Wednesday Wonders: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth MC

Today would have been the 140th birthday of an Irish astronomer, economist, and all-around jack of all trades you’ve never heard of known as Kenneth Essex Edgeworth.

You probably have heard of Gerard Kuiper, though, or at least the belt named after him. Since Kuiper was of Dutch descent, that first syllable is pronounced with a long I, so it’s not “Kooper.” The first syllable rhymes with kite. (If you’re an L.A. local, it’s exactly the same as Van Nuys, and for the same reasons that I won’t get into here, because they’re complicated.)

Anyway… Kuiper was about 25 years younger than Edgeworth, died just over a year after him in 1973, and wound up with his name on something that Edgeworth originally predicted and described.

Okay, sometimes it’s referred to as the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt, attributing the discoverers slash theorists in the right order, but that’s generally mostly not the case, so that Kuiper really is kind of the Edison to Edgeworth’s Tesla.

But Edgeworth was ahead of his time in other ways. Only eight years after Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and declared the eighth planet, Edgeworth was expressing his doubts, saying that it was too small to be a planet, and was probably a remnant of the bits and pieces that came together to create the solar system.

He was certainly vindicated on that one, and it was part of the same ideas which gave birth to what should be called the Edgeworth Belt, but which didn’t catch on until Kuiper got in on the act in the 1950s.

Maybe a big part of the problem was that Edgeworth was more of an armchair astronomer. While he published papers, he was a theorists and not an experimenter. Then again, Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist, not a practical one, and his theories changed the way we view the universe.

Edgeworth’s could have changed the way we view our solar system, and he also hypothesized what later became known as the Oort Cloud — named for another damn Dutch astronomer, Jan Oort, who once again came to the party long after Edgeworth proposed the idea.

When Edgeworth was a child, his family moved to the estate of his maternal uncle, who was an astronomer, and had an influence on young Kenneth. Later, the family would move to the estate of Edgeworth’s paternal grandfather, where he would develop engineering skills in his father’s workshop.

He went into the military, joining the Corps of Royal Engineers, and was posted to South Africa, where he served in the Second Boer War. His military career continued through World War I and beyond, and he retired in 1926.

However, between the Boer War and WW I, his uncle submitted his name for membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, and he was accepted for in 1903. By this point, he had already written papers on astronomy, since one of them was read at the meeting during which he was elected. He studied international economics during the Great Depression and wrote five books on the subject in the 1930s and 40s. He also published various papers on astronomy, covering subjects like the solar system, red dwarves, star formation, and redshift.

It was also at this time that he published his thoughts on Pluto, as well as the existence of both the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.

After he “retired,” he published a series of letters and papers, leading to his book The Earth, the Planets and the Stars: Their Birth and Evolution, which was published in 1961. He published his autobiography, Jack of all Trades: The Story of My Life, when he was 85, in 1965, and died in Dublin in 1972, at the age of 92.

His contributions to the Kuiper Belt and Oort cloud weren’t acknowledged until 1995, although he did have an asteroid named after him in 1978, 3487 Edgeworth. Yes, a comet would have been more appropriate, but those are only named after their discoverers, and after October 10, 1972, Kenneth Edgeworth wasn’t in a position to discover anything new.

But while he was around, damn what a life. And what an unsung hero. Proof yet again that, sometimes, the ideas that sound utterly crazy at the time turn out to be the truth.

I wonder which unsung geniuses we aren’t listening to now, but whose visions will be obvious in a generation or two.

Image: Kenneth Essex Edgeworth, year unknown. Public domain.

Talky Tuesday: More misused words

It can be a chore sometimes trying to convince people that spelling and grammar are important. And FSM knows I can be a hypocrite in that I roll my eyes and say, “Oh, hell no” every time someone laments the inability of people nowadays to write or read in cursive.

Then again, I really don’t see the point of cursive, especially not when we can do most things by keyboard. Although the flip-side of that advantage is that it lends itself to text speak and emojis — which is fine in the context of messaging, where it works. But if you’re attempting anything more formal, and that includes arguing about shit in social media, then for the moment you still want to go for the good spelling and grammar.

Why? Because to do otherwise really undercuts your argument. If you have sloppy grammar or bad spelling, it tells us one of two things, depending upon your attitude about it.

First, if you misspell or misuse words and don’t care, or spell them like you hear them instead of like they are (e.g. caught in the wild: “riddens” instead of “riddance”) then it tells us that you are intellectually lazy, so that means we don’t have to bother listening to anything you have to say, because you haven’t bothered to research it, you’re only parroting what you’ve been told, thank you and good night.

And if you misspell or misuse words because you just can’t remember the difference between things like your and you’re, that tells me that you really can’t retain easily learned information, and probably are not the best choice for trusting with anything complicated.

Hint: At those times when I’ve been in charge of hiring, cull trick number one was to dump any résumé with an unforced error in either of these areas. Note that this doesn’t include typos. For example, if I see “the” where you clearly meant “they,” that gets a bit of a pass. But if you mix up words or spell things wrong, then… b’bye.

That said, here are some more heinous abuses of the language that I’ve seen in the wild in just the last couple of weeks.

Raindeer instead of reindeer

I suppose this might make sense since these noble creatures are associated with Santa Claus and winter and a time when it might rain, except that reindeer and Santa are associated with the North Pole (or at least Finland and Lapland), so if they were being named because of the weather, they’d probably be snowdeer.

Not to mention that they’re more elk-like. But the whole idea of the “rein” in “reindeer” is that reins are things you put on animals to steer them.. The most famous example of reined animals are horses, although you can rein cattle. You don’t rein oxen, though, you yoke them, and they seem to figure it out from there.

Nobody puts Bambi in a yoke. Or reins. Or a corner. But as for those fabulous Lap cervidae with the fabulous antlers… better rein them in so that they can lead Santa’s sleigh.

Adieu instead of ado

Most often seen in a phrase like “with no further adieu (sic)…”

This is an interesting example of ignorance trying to appear more intelligent, since there’s the appropriation of a French word there — adieu, for good-bye, which is a cognate of the Spanish adios, both of which literally mean “to god!” And if you take them in the context of when and where they originated, they were basically saying, “Hope to see you again, but if you die of plague before that, which is really likely old friend, may you go to heaven.”

Whoa. Heavy. So saying “Much go to god” makes no sense at all. Instead, we have the early middle English word (thanks Willy Shakes) a-do, which takes that old Romance pronoun “a,” meaning motion toward, and sticks it on that definitely English verb “do,” which is such a powerful auxiliary verb in the language that it steps in for most translations of direct questions in romance languages.

“¿Hablas español?” “Do you speak Spanish?”

“¿Quién lo hagas?” “Who did it?”

 “¿Sabes qué hora es?” “Do you know what time it is?”

I guess the only trick here is to think of the “a” in the negative as “nothing more to,” and then naturally sticking it on the verb to do, dropping the to. Or, in other words, why not the phrase “With nothing more to do” or “No more to do before…”

With no further ado…

Per say instead of per se

This one is simply an example of never having seen the word in print and pushing English onto it. Except, if you’ve ever studied any Romance language or Latin, this form makes sense, because the pronoun “se” will immediately hit your eye as a thing that’s used to create the passive tense, at least in Spanish.

You’ve probably seen “Se habla español,” and what it means is “Spanish is spoken here.” Well, at least in English translation. A more literal translation that is not as English friendly would be something like “it is spoken, Spanish.”

As for “per” it’s a well-used word in English, and you see it in prices all the time. “How much are the lemons?” “It’s $1.25 per pound.”

In other words, “per” in English means “for” or “for each.” Pretty much the same as it means in Latin or, shift it to “por,” in Spanish.

Put the two together and, in Latin, it makes total sense: per se, for itself. In Spanish, not so much, and “por se” is not a thing. But the important thing on top of that is that “say” is not a word in Spanish, Latin, French, or Romanian.

Which brings us right back to the original and only translation. Something noted with “per se” is by, of, for, or in itself. So… “I’m not saying that all Romans will know this expression per se, but I think a lot of them will…”

Complimented instead of complemented

This one is not as hard as it might seem. Compliment means to say something nice about someone. Complement means to go together. So here’s the reminder: In order for you to get a compliment, I have to do it. Well, someone has to, but the point of the mnemonic is that compliment has an I in it. Complement doesn’t.

As for “complement,” it all goes together, as in the word has one O, two E’s, and no other vowels. Or you can think of the word complete, and remember that when one thing complements another, it completes it.

When in their adjectival forms, complimentary and complementary, you can remember which is which in pretty much the same way. As for the other meaning of complimentary — something received for free, like a hotel’s complimentary buffet — remember the I because it’s a gift.

Breaking instead of braking

The trick here is in the vowels. Well, sort of. If you’re talking about a car — or an auto or any vehicle stopped by gripping the wheels or other things — then the only vowel is an “a.” Ergo, the word is braking. Hit the brakes. Brake to a stop. Brake the car. Or… brake the automobile, which starts with A.

Now, you’d think that the name for a light-weight jacket often made of synthetic materials should then be a “windbraker” becase it stops the wind, but it’s not. It’s a windbreaker. Now why is it called that? If it’s because it breaks wind, that would be a really neat trick for a jacket to pull off, not to mention either amusing or alarming, depending upon your sense of humor. (Personally, I’d find it hilarious.)

The real answer is that Windbreaker® is a registered trademark of the company John Rissman & Son, so in reality we should really use the alternate name windcheater. However, Windbreaker is going the way of Kleenex and Xerox, both trademarks that have basically become generic in common usage.

Or, in other words, a lot of people probably ask for a Kleenex instead of a tissue, or use the Xerox machine even if it’s a Canon or Brother, and we all google stuff even if we’re using Bing — but, really, why would anyone be? What we don’t see are companies releasing things like “Billy Johnson’s kleenex” or “FlurfingtonCo xerox machine,” because those would still violate the law.

Oops. Let me put the brakes on that digression. The other word, “break,” basically means to divide, shatter, ruin, wreck, interrupt, or make something useless or incomplete. Break-up, prison break, break dishes, break the mold, break a record, and so on.

It can also mean to suddenly start something — break into a sweat, break into a run, break out in song — or to prepare something for use — break in the car.

One use that simultaneously interrupts one thing and starts another is going to be the key to remembering this spelling, and that’s breakfast. If you’ve never really thought about it, that word may seem weird, but let’s break it down (see what I did there?) so that we get break and fast.

Fun fact: the word is exactly the same in Spanish: desayunar, to breakfast, combines the verb ayunar, to fast, with the prefix des-, which means to remove. The noun form is desayuno. And yes, in English it is entirely possible to say, “Let us breakfast this morning” and use the word as a verb.

Now where did fasting come into it the equation? Simple. You haven’t eaten anything since before you went to bed the night before, which should have been at least eight hours ago. So when you have your morning meal, you are interrupting, or breaking, that fast. At the same time, this meal is the start of your day. So you get two interpretations of break for the price of one. And since you do it by eating, there you go. This version of the word that sounds like braking has “ea” in it. And you can’t eat or break without them.

Momentous Monday: Marbury vs. Madison

Two hundred and seventeen years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court made a very important decision, one that has resonated on down through the years, and one that is more important now than ever.

Basically, a little incoming executive fuckery attempted to block an approved appointment by the outgoing administration… or did it? Because the outgoing administration wasn’t so innocent either, and to top it off, the Supreme Court Justice who ruled in the case, John Marshall, had been Secretary of State to the President who was trying to pack the courts with justices favorable

to his side in the last days before he had to turn over the reins to Thomas Jefferson.

Side note: For all of you Founders fans, read up a bit, and you’ll realize that if you’re progressive, then you’re on the side of Adams, not Jefferson.

Anyway, beyond the politics of all of the above, two things are notable. One is that Marshall actually ignored the fact that he was voting against his guy (Adams) in this case and voted for what was right. Second is that this case forever enshrined the idea that the Supreme Court could absolutely decide whether a law passed by Congress was Constitutional.

Hello, checks and balances, everyone.

But it seems to have passed out of fashion to understand this simple fact. Our Constitution set up three branches of government for one simple purpose: So that no one of them would become too powerful. That’s what checks and balances means.

The three branches are as follows:

Legislative, meaning both houses of Congress, whose job is to make laws.

Executive, meaning the President and Cabinet, and their job is to figure out how to enact the laws passed by the Legislature, or to say “Nope. We’re not passing that law.” (To which the Legislature, with a two thirds majority, can say, “Nu-uh, it’s passed. Suck it!)

Judicial, meaning the Supreme Court, and they get to decide whether a law follows the Constitution or not.

Oh yeah. All three branches are constrained by the Constitution. At least in theory. And getting back to the Legislative, there are two houses of Congress, which makes it wonky: The Senate and the House or Representatives.

These came out of what you can basically call White Privilege, i.e., “We really can only trust rich, old, white, land-owning dudes over 21 to do what’s best (for rich, old, white, land-owning dudes over 21), so the system was stacked from the top. The Reps in the house are based on the population of states, meaning that in the modern day places like California, Texas, and New York have the most Reps. However, the Senate is based on state, as in every state gets the same two Senators, so that California, with nearly 40 million people, gets the same number of Senators as Wyoming, with just over half a million people, and that is utter bullshit. Of course, this is the same nonsense that gave us the Electoral College, which really needs to be banished as well.

To keep it fair, we really need to banish the Senate, reapportion Congress based on an honest 2020 Census, and pack the Supreme Court to at least 17 Justices. Maybe even consider the concept of having two or more of those positions elected by the people instead of appointed by the President, and with the power of recall endowed, again, with the people..

Oh yeah. Because that’s the really big part that the whole “Systems of Checks and Balances” things ignores. The fourth branch of government.

Who is it? You may ask. Simple. It’s us. We the people, and our power to vote. We can’t do shit about the Supreme Court (yet, but see above), otherwise, the President and Congress are in our hands.

The Supreme Court Justice you may or may not have heard of, and who was equal parts hero and dick. 

Sunday Nibble #5

One of the nice side benefits of my current day job that wasn’t really in the description — although getting her approval was a part of the interview process — is that I’ve really connected with my boss’s wife, whom I’ll call Ms. R. That was probably inevitable, though, because she’s a stylist by profession, but also an artist, talented painter (though not actively doing it now) just generally creative, and Jewish.

I mention all of those because I think that’s why we had such a strong and immediate connection.

I share the creative bits with her and, while I’m not actually Jewish, I effectively went through middle and high school being the token goy among predominantly Jewish friends or, as I call it, lucky as hell, so that was the major cultural imprint on me in my formative years. If I were a menu item, I guess it would be an atheist curry of Catholic-Jewish cultural fusion. Spicy corned beef and kreplach served from Russell’s teapot.

One of the things Ms. R does is decorate the place per season and holiday, and by this point I’ve been through all of the major post-Labor Day holidays. Oh… I should mention that the “office” is the boss’s house, and my specific office is the living room. Since Ms. R spends most of the time when she’s not at her salon in the kitchen, dining, and living rooms, she and I interact a lot.

However, I didn’t really get involved in the whole design and layout thing until the last few days. They’re hosting a Valentine’s dinner on the Sunday after for a group of old friends of the boss — people who’ve known each other since they were kids, and now it’s grown to the originals, plus their spouses, kids and, in some cases, grandkids.

Her party set-ups can be a multi-day process that I get to watch from my desk, and this was one of them, but the Monday before the event, Ms. R started asking for my opinion on her table arrangements. At first, my thought was, “Okay, I’m gay, but I’m not that gay, so I can’t help you,” but then I realized, “No, wait, I’m also kind of obsessive, I do graphic design, and holy crap, let me at it.”

So it suddenly became all about symmetry, as in figuring out how to distribute not quite enough of each kind of plate, glass, napkin ring, etc., between two tables to accommodate 20 guests when all of the setting stuff only came in units of 6, 8, or 12.

The second she asked it, goddamn… my one kind of non-debilitating psychological quirk kicked in, and I managed to arrange the hell out of those tables and impress the hell out of Ms. R even more.

See, the kind of obsession I have has to do with regular patterns of things. Toss me something that looks symmetrical and I am damn well going to count rows and columns just to figure out how many divisions there are.

If you ever saw the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, then you’ll understand, because for a lot of the time the entire set was covered in a projected grid (pictured in this article), and during the pre-show, you can be damn sure I figured out how many squares there were by counting the rows and columns and doing the math.

By the way, it was a brilliant book and a brilliant adaptation, and one that sneaks up on you. All I’ll say is that one very important detail about our narrator is never stated, but rather slowly revealed, and it’s up to us to figure it out.

I won’t leave you anything to figure out. While I can be compulsive in the pattern counting thing, I’m not obsessive, so if I can’t manage to do the count I won’t feel like my universe will end.

However… if something isn’t quite symmetrical, likewise I am going to start rearranging in my head, and that’s exactly what I started doing for my boss’s wife. And it kind of was a revelation to me because, while I’ve had experience as a graphic designer (major symmetry concerns) I have never had any kind of experience in what is essentially interior or set design, but realized today that I might actually have a natural knack for it.

And so with a few simple suggestions, I suddenly made Ms. R very happy by perfecting the layout of two separate dining tables meant for twenty people. I’m still not sure how I did it, but apparently I did.

Still… cool boss, fun wife, great job, and I get to be both intelli-gay and designo-gay. Plus I can’t wait to see what happens for St. Patrick’s Day (¡mi gente!), all the May and June stuff, Independence Day, then my repeat cycle when we hit Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Baby Jesus Day, and back to New Year’s repeat…

Of course, this year we have the bonus of the Olympics and Election, and I’m sure that those events are going to be memorialized, too. Ms. R is a big fan of Japanese art and culture, and that’s where the Olympics are this year. She’s also a political junky, watching the news every morning on the kitchen TV as she prepares for the day — luckily, our politics align — but I suspect that there will be an election night party of some sort as well.

Whether it turns out as a celebration or a funeral is still anyone’s guess, but I can be optimistic at least. Especially working in such thoughtfully designed surroundings.

The Saturday Morning Post #3

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter Two. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novela is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. One thing you did miss is that there was a major earthquake in the previous chapter. The next takes place in the aftermath.

THERE’S ALWAYS A WEI

The first thing I think of is 1994. At the time, I was living in a house in Woodland Hills, not that far from the epicenter, and it felt like someone picked the place up, dropped it, then shook it violently for a while until someone else took over and started shaking it harder. It really seemed like one earthquake on top of another. It was also long before dawn, right before 4:31 in the morning.

Today’s quake didn’t do double duty, but it certainly bounced and rolled like no one’s business. It was just past two thirty in the afternoon when it hit, and I was down in the laundry room in the basement of my place, talking to a couple of tenants, when the Earth moved.

One of them was from L.A. and instinctually ducked under a folding counter. The other was not, and turned into a statue, so I grabbed her and pulled her under the other counter. The machines danced a few inches away from the walls, plaster dust trickled from the roof, the rumbling was horrible, and the shaking was scary. The laundry room door slammed open and shut several times — proof that the old “Stand in a doorway” advice was not good. When everything finally settled, the lights had gone out. The L.A. native and I were laughing in relief, while our immigrant (from North Dakota) was crying her eyes out.

We consoled her, then grabbed the emergency flashlights that were plugged into the wall outlets. Best investment I ever made. They’re always fully charged, and when the power goes out, they turn on. Every room and hallway here had them. We made our way upstairs and to the lobby, then continued to the second floor and the dark hallway.

The only thing I could think about the whole time was whether my babies were safe. I was relieved to see that the second floor was still there. At this point, most of the doors of the occupied rooms had opened, and the residents were poking their heads out, two from each room holding flashlights. The same was probably happening downstairs in the studios.

“How are you doing, my children?” I asked, and they all eagerly answered, “All right, and you, Madam Wei?”

I swear that their enthusiasm keeps me alive. And I replied, “I’m fine, and here’s the news. No rent next month because of this disaster, but let’s put on a show!”

This was greeted with cheers and applause and genuine sounds of concern and, really, if this natural disaster seems to have done more damage than it felt like, then not only May, but June, July, August, and maybe even September might be free. And if the government doesn’t pony up… Well, I hate to charge people to learn, so let’s get back to that in six months.

The good news is that there are no injuries. Some of the dogs and all of the cats have gone into hiding, although Jun, our ten-year-old yellow Lab, is acting like we’re all playing some exciting game and she  wants in on it, and Chanming, the one-eyed, five-year-old German shepherd, is his usual stoic self about everything.

People and pack accounted for and safe, it’s time to start assessing the damage. Needless to say, anything that wasn’t nailed down is all over the place. Fortunately, I’d taken the great advice from friends to earthquake proof as much as possible, so that we didn’t have cabinets flying open or falling over, and all of the important things, like monitors, theater lights, sound and light boards, and so on were firmly nailed down, so to speak.

Our hanging lights were always triple-chained to the grids and gobos and gel frames were very securely attached to the units. Our catwalks were also anchored to the walls at both ends, unlike a lot of theaters I’d seen where they were suspended on chains and could swing freely. I could only imagine the kind of damage one of these could do to the paint and plaster if it slammed back and forth repeatedly, especially in a black box space like ours.

Alonzo, one of our chefs who had been in the middle of making lunch, confirmed that the automatic gas shutoff had done its job. Fortunately, he hadn’t been boiling or heating anything on the stove at the time, although three of the half-dozen six-foot long subs he’d been preparing to cut up and share with everyone had found their way to the floor, ingredients scattered and lost.

It’s probably about twenty minutes after the quake now, so probably about three. That gives us about four and a half hours to sunset, and close to five until the end of civil twilight, so I begin planning in my head.

While I don’t have the fondest memories of my homeland — at least, not its government — there are a few things rooted in me by my upbringing that are invaluable now. One is a sense of regimentation and focus, so the ability to know what to do and when to do it. We were also a country prone to massive earthquakes. When I was 20, a 7.8 quake destroyed the city of Tangshan, about a two hour drive west of Beijing. My university assembled a team of “volunteers,” and I’m sure you know what those quotes mean, although, honestly, most of us wanted to help anyway, because it was just in the nature of our upbringing: Your comrades need you now!

I learned more about disaster relief in the week that we were there than I ever thought I’d need to know. We set up emergency shelters, helped find survivors under the rubble, performed first aid, offered rudimentary counseling, ran our equivalent of what you’d call soup kitchens, and coordinated with various NGOs that arrived to help, as well as with the Red Army.

Ultimately, all we really wound up doing was helping the few survivors. Oddly enough, most of them were coal miners who had been underground at the time. Over a quarter million people died in that quake — possibly a lot more — and it’s called the second or third deadliest in recorded history. That’s for the planet, not for the country.

So I know my way around this stuff. The power is probably going to be out for at least three days if not more, and maybe intermittent when it comes back. There are five thirty-gallon water heaters in the building, so that would be enough drinking water for everyone for four days. We do have a pallet of bottled water in the back, so about 1,200 bottles, which is good for another nine days almost. The gas won’t be back on until someone comes out to physically reset the shut-off. Food in the fridges and freezers might last for a couple of days if we’re very judicious about opening the doors. Otherwise, we’re going to be dipping into the canned good so, other than tons of tuna salad, everyone is going to be mostly a vegetarian for the next few days.

The plan pops into my head, and I explain to everyone. First order of business, go grab the surviving sandwiches in the kitchen and be done eating in fifteen minutes. Then, we’re going to hit the streets. There are 40 of us, including me but not the chefs, so we’re going to split into four groups of 10, each one going a different cardinal direction for as many blocks as they can cover in half the time until they need to be back.

Our goal is to see what’s up with the rest of the neighborhood, and help whomever we safely can, reconvening here by 7:15 p.m., at which point the chefs, who’ve been guarding the fort, will see what kind of dinner they can whip up for us. At 7:45, we’re going to take our generator and lights out into the street, and perform for the neighbors — mostly some improv, with musical acts, and whatever choreo or scenes people are working on.

I explain my reasoning behind this, which my kids get instantly. “We are doing this to keep everyone’s morale up during these dark days, and we are going to do it every night until the power and some sense of normal comes back.”

That got enthusiastic applause.

When we all emerge into the surprisingly harsh daylight, it’s clear that things are not normal. We can hear car alarms and distant sirens, and smell smoke in the air. People are standing all up and down the block looking bewildered, and several buildings to our south have lost their façades or collapsed into the street. I’m amazed that our building looks so undamaged. Then again, it’s retrofitted many times over the year. That’s one of the reasons I bought it.

I remember a moment after the 1994 quake when I’d stepped outside and started chatting with a neighbor, and he told me, “Yep. The only time people in L.A. meet their neighbors is right after a disaster,” and he was right. I’d never seen half of these people before, but as my team headed south and started talking, I realized how many small business owners were in this neighborhood, along with tons of renters. The really funny thing was how many of them told me, “Oh, yeah. I’ve been meaning to come see something at your place, but never found the time.”

“Well,” I told them, “The show tonight is free. Come around just after sunset.”

We came to an old brick Korean Church that had splatted into the street and, unfortunately, the quake had hit right in the middle of their afternoon service. I had flashbacks to Tangshan as I looked at the dusty red pile and spotted a few hands frozen in death above the rubble. My best guess was that there were no survivors here unless the place had a basement, so I led my group on.

Farther down was a newer apartment building that had, for want of a better term, knelt north. The area over the entrance to the garage had collapsed, so that the upper three stories were not level. Basically, the north end third floor was at the level of the south end second floor. Most of the tenants here seemed to be standing in front, but I decided to ask: “How many residents do you think there are, and is anyone obviously missing?”

There was silence and muttering, and then one woman raised her hand. “Cindy in 306,” she said. “She’s retired and kind of a shut-in, but takes care of everyone’s dogs, so she’s probably home.”

“Thanks,” I tell her. “Oh, by the way, I’m Alice.”

“Edna,” she introduces herself. “I own this place. Well… this mess, I guess.”

“Where is her apartment?” I ask.

“There,” the woman points. It’s the top right corner, the part that has dropped a story.

“So… that front corner apartment?” I ask. She nods. “Right,” I reply, then turn to Adam Melendez. He’s one of my current favorite tenants. Mostly a dancer, also a poet. He’s gayer than anything, doesn’t apologize, and is incredibly masculine. He’s also 6’5” and works out. He could probably bench press a pick-up truck. In other words, the ideal rescue team member. “Come with me. We have work to do.”

He nods and follows me without hesitation. We pass through the entrance — the glass lobby doors have been thrown off their hinges, so no need to deal with buzzers that wouldn’t work anyway, then pass into the open court and take the wobbly stairs up to the third floor. When we get there, it’s like walking down a steep hiking trail, but we take it slowly, because every step is met with a complaint from some creaky board or another. It truly feels like one wrong move will bring the whole house of cards down.

We finally get to the last door, which is marked 306, although it’s ceased functioning as a door. When the floor collapsed, everything else went wonky, so the door itself has been ejected into the hall and the jamb is a weird parallelogram. Square peg in a funky hole. We move the door out of the way and enter the apartment, only to find ourselves involuntarily skating down into the far left corner, which is where the bedroom is.

“Anybody here?” I call out.

“Help!” comes the weak voice.

I smile to Adam and he takes my arm and helps me walk down the incline and through another wrecked doorway. Once inside, we find the woman, Cindy, who is basically lying in the corner of the room which is now like the bottom of sno-cone cup, if that makes sense, and it’s clear that she can’t get out. She’s maybe in her early 60’s with long blonde hair and black polyester off-the-rack dress. No shoes, and very much an Earth-mother vibe. I can smell the ashtray from here, which is so anachronistic that it boggles my mind — I thought that everyone in L.A. quit smoking around twenty years ago.

Anyway… she looks so grateful and Adam has no problem working his way down into the corner and then picking her up like she’s nothing. She fawns over him a little bit until he tells her, “Wow, my boyfriend would love to hear that,” at which point she just beams and says, “All the best boys are gay,” and this makes me feel all the better about saving her.

We manage to get her back up the hall, down the stairs, and out the door and, again, get applause, which surprises me because, really, isn’t this what we, as humans are supposed to do? Why are you applauding things that should not be extraordinary?

All right, maybe another culture gap. But, onward, as we continue our rescue trek. I think we’ve made it about ten blocks when Janisha, whom I’ve appointed time monitor, calls it. “Halfway to sunset.” There’s a building in flames about three blocks away that I’d love to help with but, reluctantly, I accede and announce, “All right. Time to head home and pick up what we’ve missed.”

We make it back at five minutes after seven, behind one group but before the other two, which both make it back before seven fifteen. Inside, we find out that our chefs have whipped up an amazing chicken salad — five pound cans of chicken plus gallons of mayo (which does not need to be refrigerated, contrary to popular belief), — along with celery, parsley, onions, paprika, lemon juice, and tomatoes. They stuff this into a bunch of pita bread they had on hand, then side it up with coleslaw and tons of canned corn. Although the corn isn’t heated, it is buttered, thanks to the pump-jugs of the liquid stuff we put on the popcorn at our theater concessions.

After we eat, we head to the street to perform and, thanks to all four of our teams having informed everyone along the way that the show is happening, we have quite the crowd waiting as we come outside. We decide to use the sidewalk in front of the theater as our stage, and begin with a musical number, something one of our members has been working on, but which seems appropriate now, a song called, “Walls Came Down.”

Metaphorically, it’s about the end of divisions between people, but taken literally, I suppose it applies to an earthquake. Either way, though, in the wake of this quake, those walls between people have come down even as the walls of buildings have. By the time it’s over, people are crying and hugging each other and applauding. Then, we launch into the improv and get people laughing.

My one big rule when we do improv is this: “Don’t be dirty.” Maybe it’s my Chinese heritage in action, maybe not, but there’s really no need to be rude to be funny. In fact, you can be funnier when you don’t have that crutch — and tonight, my kids follow that rule right down the line, and the audience loves it. After the improv, it’s a mini dance concert, an intermission, and then some solo singers and bands. After that, there are some acting scenes, both dramatic and comedic, before another intermission and a late night improv show.

And we only have three aftershocks during the whole thing, one minor one in the middle of the first improv, which the players manage to incorporate beautifully, a slightly bigger one during the first intermission, and the third moderate one about three minutes before we end the show and invite everyone to hang out and chat. In my experience, this is unusual. We did have the one big aftershock half an hour after the first — that’s almost a guarantee — but haven’t felt much since. Then again, when you’re walking around, sometimes it’s hard to feel them.

It’s about 11:30 when we’re all done, and have told the audience to keep coming back as long as the power is out, and then we all head inside and upstairs and to bed. It’s sort of surreal watching the flashlights dance up the stairs and eventually blink out as everyone vanishes into their rooms. I’m finally left with the chefs, Alonzo and Aki, who assure me that everything will be fine. I’m not so sure, but let them retreat to their rooms, then head out into the street, where I listen to the silence, and take a deep breath of the smoke and dust and everything else noxious that this event has blown into the air.

Los Angeles is not going to be the same for a long time, but I am going to do my best to help fix it.

Photo credit: Wilshire Boulevard, Korea Town, Los Angeles, ©  2016 Jon Bastian

Friday Free-for-All #2

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

What small thing makes you angrier than it should?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre Thursday: The worst collaborator

It’s funny how sometimes it can take forever between the time you write something and the time it winds up on stage. I think I was just lucky with my first two full-length plays, which were produced within two years of each other and, more importantly, not long after I finished them to the point that I felt like they were shareable.

Two others, no, not so much. Bill & Joan, my play about William S. Burroughs and the fateful night he shot and killed his wife, I actually finished writing not long after that first full-length went up and I finished it before the second one was produced. I had a lot of readings at the time, and some interest, but nothing happened until years later, when one of the actors involved in those readings got in touch with me and said, “Hey, can I pitch this to my theater?”

I said yes, and we pitched it to the current board for that year, meaning that I got to sit face-to-face with French Stewart, whom I absolutely adored from 3rd Rock from the Sun. And… he and the other two turned us down. I still think he’s awesome, though, and it was clearly a case of, “Yeah, I don’t see a role for me in this,” which was absolutely true.

Nevertheless, my actor champion persevered, and when we pitched it to the new triumvirate board the next year, they said yes. And so began the very, very interesting process of suddenly collaborating on a play with the most difficult of co-writers of them all: Myself, from the beginning of my career, looking back from the well-established middle.

Oh boy. It was going to be a difficult job overhauling this one and, in fact, I’d have to say that I threw out at least a third of the original script, if not more — a lot more — and rewrote vast swatches of it. Now it might seem paradoxical to do that. After all, if it was good enough to get picked up to be produced, doesn’t that mean it was good enough as it was?

Short answer: Hell no.

That’s what’s so amazing about the process of rehearsal and working with a director and an amazing cast. It’s all about discovery, reconnecting with why you created a piece in the first place, and (especially with the perspective of so much time between origin and outcome) the ability to suddenly see the flaws with utter clarity.

One of these days, I may go back and do a comparison of the draft we started with and the one we ended with, but I know that we got to the extreme of me combining characters in different ways, adding some and dropping others, and this play was even my incentive to go back and re-learn Spanish to the extent that I am now pretty damn fluent in it.

Why? Well, the main action is set in a jail in Mexico City, and from the beginning, the two cops doing the interrogation spoke a lot of Spanish. However, when I first wrote it, it was my badly-remembered high school Spanish that had abandoned me some time during college. With the help of two Hispanic actors in the roles and a lot of self-study, it suddenly felt like I was crafting those lines as carefully as I crafted the English.

And the entire time, it was an experience in confronting my younger self every day, understanding why I’d written what I’d written, but then realizing, “Wow. I really have learned a lot since then, haven’t I?”

Currently, rehearsals have just begun for another play of mine that isn’t quite as old as Bill & Joan, but which I did write in another life time and which is also very different than my other full-lengths, which are all either based on real people or set in historical periods.

This one, Screamin’ Monkey Love!, is a modern day farce with the tag line “Sex, money, real estate. That’s what family’s for.” There was actually an attempt at producing it with the same director back around the time I wrote it, but that fell apart unceremoniously.

In this case, re-reading the thing in preparation was a lot less cringe-worthy. Then again, this play was more mid-career and benefited from coming after the time I’d spent actually working in film and TV and after multiple professional stage productions.

The weirdness in this collaboration, though, really came more from the inspiration rather than the execution. Unlike my other plays, as I’ve mentioned, this one is set in the modern day and was inspired by events in my own life, not to mention that the primary motivation I gave to one of the lead characters happens to be my own as of yet un-obtained dream.

Not to mention that real-life tragedy intervened and put me off the thing for a while only five months after our ill-fated first attempt.

The thumbnail version of Screamin’ Monkey Love! Is that it’s a story about two brothers who both want to inherit their father’s house and secretly conspire to do so. The older one hires a woman to pretend to seduce the father in order to marry him and take over the place in the traditional way — either she bangs Dad to death or takes it all in a divorce, but then turns it over to other brother per an agreement they’ve made that I won’t say too much about lest I give away too much of the plot.

The inspiration for the whole thing was finding out that my father, in his 80s, had met a woman, in her 20s, at the grocery store, and she had gotten flirty and whatnot with him, and this sent up red flags and alarm bells for my half-sister and me.

Hey, I know what personality traits I inherited from my dad, and it was clear that we had to act fast. It was also very clear that she was probably Romani, and they are known for this kind of thing: Meet old man shopping alone in grocery store, assume that he’s a widower with means, make a move.

The other inspiration was, of course, the fact that I have always wanted to own a house but, being a Gen-X person in Los Angeles, that was never at any point remotely in reach without me having been a venal and heartless asshole at some point.

So… combine the two elements, ta-da, there’s the play. The first attempt went well until it didn’t, and then six months later, my dad died and evil half-sister announced, “Oh, by the way, his house is in my name. Don’t even try.” Never mind that she had taken advantage of his Alzheimer’s to convince him that I was invading his house every night with friends and slowly making him paranoid about me. But that’s a completely different play that I might write one day.

The house in question would be the house that I grew up in and she didn’t, incidentally. The only possible house I could have ever owned, and her absolutely (pardon the expression) cuntiness in this moment turned me against her forever and, frankly, made me shelve the play because… bad memories.

I guess that time heals all wounds and, if there’s real justice, time will wound all heels, so jumping back into this play, it’s just a romp and all of the darker connotations have fallen off. So the challenge here is to collaborate with my younger self while being able to ignore the crap that I know younger me went through right after but which younger me had no idea that he would.

I did give myself a distraction from that one, though, without even knowing it, because one of the intentions I set for myself in writing the piece was to hat tip two of my playwriting idols, Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde and, in fact, the entire finale of this play is an intentional nod to The Importance of Being Earnest in more ways than one.

Still… the glibness of my younger self in tossing this one off did give me pause at a few points when I had to stop and ask, “Damn, too harsh?” Until I remembered, “Nah. Not the audience’s family, and too long ago for me to really care. Proceed!”