Sunday Nibble #19: Go on an Odyssey at the Iliad

I don’t make it a habit to plug commercial venues here, although I will promote friendssites, but I’m going to make an exception with an opening caveat: I was not asked to do this and I am not being paid or otherwise compensated to do so. But I just wanted to give back to a local business that has been a big part of most of my adult life.

It’s a used bookstore that I discovered not long after it first opened and not long after I moved out on my own after college. It’s called the Iliad, and for several decades was next door to a video rental place called Odyssey. I’m not sure which came first, but it was a perfect combo.

Odyssey survived right up until 2019, despite a Blockbuster having opened up across the street in a cynical attempt to drive it out of business. Well, Odyssey won that battle but, ultimately not the war, most probably because they specialized in “Adult” videos and DVDS, as well as more obscure, artsy non-adult titles, and they didn’t edit R-rated flicks.

Iliad (and Odyssey) survived the ’94 Northridge Earthquake. The former, but not the latter, also survived a greedy landlord, up until the point that they moved to a cheaper and larger store — their current location — and then got socked with the current crisis.

But… happy accident… they’d been planning to close for a remodel anyway, which is in progress. And before I get to the plug, let me get back to why I love this place so much.

They have everything, and the people who work there know what they have. They also have bookstore cats and dogs that wander freely, some of them quite friendly, and post newspaper clippings on the appropriate aisles noting the passing of various authors and literary figures.

They carry both new and used books, and their used book prices are very reasonable. Their collection is also incredibly eclectic. When it comes to fiction and graphic novels, their genre shelves are deep, and if you’re into language, science, humor, generally weird shit, plays, music, history, art, photography, biography, reference, or anything else, they’ve probably got it.

Their massive Two Dollar table was always a joy to explore, because it held all kinds of really eclectic stuff — frequently coffee table size — that was often outdated but fascinating precisely for that reason. And, come on. Two bucks. How can you go wrong?

To me, visits to the place have always been magical treasure hunts in which I can explore for hours, come out with a large stack of exciting finds that cost me less than what a movie ticket would and, bonus points: they always have boxes of “Shit we really wouldn’t feel comfortable charging you for, so take ‘em” on the front steps, and even those have their gems.

For example, that’s where I found the entire Norton Anthology of English Literature, for free, one November evening. That’s something like eight or nine volumes, from Beowulf to nearly now.

So that’s what I love about them, and whether you’re in L.A. to do curbside pick-up or are elsewhere but want to order online, I encourage you to visit their website, look around and buy stuff.

I really didn’t realize it until I sent out a random “what’s up” email to them — and actually got a response — that the store has been staffed by mostly the same people since the beginning, and as I mentioned, I’ve pretty much been a customer since then, too. I’d like to keep being one, so help them out if you can.

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 4

Last week brought us to the last first-person short story. Now comes the closing novella, told in third-person, in which everyone comes together. Since a lot of us are still locked up, I think I’m going to share a bit more of this one in a few installments, since this part is 20,000 words or so. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here. Here, we continue with the post wedding activities of the main characters.

TAKING HOPE

Cindy and Jackson had glued themselves to each other the second they’d sat down. The connection they had forged was beyond amazing, especially because neither of them ever thought that they could have found true love at their ages, which were well into their 60s. She was 64, he was 67. But they did, and they also found out that they were still interested in and able to have sex, and it was loud, passionate, and crazy, especially because they did not have to worry at all about unwanted pregnancy. Cindy’s eggs had long since fled the coop, and Jackson’s sperm count was lower than the DJIA in the last year of the Trump presidency a decade ago.

And being at such an amazing and festive wedding, and sitting very near the loving… well, Jackson dubbed it the “love cluster” comprising his assistant, his boyfriend, their third, and the other couple they all seemed to be fucking — just put him in a mood to finally ask. He’d bought the ring a couple of weeks earlier, but figured that this would be the perfect event to spring it at, probably during the reception. Once the ceremony actually started, he and Cindy just leaned into each other and held on tight, and found themselves giving each other loving glances at every super romantic moment.

“Yeah,” Jackson thought. “This is definitely the day to pop the question. I just hope I can figure out the perfect time.”

Rafael and Vince certainly noticed, especially because of that whole “Want to get straight married” question in light of the quake, but sitting here now among the contingent that Madame Alice managed to bring in just put them more in mind of it. In fact, during the ceremony, Rafael casually tossed his arm around Vince’s shoulders, and Vince returned the favor, and they shared a bro look at least several times. And then, at the reception after the reception — i.e. the part where the middle class and below were told to go to the better party down the hill, Raf and Vince hit the bottom of Grand Park right before the end of the Maná and Natalia Jiménez show. At the end of it, he grabbed his Bro’s hand and said, “So… I know we joked about that getting married thing earlier, but — ”

“Oh, fuck yes, dude,” Rafael replied before Vince could even finish asking, and so it was going to happen.

Tycho hadn’t noticed because he was too wrapped up in his own group, but his request through the mayor’s office had been accepted, and so Rebekah wheeled Matt in, although they took up a position near the back of the nave, in a spot with a short row of pews meant for the handicapped. If Tycho had looked back, he might have wondered why the House of Jesus wouldn’t have accommodated putting the lame at the front, but since they rolled in just before the flutes started up, he never saw them.

Matt did, though. He spotted Tycho almost immediately, and all he could do was just stare forlornly in his direction, hoping that his wife didn’t notice. Maybe, one day, he’d actually get the chance to tell Tycho how he really felt — although, at the moment, he seemed really happy with at least two of the boys sitting next to him, if not several others.

Hell, maybe one day Matt’s legs and his dick would work again and he could get divorced and play daddy for Tycho and all of his hot little friends. And he had to admit that he was impressed when he realized that Tyty was, in fact, pulling tail with at least four other hot, young guys.

If only he could walk, and not depend on… her. And still have his government job. Fuck the earthquake. Fuck the earth. All that Matt could do was stare at true beauty at the far end of the room and feel the complete sense of loss and regret and anger.

Rebekah had never told Matt that the only reason they were there was because of Tycho’s largesse. She let him think that she’d pulled the strings. She constantly reminded him of how much she loved him, which she did. Every time she did so, he cringed inside.

From his spot house right (stage left) Toby sat and watched, and recognized several familiar and friendly faces he’d met thanks to Adrian’s amazing work. Note to self: Another bonus due, probably in the mid-five figure range. He also noticed that he didn’t see the pain in the ass councilor whom he had sicced his lawyers on the second she tried to take away Edna’s property, not to mention screw with Alice’s easements and permits. Well… good. There had been a reason he’d bought his way into this wedding, and this was that. He’d gotten to know people all around the neighborhood bordered north and south by Wilshire and San Marino, and east and west by Irolo and Western, gotten to like them, and was going to make it rain for them. What else could he do? After all, as Adrian had wisely surmised, the only thing he’d been feeling since the morning before the quake was incredible guilt. And he still hadn’t been able to explain it to anyone. But he was damn well going to do something about it.

When the recessional music started up, he heard the words “I won’t let you down” right after the first twelve bars, and thought, “Wow. That fits perfectly what I want to do for Alice and Edna and everyone. Maybe this is a sign.” He had actually never head of OK Go or heard the song before, but that was probably because since a very early age, he had been a huge Asian language nerd, and so only listened to K-Pop, as well as Cantonese and Mandarin music and podcasts, all in an effort to learn the languages. By the time he was out of college, he was fairly fluent in all three and just starting on Korean, and it had led directly to his success in business. Sure, it did leave him a little lacking in American pop culture, but only slightly, since up until the infamous Chinese lockout that didn’t end until January 21, 2021, he could see his fill of American blockbuster movies dubbed in any of those languages and understand them.

Toby wasn’t the only one moved by the words. Jackson and Cindy gave each other a smile and a hand squeeze, and so did Adam and Tony, Rafael and Vince, and Tycho and Finley. James just settled for trying to give them a smile, not wanting to incur Tycho’s wrath again. But it was that kind of a feel-good song that sent everyone out in a fantastic mood.

On the repeated line, “Lights out in Babylon,” Alice and Edna gave each other a knowing look that said, “Been there, done that, too many times.”

At the back of the room, Rebekah touched Matt’s shoulder, trying to be reassuring, but Matt was just watching as Tycho and company got up and exited the sanctuary via the façade exits into the cathedral proper on the south transept — which was actually pointed east by south east due to a fluke of church terminology. The wall behind the altar was always called the east wall, which in this case was aimed slightly off of north, so that all of the compass directions in the place, if referred to in doctrinal terms, were shifted just under 90º counterclockwise. It was a leftover from the whole looking toward Jerusalem to pray thing, also related to bowing toward Mecca, or finding qibla, the relative direction to Mecca from anywhere on Earth. This had caused much debate over twenty years earlier, right before Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor became the first Muslim astronaut to visit the ISS.

And it was a legitimate question. Properly, a Muslim had to pray five times per day, and bow toward Mecca while doing it, as well as face the ground. Easy to do on Earth. On space, in a machine that orbited sixteen times in a single earth day and without gravity, not so much.

If you measured a day by sunrise and sunset, then it would mean a Muslim astronaut had to pray 80 times per Earth day. At about five minutes per prayer session, that would be six hours and forty minutes per day doing nothing but praying — not something that Roscosmos or NASA would be too happy about. Also, given the speed and altitude of the ISS, the relative position of Mecca could shift by up to 180 degrees in those five minute chunks — that is from looking to the left to looking to the right or vice versa every time.

One early school of thought had dealt with this problem with the advent of trains and then planes, which also moved. Their solution was to determine qibla at the point you were at when you started praying, and then to keep looking that way no matter how much the train or plane moved.

But this brought up another question. The ISS orbited at an altitude of 254 miles, or 408 kilometers, so how to measure the relative distance to Mecca? Straight line down to Earth and go from there, or straight line up from Mecca, and go from there? The big problem with the latter is that it might have someone not face the Earth at all and, in fact, possibly do the worst possible and most blasphemous thing — praying while facing the moon or sun.

Eventually, an 18 page booklet came out that was a guide to how Muslims could follow all of their rules and rituals in space, and it boiled down, basically, to this: “Do the best you can, but Allah isn’t going to judge you if you can’t under the circumstances.”

Most of the Muslim astronauts silently made the same choice: Facing the entire Earth was de facto facing Mecca, and that was where the twenty-four hours counted — not moonrise and moonset. So they followed the clock based on wherever they had launched from and the only thing they had to be careful about was to not be looking in a direction that would put the rising sun or moon in what would be their line of sight if they weren’t looking at the “floor.”

It had turned out to not be as complicated as the scholars had made it out to be. The difficult part was not launching yourself into a back flip if you brought your head down to the prayer mat too hard.

Oddly enough, Jews and Catholics had come up with similar workarounds themselves many times before. In fact, it was a long-standing rule even among the most Orthodox of Jews that if it were a choice between following the Kosher laws and sacrificing a life, then life won out. That vital drug that will save our child’s life is haram because it only comes in gel-caps made out of pig’s hooves? God says “Okay.”

For some reason, in the west, only certain Protestant cults hadn’t figured this out, in particular a lot of evangelical sects, but especially the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Well, at least their leadership, who still wouldn’t even allow a blood transfusion to save a life because… reasons only they understood. A lot of their members didn’t, though, and since accepting a transfusion was seen officially as them renouncing the church and responded to via shunning, membership had been declining rapidly, especially since the leaders decided that vaccines, and stem-cell and DNA treatments were also sinful. There were fewer than twenty-thousand official members left — definitely far shy of the 144,000 who would be the only saved ones.

Nobody outside of that group cared. Especially not when, hell, even the Mormons finally relented and decided via a “special revelation” that the gay thing was okay because of David and Jonathan, and even started doing marriages and sealing same-sex couples in the temple. Real reason: they were seeing their membership numbers decline as well, and got pragmatic. And what better way to recruit missionaries than to give young male couples the chance to get away from their parents, who might not be approving, and spend a year living and working together? The church even got rid of the whole idea of missionary housing not having any bedroom or bathroom doors to prevent any personal “soiling” of the soul. And yes, that’s a euphemism for exactly what it sounds like.

Tycho was always fascinated to see that the religions that happened to accept that evolution was a thing also actually evolved. The ones that didn’t died out in exactly the way that Darwin’s theory predicted. But he had always known that the Church accepted scientific advancements and did so by racking them up as parts of “god’s mysterious ways.” Hell, it was a Jesuit priest who came up with the Big Bang Theory.

And the whole Galileo thing had been misinterpreted for centuries, with people still somehow believing that he was executed for believing that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Far from it. He basically received the equivalent of mild house arrest and supervised probation and, although the heliocentric theory is clearly the right one now, at the time it wasn’t so clear-cut given the evidence at hand, and the Church doubted Galileo’s scientific methods. He did write a dialogue debating the two theories; Earth-centered and Sun-centered; although he did stack the deck in favor of the former.

The Church’s execution of Giordano Bruno had been a travesty of justice but, to be fair, that happened a generation before Galileo’s trial and while Bruno did put forth the hypothesis that the universe was infinite, without a boundary and with the center basically everywhere, it was more his open dabbling in the occult, denials of various strictly held Church beliefs (read: The Trinity, Transubstantiation, and Mary’s virginity), and belief in reincarnation that transcended species that really irked the church and got him burnt at the stake.

But Darwinism pretty much indicated that modern Jews and Catholics would survive, and modern Muslims could be added to the list. Fundamentalist Muslims — or fundamentalist anyone — not so much. They were on the way out, too, along with all of the other inflexible, hardcore religious nuts.

And Tycho knew about all of this because he’d grown up “sort of ” Catholic, then learned about the whole ISS questioning thing once he’d taken over Rebekah’s position with the county. That and forty million other stupid religious rules and customs, and he sometimes wondered why the modern world bothered trying to accommodate them all when there were so many religious folk who did know how to make exceptions and not bend the world to their own rules. Of course, he was an even bigger atheist than Rebekah, salthough when he looked at his paycheck, he’d realize that he worshipped a god, too, but it was called money. Well, okay. He had two gods. Money and sex. But that was totally fine with him.

Neither Matt nor Rebekah knew anything about the naming of walls, although Rebekah really should have learned it when she had had Tycho’s job. And all that Matt knew was that he watched as Tycho and company quickly walked out of the church to his right and through a door far enough away that there would be no chance for them to catch up and make casual conversation at the reception. They were also apparently in the VIP section, while he and Rebekah probably were not, so they would be halfway through dinner before he and his wife even got in the door.

As she turned him around to wheel him out, the full force of his depression hit him and he told her, “Honey, I’m really tired now and not up to this. Do you mind if we skip the reception?”

“Not at all,” she said, way too cheerfully, and her loving attitude just made him resent her even more.

Image “Grand Park at Night,” © 2018 Jon Bastian, all rights reserved

To be continued…

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #16

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 piece of technology brings you the most joy?

This one is actually very simple. It is the lowly but very important integrated circuit, or IC. They combine a host of functions previously performed by much larger and more complicated devices — mostly transistors, resistors, and capacitors — which can create all sorts of tiny components, like logic gates, microcontrollers, microprocessors, sensors, and on and on.

In the old pre-ICs days, transistors, resistors, and capacitors all existed on a pretty large scale, as in big enough to pick up with your fingers and physically solder into place.

Before that, old school “integrated circuits” were big enough to hold in your hand and resembled very complicated lightbulbs. These were vacuum tubes, and essentially performed the same functions as a transistor — as either an amplifier or a switch. And yes, they were considered analog technology.

The way vacuum tubes worked was actually via heat. A piece of metal would be warmed up to release electrons, which was also the reason for the vacuum. This meant that there were no air molecules to get in the way as the electrons flowed from one end (the cathode) to the other (the anode), causing the current to flow in the other direction. (Not a typo. It’s a relic from an early misconception about how electricity works that was never corrected.)

The transition away from vacuum tubes to transistorized TV sets began in 1960, although the one big vacuum tube in the set — the TV screen itself — stuck around until the early 2000s.

But back to the vacuum tube function. Did it seem off that I described transistors as either amplifiers or switches? That’s probably because you might think of the former in terms of sound and the latter in terms of lights, but what we’re really talking about here is voltage.

Here’s the big secret of computers and other modern electronic devices. The way they really determine whether a bit value is 0 or 1 is not via “on” or “off” of a switch. That’s a simplification. Instead, what they really use is high or low voltage.

Now, granted, those voltages are never that “high,” being measured in milliamps, but the point is that it’s the transistor that decides either to up a voltage before passing it along, or which of an A/B input to pass along which circuit.

Meanwhile, resistors are sort of responsible for the math because they either slow down currents, so to speak, or let them pass as-is. Finally, capacitors are analogous to memory, because they store a received current for later use.

Put these all together, and that’s how you get all of those logic gates, microcontrollers, microprocessors, sensors, and on and on. And when you put all of these together, ta-da: electronics.

These can be as simple as those dollar store calculators that run on solar power and can only do four functions, or as complicated as the fastest supercomputers in the world. (Note: Quantum computers don’t count here because they are Next Gen, work in an entirely different way, and probably won’t hit consumer tech for at least another thirty years.)

So why do ICs give me joy? Come on. Look around you. Modern TVs; LCD, LED, and OLED screens; eReaders; computers; cell phones; GPS; synthesizers; MIDI; CDs, DVDs, BluRay; WiFi and BlueTooth; USB drives and peripherals; laser and inkjet printers; microwave ovens; anything with a digital display in it; home appliances that do not require giant, clunky plugs to go into the wall; devices that change to or from DST on their own; most of the sensors in your car if it was built in this century; the internet.

Now, out of that list, a trio stands out: computers, synthesizers, and MIDI, which all sort of crept into the consumer market at the same time, starting in the late 70s and on into the 80s. The funny thing, though, is that MIDI (which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is still around and mostly unchanged. Why? Because it was so incredibly simple and robust.

In a way, MIDI was the original HTML — a common language that many different devices could speak in order to reproduce information in mostly similar ways across platforms and instruments. Started with sixteen channels, it’s proven to be a ridiculously robust and backwards-compatible system.

Over time, the number of channels and bit-depth has increased, but a MIDI keyboard from way back in the early 80s will still communicate with a device using MIDI 2.0. You can’t say the same for, say, storage media and readers from different time periods. Good luck getting that early 80s 5-inch floppy disc to work with any modern device.

What’s really remarkable about MIDI is how incredibly robust it is, and how much data it can transfer in real time. Even more amazing is that MIDI has been adapted to more than just musical instruments. It can also be used for things like show control, meaning that a single MIDI system runs the lights, sound systems and, in some cases, even the practical effects in a concert or stage production.

And, again, while MIDI 1.0 was slowly tweaked over time between 1982 and 1996, it still went almost 25 years before it officially went from version 1.0 to 2.0, in January 2020. Windows 1.0 was released on November 20, 1985, although it was really just an overlay of MS-DOS. It lasted until December 9, 1987, when Windows 2.0 came out. This was also when Word and Excel first happened.

Apple has had a similar history with its OS, and in about the same period of time that MID has been around, both of them have gone through ten versions with lots of incremental changes along the way.

Now, granted, you’re not going to be doing complex calculations or spreadsheets or anything like that with MIDI, and it still doesn’t really have a GUI beyond the independent capabilities of the instruments you’re using.

However, with it, you can create art — anywhere from a simple song to a complex symphony and, if you’re so inclined, the entire stage lighting and sound plot to go along with it.

And the best part of that is that you can take your musical MIDI data, put it on whatever kind of storage device is currently the norm, then load that data back onto any other MIDI device.

Then, other than the specific capabilities of its onboard sound-generators, you’re going to hear what you wrote, as you wrote it, with the same dynamics.

For example, the following was originally composed on a fairly high-end synthesizer with really good, realistic tone generators. I had to run the MIDI file through an online MIDI to audio site that pretty much uses the default PC cheese-o-phone sounds, but the intent of what I wrote is there.

Not bad for a standard that has survived, even easily dumping its proprietary 5-pin plug and going full USB without missing a beat. Literally. Even while others haven’t been able to keep up so well.

So kudos to the creation of ICs, and eternal thanks for the computers and devices that allow me to use them to be able to research, create, and propagate much more easily than I ever could via ancient analog techniques.

I mean, come on. If I had to do this blog by typing everything out on paper, using Wite-Out or other correction fluid constantly to fix typos, then decide whether it was worth having it typeset and laid out (probably not) and debating whether to have it photocopied and mimeographed.

Then I’d have to charge all y’all to get it via the mail, maybe once a month — and sorry, my overseas fans, but you’d have to pay a lot more and would probably get it after the fact, or not at all if your postal censors said, “Oh, hell noes.”

Or, thanks to ICs, I can sit in the comfort of my own isolation on the southwest coast of the middle country in North America, access resources for research all over the planet, cobble together these ramblings, and then stick them up to be blasted into the ether to be shared with my fellow humans across the globe, and all it costs me is the internet subscription fee that I would pay anyway, whether I did this or not.

I think we call that one a win-win. And if I went back and told my first-grade self, who was just having his first music lessons on a decidedly analog instrument, in a couple of years, science is going to make this a lot more easy and interesting, he probably would have shit his pants.

Okay. He probably would have shit his pants anyway. Mainly by realizing, “Wait, what. You’re me? Dude… you’re fucking old!”

Oh well.

Image (CC BY 3.0) by user Mataresephotos.

 

Theatre Thursday: On the shoulders of giants

Quarantine is hard, so in lieu of not posting anything, here’s a blast from the past, an article posted one year ago but which is still relevant today.

A while back, I wrote about two writers who had a big influence on me, one directly in real life, and the other stylistically. But I’ve also been influenced by four film directors, one of whom directly inspired me to stupidly pursue a career in this business. Unlike one of the writers above, I never met any of them, and they all also happen to be dead now.

In a nutshell, and in order of influence, those directors are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell, and Nicolas Roeg. Sure, four old, white British men (Kubrick being an American ex-pat), but I didn’t know better as a kid, okay? All I knew was that my dad took me to see Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of those many times when the Cinerama Dome opened a would-be blockbuster that bombed, so they had to fill time with something else — and this movie blew Star Wars right out of the water. It was Science Fiction that felt real. There was no sound in space, the movie took its time, the soundtrack was mostly classical music in a future context, and I walked out of that first viewing thinking, “Yeah. I want to do this.”

Present me would love to time travel back to then, grab that kid by the shoulders and shout in his face, “No, dumbass. You want to figure out how to make enough money to pay other people to do this for you so you’ll be richer than Croesus.”

Young me wouldn’t have listened.

Anyway, a few years later, I discovered the several “Art House” cinemas in Los Angeles like the Nuart Theater, mainly because I noticed that they showed other Kubrick films. They also didn’t seem to really pay a lot of attention to ratings, so I could get my young ass into R-rated films. Note: There are absolutely no penalties, legal or otherwise, for a theater not following the MPAA ratings when they sell tickets. None. Nada, and one theater openly defied an NC-17 rating. It’s all smoke and mirrors, folks. So anybody can go to an R-rated movie. It’s just the idea that ratings are some legal bar that makes them effective. But I do digress…

So I worked my way through the Kubrick oeuvre, then stumbled into Hitchcock, and while he created in a G-rated world, his films were just as amazing for different reasons. Kubrick’s works are all about Big Ideas passed through the filter of human experience. 2001 deals with the evolution of the human species, past and future; Clockwork Orange handles crime and punishment; Dr. Strangelove takes on war and peace; Barry Lyndon is all about the class system, and so on.

Hitchcock, though, was all about plot, especially when layered with suspense. Kubrick would make you think. Hitchcock would make you sit on the edge of your seat and clench your butt. Hitch was also far more prolific than Kubrick, which is why I think that there isn’t a single Kubrick film I don’t love, but I’m not a fan of every Hitchcock film.

The ones that really bowl me over, though, are North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Rope. Oops… Psycho isn’t on that list? Well, for me it’s not, because it really doesn’t stack up against the others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great film, but in the context of the rest of his works, it’s actually on the lower end of the scale.

The other thing that struck me about both of these directors, though, is that they were technical innovators. Both of them constantly came up with new ways to do things on film. Hitchcock actually has a particular shooting technique named after him, and Kubrick managed to out-Star Wars Star Wars a decade before Star Wars without a single computer in sight.

After Hitchcock, though, those art house movies led me to another director who worked on a completely different plane, but to whom I clung immediately: Ken Russell. And if Kubrick specialized in ideas while Hitchcock mastered in plot, I’d have to say that Russell’s playing field dealt with emotions in general, or fantasies specifically. His biopics were amazing exercises in giving us emotional truths through metaphors.

Three in particular, each of which dealt with famous composers, run the scale (pun intended) from lightest to heaviest in fantasy: The Music Lovers, about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with some fantasy sequences, but not a lot; Mahler, about the composer Gustav Mahler, about half and half; and Lizstomania, almost entirely fantasy and, while it seems to be the most off-the-rails of them all in covering the life of Franz Lizst, it is actually the most accurate in its metaphorical way, because Lizst really was the first rock star, even if it happened 120 years before the Beatles.

Russell used fantasies and dreams to explore the emotional life of his characters, and it is beautiful. He’s another director with an oeuvre limited enough that I think I’ve seen almost all of his films, and while I have ups and downs, I don’t think there are many I don’t like. For calibration purposes, I’d rank Lair of the White Worm as worst, and the aforementioned Mahler as best.

After Russell, the art houses introduced me to another influence, a director named Nicolas Roeg. And the thing he specialized in was playing with time. Not a single one of his films took place in chronological order, and this was what taught me the power of editing. He’s probably best well-known for a film that most people haven’t seen but only know about because David Bowie starred in it: The Man Who Fell to Earth. And here’s the thing. This is one damn difficult movie to sit through, and it wasn’t my first Roeg film, so I came to it knowing his style.

Here’s the order I learned Roeg, as far as I can remember. Don’t Look Now, which is an amazing and stylish suspense horror film that isn’t gory, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie; Walkabout, which deals with issues of privilege at a time when that wasn’t even a concept, as White Girl and White Boy (literally their names in the credits) are dumped in the Australian outback by their suicidal father, only to be saved by an aboriginal Black Boy who is on his Walkabout, which is a right of passage for his belief system. Needless to say, guess who it doesn’t end well for.

And before I got to The Man Who Fell to Earth, I also saw Roeg’s first big “Hey, look at me” movie, Performance, which actually gave us an incredible, well, um, performance from a young, often nude, and sexy Mick Jagger.

But the most important takeaway for me from Roeg’s films was this. Do not tell your story in chronological order. Tell it in emotional order. If the thing that happens in normal Act 3 seems meaningless then, but can serve as set-up for later, then move it up. And if the thing from Act 1 that seems meaningless up front takes on power later, move it down.

Put them all together, and this is where my playwriting goes: Stories about big ideas that are still very plotted, but which also use fantasy and surrealism to explore emotional truths, and tend to not take place in chronological order. In fact, only one of my produced full-length plays takes place in literal time, and that happens to be the first one produced.

And so there you go. I constantly play with ideas, plots, emotions, and chronology. The big idea comes first, and I build the story from that via plots that are driven by emotions. Once that’s in place, I chop the story up and order it based not on when, but on how the emotions drive the timeline and the plot. And this is how four very different directors created my artistic vision.

(Not noted above, Terry Gilliam, who I didn’t realize really was an influence at first, but taught me the idea of not taking anything too seriously, least of all yourself, and also confirmed that I was playing the game of cut and paste creativity properly.)

So who are your major influences? What have you taken from them, and how do you use that? Tell us in the comments!

Sunday Nibble #18: We’re all in this lifeboat together, so row!

The following list showed up on one of my social media sites a couple of days ago, and the thing that most struck me about it was how many of the following I have been experiencing. Okay, actually, it was two things. That, and the fact that the friend who posted it had been experiencing about the same number.

So I shared it to my friends, and lo and behold, everyone who replied admitted to experiencing at least six of the following, it not more.

8 warning signs you’re mentally and emotionally exhausted

  1. You’re easily irritated.
  2. You feel completely unmotivated, even to do things you normally enjoy.
  3. You’re experiencing anxiety or panic attacks.
  4. You’re having trouble sleeping. Either it takes you hours to fall asleep or your sleep is broken all through the night.
  5. You have almost no patience and you find yourself being short with colleagues and family.
  6. You’re experiencing indigestion. You have a low-grade stomach-ache all the time or feel like there’s butterflies in your stomach.
  7. You start crying unexpectedly.
  8. You feel detached from reality. You go through your days without really emotionally responding or connecting to anything. You feel empty.

The only ones not affecting me are 3, 5, and 7 — although it seems like experiencing 8 would make 7 and 3 much less likely anyway. I was really surprised, though, at how many people are also experiencing number 6.

I’ve actually been losing weight during the quarantine, and that’s probably because I have next to no appetite. A lot of days, I’ll have maybe a can of tuna. Over the last few, I’ve had a major craving for cottage cheese, and have eaten no more than half a cup a day.

Although I’ve got plenty of meat in my freezer, I suddenly went off it a week or two ago. Again, no desire for it.

But while this list and the responses may make it seem like all of us are having a bad time of it, there is one big silver lining to it.

For all of our differences as individuals, when it comes to being humans, we are all mostly the same.

I could reel off lists of how I and each of my friends who responded are very different from each other in a bunch of ways. We may have common interests, but different tastes. I know that several of them love horror movies, which is a genre I can’t stand. Likewise, I love science fiction, and some of my friends hate it.

I definitely know foodies, who think that things like peach slices on a cheeseburger or prosciutto wrapped watermelon in mole are perfectly acceptable things to eat, while I consider something as mundane as pineapple on pizza to be culinary blasphemy.

I try not to know people who voted for a certain current occupant of the Oval Office, but since I tend to hang around the world of creative, artsy types, this hasn’t been that difficult.

I have friends who are very talented painters but who couldn’t string two coherent sentences together; friends who can dance rings around Baryshnikov but couldn’t balance a checkbook to save their lives; friends with incredible and amazing emotional insight who can counsel anybody through anything, but who barely know how to work a computer; friends who can sew and craft and repurpose when I can barely Scotch tape an envelope shut…

In other words, I know a bunch of people with different tastes, skills, and personalities. So do you. On top of all of the above, you know introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts — and even those designations can change.

I mean, try to get an introverted nerd to have a casual conversation with someone they might find attractive, possible disaster city. Engage them with a fellow nerd or nerds over their favorite fandom, you can’t get them to shut up.

And that example extends, again, over all interests. Put a theatre person with a sports fan? No meaningful conversation. Switch the players around, boom. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Now pick any of those two people at random, stick ‘em in a room, and point out that they have had a similar life-impacting experience. Maybe a parent, SO, sibling, or pet recently died. Maybe they both lost their jobs. Maybe they’re experiencing incredible financial insecurity. Or perhaps they were both diagnosed with the same possibly fatal disease.

Result? Instant emotional contact and equality. The jock and the nerd react the same way. The artist and the accountant react the same way. It’s even possible that the liberal and conservative react the same way.

And so we’re back at that opening list. Because here’s what I learned and I want to share. People are kind of like… well, people. On the outside, we are all different and distinguishable by our looks, voices, personalities, tastes, desires, bodies, and… accessories. But take away that outer layer, and voilà — we aren’t so different at all.

It’s like one of those peel-away anatomy books. Once the skin is gone, were just muscle and sinew that all works pretty much the same way, and it’s like that all the way down to the bone. Same organs, same circulatory and nervous systems, and… same psychology.

So the lesson of so many of us suffering so many of the same signs of mental and emotional exhaustion should not be discouragement. Rather, it should be a sign of hope.

Why? Because if we are all going through the same damn thing while we think we are so different, it means that we aren’t all that different at all, and so can grab the oars and row ourselves out of this shitshow together.

If you don’t know my pain and I don’t know yours, then we are islands apart forever. But… if we both know the same pain and come together, then we are partners in the journey out.

And so, in despair, we find hope.

For all of our differences as individuals, when it comes to being humans, we are all mostly the same. Embrace that, and embrace each other from a distance. We will make it through together.

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 3

Today brings us to the third part of the closing novella, which takes place at the wedding of the daughter of the mayor of Los Angeles and brings all of the main characters together at one event.  You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here. Last week, we saw the wedding ceremony and the plans for the post-wedding receptions, public and private. Now, we catch up with our main characters as they celebrate.

TAKING HOPE

Toby’s reason for getting to the wedding and bringing Adrian along had a single purpose. His attempts to rebuild Edna’s property had hit a brick wall, and it was called Wendy Rue, the City Council representative for the 10th District, although Toby thought of her more as the big developer’s rep for herself. Less than two weeks after the quake, she was making pronouncements about rebuilding her district, but she was so far in the back pockets of the developers that what this really meant was eminent-domaining the shit out of any red-tagged property slated for demolition, and then tossing out the building permits for luxury condos like they were, well, birdseed at a wedding.

She had set her sights on Edna’s property early on, with dreams of putting up a fifty story mixed-use commercial property and luxury hotel, and Toby had sicced his lawyers on her almost immediately. Luckily, he didn’t live in the 10th. He lived and did business in the 13th, and that council member, Jay Beeber, hated the gentrification of the city with a passion. Toby knew him personally — he was a major campaign donor — and Jay was trying to talk sense into Wendy on Toby’s behalf, but she was having none of it.

At least Toby had managed to get an injunction against the imminent domain attempt back in July, but it was only for 90 days, so there wasn’t a lot of time left.

So his quest at the wedding was to get some face time with Alejandra, explain what was going on, and asking her to intercede. Fortunately, because of the various scandals back in ‘23 that had seen half of the Council Members recalled and half of the rest lose their re-elections, the replacements had actually passed laws giving the Mayor a lot more power over them, akin to what governors and the president had in terms of veto power, something that had long been lacking. This also included a very California innovation, borrowed from San Francisco, and it was called the Right of Absolute Intervention or, as the public had dubbed it, giving the mayor teeth.

In short, any government contract that a single council member or the entire council chose to enter into could be voided, without penalty, by the mayor, and without appeal short of a two-thirds majority referendum vote by either the district in question or the city at large, whichever applied.

And that was what Toby was banking on, since he knew Alejandra’s leanings, and once he’d gotten the chance to explain to her that he was determined to create what would truly be low income housing for people in need, he had no doubt that she would bare her teeth and bite Wendy Rue off at the knees.

He just needed to actually get that time with her and, honestly, the only person busier than the happy couple at a wedding were the mothers of both of them. That was why he brought Adrian. The kid was amazing and brilliant, and if Toby couldn’t get to her, Adrian would.

Alice and Edna couldn’t have been happier when they walked the green carpet and entered the cathedral, which was awe-inspiring inside. They were even more blown away when they were shown their seats, to the left of the altar and in the front row. Then again, this was well after their wedding outfits and shoes had been delivered to them, “Courtesy of the Bride and Groom,” although those weren’t quite a surprise, since a nice young man named Finley had come out to measure them.

They hadn’t known each other before now, but when they’d been introduced in line by the kid named Adrian they’d both met, they formed an immediate connection. After all, they were property owners on the 3400 block of West 8th Street in Koreatown, Adrian and Toby were trying to help out both of them, and while only Edna had been directly threatened by that City Council woman whose name she refused to remember, Alice had known of and hated her for years, because she did not understand the value of the arts, and had constantly lobbied Alice with ineffective bribes to try to get her to move out in order to raze the building and put up a boutique hotel on top of a bunch of upscale shops.

When that woman had visited her in person to try to push her agenda, it was the one and only time in her life that Alice said the words, “Fuck you” to another person. This managed to make the City Councilor stalk off in high dudgeon, as well as get a round of applause from her students, who had been standing behind her at the time. That applause was the only thing that made her not feel utterly ashamed for having been so rude to a government official. In fact, it made her feel more American than she ever had in her life.

And, at this wedding, Alice and Edna feel young and important, and look beautiful, and could not believe where they were sitting and, more importantly, which famous people they spotted as the room filled up. They kept quietly whispering to each other.

Edna: “Oh my god, is that Brad Pitt? He’s still hot as hell and he’s what? Sixty-five?”

Alice: “Yeah, but damn. Tarantino just looks… old.”

Edna: “I didn’t even know that Angelyne was still alive.” Of course, she was seated way in the back.

Alice: “Please tell me that Justin Bieber is crashing this and they’re going to kick him… Oh. Great. No.”

Edna: “All right, that’s it. Betty White is a vampire or something. How old is she now?”

Alice: “She looks amazing. I think she’s like… 107 or something?”

Edna: “Wow. I should only look so good in 25 years.”

Alice: “That’d be 2054. Wow. And I’d only be 98.”

Edna: “You know, with science nowadays — ”

Alice: “Yeah, but only if I get to look like I’m thirty.”

Edna turns to her and they fist bump.

At that same moment, James was quietly trying to figure out whether he could casually finger-bang Finley behind Tycho’s back without anyone noticing it, but Tycho noticed, grabbed James’ arm, and moved it back to his right side.

“We are at work, dude. We do not fuck at work. Got it?”

“Not even a little?” James pleaded, giving his best puppy-dog eyes.

“Not even at all, you horny whore-bag. But if you manage to keep it in your pants until we get home, I promise that Fin and I are going to DP you until your face explodes. And if you’re really well behaved, we might even invite Adam and Tony along to see how many dicks we can get up your ass at once.”

“Behaving!” James replied, and then he shut up and kept his hands to himself.

The whole complicated sex thing between Tycho, Finley, James, Adam, and Tony had finally settled into a pattern once Tycho actually moved into his government condo, but that had taken a bit longer than until the middle of May, mainly because there were two groups that hadn’t gotten moved into new permanent headquarters, and it was all due to a single city council member who Tycho had taken to referring to (privately to Finley and James) as “that Goddamn Shit-cunt Wendy.”

She was trying to take over their properties when both orgs had sufficient endowments to rebuild. He had had to work through the County Board of Supervisors to get the Mayor of L.A. to basically tell Wendy to fuck off, which she immediately did as soon as she got the scoop — it did help that one group was a Catholic org, and the RAI order was fired off so fast and hard that, Tycho hoped, it singed away half of Wendy’s Karen haircut.

He had managed to fast-track it, so that by June 1st the properties were secured, plans were being submitted for approval and permitting, and temporary quarters were placed on the sites, ending his need to stay down there. Although he’d found it laughable that this was even a requirement at all, because of how it worked out.

In theory, everyone should have been lodged as close to their area as could be, in this case Koreatown. In practice, that wasn’t possible. But the great irony was that Tycho’s condo downtown was actually closer, and on the same B Line that brought him down from the Valley in the opposite direction.

The only upside was that hotel sex was totally awesome, and their whirlpool tubs and showerheads could do amazing things in the right hand and aimed at or up the right parts. Otherwise, though, it was absolutely stupid, but he wasn’t going to waste his breath complaining about that to any of his superiors, because it would never change.

He guessed that at least a couple of the members of the Board of Supervisors owned stock in the various hotels people were being lodged at, so had a vested interest in keeping business booming at taxpayer expense. Yeah, one thing he’d really learned on the job was that the Supervisors’ level of corruption made the shit that had finally destroyed and rebuilt the City Council look as trivial as a fourth-grader charging other kids a dollar to copy from their homework.

It had been going on for a lot longer, and nobody ever did anything about it. It almost made him angry enough to want to run for the Board and change things from inside, but he knew that this wasn’t possible and feared that he’d become just as corrupt.

The City Council has fifteen members and the County Board of Supervisors has five. At the wedding, as Tycho scans the crowd, he spots all five of the Supes, but only fourteen of the Council, and secretly does a little internal dance of joy when it’s still only fourteen right before show time.

He leans over to Finley and whispers, “Shit-Cunt’s not here.”

“You think she was invited?” he asks.

“Inevitably,” Tycho explains. “The invitations went out months ago, and all the council and department managers and other top levels would have gotten one. It’s protocol.”

“So she decided not to show up?” Finley wonders.

“Most likely,” Tycho replies. “She’s known for being petty and vindictive.”

Adam leans over to whisper to the two of them. “Cindy told me that she’s trying to take over her old landlady’s property and turn it into more luxury condos for rich people.”

“What does the landlady think of that?” Finley asks.

“Of course she hates the idea, but Rue’s been going around doing eminent domain.”

“What a bitch,” Tony adds.

“I am definitely going to chat up the Supes today to see what they can do to cut that shit-cunt off at the knees,” Tycho tells them all as the lights change and a sudden plaintive flute starts up at the back of the nave. It’s followed by drums and then, to their total shock, a bunch of accordions playing a polka kick in from the other side of the house.

The rest of it is the most awesome thing any of them have even seen in a church.

Image: US Bank Tower, Downtown Los Angeles, © 2018 Jon Bastian. All rights reserved.

Friday Free-for-All #15

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 is the most important right our government allows for?

All right, random question site — normally, I don’t get political here, but you had to ask, so here we go, keeping in mind that this is the United States edition, but, really, the right I’m going to describe is one that all governments should allow. If they don’t, it’s time to topple them.

The right as I’m going to describe it is a little bit broad, because it’s going to comprise various Constitutional Amendments, laws, and court precedents, but the short version of it is this: Our most important right is the ability to freely and openly criticize our elected officials at any level, without fear of retribution no matter what we say about or to them, and our ability to get rid of them if they displease us, whether via voting them out, or recalling or impeaching them out.

So this covers the First Amendment’s right to free speech, press, and petitioning for redress of grievances for sure. It also scrapes in a few later Amendments, as well as includes the powers already enumerated in the Constitution for impeachment, trial, and removal of members of any and all of the three branches of the Federal government.

In this modern age, it means that any citizen can and should be able to tweet directly to any of their elective representatives and criticize them in the most colorful language possible (and believe me, I’ve seen plenty of that) and, whether they’re right or wrong, the one thing that should be true is that they cannot be arrested or punished for it.

Of course, the one big caveat is that those words don’t move on into threats. “Fuck you representative (name), you are a total asshole” is fine. “Somebody ought to shoot you in the face, and maybe it’ll be me” is not.

Subtle difference, but if we’re adults, I think that we can keep our guns and threats in our pants. Or not.

Now, around the world, several regimes have made it crimes to criticize their leaders — two countries whose English names start with T come to mind — and, in fact, they’ve even tried to punish citizens of other countries who’ve pissed two particular people off.

And that is just lame.

But… back to the U.S. Our most important right has always been the right to vote, but it kind of saddens me that thanks to political fuckery that’s been going on for the last thirty years, doubt has been cast upon two things: one, that voting matters, and two, that there’s any difference between the two major political parties.

Funny thing is that the people who buy into that crap are only politically involved once every four years, and only after their favorite non-starter pseudo third-party (but maybe fill in Republican or Democrat when it’s convenient) candidate doesn’t get enough votes to be nominated.

This is the major problem in the U.S. today: people who claim to be progressive, and yet will willingly toss away our single most important right and power just because their fandom didn’t make it to the finals.

So, ironically, they spend all of their First Amendment (though not really, because they do it on private platforms) rights screaming at people supposedly in the same party for being pragmatic instead of aiming their wrath at, well, you know…

Sadly, my country does not have the Right to be Protected from the Stupid, because that would require universal basic income, free education through grad school, and cheap health care for all.

This right has served us well in the past, though, and it’s been the avenue through which we have seen progressive goals achieved. Universal suffrage for women, unions and workers’ rights, civil rights, and LGBTQ protection and equal rights, among others, didn’t happen because people sat at home being polite.

They organized, they protested, and they let the government know that things had to change. In many cases, the protests and struggles took years, if not decades. And they weren’t bloodless battles. The labor movement, for example, saw many workers and organizers murdered, often at the hands of the private security forces of the companies they worked for. The civil rights movement has a long history of its organizers and supporters being lynched.

To quote Spider-Man, “…with great power there must also come — great responsibility!” No, that’s the actual quote as it first appeared in the comics. The real original comes from the   Public Safety Committee at the French National Convention in 1793: “Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir.”

It means pretty much the same thing, as it did when, in 1817, British MP Willaim Lamb said, “…the possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility.”

What I mean now is that this great power of ours to address and protest our government comes with an important responsibility: We must never use it in order to infringe the constitutional rights of others, or to endanger the health or well-being of others.

You probably see where this is going.

Protesting to ensure that unarmed, innocent black people are not gunned down by cops or over-zealous vigilantes is a proper use of the power. Protesting to make sure that legal protections are in place to keep transgender people from being fired or evicted is a proper use of the power. Protesting to make sure that corporations cannot underpay or exploit their employees is a proper use of the power.

Protesting because you can’t go out and get a haircut, or shop at Dillard’s, or sit down to eat at the Waffle House, or go to church in person when Zoom is available, or because you don’t want to wear a mask in public are not proper uses of the power.

Sorry, Karen.

When your breath can be as weaponized as you’ve made your white privilege and there are vulnerable people around, put a damn mask on and learn how far six feet is. Then deal with it.

If you want to complain and protest, then please address it to the federal government that whiffed the response in the first place and put us all into this situation, not to the state governments who have been trying to mitigate the damages ever since.

But FFS, stop harassing reporters, assaulting store clerks, or killing security guards. These are not legal acts of protest. They are domestic terrorism.

And that is one right that no American has.

Theatre Thursday: Remembering my real second language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once upon a time…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this space. Or… well, listen.

Wondrous Wednesday: Keeping it in the family

This one is actually two days late because I wanted to be more timely with the dog story from Monday, and if the Duke and Duchess could wait almost 900 years, they could wait two more days. (Besides, this would have been my father’s birthday, so it’s still an appropriate date in that regard.)

This past Monday was the 868th anniversary of an event that, without which, I wouldn’t be here — or at least not here as exactly the same person.

May 18, 1152, the Duke of Normandy, Henry Curtmantle (also known as Henry FitzEmpress and Henry Plantagenet), married the  Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor of the House of Poitiers, recent Queen Consort of France.

She was one of the wealthiest and most influential women in Europe, a leader in the Second Crusade, and considered the most eligible bachelorette at the time her marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled.

Strategically, this marriage gave the Duke control of Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine in France, and, when he ascended to the throne as King Henry II two years later, made her Queen Consort of England.

They eventually had five sons, three of whom became the King of England, but I’ll come back to them in a moment. Overall, their marriage wasn’t the most loving, and Eleanor did spend some time locked in a tower at her husband’s behest.

There’s an amazing film worth looking up, The Lion in Winter, which stars Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole at the height of their powers as the Queen and King, along with early appearances by Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, and Nigel Terry, who would go on to play King Arthur in Excalibur. It’s worth a look. Here’s the original trailer, but keep in mind that it’s from the late 60s, when all film trailers were cheesy as hell.

As for their sons, Henry the Young King was actually crowned while his father was alive but never given any real power, and died in the summer of 1183 — which is the year that the movie above takes place. Out of the three left, Richard, Geoffrey, and John, Geoffrey died before he could become king.

Meanwhile, Richard is known as Richard the Lionheart, although he spent little time actually ruling in England — perhaps as few as six months. The rest of that time, he was off fighting in the Crusades or being held captive for ransom.

He was succeeded by the youngest brother, John Lackland, perhaps most famous for being perennially cast as the bad guy in Robin Hood reboots, signing things over to the barons with the Magna Carta, and being vilified in a Shakespeare play that didn’t treat his mother Eleanor so well either.

And yes, there’s a reason that England has never had a King John II and it would be him.

But when he wasn’t spending his time being not such a great king, he was nailing every woman in sight, including one named Agatha Ferrers, a daughter of the Earl of Derby, and from that relationship sprang a single strand in the elaborate chains of DNA that twisted their ways down through almost nine hundred years of history until I was born with a little bit of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and all of their ancestors before in me.

I’m working off of memory here because I’ve apparently added so much information across most of my father’s side of the family now that trying to run a relationship calculation between myself and Henry and Eleanor causes an error that crashes the program, but I think that they were something like my 36th great-grandparents.

Now, if the number of direct ancestors strictly doubles in each generation — two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on — then 36 generations back, we would each have a total of 68,719,476,734 ancestors. That’s 68 as in billion, as in nearly ten times the current population of the planet.

Keep in mind, though, that this is the total of all ancestors over time. When it comes to just great-grandparents of the 36th remove, then you have only half that number, 34,359,738,368.

That’s still a lot, and it leaves a very tiny scrap of DNA from each ancestor at that level in you.

Or does it?

See, there’s one interesting phenomenon that a lot of people would like to ignore or claim doesn’t exist, but it’s been a lot more common through history almost down to the modern age than everyone likes to admit. I’ll get to the phenomenon in a moment, but the result is something called pedigree collapse.

In a normal progression, if you start with an individual of the generation labeled as n=1, their parents as n=2, and so on, then at each level, the number of expected ancestors will simply be two to the power of one less than the generation; 2(n-1).

21= 2 parents; 22 = 4 grandparents; 23 = 8 great-grandparents, and so on.

But there’s an obvious problem here. As we go back in time, the available population shrinks. It’s all fine until about 1300, but at that point, available human population drops to 360 million while necessary ancestors per individual doubles to over 536 million.

And that’s not even doing the complicated math of figuring out how big the numbers explode if the only people who share the exact same common ancestors are siblings. And there’s the rub. Or the dirty truth.

The only way around this, as mentioned, is pedigree collapse, and the only way around that is what a lot of modern people in the west would get skeeved out about and call “incest.”

But it’s been happening for centuries, especially via cousin marriage.

First cousins, for example, share one set of grandparents by definition, because their parents are siblings, so they are related. If first cousins marry, they suddenly turn two sets of grandparents into one and halve the number of common ancestors immediately.

The same happens with more distant cousins, of course, but the point is that we could not have happened as a species without it. And if the idea of incest to even closer degrees grosses you out, FFS don’t look into the world of dog or horse breeding, and especially don’t look up the family tree of the Habsburgs. Keep in mind, though, that they were diddling much closer relatives than cousins.

But, really, throughout history, because people didn’t really travel all that far from their home villages if they were commoners, marriage options were limited. Such arrangements also limited the need for dowries — what, Bill is going to expect his brother Jack to buy his daughter’s hand for his son with some goats? Nah. Keep it in the family.

Oddly enough, the same mechanism was going on with royalty, except on a grander scale, and it was all about land, power, and real estate. So the Prince of West Nobbington was the brother of the Duke of South Fartberg, but they both needed to ally against the Earl of Greater Twatfrumple. Hey — they’ve got kids of about the same age and plug-n-play genitalia under the norms of the time. So what if they’re cousins? Make them marry, combine the lands, and suddenly the Grand Principality of Nobbingfart is powerful enough to make Twatfrumple not so great.

That is European history in a nutshell.

Sometimes, it leads to extremes, like the above noted and severely inbred Habsburgs. Most of the time though, not. And, by the way, the genetic dangers of first cousin marriages are exaggerated. However, for any direct ancestors or descendants, aunts/uncles and niblings, full or half-siblings, or combinations between said groups, then no. Just… no. Don’t even think it.

Step-whatevers… you’re not related, so it all depends on circumstances otherwise. But first cousins and more distant have been having at it since forever. That’s been the norm, not the exception.

If you only think it happens in backwoods places in the U.S., think again. Franklin Delano Roosevelt married his cousin Eleanor (maiden name, Roosevelt), and they were no hicks. He was from a wealthy family, and elected president of the U.S. an unprecedented (and unrepeated) four times.

This trimming the tree on the way down has been absolutely necessary, and even in the most apparently incest-free for generations of families, it can lead to some oddities. Again, my software isn’t letting me check it right now, but I do remember at one point I did a couple of relationship calculations to find out, for example, that Queen Elizabeth II and I are varying degrees of very distant cousins on multiple levels about half a dozen times and, technically, I’m even related to my own father about eight ways, although most of those are, again, in the distant past.

Ultimately, of course, since we all go back to the same common ancestors, human and prior, we’re all related anyway, and we all share DNA with each other. Technically, any two humans hooking up are committing incest. It all depends on how close you want to set the limit.

Image source: Funerary effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, public doman

Momentous Monday: Homecoming

May 11th has become a date inextricably linked with all three of my dogs because of events a week ago today.

On May 11, 2001, #2 Dog, Shadow, came home to me for the first time. It was exactly eleven days after I’d said good-bye to #1 Dog, Dazé. Last week, May 11, 2020, #3 Dog, Sheeba, came home for the last time, and her ashes joined her sisters’, completing the shrine to them that I started over 19 years ago.

I finally also got around to printing their memorial pictures in the same style and finding nice standing frames for them, getting them all arranged, but then realizing to my great disappointment the total mismatch of funerary urns, as it were.

Over the years — and I think it has to do with the growing importance of our fur babies (at least when it comes to marketing to them) those ash containers have gotten a lot fancier.

Back in 2001, Dazé got a can wrapped in paper. Note that the paper is blue although she was a girl. I don’t think it’s because they mixed up the dogs. Rather, I think that it was whoever was running things at the time took one look at her goatee, assumed “boy dog,” and picked blue.

It was a common enough mistake in life, and for exactly the same reason. Humans assume “goatee = male,” forgetting that dogs have a lot less sexual dimorphism than humans do. Hint: if the only way to tell the difference is to flip them over and look at their junk, then the dimorphism is very low.

And, of course, humans throw a ton of artificial dimorphism on top of the moderate degree that we already have in all of those secondary characteristics — namely body shape, body hair, vocal range and timbre, and whether taking your shirt off will offend prudes. But I do digress.

Shadow also got a can, this one papered in pink, but it came inside of a nice brocaded box in a pale blue decorated with an abstract gold paisleyesque pattern.

Finally, Sheeba only got a vacuum-sealed bag, but in a lovely locking cedar box with a plaque with her name on it. This one also came with a paw-print — something that I think had been an option with Shadow that I’d turned down — a fancy certificate of cremation, a little wooden heart with her name engraved on it, a paper heart on the whole thing with her name and my last name on the cord on the mesh bag everything came in, a packet of forget-me-not seeds, and a tiny vial with a bit of her hair in it.

Wow. Considering that Shadow and Sheeba went just under five years apart, Sheeba’s send-off was quite a bit fancier.

At first, I was upset that I don’t have exactly the same memorial for each of them, and even while Sheeba was alive had considered getting matching containers for all three of them. But then when looking at the rag-tag collection tonight, something struck me.

They absolutely should not be the same because none of these dogs was at all like the other two, and that is what made them special. And the more I considered the ways they came back to me, the more I realized that each container actually reflected the dog in it much more accurately than the crematory could have ever predicted, and this made me very happy.

After all, I have their collars with the containers as well, and all three of those are very different.

So Dazé came back in a simple, possibly misgendered, metal can. And that suits her perfectly, because when it came to training and dealing with her, she was the simplest dog I’ve ever had. No frills, no drama, didn’t need anything fancy.

Her favorite “toys” were old socks, and her prized possession was a huge sock-toy I made out of my old, worn-out ones. It was about the size of a large ferret, and she loved nothing more than to pick it up and “kill” it over and over, or get me to toss it around the room for her to hunt.

Like the can, Dazé was pretty basic and, in fact (as a friend pointed out when I told them this) you could say that she was the original basic bitch.

She wouldn’t have disagreed.

Shadow got the same can in pink, but inside of a simple box, and to me this represents her also sweet and simple nature, but one which came with a need to be protected by me. She really didn’t like to show her true self outside of the few humans she trusted. And, like with the box, no one not privy to the knowledge could really know or predict what was inside.

When she trusted a human, she did so completely, but even when she did trust a human, any kind of big energy made her very nervous. She would freak out and tremble in the corner if I got into even a minor disagreement with an S.O., then would come skulking back to me when things had settled down as if it had been her fault.

Dazé had never had that reaction, by the way. She’d just give us a look as if to say, “Stupid humans. Work it out. I’m taking a nap.”

Of course, Shadow would also freak out if the vacuum cleaner came out, or somebody whipped the sheet in order to drape it onto the bed, and so on. Inside that trembling, delicate façade, she really was made of the same stuff as Dazé in terms of love to give. She just never had the confidence to know it.

Then again, I think that Dazé may have come from the unwanted litter of a family dog in the first place, so she was a middle class dog. Shadow was found wandering the streets of South Central L.A. in the company of a male Siberian husky, so who knows where she had escaped from. It could have been a family. It could have been a junkyard. It could have been a dog-fighting ring. She was never able to tell me.

Sheeba’s funerary gear is completely different than the other two, but she was completely different as well.

The first big difference, of course, is that her ashes are in a clear bag. They’re also a lot finer than either of the other two — yes, I’ve looked. This is fitting, because Sheeba never pretended to be what she was not. What you saw was what you got, take it or leave it.

But that transparent bag came in a hard wooden exterior with a lock and key. She was tough and aloof on the outside, hard to get inside, and it took her a long time to trust anyone who wasn’t me. Oh, she would tolerate everyone and be friendly, but actual petting privileges were limited to the very few.

The elegance of the box indicates that she was never a kids’ toy. Sheeba, in fact, hated and feared children. I never held that against her because I’m not so fond of them myself.

Finally, the plaque on top with her name on it echoes a game I used to play with her when I got her to give me a high-five (four?). I would hold her paw up and say, “I am Sheeba. Yay!”

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She seemed to enjoy it.

I named her for a queen because she always presented herself as one, and the fact that her final remains came with a much more elaborate presentation is only fitting. The folks at the crematory knew.

So those containers sitting on my altar of dog are absolutely mismatched on the surface — but they absolutely match the heart and soul of each of the dogs within them.

I — and they — wouldn’t have it any other way. And Sheeba finally coming home for the last time on the anniversary of the day that Shadow came home for the first gives a really nice full-circle closure, although that doesn’t mean that the grieving is over.

If anything, this is the start of round two. I still imagine that I see or hear Sheeba here, and I think about Shadow more than I have in a while. I absolutely know that the perfect way to complete the current memorial to my lost dogs is to rescue my next dog, and give her or him a long, good life in honor of the others.

That’s how I wound up with Shadow after I lost Dazé and thought there could never be another. It’s just that I’ve never lost a dog before in such extraordinary times.

Then again, having been through over two weeks without a dog, I realize that, perhaps, one is the only way to survive such extraordinary times.

Image sources © 2020 Jon Bastian. All rights reserved.