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 #23: Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?

Since I don’t subscribe to HBO, I wasn’t able to watch the TV series Watchmen when it first ran, despite everyone telling me it was the best thing ever. However, to honor the Juneteenth holiday, last weekend HBO allowed everyone to watch it for free, so binged the nine episodes, viewing three per day from Friday through Sunday.

I’ll get to my impressions of the show in a moment, but first, my history with Watchmen in general. I had heard of the graphic novel but had never read it until just before the film came out in 2009. In fact, I think I’d only ever read one graphic novel, which was a short one consisting of maybe two or three issues of a comic. A friend had sent it to me as a present, either birthday or Christmas, to encourage me to get into the genre, but it didn’t work.

Sure, I read comic books as a kid, but always leaned toward the so-called Bronze Age holdovers and wasn’t really into the New Age stuff, because they were just too gritty and dark for me.

Oh… there is a concept in comics of the format being divided up into at least four ages: Golden (1938-1950), Silver (1956-1970), Bronze (1970-1985), and New (1985-Present).

In a nutshell, the Golden Age is when all the classic super heroes were introduced, including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America. They were a cheap source of entertainment, especially during WW II, and it wasn’t uncommon for a single issue to sell a million copies.

Near the end of the war, though, tales of super heroes fade in popularity, replaced by genre comics — sci-fi, westerns, romance, etc. — but then Cold Age paranoia and prudishness intruded, linking comics to juvenile delinquency. To avoid government censorship, the industry created the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a self-regulating body similar to the movie industry’s MPAA.

The Golden age heroes started to return and the next generation began to appear — Spider-Man, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men. There’s also an emphasis on superhero teams, and this is when the Justice League is fully formed from its origins during the Golden Age. This is also when The Avengers appear.

Side-note: It’s why Captain America is the First Avenger even though Supes and Batman came first — they played for a different team.

While all of this is going on, underground comics, not subject to the CCA, are thriving, and their subject matter is strictly adult.

The Bronze Age comes about when the comics start tackling social issues of the day, underground comics have an influence, and supernatural and horror stories also become popular. The power of the CCA also fades and the rise of Star Wars leads to the comic industry following suit in merchandising tie-ins, toys, T-shirts, and more.

Frank Miller “reboots” the Golden and Silver Age heroes in dark and gritty versions, and then Alan Moore publishes Watchmen. Its first appearance was in 1985, in the 50th anniversary special of DC Spotlight, although the series itself ran twelve issues from September 1986 to October 1987, with the omnibus edition being published later that year.

This ushered in the New Age of comics, a big part of the reason being that Watchmen took all of comic history to date, turned the characters on their heads, imagined an alternate historical timeline, and then threw it together into something amazing.

In the original graphic novel, we meet several generations of “masked heroes,” beginning with The Minutemen in the 1930s. While they aren’t exactly the comic heroes we know, there are some analogies, but the first and most mysterious of them is Hooded Justice, who pops up in New York and takes down criminals until the 1950s.

After he refuses to reveal his true identity to the House Un-American Activities Committee, he disappears, later to be found floating face down in the Hudson River, claimed a suicide but assumed a homicide, depending upon whom you ask.

(This is all established in the graphic novel, by the way, so it’s not a spoiler to the series.)

There are other first generation heroes, like Captain Metropolis, Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Mothman, Silk Spectre I, and Nite Owl I, although only Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre and Nite Owl make it out alive to the next generation.

Round two, the Silver Age heroes, are Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and the Comedian although eventually masked heroes are outlawed, with only Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian staying semi-legal, but only because they go to work for the government.

By the way, Dr. Manhattan is the only one who actually has superpowers, acquired during an accident with a quantum physics experiment back in the 1950s.

Now I knew none of this because I’d never read the book, but then in 2008 I saw a trailer for the film Watchmen, and it blew me away. I think this is the final 2009 trailer, but they didn’t change much from one to the other. It’s worth the watch. Pun intended.

So I watched the trailer over and over online, intrigued by everything in it, and then ran out and bought a copy of the graphic novel, which I proceeded to binge-read over the next few days, using most of my lunch hour at work to down the next chapter.

Wow.

For one thing, it proved me wrong in thinking that “comic books” were not a literary form. Watchmen certainly was worthy of being a novel — in fact, the only graphic novel to be included in the Time Magazine top 100 novels list.

For another, it went beyond comics, and each chapter would include some sort of literary insert, like an excerpt from a made-up book, a fake newspaper clipping, a brochure, subversive literature, and so on.

Each insert would either shed new light on what had come before or set up breadcrumbs for what would follow, and it added a nice level of multiple narrative voices telling a story that may or may not be true.

I was not disappointed by the film version — unlike lots of fans of the book — although I did enough research to realize that skipping the two print spin-offs: Before Watchmen and The Doomsday Clock were probably a good idea, since they seemed to be nothing more than cash-grabs by DC Comics, with no involvement from Alan Moore. (Not that he’s involved in anything but the original book.)

So when I heard that HBO was making a mini-series, I was at first skeptical. I wondered whether they weren’t going to try to adapt the original again, in which case, why bother? And then, this trailer dropped.

Clearly, not an adaptation of the series, but a sequel, although it looked both amazing and confusing — none of the familiar heroes in sight, only one shot that might have been Nite Owl II’s vehicle Archie, but still plenty of masked heroes. And I couldn’t watch it without subscribing to HBO, but even this was not incentive enough.

Luckily, I managed to remain mostly spoiler-free (other than who Jeremy Irons was playing) for eight months, watched three episodes per day for three days and, just like with the graphic novel, all I can say is… wow.

The series managed to feel like the narrative structure of the book, tie in the first and second generation masked heroes and then bring in a third in the modern day, and then be about something even bigger than the original.

After all, the big fear when the graphic novel came out was the Cold War and the end of the world via nuclear holocaust. In fact, the whole point of that story is that one of the masked heroes takes it upon himself to avoid humanity’s annihilation by creating the perception of a new threat that exists outside the control of the USA or USSR.

Let’s just say that the new series has equally megalomaniacal characters, but also managed to hit upon humanity’s true, current existential threat a year before it popped into the forefront.

If you’re a fan of the graphic novel or movie, you won’t be disappointed by this one. If you have no prior experience of Watchmen, you won’t need it to enjoy the show but do yourself a favor if you feel like binging: read the graphic novel first, then watch the movie, then settle down and binge.

Oh yeah… after the freebie from HBO, the series is also now on Amazon Prime, and was recently released on DVD, so there’s that.

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Finale

Here is the final installment of the novella. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top with excerpts from the short stories here.

TAKING HOPE

The crowd started to thin out after A-Pop left, mostly because it was getting late, but DJGomes and VJBDJ didn’t let that deter them, and the place was flooded with pumping EDM from the end of A-Pop until the end of the party, at four o’clock Monday morning. Toby and Adrian had stayed until the end of that show, at which point both of them looked at each other, and both of them felt some kind of dread that the other wanted to leave.

But Adrian broke the silence. “So… we don’t have to hang out together, boss,” he said, “But if we’re either off tomorrow or you have a business call in a couple of hours — ”

“Off tomorrow,” Toby cut him off to answer. “So hang around as long as you want.”

“It’s totally innocent,” Adrian replied. “I mean, whether I’m on the clock or not.”

“I don’t care,” Toby said. “Do what or whom you want to, whenever you want to.”

“I would,” Adrian finally replied nervously, “But that’s okay. It’s all ace.”

“Ooh. You feel like ice cream?” Toby suddenly said excitedly.

Adrian just smiled. “Sure. But what’s open at this hour?”

“Follow me,” Toby nodded, and led him to the top of the middle of the park,where they went to the station to wait for whichever train came first, the B or the D line. Their routes overlapped briefly so either would get them to where they were going. The D line won, so they hopped on and headed back up two stations, past Pershing Square and then getting off at the 7th Street Metro. Once above ground, they walked a block down 7th from Flower to Hope and came to a Walgreens. Toby still remembered that infamous night there at about this time of day on the early morning before the earthquake, and he noticed by Adrian’s expression that he probably remembered the story, too.

“Is this…?” he trailed off and glanced up.

“Yep,” Toby replied, and they walked in.

There wasn’t a crowd this morning. The place was practically deserted. They went back to the freezer case and were confronted by what Toby knew as The Paradox of Choice. There were so many flavors that it would be hard to decide for someone who didn’t have a favorite, but Toby didn’t have that problem. He used to be a fan of rocky road, but after the quake he had drifted toward butter pecan. While it had similar qualities when it came to “mouth feel,” the flavors and aromas were far more relaxing and sophisticated.

As for Adrian, he kept wavering back and forth between all of the varieties that only involved chocolate —chocolate chip, chocolate chip cookie dough, chocolate fudge brownie, chocolate fudge swirl, chocolate peanut butter, chocolate peppermint, chocolate trio, chocolate vanilla swirl, chocolate with OREO bits, chocolate with ‘Smores, mint chocolate chip, red velvet, and, of course, rocky road.

And then there were the brands, each of which had most of those flavors, or their own variations: Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Dreyer’s, Häagen-Dazs, Halo Top, Nice (the Walgreens house brand), and Tillamook.

That all worked out to 91 possible predominantly chocolate-based variations.. Never mind all of the other main flavor bases — vanilla and all of the fruits. And don’t forget to give some room for sorbet and frozen yogurt and non-dairy. Or sizes. Pint, quart, half gallon, gallon? “Fun cup?”

Have you ever wondered why the ice-cream aisle in a store’s frozen section takes up so much room? Well, there’s your answer. And don’t forget all of the “frozen novelties” — ice cream sandwiches and bars, popsicles, fudgesicles, Otter Pops, Klondike Bars, ice bombs, and even Frosty Paws dog “ice cream.”

This was one crowded department. Now, Walgreens did tone it down by including only the brands that gave them the best margins and least complicated ordering process, so… Ben & Jerry’s, Dreyer’s, and Tillamook. If the manager had had her druthers, she wouldn’t have carried Nice, but she had no choice, for reasons that should be obvious from three paragraphs back. In order to cram it all into the space she had, she only stocked pints and quarts, and allowed in Häagen-Dazs pints of the three most popular flavors in the area, but those were only available in a so-called “coffin cooler” near the front of the store.

If you’re not getting that term… it’s a top-loading freezer with, usually, glass doors on top that either slide or lift, and all of the product is displayed stacked underneath. Retailers since time immemorial took to calling it a “coffin cooler” because you had to lift the lid to get to the cold, hard stuff.

But, Adrian and Toby don’t know any of this, and by this point it’s about a quarter past four in the morning. They’d made good time hiking up Grand Park and also lucked out in hitting the station right as a train arrived, so overall it had only taken them about ten minutes to get here.

Toby could see Adrian’s brain practically melting over the options and he really felt sorry for him, so he finally just said, matter-off-factly, “By the way, I gave you another bonus after we convinced the mayor to screw with Wendy, and it should be in your account by now. Buy yourself something nice, but the docking or hangar fees are all going to be on you.”

Adrian just turned to Toby, gawked for an instant, then opened the cooler and quietly pulled out two pints: Tillamook chocolate peanut butter, and Ben & Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie.

“Good man,” Toby said, and they headed for the checkout, where the manager that Toby had once thought of as a tiny transwoman had now become a person in his mind, because he’d gotten to know her over the last couple of months. Her name was Ramona, and she was working her way through law school at Loyola downtown. Yes, she was transgender, but Toby had long since stopped thinking of her as anything other than her preferred pronouns and gender. Or, as he liked to think of them, her real ones. She’d taught him a lot.

He also knew that most people of his class would find it very weird that he loved walking down here, often in the middle of the night, to buy things that he could have (in their minds, should have) ordered from the best names in the world: toiletries from Bolin Webb, Clinique, DIOR, Erno Lazlo, Foreo, Kiehl’s, Tom Ford, Truefitt & Hill, and on and on. “Prove your worth by having them sent next day a.m. from Harrods. Don’t cheap out by ordering American!”

“Or, for god’s sake, order your ice cream from the Langham Hotel in Chicago, Maubossin in Manhattan, or Serendipity 3 in New York, so you can at least say that you’ve paid a respectable $1,000 for a pint, minus express shipping by private jet on dry ice. Otherwise, you’re embarrassing your class!”

God, Toby hated rich people, himself most of all. He noticed that Adrian hadn’t checked yet, but this latest bonus to him would probably also be the last one — not because Toby would be inclined to cut them off, but because he had finally realized that Adrian was worthy of elevation, since he wasn’t like the others who would insist on dropping a grand into another billionaire’s pocket for ice cream just to brag about it. The last one Adrian had gotten was six digits. This one is eight. In fact, Toby had looked it up. Adrian is 27, so he made it for a gross of $27,000,000, but then structured it as a dividend payout, rather than income, so he wouldn’t get fucked on the taxes like the little people do. He’d net about $23,000,000, and Toby knew that Adrian would know what to do with that kind of money and not become an asshole.

They got into line with their ice cream in hand behind four other people, and Toby noted that two of them were “Karens.” Great. And those two were followed by a bathtub. And then Toby looked at the guy ahead of him in line and thought, “Oh, holy fuck. What are the odds of this?”

He couldn’t forget the face he’d studied so intently just over five months ago, the man he’d spoken to, and the literal shitshow that had happened. Although something seemed different about him today. He wasn’t buying toilet paper, and he didn’t have the same hollow-eyed desperation. Instead, he had a couple of greeting cards in his hand, which seemed totally anachronistic in this day and age, although medical science was getting better at keeping centenarians around, so who knew?

The transformation Toby saw was amazing. This man seemed totally together. And it was definitely the same guy, so Toby leaned forward and said, “Perdóneme… ¿nos hemos conocidos anteriormente?”

The man turned, took one look at Toby, and just stared in amazement.

“Oh my god,” he muttered. “I remember you.”

“You speak English?” Toby asked.

“Of course I speak English.”

“But that night…”

“I speak both. Oh… I guess you do too. Yeah, I just tend to go to my native language when I’m feeling distressed, which I obviously was. But here’s the thing I never forgot. You were the one person who didn’t look at me with disgust or hate when… well… you know. ‘It’ happened. And I’ve always felt like you would have helped if I hadn’t run because I felt so goddamn ashamed.”

“Wait,” Toby said. “What? Oh my god… you have just forgiven me such a huge sin… Oh. My name’s Toby. Toby Arnott. And you are…?”

“Winford,” the man replies. “Well, to friends. Dr. Quintana to my patients.”

“You’re an MD?” Toby asks, seeming flustered.

“Yes,” Dr. Winford Quintana replies, “And that was why what you saw happen happen.”

“My god, I totally misread you,” Toby said.

“Yeah, I guessed that.”

“Holy crap,” Adrian suddenly piped up. Is he…”

“Yes, and shut up,” Toby shot back tersely.

“Oh, it’s okay,” Winford said.

“How did all of that happen, though?” Toby asked, feeling very awkward, but the doctor seemed very inclined to explain.

“Pardon my French, but goddamn dumbass anti-vax parents. Our ER was jammed about a week before with tons of kids having symptoms, and tons of idiot parents trying to get the staff to only use homeopathic or “holistic” treatments, and god, I wish that I could ban people like that from the campus in a heartbeat. But… no.

“Now, I’m not working ER that night, but I am working intake with the actual urgent non-measles cases getting passed through. The problem is, the volume in ER is so high that people are getting sloppy, especially with hygiene, and somewhere along the way, somebody with giardia comes in dirty, but I don’t know it. Hospital intake isn’t a sterile environment because it’s just assumed that all precautions have been taken on the way. So… I’m not absolutely sure who, but pretty sure that the intake exam I did on this fourteen-year-old soccer player from City of Angels High School blasted me with the parasite and I didn’t know it.

“Why would I? He presented with a broken leg, compound fracture. What I didn’t know is that he’d just come back from a team trip to Guatemala. Also, he had a minor case of diarrhea, and didn’t mention (until much later to his mother when the hospital asked) that he’d basically had an aerosol shart on the way from ER to my exam. And, since I’d assumed procedures had happened, well, kind of my fault, too, for not dipping the entire room in alcohol.

“By the time I was almost home and this shit, pardon the expression, caught up with me a week later, I realized that I’d need some heavy-lifting, and, how do the kids say it? An attempt was made. And you saw it fail.”

“Anyway, since that night, I’ve always imagined that I’ve turned into a case of ‘The Fortunate Fart’ around here.”

“Oh my god, you know that?” Adrian suddenly spoke up. Toby was about to rebuke him, but Winford smiled back and said, “Yes. You’re a fan of folklore?”

“For sure, doc. Did you know Abraham Lincoln used to love to tell a version of that story, mostly as a way of figuring out whether — ”

“—whether to trust politicians or lobbyists?” they finished together, and Winford gushed. “Yes!”

“Oh, wow,” Adrian added.

“Okay,” Toby said. “So… Oh what’s that old line from the movie? I have a feeling that — ”

“— this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Adrian and Winford chimed in in unison.

“Fuck this ice cream,” Toby announced. “You, buy your cards, but I have a fantastic idea.”

“What’s that?” Adrian asked.

“Breakfast?” Toby said. “The Pantry isn’t that far away, and I feel like that place fits the theme of now.”

“What?” Winford asked. “Hungry people?”

“No,” Toby replied. “Forgiveness. You don’t know the story, do you?”

Winford and Adrian both shrugged, and Adrian sighed, then went on. “It’s a total bullshit legend, of course,” he said. “But the rumor is that this place used to only hire ex-convicts and felons in order to rehabilitate them.”

“Is that true?” Adrian asked.

Winford and Toby looked at each other, smiled, and said, “Nah.”

“But who cares?” Toby added. “Sometimes, the sentiment is far more important than the truth.”

And so the three of them walked out of Walgreens, ice cream put back into the coolers but Winford’s greeting cards safely in his suit-coat pocket, and they turned the corner and walked from 7th to 9th, taking Hope all the way.

* * *

Friday Free-for-all #20

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.

When was the last time you climbed a tree?

I don’t remember any times distinctly as an adult, although there must have been a few times in my 20s, but I do remember the last time I climbed the tree in the backyard of my parents’ house. Well, not the specific date or anything, but the general details.

I was fifteen, in high school, and had been climbing this tree since I’d been tall enough to jump up and grab the lowest strong branch. The trick was to grab this one, swing my legs up to grab it as well, then turn myself around until I was sitting on it.

From there, a couple more branches formed easy steps, and then it was a matter of finding the footholds up toward the top, which was a nice crow’s nest surrounded by foliage, about forty feet up.

The funny thing, too, was that all of the good climby parts were on the southwest part of the tree. On the north, the branches were too thin, and on the east the good ones didn’t start until too high because that was the side that grew against the wall that separated our house from the neighbors the next street over.

Part of the reason I loved to climb that tree, which was the biggest one in the yard, was the challenge of it, and I remember that it took a few years to progressively figure out and/or be brave enough to go up another level. Physical size and strength also had something to do with it.

Once I got up there, there wasn’t much of a view, since it was in the middle of a suburban housing tract made up of about four different floor plans — two single-story and two two-story — which were made to appear to be more variations by virtue of having a mirror-image of each. There were also minor differences, particularly window style and little things like that.

So the view, even from the top of the tree, was pretty much my parent’s roof, the roof of the house across the street, and the trees behind it looking west, more of the same looking east, and nothing but trees and hedges looking north and south.

But it wasn’t about the view. It was a place I could go that my parents couldn’t, somewhere I could hang out and just think and enjoy being surrounded by nature.

It was also the only climbable tree we had. The only other tree in the backyard was a plum tree my parents had planted when I was a late tween, and it was still basically a sapling even by the time I moved on to college. Likewise, the one tree in front of our house on the strip between the sidewalk and street was a plum tree and, while it had been planted when the place had been built decades earlier, plum trees just really aren’t climber friendly.

The last year that I climbed the tree in our backyard, in fact, was the same year that our next door neighbors planted their Christmas tree on the south side of their front yard, so another not-climbable thing. Twenty years later is a different story — that thing grew into a monster to rival my favorite tree in height and girth, although not in climability.

Oh, I’ve never tried, but the thing basically turned into a thick trunk and a giant primary branch that grew out of it like an arm and elbow. Maybe a good place to jump up to and sit, but otherwise like trying to climb a fat lamppost.

My favorite tree was a birch, by the way, and the last time I climbed it was one day when I was fifteen. It may have even been a while at that point since I had climbed it, but I jumped up, grabbed that faithful first branch and then swung my legs up and held on.

I made it a few more rungs up, and then hung upside-down to a higher branch I didn’t usually use to climb, but I was experimenting. This one was probably about twelve feet up, and didn’t have any branches below it.

I hung onto this one, totally trusting “my” tree and then heard a loud crack. Then I felt the fall and I swear to this day that while the trip down in reality probably took no more than two seconds, in my mind it lasted at least a minute, if not more.

I remember my distinct thoughts. “Oh fuck. I’m falling.” And then “I’m going to wind up dead under this branch and what if no one finds me?” The world really went into slow motion, and I swear that I could feel the breeze in my hair, watch the tree above me slowly recede, and then… thump.

I was lying on the ground with a large but not heavy branch on top of me, and I stayed there for a while until I realized, “Okay, I’m not dead.”

Then I went inside and left my tree-climbing days behind me. What? I had to focus on something just as risky and stupid — playing keyboards in a band, of course.

Five easy pieces

Welcome to a little music history and education. I don’t think I’ve mentioned before on the blog, but I am a trained musician who plays anything with a keyboard (including piano accordion, thank you), and was lucky enough to be well-grounded in both the theory and history of music. It’s a fascinating subject.

Here, I’ll be dealing with some tunes that probably everybody would recognize after the first few notes, but very few people could actually name. For the most part, they were created for very different purposes, and a number of them are only known as small pieces of larger works. For all but two, they became iconic once they wound up in film or television — although it could be argued that the pop culture of the pre-mass media world did the same for the other two.

I encourage you to at least sample the linked videos so you can hear what I’m talking about, although most of the “Why you know it” sections will probably make the tunes play in your head automatically.

And-a 1, and-a 2, and-a 1, 2, 3, 4…

1.   Marche funèbre d’une marionnette

Funeral March of a Marionette, 1872, by Charles Guonod

Why you know it: Alfred Hitchcock. He mentioned loving the piece on a BBC Radio show called Desert Island Discs, in 1959. The show was basically one of those “If you could only take X things with you” question formats with celebrities, with the subject being eight pieces of music, a book, and a luxury item. This was one of Hitch’s eight pieces — probably not a surprise at the time, since he had already chosen it as the theme song for his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which debuted in 1955.

How he stumbled across it is anyone’s guess, but it had already been used in a few films very early on, including Sunrise, Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus, and Buster Keaton’s Welcome Danger, all before 1929. Here’s the section from the opening of Hitchcock’s show.

Its original intent: Most likely, Guonod was aiming for a cross between macabre and whimsical. After all, this is a funeral cortege for a “dead” inanimate object, and the score itself plus a change to a D Major near the middle tells us that the “mourners” do stop for what is basically a buffet along the way. In other words, serious, not serious.

How it’s used: To create a general atmosphere of the macabre or sinister, leaving out any bit of whimsy or joy from the original.

Why you don’t know all of it: Hitchcock uses a tiny snippet. The whole piece is about four minutes — way too long for TV credits.

2. Vjezd gladiátorů

Entry of the Gladiators, 1897, by Julius Fučík

Why you know it: Ever been to the circus? You can’t hear this tune without seeing that parade of elephants and lions and clowns, all led by the ringmaster down the street and to the big top.

Its original intent: Pretty much the same as now. It’s from a genre of music called “screamer.” These were marches used in order to pump up a crowd, quite often at events like circuses or state fairs, and frequently right before the entrance of the main act or the famous clowns. What makes them notable is that they focus on the heavy brass in the band instead of the lighter woodwinds, and they are at a tempo that is actually too fast to march at comfortably. If you’ve ever been at any kind of performance that’s used pre-show music, then you’ve experienced this concept, although probably with a much different genre of music. Comedy clubs and live TV “tapings” (they really still use that word) use the same trick — fast-paced, upbeat music right before things start in order to get the audience in the mood.

How it’s used: As originally intended. It’s just that this particular piece happened to win out over all of the other screamers from the era. Oh — and don’t let the title fool you. Fučík never intended it to have anything to do with gladiators, either. He just had a jones for the glory that was Rome.

Why you don’t know all of it: Again, it’s short, and you may have heard the whole thing, but you only remember the hook. Bonus points — it was lifted by Three Dog Night. (God, the 70s didn’t age well.)

3.   O Fortuna!

AKA Oh Fortune, Empress of the World, from Carmina Burana, 1936, by Carl Orff

Why you know it: It’s been used as the soundtrack for countless films and movie trailers since forever. Here it is in Excalibur.

Its original intent: Somebody found a bunch of poetry written by 13th century monks, originally assumed to be from Beuren, but later determined to have actually been created in Austria. Oops! The title stuck, though. Carmina Burana means “songs of Beuren.” Written in a mix of Latin, German, and French of the era, they were not religious songs at all, but, in fact, were rather secular and earthy. Probably not surprising, though, considering that the authors were probably young men only just realizing what they had given up when they chose the monastic life. So, yeah… Orff didn’t start out with high art at all. The raunch is just hidden in the age of the language. Kind of like Shakespeare.

A great and probably honest description of the source comes from an NPR story on its history: “Carmina Burana,” Music of Monks and Drunks. Yeah, like I said, college kids. By the time it got around to Orff, though, he intended it as a pretty serious cantata, to be presented with dance and masks and all kinds of stage craft. After all, he titled it a “scenic cantata,” meaning that it would have scenes and scenery and stuff.

How it’s used: This is the “Shit’s about to get real” theme. Or, when used as satire, it means “Much ado about nothing.”

What you don’t know: It’s the opening and closing of the aforementioned song cycle, but none of the rest of it ever reaches this level of brilliant. I mean, the first four bars of O Fortuna are in a 3/1 time signature. Musicians will instantly get how balls to the wall that choice was. And while all that stuff between the beginning and ending isn’t well known, at least it’s good — unlike our next piece.

4.   Also sprach Zarathustra

Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896, by Richard Strauss.

Why you know it: Stanley Kubrick.

Come on, really. If this isn’t the first movie you think of when you hear this song, you need to get out more. But even if you haven’t seen it, you do know the tune. Kubrick used it three times in the movie — under the opening credits, right before the most epic time span in a jump-cut in movies ever (hundreds of thousands of years, if not a million or two), and at the end as Bowman is… let’s just say, given a jumpstart in evolution.

Its original intent: Strauss was writing a tone poem based on a treatise by Friedrich Nietzsche of the same title, and probably most well-known for the statement “God is dead,” which appears as a question in the prologue and a statement in part two. It was this work that Strauss was trying to capture musically, although he proved that philosophical works probably don’t make the best source for emotionally moving art.

How it’s used: Whenever someone wants to parody or reference 2001: A Space Odyssey or indicate something profoundly epic is happening.

What you don’t know: Similar to Orff, this piece is the beginning and ending of a long song cycle. The difference is that while O Fortuna serves as the cookies outside of an Oreo, Also is just the bread on a shit sandwich. I’ve listened to the whole thing and, trust me, it’s less exciting than watching paint dry. There’s a reason that Johann “The Waltz King” is the better known Strauss, although he and Richard were not related. But Johann did get a piece in 2001 as well.

5.   Treulich gefürht

The Bridal Chorus, from Lohengrin, 1850, Richard Wagner

Why you know it: Come on. You’ve been to some weddings in your life, whether as guest, part of the wedding party, part of the family, or one of the two co-stars. This tune is now known as Here Comes the Bride, and it’s inspired more happy tears than have ever been cried by all of the fans of all the winning teams of every big sports ball championship final match ever.

Its original intent: Again, pretty much as we know it, except for the sole purpose of providing a dramatic, suspenseful, and emotional entrance for a wedding scene in an opera. It wasn’t written to be used in weddings at all. But you know how people are. It only took one socialite at the opera to announce, “Mother, we are using this song when I get married, and that’s it.” Boom. The rest is history.

How it’s used: Whether literally or ironically, it says “someone is about to get married.” It is most always played as the bride enters the wedding venue.

What you don’t know: Probably most of the rest of that opera, Lohengrin. And you probably don’t also realize the irony of weddings often using this song as an entrance and Felix Mendelssohn’s Wedding March as an exit — which is, sadly, not called There Goes the Bride. Why? Well, Richard had no love for Felix because Mendelssohn was Jewish and Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite. In fact, whenever the latter had to conduct the music of the former, he would wear gloves so that he didn’t have to come into contact with the score, and then throw the gloves away when he was done. Yes — Wagner was talented, but he was a jerk-ass.

What are your favorite “Songs everyone knows without knowing the source?” Tell us in the comments!

Image by Grzegorz Dymon, used unchanged under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

5 things space exploration brought back down to Earth

Previously, I wrote about how a thing as terrible as World War I still gave us some actual benefits, like improvements in plastic surgery, along with influencing art in the 20th century. Now, I’d like to cover something much more positive: five of the tangible, down-to-earth benefits that NASA’s space programs, including the Apollo program to the Moon, have given us.

I’m doing so because I happened across another one of those ignorant comments on the internet along the lines of, “What did going to the Moon ever really get us except a couple of bags of rocks?” That’s kind of like asking, “What did Columbus sailing to America ever really get us?” The answer to that should be obvious, although NASA did it with a lot fewer deaths and exactly zero genocide.

All of those Apollo-era deaths came with the first manned attempt, Apollo 1, which was destroyed by a cabin fire a month before its actual launch date during a test on the pad on January 27, 1967, killing all three astronauts aboard. As a consequence, missions 2 through 6 were unmanned. Apollo 7 tested docking maneuvers for the Apollo Crew and Service Modules, to see if this crucial step would work, and Apollo 8 was the first to achieve lunar orbit, circling our satellite ten times before returning to Earth. Apollo 9 tested the crucial Lunar Module, responsible for getting the first humans onto and off of the Moon, and Apollo 10 was a “dress rehearsal,” which went through all of the steps except the actual landing.

Apollo 11, of course, was the famous “one small step” mission, and after that we only flew six more times to the Moon, all of them meant to do the same as 11, but only the other one that’s most people remember, Apollo 13, is famous for failing to make it there.

I think the most remarkable part is that we managed to land on the Moon only two-and-a-half years after that disastrous first effort, and then carried out five successful missions in the three-and-a-half-years after that. What’s probably less well-known is that three more missions were cancelled between Apollo 13 and 14, but still with the higher numbers 18 through 20 because their original launch dates were not until about two years later.

Yes, why they just didn’t skip from to 17 so that the numbering worked out to 20 is a mystery.

Anyway, the point is that getting to the Moon involved a lot of really intelligent people solving a lot of tricky problems in a very short time, and as a result of it, a ton of beneficial tech came out of it. Some of this fed into or came from Apollo directly, while other tech was created or refined in successive programs, like Skylab, and  the Space Shuttle.

Here are my five favorites out of the over 6,300 technologies that NASA made great advances in on our journeys off of our home planet.

CAT scanner: Not actually an invention of NASA’s per se — that credit goes to British physicists Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Cormack. However, the device did use NASA’s digital imaging technology in order to work, and this had been developed by JPL for NASA in order to enhance images taken on the moon. Since neither CAT scanners nor MRIs use visible light to capture images, the data they collect needs to be processed somehow and this is where digital imaging comes in.

A CAT scanner basically uses a revolving X-ray tube to repeatedly circle the patient and create a profile of data taken at various depths and angles, and this is what the computer puts together. The MRI is far safer (as long as you don’t get metal too close to it.)

This is because instead of X-rays an MRI machine works by using a magnetic field to cause the protons in every water molecule in your body to align, then pulsing a radio frequency through, which unbalances the proton alignment. When the radio frequency is then turned off, the protons realign. The detectors sense how long it takes protons in various places to do this, which tells them what kind of tissue they’re in. Once again, that old NASA technology takes all of this data and turns it into images that can be understood by looking at them. Pretty nifty, huh?

Invisible braces: You may remember this iconic moment from Star Trek IV: The One with the Whales, in which Scotty shares the secret of “transparent aluminum” with humans of 1986.

However, NASA actually developed transparent polycrystalline alumina long before that film came out and, although TPA is not a metal, but a ceramic, it contributed to advances in creating nearly invisible braces. (Note that modern invisible braces, like Invisalign, are not made of ceramic.)

But the important point to note is that NASA managed to take a normally opaque substance and allow it to transmit light while still maintaining its properties. And why did NASA need transparent ceramic? Easy. That stuff is really heat-resistant, and if you have sensors that need to see light while you’re dumping a spacecraft back into the atmosphere, well, there you go. Un-melting windows and antennae, and so on. This was also a spin-off of heat-seeking missile technology.

Joystick: You can be forgiven for thinking that computer joysticks were invented in the early 1980s by ATARI or (if you really know your gaming history) by ATARI in the early 1970s. The first home video game, Pong, was actually created in 1958, but the humble joystick itself goes back to as far as aviation does, since that’s been the term for the controller on airplanes since before World War I. Why is it called a “joystick?” We really don’t know, despite attempts at creating folk etymology after the fact.

However, those early joysticks were strictly analogue — they were connected mechanically to the flaps and rudders that they controlled. The first big innovation came thirty-two years before Pong, when joysticks went electric. Patented in 1926, it was dreamt up by C. B. Mirick at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Its purpose was also controlling airplanes.

So this is yet another incidence of something that NASA didn’t invent, but boy howdy did they improv upon it — an absolute necessity when you think about it. For NASA, joysticks were used to land craft on the Moon and dock them with each other in orbit, so precision was absolutely necessary, especially when trying to touch down on a rocky satellite after descending through no atmosphere at orbital speed, which can be in the vicinity of 2,300 mph (about 3,700 km/h) at around a hundred kilometers up. They aren’t much to look at by modern design standards, but one of them sold at auction a few years back for over half a million dollars.

It gets even trickier when you need to dock two craft moving at similar speed, and in the modern day, we’re doing it in Earth orbit. The International Space Station is zipping along at a brisk 17,150 mph, or 27,600 km/h. That’s fast.

The early NASA innovations involved adding rotational control in addition to the usual X and Y axes, and later on they went digital and all kinds of crazy in refining the devices to have lots of buttons and be more like the controllers we know and love today. So next time you’re shredding it your favorite PC or Xbox game with your $160 Razer Wolverine Ultimate Chroma Controller, thank the rocket scientists at NASA. Sure, it doesn’t have a joystick in the traditional sense, but this is the future that space built, so we don’t need one!

Smoke detector: This is another device that NASA didn’t invent, but which they certainly refined and improved. While their predecessors, automatic fire alarms, date back to the 19th century, the first model relied on heat detection only. The problem with this, though, is that you don’t get heat until the fire is already burning, and the main cause of death in house fires isn’t the flames. It’s smoke inhalation. The version patented by George Andrew Darby in England in the 1890s did account for some smoke, but it wasn’t until the 1930s the concept of using ionization to detect smoke happened. Still, these devices were incredibly expensive, so only really available to corporations and governments. But isn’t that how all technological progress goes?

It wasn’t until NASA teamed with Honeywell (a common partner) in the 1970s that they managed to bring down the size and cost of these devices, as well as make them battery-operated. More recent experiments on ISS have helped scientists to figure out how to refine the sensitivity of smoke detectors, so that it doesn’t go off when your teenage boy goes crazy with the AXE body spray or when there’s a little fat-splash back into the metal roaster from the meat you’re cooking in the oven. Both are annoying, but at least the latter does have a positive outcome.

Water filter: Although it turns out that water is common in space, with comets being lousy with the stuff in the form of ice, and water-ice confirmed on the Moon and subsurface liquid water on Mars, as well as countless other places, we don’t have easy access to it, so until we establish water mining operations off-Earth, we need to bring it with us. Here’s the trick, though: water is heavy. A liter weighs a kilogram and a gallon weighs a little over eight pounds. There’s really no valid recommendation on how much water a person should drink in a day, but if we allow for two liters per day per person, with a seven person crew on the ISS, that’s fourteen kilos, or 31 pounds of extra weight per day. At current SpaceX launch rates, that can range from $23,000 to $38,000 per daily supply of water, but given a realistic launch schedule of every six weeks, that works out to around $1 to $1.5 million per launch just for the water. That six-week supply is also eating up 588 kilos of payload.

And remember: This is just for a station that’s in Earth orbit. For longer missions, the cost of getting water to them is going to get ridiculously expensive fast — and remember, too, that SpaceX costs are relatively recent. In 1981, the cost per kilogram was $85,216, although the Space Shuttles cargo capacity was slightly more than the Falcon Light.

So what’s the solution? Originally, it was just making sure all of the water was purified, leading to the Microbial Check Valve, which eventually filtered out (pun intended) to municipal water systems and dental offices. But to really solve the water problem, NASA is moving to recycling everything. And why not? Our bodies tend to excrete a lot of the water we drink when we’re done with it. Although it’s a myth that urine is sterile, it is possible to purify it to reclaim the water in it, and NASA has done just that. However, they really shouldn’t use the method shown in the satirical WW II film Catch-22

So it’s absolutely not true that the space program has given us nothing, and this list of five items barely scratches the surface. Once what we learn up there comes back down to Earth, it can improve all of our lives, from people living in the poorest remote villages on the planet to those living in splendor in the richest cities.

If you don’t believe that, here’s a question. How many articles of clothing that are NASA spin-offs are you wearing now, or do you wear on a regular basis? You’d be surprised.

How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television

Pardon meme, but…

The internet is full of images with text on them, but all such images are not created equal. Some memes are image macros, but not all image macros are memes and not all memes came from the internet. Want to stand out from the crowd? Know the difference.

Meme: noun

  1. a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.

If you’ve spent any time at all on the internet — which you obviously do if you’re here — then you’ve run across plenty of pictures with text on them. Facebook timelines and every discussion board around is full of them, and they frequently serve as a shorthand or pre-made response to a topic or idea.

In the image above, one of these things is not like the others. Three are memes and one isn’t. Can you tell the difference? I’ll get back to it after a bit so you have time to make your guess. But for comparison’s sake, here’s an image that contains four genuine memes:

MemeStrip

Notice anything they all have in common? I chose four slightly older and well-known memes specifically to increase everyone’s chances of having run across them by now. Chances are you can probably associate a name with two or three of them — possibly all four if you’ve been online a lot, like I have.

From left to right, these images have become known as “Ermahgerd Girl,” “Scumbag Steve,” “Success Kid,” and “Grumpy Cat.” The latter two proved to be particularly lucrative for their originators, with “Grumpy Cat” parlaying media appearances and merchandising into a million dollar business. Meanwhile, the “Success Kid” image has been licensed out to companies like Vitamin Water and Virgin Mobile UK, but its ultimate success was raising over $100,000 to finance a kidney transplant for the father of the infant in the image.

You’ve probably seen each of these images with dozens of different captions. It’s not the wording that matters, really — it’s the recognizability of the picture and what it represents. Ermahgerd Girl is a nerdy expression of enthusiasm over something. Scumbag Steve is usually a set-up and punchline about that one guy who manages to be a douche to everyone. Success Kid and Grumpy Cat represent exactly what they sound like.

Of course, there are some memes that are a specific image macro — the same image and the same text always appear together — although you probably recognize both the copy and the picture in this one.

not how this works

This was taken from an esurance commercial, in which a character called Beatrice tries to bring Facebook into the real world by taping her vacation photos to her living room wall. As a meme, it’s usually used to point out that someone has made a dubious statement about science.

Now, back to the original question. Of the four images at the top, which one do you think is not a meme? If you guessed the bottom right, “We’re vegan…” you’d be correct. It’s merely an image macro, combining what is probably a stock shot with some copy, but it’s nowhere near widespread enough to have achieved true meme status.

Here’s another example of an image macro that is not a meme — and which is rather meta about that:

Meme Not a Meme

If you ever want to find out whether something is a meme or a macro or to learn the often fascinating history of a particular meme, there are some great resources out there, but Know Your Meme is probably the most extensive collection. They frequently will have an entry for a new meme within hours of its first appearance. And if you’d like to visit a place where memes roam free and are frequently born, start with web-aggregator Reddit.

The secret to something being a meme is that it is generally known and understood on site across a wide swath of the population, although there can definitely be separate memescapes with their own subsets. For example, memes from anime or gaming may be very well known in one internet population but completely meaningless to another. Newer memes may be unknown to older users and vice versa.

Finally, as I said at the beginning, not all memes come from the internet, although most of them live there now. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” has been with us for close to 80 years. “Elementary, my dear Watson” and the image of Sherlock Holmes himself still endure — although the original character never used that famous phrase.

Some memes are even more ancient. Ever hear of Oedipus Rex? It’s a name that brings exactly one thing to mind. And that is the essence of what a meme is: a cultural shorthand widely understood within a group or subgroup that carries a lot of semantic meaning in very few images or words. Of course, I couldn’t end without sharing the most meta image macro of all that fits here perfectly using yet another meme picture known as “Good Guy Greg.”

Meme Final image

Although now you should know the difference between the two.

 

Sunday Nibble #22: Summer camping — sort of

Recently, Amazon Prime recommended something called The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, which aired on ABC in 1976, and it is… beyond surreal.

Basically, it was a make-good on a contract with ABC after two star-vehicles created for him failed. These were The Paul Lynde Show and Temperatures Rising, although in the case of the latter Lynde was brought in to replace the original lead, James Whitmore, of a failing series — never a good sign — and it was rechristened The New Temperatures Rising Show.

It’s no secret now — hell, it wasn’t even really a secret then except to Middle American audiences — that Lynde was as gay as Christmas on Fire Island. He hardly did anything to hide it, and even when he was supposed to be playing straight, married men he would camp it the hell up.

Somehow, he endeared himself to audiences, though, particularly as the put-upon father in the film version of Bye-Bye Birdie, and especially as the extremely flamboyant Uncle Arthur in the TV series Bewitched.

He sealed the deal when he became center square on The Hollywood Squares beginning in 1968 — and all of his best answers were so campy and over-the-top that someone had to be absolutely blind to not figure out how gay he really was.

Although, who knows? Maybe it was the idea that he was the wacky bachelor uncle who was too funny to have sex, so he was “safe.” Although if you look at a lot of his answers on Hollywood Squares, it’s hard to really believe that.

I mean, come on. He’s not even trying to hide it — and these are just six minutes out of hours of stuff.

By the way, the audience’s reaction and Paul’s response to the last question, at about 5:34, says it all. At least in some circles, they knew, and he didn’t even try to hide it.

This brings us to his Halloween Special, which is a bizarre combination of over-the-top camp combined with Lynde, playing himself, continually being cast in scenarios where he’s basically competing for female attention.

By the way, one of the principal writers on the special was Bruce Vilanch. If you don’t know who he is, the short version is that he is one of the funniest writers in Hollywood who has put humorous words into the mouths of everyone, since forever.

He punched up the jokes for the Oscars for years, and was the subject of the 1999 documentary Get Bruce! He also used to be the head writer for… The Hollywood Squares, and he was also loudly and proudly gay, although behind the scenes.

So we wind up with this bizarre mish-mash in which Paul Lynde is whisked away by his maid (Margaret Hamilton) to visit her sister (Billie Hayes). This is when he discovers that they are both witches, which is somewhat meta because the two of them played, respectively, The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and Witchiepoo in the 1960s TV series H.R. Pufnstuf. They resurrect those characters here, and at least one of them is a gay camp icon.

The rest of the special involves the witches granting Lynde wishes, and in the first two he wishes to be a trucker and then a Sheikh — the first to seduce a diner waitress (Roz Kelly) and the second to seduce proper British Lady Cecily Westinghouse (Florence Henderson). He gives the witches the last wish, and they decide to go to a disco.

Along the way, the band KISS shows up and performs a few numbers.

If ABC wonders why they couldn’t get shows with Lynde to take off, this is a prime example. He was a fixture on Hollywood Squares for years. His Halloween special was never even re-run until the days of streaming.

If you have the slightest clue about Lynde’s private life, every single instance of him trying to seduce a woman here comes across as either cringingly inauthentic or, less charitably, as acts of hidden misogyny — we’re going to play the “girls are icky” game, but from a macho position.

Hm. Camp gay man portraying toxic masculinity? How very 1970s of them.

The other thing that really stood out for me, though, was how absolutely fucking boring and corporate KISS were. Now, I was never even familiar with their music, having been lucky enough to have avoided exposure to it in its heyday, but I had heard things from older cousins about how Satanic and evil and scary they were, or whatever.

I do remember some brouhaha when they ditched the costumes and make-up in the 1980s, but in watching them in this special now, my main impression was that they didn’t look scary or evil or anything like that. They just looked ridiculous.

This was what happened when somebody threw some 50 year-old brand manager a stack of records by Ozzy Osbourne and David Bowie and Alice Cooper, along with concert footage of the same, and said, “Come up with a band like this.”

I know it wasn’t intentional, but while the aim was for ultra-macho and dangerous, what they really managed to create was four young straight guys trying to do drag, but chickening out before the wigs went on.

Maybe that was totally appropriate for this special because, in a way, KISS actually represented exactly what Lynde had been forced into doing by strapping down his sexuality and pretending to play a straight man. The only difference was that he sort of managed to walk out with his dignity somewhat intact because he never actually gave up his personality along the way.

If anything, this special is a nice time-capsule reminder of how much mainstream pop culture in the 1970s sucked royal donkey balls. Oh, that’s probably the case now, as well. We’re just a lot better at design, costumes, hair, and make-up.

You can view the whole special in good quality if you have Amazon Prime, or watch it here, if you must.