Playwrights write down rites just right

An interesting quartet of heterographs in English are the words rite, right, write, and wright. While the latter three are frequently used with prefixes, the first three also stand alone, and the first one is never prefixed. The second of these has multiple meanings in… well… its own right.

I’ll start with the one I don’t need to go into depth on: Rite. This is the word describing any kind of ritualized ceremony, and you can clearly see that “rite” and “ritual” are related. Rites can be either religious or secular in nature, and they sometimes mix. Weddings and funerals can be either or sometimes both, while baptisms and confirmations are strictly religious. Graduations tend to be secular except in religious schools, although the only religious elements then tend to be an opening invocation or prayer and, sometimes, an optional Mass afterwards. The pledge of allegiance and national anthem are both secular rites. It’s a toss-up either way whether initiation ceremonies for certain organizations like the Masons are religious or secular, although most fraternity and sorority initiations are certainly the most secular of rituals.

Of course, if you and a group of friends regularly get together for Game Night, or Game of Thrones Night, or, like me, do Improv, those are also rites by definition, and again of the most secular kind. Note that all theatre is a rite because it’s structured and has its rules and way of doing things. Not surprising, considering that theatre originated as a religious ceremony in the first place and then grew out of it.

Next is the one with multiple meanings: Right. In its first definition, it refers to some action or thing that people are assumed to have the privilege to possess without meeting any special conditions. That is, a right is a thing you can do, a belief you can hold, or a thing you can own. Of course, “without special conditions” is itself a conditional statement, since in most places rights are established via laws or Constitutions. After all, while the American Declaration of Independence says that our unalienable rights include the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, it’s predicated by the statement that it’s a self-evident truth that all men are created equal (emphasis on “men,” naturally), and followed by the idea that governments are created in order to secure these rights.

Note that, at the time, slavery was legal, and in the new country called the United States of America, only white, male, land-owning men over the age of 21 got to vote. No one else needed to apply. So those unalienable rights were relative after all.

Another meaning of the word “right” is the direction — the hand on the gearshift side (if you’re American and drive manual transmission) or the arm on the opposite side of your body from most of your heart (unless you have situs inversus). There’s also the “right hand rule,” which is used in math, physics, and 3D animation, and is basically a way of visualizing how three directional axes move at once. In the 3D animation world, these are X, Y and Z — generally left-right, forward-back, and up-down.

And then there are… well, damn. The dictionary lists 48 different definitions of the word “right,” as adjective, noun, and adverb. I’ll be right back after I read them all…

(See what I did there?)

Okay, are we all right as rain? Good. Let’s move on to the next one. That would be the word write, which is what I’m doing right now (make it stop!). And while this one technically has 17 definitions, they all really boil down to the same thing: to put information into some form that is inscribed onto a surface via abstract characters that represent sounds, syllables, or concepts, whether ink on paper, hieroglyphics on stone, electrons on computer chips, or notes on a musical staff. The act of doing so is the word write as a verb: to write.

The last of the quartet is wright, and he’s a sad little camper because he has only one definition: a worker, especially one that constructs something. He also never appears alone.

Now let’s get to some compounds using the last three and clear up some confusion. For example… you wrote a play. So does that make you:

  1. A playwrite
  2. A playwright

Well, it’s a play and you wrote it, right? Yes, but you also created it, and this is one of the specific uses for… wright. You constructed a play, so you’re a playwright.

Okay, so you’ve written the play and now you want to make sure that everyone knows you own it so they can’t steal it. Time to file it with the Library of Congress. So do you get:

  1. Copywright
  2. Copywrite
  3. Copyright

Hm. Well, you’re a playwright and you don’t want it copied. Oh, wait. Wouldn’t a “copywright” be someone who makes copies? Then maybe… oh yeah. You wrote it, so you’d write the copies, hence you’d copywrite…? Wrong? Of course. Because what this word is really saying is that you have the right to copy the work, since you own it.

Here’s an easy way to remember. When the word “write” is prefixed, it always refers to the style or method of writing, and not really the person. It’s only a person if the word ends with “writer,” but note that “copywrite” is never a verb. You can’t say “I copywrite for XYZ Blog,” but you can say “I’m a copywriter for XYZ Blog.”

As for words that end in “right,” immediately ignore any that actually end in “wright” or in other words that overlap, like “bright,” or “fright.” You’ll find that the few of these that exist really just modify one of the many other meanings of “right.”

And then there’s “wright.” What’s really fascinating about this word is that there are so many occupations, many long forgotten, that not only use this word, but have given names to the English language — and which also remind us of all those other occupational names, and not obvious ones, like Baker.

Playwright I’ve already mentioned. But what would you go to a wainwright for? No… not someone who designs your Batmobile. Although maybe. A wain was a farm wagon or cart, so a wainwright was a cart-maker. And if that cart were going to be a covered wagon, he’d probably need the services of a cooper to make the metal ribs to hold up the canvas. He’d probably also work in close partnership with a wheelwright, who does exactly what you think.

Side note: Ever heard the word “wainscot?” It isn’t related to wagons, but to wood. It’s one of those fun cases of similar sounding words coming from different origins entirely.

Other wrights you might have seen: shipwright and millwright, both of which should be self-evident. And a lot of these wrights would have relied upon the work of smiths, who are people that work with metal. Pretty much it’s a game of “metal+smith” and there’s the occupation. That’s because the word “smith” meant “to hit,” which is what metal works do to form their molten raw materials. Hm. I wonder whether “smith” and “smash” are related.

And then there’s “blacksmith,” which brings up the question, “Hey — why not ironsmith?” The simple answer is that iron used to be called “black metal” because that’s what it looked like in its unoxidized form — ever see iron filings? For similar reasons, tinsmiths are also called whitesmiths. Compare the word “tinker,” who was someone who repaired household utensils, most of which had probably been made by smiths. Or maybe potters.

Another fascinating thing about these occupations is how persistent they become as last names. I mean, there’s Rufus Wainwright, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gary Cooper, Will Smith, Josephine Baker, TV producer Grant Tinker, the fictional Harry Potter and the very real creator of the fictional Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter.

But the real point here, as always, is how four words that sound exactly alike but which are spelled so differently and have such different meanings managed to land in the language through very different routes, because that is what makes English so interesting, versatile, and difficult. I’d probably be right to say that it’s a rite of passage for everyone who’s trying to learn how to write English to mess this stuff up until they meet a wordwright to help them. I hope that I can fulfill that occupation and set things right.

Good night!

Sunday Nibble #32: Can you trust your senses?

A little over five years ago, in much more innocent and less apocalyptic times, the biggest controversy on the internet was this simple question: What color is this dress? This single question caused bigger rifts than the presidential election would in the following year, with only two camps: White and Gold vs. Black and Blue.

Of course, the idea of optical illusions are not new, and some of them can be truly brain-breaking. But the dress illusion really depended on outside factors, like someone’s monitor settings and interior lighting, plain and simple.

But the question today is “Can you trust your ears?” and the boys at ASAP science asked that question almost a year before the whole dress kerfuffle happened. Here’s their video on the subject, and the fascinating part if how much what you see affects what you hear, and vice versa. Enjoy!

The Saturday Morning Post #30: The Rêves, Part 8

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Bette’s Bunch

Rather than congregate in one of the bigger and more popular cemeteries closer to Hollywood, the eight of them had come together in a small cemetery in Chatsworth, at what Bette immediately referred to as “The steaming ass-end of the Valley.”

They had chosen the location because it didn’t get a lot of visitors, didn’t really have anyone famous buried there, but did have a large mausoleum with an interior space where they could gather undisturbed.

They were all Class II, and rather prominent ones — besides Bette Davis, the gathering included Humphrey Bogart, Clara Bow, W.C. Fields, Marilyn Monroe, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Stewart, and Rudolph Valentino.

Truth to tell, it was like a gathering of a bad Hollywood mural, or the poster art at any of the dozens of tourist trap shops on the Boulevard. What made it worse, of course, was that each of them looked and acted exactly like their most well-known public personas.

Ausmann had been onto something. The Rêves — well, the entities, because he didn’t know how they referred to themselves — were not the ghosts of the famous. They were manifestations of the memories of the living but had somehow become autonomous, sentient, and self-aware.

There were those only remembered by their friends and families, and they clung most strongly to who they really were, especially if those friends and families had a long tradition of passing down lore and memories of their ancestors.

There were also celebrities who had died more recently, so they still had a large number of people who knew them in real life, meaning they tended to alternate between their public and private personae, but were able to do it consciously.

As for the ones too long gone to really be in the living memory of very many people if any, they only showed up as the most famous roles they played. They were also the ones most strongly leaking into the living world of late.

As they entered the crypt, Bette couldn’t help but exclaim, “What a dump!” Meanwhile, Marilyn oohed and cooed at all the fixtures, white dress flapping up in a non-existent breeze. Ginger Rogers, elegant in her own white dress that stayed down at her ankles, twirled and tapped her way across the marble floor.

“Nothing like tapping on marble,” she exclaimed before capping it all with four really fast right buffalos and a flourish.

“Nice job, sister,” Humphrey Bogart said, tipping his fedora to her.

W.C. Fields, wearing his famous outfit from Poppy, complete with top hat, surveyed the place and remarked, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

Jimmy Stewart, looking as earnest as possible, surveyed the room and stuttered his way through, “Drafty old barn of a place. Wonder we don’t all catch pneumonia.”

This left Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino to have an animated conversation with each other, faces very expressive, but despite their mouths moving, all that came out was silence.

“All right,” Bette finally exclaimed. “Anybody have any brilliant ideas, or do I have to come up with everything myself as usual?”

“I don’t know why we’re so upset,” Marilyn exclaimed breathily. “I mean, it’s not like this Anabel person was really in charge of any of us, right? I mean, she was a nobody.”

“Some nobodies are real somebodies, sweetheart,” Bogart replied. “Depends all on whom you ask. And if you don’t ask the right people, you go home in a body bag.”

“Ah, Anabel,” W.C. exclaimed. “Anabel, sweet Anabel. It’s a name that trips right off the tongue. My dear sainted grandmother was named Anabel. So sad that she died in that brewery accident. Beer all over her antimacassar.”

“So, so, so, let’s look at, at what we do know, then,” Jimmy said. “Somebody came and just took, took Anabel. We don’t know who, don’t know who, and so, so, she’s — ”

“Jimmy, honey, I loved you in It’s a Wonderful Life,” Bette snapped, “But can we maybe go Rear Window and get on with it?”

“Right,” he replied, suddenly seeming way more serious. “What we have to wonder is who would have taken her and why? What were they expecting to get out of it?”

Clara jumped forward with an eager opinion as Bette just gave her the side-eye before spitting out, “Nobody can hear a word you’re saying, bitch. And can you try to do something besides the black and white?”

Clara glared at her then looked to Valentino, who pointed to Jimmy, nodding frantically. Since he was dressed as The Sheikh, he had a velvet bag at his side. He took it off his belt, opened it, and poured gold coins onto the floor, although, being insubstantial, they hit and vanished without a sound.

“Money,” Ginger gasped.

“Yeah, but I didn’t see no ransom note, and that’s usually what happens in these situations,” Bogart explained. “You’d especially think so with a dame like Anabel.”

“Why do you act like she’s so goddamn important?” Bette suddenly shouted. “She’s not one of us, clearly.”

“A lot of us seem to think she is,” Ginger replied.

“No. A lot of little people act like she is. “But what do you think they’re going to do about it?”

“The little people are my biggest fans,” Marilyn cooed. “I love them.”

“So are we going to go rescue this dear Anabel or not?” W.C. drawled. “If so, I volunteer!”

“We don’t even know who took her,” Jimmy replied.

Clara started giving some impassioned speech but, again, without sound. Bette stared at her, looking to the others to express her disapproval, then finally said, “How the hell did they ever get your legs close enough together to put you in the coffin, you little whore?”

Clara visibly gasped, eyes going wide, but Valentino held her back. “Oh, right, like you’re going to protect her, you queer wop,” Bette spat.

“Do you have anyone besides Margo Channing you want to pull out of your bag of cheap tricks?” Jimmy asked her.

“Why?” Bette replied. “Margo gets shit done.”

“Does she?” Bogart said.

“I got this meeting together, didn’t I?” Bette spat back at him.

“And it’s accomplished about as much as a weather vane in the basement,” W.C. opined.

“Who asked you, you fucking lush?” Bette said.

“I believe your statement was a question, you harridan,” W.C. replied. “You did not limit the choice of respondents.”

“So then what do we do?” Ginger asked.

“If this Anabel is so important, then I think we need to go find her,” Marilyn stated confidently.

“You kind of need to know where she went first before you can do that, sweetheart,” Bogart drawled.

“So do any of you sons of bitches know where the hell they took her?” Bette shouted, both arms raised at her sides and bent up at the elbow, as if they held two full brandy snifters.

“I didn’t even know who she was before today,” Marilyn gushed.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Bette muttered under her breath.

Just outside of the mausoleum, in a place where they could spy through an upper window while not being observed, Richard and Holden watched the proceedings, and it was all they could do to not laugh their asses off.

They had had no problems at all tracking these celebs to their “secret” meeting because, well, Holden was Class 1, and Richard was one of those mixed cases leaning toward Class 1. Anything that pure Class IIs did leaked out into the Rêve world like crazy, although only the Class 1s noticed.

Holden had also known all of them personally during his life, and he kept giving Richard a running narrative. He had fond memories of Valentino, whom he’d fucked before his film career took off, and admiration for Clara Bow, who really had screwed the entire USC football team. He was less kind to Bette, loved W.C., admired Bogart, and regretted that Jimmy didn’t have a gay bone in his body.

Of course he was totally into Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe, the former more than the latter, though, as he quoted the oft-mentioned canard: She did everything that Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.

Really, Ginger had been an early feminist icon. She just never knew it.

But the more they listened to the meeting, the less they worried. Being mere shadows of the public images of themselves, it was doubtful that any of them would ever come up with any meaningful plan, much less figure out where Anabel was, who had taken her, or why.

Not that the Board and the Class 1s had done much better — but at least they didn’t have to worry about this little cabal. Or, as Holden quickly described it, “Bitchy Bette’s fucking clown show.”

* * *

Brent and Drew

There were really only two areas in their lives that Joshua and Simon considered to be their “oil and water” moments. One was in their respective diets. Each of them considered the other’s preferred food choices to be gross. Still, their love was strong enough that Simon easily forgave Joshua’s love of red meat, and Joshua loved Simon so much that he gave the abomination of pineapple on pizza a pass.

But only for him. Anyone else who tried that shit in his presence could just fuck right off.

The other “oil and water” moment centered on the subject of being a naturist, as in Joshua totally was, while Simon really wasn’t. Still, they managed to make it work, so that Simon would go with Joshua to nude beaches or resorts in Palm Springs or to various other nude meet-ups, and Joshua was free to just let it all hang out while Simon kept his shorts on.

Somewhere during all of that, they’d met Brent and Drew, a richer than fuck older gay couple who lived in the Mount Olympus part of L.A., and who’d taken a liking to the boys in a rather paternal way. They’d known the two a while but, by this point, Drew, the older member of the couple, was 97. Brent, meanwhile, was a spring chicken at 62.

Anyway, they had an amazing house, a really private backyard, and a very deep swimming pool and, during the summers, they’d given Joshua and Simon an open invitation to come swim.

Oh… that was possibly a third point of disagreement between Joshua and Simon. The former wanted to buy a house so they could have a secluded yard with a pool. The latter insisted that it would do too much damage to the carbon footprint. As much as he tried, though, Joshua could never prove Simon wrong on that point — although he was sure that one day that he would, and it would probably involve dogs somehow. Or cats. Whichever.

Anyway, they had “Uncle” Brent and Drew’s place to swim, and it was, finally, the one place where Joshua had convinced Simon to drop trou and just enjoy being nude outside. Well, clearly, Simon was really nervous and hesitant about it, and it didn’t help that one time that Drew had gone total perv and jiggled his dick, which Simon really didn’t appreciate.

But… this time around, Drew probably had valuable information. He had worked in the industry since forever, for one thing. Second, he had compiled gay history during that entire time. Third, well, it would probably involve Simon letting his dick get jiggled again, but Joshua didn’t mention that part.

They drove up Laurel Canyon, turned left on one of the streets named Doña something, and then wound up in Mount Olympus, the most pretentiously named development in the entire city, entered the gate code at the bottom of a steep driveway, then drove on up to park in front of a Mid-Century Modern pile of steel and glass that had a commanding view of Los Angeles.

Brent was standing in the doorway in a silk dressing gown that barely covered anything, sipping his coffee, and he shouted, “Hello!” as they approached, giving each of them a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

Neither Brent nor Drew were related to Joshua or Simon, although the older men insisted on calling themselves the younger men’s gay aunties. Brent escorted them into the house calling out loudly, “Drew, the boys are here!” before leading them on into the backyard.

It was a rarity for most of Mount Olympus to have a backyard since so much of the place was built on top of mountain ridges. If you’ve ever seen photos of those infamous L.A. homes that stick out from the side of mountains and are supported on stilts, this was one of about three neighborhoods that had them.

Of course, what people don’t realize is that those stilts aren’t really what’s holding the house up. Instead, they’re supported by huge steel beams that go back into the mountain and are usually at least twice as long as the whole house is deep. The dangling bit is all illusion.

But Brent and Drew’s place not only had a huge yard, it was surrounded by high walls, part of the mountain, and lots of tall trees, so it was basically completely secluded. The centerpiece was a huge pool that was ten feet at its deepest — unusual in itself, since most suburban built-in pools in the city maxed out at seven or eight feet.

That was probably because it had originally come with a diving board, but extra homeowner’s insurance costs had led to the removal of most all of those years ago.

“Soda? Beer? Wine? Tea?” Brent offered.

“Water, please,” Joshua and Simon said in unision.

“Well look at you good little boys,” Brent smiled at them, adding, “Get comfortable, get wet,” before going inside.

To outsiders, it might have looked creepy. After all, Brent was more than twenty years older than either of them while Drew was actually twenty years older than twice their ages. But nothing untoward had ever happened except for that one time that Drew had grabbed Simon’s dick, but that was very early on, Joshua had mentioned it to Brent because he knew how much it had creeped Simon out, and it never happened again.

So as Brent went in, Joshua put his towel down on a deck chair and was naked and in the water in about thirty seconds flat. Simon was always more deliberate about it — he carefully folded everything and placed it on a second lounge chair — so Joshua had already done a couple of laps by the time Simon dove in.

“We should really buy a house with a pool,” Joshua told Simon.

“Do you have any idea how much bigger the carbon footprint of a house is?” Simon replied.

“Not if you go completely self-sufficient,” Joshua reminded him. “All solar, sell power back to the grid, recycle everything, grow your own vegetables, 3D print things you need — ”

“Which takes plastic,” Simon said.

“They have a new kind of material that isn’t plastic and it composts,” Joshua answered. “Besides, we could have dogs if we had a house.”

It was a conversation they’d had a dozen times, although Joshua hoped to win the argument one day. Meanwhile, they swam to the side of the pool in the deep end and hung on the wall, enjoying the sun and the cool water.

That was when Drew wandered out, wearing a very bright Hawaiian shirt, blue shorts, and a huge floppy sun hat. Brent insisted on the hat because Drew was completely bald now and had several adventures with melanoma.

Still, he wasn’t doing bad for being 97, and other than a little hearing loss, he was sharp as a tack and virtually a walking encyclopedia. He had worked in the entertainment business for almost his entire life, starting when he was eight years old as a comedic tumbler with his uncle’s comedy act in a Burlesque show in Hollywood.

He had told them once, “Vaudeville was all about the comedy and music, but of course Burlesque was all about the tits and ass. Every show would be two comics and six strippers — they called them ‘coochie dancers,’ and that referred to exactly what you think it did.”

He’d actually worked with some really famous people at the time — this was the early 1930s — and it had been an eye-opening experience. “Back stage, it was nothing but knockers and twats all over the place, and that’s why I realized I was gay at that age. Because none of it did anything for me.”

“So Brent said you had some questions for me about some porn star,” Drew said.

“We do!” Simon called out as the two of them swam to the shallow end and stood facing the wall next to where Drew had taken a seat on a deck chair. In addition to everything he knew about all aspects of entertainment in Los Angeles in the 20th century, Drew had also always been a connoisseur of everything having to do with gay porn.

There was an entire addition to the house, as a matter of fact, that housed his extensive collection of magazines, films, videos, DVDs, clippings, photos, and memorabilia documenting absolutely everything. He had often threatened to write a book or two on the subject, but never did, although professional historians did from time-to-time come to take advantage of his archive.

So yes, Drew knew porn stars.

“What do you know about Preston LeCard?” Joshua asked.

“First, I didn’t know he was a porn star,” Drew replied.

“Why do you say that?” Simon asked.

“Because I knew him. We were born the same year, went to school together up through high school.”

“Wait… you knew Preston LeCard?” Joshua said, incredulous. “The one whose mother was Anabel?”

“Well, that was her name, but she died when he was born. I think that fucked him in the head a little. Probably always felt guilty about it. But no, he never did porn of any kind. Anyway, he was straight as a bone.”

“I think we’re talking about a different Preston,” Simon explained. “This one died about three years ago, when he was twenty-three.”

“AIDS?” Drew asked.

“Corona,” Joshua replied.

“Hm. Any other names?” Drew asked.

“Not that we know of, no,” Joshua said. “Hang on.” He got out of the pool and grabbed his phone, scrolling through it. Simon noticed where Drew’s eyes were pointed, and he kind of envied Joshua’s ability to just be so casual about being nude around other people. He was still trying to get used to it.

Joshua found something and brought his phone to Drew, showing him something. Drew held it at full arm’s length and looked, then tapped to zoom.

“Ah. This one looks familiar. Come up to the archive. I think I can help you.”

They headed upstairs. Simon grabbed his towel and wrapped it around his waist. Joshua did not.

Upstairs felt like a combination of a shrine and a library, carpeted in a thick burgundy plush that helped lend the silence of Importance to the room. Photos on the walls documented the state of the art of gay erotica from almost the beginning of photography up to the present day, and it was easy to see the dividing line in the late 1960s, when suddenly the posing straps or strategically placed hands went away and cocks were liberated in art.

The next dividing line came in the early 1990s, when all the bushes and body hair started going away, although this seemed like the next logical step that had started with the porn staches vanishing in the early 1980s and the mullets and big hair going away by the late 1980s.

Joshua remembered hearing a rumor that a massive outbreak of crabs in West Hollywood, San Francisco, and New York in 1992 was what ultimately led to everyone shaving and waxing everything, and then it stuck. It was still a thing just over thirty years later, although neither Simon nor Joshua were fans of it.

Meanwhile, Drew had taken position at his computer work station in the archive, and it was just another reason that Joshua admired him so much. Simon did too, reluctantly, but it was still going to take him a long time to get over that one dick-grab. Drew was clearly very conversant with computers.

Joshua had figured that out the first time he looked at his desktop to see that it wasn’t cluttered with five hundred icons and fifteen toolbars. The second impressive thing was that Drew had created an insane Excel workbook to track his collection, and he said that he had programmed everything himself.

But first, he had Joshua read off the URL of the video he’d found on his phone and entered it on his computer, then took down a few details. The actor was definitely credited under the name Preston LeCard.

“But you don’t know him?” Simon asked.

“I’ve been a little lax on updating the last few years, and since his career couldn’t have legally started before… 2015, I probably missed him.”

“Didn’t stop Brent Corrigan,” Joshua muttered.

“True. It doesn’t stop any of them. Ah, but… that might be the way in. Hang on.”

Drew got up and went to a locked cabinet, opened it and pulled out a DVD. He brought it over and put it into the computer where it booted up its own software apparently, with a main screen that read “18 U.S.C. § 2251 Database UD 20230415.”

“Why does that look familiar?” Joshua asked.

“Proof of age on file records,” Drew said. “If you want real names of porn stars, this is where to get them.”

“But how did you get that?” Simon asked.

“I have friends in low places,” Drew smiled. He tapped a few keys, searched for Preston LeCard, and the program said “NO RESULTS FOUND.”

“Well, merde,” Drew muttered.

“So… he doesn’t exist, or he wasn’t eighteen?” Joshua asked.

“Or… he only ever filed under a different name in the first place, and the studio just stuck with those records,” Drew said. “Hang on.”

He clicked around and tapped, went back to the original video, then dragged and dropped it into yet another program. This one was called VidViper, and it showed a simple dark green screen with a snake logo. Drew added the words “-Preston –LeCard” into the search field and clicked. A yellow progress bar slowly went from left to right.

“You know, we could really use you on our team,” Joshua said as Simon grabbed his ass and squeezed as if in warning. “What?” Joshua asked him.

“I believe the term is… um… ix-nay?”

“He’d understand that one,” Joshua whispered. “But the judges will accept ‘chill.’”

“Got it. Love you.”

“I know.”

“A-ha!” Drew announced as one result came up on the VidViper screen. “They doxed the kid on his audition film, which was the standard $250 jerk-off session. Since he only ever worked for the same studio, voilà, no need to update the records with his new name.”

“So what’s his name?” Simon asked.

“Patience,” Drew said. I still have to look up the jerk-off name against the official filing.”

“Jerk-off name?” Joshua asked.

“Danny,” Drew said. “Just Danny, but that’s pretty typical.” He went back to the 18 U.S.C. database program, entered the name Danny, the name of the studio, and the title of the video. It searched for a few seconds and then gave one result.

“Interesting,” Drew said. “The video was posted on August 30, 2015. Date of birth on the records, August 23, 1997. Kid couldn’t wait, I guess.”

“So who is he?” Joshua demanded.

“Well, the first name was accurate. Danny. Danny Augustus Winthorpe. Born in Pocatello, Idaho. Here…” Drew tapped a couple of keys, and the proof of age on file printed out in full color. It included a couple of forms and Danny/Preston’s ID, being his California Driver’s License, but under his birth name. Joshua and Simon both looked at it, then at each other.

“That’s him!” Simon announced.

“Definitely him,” Joshua agreed, “Oh, Drew, you big fucking beautiful detective genius!”

“You’re welcome,” Drew said. “Any time.”

“Now what?” Simon wondered.

“I guess we need to…” Simon shot him a warning glance. “You know.”

“Go talk to your little ghost friend?” Drew asked.

“Dude, what?” Simon exclaimed. “Did he tell — ”

Drew just laughed. “Boys, nobody told me shit. I’ve been on this planet damn near a century, I’ve been running all this Sherlock and Batman shit for… hell, I don’t know… I was probably your age when I started it. Only thing was I didn’t have all your cool steampunk drag and fancy field gadgets. I would love to help your team. Ooh… can I be Q? Or is it R now? So damn hard to keep up with which letter and which Bond.”

Joshua and Simon stared at each other for a long moment, then just smiled and laughed.

“Holy shit,” Joshua said. “And I think I speak for my future husband when I say that he says — ”

“Oh, fuck yes,” Simon chimed in.

“Future husband?” Drew perked up.

“Oh, yeah, right…” Joshua said.

“We hadn’t announced it officially yet, but — ”

“Brent!” Drew shouted about as loudly as he could. “Brent, get your happy ass upstairs!”

After a couple of moments, Brent came racing up the stairs looking like he was totally expecting to have to call an ambulance, and then looking totally relieved. “You rang?” he said sarcastically.

“Our boys are finally going to get married,” Drew said.

“Oh, clutch the pearls,” Brent replied. “Really? About goddamn time. And don’t you date object at all, but we are paying for the most fabulous, gayest goddamn wedding for you two ever, okay?”

Simon and Joshua just smiled at each other and agreed. That was another thing they had never revealed to their gay aunties — that they could have bought and sold them both fifteen ways from Friday.

Not that they ever would. Anyway, the information that Drew had provided them today would actually prove more valuable than all of the dollars and donuts in the world, at least as far as they were concerned.

Next up on their roster: the hunt for Danny Winthorpe, and his reunion with Preston LeCard.

Yeah, that was going to be interesting.

* * *

Friday Free-for-all #29: More questions

This originally started as me answering one random questions generated by a website, but the questions eventually got to the part where they didn’t really need long answers. So, instead, it’s turned into a slow-motion interview with multiple queries. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments — or ask your own!

If you had to get rid of a holiday, which would you get rid of? Why?

Also known as “How to piss someone off.” There are so many possibilities, but I’m going to have to go for Christmas. But hear me out, because this is the opposite of what the “War on Christmas” people would think.

Yes, we need a solstice holiday for sure, and one that celebrates all beliefs because most cultures have a certain reverence for the winter solstice. But we need to do three things.

One: Give Christmas back to the Christians. Let them have it, they can celebrate however they want to in private, fine. The tradeoff is that we don’t need to mention it or memorialize it at all in the secular world which, if you come to think of it, really just serves to diminish the religious meaning of the holiday in the first place. Next…

Two: We need to remove completely the idea that this winter holiday is all about buying each other shit that we don’t need. That was an invention of capitalism, and it is toxic. The idea of the winter holiday should be for groups of friends and family to variously gather together during the entire period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s for the sole purpose of being together.

Plague permitting, of course — but there are always virtual meetings.

But get together. Share a meal. Binge-watch a favorite show. Have a game night. Go hiking, or biking, or ice-skating, or to a museum. And agree to not exchange presents. Rather, exchange presence. Be there for each other, because that’s the real meaning of any holiday.

Three: Create your own private traditions, religious or secular, and share them. Reject the commercial crap that has been pushed on us for generations in the singular interest of making rich people richer. Sure, you can give someone you say you love a really expensive present, but in the end, that’s really pretty shallow. The greatest gift you can really give is yourself — your time, your attention, your love.

That’s what people need, that’s what they really want, and that’s what we should really be celebrating in the final month of every year.

What fad did you never really understand?

Although it’s been highlighted by the internet, especially since the rise of smart phones, it really isn’t anything new, but the idea of “challenges,” especially ones that can be physically dangerous, just boggles my brain-box.

The cinnamon challenge immediately comes to mind, and this one (like many of them) was actually dangerous. The idea was for someone to video themself swallowing a spoonful of ground cinnamon. One big problem, though: that’s basically like shoving a shitload of dust in your mouth, and that stuff flies into the air at the slightest provocation.

Or, in other words, you suddenly have a cloud of dust in your mouth and flying down your throat, and it also tends to clump when it gets wet (as your mouth and throat are wont to be), and so you can also suddenly wind up with very viscous clumps of spice jamming up your airways or even loose dust going into your lungs.

No matter which way, it’s not a great combo at all — and it can be fatal.

So can other stunts, like jumping out of a moving car and dancing next to it to a track by Drake. If that’s too easy, there’s always the internet fire challenge, which is just what it sounds like, and just as stupidly dangerous. If you don’t like fire, then you can always try the hot water challenge.

And there are many, many more. But, again, taking stupid dares is nothing new. Stupid human tricks from the past perpetrated by our grandparents, great-grandparents, and even great-greats included things like phone booth stuffing, swallowing live goldfish, sitting on poles (the object, not the nationality), or walking on the wings of airplanes.

Some of these still happen, by the way. But the nutshell answer to the original question is that I don’t understand any fad that involves a bunch of people doing really stupid and dangerous shit just to get attention.

What inanimate object do you wish you could eliminate from existence?

Guns. And in the broadest sense of the word — pistols, side-arms, handguns, rifles, shotguns… Okay, let’s shorthand it to “all ballistic weapons.” Note that this does not exclude useful ballistics, without which we could not put astronauts into space.

Ironically, it’s a way to make humanity more civilized by making us more primitive. You want to kill someone? Then do it the old-fashioned way — hand-to-hand, close quarters, or with a pointy weapon that has a range of one to four feet, depending on what you’re wielding.

Slingshots and bows and arrows are probably somewhat acceptable, but we’d need to determine rules of engagement on where we can aim — slings never at the head, arrows never at the head, throat, or torso.

You can stop someone with a club or a sword at close range and, provided that you also aim for those stopping points without aiming for fatalities (see above) , you’re only going to put them down, not out, so everyone lives — even you, who felt threatened enough to draw that weapon.

Or you can shoot an unarmed father of three in the back seven times for absolutely no discernible reason. And that is only one of way-too-many reasons that yes, we need to take these dick-compensators out of the hands of man-babies who absolutely don’t need them.

A/B test

Linguists have long debated the topic of whether the language you speak affects and changes the way you think, or indeed creates it, but Stanford researcher Lera Boroditsky believes that it does, and about a decade ago her studies did indicate some surprising things about how language can change the way a person perceives space, time, and relative location.

I won’t go into them here in detail since that’s not the point of this post, but there is an aboriginal tribe in Australia that gives spatial directions in absolute terms, based on compass directions — “What are you holding in your northwest hand?” Consequently, not only are they always aware of their location relative to the compass points, but they think of time this way as well. Ask them to arrange a series of photos in chronological order, and they will do it from east to west no matter which way they’re facing.

If you think about it, that makes perfect sense: Time measured from sunrise to sunset; from dawn to dusk.

She did also notice some cognitive changes when they taught English speakers to use the same kind of terms as other languages. For example, they’d ask their subjects to think of durations not as “long” and “short,” but in terms common to Greek and Spanish speakers: little, a lot, and big. They also had English speakers think of time the way Mandarin speakers do — not horizontally and left to right, but vertically, from top to bottom. Yesterday is up and tomorrow is down. Once they started to think in these terms, English speakers started to perceive time vertically as well.

Different languages can change personalities, too. Someone who is shy and reserved in one language may be outgoing in another, and their degree of fluency may also affect the type and depth of change. It’s also a matter of whether someone is bilingual but monocultural, or bilingual and bicultural. In the case of the former, it’s generally a speaker of language A learning language B in their own A-speaking country, largely free of cultural influence from B. For example, a native-born American studying Japanese, but only in the U.S. in school.

In the latter case, the speaker of A will grow up either in the original country of the A language and culture before moving to learn the B language in the B culture, or will grow up in the B country with parents and possibly grandparents who grew up in the culture of A. For example, someone who was either born in Turkey or born to Turkish immigrants to Germany, who either learned only Turkish during their early schooling and then German after emigrating, or who grew up in a household in Germany where Turkish was the primary language, but learned German in school.

I know from my own experience that my personality changes when I speak Spanish. Me hace mucho más coqueto. It makes me a lot more flirtatious. And while I’m technically bilingual but monocultural, the culture of Southern California is so heavily influenced by Latin America in the first place that it takes actual effort to be monocultural here. Then again, the western third of the U.S. used to be Mexico before we manifest-destinied the shit out of it, and two whole continents belonged to the natives and their expansive empires before the Spaniards and Brits toddled along and screwed that up.

Yeah, in English, I tend to digress to lecture a lot. I don’t do that in Spanish so much, either, unless it’s explaining some fascinating thing I discovered about the language to a fellow learner.

Onward!

Another aspect of language is the one that creates group personalities, and part of successfully joining any particular group is picking up on their own specific terminology and slang. Not knowing the terms will immediately peg a person as an outsider. This is very true of improv, and at ComedySportz we jokingly say “We are not a cult,” because some of our warm-up games certainly sound like we are.

But if you eavesdropped on a conversation between a couple of improvisers and had no experience, you’d be totally left in the dark hearing terms like Bunny Bunny, 185, Canadian cross, heel and face, “lean into it,” space work, VAPAPO, Harold, scene game, jump out game, head-to-head, brown-bag, groaner, piano torture, and (#) things.

Some of those terms are even unique to ComedySports and improvisers from other companies might not know them unless they’ve seen CSz shows. Now, if you’ve read my previous post, you probably know where this is going.

Since I started working in the field of health insurance, I’ve been learning a completely different set of words and expressions, a lot of them initialisms or acronyms, and by now I can reel them off by memory: AEP, Part D, MAPD, Plan F, Plan G, effective date, “Original” Medicare, Med Sup, HIPAA, ePHI, open enrollment, re-shopping, CMS (with a whole different meaning than in the internet world), guaranteed issuance, birthday rule, SEP, and on and on.

In all likelihood, unless you’ve ever been on Medicare, worked in a related field, or have helped an older relative navigate its rapids, you probably don’t know what many or any of those terms mean. I sure didn’t just over a month ago. Now, I’m rattling them off fluently with my co-workers.

But, at the same time, I’m now taking on more and more responsibility for explaining the things that I legally can to clients who phone in (I’m not an agent, so can’t recommend plans, or quote prices, or that kind of thing), and the calls are becoming more frequent since we just sent out a massive mailing to let everyone know that it’s time to re-evaluate their Medicare Part D, which is the insurance that covers their prescriptions. Long story short, insurance companies change their formularies, or lists of drugs that they cover, every year, and announce the changes effective January 1st on October 15th. These can make huge differences in cost, especially if a plan suddenly drops a particular drug, or another one has a price increase for a certain tier.

Thus begins the AEP, or annual enrollment period, which runs from October 15th to December 7th. Have I bored the hell out of you yet? It’s actually a lot more fascinating than it might sound, and for me it’s a good insight into the monster we’d be up against with any attempt to make Medicare for All work, especially if it maintains its weird four-part structure.

This brings me back to the language thing, though. In essence, I’m helping people understand a foreign language that I’m only just learning myself, and when I’m on the phone I can already feel my personality change. For one thing, I speak a lot more slowly than I usually do, and my entire manner slips much more into friendly but neutral customer service voice.

And yes, it’s a lot different than my phone personality when I was doing customer service for the Dog Whisperer’s website or when I’m dealing with customers who call the ComedySportz L.A. office or box office because, again, those are different worlds and different languages.

I’ve also quickly learned to become much blunter with people who aren’t clients. It’s amazing how many sales calls the office gets, especially with sales people who try to do so in the guise of already having some sort of business or client relationship with the boss, and he taught me a great question to ask: “Are you calling to buy something from him, or to sell him something that will increase his business?”

Not that this will get them through, but at least I’ll take a message instead of hang up on them.

The real trick, though, is to not get caught up in the confusion that a lot of callers have — and they’re totally right to be confused, since this is either entirely new to them if they’re just turning 65, or because every so often there’s one sudden big change (like this year) and I’m dealing with a number of people anywhere from their mid-70s to mid-90s. A lot of them at that age don’t like change, so they just try to shut it out. Plenty of them don’t mind change and don’t shut it out, of course, but I don’t seem to get those calls.

The end result of it all, though, is that I find myself in the same split-personality world I was in way back during my first office job right out of college, before I went into that almost-exclusive entertainment-related career: normal person by day, creative freak show by night. Bilingual and bipersona, to coin a phrase. The secret is being able to switch back and forth.

Influences, influencers, the influenced

I seem to be slowly developing a following here, and it’s not all people I know in real life. In fact, it’s mostly not people I know in real life. And a lot of you seem to like what I’m doing, and I’ve gotten positive comments and messages, and I appreciate them all. This next sentence is going to sound like a mega-tautology, but here you go: I write what I write here because I’m a writer, and what writers do is write.

In other words, this all began as an exercise in keeping my chops up. When I started this blog, it was right after the end of a decade-long gig which involved, in part, ghost-writing a weekly column for a certain D-list celebrity. Since I was given a ridiculous amount of free-rein, I basically took their philosophies in one subject area and applied them to human psychology and self-improvement, and got to at least enjoy the praise vicariously. I made the words. D-lister got the thanks. Go figure.

So it’s nice to actually get the positive comments myself, finally.

But this also reminds me of my own adventure with a columnist. The Los Angeles Times used to run daily columns by a writer with the most generic of names: Jack Smith. When I was a kid, my parents subscribed to the Times, and I used to read his column regularly, but one of them stuck with me. It was about the etymology of the word “undertakers,” and this sentence in particular, referring to the U.S. Civil War, jumped out: “…undertakers used to follow the armies like prostitutes, not to pleasure the soldiers but to embalm them.”

It stuck with me enough that I eventually wrote an entire play about undertakers, a prostitute, and the Civil War, called Noah Johnson had a Whore… (Later productions would try to drop the last three words from the title only for me to learn an important lesson: As offensive as they might seem, those words effin’ sold tickets.)

Anyway… this was the first full-length play I ever wrote, the first of mine ever produced, and I wound up starting at the top. It won an award from and was first produced by South Coast Rep, which is basically the Center Theater Group of Orange County. In other words, big time. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget and, to this day, I happen to have one of the 19th-century style wooden coffins from that production sitting in my living room as a coffee table as a constant reminder. (Note: Yes, coffins and caskets are different.)

But… to quote another produced play of mine, “I do digress…”

Because my play won a contest and turned out to be a big deal and got a lot of PR at the time, SCR reached out to the Times and Jack Smith to get a comment about the whole thing, since he had given me the idea in the first place. And not only did he respond, but he came down to see the show, I got to meet him, and then he wrote about it in another one of his columns.

Yeah, talk about an ultimate fan-boy squee moment. It was all really overwhelming for a baby playwright. And then the show closed and life went on.

Jump cut: About 2010. An old actor friend of mine remembers one of the plays I wrote not long after Noah, but had long since abandoned. Called Bill & Joan, it was about a fateful night in Mexico City in 1951 in which the writer William S. Burroughs shot his wife Joan Vollmer in the head and killed her in front of horrified party guests in what may or may not have been a game of “William Tell” gone horribly wrong. I was inspired to write it because Burroughs was one of my early influences as a writer. Unfortunately, right around the time I started to shop it, David Cronenberg released his film version of Naked Lunch, which infuriated me on two fronts. First, it really had nothing to do with the book (and mostly de-gayed the entire thing). Second, in order to come up with a plot, they did the whole “Bill shoots Joan” storyline, which killed the market for my play.

But… the actor who had read one of the young roles ages ago remembered the play and was now old enough to play the lead, so he got in touch, we pitched to his theater company and… they turned it down on the first pass. (This particularly hurt because one of the artistic directors at the time was French Stewart, whom I have always admired the hell out of.) But, persistence paid off, so we tried again the next year, with a new artistic board (they change every year by design) and ta-da!

So the play opened at the beginning of 2014, to coincide with the centenary of Burroughs’ birth. Bonus points: His birthday was the day after mine and, as we found out in pre-production, his wife’s birthday was the same as mine. Whoa!

But the best and trippiest part was that this whole process became a collaboration between me and my younger self. I hadn’t looked at the play in years, so looking at it again effectively put a third pair of eyes on it, even if those eyes were still mine. When I’d written the play, I was the same age as one of the hustler characters Bill lusted for. When it was produced, I was only a tad older than Bill was when he killed his wife.

Combine all of that with an amazing director, dedicated production staff, and a killer cast, and I think that the whole thing turned out well. But the icing on the cake came after the Burroughs estate sent a spy to see the play, he reported back that I had plagiarized Bill’s words, and we got a cease and desist. This being small theater in L.A., that notice came after we had closed, so the one producer who was and is a major asshole dumped it on me. I replied by just sending them the play, and the ultimate vindication came from James Grauerholz himself.

If you don’t know who he is, you don’t know your Burroughs. He was a fan who wound up being Bill’s secretary and personal assistant in the 1970s and stuck with him to the end, and hence became executor of the estate. In other words, he is William S. Burroughs’ living representative on Earth. It’s not even clear whether they were actually ever lovers. Honestly, probably not, but Jimmy is the fiercest protector of Bill’s legacy.

And his response to reading my play? (Which didn’t quote Burroughs, but just made shit up in his style.) Paraphrased: “There is no plagiarism here. We give you our blessings to produce this play.”

So on the one hand, I’m really flattered to realize that I duped some people into thinking I quoted a literary idol instead of wrote in imitation of his voice. On the other, I am super honored that Hand of God told me, “Yes, oh yes. You can do this. Carry on.”

And that’s a lot of words to get around to saying this: If you appreciate a writer’s work, let them know. We are solitary creatures who do not trust feedback we get from friends and family, because with rare exception, they will tell us we’re brilliant. (If you have a friend who will tell you to your face that something you wrote sucked, hang onto them, because they truly are a friend.) But when the compliments come from strangers, they are the best kind of validation.

And if you are a writer yourself, then  just hang on, do what you do, and trust in yourself until someone else says, “Hey… I like this.”

Because nothing feels better than that.

Image: From the Sacred Fools Production of Bill & Joan; Betsy Moore and Curt Bonnem

Fangry

I originally posted this article back in May of 2019, when the latest fan outrage erupted over a demand to “re-do” the final season of Game of Thrones, a year after the call to do the same for The Last Jedi. Well? Guess what? Plus ça change. Earlier this year, angry fands made similar demands for a re-cut of The Rise of Skywalker. So far, none of these do-overs have happened.

Until now.

Coming in 2021: the fan-demanded Zack Snyder cut of Justice League, and I can’t help but think the only reason that it’s happening is because of the industry being shut down due to COVID-19. Plenty of execs and post-production people with nothing but time on their hands, no new product, and certainly no blockbusters. The top-grossing film of the 2nd quarter, The Wretched, made $4,751,513 at the box office, a giant flop by any other standard.. Top film so far of the 3rd quarter is Unhinged, at a slightly better $14,121,709

But, to me, the craziest part about it is this first trailer for the recut. Now, if you’re a fan of Watchmen and saw the original and/or Snyder cuts of the first film, the song they used here is… well, an interesting choice, to say the least. Considering that the original Watchmen book was itself a parody of the original DC characters but playing on lesser-known knock-offs from a then (1984) defunct brand, it’s a weirdly interesting full circle.

But by all means, watch the trailer first, then read my article. You won’t regret either. I hope.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the petition started by fans demanding a re-do of Season 8 of Game of Thrones, and this may have given you a flashback to last year, when fans of Star Wars demanded the same thing in the same way for The Last Jedi. Hm. Oddly enough, that was Episode VIII, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Of course, there’s no chance in hell that any of this is going to happen. Personally, if I were one of the producers on the receiving end of that petition, my response would be, “Okay, sure. Season 8 cost $90 million. When I checked, 218,141 of you signed the petition. So if each of you sends us $412.56, we’ll do it.” (Note: I am not going to link to the petition at all, and the reasons why not should become obvious shortly.)

This is called “putting your money where your mouth is,” although I’m sure that many of these fans who are complaining are either torrenting the series illegally or sharing HBO to Go passwords with each other, which just makes it more infuriating.

As an artist, nothing galls me more than armchair quarterbacking from the fans. Note that this is different than critiquing. If a fan sees one of my plays or reads one of my books and says, “I really didn’t like how the story played out,” or “I couldn’t relate to the lead character,” or similar, than that is totally valid. But as soon as a fan (or a critic) gets into, “It should have ended like this,” or “I would have written it like that,” or “this character should have done this instead,” then you’ve gone over the line.

Note, though: Professional critics do not do this. That’s what sets them apart from angry fanboys.

Thanks to the internet, we’ve moved into this weird area where what used to be a consumer culture has morphed into a participatory culture. Sorry to go Wiki there, but those are probably the most accessible ways in to what are very abstract concepts involving economics, marketing, and politics.

There are good and bad sides to both, which I’ll get to in a moment, and while the latter has always been lurking in the background, it hasn’t become as prevalent until very recently. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs understanding and context to work.

So what do we mean by consumer and participatory? The short version is “buy stuff” vs. “give stuff.” A consumer culture focuses on getting people to spend money in the pursuit of having a better life in a capitalist economy. Its marketing mantra is, “Hey… you have problem A? Product X will solve it!” It is also aimed at large groups based on demographics in order to bring in the herd mentality. Keeping up with the Joneses writ large. “Everybody is doing it/has one!”

Ever wonder why people line up down the block at midnight in order to get the latest iPhone or gaming console on the day it comes out? It’s because they have been lured, hook, line, and sinker into consumer culture. But here’s the thing people miss, or used to miss because I think we’re becoming a bit more aware. Because demographics are very important to consumer culture, you are also a product. And if some corporation is giving you something for free — like Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc. — then you are the only product.

Participatory culture is one in which people do not just buy, watch, or read the products, but in which they give input and feedback, and the rise of the internet and social media has pushed this to the forefront. Ever commented on a post by one of your favorite brands on how they could make it better? Ever snarked an elected official for whom you’re a constituent? Ever blasted a movie, show, or sketch in a mass media corporation’s website? Congratulations! That’s participatory culture.

As I mentioned above, it’s not new. In the days before the internet, people could always write letters to newspapers, legislators, corporations, and studios. The only difference then was that it was a bit harder — physically creating the message, whether with pen and paper or typewriter, then putting it in an envelope, looking up the address via dead tree media, taking the thing to a post office, putting a stamp on it, and dropping it off.

Phew. That’s some hard work. Now? Fire up Twitter, drop an @ and some text, click send, done.

And, again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve had more direct responses from my own elected officials to my social media comments than I ever did back in the days of mail of the E or snail variety only. The mail responses were always form letters with the subtext of, “Yeah, we get this a lot, we don’t care, here’s some boilerplate.” Social media doesn’t allow for that because it becomes too obvious.

But where participatory culture goes too far is when the fans turn it into possessory culture. Again, this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s only become more common because being a participant and not just a consumer has become so much easier.

Here’s the anecdotal part. I’ve spent a lot of my working career in the entertainment industry, particularly film and television, and a lot of that dealing directly or indirectly with fans. And one thing that I can say for certain is that people who aren’t in the industry — termed “non-pro” by the trades and often called “muggles” by us — don’t have a clue about how it all works.

If you don’t know what “the trades” are, then you probably fall into the muggle category. Although it’s really a dying term, it refers to the magazines that covered the industry (“the trade”) from the inside, and which were read voraciously every day — principally Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Billboard.

But I do digress.

In college, I interned for a game show production company, and one of my jobs was reading and properly directing fan mail, or replying to it with one of a dozen form letters they had printed out en masse, because yes, the questions or complaints were so predictable. One of the big recurring themes was the mistaken belief that the host of the game show personally wrote, directed, edited, and selected contestants for the entire thing. Yeah, no. Unless the host was an executive producer (and the only example that comes to mind is Alex Trebek, for whom I almost worked), then the only thing the host did was show up for the taping day, when they would do five half-hour shows back to back.

And so… I would read endless letters with sob stories begging the host to cast them, or complaints about wanting them to fire one or another guest celebrities, or, ridiculously often, outright requests for money because reasons (always from red states, too), prefiguring GoFundMe by a decade or two.

A lot of these letters also revealed how racist a lot of Americans were then (and still are) and yes, the response to that crap was one of our most sent-out form letters.

This pattern continued though, on into the days of the internet and email. When I worked on Melrose Place, we would constantly get emails telling the stars of the show things like, “I hated what you did to (character) in that episode. Why are you such a bitch?” or “Why don’t you change this story line? I hate it.”

Really? Really.

Gosh. I guess I never realized that scripted TV had so damn much improv going on. Yes, that was irony. And here’s a fun fact: While a lot of it may seem like it’s improv, SNL is actually not, and doing improv there is the quickest way to never get invited back.

At least those comments were much easier to respond to. “Thank you, but Heather Locklear does not actually write her parts, she only performs them. We will pass your concerns on to the producers.” (Which we never did, because, why?)

Still… misguided but fine. And even things like fan fiction are okay, because they aren’t trying to change canon so much as honor it — although it can sometimes spin off the rails, with Fifty Shades of Gray being the ur-example of a fangirl turning a Twilight fanfic into a super dumpster fire of bad writing and terrible movies and still somehow making a fortune off of it — the perfect storm of participatory culture turning around to bite the ass of consumer culture. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but if anybody did this to my work, I’d probably want to punch them in the throat.

Of course, there are always textual poachers, who approach fanfic from a slightly different angle. Their aim isn’t to make their own fortune off of rewriting stuff. Rather, it’s to, well, as a quote from the book Textual Poachers says, “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.”

So that’s perfectly fine. If you’re not happy with how Star Wars or Game of Thrones turned out, then write your own damn version yourself. Do it on your own time and at your own expense, and enjoy. But the second you’d deign to try to demand that any other artist should change their work to make you happy, then you have lost any right whatsoever to complain about it.

castle-rock-misery-stephen-king

Don’t be Annie Wilkes. Stephen King knew that.

See how that works? Or should I start a petition demanding that the other petition be worded differently? Yeah. I don’t think that would go over so well with the whiny fanboys either.

The perception of art is completely subjective while the creation thereof is completely under the artist’s control. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it, don’t watch it, don’t buy it. But, most of all, don’t tell the artist how they should have done it. Period. Full stop.

Monday meal: Two ladies, two bitches (Sunday Nibble #31 Part 2 of 2)

This started as a “Sunday nibble,” but became an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I’m splitting the profiles of two women who have had a profound impact on me into two parts. In case you missed the first part, his is the second of the two ladies. The bitches were two of the female dogs I’ve owned, who were also influential in my life This is part two. Here is part one.

 

Betty

She wasn’t all that young when she taught me, so I’ll assume that she’s either dead now or very old, but I had a very interesting relationship with one of my two high school AP English teachers. She was Ms. Betty Bivins — well, she went by “Mrs.”

She was a wide, thick-set but not heavy older woman with red hair that may or may not have been henna. My overall impression of her was that she consisted of squares and cubes with Conan O’Brien’s hair-do before he became famous for it, and a penchant for textured pantsuits that resembled flocked wallpaper in tones of either orange, red, or green over white or cream.

The word formidable comes to mine in both talent and personality, and this is appropriate, because she was my first actual Grammar Nazi.

I hated her for it from the start. But by the end, everyone in the class and I knew all the rules backwards and forwards, and for the semester I wound up in a regular (not remedial) English class (the why explained below), the grammatical and technical abilities of those kids were clearly nowhere on our level.

What she did was this: She gave us a list of common grammar and spelling errors, like mixing up it’s and its, or confusing your/you’re or there/they’re/their, along with commonly misspelled words like, well, “misspelled,” or “privilege,” and whether to use “affect” or “effect.” (That one has a sneaky hidden triple point score, thank you psychology!)

I think there were something like fifty items on the list, and she had a master book with our names down the first column and the rule numbers at the top, with two check boxes under each rule all the way down.

When we turned in a paper, if we messed up a rule, she’d make a check in the book and mark it in red on our paper with the rule number. If we ever made the same error twice, that particular paper would fail no matter how good it otherwise was, and that would affect our overall grade.

I know that one because of her, by the way.

She was, in effect (see what I did there?) the kind of editor I became, and young me wasn’t happy about it at first, especially on that one day when I screwed up and “it’s’d” when I should have “its’d.”

Now, I kept a diary back in the day and I remember finding it as an adult and reading through it, very amused for two reasons. One was that I didn’t really write about any of the more… interesting stuff that happened in my life (Narrator voice: “Sex. He means sex. Mostly masturbation, but also sex.”)

The other is that in those first days of high school, I raved about most of my teachers, and then would just tersely note: “Xth Period. English. Hate it.” And no, I don’t remember what period it was. I do remember reading, as an adult, my entry on the day I got my first mark in the Big Book of Grammar sins, though. “Xth Period. English. Bitch, bitch, BITCH!”

But, of course, stubborn little bitch that I am thanks to Mom, I was determined to never fuck up anything in the Big Book again, and I didn’t. And I started to realize that Ms. Bivins really encouraged my writing. A lot. And eventually, we clicked, and during my second semester, she was my favorite teacher and AP English was my favorite class, second place a tie between AP History (Mr. Sholl) and Spanish (Ms. Navarro).

There is a point to mentioning AP, too, which is going to come up in a second. “AP” stands for “Advanced Placement,” and this is a high school track that actually counts as college credit. In fact, because of all my high school AP classes, I actually started college as a second semester Freshman and could have technically graduated a semester early, but instead stupidly took on two minors. And an extra semester of debt.

So we get near the end of first year, I’d been telling Ms. Bivins about a science fiction novel I’d been working on. I think I may have even bravely given her some pages, and she suggests, “You know, you could write this next year as an independent study in lieu of your English class, with me as your advisor…”

Side note: although it was (cough) a few years before The Purge, that science fiction novel was basically that, but set in a distant dystopian future. And, ironically, I was given the idea by a fellow student who was already in the “regular” English class first semester and he explicitly pitched it as, “I think this is an interesting idea, but there’s no way in hell I could ever write it, but you could.”

I titled it Free for All, and I actually still have a printed manuscript of the damn thing around here somewhere.

Anyway, what reason was there to say “No?” to something that could become the next great YA novel? So we created the pitch for the independent study, she got it approved at the school level and, as far as I knew, it was good to go before summer break according to someone at LAUSD downtown.

I came back that fall for the new semester, and when I got to what was supposed to be my independent study class, Ms. Bivins welcomed me with a look on her face that made me think her entire family had just died in a fiery car crash.

She explained that only that week, during the student-free day before classes started (aka “yesterday”,) some ass-clown administrator downtown had said, “Wait. You can’t do a core class like English as an independent study!”

But here was the Catch-22. I couldn’t just go right back into the AP English class either because, reasons. So I found myself being escorted by a very sad Mrs. Bivins to a regular English class already in progress, where I spent a semester in hell because it was just so goddamn boring.

It felt like repeating the curriculum and reading level from back in middle school — Tom Sawyer and Lord of the Flies and the like. Been there, done that. And, like I mentioned, the level of English written in that class was, well… average, really. If you’re not sure what that is, go read the comment section for any online newspaper or media website, then count the number of times you cringe because of the writing. Yeah, that level.

Now, it wasn’t that these people were stupid. It’s just that not everyone is good at language arts in general, or their own native language in particular — never mind if they’re not a native speaker. I get that. I’ve known Medical Doctors and PhDs in other fields who couldn’t spell or string together a coherent written sentence to save their lives, but they are good at what they do.

And I cannot count on all my fingers, toes, and other parts (i.e. hair) the number of plumbers, handy-people, mechanics, cleaners, and so on who don’t speak much English at all, but who light up in Spanish when I tell them I understand — and who are ridiculously good at their jobs.

Seriously, if we ever have a disaster in space, all we need to do is send up a Mexican with some duct tape, PVC pipe, a tile knife, a couple of adjustable wrenches, a mallet, one black plastic trash bag, and a friend, and that shit is coming home safe and sound.

(Note to anyone taking issue with the last paragraph: It was a humorous way of saying that the ingenuity of people from Mexico or of Mexican descent never ceases to amaze me. White people whine and call a professional. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans look at the problem and solve it. Period. They could MacGyver their way out of anything. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between growing up with privilege and not. But I do digress…)

As for all those wypipo who never learn how to English… in a lot of cases, they do learn their own technical jargon very well, so you might be surprised to see that lawyers aren’t necessarily literate outside of their particular bailiwick. They can write briefs, arguments, and opinions all day, but ask for an essay, and it ain’t gonna happen.

Hint: this is why paralegals really exist. To fix the regular English screw-ups that sneak into their bosses’ stuff so that they don’t look stupid in front of the judges.

But here is the insidious thing: In Mrs. Bivins shooting for the Moon and missing so that I landed back with the muggles for a sad late summer and most of autumn, she actually did me a gigantic favor without ever having to explain a thing, because I don’t think she even realized it, either.

Let’s get back to that “AP” part. See, it also happened to be that most of the people in all my AP classes were also people I’d been in classes with all through school since about first grade, provided that we all went to the same three schools. So, minor cast changes along the way, but for the most part, we seemed to wind up on the same train from age 6 to 18.

Now, it made sense in elementary school when we all spent the entire day in one room, with one teacher. But once we popped up into middle school and the sudden wonder of six different classes, six different rooms, and six different teachers, it should have gotten more random.

It didn’t. So on day one in middle school, there I was in home room, with mostly all the same people I’d been in class with on the last day of elementary school — and that continued on through the days and the years.

The only place it seemed to break down was in P.E., but I can’t help but think that this was strictly engineered by the sadistic coaches, who wanted to toss a bunch of jocks and nerds all together in one locker room at the same time, and then tell them, “Shower time!”

Yeah, we had to nude up and do that back then. I didn’t mind at all, But it was the only class I could remember that seemed to mix all levels of students, from advanced on down. Then again, while any typical period might have dozens of different classes in dozens of different rooms at the same time (my school were huge), P.E. had all of them at one time, in one place.

But the exception proved the rule. The only time I had class with people I wasn’t always in class with from the beginning was in the only class that did not test intellect, only physical ability.

Oh yeah… we’d all gone through that one at about twelve years old. I remember failing miserably on all counts so, while those of us from many levels did P.E. together technically, I was still lumped with my fellow nerds in the same Coach’s group, and at least he was less of an asshole than the others.

That didn’t stop them from having us do things like play flag football against the group full of aggressive jocks. It was like The Hunger Games, except with less death.

Still… why all of this grouping?

Well, ultimately, it was because all of us, around the beginning of 1st grade, were given an IQ test in that wonderfully systemically racist way of perpetuating “white superiority,” seeing as how IQ tests were originally created by big fans of eugenics.

But we took those tests and, unbeknownst to us, we were sorted into groups. I happened to wind up among the top tiers — “Gifted” and “Profoundly Gifted,” although I never heard those words until years later. But the end result was that our cohort, who were tested as well above-above average on the alleged “IQ” test were fast-tracked to…

Well, honestly, privilege. Now, granted, it was Los Angeles, so at least our gifted group was not 100% white, and everyone in it earned it. But here was the problem. Well, two problems.

One is that the particular IQ test they were still using at the time was later determined to have an enormous cultural bias, which did tend to weed out people from lower socio-economic backgrounds of all kinds. The other is that, because of this test, the top group got more resources and attention than everyone else when, ironically, we were the ones who probably needed it the least.

Put Mrs. Bivins in a “regular” English class, and she could probably bring them up to “our” level in a semester. Meanwhile, give us the rule book and make it a challenge for us to catch each other’s errors and… same result, cheaper method.

But this forever opened my eyes to how our entire school system is not really interested in improving everyone. Rather, it’s only interested in dumping everyone in their proper box, from Alpha to Epsilon, and doing form a very early age.

Sound familiar? It should. That’s Huxley’s Brave New World right there. Which, come to think of it, Mrs. Bivins did have us read during our second semester. So… maybe she had always planned ahead, and was setting up an object lesson she knew that I’d get? I don’t know. All I do know is that she, more than anyone else, gave me the push onto the path of pursuing this crazy “be a writer” thing.

Image source, Mohamed Hassan via Pexels. Licensed for free use.

Sunday nibble #31: Two ladies, two bitches (Part 1 of 2)

This started as a “Sunday nibble,” but became an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I’m splitting the story into two parts. This is the first.

Dazé and Shadow

I’ll tackle that choice of title right off, because it is absolutely literal. Today is August 23, and that happened to be the day that I picked — because it was closest to the likely one — for the birthday of two of my dogs late, great, Dazé and Shadow. So yes, in the absolute definition of the word, bitches, but they were my bitches.

Okay, in reality, I was theirs, but that’s why I’m including them here. The bulk of the article is in honor of the hundredth anniversary of women in America finally being given the right to vote — and it is shameful as hell that it took 132 years from the ratification of the Constitution to the Amendment that fixed this major defect.

August was also the birth month of one of the women on this list. I don’t know when the second one was born, but I do know that the third was not born in August.

But I include those two dogs of mine as an example of how nurturing and protective feminine energy as opposed to masculine. In fact, it’s why I will only ever adopt female dogs.

Oh, I’ve known male dogs. I’ve lived with more than a few, interacted with many, and ultimately they are for the most part… well, go search for YouTube videos of “Stupid Things Frat Boys Do,” and you’ll get the idea.

Male dogs are energetic, and goofy, and they’ll hump your leg when you let your guard down, but they clearly don’t really have as much going on upstairs as their distaff counterparts.

I’ve written about it before, but Dazé always ruled the roost, no matter how many other dogs were around and how much bigger they were than her, and she did it without ever showing aggression. She was totally devoted to me, but never submissive. It always felt like an equal partnership.

Shadow could not have been more different in the sense that, while she was totally devoted as well, she was also completely submissive and dependent. Dazé saw it as her job to take care of me. Shadow saw me as the one who was supposed to take care of her.

But it was a pair of valuable lessons that led to a really amazing relationship with dog #3 (not born in August), Sheeba. Dazé taught me what a dog could do for me. Shadow taught me what I could do for a dog.

I guess that Sheeba must have been up on her Hegel, because with her it was a combination of both; a wonderful give and take in which we took care of each other. Dazé never needed my help and Shadow could never give me hers. With Sheeba, it truly was a two-way street.

That’s probably a big part of the reason that she was the only dog whose loss did not immediately inspire me to go out and rescue another, and it’s going on four months now. Sure, current events in the year of several plagues have also had an impact, but I’ve done surprisingly well without. At least for now.

But, to get to the important part: Here are three women who have had an enormous impact on my life.

Gloria

Okay, most people knew her by that name. I knew her as Mom, She taught me some of my most important skills: never put up with anyone’s shit, always question authority when they seem wrong, and cooking and baking are true and enjoyable art forms.

Keep in mind that my mother died when I was fairly young, after a long mystery illness that only seemed to be made worse by medical treatments from male doctors (only) who would never even for a second take seriously my mother’s attempts to tell them how the symptoms changed depending on what part of her cycle she was in.

“Oh, that’s all in your head,” these men who never had periods would tell her in that mansplaining tone. Looking back, I think the whole thing started with a bout of acid reflux that led to hyperventilation that happened (coincidence?) on my 13th birthday.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Mom was brought up with huge amounts of Catholic guilt and body shame, so wasn’t exactly that in touch with things. Looking back, to be honest, I’ve had the sudden “feel like you can’t breathe because your windpipe suddenly shut” thing a few times in my life, but I very quickly learned the cure for it: Hold your breath.

And yeah, I’ve felt guilty that I wasn’t there for her but, then again — I was 13. I was in school, like I was supposed to be. So it was just the next door neighbor there to rush her to the ER, toss her into the hands of the un-empathetic male doctors, and I think over the next few years they managed to medicate her to death.

Since her family all lived on the east coast, I really lost contact with them for a long time, since I didn’t have their phone numbers, or the wherewithal to fly or drive out there, and my dad certainly wasn’t doing it. But when I reconnected to my cousins and surviving aunts not that long ago via social media, one thing became immediately clear.

They were all like her, so they were all like me, at least in all the good ways: Stubborn, opinionated, feisty, creative, and feckin’ clever Irish-Americans.

This was partly what drove her to the west in the first place, because she had a bird’s eye view of her own mother’s hypocrisy when it came to religion. The Catholic Church ruled all! Except… only the church that the Irish people went to. The Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Latvians may have gone to Catholic churches as well, but they were filthy immigrants.

And it was perfectly fine if my mother invited her best friend Beverly to come to Grandma’s church on Sunday, but god forbid that my mother would even be allowed to go to Beverly’s church, because they were some weird, unacceptable Armenian Orthodox cult!

But the real biggie — and the one that actually wound up having the greatest impact on my own life, although I didn’t know it until long after she’d died — was that her first marriage not only sent her fleeing to the west, but it had everything to do with her relationship to me.

Long story short, she’d married her (Polish Catholic) high school boyfriend, George, at 18. She got knocked up (though not right away), he got drunk and violent a lot, and in her eighth month he gave her what we quaintly term “A Catholic abortion.”

That is, he pushed her down a flight of stairs and she miscarried, and there went the woman who might have been my older sister.

She had the marriage annulled (the good Catholic way!) then headed west, to shock her mother by marrying a much older and divorced (gasp!) man with three adult kids who was maybe Protestant (what?) but definitely not Catholic (clutch the Rosary!).

They married, she got knocked up while they lived in a tiny Hollywood apartment, moved to their suburban home when she was about five months in — and then wound up delivering me two months prematurely back in Hollywood and, apparently, she freaked the hell out.

In all honesty, why wouldn’t she? She’d already lost one child in the 8th month, and here I was, popped out in the 7th month and not completely baked, so they had to stick me into an incubator. Somehow, it worked, I survived, and I’m still here and, oddly enough, I also managed to be the tallest member of my family on both sides and among three generations, at least.

Yeah, I don’t know what’s up with that part, either. Apparently, all of my grandparents barely grazed five feet. I topped six, and I only have one nephew who came close.

Anyway, the result of my mom’s life experience up to my birth was that she was ridiculously protective of me. Fearing losing me like she had her daughter, I would never say that she was clingy and suffocating. Rather, she did what she could to keep me close to home.

Good or bad? I don’t know. She certainly kept me from being over-adventurous, something that didn’t change until after her death — but I’ve always wondered: If she hadn’t done that, would I still be alive now, or would I have died in some stupid incident before I turned sixteen?

On the other hand, if she had lived on to a normal age, and if she were still around today (entirely possible), would our relationship be loving, or would she have long since driven me absolutely nuts? I have no idea. What I do have is one childhood incident that, to me, demonstrated her absolute devotion to keeping me safe.

I was in the 3rd grade, meaning that I was about 8 years old, and was out sick for a day. The procedure at the time was for returning kids to turn in a note from a parent at the office excusing the absence — basically, “This is Jon’s (parent.) He was out sick yesterday, but is feeling well enough to return today. Signed (parent.)”

Welp, up to this particular day, my father was always the one who wrote and signed the notes. He was also an architect, so he could writer block letters like a goddamn laser printer, and his signature was in perfect cursive.

Mom? Well… she was born left-handed and went to Catholic school, so what do you think? Yep. They basically tied her left hand to a chair, forced her to learn to write with her non-dominant hand and so, as an adult, her handwriting was even worse than mine at, oh, I don’t know… eight years old?

You see where this is going, right?

Dad forgot to write the note that day, so Mom did, and I took it in. An hour or two into class, I got summoned to the principal’s office (his name was George Linnert, btw, a total dick, and he is probably long since dead by now) to be accused of forging the note.

I tried to tell him that my mom wrote it, and if he just called her, she would tell him.

Nope. He was being a total dick, so he told me to write down, “I did not write this note.” And then he refused to believe me and threatened suspension, plus calling my parents in to tell them what an evil, evil boy I was.

Guess what happened when I told my parents about it that evening?

Yep. Mom went ballistic, and the next morning she did something so freaking amazing that I still remember every moment of it. I was going to walk to school, but she said, “No. I’m driving you.”

Okay, cool. Except that… while Mom has her license, she also absolutely hates to drive and never does it, and is nervous as hell. Sure, it’s not all that far to the school — maybe a mile at most — but I think she wanted to make a point.

So we hope into the Ford, she very, very cautiously backs out of the driveway, then takes the back streets to the school, leads me up the steps by my hand and into the principal’s office, very politely tells me that she’s here for a meeting with Mr. Linnert…

…and then the second we walk in the door, she proceeds to rip him not a second, or a third, but maybe even up to a fourth asshole and all I can do is just stand there in awe of this woman, this powerhouse, my mother, taking the piss out of an authority figure that, up until this moment, all of us had feared like the grim reaper.

I don’t even remember what exactly she said, except that it involved questioning his intelligence, asking if he got off on intimidating little boys, and whether he actually knew how telephones worked?

End result? She marched his ass to my classroom, we all entered, and he groveled and apologized in front of the teacher, my, my mom, and the entire class.

It was goddamn glorious. But I guess that’s why she was named Gloria in the first place.

R.I.P., Mom.

The Saturday Morning Post #29: The Rêves, Part 7

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Paperwork

Since Brenda was management, and therefore salaried, she was lucky enough to not have to report in the morning after the… adventure at Universal City station. Unfortunately, since she was management, she was expected to come up with some write-up of what had happened, and since she knew that all of the CCTVs scattered all over the place would show… something, she spent all of the next day after she’d woken up well past noon trying to come up with some plausible narrative… and she was drawing a blank.

She was also kicking herself for not getting contact info for the two guys who had been involved in the whole thing. All she knew were their names, Joshua and Simon, and that they lived somewhere in the NoHo Arts District, in one of the high-rise condo complexes that had sprung up like weeds in the late ‘10s.

She did manage to get her assistant to email her all of the CCTV footage from Uni City station, as well as the plaza and all of the street cams from there up to the clusterfuck intersection of Lankershim, Vineland, and Riverside/Camarillo, but there were apparently problems with anything north of that.

The footage from in the station wasn’t really helpful, since all it showed was various people freaking out and acting stupid. Same thing with the footage up the escalators and on the plaza. Lots of people in view, not a lot of… not people.

“Fuck,” Brenda muttered many times while reviewing the footage. She had definitely seen the things, and so had the dudes she’d gone to breakfast with — where were they now?

She decided to go take a drive, and wound up at the same Denny’s, flashed her credentials at the day manager, and managed to finally get somewhere — the CCTV footage of her visit the night before with the two would-be ghost hunters.

And while it didn’t reveal a whole lot other than their meal, when they left it at least gave her a direction, and she was able to call in a favor from an old family friend who worked for the L.A. Traffic Department, and those cams and footage traced those boys right back to their doorstep. Well, at least the building their condo was in.

She filed the paperwork that gave a pretty general idea of where to find the guys who claimed to be ghost hunters while claiming no knowledge of the thing herself; the perfect dodge. Except that two of her assistants had been accurate way beyond their paygrade, apparently.

They had also taken advantage of their connections to look at cell phone location data.

She’d thought that their info only included the building address, but it didn’t. It included the unit number and a link to the Zillow page on it. She hadn’t read their entire doc before she put it an email to Rita and hit “send.” Why would she? She trusted them, and it was already pushing four in the afternoon.

Ironically, considering where she worked, she wasn’t really able to take public transit to and from the office even though the Metro did run downtown to Culver City. The problem was that it ran too far away from her neighborhood, Blair Hills, to make it easy to get there without relying on a taxi or Über or something else, and there was no way in hell at her age that she was going to hop on one of those stupid scooters.

Anyway, her commute would have taken three times as long.

Unfortunately, she was in the wrong department to do anything about that. But she managed to get home by a quarter to five, half an hour before her husband Jonah did, to find her two youngest, Samuel and Malia, sitting in the living room vying to the death on a video game.

She had only recently gotten used to thinking of her younger son… no, daughter… as Malia instead of Barack, and she tried to drive that dead-name out of her mind, appreciating her youngest daughter’s very interesting choice of new name. Samuel and her oldest, Theresa, who was majoring in law at Penn State, hadn’t even skipped a beat when Malia made the announcement last Christmas, and immediately welcomed her as their sister.

Unfortunately, her husband Jonah was having a bit of an issue with it, but that probably had more to do with worrying about how to handle it with his parents, who were hard-core old school Baptists.

Brenda had had none of those problem with her parents, who were old-school radicals. Well, she knew that her father wouldn’t have had a problem, but he was long gone, shot in the head during a routine traffic stop by a white cop when Brenda was still in college back in the 90s. This had radicalized Brenda’s mother no end, and she had gone on every protest march possible after that — Black, LGBTQ+, Native American, Union, whatever.

This had had a huge impact on Brenda, especially her mother’s words: “Honey, it don’t matter your color, sex, race, whatever. What matters is who hates you for the way you were born. And then, take a good hard look at them, lock arms with the others who get hated for how they were born, and go kick their fucking hateful asses.”

And Brenda’s mother, Esme, had been her babysitter since each of her kids were born. Brenda and Jonah has specifically looked for a house with a so-called “Mother-in-Law Flat” out back — in this case, a full one-bedroom guest house — and had moved Esme in at the same time they did.

Malia was the first one to tell Esme her secret: “I’m not a boy.”

When Esme told Brenda about the conversation and repeated her reply, Brenda just broke down in tears and hugged her mother hard.

“She said, ‘I’m not a boy,’” Esme told her. “And I said, ‘That’s great. So tell me who you are to you, because that is forever who you’ll be to me.’”

It was five-thirty when Jonah pulled into the garage and came through the door into the kitchen, and grabbed Brenda to give her a huge hug and kiss, interrupted by Samuel and Malia running into the room to hug his legs while shouting, “Daddy!”

“Ooh… what smells good?” he asked.

“You do, for one,” Brenda replied.

“Nah… what you got cooking, princess?”

“It all depends on how soon Mamaw gets home to wrangle the kidlets, stud.”

“Stop! They might hear you.”

“Okay, what I got cooking is dinner, but you know your job.”

“Oh, right.” Jonah smiled and whistled, pulling five bowls out of the cupboard as the sound of twenty paws skittering along the floor, finally reaching a crescendo. Three dogs and two cats stopped in the doorway in anticipation.

The dogs were Libby, Prince, and Orpheus — a yellow Lab, black Lab, and German shepherd. The cats were Desdemona and Ophelia, a calico and a tabby. Ostensibly, each of the dogs belonged to one of the kids and each of the cats to one of the parents, but in reality, Jonah was the wrangler of them all.

But not the boss. Oh no, not that. Because all of the animals and all of the humans just knew and understood that Desdemona was in charge of them all, and Ophelia was her lieutenant.

It was kind of exactly like the Brenda and Malia thing, actually — right down to no one ever mentioning it.

By six o’clock, they were all seated at the dining room table — well, except for the dogs and cats, who had long since finished dinner and had wandered off to go snooze in whatever space they had picked — and Brenda set out their meal.

Honestly, this was her favorite part of every work day — when they all got to sit down and everyone told her about what had happened in their day. And it didn’t matter how “stupid” or trivial it seemed. To Brenda, it was about her family, so every single bit was the most interesting thing ever, and she never had to fake that.

So… Samuel had actually talked to Melissa at her locker today, and while Brenda could easily see that the girl had no interest in him, he was over the moon at having taken the chance. And Malia reported that she’d met a fellow student, Lance, who was a transboy, and they’d really kind of hit it off and were having lunches together.

Jonah sort of rolled his eyes at this, but Brenda kicked him under the table.

After dinner, while Jonah and Samuel did the dishes, Brenda called Theresa to check in, and she was already considering focusing her legal studies on social justice issues, but she had to cut the conversation short because there was a sorority event coming up.

Later on, Esme came over to look after the kids, and Brenda and Jonah headed up to their room to, as she put it, “binge and fringe,” although as he held her in his arms, she looked into his eyes and said, “You really need to lighten up and deal with our daughter.”

“Who, Theresa?” he said.

“No,” she replied. And she was beginning to think that he might have been the only reason that she didn’t just come out and share all the Metro ghost shit with everyone else, because they might have had actual ideas. But then he dug it deeper.

“We only have one daughter,” he continued.

“Are you that stupid?” she shot back.

“Um… excuse me?” he asked.

“No. Excuse me,” she replied, slamming her way out of the room and calling back, “Her name is Malia,” adding under her breath, “You are such an asshole sometimes.”

And that was when she remembered the thing she liked least about family dinners. Still, she figured that Jonah would eventually come around. It had taken a few months to get him to stop dead-naming Malia and he was making fewer mistakes with the pronouns, at least when she was around. But for god’s sake, he was nearly fifty. He should give a damn what his parents thought anymore.

* * *

Tailed

The next morning, Simon and Joshua got up, got ready, had breakfast, then headed down to the garage, carrying the trap with Anabel in it in the velvet bag. They were dressed casually and Joshua had called dibs on driving, which was fine with Simon anyway. They hopped into the Tesla, Joshua put his foot on the brake and shifted into gear. The car hummed to life.

It would be fair for anybody to speculate how a couple of guys their age who only seemed to hang out in subway stations dressed as refugees from a Jules Verne novel could afford a Tesla, much less their own condo, along with all of the geegaws and gadgets involved in their ghost hunting.

The short answer was that in the previous decade, the two of them had designed a series of killer apps that had a habit of being bought up for anywhere in the high seven to mid-eight figure range. Simon was the idea man and Joshua was the coder and tech nerd, although it was Simon’s really uncanny ability to figure out what the Next Big Thing was going to be a year or two before it was that drove things.

But they had also made an agreement that they would never allow themselves to be worth more than a certain amount. They had originally set that at a billion until they exceeded it and realized how ridiculous a billion dollars was for just two people, so they cut it down to a hundred million, then finally settled on ten million.

Anything in excess of that went away as charitable donations, or to any of several dozen anonymous educational foundations they had set up around the world. It wasn’t uncommon for them to sneak a server a few grand as a tip, or buy a house and “rent” it to a homeless woman and her children for a dollar a year, or provide necessary supplies for a struggling school.

Still, they considered themselves to be the Banksy of charity — they never announced any of what they did, never put their names on it, and swore their beneficiaries to silence.

“We’re like thieves in the night,” Simon liked to say,” Except Robin Hood.”

They did start a charitable organization that would handle everything, but they had named it the Ada Lovelace Foundation, which they both felt appropriate for two reasons. One was that she was basically the world’s first computer programmer, back in the nineteenth century when “computers” were entirely mechanical.

The other was that she was an important character in William Gibson’s book The Difference Engine, which both of them had read and loved as kids and it was considered to be raison d’être for the entire steampunk genre.

Of course, as far as Ausmann ever knew, they were forever broker than shit and relied on their job with him and his largesse. This just gave them leverage that he didn’t know existed.

Joshua pulled out of the lot and turned right onto Tujunga, heading south toward Magnolia. As they crossed South Chandler — named for a family not related to the Chanlers — he and Simon both noticed a vehicle pull away from the curb by the park a little too quickly and obviously.

“Did you — ” Simon started.

“Yep,” Joshua replied. “Did you notice the license plate?”

“No,” Simon replied. “What?”

“Exempt.”

“Shit.”

In California, this designated that it was a government-owned car, although which level of government wasn’t certain — it could be city, county, or state. And, contrary to what some under-informed people thought, it did not mean “Exempt from obeying all traffic laws.” Rather, it meant “Exempt from taxation,” so the car wasn’t subject to annual registration, sales tax on transfer from one exempt entity to another, and so on.

Although the driver had been so eager to pull out on Joshua’s ass that they had cut off another driver who gave an angry honk.

“What do we do?” Simon asked.

“Drive casually until we figure out who they are,” Joshua explained as Simon turned to look out the back window. “And don’t look at them!”

“Sorry,” Simon said.

“Don’t we have an app that does the license plate thing?” Joshua asked.

“Oh, right,” Simon replied, taking out his phone and pulling up the app, porting the output to the car’s tablet. He activated the back-up cam, got a clear photo of the front plate, and in a few seconds the screen displayed the answer.

CALIFORNIA VEHICLE EXEMPT PLATE
JURISDICTION LEVEL: COUNTY
AGENCY: LOS ANGELES METRO
DIVISION: CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
LEO?: NO

“Shit, that’s it?” Joshua laughed. “We’re being followed by customer service? What are they going to do, make us take a survey?”

“We still don’t know who’s in that car,” Simon replied.

“True, but…” Joshua tapped the screen, went to the back-up cam and titled it up, pulling slightly away so he got a look at the driver and passenger. “Well, it’s not Brenda, at least,” he said.

“I really have a feeling she wouldn’t sell us out,” Simon said. “Besides, we never even told her where we live.”

“No, we didn’t. Did we? Hm.”

They continued up Tujunga and turned left on Magnolia, crossed under the 170, then turned left to hop on the on-ramp and head south. Traffic was light at least, so Joshua hit 70 and stuck to the leftmost number one lane carpool, apparently continuing down the 170 into Hollywood, Metro vehicle behind all the while.

“You want the other side,” Simon told Joshau.

“I know,” Joshua replied.

“Oh, shit. You’re about to — ”

“Make you shit your pants?”

“Joshie!”

“Sorry, honey. We need to shake a tail.”

Joshua accelerated to eighty as the approach to the lanes that cut off to the 170 and Hollywood neared. Then, at the very last second, he yanked hard right and swept over three lanes, punching it to ninety and heading down the 134.

The Metro vehicle behind them managed to make it one lane over before a BMW cut them off and Joshua sailed it down the interchange and onto the freeway to Pasadena without their pursuers, bringing their speed down to 65 to Simon’s great relief.

“I hate it when you do that,” Simon told him.

“You’re still hard right now,” Joshua replied, and they both knew that it was true.

“Yeah, but it’s a fear boner,” Simon explained sheepishly.

It had subsided by the time they got to JPL and made it down to Ausmann’s office. On the way, knowing full well by now that he’d probably already seen the footage, they had to come up with a plausible reason for Preston’s escape, so they had decided to blame it on the woman from Metro who had left with them.

She demanded to know what was in the other trap, against their better judgement they opened it, and Preston flitted off into the night, as these things were wont to do.

But, surprisingly, Ausmann didn’t even ask about Preston after they’d placed the other trap on his desk and removed it from the bag.

“Apparently,” Simon explained, “Her name was Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard.”

“Really?” Ausmann replied, looking stunned. “You two mooks managed to capture Anabel?”

“You know her?” Joshua asked, just as stunned.

“I know the name,” Ausmann said. “But are you sure that’s who she is?”

“That’s who the other entity said she was.” Simon explained.

“And how would that one know?”

“Apparently, he was her son,” Simon added.

“Did you bring the other one?” Ausmann suddenly asked.

“Uh… we caught him, but, um, he… got away,” Joshua offered.

“Oh,” Ausmann replied, but didn’t say anything more about it, just staring at the trap on his desk. “If this really is Anabel… I think you two are in line for a couple of bumps up the ladder.”

“You mean… up our pay grades?” Joshua asked, pretending that it mattered.

“Oh, yeah, that too. No, I meant… more on upping your security clearances. But… that all depends on whether this is Anabel or not.”

“Who was… is Anabel, anyway?” Simon asked.

“You don’t get that story until I’ve bumped you up from public trust to secret. Good work, boys. See you next time. Last stop is North Hollywood, right?”

“Next week,” Simon replied.

“Can’t wait to see what you pull in then. Thanks!”

Simon and Joshua left the office and headed up top. Once they were in the elevator, Simon asked Joshua, “Has he ever told us ‘thanks’ before?”

“Nope,” Joshua replied.

Back in his office, Ausmann turned the trap over and over in his hands. It was an amazing piece of work, really, and he had no idea how the two managed things like this on what he paid them. Still… Anabel was a name that had come up countless times in their failed attempts to keep these entities either trapped down here or from suddenly melting into nothing.

Except for the ones who popped up claiming to be famous people — a sure sign of insanity — most of the others cried out one name before fleeing or disappearing. “Anabel.”

In the chess-game Ausmann had been playing, it felt like he had just captured the Queen.

* * *