“Sit” by any other name

In what now seems like another lifetime, I used to write for Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s website. Here is an article originally published in two parts under the heading Dogs and Language, Part 1: ¿Se Habla Spaniel? And Part 2: Sprechen Sie Dachshund?

If you’re bilingual, have you trained your dog in more than one language? If you only speak one language, have you ever tried nonsense words on your dog? Either way, the purpose of this exercise is to separate the language you speak from what you’re communicating to your dog.

Whether you’re bilingual or monolingual, for this exercise you will need to come up with a list of words in a language you’ve never used with your dog before. Basically, you will substitute the words your dog knows with words your dog has never heard.

Go on. Dig up that high school Spanish. Go to an online translator, pick a random language, and make a list. Make up meaningless words. The important point is this: pick one word in the new language and match it to a something your dog knows.

For the next week, only use the replacement words whenever you would use the familiar ones — but think the familiar word while saying the new one. It also helps if the new words don’t sound like the old commands — choosing the German “sitz!” to replace the English “sit” wouldn’t really work, but using another word for sit that sounds nothing like it would be ideal.

If you’ve done this exercise right, very soon after you change the words, you should find your dog responding to them without hesitation, as if you’re still speaking the language they know.

What’s going on here?

If you’ve kept your intent the same and used the new words in the same context as the old, then your dog isn’t listening to what you say at all; she’s paying attention to your energy and body language — and your expectations.

Dogs are all about expectations. Groups of dogs work as a unit, instinctively, and follow the leader by sensing and mimicking body language. If you still don’t believe this, then try the following exercise.

Silence is golden

The instructions for this week are simpler, but also more difficult. For one week, use all your usual commands on your dog, but… you cannot say a word. You can use gestures, posture, and facial expressions. You just cannot say words or make sounds. If it helps, you can pretend to say the words in your head, but that’s it.

In each case, make sure that you have your dog’s attention — they should be looking at you calmly, and making full eye contact. But, once that’s achieved, communicate away in silence. You will probably feel the need to move your hands and arms. Go ahead and do so. You will probably feel stupid and nothing will happen for the first few tries. Don’t give up.

If you remain calm and focused, it won’t be long before your dog understands and responds. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two before your dog follows is picking up on what you’re telling him without a word, and before this doesn’t feel so strange and awkward for you. But, by the end of the week, you should be able to speak to your dog from across the room with merely eye contact and facial expression.

What’s going on here?

Again, in nature, dogs do not communicate with words. When they communicate with growls or barks, they really aren’t speaking to each other. The tone of a bark or growl is produced by a dog’s energy and body language, so such sounds are really more a communication of “How I feel right now” as an indicator of pain, danger, excitement, etc.

When one dog wants another to sit, it doesn’t make any sound. It will merely walk toward that dog while presenting as large a posture as possible, and bump into it if the message is not received. If the message is still not received, then a couple of well-placed paws will probably put the errant dog in line.

In any case, the path to forming that deeper connection with your dog or dogs begins with learning how to communicate like a dog, rather than in working against that and forcing your dog to communicate like a human.

Leave the human words behind, and you will develop an even stronger bond with your beloved canine. In return, your dog will love you even more for understanding it, and using its own language.

Stupid human tricks for becoming better leaders

Anything that will put you in closer touch with your own body or improve your human communication skills will help you to become more in tune with your dog. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Yoga: You don’t have to be as flexible as a gymnast to do yoga, and there are varying levels and classes. Instructors are usually willing to accommodate your abilities, and doing all these weird stretches will help you get in touch with your body, and your body language.
  2. Dance/Aerobics: Again, you don’t have to be Fred Astaire to dance. Look around, and find something fitting your experience. Tap and Ballet are probably only for people who’ve had some dance training, but things like ballroom, waltz, or country line are probably accessible to anyone. If you don’t want to do dance in quite so formal a way, then look for an aerobics class.
  3. Improv: Although an aspect of theatre which frequently involves words, improv classes are excellent for teaching you the skill of listening, as well as teaching you to be constantly in the moment. Since dogs are also constantly living in the moment, improv is a good way to learn to be more dog-like.
  4. Volunteer: As in volunteer at your local animal shelter, where you’ll get to interact with lots of dogs that are not your own. Practice using the silent command method on each of them. Practice calm, assertive energy while walking them. Also inquire with your local veterinarians to find out if they need volunteers; ask your own vet if they will trade volunteer time for medical care.
  5. Read to Kids: No, really. Contact your local libraries and elementary schools to find out whether they have reading programs. And, although the above dog advice leans toward the non-verbal, reading to a room full of five-year-olds and keeping their attention is good practice, since many studies indicate that adult dogs operate at the same intellectual level as a human five-year-old. It’s not just the words keeping them pinned to their seats… what non-verbal cues are doing the job?

If all of the above fail, then there’s this: Take your dog on a long walk, in silence — but don’t forget to bring plenty of water for both of you. Your dog will let you know when you’ve walked long enough and it’s time to go home. Before that, your dog will let you know what it’s like to be a dog. Listen to the silence and learn.

Postscript: I actually wrote this piece, and included #3 up there, long before I started doing improv. Weird. I was giving myself future advice, I see.

Photo: Author’s dog Sheeba, taken by Stephen M. Grossman.

Game night therapy

While it’s generally agreed that animals play, there’s not agreement on why. For a long time, the theory was that play was preparation for adult survivial — learning how to hunt and kill, bonding with specific animals for life, and so on down a long list. Other researchers say no. Play behavior doesn’t confer any of those benefits, but it can have an immediate psychological effect of relieving stress, even if it’s an adult animal that never played as a juvenile.

Humans definitely play games, though, and we make up rather complicated ones. As a member of that species, though, I can definitely say that we play games for a number of reasons, but the main ones are that they’re fun, they are a bonding experience, and they allow us to experience potentially high-stakes loses at no actual cost, at least if we’re not in a casino.

Nobody is losing real money at Monopoly, or Clue, or Chutes and Ladders, or any of however many countless board or card games we’ve invented.

Speaking of cards, though, I have a group of friends that I frequently play Cards Against Humanity with, and one of the ironies is that we are one of the more liberal and progressive bunches you’ll ever meet. But somehow the challenge of coming up with the worst possible non-PC play in the game is kind of the point. In a way, I think it actually armors us against thinking like people who’d agree with some of the combos that come out.

So there’s that “practicing to be an adult” angle, if we realize that the game generally teaches us exactly the wrong things to think, do, or say.

Case in point, to paraphrase just one of the plays from tonight, the question card was “The blind date was going terribly until we both discovered our shared love of _________.” The winning answer was “Auschwitz,” and the person who chose it as the winning card for that round happened to be a Jewish American currently living in Berlin. In fact, his immediate response to seeing that card was to lean back laughing his ass off in that “Oh my god, this is terrible” way that I’m sure we’ve all felt.

But now a slight interlude before I move on to a further salient point on humans and games. Tonight’s Card’s Against Humanity match included the inaugural use of a new set, Cards Against Star Wars, and I have to say that the group opinion of that set was very… lackluster. It had typos and grammatical errors galore, not to mention our quick consensus that there’s no way in hell Disney would have even licensed this and there’s not enough fair use coverage as parody for it to happen. I mean, the cards in this box were as raunchy as anything else from CAH. Then again, a number of them seemed to be free of Star Wars references and just quoted CAH cards.

Since we were playing with all of the CAH decks my friends own, we saw more than a few .repeats of generic, non-themed Cards against Star Wars picks. We were speculating on how it happened. Maybe they had to rush this one out to meet a Christmas deadline? Maybe they had it made cheaply in a country where English isn’t the first language for a lot of workers? (Since a lot of the spellings were British, we thought maybe Hong Kong or Singapore, although they mostly tend to be well educated in that city and that country.

Once I got home, two minutes of internet research revealed that… it’s not an official expansion pack at all. It’s not on the CAH site, but Amazon turns up a bunch of sets with blatant typos in the listings and box art — Cads Against. Cames Against. With both Star Wars and Disney as the targets.

My friends were just as relieved as I was when I shared the news. Our faith in (Cards Against) Humanity was restored.

Still, despite all of that, tonight was an important gaming evening first because it was a birthday pre-party (nearly a week in advance), and second because it gave me the chance to bring together good friends from various times and places in my life who had never met before, and then I got to watch them connect and bond. In one particular case, it was almost like destiny happening. A writing friend of mine had moved to a foreign city five years ago (with great success) and it just happened to be a place an actor/director friend of mine has plans to move to this summer, so they networked like hell, and I got to watch actor/director friend be handed the road-map to do exactly what he wants to do.

Meanwhile, surrogate big sister really hit it off with surrogate little brother (except he should be big brother when it comes to the emotional maturity) and within about ten minutes, this group of insiders (to me) and outsiders (to each other) bonded and it was glorious to see.

Now what I have to wonder is this: Did it happen because I only befriend certain types of people? Or did it happen because the people I tend to befriend are generally cool as fuck?

Maybe a little of both? But the best (pre)birthday present tonight was spending time in a room full of people I love and, thanks to games, getting to know them better.

And that is probably the true function of game play in humans: To bond with the ones you love and rely on, and know that when you’re playing with loved ones, you really can’t lose one way or the other.

Which is why we all need to arrange for and have a regular game night with friends in our lives. Whether it has minimal equipment, like charades or poker night, or it’s something as complicated as Risk or DnD or Settlers of Catan, or whatever… find friends who are into it, get together to do it, invite other friends outside the circle, and watch as magic happens.

Karl Marx nailed it

A rare political rant, but necessary at this juncture.

Just a quick reminder why it is so vitally important to vote 45* out and flip the Senate in November. Remember Apartheid? This was a policy that lasted for years in South Africa which put the white people in charge and eliminated most rights for black South Africans.

But you know what? Those white people were by far in the minority. So how did they keep the system going? Simple. They made up the rules. They controlled the courts and the government, and they ignored the people. Sound familiar?

Even after violent protest broke out, the system persisted by repressing it even more violently, and it wasn’t until 1994 that Apartheid finally ended.

In American Apartheid, it’s the 1% trying to control everyone else — and that’s the only division, because there are certainly super-wealthy people who are not white, not straight, not Christian, not male, not native-born, not cis-gender, and not even citizens who have a vested interest in continuing the oppression.

So, yeah, the oppressors pay lip-service to opposing women, minorities, the LGBTQI+ community, non-Christians, non-capitalists, etc., etc. But this is only designed to scare that core group of straight, white, rural Christian people into supporting their own oppression.

As AOC put it so eloquently (paraphrasing): “You don’t earn a billion dollars. You steal it.” And that’s for sure. Anyone who is worth more than a billion did it by stealing labor and effort from people like you.

Who built Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tesla, WalMart, etc.? Not the CEOs or stockholders. They didn’t do shit. These companies were built by the people who worked for them and the people who bought their crap. But now that the rich are rich enough, they don’t care whether you can afford their crap. They’re already planning their escape to Mars or buying their own islands that are far enough above future sea level to be safe.

Why do you think there’s such an emphasis on things like self-driving cars, automated checkouts, and developing AI that can handle customer service? It’s to eliminate workers entirely.

They’ve also bought governments outright — the oldest story in the book — so good luck with reining them in via legislation, unless and until you manage to vote the right people into control of government, in which case they get to make the rules, and control the courts and governments, and maybe put things back to right.

Or… we could show late-stage capitalism its own flaws, remind them of what Karl Marx warned them about. Once capitalism could grow no more on its own, it would begin to consume the working class and the poor, driving them into debt while simultaneously preventing the state from being able to serve them. Profits would rise while incomes stagnate, pulling the middle classes into the quagmire.

Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, you haven’t been paying attention since the 80s, which may or may not be before you were born.

The only two solutions to this, per Marx, were socialism — a sudden and violent takeover — or democratic socialism — a gradual change in policies by the successive elections of increasingly progressive leaders. Now, since we got ourselves into this via the “boiling frog” method, we’ll probably only be able to get ourselves out the same way. It’s been forty years down this rabbit hole. Sadly, we probably won’t fully dig out until 2060.

But if we start now, the ‘30s could be pretty damn cool. We just have to lean hard to the left, and soft revolution these billionaire bastards out of existence.

First step after we re-take Congress and the Presidency: re-imposition of the tax rates that existed under Eisenhower (a Republican); plus add on a cap on wealth. No single person or company should be worth more than a billion dollars. (Hell, no person should be worth more than ten million — that would keep anyone for life, but I’ll be generous.) So in addition to the income tax rates, there’s a wealth cap tax, and it works like this. Any profit in excess of a billion dollars has to either be put back into the company to finance expansion and purchase of equipment from an absolutely not-affiliated company and to hire sufficient new employees with a salary at 10% above the cost of living for the community they’re being hired in and with full benefits; or donated somewhere within the state the business is licensed in to promote health, welfare, education, or the arts.

Additional first steps: Increase Social Security and Medicare benefits to match current cost of living, with realistic increases per annum guaranteed, and prohibit any reductions at any point in the future, as well as eliminate Medicare Part B premiums, so that they cost the same as Part A (hint: nothing); slashing the hell out of our military budget, outlawing defense contracts with any company that does business with any country that is not the U.S.; using what’s come out of the military budget to fund arts and education, and to provide housing and services to the poor and homeless — turn our endless random wars abroad into wars on real problems at home; kill the Space Force because, really? And create the Peace and Plenty Force.

Democratic socialism could achieve this in a generation. Don’t believe me? Look up FDR and the New Deal, because this is exactly what he did. And rich people hated him.

Pure socialism could achieve this in six months, but it would be messy and would involve the heads of a lot of elected officials stuck on pikes in front of government buildings all over the country, plus a lot of dead defenders of the status quo. Which is kind of another proof of why America has no Socialist candidates, and what you’re thinking of is Democratic Socialism. AKA The one way out of this nightmare.

End rant. Proceed with your day of being a consumer of corporate crap.

The saddest part about any sportsman’s death

To be honest, news of Kobe Bryant’s death on Sunday didn’t really hit me that hard. Sure, it’s sad, especially because his young daughter died with him — along with seven other people I don’t see anyone publicly mourning. But I’m not a sports fan in any way, shape or form. I consider organized sports to be a huge waste of time and money. So Kobe was only ever in my consciousness as some guy who — I think — played for my home team, and I don’t even know whether he was active or retired. And it was… basketball, maybe?

Now that paragraph is going to infuriate a lot of people, but that’s kind of my point, and the point of this piece. The only time I ever see straight men of the uber-masculine “he-man” sort show any kind of emotion is when a beloved sportsman dies or suffers some kind of tragedy. And yes, it’s always a sportsman, never a sportswoman.

Case in point: the sports media couldn’t have given two wet warm shits about HIV and the AIDS crisis until Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was HIV+. Suddenly, it was wailing and gnashing of teeth, and to all of those sports reporters AIDS was the worstest thing ever. Ironically, Magic is still alive, but it took this very weird cult-like behavior around sports figures to start to turn the tide.

And it’s only certain sports. Contrast the reaction to Magic Johnson with the reaction to Greg Louganis revealing, in 1995, that he was HIV positive. He didn’t get the same outpouring of bro love. Instead, he was criticized for daring to injure himself and bleed into a pool in 1988 when he knew that he was HIV+. (No, Magic did not receive any criticism for fucking a ton of women after he was diagnosed. That got crickets.)

By the way, Louganis is also still alive.

Panem et circenses. Bread and circuses. You might recognize that first word as the name of the capital in the Hunger Games series. The idea is to provide meager nourishment and spectacle in order to distract people from the real issues of the day.

And organized sports certainly provide the circus, along with the illusion of nourishment. But what about the deaths that should have given everyone pause in just the first three weeks of this year?

Qasem Soleimani – was it legal or not? Hans Tilkowski, Luís Morais, and Khamis Al-Dosari, all sportsmen who died way too young, but you don’t care because they’re not American and played soccer. Silvio Horta, who wrote for TV and film. Neil Peart, oh yeah, I’ll give you your bitching and whining over that. Elizabeth Wurtzel, bros say “who?” Edd Byrnes, actor we’ve all forgotten. Buck Henry, actor and writer we should not have forgotten (“Introducing Lord and Lady Douchebag!”), Christopher Tolkien, son of J.R.R. and keeper of the LOTR stuff; Efraín Sánchez and Pietro Anastasi, two more footballers. Er, sorry. Soccer players; Hédi Baccouche, former Prime Minister of Tunisia; Terry Jones, Welsh actor and comedian of Monty Python fame; Jim Lehrer, American journalist.

And yet… the straight white male world only loses its shit over the loss of a person whose talent was bouncing and throwing a ball.

Pardon me for intentionally trivializing, but it really is infuriating when any celebrity death goes into bread and circuses mode and distracts from the really important stuff going on. Yes, let’s take a moment to be sad about it — but let’s not allow it to make us forget all of the far worse things happening right now.

Yeah, Kobe is dead, and I’m sorry for his friends and loved ones, but for all of the impact he actually had on my life (total: zero) I’m not going to waste a lot of time thinking about it. And if it seems like the time I took writing this article was focused on… thinking about him, no, it wasn’t. It was more invested in thinking about all of the other people we’ve lost in the first 26 days of 2020.

Sunday Nibble #1

Because weekends are hard but I want to keep posting, here’s a snack-sized bit to enjoy with your Sunday morning tea/coffee/milk/CBD/whatever.

Sometimes, words in one language automatically look inappropriate in another, and today I give you the Spanish word… leer.

In English, it’s one syllable, and means to stare at someone inappropriately. “Don’t leer at me, dude.”

“He leered at her so much that she called HR.”

“Notice: Leering at patrons or artists is not accepted here.”

The word should also not be confused with the always proper noun Lear: “He landed his Lear Jet on Tuesday;” “The Bristol Cities Community production of ‘King Lear’ premiers on Thursday.”

In Spanish, “leer” is two syllables, and pronounced a lot like the English word “layer,” except with the emphasis on the second syllable: lay-AIR. In Spanish, it means “to read.”

It also happens to have a couple of variations by conjugation that, while pronounced differently, are spelled out lazy and without accents and look like other English words, mainly “leo”, the astrological sign; “lei” that Hawaiian airport gift thing;  leia, that Star Wars princess; lea, where cows hang out; lean, how you like your meat; Lee, a common name.

Going completely out of my head

I took a circuitous route into the world of improv performance and although I’d had acting training as part of my minor in college and have appeared in various theatrical productions both then and in the more recent past, my primary focus was behind the scenes as a writer. I hadn’t had any formal improv training up until a few years ago.

Now, as an actor, I didn’t have a problem developing and holding onto a character, and as a writer I was creating them all the time, generally acting them out in my mind as I transcribed their words. Of course, it’s a lot easier to do it in these situations because you have the one luxury that improvisers don’t. Time.

So when I was playing an entire Shakespeare show with an Irish accent, I had the time to learn it and practice it and make it stick because it had become second nature. Likewise when I played a bear, or the trippy Spanish-speaking mystical Jesus stand-in in Tennessee Williams’s weirdest play, I had rehearsal time to make all of the discoveries in the text and the performance in order to hone the character.

Contrast that to improv, where if you’re lucky you might get a character prompt and have twenty or thirty seconds to think about it while the referee explains the game to the audience. More likely, though, you only get mere seconds, if that, as the ref turns to the audience for a scene suggestion and you won’t know what it is until they turn back and shout, “Your suggestion is earbuds. Players, are you ready?”

“Yes!”

Whistle. “Begin!”

And that’s all of the character development time we get. Early on, it would always trip me up and I’d wind up playing myself because I was too busy trying to come up with the “platform” of the scene — who, what, and where — for however many of us went on stage to start, or to fill in  if somebody provided part of the platform.

What? Create an entire character on top of that? Are you crazy?

As I’ve written about previously, I learned that my big challenge was letting go of thinking, but it wasn’t until our ComedySportz Rec League coach and improv mentor shared a particular technique with us that I suddenly started to make big breakthroughs.

It’s called VAPAPO, but I’m only going to discuss a couple parts of the acronym so you can get a taste. If you really want to know all about (and get some great improv advice that applies to life as well), you can go buy Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv for only five bucks plus two dollars shipping. It’s only fair, since she created the method.

There’s a logical split between the two halves, with the APO being a more advanced and trickier take on the VAP, so I’ll just explain the first three letters and how they helped me.

In case it wasn’t clear already, VAPAPO is a quick character development technique, one that can be activated instantly at the top of any improv scene and quickly drop you into a character. And remember, it doesn’t matter what character you land on. It’s even good to surprise yourself, because that will take you further out of your head and lead to more discoveries and surprises for you and the audience.

So… what do the V, A, and P stand for? Voice, attitude, posture. Pick one, dive into it, and boom. Instant character.

And it really does work. We recently spent an entire workshop practicing each one of the letters, and I surprised myself with what I came up with. For example, Voice is simply that, and a great place to just play around. Experiment with what it’s like if you speak higher or lower; use an accent or dialect; alter the natural rhythm of your speaking between staccato and drawn out; whatever you can imagine. Then take whatever voice you landed on and live it the character it creates.

You’ll find that focusing on the voice affects everything else you do in the scene. For example, in one exercise, I started playing around with a very drawn out, Mid-Atlantic sort of accent, and it wasn’t long before it affected everything else, so that I was standing very upright with my chin in the air, literally looking down on everyone else, and boom — judgmental, elitist  critic of everything was born.

Of course, quite the opposite happened when I let my voice become very become very… stutter… and doubtful about… everything, doubling back, restarting, repeating, etc. And suddenly I found myself with very submissive and docile body language, though still a lot of energy. It’s just that all of that energy was suddenly be expended in self-defense, self-deprecation, and justification attempts of everything. Instant neurosis!

The second letter, A, is for attitude, which just means picking a general outlook on life. Is this person optimistic, pessimistic, hopeful, cynical, naïve, jaded, or whatever? Grab one and run with it. Now imagine how it can change a scene. Let’s say the other performer begins with, “Margaret, happy birthday. I made your favorite breakfast for my favorite daughter. Pancakes!”

Grab an attitude and stick to it, and you could reply with…

“Pancakes, mother? Seriously? You know I’ve eliminated gluten.”

“Pancakes? Oh my god, my favorite. I love you mommy! Did I mention that’s why I’m never moving out?”

“Pancakes. Waffles. Toast. Whatever. Brent dumped me. Life is bleak and meaningless…”

Or so many more, because in improv there are no right answers.

Note that not only do these give your character a strong point of view, they give the other improviser something to react to in an equally strong way, It’s a gift in both directions.

And this brings us finally to P, which is for posture, although you can also think of it as physicality. Basically, it’s everything your body is doing and, personally, I’ve found it to be my strongest “get out of my head” tool. If I just throw myself into some odd shape or movement and follow that, voice and character tend to follow automatically.

Of course, it does work the other way around, where the voice or attitude will tell the body what to do, but for be the advantage of working from the body up instead of the brain down is twofold. There’s the obvious and aforementioned getting out of my head, but the other advantage is that it’s often good to start a scene with some silent space work instead of just launching into the dialogue, so taking the posture/physicality approach kills two birds with one stone.

It gives you something to do and creates your attitude about it in silence while allowing a moment for the voice and character to emerge.

There’s an old joke from my stage acting days that usually emerged when doing period pieces that were not in modern dress, and it was this: “When in doubt, play the costume.”

Funny thing is, it works. Why? Because the costume can dictate your posture or physicality without you even having to try. Imagine that you’re playing in some Victorian era show that has all of the women in bustles, corsets, and high-heeled buttoned boots. Or that puts the men in high, tight starched collars, waistcoats and tails. That gives you a much different physicality than, say, a cast in jeans and T-shirts, or full Elizabethan regalia, or doing a nude scene.

In every single case, you’d move differently as a human and an actor. The trick for improvisers is that we don’t actually have the costume, we have to imagine it, but if the suggestion for your scene is, say, “hazmat clean-up,” what a gift from your audience is that? Because, from the get-go, you’re suddenly wearing one of those bulky hazmat suits, and everything else about you comes right out of that.

Or it should. And the best part is that even if you have three or four performers onstage all doing the hazmat suit thing, the experience of being in it will affect each one of them differently, so that you won’t get a cookie cutter. Rather, you’ll get a smorgasbord.

The following quote is apparently from Jill, but it came via my improv mentor and I can’t find a link back to an attribution for her, so please take this as another plug to buy her book, because it’s full of gems like this that, again, reply to the real world as well: “The fact that you don’t have the same life experiences or perspective as everyone else on your team is your superpower. The ways in which you are uniquely you are an asset. Improv that stays the same and draws from the same well is dull and will die out. You’re necessary. Shoot across the sky and illuminate the night.”

And that, dear readers, is how you get out of your head and experience the wonderful juggling act that is doing improv.

Research everything, believe nothing

This will probably surprise no one who reads this blog regularly, but most of my fiction writing falls into one of two categories: stories based on real people or true events, and hard science fiction. I’m also a big fan of both historical and scientific accuracy, so I’ve developed the habit of fact-checking and researching the crap out of my fictional work.

It may not matter to a lot of people, of course, but if I see a glaring anachronism in a supposedly historically-based film or watch as they pull the magic element of Madeitupium out as a plot device in order to defy the laws of physics, then I will get pulled right out of the story.

A good case in point is the ridiculous dance scene in The Favourite. And it’s not just because the choreography on display would never have happened in the time period — the music is all wrong, too, in terms of instrumentation as well as certain chord progressions that wouldn’t have happened at the time, on top of not following the rigid rules of Baroque music of the era. But the even more egregious error in the film is that a central plot point is based on a bit of libel that was spread about Queen Anne to discredit her, but which is not true. If you want to learn more, it’s in this link, but spoilers, sweetie, as River Song would say. (By the way, apparently the costumes weren’t all that accurate, either.)

On the science fiction side, something like the finale of the 2009 Star Trek reboot just has me laughing my ass off  because almost everything about it is wrong for so many reasons in a franchise that otherwise at least tries to get the science right. Note: I’m also a huge Star Wars nerd, but I’m very forgiving of any science being ignored there because these were never anything other than fantasy films. It’s the same thing with Harry Potter. I’m not going to fault the science there, because no one ever claimed that any existed. Although some of the rules of magic seem to have become a bit… stretchy over the years.

But… where do I start with what that Star Trek film got wrong? The idea of “red matter” is a good place to begin. Sorry, but what does that even mean? There is only one element that is naturally red, and that’s bromine. Other elements might be mined from red-colored ore, like mercury is from cinnabar, but otherwise, nope. So far when it comes to matter, we have demonstrated five and postulated six forms: Bose-Einstein condensate, which is what happens when matter gets so cold that a bunch of atoms basically fuse into one super nucleus within an electron cloud; solid, which you’re probably pretty familiar with; liquid, see above; gas, ditto; and plasma, which is a gas that is so hot that it ionizes or basically becomes the opposite of the coldest form, with a cloud of super-electrons surround a very jittery bunch of spread out nuclei. The one form we have postulated but haven’t found yet is dark matter, which is designed to explain certain observations we’ve made about gravitational effects within and between galaxies.

Which brings me to the other gigantic and egregious cock-up from the Star Trek film. This supposed “red matter” is able to turn anything into a black hole. It does it to a planet early in the film, and to a spaceship near the end. Okay, so that means that “red matter” is incredibly dense with a strong gravitational pull, but if that’s the case, then a neutron star could accomplish the same, sort of. It’s one step above a black hole — an object that is so compressed by gravity that it is basically a ball of solid neutrons with a cloud of electrons quivering all through and around it. Neutrons are one of two particles found in the nucleus of atoms, the other being protons. It’s just that the gravitational pressure at this point is so strong that it mushes all of the protons together enough to turn them into neutrons, too.

But the only way you’re going to turn a neutron star into a black hole is to slam it into another neutron star. Throw it against a planet or a spaceship, and all you’ll wind up with is a very flat and radioactive object that was not previously a neutron star.

That’s still not the most egregious error, though. The film subscribes to the “black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners” myth, and that’s just not true at all. Here’s a question for you: What would happen to all of the planets in our solar system if the sun suddenly turned into a black hole?

  1. They’d all get sucked in.
  2. They’d all stay where they were.

Bad science in movies tells us that “A” is the answer, but nope. If the sun turned into a black hole right this second, all of the planets would remain in orbit because the gravitational attraction of the sun wouldn’t change. Well, not quite true. If anything, it might lessen slightly because of the mass given up as energy in the creation of the black hole. So, if anything, the planets might start to creep into slightly more distant orbits.

The real negative effect wouldn’t be the black hole per se. Rather, it would be the sudden loss of thermal energy, which would turn all of the planets into balls of ice, along with the possible and likely blast of high-power radiation that would explode from the sun’s equator and generally cut a swath through most of the plane in which all of the planets orbit.

Or, in other words, we wouldn’t get sucked into the black hole. Rather, our planet and all the others would probably be scrubbed of most or all life by the burst of gamma and X-rays that would be the birthing burp of the new black hole at the center of the solar system. After that, within a few months or years, our planet would be as cold and desolate as Pluto and all the other dwarf planets way out in the sticks. Even Mercury would be too cold to host life. Give it a couple million years, and who knows how far out the planets and moons and asteroids and comets would have drifted.

Why is this? Because nature is big on conserving things, one of them being force. Now, not all forces are conservative — and, in science, that word just means “keeping things the same.” (Okay, in politics, too.) You might be familiar with the concept that energy cannot be created or destroyed, which is a sort of general start on the matter, but also an over-simplification because — surprise, energy is a non-conservative force.

Then there’s gravity and momentum, and both of those are incredibly conservative forces. And, oddly enough, one of the things that gravity creates is momentum. To put it in naïve terms, if you’re swinging a ball on a string, the path that ball follows is the momentum. The string is gravity. But the two are connected, and this is what we call a vector. Gravity pulls one way, momentum moves another, and the relationship between the two defines the path the ball follows.

Because gravity is an attractive force, increasing it shortens the string. But since the momentum remains the same, shortening the string reduces the circumference that the ball follows. And if the ball is covering a shorter path in the same time, this means that it’s moving more slowly.

A really dumbed-down version (so I can understand it too!) is this: if G is the force of gravity and p is the momentum of the ball, and G is a constant but p is conserved once given, then the only factor that makes any difference is distance, i.e. the length of the string.

Ooh. Guess what? This is exactly what Newton came up with when he postulated his universal law of gravitation — and he has not yet been proven wrong. So if your planet starts out one Astronomical Unit away from the Sun, which weighs one solar mass, and is moving in orbit at rate X counterclockwise around the Sun, when said star foops into a black hole its mass, and hence its gravitational attraction doesn’t change (beyond mass loss due to conversion to energy), and ergo… nope. You’re not getting sucked in.

Oh. Forgot that other often confused bit. Conservation of energy. Yes, that’s a thing, but the one big thing it does not mean is that we have some kind of eternal souls or life forces or whatever, because energy is not information. Sorry!

The other detail is that most forms of energy are non-conservative, even if energy itself is conserved, and that is because energy can be converted. Ever strike a match? Congrats. You’ve just turned friction into thermal energy. Ever hit the brakes on your car? You’ve just turned friction into kinetic energy — and converted momentum into thermal energy, but don’t tell gravity that!

In case you’re wondering: No, you really can’t turn gravity into energy, you can only use it to produce energy, since no gravity goes away in the process. For example, drop a rock on a seesaw, it’ll launch something into the air, but do nothing to the total gravitational power of Earth. Drop a rock on your foot, and you’ll probably curse up a blue streak. The air molecules launched out of your mouth by your tirade will actually propagate but still fall to ground eventually subject to Earth’s gravity. And, in either case, you had to counteract gravity in order to life that rock to its starting point, so the net balance when it dropped from A to B was exactly zero.

And it’s rabbit holes and research like this piece that makes me keep doing it for everything, although sometimes I really wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. When it comes to history, there’s a story that an Oscar-winning playwright friend of likes to mine tell and that I like to share. He wrote a play about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a group of  Japanese-Americans in WWII who were given a choice: Go fight for America in Europe, or go to our concentration camps. (Funny, none of my German ancestors were ever faced with the decision, “Go fight for America in Asia, or go to your concentration camps. Grrrr. But I do digress.)

Anyway… after one of the developmental readings of this play, he told me about a conversation he’d overheard from a couple of college kids in the lobby during intermission (this being about a decade ago): “Why were there American soldiers in Italy in World War II?”

And this is exactly why it is as important as hell to keep the history (and science) accurate. And these are things we need to fight for. Care about your kids? Your grandkids? Then here you go. Language. Science. The Arts. History. Life Skills. Politics. Sex Ed. This is what we need to be teaching our kids, with a healthy dose of, “Yeah, we’re kind of trying, but if you see the cracks in our façades, then please jump on, because it’s the only way your eldies will ever learn either.”

So… free education here. Questions accepted. No tuition charged. And if you want the media you’re eating up corrected, just ask.

Image: Doubting Thomas by Guercino (1591 – 1666), public domain.

A moving experience

Sometimes, it takes a nudge from outside to make basic changes. Once I’m settled in a place, I tend to not change things around a lot. Maybe it’s a reaction to my mom’s habit of rearranging all the furniture every couple of years growing up. Yeah, nothing is more disconcerting than coming home from elementary school and finding out that your dresser and bed have totally changed places and the living room looks completely different.

Honestly, I don’t know how she managed it on her own during the day, especially since the living room had that low-pile gray carpet that specialized in friction. Unless she was having the next-door neighbor come over and help, I could never figure out how she’d manage to move things like a very heavy rocking sofa, a solid oak coffee table that also weighed a ton, an entire sectional with a full-size sofa, love seat, and square bit that fit between them, and on at least one occasion (but only one) the entire dining room table (eight feet, maple, extendable to ten feet with leaves) and the hutch, which was probably pushing seven feet tall.

But she’d just suddenly get a jones to change everything, and Dad and I would get the surprise when we came home in the afternoon.

Now, it’s basic human nature to fear becoming our own parents, especially if our parents are majorly dysfunctional. Fortunately, mine weren’t, although they still had some quirks that I decided I’d rather avoid.

For my father, it was his seeming lack of strong emotions. In fact, the closest I ever saw him come to expressing them was on the way to my mother’s funeral. You know. His wife. His second wife, the woman he loved and doted on for far too short a time. She died just over three months past their 26th anniversary. Since I’m no bastard, you can do the math on the other part. And he was married to her a lot longer than he was to wife number one, who was a lot older than my mom.

And yet…  he barely showed any emotion in public or even in private throughout the whole thing. Not to the family, not to me. Oh, he’d have the occasional moment of pausing in silent anguish, but then he’d visibly stuff it down. And I tried to emulate that for too long until one day I realized, “No. This isn’t how anything works,” and if I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve now, to me that’s a good thing, because people will always know how I feel. Granted, I’m generally an even-keel kind of person, but if I get emotional about something or someone, it’s going to show.

As for my mother, since she grew up Catholic with all of the attendant guilt, her big thing was body shame. While I was growing up, the worst kind of violence on cable TV was okay for her, and okay if I was in the room, but show one inch of skin in the bathing suit area, boom. Turn that show off. It’s filthy or, as she’d put it, “Oh, this is one of those nudie movies.”

Seriously, what adult says that?

So, yeah, I had those issues for a while until I got over them, which was a lot earlier than I got over the emotionally distant thing; mainly, as soon as locker rooms and showers were a thing after gym class, and I realized that being naked didn’t bother me and it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

Which may have triggered some sort of “Mom isn’t always right” thing in my head? I don’t know. But combine that with this seeming idea in my parents’ head that I would grow up to be a professional, make a ton of money, marry a woman who would stay at home and take care of all that domestic shit, and the end result was that they didn’t teach me how to do any of that “girl” stuff (cough) and, anyway, other than being kind of able to cook, my domestic skills have always been… lacking.

Oh, I eventually taught myself to be a hell of a cook and baker because A) I like food, and B) It impresses the hell out of dates. But as for housekeeping beyond doing a mean load of laundry, it’s not my forte at all, and when it comes to rearranging the furniture, for years my attitude has always been “Why bother?”

Indeed, I can think of only two times I’ve rearranged the furniture since moving out on my own after college. Doing the nostalgia math on this, I’m reminded that I’ve lived in six places since the beginning, three with roommates, two without, and one most of the time with a roommate but the last few years without. I’ve only rearranged furniture twice, and only in the last two places.

In the place before this one, it was because an SO at the time got ambitious and was into furniture and design anyway, so he inspired me to completely reconfigure and redecorate the entire apartment — this was back when I could afford a two bedroom place in L.A. (Pause for raucous laughter.) But we did it up nice, with each room a different color theme, a feature wall in silver in the living room, a blue and white bathroom with an abstract brushstroke mural on the wall, a goldenrod kitchen, and so on.

For some reason, the landlords took umbrage when the city came to inspect, so I wound up having to move, not knowing that what they did was illegal. (Pro-tip: In rent controlled units in L.A., landlords cannot try to evict you for anything called out to be fixed by tenant or landlord on a city inspection. Bookmark that for yourselves.)

This brings us back to that opening sentence: “Sometimes, it takes a nudge from outside to make basic changes.” And city inspectors are about to descend on this place starting tomorrow. I haven’t repainted any rooms, but it did get me to rearrange the furniture, which turned out to be a lot less onerous than I’d thought it would be. That, and pack off a bunch of shit to storage, and to suddenly become my mother, because I did all of this rearranging on my own.

Lesson learned, and what I never got but which my mother obviously did (and she could have told me) changing the configuration of your living space changes your mind, often for the better if that change involves making things clearer and less cluttered, which was certainly the case this time.

And yeah. The physical act of moving bulky furniture all on your own really is empowering. Getting that couch from the south wall to the west wall on your own creates an enormous sense of “I did this!” And the satisfaction of untangling the inevitable gang-bang that all cables get themselves into under the desk and re-plugging them separately and neatly into both ends of their connectors is a visual and visceral symphony of delight.

In short, while I’ve tried since forever to avoid taking on this aspect of my mother’s personality, necessity (the mother of (re)invention) today made me embrace it and… goddamn. The best, simplest, and cheapest therapy is this.

If you’re feeling out of sorts or not fulfilled or somehow off in your life… rearrange your furniture. Really. Seriously. Do it. Now!

It will change your perspective in more ways than one. It did mine, and it was amazing.

Shoot the Moon

Previously, I covered a couple of big conspiracy theories, and why they are generally such an impossible idea. As noted there, it’s really hard for people to keep secrets, and the bigger a conspiracy, the faster it falls, which is why we happen to know about the real ones.

But people will see and believe what they want to, and so conspiracy theories exist. Here’s another famous one that just isn’t true.

We never landed on the Moon

While this one might seem like a modern conspiracy theory, it’s actually almost as old as the lunar landings, and was first promulgated by a man named Bill Kaysing, in his self-published 1976 book called We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.

Of course, the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever featured its own “Moon landing was fake” gag in 1971, and the whole thing probably caught on because it was an era when trust in government was at its lowest, what with Vietnam, Kent State and, by mid-decade, Watergate all crashing down at once. Ironically, the last one was a true conspiracy that fell apart quickly.

More fuel was added to the fire by the 1976 film Capricorn One, which postulated a manned mission to Mars that was faked by the government to avoid losing face with the USSR because the mission just wasn’t ready. Of course, the same film also hung a lantern on the biggest problem with huge government conspiracies. In order to cover it up, the plan was to kill the “astronauts” before they left the soundstage, then announce that they had died in a tragic accident upon re-entry.

Despite it being a 70s film — an era when the hero did not always win — this one did pull victory over villainy as the plot is discovered and the astronauts eventually saved, popping up at the announcement of their own deaths Tom Sawyer style to reveal the whole plot. Hell, there were even three “dead” people entering their own funeral in both.

The film definitely used the main motive that Moon Hoaxers give for the landing being faked: We weren’t ready for it, but we had to make the Soviets think that we were, and it all began when President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to a joint session of Congress on the 146th day of the new decade of the 1960s, May 25, 1961. His goal was simple: To put a (hu)man on the Moon before the last day of the decade. His motives were obvious. The Russians were already ahead of us in the “space race,” having launched the first satellite, Sputnik, and putting the first man into space. They also put the first woman in space, beating us by exactly twenty years and two days.

If you’d like to see an incredible film that documents the prequel to this speech in the days from the first attempts to break the sound barrier to finally getting our own astronauts into orbit, check out the book and/or film versions of The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, which documents both the amazing and absurd involved in this process.

It also illuminates the true dilemma for the American space program. For a time, it looked like the USSR was getting ahead, and especially as Kennedy was assassinated and things got worse in Vietnam (which was a proxy hot war between the two sides in the Cold War) the idea of getting to the Moon first became a sort of goal for a moral victory.

Did you ever wonder why NASA’s command center for all lunar operations wound up in Houston? Look no further than Vice-President, then President, Lyndon Baines Johnson who, like JFK before him, preferred to be known by the initials LBJ… among other things. Johnson?

Did I mention that LBJ was from Texas, so that it was almost a slam-dunk that the Space Center would wind up there? As for why the launch center wound up in Cape Canaveral, Florida, there are two good reasons for it. One is that it allows for launches over a lot of open water, meaning that crashes or aborted take-offs won’t happen over land or populated areas. Second, it was (at the time) the part of the U.S. closest to the equator, and the equator is much friendlier to getting us into space.

And for everyone rightly pointing out that Hawaii is surrounded by a lot more water and is closer to the equator because it’s our southernmost state, you are absolutely correct, except that Hawaii hadn’t quite become a state yet at the time that Cape Canaveral begun operations. Note that Puerto Rico is also farther south than Florida and slightly farther south than Hawaii, but we didn’t put our launch site there either.

I’m guessing that “really freaking heavy equipment” and “transportation by ship over substantial distances” aren’t a great combo when doing a budget for a governmental program. That, and helping elected officials in territories — you know, the ones who don’t get to vote in Congress — really doesn’t bring back any benefit to Wasghington D.C.

Which really brings up another way to question the Moon Hoax conspiracy. If it was a fake, why go to all of the trouble of making sure the sites are in locations with political and scientific advantages? If it were just for show, they could have put the control center anywhere and put the launch site near D.C. or New York City or somewhere else flashy that would draw huge crowds to watch the rockets go up.

As for why people believe this theory, it’s simple. They don’t understand science or physics. There are a lot of misconceptions in everything the Hoaxers claim; way too many for this piece, so I’ll refer you to the brilliant 2001 takedown of a Fox documentary claiming that it was all true by the amazing “bad” Astronomer Phil Plait. (In fact, this particular article is the one that launched him into internet fame and success in the first place.)

But perhaps the most bizarre take on the whole Moon Landing Hoax is this: the shots on the Moon were created by none other than… Stanley Kubrick. This was another idea to fall out of the sadly challenged brain of Kaysing, but others ran with it. Someone even went so far in 2015 to fake a video they claimed was Kubrick confessing to it. Hey, easy to do after the person you ‘re besmirching has died, right?

Still, it gets even weirder, as some true believers claim that Kubrick stuffed The Shining with clues basically saying, “Hey… I confess. I faked the Moon Landing.” And yes, some people do believe it.

This theory at least achieved one good thing. It let a septuagenarian who’d actually been to the Moon (Buzz Aldrin) punch a Moon Landing denying asshole in the face and get away with it. To quote the linked article, “The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has declined to file charges.”

That’s the best possible outcome, really. If only Buzz had said, right before the punch, “Bang! Zoom! Straight to the Moon.”

It’s okay to stop and ask for direction(s)

Recently, I wrote about the improv concept of getting yourself in trouble and then making it worse. I should have mentioned that this is fine for improv, but in the real world, not so much. And yet, people manage to do this all the time.

Sometimes, it’s due to psychological conditions. Hoarding is a classic example, and there are even TV shows about it — yeah, way to exploit a serious disorder, y’all. The thing is, hoarding progresses gradually. There are actually five levels to it, and reading that list will make a lot of us feel better about our own housekeeping skills — as in “Phew. I’m sloppy, but not a hoarder.”

The thing is, though, that hoarding, like any mental illness, is treatable, but the hoarder has to seek treatment first.

Here’s the other thing. There are conditions that are not mental illnesses that can still get people in trouble but could be avoided if only they ask for some help.

Basically, anything in your life that feels like it’s gotten out of your control or gone beyond your area of expertise is a good candidate for getting help on, and the condition is called “swamped,” which isn’t an official psychological definition, but definitely a fact of modern life. This is especially true if you’re feeling swamped and don’t know where to begin to take action and fix the problem.

Most of us don’t know how to do that. It’s human nature, although it’s a bigger problem for Americans in general and men in particular, because asking for help can be seen as weak and definitely makes someone feel vulnerable. There’s always the chance of hearing “No,” in which case the floor falls out from beneath us. In other words, a big bar to seeking help when we need it is fear.

Another one is over-confidence and simple blindness to there being an issue until it’s too late.

Imagine that you’re setting out on a road trip to visit good friends who recently moved to another state, and they told you their address, but you forgot to look it up before you started driving. No problem, you can look it up at some point before you get to their state, and anyway the scenery is beautiful, so you’ll just keep driving.

You set out from California, aimed for Minnesota, and you’re doing well up to the point you’re thinking about popping open the GPS somewhere halfway across Colorado, but when you do you find out you have no signal up in the mountains and, later on in Kansas, you find out that you have no data out here at all. “Well, that’s cool,” you think as you pass into Oklahoma. All you have to do is make a big left turn at Iowa, and boom, straight into Minnesota.

But then you notice that you’re driving into Arkansas, then Tennessee, wind up in Georgia, and you’re suddenly seeing road signs indicating “Miami, 250 miles.” You do manage to get data when you hit Miami, only to find out that you’re about 1,760 miles and six states southeast of your original destination with no idea how to get there.

Now, obviously, you’re not going to make that 28 hour California to Minnesota drive in one solid shot. It’s basically a three-day trip if you’re not being touristy (or are being cheap) and a two-day trip if you’re a maniac. Okay, a day and a half-shift if you’re a trucker on speed. Still… you have to eat and pee at some point. And at any one of those points, you could have simply asked someone, “How do I get from here to Minnesota?” (I feel that I’ve mentioned the gopher state enough times now to actually pop in a link and see if their Visitors Bureau will toss me a sponsorship. It can’t hurt to ask. See what I did there?)

By not asking, our hypothetical traveler had a destination in mind but then things literally went south. Oh. Did I mention that this traveler was going to attend their friends’ wedding and would have arrived on time without the wrong turn? Instead, they’ve missed the big event completely.

This is exactly what we do in our real lives when we sense that something is going out of control but then keep on driving, enjoying the scenery, and hoping that it will magically work itself out. But here’s the problem. Just as self-driving cars are not quite a ubiquitous thing, self-driving lives never will be. Get out of the car every now and then and ask for directions.

You need to exit your fear-bubble and ask for help when you need it. That is literally what friends and family are for, especially friends. Hey, they’re that special F-word for you for a reason. It means they want to hang out with you and spend time together and help you when you need it and feel safe being vulnerable enough to ask you when they need help.

Family are the people you have to like because you’re related to them. Friends are the people who like you despite not being related. And, to bring it full circle, when you ask the best of your friends for help, their first response is exactly the same as the best improv teammate.

“Yes! And…?”

Image source Wonder woman0731, used unchanged, under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0