Research everything, believe nothing

If you want your fiction and science fiction to be believable, look to reality first.

This will probably surprise no one who reads this blog regularly, but most of my fiction writing falls into one of two categories: stories based on real people or true events, and hard science fiction. I’m also a big fan of both historical and scientific accuracy, so I’ve developed the habit of fact-checking and researching the crap out of my fictional work.

It may not matter to a lot of people, of course, but if I see a glaring anachronism in a supposedly historically-based film or watch as they pull the magic element of Madeitupium out as a plot device in order to defy the laws of physics, then I will get pulled right out of the story.

A good case in point is the ridiculous dance scene in The Favourite. And it’s not just because the choreography on display would never have happened in the time period — the music is all wrong, too, in terms of instrumentation as well as certain chord progressions that wouldn’t have happened at the time, on top of not following the rigid rules of Baroque music of the era. But the even more egregious error in the film is that a central plot point is based on a bit of libel that was spread about Queen Anne to discredit her, but which is not true. If you want to learn more, it’s in this link, but spoilers, sweetie, as River Song would say. (By the way, apparently the costumes weren’t all that accurate, either.)

On the science fiction side, something like the finale of the 2009 Star Trek reboot just has me laughing my ass off  because almost everything about it is wrong for so many reasons in a franchise that otherwise at least tries to get the science right. Note: I’m also a huge Star Wars nerd, but I’m very forgiving of any science being ignored there because these were never anything other than fantasy films. It’s the same thing with Harry Potter. I’m not going to fault the science there, because no one ever claimed that any existed. Although some of the rules of magic seem to have become a bit… stretchy over the years.

But… where do I start with what that Star Trek film got wrong? The idea of “red matter” is a good place to begin. Sorry, but what does that even mean? There is only one element that is naturally red, and that’s bromine. Other elements might be mined from red-colored ore, like mercury is from cinnabar, but otherwise, nope. So far when it comes to matter, we have demonstrated five and postulated six forms: Bose-Einstein condensate, which is what happens when matter gets so cold that a bunch of atoms basically fuse into one super nucleus within an electron cloud; solid, which you’re probably pretty familiar with; liquid, see above; gas, ditto; and plasma, which is a gas that is so hot that it ionizes or basically becomes the opposite of the coldest form, with a cloud of super-electrons surrounding a very jittery bunch of spread-out nuclei. The one form we have postulated but haven’t found yet is dark matter, which is designed to explain certain observations we’ve made about gravitational effects within and between galaxies.

(There are actually a lot more forms of matter than these, but you can go read about them yourself if you’re interested.)

Which brings me to the other gigantic and egregious cock-up from the Star Trek film. This supposed “red matter” is able to turn anything into a black hole. It does it to a planet early in the film, and to a spaceship near the end. Okay, so that means that “red matter” is incredibly dense with a strong gravitational pull, but if that’s the case, then a neutron star could accomplish the same, sort of. It’s one step above a black hole — an object that is so compressed by gravity that it is basically a ball of solid neutrons with a cloud of electrons quivering all through and around it. Neutrons are one of two particles found in the nucleus of atoms, the other being protons. It’s just that the gravitational pressure at this point is so strong that it mushes all of the protons together enough to turn them into neutrons, too.

But the only way you’re going to turn a neutron star into a black hole is to slam it into another neutron star. Throw it against a planet or a spaceship, and all you’ll wind up with is a very flat and radioactive object that was not previously a neutron star.

That’s still not the most egregious error, though. The film subscribes to the “black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners” myth, and that’s just not true at all. Here’s a question for you: What would happen to all of the planets in our solar system if the sun suddenly turned into a black hole?

  1. They’d all get sucked in.
  2. They’d all stay where they were.

Bad science in movies tells us that “A” is the answer, but nope. If the sun turned into a black hole right this second, all of the planets would remain in orbit because the gravitational attraction of the sun wouldn’t change. Well, not quite true. If anything, it might lessen slightly because of the mass given up as energy in the creation of the black hole. So, if anything, the planets might start to creep into slightly more distant orbits.

The real negative effect wouldn’t be the black hole per se. Rather, it would be the sudden loss of thermal energy, which would turn all of the planets into balls of ice, along with the possible and likely blast of high-powered radiation that would explode from the sun’s equator and generally cut a swath through most of the plane in which all of the planets orbit.

Or, in other words, we wouldn’t get sucked into the black hole. Rather, our planet and all the others would probably be scrubbed of most or all life by the burst of gamma and X-rays that would be the birthing burp of the new black hole at the center of the solar system. After that, within a few months or years, our planet would be as cold and desolate as Pluto and all the other dwarf planets way out in the sticks. Even Mercury would be too cold to host life. Give it a couple million years, and who knows how far out the planets and moons and asteroids and comets would have drifted.

Why is this? Because nature is big on conserving things, one of them being force. Now, not all forces are conservative — and, in science, that word just means “keeping things the same.” (Okay, in politics, too.) You might be familiar with the concept that energy cannot be created or destroyed, which is a sort of general start on the matter, but also an over-simplification because — surprise, energy is a non-conservative force.

Then there’s gravity and momentum, and both of those are incredibly conservative forces. And, oddly enough, one of the things that gravity creates is momentum. To put it in naïve terms, if you’re swinging a ball on a string, the path that ball follows is the momentum. The string is gravity. But the two are connected, and this is what we call a vector. Gravity pulls one way, momentum moves another, and the relationship between the two defines the path the ball follows.

Because gravity is an attractive force, increasing it shortens the string. But since the momentum remains the same, shortening the string reduces the circumference that the ball follows. And if the ball is covering a shorter path in the same time, this means that it’s moving more slowly.

A really dumbed-down version (so I can understand it too!) is this: if G is the force of gravity and p is the momentum of the ball, and G is a constant but p is conserved once given, then the only factor that makes any difference is distance, i.e. the length of the string.

Ooh. Guess what? This is exactly what Newton came up with when he postulated his universal law of gravitation — and he has not yet been proven wrong. So if your planet starts out one Astronomical Unit away from the Sun, which weighs one solar mass, and is moving in orbit at rate X counterclockwise around the Sun, when said star foops into a black hole its mass, and hence its gravitational attraction doesn’t change (beyond mass loss due to conversion to energy), and ergo… nope. You’re not getting sucked in.

Oh. Forgot that other often confused bit. Conservation of energy. Yes, that’s a thing, but the one big thing it does not mean is that we have some kind of eternal souls or life forces or whatever, because energy is not information. Sorry!

The other detail is that most forms of energy are non-conservative, even if energy itself is conserved, and that is because energy can be converted. Ever strike a match? Congrats. You’ve just turned friction into thermal energy. Ever hit the brakes on your car? You’ve just turned friction into kinetic energy — and converted momentum into thermal energy, but don’t tell gravity that!

In case you’re wondering: No, you really can’t turn gravity into energy, you can only use it to produce energy, since no gravity goes away in the process. For example, drop a rock on a seesaw, it’ll launch something into the air, but do nothing to the total gravitational power of Earth. Drop a rock on your foot, and you’ll probably curse up a blue streak. The air molecules launched out of your mouth by your tirade will actually propagate but still fall to ground eventually subject to Earth’s gravity. And, in either case, you had to counteract gravity in order to lift that rock to its starting point, so the net balance when it dropped from A to B was exactly zero.

And it’s rabbit holes and research like this piece that makes me keep doing it for everything, although sometimes I really wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. When it comes to history, there’s a story that an Oscar-winning playwright friend of likes to mine tell and that I like to share. He wrote a play about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a group of  Japanese-Americans in WWII who were given a choice: Go fight for America in Europe, or go to our concentration camps. (Funny, none of my German ancestors were ever faced with the decision, “Go fight for America in Asia, or go to your concentration camps. Grrrr. But I do digress.)

Anyway… after one of the developmental readings of this play, he told me about a conversation he’d overheard from a couple of college kids in the lobby during intermission (this being about a decade ago): “Why were there American soldiers in Italy in World War II?”

And this is exactly why it is as important as hell to keep the history (and science) accurate. And these are things we need to fight for. Care about your kids? Your grandkids? Then here you go. Language. Science. The Arts. History. Life Skills. Politics. Sex Ed. This is what we need to be teaching our kids, with a healthy dose of, “Yeah, we’re kind of trying, but if you see the cracks in our façades, then please jump on, because it’s the only way your eldies will ever learn either.”

So… free education here. Questions accepted. No tuition charged. And if you want the media you’re eating up corrected, just ask.

Image: Doubting Thomas by Guercino (1591 – 1666), public domain.

Talky-Tuesday: Dunning-Kruger

How not to fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap.

You have probably heard the term Dunning-Kruger Effect. This basically describes a cognitive bias whereby people with a low ability in some skill or task over-estimate their ability. It’s particularly common in people who’ve studied a little in a field, but not quite enough.

If you ever want to run into this effect in the wild, study a language on Duolingo, especially if it’s brushing up on one you’re fluent in. Watch for an exception to some “rule” to come up, then check the comments.

One of my favorites is in Spanish whenever an expression like “Este es un problema” shows up, especially in the context of translating an expression from English into Spanish: “This is a problem.”

Their translation in Spanish will be flagged as an error for a lot of noobs who will then race to the comments to complain that they were right rather than to ask why what they wrote was wrong.

And those of us who know the language know what they wrote wrong: “Esta es una problema.” And they will insist that they’re right because “problema” ends in “a” and so is feminine.

This is a perfect example of doubling down on one’s ignorance, and people who insist on this are very quickly corrected. Problema, like many other Spanish words adapted from Greek, is masculine despite ending in “a”. It’s just an exception people have to remember.

An English version would be people pointing out that the word “weird” is, in fact, spelled “wierd,” because “I before E, except after C…” Which, of course, is wrong, and is also a rule that has far more exceptions. Right, Keith?

But if you really want to see Dunning-Kruger in action, go to any social media discussion forum on a post relating to science, politics or COVID-19 (you’ll often find all three together), and feast your eyes.

People who only know a little (or nothing) about a subject will make bold statements as if they are fact, and quite frequently double-down on their lack of knowledge after being corrected, especially by experts.

This will frequently come up when people prove that they made it to about 3rd grade Civics, never went further, and then forgot everything anyway.

“Facebook can’t ban Person X. What about their First Amendment rights?” Answer: The First Amendment does not apply to private business or individuals; only the Federal Government. You can’t be arrested or suffer other governmental actions, like a sudden 7-year tax audit, because of what you say or post or publish.

You can, however, be banned from a private business or social media site or sued by an individual whom you’ve libeled or slandered. It’s called “You have the right to free speech, but you do not have the right to avoid consequences for what you say.”

And even not all speech is protected from the Federal Government. There’s the famous “fire in a crowded theater” rule, meaning any speech likely to create a clear and present danger, like, oh, I don’t know… calling for an armed insurrection, perhaps?

When it comes to science, things get even more ridiculous and, again, it’s because of people who only made it through a very elementary understanding of things like genetics or biology who then try to argue about how many sexes or genders there are, how mRNA viruses “really” work, or why vaccines in general don’t.

These topics are a Dunning-Kruger field-day. Sadly, the lack of understanding about biology and genetics when it comes to gender and sex is actually harmful to people, because it leads to the undereducated and uninformed making stupid statements like, “There are only two sexes,” or “The gender you’re born with (?) is your gender, period.”

This also emboldens them to blatantly misgender people — this has come up a lot in stories about the woman who has now become the biggest winner on Jeopardy, even on strictly entertainment websites. Inevitably, some tiny-minded asshole will pop in with “he,” not realizing (or maybe they are) how damn transphobic and hateful they are being.

Not you, not your choice of pronouns, period.

There’s a big problem with misgendering or claiming that gender or sex are binary. They are completely wrong. But I’ll turn it over to a real clinical geneticist to explain why. Share this with people online the next time they try to claim that gender and sex are binary.

And remember, online, unless you’re calling out something that someone has posted that is blatantly wrong, stick to your own area of expertise. Oh… the real one, not the one you’ve Dunning-Krugered yourself into thinking you’re an expert on.

Hint: If you haven’t studied it multiple years with various teachers/experts, then don’t try to play expert yourself. Use their knowledge to point toward informed opinions, but always do the research first. In other words: Don’t be part of the problem.

Momentous Monday: Advice to Boomers and Millennials from Gen-X, part 1

A Gen-Xer tries to help Boomers and Millennials understand each other. Wish me luck!

Well, this wasn’t supposed to get as epic as it did, but apparently there’s a lot to explain to Boomers about Millennials and vice versa, starting with an explanation of what each generation actually is. This is the first of multiple parts — although I have no idea how many there will be. As a Gen-Xer, I’m writing from the perspective of someone who has watched both groups from the outside (or from the middle, really) and can see all their foolishness.

I do get tired of Boomers and Millennials sniping at each other for a few reasons. First, because it’s a generational battle that’s gone on since forever on a sliding scale. Once upon a time, today’s Boomers were the stinky, useless, lazy youth (“hippies”) looked down upon by the generation that mostly fought in World War II — the end of which defined the beginning of the Baby Boom generation.

Or, in other words, Boomers were to the Greatest Generation what Millennials are to them now. Incidentally, the generation between the Greatest and Boomers were known as the Silent Generation — the exact analog to Gen-X today in more ways than one.

The second thing that bothers me is that neither generation exactly gets the terms right. Half the time, when Boomers bitch about Millennials, they’re really talking about youth today — i.e. Gen-Z, or Zoomers. And when Millennials complain about Boomers, they tend to bitch about anyone over 50 which, surprise, is about half of all Gen-X by now.

Kind of ironic, considering that the oldest of the Millennials have been slamming into 40 for the last year or two.

So, from a Gen-X perspective, here’s some advice for each generation in how to deal with the other.

Get the definitions right

Leaving any identifying labels out of it, here’s how things generally go, with the caveat being that during the 20th and 21st centuries, a lot of people have chosen to either start families and have kids later, adopt or foster them much later in life, or not have them at all.

Personal anecdotal evidence on the change in timing. My mother’s mother had her first kid when she was barely 18 and her last when she was almost 45. She had 13 in total, and my mom came fairly close to the end of her fertility cycle, but was pushing thirty when I was born.

So… I was born about six months before by mom’s mother turned 61 which, oddly enough, put her right in typical grandparent, aka Boomer to Millennial range.

Numbers without personal anecdotes: Barring teen parents or viagrafied old men who knock up 20-something trophy brides and rounding off, the general pattern has been this. The parents have kids starting at around twenty, although this is closer to thirty and then mid to late thirties as the century grinds on.

The kid window seems to shut from around forty to forty-five, or it did. Again, in modern times, medicine has made it possible and normal for people (read “mothers”) to have kids into their fifties.

But we’ll set the window at one generation to the next at 30 years, keeping in mind that this just accounts for breeding. Social generations are entirely different, which I’ll get to below.

Now, if the twenty through fifty pattern holds, this means that the kids will start popping out babies when their parents are anywhere from forty to seventy, and keep on going until their parents are seventy through dead. Well, a hundred, but Betty White couldn’t pull that off, so why expect that it’s possible for mere muggles?

And what about those kids’ grandparents? Do the math, and it means that most people with kids can expect to become grandparents at around sixty but at any time up to eighty. Or beyond.

What’s the important bracket here, though? Twenty years-ish. Twenty-one if you’re being pedantic. Why? That happens to be how long it takes a human to reach adulthood in terms of physical growth.

Oh, it’s not sexual maturity — that probably happened around 13 for boys and a bit earlier for girls. And it’s not mental maturity, because that probably doesn’t happen until at least 25 — hey, there’s a reason you can’t rent a car or run for Congress before that age.

But, at 21, all your long bones have fused, all of your cartilage that wasn’t going to stay that way has become bone, your brain is pretty much adult size even if it still has a shit-ton of connections to make, you’re not going to get any taller, your voice isn’t going to get any deeper, and your dick or tits aren’t going to get any bigger. Sorry.

Physically, you’re an adult. And in strictly biological terms, here’s what this means. You are now a direct threat to the other mammals who became adults… well, look at that — twenty-one years before you were born. But you’re also now a threat to all the babies popping out of wombs you didn’t put them in.

Sure, this is the simplistic biological description of it and ignores that fact that humans are actually pretty good at ignoring all of these biological imperatives — but, deep down, we don’t. We just sublimate that shit. Freud may have been full of it in a lot of ways, but his whole “Oedipal Complex” concept touched on exactly this.

Without the niceties of human culture and civilization, there’s really nothing preventing every 21-year-old boy from immediately killing his own father, fucking his mother, and becoming the new father figure to all of his siblings. (And, sadly, doing exactly what you’d think to each of them, depending on biological sex.)

Nasty? Yes. Illegal? Of course — but that’s one of the things preventing it. An explanation for why frustrated young men go nuts every now and then? You do the math.

Now, as for defining the generations from Boomer onward, it really comes down to a matter of a defining event which is imprinted on the memory of each generation. Remember the event, you’re part of that generation. Don’t remember it? you’re not.

So… Boomers don’t remember VJ Day even though they were born before it happened. Likewise, no one from Gen-X remembers JFK’s assassination. Millennials have no memory of the assassination of John Lennon, and Gen-Z kids don’t remember 9/11. Truth to tell, 1/6/2021 will probably be the marker for the start of whatever comes after Gen-Z. Gen Omicron?

But look at the dates again, and it almost comes down in 20 year chunks, especially if you make the Boomers’ unremembered event Pearl Harbor. Otherwise, it’s 1945 (probably late, actually) to 1960; 1960 to 1980; 1980 to 1998; 1998 to maybe 2018? And there a lot of 18s and 20s in there.

Changing worlds

For both Boomers and Millennials, the world has gone through enormous changes in their lifetimes, and I’d even argue that Millennials have seen even bigger changes in theirs because the pace of development in technology increases exponentially, and the internet has eliminated the delay in news getting around the world and opinion about it propagating.

When Boomers were born, it was in the wake (literally) of the latest technological advancement of the age — the atomic bomb — and this was actually a big part of where the “boom” in “boomer” came from. It wasn’t just the increase in birth-rate once all those American GIs came home and started taking advantage of government benefits.

But, for the most part, things stayed pretty much the same except for the rise of television when they were kids — the internet of their day — and the creation and advancement of the middle class.

Most of their parents and grandparents had either grown up in crowded apartment blocks in cities or in rural areas, many of them on farms. Their parents (well, mostly their fathers) went off during the war and saw the world. They also saw what America did, along with the UK and USSR, in kicking the ass of fascism and saving the planet.

And then, suddenly, cities were expanding and creating these new “suburbs,” some of which had sprouted up to support aircraft plants and other wartime industry — q.v. Van Nuys, California — and others of which were part of a post-war building boom.

Hey — they had to do something with all of that surplus materiel, right? I currently live in a place that was built in 1947, and every kitchen countertop is made of stainless steel left over from aircraft plants. Likewise, the original building colors, which have been preserved, came from tons of surplus military paint originally used on battleships, aircraft carriers, military housing, and so on.

So their childhoods were full of huge social changes, but the technology came much more slowly. The transistor radio was invented in 1947 but not really commercialized on a massive scale until the late 1950s (thanks to SONY) and becoming ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970s. Prior to digital broadcasting and the like, most car radios were actually transistor radios.

Remember the word “transistor.” It was the shrinking of those down to microscopic size that eventually made the computer revolution and the information age possible, but the Boomers were all becoming parents by then, and other big changes were coming.

The most noticeable was the Space Race and humankind eventually landing on the Moon in 1969. It was a vindication of America’s place internationally post WWII, as well as a big win in the Cold War. But there were societal changes as well, beginning with the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-60s, the Gay (later LGBTQ) Rights Movement exploding after the Stonewall Riots the same year but a month before the Moon landing, and the Women’s Rights Movement, largely focused on passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

The world of their childhood was rapidly evolving. A lot of Boomers, especially the younger ones born in and after the mid-1950s, adapted to it and embraced it. A lot of the older Boomers did not.

Remember this, kids. It’s an important distinction.

So, summary: Some slight tech changes visible on the consumer level up to 1980, including a pretty big change in how home phones worked — the main ones being touchtone (or digital-ish) dialing instead of rotary (or analog); phones no longer being owned by the phone company, hard-wired into the wall, and rented by the consumer; new features like call waiting, caller ID, and the infamous *69 to ring back on a missed call.

The first cordless phones — not to be confused with wireless — came out in 1980, and they changed everything. Now, instead of having to sit or stand in one spot to talk on the phone because of that cord connecting it to the base unit stuck on the wall or sitting on a nightstand, people could now, for the first time, pick up the handset and walk around with it, unencumbered.

It was a far cry from home phones as Boomers had known them as kids, if their earliest homes even had them at all in the 1940s. And their parents either may not have had them at all, relying instead on the common phone in their apartment building lobby, payphones in the pharmacy or shop on the first floor of their building, or the public phone at the rural post office/general store.

A lot of those folk also got to experience “party lines,” which was a common residential phone number shared by multiple households, with each one distinguished by a particular ring pattern of long and short bells. For example, the ID for the party line could be two to four digits long, with the ring pattern made up of first long tones, then short.

Operators referred to them as ID + R + ##, where ID was the code for the main party line, “R” indicated “Ring Code,” and then the numbers indicated how many long and short rings. A typical reference might be something like “46R37,” which meant that the call was going to the Party Line 46 (within the local exchange), and the ring code was three long rings and seven short.

It got trickier outside of the exchange, but this is what phone prefixes were for. For example, if the exchange was “DIamond” (34), an operator would ask for a number like “Diamond 5250R42.”

It had faded away going into the 1950s and beyond with automatic switching and increased capacity eliminating the need for party lines in most places, so it was a childhood relic most Boomers were happy to be rid of. By 1980, most party lines in the U.S. were a thing of the distant past.

The development of telephones, the evolution of television from tiny little low-res black and white screens in furniture that weighed a ton to full-color large-screen self-contained sets with monoaural audio, space probes heading to other planets, the revelation of the (still future) Space Shuttle program, more people of color living near and working with white people (with the illusion of equality, of course), LG and maybe B people (but not yet TQ+) becoming more visible if not more accepted, and women finally dumping relics like not being able to have credit cards in their own names, adapting the term “Ms.” as an equivalent of “Mr.” that did not indicate marital status, and having been given the right to abortion in the early 1970s, the times, they were a-changing — although nowhere near as fast in the first 20 to 35 years of their lives as they would for Millennials.

And I’m leaving out a lot of developments, although many of them were just of the “Will you look at that?” kind of story on the news that had no immediate effect on most people, like the first heart transplant, the cardiac pacemaker, IVF Fertilization (the first test tube baby was a Gen-Xer born in 1978), and so on.

The comparable Millennial timeframe for 1945 to 1960: 1980 to 1995-ish, although Millennials were probably done being born around 1998.

The obvious thing is that the internet was just starting to become a thing as the last of the Millennials were being squeezed out, although the oldest of them met it in middle school, and so were the last generation to really remember and deal with both worlds. This gave them all a huge advantage — although it’s comparable to Gen-Xers, who pretty much met home computers on the same schedule and so were also primed to accept and adapt to the internet when they were much older than their Millennial counterparts.

In short order, Millennials blasted through their childhood media formats — vinyl LPs and cassettes — which rapidly became legacy items as CDs came onto the market in 1982 and dominated by the 1990s. By the early 2000s, CDs were fading out as MP3s and other digital formats took over.

Ironically, this was also when older Millennials began to feel that nostalgic itch, with vinyl eventually making a comeback, despite it being as environmentally unfriendly as CDs — and one has to wonder why it was vinyl only and never cassette.

Meanwhile, on the phone front, the first mobile network, 1G, was pretty much meant for big, clunky car phones and never hit with consumers — but 2G did, and from about 1993 on was when people first started carrying around those tiny flip phones that couldn’t do internet or data but could send SMS and make phone calls.

Within five years, these phones could receive media content, like ringtones, make mobile payments, and so forth, but pretty soon it would be time for the marriage that would change the world.

That would be the advent of 3G, cell phones being able to access the internet and so become smart phones, with the first commercial 3G network being launched on October 1, 2001. Ironically, this was when phones started to become bigger instead of smaller. Gone were the days of flip phones that shut up into key-chain size devices less then three inches tall. Now, it was the era of hand-filling devices with huge HD screens.

Then again, by now we were all basically carrying around computers in our pockets that replaced so many former devices that it was ridiculous — digital camera, video camera, music player, photo album, address book, telephone, email, gaming console, video streaming device, message and memo center, voice recorder, and so on.

Add some apps to that, and you could make it do a lot of other things — and the computing power in a typical modern smart phone exceeds even the most top-end gaming rig from the turn of the century.

All of this happened in just under 30 years if we start at 1993. Otherwise, telephones had remained mostly unchanged until the introduction of those cordless units back in 1980. The first small subscriber phone exchanges were started in the 1880s, but until cordless models freed us from being wired to the wall a century later, all phones basically did the same thing.

That 30-year figure is really a defining difference between Boomers and Millennials, though. For the Boomers, those 30 years came after all of them had already turned 30. For Millennials, those 30 years came starting from about puberty — or a bit after for the precocious ones.

That kind of timing can make for a huge difference in perception in of the world, but since this piece has already gone on longer than a Boomer’s current life, I’m going to break here and show how those perceptions have created two different worlds in a subsequent installment.

Image source: Nuclear bomb test, 1952, The Official CTBTO Photostream, (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday nibble: Find the photographer!

You know that iconic photo of the L.A. skyline? Have you ever wondered where it was taken from? Chances are, you’re miles off in your guess.

You’ve probably seen images very similar to the one heading this article. It’s the downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) skyline, shot to feature the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Some versions also feature palm trees in the foreground.

It’s a very common souvenir item on postcards and posters, and it emphasizes the idea that L.A. is a big city with both the mountains and beach nearby. I think the usual tourism line is something like you can go from surfing to skiing in ninety minutes.

But there’s one tricky thing about this photo that even locals who aren’t in the know cannot answer right away. Where was this picture taken from?

Now, it’s quite obvious that it was shot some distance from downtown and with a quite long lens, which is what makes the mountains (30 miles away) look so close. But where in the city was the photographer standing?

The difficulty in figuring it out is in the deceptive layout of DTLA itself, so our brains put us at completely the wrong angle.

Most of Los Angeles and the Valley are laid out in a pretty regular grid, with the exceptions being in the foothills and mountains, as well as certain suburban neighborhoods that decided to get twisty, just because.

But, in general, you have the Boulevards and such running east-west and the streets and avenues running north-south, and those directions stick pretty close to the compass directions — which can make driving east-west in the morning or evening on the solstices really suck.

However, because of this layout, most people look at the photo and just figure that it was taken from directly south, looking at DTLA to the north and catching the mountains behind it, which are what define the so-called “L.A. Basin” in the first place.

The problem is that thirty miles due north of DTLA at this point is in Agua Dulce, which is a valley on the other side of the mountains and Angeles National Forest. Yes, there are mountains, but nothing as snowy or majestic as in the photo.

Going the other direction to the south, you run out of land after about 23 miles and wind up in the Pacific south of Long Beach. Plus, almost everything in this area except for Rancho Palos Verdes to the west runs downhill to the sea, and while there are hills in Long Beach, you really can’t see DTLA from there at all.

So what causes this illusion? Simple. Like I mentioned, DTLA is laid out differently than the rest of the city. You just don’t notice it when you go there because the adjustment is gradual if you’re driving and invisible if you’re on the Metro.

See, DTLA itself is still a grid. It’s just tilted toward the southeast. Like a lot. The streets in DTLA run at about a 45° angle to the rest of the city. In order to make the iconic city and mountains photo make sense, you have to rotate it all in your head.

The photo is actually taken looking almost directly north-east, which you can check on a map. The main mountain in the shot is Mt. San Antonio, colloquially known as Mt. Baldy, which towers at 10,066 feet (3,068 meters).

Now draw a straight line from Mt. Baldy through DTLA and keep going and you’ll eventually hit the one high spot in the area: Baldwin Hills and most likely the Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area, which is a public park built on top of those hills.

Ta-da! The skyline view lines up perfectly with this location, plus it also has the elevation to get the shot, with palm trees easily put into view if you so desire. So if you’re ever in L.A. or already live there and want to get your own version of this iconic shot, now you know where to go.

Downtown Los Angeles, (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday Morning Post 93: Six-Pack Mary (Part 2)

Another piece of a short story from my 2001 collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with more stories from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century.

“Oh, so you’re married?” Kathy looked at the paperwork on the clipboard. “How long?”

“Uh… five years,” Myron said, trying not to let his voice shake.

“Children?”

“No. I mean, not yet.”

“Let me get the insurance papers for your wife, then.”

“I don’t need those. I mean, she has her own insurance and everything, so…”

“Ah. Then you’ll have to sign the waiver.” Kathy fished a form from a rack on her desk. “Are you covered under your wife’s policy?”

“No.”

“What’s her name?”

Myron stammered for an instant. He hadn’t thought about this part yet. “Uh — Myra,” he said.

“Oh, what a pretty name,” Kathy replied. “Is that why you go by Ron?”

“Y-yes.”

“Got it. I know this couple, the husband and wife are both named Kim. Now that must get confusing. Let me just go make a copy of your ID, and then we’ll introduce you around.”

She took his passport and I-9 form and walked out of the office. Myron sat there, twiddling his fingers, looking at the walls. It was a nice office, a little ritzier than his last place. They sold real estate and, according to one of his friends, the support staff was ninety-nine percent gay. He’d munged his resumé a little bit and landed a job in accounting. He could have gone for middle management, but that would have complicated things. This way, no one worked for him, so everyone was fair game. Besides, if things worked out right, he’d be the harassee, and he wasn’t going to complain.

Someone pushed a cart up outside the door, stopped, came in with the mail. Myron looked up, then had to look away. This boy was too painfully gorgeous. He was probably twenty-two at the oldest, tall, ruggedly cute. He put the mail in Kathy’s in-box, glancing toward Myron briefly.

“Hi,” he muttered, then walked out. There was a bit of a mid-western twang in that word. Myron let himself sneak a peak at the kid’s back as he walked out. Broad shoulders, probably a swimmer’s build that was barely hidden by his blue jeans and white, long-sleeved dress shirt. And out of the corner of his eye, Myron had noticed that those jeans were pretty well stuffed in front.

Outside, he heard Kathy say, “Thanks, Max,” and then she came back in, handed him his passport as he stood. “And we’re all set, Ron,” she gestured him to the door, extending her hand, which he shook. “Welcome to the ECM family.”

* * *

Myron sat at his desk, idly toying with his wedding ring as he studied spreadsheets. Brown suit, blue shirt, black tie. That was the hardest part, really — forgetting everything he knew about fashion. That, and remembering to leer approvingly when one of the few straight men in the office commented on some actress’s ass, occasionally throwing in a lewd comment of his own. Men certainly were pigs, weren’t they?

And he got to know Max, the mailroom boy, who was from Kansas and wanted to be an actor, and Chris and Billy and the other Chris and Cary and Doug and not one of them was over twenty-five and only one of them — the cutest one naturally, Max — wasn’t known as a total friend of Dorothy.

“The big secret is mixed signals,” Mike had told him when Myron had finally decided to take the plunge and begin the process in earnest. “Straight guys flirt all the time, except they don’t know they’re doing it. And gay men are afraid to flirt back with them, because that’s taboo, so it just cranks the pressure up more. The big trick is to make them want you without showing any interest at all.”

That had been the hardest part to figure out. Obviously, he couldn’t go around telling the boys, “Hey, nice ass.” But what, then? He was at a loss there and had been meaning to call Mike and ask him when, one day, Chris brought him a huge stack of papers and plunked them in the in box.

“Oh, thanks,” Myron said.

“Hey, it’s not like you’re going to actually do work with those or anything,” Chris said teasingly.

“Suck my dick,” Myron shot back, smiling, remembering to use the ‘d’ word and not the gay-giveaway ‘c’ word. And Chris blushed, looked down, thought a moment, then just went, “Uh, yeah,” and walked away.

Myron knew that look. That reaction. He’d scored a direct hit. Weird. And he cultivated the banter, played the game for a while and it seemed like the file boys were coming by his desk more often, hanging around in slow moments. He started telling them things were a little bumpy with Myra. She was spending more time out of town on business, and when she was in town, she didn’t seem to be as interested in sex. “And forget about getting blowjobs anymore,” he told Doug. “Quickest way to make a woman stop sucking your dick is to marry her.”

“Hm…” Doug said, raising an eyebrow. “And what are we going to do about that?”

Myron smiled, fished the proper response out of his repertoire. “In your dreams, Dougie-boy,” he said, grabbing his own crotch in straight-guy fashion. Doug grinned and walked away and Myron knew he’d thrown down the gauntlet. The trap was set, the game was meet — or was that “meat?” — and maybe all this incredible effort would be worth it.

* * *

“Wow, nice place,” Doug said as they walked into the apartment and Myron turned on the lights. He hung his coat in the closet next to Myra’s collection, went to the kitchen.

“Can I get you anything?” he asked. “Beer, wine?”

“Beer’s great,” Doug said, flopping on the couch, which was a bit too frou-frou for Myron’s taste, but it was his wife who’d picked it out, after all. Myron came in with two beers, handed Doug one and sat in the armchair.

“So, how’d you like the show?” Myron asked him.

“It was… interesting. Especially the second act.”

“Oh yeah, that. What do you think got into Christine?”

“She’s kind of a prude. Hey, I enjoyed that part of the show. Max sure has guts. To do that, I mean. In front of everyone.”

“Yeah, actors are all a little weird, aren’t they?”

“Max is a good guy. He’s just… confused.”

“Isn’t he… you know?”

“We all think so, but he doesn’t. Hey, did you know that Joyce is trying to make a play for him?”

“Joyce? Mousy Joyce in accounts payable?”

“Yep. Good luck.”

“Hey, pardon me for saying this, but even I think Max is a little light in the loafers.”

Doug laughed.

“What?”

“God, I haven’t heard that expression in years. It’s so… shit, that’s something my mother would say.”

“Bite me.”

“Watch out, I might…”

Myron snorted, swigged his beer. “You guys are okay, really,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to work in an office and not have to play that Monday morning game.” He threw on his best dockworker voice, “‘Yo, Vinnie, get any pussy over the weekend?’”

Doug laughed again. It was such a vulnerable laugh. He was a cute kid, average height, naturally square shoulders, not a gym queen. He had one of those All-American faces that could only have come from generations of various European immigrants intermingling through the great migration, cute little upturned nose, high cheekbones, strong jaw, dark hair and steel gray eyes, slightly short upper lip and jutting lower lip that just screamed “Kiss me.” Doug took another sip of beer, wrapping those lips around the bottle, looked away a little uncomfortable. “So, when do I get to meet your wife?”

“Oh, one of these days. She’s in Houston for the week, on business. Again.”

“And, how is… everything?”

“Don’t ask. My balls are as blue as a frozen Smurf.”

That got a big laugh out of Doug, but he also turned three shades of red. Myron got up, walked to the TV. “Anyway, you wanted to see the tape, so…” He picked up the remote, went back to the armchair. He’d lured Doug all the way to the Valley with the promise of a bootleg editor’s copy of the next big blockbuster — Myron had decided his wife worked in The Industry — and the bait had worked. He dimmed the lights, pushed ‘play’ and sat back waiting for the tape to do its job.

The TV screen plunged into blackness, and then flashed to life, but this was no studio summer blockbuster. It was a big titted blonde, servicing five hunky men at once, via every orifice and both hands, moaning and shrieking in her best fake tones. Myron silently counted to five, then raised the remote.

“Oh, Jesus, sorry. Sorry,” he said, intentionally hitting pause instead of stop. “Wrong tape.”

Doug laughed nervously. “It’s okay,” he said. “You know, I’ve never seen straight porn. What’s it like?”

“Pretty much just like that,” Myron gestured with the remote.

“You think those boobs are fake?”

“Probably. Know how you can tell?”

“I have no idea.”

“They don’t slide into her armpits when she lies down,” he explained, secretly glad that he’d started listening to Howard Stern, strictly research, mind you.

“Really? That makes sense. She’s got an incredible body,” Doug added, pointing at the frozen image onscreen. Myron gave him a look. Doug explained, “Hey, just because I don’t want to fuck it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it. And you can’t tell me there’s not at least one guy on that screen, you look at and think, ‘He’s got a nice body.’”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Come on. The one on the right there, I mean, completely objectively, that’s a nice body, isn’t it?”

Myron glanced at the screen, looked down, feigning awkwardness. Then he drained his beer, got up, handing Doug the remote as he headed for the kitchen. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “But if I was at gunpoint, I’d take the guy with his dick in her left hand.” He went to the fridge, grabbed two more beers.

“Eeeew,” Doug said. “That’s the most disgusting one. You must be straight.” By the time Myron came back, Doug had pushed play and the boob-jobbed blonde was screaming and wailing in ersatz earnest. They sat and watched the TV in silence for a while, until the five guys had blown their loads all over the blonde.

“Well, that made me horny,” Doug said. Myron had finished two more beers by this point, said nothing until he noticed Doug looking at him.

“Yeah, well, okay, me too, don’t get your hopes up,” he said, adding a weak smile.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Doug said, receding a bit into the couch.

“You want another beer?” Myron asked, lurching for the kitchen. Doug shook his head no, feet jittering nervously on the floor. Myron got one beer out of the fridge, from the six pack on the left, the one he’d previously dumped and refilled with water, then went back in the living room, stumbled and flopped on the couch, as far from Doug as possible.

“God, I’m drunk,” he said, waving the red flag. Doug had taken his shoes and socks off, undone a couple of shirt buttons. On the TV, a new scene had started. One woman, two men, kissing and licking her. Doug stared at the TV while Myron stared at Doug.

“So Joyce really wants to bang Max, huh?”

“Uh, yeah. You haven’t heard her? Shit, she’s probably told everyone but him.”

“I was kind of surprised at the theatre, though. That kid has got one really big dick on him.”

On screen, the blond put the woman on her back and stuck it in, and then the brunette climbed behind the blond and started fucking him up the ass. Doug stared, only having half heard what Myron had said. Then, as he looked at Myron, Myron looked at the TV, knowing what he’d see.

“Fuck. I didn’t know it was that kind of tape…” But he didn’t reach for the remote, he just stared at the screen for a long moment. He could hear Doug breathing now, a little ragged. He turned to the kid, going in for the kill.

“You ever do that?” Myron asked. “Get poked, I mean?”

Doug nodded.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“A little. At first. But then it feels… pretty incredible.”

“I could never do that. I mean, take it up the shitter. He looks like he’s enjoying it. Let me tell you something, never get married. I mean, to a woman. Myra, she won’t give me oral anymore, and the one time I asked her for anal, she looked at me like I was Charlie Manson. Do me a favor, tell her it doesn’t hurt all that much, maybe she’ll do it. It really doesn’t hurt that much?”

Doug shook his head, putting down his beer. He stared at Myron, face turning bright read, lip quivering. “Ron…” He looked away, then grabbed the remote, stopped the tape. The room got dark and quiet.

“Yeah?”

“I… “ Long pause. “Don’t get pissed or anything, okay? But, if your wife isn’t doing her job…”

“What do you mean?” Myron said, shifting on the couch to face the kid, trying not to sound as anxious as he was.

“Seeing Max tonight, and now that tape, and the beers… God, I am really, really horny and I know you are, and…”

Doug wasn’t looking at him, both hands clawed into the floral print sofa. He took a deep breath, then started to stand.

“Sorry, no, I shouldn’t have… I should go…”

Myron grabbed Doug’s hand, pulled him back onto the sofa so they were sitting right next to each other. He could feel Doug start as he did so, inhale sharply, scared.

“You know,” Myron said, “I’m pretty horny, too. Horny and drunk.” He let it linger just long enough, then added, “But no kissing, okay?”

Doug stood, took him by the hand and led him into the bedroom.

* * *

Friday free-for-all #89: More This or Thats

The usual Friday questions, this time based on the “This or that?” premise.

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments. This edition brought to you by some “This or that?” questions.

When sleeping: Fan or no fan?

I am definitely a fan person, but not necessarily pointing at me — it depends on the weather and temperature in the room. I may have a ceiling fan going on its own, or a table fan in addition to or instead of. But, for me, it’s more about the white noise plus, when it heats up, about airflow.

In cold weather, the ceiling fan is off and the table fan is pointed away from me, and I’ll be under several duvets and blankets on top of the sheets, wrapped up like a human burrito. I may even fire up a space heater — on a time, of course, for safety.

Besides the fan, though, I also have a white noise machine. Well, not strictly white noise, but about a dozen different looped digital sound effects, from which I always choose “Rain.” Its major drawback is that it will play one hour, at most, and if I don’t fall asleep within that hour (which I rarely do) then I’m just suddenly confronted by silence, plus I now know that it’s one hour since I tried to go to sleep.

I did finally hit on the idea of using my Bluetooth headphones and firing up a ten-hour rain/storm video on YouTube, adjusting the time so it plays for the number of hours I want to sleep, the only problem being that wearing the headphones in bed is awkward, since they’re over-ear and not earbuds.

I might invest in a Bluetooth speaker before long.

Movie at home or movie at the theater?

The answer for this one always used to be “Movie theater for latest release that I really want to see and/or date night activity that came between dinner and sex.” Everything else was fine to watch at home, especially when Blockbuster was around (and around the corner) so it was easy to rent something recent, although more fun to shop from their discount table.

Nowadays, and since long before COVID actually, the answer became mostly at home, unless it was something I really, really wanted to see, but even then I’d skip the opening weekend crowds and wait until the hoopla had died down. This was I came to loathe the typical multiplex audience, who seemed to have no concept that they were in a theater and not at home.

I saw one film in a theater, finally, right before the lockdown, and it was the latest Star Wars film, which I caught very late in the run on a weekday afternoon with three other people in the theater. After that, I didn’t see anything again until the summer of 2021, this time taking advantage of reserved seating to catch a film on opening day with six other people in the place.

I saw two more films in theaters in 2021, The Green Knight and Dune, and that was it. As much as I wanted to catch In the Heights and West Side Story on the big screen, it had just become too risky again.

Mac or PC?

Absolutely, hands down, PC forever. Macs are overpriced pieces of shit designed for people who have no idea how computers actually work, couldn’t swap out a hard drive if their life depended on it, and would be clueless on file management if Macs didn’t take over for them.

What I love about PCs is that you can get under the hood, as it were. Over the years, I’ve upgraded PC memory, hard drives, CPUs, internal drives like CD-ROMS and DVDs, replaced power supplies, and so on and so on, none of which would have been possible as a consumer with a Mac.

Whenever any of my computers had a problem, I’d head down to the late, great Fry’s to get the parts I needed and have them installed and running by that night. When the Mac stans have a problem, they have to haul it into to the Apple Store, leave it for who knows how long, and hope that most of it is at least covered under some sort of warranty.

Not to mention that whenever Mac updates its OS, updating for everyone is mandatory no matter how old their machine is and, if their machine is too old, they’re SOL. Windows doesn’t force updates, although they will eventually stop supporting older versions of Windows, at which point it’s up to the user whether they want to take the risk of using a vulnerable machine on the internet.

Finally, for all the Mac-heads who think having their phone and their computer totally integrated is the greatest thing ever, it’s not. I’d rather have the control of allowing what I want synced between all my devices manually instead of having it happen by default — which is how Mac does everything, because their designers just assume that their users are too stupid to figure it out themselves.

Of course, that does seem to cover about 90% of Mac users, which is why I prefer PC.

Working alone or working in a team?

Unless it’s doing improv or putting on a play, I’m much more of a working alone sort, with brief and intermittent meetings to brainstorm content and the like. But I’ve sat in on “collaborative” meetings to try to create a document or plan or outline together, and it is excruciatingly non-productive.

Tell me what you need written and set me loose, and I’ll have it to you by the deadline, and I’m totally fine with working that way.

Things that drive me nuts, though, in no particular order.

1. Meeting by Power Point. PP is perhaps one of the worst inventions ever. It’s basically one of those elementary school film strips or an overhead projector show — I may have been among the last class who even experienced those, so ask your parents. But the idea is that whoever is running it shows you one picture at a time and, since they generally tend to have words on them, will read you every last damn one of them.

Power Point presentations are no different. They’re just fancier and shown using computers. But they’re basically a crutch for someone who cannot function without a script, which means they really have nothing to say. Better to just send out the deck to everyone, let them read or absorb it in their own way, and then give feedback.

2. The “show and tell” meeting. Sometimes these can be useful if it involves introducing a new product that everyone must see or getting feedback on finalists for new branding/logos and the like. But if it involves going around the room with each person giving a “This is what I did last week” speech, then can it; it’s not necessary. Instead of wasting time on a meeting, have each person send their report to a central email, like the assistant to the boss, who will summarize and compile them, then send them out to everyone. Simple and done.

3. Any meeting where anyone from the C Suite “helps,” especially if it involves brainstorming anything creative. Sorry, but no one up there is actually creative, they only think they are. Or, rather, what they’re creative at is getting people to dump money into the company on the 1% level or get people to buy the company’s shit on the 98% level.

Now, they can deal with the 1% — that’s their milieu, after all. But when it comes to the 98%, here’s how it should work. “Okay, gang. We’re rolling out this product line targeted at this demographic. We still need to come up with colors and product names, as well as a marketing campaign. All the info is in the file I just sent.

Now I’m off to golf with the president of Really Fucking Big Company, so knock yourselves out.

This is how any meeting with the C Suite Elite should be. They give the pitch and piss off, and then everyone else does the real work. (Your mileage may vary if you have a CEO or others who started at the bottom and worked their way up, but if their money came from their family, then your mileage will match the prediction.)

Ok Go: My top ten video countdown

My top-ten countdown of the best OK Go videos. Enjoy!

I’ve been a fan of the band OK Go since forever. Well, since about fifteen years ago, give or take, which is forever in internet terms, and it was the internet that I first found them. One of my coworkers found a video on YouTube of a band doing choreography in a backyard, and it was immediately catchy.

The song was called A Million Ways, and disregard the 2009 date on that video link, because that was a later up-rezzed version. The original was never meant for public consumption. Basically, it was a practice video the band shot in order to learn the choreography created by lead singer Damian Kulash’s older sister Trish Sie.

That was it. Just a practice video so they could learn the steps for a live show. Except that, somehow, the tape was leaked out by parties unknown, and it became a huge viral hit way back in the day.

That was when the band realized, “Hey, we could make something of this,” but, more importantly, “We should be the ones in charge of it,” and so a legend was born.

Over the ensuing years, OK Go proceeded to crank out a phenomenal series of videos of increasing complexity and head-exploding realities if you took a second to realize what they had to do to shoot them. Every single one involved a combination of music, mathematics, logistics, timing, talent, physical endurance, and a lot more.

I was there to watch when every new one came down the pipeline and watched in stunned amazement. They had started to slow down with their release schedule as they got involved in new educational projects, but then COVID put a stop to that, and their last video that I know of came out in May, 2020 — a collaborative done “separately apart” by the band for the song, All Together Now. It’s simple and direct and yet, as always with OK Go, a monster of planning, timing, and editing.

They’ve actually done a ton of videos, but I was recently inspired to go through the collection and come up with my personal list of their top ten. This list just represents my opinions and your mileage may vary. If you have a different order, or a different #1, please let me know in the comments.

But before we get to OK Go proper, I have to start with…

Honorable Mention

In 2013, OK Go and Saatchi & Saatchi teamed up to invite young filmmakers to create a video for their new song I’m not Through. The winner was Nelson de Castro, in his first film made out of college, and, as everyone agrees, he managed to match the OK Go aesthetic perfectly in this one.

Full disclosure: When I first saw it, I thought it had been made by the band as well, and they just chose to either sit out from appearing in it or were there, but wearing the masked unitards. Nope. This was a complete original, and if it actually were an OK Go production, it would be a lot higher on the list.

Now, speaking of the list itself, here we go:

10. Obsession

Although a later video and still complicated behind the scenes, this one is nonetheless a lot simpler than many of the others, hence the lower score — although all of the paper used in it was immediately recycled to benefit charitable causes.

The concept: Let’s turn 570-ish printers into a gigantic pixel-display, each one cranking out one sheet of colored paper at a time, the “programming” managed by carefully stacking the sheets in each tray, and then also timing how slow or fast each printer’s feed mechanism puts out the sheets and using a bit of stop motion like End Love, plus a little wire work.

I don’t know how many takes this one took, but I can only imagine that every single “Paper Jam” alert was a director’s nightmare.

9. The One Moment

This is kind of the bookend to go with #7, End Love, which was shot over the course of several days in a park in Los Angeles via stop motion and occasional slow motion. In this video, we first see it in real time, which was 4.2 seconds, believe it or not.

Of course, it’s impossible to see what’s really going on in such a short timeframe, so it rewinds and repeats in super slow-motion. How slow? A series of ballistic explosions of paint-filled pots that flew by in the original practically allow us to time the shells that are causing them, and although I’m sure he’s not aware of it, Damian blinking before being hit with a water balloon was probably an instant before impact in his reality, but we see it as his right eye closing before the balloon is anywhere near him.

There’s a whole other level of synchronization going on in this one, but you’ll just have to pay close attention to Tim and Andy during the slo-mo parts. And be amazed that Andy didn’t shit his pants, given where he was standing in relation to the whole set-up.

8. White Knuckles

For emotional reasons, this will always be one of my favorites despite being so simple. It’s just the guys, dressed in all white, on a non-descript photo-set, and the props all seem to have come from IKEA.

What makes it is that they do the whole video with a bunch of expertly trained dogs who enter and exit and do their stunts as the four humans do their part and lip-sync the tune. Whoever trained the humans trained them well, but keep your eye out for the goat, which you will not spot the first time around.

Bonus points: Proceeds from this one went toward homing rescue dogs.

7. End Love

In terms of sheer performer and crew torture, this one must be the winner, and it was fairly early in their video career. Concept: The band is in Echo Lake Park in Los Angeles, and the video alternates between stop-motion animation and some slo-mo.

There were no shortcuts here, either. Shooting began in probably mid-afternoon, but then continued into evening and night, and baked into the story is the night portion where, clearly, each band member took a shift staying awake (and being shot in stop motion) to watch over the others as they all slept rough in sleeping bags in the park.

In the morning, they at least got to indulge in a couple of slow-motion moments of jumping and moving before moving on to even more intense moments of being human stop-motion models.

The best part of the whole thing? At some point, a random goose decides that it wants to get in on the action and, unlike any other goose know to human kind, this one is not an asshole. Maybe he just wanted his big break. In any case, for what must have been the last few hours of the shoot, that goose stuck to the boys like glue, and even seemed to be doing their choreography. Amazing.

6. This Too shall Pass

This is one of OK Go’s more iconic videos because it encapsulates so much of what they’ve done elsewhere in one place. In this one, they create a Rube Goldberg Machine in a two-story warehouse with its sole purpose being to blast four different colored paint cannons at the boys in the band.

It starts out small, with Tim launching a toy firetruck at some dominoes, but then it all gradually builds from there, culminating in a piano drop, a sledge-hammer smashing a TV set (playing a familiar scene), a car being launched down a ramp backwards, and so on, until the aforementioned paint cannon blast.

At the same time, it’s a rather beautiful and encouraging song. It only doesn’t rate higher because OK Go went even further with their videos.

5. The Writing’s on the Wall

Kind of a spiritual companion piece to This Too Shall Pass, this video also involves an elaborate two-story warehouse contraption, but this one is more intimately linked to the lyrics and meaning of the song.

In it, the singer is realizing that his current relationship is pretty much over. He just hasn’t been paying attention to… the writing on the wall. The conceit of the video fits that perfectly because it takes us through a series of images and illusions that only work from one POV.

Or, in other words, it’s all about perspective. One slight shift, and what seemed to be the “truth” vanishes.

4. Needing/Getting

Another elaborate machine. In this one, the band and crew turn a compact car (some kind of Chevy) into a rolling musical instrument, and it all seems to have been done in real time.

The band sings and performs inside. Meanwhile, Damian does some serious stunt driving, Tim harmonizes and, in the back, Andy and Dan are the ones pulling the levers at the right time to deploy the exterior fins, paddles, spoiler, and other doodads in order to interact with the track at the right time and keep the melody going.

And yes, this one must have been a monster to set up, since it involves sections of dirt track lined with old pianos, or guitars, or tuned water barrels, or dangling glass bottles. And, before the show really gets going, it starts with the gentle tinkle of a music box provided by metal rectangles dangling from the front bumper, striking pins on ground plates below.

The planning needed behind it all is mind-boggling.

3. Here It Goes Again

A nostalgic favorite, this is the video that OK Go made after A Million Ways leaked. And while it’s a simple bit of DIY, once again choreographed by Trish Sie and with nothing too complicated, it achieved what they wanted. This OK Go video went truly viral and the rest was history.

If it’s not ringing any bells, here’s the description you do know: “Guys dancing on treadmills.”

And that’s all it was in all its complicated simplicity — eight treadmills lined up side-to-side and end to end, each one running in opposite directions. Add Trish’s simple but impressive choreography, roll camera and done.

It was a mere hint of what the group would eventually do, but I put it at number 3 because of its nostalgic place in my heart, plus none of the others would have happened without it.

2. I Won’t Let You Down

A cast of thousands, some Honda unicycle-thingies, a single-shot video filmed via drone, all of it set on a Honda factory campus in Japan. What more could you want?

It’s also a great song with a catchy tune and some meaningful lyrics. Throughout, our POV changes from an eye-level view of the boys and their back-up performers to dizzying overhead shots, finally ending with a super-elevated shot that turns all of the performers into what is basically a gigantic LED board flashing out its messages via colored umbrellas and extreme coordination.

And then the drone keeps going up, above light cloud-cover and into total silence to give us an extreme aerial view of Japan until the image does about a 270° turn and then fades out.

1. Upside Down & Inside Out

Speaking of “high-flying,” this is the winner. Taking Ron Howard’s tricks from Apollo 13 and going them one better, OK Go enlisted the help of the Russian version of the “Vomit Comet,” calculated out how to fit the song into the available time of free-fall, then took to the air to create a truly amazing piece.

There are no special effects here. What you’re seeing is true free-fall, which simulates zero gravity, 27 seconds at a time, with about four or five minutes in-between. The band had to divide the song into a bunch of chunks, stopping and starting in between, and so on.

It’s too complicated to explain here, but there is a BTS video explaining it all.

But first, just enjoy this and let your mind be blown, because it’s what OK Go does.

Image Source: Paul Hudson, (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Two more Nights at the Museum

It looks like Disney+ is going to be bringing back the Night at the Museum Franchise. Here’s why the first three are so much fun.

I reviewed the first Night at the Museum film back in November. I tell the story of how I came to watch it in that article, but at the time none of the other films were on Disney+. That changed at some point and I found them this week, so I watched the two sequels.

The first is 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and the third, and so-far last, is 2014’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.

I say “so-far last” because it looks like Disney is trying to revive the IP in some way, shape, or form. But of course. I guess that’s fitting because it’s kind of in keeping with the exhibits in the film that are in whichever museum winds up with the Golden Tablet of Pharaoh Ahkmenrah — they just won’t die.

The first film caught me off-guard and pulled me in because it sets up (and sets off) the premise so economically and quickly, and Ben Stiller has a great knack for playing that Everyperson character we can all relate to.

Each of the three films follow the same general outline, naturally — Stiller’s Larry Daley winds up getting drawn into (or back to) the (night) lives of his beloved museum exhibits, managing to survive the challenge and learn things along the way. There’s a very strong father-son element built into the trilogy, set up in the first film as Larry only takes the Museum job so he can keep his apartment and visitation rights with his son.

It all pays off with a nice parallel story in the third film.

Over the course of the films, the producers and writers do what so many long-running franchise films have done, and I was reminded in many ways of both the Indiana Jones and James Bond Franchises.

That is, you’re working with basically the same group of heroes/supporting staff, so you need to change up the locations and villains with each outing. The Indiana Jones movies did it by moving through both time and space, as well as changing the McGuffin each time.

With James Bond, each film was set in whatever present day it was made in even though time was visibly passing with each new film. However, other than home base in England, the principal action of the films took place all over the world, with some of the installments covering multiple countries.

Night at the Museum doesn’t get quite that elaborate, but it does have a nice, logical progression. The first film takes place in New York City, the second in Washington, D.C., and the third in London, England, with a prologue set in 1938 in Egypt.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian pretty much dives right into the action, with a number of our familiar characters/exhibits from the first film being crated up for delivery to the National Archives in D.C. under the opening credits. Meanwhile, we learn that Larry Daley (Stiller) left his museum job a few years earlier and did go on to be a successful entrepreneur, selling his own line of inventions via informercials and now living in a very upscale place and being a much better provider for his son.

For some reason, Daley drops by the museum that evening, only to learn from the curator, Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) that by “Shipped to the National Archives,” it really means stowed away forever — and the Tablet of Ahkmenrah is not scheduled to make the trip, meaning that Daley’s friends from his museum days will never wake up again.

However, the night before they make the trip, they do wake up and bring along the tablet, which leads to an emergency phone call from the gang to Daley — they seem to be in a bit of a pickle.

Daley heads to D.C. only to find out that the National Archives are not open to the public and are also located deep below ground under the entire complex of 19 museums the Smithsonian comprised at the time. After very cleverly stealing a local guard (Jonah Hill)’s ID Daley coordinates with his son by phone to get down to the archives, only to quickly learn that cell phone reception only works about a floor and a half down.

From there, it charges into non-stop action as we learn that Ahkmenrah’s older (but snubbed) brother Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) has learned of the existence of the tablet and wants it for himself. He’s been holding the New York exhibits captive.

Oh — Daley also meets up with Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), who seems to take an immediate shine to him. It’s all good, silly fun from this point to the climax, with most of it held up by the fun dialogue and situations, but especially the performances.

Stiller, as with the first film, grounds everything, and American actor Owen Wilson and British thespian Steve Coogan continue to provide their “odd couple” pairing as two museum miniatures brought to life — the former an American cowboy (Jedediah) and the latter a Roman soldier (Octavius).

Normally, I can’t stand Owen Wilson, but his characterization works for me in all three films, and Coogan is a perfect foil for him — or vice versa. (It wouldn’t half surprise me if Disney+ didn’t spin off these two characters in some animated series, like “Miniatures of the Museum” or something like that.)

Rounding out the cast, Azaria plays his villainous pharaoh to perfection, wisely opting to use a voice that has strong hints of Boris Karloff — who, besides Frankenstein’s monster, was also famous for playing the Mummy — and who brings his usual single-minded focus to a role to make it perhaps greater than the sum of its lines.

He manages to be by turns menacing and ridiculous and every shade in-between, which is exactly the tone that a villain in these films needs to have.

It’s probably not a huge spoiler to say that Daley and his museum pals save the day and Daley learns another life lesson, leaving everything set up with the third film but, refreshingly, without any annoying, “Wait for the sequel!” flags hung in place. We do end with Daley going back to work at the museum, extending evening hours, and letting the exhibits interact with visitors — who, of course, assume that the exhibits are either actors or elaborate special effects, and business is good.

The series could have ended there and been perfectly satisfying, but the next film took everything a bit farther and a step further.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb starts out with no credits, just the aforementioned prologue set in 1938, which is when a joint U.S.-British-Egyptian expedition discovers the tomb of Merenkahre, Ahkmenrah’s father and original creator of the golden tablet. Despite warnings that disturbing the tomb means “the end will come,” the expedition proceeds to load everything up.

One of the members of that expedition is 12-year-old C.J. Fredericks. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen that name before, and somebody that age in 1988 could conceivably still be alive in 2014. (In fact, the actor cast in that grown-up role was born about the same time as the character and is still alive now, knock wood.)

Again, this film dives right into the action after the opening, as we learn that Daley has gone back to his job as night guard, and is overseeing the re-opening of the Hayden Planetarium, to also be hosted by the re-animated exhibits. Everything seems to be going well until it suddenly all starts to glitch out. Ahkmenrah explains to Daley that the tablet is starting to corrode, and the magic may end soon.

Daley runs across a photo of C.J. Fredericks while researching the tablet, and after a museum librarian mentions that C.J. worked there as a night guard for years, Daley puts it together. He tracks down Fredericks (Dick van Dyke) as well as his other former workmates (Mickey Rooney as Gus and Bill Cobbs as Reginald) in a rest home.

Denying everything at first, Daley uses the photo to get Fredericks to spill the beans. The ones with the answer are Ahkmenrah’s parents, but they’re at the British Museum. Daley convinces his boss, McPhee, to let him take Ahkmenrah and the tablet to the British Museum. McPhee reluctantly agrees.

Of course, Daley and his son have stowaways on the journey, and most of the core group wind up in the British Museum, night guard Tilly (Rebel Wilson) none-the-wiser. After dark, the tablet does its magic and brings the exhibits to life, and our gang has to find the exhibit with Ahkmenrah’s parents’ tomb in it in order to learn the secrets of the tablet in order to save it.

The first hitch in their plans comes when they are rescued from a triceratops skeleton by a wax statue of Sir Lancelot come to life, but he can’t just let them all waltz off. He’s a Knight of the Round Table, after all, and is sworn to protect those on quests.

While he seeks the holy grail, the others seek the secret of the tablet — and also the whereabouts of Jedediah and Octavius, who were sucked down an air vent in the floor. While Dexter the capuchin monkey heads off through the ducts to locate the miniatures, the rest head off to try to find the Egyptology section of the collection. Once there, they find Ahkmenrah’s parents, and his father explains that the only way to save the tablet is to charge it by full exposure to moonlight — it’s been inside for too long.

However, someone else has other plans, taking the tablet and running off. Will our heroes be able to stop them in time and save all of the living exhibits?

Given the franchise so far, the answer to that question is probably obvious, but the one nice bit about it is that rather than have it be a “Hero physically defeats villain” moment, it happens because the villain suddenly realizes what’s actually at stake for the hero in this whole thing. It isn’t the tablet but, definitely requires the tablet in order to happen.

Back home, Daley quits the museum again, this time having no idea what comes next, but he and his son have grown a lot closer. An epilogue three years later takes place when a touring exhibit from the British Museum drops in on the New York Museum and it’s party time, a light and fitting end to the entire series.

So — are they among the greatest film trilogies ever made? Not really. But will they keep you and your family entertained while introducing a bit of (mostly accurate although with tropes played for laughs) history? Most certainly.

The cast carries the show here, with Stiller’s Daley, Robin Williams’ Teddy Roosevelt, Rami Malek’s Ahkmenrah, and Wilson and Coogan’s Jedediah and Octavius carrying things.

Other stand-outs include Mizuo Peck as Sacagawea, Patrick Gallagher as Attila the Hun, and Ricky Gervais as Dr. McPhee, all three of whom appear in all three movies.

Dick van Dyke gets a lot to do in the first film, doesn’t appear in the second, and has a cameo in the third. Mickey Rooney has the same pattern of appearances, but the writers never knew what to do with his character, other than make him a belligerent little man who threatens to punch out Daley from the get-go and who never changes.

That part is kind of sad, because in the third film, which was shot two months before he died, Rooney has clearly had some physical disabilities, with his character in a wheelchair and the right side of his face kept mostly away from camera.

Robin Williams, meanwhile, took his own life in August of that year, so when the film was released in December 2014, it carried memorial notices for both actors. Still, that shouldn’t dampen any of the humor and adventure in the films. The three together and individually have some great lessons to teach, both of the historical variety and of the emotional variety.

Grab your family or friends, and have a little Museum marathon.

Talky Tuesday Returns: Do the Duo

While Duolingo can help teach the basics of language, it’s not the best long-term tool. Here’s why.

As of today, I’ll have completed a streak on Duolingo, the language learning program, of 2,834 days. That works out to 7 years, 9 months, and a few days. However, I started Duo a few years before I decided to keep the streak going.

The primary language I studied there was Spanish, although I did attempt a few others with varying degrees of success, which taught me something very important: Duolingo is only going to get you so far. I managed to become completely fluent in Spanish, but didn’t have the same luck with German, Norwegian, Swedish, Hindi, Dutch, French, Romanian, or Irish.

A site like Duolingo really can’t stand on its own. With Spanish and German, I’d taken classes before, back in high school and college, although I studied Spanish for about three times as long as I studied German. The others, I had no experience in.

The other advantage I had when I took up Spanish again was immersion. I could set the car radio to Spanish language stations, as well as doing the same for all of my devices. Spanish language magazines are available everywhere here, as are books. Spanish TV or movies were also just as accessible.

The other languages, not so much, really. I think there is (or was) a classical music station that has a program entirely in German on weekend mornings, but the rest are a lot harder to find.

But it leads to a really interesting paradox because, despite using Duo on a daily basis, it really feels like someone just handed me a kid’s book in English and said, “Here, practice.”

I don’t know why I continue on, but there are a few very consistent student misunderstandings that crop up regularly that I find either amusing or infuriating, depending on my mood.

The first, and most infamous, is the first time the phrase “el agua está fría” comes up. This usually happens fairly early, and it sets off the same discussion every time in the comments.

A number of students will latch onto the “el,” a masculine pronoun, and say, “But ‘agua’ ends in -a, so isn’t it feminine?” Others, who are just a little more clever (or not) will ask, “Why is it fría and not frío here when el agua is obviously masculine?”

Yes, this one makes heads explode.

The simple answer is that “agua” is never masculine. The only reason the “el,” or masculine definite article (“the”) is there for the same reason that English uses “an” before words that start with a vowel — it’s easier to pronounce.

Any Spanish noun that starts with a stressed “a,” regardless of gender, will always take “el” in the singular because it’s just easier to say.

“La agua” is just as difficult and odd-sounding to a Spanish speaker as “a elephant” is to an English speaker.

This is very quickly followed by all of the nouns whose spelling doesn’t apparently follow gender rules, and this is another point when heads explode. Cometa, programma, planeta, mapa, and sistema are all masculine nouns despite the “a” at the end. Most of them come from Greek, and when grammar moved from Greek to Spanish, Greek nouns of this form were masculine, so they kept their gender. It’s just something that needs to be memorized.

There aren’t as many variations the other way around, with feminine nouns that end in “o,” but one of the first ones learners will run into is “mano” for hand, which is feminine: la mano. This is because the word came from Latin, where the adopted word form was feminine.

I’d like to say that the confusion people experience stops there, but it doesn’t. The next big one that English speakers just flip their shit over is translating something like “he is eating dinner” to “él come la cena.”

The reason that English speakers get so bent out of shape with this one is because they’ll insist that it’s wrong, and has to be a literal translation from English. “Él come la cena” translates from Spanish as “he eats (the) dinner,” but in Spanish it’s also understood to mean that he is eating dinner.

It’s surprising how many English speakers will try to argue that the only right translation is “él está comiendo la cena,” and while this does literally translate into “he is eating dinner,” it’s rarely used in Spanish. The reason for this is that the present progressive form in Spanish is generally only used when something is happening right this moment.

“Él está cayendo del avión” would work – “He is falling out of the airplane,” as in right this very moment, and as a way to stress the urgency of the situation. Dinner is rarely that urgent.

Don’t worry. There are more, and as soon as we get to discussing liking things (or other feelings about them) there are more exploding heads, particularly with the phrase “me gusta…”

I think the problem here begins when people first learn the greeting, “Mucho gusto!” It’s usually translated as “Nice to meet you,” or something like that, but easily leaves the impression that “gusto” is just the first-person present tense of the verb “gustar,” and so learners might go away thinking that “Mucho gusto” means “I like it a lot.”

It’s not, though. Here, gusto is just a noun, and a better translation that they should teach alongside it (but don’t) is, “Much pleasure.”

Then we get into the verb form of “gustar” to express liking for something and this is where explanations often fall down because they don’t start out with the lesson that the verb “gustar” in Spanish works the opposite of the verb “to like” in English.

In English, you say, “I like horses.” In Spanish, you’d say, “Me gustan los caballos.” The first thing that confuses learners is that the verb “gustar” here seems to be third person plural, and they wonder why it isn’t “me gusto los caballos.”

The simple explanation is that the object of the sentence is different. In English, horses are the thing that is liked by the speaker, or subject. I (subject) like (object). In Spanish, the horses are the subject and the speaker is the object, which is why the “backwards” grammar.

In Spanish, it’s literally (object) am pleased by (subject.) “Horses are pleasing to me.” The verb gustar matches the subject, which is why it’s plural when it refers to plural things even if the object is singular.

The two big things that Duolingo will never really teach you are the two most important things to learn in any language. The first is that the rules are not set in stone. In Spanish, masculine and feminine are not always determined by their spelling. Generally, they are, but there are exceptions, and people just need to learn these.

It’s the same in English with, for example, such a well-known “rule” as “I before E except after C, or when pronounced A, as in neighbor or weigh.” But there are all kinds of weird exceptions to this rule — in fact, probably more of them than actually fit the rule. Go ask Keith. He can tell you.

The other big thing is this: You cannot just translate literally from your language to your target language. That’s not how they work, and you’re just going to get in trouble that way. English and Spanish don’t even have the same number of words for “to be,” “for”,” or “on/in.” And Spanish word order can be very different because it can use pronouns before verbs to indicate who is doing what to or for whom.

English doesn’t have that feature plus it also always requires pronouns. In Spanish, it’s perfectly fine to say, “Como fresas,” and everyone will know that you mean, “I’m eating strawberries.” The “yo” (or I) is implied in the verb “como,” which is first person singular and might as well just translate as “I eat” in the first place.

It saves time and is a really great feature, although you’re always free to throw the pronoun in to remove ambiguity — for example in some tenses where the first and third person verb forms are the same, or when you’re using third person in general and the subject isn’t clear.

You can’t leave out pronouns in English, so a sentence like “Eats strawberries” doesn’t make sense. Who’s eating them? And in cases where the verb would be “eat,” leaving out the pronoun can make it sound like a command or ad slogan: “Eat strawberries!”

The flip side of this in English is that we get to leave out articles, though, where Spanish doesn’t. But, again, that’s just one more reason to never translate literally from one language to another. You really have to take the time to learn the word-order and syntax of your target language.

A look back at the beginning

Taking a look back at the beginning of this site, and how and why it happened.

This entire website started in September 2017 and it was originally all meant to be marketing for a book I’d written about an experience I’d recently lived through.

The brief chronology of events was that I’d wound up in the hospital in August 2016, completely turned my life around before going to a winter retreat in February 2017, which gave me the impetus to write the book.

I completed a draft fairly quickly, but then in September 2017, after going to the Labor Day version of the camp I’d gone to in winter, I came back to find out that the company I’d worked for for a decade was falling apart. I was laid off from full-time but hired on a freelance basis through March. At that point, I had a lot of money in the bank, so I wasn’t too worried — yet.

I decided to see if I could make the jump to freelance writer. It just so happened that two good friends of mine, Hank & Sharyn Yuloff, who are marketing gurus, were about to run a weekend marketing bootcamp and asked me if I wanted to help out running the weekend.

This basically involved sitting at the back of the room, checking people in as they arrived, made sure everyone had the supplies they needed, handing out and collecting necessary paperwork, and occasionally taking photos during the seminar. It also meant that I was attending the seminar and getting paid to learn, and it helped.

I registered this domain and site during that first meeting day, and the rest is history.

That was, surprisingly, only just over four years ago, but so much has happened between now and then that it’s like it was another universe. I made a go at freelancing and picked up a few assignments, but not enough. I applied on all the online job boards and got exactly zero replies. I applied for and got unemployment, and at least my previous job had paid me enough that I got the weekly maximum.

Savings slowly dwindled until I had to reverse my usual standard. Previously, all my paychecks went via direct deposit into my savings account, and every pay day (meaning every other week) would figure out what bills and expenses were due in that period, then transfer from savings to checking. It was like the money I didn’t transfer didn’t exist, which is how I built my savings up so much.

But it got to the point where my savings were basically empty — well, I kept the minimum $1,500 in there, that was it. But for far too long, all money coming in went right to checking and I had to juggle creatively.

I finally got a day job — Hank and Sharyn — which I’ve written about here. This was my year-and-a-half adventure in the world of Medicare Insurance. I started in August, 2019. In fact, my start date was August 26, 2019, which was three years to the day that my hospital adventure began.

Oddly enough, my last day there was February 26, 2021.

Of course, while this job kept me afloat and I was doing improv by this time, everything went south when COVID showed up in early March 2020. I wound up going on unemployment again for a while, then working remotely a couple of months until we started back up in the office before I gave notice so I could begin a fully remote freelance writing job.

And it wasn’t until I looked at where I was back in February 2017 — six months out of the hospital — that I realized how much everything that happened between then and now, almost five years later, has done to detail all that.

So I figured that it was a good time to go back to where this blog started and revisit Chapter One of The Guide to Do-It-Yourself Miracles. Because, apparently, my own advice didn’t stick.

* * *

Chapter One

“All right. I’m admitting you to the hospital via the emergency room.”

These are not exactly the words I was expecting to hear late on a Friday morning in summer. It was August 26, 2016, to be precise. It was the day before my boss’ birthday, and I was supposed to go into the office that afternoon to record a group video message to him. And, besides…

“Can I go make arrangements for my dog first at least?” I asked.

The doctor, who was an Indian woman currently giving me the stern look worthy of a disapproving Indira Gandhi, shook her head. “Would you like to die?” she asked, matter-of-factly.

Well, that was not good news.

I tried bargaining, but she was firm. She couldn’t exactly detain me against my will, but she urged my compliance in the strictest of terms. I tried to tell her why it was important that I go into the office briefly and arrange for someone to look after my dog. She was having none of it.

“Will anyone die if you don’t go to work?” she demanded.

“No…”

“Do you have friends you can call to go take care of your dog?”

“I… yes.”

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have even been a question, but even up to that point I was trying to deny the obvious. I was dying. I probably even should have been dead. But, like too many stubborn men, I had put off paying attention to the warning signs for way too long. And, like too many men, it wasn’t until whatever was going wrong with me affected my junk that I finally paid attention.

See, by this point, I had been rapidly gaining weight — nearly 45 pounds since the beginning of the year. I knew this and still know it now because I’d been tracking my weight since September of 2013, in an effort to lose some. In that first entry, from September 13, 2013, I logged a morning weight of 227.8 lbs. Even at 6’2”, that’s a BMI decidedly in the obese range already, and although I’d been taking steps to lose weight and tracking things diligently, my body decided at the beginning of 2016 to give me a hearty, “Screw you and your diet efforts!”

Hell, I’d stopped eating red meat entirely the October before. Wasn’t I supposed to start shrinking because of that? I was only eating poultry. I was doing fast days. Hell, there were weeks when I only had energy bars for lunch, and still I was swelling up like Violet Beauregard at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

By late August, I’d actually been sleeping sitting upright in my office chair rolled into my bedroom for a few months, wrapped in a comforter, because I could not breathe when I lay down. I could barely walk — not only because my legs were so swollen, but because almost any effort sent me gasping for air. The dog suffered because of it. We used to go up and down the neighborhood and around several blocks. Now, I’d sneak her outside and ten feet away to do her business, then right back in.

Now you’d think that a rational person would have taken any one of those things as a sign and gone right to the doctor, but I had two strikes against me in that regard. First was that whole natural male stubbornness.

“Oh, it’ll get better.”

“Oh, I’m not that sick.”

“What? I feel fine!”

Right.

Second was a bit more personal, but I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this. I suffered a severe case of what is technically called iatrophobia — fear of doctors — although, in my case, it wasn’t so much a phobia as it was a deep-seated mistrust, and it went straight back to a series of events that affected me deeply in my teenage years.

I won’t go too much into it here (out of respect) except to say that my mother fell victim to a mystery illness. In retrospect, it may have been lupus, or not. But the very short version of a too long story is that she died when I was way too young after a series of doctors seemed to basically scratch their heads and try a ton of medications. Ultimately, I think their ill-informed attempts to treat her symptoms rather than find the cause are what killed her. She’d been injected with steroids, given pain-killers and anti-inflammatories, poked and prodded and, mostly, ignored.

I specifically remember her complaining to me once that she had told her (exclusively male) doctors many times that her symptoms got worse whenever it was her time of the month. She told me this not very long after I’d learned what “time of the month” was in Sex Ed in the first place, by the way. But her male doctors just told her, “Oh, it’s all in your head.”

Yeah, I can hear the record-scratch for a modern audience on that absolute mind-boggler of a sexist statement, but nobody would have caught onto that in the late 80s. Of course hormones have an effect on medicine and how you’re feeling and everything else. Incidentally, to this day, most medicines are only tested and normalized based on men.

See, women get excluded from clinical trials because of the idea that they might one day get pregnant, so there’s no data whatsoever on the effect a lot of meds might have on women. Lather, rinse, repeat the vicious circle.

Sigh.

Anyway… I lost my mom and my dad lost his best friend and partner, and so I really never went to doctors. I can count on less than one hand the times that I ever did as an adult, whether I had health insurance or not — and too many of those times were bad experiences.

Prior to this visit, in fact, I had a nightmare adventure visiting an urgent care center that shall remain nameless (except: Not Kaiser) because of a sore finger, where I was utterly misdiagnosed with gout, and then they lost my blood samples after I left. Oh yeah — in order to get to that urgent care, I had to convince the insurance company, which had misplaced my primary care hospital nearly forty miles from home, that I in fact did not live in Huntington Beach, but in North Hollywood.

Good thing for me that I had mostly been healthy enough to feel immortal, right?

So this is why your humble narrator slept sitting up for a few months and tried to deny that he was in real trouble, and didn’t seek medical care until, as mentioned above, things started to affect his favorite things — which were those bits between his legs.

* * *

Oh, balls

If you’re an average male, your scrotum is about the size of a plum, depending on the weather. If you’re gifted, maybe a lemon, and if you’re a freak, a baseball. If you get up to stuff like pumping or inflating… well, you shouldn’t, but even then, that was nothing on what happened to me.

Imagine a nice, big cantaloupe. Now try to hold one of those between your thighs and walk. Also, try to imagine that this surprise set of elephant nuts is trying to strangle your penis. No — it’s trying to make your penis disappear, which makes it really awkward when it’s time to pee.

That was me on the Saturday night before I wound up in the hospital, when I insisted on driving all the way over to the West Side to see a friend’s staged reading of their musical in progress. How or why I did it, I have no idea — but fortunately the friends of mine in attendance who saw me and to whom I confided the truth had some advice for me.

“You should be in the goddamn hospital right now.”

Yeah, I guess I should have been. So the following morning I went to urgent care where, ironically, I met my primary care physician for the first time because he happened to be on rounds. I don’t think he was all that happy to see me. But, as I said in the intro, I’m sure that his first impression was not a good one: “I hope this fat sack doesn’t expect me to pull a miracle out of my ass when he hasn’t bothered to even show up despite being insured.”

Honestly, I totally deserved it if that is what he thought.

Of course, what really happened was that he ran a couple of tests — as it turned out, for an infection and an STI — prescribed some antibiotics, and sent me on my way. Probably standard procedure, but possibly also a different kind of test of me. I’d pretty much confessed my iatrophobia to him on first sight, and he didn’t seem impressed by that.

But a funny thing happened on my part when Dr. Williams came into that room. My fear of doctors vanished. He was a nice guy. He seemed to be a bit annoyed with me but, at the same time, was not at all judgmental. He listened. He explained. Nothing scary or nasty happened. He was clearly there to help, and there was a course of action. Maybe everything was going to be okay.

So I filled the prescription, headed home, and hoped for the best.

By Wednesday, my scrotum had gotten even bigger — what’s next up from a cantaloupe? And I wasn’t breathing better, and wasn’t feeling better, so I called Dr. Williams. He scheduled an echocardiogram for Friday morning, so that’s where I went. And it was after that test that the cardiologist gave me the life-changing news.

“You’re going to hospital now, or you’re going to die.”

Well, all right then…

* * *

How hearts fail

If this were a one-person show instead of a book, this is the point when the sound of a heartbeat would fill the theater and the lights would go to black, then the heartbeat would gradually get slower and more labored as slides projected in the darkness with a voiceover.

Congestive heart failure happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Congestive is exactly what it sounds like: traffic gets backed up, so your blood cells can’t get to where they need to go. Symptoms include fatigue, diminished ability to move around, shortness of breath, and swelling.

Guess which of those symptoms I had. Yeah, it’d be all of them.

In my case, my doctors told me that my heart function was at 15%. In a normal person, it’s expected to be 55% or above. So, while 15% isn’t as bad as it could be against a hundred, it’s still pretty bad. This percentage represents the ejection fraction — that, is the amount of blood that the left ventricle actually manages to squirt upward per beat. In a sense, this is your heart’s money shot, and the higher the better.

On top of this, I also apparently had a bit of mitral valve backwash. That is, blood that was trying to make it up and out that left ventricle was pouring back down instead. End result: Fluid gathering, first in my legs, then in my ass, finally, washing up into my torso and back down into my scrotum.

In retrospect, I think that the doctor who had admitted me was right. I probably would not have lived more than another week if I hadn’t gone into the hospital right that moment. As it was, I spent about the next ten hours in the emergency room, in a private room on a gurney, hooked up to a Furosemide IV.

Furosemide is a powerful diuretic. A diuretic makes you urinate — and that I did, about every fifteen minutes for most of that weekend. Now, since they were monitoring fluid in and fluid out, I had to use a plastic urinal, and I couldn’t count how many times I filled one of those things over the next three days. All I do know is that I walked out of that hospital 45 lbs lighter than I’d been when I walked in.

* * *

In hospital

As a patient, I’d only been in a hospital one other time in my life — the first sixteen days after I was born two months premature, so I don’t remember any of it. I was a frequent hospital visitor as both of my parents were dying, though, so I did not have great associations with the places.

Ironically, my original ambition had been to be a doctor, although I just didn’t have the math aptitude to pursue a scientific profession. I also volunteered in a hospital in high school and then worked in two during and just after college, and these experiences did not help enamor me of the location, either.

Hospitals are full of sick people and they never really quiet down. I had learned that one firsthand working as a security guard while I was in college, when first the swing guy didn’t show up and then the night shift guy didn’t show up, so I worked a twenty-four hour shift. Hey, it was a small hospital.

Did I mention that the fine people I worked for at the time screwed me out of the ridiculous overtime on that one, by the way? Although in retrospect I could have screwed them back fifteen ways from Sunday in a lawsuit. But I didn’t. (I didn’t work for the hospital, by the way — it was a contractor that staffed multiple hospitals, and the people who ran the company were dicks, in the modern and film noir meanings of the word.)

But I do digress…

I found the entire hospital experience that summer to be surprisingly… pleasant, actually. And yes, that was a surprise to me. I actually had two IV lines in me — one in my left hand and the other in my right arm — and the biggest surprise there was that they didn’t bother me at all.

I had always wondered how people could put up with having needles in them for a long period of time, and now I know. Part of the reason, of course, is that an IV isn’t a needle in your arm, it’s a cannula, which is a very thin and flexible tube that’s actually inserted via a hypodermic needle. I didn’t realize this until they finally pulled it out and bent it.

In a lot of ways, being in a private hospital room is a lot like being in a very fancy, although very boring, hotel. There’s also a magnificent staff available 24/7 to wait on you, and a parade of doctors. When they need to do tests or take X-rays, one of the wonderful nurses will give you a ride, either flat on a gurney or in a wheelchair. There’s even cable and WiFi!

One of the most interesting changes I’ve noticed in medicine from my days working in hospitals is how much everything has become geared toward modesty, which is a sad side-effect of America’s returning puritanism and sexual repression that began in the ‘90s. Even when my doctor was examining my scrotum out of necessity — cantaloupe, remember? — I still had on my underwear and a gown, and he only uncovered what he actually needed to see. This was also true when they did an ultrasound on the same place in the hospital — the tech was basically groping around under a towel.

Now, I’m not a particularly shy person, so these kinds of concessions don’t really mean a lot to me, but if you’re the kind of person who avoids medical care because of modesty, it looks like that issue has been minimized if not all but eliminated. Of course, I never had to have a catheter, so there wasn’t any reason for doctors or nurses to poke around down there in the first place. In fact, they told me to keep my underwear on when I changed into the hospital gown.

That part wasn’t so pleasant after three days straight, by the way.

* * *

Not that bad, really

The hardest part of the experience was that first day, really, and mainly because I spent about ten hours in the emergency room before they took me up to the hospital proper. By the time I got up there, the kitchen had closed and I hadn’t eaten anything before the test, so by that point it had been well over twenty-four hours since I’d had food. “Dinner” on the first night consisted of graham crackers and juice, although I was limited during my stay to a maximum of 1.2 liters of fluid per day — which ain’t a lot.

The food for the rest of the weekend really made up for all of it, though.

This is something I thought that I would never say or write, but I actually have fond memories of that weekend in the hospital. Maybe it was being the center of attention — a little bit — but it was also an enormous sense of relief. My health had been going downhill since at least the previous Thanksgiving by that point. Now, suddenly, people were doing something about it and I was feeling better.

One of the most memorable encounters of the weekend happened on Saturday, though, when I first met my cardiologist, Dr. Manela. Keep in mind that this was a Saturday, and the doctor walked into the room wearing a kippah. If you’re a goy, you might know that as a yarmulke, but the key point is that despite the doctor being very Jewish, he’s dropping in on me on the Sabbath, and those two little details really gave me confidence. Long story, which I’ll probably tell elsewhere, but while I’m technically Catholic while raised as a very secular Protestant who ended up a total atheist, I’m also very, very Jewish culturally because all of my closest friends growing up were — so I tend to trust Jews more than I trust any other religious group, because they truly are concerned with life. That, plus they don’t try to convert people, which is a big bonus.

That was exactly the reason that such an observant Jew was able to work on the Sabbath and meet with me, by the way. See, there’s this great little bit in their rules that says, “If what you’re doing will save a life, then you go and work your ass off, and don’t even pay no never mind to whether it’s the Sabbath, or whether it’s kosher.”

Who’d a thunk it — a religion that uses logic. Wow.

The news that Dr. Manela came to give me was this: “Hi. Your heart failed.” And he was then truly shocked by my lack of shock. In fact, he even pointed it out, telling me that most of the time that he told people this, they freaked the hell out. My response to him was that I tended to react that way to bad news, because the only logical response was to say, “Okay, that’s a thing. Now what do I do to fix it?”

I think he appreciated that answer — a little bit then, but a hell of a lot more as time went on, more on which later.

Saturday was also the day that I met one of my weekend nurses who, more than anyone, was really responsible for making my stay a fantastic experience. He was nice, he was caring, he was funny, and he really took his time to explain to me what was going on, and to just sit down and talk. I don’t even remember whether I told him about my whole iatrophobia thing, but I definitely told him about the circumstances (read: swollen nutsack) that brought me there in the first place, and on Sunday he asked me, “Uh… can I see it?”

Keep in mind that he’s straight (sorry, boys), and his interest was strictly professional, but it was actually really endearing. I mean, honestly, in America, elephantiasis is probably not something he’d see every day, or any day, and, while that was not the cause of my produce department sized funbag, it was still an interesting end result, at least.

Like I said, I’m not shy, but this led to one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever had. Yeah, we’re talking about my balls, there they are somewhere inside of all that, and how’s your wife again? Definitely a bonding moment.

* * *

About my dog

Now, the observant and animal-lovers among you are probably still wondering one thing. “What about your dog?”

Thanks for asking.

Her name is Sheeba and when I went into the hospital she was eleven years old. While she kind of acts very independent, she’s actually a lot more clingy than she pretends to be, especially to me and especially after her older sister, Shadow, passed away in September 2014. She doesn’t exactly have separation anxiety, but she doesn’t do well on her own.

That’s a kind of interesting side-effect of my day job, which I haven’t mentioned yet. For the last decade, I’d worked for the Dog Whisperer, also known as Cesar Millan, and it was a dog-friendly office. So Sheeba and Shadow always got to go to work with me, and Sheeba especially did so after Shadow was gone — practically every day. But the downside of that one was that when I had to leave her at home alone because I was kind of busy trying not to die, it was not good for her.

I did manage to contact one old friend who knew her from about a decade ago, then give her my keys to go drop in for feeding and walking. The problem was that Sheeba didn’t remember her, so fled and hid behind the bed. So switch-up to a friend Sheeba had dealt with more recently, and he managed to actually get in there and walk her and feed her.

Still, when I came home on Monday, it wasn’t pretty. Sheeba practically exploded when I finally came back, she had blown her coat all over the place, and had torn down and chewed up the metal blinds in my bedroom. My absence was clearly a traumatic experience for her, and if there was a downside to my hospital experience, this was it.

I suppose, though, it was better to come back to her three days later than to have never come back at all.

* * *

You gotta have heart…

Your heart is a muscular organ. It’s neither your largest nor your smallest. Those honors belong to your gluteus maximi (in your butt) and the stapedius (in your ear) respectively. However, it’s certainly the most important. You could live without your largest and smallest muscles, although you probably couldn’t walk or hear. Without your heart (or a mechanical replacement) you die.

The heart’s job, which begins about six weeks after conception and ends about eight minutes or so before your death (in most cases), is to move your blood around your body. Your blood has several jobs. One is to bring oxygen to your cells and take carbon dioxide away. Others are to fight infection and close up wounds. It’s also the medium in which nutrients and hormones get around, being distributed from the source organs in your digestive and endocrine systems.

If you have an average resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute, then it will beat 31,557,600 times per year, more or less. Live to the age of three score and ten years mentioned in Psalm 90:10, and it will beat over 2.2 billion times. (Ooh… the atheist just quoted the Bible. Yeah, I’m allowed to do that. It’s a pretty important literary source.)

Ironically, the only other muscles in your body that work as hard or harder are the two diminutive muscles in your inner ear, but only because they are constantly responding to everything that you hear. By the way, some humans still have muscles in their outer ear that allow them to actually move them. I happen to be one of those rare humans who does, and I can wiggle my ears like nobody’s business. That has nothing to do with anything, but it’s fun to brag about and it’s always amused my dogs.

But I do digress…

The average human heart is the size of its human’s fist, and it weighs about 11 ounces. This is far less than the human brain (3 pounds), lungs (1.9 pounds) and liver (3.5 pounds). This is also far, far less than the weight of your skin, which is your biggest organ, clocking in at a probably surprising but impressive 16% of your weight. In my case, that’s 27 pounds now. It used to be 44. Also surprisingly: despite my rapid weight loss, I did not wind up with any extra dangly skin bits.

But the point of all these facts and figures is this: This not particularly large organ that weighs just less than a can of soup and which hides behind your sternum (the bit that connects your ribs) and between your lungs (the left one of which is smaller to accommodate it) starts working before you’re born and cannot rest for a second until you die. When it’s doing its job right, you hardly notice it. But when it isn’t…

Oh yeah. You’ll notice then. The only question is whether you’ll pay attention to what your heart is telling you and live or, like me, ignore the obvious and nearly die.

I’m really fond of the “live” option, personally.

* * *

Fear

There was only thing that had kept me out of that hospital room and out of my doctor’s office: Stupid, useless fear. There’s a famous line in Frank Herbert’s Dune that is a recurring motif because it’s the mantra of a religious order and it begins like this: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”

I’d update that in my case to say that Fear Is the Killer. It kills ambition, it kills progress, and it can kill people. It can prevent us from achieving what is possible and from learning who we are. It stops us from moving forward and locks us in a safe, little box that might as well be a coffin. Fear is the mother of prejudice and the father of hate; the creator of division and the birthplace of ignorance.

The opposite of Fear is Love, and Love is the mother of Hope, Harmony, and Humanity.

Once I got over my fear, amazing things took place, way beyond mere physical healing. See, a funny thing happens when you face one fear and nothing bad happens. You start to face more of them, one after the other, until you’re killing fears left and right.

The incredible doctors and nurses of Kaiser Permanente helped put my heart back together, but then I took that ball and ran with it because I’d been given the greatest thing in the world: A second chance at life.

I think that I’ve lived more in those days since I got out of the hospital than I had in the entire time leading up to them. It’s a great feeling, and now I’m going to tell you how to do it for yourself, but the journey out is a story best begun with the journey in.

* * *
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