stuck in the outfield nosebleeds but sees plenty of empty space on the other side behind home plate, they’re going to try to get there.

One unexpected outcome is that eSports, like Overwatch League, may become the new sports simply because they absolutely can keep the players and fans apart while they all participate together.

See? The prophecy is true. After the apocalypse wipes out the jocks, the nerds will take over the world!

As for live theatre, it’s hanging on through a combination of streams of previously recorded, pre-shutdown performances, along with live Zoom shows. And, again, this is where the magic of theatre itself is a huge advantage because, throughout its history, it hasn’t relied on realistic special effects, or realism at all, to tell its stories.

Okay, so there have been times when theatre has gone in for the big-budget spectacle, but that goes back a lot further than modern Broadway. In ancient Rome, they were staging Naumachia, mock naval battles, but they were doing them as theatrical shows in flooded amphitheaters, including the Colosseum, and on a large scale.

And they’ve gone on throughout history, including Wild West Shows in the U.S. in the 19th century right up to the modern day, with things like amusement park spectacles, including Universals Waterworld and Terminator attractions, and Disney’s newly minted Star Wars Rise of the Resistance attraction,

But these big-budget spectacles are not necessary for theatre to work. All you need for theatre is one or more performers and the words.

Theatre is one of the earliest art-forms that each of us experiences, probably second only to music. And we experience it the first time, and every time, that someone reads to or tells us a story, no matter how simple or complicated.

Once upon a time…

That is theatre, and that’s why I know that it will survive eventually — but not right now, at least not in a familiar form.

And yes, this is a big blow to me on two fronts. First, I know that I won’t be doing improv or performing for a live audience for a long time. Second, I know that I won’t be seeing any of my plays performed onstage for a live audience for a long time.

This current plague quashed both of those options, shutting down my improv troupe and cancelling a play production that had been scheduled to open in April, then postponed to May, then postponed until… who knows?

But I’m not marching in the streets without a mask and armed to the teeth demanding that theatre reopen because I’m not selfish like that.

First, it’s because I still have a venue in which to tell stories and write and share, and you’re reading it right now, wherever in the world you are — and I see that I do have visitors from all over — in fact, from every continent except Antarctica, but including Australia, most of the Americas and Europe, some of Africa, and just about all of Asia. Greetings, everyone!

Second, I realized quite recently that this whole situation has inadvertently handed me the opportunity to get back into the first art-form that I officially trained in but never pursued as a profession for one reason: I loved it too much to turn it into the drudgery of a career, and always wanted to keep it for my own enjoyment.

Okay, sure, I did use it a few times from middle school through just after college in order to entertain others but, again, I was doing it for my own enjoyment.

That art-form is music, and I consider it my second language, because I started taking piano lessons at seven — and I was the one who cajoled my parents into letting me do so. The end result was that I was never really into playing other people’s stuff because, once all that music theory landed in my head and made sense, I started making my own.

That seems to be a common thing with my brain. Learn the way the modules work, start to stick them together to make them break the rules while still working. This is probably also the reason why I took to programming and coding early, and why I abuse Excel the way that I do.

Dirty little secret: Music is just math that sounds good. However, the great thing about it is that music also takes all of the pain out of math because it turns it into feelings. When I’m playing, improvising, and composing, my brain is absolutely not thinking in terms of what specific chord I’m playing, how it relates to the others, how it’s going to get from Point X to Y to make Z make sense, etc.

The thing about music and me is that its rules are buried so deeply into my subconscious that, well, like I said… I consider it to be my second language. And, when you’re fluent in any language, you don’t need to think. You just speak, whether it’s via your mouth and tongue, or via your heart and fingers.

So… live performance has been taken away from me by this virus for a while but that’s okay — because online research and ordering still exist, and stuff is on the way. So… I’m diving back into the most direct, emotional and, most importantly, non-word-dependent form of communication humans have ever invented.

Watch this space. Or… well, listen.

Wednesday Wonders: Seeing the real magic

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know!

And now for a story that starts out a bit Hollywood-centric, but it will become more general as we go on.

I recently made another foray to The Magic Castle in Hollywood, which isn’t quite as hard to manage as it’s reputed to be. All you have to do is befriend magicians, and ask — or know people who know magicians. Or, if you have the money, you can become an associate member for a $1,500 initiation fee and $750 per year, or just stay in the adjacent Magic Hotel. If you’re into magic, it’s well worth the visit.

If you don’t have that kind of money and have to rely on connections, note that the valet parking is a bit pricey at $14 per car, but if you don’t mind a walk you can get there from the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station, or just use a ride-sharing service. The food is excellent but, again, on the higher end. However, eating in the dining room does get you admission to the main room shows, which is where the big effects happen, so factor that into the price of the meal. If you don’t mind missing the big shows but are still hungry, food at either of the bars is in the typical restaurant range for L.A., and it is likewise very good.

Now, like a lot of people who were once little kids, I went through my fascination with magic phase, and had the obligatory kits and tricks. There was also a magic shop a few miles from my house that I used to ride my bike to during my middle school days, and the owner was kind enough to let me hang around and watch him demonstrate tricks or watch magicians try out new effects or card moves.

The only problem was that when it came to doing magic I did not have the manual dexterity for it. My hands were adapted to playing piano, not to sleight-of-hand, so unless a trick did itself, I wasn’t very good at it, so I never pursued it. For a long time, I kind of resented magicians for this reason, until I discovered Penn & Teller. Their whole shtick is partly about revealing how some old classic tricks are done, but even then they’ll top it by using the exposed version to show what kind of mad skills it takes, or subvert it by then hiding a bigger trick behind the reveal — in effect showing you everything while hiding something even more amazing.

Anyway, it was ironically through their giving away of secrets (something that some other magicians absolutely hate them for) that really increased my appreciation of magic. I went on to learn about how all sorts of tricks worked, but then watching magic became an entirely different sort of thing for me. Audiences who don’t know the tricks (no, I’m not going to call them No-Maj, thanks!) are wowed and amazed and baffled. Meanwhile, when I watch, I appreciate the sheer talent of a skilled magician while I watch exactly how they’re misdirecting the audience. I may know the punchline to the trick the moment the magician sets it up and long before it’s revealed, but that’s an entirely different level of enjoyment.

I’d compare it to the difference in experience between a musician and a non-musician watching a performance. The latter may just appreciate the music on an emotional and aesthetic level. Meanwhile, the former may be watching it from a completely different place, which could very well offer frequent thoughts of, “Holy crap, how did they make those two keys fit together in counterpoint and have two separate lyric lines suddenly mesh perfectly?” (This is also known as “pulling a Sondheim.”)

The other night at The Magic Castle, I was lucky enough to be sitting at the right hand of the close-up magician who had invited my friend as he did a half-hour routine especially for our group at a green felt-topped table that was quickly surrounded by spectators not in the inner circle. And for his whole routine, I knew enough to ignore the misdirection and always watch what the hand he didn’t want us to look at was doing. I did catch one specific move that I think may have actually been just to fake me out because it shouldn’t have been necessary for the trick that followed, but as I found out afterwards, he was as onto me as I was to him. When I complimented him afterwards,  he said, “You’ve done magic, haven’t you?”

“No, I’ve just studied it a lot,” I replied.

During his routine, while everyone else was watching what he wanted them to, I was just as enthralled watching how skillfully he was pulling off what he was hiding — every palm and ditch, force and false cut, load and steal, every stack and double lift. In magician’s terms, I was giving him a burn. But my intent was never to go, “A-ha, you just (reveal trick)!” No. It was to be awed on an entirely different level. His skills are absolutely amazing.

The Magic Castle is like that, and the place is full of little bits of magic to be discovered, but probably one of the most remarkable is Irma, the ghost piano player who performs in the lounge behind the upstairs bar. The effect is simple. When she’s not on break, ask Irma for a song, and unless it’s something ridiculously obscure, she’ll start playing it. (I stumped her with Echame la culpa, but I figured that it wouldn’t be in her repertoire anyway.)

She’ll also answer questions with short musical bits. For example, someone in our party asked if she was in love with anyone, and this was answered with “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”

Obviously, the grand piano with no one sitting in front of it is somehow remotely operated, but the big question is how. And remember: Irma has been a part of The Magic Castle all along, since its opening in 1963, at which point the effect presented itself exactly the same way, more on which in a moment.

I’ve heard people theorize on it, conjecturing everything from tons of player piano rolls, to voice recognition and AI, to a hidden player pulling up sheet music via computer. And, of course, it all works through hidden microphones. The first two are unlikely, the third is unnecessary, and the microphones don’t explain everything that happens.

Once you start really paying attention to what’s going on, you’ll discover that there’s one thing a lot of people don’t realize. In fact, I didn’t realize it until we walked into the lounge with our magician host and Irma immediately started playing The Pink Panther, which he pointed out is his theme song. Also, when he set his trick bag on the table in front of us and went to the bar, the table slowly rotated so the bag was suddenly in front of me. When he game back, we told him what had happened and he said it was just Irma’s way of being funny.

After that, one of our party joined us with a glass of tequila and yes — Irma played a few bars of that song. Much later in the evening, after we paid one last visit to Irma and were on the way out, she started playing Anything Goes — the first song asked for that night by the one member of our party who’d never been there before and who had had the tequila. He had started walking out without a word.

So there’s no possible way that it’s just microphones, but I could not spot any likely place for cameras to be hidden. Not that it’s not possible, although it’s more likely that they still rely on the low-tech method of people with microphones behind two-way mirrors to relay information to the — pardon the expression — ghost in the machine that is the human player hidden somewhere. This would certainly be a logical use of some very old mind-reader act trickery, after all.

Personally, I’m entirely convinced that Irma is operated by a human piano player who is not relying on computers or AI or any other fancy technology. Rather, it’s a human who is just relying on their own talents and skill. And that is the biggest magic trick of all.

Remember that the next time someone amazes you with what they can do, and thank them for it — then go out there and be amazing at what you do.

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! ¡Feliz día de la acción de gracias!

Talky Tuesday: April showers

This is the first in a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know!

If you speak a Romance language, then you know that the days of the week were named for the planets via Roman gods pure and simple. Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, with the last one, Sunday, technically having been named for Phoebus Apollo.

When it comes to months of the year, though, it’s a lot less clear and, in fact, only three of them — March, May, and June — are clearly named after a Roman god: March for Mars, god of war (and of Tuesday); May for Maia, an Earth goddess of plants; and June for Juno, wife of Zeus.

Two things to remember: One is that the Roman calendar originally didn’t have January or February at all, and the New Year happened at the end of March. Second, other than the three months mentioned, the rest were originally known by number.

Here’s the calendar: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junio, Quintilis, Sextillia, September, October, November, December.

So after those first four months, the ones from Quintilis on are literally named for their position in the calendar: Fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth.

Quintilis and Sextillia were replaced with July and August in honor of Julius and Augustus Caesar. But the last four months of the year have kept their names that mean seventh through tenth even though they’ve long since been ninth through twelfth.

If you’ve been keeping score, you might notice one thing. The month of April isn’t named for a deity or its place in the calendar order. And there’s a reason for that: Nobody is really sure where that name came from.

T.S. Eliot wasn’t kidding when he wrote “April is the cruellest (sic) month.” Chaucer had a quite different view of things, but he was also the better poet.

Theories on the origin of the name for April fall into both the “named for a deity” and “named for its place in the calendar,” and neither one has any proof to back it up. There’s also the attributive theory, as in April is when flowers bloom, and there’s a Latin word meaning to open, “aperire,” that gave the month its name.

By the way, if you speak Spanish, you’ll see the roots of the word “abrir,” to open, right there. If you’re a photographer, you’ll probably think of aperture, which is the opening that light passes through on its way from the lens to the film or sensor. They all came from the same place.

Of course, humans being humans, we have a habit of doing it the other way around and naming people after months. For example, there’s the actress January Jones, who was born in January. There don’t appear to be any with the first names of February or March, but we probably all know an April or two. Likewise, May and June are very common first names.

There don’t appear to be any people with the first name July, but in the Spanish-speaking world, Julio is a common man’s first name, and you’ve probably heard of Julio Iglesias, whose name translates as “July Churches.”

August through November are all pretty well-represented. August Strindberg was a famous playwright. August was also the first name of one of my great grandfathers. I’ve known at least two Septembers personally — although one was spelled much differently — and a famous real-world example is the doctor, bioethicist, and filmmaker September Williams.

October Moore and October Kingsley are both actresses, and we round out the list with November Christine. Again, there are no famous Decembers.

So, why do those particular months not get used as first names while the others do? February, March, July, and December have been mostly ignored. Even a site like How Many of Me? says that there are probably zero people with these first names in the U.S.

It’s an interesting question, and one I’m not sure that I have the answer to. When it comes to strange names, none of the four are as weird as some of the most unusual names given to babies in 2019.

And when it comes to the ultimate in strange names, look no further than celebrities to go off the deep end with such strange creations as Kal-El, Jermajesty, Pilot Inspektor, and my personal favorite, Moxie Crimefighter.

The grand champion of weird baby names, though, has to be Frank Zappa. A brilliant artist, musician, and political thinker, but Jesus, man. What were he and his wife Gail on when they pulled these monikers out of their asses: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmed Emuukha Rodan, and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen?

Okay, to be fair, Dweezil was actually named Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa, but, seriously — four given names? Even that is a bit excessive. And I would have personally chosen to go by Euclid had I been him. Yookie for short.

So this makes those four unused months seem absolutely pedestrian as names, and I shudder to think what our months and days of the week would sound like if the Zappas had been in charge of naming them.

Or, maybe not. They might have just livened things up a bit. Kind of like Dr. Seuss for adults.

Image, A Masque for the Four Seasons, by Walter Crane, 1905-1909Public domain under the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Momentous Monday: Questions that plague us

This is the first in a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know!

From March 2020, three days into first COVID-19 lockdown, before we knew the extent the plague would reach or how long the lockdowns and social distancing would last.

It can easily be argued that Europe conquered the Americas not through armed assault, but via unintended biological warfare. While Christopher Columbus and those who came after arrived in the New World with plants, animals, and diseases, it’s the latter category that had the most profound effect.

This transfer of things between the Old World and New has been dubbed The Columbian Exchange, Thanks to the European habit starting the next century of stealing Africans to enslave, diseases from that continent were also imported to the Americas.

Of course, in Europe and Africa, everyone had had time to be exposed to all of these things: measles, smallpox, mumps, typhus, whooping cough, malaria, and yellow fever. As a result, they either killed off a large number of children before six, or left survivors with natural immunity.

Influenza, aka flu, was the one exception that no one became immune to because that virus kept mutating and evolving as well.

Depending upon the area, the death rates of Native Americans were anywhere from 50 to 99 percent of the population. And they didn’t really send as many diseases back as they were “gifted with” by us, although Columbus’ men did bring syphilis home to Europe thanks to their habit of fucking sheep,

Of course, conquest through infection and violence is nothing new, as the 1997 book Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jared Diamond posits.

Nothing will freak out a human population faster than a deadly disease, especially one that just won’t go away, and the plague, aka The Black Death, regularly decimated Europe for three hundred years. It had a profound effect on art during its reign, which stretched all the way through the Renaissance and on into the Age of Reason.

But one of the positive side effects of that last visit of the plague to London in 1665 is that it lead to the Annus Mirabilis, or “year of wonders” for one Isaac Newton, a 23-year-old (when it started) mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.

Just like many students are experiencing right now, his university shut down in the summer of 1865 to protect everyone from the plague, and so Newton self-isolated in his home in Woolsthorpe for a year and a half, where he came up with his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.

He basically kick-started modern physics. His ideas on optics would lead directly to quantum physics, and his ideas on gravitation would inspire Einstein to come up with his general and special theories of relativity.

Meanwhile, calculus gave everyone the tool they would need to deal with all of the very complicated equations that would lead to and be born from the above mentioned subjects.

And if Isaac Newton hadn’t been forced to shelter in place and stay at home for eighteen months, this might have never happened, or only happened much later, and in that case, you might not even have the internet on which to read this article.

In case you didn’t realize it, communicating with satellites — which relay a lot of internet traffic — and using GPS to find you both rely on quantum physics because these systems are based on such precise timing that relativistic effects do come into play. Clocks on satellites in orbit run at a different rate than clocks down here, and we need to do the math to account for it.

Plus we never would have been able to stick those satellites into the right orbits at the right velocities in the first place without knowing how gravity works, and without the formulae to do all the necessary calculations.

There’s a modern example of a terrible pandemic ultimately leading to a greater good, though, and it’s this. America and a lot of the western world would not have same-sex marriages or such great advances in LGBTQ+ rights without the AIDS crisis that emerged in 1981.

AIDS and the thing that causes it, HIV, are actually a perfect match for the terms you’ve been hearing lately. “Novel coronavirus” is the thing that causes it, or HIV. But neither one becomes a serious problem until a person develops the condition because of it, either COVID-19 or AIDS.

But getting back to how the AIDS crisis advanced gay rights, it began because the federal government ignored the problem for too long and people died. Hm. Sound familiar? And, as I mentioned above, nothing will make people flip their shit like a life-threatening disease, especially one that seems to be an incurable pandemic.

And so the gay community got down to business and organized, and groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation took to the streets and got loud and proud. In 1987 in San Francisco (one of the places hardest hit by AIDS), the NAMES Project began creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, commemorating all of the people who died of the disease.

And a funny thing happened going into the 90s. All of a sudden, gay characters started to be represented in a positive light in mainstream media. And then gay performers started to come out — Scott Thompson of The Kids in the Hall fame being one of the early notable examples, long before Ellen did.

Around the time Thompson came out, of course, a famous straight person, Magic Johnson, announced in 1991 that he was HIV positive, and that’s when people who were not part of the LGBTQ+ community freaked the fuck out.

Note, though, that Magic is still alive today. Why? Because when he made his announcement, straight people got all up on that shit and figured out ways to reduce viral loads and extend lifespans and turn AIDS into a not death sentence, like it used to be almost 30 years ago.

And almost 40 years after the crisis started, we seem to have finally created a generation of young people (whatever we’re calling the ones born from about 1995 to now) who are not homo- or transphobic, really aren’t into labels, and don’t try to define their sexualities or genders in binary terms in the first place.

On the one hand, it’s terrible that it took the deaths of millions of people to finally get to this point. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, this current pandemic will inspire a similar kind of activism that might just lead to all kinds of positives we cannot even predict right now, but by 2040 or 2050 will be blatantly obvious.

Stay safe, stay at home, wash your hands a lot, and figure out your own “Woolsthorpe Thing.” Who knows. In 2320, your name could be enshrined in all of human culture for so many things.

Saturday Morning Post 97: Truth or Dare (Part 3)

The third and final part of the next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one. Kevin, Rick, and Pedro game of Truth or Dare has spun even farther off of the rails.

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“New rule,” Pedro went on. “No more truth. Dares only.”…

“You can’t do that,” Kevin said.

“He just did,” Rick cut in. “What’s your dare, Kevie?”

“I’m not playing anymore,” Kevin whined. “You win.”

“I think Kevin here needs to go for a naked walk,” Rick said to Pedro.

“Right,” Pedro said. “Kevin. Clothes off.”

“I’m not playing — “

Before he could finish the sentence, Rick was there, knocking the glass from his hand, grabbing him in an arm lock, the other hand clamped under his chin, holding his face up.

“The game isn’t over until the host says it is, and there’s one more round to go.”

“Guys, come on…”

“Pedro, help me here.” Pedro nodded as Rick moved his hand from Kevin’s chin, grabbed the front of his t-shirt and ripped. He tore it all the way down, let go of Kevin’s arm and yanked it off.

“Hey, okay, enough — “ Kevin protested, but Pedro suddenly grabbed his ankles, lifting his feet off the ground. Rick caught Kevin by the shoulders and they dragged him into the living room, wrestling him to the ground. He put up a good struggle, but he was really no match, finally trying to curl into a ball, holding his boxers on. Rick grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and, in two quick cuts and a yank, the boxers were history.

“There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Rick said. Kevin sat up on the living room floor, face red, legs together, body hunched, trying to hide in the carpet.

“Okay, there, you had your fun,” his voice wavered, truly close to cracking now. “Give me my clothes back, I’m going home.”

“The fun’s just beginning,” Rick said, standing above him, hands on his hips. “What’s the big deal? We’re both still naked. It’s just a game.”

“This isn’t funny.”

“No. You know what’s funny? A guy who manipulates everyone around him, always manages to cause trouble without getting into any himself. Mr. Instigator, aren’t you? What’s your story, Kevin, really? Why do you get off on making problems?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do. Or maybe you don’t. But if you don’t, then you’re a lot sadder than I thought you were. Hey, Pedro, what do you think we should do with him?”

“I don’t know. You want to go dump him in Compton?”

“That’s too far. Maybe just Van Nuys.”

“Rick, man, come on. What did I ever do to you?”

That hit a nerve. Rick thought about it, realized the answer was “Plenty.” Never anything openly or obvious, but Kevin had screwed lots of things up. Generally, it involved ruining some macking attempt by Rick at a party. He’d be moving in for the score on some hoochie, really catching her eye, and then Kevin would pop up, make some rude comment and vanish. But that would be enough. Women often judged men by their friends, rightly or wrongly, and their interest would wane.

And there were all those times that Rick would have succeeded at a party, stepped away to get drinks for himself and his new found female friend, and come back to find that Kevin had horned in, wouldn’t go away, became a parasite, and yet was apparently ignorant of the intrusion. Many a night with Kevin around had ended with a woman suddenly excusing herself, saying her friend had a headache and she had to go now, and the phone number she’d give Rick in parting was always wrong.

“Get up,” Rick suddenly said. Kevin rolled his eyes and huffed. Rick grabbed his arm. “Up, now.”

“Give me my pants,” Kevin said.

“Stand up and you’ll get them.”

They stared at each other, Kevin glowering, Rick realizing he’d never seen him look so angry. Finally, Kevin hauled himself to his feet, stood there with his hands covering his crotch, nostrils flaring.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m up.”

“And now you’re down,” Rick said, and he knocked Kevin cold with a single right hook that sent him spread-eagle onto the sofa, TKO.

* * *

The first thing Kevin noticed when he woke up was that he was staring at the carpet, lying across the coffee table. The second thing he noticed was the duct tape on his mouth. Third was that his wrists and ankles were tied to the table legs. Fourth, and most disconcerting in his mind, was that he was still naked, ass in the air, and he couldn’t move.

He heard Rick and Pedro off in the kitchen, talking in whispers, pausing, talking again. He pulled with his arms, but it was useless. He was pretty well secured.

Rick appeared from the kitchen, still naked, half full glass in his hand. Kevin lifted his head, turned his eyes. Pedro was hanging back, looking worried, fully dressed.

“Sorry about that, Kevie,” Rick said as he knelt in front of him, dick at eye level if Kevin looked anywhere but the floor. “Looks like you’ll have a little bit of a shiner there, but you kind of earned it.”

Kevin grunted an angry inaudible sentence through the duct tape. Rick lay on his side and looked up at him.

“I know, you’re probably pissed. But it was your turn for the dare.”

Kevin’s eyes flashed and he yanked and kicked, to no avail. Rick went on, “See, it could have been truth, but rules are rules. The truth part was so much simpler. How come you always get away with it?”

Kevin’s eyes widened, one thick eyebrow lifted. What?

“You know what I’m talking about,” Rick continued. “Everything you do, everybody you fuck with, and it never seems to come back to you. It’s like you’ve got this magic karma or something. I mean, what, were you Gandhi in your last life? Hell, you’re skinny enough to be, aren’t you?”

Rick reached out and pinched Kevin’s bicep, feeling bone. The kid was thin, pale, soft. If it weren’t for the genitalia, his body could have easily been that of a very tall, late-blooming thirteen year-old girl. “Remember Jennifer?”

A worried noise blew muffled through the duct tape. “Oh, yeah, see, you do. And you know exactly what you did. I didn’t think you were completely oblivious.” Rick lay on his back, looking up at Kevin now. “There I was, about to score with this hot young blonde with the huge tits, and poof! Kevin appears, to work his bad magic. ‘Hi, Rick. That rash clear up yet?’ ‘Oh, looks like Big Mac is gonna get him some special sauce.’ ‘G, thanks for letting me borrow your crab shampoo…’ But I can never figure out whether it’s revenge or stupidity. If it’s revenge, well, you’re in big trouble then, Kevie. If it’s stupidity, I’m here to give you some smart lessons.”

“Rick…” Kevin saw Pedro’s feet out of the corner of his eye, half-turned toward the door. “I’m going to go now, okay?”

“Sure, sure,” Rick said absently. “Hey, I told you, don’t worry. We’re just playing a game. Right?”

“Right. See you later.”

And Kevin heard Pedro leave, heard the door close, but something in the way Rick had said “right” scared him. It wasn’t a reminder, it was a warning, but whether it was to him or Pedro or both, he didn’t know. He tried to tell Rick the fun was over, let him go, but it came out as gibberish.

“Now, where were we? Oh, yeah. I guess you did the dare, now it’s time for the truth, so here we go. Truth, Kevo. Do you do it for revenge or are you just stupid?”

“Ow!” Kevin yelled as Rick suddenly tore the duct tape off his mouth, leaving his lips raw. And then Rick grabbed Kevin’s hair with his left hand, lifted his head, looked into his eyes.

“Which one is it?” he demanded.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kevin insisted.

“Liar,” Rick admonished. He brought his right hand up, gently touched the side of Kevin’s face. Kevin flinched at the unexpected pain. “That’s going to be a nasty bruise,” Rick said. “Ruin your pretty-boy looks for a while. As if.”

“What do you want?” Kevin choked out.

“I want the truth, that’s all,” Rick said.

“I haven’t done anything to you,” Kevin insisted. “Really. I haven’t. You’re my friend, Rick.”

“You don’t have any friends.” Rick leaned down, looked right in Kevin’s eyes. “Isn’t that right? Deep down, you know it. You don’t have any friends.”

Kevin’s lip trembled and he let out one gasp before he sucked it all in and changed strategies. “Melinda knows I was coming here tonight,” he said. “And Stacey. So if anything happens — “

“Kevie, I’m not going to hurt you. Anyway, you think either of them would really care if you just vanished? You’ve pissed them off, you’ve pissed me off. But, most heinously, you’ve pissed off somebody very important to me, and I want you to apologize.”

“Okay, who, I’ll do it,” Kevin sputtered. Rick grinned, leaning up on his knees, both hands wrapped in Kevin’s hair now.

“Well, see, you’ve really done a disservice to Little Rick here, by interfering in his affairs so many times.”

Kevin tried to turn his head away as Rick raised his hips, bringing Little Rick — who wasn’t that little — right into the line of sight. Kevin closed his eyes, but Rick put a thumb on the black eye, insisted, “Open wide and say you’re sorry.” Kevin squinted his eyes shut tighter but Rick kept pressing until he had no choice but to relent. He opened his eyes and Rick’s penis was less than an inch from his nose. It was limp, but it was a dick, for Christ’s sake. Kevin could smell the stale musky scent of Rick’s pubic hair, tried not to breathe.

“Now, say you’re sorry,” Rick said.

“I haven’t done anything,” Kevin squealed back, closing his eyes again.

“Yes, you have,” Rick replied. Then, he leaned forward and Kevin felt this warm, soft thing press into his face, Rick’s hairy balls swing around his nose. He breathed through his mouth, trying to pull his head back, hoping those things would drop low enough that he could bite them off, then he’d say he was sorry. But Rick pulled Kevin’s head forward, pushed his hips, rubbing that thing all over his face and Kevin could feel it getting less soft, though not much less.

“Stop it!” he finally screamed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, okay, I’m sorry, for whatever you think I’ve done, I’m sorry, leave me alone, let me go. I’m sorry…”

“Well, I believe you,” Rick said, loosening his grip slightly. “But little Rick doesn’t. He says he wants you to kiss him to prove you’re sorry.”

“Rick, goddammit, this isn’t funny anymore.”

“This isn’t a joke. Pucker up, Kevie.”

Kevin screwed his eyes and mouth shut, trying to turn his head away, but Rick tightened his grip again, put his thumb to the bruise. Kevin cried out, trying to fight, but Rick twisted him around, then pressed his dick to Kevin’s lips. Kevin’s face went tighter and Rick let his head go, stepping away.

“See?” he said. “I knew you didn’t mean it.”

Rick picked up his drink and took a sip, absently scratching his side, watching this pathetic mess who had been such a confident boor only an hour earlier. This demon that had caused so much trouble, now completely helpless, ruined, scared.

Helpless.

Rick realized he’d gotten fully hard when that thought crossed his mind, but it wasn’t a sexual kind of arousal. It was power. He had complete control over Kevin, the boy was utterly subdued, and god, was it making Rick horny. He hadn’t expected that, hadn’t expected that at all. So this was the real excitement of war, he decided.

He put down his drink, went to the door and locked the deadbolt. He turned and looked at Kevin’s frail white body, sprawled over the coffee table, knees on the floor. He gave his dick an idle stroke, then walked back to the table, stood in front of it, looking down.

“You’re just a pathetic little girl,” he said. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes, whatever you say,” Kevin threw back sarcastically. Then he looked up, saw Rick’s erection pointing at the ceiling, and let out an incoherent gurgle of fear. “No…” he pleaded. “No, god, no, please…”

“Shut up,” Rick said, then he put the duct tape back over Kevin’s mouth. Kevin shuddered and started yanking at his bonds in earnest, helpless. Rick went around behind him. Yeah, from this angle, skinny waist and wide hips, it could have been a young girl. He stuck the middle finger of his left hand in his mouth, got it good and wet and shoved it, with little fanfare, up Kevin’s ass all the way to the third knuckle. Kevin’s hips leapt off the table and he tried to pull away, but couldn’t.

Rick pulled his finger out, thought about gently working his way into things, then figured, “Fuck it.” He’d gone too far to back out now, and power was an aphrodisiac. And so, he put down his drink, got on his knees behind the table, spread Kevin’s cheeks wide with his hands and jammed his painfully hard dick all the way home in one stroke, then raped the little fucker, jamming in and out and Rick didn’t stop until he’d cum and Kevin had given up any struggle, flopping like a rag doll onto the table, broken and finished, and in this evening’s game of truth or dare, Rick emerged the only winner.

* * *

Rick had felt guilty after last night, had cleaned Kevin up with a warm washcloth, then untied him and gently pulled off the duct tape. But, at that point, Kevin had been an inert lump, not really moving, face contorted in an expression of pain and fear. He didn’t do anything when Rick freed his hands, just flopped onto the floor. He was no threat anymore. Rick carried him to the bedroom, put him in bed and covered him, then grabbed a blanket from the linen closet and slept on the couch.

Morning.

Rick woke up to bright ten a.m. light, head banging. He sat up, remembering what had happened, looking at the coffee table in trepidation, seeing no one there. Aw, shit. He’d really been wasted last night, he didn’t mean to… maybe he hadn’t.

No. He had, he knew it. Fuck. He dragged himself off the couch, wrapping the blanket around his waist, went into the bedroom.

He’d expected Kevin to be gone, but he wasn’t. He was lying in the bed, crunched up in a fetal position, clutching a pillow. He looked so… harmless now. He was facing the door, and Rick could see the ugly purple-yellow bruise on his face. He regretted doing that, really he did.

He went to the bed, gently sat down on the edge, whispered a timid, “Kev?” Nothing. He raised a hand to reach over, pulled back. He dreaded this moment. “Kevie?”

Kevin’s eyes slowly opened, looked up at Rick. Neither of them moved for a long moment. Then, the silence of the room was broken by Kevin’s sharp intake of breath, a series of sobs. He sat up, staring at Rick, who didn’t know what to expect. If Kevin tried to kick the shit out of him right now, he wouldn’t fight back.

And then Kevin threw his arms around Rick, held him tight, face buried in his chest, sobbing. “I thought you were my friend, Rick,” he cried. “I thought you were my friend.”

Rick stared down at him. That face was so sweet and innocent. He was a child impersonating an adult, really. He listened to Kevin crying for a moment, and then wrapped his arms around him, held him.

“Sssssh,” Rick said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Kevie, really. I am so sorry.”

“I thought you liked me,” Kevin went on, and Rick felt the hot wet tears splattering down his stomach.

“I do like you,” he answered. “I really do. I do like you, Kevin. Sssssh.”

And they stayed like that for a long time, Kevin crying and Rick gently rocking him back and forth, holding him in his arms, wanting to do anything to stop his pain, to protect him from the cruel world, to make the hurt go away. And he knew, in that moment, that he and Kevin would be inextricably linked, bound together by fate, for years, for decades, if not forever.

“Ssssh,” Rick repeated, again and again, as this gentle harmless angel cried and cried in his arms.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #93: Out of place, reality, growing up, smell

Another Friday, answering another set of random questions.

In which I answer random questions generated by a website. An ongoing series.

In what situation or location would you feel the most out of place?

Any kind of right-wing political rally or fundamentalist church service. A Monster Truck Rally or NASCAR race might fall under the umbrella as well.

At least these aren’t that common in Los Angeles County — well, the parts that aren’t far inland. We tend to get the rallies and fundies in Orange County. The Monster Truck Rally might show up at the Pomona Fairgrounds, which is where they hold the L.A. County Fair, but that’s obviously oriented toward a more rural crowd.

They do have some NASCAR race event coming up at a new stadium in Inglewood — I think it’s the one where the Sup — sorry — “Big Game” is going to be played — but as someone pointed out, that event is mostly going to draw its crowds from the Riverside and Inland Empires. That is, the red parts of the state.

The stadium itself is in the middle of an historical Black neighborhood in L.A.

What do you think about reality TV? Why is it so popular?

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s a genre that is completely without value. Note that Documentaries are a completely different animal. But the whole Bachelor/Bachelorette/Big Brother/Duck Dynasty/Real Housewives stuff is just complete crap. I’ll even include all the existing “talent” shows on this list. And yes, Drag Race is a talent show.

The problem is that they are so orchestrated and manipulated behind the scenes that what we’re seeing on screen really bears no resemblance to reality. It’s manufactured drama, some shows far worse than others, and it has the added detriment of continuously creating celebrities who should not be celebrities at all. Most of them never even deserved the first fifteen minutes.

These shows can also destroy the lives of their contestants, as well, and not in obvious ways. Yes, suicide is an epidemic among reality show contestants, present and former, and not just in the U.S. But the damage can destroy the living as well.

Look at home makeover shows. A lot of the time, the actual work isn’t done by contractors, but by set builders and decorators instead. There may technically be permits, but that stuff isn’t necessarily built to last. When it is, the new add-ons can sometimes trigger a new tax-assessment on the property, which is carried out based on the current market value, plus the improvements.

So a family that’s owned their home for twenty or thirty years and had been paying property taxes on those rates and original values may suddenly find their assessment is twenty or thirty times that old value, with higher property tax rates as well. They’ve been thrown into a situation where they can no longer afford the house they’ve lived in because the new property taxes are more than what they would have ever paid for a mortgage for the original place.

As for Drag Race, contestants on the show can spend a fortune on their looks — wigs, shoes, outfits, make-up, etc. — and most of them go onto the show not being rich or famous already. This is rather ironic, since in the early days of drag it was a do-it-yourself, thrift-shop affair. The kids were having fun by being creative, not by buying thousands of dollars of fabric or designer dresses.

As for why I think it’s popular — it’s junk food for the brain. It gives viewers a storyline to follow about “common” and “real” people who are neither of those things. It gives them drama to talk about with family and coworkers later and fills a hole for people without more creative outlets.

It’s kind of sad, really, and what’s sadder is that the money train seems to show no signs of slowing down.

What did you like / dislike about where you grew up?

Since the question asked both, I’ll answer both. I grew up in what started out as an exurb of a major city only to itself eventually turn into a small city with its own suburbs. When my parents had first moved there, it was a fairly new development, although they were not among the first wave of people to buy homes out there, nor were they the first owners of their house.

Interestingly, by the time my parents got there, a lot of the original homeowners were on the verge of finally seeing their kids reach adulthood — or so I’ve heard from conversations from an old neighbor who was one of those teens when I moved in as an infant.

Things that I don’t or barely remember are that they had not quite connected a main road across a rail line but finally built the right-of-way when it became clear that everything was going to keep developing to the west and that this street was going to be one of the major thoroughfares.

The topography of the place was basically low mountains to the south with what had probably originally been a pass or narrow valley at the bottom. This had been plowed out to make way for the Ventura Freeway and Ventura Boulevard, which in turn were what enabled the whole area to develop. (The Boulevard obviously came first.)

Like most of the San Fernando Valley, it was built on property that had once been rancheros, first when the southern half of California was a part of Mexico, and later on after it had become part of the United States. As the various cities across the Valley developed, evidence of the rancheros faded slowly, but since this was the far west end of the Valley, the rural nature of the environment faded last.

Not that there was a lot of it left in my neighborhood growing up, although I was two blocks from Pierce College, which was dedicated mostly to teaching agriculture and farming and which is still there to this day.

Meanwhile, Ventura Boulevard had all the fancy stuff, including the high school, and all the shops and fast-food places. Victory, after it had been put through, tended to mostly go through residential areas, but our grocery store was one mile east, and the huge mall, Topanga Plaza, was about three miles west.

It was also safe, most of my friends were Jewish, so I grew up learning comedy and hanging with the intellectual crowd, and for some reason we got a lot of the same stuff — multiplexes, automatic scoring bowling lanes, big box stores, and so on, that only seemed to pop up in the more urban and distant parts of town.

Well, at first. I think that we were actually a test market for a lot of things.

What I disliked about where I grew up was that, as I became older, I realized how far it was from everything else. It was not a trivial matter to get to Hollywood by bus, for example, and points beyond, especially downtown, were out of the question — especially in my pre-car days.

Hell, it was bad enough to convince my mom to let me make the bike ride to North Hollywood, which is only about thirteen miles by car now and which is not at all an uncommon bike commute for adults nowadays. Of course, they also now have the Metro bike path that follows the Orange line from the West Valley right to NoHo, so it’s a lot easier.

Another thing I really disliked as I became more and more aware of it was that the area had become where all the white racists had moved in order to escape the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the city, especially just over the hill in Hollywood. Of course, they’d also fled to the south-west corner of the Valley because parts of it in the North were beginning to have too many Hispanic and Latino residents for their liking. Never mind that it was only in the extremely northern parts of the Valley, and pretty far east from there.

Since then, the justice has been poetic, as most of my old neighborhood is now pretty heavily mixed white and Latino, with those old racists having fled farther west into Simi Valley. But at least I never had to deal with a lot of the racist parents directly growing up, and once I graduated high school, I was out of there.

What is it they say? A nice place to grow up but I wouldn’t want to live there.

What smell brings back great memories?

This isn’t something that I’ve smelled in a long time, but whenever I do, it brings back the same memory. The smell is a wood-fire stove, burning early in the morning. It’s off in another part of the house, so the aroma is subtle, but it’s definitely there. It mingles with whatever part of the crisp morning air outside manages to sneak in.

Then — add bacon. The sudden smell of frying bacon that manages to come in and permeate everything, making the smell of the wood fire even stronger somehow.

The smell means that it’s time to get up. Grandma is making breakfast. I don’t need to tell myself twice. I get dressed, hurry through the chilly back house, then through the vinyl accordion door into the front house, closing it behind me.

Here, the wood-fire stove heats everything and the family gathers. Pretty soon, we’ll have scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, home-made biscuits, milk, apple juice, wheat toast with plenty of butter and apple preserves, and I can’t even remember what else.

It only takes a whiff of a wood-fire stove somewhere and a hint of cooking bacon and I go right back to those mornings from my childhood. Funny how smell is supposed to be the strongest sense, and the one that most powerfully evokes memories, isn’t it?

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