Sunday Nibble #86: Teachable moments

Thinking back on one of my favorite screenwriting teachers, and how he had so much to teach us.

An offhand comment that an older friend made on my Facebook timeline today reminded me of one of my old college professors who, sadly, is no longer with us. I had commented on my timeline that we were finally getting serious rain, and his reply was “Burt Lancaster.”

I totally didn’t get the reference, so I googled it and saw that Burt Lancaster was in the film The Rainmaker. Now I knew of that film but had never seen it, but the reason that I did know of it was because of this professor.

He was one of my many screenwriting teachers in college — that was my Major — and one thing he loved to do was give us the set-up for what we later found out were old movies that came out long enough before any of us were born that we probably didn’t know them, and then have us write the first ten to twelve pages of a screenplay telling that story, or write a treatment of the whole film, etc.

It was actually a great exercise, and The Rainmaker entered into it when he told us to write a synopsis based on a con artist who travels the old west trying to sell people on his thundersticks, which will cause rain.

Or something like that. I don’t remember the exact set-up he gave us, but these were always such great exercises because each of us in the class would come up with something so wildly different that it was hard to believe we’d all been given the same prompt.

Okay, actually, no, it wasn’t. That’s how creativity works. Everyone sees a different story in their head.

I was going to say that this would be like doing the same with college kids now, except pitching them films from the 80s and 90s, but there’s one problem with that. Culture has now become permanent and everything exists in a perpetual “now,” so that if you toss them the plot of, say, the Steve Martin film Pennies from Heaven — a man during the Great Depression escapes from the realities of life by imagining everything as elaborate movie musical numbers — they could probably figure out what the source was with a couple of searches.

Either that, or it was in their parents’ video or DVD collection while they were growing up.

Yes, we had VHS and video rentals when I was in college, thank you, as well as laser discs and CDs. We just hadn’t gotten to DVD yet. Or streaming video everywhere online. But unless a film was a classic that got rerun on TV all the time or one that we were shown in various film classes or saw at one of the many revival theatres around town, once it ended its run it ended.

Even though we had VHS, we didn’t have everything on it. A lot of the time it involved conflicting rights issues, which prevented transfer to that format. There were two other biggies. One: Music rights — as in the original song rights were only licensed for a theatrical film release or TV showings, but since home video hadn’t even been conceived at the time, there were no provisions for it.

This is exactly why you will now usually see a clause that says something like, “grants all rights for re-use in whatever media now existing or to be devised throughout the known universe.” It seems extreme, but it covers all the bases.

The other were residuals for above-the-line people, who got them for theatrical release and TV broadcasts. Again, that hadn’t been conceived of when home video showed up, so the various unions for directors, writers, producers, composers, and so on, had to negotiate to get the right to be paid for whatever future form home video took.

But, trust me, at least for the Writers Guild, and I’m sure for the Directors and Actors, it was like pulling teeth to get that extended to cable, then to DVD, and finally to streaming, mainly because the producers and studios would claim, “Oh, we don’t make any money off of that.”

Yeah, my quarterly residual checks say otherwise.

And how appropriate that I digressed into a mini film-history lesson in a story about a screenwriting professor.

His name: Bob Merrill. You may not recognize it, but you’ve probably heard of his work. He was one of the top pop music composers of the 1950s, with hits like Mambo Italiano, which popped up in restaurant commercials in the early 2000s, and just made an appearance in a teaser trailer for the upcoming Lady Gaga/Adam Driver Film House of Gucci.

The song was originally performed by Rosemary Clooney. You may have heard of her nephew George.

Even though he didn’t play an instrument, Bob wrote the lyrics for several Broadway shows, including Funny Girl, and the music and lyrics for others, like Carnival! He also wrote the song How Much Is that Doggie in the Window, and I vividly remember him telling the story of how that happened.

It was the early 50s (the internet tells me the song was first recorded in 1953) and Bob and his writing partner were working for Perry Como’s musical variety show, which had just made the transition from radio to simulcasting on television. It was only a 15 minute program (imagine!) but it did air three times a week, sponsored by a cigarette company (imagine!)

Because of this, Bob and his partner had to pump out about six songs a week for Perry and his guests to perform, so they had to come up with ideas quickly, and it often involved taking a walk around Hollywood to see what they could see.

One day, they were walking around and saw a woman walking her dog, then an elaborate store window display, and Bob found himself looking between the two. Dog. Window. Dog. Window. Seeing the price tags on the clothing in the window, that gave him, “How much?” and then the rest just happened.

Having gotten ideas myself in just this way, it was was utterly credible.

The great thing about Bob, though, was that he had had this long and illustrious career and, while he did love to share his stories, he was very down-to-earth, and never gave the impression that we had to bow down to him because of what he’d created or whom he’d worked with.

Rather, and I think particularly because he was getting way up in years by this point, he just loved sharing his history and knowledge with us in order to help us all become better writers. His delivery was very laid-back and droll, and he always encouraged even when he had to give criticism.

This was unlike some of the other professors in the department, who had no qualms about shitting all over a student’s work if they didn’t like it, even if them not liking it was clearly a generational issue. But I won’t mention any of their names.

But it was a wonderful example of what age and experience can share with youth — even if they don’t speak the same slang or share the same in-jokes and memes. As long as there was mutual respect — which Bob gave us and we gave him — the important thing he taught us was how story worked, how to create memorable characters, and how to write brilliant dialogue.

Sadly, he passed away not too long after college ended for me, although after I’d had my first big successes. Suffering from various physical ailments and not wanting to become a burden to his family in his late 70s, he committed suicide in his car parked in Culver City. (Note that the news article linked there is wildly off on his true age. He was 78, not 74.)

Sadder still, according to his wife, none of his ailments would have proven life-threatening. The desperation was just magnified by his depression.

If you feel that you’re suffering from depression (and its too common companion substance abuse), please contact the various helplines available. In the US, the number is (800) 662-4347. You can also find various helplines in Canada, India, Nigeria, China, the UK, and Germany. Sorry, Ecuador — apparently, that’s not quite a thing there yet.

And yes, I am paying attention to where my readers are coming from, thank you all!

Saturday Morning Post #87: Until the Thrill is Gone (part 2)

In another story from “24 Exposures,” meet Dan and Sylvia, a couple who can’t quite keep it in the bedroom. Or the house.

The continuing story of Dan and Sylvia, and their search for every more extreme public sex.

“Somebody is watching us,” he whispered in her ear, but he didn’t stop rubbing the lather all over her breasts, didn’t stop plowing her from behind. She turned her head slightly, blinking water out of her eyes, but she couldn’t see anyone. They were in the men’s locker room at his gym, a twenty-four hour place, and it was four in the morning. Other than the desk attendant, the place had been deserted when they’d come in. Dan hadn’t told her what he had in mind, but she figured it out when he lead her in there, past the rows of lockers, opened his own and quickly put his clothes in, gesturing for her to do the same. She was ready to jump on him right there, but he pulled a soap container out of the locker, smiled and walked to the showers.

“Let’s turn around,” she whispered back and Dan obliged, putting his back to the water, Sylvia facing the entrance at an angle. She looked through the opening, couldn’t see anything at first. Then she saw the shadow, on a bank of lockers, caught a glimpse of an elbow, moving up and down. A head tilted ever so slightly into view, just an ear and an eye, a shock of hair. She pretended not to be looking, eyes half-closed.

“I think he deserves some sound to go with this picture,” Dan whispered to her again, one hand sliding down her body, one finger finding the right spot. Sylvia let loose the moaning, in overdrive, but she wasn’t faking it. She never faked it, never had to. “Fuck me,” she spat out. “God, fuck me, fuck me, harder.”

Dan was grunting out a counterpoint to her fugue, a basso profundo, “Yeah. Oh, yeah. You are so tight…” From out in the locker room proper, there came a single half-stifled groan. Sylvia saw the shadow go rigid, an uplifted chin, and then she just lost it, screaming and clawing her thighs and flying up on tip-toe, bouncing her ass as hard as she could while Dan slammed into her with several loud “Uhng” sounds and then they were finished, turning to face each other, kissing once, rinsing off and hurrying back to get dressed.

The locker room was empty now, but they both saw the pearly glop on the floor, smiled at each other. For once, an audience that hadn’t feigned indifference. As they left the place, the boy at the desk glanced up, then pretended to look at his magazine with great interest. Dan and Sylvia held the laugh until they were outside.

“What a little pervert,” Dan said, and Sylvia cracked up again. She’d grown thoughtful by the time they’d gotten to the car, quiet on the drive home.

“What are you thinking?” Dan finally asked her.

“I never realized how exciting it was to have a stranger watching us,” she said. “I mean, to know that somebody was there. And even if he hadn’t been playing with himself… the idea — “

“Is a huge turn-on,” Dan finished, nodded. “And it didn’t matter to me who it was. Desk boy, or another member, whoever. I think we found out something interesting this morning.”

“What next?” she wondered, putting her hand on his on the center console.

“I’m sure we’ll think of something,” he answered.

And, of course, they did.

* * *

The desk boy at the gym served their purposes for a while. It got to the point where he’d be heading over to lock the door immediately after they went through to the weight-room, they could hear the click, and once he even forgot to take down the “Temporarily Closed” sign before they left, Sylvia had noticed that. But he properly kept his distance, always spying on them from outside, never approaching. The closest he had gotten was to stand in the doorway once while they were facing away. Sylvia could see his reflection in one of the chrome fittings, but he wasn’t really doing anything, just standing there, one hand down his pants but strangely motionless. As she turned around to face Dan, the desk boy vanished like a shadow.

They got bored with him eventually. He never mentioned what he’d seen and they’d never brought it up. After all, the point wasn’t to seduce the college boy at the counter. It was to know they were entertaining him without any of the awkwardness of actually being caught. They got as bold as to go at it on the rowing machine one night, gym clothes tossed aside, and she saw him looking at them in one of the many mirrors, his pants around his ankles, hand pumping furiously, but she could tell he was having a really hard time keeping it up. They’d become routine for him, and for themselves, and she told Dan when they got home that it was time to move on.

They were walking in Hollywood one evening, trying to come up with ideas, when a woman tore out of a small theatre, slammed into them and kept going up the street, losing a shoe in the process. “Crazy bitch,” Sylvia said. Dan picked up the shoe, watched after her as she ran to the subway entrance, kicked off the other shoe and descended.

“Who the hell takes the train in this town?” he muttered, but then Sylvia’s eyes lit up and she didn’t even have to say it. Dan took her hand and they headed for the station.

The mezzanine was deserted as they trifled with the ticket machines, bought round-trip fare for the two of them, then headed to the escalator down to the platform. There was a train in the station as they reached the bottom, door open. Dan and Sylvia ran, hopped inside just as the doors closed. This car was empty, the last one. Through the far window, they could see the woman sitting, at the distant end of the next car, just staring into space.

“Next stop, Hollywood and Highland,” the driver’s voice announced, and the train was already decelerating.

“That wasn’t much of a trip,” Sylvia commented.

“No,” Dan said, “But the next leg looks like it’s about seven minutes.” He was staring at the schedule on the wall, grinning. No one got on at the next station, and the second the doors shut, they were out of their clothes, Dan hanging onto the overhead rails as Sylvia pulled herself up, balanced her feet on two seatbacks and slid into position. They were done and dressed again just as the train pulled into the next station, which was crowded, but everybody seemed to be going the other way. Again, no one got onto this train. Dan could still see the woman in the next car, but couldn’t make out her face from here. On the next leg of the trip, which was the last, they dared each other to get naked and walk to the end of the car. When they got there, they realized the woman in the next car had dozed off. She wasn’t even paying attention to them.

A little disappointed, they got dressed again and behaved themselves all the way back to where they’d started. Maybe this trip had been a bust, but it still gave them some ideas, and in the next few weeks they performed for various audiences, always one car away, many of them ignorant of the goings-on, others plastering their faces up against the window and staring. They even perfected their timing so they’d still be naked when the train pulled into the station, but clothed and ready to exit by the time the doors opened.

They hit the high point two weeks later, when there was one other passenger with them, a man with an expensive camera who nevertheless looked somewhat rumpled, seedy and world-weary. He sat at the far end of the car, staring out the windows as the seven-minute stretch began. Sylvia didn’t have to look at Dan twice. They were at it in a New York minute, up against the back wall of the train — and the man started taking pictures, just casually firing off shots, no flash needed in the brightly lit car, but they could both hear the click and whirr of the thing, one shot after another and they stared into each other’s eyes, climbing to a higher, wider plateau than they had before, Dan practically banging Sylvia right through the rear door to an appreciative but anonymous audience. They were so excited they nearly blew their timing at the next station, actually having to crouch in a rear seat still pulling their clothes on as more passengers entered. But none of the new crowd caught them or noticed, luckily for them, since two uniformed LAPD officers hopped on at this station to check tickets. They finished their round trip with silent smiles. Dan had wanted to thank the photographer, but he had vanished when they stopped, slipping away into the night.

“How soon do you think we’ll be famous on the Internet?” Dan wondered.

“We can only hope,” Sylvia smiled at him.

They never did find the pictures online, despite the best of Dan’s searching abilities, which was disappointing. Just the idea that millions of strangers could get a look at what they’d done excited both of them, but without verification, it was an empty hope. Dan had suggested setting up a webcam and performing for the world, but Sylvia didn’t like that idea. It was too impersonal, too safe. It didn’t have the danger of a real-life intruder.

“We could always go back to the gym, see if that kid wants to join in,” Dan suggested.

“He never will,” she said.

“We can find somebody who would,” he went on, hopeful. But Sylvia just shrugged, reached for her blouse and wrung it out to drape over her shoulders. It was cold out here in the middle of the park in the middle of the night, wet grass all over her back. The sprinklers had come on while they were going at it, which had been a thrill at the time — were they automatic, or did some groundskeeper do it, and was he watching them? But now it was just uncomfortable and she was shivering. Dan got up, knocking grass off his legs. “Be right back,” he said, walking away, clothes still scattered.

“Where are you going?” she asked him.

“I have to pee,” he said, trotting now toward the small outbuilding with the dingy yellow light glowing from inside. Sylvia watched him disappear, hoped no one else was in there. Being an exhibitionist was one thing, but walking naked into a men’s room in a park in the middle of the night could be very easily taken as the wrong kind of invitation if Dan weren’t alone.

For once, she was a little worried, so she put her clothes on despite their dampness, then gathered up Dan’s clothes, about to head for the restroom when she saw them — two cops, in uniform, hands on their billy clubs. She crouched to the ground, skittering sideways to hide behind a bush, wondering what to do. The cops walked past the outbuilding, peering into the park, shining flashlights at random. She ducked, watching the beams play past her, hoping the cops didn’t see her. One of their radios squawked in the distance, the only sound. Then, they turned and walked into the men’s room and Sylvia froze. She couldn’t do a thing to warn Dan now. What could she do, scream? That would get the cops away from him, but there’d be so many things to explain. She watched the yellow rectangle of light, expecting to see Dan being dragged out in handcuffs, every second adding to her excruciating wait — and, she realized, every second, she was getting more turned on. What if they weren’t really cops? What if they were, but they liked the idea of finding a strange, naked man all alone in a men’s room? Maybe they had Dan cuffed to a stall right now, giving him a thorough cavity search —

And then there was Dan, appearing from around the corner of the restroom, racing for her, and this adventure had excited him, too.

“Come on,” he said as she got up. He took his clothes from her, but carried them under his arm as he ran to their car, opened the door to let her in. He ran around to the driver’s side, got in, but didn’t start the thing.

“Right now,” he pointed to his lap. “Quick, quick.”

Sylvia didn’t need to be told twice. She dove down on him, taking him all the way to the back of her throat. He tensed up almost immediately, shot his wad with his hand knotting in her hair, then started the car and drove off down the road.

“What happened in there?” she finally asked him.

“I heard their radios before they came in,” he said. “Climbed out the window. They almost saw me.”

“They could have arrested you.”

“Yeah, I know. Isn’t that hot?”

“It would have been big trouble.”

“Exactly…”

He grinned at her and she knew he was right. She realized she’d been casually fingering herself since they got into the car, started moving her hand in earnest now.

“Having to explain to them, they’d probably take you away with a tarp over you, you’d be stuck at the police station until I came to make bail. There’d be a police record, a court case. Everybody would know. Everyone would know about… everything, I’m sure, and those photos would turn…”

She never finished the sentence, since she’d finished herself at that moment and Dan pulled into their parking space, stopped the car, got out. He opened her door, still naked, and she stumbled out, still a little shaky. “What about your clothes?” she asked.

“Leave ‘em,” he said. “I’ve got my keys.” He lead the way back to the apartment and was ready to go again before they even got in the door. As they entered, she was already pulling her dress off and he flicked on the lights, shut the door and opened the drapes. They did it two or three more times, right in front of the window, finally falling onto the floor exhausted as the sun was coming up. They knew for certain that several joggers and the guy delivering the Times had seen them, one of the joggers stopping to trot in place for a long time as they put on their show.

They fell asleep in the living room and didn’t get up until early afternoon. They went to see a movie, but only held hands in the theatre. They were practically the only ones in the place, and everyone else was sitting in front of them, focused on the screen. No point in doing anything that wouldn’t be appreciated. They started making out in the car afterwards, but it was the middle of a weekday. The lot was deserted. They gave it up before they’d proceeded to anything more and went home, not even having time for a quickie before Dan had to go to work. He asked Sylvia if she wanted to come by later, but she said no. Why bother? The place would be empty. The gym? Maybe, but the kid had already seen them enough times and never did anything, what was the point?

“Want to go fuck on the police station steps?” Dan winked at her.

“Even for us, that’s a bit much,” she answered, kissing him good-bye. “See you later,” and he left. She made herself a cup of tea and sat at the computer, searching for “subway sex” and “subway couple” and every other combination of words she could think of that might blaze the ethereal pathway to their one recorded moment of glory, but there was nothing. It had been a lot of good times with no absolute proof, other than their memories, which were morphing as they sunk into the past, better probably than they’d been in originally happening, but far short of… something, some ultimate, some unknown thrill that was floating out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered but refusing to hint about itself.

Dan called her around one in the morning. He was going to be late. “The troublesome twins up to their old tricks,” he said. “This time, the fight got started inside, so I have to give a witness statement.”

“You really have to make them stop that,” she sighed.

“Yeah, what do I care, I don’t own the place, and people always tip more afterwards.” He paused, then she could hear the suggestion in his voice, “The place is crawling with cops.”

“Keep your pants on,” Stacey told him, not rhetorically. She hung up and went to bed, knowing Dan wouldn’t do anything that extreme. He couldn’t. She wasn’t with him, after all, and that was the entire point of the game.

Together, chasing the thrill. But what could they possibly do next?

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #84: Pricey, misconceptions, cars

More random questions for your Friday amusement, this time dealing with over-priced things, common myths, and my car.

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

What product or service is way more expensive than it needs to be?

The real biggies are personal care products that we all need. In the case of men, this means razor blades and disposable razors in particular. For women, it means sanitary products like tampons, pads, and so forth.

For each one of these, the cost of the physical materials to make them — plastic and metal for razors, and cotton and string or cloth and adhesive for feminine products — could cost no more than a few cents at most.

But let’s be generous and say that the whole thing together — a dozen tampons and the packaging, costs maybe two bucks, and a four-pack of disposable razors or one handle and four cartridges is a buck at most.

So why does it cost ten bucks or more for those razors, or a similar price for three dozen or so tampons that might get used up pretty fast, depending on a woman’s particular needs?

On top of that, why do modern multi-blade razors absolutely suck at shaving? I have literally had a brand new out of the box cartridge absolutely stuff up and become useless after shaving just one side of my face, and leaving way too much stubble at that.

Okay, maybe I just have a difficult beard, but come on. And for anyone thinking, “Have you tried electric?” why, yes I have, and that does an even worse job of things, making it look like I didn’t shave at all.

I’ve seriously had better luck with the non-brand three pack of double-blade razors at the 99 Cent Store.

Of course, I have no personal experience riding the cotton pony, but I would imagine that some women may have to go through multiple tampons in a day, for a few days in a row, and that can add up. I guess this is the one advantage for men — except for Humbert Humbert, most of us don’t have to shave twice a day.

What are some of the most common misconceptions?

Ooh — a list within a list. Here we go, in no particular order. Each of these states the myth first, then why it’s wrong.

Urine is sterile

I have no idea how this one got started, although it probably involves either having to drink your own urine if you’re lost in the desert or the equally untrue “peeing on a jellyfish sting” stops the pain myth. Urine might be sterile when it hits your bladder, but on the way out through your urethra, it can pick up all kinds of bacteria.

Ever hear of a “urinary tract infection?” Well, that’s how it happens. As for drinking your urine for survival, you’d really want to distill out the water first. After all, it contains all the stuff your body is trying to flush out, including sodium and other salts, and pouring those right back in isn’t a good idea, especially when you’re trying to hydrate.

Toilets flush in opposite directions in north and south

More specifically, the belief is that water goes down the toilet — or down any drain — counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere due to the Coriolis Effect.

Now, while this is certainly true for things like the way that storm systems rotate or winds circulate based on the rotation of the Earth, for something as small as a toilet or sink, the effect just doesn’t work. A hurricane or a prevailing current is actually a huge and massive thing. Remember, while clouds may float above the Earth, they only do that because they are not very dense — but they still weight as much as all the water in them, which can be millions of tons.

That kind of mass will be affected by the Earth’s rotation, so you will see the counterclockwise/clockwise thing going on, but only on that scale.

The Moon has a “dark” side

Thanks for this one, Pink Floyd, but the Moon does not have a dark side. All of it receives light from the Sun through its various phases and, in fact, watching it change from day to day in our sky should be the ultimate proof that there is no single dark side.

There is, however, a far side (thanks for that one, Gary Larson), and this is the one that we can’t see from the Earth. We can see the “dark” side, though, and that happens whenever there’s a New Moon in our sky.

Turkey makes you drowsy

This is an appropriate one to bring up as Thanksgiving approaches. The common myth is that eating turkey will make you sleepy because it contains the amino acid tryptophan, which triggers a drowsy response.

But here’s the thing: Turkey doesn’t contain particularly high levels of tryptophan, and certainly not higher than other foods. So what’s really going on? Look at your Thanksgiving meal for that one. Generally, this is one of those occasions where people chow down to excess, and do it with a large combination of foods, particularly carbohydrates and sweet and starchy side dishes.

You know — cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, yams, stuffing — the works. And these, in turn, raise your insulin levels, which lower the amount of large amino acids in your bloodstream… except for tryptophan. In effect the entire meal concentrates whatever effect the turkey had. Also note: Tryptophan is destroyed by lengthy or high-temperature cooking, which pretty much describes that Thanksgiving bird.

Jesus’ birth was due to the Immaculate Conception

Talk about one that is literally a misconception! This one gets particularly confused, especially by non-Catholics, but even Catholics can make the mistake. Jesus was a result of the virgin birth, which happened when Mary conceived without having known a man, or so the story she told Joseph goes.

The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s birth, but it does not mean that her mother was also a virgin. It was simply a semantic trick designed to make it theologically possible for a human woman to give birth to a divinely fathered being. “Immaculate Conception” means that egg and sperm came together in her mother’s womb without being tainted by original sin — you know, that whole thing that Adam and Eve and, by extension, all humankind were being punished for?

Hint: It was that whole eating the fruit in the garden shtick. But, anyway, at some point theologians hand-waved away the idea that Mary would have been conceived with original sin just like everyone else, and so Immaculate Conception was born. Not to be confused with the Immaculate Reception, although that did happen two days before Christmas.

Vikings wore horns

Vikings never wore horns, on their helmets or anywhere else, except possibly (although there’s no evidence) in limited and very ceremonial situations far away from battle.

Why? Very simple, really. Why put a pair of convenient handlebars on your protective headgear for your enemy to grab? If your helmet is strapped on, they can have a good go at trying to twist your head around, and if it isn’t, then they can just fling that helmet off and jam a pickaxe into your skull.

Vikings did, however, have fabulous hair. The whole horn myth didn’t come about until the 19th century and a staging of Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen, particularly the Valkyries — who were also the origin of the expression, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings;”

Immigrants’ names were changed by officials at Ellis Island

Not only were they not changed, they were barely recorded. A ship docked, the passengers got off, workers at Ellis Island checked their names off on the ship’s manifest, and then it was “Welcome to America.”

And that was it. We didn’t really even have immigration laws back then. If you got here, you got in with few exceptions that did not involve contagious diseases. (Ask China about that.) Names were changed by the immigrants themselves, for various reasons, and what they put down on official documents was what they got called.

Maybe someone was dodging a criminal past, or didn’t want to sound so ethic, or just preferred to simplify the spelling of their name. It was easy to do back then, but it wasn’t done to them.

There was mass panic during the 1938 broadcast of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds

There really wasn’t. There were a few isolated incidents, but the idea was blown out of proportion by newspapers of the idea in order to discredit the new rival medium of radio.

It probably would have died out except that Orson Welles and CBS Radio both realized that it had actually benefited them, not the papers — so they had the last laugh and propagated the rumors themselves.

Glass is a slow-flowing liquid at room-temperature

Absolutely not, despite the myth that older windows are thicker at the bottom. Some of them may be, but it’s not because the glass is slowly flowing down the pane. If that were the case, we would have definitely seen some ancient cathedral’s stained glass windows pour into the transepts by now.

The difference in thickness is just an artifact of manufacture that probably happened when the glass actually was semi-liquid, which tends to happen when you heat it to the high temperatures needed to form it into what you’re making. Once it’s cooled down, though, it becomes an amorphous solid and, short of a ridiculous heatwave, it’s not going anywhere.

What do you hate most and love most about your car?

First, let me describe my car. It’s a 2012 Toyota Yaris, and I got it the one time that I practically impulse-purchased a vehicle. What had happened was that for the second time in a few months, the clutch or transmission cable on my 2000 Saturn (bought new originally) went all funky, so that I could only shift into 1st or 3rd gear.

That made the trip to work really fun (he said sarcastically), so when I got to the office, I went online to search for available cars with manual transmissions. Because our company had a couple of Toyota Matrices for business purposes that I’d driven a few times and liked, I figured I’d see what Toyota had.

Exactly one car came up and while it wasn’t a Matrix, it was similar, had a manual transmission, and was also located nearby, at North Hollywood Toyota. I limped my Saturn over there after work, walked into the showroom and said, “I want this one,” and the deal was done about four hours later.

It was slightly used, as in it was a 2012 that I bought near the end of 2013 with about 12,000 miles on it. It had started out as a dealer model, and so had the highest trim level in the most deluxe version of that model. That is, every possible option that could have been put on the car was there.

And that’s a big part of the “what I love the most.” ABS braking, traction control on demand, fog lamps, Bluetooth, cruise control, AC and heating, electronically adjustable mirrors, entertainment system with radio, CD, USB port and Bluetooth Audio, keyless entry, and incredible mileage.

And manual transmission. I have only ever owned and driven cars with a stick-shift and although they told me when I bought this one that it would probably be my last because the rise of hybrids and EVs really makes stick unnecessary, that’s still one of my favorite things.

First off, it gives me more of a sense of control and a feel for the car. Second, it’s quite frequently great protection against the whole, “Can I borrow your car?” thing.

“Sure. Can you drive stick?”

“Oh… no.”

End of discussion.

It’s a four-seater with four doors and a hatchback, and just looks neat to boot. And, keep in mind that I’m not really a car person.

As for what I hate most about it: It’s getting older, already nine model years when I know that most car companies want you to buy a new one every six years or lease a different one every two years. Granted, Toyota is built to last a lot longer, and I did get thirteen years out of a Saturn which was also fun but, honestly, it started falling apart in little ways long before its big meltdown.

Also, because it’s older and out of warranty, it still requires all of that maintenance stuff, but it’s so hard to keep track of as well as to find time to get done. Fortunately, thanks to COVID and working remotely, I’m driving so little that I can get two months out of a tank of gas. Still, there are those time-based things that are necessary. It’s just such a pain in the ass.

My baby also isn’t perfect. There’s some body damage to the rear passenger door and environs. A couple of those were definitely mine in encounters with inanimate objects, but I suspect that at least one curvy dent in the door was not me.

It does give him character and one of these days, I just might get everything done that needs to be done, bodywork and all, and maybe even paint him a bright shade of tangerine, just because.

Oh — and yes, my car’s pronouns are he/him/his. I mean, for one thing, he’s got this big ol’ stick up front. And for another, it just flowed better when I named him. This is the seventh car I’ve owned, so he’s called El Señor Siete — Mr. Seven.

In case you’re wondering, models in order: Datsun, Subaru, Honda, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Saturn, Toyota. Colors in order: Green, white, gray, green, white, gray, silver. Yes, I know that this means I should paint my car green instead of orange, but I’m not as big a fan of green.

At least as a color, anyway.

Theatre Thursday: A Bard’s dozen

Shakespeare was such a genius that his works are adaptable across time and genres because everything he did was grounded in character. Here are some of the best Shakespeare adaptations, literal and not.

I am a huge fan of Shakespeare, so keep that in mind and… here we go…

One of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare is that the psychological truths in his plays are so universal that they offer themselves up for endless adaptations and recreations. They can be staged as faithfully as possible to the actual look and feel of whatever era he was writing about, or be stretched and bent into just about anything else. A lot of people may not know it, but the seminal 1950s science fiction film Forbidden Planet is somewhat based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and when you can easily leap from 17th century romance to 20th century science fiction, it says a lot about the original writer.

The other amazing thing about his works is this, and something I cannot emphasize enough to someone who fears getting into Shakespeare: Yes, it may be hard to read his words on the page, but watch them acted by brilliant performers, and you’ll be sucked in in a second. The language barrier will vanish while the emotional power will take you over.

Here then are half a dozen straight adaptations of his works, followed by half a dozen that only took inspiration but still delivered powerful stories because, after all, the Bard of Avon was a powerful story-teller.

Straight Adaptations (Most to least faithful to the original era of the story)

  1. Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Probably one of the Bard’s best-known works, which also gave us West Side Story and  Romeo + Juliet, this tale of star-crossed lovers was best told and most accurately cast in Zeffirelli’s version. Unfortunately, years later, the actor Bruce Robinson, who played Benvolio in the film, took part in the #MeToo movement, when he revealed that Zeffirelli sexually harassed him on set.

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999, Kevin Kline)

This is one of the most over-produced Shakespeare plays ever, possibly because it’s really the fluffiest, but at least this version managed to nail things down definitively with an amazing cast. I mean, come on… Kevin Kline, Roger Rees, Sam Rockwell, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer,  Dominic West, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, and David Strathairn…  how much more stellar could you get?

  1. Henry V (1989)

Branagh. Shakespeare. Say no more. He is one of the most definitive Shakespearean actors — in fact, he can rightly tell Laurence Olivier to fuck right off (because, honestly Olivier wasn’t that good as Hamlet or Richard III.) But Branagh has brought us multiple Shakespearean adaptations, from Hamlet to Henry V to Much Ado, and all of them are brilliant. Still… his turn as director and star in the pivotal film in Shakespeare’s amazing “War of the Roses” cycle knocks everything else out of the park.

  1. Hamlet (1990)

Despite the allegations about Zefferelli mentioned above, he still gave us a version of Hamlet that rang true, even if Mel Gibson was way too old to play the hero and Glenn Close was way too young to play his mother. Branagh did it six years later, but his exercise was way too academic. Zefferelli’s is visceral and gutsy, and definitely blew Olivier’s bloodless 1948 attempt right out of the water. Unlike Branagh’s, Zefferelli did not adapt the play mostly uncut — which is why his version only runs 2 hours and 14 minutes, while Branagh’s is just over 4 hours.

  1. Richard III (1995)

This is my second favorite Shakespeare play starring one of my favorite actors, Ian McKellan, and the reimagination here is brilliant. It takes this War of the Roses and sets it in an imaginary world where the UK went through a civil war in the 1930s and the fascists won — at first. McKellan plays the humpbacked anti-hero with all of the nasty glee necessary, and is aided and abetted by an amazing cast. Full disclosure: My actor’s dream would be to play Gloucester/Richard III through the whole cycle of plays he’s in, from all of the Henry VI’s through Richard III… He’s just that amazing a douchebag of a character.

  1. Titus (1999)

And this is my favorite Shakespeare play, despite most Shakespeare scholars considering it problematic, but in Julie Taymor’s adaptation, it takes off and sings. Her first and most brilliant move was setting it in a Rome that is not specific, but is eternal — it could be anywhere from the time of Julius Caesar to the time of Mussolini, or maybe even Fellini, and it all works. On top of that, the cast is amazing: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, Harry Lennix, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Angus Macfadyen. If you’re not sure about Shakespeare, this is probably your best entry point.

Reimaginations (Nearest to furthest)

  1. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Quick catch-up: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters from Hamlet. In the play, they are two old school pals of the Melancholy Dane, and they were brought in by the villain to lure Hamlet onto a boat-ride intended to lead to his death. However, Hamlet turns the tables, re-writes a letter and instead sentences these two to be executed in his stead. This play, by Tom Stoppard, makes R&G the lead characters, with the actions in Hamlet in the background, and it becomes an existential comedy. In the film version, directed by Stoppard, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman essay the lead roles, with Richard Dreyfuss appearing as the lead player — more important here than he was in Hamlet.

  1. Ran (1985)

I saw this film at one of the revival houses in L.A. and went in knowing nothing about it, other than that it was directed by Akira Kurosawa. I was about one act into what I thought was some traditional drama set in the shogun era when my brain suddenly clicked and I realized, “Holy crap. This is King Lear.” And it was. Other than a gender swap up top regarding who inherits what, the rest of it is pure Shakespeare, and there are a lot of moments that really stand out visually, particularly the mad king wandering unharmed through a castle afire that is being pin-cushioned by arrows, and the summary execution of Lady Kaede, which indicates that maybe her blood pressure was a bit too high.

  1. Scotland, PA (2001)

Another odd little adaptation, but one which gets the source material entirely: This is Shakespeare’s story of ambitious monarchs writ large brought down to human scale, and it totally works. Yes, it’s set in a real place, and manages to reset all of the drama of Shakespeare’s original in the context of the petty squabbles inherent to a fast-food franchise. Surprisingly, though, this does not blunt the drama from the Scottish Play one bit.

  1. West Side Story (1961)

As if you didn’t know, this is Romeo & Juliet, updated and with an utterly amazing collaboration with seasoned pro Leonard Bernstein writing the score and newbie Stephen Sondheim providing the lyrics. This was lightning in a bottle, almost perfect in every way from Broadway onward, and the movie adaptation is one of the most incredible musicals ever filmed. The talent on tap is over the top, the numbers are choreographed to perfection (thank Jerome Robbins for that), and put this down as the second best adaptation of Romeo and Juliet ever filmed. Only time will tell if the impending Spielberg remake does the original justice.

  1. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Also known as The Taming of the Shrew (see how the titles rhyme?) this is another Shakespeare update that is admirable for bringing the bard to a new and younger audience. It’s the same story in a different setting: Petruchio… er, Cameron, wants to date Bianca, but her dad is stuffy, so won’t let her date anyone until her older sister Kat hooks up. Enter Patrick Verona (see what they did there?) who will try to, well, tame that shrew. This all takes place at Padua High School, and it’s all a lot better than you might think it’d be from the description.

  1. Theater of Blood (1973)

All right. Question one: Do you like Shakespeare? Question two: Do you like Vincent Price? Question three: Are you a fan of horror movies? Well, if you answered “yes” to at least two of those questions, this is your lucky day. Theater of Blood is an amazing film in which Vincent Price plays a disgruntled Shakespearean actor who did not win a critics’ award, so goes on to bump off each of those critics following his most recent season of Shakespeare plays. The cast of critics is an all-star bunch of British actors of the 1970s, Price is abetted by the amazing late Diana Rigg (what ho, Game of Thrones fans!) and we get the amazing combination of Price and Rigg doing Shakespeare, a comedy gore-fest, and a metric buttload of fantastic British actors, well, acting. Keep your eyes out for murders based on Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Othello, Henry VI: Part One, and Titus Andronicus. Price’s character fails, however, with attempts at Romeo & Juliet and King Lear. Oops… spoilers?

What is your favorite Shakespeare play or film adaptation? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday Wonders: Buy the ticket, take the ride

Have you ever wondered how your favorite amusement park rides work behind the scenes? Here are backstage peeks at a few of them.

Okay, I have to admit that during these “must stay at home” times, I have been watching a lot of behind the scenes videos of amusement park rides, particularly those at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood, my two favorite parks, although the latter is my super favorite because A) It’s really close to home and I can get there on the L.A. Metro, B) It’s a lot cheaper than that overpriced Disney Shit, and C) It was the first amusement park my parents ever took me to when I was a wee lad.

But the best part of learning about how some of the more elaborate rides work is how simple they really are. And I’m not really counting roller coasters here, because those basically just involve gravity and flinging shit up and down rails. There is one exception, because it hides a big trick, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

There are kind of a couple of eras hiding in here, too — really old school Disney, and really modern tech. Not that Disney also hasn’t embraced the latter, but others may have done it better.

Old School Disney

Disney’s first real foray into high-tech ride design came in the form of audio-animatronics, which were basically robots synced to perform to a pre-recorded soundtrack. They still exist to this day at Disney properties, with the Hall of Presidents being one of the more famous examples,

But they also used very early versions of motion control in their inaugural ride Rocket to the Moon, later rebranded as Mission to Mars. In it, guests sat in a circular amphitheater, which had movie screens mounted in the floor, ceiling, and around the perimeter.

The conceit was that the theatre was a spacecraft designed to fly to either the Moon or Mars, and the trip was simulated thanks to motion control of the seats and theatre. For example, as the ship allegedly reached Zero G, the seats would sink thanks to hydraulics to create the illusion of the riders rising out of them, and the entire theatre would shake as the ship dealt with the forces of escaping Earth’s orbit or returning back to it.

Still… very basic.

I’m not going to get into rollercoasters, though, because those are beyond basic. Cars go up hill, come down hill, done. Well, except, of course, for the exception I already mentioned.

Ghost school

The funny thing about one of the most popular Disney Attractions, The Haunted Mansion, is how simple it all really is. Honestly, a lot of effects on that ride predate its opening by a century, the most famous one being Pepper’s Ghost, which not only creates the ghostly ballroom in The Haunted Mansion, but which has created every single “hologram” show of a dead celebrity that you’ve ever seen. It’s all mirrors, but without the smoke.

That and, of course, how the ride system was designed to focus your POV and keep the music and such in sync with where you were while delivering a quite different experience to the “Doom Buggies” just before and after you, right down to the point that you meet those hitchhiking ghouls in the mirrors at the end.

It wasn’t until computers crept in, of course, that shit got much more complicated.

Universal beats Disney

Nowadays, it’s kind of expected and ubiquitous, at least if you’ve ever seen a movie in 4DX (which you should, if it’s the right one.) But once upon a time, motion control rides were the weird exception, and Disney was not an early embracer of the tech.

Who was? Universal, and it happened when they were trying to develop a Back to the Future ride. Probably not all that surprising, because Robert Zemeckis was a genius at developing new and incredible special effects techniques that advanced the art by lightyears.

Serious, look at any of his movies, and then marvel at how he seamlessly did shit that no one else had figured out how to do at that time.

All of which left Universal with big boots to fill, but they ultimately did because they latched onto an idea that has since become quite common: What if we make a rollercoaster that doesn’t move?

Of course, they didn’t phrase it that way. Instead, they settled on Motion Control and ride design that didn’t rely on long tracks and such but, rather, basically stayed in place while rocking the riders through four degrees of freedom.

Ta-da! The birth of the modern amusement park ride!

And Universal beat Disney to the punch with Back to the Future. The Disney version, Star Tours, which kind of used a less elaborate version of the same effect, came out later. In both cases, the rides took up much smaller spaces than traditional rollercoasters, with more square footage being dedicated to the queuing area than to the ride itself.

The Mummy’s Secret

Speaking of Universal, one of my favorite rollercoasters in the world is there: The Mummy’s Revenge. It occupies the space that was once long ago taken up by the E.T. Adventure ride. The concept is simple. Themed to the Brendan Fraser movie franchise, you board a coaster that takes you through a story set-up at a leisurely pace before it takes off on a fast and twisty dark ride with all kinds of thrills and scares from the movie.

And takes off is the right word. Just as two of the gigantic and menacing skeleton guards from the movie drop from the ceiling and stop inches above your head, it’s blastoff into the dark time.

The cars ride on metal rails and use linear induction motors. That is, a current is shot through those tubular rails and it accelerates the car smoothly and quickly. Of course, it probably uses a few of Space Mountain’s tricks as well, like blowing fans on the cars, which give the perception of moving even faster.

Then the ride comes to a sudden stop as projected scarabs climb down the walls before water jets above you and air jets in the car simulate thousands of them climbing up your legs to eat you. But that’s not the big surprise.

Suddenly, the car blasts off backwards and continues to the station that way. The first time, it can be quite unexpected and for the longest time I wondered whether they only ran one car at a time so it could make that backwards journey.

Except that the trip back always seemed shorter and faster than the trip out. For a long time, I put that down to traveling backwards creating that illusion until I finally noticed something about that room where the car came to an abrupt stop.

While we were being distracted by the threats from above and below, a switcher behind us activates to route the car onto a different track heading back. That way, another train could be heading in while we were returning. If you pay very close attention, you can actually feel the slight difference in direction between your entrance and exit.

Right before the ride ends, the car stops on a turntable, which spins it back right-way around, so the whole thing is self-resetting and the car, now moving forward, merges back into the original line.

Pottering about

You can find another Universal attraction that creates the illusion of much more movement than there really is in Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is stuffed full of tricks, although you probably actually walk farther in the ride queue than you travel in the ride itself.

It’s a very impressive queue, though, full of recreations of all things Hogwarts, including 3D projections of various film cast members who show up to urge you on your way. There’s also one point when you emerge into an outdoor area representing the place where students pot the screaming mandrakes, and this gives an amazing view of Universal and the surrounding Valley.

Sure, it kind of destroys the illusion of being in the far north of England, but it’s still a lovely view.

Eventually, you board a four-passenger vehicle and are strapped in with safety bars, and then you’re off. The ride itself was originally presented in 3D with glasses and I was fortunate enough to experience it that way two times.

Sadly, too many people were getting motion sickness, so they ditched the glasses. Too bad. They should have just warned people, “If you start to feel nauseous, take the glasses off.”

But like the Back to the Future ride, most of the motion is created by what you’re seeing and not what you’re actually feeling. The ride car you’re in is basically dangling on a short crane that follows a single track, and the crane does all the work of lifting, twisting, and turning the car as it passes through the various projections.

These mechanisms are hidden from riders’ view by the lighting, positioning of the passenger seats, and the projection screens that use hemispheres to wrap around each car as it goes through.

You can see video of what it looks like with the lights on and no projections here. Not quite the same thrill ride that way, is it?

Image source: SolarSurfer — Own work, Public Domain.

Talky Tuesday: 23 words

Do you know what the oldest words in a lot of the world’s languages are and how old they are? Let’s take a look!

What do these words all have in common: Ashes, bark, black, fire, to flow, to give, hand, to hear, I, man/male, mother, not, old, to pull, to spit, that, this, thou, we, what, who, worm, and ye?

The answer is that each one of them has been traced back 15,000 years, at least to common roots in a proto human language, and are the ones that have lasted the longest through time, spreading to seven very different but early language families, including Indo-European — which includes English.

This is kind of remarkable for a few reasons. First, words in any language are only expected to last about 9,000 years before they’re replaced, and some lost languages haven’t even lasted that long.

Now, granted, if you went back to one of those humans 15,000 years ago and tried to speak to them just using the modern English versions of these words, they probably wouldn’t understand you at all. Some of the proto-words might be close, or might not, but the concepts themselves are clearly very important to humans.

What’s interesting about the list is that it breaks down into a majority of nouns and pronouns — seven of each — leaving us with five verbs, two adjectives, one conjunction, and one multi-purpose word, “what,” which can be a pronoun, adverb, interrogative, and so much more.

Nouns

The nouns are obviously connected to the natural world and things very important to what would have been nomadic tribes at the time, possibly seeking shelter in either trees or caves. These words are:

Ashes: The results of a fire, of course, but discovering their properties when mixed with water (you get lye) would have led to things like making soap out of fat, and ashes themselves also have a lot of ritualistic and symbolic uses, even to this day. Ash Wednesday, anyway? Not to mention that ash and soot would have made a great pigment for very early cave art.

Bark: Not as in what the dog says, but as in what the tree has. Wood would have been a very important material at the time, not only for making temporary shelters or mounts for tools chipped out of flint (think spears, bows and arrows, and axe handles), wood could also have been used to make boats or rafts. But at the same time, people were also discovering the medicinal properties of various plants, including trees, and what was eventually synthesized as aspirin in modern times was originally found in tea brewed from willow bark.

Fire: The ultimate in high tech at the time, and not only another major use for wood, but a source of ash. Fire would have provided heat, light, and the ability to cook raw meat. It also may have served to scare off wild animals, or even have been used in hunting by burning their habitats to flush them into the open for easier killing. (That last one is conjecture, but I’m sure that some clever early human of 13000 BCE thought of it.)

Hand: It’s kind of hard to miss the significance of these, since most of us have them, and most of those have four fingers and a thumb, and for humans they are the tool with which we made all other tools. They are also one of our primary ways of getting to know the world through touch and, eventually, allowed us to create the art of writing down words — and so much more. It’s no wonder that this very important but fundamental body part would be named very early on.

Man/male: Yes, woman and female don’t show up on the list, but we don’t know for sure how gendered these terms were at the beginning. They could have also indicated human at their most simple and, indeed, many indigenous peoples throughout the world gave them selves that just indicated “the people” or “the humans.” Still, it does show that even back then, we were developing an identity as to what we were.

Mother: This one is a testament to the nature of humans to form family units with a particularly strong mother and child connection. The word “father” doesn’t pop up so early, but whether that’s because early humans had the same paternal connection as dogs — i.e., wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and done — humans do have one very unique trait that no other mammals or even primates share. It takes us a fuck of a long time to mature to adulthood. Most animals do it in a couple of years. Humans, though? We don’t even hit puberty until… well, it’s a number that bounces around depending upon how well nourished a particular generation is, but it can happen as early as seven or eight (which is already senior citizen for dogs) or as late as eighteen or nineteen, or at any point in between. On top of that, though, development of our human brain is not complete until about our mid-20s. So unlike any other animals, we rely on our parents for a lot longer and, in ancient times, Dad was probably off making your step-siblings while Mom stayed loyal and protective. Hence the longevity of this word. Which, also, in almost all languages, has a couple of “M” sounds in it, which is not coincidentally one of the first vocalizations made by human babies in every culture.

Worm: The actual meaning of this one is a little vague, but considering that it sprung up among pre-agricultural societies who lived in arid climates, I’m guessing that it has nothing to do with earthworms and, instead, referred either to snakes or maggots or both, the former which would have been common desert threats, and the latter which would have been common sights on rotting food or corpses.

Pronouns

These are the words that stand in for nouns and which are very important when it comes to making it clear who is doing what, with which, and to whom. I mean, without pronouns, you’d wind up having to use proper nouns in everything, and always saying, “John gives Mary the ball” or “The Dodgers and the Giants kind of have a rivalry” can get tedious if that’s the only construction you can fall back on.

I mean, you don’t have to specify who’s giving Katchi in this case, right? Watch that video, dammit. It’ll make you smile.

I: Clearly the most egocentric pronoun but, come on. What else are you going to refer to yourself as? Oddly enough, if you thump your chest hard enough, the sound that comes out actually does sound sort of like a long I.

That: Meaning, of course, the thing over there, and that’s a pretty useful distinction. What if it’s brunch, 13000 BCE, and Brenda sits at your table and starts to reach for your bagel? You’d really need to be able to tell her, “No, Brenda. Back off and eat that one.” Over there is implied, but that’s the point.

This: And, of course, the opposite of “that.” This is what you invite friends and family to share. It’s the inclusive location pronoun. “Hey, Mom — want some of this soup?” “Yo, Chad, I made this for you, bro.” And so on.

Thou: Although it’s long since fallen out of English, here’s the funny story. We used to have a formal and familiar form of “you” in English, and if you’ve ever studied French, German, or Spanish, you know the concept. The funny thing, though, is that English actually dropped the familiar instead of the formal, unlike other Romance languages, so that “You” is the original formal form. Thou in English, though, was originally very familiar. Shakespeare even refers to “thouing” someone who’s a superior in order to insult them. And the order of “thou” pronouns is thus: subject, thou, as in “thou are a twat.” Object pronoun, “thee,” as in “I shall smite thee, braggard,” or “thy country ‘tis of thee.” Finally, possessive is either “thy” or “thine,” depending on the word that follows, much like how a and an work in English. “Thy countenance is like a buffalo’s arse,” or “Thine eyes shine with fire,” e.g.

We: Once you had a tribe composed of I’s and Thous, you had to come up with a bigger collective, and this was it. First person plural, although it is kind of hard to wrap your head around the idea of it still being first person once it does become plural. That’s a question for the grammarians to answers, I suppose.

Who: An obviously needed no brainer for cases where you had no idea who any of the subjects or objects or whatnot in the above were. Like “what,” this word was meant to clarify shit, and fast. It’s just happy sticking to being one part of speech, more on which below.

Ye: This used to be the possessive for you, meaning that it meant “your.” Are those ye pantaloons? Unfortunately, due to typographical stupidity later, in which the character Þ was mistaken for ye (or just became a “y” because that was the closest looking letter in the typecase), the word “Þe” got warped into this totally wrong usage as “The.” It’s not! It was always a pronoun, although a discontinued one, and never an article. Anyway, nowadays, as noted above we just use “your” in English to mean the same thing

Verbs

Verbs are the action words that give language its flow, and you literally can’t do anything without them. Interesting, then, that there would be fewer of them than pronouns, but… whatevs!

To flow: Obviously, the most important connection to early humans and this would be rivers and tides, but there’s another possibility, considering Shamans. What about blood flow or the like? Again, though, not being agrarian yet, I’m guessing that the most important meaning of flow here was more related to the connection of seasons, the movement of rivers and winds, and the timing of regular floods.

To give: Not really an unusual idea, is it? Without group cooperation way back when, we probably would not have made it out of that crap.

To hear: Another cultural marker — what if hearing each other back then had helped save society? Or what if it didn’t? This question in particular is very important.

To pull: Kind of the birth of engineering. How do you think that the pyramids and other such structures were built in the first place? Dragging block, putting shit in place, later, rinse, repeat.

To spit: I’m not sure whether this was meant to be a symbol of contempt, a method of wetting the clay or mortar that became bricks that turned into pyramids or more, or how a mother fed her child after she’d stopped making milk. But… it’s an ancient word so, clearly, an important function.

Adjectives

These are words that describe nouns, and the oddest part here is that we only have two of them.

Black: This most likely came from all that ash and fire going on, or not. But it may also refer to the color of night, which would have been a fearful thing for all primitives. “Ooh… Sun goes away, now what?” Ironically, there was now word for “white” for centuries. Studies have shown, though, that when color names emerge in cultures, they always do it in the same order. Black is always first, with white following after, and then red. Some cultures stop naming there, but if they go on, the next color is either green or yellow, followed by the one of the pair not named, and then blue. After blue is when all of the other color names develop. English has eleven — but note that these only refer to the base shade, which is how there can be so many different shades of red or purple or green but still only eleven main names.

Old: Another word that developed with no defined opposite at the time, but maybe that’s a good thing, as it implies that the elders of the tribe were useful IRL. No. Really. They were and are. Who else could teach the others about what to do the next time the entire forest catches on fire when the last time was forty or fifty years ago?

Conjunction

Not: The only conjunction, but c’mon. Add “Not” before anything, instant negation, so it’s actually probably the ultimate word to use except, of course, in improv. If you don’t have a word for “young,” then “not old” will get across the same concept. “Not black,” “not fire,” “not flow,” and “not I,” for example, all have specific meanings very different than the not conjunction alone.

But what about this?

What: About the only other word in English besides “what” that can be used as almost any part of speech is “fuck,” which makes “what the fuck” a pretty versatile sentence all on its own. But let’s dive into the many identities of our friend what.

Adjective: It becomes an adjective when it introduces a noun clause in a question. For example, “What kind of car are you buying?” “What movie do you want to see tonight?” Here, “what” is describing the unknown status of the answer, i.e. modifying a noun.

Adverb: Sometimes the question isn’t about a noun, but about a verb, in which case what easily slides over to this part of speech. “What do you mean by that, Wanda?” “What do they care?” Both answers will be expressed with verbs: “I mean, I think your cooking stinks, Agatha!” “They don’t care at all, actually,” so once again, the “what” is modifying the target part of speech here.

Pronoun: Besides modifying a noun, “what” can directly stand in for one, becoming a pronoun. “What we need is a lot more money.” “What is love?” “I try to do what I can.” Notice that these aren’t necessarily questions. In non-question sentences, you can often determine whether what is being used as a pronoun by replacing it with “that which” and seeing if it still makes sense. “I try to do that which I can” makes sense. “That which kind of car are you buying?” does not. Just be sure to put back the “what” once you’re done testing it so that you don’t come across as someone trying to appear much more literate than they are, because the whole “that which” thing in this form is archaic and pretentious.

Interjection: A general reaction of surprise to something someone has just heard. “So… I just caught my son in bed with your husband.” “What?!” “They’re having a sale on fresh chicken. Only 28 cents a pound.” What?” “Why is the cat sleeping in the fridge?” “What?” And so on.

The only ones it doesn’t turn up as are noun, verb, preposition, conjunction, and article.

So there’s your starter kit of the 23 most ancient words developed as a part of human language that are still with us today with their original meanings although, of course, not in their original forms or spellings — although sometimes they can be preserved across language families in surprisingly recognizable ways if you understand how spelling and pronunciation shift from one to the other.

Momentous Monday: Curtain Down

Although my days on stage are probably over, I can’t believe how formative they’ve been. I will miss them.

It has now been approximately one year and seven and a half months since the last time I set foot on stage to do an improv show and, at this point, I think I really have to resolve myself to the fact that I will never perform in front of a live audience again.

It’s sad, but it’s reality. The first big block happened when COVID shut down the theaters, including the improv theater I’d been performing at. We sort of went on hiatus, with most of the four companies still doing Zoom shows or meeting regularly that way, but then at some point the parent company basically dissolved everything else, so that the Sunday Team, College League, and Rec League were officially disbanded.

I’m not even sure at this point if the Main Company still exists or not. By a fluke of timing, the company had decided to give up their too expensive lease on their old space effective on April 1st of that year — a decision made before COVID would have wound up sticking them in an arrangement they could not have afforded had they stayed.

Ever since that time, though, I’ve been meeting weekly with Rec League members via Zoom, and for a long time we would have a quick catch up, followed by an hour or two of various Zoomable improv games.

In the last few months, though, the group sizes and enthusiasm for doing games seems to have waned a lot, and it all seems to correspond to the second shut-down after that single week at the beginning of July when it looked like we were going back to normal but then the Delta Variant reared its ugly head, even threatening the fully vaccinated.

Also, our fearless leader, who used to also be the education director for the improv company and Rec League Coach, has taken on a new career as an audio book narrator and, since he can do that from anywhere with a home studio set-up and an internet connection, he’s leaving town and moving far away in January.

A lot of my friends seem to be moving out of California as well, although I don’t think it’s so much a knock on the state — which is wonderful — as it is the realization that they can suddenly do what they in a place that is a lot less expensive because they’re suddenly not tied down to a physical office location.

Hey, I’m considering it myself. I just have to decide whether I want to move in-state or out, whether I want to be closer to my mom’s family and make my ancestor’s journey in reverse, or whatever. I do think, though, that I would like to be some place more rustic, where I can have a nice house, a few acres of forest, and multiple large dogs, and where nature can recharge me.

One thing I’ve learned on my summer and winter camp trips in the last couple of years to Big Bear: When I go to a place like that, I sleep much more easily than I do in the city, wake up with the dawn, and find nothing more enjoyable than to wander off into the woods on my own as the sun is just rising and the morning mist is lifting, perhaps to encounter a stray deer who seems just as curious as me as I do about them.

Not that I’m not really into city living, either, but I could use a balance. Let’s say… 67/33 rural to city? But also 99/1 liberal to a-hole.

Yeah, hard balance to manage, I guess, until enough of us disperse and turn all the red places purple.

Back to the original thesis, though: Even if the improv company comes back and starts up its education department and the Rec League again, I’m still not sure that I’d go back, or be able to. The main reason there is that this having been sheltered in place for so long has reverted me to who I was before I found improv, and that’s not good.

When it comes to performing on stage, that has been a part of my life since forever, despite my being a total introvert. Well, once upon a time, until I figured out that I was an ambivert.

But from when I started doing elementary school plays all through drama and band in junior and high school and college, and then bands after college and theatre as an adult and improv way too late in life as an adult, the thing I realized was this.

Sure, I was an introvert in person, afraid to engage with people, except that I could be an ambivert when I was dealing with people I had already made friends with and trusted.

I only became an extrovert, though, when I had an instrument and music or a character to hide behind.

“Okay, so I get to put on this costume and play with these props and say these lines that aren’t mine? Cool. So I don’t give a flying fuck of what those people out there think, because they’re thinking it about my character not me.”

Or… “All right. So I’m standing behind these keyboards and playing notes and singing back-up and I’m half-naked because that’s just the band style right now, and we’re surrounded by screaming fans. Fuck it. They love us, and I’m having a religious experience with my bandmates anyway because, music. So I am invulnerable!”

And this is really why performing was such a big part of my life for such a long time. It was something I never expected that I’d get into and yet I should have figured out from the get-go that I would have. After all, I had my first music lesson when I was seven, and one of the first awesome “toys” my parents bought me was a rape-recorder with a microphone, so I started impersonating radio DJs and creating my own characters.

That, and lip-syncing to records in my bedroom, most of which were Broadway soundtracks. Yeah, that should have been my parents’ first big clue right there.

Although, after my career as a playwright and writer took off, if you’d asked me, “Are you also an actor?” I would have said “Oh, hell no.” And I would have been lying.

More honestly, I should have said, “Yes, but not a really good one,” and that’s certainly the case. I never did do leading roles, but I never wanted to. Why? Leads have to learn way too many lines and work far too hard. Much better to be the weird background business, and I kind of made it my specialty to play “weird background business.”

I’ve done way too many police officers and guards, random monks, a dozen ensemble roles in one piece, Jesus-y stand-ins, depressed bears, other animals in general, a raft of “Christmas Carol” characters culminating in the Ghost of Christmas Future (i.e. The Grim Reaper), and roles on and off stage in far too many musicals.

So how I could have not really considered myself both an actor and a playwright this entire time is kind of beyond me. However, there’s one big note. Until I started learning improv, which wasn’t all that long ago, I never applied my acting skills to real life.

There was me on stage — Extrovert. And me IRL — Introvert. And never the twain shall meet.

Or did they?

Actually, after I got into improv was when my introvert personality began to slip way IRL, and I became so much more of an extrovert that it was ridiculous. Why? Most likely because that’s when and how I learned to play myself as a character — maybe. Or, barring that, it was when I learned how to apply the insulation of a stage persona IRL.

And it all got better after that.

But, sadly, as I said, I have to believe that those days are over now. I have no idea what’s coming next, only that this plague has changed us. Maybe I’ll take to the stage again some day — but it may be far away and in a very different context. Wish me l….

Nope, sorry. Tell me to “break a leg.” Thanks!

Sunday Nibble #85: How we now know the Vikings landed here a thousand years ago

Not long after I found out I’m actually partly Scandinavian, science nails down the exact year the Viking first arrived in North America — exactly a thousand years ago.

Back in June, I wrote about my DNA test results suddenly revealing that I actually don’t have any German, British, or French ancestry on my father’s side, and I’m about 34% more Irish than I thought I was — 67% instead of 50%.

Other than two 3% dashes of Italian and Basque, the rest of my ancestry is entirely Scandinavian. It led to a mini-identity-crisis, although a good one. I mean, if you’re going to find out that you don’t really have any Western European or British ancestry, finding out that you actually descended from the people of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

The one country I can currently trace an ancestor to is Sweden, from which my 13th great-grandfather emigrated to England some time in the late 15th century. His grandson in turn wound up to be kind of a big deal in England himself — but he was still Swedish.

I can trace that line back paternally to a man named Sone Sonesson, who lived in the 14th century and who was my 18th great-grandfather, which is actually 20 generations removed. (You have to add 2 to the number of levels of great-grand to account for your own parents and grandparents, since your first great-grandparent is three generations back to begin with.)

But if you go back around 300 years before Sone was born — early enough to have a child born in 1384, but that’s all I know — you’ll find something else interesting.

First off, the year you’re looking at is 1021 C.E., exactly a thousand years ago. And, secondly, thanks to science and the Sun, we now know that this is the year that Vikings landed in North America for the first time.

Yes, they came from the larger Nordic world — Iceland and Greenland — but Scandinavia is part of that, too, and there may have been Swedes on those boats. “Viking” was not a nationality, after all. Just a profession.

But that voyage was 471 years before Columbus never even made it to this continent, and the Vikings also managed it without committing genocide against any of the natives. They didn’t even establish permanent settlements. They just came, probably traded, may or may not have left a few Viking babies implanted in the locals, and then went on their way.

So how do we know the year so precisely? Simple. The Sun let out a tremendous fart in the form of a solar storm in 992 C.E. that left its mark on the planet, and so actually set a time clock that we could use to date the arrival precisely.

Normally, to date ancient things, scientists use carbon dating, which compares the ratios of isotopes in the carbon in a sample, which shows roughly how old something is. The problem is that it’s only a rough estimate, so any attempt to date the Viking’s arrival in North America basically came down to “The 11th century, probably, kind of.”

In this case, though, the time clock is set in trees and its done when a solar storm creates a distinctive radiocarbon signal in a tree’s annual growth rings. Basically, the solar radiation permanently timestamps a particular ring of a tree when it happens.

When scientists used this method to examine trees that had been cut by Vikings — they’d used metal blades, which the natives did not have — they counted 29 growth rings after the solar storm marker. The year of the storm, 992, plus 29 years, gives us 1021 C.E.

We don’t know how long the Vikings were here, but now we know when they got here, and it also gives credence to the Icelandic sagas that told of Viking adventures in “Vinland,” aka North America.

The other remarkable thing about it is that the Vikings became the first Europeans to have crossed the Atlantic, ever. Combine that with the Native Americans having previously crossed the Pacific many years earlier, whether by land bridge or boat or both, and that fateful day a thousand years ago marks the point in time when human beings had first completely circled the globe.

Well, as far as we know at this point. But as we become better at combining chemistry, astronomy, archaeology, anthropology, and every other science we can throw at things, the more exacting will become our picture of our human past.

Nailing a date a thousand years ago to the exact year is no mean feat, especially because we don’t have a precisely dated document  that even gives a Viking year that we could maybe calculate to get the year in the modern calendar. The Icelandic Sagas were oral histories, so imprecisely dated in any way other than the typical, “It was many years ago.”

Or — and I’m guessing because I haven’t looked at them yet — they might use the old Bible trick of listing generations of ancestors, which can give a rough count of the number of years passed. For example, Sone Sonesson was born in the vicinity of 580 years plus or minus a generation before me, which gives a rate of 28 years and 11 months per generation — very approximately.

Then again, this accounting is how the Bishop of Ussher very incorrectly pegged the creation of the Universe as having happened in 4004 B.C.E.

In fact, he says it all happened on October 23, 4004 B.C.E., which means that we’re all one day short in celebrating the 6,025th birthday of all of creation!

The difference between that precise date and 1021 C.E., though, is that the Bishop of Ussher basically pulled the former right out of his ass. Meanwhile, scientists did science. So here’s to the thousand year anniversary of the Vikings arriving in North America, taking a look around, and not fucking it up too much.

Those who came much later should have taken a lesson from that. And yes, I’m looking at you, Christopher Columbus, you genocidal maniac.
Image source: Hans Dahl (1849-1937), (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday Morning Post #87: Until the Thrill is Gone (part 1)

In another story from “24 Exposures,” meet Dan and Sylvia, a couple who can’t quite keep it in the bedroom. Or the house.

This is another story from the collection 24 Exposures, in which a sexually adventurous couple keeps pushing the boundaries — but how far can they go?

Dan and Sylvia hadn’t done the carousel for a while, but they had done it long enough to perfect their timing. Jump on last, just before it started, find an empty horse on the inside track that wasn’t near anyone else, and climb aboard, Sylvia in front.

As soon as the horse started moving, Dan would undo his fly and Sylvia would lift the back of her skirt. Neither of them often wore underwear anymore. Then, it was a simple matter of them riding the Merry-Go-Round, her riding him, and they’d perfected it so that both of them would cum just as they felt the motor disengage and the great wheel begin its slow deceleration. They had an entire four minutes from that point to rearrange things and pretend it had just been an innocent children’s ride, climb down laughing, and walk away through the mall, no one but them the wiser.

It had been their first game, early in the marriage one Tuesday afternoon. They were bored, they went shopping, the mall was practically deserted and there was this huge, old, beautiful wooden carousel.

The horses looked like they were made of wedding cake frosting but the lights and the gold gilding gave off the giddy heat of a long-lost sex trade midway. Neither of them remembered who suggested it first. It was probably something they both thought of at the same time, exchanged that look, smiled, and bought their tickets.

It had been the beginning of their big adventure and, all things considered, it had been a pretty tame effort. Eventually, they’d do it on a Sunday afternoon. Now that was exciting and dangerous, the mall jammed with people, the carousel stuffed with riders. But it was still pretty safe and no one ever noticed and they never got caught and it only took about a month or two of doing that trick at least once a week for them to both decide that they needed something… more.

They had that discussion one night at three a.m., in the afterglow of a particularly rough, loud fuck that made the glasses rattle in the racks above the bar where Dan worked. Sylvia was lying on the bar, smoking, while Dan zambonied her crotch with a rag. Their clothes were scattered all over the place, but it didn’t matter. They were the only ones there, even though Dan had left the door unlocked.

“Can you imagine doing this with a full Saturday night crowd?” he asked her.

“Oh yeah,” she answered, still a little tingly. That rag was hitting the right spots.

“Right on top of the bar like that, everyone sitting here watching. Bet the tips would go way up.”

“Like yours did, she thought,” but she wasn’t really listening at the moment. She grabbed his wrist, held his hand tight and she didn’t have to say what she wanted. Dan smiled, adjusted his technique slightly and hit the magic spot again.

Sylvia’s hips flew off the bar, taking his arm with them, her feet shot straight out and she let loose a guttural half-moan, half-scream. Dan certainly envied the instant-reset ability of women. It would be five or ten minutes more before he was ready for another round.

Sylvia rolled off the bar, went for her panties, which she had been wearing this evening. She sat on a bar stool to put them on, but Dan leaned over, took them from her hands, sniffed them, then pulled them on his head.

“I like that outfit, barkeep,” she said. “Now give me a stiff one, straight up.”

“I think I already have,” he smiled before kissing her. Sylvia was amazing. He had dated a lot of women before he met her, and with all of them, it had always been the same. If the sex didn’t start out dull and boring, it got that way quickly.

Dan couldn’t count how many times he’d be at the two month point and find himself humping an inert lump in the bed, a hot-looking woman who nevertheless started acting like an appliance once things got serious. Place on back, spread legs, insert tab A into slot B…

Sylvia was different. She was as adventurous as Dan was, with just as nasty an imagination. Two months passed, then three, then a year and then he knew he was in love and he proposed to her on St. Patrick’s day, in this bar, and they’d been married on Hallowe’en and celebrated their first honeymoon bang on a balcony of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, high above the neon lights and thronging tourists. If it wouldn’t have gotten him fired, he would have laid her right there on the bar during happy hour. Hey, they were adventurous, but neither one of them was stupid.

That was the key to everything — the illusion of danger, the possibility of getting caught, but only a possibility, never a reality. Being seen was one thing. It was a big thing, part of the thrill. The trick was making passers-by only think they’d seen what they’d seen, or to only be seen in places where no one could immediately do anything to stop them. The police were to be avoided at all costs, and both of them had perfected the ability to get completely in or out of their clothes in eight seconds flat. Speed was not necessarily an asset, and Dan had discovered the joys of Velcro flies after one near-accident with a zipper.

They’d been married for three years now, and it just kept getting more interesting.

Sylvia had slipped her dress back on, was smoothing it down, looking for her other shoe. It was just icing on the cake that a woman with Dan’s appetites was also so attractive. She had butterscotch skin and an oval face with high cheekbones, green eyes that just wrinkled slightly when she smiled. And she had one of those long, graceful swimmer’s bodies, high hip bones that dove into legs that went on forever, an absolutely flat belly with an oval navel from which Dan had frequently tongued maraschino cherries or olives or whatever else they happened to have handy. And, like Dan, she was completely clean-shaven. Unlike Dan, she had only deigned to get one small tattoo, a tiny sunburst right above the point where her spine curved between her buttocks. It was a very sensitive spot, as Dan well knew.

He was staring at her and she noticed, smiled. “Let’s get home,” she said. He nodded, looked for his jeans. Sylvia watched. He was still sweaty, the slick glow on his skin under the bar lights helping define his muscles. He was one of those guys whose body was built wide but shallow, so he looked more hulking than he really was, with an almost rectangular torso between wide shoulders and wide hips, which ran straight down into massive thighs. His face didn’t quite fit the image, although Sylvia thought that just made him sexier. He had an innocent, All-American boy kind of face, with pouty lips, long nose and doe eyes. He shaved everything but his eyebrows, had tattoos on both biceps, his lower back, his left thigh and his right ankle, and had five silver rings in one ear, two silver studs in the other, along with piercings in his tongue, both nipples and his navel. She knew he’d probably soon add a small silver ring to the head of his penis, since he’d been talking about it, though Sylvia tried to dissuade him from that idea at every opportunity. She didn’t want that part of him out of commission for a single moment. He’d always remind her that his tongue had recovered perfectly well, and could fill in when necessary. She’d counter with, “A dick is different than a tongue.” He’d stick his tongue out at her, wiggle it triple-time, then say, “And you know it.”

He was very talented with his tongue. And his fingers, and every other appendage. He had once gotten her off with his big toe under the table in the back booth at Canter’s while they were having dinner with her parents. Was it any wonder she loved this man?

“Ready?” he asked her, lifting the pass-through to come out from behind the bar. He was now completely dressed, her panties sticking out of his shirt pocket. She took his arm, smiled.

“Always,” she said.

As she waited just outside the door while he locked up, Dan said, “Hey, next time, let’s do it in the parking lot. Butt-naked, right on the asphalt, right over there.”

At the time, it had been one of those, “Yeah, sure, right,” suggestions. They were adventurous, but neither one of them was stupid.

But then, inevitably, even the carousel and the bar and fucking on a deserted beach in a rainstorm and blowjobs on the freeway at rush hour got a little routine. They both sensed it, that’s how in tune with each other they were. They were still very much in love, still bringing each other to mind-numbing orgasms on a staggeringly frequent basis. But somehow, it just wasn’t quite the same as early on.

“Does it feel like the thrill is gone?” Dan asked her one afternoon while he was finger-fucking her on the sly in a crowded elevator in a very tall building. Even though she was clenched around him like a vice and was practically panting, she still nodded, said, “Well, yeah.”

“Me too,” he whispered in her ear before the blood went to her head and she started vibrating, biting her lip so as not to make any telltale noises. He removed his hand, put his arm around her shoulder and she could smell herself on his finger. She wondered if anyone else could, but she knew that even if anyone had, they wouldn’t say a thing. Maybe that was the big problem. Nobody paid attention. They might as well have been doing this on a desert island, for all the intentionally averted looks and exaggerated ignorings they had received.

“We’ll think of something,” he said. And, eventually, they did.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #83: Double tech, impact, business

More random internet questions: Technology in education and in general, the pros and cons of IQ tests, and my ideal business

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.

How can technology improve education? Can it hurt education?

Technology, when it comes to education, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes access to information so much easier. when I finished high school, we did have computers, but the internet was only just starting to develop, and it hadn’t gotten far enough while I was in college to make it all that useful.

Unfortunately, my school was not among the first six to receive a .edu domain and hence email for everyone. Hell, they hadn’t even received one by the time the 90s rolled around and I can’t remember the first time I got an email begging for money to which I wanted to reply, “Bitches, I already gave you enough that I’m still paying off, so just back off.”

But… technology is a double-edged sword in education because on the one hand, it can make learning and research too easy and, on the other hand, it can make learning and research too easy.

If that sounds like a contradiction, it’s not. These are two sides of the coin, which means that no matter how advanced technology gets or how integrated it becomes with our educational experience, it will always need experienced, trained humans to guide students through it.

On the positive side, if you need to look up quick facts about things, you can now do it in seconds from your own home or phone, with no need to make a trip to the library or pull that encyclopedia volume off the shelf. Or, right, no one has had a set of encyclopedias in their home since maybe the mid-90s.

But note that this only refers to simple facts, and you still have to be wary of your sources. Remember: Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and if you happen to hit the page on Edgar Allan Poe during that ten minutes when some joker added American Psycho to his list of works and you don’t know better, you’re going to wind up with a bad book report.

Not to say that Poe wouldn’t have written American Psycho if he lived in the last century, but he didn’t.

But with a proper teacher, or a curated and guided site, like Khan Academy, then education can be in very good hands via technology. But don’t fall prey to Prager “University” or its ilk, because that is the opposite of education. It’s indoctrination.

The other great benefit technology offers for education is the one we’ve seen over the last year and a half plus: Remote learning. It’s a boon for parents who also work from home, very helpful for children who might otherwise have issues interacting in person, and can also allow for parental involvement in their child’s educational process, which is very important to learning.

Well, as long as the parents just shut up and defer to the teacher. Because the dark side of that is what we’ve seen in contentious schoolboard meetings with angry and misguided parents protesting everything from mask and vaccine mandates to the actual content and curriculum, often with violent threats. And, yeah. We don’t need that shit. That helps no one.

Another downside to learning remotely can be social isolation. However, like it or not, the current generation of kids born in the last decade are probably going to grow up know as many people online as they know in real life, if not more, and will probably never meet them.

And you know what? That’s fine. I’ve been living in that world for at least the last 25 years or so, and since everyone has now been exposed to life via Zoom in the last 19 months, that’s only going to become more normal.

Then again, I was regularly doing video remote meetings fifteen years ago in a ridiculously high-tech room in which an entire wall was covered in super hi-def video screens, and we would have live meetings with the staff of our co-production company. We were in Glendale, U.S., and they were in Bristol, UK, but that tech created one long boardroom table that all of us sat around.

Okay, sure. No one had the tech or bandwidth to do this at home at that time, but just look at us now, and imagine where technology will be in another ten or twenty years.

Can it help education? Oh, hell yeah. But with one gigantic caveat. We will still and always need educators to keep rein on the tech to make sure that bad information is not leaking through. We will always need teachers no matter how well we think that our AI can teach.

And that is why this should become one of the most highly paid professions before the end of 2022.

Is there a limit to what humans can create through technology and science?

Of course there are, and those limits are written into the universe itself. We can never create a system that will propel anything with mass faster than light-speed — although we may be able to figure out how to travel through space without moving through space, effectively creating a warp drive or fold that will get us from point A to B without violating the universal speed limit.

We will probably also never be able to negate the force of gravity because it doesn’t seem to be a force mediated by a field or particle, but rather an intrinsic property of space and time. We might be able to manipulate space via achieving some sort of control over matter, and hence being able to concentrate gravity, though.

But this is all getting into Kardashev scale territory, which ranks a society based on how much energy they are able to exploit. We’re close to but not quite at Type I, which is harnessing all of the energy that reaches a planet from its star but, of course, all of the energy on our planet came from the Sun in the first place.

If we want to get to Type II, we’d need to harness all of the energy of our Sun, which would mean surrounding it in something like a Dyson Sphere, although this would be bad for planets that we don’t hook up to this energy boon. Remember: We’re only getting a little cone of sunlight that only hits half of our planet at a time. A sphere capturing everything would increase that power output enormously because it would expand that tiny cone to include the entire surface and circumference of the Sun in three dimensions.

Imagine the difference between shining the light and heat of an incandescent bulb through a small hole punched in a piece of carboard, and then imagine the light and heat created if you surrounded that bulb with a spherical screen that was entirely mirrored on the inside.

To get to Type III, good luck — you have to harvest all of the energy available in your own galaxy, which would probably make your galaxy go dark to the rest of the universe and might be a dead giveaway. Then again, if you can harness the energy of an entire galaxy, I don’t think that any non-Type III society would be a threat at all.

Kardashev never postulated a Type IV, but that society would be able to harness the power of the entire universe, although what they could actually do with it would be questionable. Maybe they could accelerate a ship with substantial mass to 99.99% the speed of light, but given universal distances, that would still be incredibly slow and, unless all that extra energy can somehow greatly extend the lifespans of organic creatures, it seems a useless party trick, really.

Still, there’s reason for optimism. Earth right now is at the Type 0 level, but we’re only a century or two away from Type I if we keep trying and, literally, aiming for the stars.

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

I’ve discussed this before but, ultimately, it was that fucking IQ test my school gave me when I was seven, and I can’t believe that this bullshit persisted for so long. The long and short of it was that IQ tests were created early in the 20th century as yet another facet or institutional racism, founded in the ridiculous theory that some races were not as smart as others.

Of course, when your race is creating the test, you can skew to prove whatever you want it to, and that is exactly what IQ tests in western white society did.

If you were white and middle class, the whole thing was biased to fit right into your experiences, which is something you weren’t supposed to notice when you were seven years old, which is when they tested us.

And, surprise, surprise… little white kids tended to test much higher, while little black kids didn’t. It had nothing to do with intelligence, and everything to do with the test designers putting their thumb on the scale in favor of… well, you know.

Of course, by the time I took it, the melting pot of America had at least stirred enough that two other groups also did very well on the tests — Jews and Asians — but that was mostly a byproduct of decades and multiple generations of assimilation.

Their success would have driven the originators of the tests nuts, but it was actually a good thing, because I wound up with most of my friends through school being Asian and Jewish.

And how did that happen? Simple. The IQ test was pretty much a filing system for students, and what was determined in that short period of time in first grade changed everything that came after.

I happened to land in the “Profoundly Gifted” category, and that launched me into the school track that actually stuck me in the “Hey, y’all are super-privileged” slot. The two problems were that, for one thing, I didn’t know this and, for the other, while I may have been super-privileged in school, my parents were not super-connected, so it really didn’t advantage me much at all.

Maybe that’s a good thing, though. Because I always identified more with those other kids — the Jews and the Asians — and set out to be an artist. But because of that test, I wound up having the friends I did, making the choices I did, and never really bonding with other classmates who weren’t on my same track.

These were the ones who scored below me and here’s a funny thing. The ones who wound up in kind of the average track were also the ones who landed, in their adult lives, in conservative-ville and, sadly, are still living there. And I won’t say that it’s because they’re stupid. It’s just that they were steered in a direction that gave them less of an advantage in education.

I can only imagine what would have been different if I had tested three or four levels below where I landed. But everything that came later was born out of that, for good or for ill.

If you opened a business, what kind of business would it be?

This question has been on the list a long time, but every time it’s come up I’ve tended to ignore it. I guess I might as well answer. I don’t know why I was avoiding it because the answer was always obvious to me. Maybe it just seemed too simple or obvious to state.

Assuming unlimited funds, I would open a non-profit theatre center dedicated to three things: education in all aspects of theatre — writing, performance, directing, design, tech, etc.; development of new artists and their works; and actual production of those works, in several variations.

I imagine the place as having one large mainstage producing new works and pushing the boundaries of theatre technology and content, but there would also be a studio space which would produce the works of the students as a part of their training. You can’t really learn about theatre, after all, until you do productions, and it would work a lot like a university theatre program — everybody does everything at least once, whether it’s in their emphasis or not.

Ideally, the mainstage productions finance the training and studio. Attached to both would be the development labs, designed for writers and creators, with the student actors and dancers available for developmental workshops. These would eventually lead to productions in the studio space, with selected works possibly moving on to the mainstage or pitched to regional theatres.

It would take a space about the size of the L.A. Theatre Center, although maybe not quite as many stories. That building downtown is five stories up and five stories down, although the public usually only sees three of them, plus a small part of the first basement, which is where the restrooms are, located in what was originally a vault when the building was a bank.

In case you’re wondering, yes theatres do need that kind of height, although five stories is a bit unusual. In the case of LATC, it’s because of the way the theatres are arranged, with one of them actually being partly underground and going up several stories. Meanwhile, the largest house has a very steep audience section, and the smaller space that’s on the second level of the building itself goes up a couple of stories.

What you don’t see is what’s above those theatres, several of which have so-called fly-space, which has to be at least as high as the stage itself. That’s because these spaces hold set pieces or flats that are lowered onto the stage when needed. That process of lowering in theatre is also known as “flying in,” hence “fly space,” because these flats and such are often just referred to as flies.

Above the entire theatre, you can also find the light grids, which is where most of the various units that will be illuminating the stage will be living. This includes not only lights, but projectors, although any of these can also be located on the stage and in the wings.

So, anyway, it can be quite easy to wind up with a large theatre that goes up five stories, even if part of that space is also below ground. Surrounding the unused space above the public second floor were offices, costume shops, and various rehearsal spaces.

Meanwhile, downstairs was where they kept the prop and scenery shops, the dressing rooms, and so on. The first basement was also the floor accessible via the truck ramp off the back alley that led to the elephant doors. You need big doors to get big set pieces in and out.

Of course, even smaller theatres can have a bit of height and depth to them. When I worked at the El Portal with ComedySportz, we only had two theatres. One was about 300 seats, and the other was 49. But the main stage probably took up three stories as well, at least, although it was probably closer to four, because I don’t think people realized that the front end of the house after going down the various steps past the audience seats was actually a full story below street level.

And something even I didn’t know until one night when I was the last one out and the alarm system told me that there was a door ajar somewhere in the bowels of the place — the building had not one but two basements below the basement that was behind the platform under the stage itself.

It had the typical dressing rooms and storage and such, but the way it was designed, you just had to walk all the way through one level to take the steps down to the next. It was kind of a labyrinth in that regard. At least there was no Minotaur, and I didn’t have to leave a thread to find my way back out.

But I do digress. A building with the footprint size and height of the El Portal would actually be perfect for my imagined theatre center, although I would make damn sure that the offices on the second and third floors had windows. That, and go for a much more mid-century modern/futurist design aesthetic, rather than attempted 1890s brothel.

Oh — and parking. The place would have to have plenty of parking on site for students, staff, and guests, with students and staff having designated spots and permits, and guests never having to pay. I guess that might add a couple of stories to it, or we could just use the front half of the basement levels for parking and the back half for all of the dressing room and design space.

But, sadly, it’s one of those dreams only achievable with a major lottery win or some other sudden pot of gold moment.

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