Saturday Morning Post #73: Courtesy Call

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, an unnamed telemarketer justifies his job and explains an elaborate revenge plan on a customer while warning about the dangers of losing our privacy. Keep in mind that all of these stories were set in 2000-01, when the internet was still in its infancy, long before any social media, even MySpace, were created.

It’s just a damn job, okay? Would you rather I was the guy going around sticking parking tickets on your windshield? Suddenly doesn’t seem so bad, huh? I don’t have to cost you money, that’s entirely your choice. I have to pay rent and eat too, you know.

I’m an actor. Don’t give me that look, I am. I have a script, I have to act like I’m interested in half the shit I’m saying. No cameras and nobody knows who I am — which is probably good for me — but I still have an audience, an audience of one, you, your friends and neighbors, whoever. Whomever? Yeah, whatever. So don’t give me any crap about it. What do you do for a living that’s so good for the world, anyway?

See? Oh, yeah, you try to justify it, but how many people do you fuck over every day? Business is just football, your team and their team and what’s good for business is bad for the other guys, got it, you have to make those touchdowns, which means someone else isn’t stopping the ball. Or something like that.

My boss always does these inspirational bullshit speeches on Monday mornings, football and we’re the team but we’re only as good as the worst player, blah blah blah, of course he’s the coach and he kisses the owner’s ass. Last guy was the same thing, they must buy a book that says, “Use football. The grunts understand that.” Third… no, fourth new guy since I’ve been there. It’s something like eight, nine months now.

I get to set my own hours. You get to do that? Didn’t think so. Nine to five, eight-thirty to six, something like that. Yeah, thought so, too. So, you’re actually at that office for nine hours but they make you do an hour lunch and only pay you for eight.

How many times you only get forty-five minutes? Yeah, it’s football all right, but management is the other team and they have a lot of ringers. Our place, I seen people get promoted fast, sometimes. Hell, the owner started out like me. I mean, not with this company, another one, but he learned everything and started his own. How are you going to do that? I already got a raise once, about six months ago.

Anyway, all I’m saying is, I’m not out gassing Bosnian babies or evicting widows or any of that, so don’t give me that look when I tell you what I do. It’s just rude, that’s all. I don’t like rude people. I deal with rude people all day, who don’t even want to listen.

I mean, is it that hard to just say, “Oh, no, thank you?” People seem to think the phrase “go fuck yourself” is so original. And I hate old people. They still keep whistles by their phones, you know? That’s supposed to be for obscene phone callers. It’s so retro, but not in a good way.

What, I’m rude for doing my job? What’s the big deal, you answer the phone, you say, “No, thank you,” you hang up. Yeah, yeah, okay, I do. That’s part of the script, trying to change that “no” into a “maybe.” People don’t know how to say no, that’s their real problem. They get all vague or they get hostile. They lie. You know whom I really admire? When I see people get hit up by bums who don’t give excuses. “Got any change?” And they just say, “No.”

That’s once in a hundred. Usually it’s, “Um, sorry, I don’t have any change in my pocket,” or, “Maybe on the way out,” or all that bullshit. People are big pussies. Why are they apologizing to homeless bums, anyway? No, beggars aren’t doing their job, that’s the point. They don’t have jobs. I have a job, it’s what I get paid to do, just give me a little fucking respect, that’s all I want.

There’s nothing to get over. What, you think I don’t know who you are when you blow me off? I’ve got your name and number, and you’d be surprised what I can do with that information.

Yeah? Let me tell you about this one guy I knew. Really pissed me off. It was his attitude. He didn’t just say no or just hang up or even say, “Fuck off.” No, he decided to lecture me. Tried to get into this whole conversation, telling me how evil I was, asked me why I did what I did, just like you.

Had the balls to tell me there are lots of other jobs out there. Sound familiar? And wasted my time, I was on the phone with this fuck for ten, fifteen minutes on a no sale. So the first thing I did after we hung up was put him on the sucker list. People who are easy marks, who can’t say no.

Know what that means?

He went right to the top of the rotation, every list, every employee. Little bastard was probably getting called ten times a day. Know what the son of a bitch did? Tried to complain to a supervisor, spouting off all these things about the law, and what we were supposed to do. Acted like he really knew his shit, threatened to sue us. That was just too much.

Oh yeah — the sucker list is also the one the company sells to other telemarketers, which is where we really make our money.

You know, it only took me about ten minutes to find out all kinds of shit about this guy on the internet. Name and phone number, and pretty soon I knew where he lived and where he worked and where he had worked and what his kids’ names were and on and on. Can you believe that people actually put so much shit about themselves on their homepages?

Anyway, this prick was a big-time volunteer at his local church. Baptists. Yech. I figured he never really had any fun, so I signed him up for one of those music clubs first off. Every Marilyn Manson album in their catalog, about five really nasty rap CD’s, a shitload of heavy metal and one by Pat Boone. Did the same with their DVD club, picked all the gay-themed movies in their catalog, except I signed that one up with his fifteen year-old son.

Yeah? Well he was being just as immature with all his whining and shit. And it’s no big deal, you send the stuff back and tell them it was a mistake. Anyway, the bastard didn’t stop bugging us, so I upped the ante.

You know how easy it is to get your power turned off? Give them your name, address, social security or mother’s maiden name, bang. Lights out. People really shouldn’t put their family tree online, either. Mother’s maiden name is a very powerful skeleton key to all kinds of shit. Makes it really easy to start transferring funds between bank accounts at random.

Hey, I never took a dime from him, okay? Just caused a little mayhem. Take everything but a dollar from checking, move it to a non-linked savings account on the fifteenth. Move everything back ten days later.

Yeah, that part is real fun. Because, when he goes to the ATM with his paycheck and sees his new balance on the receipt, I’m sure he just shits all over himself and runs right for the phone. Bet his bank wasn’t happy with the way he treated them over “their” error, either.

They flag that kind of stuff, you know. Yes they do, my ex-girlfriend used to do customer service. “FC,” that’s the code. “Frequent Complainer.” Know how you have to enter your account number to get through the automated system to a person? Well, the queue seems to always be quite a bit longer for the FC people.

And the stupid motherfucker never connected that to me. It only took him about two months to go through the complete pain in the ass of taking his money somewhere else. I let him off the hook for a few weeks, then started the game again at the new place. I’m sure he thinks that all banks are incompetent.

Rude, suspicious, paranoid people. I wonder how he reacted when his wife started getting calls from all these strange men. You think he asked any of them where they got her number? You’d be surprised how many guys will actually respond to a little message on a restroom wall. No, not me, asshole. I’m talking about all the calls my ex got when I did it to her. It’s one of the classic tricks in the repertoire.

So’s reporting credit cards stolen. You know you can check a credit report online now? That magic social security number again. People really got to be careful with that thing, but they spew it out all over the place, and everyone asks for it. Shit, those nine digits are supposed to be just between you, your employer and the government, and the banks and credit companies act like they are.

Lucky for me none of them have caught on to reality yet, huh? I had a doctor’s office ask me for my social once, and the bitch behind the desk couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t give it to her. I asked her if they were offering me a job, but she was only a programmed drone. “Must… get… number…”

I honestly think she blew a few circuits because somebody refused. She had no idea how to deal with it. I finally gave her a made‑up number. She never knew the difference.

Yeah? Well it’s illegal for them to ask for it, too. Yes it is. It’s… it’s in the federal laws or something. No, I don’t know the reference, asshole. I bet you’re on a lot of FC lists around town, aren’t you?

The point is, you can’t be too careful with personal information nowadays, why do you think I’m telling you about this poor dumb schmuck? No, it was his own fault, because at some point, somewhere, he filled out some registration card or went to some website or something, and he filled out that little box that asked for his phone number. And it wouldn’t have been that bad for him if he’d at least been nice, but no, he couldn’t be. Instant karma.

Anyway, I know your name. Yes, I do. Because you weren’t all that careful when you gave the bartender your credit card. Only gold, not platinum. And it’s one of those pay through the nose to pretend you have good credit deals. Yes it is, I know that bank’s name, don’t bullshit me.

You’re just lucky I’ve got no reason to be pissed off at you, especially since that’s such an unusual last name. No, I’m not fucking with you, just trying to explain. Jesus, relax, you’re the one who started talking to me. Not having any luck with the ladies here tonight, huh?

Hey, I’ll give you a freebie. See the chick over there in the red dress? No, the blonde. Midori Margarita, no salt. Send one over and you’ll be a very happy man.

Yo, barkeep. Danny boy. Yeah, another. Thanks.

So, this guy. I kept at him for a few months, on and off, nothing in the category of major felony, just constant annoyances. I guess I finally made my point. You’d know his name if I told you, but that’s not my doing. Hey, he was a major asshole anyway, obviously. He would have done something like what he did without my help. Eventually.

I was just playing mind games with him, that’s all. Anyway, the loser didn’t actually kill anyone, just wounded six people before the cops took him out. So some schmuck decides to take a gun and go down to his local bank. I’ve got no control over that. But do you think, if he wasn’t a total prick, he ever would have thought of that in the first place?

Hey, where are you going? Oh, yeah, right. Yeah, Midori. No salt. Remember that part, very important. No salt.

Asshole.

Yo, Dan — uh, thanks. That order, make it a double, will you? Sure, sure. I know my limits, man. Don’t know much, but I know my limits. L’chaim.

Friday Free-for-All #71: Colony, nuke, roommate

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What should the first colony on another planet be called?

First, I would say that it shouldn’t be called a colony at all, because that concept has become so loaded with negative connotations that we need to jettison it. Colonialism is what allowed European culture to seep into other parts of the world and destroy indigenous cultures by valuing them as “less than.”

The Americas, Africa, Oceania, and parts of Asia and Southeast Asia all suffered from Western Imperial colonization and its self-righteous air of superiority. We do not need to take that into space with us, which is why the round of “Billionaire Blast-offs” we’re currently seeing is such a bad idea that’s not going to end until they experience their own personal Apollo 1.

So let’s call it a settlement, or outpost, or station. Or, even better, experimental expeditionary base. Yes, it’s true that we’re most likely to start by setting up on Mars, which may or may not harbor life, although as far as we can tell, it’s nothing that’s advanced to a very complex stage yet.

But… our approach has to be that we are visitors, and we have to follow the Scouting rule: Leave the campsite in better condition than it was when you found it.

Ah. There’s the term. “Mars Camp 1” as a scientific designation. But we also need a reminder of how it works once we get there, so it should not be named after any human, country, state, city, or indeed anything tied to any existing division on the planet.

So, let’s call it “Mars Camp 1: Equitopia.” Each successive one can spell out another ideal of exploration and of realizing that we all come from one planet and are all descended from the same two proto-human ancestors we call Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosomal Adam.

The former is the direct matrilineal descendent of everyone’s mother, and mother’s mother, and so on. The latter is the direct ancestor of every man’s father’s father’s father, etc. The exclusivity there is pure biology. Generally, but not always, people identified as female at birth do not have a Y chromosome.

But the buck stops at them, and my father’s father’s father’s ancestor traced back multiple tens of thousands of years was an early hominid living near the central east coast of Africa, around what eventually became Ethiopia.

Shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that’s the point.

So what we name the next camps is up for debate by the Human Next Step Committee, but things like Unitaria, Humanitas, and even terms in other languages would fit the bill nicely.

But FFS, the first person who suggests calling it “New Earth” gets shot out the airlock.

Has the invention of the atomic bomb made the world a more peaceful place?

Only indirectly. What did the U.S. do after their first successful test of the A-Bomb? That’s right… they dropped the next two on civilian populations, making WW II the first and, to date, only nuclear war.

Repeat that to yourselves a few times if it sounds weird. WW II was the first and only nuclear war.

And then they went on to develop more powerful weapons even as the USSR managed to obtain the secrets to the American bomb, and even as the first hydrogen bomb — which used fusion instead of fission — was successfully tested, other countries started to join the nuclear club, with the UK being next in 1952.

From the end of WW II throughout the 1950s, the nuclear club countries were testing nukes left and right, general in above-ground or air-burst tests. A lot of it was just a giant pissing contest between the U.S. and USSR, but then a funny thing happened.

The countries, led by the U.S., started to look at what these tests were doing to their own people and, in fact, kids were turning up with radioactive baby teeth. One immediate result of this was to lead to treaties that limited tests to underground explosions only. But, at the same time, a really scary political policy emerged.

The concept was called MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction, most likely spurred on by the U.S. and USSR coming within a few bad decisions of nuking each other during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with public awareness being raised by the (now largely forgotten) dramatic film Fail Safe and the (revered classic) black comedy/satire Dr. Strangelove or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. They both came out in the same year, right after the missile crisis, and basically told the same story.

The U.S. accidentally drops a nuke on the USSR, and the only way to avoid nuclear apocalypse is to let the USSR fire back — although the Dr. Strangelove version of the same involves a weapon that wipes out all life on the planet. Because, black comedy.

But this fear is what led to the concept of MAD which, perversely, also led to a massive arms race until the 1970s, the idea seemingly being that if you had enough bombs to kill everyone on their side 20 times over and they had enough times to kill everyone on your side 25 times over, then no one would ever be stupid enough to call for a launch.

Decades later, John Woo would turn this into his favorite trope: Two dudes holding a gun in each other’s faces. I think, in some places, they call it a Mexican stand-off.

Then, eventually, the Cold War ended. So to answer the original question… did the invention of the atomic bomb make the world a safer place? Oh, fuck no. It almost immediately killed several hundred thousand people. And, for a while, especially after it led to the development of the hydrogen bomb, it didn’t help either because it irradiated people far away from testing sites. But, eventually, it led to weapons so scary that, in fact, it did ultimately lead to a safer planet because everyone realized that if anyone ever fired any of them off in an aggressive act, the response would end life on the planet.

Oh. The question was “is it a more peaceful place?”

Of course not. Earth has always been a violent place. But I guess we wouldn’t be human if it didn’t happen otherwise, right? Because we’re just assholes descended from monkeys. Just not far enough.

Sigh.

Which protagonist from a book or movie would make the worst roommate?

Holden Goddamn Caulfield, especially since he’d be about the right age to get hooked up with as a college freshman roommate. For one, he’s an insufferable, whiny, self-centered little asshole who thinks he’s above everyone else. And I don’t give a damn what trauma he’s suffered in his life if he isn’t going to talk about it.

As soon as he decided he only wanted to communicate with me via little passive aggressive notes, that’s it. I’m asking Resident Housing for a swap. But I probably would have before that, because the useless little failure of a adouchebag also smokes. And screw that.

Theatre Thursday: Fact and fiction

About six hundred and eight years ago, Henry V was crowned king of England. You probably know him as that king from the movie with Kenneth Branagh, or the BBC series aired under the title The Hollow Crown.

Either way, you know him because of Shakespeare. He was the king who grew up in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. Yes, that’s a set of four plays and since it was his second, Shakespeare sort of did the Star Wars thing first: he wrote eight plays on the subject of the English Civil war.

And, much like Lucas, he wrote the original tetralogy first, then went back and did the prequels. Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V were written after but happened before Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III.

Incidentally, Henry VI, Part 1, is famous for having Joan of Arc (aka Joan la Pucelle in the play) as one of the antagonists. Funny thing is, that name wasn’t slander on Shakespeare’s part. That’s what she preferred to call herself.

Meanwhile, Richard III, of course, is the Emperor Palpatine of the series, although we never did get a Richard IV, mainly because he never existed in history. Well, not officially. Richard III’s successor was Henry VII, and Shakespeare never wrote about him, either, although he did gush all over Henry VIII, mainly because he was the father of the Bard’s patron, Elizabeth I. CYA.

If you’ve ever seen the film My Own Private Idaho, directed by Gus Van Sant and staring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, then you’ve seen a modern retelling of the two parts of Henry IV.

Now when it comes to adapting true stories to any dramatic medium, you’re going to run into the issue of dramatic license. A documentary shouldn’t have this problem and shouldn’t play with the truth, although it happens. Sometimes, it can even prove fatal.

But when it comes to a dramatic retelling, it is often necessary to fudge things, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. It’s not at all uncommon for several characters to be combined into a composite just to make for a cleaner plot. After all, is it that big of a difference if, say, King Flagbarp IX in real life was warned about a plot against him in November by his chamberlain Norgelglap, but the person who told him the assassin’s name in February was his chambermaid Hegrezelda?

Maybe, maybe not, but depending on what part either of those characters plays in the rest of the story, as well as the writer’s angle, they may both be combined as Norgelglap or as Hegrezelda, or become a third, completely fictionalized character, Vlanostorf.

Time frames can also change, and a lot of this lands right back in Aristotle’s lap. He created the rules of drama long before hacks like the late Syd Field tried (and failed), and Ari put it succinctly. Every dramatic work has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and should have unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action.

A summary of the last three is this, although remember that Aristotle was writing about the stage. For film and video, your mileage will vary slightly.

The story takes place in one particular location, although that location can be a bit broad. It can be the king’s castle, or it can be the protagonist’s country.

It should take place over a fairly short period of time. Aristotle liked to keep it to a day, but there’s leeway, and we’ve certainly seen works that have taken place over an entire lifetime — although that is certainly a form of both unity of time and unity of place, if you consider the protagonist to be the location as well.

Unity of action is a little abstract, but in a nutshell it’s this: Your plot is about one thing. There’s a single line that goes from A to Z: What your protagonist wants, and how they get it.

Now, my own twist on the beginning, middle, and end thing is that this is a three act structure that gives us twenty-seven units. (Aristotle was big on 5 acts, which Shakespeare used, but that’s long since fallen out of fashion.)

Anyway, to me, we have Act I, II, and III. Beginning, middle, and end. But each of those has its own beginning, middle and end. So now we’re up to nine: I: BME; II: BME; III: BME.

Guess what? Each of those subunits also has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not going to break that one down further than this. The beginning of the beginning, Act I: B, has its own BME, repeat eight more times.

The end result is 3 x 3 x 3, or twenty-seven.

And that’s my entire secret to structure. You’re welcome.

But because of these little constraints, and because history is messy, it’s necessary to switch things up to turn a true story into a “based on true events” work. Real life doesn’t necessarily have neat beginnings, middles, and endings. It also doesn’t necessarily take place in one spot, or in a short period of time.

So it becomes the artist’s job to tell that story in a way that is as true to reality as possible without being married to the facts.

Although it is also possible to go right off the rails with it, and this is one of the reasons I totally soured on Quentin Tarantino films. It’s one thing to fudge facts a little bit, but when he totally rewrites history in Inglorious Basterds, ignores historical reality in Django Unchained, and then curb stomps reality and pisses on its corpse in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I’m done.

Inglorious Misspelling is a particularly egregious example because the industry does a great disservice in selling false history to young people who unfortunately, aren’t getting the best educations right now.

Anecdotal moment: A few years back, an Oscar-winning friend of mine had a play produced that told the story of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. They were a company composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans during WW II, and joining the company was the alternative given to going to an internment camp.

Of course, being racists, the U.S. government couldn’t send them to the Pacific Theatre to fight, so they sent them to Europe, and a lot of the play takes place in Italy, where the regiment was stationed. And, at intermission, my playwright friend heard two 20-something audience members talking to each other. One of them asked, “What was the U.S. even doing in Italy in World War II?” and the other just shrugged and said, “Dunno.”

So, yeah. If you’re going to go so far as to claim that Hitler was killed in a burning movie theater before the end of the war, just stop right there before you shoot a frame. Likewise with claiming that the Manson murders never happened because a couple of yahoos ran into the killers first.

Yeah, Quentin, you were old, you were there, you remember. Don’t stuff younger heads with shit.

But I do digress.

In Shakespeare’s case, he was pretty accurate in Henry V, although in both parts of Henry IV, he created a character who was both one of his most memorable and one of his more fictional: Sir John Falstaff. In fact, the character was so popular that, at the Queen’s command, Shakespeare gave him his own spinoff, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Hm. Shades of Solo in the Star Wars universe?

Falstaff never existed in real life, but was used as a way to tell the story of the young and immature Henry (not yet V) of Monmouth, aka Prince Hal.

Where Shakespeare may have played more fast and loose was in Richard III. In fact, the Bard vilified him when it wasn’t really deserved. Why? Simple. He was kissing up to Elizabeth I. She was a Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII who, as mentioned previously, was the son of Henry VII, the king who took over when Richard III lost the war of the roses.

The other time that Shakespeare didn’t treat a king so well in a play? King John — which I personally take umbrage to, because I’m directly descended from him. No, really. But the idea when Willie Shakes did that was to draw a direct contrast to how Good Queen Bess did so much better in dealing with Papal interference. (TL;DR: He said, “Okay,” she said, “Eff off.”)

Since most of my stage plays have been based on true stories, I’ve experienced this directly many times, although one of the more interesting came with the production of my play Bill & Joan, because I actually accidentally got something right.

When I first wrote the play, the names of the cops in Mexico who interrogated him were not included in the official biography, so I made up two fictional characters, Enrique and Tito. And so they stayed like that right into pre-production in 2013.

Lo and behold, a new version of the biography of Burroughs I had originally used for research came out, and I discovered two amazing things.

First… I’d always known that Burroughs’ birthday was the day before mine, but I suddenly found out that his doomed wife actually shared my birthday. And the show happened to run during both dates.

Second… the names of the cops who interrogated him were finally included, and one of them was named… Tito.

Of course, I also compressed time, moved shit around, made up more than a few characters, and so forth. But the ultimate goal was to tell the truth of the story, which was: Troubled couple who probably shouldn’t have ever gotten together deals with their issues in the most violent and tragic way possible, and one of them goes on to become famous. The other one dies.

So yes, if you’re writing fiction it can be necessary to make stuff up, but the fine line is to not make too much stuff up. A little nip or tuck here and there is fine. But, outright lies? Nah. Let’s not do that.

Wednesday Wonders: Fooled by famous frauds and fakes

I think we’ve heard enough fake cries of “fake news” over things that are true, but here are five times in the past that people just made things up and pawned them off as real.

The Mechanical Turk

In 1769, Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungray, invited her trusted servant, Wolfgang von Kempelen, to a magic show. Von Kempelen knew his physics, mechanics, and hydraulics. The empress wanted to see what he’d make of a stage illusionist.

In short, he was not impressed, and said so in front of the court, claiming that he could create a better illusion. The empress accepted his offer and gave him six months off to try.

In 1770, he returned with his results: An automaton that played chess. It was in the form of a wooden figure seated behind a cabinet with three doors in front and a drawer in the bottom. In presenting it, von Kempelen would open the left door to show the complicated clockwork inside, then open a back door and shine a lantern through it to show that there was nothing else there.

When he opened the other two doors, it revealed an almost empty compartment with a velvet pillow in it. This he placed under the automaton’s left arm. The chess board and pieces came out of the drawer, and once a challenger stepped forward, von Kempelen turned a crank on the side to start it up, and the game was afoot.

Called the Mechanical Turk, it was good, and regularly defeated human opponents, including Benjamin Franklin.  and Napoleon Bonaparte — although Napoleon is reported to have tried to cheat, to which the Turk did not respond well.

Neither its creator nor second owner and promoter revealed its secrets during the machine’s lifetime, and it was destroyed by a fire in 1854. Although many people assumed that it was actually operated by a human and was not a machine, playing against it did inspire Charles Babbage to begin work on his difference engine, the mechanical precursor to the modern computer.

In the present day, a designer and builder of stage illusions built a replica of the Turk based on the original plans, and watching it in action is definitely uncanny.

Moon-bats and Martians!

This is actually a twofer. First, in August 1835, the New York Sun ran a six part series on discoveries made by the astronomer John Herschel on the Moon. The problem: The press flat out made it all up, reporting all kinds of fantastical creatures Herschel had allegedly seen and written about, including everything from unicorns to flying bat-people, all thanks to the marvel of the fabulous new telescope he had created. When Herschel found out about it, he was not pleased.

The flipside of this came sixty years later in 1895, when the astronomer Percival Lowell first published about the “canals of Mars,” which were believed to be channels of water that ran into the many oceans on the planet.

In reality, they were just an optical illusion created by the lack of power of telescopes of the time. This didn’t stop Lowell, though, and he went on in the early 19th century to write books that postulated the existence of life on Mars.

Of course, Lowell was not trying to perpetrate a fraud. He just had the habit of seeing what he wanted to see, so it was more self-delusion than anything else.

The Cardiff Giant

This would be Cardiff. The one in New York, not the capital of Wales. The year is 1869. The “giant” was a petrified 10-foot-tall man that had been dug up on a farm belonging to William C. “Stub” Newell. People came from all around to see it, and that did not stop when Newell started charging fifty cents a head to have a look. That’s the equivalent of about ten bucks today.

The statue was actually created by George Hull, who was a cousin of Newell’s. An atheist, Hull had gotten into an argument with a Methodist minister who said that everything in the Bible had to be taken literally. Since the Bible said that there had been giants in those days, Hull decided to give him one, and expose the gullibility of religious types at the same time.

Cardiff, after all, wasn’t very far from where Joseph Smith had first started the Mormon religion, and that sort of thing was not at all uncommon in the area during the so-called Second Great Awakening.

Although a huge hit with the public to the point that P.T. Barnum created his own fake giant, the Chicago Tribune eventually published an exposé with confessions from the stonemasons. That didn’t seem to make one bit of difference to the public, who still flocked to see the statues. Hull and his investors made a fortune off of the whole adventure.

Piltdown Man

Less innocuous was a hoax that actually sent a couple of generations of anthropologists and evolutionists down the wrong path in tracing the ancestry of humans. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claimed to have discovered the fossilized remains of a hitherto unknown human species in Piltdown, Sussex, England.

The key part was that while the skull had a human-like cranium, it had an ape-like mandible, or lower jaw. In other words, having traits of both species, it could easily have been the long-sought “missing link,” a transitional form that provides the evolutionary bridge between two species.

The first so-called missing link, Java Man, had been discovered twenty years prior to Dawson’s. Unlike Dawson’s Piltdown Man, Java Man, now known as homo erectus, has been accepted as a legitimate transitional form between ape and man.

Dawson’s downfall came after the discovery of more transitional forms and improved testing methods that authenticated many of these. When researchers finally turned their attention back to the original Piltdown Man fossils, they determined that the skull was only about 500 years old, the jaw, only a few decades. Both had been stained to simulate age.

In 1953, they published their findings, which were reported in Time magazine, but the damage had been done, setting back anthropological studies, because more recent, legitimate discoveries were doubted because they conflicted with the fake evidence.

It seems likely that Dawson was the sole hoaxer. What was his motive? Most likely, he wanted to be nominated to the archaeological Royal Society, but hadn’t yet because of a lack of significant findings.

In 1913, he was nominated because of Piltdown, proving yet again that it’s possible for a fraud to profit — if they’re white and connected.

Vaccines and autism

We’re still feeling the repercussions of this fraud, which was first perpetrated in 1998 by a researcher named Andrew Wakefield. This was when he published results of studies he carried out which, he said, showed an undeniable link between childhood vaccinations, particularly measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism.

In Wakefield’s world, “undeniable link” meant “cause and effect,” and a whole bunch of parents proceeded to lose their minds over the whole thing. We’re still dealing with the fallout from it today, with diseases like measles and whopping cough — which should have been eradicated — suddenly causing mini-epidemics.

Eventually, when they could not be replicated, it came out that Wakefield had flat-out falsified his results, and his papers and findings were withdrawn and repudiated by medical journals.

What was his motive for falsifying information without any regard for the lives he endangered? Oh, the usual motive. Money. He had failed to disclose that his studies “had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.”

But, as with Piltdown Man, we’re still seeing the effects and feeling the damage a generation later. This is why now, more than ever, we need to rely on actual scientific findings that have been replicated through peer review instead of rumors, myths, or memes.

Talkie Tuesday: More fun with British vs. American English, Part 1

While I have many friends throughout the British Commonwealth (although, apparently, not a drop of British blood according to DNA tests but despite genealogy), it always amuses me how quaint and weird British English sometimes sounds.

I love collecting comparisons of British and American expressions in order to look at their differences, and which language focuses on what. For example, in general I find that British English tends to focus on the form of something, while American English focuses on the function. That’s not always the case, though.

For this round, I’ve got 23 word pairs, and I’m going to take a look at which one is really the more accurate and pertinent of the two. Here we go. In each pair, British appears first and American second.

  1. Sun cream vs. sunscreen

This is a perfect example of form vs. function. “Sun cream” zeroes right in on the original form of what used to be called sun-tan lotion in the U.S. When it first came out, it actually wasn’t even supposed to protect you from UV rays, but rather make sure that they baked you to an even tone of skin cancer.

The first sunscreens also came in the familiar “squeeze it out of a bottle and rub it all over yourself” form, hence the obvious form designation of cream, since the stuff was generally white and about the consistency of clotted cream or whole milk.

But then along came aerosol sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and different classes of sunscreens — chemical absorbers and physical blockers. So the term “cream” really doesn’t apply to them anymore, especially not if you’re spritzing them all over yourself like hairspray.

Correctness Verdict: American English takes the point. 1-0.

  1. Salad cream vs. salad dressing

Again, another case of British English going right for the color and form of the originals, since many early salad dressings were based on mayonnaise and, in fact, in many places mayonnaise itself is referred to as just salad dressing and appears in the same aisle in stores.

But… what salad cream ignores as a term is, again, all of the many varieties of dressing that don’t revolve around cream or dairy at all. Without dairy, you couldn’t have ranch or bleu cheese or thousand island or any kind of creamy or yoghurt-based dressing.

On the other hand, there are so many other dressings that don’t contain dairy that the ones that fell out of cows only make up a tiny chunk. You’ve got Italian, Caesar, balsamic vinaigrette, Russian, French, honey mustard, roasted garlic, lemon herb, raspberry- and  honey-Dijon vinaigrette, red wine vinaigrette, sesame ginger, and  olive oil which is (surprise) the real vinaigrette. That “vin” doesn’t come from vinegar, but from vino or vine.

But… having run down the menu, it’s kind of obvious. Most salad dressings have nothing to do with cream, and since they cover up the leafy bits when used, well, I think you can guess who wins here.

Correctness Verdict: American English takes the point, bringing the score to 2-0.

  1. Allen key vs. Allen wrench

If you’ve ever put together anything from IKEA, or from any flatpack, really, then you’ve met this little L-shaped bugger. Usually no longer on one side than your pinky and no longer on the other than the last joint of your thumb, this versatile tool has one job: Screwing in bolts and the like that have hexagonal indentations in their heads.

The form factor of the thing makes it really easy to use. Stick short end into opening, turn long end until bolt is screwed totally in, done. Repeat four hundred times before you realize that you stuck the left side of the legs on the right side of the desk. Throw instructions at wall and scream.

Now, in this case, if we look at the words they break down like this. A key opens or closes something, while a wrench grabs and turns something. And while this little tool technically does grab and turn things, it doesn’t actually act all that wrench-like because you can’t clamp it only anything.

Correctness Verdict: British English for the win, and the score is now 2-1.

  1. Anticlockwise vs. counterclockwise

This one is simple to understand — either something goes around the way that the hands on a clock do, turning from left to right, or it goes the other way around. But what to call that other way?

“Anticlockwise” actually seems to have some kind of hidden political agenda to it — “Down with Big Time!” But “counterclockwise” seems a lot more neutral and just implies going in the opposite direction to the norm. Compare to a musical term like counterpoint. They didn’t call it antipoint for a reason.

And let’s not get started on “widdershins,” which neither language has decided to claim.

Correctness Verdict: American English scores, and that score is now 3-1.

  1. Baking tray vs. cookie sheet

 British English doesn’t even call cookies by the right name, instead referring to them as biscuits. Meanwhile, American biscuits are pretty much scones in the UK. And I have no idea what they actually call American cookies in Britain, but the word had better be “delicious.”

There are pretty much only three things Americans will ever cook on what the Brits call a baking sheet: Cookies, biscuits, or croissants. Okay, there’s the occasional pizza, but let’s not muddy the definition with that, especially since pizza pans are also a thing if we invest enough in our kitchen stuff.

Now since the aforementioned food items (sans pizza) all fall into the basic family of floury treats that either have a lot of butter in them or will get a lot of butter put on them, they’re really the same family of things: Buttery treats.

So we can give them the overall heading of “cookie like objects” and forget the idea that we ever really bake anything else on those sheets.

Correctness Verdict: American English scores again, making it 4-1.

  1. Block of flats vs. apartment building

 Another really baffling British term: flat to mean apartment. So, okay… and what’s “flat” about it? Not a lot. The term is probably derived from a Scottish word, “flet,” which refers to a floor or story of a house. Since most apartments tend to be on one floor, they’re also literally flat, or at least that’s how they try to justify it.

As for the block part… this also makes no sense because a lot of apartment buildings are not just giant square cubes, which is what “block” implies. In the U.S., a block refers more to a street measurement, and demarks the distance, curb-to curb, between points where a road or street interrupts a sidewalk.

In the U.S., a “city block” is generally a half a mile (805 meters), while a residential block is a quarter mile (402 meters). Buildings of all sorts sit within those blocks, but none of the buildings are called blocks, ever. Because they’re buildings. Well, duh.

Correctness Verdict: American English for the self-evident score again, now 5-1.

  1. Breakdown van vs. tow truck

Now this one is just silly. “Breakdown van” sounds like something they send around with a nice mental health counselor who will talk to you at the side of the road and make it all better. They don’t have any tools and can’t fix cars, but you can sit in the back of the van and listen to soothing music or watch calming dog videos.

Meanwhile, “tow truck” is just what it says on the tin. You break down, we send out this hefty vehicle that can winch your pathetic junker up or load it onto the flatbed and whisk it away to the car hospital.

In America, for a small annual fee, you can belong to the Automobile Club (AAA) which is a sort of regional, sort of not organization that provides a butt-ton of services to its members: Free roadside service, towing, trip planning, discounts on various travel and touristy things (and not), a monthly magazine, and cool “avoid the DMV” stuff like auto registration and, now, ability to get your “real ID” (which is total horseshit, but I do digress.)

So… Tow Truck — macho roadside savior. Breakdown Van — is that what it’s called when it’s not trying to find people who haven’t paid their annual BBC license fee? Wimpy.

Correctness Verdict: American, 6-1.

  1. Candy floss vs. cotton candy

Although there were so many better names this shit could have been called — like “Dentist’s Retirement Plan” or “Hyperactivity on a Stick” or “Fluffy Diabetes,” it’s basically hot sugar water shot out through an extruder and wrapped around a cardboard pole by some teen carny who isn’t even making minimum wage because his uncle is the star of the geek and blockhead show and the kid’s mom made him take the job in order to make sure that her brother Toby doesn’t actually injure himself too badly.

A big issue here is referring to it as “cotton,” because that crop has so many nasty connotations in American history. Hell, it was pretty much the foundational product that created decades and centuries of systemic racism.

Plus cotton candy came out of carnivals and stuff like that, and for a long time these were places where only people who couldn’t be hired by “respectable society” (read: Handicapped, disabled, deformed, mentally challenged, or not white) got jobs.

On the other hand, while “candy floss” might sound like something you’d find riding up a stripper’s ass, it has another nice, built-in reminder: Don’t stick this shit in your teeth, okay? And no, I’m not going to make a cheap British dentistry joke here because, you know what?

They’ve done got their shit together on that front. Seriously.

Correctness Verdict: Brits for the win, 6-2.

  1. Cling film vs. plastic wrap

More form vs. function, but the simple answer is “Damn, do the Brits make this product just sound needy.”

[Consumer pulls cling film from box. It wraps around his arm.]

Cling Film: Da! Don’t let go, da! I need you da! PLEASE!!!!!

Consumer: Get the fuck off of me you little freak!

[Rips plastic away and bins it.]

As opposed to:

[Consumer pulls plastic wrap off the roll and stretches it over bowl, pulling it down for a tight seal.]

Plastic Wrap: (in breathy voice) Ooh… thanks, daddy.

Consumer: You’re… welcome?

Yeah, good luck getting that out of your head next time you need to wrap a cut cucumber. But remember: whether you call it cling film or plastic wrap, the thing it sticks to best is… itself.

Correctness Verdict: America is far less needy for once? 7-2.

  1. Corn flour vs. cornstarch

They’re both made from corn, and while the U.S. does have both, they’re different, whereas American cornstarch and British corn flour are the same thing. Confusing? Of course it is.

Cornstarch, as the name implies, is ground only from the endosperm of the corn kernels, so it does not contain protein, fiber, or other nutrients, just starch. Corn flour is ground from the whole kernels, plus the germ and hulls from the corn.

Cornstarch is white and silky to the touch. Corn flour can be white, yellow, or blue, depending on the source, and is a little rougher and not as finely grained.

Both can be used as thickening agents in cooking, but you’ll need to use twice as much corn flour to get the same effect. Since flour actually involves more than just the starchy part of the source grain, I think that this one is easy to score.

Correctness Verdict: America gets the point for culinary accuracy. 8-2.

  1. Current account vs. checking account

This is another one that, to American ears, just sounds weird. We generally have two kinds of regular bank accounts: checking and savings. The latter is the one that you put money into where it theoretically earns interest, but the banks pay so little nowadays that you can have tens of thousands in there and still not make more than half a buck a month.

A checking account is the day-to-day one that you write checks (UK: cheques) from, although that’s become mostly archaic, so it’s now the one attached to your Debit card. They might as well call it a debit account.

Seriously — when was the last time you even wrote a check, or saw someone under 65 write one in a store? And even if you do occasionally get paid by paper check, when was the last time you physically took it to the bank instead of deposited it via your phone?

But… calling it a current account makes no sense at all. Current what? Currently all the money you have readily available to spend? And it’s also kind of an insult to people who aren’t the best at balancing their check books, since what they think they have and what the bank says they have aren’t going to match.

Correctness Verdict: America for having a term that makes logical sense. 9-2.

And now it’s half-time! Check out the second half for rounds 12 to 23 to find out which version of English will come out victorious.

Momentous Monday: Media madness

I’m still surprised, even in this modern era, how naïve most people outside of the entertainment industry bubbles are about how it all really works.

I started out in my early years interning for network TV, then moving to a studio writing program before going on to TV production, finally ending up in film/animation production, staffing, home media, and then back in TV production via the talent and website end of it.

And what I can tell you is this: People who’ve never worked in any aspect of the industry have absolutely not a clue how it works at all. But I already said that.

When I interned for network TV, it was for a company that produced game shows at the latter end of the wave before they briefly died, but judging from all of the fan mail we got, one thing was very clear: People in places outside of major media centers — meaning Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, seemed to think that whoever it was they saw hosting that show and holding the mic actually produced and ran everything.

So every single letter was addressed to the host of the show, and way too many of them were sob stories about how, “We’re so poor, if you just put us on, you could change our lives!” Since one of our shows was on a network that also had a popular soap opera at the time, it wasn’t unusual for us to receive mail for the stars of those shows, but addressed via our show, and it was the same damn thing.

Yep… direct appeals to the people onscreen who had fuck-all to do with actually creating the content on those screens.

In the case of game shows, there are entire staffs of people who do nothing but audition and select contestants and, with rare exceptions (Jeopardy while Alex Trebek was still with us, for example), the host of the show has nothing to do with it except for those taping days which, depending on how they schedule it, could be as little as two days a week to tape five shows, or five days a week to tape an entire season in a month.

Bring it up to modern times with total scams like America’s Got Talent, and every damn thing is manipulated and controlled from beginning to end — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I got to the studio writing program, I learned something else: Executives will pay lip service and bend over backwards trying to support… whatever. In my case, I was supposedly part of their push for LGBTQ representation. Another colleague in that program was meant to represent older women, and we had several POC as well.

And what happened? When we tried to write our stories, they were mostly ignored because they were “not what we’re looking for right now.”

Okay, so then why were you looking for us in the first place?

When I finally got into TV production for a primetime series or two, that was actually fun. I only ever wrote one episode for the second show I worked on, but otherwise, we were a great staff, and worked with fun people. Still, the fan mail was totally buggy because, again, the great unwashed just assumed that the actors they saw onscreen created everything on the spot and were in control of it.

So… god forbid that the producers created a story line that the fans didn’t like, because then the actors in those roles would get hate mail, and it was totally stupid.

Oddly enough, I never saw this problem while working for animated features, or in home entertainment, but that probably makes sense. However… what I still see to this day, especially in people having the misguided impression that anybody can become a billionaire superstar overnight on social media is exactly the same as I saw back in those days of analog broadcast media with rural fans begging the hosts to make them rich.

And I hate to break it to people, but all those big pop stars they adore? Yeah… every single one of them was discovered and then exploited by a major media company. Yes, they may be talented — or may be propped up by a team of really talented people — but, otherwise, they are all just smoke and mirrors.

You can certainly enjoy their stuff, of course, but don’t mistake the artist for anything more than the product, and don’t think that they’re solely creating it, in the same way that your favorite actor on your favorite TV show is creating that.

Sure, there are some who get lucky enough to finally take the reins. Prince is a good example but, don’t forget — there was a point in his career where he was so controlled by Warner Music Group that he rebelled by becoming The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and identifying himself by an unpronounceable symbol.

At the time, outsiders thought he was nuts, but there was method to his madness. By making the change, he made it damn near impossible for Warner to easily publicize his product — and he was holding back his best stuff, just putting out the bare minimum to fulfill his contract.

The second that contract expired, boom. Prince was back, and he started releasing new and amazing material immediately.

Other exceptions include the obvious, like Oprah, but of course it took her years to get to that position. Another is JK Rowling, who was about the only person Warner Bros. gave final approval to, although she may have finally scuttled that deal by going full-TERF.

For game show examples, Simon Cowell is directly involved in the production of his shows, as Alex Trebek was with Jeopardy, as a very hands-on producer but also a very nice guy.

But these are the rare exceptions.

Otherwise… every last act you see mentioned in the mass media, or listed on Billboard charts, or popping up on the trending lists on sites like Spotify or Amazon Music or whatever, is just a packaged product being sold to you, good or not. And, like it or not, they really have little control over which of their product actually gets out there.

Why? Because it’s a money game, run by mostly rich white men who are the gatekeepers of media. Play along, you get to be a playa. Don’t fit their marketing model? Then you get to be a poor artist. Who gets picked is a total crapshoot — or an absolute calculation.

Go look up the history of One Direction, or any boy band, for example.

So how do we solve this problem? Well, step one is to stop consuming crap from artists being sold to us by major media companies and, instead, to seek out local indie artists and supporting them. Second… go make your own art, or find your friends who do, and then tune out anyone being sold to you by a major record label, media company, movie studio, or etc.

Photo © 2018 Jon Bastian, Emmy Statue, forecourt of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, North Hollywood, CA.

Sunday Nibble #72: Keep it varied!

One of the big fails of modern science fiction films comes down to world-building — literally. It’s pretty much this: For whatever reason, most planets wind up with a one-world biome.

It’s a desert planet, or a snow planet, or a forest planet, or a volcano planet, and that’s it.

Now, I can see how our own solar system might have propagated this idea because, well, honestly, other than the Earth and Mars, look at Mercury, Venus, Neptune, and Uranus, and they really do seem to be mostly the same globally.

Mercury is a rock — but if you compare the temperature on the side that always faces the Sun and the side that does not, you’ll find a ridiculous extreme because it has both the hottest and coldest places in our solar system if you don’t count the atmosphere of the Sun itself.

So scratch Mercury off the list, because it has climate extremes as well. And if it had any kind of atmosphere (which it can’t), it would have incredibly violent storms along its terminator, which in this case would be a line circling its poles, with total sunshine on one side and total dark on the other.

Meanwhile… Venus is a hellhole with no variation, so it totally fits the science fiction planet stereotype. Way to go Venus!

Earth… I’ll get back to us in a minute.

Mars… it may look like it’s just a little off-orange dust-ball with easily revealed gray streaks, but that’s not really true. While it doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere to speak of, it does actually have seasons, and the climate, such as it is, in the polar zones and at the equator do vary.

Let’s jump over Jupiter and Saturn and take a look at Neptune and Uranus.

These last two are, in fact, the epitome of mono-biome worlds, as far as we can tell. They are just spinning globes of liquid methane and ammonia at really low temperatures, they lack surface features, and are pretty reminiscent of a planet like Giedi Prime from Dune, which was basically made of fossil fuels.

The only fail in those books was the idea that the planet could actually be habitable by any kind of hominid life-form. Nope. It would have been, at best, the equivalent of a distant oil field, exploited by pipeline or robot rigging crew, with the actual product shipped to a real home world to be exploited.

The real action on varied biomes this far out in our solar system probably comes among the many moons, of which Uranus and Neptune have a lot, and Saturn and Jupiter have many more — but let us get back to the king of planets, and the father of the king, by whom he was eaten.

Look it up, people.

While both places may look like they are just whirling balls of gas as well, one glance at them tells us that no, they are not. And while you have to go really far down in hopes of finding any kind of solid surface, a look at the top of their atmospheres says, “Wow. They have climates.”

And boy, do they.

Jupiter is famous for its storms, the most well-known of which is the Great Red Spot, which is pretty much a hurricane just south of the equator that has spun in roughly the same place for centuries. There are indications that it’s finally breaking up, but others are forming in a storm train that’s familiar to any Earthling who watches news of our own Atlantic hurricanes.

Jupiter’s storms are just bigger, nastier, and they last (figuratively) forever. Meanwhile, the dynamics of the rest of the atmosphere are incredible, with visible bands of clouds and gases violently interacting in a dance of fluid dynamics driven by the incredibly rapid revolution of the planet.

Jupiter’s circumference is roughly eleven times the Earth’s, but one revolution on Jupiter, aka one day, takes only 9 hours and 56 minutes. Meanwhile, one revolution on Earth takes 24 hours and 15 minutes.

The net result is that the velocity of any point on the Earth’s equator around its axis at around sea level is 1,307 mph (1,669 kph). At the top of Jupiter’s atmosphere, it’s 27,478 mph (44,222 kph), which is 26.5 times faster.

So storms are much more intense, winds are faster, and atmospheric friction makes it pretty hot along the Jovian equator.

It’s probably not that much different on Saturn, with the composition of gases in the atmosphere changing by latitude — and that’s exactly what happens on Earth, for different reasons.

Back to the biome. Earth in particular is defined by its climate zones, which were mapped and named by humans centuries ago.

The defining two lines are the equator, at 0° latitude, and the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5°N and the Tropic of Capricorn 23.44°S. What they basically define are the zones in which the Sun does its maximal and minimal height at noon thing as the seasons pass.

They’re named for the astrological signs that marked the passing of the solstice — traditionally, the Sun enters Cancer on June 21, which is more or less the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the Sun enters Capricorn around about December 22, which is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.

Swap results and seasons if you swap hemispheres.

Anything north or south of these Tropics (which basically means “cut-off”) up until the corresponding polar circle is considered a temperate zone. Well, was, until climate changed started to fuck it up.

As for the polar zones, these are the areas that either receive sunlight nearly 24/7 during summer or darkness nearly 24/7 during winter.

So this is why we have ice caps (sort of still) near the poles, pleasant weather for a zone between that and hot (until recently) and then a pretty warm climate spanning the equator in a pretty equal band.

Traditionally, that would give us snow, permafrost, deciduous forest, Mediterranean climate, rainforest, desert, then repeat in the other direction. Different climates depend upon where you are on the planet. So does the atmospheric composition, with some zones having more moisture and some less.

And yes, that’s all changing, but let’s get back to the point.

Where a lot of Science Fiction world-building has fallen down is in actually forgetting the lessons of our solar system, which are these. Which planets are naturally uninhabited and which ones aren’t?

Welp, Earth comes to mind as inhabited, with Mars a good candidate as former life host, along with various moons of Jupiter and Saturn as current hosts. The common thread, though, is that we’ve only found life on the planets with varied biomes — mainly, Earth.

And yet, science fiction planet designers insist on thinking that they can create planets that are all one thing — an ice world, a rain-forest planet, a volcanic world, a total desert, a salt flat with iron oxide deposits under it, a swamp world… whatever.

Here’s the problem: None of those mono-biome worlds are ever going to naturally support life. They might manage it with a lot of heavy infrastructure dropped onto them, but otherwise not. But for the ones that do happen to have varied biomes, seasons, maybe even a big moon to create tides, the sky is the limit.

And, to science fiction writers, if you want to create an inhabited planet, make damn sure that the climate and terrain change based on latitude, axial tilt, orbital period, and other realistic things. Otherwise, nobody is going to able to live on the “one terrain, one climate” space ball you’ve created.

To take just three examples, if you have a snowball world like Hoth, an ocean planet like Kamino, or a desert world like Tatooine, you’re going to have a damn hard time providing food and water for your inhabitants.

I’ll assume that, since most of the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe we see are humanoid, that we’d need to support an Earth-like atmosphere and agriculture, and other typically human needs.

The obvious workaround, of course, is that these single biome worlds are stand-ins for similar places on Earth.

For example, Hoth is not really inhabited by any kind of advanced civilization, just the local beasties — mainly tauntuans and whatever it was that lost an arm to Luke. It’s only an outpost, and is most like an analogue of the few bases that humans have in Antarctica.

Kamino, the ocean planet, likewise doesn’t really have any civilization, just the resident Kaminoans who are cloners, and who are involved in a very secret project most likely commissioned by a Sith Lord. Think of them like oil platforms in any distant place, like the North Sea, or very remote oceanic research stations.

And then we come to Tatooine, which seems to have a thriving culture despite being a desert planet of the sandy variety. But, again, this one has an analogue on Earth and in the Star Wars universe and Tatooine itself was actually filmed not all that far from its terrestrial counterpart.

See, Tatooine is the Middle East, which provided a gateway and marketplace between Asian traders from the East and European traders from the West.

All this is well and good if you’re being symbolic, but if you want to write real science fiction, then make your civilized planets as complicated and varied as Earth.

Oh yeah — the one other thing that seems to happen a lot in science fiction films: Every inhabitant of a particular planet apparently has the same language, belief system, culture, and general appearance. There are exceptions (that are not accounted for by aliens) but they are far and few between.

You could try to write that off to the idea that a planet’s cultures cannot migrate into space until they become one, but I’d argue that we seem to be doing just fine right now while sending up astronauts and missions from multiple nations, and we even seem to have just reached the Christopher Columbus phase 52 years to the day after the first humans walked on the Moon.

That would be the “letting rich assholes go up there” phase, by the way.

Also, if it seems like I’m picking on Star Wars in particular in this piece, I’m not. It’s just that I’m slightly more into that fandom (slightly) than the other two I’ll call out now: Star Trek and Dune.

They all tell fantastic stories. And when it comes to terms of defining them as hardest to softest in terms of the science in the fiction, then the order is this: Star Trek — they at least try to come up with physical rules for shit; Dune — they at least come up with biological, genetic, and psychological rules for shit, but really, really cheat it with what mélange can do; and Star Wars —100% fantasy, but that’s okay.

Or, in other words, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Star Wars makes the mono biome mistake constantly. It should be really annoying that Star Trek and, to a certain extent, Dune both do.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to the upcoming Dune movie, which will just be the first half of the book. I am. It looks very, very good, whether it takes place on a totally desert planet or not.

Saturday Morning Post #72: Stacey Shaken

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, Stacey gets a typical California wake-up call from nature.

She always heard them first. A creak or a thunk, nothing that seemed important, really. The house settling or someone moving upstairs. Except that there’s always something a little different about this creak or thunk. It’s not a random noise. It’s, “Hello! I’m here…”

Then it started.

Now, being from around here, she always did the same thing at first. Nothing. Sit at attention, cock her head to one side, think, “Here we go again.” Try to think nothing of it, but waiting for that magic moment. These things had delineations, after all. They would either decide to stop or, sometimes, like this time, they wouldn’t.

Her second thought was always, “Oh shit,” and she’d go dashing to the nearest doorway. And, usually, just about the time she’d gotten there, she’d notice that it was over, feel her heart trying to elbow her lungs out of the way, then head to the TV, flicking on every light switch she passed, grab the remote and stand in the living room, flipping through the channels looking for the special report.

While she was flipping, she played the guessing game. “Four? No, no, that had to be five. Or a really big one far away…” And all the time in the back of her mind wondering, “Aftershock or foreshock?” How soon would the next one come and how big would it be?

Finally, she found the news, two anchors sitting at their desk, trying not to look scared, because they’d just been through the same thing themselves. “We have a preliminary report that the earthquake was a four point three magnitude — “

“Four three my ass,” Stacey thought as she sat down to watch. Spend a long enough time in LA, you got pretty good at guessing these things, and that one felt like a five, at least. And no way in hell that big one back in ‘94 had been anything less than a seven, no matter what the scientists said. She’d read somewhere that there was a state law that would waive property taxes for a year after an event greater than seven, and she was pretty sure they lied so they wouldn’t have to do it.

Now that had been a nasty morning. That quake had its own personality — they all did. And that personality had been particularly evil. Everything was shaking and bouncing and rolling ferociously and then, right in the middle of it, as if the quake were adding its own personal “fuck you” to the mix, there was another jolt, bigger, and the whole thing got stronger and nastier and Stacey had been sure that this was it, it was The Big One finally come and it wouldn’t stop until everything in Southern California had been flattened.

But, apparently, it wasn’t The Big One, just a big one. It had been her first. She wasn’t even born yet when the big one before that happened, but everyone who’d been around in ‘71 assured her, “Oh, no, Northridge (the new one) was much, much bigger than Sylmar (the old one).”

Why did people name these things? Like hurricanes. Was it some attempt to make them warm and fuzzy and less threatening? It was like the ancient Greeks naming thunder and lightning “Zeus.”

Stacey looked around the apartment. Nothing seemed damaged. No new cracks, nothing fell off the walls. She jumped up, hurried into the kitchen. The cupboards were all closed, nothing fell over in here. She sniffed for gas, smelled nothing. Good.

From the other room, the special report continued. “Oh, joy,” Stacey thought, “Pointless call-in time.” That was an inevitable feature of these things. No real news to report, but the possibility that something horrendous had happened, so these idiots went to the phones, and the conversation was always the same.

“We’re on the line with Wanda from Canoga Park.” Why was it always someone from the far West Valley? “Wanda, what did you feel?”

In the kitchen, Stacey spoke out loud, along with Wanda, who sounded about seventy, “Oh, it was a pretty good shake, and a rolling motion and the dishes were rattling, a couple of pictures fell off the wall.” Why didn’t they just record one of these calls so they’d have it to use, over and over?

Stacey took a glass off the counter and put it in the sink, just in case. She’d always been meaning to go to the hardware store and get those earthquake latches, but it would be such a pain in the ass to install them in — how many? She counted. A dozen cupboards. And getting that blue museum stuff to stick behind the pictures. And those straps for the big bookcases. She would do it, one of these days, when she had the time.

Why did these things always happen after dark, anyway? And why was it that the really big ones always came early in the morning as wake-up calls? That was the worst part, really. Knowing that a big enough quake would knock the power out, shake you around in the dark and then leave you there. She opened the junk drawer, fished around for the flashlight, pulled it out. It was silver metal, a real old skool piece of work, something her father had given her a long time ago before she went off to college. She was surprised she still had it. He told her that its main use was to hit any man who tried to rape or rob her over the head. Lighting was secondary.

She flipped the switch. Nothing. Even though it was heavy enough to have batteries in it, she still opened the bottom to check. Oh yeah, it had batteries. Some cheap old ones that had corroded. The whole inside of the flashlight looked like it had rusted. She screwed the cap back on and tossed it in the trash. Mental note, get flashlight. And earthquake latches and straps. She looked at the clock. A quarter to ten. Too late right now, unless she wanted to go all the way to that twenty-four hour place in Hollywood. But how stupid would that be, to be out on the road, in case this little jolt was some kind of foreshock to something bigger? And, anyway, she’d look like a big stupid girl if she went running off to stock up just because of a minor shaker like this. It was nothing, really. Nothing at all.

Her heart had finally settled down, at least. Then the phone rang and Stacey jumped, getting startled all over again. Who’d be calling her this late? Oh, but of course.

She picked up and said, “Yeah, I felt it, Mom.”

“It was a pretty good one, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, it was nothing. The news said four point three.”

“That was at least a five. The whole house shook here. Snowball was running in circles, barking his little head off.”

“Doesn’t he always do that?”

Stacey’s mother laughed. “I think we were closer to it than you. It was a pretty good shake, and a rolling motion and the dishes were rattling. A couple of your baby pictures fell off the wall.”

“You still have those things up?”

“They fell down. Didn’t break, though.” Stacey’s mother said this last with a note of triumph in her voice.

Didn’t break. That was one of the fluky parts about really big quakes, Stacey had learned the hard way — what broke and what didn’t. Back in ‘94, she found a tall votive candle of St. Emygdius, which had been on top of a bookcase, across the room, on a table, intact. She’d also found one of her plates, in the middle of a stack in the cupboard, cracked right down the center. Back then, three blocks north of her, hardly anything happened. Three blocks south, an entire neighborhood was condemned.

“I’d still rather go through an earthquake than a flood,” her mother said. “At least a quake is over quickly. Why do you think I moved out here?”

“Yeah,” Stacey thought, “A quake is over quickly if it doesn’t destroy everything you own.” Out loud, she said, “At least you get a warning with a flood or a tornado or something like that.”

“Not always,” her mother said. “You’d be surprised. Well, dear, I’m glad you’re okay. Your father’s calling me. We were watching a movie and he doesn’t want to be up late.”

“Okay, Mom. What movie?”

“‘Twister.’ Did you ever see it?”

“Uh, yeah, long time ago. Talk to you later.”

“Good-bye, dear. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

And they hung up.

The news report was over and they’d gone back to ‘Baywatch.’ Stacey flipped through the local channels one more time. Nothing. This was a non-event, no big deal. She was silly, really, for getting so worked up about it. The upstairs neighbors hadn’t come crashing through her ceiling, her life hadn’t been trashed, the apocalypse hadn’t come. She turned off the TV, put down the remotes and headed back down the hall. But she left all the lights on.

Back in her office, she sat down to finish reading her email. This was a safe room, really. A corner room, a corner desk, no way that could fall over, right? The blinds were shut, so, if the window shattered, the glass would fall straight down. But why was she even thinking this? It hadn’t been that long since Northridge. The really big ones didn’t come all that often, did they?

She was typing an email to an old friend back east when there was a creak and a thunk and it felt like the floor dropped. Then, the shaking started, just a little rattle. She stopped typing, looked over at the antenna on her wireless phone. Then it really started, the big jolt, the rolling, yes — it was another one.

Stacey gave an annoyed look at nothing in particular, just sat there and counted to five and then it was over. Not the big one, not even a particularly big one, just a bothersome interruption. She hit “send,” deleted the old email and went on to the next.

Friday Free-for-All #70: Impact, size, inanimate, this or that

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What single event has had the biggest impact on who you are?

One morning, an architect, Bob, who worked on Wilshire Boulevard, decided to grab breakfast across the street at the Van de Kamp’s coffee shop. He kept going to that coffee shop for breakfast every day after that and this is where he met a waitress, Gloria, who had originally relocated from Pennsylvania with her first husband and his family, but who had that marriage annulled after his abuse of her led to a miscarriage and loss of her daughter in the eighth month of pregnancy.

He’d thrown Gloria down the stairs. This is quaintly known as a “Catholic abortion.”

No. There’s nothing funny about it. That was gallows humor, because there’s more than a bit of hypocrisy involved here — not between Bob and Gloria, but with Gloria’s mother.

At the time that they met, Bob and his first wife, who had three kids, were separated and in the process of getting divorced. He was some kind of generic Protestant — his real church was the golf course — and while it was all fine and dandy that Gloria had her marriage annulled because, well, fetus died, it was wrong for Bob to get divorced because “wife drinks a lot.”

Two different sides of the same abuse coin, really.

He was a veteran of war and she was a veteran of domestic violence. He was a lot older than her, but that didn’t matter to either of them, and so the architect kept having breakfast at Van de Kamp’s, and eventually started dating Gloria, and once Bob’s divorce was finalized, they got married in Vegas with Bob’s oldest daughter (who was legally old enough to do so) as one of the witnesses.

The sole offspring from that marriage? Me. So I would not even exist without this event: A man crosses the street to have breakfast. I would literally be nothing without that moment.

Okay, sure — there are billions of just as improbable moments before that which were also necessary for me to exist, but this was the beginning of my beginning.

And, hey, come on. It’s a lot nicer and more romantic than just saying, “So this divorced dude fucked my mom…” Not untrue, but it was a lot more loving than that sentence makes it sound.

Hey, Tristam Shandy’s father forgot to wind the clock, and look what that led to.

Are bigger or small schools better?

I’ve been to both, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. My high school was enormous. Meanwhile, my university was relatively small. I think that my high school graduating class was actually bigger than the entire student body at my university.

Big school advantage, at least on the public K-12 level: Size gets you money. Well, the school, at least. A bigger student body implies a much larger property tax base at the least, so more cash going into that particular district and, since it tends to be allocated per capita, more of it goes to that school.

So we had arts and music education, fully stocked labs, well-equipped athletic teams that were consistently competitive, drivers education and drivers training, extensive AP and language programs, and on and on and on.

Yes, it was absolutely a privilege incubator, but don’t blame me for where I was born. And don’t forget that I managed to piss away a lot of that privilege by choosing to become an artist instead of an oppressor, so there’s that.

Other than the money thing, another big advantage of a huge high school is that it really works as a total reset on middle-school life. Everyone kind of vanishes and kind of doesn’t, although I was still in classes with mostly the same people I’d been in classes with since forever — at least if they continued on to the same high school.

I didn’t even figure this one out until years later, but in retrospect it was obvious. When we were all about seven years old, we went individually to talk to a child psychologist — although we didn’t know that — and he basically administered an IQ test.

I’ve seen that score and let’s just say that comparing it to every single numbered intelligence scale version through history, I wind up either off the top of the chart or in the top category. There is actually only one test in that list where I am not in the top group.

Likewise with the people I would wind up always having as classmates until we turned 18 and graduated. Basically, it was nothing more than a sorting hat which assigned us to our proper houses — genius, above average, kind of smart, average, below average, needs extra help, kind of dumb, bucket of sand, and Trump voter.

Did I mention that IQ tests are absolute bullshit and another part of white culture’s systematic racism? Because they are. Why? Because they presume a white, male, Eurocentric worldview in order to get the answers right. They assume a nuclear, two-parent family in a middle-class home. They assume a lot of things. They were designed to make people of color and people for whom English was not their first language score much, much lower.

Because how the hell else are we going to make sure they don’t get into the elite schools and get the good jobs?

But I do digress. The point is that I wound up in this fantastic nerd bubble from first grade on, and this core group of us went all the way through together, at least in our core classes, although we all also wound up in PE together — and, obviously, with the one PE teacher who was okay with going easy on our nerdy asses.

But the effect of jumping into this giant ocean after the small puddle of middle school was that our bullies, who were a few IQ grades below us, basically vanished in the maelstrom, never to taunt us again, and that was nice.

As for college, like I said, I went to a small university, and that was awesome, too. For one thing, we hadn’t been sorted in by standardized tests. Rather, we kind of self-selected by major, and then wound up meeting our first new college bestie, The Freshman Roommate, entirely based on how we answered certain questions on the application.

I actually kind of lucked out on that one, and we only had 90 men on three floors in our entire dorm. As for campus life in general, again, it was such a small student body that it felt like most of us wound up knowing each other during orientation week.

Classes were equally small, so that the students quickly formed friendships and our professors knew us each by face and name. Plus we partied. Oh, did we party hard. What? It was a Jesuit University. That was practically a rule!

The priest who was the house Father assigned to the on-campus apartment building I lived in my last three years was famous for sitting in his room on the first floor by the entrance with the door open at any time after four p.m. with a handle of scotch on the table. He’d be in full vestments, Roman collar and all, and would give anybody coming in a hearty greeting of, “Hello! Come have a shot!”

During my second semester at my university, one of my co-nerds from the super-smart nerd herd in K-12 invited me to visit him on campus at UCLA. Since they did a quarterly system instead of semesters, I was on break while they were in session, so I came on over.

I started by visiting him in his dorm, which was in a building ten stories tall and designed to house 800 students. He particularly wanted me to see his psychology professor in action, so we headed to class.

And we walked miles. Okay, maybe not miles, but if I had walked this distance on my college campus, I could have crossed it from front gate to far side and back at least five times.

We finally came to a classroom in a huge building and approached the door. I noted that we were at least thirty minutes late, and anxiously said, “Hey — isn’t it going to be a problem if we walk in right now?”

He just shrugged no and opened the door and my jaw dropped as we walked into an auditorium that was easily the size of the lower orchestra section of the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown L.A. The professor was a tiny figure on a stage far below, and yes, he was using audio amplification in order to give his lecture.

My mind was blown. My entire graduating class would have fit in this room. My friend Dave’s college graduation had to happen at the Rose Bowl, because even a world class football school like UCLA did not have a stadium big enough.

I’ve often wondered how different my life would be if I had gone to UCLA or any of the other UC schools, or even gone the CS route, like going to CSUN, which was within miles of the house I grew up in. LMU only happened because they had a film school, it was easier to get into their film program as a freshman than at either UCLA or Cal State Long Beach (CSULB), and it did have that much smaller student body.

But, verdict: Both sizes have their advantages and disadvantages. It really depends on your own wants and needs.

What inanimate object would be the most annoying if it played loud upbeat music while being used?

This one is mostly for shits and giggles, and my first impulse is to just say “All of them.” Think about it. Sit on the toilet. Turn on the garbage disposal or shower. Open your mailbox. Clip your nails. Start your car (although a lot of cars do this already). Fire up the oven or microwave. Start your crockpot or multi-cooker.

Bang. It’s a classic driving song for you!

But, again, a question: Would everyone know which inanimate object — and which one alone — plays music when used? If that’s the case, then it’s simple. The answer is either dildo, vibrator, butt-plug, or any kind of sex toy.

Eye of the Tiger starts blasting form upstairs? Yeah. Everyone in the house now knows what you’re doing. Enjoy!

Lightning round: This or that?

High-tech or Low-tech?

High-tech all the way. What century are we in? How to tell me that you’re a Boomer without telling me you’re a Boomer: Can you print that email out for me? LOL. No.

New Clothes or New Phone?

New clothes. Duh. I will use a phone until it dies or the provider or manufacturer decides to kill it. New clothes, however, really do make a new person. There is nothing more refreshing and inspiring than finding, buying, and wearing a new outfit. Plus an entirely new wardrobe is a lot cheaper than a new phone if you know how to shop.

Rich Friend or Loyal Friend?

Loyal, hands down. I’ve had rich friends. I’ve got loyal friends. Notice the verb tenses. Rich friends generally turn out to be fickle assholes because they expect you to be their friends because they’ve thrown money at you. Never mind how they actually treat you. Meanwhile, loyal friends are always there, and I don’t give a damn how much money those friends have.

Big Party or Small Gathering?

Generally, small gathering, and especially of people I know personally with a couple of strangers mixed in. Exceptions: Big Parties for special events, like weddings, funerals (although is “party” the word?), film or TV wraps, and so on, although not until we all get our shit together, get vaccinated, and destroy this delta variant crap.

What’s worse: Laundry or Dishes?

While clothes are great, laundry sucks ass if you don’t have your own washer-dryer. Even if you do, it still sucks ass. If you have a machine for dishes, stuff ‘em in, add the soap, set the cycle, boom, done. If you don’t, fill the sink, add the soap, and enjoy the Zen of washing, drying, and sticking in the rack.

Laundry? Nah. If you want to do it right, you need to separate things. Okay — you need to separate dishes, cutlery, glasses, and pots and pans as well, but those all go into well-defined slots. Laundry? Whites, colors, delicates — which have to be treated as different piles and go into different loads.

They also require different amounts of detergents, bleaching agents (as in yes/no), and temperature, cycle speeds, and so on.

Now, when you’re done with your dishes, you pretty much have them arranged in stacks that make them easy to put away, because all of your plates are here, your glassware is there, your cutlery is next to that, and your pots and pans are, well, where they should be.

Laundry? Nah. You wind up with a pile at a time because it all takes so damn long to dry, but you can’t just throw it in the drawer or hang it in the closet because now you have to fold that shit. Or pair those socks. And this part takes hours!

Pro-tip: This is why children were invented. Teach them the concept of allowance, then pay them to do your laundry, and give a bonus and raise to the one of them who does it best.

Did I mention that doing laundry is infinitely worse if you have to take it to a common laundry room where you live or, dog forbid, to a common coin-op laundromat? Because you’ll wind up with all of those separates ultimately dumped back into the same basket unfolded and unsorted because all you want to do is get out of this place which is obviously full of paid housecleaners dealing with multiple households so using an entire row of machines, recently divorced men who have no idea what they’re doing, and the screaming kids dragged along by the single moms.

Plus which: Pandemic.

Theatre Thursday: The worst collaborator

It’s funny how sometimes it can take forever between the time you write something and the time it winds up on stage. I think I was just lucky with my first two full-length plays, which were produced within two years of each other and, more importantly, not long after I finished them to the point that I felt like they were shareable.

Two others, no, not so much. Bill & Joan, my play about William S. Burroughs and the fateful night he shot and killed his wife, I actually finished writing not long after that first full-length went up and I finished it before the second one was produced. I had a lot of readings at the time, and some interest, but nothing happened until years later, when one of the actors involved in those readings got in touch with me and said, “Hey, can I pitch this to my theater?”

I said yes, and we pitched it to the current board for that year, meaning that I got to sit face-to-face with French Stewart, whom I absolutely adored from 3rd Rock from the Sun. And… he and the other two turned us down. I still think he’s awesome, though, and it was clearly a case of, “Yeah, I don’t see a role for me in this,” which was absolutely true.

Nevertheless, my actor champion persevered, and when we pitched it to the new triumvirate board the next year, they said yes. And so began the very, very interesting process of suddenly collaborating on a play with the most difficult of co-writers of them all: Myself, from the beginning of my career, looking back from the well-established middle.

Oh boy. It was going to be a difficult job overhauling this one and, in fact, I’d have to say that I threw out at least a third of the original script, if not more — a lot more — and rewrote vast swatches of it. Now it might seem paradoxical to do that. After all, if it was good enough to get picked up to be produced, doesn’t that mean it was good enough as it was?

Short answer: Hell no.

That’s what’s so amazing about the process of rehearsal and working with a director and an amazing cast. It’s all about discovery, reconnecting with why you created a piece in the first place, and (especially with the perspective of so much time between origin and outcome) the ability to suddenly see the flaws with utter clarity.

One of these days, I may go back and do a comparison of the draft we started with and the one we ended with, but I know that we got to the extreme of me combining characters in different ways, adding some and dropping others, and this play was even my incentive to go back and re-learn Spanish to the extent that I am now pretty damn fluent in it.

Why? Well, the main action is set in a jail in Mexico City, and from the beginning, the two cops doing the interrogation spoke a lot of Spanish. However, when I first wrote it, it was my badly-remembered high school Spanish that had abandoned me some time during college. With the help of two Hispanic actors in the roles and a lot of self-study, it suddenly felt like I was crafting those lines as carefully as I crafted the English.

And the entire time, it was an experience in confronting my younger self every day, understanding why I’d written what I’d written, but then realizing, “Wow. I really have learned a lot since then, haven’t I?”

Early last year, rehearsals had just begun for another play of mine that isn’t quite as old as Bill & Joan, but which I did write in another lifetime and which is also very different than my other full-lengths, which are all either based on real people or set in historical periods.

This one, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is a modern day farce with the tag line “Sex, money, real estate. That’s what family’s for.” There was actually an attempt at producing it with the same director back around the time I wrote it, but that fell apart unceremoniously only for the attempted new production to be stopped dead by COVID..

In this case, re-reading the thing in preparation was a lot less cringeworthy. Then again, this play was more mid-career and benefited from coming after the time I’d spent actually working in film and TV and after multiple professional stage productions.

The weirdness in this collaboration, though, really came more from the inspiration rather than the execution. Unlike my other plays, as I’ve mentioned, this one is set in the modern day and was inspired by events in my own life, not to mention that the primary motivation I gave to one of the lead characters happens to be my own as of yet un-obtained dream.

Not to mention that real-life tragedy intervened and put me off the thing for a while only five months after our ill-fated first attempt.

The thumbnail version of Screamin’ Muskrat Love! Is that it’s a story about two brothers who both want to inherit their father’s house and secretly conspire to do so. The older one hires a woman to pretend to seduce the father in order to marry him and take over the place in the traditional way — either she bangs Dad to death or takes it all in a divorce, but then turns it over to other brother per an agreement they’ve made that I won’t say too much about lest I give away too much of the plot.

The inspiration for the whole thing was finding out that my father, in his 80s, had met a woman, in her 20s, at the grocery store, and she had gotten flirty and whatnot with him, and this sent up red flags and alarm bells for my half-sister and me.

Hey, I know what personality traits I inherited from my dad, and it was clear that we had to act fast. It was also very clear that she was probably Romani, and they are known for this kind of thing: Meet old man shopping alone in grocery store, assume that he’s a widower with means, make a move.

The other inspiration was, of course, is the fact that I have always wanted to own a house but, being a Gen-X person in Los Angeles, that was never at any point remotely in reach without me having been a venal and heartless asshole at some point.

So… combine the two elements, ta-da, there’s the play. The first attempt went well until it didn’t, and then six months later, my dad died and evil half-sister announced, “Oh, by the way, his house is in my name. Don’t even try.” Never mind that she had taken advantage of his Alzheimer’s to convince him that I was invading his home every night with friends and slowly making him paranoid about me. But that’s a completely different play that I might write one day.

The house in question would be the house that I grew up in and she didn’t, incidentally. The only possible house I could have ever owned, and her absolutely (pardon the expression) cuntiness in this moment turned me against her forever and, frankly, made me shelve the play because… bad memories.

I guess that time heals all wounds and, if there’s real justice, time will wound all heels, so jumping back into this play, was just a romp and all of the darker connotations had fallen off. So the challenge there was to collaborate with my younger self while being able to ignore the crap that I know younger me went through right after, all while younger me had no idea that he would.

I did give myself a distraction from that one, though, without even knowing it, because one of the intentions I set for myself in writing the piece was to hat tip two of my playwriting idols, Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde and, in fact, the entire finale of this play is an intentional nod to The Importance of Being Earnest in more ways than one.

Still… the glibness of my younger self in tossing this one off did give me pause at a few points when I had to stop and ask, “Damn, too harsh?” Until I remembered, “Nah. Not the audience’s family, and too long ago for me to really care. Proceed!”

Except, of course, we didn’t, and only a couple of weeks before the scheduled opening on April 3rd, everything shut down. So Screamin’ Muskrat Love!  became the only play of mine to actually be in production and not happen. Twice.