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.

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.

Whole lot of shaking goin’ on?

(Warning: Betteridge’s Law alert in effect.)

Damn. Puerto Rico has been getting pounded by quakes over the last month to the point that they have visibly changed the landscape. Why so many earthquakes? Well, as they say in real estate, it’s all about location, location, and location. The island happens to be situated on top of or next to various tectonic plates and mini-plates, and it’s the collision of these pieces of the Earth’s crust that cause quakes in the first place. Well, the ones that aren’t man-made, anyway.

Puerto Rico isn’t alone in this, either. A look at significant earthquakes over the last 30 days shows the image of a very unsettled Earth. Now, it would be easy to buy into an interesting astronomical fact being the cause. That is, the Earth reaches its closest point to the Sun, perihelion, in January. This year, it was January 4th, with the centers of the Earth and Sun being only about 91.4 million miles apart. On July 4th, they will be at their most distant, at about 94.5 million miles.

Now, true, that’s only a little over a 3% difference, but that distance is about 390 times the diameter of the Earth, and enormous masses are involved on both ends. Perihelion is also the point in the Earth’s orbit when it reaches its maximum velocity, which is what flings it to aphelion, where it slows, reaches its minimum velocity, and comes flying back into a smaller orbit, which the Sun slingshots back out. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Of course, the difference between maximum and minimum velocity is only about sixth tenths of a mile per second, but, again, we’re dealing with some pretty big objects here. And, anecdotally, I can tell you that the biggest earthquake I’ve ever experienced was in January, and so was Japan’s, a year to the day later, and now Puerto Rico is shaking apart, and it must be connected, right?

Right… except that it’s not. Earthquakes are not driven by orbital mechanics or the weather or any other factors like that, and any belief in “earthquake weather” or “earthquake season” are pure confirmation bias and nothing more nor less.

However… there’s one thing to keep in mind about this time of year. We are closer to the Sun, and so get more heat from it, right at the time when it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, but summer in the Southern Hemisphere. And why is that the case? Because of the way the Earth is tilted. Winter is the season when its axis is titled away from the Sun. Summer is when it’s tilted toward. Spring and Fall are the seasons where the axis is mostly straight up and down.

So… in the Northern Hemisphere, we get winter when we are closest to the Sun and summer when we’re farthest away. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s exactly the opposite, and this is where we can see events in our solar system having an effect down here. Mainly Australia is burning.

Why? Climate change, hotter temperatures, drier forests, extreme weather (thinking thunderstorms with lightning that can start a fire), and human elements, although far from the “200 arsonists” dreamt up by the anti-climate change crowd. More like 24 actual arsonists, and then a bunch of idiots who may or may not have started fires, but at least did something that might have. And, anyway, claiming that arson and accident don’t add to the concept of anthropogenic climate change is a bit of a stretch. Humans did it? All that smoke is going to screw up the environment. And the burning would have stopped a lot sooner if the hotter climate hadn’t pre-baked the forests.

But… it’s hard to avoid confirmation bias when the earthquake alert app on my phone has been ridiculously busy since at least January 4th. The good news is that it’s easy to survive a quake with warning, and if you’re not living in buildings basically made out of mud, stone, and hope.

Just remember this: A) Do NOT get into a doorway. That’s outdated Boomer advice. Instead, squat down next to a heavy piece of incompressible furniture, like a sturdy armoire or a sofa, or barring that, right next to your bed, on your knees, rolled over, hands covering the back of your neck and head.

Once the shaking has stopped, if you can, grab your loved ones and go-bag (you have one, right?) get outside, shut off your gas if necessary, and escape to shelter, which could be your car if it wasn’t smashed flat in the collapse of a Dingbat style apartment. People, really, don’t live in them. Also try avoiding buildings that are four to eight stories tall, because they tend to sway at resonant frequencies in sync with seismic waves, and so sway harder and collapse more often.

The good news is that in a lot of places prone to earthquakes, things have been upgraded to a ridiculous and safe degree. The bad news? In a lot of places they haven’t.  Fun fact: Most of the U.S. and Canada reside on a single tectonic plate, so are not naturally susceptible to earthquakes. Not fun fact: Fracking completely fracks with that, and creates seismic events (aka earthquakes) in places that they should not be. Less fun fact: the tectonic plate with a lot of Southern California and half of the Bay Area is not the same one as the rest of North America.

Consequently, while people in other parts of the country grow up dreading tornadoes or floods, earthquakes have been my lifetime bugaboo. Good news, though. I’ve survived 100% of the ones I’ve been in… and I’ve accepted the fact that, for now, they are 100% unpredictable.

Our best weapon against AI is humor

My day job revolves around health insurance and, because of HIPPA regulations, the office has landlines. We can’t do VOIP because it’s not as secure. The theater I work at some evenings uses nothing but VOIP. I’m sure that the main consequence of this is that the theater never gets robo or sales calls, while the office gets them constantly.

Fortunately, I have absolutely no obligation to be nice to robo-callers or even to listen to their pitches. I’ve hung up on them in mid-sentence. To make it more confusing for them, I’ve hung up in the middle of my sentence. Sometimes, if they’re trying to pitch a service that the boss already has and I know that he did meticulous research before he obtained it or has a personal relationship with the provider, I’ll respond with a terse, “Thanks, but we’re happy with what we have,” and then hang up.

The fun ones are when we get calls trying to sell Medicare insurance. They start out just talking about Medicare Supplement plans, and those are perfectly legal to advertise. Why? Because no matter the provider, each particular plan has the same premium, determined by age, and has the same basic benefits.

These are the plans that cover deductibles, copays, and coinsurance not covered by other plans or Medicare itself. Where they differ is in the extras they toss on. Some of them provide gym benefits, others provide personal emergency systems — i.e. the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” necklace, others provide free over-the-counter stuff, like vitamins and cold remedies, by mail. It’s a mix-and-match, and what it’s really doing is providing people to decide what they prefer among plans that are otherwise identical.

So far, so good. If it’s a slow day and I get one of these calls, I will always push the button for more info, which connects me to a live operator. This is where it gets fun, because it is illegal to cold-call someone to try to sell them Medicare Advantage or Medicare Prescription Drug Plans.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what all those terms mean. I didn’t either six months ago. The gist of it is that selling these in the same way is illegal because their costs and coverages vary wildly, and it all depends upon the person being insured, and which medications they’re taking.

For somebody taking no drugs or with one or two common and cheap generics, Coverage X may only cost $13 a month. For someone with a lot of prescriptions, especially if one or more only come in a brand instead of a generic, Coverage X may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. And for each of them, the price of Coverage X, Coverage Y, and Coverage Z may also vary widely, also depending on whether they have a preferred pharmacy or not, and whether that pharmacy is in or out of network for the provider.

In other words… this is something people need to discuss with a professional who can look at their specific needs, analyze the options, and give the best and cheapest advice. That cold caller is probably only calling for a small number of (or even only one) providers, so they don’t care what your situation is going to cost. They only want to get you to buy what you’re selling.

And that is a big part of why these kinds of calls are so illegal.

Now, when I get a person doing one of these calls on the line, they will usually launch into a fast-talking spiel about how they can save me and my family money on all of our health insurance needs, including Medicare Advantage or Drug Plans, and what would I like to sign up for today?

My reply is always, “Hey, you sell Medicare insurance, too? So do we. My boss is an insurance broker.”

Analogy time: This would be the equivalent of somebody robo-dialing in order to hire a hitman to take out a rival, giving the fully incriminating pitch to whomever answers, and then finding out they’d called the FBI.

When I say this, I can hear the sudden confusion in the silence and the unstated “Oh, shit.” It takes a second or two, but then I hear them hang up on me, and that is the Holy Grail of dealing with these unethical idiots: making them end the call.

Some of them must be paying attention, though, because the other day I got one of these calls during a slow late afternoon, hit 1 to talk to a rep and then instead of immediately being put through, got some hold music, and then after about ten seconds, the call disconnected.

So, other Holy Grail. I think I actually got our office number blocked by a spamming, illegal robo-caller. That’s really satisfying.

However, there’s another trend in these robo-calls that’s somewhat more disturbing on a couple of fronts. First is that it could actually put people out of jobs. And yes, while we all hate these kinds of calls, I still get that for some people, these jobs are their tenuous lifelines. I blame the companies behind them, not the people who have no options other than to work for them.

Second is that this trend is using AI, and it’s getting a lot better. When you get a call that has a voice announcement or is reading off a recorded message, it’s pretty obvious what it is. Beyond the robotic cadence or the message outright stating that it’s a recording, there’s also just a huge difference in sound quality between a recording or digital audio and a live speaker.

Why is this? Simple. Digital or analog audio goes direct through an input line to the headset speaker in your phone. Spoken voice has to take the extra step or traversing a few millimeters of open air between the speaker’s mouth and their microphone, and this creates a completely different quality. You don’t even have to be an audiophile to pick up on it. It’s something we just automatically sense. “Recording” and “Real Person” appear as different from each other as “Mannequin” and “Human Being.”

But then they tweaked the technology, and now I’ve met a couple of AI robo-callers that were obviously filtered to sound like real people with that atmospheric connection. I don’t doubt that this is now a trivial process to add via computer, although to be honest, it could be done really low-tech and in cheap analog by setting up a speaker playing the voice next to a handset picking it up. Either way… these couple of calls got me at first.

Call number one, it was easy to spot after the initial two exchanges, because the voice launched into the uninterruptable spiel so, despite the sound quality, I got it and hung up.

The second and, so far, last time, it was a bit harder. The very human sounding voice started out with, “Hello, how are you today?” I replied, “Fine, and you?” It replied. “Great, thanks for asking. Can I ask you some questions about your family’s shopping habits?” “Sure,” I said, waiting for an opportunity to mess with them, but then also noticed that there seemed to be slightly too long of a pause between their question and my response. Also, every response started with a filler word. And the next response nailed it for me.

“That’s great. Are you responsible for the grocery shopping in your household.”

Trivial thing, but just like we can detect by hearing whether a voice is recorded or on the phone, our brains are also wired to detect whether we’re talking to a human, and this was the point that the bot failed the Turing Test. The responses were a bit mechanical and not keying into my tone at all. So I decided to give it a real test and replied, “I only pay for it, but everyone else decides what they want.”

The pause was slightly longer, and then came the reply, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” Of course, the human response would have been a laugh at a thing that AI hasn’t mastered yet: A joke.

Bingo, busted bot. So lots of points for the realism of the voice, delivery, and sound quality, but there’s still a long way to go on making it believable, and this is a very, very good thing, indeed. If you think it’s a bot, engage it with non-sequiturs and humor, and see how fast it falls apart.


Image: Alan Turing Memotial by Bernt Rostad, (cc BY 2.0).

Lifting the bus

One of our improv mottos is “Get yourself in trouble.” In other words, if a problem comes up in a scene game, don’t try to find a solution. Try to find ways to make it worse. If someone tries to solve it, make the solution become a bigger problem.

An example. Say that a loving couple, Pat and Kelly, are out hiking in the woods, when one of them, Pat, cuts a finger on a bush. Kelly puts a bandage on it, but Pat is terribly allergic to latex. Meanwhile, another friend of theirs, Sam, a botanist, comes along, and points out that the plant was something awful, like poison sumac. Kelly happens to have some spray that instantly neutralizes sumac and spritzes it on Pat, but then Pat grabs the bottle and looks at it, seeing that it expired two years ago. “Oh no!” declares Sam. “When anti-sumacization spray expires, using it actually makes the problem worse.” Kelly meekly says “Sorry,” Pat screams in pain, the ref blows the whistle, end scene.

Notice what was happening in the story above. We know who the people are to each other, and where they are, and then the complication of the cut finger happens. The performer playing Kelly keeps coming up with solutions to the problem. Meanwhile, the performer playing Pat comes up with reasons that the solutions are worse. The performer playing Sam gets this and comes on to help with the mayhem. Ultimately, we get the tragic but funny story of one partner trying to do everything to help the other out of a jam, but only causing more pain and agony.

What’s the alternative? Pat: “Ow, cut my finger.” Kelly: “Let me put this bandage on.” Pat: “Oh. All better. Thanks!”

Where does that leave them? They now need to come up with a new complication, or else the scene is over. And yes, they could create a scene in which another problem comes up after they solve the first, they solve that, and then another comes up, and so on. This… could work kinda sorta maybe, but it wouldn’t be as engaging because it would suddenly be about the location instead of the people. The only way it could work would be if one of the characters had endowed the other with the ability to solve every problem at the top — “Oh, Kelly. You know how to fix everything!” — but then everyone started to throw more and more ridiculous problems at Kelly to solve.

Now this latter choice can work as well, and it’s a type of improv that we call (off-stage ‘cause our shows are suitable for everyone) “Screw your buddy.” That is, one player will suddenly toss something ridiculous at the other player. A recent example our team coach gave was from an actual match, where one player said something like, “Don’t say it. Sing it!” and so the other player did.

The key to making this work comes from another one of our mottos, and something we say to each other right before we go on in every show: “Got your back.” That is, it only looks like “screw your buddy” from the audience’s point of view, but that’s not what’s really happening.

If you’re playing with someone you know can’t do accents to save their life, for example, then a comment like, “Oh. It says that whoever drinks this will suddenly start speaking in random accents” would not be a good choice. They’d either wind up ignoring it and disappointing the audience or, more likely, try to do it, get into a place totally into their head, and roll the scene right off of the rails.

But… if you know that your scene partner can do any accent perfectly, then you definitely toss something like this at them because then it will engage the audience. They’ll immediately feel sorry for the other player. “OMG. How are they going to do that?” But then they will be thrilled to death as the other player suddenly pulls out half a dozen or more flawless accents for the rest of the scene and end up wondering, “What magic is this?”

It can be daunting as a performer until you’re aware of what’s going on. In fact, the first time it happened to me, I wasn’t, and I was getting a little annoyed at the player doing it to me. We were playing a singing and rhyming elimination game called Da Doo Ron Ron that I’ve mentioned here before. Funny story: Before I started doing improv, I loved to watch this one as an audience member. Once I started doing improv, playing this game scared the hell out of me and I would usually be out no later than third elimination.

That’s when I learned a very counter-intuitive trick for it, which is this: In a game where you have to come up with lots of rhymes, stop thinking and start listening. And it’s true. When I’d go into the game and start reeling off all the possible rhymes in my head for the suggestion (Bob… cob, dob, fob, gob, hob, job, knob, lob, mob, rob, sob, blob, etc.) I’d stop listening, so that I’d totally miss that someone before me said “Ty Cobb,” I’d use “corn on the cob,” and (clap clap) “outta there.”

But when I started listening instead, it all changed because I was mentally ticking off the letters used, so it made it much easier to latch onto the ones that hadn’t been, as well as looking for diphthongs, diglyphs, and other oddities but, again without thinking ahead. End result? The less I planned ahead, the better I got, and this went from one of my most feared games to one of my favorites.

This probably makes no sense without an explanation of the game, so here it is. It’s based on an old song with a repeated refrain of “da doo ron ron,” and the audience suggests a name. The pattern repeats in threes. The very first player always says the name, and then the second player rhymes the name. The third player has to come up with three rhymes. It repeats from there with single rhyme, single rhyme, triple, until somebody repeats a rhyme, can’t come up with one, falls off rhythm, uses a slant rhyme (e.g., flan and Spam), or the ref just gets tired of them.

So the first trio would be:

Player 1: “I met him/her on a Tuesday and his/her name was [suggestion]”

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron

Player 2: Match up the rhythm and make a [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron. Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s a little [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s another [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s the final [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.

Repeat.

Ideally, if we start with eight people, the person who gets number three will keep shifting as we get through the line, although it’s rare to make it through the starting line more than two full times. After that, the third player rotates equally for 7, 5, and 4 players remaining, although a ref can still determine who gets the first three via whom they pick to start and, if they’re really good, they can target the second three, although it does involve a lot of memorization.

This leaves three and six, and these are the special positions, because however the ref starts it, the same two or one players will always get the third rhyme. All the ref has to do is start two players to the left of their target, and boom. Buddy screwed. Or thrown under the bus. Or whatever you want to call it.

Long set-up, but here’s how it paid off. We were doing Da Doo Ron Ron for a fairly big audience, starting with eight players, and the first couple of rounds it seemed random. But as soon as we hit six, that’s when it became obvious that the ref was starting every round so that I would get the three spot and, since I was on the red team, which starts from stage left, it also made it easier for him to put me in the second three spot in each round.

At six and three, same damn thing. But a funny thing happened when we got down to three players and me being the only three rhymer. We made it three times around and I survived, and every time the audience went crazier and crazier when I’d pulled off my third. It was only on my fourth time around that I made two and then whiffed it on the last.

But I was pretty annoyed with our ref when I went back to the bench until our coach explained it to us post-show, and this brings us back to the title of this piece, because that’s the metaphor he used.

A good improviser, he explained, “Will throw their teammate under the bus under one condition. They know full well that their teammate is capable of lifting the bus, so the audience will be amazed when they do it. He got more specific and said that the only reason our Ref kept putting me in the three spot was because he knew I could do it, so it would give the audience their money’s worth and make me look good.

And… damn. Looking at it after the fact, that’s exactly what it did. He kept putting me in trouble but with the unspoken endowment of “You can solve anything,” and so it made me look like a goddamn wizard or words. Of course, it also gave me permission to play the hell out of feeling picked on and nervous, which, again, made me look good by making it look like I was overcoming insurmountable odds.

I wasn’t. I was playing a game that I enjoyed and was really good at. And in retrospect I realized that our ref knew that too. And he only threw me under the bus because he knew damn well that I could lift it.

Image credit: Author’s photo © 2019, Metro G Line at the NoHo Station, March 24, 2019.

 

Dream a little dream

We all have them. Some of us in color, others in black and white — although that really seems to be (sorry) an Ok, Boomer phenomenon. If you’re Gen X or younger, you probably dream in color because you grew up with color TV.  Only the generations that grew up with black and white media, whether TV or film, seem to have ever dreamt only in black and white.

Weird, eh? Although dreams can be weirder and very meaningful, although Freud really got it wrong because he decided that dream symbolism was universal when, in reality, it is actually very specific.

Think about it for just one second. Say that you grew up in the country and, as a child, you were traumatized by your first trip to the city. So… when you dream, it’s most likely that country dreams are pleasant and city dreams are not. Reverse this for someone who grew up in a city and loved it, but had a bad experience the first time they went to visit the grandparents on their farm.

What would Freud say? He’d pull shit out of his ass and make up some one-size-fits all statement, probably about how dreams of the country represent a desire to have sex with one’s mother, while city dreams represent a need to kill one’s father.

Yeah, wrong.

Dreams are very personal

I tend to dream myself into one of two general situations that have symbolic meaning to me, and not anyone else.

First, dense urban landscapes, day or night, frequently involving endless streets crowded by buildings with a lot of overhang and construction, and which often feel in my mind like a blend of New York, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco. These dreams frequently involve me having to take public transportation — which I actually love to do — in an effort to get home that seems increasingly futile, especially when it’s three in the morning and I realize that I’ve exited the subway at the wrong place, and that the bus doesn’t stop here, it’s a mile or two up the road.

Subset of this, when I’m not doing the transit thing, I’ll enter a building, and it turns into either a gigantic amalgamation of malls (the Beverly Center on steroids with others appended); a weird combination of mall, public space in a university, and the dorms (the student union on steroids); or an office building in which I’m working, except that the office I go to seems to go on and on forever in an endless nest of cube farms, with each new inner door leading to another, identical cube farm with different people.

Also, the latter group tends to have really odd and iffy elevators, especially if it’s a really tall building. I’ve been in a couple of 200 story office towers, and acceleration on the express elevators in either direction was not pleasant.

Meanwhile, the dorm version inevitably leads to weird bathrooms that have either far too many toilet stalls, most of them not working, a few urinals where I don’t want to use them, or a grungy shower room hidden way behind everything. There usually aren’t a lot of stalls, just a lot of toilets installed in haphazard rows butting up against each other, pun intended. Finding that one urinal that actually has partitions on either side is always a blessing. Yeah, no way I’m sitting down in any of these bathrooms. They make the one in Trainspotting look like the restroom at the… Nashville Zoo?

But the other typical dreamscape is almost always even weirder and literally darker.

Welcome to my nightmares

Second, the suburban version. It involves a lot of weirdness and anxiety, because these dreams usually revolve around me having to figure out what shit to pack and where my plane tickets are in order to make it out of here in time to get home. Or, if not that, this, and very similar. I can’t take everything or, really, anything, and my brain melts trying to figure out how to get it all out of here anyway. Quite frequently, I know that I’m on a group trip to somewhere, like my improv company has gone to another city for a competition or I’m visiting friends in another state. Unlike a lot of the urban dreams, these tend to take place only at night.

Other variations include me going back to live in my parents’ house (sometimes with them even though they’re both dead), or me sharing a house with roommates I personally know, but who are never there. And, like the urban dreams, these houses often have rooms within rooms — a door in a bedroom that seems to be a closet will lead to a hallway that leads to another room, often another bedroom but also frequently some sort of living room with an entrance/exit off of it. Sometimes this will lead out to the street. Other times, it will lead to an alley that doesn’t seem to belong to a house — a common theme I’ll get to in a moment.

The puzzle houses are also frequently the locations for parties, so each discovery of a new room and hallway will lead to a new group of people.

This doesn’t just happen with houses. I’ve had it happen with apartments or condos, and a frequent one will be a very luxurious condo with modern design, marble floors, white walls, and huge rooms that goes on and on, and then I find a hallway the leads to a door that opens directly into… a huge mall. Or, sometimes there isn’t even a door. It’s sort of a variation of the student union from the urban dreams. I think I get this symbolism: a lack of separation between public and private space; although I’m not sure whether I think that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t have any strong emotions about it in the dreams.

One other minor motif that also involves greatly exaggerated landscapes involves simple travel, whether it’s down a highway in a car or hiking, frequently on a grassy trail next to a river or viaduct, passing through various sections that will come to similar link points, like ramps or interchanges for the former, or footbridges and road crossings for the latter. The highway ones also often go through varied terrain. I’ve gone from a sunny beach to a snowy mountain pass in one. Then again, that’s easy to do in Southern California.

On top of all of this, I often go full Dr. Manhattan in my dreams. That is, I’m nude, I don’t care, and no one notices. It’s only the rare occasion when I decide that I should probably put on pants, but that’s generally only when it’s a dream in which I realize I’m interacting with past or present co-workers.

The meaning of dreams

In case you’re wondering, yes, I know full well what a lot of the elements of these dreams mean and symbolize to me. Why shouldn’t I? My subconscious speaks the language of my fears, hopes, and desires better than I do. It also knows how to put it into the metaphors that I cling to, and to cast it with people from my past and present (and maybe future?) who will shorthand the real message.

But… this also shows why Freud (and anyone else) who claims to interpret dreams with universal symbols is so wrong. If I dream about eating ice cream while walking with my mother, that will have an entirely different set of connotations than you having the same dream. Like I mentioned before with the city/country thing, maybe one of us has a very pleasant childhood memory of our mom telling us the family was going to Disneyland while we were walking and eating ice cream. Maybe one of us saw our mother hit and killed by a car on that walk.

They say that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and the same is true of dreams. If somebody who is gay or bisexual has erotic dreams about someone of the same sex, then those are good dreams. If a person who is heterosexual does, then those are moments when they wake up thinking, “WTF?” And especially if that dream was about someone they know IRL. (To be fair, though, the same applies to gay people having the same kind of dreams about the opposite sex and, yes, it happens. It’s happened to me more than once.)

But, again, another clear example of why Freud was so wrong. A dream about a sexy woman or man means very different things depending upon who’s dreaming it. Then again, Freud only wondered about what we dream. He never asked the important question.

Why do we dream?

This one still hasn’t been answered, though researchers have tried. There are many theories but no answers, and that’s only coming from the science side. If you want to go all mystic about it (please don’t) then dreams could also be messages from dead ancestors, the spirit realm, and any kind of woo you want to throw onto it. (Note: Wow. It wasn’t that long ago that woo was woo-woo. Talk about fast evolution of language. Whoot!) But short of the why, I think that this is the best what. Dreams are the emails your subconscious sends to you after hours to help you improve your next day.

Best part? They know the exact emojis you will relate to, and they hook them together in the right order. And it doesn’t matter whether you dream in full color or black and white, or whether you dream visually at all because, surprise, blind people dream as well and, depending upon when they went blind, they either dream through their other senses — touch, taste, and smell — or, if they became blind after about 5 or 6 years old, they also see in their dreams.

And think about it for a moment. Other than vision, and maybe sound, what other senses do you experience in your dreams? The only consistent one I can think of is kinesthetic. That is, full body motion, like the sense of falling or moving. Touch, taste, or smell, not so much.

Do electric sheep dream of androids?

Another great question is this. Do animals dream? And the answer is that, at least for mammals like us, of course. And what do they dream about? That’s a little harder to determine because, obviously, you can’t wake up your cat and dog and ask them. But researchers at MIT did use some science, and they determined that rats tended to dream about the task they had learned that day, and so seemed to use dreams as a sort of passive learning reinforcement.

And, of course, in less ethical times when experimenters had no problems physically altering the brains of animals in order to inhibit the protective feature of sleep paralysis, they used a very crude method to see that cats and dogs dreaming in REM sleep acted out exactly the hunting and play behaviors they would in real life.

Some humans naturally suffer the condition that scientists induced, and it’s called REM Sleep Behavior Disorder. This is actually a thing, and was used as a successful defense in a murder trial in Britain, although the legal classification of pavor nocturnus is rather different than the medical definition noted above.

Still, there’s an interesting note. Cats, dogs, and humans all have rather aggressive dreams. Except when we don’t, and none of mine are. Fearful and anxious, maybe. Aggressive? Nah. And I’m not likely to murder anyone in their sleep, although there was this one time I sleepwalked into a rather awkward place only to wake up, realize it, and go back to bed.

And I’ve never had a dog that didn’t start to do that “paddle paw and squeak” thing while asleep, and I’ve never found it anything less than totally endearing.

Except for that part where Freud would say that dog is dreaming about killing his father and… Oh, shut up. The meanings of dreams are as unique as the dreamers, and if you want to be successful as a dream interpreter, here’s the clue to success: Learn how to get the dreamer to admit to you what each element means, then string it back to them in a narrative that’s really just good advice.

“Oh, so you dreamt about missing your train to work. Wow. What if that happened in real life?” (Listen to answer.) “Okay, so when you got there late, your boss threw something at you. How do you feel about your boss, and this job?” (Listen to answer.)

Lather, rinse, repeat, until they’ve told you exactly what their dream means, then repeat it all back in a nice narrative form. Accept payment and referrals, profit.

This is actually exactly how a “good” Tarot card reader works by the way. I’ve seen it in action from the outside, and it’s amazing. All they do is say what each card symbolizes in the space that it’s in, but then get the person they’re reading for to fill in the blanks. “This card means unbalance and it’s in the spot indicating your present. Is anything in your life feeling out of balance?” Etc.

It’s also exactly what Freud did, except in the less customized version — “Buy my book and know what your dreams mean!” Except, no. You won’t. But you will if you use the version I mentioned three paragraphs above. Talk to yourself. Think about each element of your dream, and ask yourself what it means to you. It can help to write your dream down, and then make footnotes on each bit of it. What each location and person and feeling means to you now because of what it meant then. After all of that, figure out how all of these bits and pieces relate to what you’re living now and, voilà… dream interpreted. Like I’ve said elsewhere… it ain’t rocket science.

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