Sunday Nibble #35: A life online

The world may be going to hell in a very big handbasket, and whether we’re all going to die of the plague, roast to death as temperatures rise (either drowning in the rising seas or choking on the endless smoke or both), or we’ll perish in a WW III most likely started by a collapsing and fully fascist United States of America.

Or we could luck out and turn things around. But one thing I have to marvel at is what an amazing era of technology we live in. It’s only the beginning, but we’ve gotten pretty far, pretty fast.

Now, I happen to be of that part of Gen X that has never not been online at any point in their adult lives. In fact, I used a networked computer before I got my driver’s license, way back at the tender age of 15.

But… I was an adult before the founding of either Google (1998) or Wikipedia (2001), and although I wrote all of my scripts and such on computers, I still had to rely on analog research methods until the beginning of this century — mostly libraries and books.

For one black comedy set during the Civil War, my research was pretty much limited to the big book of Ken Burns The Civil War documentary, with occasional library trips and heavy use of my handy Columbia Desk Encyclopedia.

Damn, at one time, I had a huge personal reference library full of dictionaries, specific encyclopedias, writers’ reference books on various subjects that pertained to a particular genre — I think I had Crime and Science Fiction — as well as buttload of foreign language grammars and translating to English dictionaries, including ones like Old English, Hebrew, Hawaiian, Gaelic, Arabic, and Japanese.

Side note: I’ve made a sincere effort in my life time to learn ten languages besides English. I managed fluency in one (Spanish) and, through that, the ability to kind of read and understand one that I studied but could never hear the pronunciation of and another that I never studied (French and Portuguese, respectively), know more than I should but nowhere near enough of the language of the country my last name comes from (German), two for specific purposes of script writing (Italian and Norwegian), two just to try out non-Latin alphabets (Japanese and Russian), one because there seem to be a lot of tall, hot men from there (Dutch), one because the opportunity came up through a theatre company I was in (ASL, until our teacher moved), and one because it’s spoken in the country from whence came half of my genetic heritage (Irish Gaelic).

Funny story, though. Spanish and German are the only two languages that I studied in school. The rest but three were on my own, and most of those were before the internet days. At best, I managed to find recorded lessons to listen to in the car, and for a while I got pretty fluent at basic Russian, but that was about it. As for the other two, once I left school, I kind of lost my abilities in either for a long time.

I remember one particularly informative moment when I traveled to Mexico with an ex, who was himself half Mexican on his father’s side, and realized once we got down there that I couldn’t understand shit, and I couldn’t say shit beyond very simple phrases — that despite studying Spanish in school for five years.

So… I used to have to try to learn languages through books or, if I were lucky, from a human teacher, but good luck with any kind of immersion in it. Likewise, in writing any kind of reality-based fiction, the research was tedious and time-consuming.

And then came the internet. Sure, in the early days (and I was there on the ground floor) you really couldn’t look up shit. I did happen to work for one of the first companies to jump into it with both feet.

This happened to be The Community Yellow Pages, a publication for the Lesbian and Gay community started in 1969 by Jeanne Córdova, who is a piece of lesbian history herself, and whom I was fortunate enough to have known.

She started the guide as a very thin phonebook with both Yellow (commercial) and White (residential) pages, and it was a way to advertises businesses that were either gay-friendly, or owned by gay people and, probably, the white pages part was a de facto but not really acknowledged dating section. (It was eventually discontinued.)

Anyway… 1994 rolls around, the internet is just getting going and, because one of Jeanne’s (many) siblings lives near Silicon Valley and is very tapped into what’s going on, that sibling (a younger sister) convinces her that online is the way to go.

I only worked for the CYP a couple of years, but it was an interestingly schizo time, because we were simultaneously selling people on this paper edition that would come out once a year, along with this electronic thing that could be searched from anywhere and which could be updated if needed.

And… the paper version was by far the best-seller. Bonus points: at that time, we could have done the layout digitally, but didn’t, and so for the few months leading up to publication, we had an actual layout artist come in and physically paste-up the boards that would be photocopied to create the masters for the final run.

Eventually, though, the sleeping giant of the internet’s potential awakened in quick order, first with Google indexing everything, and then Wikipedia accumulating knowledge.

And say what you want about the latter, but over time the ol’ Wiki has really become a stellar example of the “wisdom of crowds” concept. Plus which, it should never be a primary source, but just a guide to finding the same, which are now also all over the internet.

So researching and writing became a lot easier, but so did learning languages, especially after the launch of Duolingo in 2012, as well as the realization that it’s possible to set devices like phones and computers into other languages — and that cars have radios, which make possible both language-learning podcasts over modern tech or, depending on language, radio stations in the target language via old tech.

So those of us with computers, tablets, phones, or other devices, have access to the biggest research library ever assembled. It definitely dwarfs the fabled Library of Alexandria, and most likely has a lot more material than the Library of Congress — which would fit on ten single terabyte hard drives, by the way.

And it’s not just books and stuff like that. It’s full of music, movies, photos, and everything else that humans have left in their wake, all of it there to access either for free or for a nominal fee.

So if we make it through this Anno Horribilis of 2020, then maybe we’ll make it further and continue to see technology make leaps and bounds that our grandparents could never have even imagined.

The Saturday Morning Post #33: The Rêves, Part 11

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.

Anabel and Ausmann

Ausmann had been so amazed by the possibility of having finally trapped the infamous Anabel that he did nothing with the trap for a while. No — he wanted to learn everything about her first, because he was definitely all about “Know thine enemy.”

He certainly wasn’t going to ask Joshua and Simon for information, because that would just tip his hand and make him seem weak. He gleaned what he could from their comments, but then went right to the online archives and files.

The main thing he could determine about her is that she had never really been famous and had died almost a hundred years earlier, in childbirth. However, when he searched for her son, all he found online were completely indecent search results pointing to some guy who had been born over seventy years after she died.

Now, her family had been well-known, and they were connected to several wealthy families back east, but given the theory he’d been developing on who had been remembered, how, and why, Anabel made no sense.

Everything he’d gleaned indicated that she was very important to all of these… things… but why would they settle on her?

He contemplated the trap that the boys had given him. It was unlike all of the others, which looked like nothing more than flat compacts with matte black exteriors. The only thing that they lacked was some sort of fancy branding, like an embossed silver stamp of J&S. Or S&J. He had no idea who was the boss in that relationship, but he didn’t really care.

This trap holding Anabel, though, was much more elaborate — an amethyst teardrop in a cage of gold that reminded him of the Kabalistic tree of life in three dimensions. He actually wasn’t totally sure they hadn’t been trolling him, but he decided, finally, once he’d had enough info, that it was time to unleash the beast.

He set up a triple containment field — two secured boxes, with an electromagnetic grid around that — then sent the trap up through the double airlock and used the remote manipulator arms to open it.

The usual fog shoots out of it, but this one is a vivid shade of blue, and seems to have more agency then most of them. Indeed, it isn’t long before the blue fog shimmers out into a human form, followed by pure white mists that form the head, neck, and arms, and then a black shoot that creates the cascade of hair.

In under a minute, there is the form a young woman in a long blue evening gown and matching elbow gloves. Her jet black hair streams down her back in a highlighted waterfall, one tress in front covering half of her right eye, which only emphasizes her thin face, alabaster skin, and glossy red lips. Her eyes are jade green and intense between dark black lashes, above sharp, high cheekbones, and below carefully penciled brows, set off by a pale dusty rose eyeshadow that serves as a quiet echo of her lips.

Her shoes match her lipstick, and she is just as tall as she needs to be to stand up in the inner box, although that isn’t full human height, of course. The images reminds Ausmann of the small ghost that says good-bye to guests going up the final exit ramp at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion in both size and appearance.

“Who are you?” she demands.

“It’s not your place to ask, Anabel,” Ausmann replies. “I’ll be asking the questions here.”

“The hell you will,” she fires back. “Do you know who I am?”

“That was actually my first question,” Ausmann answers. “Who are you?”

“You already said my name, so it’s too late to play stupid. Who are you?”

“That’s not important. You are the one trapped in a box,” Ausmann shot back.

“Do you really think that we all don’t know who you are and what you’re doing?”

“We all, who?” Ausmann asked.

“Have you ever actually trapped a true celebrity?” she suddenly asked.

“What do you mean?” he replied. “The Black Dahlia. How’s that?”

Anabel just laughed. “No, come on. Someone you’d heard of before going full asshole on them?”

“When  have I ever gone full — ”

She shot him a look that shut him up.

“Well, I’m sorry, but I had questions.”

“So do I, “Anabel replied. “Want to let me out of this cage and talk like adults?”

There was a long pause before Ausmann finally replied, “No.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“I don’t trust you,” he replied.

“Probably wise,” she said, “But I don’t trust you either.”

“Fine!” he spat back.

“Fine,” she waved him off.

After a while, he asked her, “Do you know where you are?”

“Not specifically,” she said. “Duh. But I do know that I’m a lot farther underground than I usually am. Do all of the evil assholes happen to have hidden underground lairs?”

“I’ll ignore that,” Ausmann replied —

“Please don’t,” Anabel spat back.

“Next question,” Ausmann  continued. “What do your people want from us?”

There was a quiet moment, and then Anabel began to laugh very hard. In fact, so hard that Ausmann began to worry that she might injure herself, so he cut down the pressure in the tanks and opened the inner tank to the next one.

“Are you all right?” he finally asked her.

“Oh, peachy,” Anabel replied. “I was laughing because you’re arrogant enough to think that my people want or need a damn thing from yours? Right. Hint: We are all goddamn dead, so we don’t need to eat or sleep or… anything, ever again.

“And that could easily get so boring, except that we’ve vowed to entertain ourselves as long as you aren’t doing something more interesting. So I suppose, to answer your question, what we want is for you to leave us alone and stop kidnapping our kind.”

“What kind even are you?” Ausmann demanded.

“We refer to ourselves collectively as The Rêves,” she replied, “Although that’s not so much a description as it is more of a family name.”

“Rêves,” Ausmann repeated. “French for ‘dream.’”

“That’s part of the reason,” she said. “It also refers to ‘revenant,’ a person who’s come back from the dead.”

“That could be a ghost or a zombie,” Ausmann said, “But you don’t look like a zombie.”

“We aren’t zombies, and we’re not truly ghosts, either.”

“Then what are you?” he asked.

“Bored by this conversation,” Anabel said. “So, what are you?”

“A scientist,” Ausmann replied.

“Mad scientist?”

“Don’t be dramatic,” he sneered.

“Well, what branch of science?”

“Several that hadn’t been invented by the time you died,” he explained. “Let’s just leave it at physics. I think that branch was around in your day.”

“And what would a physicist have to do with our kind? I thought that you science people didn’t even believe in spirits or ghosts.”

“I don’t believe that you are ghosts,” he said.

“Then you tell me what we are,” Anabel snapped back.

“Don’t you know?”

“No,” she insisted. “I’m not a scientist. How would I know?”

“Well… what rules do you follow?” he asked.

“Oh… it’s impolite to scare humans, never manifest in your current, actual physical form, especially if you’re still in that awkward decomposition phase, never try to have sex with a human — ”

“No, I meant more like… actual rules. Physical things that seem to control or limit you.”

She tilted her head and stared at him for a moment, then just laughed. “Do you think that I’m that stupid?” she replied. “Your real question is, ‘How can we control you?’ Sorry. We are not interested.”

“I already seem to be controlling you,” he said, tapping the side of the outermost box. “And it doesn’t seem that difficult. Look at what a tiny trap my boys caught you with.”

She picked up the trap, which surprised Ausmann because he didn’t think they could do that. She stared at it. “Such a pretty thing to be so dangerous, don’t you think?” she asked him, but something in her tone made it ambiguous whether she meant the trap or herself.

“You’ve got a lot of voltage running around outside this box. Well, not anything that would kill a human through air contact, but pretty similar to how these little traps work. There’s a problem with that, though.”

“What?” he asked.

“I remember a teacher in school — it was biology class — answering someone’s question. ‘What if an ant was suddenly as big as an elephant?’ The short version of her answer was that its legs would immediately shatter under its own weight, and it would suffocate and dehydrate at the same time.”

“What does that have to do with us?” Ausmann asked.

“Some things don’t scale up,” she said. “And when you give a thing a power source, you give it great power. I enjoyed our conversation. Good-bye.”

She smiled at him, then abruptly shoved her arm right through the Plexiglas of the traps and then her hand made contact with the static field that was supposed keep the Rêves in.

As soon as it did, the entire inner box filled with a bright blue flash, Anabel shot up to full size and through the top, where she stood there for just a moment, seeming more substantial than she had already, and locked eyes with Ausmann.

“Leave us alone,” she said. “That’s your only warning.”

And then she blinked away, but it was so fast that Ausmann wasn’t sure which way or where she’d gone. He hit the general alarm button, then buzzed security.

“An entity has escaped containment,” he announced. “I don’t know whether it’s still on the premises, but consider it keter. Put the complex on full lockdown.”

As alarms sounded everywhere, Ausmann sank back into his desk chair and sighed.

“Fuck,” he said.

* * *

Split

Joshua and Simon got up, showered and dressed, made and had breakfast, and then moved on to the main event of the day. Joshua retrieved the trap with Preston/Danny in it from the vault while Simon prepared the holding trap they would interview him in.

They had gone back and forth over whether to just let him go free range like last time and, while he had made no attempt to escape, they weren’t so sure he’d stick around after today’s interview.

Simon also made sure that what they called The Tank was set up with a perfect view of their living room widescreen, and he had already cued up the programming that would appear on it.

They set the trap into the slider that would take it into the holding tank, which unscrewed the lid as it moved to the center. A mechanism slid into place to lift the lid once it was there, and the inky black smoke they were so used to drifted up to fill the tank, swirling around for a while before it resolved into Preston in his favored garb.. He looked around until he saw the two of them, then smiled and pressed himself up against the glass. “What?” he asked. “Don’t you trust me now?”

“Today’s questions might be… difficult,” Joshua replied. “We want you to be safe.”

“Around two hot daddies like you?” he said. “I’d always feel safe.

“Stop,” Simon replied. “We’re not ‘daddies.’”

Young daddies?”

“Didn’t your sex drive go away when you died?” Joshua asked.

“No,” Preston replied.

“You mean you can still — ” Simon started to ask.

“Wanna watch?” Preston said, licking his lips.

“No, and no, don’t answer that question,” Simon said, looking away.

“We were wondering how much you remember, so tell us about this scene,” Joshua said, nodding to Simon, who tapped the coffee table, which had touch screen controls built into its top. On the TV, video played.

It was Preston with two other guys in what was probably a fancy apartment, probably east coast judging by the city view out its windows, which were clearly from high up and full of skyscrapers.

The three of them were mostly clothed at this point, but were making out heavily.

“Oh, yeah,” Preston said. “Last full scene I remember doing. That was… Blake Alan on the left and… Gabriel Stokes on the right.”

“Do you remember where you shot it?” Joshua asked.

“Yeah, it was this sweet apartment in Manhattan that our producer rented for the month, right near the south end of Central Park with a great view of mid-town,” Preston explained fondly. “God, this was so hot to shoot.”

“Do you remember when you shot?” Simon asked.

“Right at the end of the video, baby,” Preston replied. “Twice.”

“Oh, goddammit,” Simon muttered. “Really?”

“What was the date?” Joshua asked, giving Simon a loving look in hopes of calming his embarrassment.

“Oh… this was like the beginning of April, probably, so I think it was the last thing I shot with other people. Winston did let me stay in the place until the end of the month, then made it the end of May. I was all alone, but doing Only Fans stuff all the damn time. Otherwise, everything kind of stopped after that for a while. No more scenes, and not even bringing a crew in for a solo.”

“Do you remember the end of May?”

“Yeah. I mean, I definitely remember the middle of May, when Winston gave me this insane offer to go appear in Florida.”

“The Memorial Day circuit party in Miami?” Joshua said.

“Yeah. God, that was amazing. And not just that I banked five hundred K for the appearance, but I made a goddamn mint on top of that in tips for stripping, signing autographs, selling underwear, doing escort work. The whole… what’s the word? Nine inches?”

“Yards,” Simon corrected him.

Preston laughed. “Did you know that ‘yard’ is British slang for cock?”

“Really?” Simon replied, but the tone was one of disdain, not interest.

“Yeah, Winston told me that. It came from naval slang. Yardarm on a mast holds up a sail, and it sticks out like a hard-on.”

Preston laughed again as Simon gave Joshua a jaundiced look.

“Okay, so you did the party, the whole weekend, I’m assuming, then what?” Joshua asked.

“Let’s see…” Preston thought. “I went back to L.A. Jason — my kind-of boyfriend — suggested I just stay at home and focus on doing my own shit for Only Fans.”

“Not that any of us were really selling by that point,” he continued. “At around the beginning of May, there was this sudden explosion of new OF accounts, so there was too much in the market. Plus customers were out of work, so nobody wanted to pay anything for it. Not that I needed money by that point.”

“And then?” Joshua asked.

“June… middle of June…?” Preston trailed off and stared, seeming lost in thought. “I remember suddenly feeling really bad, and Jason and Winston and I did this video conference thing with some woman in a black robe… oh. Yeah, I think we got married. Jason and I, not Winston. And…” he trailed off.

“And?” Joshua and Simon both asked quietly.

“I remember being in Jason’s car, in the back, and then… sitting all alone in the cemetery before Anabel walked up to me.”

“She was the first one to come to you… after?” Simon asked.

“Well, she was my mother, right?”

Before Simon could speak, Joshua gave him a warning look. “Do you remember when and where you were born and grew up, Preston?” he asked.

“Hollywood. The first thing I remember is the first day I worked for Winston.”

“Really?” Joshua continued. “Nothing before that?”

“No,” Preston said.

“Do you remember that first shoot?”

“Just me and my fist,” Preston said. “That’s pretty normal for this business, right?”

Joshua nodded to Simon, who seemed apprehensive, but he tapped the coffee table anyway. Another video ran. In this one, a clearly younger Preston sat on a mohair couch that looked like it had been stolen from a university dorm break room, completely dressed, with a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes.

A voice from off camera asked questions, starting with innocuous things like, “So, you said you just got here and you need money?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I can probably arrange that.”

“Cool.”

Before it got to anything too personal, Joshua gestured for Simon to hit pause.

“This was your first shoot,” Joshua said.

“Really?” Preston said. “Wow. Yeah, I kind of remember that one, but it was so long ago.”

“Not that long,” Joshua explained. “But I want you to pay very careful attention to the questions and answers, okay?”

“Okay.”

“And you’re absolutely sure that’s you in the video?” Simon asked.

“Oh, hell yeah,” Preston said. “I still have that… still had that hat.”

Joshua nodded and Simon restarted the video.

“So, pay close attention to the questions and answers, then,” he said.

The off-screen voice, who must have been Winston, continued.

“So, you just got here and you have no money, is that it?” Winston asked.

“Yeah, I’m pretty broke. I was sleeping in the bus station.”

“What would you do for fifty bucks, then?” Winston continued, and a hand holding a fifty dollar bill came into screen.”

“Um, I don’t know,” onscreen Preston/Danny replied. “What did you have in mind?”

“What’s your name?” Winston asked.

“Danny,” Preston/Danny answered.

“Danny what?” Winston asked.

“Just… Danny.”

Joshua gestured and Simon hit pause.

“Danny what?” Joshua asked.

“Just… Danny? Danny who?” Preston replied.

“That’s you in the video, right?” Joshua said.

“Well, yeah, duh.”

“So you’re really Danny… who?”

“Dude, don’t you know that porn is all fake names and shit?” Preston replied. “I probably didn’t want people to know who I was.”

“So… you went on to have a porn career under your real name? That seems backwards,” Joshua said. “Where was Preston born?”

“Hollywood,” Preston insisted.

“And… Danny?”

“In some dude’s fucking imagination, I don’t know,” Preston shot back.

“That’s good,” Joshua told him. “That’s it. Hold that thought. Preston, who is the real you, did tons of porn so that he wouldn’t be identified under his real name. Meanwhile… where was Danny born?”

“Shit, I don’t know. The second some fat old fuck with money decided to pay me to jerk off?”

“Or was that when Danny died?” Joshua went on, giving Simon the signal. The video continued.

“Danny. Nice name,” Winston said. “So, where were you born?”

“Idaho,” Danny/Preston replied in the video.

“Ah. Potato planet,” Winston laughed. “Boise?”

“Nah,” Danny replied. “Pocatello.”

“Oh my god,” Winston laughed. “Did they name everything in that state one off from some kind of porn reference?”

“What do you mean?” Danny asked.

“Well, first of off, ‘Boys-me.’ Second, you’re from ‘Poke-a-Fellow?’”

“Yeah, but I grew up in Emmett. Fuck, that kind of sounds like ‘in it,’ doesn’t it? I never thought… oh, holy shit, you’re right!” Danny started laughing, then reached out and grabbed the fifty. “What do you want for that?” he asked.

“Take your clothes off,” Winston said.

“All of them?” Danny asked.

“All of them,” Winston replied.

Simon paused the video again.

“Hm. Innocent little Danny from Pocatello Idaho, on the casting couch. You’re sure you don’t know who he is?” Joshua asked.

“It was all just made up shit, for the business. You know, stage names,” Preston insisted.

“All right,” Simon chimed in. “This still doesn’t make sense. You came to L.A., did one little jerk off vid under a fake name, then started doing legit porn under your real name?”

“That’s right,” Preston replied. “All that Danny shit was just to get in the door.”

Joshua and Simon looked at each other, not sure what to do, but then Joshua signaled to Simon… let it roll.

He restarted the video, and it went through the rest of the set-up and story. The first fifty had gotten Danny naked, the next hundred got him hard, and the last hundred came after he did, and all the while Winston was asking him about his life back home, and he just kept giving details.

When it was over, Simon shut off the TV and Joshua decided that it was time to play bad cop. Not that he hadn’t kind of been already, but this felt like it needed extra attention.

“Okay,” he said. “So Danny was just this dude you made up for the first film, right?”

“Right,” Preston replied. “I didn’t even remember that until you reminded me.”

“Telling,” Joshua whispered to Simon. “Okay, so then you must have lied when you finally signed up to take the job.”

“What do you mean?” Preston demanded. Joshua snapped his fingers, and Simon put all of Danny’s proof of age docs up, which were all under his real name — and this seemed to have a slight effect when he read aloud…

“Winthorpe… Win… when…? Fuck…”

In the box, he collapsed out of his visible form back into the black mist. Simon and Joshua exchanged a concerned look, but then Joshua whispered to him, “Sorry. Ace in the hole, dear.”

“That seems really, really cruel,” Simon replied.

“Yeah, so do most of the things they do in rehab,” Joshua said. “Cue it up, and I’ll signal when I’m ready.”

Joshua went right to the box and pressed his ear against it as he spoke. “Hey, Preston. Hey, you okay? We were just trying to clear up all this thing, because rumors were starting to spread that you were not Anabel’s son, and we were hoping to, you know… stop that shit?”

There was a long moment, but then the black smoke sank and coalesced again, with Preston huddled in the bottom right corner of the box that Joshua had been speaking to.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“So am I,” Joshua replied, then he signaled to Simon, who fired up the screen again, this time with a copy of Jason and Preston’s wedding certificate — except that the name on it for Preston wasn’t Preston. It was Daniel Winthorpe.”

Preston turned, stared at the document, then began to shudder while letting out inchoate moans of some kind of existential angst and fear. He started to de-coalesce into a cloud of gray gas while keeping his naked porn star form. On the other side of The Tank, that gas reformed into a clearly younger, totally clothed, and more innocent looking form of Preston who was clearly Danny.

Each of them now knelt at opposite sides of the box before turning to stare at each other in disbelief. After a moment, both of them turned to stare at Joshua and Simon on the outside, then glare and point at them.

“Goddamn you,” they both said in unison, rising as best they could to point. “What the fuck have you done to us?”

“What’s your name?” Joshua demanded, defiant.

In unison, they each answered with the name they thought they had. “Danny Winthorpe.” “Preston LeCard.”

And no sooner were the answers out of their mouths that they turned to stare at each other in fear and anger.

Joshua turned to Simon and they nodded at each other, reaching for the emergency trap activation switch, but it was too late. Danny flew out of one side of The Tank and Preston flew out of the other, shattering the glass before they both roiled into trails of smoke and blasted out of the open patio doors and off into the night sky above NoHo.

“And… that went well,” Simon muttered to himself.

“Just shut up and fuck me if you know what’s good for you,” Joshua replied.

“Angry fuck?” Simon said.

“Yeah, I guess I kind of deserve that. Shut the doors and batten down the hatches. It’s going to be a humpy night.”

“Honey?” Simon told him as he slid shut the patio doors.

“What?” Joshua asked.

“We just managed to pull off a gigantic fuck-up. So all you’re getting tonight is, maybe, a little bro cuddle, And then we have to figure out what and how we’re going to explain this shit to Ausmann.”

“Are you saying that like it’s my fault?” Joshua demanded

“No,” Simon replied. “And that’s my point. We just both had a massive joint-fuck-up.”

Joshua stared at Simon for a long moment, then sank into the sofa in disbelief.

“We… lost one, didn’t we?” he finally said.

“No. We made two, then lost them both,” Simon replied.

“How the fuck did we make two?” Joshua asked.

“I have no idea,” Simon replied, “But that might be important later.”

Joshua sighed at the ceiling, tried to come up with an answer, but had nothing so, finally, he just pushed Simon onto the couch, climbed on fully clothed with his back to him and said, “First, I’m sorry. Second, just be the big spoon and bro-cuddle the fuck out of me tonight, because I think we’re going to need it for tomorrow.”

“Ditto,” Simon whispered into his ear before they drifted off together.

* * *

Friday Free-for-all #32: Roll illegal and weird

What makes you roll your eyes every time you hear it?

That’s simple. Any time somebody takes astrology seriously. Actually, I’ll extend that — any time anybody starts prating on about whatever particular brand of woo woo they subscribe to. It’s a long list: Crystals, reiki, homeopathy, chiropracty, acupuncture, anything peddled on The Goop, tarot or any kind of psychic reader (but see below), and so much more.

I’d even also include a lot of bullshit conspiracy theories (there’s a redundancy!) like “chemtrails”, QAnon, and 9/11 Truthers, to name but  a few.

What’s really frustrating is that I know so many otherwise intelligent and well-informed people who so easily go in for one or more of these things. Well, except for chemtrails and QAnon. I have yet to meet anyone nursing anything resembling a brain in their skull that fell for either of those.

And those last three, more than the others, will make me roll my eyes harder than the dice on a Vegas craps table during a pro competition.

Sure, some of that woo woo is harmless — like reading your horoscope for daily advice, provided you don’t take it too seriously. But some of the medical practices can actually be dangerous or deadly, as well as ridiculously expensive if you get hooked and keep buying the shit. I’m looking at you, Goop fans, but I’m sure that plenty of people have blown a fortune buying crystals, or going to any of the pseudo-medics listed, never mind being scammed by a psychic.

But that brings me back to my initial mention of psychic and tarot readers, which came with a caveat. A lot of them are ethical, and while what they claim they’re doing is total bullshit, what the good ones actually do can be beneficial.

I say this because I was once fortunate enough to get to sit in as a friend of mine did what was midway between a psychic and tarot reading for someone else. He was using one of those New Age Woo Woo decks that was, I think, Archangels. I don’t remember.

If I do remember correctly, the Sitter (as they are always called) picked three cards, each one to represent an aspect of their current concern — something like goal, obstacle, and outcome.

The cards basically had the names and images, but there was a book that came with it, with longer descriptions of the Archangels. And here is where I watched somebody good it actually do something good by exploiting someone’s belief in the woo woo to that person’s advantage.

Basically, it turned into a mini counselling session, nothing more nor less. But the Reader, my friend, was able to use the vague descriptions in the book to form open-ended questions, so that he slowly induced the Sitter to talk through his own situation and discover the issue he thought he had.

And so it continued with the other two cards until the Sitter came up with this amazing realization. In his case, I think it revolved around having a career he enjoyed but which he felt was a dead end, and the possibility of changing but fear over doing so.

All the Reader did was have the Sitter walk through that fear, discover what could realistically be done, and then find a plan to do it. So, in that case, if the woo woo works for you, then it works. But not for the reason you thought it did. No supernatural powers or angels here. Just one dude with some insight and empathy who knows how to ask the right questions.

Speaking of which…

What’s the most illegal thing you’ve done?

This is always such an interesting question, because the definition of “legal” varies so much. I’ve committed sodomy in several states, but it was only illegal in one of them, Texas. Ironically, it was the overturning of that state’s law by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 that made it legal to get your same-sex freak on in all 50 states.

Oh. And oral and anal because, while these laws were often supposed to be targeted at gay people (of the male variety in particular) straight people also technically fell victim, since the wording was of the “only a ding-dong in a hoo-hah is considered actual, legal sex.”

Not the terms they used, but the intent behind the laws was about as mature.

So, yes. I’ve definitely violated state law by sticking my ding-dong where Texas used to say it wasn’t supposed to go, multiple times and in multiple positions.

But state law is for amateurs. What about Federal?

Again, for the most part when we’re not talking about crimes of violence committed by one person against others — rape, assault, sexual assault, murder, arson, armed robbery, burglary, mayhem, and the like — then it’s really kind of hard to define what a crime is.

I mean, that list between the dashes there really should be the 8 1/2 Commandments of “How Thou Shalt Write Thy Laws.”

Everything else? Well, those are open to debate and interpretation and ad hoc sessions of committees of (unfortunately way too often old white men) debating into the night and then doing what the lobbyists pay them to.

Which should make up the other half to round the above list to 9 Commandments: “Thou Shalt Not via Public Office.”

What should definitely be legal? “Congress (or whoever) shall pass no laws limiting what the People can ingest or inject into or do with or to their own bodies, or do with or to the body of one or more others, provided that all involved are consenting adults.

TL;DR: No drugs should be illegal. And, in fact, the one I took was actually totes legal right up until… 1966, when the U.S. said “Hell Noes…”

Not bad. It had a 21-year run, seemed to have some really beneficial uses, but, as is typical, the panic breakdown seemed to work like this:

Liberals: This seems useful. Let’s explore it!

Conservatives: This scares me. BAN IT!

So, anyway… seeing as how I first did it decades after the U.S. banned it, I did indeed violate federal law multiple times in the 90s by (gasp) dropping acid. Never mind that I’ve also done the same every time I’ve smoked pot, even after it became legal in California. The LSD stuff is just more interesting.

The most interesting part, probably, is this: Unlike other drugs, the effective doses of LSD are miniscule, measured in micrograms, of which I don’t think I’ve even taken more than 1,000 at once. One microgram is a millionth of gram, and a gram is just under four hundredths of an ounce.

Second: LSD apparently crosses the blood-brain barrier quickly, does its thing to certain receptors, and then quickly leaves the brain. It can stay upstairs for about twenty minutes, and then circulate in your blood for about forty-eight hours.

So it’s kind of like this drug sneaks into your brain, bangs a gong and runs away, leaving you to enjoy the reverberations.

Subjective view via many trips: What LSD seems to do is this: It turns off your brain’s filters for a while, and we have a ton of those. Your pupils dilate so your peripheral vision expands like crazy (especially crazy if it’s already mad good, like mine was and is) and you start to experience things in what I’ve always described as “Hindu Time.”

Not meant to be any kind of aspersion or cultural appropriation, but the thing that talking to people while I was tripping that most struck me was that it suddenly seemed like they had multiple faces and arms, all overlapping and swirling. This was a side effect of the thing known as “trails,” but, to me, it made every conversation feel like it took place simultaneously except just before now, right now, and just after.

Then the peak of the trip would hit, most likely involving some sort of audio stimulation (usually music) and this is where the outside world would vanish, but is this really all that different from going to sleep and dreaming? Yeah, I don’t think so.

The more I did it, the more I realized… LSD makes us remove our filters and shields and face the world naked. Some of us like that and embrace it. Too many of us don’t.

And that is what we’re voting on in November, plain and simple. Please. Be brave, Bea Arthur, be naked… but remove those goddamn shields at the very least.

What is the weirdest thing you have seen in someone else’s home?

Okay, this is one of those things where I have to give a lot of benefit of the doubt, but let’s start with what I saw…

An entire curio case full of what could be, at the most charitable, referred to as “Jim Crow Memorabilia.” Or, in other words, the smaller, indoor versions of all those tasteless Lawn Jockeys that were mostly eliminated decades ago.

Less charitably, let’s call it a tiny “Museum of Really Racist Shit.” All kinds of stereotyped figurines, some even with placards using incredibly racist slurs.

And I was of two minds on this one, given that the owner of the house happened to work in the business of liquidating estates and such, so he basically evaluated and sold off shit owned by dead old people.

So… favorable evaluation One: This was the shit he refused to sell because it was so goddamned racist, but he felt it necessary to preserve somewhere private in order to document the abuse.

Less favorable evaluation Two: Since my host was from the South… this was the shit he refused to sell because he wanted to keep it for himself, because it somehow fed his narrative.

Conflicty points: I’ve been to dinner parties he’s hosted with guests of all races, which make me lean toward option One. On the other hand, it was at one of those dinner parties that I learned that an Asian man could actually be prejudiced as fuck against Black men, and that broke my white brain.

I mean… really?

But those are the answers for now. Enjoy!

 

Theatre Thursday: How I wound up here

I never intended to go into acting in any way, shape, or form. I still consider myself a writer first, a musician second, and person who’s not afraid to go onstage or speak in public with or without a script third. And yet, here I was, up until March 2020, performing onstage without a script two or three times a month and loving every second of it.

It’s an odd road that brought me here with some interesting steps along the way. My earliest theatrical experience was the obligatory elementary school play. I don’t remember the first one beyond that I played some sort of a woodsman with a group of other boys, all of us armed with cardboard axes. I do remember the second, an adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

I probably remember it because I had lines and everything and was kind of a featured character. I’m pretty sure the character I played was a boy named Obi, and he was a big deal in it because he was lame. Since he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t follow the other kids when the Piper lured them off, and so became the sole witness to tell the grown-ups what happened. I think this was around fifth or sixth grade.

In middle school and high school, I mostly floated around band instead of drama, although the two merged when I played piano in a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie. Yeah, kind of anachronistic by that point, but the music is fun and it’s a safe show for that demographic while pandering to being about rock music.

I also wrote my first play as a final assignment for my AP English class. The teacher asked us to write a parody of something that we’d read during the two semesters of the class, and I hit on the idea of writing a two act musical that parodied everything. It became pretty epic, combining A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Crime and Punishment, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (we dodged The Catcher in the Rye because the teacher thought we’d read it when we hadn’t), various works of Shakespeare, and I don’t remember what else.

All I do remember was that it took the various characters from the stuff we’d read and tossed them into our very own high school, had a few songs that I actually wrote the music and lyrics to, and I got an A+ on the thing despite the teacher later admitting that he hadn’t had time to read the whole thing. It was over 50 pages, after all, when I think most other people turned in four.

One memory I do have from the experience, though, was when I excitedly tried to tell my father about it, and his reaction was basically, “Why the hell are you wasting your time doing way more than you have to when the assignment was to just parody one thing?”

Yeah, way to be encouraging there, Dad. I was doing way more because I got inspired, and that’s what’s kept me going as an artist ever since. So the A+ was kind of my personal vindication.

This was the same English teacher who taught a class that combined film history with filmmaking, an art form I loved ever since my dad took nine year-old me to one of the frequent revivals of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was frequently revived because every time a film at one of the cinemascope theaters around town bombed, they would toss this film or one of a handful of others up for the remainder of the originally booked run time. 2001 re-ran a lot in the 70s and 80s. The other great love it instilled in me was of the genre of science fiction, especially so-called “hard” science fiction, of which the film is a great example.

The appeal to me of hard science fiction is that it tries to follow the rules of real science without relying on making stuff up or defying reality. This means that Star Trek is a bit squishy and Star Wars is totally flaccid, but I’m still a Star Wars homer because that series caught me as a kid and has kept me as an adult, and Kylo Ren became my new favorite character with his first appearance, never mind cementing it with his last.

So, in what in retrospect was probably the stupidest decision of my life, I went to film school to major in screenwriting. The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that my sensibilities were nowhere near the mainstream and would never mesh with Hollywood in any way, shape or form. I didn’t really know or appreciate it at the time, but I had pretty much already learned how to write. What I should have done was majored in something practical that would have made me a lot of money early so that I could then stop working for other people, invest, and then have the whole artsy career thing.

Yes, if I had a time machine, that’s the life-path I would go back and beat into my 16-year-old self. “You’re either going to study some business thing, like get a license in insurance or real estate, do it for a decade and hate it but cash out, or you’re going to hit the gym with a personal trainer and then become a model or porn star or both and love it but then cash out. Then you can pretty much be what you want to be.”

So I hit college and film school and in the middle of my first semester I get a call from a theatre professor who had been talking to one of my film professors, who had mentioned to her that I played keyboards and owned a synth. “Would you be interested in playing for the musical we’re doing this fall?” she asked.

“Oh hell yeah.” It was an obscure piece written by the people who created The Fantasticks, an off-Broadway musical that ran for 42 years. The one we did, Philemon, was less successful, most likely because it’s a lot darker and basically deals with a street clown in 1st century Rome who winds up impersonating an expected Christian leader in order to out Christians in a Roman death camp only for the clown to actually try to inspire a revolt and it doesn’t end well for anyone.

But… I had a great time doing the show, made a lot of new friends, and got talked into auditioning at the next semester company meeting for the next show. I did it mainly based on the fact that “There’s no way in hell I’m going to get cast in a play as an actor.”

I got cast. And since doing a show gave credits, not to mention that I’d started college basically a semester ahead thanks to credits from high school AP classes in English, Spanish, and History, I had room to add a minor. So what did I do? I added two — theatre and psychology.

Oh, look, Dad. I’m overachieving again.

I performed in or was on crew for at least two shows per semester from that point on, although three or four were the norm, especially after I’d gotten involved with the Del Rey Players, who were essentially the “amateur” theatre club on campus.

By the time that college was over, I’d written a couple of not-that-good screenplays, but had really connected more with theatre in general, and all of my friends were theatre people, not film people. (There was a lot of crossover, though.)

Still, I had it in my head that I was going to go into film, but I started writing plays. My first after college “real” job was working for the Director’s Guild pension plan offices because, again, I was naïve enough to think that that was close enough to the industry to get in (hint: it was not), but it is where I met a woman, Thana Lou Tappon — although she went by just Lou — and when she heard that I was into theatre, she invited me to join up with a playwriting class she was in, and that became a life-changing moment.

The teacher and mentor I met was  man named Jerry Fey. Basically, he somehow wound up teaching a playwriting class as part of the UCLA Extension for a semester and realized two things. One, he loved teaching. Two, he hated the bullshit that came with academia. So he tapped his favorite students, and set off on his own. And to his great credit, he did it for free.

It was in his group that I created and developed the first-ever short plays of mine to actually be produced, and then wrote the first full-length that was produced and not just anywhere. My debut as a playwright was at a little theater called South Coast Rep. Basically, it’s the Center Theater Group of Orange County or, if that means nothing to you, one of the many regional theaters that is Broadway equivalent without being on Broadway.

In fewer words: I managed to start at the top. And that’s not to blow my own horn but rather to honor Jerry, because none of that would have happened without his guidance and input… and then, not more than a year after my premiere, he didn’t show up for class one day and I was the one to make the phone call from the theater which was answered with the news that he had died the night before. Official version: Liver cancer. Real reason? We’ll never know. I do have to wonder, though, whether he knew back when he started teaching for free on his own, and was giving back in advance of his inevitable demise.

But what he left behind was a group of people who kept going as a workshop for years, dubbed themselves The Golden West Playwrights, and we are still friends — hell, family — to this day.

Flash forward past other produced plays, one of those plays getting me into a Steven Spielberg sponsored screenwriting program that was fun but led to nothing except for a close friendship with a famous science fiction writer, then winding up working for Aaron Spelling, and the same play getting me my one TV writing gig, and then winding up in a playwrights’ group at another theater company, The Company Rep, only to balls up enough to audition for one of their shows and make my return to the stage, this time doing more Shakespeare, playing every guard, officer, soldier, and whatnot in The Comedy of Errors, and doing it with a broad comic Irish accent — something that inadvertently led to me doing a Michael Flatley impression in the show that brought the house down. Yeah, the director’s idea, not mine, although I accidentally suggested it.

Other roles I did with that company include the Spanish speaking Dreamer (aka Jesus stand-in) in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which only ran for 60 performances on Broadway, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come along with about eight other characters in a musical version of A Christmas Carol and, my favorite, Duna, the depressed unicycle-riding bear in a story theater style adaptation of The Pension Grillparzer from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. (Holy crap. I just remembered that one of the shows I played piano for in high school happened to be Story Theater, by Paul Sills. Whoa!)

Anyway, the nice thing about playing the bear was that it was an entirely physical part, no lines, and I pretty much got to just run with it. There was one moment in particular that I loved. During a long monologue by a character in the foreground, I let myself be fascinated by the glass grapes decorating the stole worn by the grandmother character to the point that I would suddenly drool big time — actor secret, hard candy in the corner of the mouth right before entering. That would get a nice “Ewwww!” from the audience, and then I would go and bite those grapes and Grandma would fend me off with her handbag. It was a beautiful moment of silliness, and I loved it.

That company eventually folded and I went back to working for home media and then a celebrity website with a play or two produced in the meantime. And then things went weirdly full circle.

I didn’t mention that my previous experience with improv also happened in college. First was when I did a radio show my freshman year with fellow students. We started out scripting the thing as a half-hour sketch show, but when it became clear that we couldn’t create material fast enough to keep up with production we moved into improv mode, although our use to lose ratio became ridiculous — something like record four hours in order to get twenty good minutes.

And compound that with me just not being able to come up with anything good, so I had to drop out. At the other end of my college career, we attempted an improv evening at an after party with the aforementioned Del Rey Players, but I couldn’t do that without going incredibly dirty and not going anywhere else with it either.

So, end result, while I liked improv as a concept and audience member, I feared it as a performer. And then I found out that one of the actors involved in one of the plays of mine that was done in the ‘10s also happened to teach improv with a company, ComedySportzLA, that was located in El Portal Theater — the same place where The Company Rep had been when I joined it, ironically.

I knew that I loved to watch improv but had had bad experiences trying to do it, but what better way to find out whether I could? So I went to see a few shows, then started taking classes, and then wound up actually doing improv for real live audiences and, holy crap.

If I had that time machine now, I would go back to my fifteen-year-old self and say, “Okay. Find the job that will make you the most money in the fewest years — it will probably involve computers and the internet — and go take improv classes as soon as you can. Hell, if your high school doesn’t have a ComedySportz team yet, convince your drama teacher to get one and do it right now.

Yeah, that would have been the much faster route to now. On the other hand, I’m not complaining at all about how I wound up where I wound up. Just wondering whether one slight tweak or another in the past wouldn’t have put me in a completely different place.

But… don’t we all?

Image: Philippe De Gobert, Grand room at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, (cc) Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

P.S. On Monday, February 17, the ComedySportz Rec League is hosting their 11th anniversary show and pot luck. You should come see us. PM for details. 

Going back up the family tree

I became fascinated with genealogy years ago, and used to spend many a Wednesday evening in the Family History Center next to the Mormon Temple near Century City in Los Angeles. Say what you want about them as a religion, but their work in preserving family history has been invaluable and amazing, even if it did originally start out for the most racist of reasons wrapped in a cloak of theological justification. Fortunately, the nasty justifications have long since been removed, and if it takes believing that all family members throughout time are forever bound together in order for the Mormons to keep on doing what they do in this area, then so be it.

It had been a while since I’d actively done any research, largely because I no longer had time for it, but back in the day, I did manage to follow one branch, the ancestors of my father’s father’s mother’s mother, also known as my great-great grandmother, to find that at some point this line had been traced back to the magic date of 1500.

Why is that date magic? Well, if you do genealogy, you know. If you manage to trace all of your own family lines back that far, you can turn your research over to the LDS, and they will do the rest for you. Keep in mind, though, that it isn’t easy to get all of your branches back to 1500, and certain ancestries naturally create blocks to progress. For example, if you’re descended from Holocaust survivors, you’re probably SOL for any time during or prior to WW II. Likewise if you’re descended from slaves, or your ancestors immigrated from Ireland, you’re not going to find many records after a few generations.

This is, of course, because paper records can easily be lost. For example, almost all of the records from the U.S. Census of 1890 were destroyed by a fire in 1921. During the period from June 1, 1880 to June 2, 1890 — the span between the two censuses — around 5.2 million people legally immigrated into the country. At the same time, the population grew from just over fifty million to just under sixty-three million. Or, in other words, the major and official historical record of just over eleven million people newly arrived in the country, through birth or immigration, were destroyed forever, with no backup.

Fortunately, over the last decade or so, science has developed a way of researching genealogy that cannot be destroyed because every single one of us carries it within us, and that’s called DNA, which can now be tested to match family members. On the upside, it can reveal a lot about your ancestry. Oh, sure, it can’t reveal names and dates and all that on its own, but it can tell you which general populations you’re descended from. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword. At its most benign, you might find out that the ancestry you always thought you had is wrong. At its worst, you may learn about family infidelities and other dark secrets.

I haven’t had my DNA tested yet, but my half-brother did, and his girlfriend recently contacted me to reveal that at least one family secret fell out of it, although it doesn’t involve either my brother or me. Instead, it looks like a cousin of ours fathered an illegitimate child in the 1960s and, oddly enough, that woman lives in the same town as my brother’s girlfriend.

Of course, the test also came with a minor existential shock for me, since she gave me the logon and password to look at the data. It turns out that my half-brother’s ancestry is 68% British Isles and 15% each from Scandinavia and Iberia. Now, since we have different mothers, the latter two may have come from there, but the surprising part was that there is nary a sign of French or German, although our common great-grandfather, an Alsatian, is documented to have emigrated from the part of Germany that regularly gets bounced back and forth with France, and the family name is totally German. I even have records from a professional genealogist and historian who happened to find the small village my great-grandfather came from, and my brother’s girlfriend tracked down the passenger list that documented his arrival in America from Germany on a boat that sailed from France.

But that wasn’t the troublesome part of the conversation. What was troubling was finding out that one of my cousins, her husband, and two of their kids had all died, most of them young, and I had no idea that they were all gone. This led me to search online for obituaries only to wind up at familysearch.org, which is the Mormon-run online genealogy website, and decide to create an account. Once I did, I searched to connect my name to my father’s, and… boom.

See, the last time I’d done any family research, which was at least a decade ago, I’d only managed to creep up one line into ancient history, as in found an ancestor that the Mormons had decided to research. This was the line that told me I was descended from Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine via an illegitimate child of King John of England. This time, things were different, possibly due to DNA testing, possibly due to better connection of data. Whatever it was, though, wow.

Suddenly, I started out on my father’s father’s father’s side of things and kept clicking up and… damn. After a journey through England and back to Scottish royalty and beyond, I wound up hitting a long chain of Vikings that eventually exploded into probably legendary bullshit, as in a supposed ancestor who is actually mentioned in the opening chapter of Beowulf. That would make my high school English teacher happy, but it’s probably not true.

The one flaw of Mormon genealogy: Their goal is to trace everyone’s ancestry back to Adam, and so shit gets really dubious at some point.

But… if you’re willing to write off everything claimed for you before maybe Charlemagne’s grandmother, then you will find interesting stuff, and the stuff I found after clicking up a few lines was, well… definitely interesting, and maybe reinforced the idea that, despite a German great-great-granddad, my half-bro and I are apparently British as bollocks for one simple reason: Everybody and his uncle invaded Britain over the centuries, including the Romans, the Vikings, the Danish, the Gauls, the Celts, and so on.

And, true enough… up one line, I wind up descended from nothing but Vikings. Up another, from but Vandals and Goths. Several lines tell me I’m descended from a King of Denmark. Along another path, it’s the Franks, house of Charlemagne, except that the Mormons tell me I’m descended from there long before Karl Magnus himself. Several other lines, including that King John one, I’m more Welsh than the Doctor Who production company. And there are all the royal houses: Swabia, Burgundy, Thuringia, etc., as well as several Holy Roman Emperors, and kings of France, the Franks, the Burgundians, and the English, that are dancing a pavane in every cell in my body.

So, what does it all mean? On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to flip back through history and look up people from past centuries — bonus points if they made enough of a dent in time to at least have some records to look up, and big ups if they appear in Wikipedia. On the other hand, you only have to go back six generations — to your great, great, great grandparents, to find a point where each of the 32 of them contributed less than one whole chromosome to your genetic make-up. About 40 generations back, each ancestor could not have contributed more than a single atom from that DNA to you, and before that, it gets meaningless. (I’ll leave you to do the math, but it’s about 8.5 billion atoms per chromosome, times 46.)

Yet… life and time marches on. A lot of our history is oral or traditional or recorded on paper. A lot of it is false, although science is marching us toward a sort of truth. Maybe I’m not as German as I thought, but I won’t know until I test my own DNA, and may very likely run into the ancestral roadblock on my mother’s side common to people of Irish descent — ironically because people of English descent were such right bastards a few hundred years ago. That’s one set of ancestors trying to wipe out another.

But if you go back far enough, what you learn about humans is what you learn about air and water. By this point in time, every molecule of air has been through countless lungs and every molecule of water has been through countless plants, animals, and people. All of us now living have literally breathed the same air and drunk and excreted the same water. We have shared precious resources that keep us alive. Likewise, our human DNA has been through each of us, has existed long before any of us, and ultimately came from the same primordial ooze of long ago, and is also essential to our continued existence as a species.

Or, in other words, while it’s fun to do genealogy to try to pin specifics on our ancestors, there’s really only one truth. We are all related to each other. We should all treat each other like family. And this circles back to the Mormons. While they might try to justify their interest in family history based on some sort of theological belief, they’re still on the right track. Yes — all family members are sealed to each other throughout history. The thing is, all humans are family.

That’d be all humans, no exceptions. And that, perhaps, is the most amazing thing about studying genealogy. All roads lead to the idea that borders, nationalities, differences in belief, and separations by geography are complete and total bullshit. There’s another religion that put it succinctly and nicely. They were founded about twenty years after Mormonism, and they’re known as the Bahá’í. Their motto is “One planet, one people, please.

I think that’s a motto we can all get behind right now. It’s one we need to. Otherwise, we’re not going to leave any people on this planet to carry on our DNA.

Words both common and not

Knowing other languages can teach us a lot about our own. Not only can common sources for words between our native and target languages help us learn vocabulary, but sometimes an unknown word in our target language can teach us a word we didn’t know in our native language. Here are examples of both.

One of the first sounds that a baby makes, regardless of culture or language exposure, is some sort of “Mmm,” usually associated with an “ah.” If you think about the human mouth for a second, this makes total sense. Close your mouth and try to exhale, and what sound do you make? Now open your lips mid-exhale, and what are the combined sounds?

Ma.

Once a baby realizes they can control the sounds they’re making, it’s a simple step to “mama,” and this sound refers to all things mother in so many different cultures and languages that it’s ridiculous. In Chinese and Japanese both, the word is pronounced mama, and you find very similar things in Zulu (umama), Thai (maaa), Punjabi (mami), and Irish Gaelic (mam). Even in Basque, which is said to be not related to any other known language, the word is ama.

Although less universal, in a lot of Western languages, the M sounds still holds when you get formal: mother, madre, Mutter, mère, mama, matka. And extending the concept via Latin into Romance languages, you find the official word for breasts coming from the same place: mammaries — which makes total sense if you keep in mind that one of a mother’s major functions after giving birth is to feed her child. And that’s true of any animal that is classified as… a mammal.

In case you were wondering where that term came from, ta-da!

I was reminded of this linguistic evolution when I ran across a story in La Opinión with the headline “Policía amamanta a bebé cuya familia sufrió un accidente.” The word that stuck out because I didn’t know it was amamanta, but in the context of the rest, I took a guess and then looked it up to find out that I’d been right. The infinitive form of the verb is amamantar, but if you get rid of the prefix, “a,” and the verb ending, “tar,” you’re left with maman. The prefix “a” is the Spanish word for “to,” but it is also often used when the direct object of a verb is a person, in which case it’s referred to as the “personal ‘a.’” (It even appears in the headline, right before the word bebé.) I won’t get into that here, except to say that affixing an “a” to a verb often means that the verb indicates that the subject is doing something for someone else.

If you haven’t guessed the meaning already, the rest of the sentence is talking about a police officer, and a baby whose family was in an accident. Think of the verb as “mothering-to,” and you can see how it means to breastfeed. The mammaries are right there in the word, so to speak. It just takes a little breaking down to get to them.

And then there are those cases where not knowing a word in our target language at all leads us to look it up only to find out that we don’t know the word in our native language, either. In my case, it was the Spanish word álgido, which I ran across recently. I couldn’t figure it out in context no matter how hard I tried, so resorted to looking it up, only to learn that the English word was… algid.

Okay, that was a new one to me, too. The form of the word in both languages told me that it was probably an adjective — many Spanish adjectives end in –ido/-ida or –ado/-ada because the past participle of the verb is often used that way, just as it is in English: he’s baked, you’re stoked, all the leaves are raked, and so on. Also, a lot of English adjectives end in –id, e.g. rigid.

Otherwise, guessing the meaning really didn’t help. Sure, a lot of Spanish words borrowed from Arabic start with “al,” like alfombra (carpet), or algodon (cotton). Even English got the word algebra from Arabic, but all that the “al” prefix means in Arabic is “the.” Compare this with the Spanish masculine the, “el,” so el algodon is technically redundant. And if you take the al off of álgido, all you’re left with is gido, which means nothing because the only logical verbs it could be derived from would be ger or gir, which do not exist.

And so looking up the translation for álgido in English led me to algid and taught me nothing, so I finally had to resort to an English dictionary, where I looked up the word, doubting that I wound find anything — except that I did. The words in both languages mean frozen or cold, and they come from the Latin word algidus, which means exactly the same thing. It came into English in the very early 17th century as a medical term, and since Latin was still all up the butts of academics and religious at the time, this is probably how it came into Spanish, too. The only difference was in how both languages liked to make their adjectives, so Spain went the –o/–a ending route, while English cut it short.

And there’s another English word that looks a lot like this one and means the same thing: Frigid. Ironically, this word also came into English from Latin, but about a generation before algid. Why one persisted in every day speech and the other didn’t is a mystery I’m not going to try to solve.

And yes, the word for frigid exists in Spanish, too — but I’ll bet you a quarter you can figure out what it is without me even telling you.

Nothing changes until we change it

I missed mention the anniversary of California’s admission to the U.S. last week, so here’s a flashback piece with a bit of California history for you.

You’ve probably never heard of Milton Slocum Latham unless you’re a serious California history nerd. I’d never heard of him until today, but I discovered him because I looked up a list of California governors. I did this because the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, announced that she was giving up her current party affiliation in order to become independent. I was curious as to which governor had put her on the court and who made her Chief Justice.

Note that I don’t really want to discuss partisan politics here. You can look up the particulars yourself. Suffice it to say that Cantil-Sakauye was appointed by a governor of her own party, then made chief justice by a governor from the other party. But what really caught my eye was going down that list of California governors and realizing that there have been a lot of tumultuous changes.

For one thing, a lot of governors served very short terms, and either resigned or were not re-elected or even nominated. This seemed particularly common in the 19th century, which makes sense considering that California came into the union in 1850 as a free state (i.e., slavery was illegal), but seemed to have a lot of Democratic governors around the time of the Civil War. And, if you’re not ignorant of history, you know that, at that time, the Democratic Party was mostly on the pro-slavery side while the Republicans were anti-slavery. This was before the great reversal of sides begun under FDR and completed while LBJ was president.

The first Republican governor of California was Leland Stanford — you might recognize his name from that little university in the northern part of the state. Elected in 1861, he only served one term at a time when the governor’s term was only two years. The law changed to double that term as soon as he left office, of course, although he did go on to serve as a U.S. Senator for California for eight years, until his death in 1893.

Stanford isn’t the only governor to have namesake places in the state. The city of Downey was named for the seventh governor, John Gately Downey, who, until Arnold Schwarzenegger, was the only governor of the state not born in the U.S. (he was Irish.) On the other hand, while it’s been claimed that Haight Street in San Francisco was named for Henry Huntly Haight, the tenth governor, that’s probably not true. This claim was first made in 1989, but the oldest mention of the street’s namesake, from 1916, says that it was probably named for Fletcher Haight, a local lawyer and district judge who, coincidentally perhaps, died the year before the other Haight became governor. And it does make sense. Governors tend to get things bigger than streets named after them.

But let’s get back to Milton Slocum Latham, the sixth governor of California, and the person to hold the singular distinction of having served the shortest term to date in that position: five days, from January 9, 1860 to January 14, 1860. He immediately preceded the aforementioned Governor Downey, by the way.

Now, why was Latham’s term so short? Did a scandal throw him out of office? Was his election invalidated, or did he pull a William Henry Harrison and drop dead? Perhaps he changed his mind and quit? Nope. None of the above, but definite proof that some things in politics never change.

See, just after Latham’s election, one of Calfornia’s Senators, David Colbreth Broderick, went and got himself killed in a duel that was most definitely related to the contentious issue of slavery, although Broderick was also apparently quite corrupt, and had made a fortune running San Francisco the same way that Tammany Hall (a thing, not a person) had run New York. All this makes me rather ashamed to admit that ol’ Brod and I have the same birthday. Dammit.

On the other hand, he was part of an attempted offshoot of the Democratic Party at the time, the Free Soil Democrats. They were the ones opposed to slavery expanding into the west. (Note: They were not necessarily anti-slavery. They just didn’t want it moving to other states.) After a little insult battle between Broderick and David S. Terry, a former California Chief Justice no less, the two met to duel. Broderick’s pistol anti-Hamiltoned and threw away its shot by firing as he drew and putting the bullet into the ground. Terry then nailed him in the right lung.

The duel happened six days after the general election that Latham won with 60% of the voters. That election was on September 7, 1859, the duel was September 13, and Broderick died on the 16th. So at least we can say Latham did not run with the intent of taking that senate seat, right?

That didn’t stop him once he was in office and, since this was back in the days when Senators were still appointed by their states instead of elected, Latham did a little wheeling and dealing, and the rest was rather dubious history.

He was not re-elected to a second senate term and died in 1882, in New York, at the age of 54.

But now to the point of this history lesson. There’s really nothing new in politics. Only the names of the people and parties and the methods through which information is exchanged evolve. I’m sure that Broderick’s duel and Latham’s gambit were covered in the newspapers and periodicals at the time, discussed in the private clubs, and propagated by telegraph.

And regardless of the parties involved, I think we can all agree that somebody being elected to one office only to lobby for a sudden vacancy in a higher office after less than a week shows heinous disregard for the people who elected them — especially when that election came with a 60% majority.

Yet we see this sort of thing all the time, as an elected official will suddenly start campaigning for an office higher up, sometimes right after they’ve been sworn in. It seems particularly bad with governors who want to run for senator or president, and senators who want to run for president, but it happens at all levels. I’ve seen city council members start to stump to become the next mayor less than halfway through their first term, mayors campaigning for governor once they’ve moved into city hall, and so on.

Now I have no objection whatsoever to an elected official wanting to work their way up the food chain. That’s how it should be. I just think that we need to make them take some time to do it, which is why I think we need a little adjustment to the law. Well two adjustments.

First, does anyone else think that it’s insane, in this day and age, that people elected to the U.S. House of Representatives serve only two years? In effect, this really means that any Rep is basically spending all of their term campaigning for their next election. The California gubernatorial term doubled from two to four years well over a century ago. We need to update the House of Reps to at least four years as well.

And, for that matter, why does the Senate get six? I can understand the idea of staggering those elections into three classes, like they are now, but why not four year terms for everyone, staggered into two classes, half elected every two years? Although, given recent behavior, it really should be flipped: House term of six years, Senate term of two. Just a thought.

But the real proposal is this one:

  1. No person newly elected for the first time to any position in the government of the United States or any of its states, counties, cities, or other political jurisdictions, shall seek, campaign for, file for, raise funds for the purpose of, or otherwise pursue, election to a different position within the aforementioned governmental jurisdictions prior to the completion of one (1) complete term to which they have been elected.
  2. Any incumbent elected official in any of the jurisdictions mentioned in §1 shall not seek, campaign for, file for, raise funds for the purpose of, or otherwise pursue, election to any different position within the government unless the term for which they would be newly elected begins on or after the date that their current term would normally expire according to applicable law. This exception does not apply to a first-term official in any capacity.
  3. None of the above restrictions shall apply to an elected official seeking to be re-elected to the same position they already occupy; nor to previously elected officials who are not currently in office for reasons other than impeachment, censure, or conviction of felonies; nor to an elected official who is not eligible to run for the same office again due to term limits.

I think those rules are fair all the way around. If you want the job, at least do it for what you contracted for. If you want to apply for another job, make sure it starts after this one ends. If you want to keep your job by reapplying, or go back to work after leaving, or are going to get laid off — then do what you want.

If your only purpose in running for office is to leap-frog your way to the top of the pile as quickly as possible for the sake of power, then we don’t need you in office. Milton Slocum Latham learned that lesson first hand. There’s also a very local and specific example from Los Angeles, but I won’t mention any names here. The important part is that, as with Latham, the voters figured it out and soon said “No.” But we really need to enshrine that automatic no into the law.

And that’s not really a political position one way or the other, since this really is a case of “both sides do it.” It’s just common sense, and another way to try to restore some sanity to our political system.

Sunday Nibble #34: Dune

As a kid, I read all of Frank Herbert’s Dune books but, caveat, only the ones he actually wrote, and not all of the add-on attempted canon that came later. I was also a huge, huge fan of the much reviled David Lynch film adaptation — his version, not the bastardized Alan Smithee cut — which is nowhere near as awful as a lot of idiots have made it out to be.

Although, looking at the trailer now, is just a reminder of how, well… cheesy a lot of movie-making and movie marketing was back at that time — not to mention how awful a lot of the special effects look now. But do you remember those days when trailers had narrators that had to explain absolutely everything? Pepperidge Farms remembers.

Still, I have to admit a major fondness for the Syfy Channel’s 2000 and 2003 adaptations of the first three books which, in a lot of ways, went way beyond the Lynch version in scope and depth, although at the same time went with a much more low-budget, mostly unknown cast — which gets really ironic in 2003’s Children of Dune, because this was pretty much America’s intro to James McAvoy who, well, needs no introduction.

And now, there’s a new film adaptation coming out, and it looks like maybe they’re doing it right by only biting off half of the first book now, the second to come later — and the casting is beyond amazing.

Bonus points to them for using a Pink Floyd song in this trailer, which is a huge nod to the aborted attempt to adapt the book way back in the late 60s by Alejandro Jodorowsky, with such mind-blowing ideas as the Emperor being played by Salvador Dali, and Feyd-Rautha portrayed by Mick Jagger, the director’s own son as Paul Atreides.

Soundtrack: Pink Floyd. It’s hard to imagine what would have come out of that collaboration, but it never happened.

As for the source material itself, a good friend of mine always describes Dune as “Lawrence of Arabia on Acid,” which seems pretty accurate to me. Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet this go-round) is the son and heir-apparent to a noble House that is given the task of subjugating the plane Arrakis, source of the spice melange. This substance has both religious and civilian purposes.

It allows Guild Navigators, star pilots mutated by OD-ing on spice, to actually see and plot routes between star systems and making the hyper-jumps entirely with their minds in a process described as “traveling without moving.”

This is what gives spice its true value, because it literally powers all space travel and commerce in the known universe. And it only comes from one planet. Arrakis.

Spice is sacred to both the natives of Arrakis and the religious order of Bene Gesserit, who have been mucking about behind the scenes trying to selectively breed the person who will become the Messiah to the people of Arrakis, thereby giving them indirect control of the planet and the spice.

The big bads of the original book are the House Harkonnen, sent to do the emperor’s dirty work, and House Corrino, to which belongs the Padishah Emperor himself, Shaddam IV.

And if all of this competing houses business absolutely reeks of Game of Thrones, just remember that Frank Herbert came up with his version sometime before 1965.

Interestingly enough, it looks like we don’t get to the Emperor in the first movie, which is probably a good thing.

My only disappointment with the impending project is that there really is enough Dune material to have done it as a very extended streaming series. On the other hand, it’s the kind of the thing that really needs the same kind of big screen that was necessary to tell the story of Lawrence of Arabia.

Of course, there’s always the ideal universe, where director Denis Villeneuve pulls this off and nails the sequel, and then the Dune saga becomes the next (and very grown-up) version of the Potterverse Franchise, which has pretty much lost all of its shine for me.

But there’s plenty of material. The original Dune series comprises six books, one short of Potter: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse Dune. And god (emperor) knows, Herbert’s son went all Christopher Tolkien on his dad’s IP and spun it out into a ton of further books to rival the ridiculousness in scope of today’s Star Wars extended universe.

Perhaps I’m fanboying too much, but this trailer really does have my hopes up that there will be at least one bright spot coming at the end of 2020. I’m hoping for two, and anyone who’s been paying attention can probably guess what the other one is.

The Saturday Morning Post #32: The Rêves, Part 10

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.

Lunch Meeting

Brenda got the text from Rita at ten a.m. the next morning. “Lunch, Grand Central Market, Wexler’s, 13:00?”

She replied with a thumbs-up icon, then wondered what could be possibly going on with that. Rita hated face-to-face things, and wasn’t really into doing lunch. Still, Brenda wasn’t going to question. How could she?

She left her office at about a quarter to one and walked the mile down to GCM, entering from the Broadway side opposite the Bradbury building and stopping at the Wexler’s counter with Rita nowhere in sight. She ordered a Reuben. Five minutes later, Rita entered from the Hill Street side, ordering a Philly Cheesesteak.

Both of their sandwiches arrived wrapped at about the same time, so they decided to go outside and find a table on Broadway, where they sat and unwrapped in silence, until, finally…

“So… what’s on your mind?” Brenda asked.

“Everything, really,” Rita replied.

“Really?” Brenda wondered.

“Oh, yes,” Rita said. “Are you kidding? You’ve managed to raise so many questions and bring up so many issues, with proof, that… my god, Brenda… you don’t know the chatter downtown, but you just may have funded an entire department and, if you play your cards right, you’re going to wind up heading it.”

“And what would you say if I told you that two gay white guys actually did it?”

Rita stared at her for a moment, then laughed and replied, “I’d say that you wanted to get demoted to dog catcher. Yeah, I know who you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in the footage. Why do they dress like that?”

“A fashion statement?” Brenda said. “Actually, they told me it’s because they figured that the best way to not stand out in the Metro is too look like they’re trying to. Everyone just assumes they’re some kind of street performers heading to Hollywood and Highland and ignores them.”

“So it’s not as stupid as it looks?”

“Personally, I think it looks kind of sexy on them,” Brenda replied.

“At least we know exactly where they live,” Rita said.

“We got the building address, anyway,” Brenda said.

“Don’t be modest. You got their exact unit number as well.”

“I what?”

“But… those two are very clever,” Rita continued. “They figured out almost immediately that we were watching, and gave our crew the slip.”

“Why were you following them?”

“To figure out their methods. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to slip GPS on their car, so the last we saw them, they were headed generally toward Burbank. Or Glendale. Or who knows where else out the 134.”

“I wonder if it was Forest Lawn,” Brenda mused.

“Which one?” Rita asked. “They’re all over the damn city.”

“But why do you need to follow them to figure out their methods? You can pretty much see them on all the videos.”

“Well, methods and motives. I mean, you must have wondered,” Rita whispered. “What do they do with these things once they catch them?”

“I assume that they’re working for someone,” Brenda said.

“They didn’t tell you?”

“No. I mean, only vaguely. They hinted that they couldn’t say anything because it’s some government organization they work for.”

“Oh, goddammit!” Rita grunted. “How are we going to steal them to work for us if they already work for some government agency? And are they rivals within the county, just city level, or something else?”

“They only alluded to the idea that it’s an agency they’d normally hate working for, so given that they a couple of gay millennials, I’d say that it has to be federal.”

“Hm…” Rita mused. She took out her phone, tapped and swiped, then handed it to Brenda. On it was a photo of a Tesla that had been painted purple with an orange racing stripe running along its length. It had California vanity plates that read ECTO-42.”

“Damn,” Brenda said. “Double nerd reference. And who the hell paints a Tesla?”

“Someone who owns it,” Rita said. “But what government agency could they possibly work for that they own a Tesla?”

“Especially that one,” Brenda replied. “Tesla X, Performance version. That’s the most expensive one.”

“Why would you know that?” Rita asked her.

“I had to talk Jonah down from a little mid-life crisis a couple of years ago. Got him to settle for a Prius instead.”

“That’s not all,” Rita went on. “They own their condo, too. Free and clear.”

“No shit?”

“No shit.”

“Although, of course, while we could get the info about that, we couldn’t get their names.”

“Joshua and Simon,” Brenda said.

“Yes, but Joshua and Simon what?” Rita asked.

“Yeah, good point.”

“Shit,” Rita sighed. “I mean, even if you want to hire them as contractors, I guess…”

“Yeah, but wait. You know how long it takes government to do anything, especially the county, because the supes have to figure out how they can grease their palms off of it first and I did not just say that out loud to you, thank you — ”

Rita gave a loud, hard laugh at that, put her right hand on her heart, raised her left and said, “Amen, sister.”

“But why the hell would I want to actually run an agency or department or whatever when all that does is shove me in the spotlight?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Bump to the highest pay grade, county executive? Brenda, you could by your husband and all three of your kids their own Teslas.”

“Not really,” Brenda replied. “What are they even thinking of calling this department, anyway?”

“Well, we can’t exactly call it the Los Angeles County Department of Investigating Supernatural Shit Going Down in our Metro System, can we,” Rita said. “So we were thinking something like The Riordan Legacy Project, since this was kind of his doing in the first place.”

“You do know that that mofo is still alive, right?”

“And didn’t you tell me that you voted for him twice?”

“Only once,” Brenda insisted. “I was two young the first time. Second time was because Tom Hayden seemed a little too scary radical for me.”

“Weren’t your parents like crazy old-school hippie activists, though?” Rita asked.

“My mother still is,” Brenda replied.

“And your… Oh, shit. I’m so sorry. I forgot.”

“It’s okay,” Brenda said. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay — what happened. But I don’t expect everyone to constantly, you know. Life goes on.”

“Okay, but seriously, we create a special department to investigate these things, with an eye on maybe — just maybe — eventually revealing the truth to the public — ”

“As if!” Brenda scoffed.

“What would you call it? What title would you like, which county building would you like your offices in, and how much should we pay those cute little gay ghost hunters of yours?”

“Did you just use the G-word?”

“Gay?”

“No. Ghost,” Brenda said. “I’m not even sure that’s what we’re dealing with here.”

“Then what do you think they are?” Rita asked.

Brenda shrugged. “I don’t know. Something… different? Weird? Maybe not even a spiritual or supernatural phenomenon at all?”

“So you do want to know!” Rita smiled, pointing at Brenda, who looked up, then down, then back at her.

“Okay. Busted,” she replied. “But no way in hell I want to run the whole show. Nuh-uh, not in a million years. I’d rather be behind the scenes, with my two cute little gay guys. Why don’t you run it?”

“Really?” Rita asked.

“Yes, really. You,” Brenda said.

“Oh my god, thank you,” Rita replied. “See, I told them that you’d never want the top spot, but they didn’t believe me. But I never in a million years would ever try to talk you out of it. Which I didn’t, right?”

“Of course you didn’t. Girl, you practically shoved me into.”

“Exactly.”

“So, wait… who did you tell, and why do you sound like this thing is already going to happen?”

“Fair questions,” Rita said. “Obviously, I told the Board of Supervisors when they brought me in to describe the project and suggest you for the top role.”

“The fucking supes. Of course,” Brenda sighed. “And…?”

“The Los Angeles County Bureau of Anomalous Events. Seems bland enough, right?”

“Did some asshole downtown actually try to make that acronym be BAE, or was it an accident?”

“Is it…” Rita paused, thought it out, then laughed. “Holy shit,” she said. “That must have been one horny fucker in Norwalk who pulled that one out of his or her ass.”

“Yeah, that County Seal is going to look ridiculous.”

“So… are you onboard?” Rita asked her.

“As what?” Brenda replied.

“Well, I don’t think they’d go for a title like Assistant to the Beautiful Latinx Goddess in Charge, so how about… BAE Deputy Director?”

“I don’t know,” Brenda replied. “I was thinking more along the lines of Chief County Fag Hag?”

“Really?”

“No, you silly bitch. But, how about we dump the BAE and deputy anything, and make it… oh, I know. Executive Director of Anomalous Investigations?”

“Ooh. Now you’re thinking like a bureaucrat, girl. Yeah, I think that’s doable. What am I saying? They gave me carte blanche. Of course it is. Although your acronym is about sad robots.”

“What?” Brenda asked in surprise.

“It’s ED, AI,” Rita replied.

“Oh shut up,” Brenda snapped back at her, and then they laughed and high-fived.

Yeah, Brenda thought, this might actually turn out to be interesting.

* * *

Gumbo

Joshua and Simon got home from visiting Drew and Brent late in the evening because Brent was a southern gentleman with Cajun roots, and if there was one thing he always did for his guests, it was to feed them, so the boys were not allowed to leave right away, especially after announcing their engagement — clutch the pearls!

Brent ran off to the kitchen, and set to cooking the famous Cajun “Holy Trinity” (onions, bell pepper, and celery) as the basis for what was going to become chicken gumbo.

He also phoned a few friends to come on over, and they started arriving within half an hour. Joshua and Simon knew some of them, but not all of them, although Joshua had stayed naked and in the pool while Simon had gotten completely dressed at the first hint of company.

It wasn’t even anywhere near dark, and wouldn’t be for a while, Joshua thought. Why waste good daylight?

“You know, I’d love to stay for dinner,” Simon told him, “But we picked up some really important information here, and I’d love to act on it as soon as possible.”

“So do I, dear,” Joshua replied. “But think about it. First, we’re going to have to come up with a strategy and a game-plan, and that’s going to take more than five minutes. And then, what? We’re going to try to pull it off after dark, which we both know is when these things seem to be the most alert and active?”

“But we have a chance to test our biggest theory!” Simon insisted.

“I know,” Joshua said. “But that is exactly why we need to take our time doing it. Tomorrow will be fine. Tonight… just relax and enjoy dinner, okay?”

“I’m sorry, honey. Really. You know how anxious I get about this shit. But, you’re right. We have time. Preston isn’t going anywhere.”

“Love you,” Joshua replied, and Simon just smiled back at him and nodded.

That was when Brent came outside and saw them and announced loudly, “There you two are!” It always struck Joshua as really funny that, while Brent never drank, something about his natural accent always made him sound drunk, and particularly right now.

The other guests came outside to crowd around.

“The nude one is Joshua, the really hot but shy one is Simon,” he announced. “They are very dear friends of ours, have been a couple forever, but finally decided to make it official, so this is their ad hoc and impromptu engagement party!”

Everyone cheered and applauded and Simon looked into Joshua’s eyes.

“Well, fuck,” he muttered.

“Roll with it, dear. Dinner will be worth it.”

By the time dinner was served, the sun was setting, and Joshua had finally deigned to get dressed again. He and Simon sat together at the head of the long table, and they both were amazed at how much food Brent had managed to make happen mostly by himself in such a short time.

Oh, he had the help of some guys he’d recruited to chop this and stir that, but otherwise, he was a one-man maniac in the kitchen.

The end results were amazing.

During the meal, Joshua and Simon were the center of attention, with Brent helping to drive the conversation, and the guests had so many questions, but they both decided that they had to be vague.

“What do you two do for a living?”

“Um… we code,” was about all they said. This had the advantage of making the much older guests, who were the majority, completely lose interest in that line of thought. Meanwhile, the younger ones had too many more questions.

“What do you code?” they asked. “Apps? Games?”

“Nothing you’ve ever heard of, really,” Joshua explained.

“It’s niche apps for very specialized industries, like oil drilling or logging,” Simon said.

“Ooh, good ones,” Joshua thought, just staring at his fiancé in awe. If there were two choices that would throw people off of the trail, those were them. Plus they were of less than no interest to the twenty-somethings who had asked what they coded.

They managed to steer the conversation onto musical theatre, and that finally took them out of the center of attention.

It was a bit after nine p.m. that they both finally managed to extricate themselves, politely rejecting the huge Tupperware bucket of gumbo that Brent wanted to send them off with, then they headed back down home, Simon driving this time while Joshua rode shotgun on a couple of their never released to the public apps.

One of them constantly tracked the Bluetooth and WiFi of every phone and vehicle around them to see if they were being followed. The other compared a database of government vehicles to their know tracking tokens, in case any of them got too close.

But they made it back down Laurel Canyon, right on Magnolia, left on Tujunga, and into their garage and down to their spot without being followed, all before ten p.m.

Once they’d gotten back upstairs, Simon was eager to grab the trap and let Preston out, but Joshua stopped him.

“I told you already, honey,” he said. “This one is way too delicate to rush.”

“What is the worst that could happen?” Simon asked. Joshua sighed.

“Sit,” he said. Simon sat on the sofa in the living room, and Joshua tried to explain his thoughts.

“Okay, so… ask yourself this. Dude is born as Danny Winthorpe. That’s who he grows up as. That’s who he is, his entire life, but then…?”

“Well, I mean… apparently, he died and was buried as Preston LeCard, right?”

“Exactly!” Joshua said. “But was he ever really Preston?”

“He thought so,” Simon countered.

“So did we,” Joshua said. “Okay, here’s another one. Who remembers Marion Morrison?”

“Um… who?” Simon asked.

“John Wayne?”

“Oh, right,” Simon brightened. “Yeah, I remember him, even though he was a gigantic, conservative racist dickhead.”

“But you only remember him under the one name, see?” Joshua said.

“Right,” Simon replied. “And?”

“Preston only remembers himself under that name because that’s the only name everyone knew him under. I mean, until we made the connection.”

“Okay,” Simon said. “So what’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is that these things apparently thrive on the memories of the living. So… what happens if one of them is suddenly confronted with two very different and conflicting memories? Is he Preston? Or is he Danny? Which one survives the battle?”

“Oh…” Simon  replied, finally getting it before adding, “Shit. So… Tomorrow morning, strategy session, heavy planning, that kind of shit.”

“That kind of shit,” Joshua said.

“Done,” Simon replied, and they hugged for what seemed like an hour, then put thoughts of unleashing Preston out of their minds and went to bed.

* * *

Image: Grand Central Market Downtown L.A., author unknown. Used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Friday Free-for-all #31: From movies to the apocalypse

This originally started as me answering one random question generated by a website, but the questions eventually got to the point 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!

What’s the strangest movie you have ever seen?

I’ve seen a lot of strange movies in my day, having been a film major and a film critic, but as of now, I have to say that the strangest is one called Holy Motors, a piece of neo-surrealism made in 2012 by Leos Carax, a French filmmaker.

It’s impossible to describe, but incredibly compelling and hypnotic. It’s one of those things I just ran across online having no idea what it was, but from the first moments it hooked me and took me on its wild ride. The film is anchored by the incredible performance of Denis Lavant, who, as the lead character in the film plays a ton of them.

Check out the trailer.

The premise seems to be that Lavant’s character, who may or may not be Mr. Oscar, is chauffeured around the streets of Paris at night in his limo by Céline (Édith Scob), his faithful driver of many years. She takes him to his various evening assignments, which involve taking on various roles, with elaborate make-up and costumes that he applies himself en route.

Some of the “performances” seem to be for a specific audience, while others are for no one in particular — or maybe for everyone. In a sense, he’s sort of a one-man flash mob, although it’s also clear that he’s not the only “actor” traveling through this demimonde.

Most of the stories take really weird twists, and yet Mr. Oscar goes on to his next assignment after each previous one, no matter how it ended.

In a lot of ways, it’s clearly an allegory for an actor’s life, who is shuttled from role to role at random, led by the whims of their directors, but the metaphor goes beyond that. And, if for no other reason, there’s this interlude that is well worth the price of admission. In the film, it comes out of nowhere and yet makes total sense.

It’s not your run-of-the-mill Hollywood film because, of course it isn’t. It’s French. And as one of my film mentors once brilliantly explained to me, here’s the difference between Hollywood movies and French cinema…

Both films start the same. Our hero is going to meet some old friends at a café to catch up after a long time over a leisurely lunch and drinks, but his taxi gets caught in traffic. Before he gets there, a terrorist bomb goes off right outside the café, killing all of his friends. The only reason he survives is because he was late.

Hollywood move: He spends the rest of the story hunting down and killing the people responsible.

French cinema: He spends the rest of the story wandering around Paris, disconsolate, trying to find meaning in something, anything, and feeling extreme guilt an angst on being the one who survived due to a mere accident of fate.

Et fin.

If you lived to be a hundred, would you rather keep your body at 30 or your mind at 30? (You only get one)

A lot of people would instinctively go for the “young mind” answer to this question, figuring that they’d like to avoid Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and so on. But if you understand biology, then there’s only one best answer: You keep your body at 30.

Why? Because it’s your body at 30, so it’s your brain at 30, along with your heart, and organs, and blood vessels. Ergo, you’re not likely to develop any of those other mental conditions. And if you keep that body all the way until you’re 100 and then start aging, then you’re going to keep on going until you’re pushing 200.

Also, if your body stays young, you’ll have the energy to act like you did at 30, so while you will mentally have all of the knowledge and memories you accumulated up to the point you started this adventure, you will also have the incentive to go out and keep learning.

So you kind of get the best of both worlds — the knowledge accumulated by your older self, but with the renewed kick-start of your younger self. And, come on. With that combination… watch out world.

Which apocalyptic dystopia do you think is most likely?

Hm. What is, “The one we’re living in right now, Alex?” A pandemic that some world powers refuse to acknowledge, the breakdown of democracy and the possible end of the United States as we’ve known it, weather conditions hitting new extremes on the regular leading to more frequent hurricanes and more devastating wildfires among other things, most of 2020 having become one long but necessary span of isolation, and on and on.

It kind of makes wanting to live to 100 in a 30-year-old body sort of a moot question — although if having that 30-year-old body would enable me to jump on the first colony flight to Mars, or even the Moon, I might just jump on the opportunity.