Christmas countdown: Monday’s theme

Day 4

On Mondays, the theme is going to be Spanish Christmas carols; los lunes tendremos los villancicos navideños españoles. Today, we’ll start with a simple one that most English speakers know and which gets played a lot this year — José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.” One interesting thing to note is that this simple title reminds us how Spanish construction and word choice frequently follows British, rather than American, usage. “Feliz navidad” literally means “Happy Christmas,” which is what they say in the UK. To be closer to the American “Merry Christmas,” the phrase would probably be “Navidad alegre,” although I don’t think anyone ever says that.

Christmas countdown: Sunday’s theme

Day 3

Sunday’s theme for Countdown to Christmas is going to be “It’s Not Just Christmas,” a reminder that there are other holidays this time of year. Here’s a song by Bob Grow celebrating that most famous of made-up TV alternative holidays.

Image source: 4marknelson, (CC) BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas countdown: Saturday’s theme

Day 2

Saturday’s Countdown to Christmas theme is famous duets, and I’m kicking it off with a modern classic that has become controversial recently because, when you really listen to the lyrics, it does come off as very date-rapey. Even the lyrics hint at this, with the male vocalist identified as “Wolf,” and the female vocalist identified as “Mouse.”
In this rendition, Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt flip the roles as she plays wolf to his mouse. Do you think this reinforces or negates the perception of the song as being about attempted date rape?

Christmas countdown: Friday’s Theme

Continuing my tradition from last year, since it’s now the day after Thanksgiving, time for the annual Christmas Countdown.

Day 1

Friday’s theme is “All I Want for Christmas,” aka “Mariah Carey’s Retirement Plan.” I’ll be sharing different takes on her instant Christmas classic. Hey, if you’re going to write a song to cash in on the holiday, at least make it a good one, okay?

This video became an instant favorite of mine when I first stumbled across it. It combines the song with some amazing choreography and a little gender-bending.Choreographed by and Starring Alex Karigan and Zac Hammer, members of Amy Marshall Dance Company. Beyond that and the name they use, The Yahs Initiative, I don’t know much more about the performers or video, other than that most of their videos are Christmas themed, and they haven’t posted anything in three years. Enjoy!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving however you celebrate it, although the following explains why you should not do it in person. Meanwhile, tomorrow marks the beginning of a special treat — my annual Christmas Countdown featuring a different one of my favorite holiday-themed music videos every day.

This will — or should — be a holiday season unlike any most of us have known during our lifetimes. I can only imagine that the holidays of 1918 and maybe even 1919 were just as disarrayed as now, and for the same reasons.

But I also wonder — what about all the holiday seasons during WW I and WW II, in particular, when all of the fathers, uncles, and other males in the extended family might not have been around to celebrate?

And yet, it is very important this year that we do what Americans used to prove themselves very good at: Sacrificing in the here and now for the long-term benefit of everyone. Rationing was one of the central features of WW II, after all, with people giving up or cutting down on certain things so that they could go to the war effort.

Of course, people back then showed the same warts we do now, and when word spread of something scheduled to be rationed, guess what happened? Yep. Same thing as happened to TP and hand sanitizer back in March. People stormed the stores and hoarded it.

So greed and selfishness are not modern inventions.

In order to make the system work, everyone — adults and children alike — got a ration book with coupons allowing them only so much of certain commodities at a time. But some of the limits were severe. For example, people were allowed three gallons of gasoline a week at a time when cars got really crappy mileage.

To be fair, though, not a lot of people owned cars at the time, so that might be like the modern equivalent of “You can only recharge your electric car to 25% once a week.”

Rationing didn’t just include commodities like fuel and food. It also covered clothing and manufactured goods, like cars, bicycles, and typewriters. Why? Simple. All of the raw materials required to make those things were also necessary to make aircraft, ships, weapons, bullets, and uniforms for the troops — and this at a time just after Japan had wrecked part of the U.S. fleet when they attacked Pearl Harbor.

One of the strangest things rationed was women’s nylons, and I’ve heard stories from my grandmothers about how, back in those days, they would actually use eyebrow pencil or something like that to draw fake seams down the back of their calves so it would look like they were wearing nylons.

So… why nylon? Simple. That’s what they made parachutes out of.

Ironically, once the war was over, all that stuff came screaming back into the economy as War Surplus, and stores selling that stuff are still around to this day.

The place where I live was built just after wartime rationing finally ended, sugar being rationed up until 1947. But one of the selling points of the place is that all of the kitchens have stainless steel countertops, and that stainless steel came right back from all of the aircraft factories in Van Nuys that no longer needed it.

Other fun fact: All of the peepholes in our front doors were made out of repurposed bomber gunsights with the hairline cross-sights removed.

The point of all this is that people had to make huge lifestyle adjustments — in the case of World War II, for over five years. And that’s just in America. People in Europe and the USSR had a lot more adjusting to do, and a lot more sacrifices to make.

So, as we come into this holiday season even as COVID-19 numbers in terms of new cases are outpacing by far the ones that sent us into lockdown way back in March, we have to remember not to do now what wrecked our brief success in the spring.

That is, once we hit Memorial Day, people in general got lazy and selfish, and started going out without taking precautions and acting like the crisis was over. And with every major holiday and event, numbers spiked and new hotspots sprang up — Independence Day, Labor Day, and every unmasked mass gathering, whether at a presidential rally or BLM protest — although the latter group were far more likely to wear masks.

What this means is that this holiday season is a time when Americans need to sacrifice again, and do what our grandparents and great-grandparents did during World War II in order to win. Give up those things that you think you really need right now, do with less, and take the time for focus on yourself, recalibrate, and recharge.

You can easily do without seeing family from another part of the state or out of state in person this year. You can do without getting together for that big dinner and whatnot. And you can easily have a family Zoomsgiving with everyone safe in their own homes, but still hanging out.

The best part: during Thanksgiving, Zoom has waived the 40-minute time-limit on meetings via unpaid accounts, so knock yourselves out — but with virtual gatherings only, please.

And the same will be true of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve. Stay safer apart. Period.

All that said, and as a preview of what’s to come here from now until Christmas, here are two Thanksgiving-themed music videos that could not be more different. Or maybe not. The first is a very traditional seeming musical tribute to the holiday until you read between the lines — because it just may be that what at first appears to be a huge feast being set out for a family gathering is really just a meal for one. (Oops. Spoilers…)

The Second is William S. Burroughs, and his ever apt, insightful, and true to this day Thanksgiving Prayer. Enjoy!

Image source, Bart Everson, (CC) BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Free-for-all… Wednesday?

Since Friday will see the beginning of my annual Christmas Countdown of various music videos themed to various holidays, regular features will not be as regular until 2021. This is basically my way of being able to take a vacation while not leaving my loyal readers without content.

So, since during Thanksgiving week Wednesday is really Friday, here’s Friday’s regular feature, in which I answer random questions from a website. Enjoy!

When’s censorship warranted?

Whenever someone wants the DJ to play Nickleback.

Okay, serious answer: We first have to remember what censorship is and is not. If a private entity, like a business, a website, a blog, a chatroom, or any other entity not affiliated with the government wants to prohibit the saying of any particular words or phrases or the posting of any kinds of images or videos, they are completely within their rights.

This is not censorship, and it’s why I’m ambiguous on the concept of, say, a bakery not wanting to make a cake for a same-sex couple because it offends the owner’s religious beliefs.

Honestly, and I say this as a queer atheist, that’s their right — just as it’s the right of people who do not agree with that stance to not patronize the business. Likewise, if I owned a business, I’d be within my rights to ban any clothing or jewelry with religious imagery or symbolism but, again, I’d also be free to suffer the economic consequences.

Of course, my second example isn’t quite the same, because it would take aim at everyone. To be similar in idea to the bakery example, I’d have to limit it to one particular religion.

What is censorship? It’s this same thing, except when it’s done by any governmental entity at any level. The analogous example to the bakery in this case is a city clerk who refuses to issue same-sex marriage licenses because it conflicts with her religious belief.

The baker is making a business decision. The government official is practicing censorship. The logic behind it is that the former is a private entity that has the right to choose those with whom they will or will not associate or do business.

On the other hand, since the government is financed by all for the benefit of all, it has no right to refuse service.

So the answer to the question, “When is censorship warranted?” is never. That’s because it’s up to us, the People, to keep an eye on things like hate speech, and incendiary language, and use the powers we have to shame and shun.

Does it work both ways, in terms of political leanings? Of course it does. And if you’re going to push in one direction against the beliefs and statements of the other side, you have to accept that they’re going to push back.

At the same time, the government has no right to shut either or any side up, with one exception, and that falls under the concept of clear and present danger. But you can look into that yourself. It will make for fascinating pre-holiday reading.

Where do you like going for walks?

As usual, for my contradictory self, I love walking in two places: in a dense urban setting with plenty of buildings and people around, and in nature — in particular beaches and forests.

I love the former because there’s always something new and interesting to discover, especially if you’re doing it in a city you thought you were very familiar with but in a neighborhood you’ve never walked through. I’ve had many an amazing photo safari on the streets of L.A. neighborhoods I’d only ever driven through before.

The flip side of that is a good walk in nature, and a large part of why I enjoy the beach and forests is that the sensory overload is just so relaxing. The seashore has a distinct smell of salt and sea-life, and the air always feels electrically fresh.

Meanwhile, the sound and rhythm of the waves, particularly as they crash on shore, is like the Earth’s heartbeat, reminding you that she is a living thing as well. Visually, there’s nothing better than the beach to remind you what you live on: a big ball of wet dirt, and from the edge of the beach to the horizon at sea, you’re seeing the transition from the minority to majority surface of the planet.

That is, there’s a lot more water than there is land, and if you watch very carefully and live close enough to ports, you can watch the ships come and go over that horizon and vanish around the curve of the Earth.

Forests are just as enchanting, though. Not only are you surrounded by the smells of the dirt and trees, and any flowers or other plants that might be around, but if you just listen, you can hear that the place is full of life that you don’t necessarily see, but you can certainly sense it.

You’ll hear birds and insects, as well as small animals skittering around in the bushes and underbrush. If you’re lucky, you may even encounter a deer and be quiet enough to get to watch for a while before they sense you and pronk off into the deep woods.

If you’re not lucky, you might encounter a bear or mountain lion, but that’s why you have to choose your forest strolls wisely.

What should they teach in high school but don’t?

Well, other than critical thinking and a combination of political science and physics, the big things missing in high school education is a course covering basic life skills.

These are things like managing your own household and finances, and preparing for that transition into that time when mommy and daddy won’t be doing it for you anymore.

Ideally, this should be when you turn 18, but some parents still can’t let go, and they’re a big problem.

Anyway, it could be a multi-year course called “Adulting 101.” Modules would include things like budgeting, covering how to balance your checkbook and why you should, why you should avoid getting credit cards as long as possible, alternatives to student loans, and whether an expensive college is really worth it anymore, depending on your career track.

Other things to cover would be the “Domestic Bliss” module. They used to teach this in high school and call it “Home Economics.” But, guess what? That was eons ago, and the classes were meant for only the girls.

Why? Well, home economics was all about cooking and cleaning and baking and making the home a castle for hubby. It was also all about figuring out how to make the household budget work based on the allowance he gave you out of the salary that he went off to earn.

It should have been called “How to be the perfect little housewife.”

But forget all that sexist hoo-hoo. The core stuff is genuinely necessary for everyone: How to cook, how to bake, how to clean, how to stretch the food budget the farthest and in the healthiest way, and to keep it practical and modern, “How to get along with your roommates” is definitely a part of this class. How to allocate chores, how to settle disputes, how to split bills and finances, and so on.

And then there are all those other bits, like laundry, auto maintenance, negotiating a lease/rental agreement and tenant’s rights, how to open a bank account, how to make a resume and do a job interview, how to negotiate a raise, and so on.

The problem is that, currently, the schools are too focused on teaching the kids how to pass standardized tests instead of actually teaching them, and that’s got to change.

But I think another disincentive to bringing back the basic “blue collar” vocational-style programs that schools used to have is the mistaken belief on the part of the schools that the parents are teaching this stuff to their kids.

And the parents probably either think the same thing about the schools, or just assume that their kids will figure it out.

Well, I didn’t learn any of these from either entity, at least not officially. I sort of learned cooking by watching my mom do it, but she never officially trained me.

Hell, I didn’t even learn typing in school, I had to learn that myself — but that’s probably the reason I can often hit 95 wpm by touch without errors. I didn’t learn the “right” way. I learned the right way for me.

What would happen to a society in which no one had to work, and everyone was provided enough food, water, shelter, education, and healthcare for free?

This seems like the inverse of the previous question. If we can’t train our kids how to Adult and take care of themselves, then why not provide everyone with all of the necessities?

A common answer, I’m guessing (and I’m not trying to strawman) is that if people were given that kind of freebie, then they’d all just become lazy and dependent and never do anything.

Fortunately, that’s not how human nature works. You’d get maybe 20% of the population that would decide, “Okay, this is great,” and just kick back and enjoy all the freebies.

But the key to it is this: We’d only get the necessities for free. Your food isn’t going to be steak and caviar. It won’t be crap, but it won’t be fancy. Likewise, depending on your family size, you might get anything from a studio apartment up to possibly a small single-family home of the type that was once called a “starter,” but nothing fancier.

Oh yeah — clothing falls under shelter, actually, but it would be a basic wardrobe — maybe enough tops, bottoms, socks, and undies for a two week cycle, one or two fancy outfits, and the minimal assortment of shoes — business, business casual, and sport/leisure.

But again, all of it off the rack and not fancy, although you should be able to choose your colors, designs, and sizes from a catalog.

Education could be handled through the tons of existing online free courses that libraries and universities already have, and educational advancements could actually serve as a credit system to up the “niceness” of the previous categories. “You’ve mastered Italian 1? Congratulations, your food and clothing allowances are now increased by 20%.”

Healthcare would cover all the keeping you healthy and not dead stuff, but none of the unnecessary procedures like rhinoplasty or breast implants or liposuction.

Note that entertainment, hobbies, and any other luxury items are not covered, and this is where the system creates incentive.

See, it doesn’t say “Nobody ever needs to work again.” It says, “No one who doesn’t want to has to work again.”

But if you want to, and there’s something you’d like to earn money for, then the jobs are out there for you to find. The best part is that you don’t have to work full-time because you’re not trying to pay for the basics.

Instead, it’s an ad hoc thing. For example, say you want to go to a concert and take your SO, and the tickets you want are $250 each. Not covered under the basic minimum programs. However, you’ve got an app and can pull some gigs, and you can plan exactly what you need to do and win to earn enough for the tickets and some incidental cash on top of that.

If you’re more ambitious, with all the time you have not working for mere survival, you can create — whether it’s art, music, ideas, businesses, whatever. And, again, you’ll still have enough consumers who will be able to afford your stuff because there are plenty of people for whom “just the basics” are never enough.

Finally, there are those who would not go back to work for money in any active way but, instead, would volunteer their time and talents because now they could — and that’s the 20% of people on the other end of the spectrum.

So, we have probably 20% never working at all and 20% volunteering, leaving the 60% in the middle. Out of that bunch, maybe 10% would start their own businesses or other creative ventures, and the remaining 50% would effectively be the workforce.

And there’s a lot of work, because you have either corporations or government who have to manufacture, allocate, and distribute all of the aforementioned freebies.

The obvious question is this: If no one is paying for those things, then where does the money come from? The honest answer is that we’d have to redefine money first — but given the scenario, we already have.

Remove the need to pay for the basics, and you’ve removed the need for money. Everyone is provided everything when we all share all the resources with each other. So the subsequent economy is one in which skill and knowledge are directly traded for needs and desires.

It becomes the ultimate barter economy. And yes, maybe we create a currency based on that — but instead of it being “This piece of paper is worth X amount because the government says it has credit enough to cover it,” we’d wind up with something like “This barcode (or blockchain) is valid in exchange for 250 standard labor units based on work done by the bearer,  [Name].”

The person or entity receiving that code has now acquired 250 standard labor units, which they can turn around and spend on what they please. And the economy is still flush with money. The only difference is that it is now truly capital produced by the workers — who are controlling the means of production — and not bullshit produced by bankers.

But don’t call it communism. That’s naïve. Call it what it really is: A future that will leave no one behind, but reward those who really do have ambition and talent. If you’re the kind to bitch about “lazy welfare queens” (a myth created by Ronald Reagan), then you should actually love this system.

Why? Because under this system, there’s no way that someone who doesn’t want to work at all is going to get those mythical big-screen TVs, or even be able to buy alcohol or weed or whatever. If they want it, they’ll have to become part of that 50%.

And wasn’t that the goal all along?

Happy Thanksgiving, all! Here’s to smooth sailing on into 2021.

Talky Tuesday: Trying trilingualism

As I’ve mentioned here before, I took four levels of Spanish over five years in school middle and high school, so I ran out of classes at the end of my junior year. Being a total language nerd, I then took one year of high school German, followed by a semester of University German.

I swear that in the first week in Uni we learned more than I had in the first semester in high school.

I didn’t pursue either language in college because I focused on other areas, with a Major and double minors. Consequently, I forgot a lot of both.

Of course, it didn’t help that our Spanish 4 teacher pulled a fast one on us. She asked the class to vote on whether we wanted to study language (i.e., grammar, spelling, etc.) or literature. The vote was unanimous for language, but she taught literature anyway, figuring we’d learn the language that way.

Narrator’s voice: “We didn’t.”

We didn’t exactly start with the Spanish-language equivalent of Dr. Seuss, which didn’t help. Imagine taking a recent immigrant who’s only studied English for a couple of years and then tossing them Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.

They’d do what we did, which was go to the local library at Cal State University Northridge (CSUN), which we had access to use because we were public school students in California, although we couldn’t check out any books.

What we could do, though, was make copies of them, so we would go down there, find the English translation of the latest work, and either read it there or copy it so we could sound like we knew what we were talking about.

It was really a total waste of a year.

But then I started learning Spanish again as an adult about seven or eight years ago, starting with Duolingo as a refresher, and then using immersion via radio, magazines, TV, and so on. Listening to Spanish language stations in the car on my commute actually turned out to be the breakthrough for me.

And so, on my own, in about the same time I’d studied in high school, I achieved the level of fluency that I never did back then. I also got hooked on the unbroken streak on Duolingo — mine is currently six years, seven months, and about three weeks, although I was on Duo for a while before I started the streak.

But the thing is, Duolingo is pretty basic, and I’ve pretty much shot past anything they can teach me now, including all of the stories. So, recently, I decided to try something different.

I’d use Duolingo to learn German, but I would do it from Spanish. In technical terms, this would be learning my L3 in my L2. It’s actually working, because it forces me to not think in English at all, but there are some interesting collisions that happen between all three languages, because they have some words that are close and some that aren’t, and some that mean completely different things on two or all three of the languages.

A big one that constantly screws me up is “es.” In Spanish, “es” is the third person singular form of one of the two verbs for “to be.” In German, it is the third person neutral pronoun “it,” while the third person singular of the verb “to be” is “ist.”

In Spanish, you don’t have to use the pronouns because the verb endings imply them. In German, you always have to use the pronouns, the same as in English. (Well, proper English. We can omit them slangily.)

So the sentence “It is good” in Spanish could just be “Es bueno.” In German, it would be “Es ist gut.”

I can’t tell you how many times in a lesson I’ve started with that es and my brain shifts to Spanish right there, so I’ll enter “es gut” and get it wrong.

The other big difference is that German has three genders, while Spanish only has two — well, technically, but I won’t get into that here. The thing is, just as with Spanish, German grammatical genders bear no relationship to human gender.

That’s why a young boy is masculine while a young girl is neuter, and animal genders seem to have been assigned more on psychology than anything else. Bears and dogs are masculine, while cats and ducks are feminine, and horses are neuter.

I know a lot of English speakers who struggle with learning Spanish articles, but they’re really a lot simpler than German. For definite articles (aka “the”), Spanish has masculine and feminine singular (el, la) and their plural counterparts (los, las).

The only sneaky one is the combination that adds “to” before the masculine pronoun. To avoid having an “a” sound before an “e,” a + el becomes al.

Fun fact: this is the Arabic word for “the,” and wound up in a lot of words borrowed into Spanish and also English. Whenever you see one, realize that the original word was “the (something),” q.v. algebra, Alhambra, alcohol, etc.

Anyway, that gives us just five options in Spanish: el, al, la, los, las.

German starts out with three definite articles, masculine, feminine, and neuter: der, die, das. But the plural versions are not as straight-forward. In order, they are die, die, die. (By the way, that’s pronounced “dee,” and not the way it looks like it would be in English.)

So that one is simple, but there’s a catch. Unlike Spanish, German articles change as grammatical case does. That is, it depends on whether a noun is the subject of a sentence, or whether it’s the direct or indirect object, or has a relationship to another noun in the sentence — usually possession, but it can be descriptive as well.

That gives sixteen possible definite articles and, while some of the words repeat — like “die” taking up to spots above — you have to remember which ones go where.

Of course, language isn’t all difficulty, and some of the fun comes in when a sentence in one language  sounds like something filthy in another when it’s not.

For example, “Die Mädchen haben Hüte.“  Knowing that Mädchen means girl or girls (das or die is the only clue), this could easily sound like a reference to the restaurant Hooters, but it’s not.

It simply means “The girls have hats.”

Another, which sounds even filthier, is “Der Junge isst Nudeln.” If you’re an English speaker, you can be forgiven for thinking this means “The young man is nude.” Nope. It’s just a boy eating pasta.

In German, “bald” is not hairless (“calvo” in Spanish) but “soon.” And at the party last night, you might have seen Brunhilde rockin’ her Rock, which is a reference neither to stones nor to music, but the German word for skirt. (Also, pronounced with a long O, so “roke,” not “raak.”)

No, I have no idea why a German skirt is a Rock. The Spanish word makes so much more sense, really: “falda.” It just sounds more comfortable.

How the structure of questions differs between the three languages is interesting, too. In English and German, generally speaking, questions are in “VSO” order, meaning verb, subject, object: “Is Walter from Indiana?” or “Ist Walter aus Indiana.”

In Spanish, you have the option to do either, but it’s far more common to leave it as SVO and let inflection do the rest: “¿Walter es de Indiana?”, although “¿Es Walter de Indiana?” would be just as valid.

The key, again, is the inflection, with the rising tone giving away that it’s a question and not a statement, and this is why Spanish alone among the three has the upside-down punctuation at the beginning of the phrase. That’s so a reader will know when they see subject-verb that they are not reading a statement.

Finally, being the mongrel that it is, English goes both ways. The most normal way is VSO, but we can also use SVO to express surprise and, again, it’s all a matter of inflection. “Walter is from Indiana?” (Roll eyes, clutch pearls.)

In German, that construction would only ever be a statement of fact.

One other interesting thing about German, although I’ve seen it kind of fade away. They capitalize their nouns. Er, sorry… The German People capitalize all the Nouns!

We used to do this in English, and you can see it if you go back and read documents written by the Founders around the time the U.S. was born, the phrase “We, the People” being one of the more famous examples.

But even then, it was fading out as a standard and the capitalization was mostly used to highlight Principles that were Important and Abstract… Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness and the like. And note that in that sentence, pursuit, although it is a noun, is not capitalized.

The funny thing is that this seemed to have developed in German in the opposite way from how it vanished from English. They started out by only capitalizing the nouns referring to important concepts or people (like König, or King), but then started doing it all of them. It started in the 16th century and became official in the 17th, about a hundred years before English moved in the opposite direction.

And Spanish took an even more opposite extreme: A lot of what are capitalized as proper nouns in English are not in Spanish, like days of the week or names of months. It’s the same with titles of movies, plays, and books. Only the first word and any proper nouns are capitalized. Otherwise, nope.

For example, La guerra de las galaxias aka Star Wars: A New Hope.

I suppose it’s time to leave you with a joke that my University German professor, the late, great Frau Schulz-Bischof, told us.

A Spaniard, an American, and a German are talking about language.

The American says, “English is the most beautiful language in the world. Just look. We have the word ‘butterfly.’”

“It’s nothing,” the Spaniard replies. “Spanish is the most beautiful. In my language, your butterfly is ‘una mariposa.’”

There’s a long pause, and then the two turn to look at the German, who finally just blurts out, “And what is wrong with ‘Schmetterling?’”

She was from Hamburg, by the way, so she gets to tell that joke. Or got to.

Image source: Dhammika Heenpella / Images of Sri Lanka, (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday’s marvel: The unsinkable Cynthia Cohen

I started a new Monday thing of spotlighting my talented friends. Check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Those covered a triple-threat actor, improv artist, and impressionist; a filmmaker, editor, and writer; an artist, writer, and actor; and a dramaturg, teacher, and mentor, respectively. This time around, we’re going to meet an old friend of mine who managed to make her way as a single mother with a career who still raised an amazing daughter.

I first met Cynthia Cohen when we were both practically embryos, right after I joined the Golden West Playwrights, the core group of which is still going to this day. I tell the story of how I wound up there elsewhere, but the short version is that very early in my first serious day job in an office after college, I met a much older woman named Lou Tappon, and she found out I was a writer.

She happened to be a member of a playwriting group that met on Saturdays, and she invited me to check it out. That group was run by an amazing man, Jerry Fey, who never charged us a cent, which is astounding, if you think about it.

He had started teaching playwriting in a UCLA Extension class and while he discovered that he loved teaching, he hated academia, which is why he took his show on the road. Lou was one of a couple of students from that class he invited to come along, and Cynthia joined up shortly after he’d struck out on his own. I’m pretty sure that she’s the only holdover from his first adventures in teaching on his own.

I actually turned out to be the first big success of the group and Jerry got to see my premiere full-length production at a major LORT theatre, South Coast Rep, but, sadly, he didn’t live very long after that.

Cynthia was standing right next to me on the morning we all showed up for class and Jerry didn’t. I was somehow nominated to call him on the lobby payphone, and whoever answered the phone told me, “I’m sorry. Jerry died last night. Liver cancer.”

Now I didn’t have to say a word on hearing that before Cynthia just let out an “Oh no.” She knew me well enough even then to know that I’d just heard really bad news. And yes, all of us in that group have wondered two things since that day.

First, did Jerry know he was dying when he set off to teach for free, and this was his way of giving back to the world in the time he had left? And, second, was it really liver cancer, since a certain other disease was ravishing the artistic community even in the early 90s?

But what his legacy created was the Golden West Playwrights (GWP), a group that kept on meeting and growing without him but in his memory. Although we eventually drifted away from the regular meetings, we kept in touch, and there are about ten of us who are still in contact to this day.

After Jerry died, we all sort of nominated another amazing writer in the group, Babs Lindsay, to take up the leader mantle, and I wound up as sort of her permanent Vice Scribe, or whatever you want to call it. She moved to Seattle years ago, but whenever she comes back to L.A., we try to make it a point to all get together.

Meanwhile… Cynthia and I have been orbiting each other constantly since back in the day. We’ve never lived far really apart physically, but we also have that connection where, even if we lose touch for a few years, reconnecting feels like it’s only been minutes.

I was at her wedding, and I was there (along with the Golden West Playwrights) when she told us that the father of her daughter wasn’t going to stick around. I won’t go into too many details other than to say that this was one of those moments that showed her true character, strength, and resilience.

I know that the rest of the GWP and I just wanted to strangle that asshole for what he did to her. Cynthia, on the other hand, proceeded to do what she had to do in order to raise her daughter, give her an excellent education, and guide her to grow into the amazing, talented, and intelligent adult woman she has become. She is going to be as successful — if not more so — than her mom.

Oh, right. I mentioned that I was the first breakout success from the GWP, but the great irony is that I started at the top and worked my way down. Meanwhile, Cynthia managed to work her way up.

She is, in fact, the person who got me my first TV job, which also led to my one and only actual credit as a TV writer. She wound up working as script coordinator on the original Melrose Place, but when she got promoted to writer, she reached out to me and offered me the job and I said yes on the spot.

That was really one of the best gigs I ever had in terms of co-workers, absolutely interesting work, and really nifty perqs, annual bonuses, and swag.

And all of this fun happened because Cynthia trusted me enough to make the recommendation. The biggest irony was that I’d never watched the show before I worked on it, but that really didn’t make a difference in catching up and catching on.

Hey, I didn’t know shit about Medicare when I started my current job, and look at me now. Yay…?

Our Melrose days were actually before her marriage days, but since then I’ve been around for the birth of her daughter, and that daughter becoming bat mitzvah. I also sat shiva when Cynthia’s father unexpectedly died. And Cynthia has always been around for me.

If you were to ask me what one word I would use to describe her, it would be this: “Survivor.” Life has tossed some weird curveballs at Cynthia, but she has never not taken up her bat and hit them out of the park in response.

And she’s adaptable. I know her work very well from the GWP days, and how her sensibilities don’t always line up with what she’s gotten paid to do for TV, but I’ve been in the same boat.

And something I didn’t know until today. She’s also got some advice for all of you.

Nu! Who knew?

Sunday Nibble #44: A short guide to knowing your shit #8

I originally wrote these pieces for my friend Peter’s website, TheFlushed.com, back when they had been planning to expand their editorial content. However, the actual shitshow that 2020 turned into intervened, and we sort of forgot about it. Until now! Here, at least, you can read all about the anal emanations you’re likely to encounter in this ongoing series. How many of them do you recognize?

This poop will most often occur after you’ve binged on party food (particularly pot luck), when you’re on certain medications, or have had certain things to drink. It can behave like any other poop on this list, but it’s a secondary property that puts it into a category all its own.

The distinguishing feature is that what hits the water has a color that bears no resemblance to standard brown, or sometimes just for fun it may be two-toned or multi-colored. In fact, it can cover pretty much the whole rainbow.

If you’re getting red from your rump, it could be that you’ve recently eaten too much Red Velvet Cake or other foods dyed red, but if you haven’t and you don’t have hemorrhoids, then you should probably see your doctor.

Yes, it’s possible to have orange output, especially if you eat a lot of foods with beta carotene in them, like carrots or sweet potatoes.

One color not caused by food is yellow. If this starts happening, then it’s definitely time to doctor up, as you may be developing serious liver problems.

A green growler is usually caused by eating a lot of green foods, like gorging on spinach, or can also be due to food with green dye, so it can be quite common right after St. Patrick’s Day. On the other hand, green poop can also mean that your food is making the trip portal-to-portal through your body way too quickly, so that the bile in it hasn’t broken down enough to turn dark brown.

And if you would have normally had a yellow dump, you can get green instead if you have a lot of red wine or grape juice — although you really shouldn’t have any of the former if you’re already pooping yellow.

Blue butt blasts are also a result of eating a lot of food that is dyed or naturally blue.

The only one lacking is a purple poo, although you might get that one if you gorge yourself on Red Velvet Cake and blueberries. Don’t try this at home, though.

Finally, if you blow mud in black and you haven’t had Pepto-Bismol or black licorice lately, or your waste is white at all, it’s definitely doctor time. The former could indicate internal bleeding, and the latter probably means hepatitis or liver failure.

So there are many reasons you may find out that you missed the bus to brown town, but it’s not always something to worry about, and it can be an expected event that livens things up.

This is why we call this kind of poop La Caca Sorpresa

(Shout out to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research for their explanations of various possible colors, and/or colours.)

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The Saturday Morning Post #42: The Rêves, Part 20

Race against time

Brenda had come back home from her conversation with Mom pissed as hell for a lot of reasons, so she did the two things she knew she could do to get absolute privacy. First, she asked the kids if they wanted to play board games with Esme, and none of them could be happier, so they all retreated to the living room.

Next, she ducked her head into Jonah’s office. “If you want to binge some Oprah episodes with me, come on into my office.”

He just grunted, but she knew that this was, to him, the best way to tell him, “Stay the fuck out of my office” without putting it in those words — reverse psychology at its finest.

She did go into her office to binge, but it wasn’t Oprah. Instead, it was CCTV footage from Metro Stations but, more specifically, since she had figured out Joshua and Simon’s working order and timing of things, she started with the first station they’d been spotted at, then worked her way backwards.

Her goal was to find some way to contact them, and she was hoping for some moment when one of them would expose something on cam, like a phone, that would give a full name, or number, or something. She also quickly figured out that their preferred nights to work were Tuesday or Wednesday for the most part, and they never came down over the weekend, probably because the stations were too crowded.

Their outfits also changed, and she watched a sort of backwards evolution as later accessories — hunting tools? — disappeared on the reverse path. Still, nothing that would give them away.

When she’d followed them farther up the A Line into Pasadena, she had a sudden moment of kicking herself, realizing she’d been watching the wrong thing.

They had to get into the stations, and they had to do it with their TAP Cards, so she went back and pulled the time stamps from each station at every moment they had used TAP to enter. Next, she pulled up the TAP usage database, used a query to create a spreadsheet, then used INDEX and MATCH in Excel to pull up matches to the info she’d compiled.

She was practically over the moon when it revealed that all of the check-ins had been done on the same two TAP cards, revealing their numbers and card nicknames: ECTO-J and ECTO-S.

“I’ve got you now, you motherfuckers!” she muttered as she copied the TAP card numbers, then pulled the specific information on to whom they were registered.

“Shit!” she replied at the results, because Joshua and Simon had managed to register the cards with completely fake information, and use anonymous, pre-paid debit cards to fund them. She could tell on sight, because nobody lived at “1234 Main Street, This Town, USA, 90000,” and certainly nobody had the email address goodfucking@luck.com.

And while they had used the first names Joshua and Simon, she really doubted that they both had the last names “McBiteme.”

“Fucking kids,” she muttered, not realizing that both of them were actually on the older end of being millennials, and pushing forty.

She went back to the videos from Pasadena, and then traced them to the Arcadia station where, on a whim, she followed them back out only to see that they had come there from Santa Anita Race Track, and it was one of the few times they’d come down on a Saturday and had arrived at the station so early.

She marked the date and time on a hunch, but then wondered — who did she know at Santa Anita who could give her the info? This would be a major way in for one big reason: While TAP cards weren’t really that regulated, race tracks and gambling were heavily regulated, and no way either of them could get away with fake names or pre-paid debit cards if they wanted to gamble and actually win.

She wondered who she knew who had a connection inside Santa Anita, but then the irony of the answer made her laugh.

Rita’s husband was head of security at the place. Brenda hit the intercom on her home office phone.

“Yeah?” Rita answered.

“Want me to find those boys and get them to call you?” Brenda asked.

“Which part of ‘I already asked you that’ did you all miss?” Rita replied.

“None,” Brenda said. “So, your hubby still works at Santa Anita?”

“Yes,” Rita said. “Why?”

“I’m going to email you some dates and times. I need all of the surveillance cam footage from inside for those, plus any kind of pay out info he can provide — Tax ID, winnings, whatever.”

“Are you fucking shitting me?” Rita asked.

“Nope,” Brenda replied.

“Okay. I can probably get him to give you the video footage,” she explained, “But tax records and IDs?” She let out a belly laugh. “No fucking way. You know that. He’d lose his job, and so would I.”

“Okay, okay, got it,” Brenda said. “But if I can maybe point you to two specific people at a specific time and place, and he can use that info to give us the names and phone numbers…?”

“Dubious,” Rita said, “But I’ll ask. How soon you need this shit?”

“How soon did you want them to call you, again?” Brenda replied

“On it,” Rita answered, then she hung up.

Brenda typed out her email with the info, and ten minutes later a response came back, which Rita had forwarded from her husband. It contained a link to the CCTV videos from Santa Anita for the day she had requested.

“Finally,” she said, poking around until she found the point when Joshua and Simon had left the park to walk to the station and backtracking from there.

She jumped through the footage, tracing backwards from end of race to post time, and at no point did either of them approach the cashier window in order to collect. She was beginning to think that they were bad at this whole thing until very early in the day, when she caught them celebrating at the end of a race.

That’s when she followed them forward via the cameras. Maybe she had just missed the one that showed them collecting. But then, after they’d come downstairs she saw them looking around and then approaching a young black woman who was just sitting in the corner with her son, looking distraught.

There was no audio on this footage, but Joshua and Simon engaged her in conversation until, finally, Simon held out a ticket and handed it to her. She looked at the ticket, then up at them in disbelief, covering her mouth and crying.

Joshua and Simon shrugged and smiled, and then the woman jumped up and hugged them both before heading toward the cashier. Joshua and Simon smiled at each other before heading off to video Brenda had already watched.

She hit pause angrily on her computer. “Oh you goddamn generous motherfucking privileged little white boys!” she grumbled. “Who the hell are you?”

She had almost despaired running back through all of the footage until she hit a point when the two had arrived. Joshua headed toward the restroom while Simon waited, but then Simon pulled out his phone and scrolled — and it was in that moment, one single frame, that Brenda found the holy grail.

It showed Joshua’s full name, as well as a phone number. She screen-capped it, wrote it down, and refrained from screaming in joy.

“Suck it, bitch,” she muttered to herself with Rita in mind as she picked up her own phone and dialed, but after about a ring and a half, it went right to voice mail.”

“Assholes,” she thought, but after the tone, she left a very long and detailed voice mail, hoping that they would actually listen and respond.

But, assuming they wouldn’t, she decided on Plan B: As soon as the streets were passable, she was going to pay them a visit, come hell or high water. Well, so to speak. Also, note to self: See who she knew who could link Joshua’s number back to the one that had texted it at that specific moment…

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Image source: (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons