Theatre Thursday: It takes character

As the 2020-21 season has become “The Years without Theatre,” it’s still important to remember that the show must — and will — go on. While neither I nor any of my friends are currently performing live, we’ve found ways to do it virtually, usually via Zoom.

For the last eighteen months, I’ve been doing improv every Monday night remotely with the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League. We just don’t have any audience besides ourselves. But despite not having live venues at the moment, it doesn’t mean we’re not creating.

A question I get a lot as a writer is, “Where do your characters come from, anyway?” The answer varies, depending on what format I’m working in.

For stage plays, I usually, but not always, base them on real events, so I have at least those historical figures to start with, and can find plenty of material on their temperament, etc. Of course, every good historical fiction requires its fictional characters, and these I will generally discover in figuring out how to tell the story of the main character.

For example, I have a play about the famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, who was assassinated by a Christian mob in 415 C.E. In that play, I have four historical characters: Hypatia; Isidorus, her husband; Nestorius, a former student (and rumored lover); and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria.

Since the play deals with themes of rationality vs. religion, history vs. myth, and loyalty vs. belief, the made-up characters I created were a current student of Hypatia’s as an echo of Nestorius, and her two servants, young women who represent another opposing faction in the discussion, one Jewish and the other Christian.

As for how I developed those characters, when I write my plays I prefer to do them in workshops with a regular group of readers, so I start with a direction and voice for the character, write the first draft before I start reading it in short chunks, and then let the interpretation of the actor I’ve cast help guide rounding out and refining that character.

The play of mine that’s about to go up, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is not based on historical figures and really isn’t based on real people, but the germ of the play did come from my real life  Basically, as he was getting up in years — and after having been a widower for longer than he’d been married, my father met a young woman in a grocery store who seemed to take an interest in him.

And when I say young, basically she was in her late 20s and he was well past Medicare time. Can you say, “Taking advantage of?” My wicked half-sister and I teamed up to push her out of Dad’s life, but in the process I learned about the very common scam where young women con artists (always working with their families) will look for older men shopping alone in grocery stores, usually during the day, then arrange to bump into them and show lots of attention.

The ultimate goal is to hook up, move in, marry up, and then inherit everything out from under the actual family. I totally get why a man my dad’s age would fall for it, though. At least to a point.

Anyway, only the idea of a young woman seducing an older man with the ultimate goal of cheating his kids out of his house made it into the play. I put a lot of twists and turns into it, also made it my tribute to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and then turned it into a door-slammer of a French farce.

As my director likes to remind me, “Do you know what the most expensive part of a set is? A functional door. I counted. You know how many doors you wrote into this? Eight! You wrote eight damn doors!”

(Okay, he wasn’t really pissed, he was taking it as more of a directing challenge, but it was yet another educational moment for me as a playwright.)

At least every single one of the eight gets good use. And, like my other plays, I developed each of the characters based upon the actor(s) who regularly read them in the weekly developmental sessions.

Screenplays are a little trickier if only because they are a lot harder to develop in “read it out loud” workshops, and that’s because, unlike plays, the action parts take a lot of precedence, and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone read paragraphs of action split up by sparse dialogue.

Sometimes, I’ll do a developmental reading version of a screenplay, which means that I’ll make a copy of the file, and then cut down all of those actions to their bare essentials, putting the emphasis on the dialogue, but it’s a lot of extra work that can actually completely change the feeling of the entire thing.

On the other hand, editing down action to get all the points across in minimal space is never a bad thing, and can actually make the script tighter overall.

But because I don’t develop screenplays with a real cast regularly reading them, I resort to different techniques, which are also the ones I use for short stories and prose.

These basically involve a combination of modelling and mental improvisation. By modelling, I’m not talking about strutting down a runway. Rather, I’m talking about finding some real-world example or person to base some aspect of the character on, and then going from there.

It really depends on emphasis. Do I need a really strong visual for this character, or is it more personality and behavior? Or is it a little bit of both? I do find though that for works with a lot of characters that it’s most helpful to base parts of them on people I know IRL or images I find online, but these are only the most superficial parts.

I like to create a visual reference, which is simply a document with each of the characters’ names and a picture of what I think they look like. That’s because I’m a very visually oriented person. Your mileage may vary, but the idea would be the same. Find whatever evokes your creativity and cements a personality in your head, and then come up with exemplars for that.

The names you give your characters can also help as well, and I am never above going for the symbolic, although I will try to hide those in really, really obscure ways. The novel I’ve been excerpting in the Saturday Morning Post, by the way, has 38 named and significant characters.

Some of the minor ones were shorthanded to remind me of which friends I’d tossed into the mix. Meanwhile, the major ones are Easter eggs to be found — crack the code, predict the story. But, interestingly enough, while the minor characters might be real people dropped in as cameos, the major ones never are.

Why? Because I’m not writing about people I know. I’m writing stuff inspired by bits and pieces of the human condition. So I might borrow one friend’s face just to give me a visual or emotional anchor, but then graft on another friend’s personality, toss in a few traits of my own, leaven with some funny real-life story I heard somewhere, blend judiciously, and then turn to the improv.

See, long before I started doing improv as a performer, apparently I was doing it as a writer. I just didn’t know it. My technique since forever has always been this: Plan nothing ahead, just start with the idea, toss a couple of characters into the scene, and let them do their thing. You give them the particulars of location and relationship. They do the rest.

But, just like with improv as performed, there has to be a character before there can be anything else, which is why all of these little writerly inspirations and visualizations. I guess for me personally, the mantra is “If I can see it, I can be it.”

Well, at least on the page. The funny thing I’ve discovered in doing improv, as opposed to improvising characters in my head, is that as a performer I am actually very physical and visceral. I can find a character very quickly if I change my voice or take on a posture.

Visualizing won’t do it for me on stage. But if I start to speak in a particular cadence or tone or accent, or stand a certain way, it’s like I’m suddenly possessed and the character takes over.

When it comes to writing, the secret is attitude, as in the character’s point of view. The real focus, though, is on what the character wants. That was the number one thing that my playwriting Jedi master Jerry Fey imposed upon me.

Every character has a need. That need is the most important thing in the world to them, whether it’s making coffee this morning or winning the race for Prime Minister. Giving each character a strong need and never letting them deviate from wanting it creates stakes, and this creates drama (or comedy) and compels your audience.

That much is true in all creative writing in whatever format, and definitely in improv. If a character doesn’t need something, we don’t care.

And, by the way, in comedy, the stakes are actually much higher than in drama. Why? Because in drama, the stakes are realistic: Detective Margaret Davis wants to solve this case even though the DA is against her. Doctor Johnson has to cure her patient of an unknown disease. Gerald wants to save his marriage from his wife’s drinking problem, but her family is no help.

In comedy, the stakes are even higher because they are ridiculously trivial: Sheila would kill to win the baking contest, but so would her opponent; Arnold goes to great lengths to cover things up after he lies about his height and age to a prospective Tinder date, but his best friend gets wind of both and is interested in her as well; in order to not get fired for excessive tardiness, Arnold goes to extreme measures to gaslight his boss and bribe his coworkers, but one of them won’t be bribed…

One of the masters of turning the trivial into high comedy is Rowan Atkinson, especially in his persona of Mr.Bean. He can turn something as simple as moving a tea cup into the most elaborate of farces simply because the character is thwarted in his attempts — and the more he tries and fails, the more vitally important completing that simple action becomes.

So the TL;DR of the piece is this: Writers and improvisers create their characters out of whole cloth, with no real basis in reality, but we will sprinkle a combination of people we know and like, people we know and don’t like, people who are famous, pictures we find online, and humans we see wandering around, toss it into the food processor in our heads, and come out with a people salad that isn’t one bit you, although it might be a bunch of bits of you and other people we both know.

So I guess the real answer to the question, “Where do you get your characters from?” Is: I just pull them out of my ass.

Hey — since that’s literally true of a few of them over the years, I’d call it a fair answer.

Image by Skeeze  from Pixabay.

Wonderous Wednesday: 5 Things that are older than you think

A lot of our current technology seems surprisingly new. The iPhone is only about fourteen years old, for example, although the first Blackberry, a more primitive form of smart phone, came out in 1999. The first actual smart phone, IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, was introduced in 1992 but not available to consumers until 1994. That was also the year that the internet started to really take off with people outside of universities or the government, although public connections to it had been available as early as 1989 (remember Compuserve, anyone?), and the first experimental internet nodes were connected in 1969.

Of course, to go from room-sized computers communicating via acoustic modems along wires to handheld supercomputers sending their signals wirelessly via satellite took some evolution and development of existing technology. Your microwave oven has a lot more computing power than the system that helped us land on the moon, for example. But the roots of many of our modern inventions go back a lot further than you might think. Here are five examples.

Alarm clock

As a concept, alarm clocks go back to the ancient Greeks, frequently involving water clocks. These were designed to wake people up before dawn, in Plato’s case to make it to class on time, which started at daybreak; later, they woke monks in order to pray before sunrise.

From the late middle ages, church towers became town alarm clocks, with the bells set to strike at one particular hour per day, and personal alarm clocks first appeared in 15th-century Europe. The first American alarm clock was made by Levi Hutchins in 1787, but he only made it for himself since, like Plato, he got up before dawn. Antoine Redier of France was the first to patent a mechanical alarm clock, in 1847. Because of a lack of production during WWII due to the appropriation of metal and machine shops to the war effort (and the breakdown of older clocks during the war) they became one of the first consumer items to be mass-produced just before the war ended. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating history of alarm clocks that’s worth a look.

Fax machine

Although it’s pretty much a dead technology now, it was the height of high tech in offices in the 80s and 90s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a fax machine that isn’t part of the built-in hardware of a multi-purpose networked printer nowadays, and that’s only because it’s such a cheap legacy to include. But it might surprise you to know that the prototypical fax machine, originally an “Electric Printing Telegraph,” dates back to 1843.

Basically, as soon as humans figured out how to send signals down telegraph wires, they started to figure out how to encode images — and you can bet that the second image ever sent in that way was a dirty picture. Or a cat photo.

Still, it took until 1964 for Xerox to finally figure out how to use this technology over phone lines and create the Xerox LDX. The scanner/printer combo was available to rent for $800 a month — the equivalent of around $6,500 today — and it could transmit pages at a blazing 8 per minute. The second generation fax machine only weighed 46 lbs and could send a letter-sized document in only six minutes, or ten page per hour. Whoot — progress!

You can actually see one of the Electric Printing Telegraphs in action in the 1948 movie Call Northside 777, in which it plays a pivotal role in sending a photograph cross-country in order to exonerate an accused man.

In case you’re wondering, the title of the film refers to a telephone number from back in the days before what was originally called “all digit dialing.” Up until then, telephone exchanges (what we now call prefixes) were identified by the first two letters of a word, and then another digit or two or three. (Once upon a time, in some areas of the US, phone numbers only had five digits.) So NOrthside 777 would resolve itself to 667-77, with 667 being the prefix. This system started to end in 1958, and a lot of people didn’t like that.

Of course, with the advent of cell phones, prefixes and even area codes have become pretty meaningless, since people tend to keep the number they had in their home town regardless of where they move to, and a “long distance call” is mostly a dead concept now as well, which is probably a good thing.


When do you suppose the first computer animation appeared on film? You may have heard that the original 2D computer generated imagery (CGI) used in a movie was in 1973 in the original film Westworld, inspiration for the recent TV series. Using very primitive equipment, the visual effects designers simulated pixilation of actual footage in order to show us the POV of the robotic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner. It turned out to be a revolutionary effort.

The first 3D CGI happened to be in this film’s sequel, Futureworld in 1976, where the effect was used to create the image of a rotating 3D robot head. However, the first ever CGI sequence was actually made in… 1961. Called Rendering of a planned highway, it was created by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology on what was then the fastest computer in the world, the BESK, driven by vacuum tubes. It’s an interesting effort for the time, but the results are rather disappointing.

Microwave oven

If you’re a Millennial, then microwave ovens have pretty much always been a standard accessory in your kitchen, but home versions don’t predate your birth by much. Sales began in the late 1960s. By 1972 Litton had introduced microwave ovens as kitchen appliances. They cost the equivalent of about $2,400 today. As demand went up, prices fell. Nowadays, you can get a small, basic microwave for under $50.

But would it surprise you to learn that the first microwave ovens were created just after World War II? In fact, they were the direct result of it, due to a sudden lack of demand for magnetrons, the devices used by the military to generate radar in the microwave range. Not wanting to lose the market, their manufacturers began to look for new uses for the tubes. The idea of using radio waves to cook food went back to 1933, but those devices were never developed.

Around 1946, engineers accidentally realized that the microwaves coming from these devices could cook food, and voìla! In 1947, the technology was developed, although only for commercial use, since the devices were taller than an average man, weighed 750 lbs and cost the equivalent of $56,000 today. It took 20 years for the first home model, the Radarange, to be introduced for the mere sum of $12,000 of today’s dollars.

Music video

Conventional wisdom says that the first music video to ever air went out on August 1, 1981 on MTV, and it was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It was the first to air on MTV, but the concept of putting visuals to rock music as a marketing tool goes back a lot farther than that.

Artists and labels were making promotional films for their songs back at almost the beginning of the 1960s, with the Beatles a prominent example. Before these, though, was the Scopitone, a jukebox that could play films in sync with music popular from the late 1950s to mid-1960s, and their predecessor was the Panoram, a similar concept popular in the 1940s which played short programs called Soundies.

However, these programs played on a continuous loop, so you couldn’t chose your song. Soundies were produced until 1946, which brings us to the real predecessor of music videos: Vitaphone Shorts, produced by Warner Bros. as sound began to come to film. Some of these featured musical acts and were essentially miniature musicals themselves. They weren’t shot on video, but they introduced the concept all the same. Here, you can watch a particularly fun example from 1935 in 3-strip Technicolor that also features cameos by various stars of the era in a very loose story.

Do you know of any things that are actually a lot older than people think? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: Jake von Slatt

Talky Tuesday: American vs. British getting stressed

American and British English are two very different animals despite a common source. Today, I take a look at how and why certain words are pronounced differently.

I’ve written several times about differences in American and British spelling and vocabulary, and why I think that the American version of English — accent and all — is actually the more correct one.

Naturally, I’m biased because it’s what I grew up reading, speaking, and writing, but purely objectively, a lot of British ways of phrasings just make no sense.

Take for example how they use the word “different” as a comparative. In British English, they would say something like, “She’s different to her friends.”

Different to…? This just grates on my ear because it doesn’t compute. You’re making a negative comparison — she is not like the ones you’re comparing her with. But “to” is a preposition that implies movement toward, whether figuratively or literally: “We are coming close to a decision.” “We walked to the store.”

It makes perfect sense to say, “She’s similar to her friends,” because that’s a positive comparison moving her into the group. “Different from” would make more sense, although that’s not usually what we say in the U.S.

Here, we’d say, “She’s different than her friends.” Using from would not be wrong, although it only feels correct when making a comparison to a less well-defined group: “She’s different from the others.”

Also, to me, saying “She’s different to her friends” implies that her differentness is something that only her friends notice, not that she has traits that differ greatly from those of her friends.

Oddly enough, Spanish also has the same distinction between Latin America and Spain which exactly mirrors this. In Spain, they would say, “Ella es diferente a sus amigas.” The “a” is equivalent in this use to “to.” In a lot of parts of Latin America, it would be, “Ella es diferente de sus amigas,” with “de” being the equivalent here of “from.”

Using “to” with different like this to me is just as jarring as when someone uses the phrase “based off” — and anyone who ever says that out loud should be slapped upside the head and corrected immediately.

A base is what something is built on top of, so you literally cannot base something off of something else. The only proper preposition her is “on,” as in “Based on a true story.”

But there’s another area where Americans and Brits differ greatly, and that in how they emphasize words when speaking.

Putting the emPHASis on the wrong syllAble

The very short version is that American English tends to put the emphasis on the first syllable of longer words, while British English puts it on the second. A classic example is the word “laboratory.”

In America, it comes out as LAB-or-a-tory, while in Britain (and the Commonwealth) it’s pronounced la-BOR-a-t’ry. That’s actually bonus points for this word, because American English gives a slight additional emphasis to the “tor,” not as strong as on “lab,” while British English just erases it.

As usual, this happens because a lot of these words come from French, and in their ever-imperialistic way, British English pronounces them according to the rules of English.

Meanwhile, in their very differently imperialistic way, American English pronounces these words to sound more like the French. Hey — at least we kind of acknowledge the cultures we steal from.

Ironically, the differences in British and American English happened for the opposite reason — British spelling kept the French versions — colour, valour, honour, etc. — while American English simplied — color, valor, honor etc.

Of course, the British versions aren’t pronounced at all how they’re spelt, rhyming with neither velour or hour, but sounding exactly like the American versions.

There are a rather substantial number of content creators on YouTube who are from Commonwealth countries, and so speak this flavor of English. It also gets more complicated on sites based in the UK with multiple presenters from different locations, because their pronunciations even vary from person to person and accent to accent.

One word that really stands out for me, because a number of these sites cover arts and entertainment, is the word “biopic,” which is a portmanteau for “biographical picture,” meaning a movie about a person’s life.

In the U.S., it’s pronounced “BI-o-pic,” and I think that’s how they say it in Canada, too. But in the UK, it gets mangled into “bi-OP-ic,” which, again, makes no logical sense. Also again, the American version has that slight additional stress on the last syllable.

And since we’re talking about language, the “Americans first syllable, Brits second syllable” rules doesn’t always hold either because of course it doesn’t. Here are some words that work the opposite, with British first and American second:

Adult:  AD-ult, a-DULT

Buffet: BUF-fet, buf-FET (silent T)

Cliché: CLI-ché, cli-CHÉ (hey, Britain — the French left an accent in it!)

Debris: DE-bris, de-BRIS (silent S)

Premature: PREM-a-ture, pre-ma-TURE (America held out until the third syllable)

Oddly enough, the one case where Brits get it right is the brand name Adidas, which is not pronounced “a-DI-das” but rather “a-di-DAS,” because it was named for the founder, Adolf Dassler. His nickname was “Adi,” and the last name was shortened, and once you know that, you’ll probably always pronounce it “a-di-DAS” as well.

If you’d like to see a Brit and American compare how they pronounce 100 words, you can get a look on YouTube. Here’s Part 1 and here is Part 2.

Momentous Monday: Weird random facts

Six random facts from science for you to enjoy, argue about, and share.

Here are a few interesting facts to ponder — things that might not seem possible, but which are true.

Which planet, on average, is closest to the Earth?

You’re probably inclined to say either Venus or Mars, going by the simple logic that in the order of orbits, Venus is #2, Earth is #3, and Mars is #4. You might also have remembered that the distance between each successive orbit follows a formula, meaning that, by definition, Venus has got to be closer to Earth than Mars.

This makes sense because each successive orbit is larger than the previous by an increasing ratio that is similar to the Fibonacci sequence,  although it’s hardly exact. It does mean, though, that Earth is closer to Venus than it is to Mars and it naturally follows that it’s closer to Venus than it is to Mercury.

But the question included “on average,” and if we take that into account, then the planet closest to the Earth is… Mercury. in fact, Mercury is the closest to every planet in the solar system, on average, period.

The simple reason for this is that Mercury’s orbital period is so short — a “year” on Mercury is only a smidgen under 88 days, meaning that it orbits the sun 4.15 times (on average) for every orbit that the Earth makes. Meanwhile, Venus only goes around 1.63 times for every Earth year.

This adds up, because Mercury is on the same side of the Sun as we are for a lot longer than Venus, and when Venus, or any planet, is on the far side, its distance from us is basically double the orbit plus the diameter of the Sun.

This is obvious if we really simplify the numbers. Let’s just randomly designate the distances by orbit: Mercury = 1, Venus = 2, Earth = 3, and Mars = 5.

When Mercury and Earth are in alignment on the same side of the Sun, the net distance is 2 (from 3-1). For Venus, it’s 1, and for Mars it’s 2. But put the planets on the other side, and the formula changes to 2O+Sol, or twice the orbital distance plus the diameter of the Sun, so the new figures are:

Mars: 2(5-3)+Sol = 4+Sol

Venus: 2(3-2)+Sol = 2+Sol

Mercury: 2(3-1)+Sol = 4+Sol

We can eliminate the +Sol from each equation since they all cancel out, and this might make it look like Venus is still the closest, but those orbital periods make a big difference, because Mercury spends a lot more time on the near side of the Sun to us than Venus does.

If we look at the averages, because Mercury gets more time in our neighborhood, in the long run it averages out to be the closest planet to Earth — but the formula holds true for every other planet in the Solar System.

Are there more stars in the universe or atoms in a human being?

Using 70 kilos as an average human weight, the answer to this one is rather simple, and the winner outnumbers the loser by a ration of 7 million to 1.

A human body has approximately 7 octillion atoms in it, and most of those are hydrogen, since we are mostly water, and there are two hydrogen atoms per oxygen atom in each molecule of water. The universe has approximately 1 sextillion stars in it and, not surprisingly, most of the universe is also made of hydrogen.

That’s kind of remarkable when you think about it, because hydrogen is the lightest of all of the elements and the simplest of atoms, made of one negatively charged electron and one positively charged proton. Yes, there are variations, or isotopes, with some neutrons slipped in there.

These neutrons are what make so-called “heavy water” so important in nuclear reactions, but chemically they make no difference, since those reactions only rely on the electron and proton.

Now, as to the answer on whether humans have more atoms or the universe has more stars, you may have already guessed it if you remember your STI and/or Greek counting prefixes. “Octillion” comes from the number 8, and refers to a number in the thousands with 8 groups of three zeroes after it. “sextillion” comes from six, and refers to a number in the thousands with 6 groups of zeroes after it.

Since the human body has about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in it while the universe only has 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, humans win, with 7 million atoms per person for every star.

What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly became a black hole?

Gravitationally, nothing, unless the Sun lost a little mass in the process, in which case we’d drift a bit farther out in our orbit.

Otherwise, though, Earth would get very cold and dark and, depending on the orientation of things, we might or might not get blasted by intense gamma radiation that would scrub the planet clean of all life and its atmosphere.

We wouldn’t be able to see the Moon or planets anymore, just the stars, and we’d freeze to death pretty quickly but don’t worry — the Sun is too small to ever become a black hole.

People have this impression that black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners that suck up everything that gets near them, but that’s not the case. They’re really just a matter of shoving ten pounds of gravity in a one-pound sack. Okay, maybe more like a hundred tons in a knee sock.

But the point is, the gravitational pull of that black hole is going to be no greater than the pull of the original object, and you have to get a lot closer, physically, before you hit the point where you can no longer escape.

Does my phone have more power than the Apollo 11 computer, and could it land me on the Moon?

Yes… and no. All of our phones have more computational power than a computer the size of a warehouse in 1969, and they can do amazing things. However, they would need very specialized apps in order to be able to do the kinds of calculations needed to adjust velocities and trajectories precisely on the way to the Moon, second to second.

Google Maps won’t do that because we don’t have GPS that works off-Earth. Your phone would have to be able to spot the Moon and either Earth or Sun, plus another star or two, all visually, calculate the angles between them, then keep track of them and use that to calculate velocity and direction.

At the same time, your phone would also have to interface simultaneously with 150 onboard devices and run five to seven programs at once. In case you hadn’t noticed, phones and computers don’t really multitask anymore. They stopped doing that when systems became fast enough to just pick up where it left off when you switched windows, so that it just looks like that other program was running in the background the whole time.

The onboard computer on Apollo 11 was still a lot bigger than computers today, at 70 lbs (32 kgs), but it did the job and, because of the elegant way in which the code was written, it only required a grand total of… 2 kilobytes of memory, which is about 2,000 characters.

Yes, the actual code written for it was a lot bigger, but that 2Kb was working memory, and that was what was so elegant about it. The software itself was stored in static memory, which was literally woven by hand.

No, really. It was even called “rope memory.” This essentially created an incredibly complicated addressing system where the intersection of a particular pair of wires indicates the location of a single bit of data.

Touchtone phones worked on this same principal for years, and your phone and computer keyboards still work this way to this day. In fact, this two-point address scheme is still what makes your touch screens work as well.

It’s still mind-boggling to realize that not only did this computer somehow manage to do all of its runtime stuff in only 2Kb of memory, but that they had conceived of the idea of virtual runtime environments even then, so that they were able to run those five to seven programs at once, in such a small space.

What makes water so special?

The very short version is this: if water didn’t expand when it froze, life on Earth would not be possible and we’d probably be an ice-ball planet.

Water molecules have an interesting property. Made up of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, the hydrogen atoms naturally attach to the oxygen at 120° angles. Well, basically, since the whole thing is ultimately defined by the electron field around it in which we can only determine the likelihood of an electron’s location.

But it does give water these properties: When it’s a gas, the molecules bump into and spin off of each other. When it’s a liquid, they flow around each other. However, as the temperature lowers, a funny thing happens. Those hydrogen atoms in the molecules start to line up — remember, a sphere has 360° around it — and so as the water molecules slow down (i.e. as the temperature drops) the molecules line up and lock together and begin to create a crystal lattice.

You can see it large scale in a snow-flake, with its six-sided symmetry, but down on the molecular level what’s really happening is that the molecules are actually forming rigid structures and pushing themselves apart as they align.

And so… as liquid water turns into ice, it expands, and this is good for us (but bad for the Titanic) for one very big reason. It reduces the density of ice, so that it floats in water. If it didn’t, we’d be screwed, because ice would sink, wind up on the bottom, and then tend to never thaw when winter ended.

Eventually, entire lakes, rivers, and seas would completely freeze over, removing liquid water at first from our aquifers and, eventually, from our atmosphere. The Earth would become one vast desert, and the reflection of sunlight because of all that ice would just add to the runaway freezing.

Is time travel possible?

The short answer is “probably not,” at least not to the past, although time travel to the future is technically possible through things like suspended animation — as in if you travel more slowly than everyone else, you’ll objectively get to the future faster.

But your real question is, “Can I jump into a time machine and visit another era?” And the answer is this: “Sure, if you figure out how to actually travel in time, go for it, but you’ll need to figure out how to travel in space as well. Or, at the very least, do complicated equations that would have blown the circuits out of those first NASA computers.

Example: Marty McFly abandons all common sense, and jumps into the crazy old man’s time machine even as he’s being gunned down by terrorists. Marty guns it, the car hits 88 miles an hour, and suddenly Hill Valley and the Twin Pines mall vanish…

And the car is drifting somewhere in interstellar space. Since it’s not pressurized, Marty very quickly dies, alone and billions of miles away from Earth. End of movie, and the trilogy never exists.


That’s because everything in the universe constantly moves. You may think that all of those atoms in your body don’t move at all, but that’s not true at all. The ones that are part of organs or tissues or the like may seem to be stuck in place, but they are constantly vibrating as they react with neighboring atoms. This is why you’re not a frozen block of ice.

The universe has two speed limits — the fastest you can go and the slowest you can go. If you have any mass at all, no matter how small, you can never reach the speed of light, or C. If you have no mass, you can only ever travel at C — which isn’t all that weird when you think about it.

Meanwhile, the bottom speed limit of the universe is motionless, which is defined as Absolute 0, or 0ºKelvin (-273.15ºC or -459.67ºF). Nothing can reach this temperature, because it would mean that it would have absolutely no motion at all.

The problem is that if something is not moving at all, we know its precise location. And, if we know its location, we cannot know its exact momentum. This is the core of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and, obviously, if an object is completely motionless, then we know both its location and its momentum.

As it turns out, molecules have a very clever way of hiding themselves when they get close to 0ºK. they turn into a fifth state of matter called a Bose-Einstein Condensate. In this case, suspecting that we’re about to figure out where they are, all of the atoms being reduced in temperature suddenly give up their angular momentum gladly. At the same time, they all kind of smear into a indeterminate blob, so that we have no idea where any single atom in the group is.

And… problem solved. Okay, the atoms aren’t thinking at all while this is happening. It’s just a result of the change in velocity that dictates which property is going to be hidden. But just as you can’t accelerate mass past the universal speed limit, you can’t slam the brakes on mass and bring it to a complete stop.

Note that I have no idea whether the Bose-Einstein thing affects photons, since photons do have momentum and spin, but by virtue of having no mass probably also have no real location, especially because (just a guess) they still move at the same speed at 0ºK.

Photons are tricksey fuckerses.

But despite all of that, okay. Let’s assume that time travel is possible. Marty hops in that DeLorean, travels back 30 years and, assuming that time travel is legit, he’s still not going to be in the same place on Earth because gravity isn’t going to work that way either.

Gravity is a very long range force, and it’s very strong on cosmic scales, but it’s absolutely not on quantum scales, and this may actually be the reason that it’s been so hard to reconcile classical physics with the quantum.

Look at it this way. Why do “flat-earthers” exist? Because, from their very limited perspective living on the face of the planet, the place really does look flat.

Even if you march their sorry asses to the beach and make them watch as giant cargo ships rise above and vanish below the horizon, they still won’t buy it.

You need to take them up and beyond so that they can actually see the curve and experience the gravity and all of that. I mean, after all, even if you circumnavigate the globe by boat, plane, train, automobile, or whatever, it’s still going to seem flat to you without that heightened experience.

So… how does gravity affect space time? It bends it. Or, in other words, gravity takes “flat” space time and curves it. And on a human scale, this is really easy to experience. Toss a ball into the air and watch it fall. It’s not going to land in quite the same place.

But on the quantum scale? Nope. Everything there would appear “flat” as well, because any bend of space that gravity might create would be totally imperceptible to particles so small.

So the force that would normally hold Marty and the DeLorean onto the ground on Earth and keep him in Hill Valley become totally irrelevant when you start to fuck with the quantum shiz that would be necessary for time travel.

The DeLorean pops out from here but is no longer bound to Earth or anything else by gravity, since it’s skidding gleefully through time but not limited by velocity — as in it will never travel faster than light, but does so by following an alternate path through space that, nevertheless, will still land it at the target date and place on the particular world it departed from.

In the Universe at large, that time and date 30 years ago in Hill Valley is exactly where it was in the 30 years ago of the place Marty left, which means he’s at least 22 billion miles away from the solar system, with the Earth itself some smaller increment nearer or farther.

It definitely doe not include the about 19 billion kilometers that the entire Milky Way Galaxy has moved toward the Great Attractor between the constellations of Leo and Virgo. Without that DeLorean being able to do some very complicated math and some space travel as well, it’s going to be a very short trip to the past, and no coming back to the future

image source: Mrmw, (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday nibble #82: Talk of the town

I really knew nothing about Everyone’s Talking about Jamie before I saw a trailer on Instagram, but I was intrigued immediately. It promised the story of a high school student in England who was already openly gay, but was about to go through a second coming out, revealing his desire to be a drag queen.

Take a look at that trailer here:

The comments on the post were mostly positive with, of course, the obligatory homophobic and transphobic jabs tossed in — although maybe someday people will realize that drag queens/kings and transwomen and transmen are not the same thing.

Anyway, the trailer got me really excited about seeing the film, which I did over last weekend, and I was not disappointed. Based on a musical that premiered in Sheffield, Yorkshire, the setting of the story, eventually transferring to London’s West End (aka British Broadway), it tells the true story of Jamie Campbell — who played himself when the show premiered — a kid from a working class neighborhood in Sheffield who had dreams of being a drag queen.

It was an instant hit in Sheffield, and a production company approached the producers about turning it into a film after representatives had come to the tenth performance. Like most projects from 2020, the film’s release was delayed due to COVID, finally receiving a limited theatrical release in September 2021 before debuting on Amazon Prime.

The stage version will be appearing in Los Angeles as part of Center Theatre Group’s 2021-22 season, premiering in January 2022.

As for the film version — it won me over from the opening moments, largely due to the sheer charisma and likeability of newcomer Max Harwood, who embodies Jamie with an enthusiastic and positive energy, whether he’s setting off on his early morning paper-route in the rain, greeting his mom as he comes home while she’s heading off to work, or appreciating the little messages she’s left for him.

Oh, right. One important detail is that today is Jamie’s 16th birthday, and everyone seems to know that — his mom, obviously, and his bestie Pritti Pasha (Lauren Patel), the half-Muslim, half-Hindi girl who lives in her own world of not fitting in.

After Jamie’s mom gives him a very special birthday gift that lets us know she is 100% accepting of her son no matter who he is, Jamie comes out to Pritti to reveal his deepest desire — to be a drag queen.

Throughout, the film is full of amazing and colorful musical numbers that spring out of nowhere but not without motivation — largely a lot of Jamie’s fantasies, but not always, especially after he meets his mentor, retired drag queen Loco Chanelle, aka Hugo Battersby (Richard E. Grant), who becomes Jamie’s mentor after the boy wanders into Hugo’s costume/clothing shop.

Of course, Jamie’s journey could not be without setbacks and adversaries, the biggest one being a single moment in his childhood when his father Wayne (Ralph Ineson; now his mother’s ex) caught him playing dress-up and called him “disgusting,” a wound that has yet to heel, but he also has to contend with Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan), the Year 11 practical teacher — i.e. the one who is supposed to talk them out of dreams of being social media influencers and into dead-end jobs in Sheffield, and Dean Paxton (Samuel Bottomley), the somewhat homophobic school bully who is considered a cool kid by some.

I do find the casting of an actor named “Bottomley” as the homophobic bully to be hilarious, by the way — but he, like everyone else on screen, is just amazing in their role.

As is typical of British actors, everyone commits and everyone nails it, and every single performer absolutely embodies their roles from start to finish, which is what makes the film so damn engaging.

The real standouts are Harwood, whose vulnerability turned fierceness makes us root for him from the first instant; the amazing Sarah Lancashire as his mother, Margaret, who will do anything for her boy, including lying about his father Wayne showing up for the party but having to leave; Richard E. Grant, who’s practically a British institution by now, but comes on with all of the gravitas and camp necessary to make his role a show-stopper; Horgan’s Miss Hedge, who toes that always fine line of making us hate her character without playing into the stereotype, so we understand her even as we want to throw rotten tomatoes; and Bottomley, who torments Jamie throughout and yet finally reaches a détente with him.

The big pre-prom scene between the two of them in particular skates a really fine line and, like most of the movie, avoids the stereotyped and obvious conclusion.

Reportedly, the film version cut seven songs from the stage version — not a surprise — so I can’t give a full report on the music, other than to say that it does suffer from one of the great drawbacks of a lot of early 2000s musicals written by people not named Lin-Manuel: the music gets poppy and repetitious, with no really strong themes or melodies, so that nothing stands out.

It is fun while it’s happening, but you won’t be humming it on the way to your car unlike a show like, e.g. Chicago or Evita.

On the other hand, you will be enjoying it while you’re watching it. Bonus points: If you grew LGBTQ+, there are several points during the film where you will just bawl your eyes out, guaranteed.

Bonus points: During the later credits, we get to see the real Jamie and his mother Margaret, and it is absolutely striking how closely Max Harwood resembles Jamie Campbell while Lancashire and Mom… not so much. It’s not just the physical resemblance in casting. It’s quite clear that Max just absorbed and embodied Jamie 100% — which makes me think that this kid is going places.

Saturday Morning Post #83: Between Zero and One (Part 3)

In the third and final part of another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, our hero is dealing with a major internet outage circa 2001. In the first part, he learns that his high speed T-3 connection was accidentally backhoed up by the power company and won’t be fixed until the end of the week. Unable to wait that long, he decides to venture out in the world to find that most low-tech of replacements: A dial-up modem — but he’s finding the real world to be just as frustrating a place.

The cabbie, who was wearing a gigantic blue turban, didn’t speak much English and he really couldn’t drive that well, but Tyler didn’t care. At least he was getting somewhere, heading toward his target. The meter ticked away faster than they seemed to be moving, but whatever. It would be worth every penny once he was back home, back online, back in business.

It was three o’clock already, most of the day wasted. Naturally, the advertised air conditioning in this taxi wasn’t working, so it was very warm, and the back windows only went down halfway. It was hot and stuffy and Tyler dozed off — he’d been awake for at least twenty-four hours straight now. He woke up to a rapping on the window. The cabbie, opening the door, gibbering at him, a stream of incoherent words, then the absolutely intelligible “Twelve-fifty, you pay.”

“Right,” Tyler scraped the gunk from his eyes, got out of the cab and gave the driver twelve-fifty, starting away, then noticing the man staring at him with evil intent.

“What?” he asked. The driver glared at him, eyes narrowing. Tyler thought about it a moment, then remembered vaguely. Taxis were not exact change only and certain people expected a gratuity for doing the job they were getting paid for without screwing up too badly. “Oh, yeah,” he said, looking in his wallet. The smallest he had was a five, which was way too much, right? He tried to calculate fifteen per cent in his head, got as close as somewhere around two dollars. He handed the five to the cabbie, said, “Give me three back,” but the cabbie nodded and smiled, hopped in the car and drove away.

“Hey!” Tyler shouted, but it was no use. The little thief. And it really couldn’t have been a twelve dollar trip. He was only five miles away from home, tops.

Five miles from home, but half a block from his goal. That was good. Anyway, he could write this whole trip off, it was a business expense. He walked to the mall, in through one of the anchor stores, dodging his way through the endless racks of women’s clothes and around the perfume counters. Nothing to see here, nothing of interest, but it was like running a maze to get to the mall proper. How could people shop like this? It was chaos, dashing around, picking through shit, lugging it around, taking forever to check out. Having to repeat the process anew at each store. And why was it that ninety percent of most malls sold nothing but women’s clothing and shoes? Where were the guy stores? Damn few and far between and, even then, half of those only sold men’s clothing and shoes.

Tyler finally made it into the mall, which was eerily quiet and empty at this hour on a weekday. Encouraging Muzak tinkled through the air. It felt safe here. Serene, like a vision of some science fiction utopia from a bad seventies TV movie. Of course, it was a given that, in utopia, something always went wrong. Tyler should know. He’d been there, and now he wasn’t.

He walked down the wide, bright, tiled pathway, remembering a long unused route to the computer store. Halfway down, on the right, just past the Hotdog on a Stick place. And, sure enough, that strangest of food emporia was there, complete with some unfortunate teenage girl in the ridiculous multi-colored outfit, tank top and hot pants, steroidified gob hat rising high above her head, as she bounced up and down on a wooden oar, perpetually making lemonade.

He couldn’t help but stare for a moment. Whoever had come up with that outfit and that preparation method had pulled the perfect scam. “Let’s see. How can we get teenage girls to jiggle their titties around in public in a tight outfit? Aaaah, I know.”

The girl gave Tyler a dirty look, finished up with the oar and vanished into some hidden back room. Tyler let out a single snorted guffaw, then went on past the place, around the corner to where —

“Oh, shit,” he said out loud, getting a nasty look from a passing old woman. The computer store was gone, replaced by a goddamn Starbuck’s. He stood there for a long moment, then looked around. Now what? He wandered back to the center court, bumped into a mall map, an elaborate lit-from-behind thing on an angled pedestal. It looked like prop from Star Trek.

Tyler stood over it, looking for the “search” button, finally remembering he was only looking at dead, non-interactive Plexiglas. So he’d have to do this the old-fashioned way. He scanned the index, down an endless list of “Women’s Clothing” and “Shoes” and “Home Furnishings.” The damn thing wasn’t even alphabetical. “Gifts and Cards,” “Food,” “Entertainment.” Finally, “Specialty Shops,” all three of them — but one of them was called “Nerd Up!” He knew that name. High tech gadgets and gizmos, software, hardware. Perfect. He looked at the map, found the place — naturally, it was as far as possible from here — and started walking.

The dweeb behind the counter laughed at his request. “A modem? A modem… you mean like, the plug into the phone and wait forever at fifty-six modem, that?” he giggled. Tyler nodded. “Yeah, you know, my grandfather used to have one of those.”

“Stuff the ‘tude, it’s temporary,” Tyler answered. “My T-3 is down.”

“Ah. So you’re a victim of the great fiber-optic fuck up.”

“You heard about that?”

“Who hasn’t? The power company and the ISP have been all over the news, pointing at each other. The network is going to be down a month, at least.”

“Where can I get a modem?” Tyler practically begged.

“I don’t know, maybe I can pull one out of my ass,” the clerk shot back.

Tyler grabbed the kid by his lapels, got in his face. “Good, let’s try that,” he said.

“Hey, easy,” the kid answered, giving a weak smile. “We really don’t have anything that low tech here. Did you try Computer Avenue?”

“You mean the Starbucks?”

“Oh, yeah, right. Forgot.”

Tyler let the kid go. There had to be a modem in this store somewhere, but the kid wasn’t even going to go out of his way to look for it. “You’re sure there’s nothing in the back room?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” the kid sneered. “Sorry. Have a nice day.”

Tyler wanted to punch him. Instead, he stormed out of the store, sat on the nearest bench, tense, trying to figure out what to do. This whole process would have been so simple online. Of course, if he were still online…

“If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the ointment,” he remembered from somewhere. That was always the problem. Not the machines, not the technology, but the people behind it. They either designed it to be as fallible and stupid as they all were, or let it run afoul through negligence. It took a bad driver to make a car crash, a careless mechanic to let a plane fall out of the sky.

Human error. That was the bugaboo, the fly in the ointment, the serpent in Eden. Back home, online, everything was fine. Seek anything and ye shall find, and comparison shop and buy and never even have to put your pants on.

Humans are flawed and, though it had been years since he’d been to church, ever since his mother’s funeral mass, he couldn’t help but think of original sin. He’d believed all that hoo-hah once, sincerely. But the more he saw of this imperfect world, the more he doubted that there could be any intelligence behind it. The more he’d gone into his online world, the more he became convinced that everything that mattered was all just a series of zeroes and ones. On and off, good and bad, something and nothing. In this equation, the machines were the ones. The people were all just zeroes.

He noticed a sign in a clothing store window, hanging between two male mannequins, beckoning the gullible. It read “All two suit’s, $199.95.”

“Jesus,” he whispered. “All two?” And what the hell was up with apostrophes, anyway? Had everyone forgotten the difference between plural and possessive? He had bitched on that topic in chat once with a friend in London, who typed back, “You Americans love to stick them where they don’t belong, but over here, we have the nasty habit of leaving them out.”

Add, subtract. One and zero. Something and… nothing.

He stared at the sign and it made him angry. Stupidity and negligence. Laziness. Original sin.

The phrase “all two” is wrong, but the phrase “all three” is correct. Why? Because English has a word for “both.” And Tyler knew enough Spanish to remember the words “ambos,” which meant the same thing. It was probably true in dozens of languages, one of those hard-wired realities that couldn’t be avoided. But why? What was the big deal with two, anyway?

Monogamy, Tyler realized. That had to be it. Humans were monogamous, or tried very hard to be, and so the basic unit of happiness was two. Sure, add a baby and you got the happy family of three, but having a kid wouldn’t get you laid. Since humans loved to cater to their own most base instincts, that was the search that mattered. It wasn’t about fight or flight. It was all about feed or fuck.

And hence, a different word for two, because two really was another kind of one all by itself. So what was this whole religious obsession with three? It didn’t fit the basic design of things. Zero, one, both. No, maybe that was the problem. In trying to push threes, religion had moved out of sync with nature, and so split up to provide coherent views for separate societies. Gods are always the color of their people, after all.

And the religions of the Gods Who Do Not Fuck were the judgemental ones. Especially the big two (that number again) of pushy proselytizers, Christianity and Islam, one born of the other after the mother was stolen from a third religion. And it was Tyler’s mother’s religion that had the big “virgin” fetish.

But where did they find all the big virgins?

And zero and one lead inexorably to two, but you could only get both with a pair of ones, never with a zero involved. What had stuck him in this hellish place right now, thwarted and alone? People.

He stood and wandered the mall, finally reaching a far corner where, improbably, they had planted a carousel in a huge, round atrium. It revolved to a happy calliope tune, all white paint and gold gilt, pastel colored horses leaping up and down as it revolved. Mirrors around the central core made the whole thing seem vertiginously deeper than it was, and round white bulbs flickered on and off, chasing themselves along the edges and lines of the thing.

It was a beautiful, flawless machine. Tyler just stared at it, feeling the small rush of air as it turned past, watching the murals above the mirrors, which revolved with the canopy, their blurring motion giving them a strange sort of life-like hue that was not in the original painting.

The carousel was almost empty, a few kids scattered here and there on the great leaping beasts, animals frozen in time, painted shades of lavender and pink and yellow, manes gilded in gold trim, black-iron bridles in their mouths. A sign proclaimed that this Merry-Go-Round had originally been built in 1920. Imagine that. Back when people still cared, didn’t make stupid mistakes. And that was why this machine, so improbably anachronistic, had survived into another century.

The atrium stretched to a dome a good fifty feet up. Tyler went to the escalator, wound his way to the top, a fourth level food court with a big hole in the center, a vantage point to watch the carousel from above. The carousel was even more amazing from this point of view, a giant circle turning steadily counter-clockwise, white painted square-tube spokes radiating from the center, the secret rods that made the horses leap visible, all the pretty lights strung out, cheerful.

It was the simplest of machines, really. A wheel with a few fancy gewgaws. A gigantic zero, but in turning, it became something. It made people happy, however briefly.

Tyler watched it, hypnotized by the motion, leaning on the railing and staring down. Then he noticed the pentagon in the center, anchor-point for the light strands on top. That was an interesting choice. Then he realized that these lights were strung out to form a five-pointed star, inside a circle. That was kind of spooky. He was looking at a huge pentagram, hidden on top of this kiddie ride, turning to the left, alternately one point up and two points up, from white magic to black magic, good and evil, off and on. And five was just two plus three, both plus all, the collision of nature and belief, reality and illusion.

Tyler had been riding his own carousel, blithely thinking the horse would take him where he wanted to go, but he’d been spinning in the same circle for more than a year. Sure, it kept him fed, made the house payments, afforded him all kinds of toys. But he was the only one in that house, the only one enjoying it. He had friends all over the country, all over the world, but all of them were just words onscreen, maybe the occasional blurry, jerky video feed, reduced to binary bits and pieces, digital information, all just so many zeroes and ones.

It took losing that connection to make him realize he wasn’t even connected at all.

It was nice standing here, actually. And maybe that design on the carousel really wasn’t some sigil of evil. After all, it was a star, a guiding light, pointing the way. It was completely out of his control, but that was how Tyler had landed here in the first place, losing control of his world. Maybe he had to give it up completely to get it back.

He watched the thing turn, big wooden circle sweeping over a gray and white checkerboard floor. From here, he could see that the murals were pastoral, green and blue scenes of idyllic countrysides from never-never picture books. Each one was the size of one of the mirror frames, which made perfect sense. As above, so below. Symmetry, order, rational thought.

And this would be how he decided what to do next. Of course. It was staring him in the face. The wheel of fortune, the answer to his dilemma. When it stopped, if the murals lined up with the mirrors, he would live with his current problem, explain to his clients that he was taking time off, try to get the car started, go out and do… something. If they did not line up, he’d find that modem, somewhere, anywhere.

The carousel was so perfect, perfect because of its simplicity and its beauty, its having a place in the world and a function.

It was slowing down. Tyler watched, a little dizzy as he tried to follow the spokes. Yes, it was slowing down, ever so gradually, losing speed. He would have his answer soon.

He glanced at his watch, not out of urgency, but rather curiosity over how long this process would take. There didn’t seem to be any brakes on the thing. They were just letting it wind down at its own good pace, the master of its fate, uninfluenced by anybody, yet influenced by everything — the people on it, air resistance, gravity, probably the rotation of the earth itself. Everything in the universe was focused on that spot, on that wheel.

One minute. It was still turning.

It was going half the speed now, and slowing down less quickly. After another minute, it hadn’t seemed to have gotten much slower at all. Tyler leaned his elbows on the railing, looked straight down. He could see people on the ride going through the ready to get off motions. So it must have been slowing perceptibly. But it had been three minutes by now and it was still turning, the star still spinning.

Molasses time. At four minutes, the carousel looked like it was going to halt at any second, and yet it kept going, creeping, murals turning above mirrors, star ever-pointing in a different direction. Momentum and inertia. He thought of a roulette wheel, decision actually made long before it came to a standstill, and yet invisible until just before it stopped. It was like that now, the edges of the murals lining up with the mirrors and then moving out of sync, but oh-so-slowly, teasingly. Tyler held his breath, watching.

The murals aligned with the mirrors as the thing seemed to have exhausted all its energy, hesitated. Yes, of course, it was a big, perfect machine, everything had to line up, everything had to fit, his decision had to be escape to the real world. Tyler smiled, then his expression changed to blank disappointment as the murals crept ahead a few inches and the whole thing stopped, out of alignment, imperfect, flawed.

“Damn,” he said, smacking the railing with both hands. And obviously, somebody hadn’t done their job right at some point, something he realized as the railing pitched forward, broke free with his full weight on it, tumbling him over and headlong, great white motionless star below growing rapidly closer to his face.

He did notice on the way down, though, that those lights were so very pretty as they blinked, on and off, bright and dark, one and —


* * *

Friday Free-for-All #79: Retail

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. And wow. I normally do multiple questions here, but I had no idea that the subject of my very few years in retail would have so much material.

Have you ever worked retail?

I’ve worked retail two times in my life, once in a mom-and-pop operation, and the other for a corporate big-box. I worked for the former for about three years. I walked off the job in the latter after less than a month, if that.

The mom-and-pop operation was a pharmacy located in a hospital complex, and you’ve probably seen the type. It’s the place on the ground floor of the building with medical offices where you can get your prescriptions filled, but it also specializes in candy, cards, balloons, and gifts you can grab on the way up to visit grandma on the fifth floor of the main building.

The owners were a Japanese couple, Akira and Alice, and Alice’s sister Agnes also worked there. They were actually great people to work with, although Aki had a really strange sense of humor, especially since I was the only gaijin in the place, so he made fun of me a lot for that, but I always had the sense that it was just some sort of bravado masking affection, and it was entirely cultural even though he was a first-generation American.

I inherited this job from one of my roommates, and had it junior and senior year of college, and then a year or so after school, even though my commute suddenly went from just under six miles to just over 26 miles after I’d moved back home.

I basically worked the front counter in the store, as well as did inventory and stocking the shelves, and I also did delivery rounds every afternoon to a bunch of mostly regular clients, including some pretty famous ones, since this particular hospital had an orthopedic group that dealt with the L.A. Lakers, L.A. Kings, UCLA Bruins, and a lot of Hollywood A-listers.

But I really did love a lot of the regular clients who weren’t famous, and we all got to know each other pretty well. A lot of them were total characters, like the old Italian man (judging by his real name) who had been a boxer in the 1950s, but with an Irish moniker, or the kind of imperious and stern woman whose entire porch was enclosed in wrought iron, and whose German shepherds would come out in advance of her and keep an eye on me the entire time.

I could easily see that she had a large, framed picture on the table just inside the door that was a photo of a man in 1950s era Soviet military uniform, presumably her late husband. Oh yeah — she wore a sidearm, too. But she was an incredibly generous tipper.

I also delivered to various doctors and employees in the complex, but the most interesting one was an eye-ear-nose-throat specialist who would get a special delivery about every three months.

My boss would go into a secured room to package it up in a brown paper bag that was stapled shut and which had an NCR form from the Federal Government stapled to it.

The first time he gave me this delivery, he told me, “This is one ounce of 99% pure government cocaine. Take it to this doctor and get this form signed. If you don’t come back with the form, don’t come back.”

If I remember correctly, the price the doctor paid for it was something like $99, which was far, far below what the street price of coke that pure would have been at the time — not to mention that the volume would have at least doubled if not tripled due to it being cut, so I was basically walking a couple of blocks carrying a bag worth the modern equivalent of close to $55,000.

Although I only did it a handful of times while I worked there, the one adjective I could use to describe the doctor on the receiving end was “perky.” And he always, always tried to jokingly talk me out of his having to sign the form, but that was always a hard “no” from me.

That NCR form was the government paperwork required for any controlled substance with a medical use, and it certified that the pharmacy got what was delivered and that it was sealed, and that the doctor got what the pharmacy had gotten and it was sealed. The doctor kept a copy, I took the other two back to the pharmacy, one of those went into my boss’s files and the other got sent back to the government.

I casually mentioned to one of my roommates after the fact that I’d delivered 28 grams of 99% pure government coke to a doctor and I could see his eyes light up as the numbers danced in his head, but before he could say anything, I just sternly warned him, “Don’t.”

Another notable part of my education came via a cardiologist who had a habit of coming in around the end of day on Fridays and giving my boss a prescription he’d written for himself. My boss would return with a small yellow box, hand it over, and ring it up to the doctor’s office account.

Technically, since he was a cardiologist, amyl nitrate was something that would very normally be used in his practice. Just not after hours on a weekend. This was when my boss explained the concept of “poppers” to me, and also when I realized that doctors were not above dipping into their own stash, or taking advantage of their own godly powers to dispense drugs.

Back to our mortal customers, though, my favorite was a woman in her mid-90s who shared her first name with my paternal grandmother. She was pretty much blind, but always glad when I made a delivery, and at the end of every transaction after we’d had a nice chat, she would reach into her jar and tip me with a giant handful of change from it, apologizing for only having pennies.

My roommate, Carlos, had told me about her, and assured me that she knew that they weren’t just pennies. I’d regularly leave her place with seven or eight bucks in change weighing down my pockets. Awkward and bulky, I know, but she was terribly sweet and it was all worth it.

In fact, when I finally left that job to go on to my first adulting office job, she was the only regular client that I made an unscheduled visit to, just to let her know that it was my last day, and that the boss’s son was going to be taking over my job.

Even though I hadn’t delivered anything because there was nothing to deliver, she still tried to tip me, but I politely turned her down. I can only assume that she’s no longer with and has been gone a long time now, but she was one of the bright spots of that job.

And yes, my old boss and the pharmacy are still around. But this is the end of my TED talk on my pleasant time in retail. Let’s get to the one that sucked.

This job was actually during my sophomore year in college, and happened because I was interning in Hollywood, which was a bit of a shlep from my campus near LAX, but found out that Big Box Retailer down the street was hiring, and I figured that if I could coordinate hours between the freebie intern thing and the paid job it would make the 17 mile commute worth it.

Except… number one was that I did the intern thing during afternoons and business hours, while retail store wanted me mostly weekends — after I had specified when applying that I was only available weekday evenings.

This was also when I learned that those big box retail stores don’t work quite the way you think that they do.

Sure, they have a bunch of different departments, like men’s and women’s clothing, electronics, toys, nowadays groceries, books, hardware, sporting goods, whatever. You may think that all of those departments are run by the store itself, but they’re not.

Nope. Think of each one as a totally separate store under one roof, each one run by a separate management team, but with those managers pitted against each other to show corporate the best sales results in a sort of unstated hunger games competition.

Now add on ridiculous micromanagement. For example, as I learned on my first day because I arrived early and eager, clocking in more than six minutes early would make my manager freak out, because that meant they had to pay me for an extra quarter hour.

Also, my manager was named Tudy. Not Trudy or Judy. Tudy. And that always bugged the fuck out of me, as in, “Why don’t you have an actually grown-up name again?” Okay, maybe it was immature, but I was only 19 and the name made it all but impossible to take her seriously.

The department I worked in was electronics, so I was consigned to be one of those people behind the glass counter with the locked shelves dealing in cameras, computers, gaming consoles, PDAs (which were still a thing — the data assistant part, not the inappropriate making out) cordless phones, and the like.

I also had a co-worker who was apparently the horniest thing on Earth and who I think was hitting on me in veiled ways. I should have taken him up on that, but since I was young and stupid, my perception was that he had to have been over 30, so not attractive. Photos I found later when I was past 30 (because we still sold Polaroid cameras), told me otherwise. He actually was cute.

Technically, we made commissions on our sales, although I don’t remember ever getting a single check. I think there may have been some sort of probationary period involved. I honestly don’t remember. But as the scheduling got more ridiculous and Tudy tried to get me to come in at times that I possibly couldn’t — like when I was in class or interning — I’d had enough.

One Sunday when I was supposed to come in that afternoon, I was doing a photoshoot for an actor friend, we were running over, and I just couldn’t deal with it, so I called up, couldn’t get hold of my manager, so left a message for another one that I wouldn’t be in.

A few days later, I was at the bank to deposit my paycheck, as we did in those days, and guess who winds up in line behind me? Yep. Tudy. And she tries to chew me out in Karen fashion. “You do not just call some other manager if you’re not showing up. How could you do that, blah blah blah.”

One of the most satisfying moments of my life. I turned around and told her, “I quit. Now stop talking to me.”

She was livid, but I never went back there again — to shop or to work.

My other sort of retail experience was delivering pizza — another job I got on the recommendation of a friend when I was sixteen. Now, the legal requirement was that drivers had to be eighteen, but the warning bells should have gone off when the owner just told me to write down that I was eighteen years old and sign it, and then I started immediately.

This was in the days before GPS, so I was stuck with a Thomas Guide and instinct. It was a school night as well, but from the time I started at six p.m., the deliveries didn’t stop. I’d take three out, then come back to four more, and I was the only driver working.

And the shift didn’t end at ten p.m., like it was supposed to. It went on to midnight, and then to two a.m., and I’m sure that the owner of the franchise was breaking some serious child labor laws by that point, but I finally managed to get out of there by 2:30 a.m.

And I’d certainly gotten an education in the meantime on my rounds. It was surprising how many people would order pizza, be given a delivery time, and then immediately start fucking, so I was greeted by more than a few sweaty boyfriends in hastily pulled-on swim trunks or, in one case, nothing at all.

There was also the guy who tried to pay for the pizza with his wife’s sexual favors, but even though I was in the closet at the time, I knew that I wasn’t into her and he was pretty ugly.

Lessons learned:

Mom and pop pharmacy, where the owner is a highly trained professional who has to deal with government regulations on a daily basis — an excellent experience where I was treated well, and the customers treated us with respect.

Big box retail where the bottom line was everything — management treated us with contempt, talking to customers frequently felt like talking to a wall, and the in-fighting between departments was ridiculous — although it never stopped the 50-something menswear manager from spending way too much time over in Women’s petites, flirting with the teenage women working there.

Independently owned big-name pizza franchise with an owner of dubious morals — abuse of employees and labor laws, and the customers were just as bad. Incidentally, when I showed up on my second day, made it through two hours before I made a quick stop at my parents’ place to go throw up in the bathroom from stress, then came back to the store and quit, he didn’t seem at all surprised.

I’m guessing that his drivers turned over more frequently than his pizza dough did.

If you’ve never worked retail, you should do it once, even if it’s just taking on a seasonal job down at the local mall. It will open your eyes about how much people in these positions should really get paid, show you what terrible people a lot of customers and managers are, and teach you to respect the people who are really the ones keeping our day-to-day lives running.

Hint: Not a one of them is a billionaire entrepreneur, real estate developer, banker, stock broker, realtor, Hollywood producer, or their ilk, because those people only take, then don’t give.

Nope. Go learn to appreciate your sales clerks, stockers, checkers, baggers, delivery drivers, medical workers, sanitation engineers, electricians, plumbers, janitors, cable installers, housekeepers, and anyone else who tends to be invisible to the people who most rely on them.

Spend a day in retail, and learn empathy.

Theatre Thursday: When things get meta

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nine years now since I was blessed to be part of Playwrights’ Arena’s amazing project in celebration of their 20th anniversary called Flash Theatre L.A.: 20 in 2012.

What this involved was a playwright creating a short piece designed for a specific environment, most often also involving singing and dancing, then a rehearsal period on weekends, usually at the then home of Playwrights’ Arena at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) which, I can tell you, felt like the most New York experience possible in L.A., especially if one took the Metro down to Pershing Square, walked to the theatre, and it was a misty morning on a weekend in February.

Good times.

During that year, I performed in 13 out of the 20 performances, which took place everywhere from the very west side to the very east side of town, and from as far south as the Adams District to as far north as Silver Lake — although a lot of our stuff happened in Downtown L.A., which is where the performance I’m thinking about took place.

It happened in Pershing Square, so was within walking distance of the theater, and it was a piece called Meat by Donald Jolly. (The original idea had been to stage it further east in the warehouse district, with most of the cast lying in the back of a truck, but that was beyond our means.)

The division of roles were: A) The “meat,” which were a bunch of people in skimpy bathing suits with all kinds of anti-capitalist slogans drawn on them; B) The radical faeries, who would ride in and save the day, and C) The Authorities, who would try to stop all this shit from happening.

I was cast as one of the two Authorities, and my counterpart was an actor named Bill. I’d worked with him a few times over the whole Flash Theatre thing, and we had definitely bonded because we were about the same age (i.e., older than a lot of the other cast members), had the same weird sense of humor, and had already been cast in roles that got weirdly intimate and, even though he was straight and I was not, it worked out, because he was cool about it and I wasn’t attracted to him anyway.

Funny how that works.

But… getting back to Meat… We all marched from the theater to Pershing Square, and this got a lot of attention mainly because there were a ton of half-naked people on the streets of DTLA, plus a number of them also decked out in glitter and boas and riding scooters or the like. Then there were these two white guys dressed like Secret Service.

We got to the venue. We took our places. And just as I was about to launch into, which meant that I was supposed to charge our audience and tell them, “Nothing to see here, please disperse,” an actual security guard got up in my face and told me that we couldn’t perform there.

Well… that was kind of a problem. I knew that I couldn’t launch my own character in his face and tell him to step off, because that wouldn’t end well. At the same time, the idea of a muggle screwing with my show really pissed me off.

So I did the only thing I could do, which was to give him the look of death and slowly point at Playwrights’ Arenas artistic director, who I knew for a fact had it covered when it came to the whole “Yes, we can perform here” angle.

The guard headed over to talk to Mr. Rivera, I launched into my shtick (and actually scared the shit out of a couple of good friends standing in front because I committed to it so hard), Bill got into it as well, and the whole thing finally came off, ending with the Radical Faeries glitter bombing the Authorities and wrapping us in boas until we wound up mesmerized and dancing together to the music that had started playing, which I think was the song Sway with Me.

But it was definitely my weirdest Flash Theatre experience ever, because someone who was the real-life version of the character I was about to play tried to fuck with what we were all about to do, and I essentially managed to misdirect him so that he could be neutralized, exactly like my character and Bill’s in the show.

Wow. Trippy.

Postscript: Years later, I volunteered for the annual Playwrights’ Arena fundraiser, Hot Night in the City, just before the year of COVID, and my job was as off-stage announcer and various wrangler of stage equipment. I was stage left, and the other guy was stage right, and we were also working various other prep stuff together for a long time.

He looked familiar, but we didn’t recognize each other until we finally did. It was Bill, and the reason we didn’t recognize each other is that we’d both lost a shit-ton of weight since 2012, and both for very similar reasons.

This was also when I found out that he was about five years younger than me, but my journey had been through congestive heart failure that had led to a weekend in the hospital, me quitting smoking, diuretics squeezing a lot of that weight out, and then a change in diet doing the rest.

In Bill’s case, he had to have a triple bypass or something like that, but otherwise the same idea. That experience led to major lifestyle changes for him as well.

It was a very weird reunion. But again, very meta. He and I got cast in the same roles for theater. We just had no idea that we’d be cast in the same roles in real life.

Small planet, eh?

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

Wednesday Wonders: Equinox

Welcome to September 22, the date in 2021 when the Earth stands up straight and faces the Sun head on. Well, side on. The point is that on this date the Earth’s poles point at exact right angles to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, so it marks a change of season. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, this is the first day of fall, and days will begin to grow shorter as the north pole starts to tilt away from the Sun. Meanwhile, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, today is the first day of spring, as the south pole starts to tilt toward the Sun. Oh, don’t worry, though. It’s not like the Earth is literally rolling over. The actual angle of its axis is always the same — it’s just its position relative to the Sun that changes, depending upon which quarter of its orbit it’s in. Today, though, magic happens, as the length of day and night everywhere on the planet is the same — but it’s not 12 hours, because a day is not quite 12 hours. Rather, one day is 23 hours and 56 minutes, so on this day each side of the globe receives 11 hours and 58 minutes of daylight. Close to 24, but no cigar. Each day is missing four minutes, and yes, over the year, the time on your clock technically gains because of this, but that is part of why we have leap years and all that shit in the first place. And the fact that the Earth’s axis is tilted and the apparent height of the Sun in the sky plus the length of day changing regularly is probably what led to human civilization in the first place. As soon as people noticed that the spots on the horizon where the Sun rose and set day-to-day changed, and then started to notice how high it did or did not make it into the sky by noon got folk to taking notes. Next up would have been timing the periods between its rise and set over the course of… well, it’s not defined yet. Figuring out the timing might have been tricky when there was no way to actually tell time, so maybe those first experiments just meant tracking the length of an object’s shadow right as the Sun rose and when it set, them recording the length of each one and comparing it to each subsequent day. This wouldn’t give you a length in terms of hours per se, but it could tell you, for example, how long the shadow on a particular day was. Since the Sun doesn’t cast shadows at night, this gives you length of daylight, and you can then compare that length to the length on other days. This will tell you the rate of change per day, as well as give you the relative lengths of longest and shortest days. Repeat the experiment until the pattern starts to repeat — i.e., you hit the same shadow length you started with and see the same lengths appear over the next, say, dozen measurements, and now you suddenly know how many day/night periods there are before the Sun returns to where it started. People may not have understood the concept of orbits yet and probably thought the Earth was at the center of everything, but only because that’s exactly what it does look like from down here, but it did give them a starting point from which to be able to predict the regular course of the Sun. Finally, key these measurements into the seasons, as in when is it cold, when is it time to plant, when does it flood, and when can we harvest? Eventually, over time, ta-da: You’ve created the calendar, and the basic parameters of Earth-Sun dynamics, plus axial tilt dictate the creation of four annual divisions; call them seasons. Of course, some cultures, who tended to not be agricultural, watched the Moon instead, and also divided the year into months (literally named for moons in many different languages) although not seasons. However, since the lunar month wound up much shorter than the solar month after one Earth orbit was divided appropriately, lunar calendars would always lag behind. This is why, for example, the Hebrew calendar has to add in an entire month every so often instead of just a day, and why Jewish and Islamic holidays seem to slip around the Gregorian calendar. Here’s a nice irony, though. The ultimate holiday for once-a-year Catholics, Easter, is itself set based upon a lunar calendar. The date of Easter is set as the first Sunday after the full Moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. If that equinox is on a Sunday itself, then Easter is the next Sunday. Why this is the case, I have no idea — but events in the Islamic Calendar, as well as things like the Chinese New Year, are also set based on a particular New Moon, although they are all at different times of the year. If you’re part of the early agricultural movement, though — which led to permanent settlements and cities and irrigation, and all kinds of fancy shiz — then your city is probably going to have a nice observatory, but it wouldn’t be bristling with telescopes, which would not be invented for thousands of years. Rather, it would be a prominent building or even a temple-like structure — think Stonehenge — with very specific architectural features designed to align with the movement of the Sun, Moon, and possibly certain stars to become one giant indicator of when those significant dates passed. For example, a slit in one wall might direct sunrise light on the first day of summer onto a specific plinth or marker, or maybe even a mural or statue depicting the god or goddess of the season. Likewise, the same slit would hit a different marker for the first day of winter. Those two are easy because the sun will be at its northernmost point when summer starts and its southernmost when winter starts, which is why you can use the same slit. Spring and fall, being equinoxes, both come in at the same angle, so the light would hit the same place. However, the good news is that if you know which one was the last season, then you know what’s coming, so spring always follows winter and fall comes after summer. Somewhere around these times, these early astronomers may have even figured out the concept of the analemma and begun tracking it. This is the huge figure-8 pattern that the Sun, when recorded at the same time each day (usually noon) makes over the course of a year. Tracking the Moon would probably allow for the ability to predict solar and lunar eclipses — at the time, probably more useful as a political/religious function over anything else. “The Moon is going to die on Tuesday, and it will be your fault unless you pay us tribute and fealty, peons!” Ewww. Out front would be a huge sundial to impress and mystify the populace who, of course, would never be allowed inside such a sacred space. Same as it ever was. Except… We do have access to this knowledge now, and the short version of it is this. The Sun is the center of our Solar System, mostly by virtue of having 99% of its mass, and holding everything else in its thrall via gravity because of that. There are two planets closer to the Sun than Earth — Mercury and Venus — and both of those are barely titled. Mercury is off-axis by barely 3 hundredths of a degree, while Venus is inclined at 2.6 degrees. However, since Mercury is tidally locked with one side boiling and the other frozen, it’s not likely to benefit at all if it suddenly tilted. As for Venus — this is our solar system’s true shit-hole planet, with the hottest temperature and thickest atmosphere, a hellscape where it rains sulfuric acid constantly. If we look at the rest of the solar system, the only planets that come close to having the same axial tilt are Mars (25.19º), Saturn (26.73º) and Neptune (28.32º). Meanwhile, the planet Uranus has the most extreme tilt in the solar system, with its axle rolled over a full 97.77 º, which indicates that, at some point in the past, Uranus must have gotten rammed pretty hard by some asteroid or even a small planet. The end result is that Uranus always keeps its pole pointed at the Sun, alternating between north and south so that its seasons basically travel sideways — although those seasons aren’t much to speak of there, because the surface is pretty much a nearly featureless ball of methane with some lighter clouds in high latitudes (or is that high longitudes?) and, as recent studies have determined, there is also a big, dark spot on Uranus. Of course, we wouldn’t even know about the other planets and stars and so in if we hadn’t started looking up to figure out what was going on with our own Sun and Moon in the first place, and Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto (not a planet) were not even discovered until modern times. Uranus wasn’t even named until the late 18th Century, but the convention of naming planets over Roman gods carried on, and the place got its name at the suggestion of German astronomer Johann Elert Bode. Whether or not he knew about the comedy potential in English of that name choice is anyone’s guess, but officials agreed. And although it’s properly pronounced “OO-ra-noos,” almost no one says it that way, and so stories about the sixth planet are always unintentionally hilarious. And it all started in ancient days, when the first farmers started to pay attention to the change of seasons and tried to learn whether the gods had left them in clues in the heavens above, eventually leading to an understanding of the cosmos that required no gods at all but adhered to its own inexorable set of laws that were an intrinsic property of reality itself. Thanks, farmers! Images: (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Talky Tuesday: Assuming gender

Since English has no grammatical genders, learning a language with them can be daunting, but fear not. Here are some quick tips on the concept.

One concept in other languages that just boggles the mind of native English speakers is the idea of grammatical gender. It has nothing to do with the actual gender or sex of the person being spoken about and, naturally, inanimate objects tender to be neuter, or have no gender.

Well, at least in English.

Most commonly, languages will either have no gender distinctions, two distinctions (masculine and feminine), or three (masculine, feminine, and neuter.)

Some languages go a little nuts with it, though. Polish technically has five genders — three variations on masculine, plus feminine and neuter. The masculine genders indicate whether something is a human being, a living creature but not human, or an inanimate object, although those last two are not really used anymore.

Bantu languages tend to go the most extreme, with Ganda having ten classes and Shona having twenty — singular and plural are considered distinct genders. Meanwhile, Ganda genders follow characteristics of objects, so pertain to things like people, long objects, animals, large objects, small objects, liquids, and so on.

So if you’re trying to learn a romance language with only two grammatical genders, consider yourself lucky.

Oh — also, do not confuse a language without grammatical genders and gender-neutral language. The latter tries to eliminate sexist terminology.

English still has some gendered nouns that are slowly being eliminated, like the pair waiter and waitress, which are being replaced by server. But note that the two nouns are otherwise not distinguished by articles or adjectives, although they may take different pronouns.

So, for example, “the happy waiter” and “the happy waitress” are both grammatically correct. So are the phrases “He is a server” and “she is a server,” with the pronoun being the only gender distinction.

English used to have a lot more gender-specific work roles and job titles, but these are going away as well. For example, any terms that used to end in -man, like Chairman of the Board, Fireman, Alderman, etc., is being replaced with terms like Chair or Chairperson, and Fire Fighter.

For some reason, probably having to do with Chicago politics, “alderman” is proving to be a holdout, despite efforts to change it.

There are also other gender terms like actor and actress that are changing so that “actor” is now used as the gender-neutral term for either, and a number of gendered terms fell out of use years ago, like baker and baxter, aviator and aviatrix, and seamster and seamstress — although the last one is a little odd, because seamstress stayed, while the former was replaced by tailor.

You also now know where the surname Baxter came from — the same place that Baker did. And yes, there’s a reason that occupational last names are so common in all languages. That’s because a town might have only one baker or miller or blacksmith, so someone would become known as John Baker or Tom Miller or Joe Smith.

This is really amusing when you realize that Giuseppe Ferrari and Joe Smith are exactly the same name.

But back to the gender thing and why it can be so daunting to native English speakers. In some languages, like Spanish, it’s well marked, so that masculine and feminine nouns will generally end in -o for the former and -a for the latter… but not always, and more on that in a moment.

In others, like German, there are broad rule for what words are masculine and feminine, but a lot of the time it’s a total crapshoot, and you can’t get any clues from the spelling. Neuter complicates it further and, on top of that, things don’t always line up, especially when it comes to animate objects and people.

In German, horses and girls are both neuter, for example.

But getting back to Spanish, genders are generally a lot clearer because of the o/a endings, and nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and articles all match:

La mesera alta.

El mesero alto.

These refer, in order, to the tall waitress and the tall waiter, although use camarera and camarero outside of Latin America.

This all makes sense for student learners until the day that the teacher writes, “El agua está fria” on the board, and people freak out.

They will either focus on the “el” and ask why agua is masculine, or they will insist that agua is feminine and ask why the article is wrong.

Welcome to your first grammatical exception — although this one isn’t quite what it seems. If you were talking about “the waters,” “las aguas” would be perfectly fine because the word is feminine. So what’s going on?

This one exists strictly for ease of pronunciation, and it’s the same thing that we do in English when we replace “a” with “an” before certain vowels, like “an elephant,” or “an opera,” but “a universe” or “a unicorn.”

The emphasis in “agua” is on the first a, so it’s very hard to say “la agua” with those two stressed a’s banging into each other. On the other hand, the “l” en el bleeds in very nicely to that stressed a, so that’s why it’s done.

This is true for any word in Spanish that starts with a stressed a, including el águila (but las Águilas), and so on.

This eventually starts to make sense, and then we get the next gender-bomb with something like “el problema.”

Again, the words ends in -a, so it should be feminine, right? Except that this word comes from Greek, where it is masculine, so the gender came over directly into Spanish, and now we have a whole class of words from Greek, generally ending in -ma or -ta and sometimes -pa, that are masculine: el problema, el programma, el planeta, el cometa, el mapa, etc.

Unfortunately, you really just have to memorize them, because a word like etapa (meaning a period of time or a stage in some process) is feminine — la tercera etapa del cohete, the rocket’s third stage.

Once you’ve had fun with those, we get to the word for the hand: la mano. And yes, mano is feminine, for the same reason those Greek words are masculine, except that in this case, “mano” came from Latin, and the form of the word that got adapted into Spanish was feminine.

“Necesitará una mano lista para enfrentar un problema duro.” You will need a ready hand in order to tackle a hard problem. Note how the articles and adjectives appear to not match their nouns at all. Get used to it.

Don’t worry. It gets worse!

Further into occupations, you might learn the word dentista — ella es una dentista. Now, you could assume that the corresponding sentence would be “él es un dentisto,” but you’d be wrong. The correct phrase is also “él es un dentista.”

This is another class of words, generally ending in -ista, that are invariant, and frequently refer to occupations or ideologies. “Socialista” is another one that does not change, regardless of the actual gender of the socialist.

The same applies to nacionalista, capitalista, comunista, marxista, machista, and so on.

Finally, there are words that take on a particular gender because of what is missing. For example, “radio” can be either masculine or feminine, but there’s a good reason for that. When you’re referring to an actual physical device designed to receive and play radio broadcasts, then it’s masculine: el radio. However, when you refer to the broadcast that’s played en el radio, then that is la radio.

The reason for this is that when referring to a medium the word radio is short for “radio difusión,” or transmission by radio, and since difusión is feminine, so is the shortened form.

You can see this in words like la foto and la moto, which are short for fotographía and motocicleta. This is also why days of the week are all masculine — the word for day, el día, is masculine — and why the hours of the day are feminine — because they pick up the gender of the word for hour, la hora.

Month is masculine, so I’ll let you figure out which gender applies to the names of the months.

So it’s not a system that is as hard as it seems, and while there are some exceptions, those exceptions actually follow their own rules. You can’t always assume the gender of a noun, but once you know what it is, remembering it will gradually become second nature.

Good luck! ¡Buena suerte! — because, in Spanish, luck be a lady.

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