Sunday Nibble #57: Shook

Today, April 18, 2021, is the 115th anniversary of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, which struck at 5:12 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Estimated to have been a magnitude 7.9 with a Mercali intensity of XI, it leveled much of the city. A lot of the rest of it was destroyed by the multitude of fires that broke out in the aftermath.

But let’s take a look at Market Street, one of the main crosstown thoroughfares in the city, on a Saturday afternoon just four days earlier. This footage has been uprezzed, colorized, and the frame rate adjusted to 60 FPS, but that only serves to make it more amazing.

For me, a few things are significant about this. One is the total chaos of the traffic patterns, with pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicle, automobiles, and streetcars all somehow co-existing without any kind of traffic signals or apparent control.

Sure, everything is probably going eight miles an hour, but it’s still a pretty impressive feat.

Another thing to pay attention to is the behavior of the people. Other than the outer trappings of clothing, you can see that they have the same needs and concerns, and even some of the same reactions to the camera passing as people do now to spotting the Google Map Car.

But something else to keep in mind while looking at this footage: A lot of these people would be dead in less than in less than 96 hours — 3,000 died in the quake — and most of what you’re looking at was destroyed. About 80% of the city either fell over outright or burned.

Collapsing was pretty common along Market which, like most big cities of the time, was full of unreinforced brick and masonry buildings. The quake even shifted the course of the Salinas River by an incredible distance of six miles.

Remember, at the time, San Francisco was the ninth largest city in the U.S., and the largest on the West Coast. (Los Angeles really hadn’t happened yet.) The City was the center of trade, finance, and culture for the west, operating a busy port known as the Gateway to the Pacific.

The quake changed everything, and while San Francisco rebuilt quickly, the vast majority of its 410,000 residents were still homeless for a couple of years. A lot of them headed south and wound up in Los Angeles, which eventually took over as the principal city of the West Coast.

Total property damage, adjusted for inflation, was over $11 billion dollars, only $6.7 billion of it covered by insurance.

Since San Francisco was a banking center, immediate cash was tied up. All of the major banks did have fireproof vaults, but they had to wait days before they were cool enough to open. Meanwhile, only one bank, the Bank of Italy, had been able to evacuate its funds and started making rebuilding loans immediately.

That company changed its name to Bank of America in 1929, but it wouldn’t have become so big without the quake. The Transamerica Tower — the famous pyramidal structure in The City’s North Beach — is named for the holding company that owns Bank of America and its corporate parent.

California in general and San Francisco and Los Angeles in particular have survived plenty of earthquakes since 1906, of course. L.A. got its first big jolt — well, the county, not the city — in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which led to some of the first big building code reforms.

A lot of the buildings that lost walls and façades were made of unreinforced brick, so in the ensuing years, these structures were strengthened with steel rebar (i.e., reinforcing bar) which would run through the bricks beneath floors as well as up the vertical height of internal supporting walls.

You can spot the telltale signs to this day on brick buildings. Just look for the things that look like stubby bolts sticking out of square metal plates in regular lines. Unreinforced brick buildings are still standing in all the older parts of the city, including Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, South L.A., and so on.

Los Angeles next got hit in 1971 with the Sylmar Quake, and San Francisco followed with the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, which hit during the opening of a World Series baseball final taking place in the city, making it one of the few quakes seen nationally in real time.

In 1994, Los Angeles was rattled by the 1994 Northridge Quake — and things have been weirdly quiet since then, really — down south and up north.

Although California did experience not one, but two 1906-worthy Big Ones on consecutive days in 2019 — a 6.4 out in the desert on Independence day, which turned out to be the intro to the 7.1 quake that hit the following evening.

This happened 150 miles northeast of L.A., and I did not feel the first one — but the second was one of the most surreal quakes I ever have experienced.

I was still working for ComedySportz L.A. and doing improv at the time, and we had just started our Friday night 8 p.m. show when the entire place started to sort of… shimmy.

It wasn’t a hard shaking by any means, but there was definitely motion. Thinking quickly, the cast onstage opened the on-set doors, which backed up to the actor entrance doors behind the stage, opened those, and hurried everyone out to the street, probably a better option than rushing them out under the (at the time) 93-year-old steel and neon marquee out front.

Meanwhile, the house manager and I stood in the lobby, wondering, “Okay. Little one nearby, or big one far away?”

We eventually strolled into the lobby and chatted with the main theatre company’s house manager as the floor continued to vibrate.

The two weirdest things to me were that while the motion was detectable, it really wasn’t alarming, just strange. The other was just how damn long it continued. Nobody timed anything, but objectively, it seemed like a couple of minutes at least, maybe more. Then it finally stopped.

Now, if we felt that one so strongly in L.A. why didn’t feel the one from the day before at all? True, the second one had 11 times the energy of the first and I was about three miles closer. Still, there should have been a jolt. Except, this is a weird quirk I’ve discovered about the place I’m living now.

For some reason, not a lot of small quakes seem to even rattle things here. I’ve been online when people nearby in North Hollywood or over at the Sherman Oaks Galleria have posted, “Good shake. Did you feel that?” And I felt nothing.

Not even a swinging blind-rod or a tell-tale creak. Hey, I’m not complaining. I remember the Northridge quake quite well, and it scared the crap out of me.

But there is one other thing. For some reason (knock wood), Los Angeles has always had very low mortality rates in earthquakes. Then again, other than 1906, it’s been the same for San Francisco.

Only 63 people died in the 1989 quake in San Francisco, despite the double-decker Marina Freeway pancaking during evening rush hour. In the Northridge quake of 1994, only 72 people died, and the death toll for Sylmar in 1971 was 64 people, 49 of whom died in a single location when the VA hospital practically sitting on the epicenter experienced multiple structure failures.

My dad had actually worked for the architectural firm that had designed and built the place, and since he’d been a photographer in the Air Force and did all of his own processing and printing, they had him come along to document the damage, part of a process that became essential in figuring out what failed and how to prevent it from happening again.

Of course, he kept a complete set of prints for himself, and I remember looking at them years later. A few photos stuck out. One was a wheelchair balanced precariously in the edge of a parking structure that had partially collapsed, so that it was hanging by its back wheels, five stories up.

Another was of a supporting column, probably three feet square, that had sheared off. This exposed the maybe 1-inch rebar inside in I’m guessing a five-by-five array. This solid, braided steel had been bent in several directions by the shaking, so that it resembled more of a hybrid S/J shape in the gap between the lower and upper parts of the column.

The most disturbing, though, was the one that looked the most normal. It seemed to be just a non-descript one-story medical building, nothing out of the ordinary. It had no broken windows, wasn’t leaning in any particular direction, and seemed to have survived.

I asked my dad about it and he said, “Oh. That was a two-story building.”

Because of things I’ve learned over the years, I will always shun living or working in any building between 4 and 8 stories, because those tend to resonate with earthquakes. This means that once the shake starts, the natural rate at which the building will propagate that shaking up its height before damping it from the bottom makes the shaking stronger.

This was particularly apparent in the Northridge quake, when a lot of fatalities occurred in an apartment complex that was… four stories tall. The top three pancaked the bottom and, since it was 4:31 in the morning, a lot of people were sleeping down there.

The other type of apartment building to avoid is what’s called “Dingbat Architecture.” Popular in the 1950s and 60s, they were a cheap-to-build style that popped up all across the Sunbelt. In Los Angeles, they’re all over the West Side, Culver City, and the San Fernando Valley.

One of their defining features is a second story that just out over open parking spaces and is supported by rather thin columns. Depending on whether the parking was on the street or in the back, the second floor above it would be either the living room and kitchen areas or the bedrooms and bathrooms.

Needless to say, being in a bedroom above a parking area like this is generally not the safest space to be in a quake. Surprisingly, it’s a lot safer to be in a much taller building.

I had friends who, at the time of the Northridge Quake, ived in a high-rise on Wilshire, near Westwood. They were on the 23rd floor of what I think was a 25-story building. Their perception of the quake? “Oh, it was just a little rattle, not worth getting up for.”

They didn’t learn the truth until they got up hours later, went to make coffee, and turned on the news.

So, yeah, I’d prefer to be in a building like that. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but here’s the thing — structures that tall naturally cancel out the shaking. Why? Well, because when the ground floor shifts, it takes a while for that movement to make it to the top.

Say that the ground floor starts out with a shift of five feet west. That will start traveling up the building, but this is an earthquake, so it’s very likely that half a second later, the ground is going to shift five feet east, and send this impulse up. And… repeat.

What you wind up with is the equivalent of a starting a very fast vibration in a very long string. And the longer the string, the lower the note, because that fast vibration slows way down. A move in one direction might only make it to the third floor by the time the next move cancels it out, and so on.

On top of that, for really tall buildings, they have to counter the very real effect of wind-sway so that occupants on the top floors don’t get motion sickness — yeah, those suckers can swing a few feet in any direction at any time. To do this, a lot of really tall buildings have counterweights built into their cores. These are basically heavy pendulums that naturally fight the building’s need to sway.

Hey — wind, earthquake, whatever. The counterweights do their job.

Barring either of the above, then a single-story, wood frame, free-standing house with everything earthquake strapped, bugout kits in the cars, and earthquake beds would be the other ideal. The one advantage over the high rise, of course, is that you’re not stuck with the choice between staying home for a week or two or walking down and then possibly back up way too many flights of stairs.

Still, my grandmother would call my mother after any report of any quake and ask her, “When are you moving back home to Pennsylvania?”

My mom would reply, “You have floods, and the effects of those last for months and years. An earthquake is over in seconds, and things get back to normal quickly.”

I always grew up thinking the same way. Give me the choice between floor, tornado, hurricane, and earthquake, I’ll take the quake — provided that I’m living somewhere, like California, that takes them seriously enough to make things as safe as possible.

The Saturday Morning Post #58: The Rêves Part 36

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

White rabbit

It was light out when Joshua woke up, although he had no idea what time it was. Simon was wrapped around him and still quite warm and tangible, and the sex the night before had been beyond amazing. There was something else going on beyond the physical.

More than a few times to Joshua it felt like his own soul and consciousness had suddenly left this head, bubbled up under his taint, shot up his asshole, and then ridden his spine into his skull before exploding out into the universe, leaving him a quivering pile of ecstasy.

When it felt like his mind and soul came back, it also felt like he and Simon were the same person before he would slowly feel his limbs and body unfold back into place and his eyes would open to see that everything had a deep violet glow.

Preston had been right about the difficulty of keeping silent, too, although when Joshua and Simon were at the peak and the Danny and Preston started to audibly moan and wail as well, it just intensified everything.

Joshua turned to stare at a sleeping Simon, content that they had gotten to be back together — sort of — and reconciling himself to both how they did it and to the fact that Preston and Danny had now also sort of fucked him, or something.

“Band of Thebes,” he thought as he remembered that they were about to march into war and, with any luck, win the only battle and save the Rêves. And, honestly, the humans, because Joshua had a feeling that if Ausmann did manage to do what he wanted to, it would not affect Pearl or the Hadas, and they would take their revenge by scrubbing the planet of humanity.

Although this morning, it wasn’t so much a feeling as it was just something he believed.

Simon stirred and his eyes opened and they smiled at each other, and then followed their first of the month tradition.

“White rabbit!” they said in unison, and they smiled harder and hugged.

“How the hell is it September already?” Joshua asked.

“Wake me when September ends,” Simon replied.

“Oh, don’t even, you putz!” Joshua warned him, playfully slapping his shoulder.

“What?” Simon asked, sincerely.

“You’re quoting elevator music, okay?” Joshua shot back.

“I like Green Day,” Simon said.

“I know,” Joshua said. “But I don’t want this September to end. I don’t want this day to end, or this… this whatever it is.”

“See? We fucked that tune right out of you?” Simon said, with a smile.

“What tune?”

“Your whole resistance to, um… guests? Observers? Um — ”

“We can hear you,” Preston’s voice suddenly called out.

“Them,” Simon added.

“And we can feel you,” Danny said.

“And we are totally fucked out, thank you!” Preston continued.

“My god,” Joshua whispered to Simon. “We out-fucked porn stars?”

Simon kissed Joshua on the forehead, then hugged him tight. “This wasn’t mere ‘fucking,’ honey,” he explained. “It was… well, in video game terms, leveling up before the boss battle. You’ve got a little bit of Rêve in you now — ”

Little?” Joshua scoffed.

“Stop!” Simon ordered him. “You know what I mean. We’ve kind of tagged you as one of us, meaning one of the Rêves, and that is your armor in case they ever go after the humans.”

“Why would they do that?” Joshua asked.

“They wouldn’t,” Simon said, “Unless we fail.”

“So we can’t fail, dude,” Preston and Simon both whispered.

“Okay, so how do we win?” Joshua asked.

“Simple,” Simon said. “Make sure all the pieces favor us calling checkmate. And in order to do that, you need to power up as many Pawns as you can to be Queens.”

“I hope that’s a chess reference and not — ”

“Yes, and no,” Simon said. “I’ve already been given the ultimate power-up, but you need a bit more of a boost.”

“Wait,” Joshua called out. “You don’t mean you’re going to kill me and turn me into a Rêve. Right?”

“Of course I don’t mean that,” Simon explained. “You just need one more trip up the magic mountain in order to see what we see. So, ready?”

“I… don’t know,” Joshua replied. “How do I get up there?”

“Simple,” Simon explained. “I get behind you and push.”

Joshua just laughed at the absurdity of it all. Did it really come down to his husband fucking super powers into him, was this all just bullshit, or what?

He kind of didn’t care, so he rolled onto his left side and called back. “Okay. Do your worst. But you’re the one who gets to wash the sheets.”

This one immediately felt different and far more intense, plus it felt like Joshua’s body was being stroked by more than just two hands — at least six, but probably more than that. And then he started to hear voices — not just Simon, Danny, and Preston, but dozens, and then hundreds, and then thousands of others.

The words were not distinct, and he had the impression that they were speaking many languages, and the speakers were all possible ages and genders.

And then, he began to see… things. There were swirling lights in green and blue that he thought at first were those typical images he saw before falling asleep, but then everything became symmetrical, as if it turned into a kaleidoscope of lace or stained glass, and the green and blue melted into an electric shade of cyan that was quickly joined by neon violet, with red creeping in from the center and the edges.

All of the speaking tongues suddenly melded together into one human voice singing a soaring chorus not made up of words but of sounds — Joshua thought that maybe they were the primal noises humans made that eventually became language — and then he realized that the music beneath it consisted of chords clearly played on a piano.

He fell out of his visions and landed clearly in a past memory. He and Simon were sitting in a micro-brewery in San Francisco’s North Beach. Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky was playing over the speakers, and Joshua realized that there was a spinet piano right behind his bench, so he turned around, opened the cover, and started playing along to the song.

Here was the weird part: While Joshua had musical training, he could never play by ear, but his mind just told him that the song was in D minor — well, technically, in F Major, but the relative minor took precedence, and away he went, picking out the cords and blending right in.

Weirdly, it was a talent he’d sort of retained, but then present Joshua realized that he was peeking in on past Joshua, at least fifteen years earlier, and then realized two things more.

The Simon who had come back looked exactly as old as he had during their brief six months in San Francisco. And, second, that particular night in that particular North Beach microbrewery, Joshua had been tripping balls on shrooms.

That realization was the instant that he was yanked back into current reality, probably by Simon’s death grip on his nipples and his persistent pounding, but then he remembered Simon’s comments about giving him another power-up, and he once again felt that weird build-up between his legs and just behind his balls.

But then time seemed to fracture and crystalize, and suddenly Joshua was simultaneously reliving every single time in his life he’d ever cum, and it wasn’t just with Simon. From around the time he turned 12 until he graduated high school, that was well over 6,500 times — and those were just guitar solos.

And so on and so forth. But every single one of those orgasms started playing on repeat in his brain and body at once, and he lost his fucking mind in the white noise of ecstasy.

What could have been seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years later, Joshua woke up in the bedroom, alone, naked, and feeling like a glazed donut.

“Simon?” he called out, but there was no response. “Danny? Preston?” He tried again, but nothing.

And then he stopped thinking about them and suddenly saw in his mind where they were, so he headed right out the doors, onto the balcony, and up to the roof via the ladder on the balcony, where the three were hanging out.

When he appeared, they applauded.

“You just passed your final, dear,” Simon said, and this was when Joshua realized that he and the boys were quite separate.

“What?” he asked. “I don’t get to fuck y’all again?”

“Didn’t we it do enough already?” Preston asked.

“Probably,” Joshua said. “I still feel like I’m not quite on the planet.”

“Like how you figured out we were up here when we weren’t moving or talking?” Simon asked him.

“Oh, yeah. Right. How did I know that?”

“I told you, dude. You’ve leveled up. Now are you ready for that boss fight?”

“I guess it’s now or never,” Joshua replied. “Let’s go get ready.” They headed downstairs.

In San Bernardino, Captain Shrantz had just been informed that the FBI had taken an interest in the case of the exploding cabin not because the alleged perpetrator worked for the federal government, but because the cabin was located on federal land, in the middle of a National Forest.

Her supervisor hinted at the fact that if her division managed to trap the perpetrator first, it would look really good not only for her division, but would help the Sheriff-Coroner’s next election bid, even though it wasn’t for another three years. And if Shrantz wanted to be promoted to Deputy Sheriff and move onto the executive staff…?

He left it hanging, but she got the message. She had a gut instinct that despite all of the LEO’s looking for him, he would ultimately run to ground at his basecamp at JPL. So this would require some coordination with L.A. County, the City of Pasadena, and either the FBI or Federal Marshals.

Of course, her division probably wouldn’t get the bust even if they made it, but their presence would be mentioned in the media.

She discussed her thoughts with her Lieutenants, and Ramirez was, as usual, playing Devil’s advocate — a big part of the reason that Shrantz just admired the fuck out of him.

“Why the hell would he go back there?” Ramirez exclaimed. “That’s like painting a giant target on your ass, bending over, and screaming, ‘Well hellooooo, boys!’”

“I think it all depends upon who you think is coming to put some fire in the hole.”

“Oh, nice call-back,” Ramirez said, sincerely.

“Thank you,” Shrantz continued. “If he doesn’t think it’s the feds, then he might be lulled into a false sense of security that no agency on a lower level can penetrate his fortress.”

“Still a big risk.”

“Is it, though?” Shrantz replied. “He already had a team of campus police and Simi Valley amateurs out there…” she squinted at the report. “Sorry, Federal Marshals, but they didn’t get…” she looked at the paper again. “Sorry, again. No, Simi Valley cops, with some LAPD, and campus cops, and none of them could get in.”

“But does he know that?” Ramirez asked.

“Well, apparently, he was there at the time,” Shrantz told him. “So if we want to find our killer, that’s where we need to go.”

“Right. But if all those others couldn’t get in, how the hell could we?”

“Simple,” Shrantz explained. “Once we’re in place, then we call in the Feds, because I’m sure they would have the keys and passcodes and whatever to get down into that place in two minutes.”

“They make the bust, we get the tip-off credit?” Ramirez wondered.

“Exactly,” Shrantz exclaimed.

“Okay. I like it,” Ramirez replied. “So when do we go?”

“Crap. It’s Labor Day weekend, isn’t it?” Shrantz realized. “They’re not going to want to invest in a helicopter for this trip and traffic both ways is going to be shit, so… tomorrow morning?”

“Sounds good to me,” Ramirez agreed.

“Exellent,” Shrantz replied. “Make it so.”

Ramirez nodded and headed off to coordinate plans.

Davis and Lewis had just finished a late lunch and he was doing the dishes when she told him, “You know, I have gut-feeling.”

“Again?” he replied.

“You know they’re always right,” she said.

“I know,” he shot back, “But they tend to get us in trouble.”

“Except when they solve cases,” she insisted. “Anyway, I know where we can find him.”

“And where’s that, Sherlock Holmes?” Lewis teased her.

“Simple,” Davis replied. “Where’s the last place you’d look?”

“The ruins of his house in Simi,” Lewis said.

“Okay, technically true, but they’re way too exposed. Where can he hide underground, with multiple layers of protection?”

“A nuclear missile silo?”

“Okay, honey, now you’re just being silly.”

“I know,” Lewis grinned at her.

“JPL. Well, at his facility beneath it. From all the reports I’ve seen, it’s been closed down since the storm, but if he can get in there…”

“Perfect hidey-hole,” Lewis added.

“Exactly.”

“But isn’t absolutely everyone watching it?”

“Maybe,” Davis said. “But he was the boss. He had the keys to everything, and here’s a thought. A facility like that might have one obvious entrance, but what about emergencies?”

“Oh my god,” Lewis suddenly realized. “You’re right. They must have Swiss-cheesed multiple escape routes out of there. But wouldn’t those just be one way exits?”

“Maybe,” Davis explained. “But if you’re the boss, and you’re as paranoid as we think he is —”

“Is he?”

“Didn’t you read the psych reports on the server? Anyway, he had complete control of the place, so I’m sure that for every secret exit, he’s found a way to make it his secret entrance.”

“So what are we waiting for?” Lewis demanded.

“Back-up, I suppose,” she replied. “And it’s probably better not to hit at night — ”

“It’s only three o’clock.”

“You know full well that multi-agency shit takes time. Doing it within twenty-four hours would surprise the hell out of me.”

“But making the bust and turning it over…?” he suggested. “How good would that make the SVPD look?

“Are you going all politician on me?” she asked.

“Since when have I ever run for anything?” he replied.

“Kiwanis Club president, 1998,” she snapped back.

“And I lost!” he retorted. “I’m a bad politician. But a good chess player. And it seems like if we take your hunch, get there first, and make the arrest, well… good things for you?”

“I’m just not like that,” she finally said, crossing into the living room and grabbing her laptop off of the coffee table to bring it back into the kitchen. “It takes a village,” she said. “Or… whatever. But, all right, let’s roll the dice. You said they can’t pull multi-agency together in 24 hours? Time to test that theory.”

She had been typing and tapping the entire time she’d been speaking, but paused both at the same time. Lewis turned from the sink and looked at her, suddenly panicking.

“Oh god,” he said. “What did you do?”

“Nothing yet,” she smiled back, index finger hovering over the enter key.

“What the hell are you about to do?” he demanded.

“Bringing someone who is probably a serial killer to justice, no matter who gets credit?” she replied. “Duh?”

And then her finger dropped onto the enter button and the image of the message on her screen vanished.

“Duh and done,” she added.

Lewis just stared at her for a long moment, then realized that she was right. It didn’t matter who stopped this asshole, as long as someone did.

“So do we really need to schlep out there tomorrow morning?” he asked.

“What?” she replied. “You think I want to piss away the chance to be the one to arrest him? Oh, hell noes. But I want to keep it a fair chase, and minimize his opportunities of escaping. Capisce?

Lewis sighed and smiled. “I knew there was a reason that I loved you,” he said.

“Liar,” she replied. “There are at least twenty-three.”

“True,” he shrugged.

Brenda was back at work, anticipating an early shut down for the holiday weekend, when Joshua called her.

“Guess who’s back!” he said.

“You’re kidding!” Brenda replied.

“Nope. Not in the flesh, but definitely in the spirit.”

She could hear him turn the phone and then heard Simon say, “Hi, Brenda. Happy September 1st.”

“I’ll be damned. But isn’t that weird to you both?” she asked.

“Little bit,” Joshua replied. “But it has its benefits. Anyway, we just wanted to let you know that we’re both safe, we’ve gone over all of the information we have, have gathered all the protection and… weapons that we need, and tomorrow we are stopping Ausmann.”

“That sounds really stupid and dangerous,” she chided them, going into Mom mode. “Why not just turn him over the authorities or something? He did kill your husband.”

“But they don’t know that,” Joshua spurted, realizing his mistake almost immediately.

“And neither did I, until now,” Brenda said. “Look. I will keep my mouth shut about that, I never heard you say it, but on one condition. You let me help you two, so that you don’t get your ass killed, and Simon doesn’t get his killed a second time.”

Joshua wanted to tell her that his ass had already been absolutely murdered four or five times in the last twenty-four hours, but refrained. Instead he asked, sincerely, “Um… what can you do for us, Brenda?”

“Bitch, I’m with L.A. County Government, and where the hell do you think you are?”

“Even JPL?”

“Last I looked, Pasadena was in L.A. County.”

“But JPL, and especially Ausmann’s project, is under Federal jurisdiction.”

“But a lot of the infrastructure around it is ours. Look, what would be the most useful thing I could do for you?”

Joshua and Simon thought about it a moment and discussed it quietly, then Joshua turned back to his phone. “I suppose,” he explained, “Keep out any unnecessary interference, at least until we can get him to where we need him.”

“’Interference’ as in the metric fuckton of law enforcement agencies that are no doubt looking for his ass, right?”

“Exactly!” Joshua and Simon exclaimed together.

“Yeah, I can pull some strings and get some emergency street and off-ramp closures set up tomorrow. And it’s in Pasadena, so it will inconvenience old white people, so yay!”12.

“Won’t it inconvenience us and Ausmann in getting there?” Simon asked, Joshua relaying the question.

“No, because I’m going to give you the magic words to get through. Well, the magic QR code you can flash on your phone. Although I’d really recommend that you arrange to drive Ausmann yourselves, to avoid him being seen.”

“I think we could do that,” Joshua said. “It’s a Tesla, plenty of storage space in the trunk and under the hood.”

Simon gestured for Joshua to hold the phone his way. “You only need to stall things until we confirm that we’re down there,” he told her, “And then let them loose.”

“Any particular reason for that?” Brenda asked.

“Sure,” Simon said. “The proper authorities have got to be there to arrest his ass once we’ve stopped his plot to kill all of the Rêves.”

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” Brenda said.

“OMG,” Joshua said. “You know your Shakespeare! No wonder we all get along so well.”

I count myself in nothing else so happy, as in a soul remembering my good friends…” Simon added, somewhat wistfully.

Tomorrow in battle, think of me,” Brenda said.

“That’s not the best advice, considering the source,” Joshua replied.

“Oh, shit, right. You better not put away your swords and despair!” she admonished him.

They all laughed, then fell into a moment of quiet.

“Tomorrow morning,” she finally told them. “It’s soon, but I think I can set this up.”

“Let us know whether you could or couldn’t,” Joshua told her. “Securing that will actually be the go signal for our whole mission.”

“Ooh. Now I feel so important,” Brenda said.

“That’s because you are and always have been,” Joshua told her.

“Thank you,” she replied simply. “So, is seven in the morning tomorrow too early for you to be up to call me?”

“It all depends on what we get up to tonight,” Joshua said coyly, giving Simon the eye, which made Simon slap him on the arm, but with none of the impact that came with having Danny and Preston inside him.

“Save it for tomorrow night,” Brenda said. “I know that Jonah ain’t gettin’ none until this is all over.”

“Thanks,” Joshua replied.

“Don’t mention it. But now I have to get my ass in gear, because half the idiots around here have already shifted into long weekend mindset, and I’ve only got a couple of hours before we shut down early to get shit sorted. Talk to you tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Joshua said. Bye!”

The call ended, and Joshua and Simon looked at each other.

“Well, that left it unfortunately open-ended, didn’t it?” Simon asked.

“Probably for the best,” Joshua advised him. “No use going into the final battle without all of your chess pieces lined up for that move to checkmate, right?”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

“It makes total sense?”

“It makes absolute sense,” Simon agreed.

All that was left to do was wait until Saturday morning, although Joshua did manage to convince Simon and the boys that Brenda had said nothing about them not having some early afternoon into evening fun as long as they went to sleep early, and so they all went a few more rounds before a late dinner — well, for Joshua, at least — at 7:30, then some streaming entertainment until bedtime, which came at the ridiculously early (for them) hour of 10:30 p.m.

Warriors did not stay up late. Unfortunately, that was exactly what they had become.

* * *

Friday-free-for-all #56: Travel, dark movies, clumsy, genres

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

What’s the clumsiest thing you’ve done?

Well, I’ll nominate this one, since it had witnesses. October 13, 2020. This was when I was still working for a Medicare Insurance Broker, out of his house. Generally, there would only be the broker in his office (a converted bedroom), the Office Manager in her office (another converted bedroom), and me in my office (basically, the living room).

The broker’s wife was often there as well, but that kept it generally to four people, all of us masked and constantly sanitizing and washing our hands.

This particular October 13 was a Tuesday — and it’s Tuesday the 13th that’s bad luck in Hispanic culture, not Friday the 13th — it was about an hour and a half into the work day when I got up from my desk to go grab some printouts from another, empty office (the converted den).

Only, when I turned and stepped away from my desk, my left ankle was snarled by the cord that led from my phone to the wall. As I moved forward, it pulled my foot back. I overcompensated and then proceeded to pitch forward.

I stopped my fall with my hands on the floor. Unfortunately, there was a heavy wooden screen, painted with Chinese dragons, close to my desk, and I happened to head-butt it. Hard.

Everyone — as in the boss and office manager — heard it and came running out. I told them, “It’s okay, I’m fine,” but the boss looked like he was going to pass out and the office manager casually said, “You’re bleeding.”

I went into the bathroom and, sure enough, I’d managed to split the skin above my left eyebrow in about a two centimeter gash that was, in fact, bleeding a lot — but I happen to know that any cuts near the scalp do that because there are so many capillaries. Or, in other words, if you’re not William Holden, wounds like that are generally not as serious as they look.

I didn’t think I needed more than a few ice cubes wrapped in a paper towel, but my boss thought otherwise, and so it turned into a Workers Comp claim. And, to his credit, he’s the one who insisted on doing it by the book because he was just like that.

So… the Office Manager drove me off to Kaiser, who was already my provider, but also on the official list of companies the Workers Comp company worked with. It took nearly the whole work day, but I eventually got my wound sealed up — they glued it instead of stitched it mainly because I did not want anyone sewing my face up. I also managed to score a flu shot for free while I was there, but no COVID vax yet, because they weren’t really available.

And that should have really been it. I got treated, I made no claims regarding lost work time and the boss insisted that the entire day I spent at the hospital go on the time card as actual hours worked. As far as I was concerned, I was done with it.

Apparently, workers comp doesn’t, um, work like that, and over the next couple of months he and I were bombarded by paperwork. It was a seriously ridiculous stack, and when it became clear that a lot of it was predicated on me saying, “Oh yeah, this injury put me out of work and I need to be compensated,” I contacted the adjuster directly and said, “Hey, um, no. I’m fine. I’ve got no further claims, so I really don’t feel inclined to fill all this out.”

I did a couple of TelMed follow-up appointments with the doctors at Kaiser to assess the healing, and while it was hard to make out from my cell phone since reception at my boss’s office wasn’t the greatest, they wanted me to come in in person, but that was right before another surge, so I flatly told them, “No. Not now.”

Eventually, the hounding and the mailing stopped, and it might have helped that I left that job at the end of February and started the new one on March 1st. But still… one clumsy moment because I happen to have really big feet led to Much Ado about Nothing and the biggest load of paperwork dumped on me at once since the last time I bought a car from a dealer.

What’s your favorite genre of book or movie?

Well, this is an easy one, especially for people who know me. Science fiction — particularly hard science fiction.

And no, “hard” science fiction does not refer to some sort of erotic element. Rather, it refers to that type of science fiction that doesn’t pull Star Trek physics or other made-up bullshit out of its ass to explain how certain things are done.

Rather, it will actually apply the limits of science and physics to the world in which the story is told, then work around the problems from there.

Probably the finest example of this in movies is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which demonstrates the hardest of science fiction. Maybe the only point where it gets iffy is during the “Stargate” sequence at the end, when Dave Bowman’s pod falls into the monolith (“It’s full of stars!”) and goes on a psychedelic trip to the Marriot at the End of the World.

But… as Clarke’s Third Law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and that’s probably exactly what the unseen aliens had.

So the film gets a pass for not following known physics at that point, but certainly for setting it up that “Yeah, this really is a thing that could happen. We just haven’t figured it out yet.”

What was the darkest movie you’ve ever seen?

I can think of a lot of dark movies, but I’m going to immediately eliminate horror, slasher, or torture-porn flicks from the list.

Why? Because while they’re definitely dark, the situations are generally so far removed from reality that it’s hard to feel any connection to any of the characters, heroes or villains. For example, in the entire Saw series, I don’t give a shit about what happens to anyone, and the various traps and the fact that they work at all are so over the top that it becomes meaningless.

The Human Centipede series is another one that, while it is clearly meant to shock, only manages disgust and, again, no sympathy. The premise itself is completely idiotic. Sure, it does rely on some of Salvador Dali’s core concepts of surrealism involving putrefaction, defecation, and decay, but so what?

So when it comes to darkest movie I’ve ever seen, it’s got to be planted square in the middle of human experience and, oddly enough, I have two films that tie as winners. And guess what? They were both adapted from source material by the same author, who may or may not have bene a farmhand in Texas who boffed both William S. Burroughs and his common-law wife Joan Vollmer.

That man was Hubert Selby, Jr., and the films were Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream.

The first, Last Exit, came out in 1989, and interestingly, the screenplay was adapted by a third-generation Japanese American while the film was directed by a German.

I bring this up because while the film is set in the America of the 1950s, it definitely looks at things from an outsider’s perspective, so the result is a dark and nasty working class America that is probably truer to what really was than any Leave It to Beaver middle class white bullshit.

The film is full of junkies and whores, cross-dressers and rough-trade, teen-age pregnancy and union busting. It’s also notable as one of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s early breakout roles as Tralala, a prostitute who ultimately sacrifices herself, really becoming the Mary Magdalene to the Stephen Lang’s Harry Black, who is pretty much lynched/crucified after he tries to sexually assault a teenage boy.

Nobody comes out well on the other end here, and it’s a bleak portrait of people abandoned by the American Dream.

But it’s only an aperitif to the entrée of despair that is 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. Directed by Darren Aronofsky and with an all-star cast, it is a dark and hopeless depiction of people with various addictions — speed, heroin, and sex.

A nice touch here is that three of the characters are hooked on “nasty” street drugs — i.e. heroin — whilc the fourth is a respectable Brighton Beach retired grandmother who gets her increasing doses of amphetamines from he doctor. So that’s okay, right?

But all four of them hit a downward spiral, and the conclusion of this film is one of the bleakest and most hopeless things I’ve ever seen. There is no redemption in this story. Only loss and despair.

And, so, it is very dark, indeed.

What’s the best thing about traveling? How about the worst thing?

It’s funny that this question came up at random now, because I just got a save-the-date reminder in the mail for a really good friend’s wedding, The catch is that it’s taking place at a destination that is about 315 miles from L.A.

This means a six-hour drive. Alternatively, it’s an hour and a half flight to Reno (not including travel time to and check-in at the airport, of course) and then a three hour drive west to the venue.

It’s going to involve an overnight stay, and possibly two — drive up on Friday night, stay in a motel, go to the wedding at 4:30 Saturday, back to the motel, then drive back home on Sunday. Yes, the wedding party has booked rooms at the resort where the wedding takes place, but those are all geared toward families and groups, and I’m going to be going it alone.

I bring this all up because this is one of those things I would not miss for the world, and it’s a perfect way to frame the question. Now, I have no idea why the wedding is there. It could be anything from it’s some location equidistant between his people in L.A. and her family elsewhere, or just a location with sentimental meaning, or there’s some other logical reason.

I’m ruling out flying entirely because it’s actually not the best way to get there — not when it involves crossing state borders twice and will take almost as much time — plus I’d have no control over delays, I also have no idea if I’ll have Real ID by that time (“Your papers, please!”) and since I’d have to rent a car anyway once I was up there, why not take my own?

The wedding is also “Black Tie Optional,” but c’mon. Never give me that option, because I’ll take it. Of course, that risks being better dressed than the groom, but at least that isn’t looked down upon as much as anyone but the bridge wearing white.

But what was the question? Right. The best and worst parts of traveling.

The absolute worst parts are the planning and preparing for it — finding lodging and the like, as well as plane or train fare if that’s your thing, making hotel or motel reservations, and arranging for a rental car if necessary, then figuring out the timing of when you need to leave from here and when you need to return from there.

Then there’s all that deciding what you need to take, and packing it, and making sure five times over that you didn’t forget everything — but you always will. And if you have pets you can’t take, you have to figure out how to get them looked after. Hint — in-home sitter is always the best option. I made the mistake one time of boarding my dog at her vet’s for a weekend, and she did not take it well.

Now top this off with budgeting, because all of these steps cost money, and you’re going to need to spend the time finding the best deals and prices and discounts. Don’t forget that you’re also going to have to feed yourself three meals a day on the trip — well, not including the dinner you get with the wedding, if that’s what you’re going to — and then decide how much you’re willing to spend on souvenir crap, attraction admissions, and the like while you’re there.

Got all that? Good. Other than the packing (but make a list of shit to bring) you should have it all locked down at least a month before the trip begins — although it might be longer, depending on the various cancellation and refund policies.

Oh yeah — this one is slightly more complicated by the requirement for all in-person guests to be fully vaccinated for COVID (working on it) and then to test negative three days before. But I really appreciate that part.

So, yeah. Those are the worst parts of traveling, and it really does make it sound like it sucks, whether it’s a weekend trip to a wedding, a weeklong family trip to a tourist spot, or a two week summer vacation with family cross country. It takes a lot of work.

But that leads to the best part of travel: Once you get there. Reaching the destination and doing the thing and having all the fun makes all of the pain in the ass stuff beforehand 100% worth it.

Trust me. Any time I’ve had to travel, even if it’s been something as trivial as a weekend drive to Palm Springs, which is only about two or three hours out,  the days leading up to it have sucked. All that went away the second I parked my car at my destination.

I know it’s going to be totally the same for this wedding. I’m still going to hate every second of putting the trip together — but I’m going to love it once I’m there.

Theatre Thursday: Aphra and Edna

(Okay, I’m a day early on this, but since Theatre Thursday is today, I’m going with it.)

On April 16 and 279 years apart, two pioneering women writers passed away. One was British, born in 1640 and died in 1689. The other was American, born in 1885 and died in 1968.

The former was Aphra Behn and the latter was Edna Ferber. You may or may not know those names, and you probably don’t know any of Ms. Behn’s works, but you’ve definitely heard of a couple of Ferber’s, whether you’ve seen them or not, especially if you’re a film or theatre nerd.

Still… Aphra Behn was the trailblazer who made a career like Edna’s even possible, and while she was not the first published playwright in Restoration Era England, she was the most prolific female writer of the period, and the second most prolific overall after John Dryden.

And yet, like Shakespeare, little is known of her early life or even origins. She may or may not have been a spy in Dutch Suriname for King Charles II of England, although she probably did marry a Johan (or Johann or John) Behn. The marriage didn’t last, but she kept his name, crediting herself professionally as Mrs. A. Behn.

She actually was a spy for King Charles during the Second Anglo-Dutch war of 1665, and worked in Antwerp. Ironically, being posted to Antwerp spared her the ravages of the plague that swept London in 1666.

Of course, the king didn’t exactly reimburse her for her expenses as a spy, so she returned to England in poverty. It was only the re-opening of the theatres and the need for new plays that allowed her to earn a living.

In fact, she was one of the first English women to earn her living by writing, so she set the path for future generations. She also didn’t shy away from sexuality or sexual subjects — a scandal for the time, even though male authors likewise didn’t. For example, her poem The Disappointment is all about a young shepherd who just plain loses his boner while he’s trying to satisfy a nymph.

But now from the Aphra to the Edna, the latter being a 20th century writer whose works tended to feature strong female leading characters, along with a major secondary character who belonged to a particularly oppressed class, frequently for ethnic reasons.

Edna Ferber herself was Jewish, and America wasn’t exactly so open-armed towards Jews at the time she wrote, but that identity was important to her as well. Then again, it helped that she won the Pulitzer at 40 for her book So Big. The follow-up novel to that, Show Boat, became the basis of a hit musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein.

She was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, featured in the film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, starring my patronus, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Another notable work of hers, Giant, was adapted into the film of the same name, which starred James Dean and Rock Hudson, among others, garnered both of them Oscar nominations, and won the award for Best Director for George Stevens. What a lot of people miss about this film is that the character played by Mercedes McCambridge, Luz Benedict, is pretty much coded as a lesbian in 50s movie terms. Strong woman, doing a man’s job, no male love interest around — and dies because she tried to take on a man’s role and literally couldn’t handle a horse.

No, really. That happened.

Still, when it came to slamming their heads through glass ceilings for writers (sort of), these women were two of the pioneers. Even then, J.K. Rowling might not have been successful if she’d published as Joanne Rowling. Anne Rice did make a mark for herself under her own name in the 70s, but… unlike J.K., who was a billionaire until she gave too much away, Rice never got that rich, despite creating a bigger fictional universe.

And one has to wonder — was it because she didn’t have a male first name?

In case you’re doing the math, Rice has written close to 40 books, most of them in the Vampire/Gothic universe she created. Rowling is up to about… maybe a dozen-ish? And yet, J.K. makes a lot more money than Anne.

To be fair, though, Rowling’s kiddie wizard genre just naturally has a much larger fan-base, and the vast majority of her income no doubt comes from the movies and merchandising. Have you seen the prices on the stuff they sell in the Wizarding World section of Universal Studios?

Meanwhile, Rice’s series of vampire chronicles were never as family friendly and will always appeal to a much smaller, niche audience. It also didn’t help that while Hollywood managed an excellent adaptation of Rice’s first book in the series, Interview with the Vampire, they totally whiffed it when they combined her next two books in the series into Queen of the Damned.

Never a good sign when you replace your A-List leading actor with a lesser-known performer. Or try to combine two books that are already full stories into one movie that doesn’t do justice to either. The Queen of the Damned was, I think, the last book in the series I’d read before Prince Lestat came out. The only way to do it justice would be to adapt the entire story, as it’s told in the book, as a limited streaming series.

I suppose, for Rowling and Rice, these are all rather “first world” problems to have — and I put that phrase in scare quotes because it doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means, since it’s a political designation, not an economic one.

But Madams Rowling and Rice, and all other female writers in the modern English-speaking world, got where they are thanks to the pioneers who came before them. Edna Ferber helped pave the way in the 20th Century, and Aphra Behn stepped through the door to start the journey in the 17th.

The fact that both of them died on the same day of the year is just one of those strange coincidences that strengthens the connection between them across time.

Image: Portrait of Aphra Behn by Peter Lely, c. 1670. Public domain. 

Wednesday Wonders: Facing the music

For some reason, face morphing in music videos really took off, and the whole thing was launched with Michael Jackson’s video for Black or White in 1991. If you’re a 90s kid, you remember a good solid decade of music videos using face-morphing left and right.

Hell, I remember at the time picking up a face-morphing app in the five dollar bin at Fry’s, and although it ran slow as shit on my PC at the time, it did the job and morphed faces and, luckily, it never got killed by the “Oops, Windows isn’t backward compatible with this” problem, so it runs fast as hell now. Well, whenever I last used it, and it’s been a hot minute.

If you’ve never worked with the software, it basically goes like this. You load two photos, the before and after. Then, you mark out reference points on the first photo.

These are generally single dots marking common facial landmarks: inside and outside of each eye, likewise the eyebrows and mouth, bridge of the nose, outside and inside of the nostrils, top and bottom of where the ear hits the face, major landmarks along the hairline, and otherwise places where there are major changes of angle.

Next, you play connect the dots, at first in general, but then it becomes a game of triangles. If you’re patient enough and do it right, you wind up with a first image that is pretty closely mapped with a bunch of little triangles.

Meanwhile, this entire time, your software has been plopping that same mapping onto the second image. But, at least with the software I was working with then (and this may have changed) it only plops those points relative to the boundaries of the image, and not the features in it.

Oh yeah — first essential step in the process: Start with two images of identical dimensions, and faces placed about the same way in each.

The next step in the morph is to painstakingly drag each of the points overlaid on the second image to its corresponding face part. Depending upon how detailed you were in the first image, this can take a long, long time. At least the resizing of all those triangles happens automatically.

When you think you’ve got it, click the magic button, and the first image should morph into the second, based on the other parameters you gave it, which are mostly screen rate.

And that’s just for a still image. For a music video, repeat that for however many seconds any particular transition takes, times 24 frames per second. Ouch!

I think this will give you a greater appreciation of what Jackson’s producers did.

However… this was only the first computerized attempt at the effect in a music video. Six years earlier in 1985, the English duo Godley & Creme (one half of 10cc so… 5cc?) released their video Cry, and their face morphing effect is full-on analog. They didn’t have the advantage of powerful (or even wimpy) computers back then. Oh, sure, they had pulled off kind of early CGI effects for TRON in 1982, but those simple graphics were nowhere near good enough to swap faces.

So Godley & Crème did it the old fashioned way, and anyone who has ever worked in old school video production (or has nerded out over the firing up the Death Star firing moments in Episode IV) will know the term “Grass Valley Switcher.”

Basically, it was a mechanical device that could take the input from two or more video sources, as well as provide its own video input in the form of color fields and masks, and then swap them back and forth or transition one to the other.

And this is what they did in their music video for Cry.

Although, to be fair, they did it brilliantly because they were careful in their choices. Some of their transitions are fades from image A to B, while others are wipes, top down or bottom up. It all depended upon how well the images matched.

In 2017, the group Elbow did an intentional homage to this video using the same technique well into the digital age — and with a nod from Benedict Cumberbatch, with their song Gentle Storm.

And now we come to 2020. See, all of those face morphing videos from 1991 through the early 2000s still required humans to sit down and mark out the face parts and those triangles and whatnot, so it was a painstaking process.

And then, this happens…

These face morphs were created by a neural network that basically looked at the mouth parts and listened to the syllables of the song, and then kind of sort of found other faces and phonemes that matched, and then yanked them all together.

The most disturbing part of it, I think, is how damn good it is compared to all of the other versions. Turn off the sound or don’t understand the language, and it takes Jackson’s message from Black or White into the stratosphere.

Note, though, that this song is from a band named for its lead singer, Lil’ Coin (translated from Russian) and the song itself is about crime and corruption in Russia in the 1990s, titled Everytime. So… without cultural context, the reason for the morphing is ambiguous.

But it’s still an interesting note that 35 years after Godley & Crème first did the music video face morph, it’s still a popular technique with artists. And, honestly, if we don’t limit it to faces or moving media, it’s a hell of a lot older than that. As soon as humans figured out that they could exploit a difference in point of view, they began making images change before our eyes.

Sometimes, that’s a good thing artistically. Other times, when the changes are less benevolent, it’s a bad thing. It’s especially disturbing that AI is getting into the game, and Lil’ Coin’s video is not necessarily a good sign.

Oh, sure, a good music video, but I can’t help but think that it was just a test launch in what is going to become a long, nasty, and ultimately unwinnable cyber war.

After all… how can any of you prove that this article wasn’t created by AI? Without asking me the right questions, you can’t. So there you go.

Image: (CC BY-SA 2.0) Edward Webb

Talky Tuesday: If you love it, you’ll learn it

When you’re learning a new language, there’s one excellent method to increase your vocabulary and improve your fluency, and here it is.

Different people have different learning styles. Some people learn visually. That is, if they see it, they won’t forget it. Others are auditory learners, who pick things up via hearing. And there are also people whose learning method is tactile, through touch or physical motion.

Now, some of those skills seem to apply obviously to certain disciplines. Painters are probably visual learners, musicians are auditory, and dancers are tactile. In the case of language, you might think that it’s an auditory skill, but that’s not necessarily the case. Fortunately, you can use different tricks to learn a new language via your own method.

For visual people, it’s all about words, so the obvious best natural ways for visual learners to pick up a new language are reading and watching.

For auditory people, it’s all about sound, so they’re going to want to listen, although videos won’t hurt if they do have sound as well.

For tactile people, it’s all about sensations, so they’re going to be doing a lot of writing things down by hand.

That part of the lesson may seem like a “Well, duh” moment, but the key is in what you’re reading, listening to, or writing. If you want to learn a new language, treat it like your first language.

That is, whether you’re reading, listening, watching, or writing, you’re going to want to do it with things on subjects that interest you. I can’t emphasize this enough. What you should be doing is seeking out online resources in your target languages — generally newspaper and magazine sites — and then focus on the sections that pertain to your interests.

Whether you’re a fan of movies, TV, sports, fashion, politics, or whatever, if the content in the target language you’re scooping into your brain via your preferred method happens to be about topics you already love, then your contextual understanding is going to go through the roof.

Why? Well, because specialized topics happen to use specialized words, and the quickest way to start to understand the heart of a language — which is how words are derived, how idioms are formed, and so on — is to pick up those words that were created to describe your favorite topic.

I’m a fan of film and theater, for example, so a word I see a lot is taquilla, which means box office. As in English, it’s both a literal and metaphorical meaning. It can refer to the physical place where tickets are sold or to the amount of money a film or play took in.

But where did taquilla come from? Well, like a lot of words in Spanish, it came from Arabic (La Conquista lasted for centuries), and taquilla is a diminutive for “taca.” That word, in turn, came from the Arabic taqah, which referred to a window with bars — a good physical description of a lot of actual box offices, actually.

Incidentally, pretty much any word in Spanish that begins with “al” came from Arabic, where the al- prefix just means “the,” similar to how Spanish combines the articles “a” (to) and “el” (the) into “al.” For example, algodón, which means cotton, and which is also the source of the English word; or alfombra, which means carpet, and this gets back to the focusing on what you love idea. Alfombra was permanently cemented in my brain after seeing it in a few articles about movie premieres always in this context: “en la alfombra roja.” On the red carpet.

The best part is that this is not just limited to Spanish, thanks to the internet (either la internet or la red), because you can probably pretty much find resources in any target language somewhere. If you want to read, you can find national newspapers in the native language and probably plenty of websites — and it will also be a big help to adjust Google’s language settings to include your target. If you want to watch or listen, then there are also tons of videos in other languages. And if you learn by writing, you’ll need source material, so transcribing audio or copying the written word will help as well.

But, again, the key to it is this one simple bit: engage with what you’re interested in in the first place, and it will make your target language come alive in a way that rote lessons or drills or routines never will.

Love it, live it, learn it!

Image © Syed Ikhwan. Used via Creative Commons license 2.0.

Momentous Monday: Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director who relocated to America in the 80s, is actually one of the most amazing and underrated directors of all time. The main reason for this is that once he came to America, he never abandoned his European sensibility, so while it looked like he was making genre movies, he was constantly perverting the genres.

Audiences just didn’t get it.

Then again, I think he’d been like that from the beginning. I have to say “I think,” because I didn’t hear of him until his 1980 film Spetters, and only after it finally made its way to America via the arthouse circuit. Even then, the only reason I deiced to see it was that it had sort of gay themes, three cute male leads and one hot female, and equal opportunity nudity.

I next ran across his amazing The Fourth Man, sort of a twisted next-generation Hitchcock thriller that did not disappoint and, again, involved a flawed and yet gay protagonist — keeping in mind that this was a straight director working in the 80s, and, again, while his gay male character is flawed, so were his straight ones — and he was never not sympathetic to any of them.

I didn’t see his true brilliance until I saw Soldier of Orange, probably his most personal film because it dealt with the Dutch Resistance as the Nazis invaded — something Verhoeven experienced and survived as a child. This, along with his earlier films, are probably what helped make Rutger Hauer an international star, by the way, although he got noticed long before Verhoeven finally came to America and worked with him there.

That would be 1985’s Flesh + Blood, a medieval drama and not one of Verhoeven’s most memorable, not to mention that it feels a lot like Hauer’s very recent (at the time) turn in Ladyhawke, with Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer.

But then Verhoeven got a whole lot better. Or, in other words, he dropped his Dutch sensibility on the series of big budget Hollywood films he proceeded to direct for the next fifteen years, lampooned the hell out of his adopted country, and subverted the hell out of genres.

So… here are six American Films by Verhoeven, some beloved by critics and some blasted, but all of them masterpieces in their own right.

Hint: There’s a common theme in all of them and… surprise… it’s been there all along in his other works. I’ll just start with his big American Blockbusters.

RoboCop (1987)

Verhoeven burst onto the scene big time with the way-over-the-top violence of this one, starting with officer Murphy having just about every bit of his body blown off graphically, and then including such best hits as Jose Ferrer’s character knee-capped before being blown up, a guy being shot in the nuts through a woman’s skirt, Eric Forman’s dad being stabbed in the neck, unfortunate ginger being toxic-wasted into a red stain on a speeding car and, finally, the big bad being fired, shot, and dumped out a window in, admittedly, one of the worst-animated doll-arm death-falls in all of cinema.

On the other hand… what Verhoeven intended and only a few people got was that this film was absolutely meant to be an over-the-top satire of American culture of the time. And it was all right there — this was the dawn of the Reagan Era, when public prisons were being privatized, police forces were being militarized, and loyalty to company meant everything. Ironic, then, that Verhoeven made his hero a man turned robot, since this was also during the rise of home computers. His hunch was that pure technology would defeat human evil, and he might have been right.

Total Recall (1990)

Forget the abysmal remake of this film. The original is pure gold, because it pretends to be a Schwarzenegger action flick — but it’s not. Sure, he’s the hero, but the brilliant thing about this film, and where it actually pays attention to its source in the works of Philip K. Dick is this: The entire “vacation” that Schwarzenegger’s character buys is, in fact… entirely fictional.

He gets what he pays for: “Blue Skies on Mars.” He is exactly who we see that he is at the beginning, he hasn’t changed at the end, and it has all been a fantasy vacation. Notable, he didn’t bring his wife along. In fact, in the dream, his wife is the villain’s consort, so make of that what you will. This flick is just another brick in the wall of what Verhoeven is getting at. And, then…

Basic Instinct (1992)

This film got a lot of flak at the time for making the villain a lesbian, or at least a bisexual woman, but that was also missing the point. Why was this character not actually the villain but, rather, the heroine? Flashforward…

Showgirls (1995)

And, once again, Verhoeven satirizes America so hard that no one gets it. In a lot of ways, Showgirls is the flipside to Basic Instinct, but look back. That’s his thing. He works in pairs. And this was the hardest he’d satirized anything until his next film… While, on the surface, the film seems to be all about the tits, in the end, it’s really about the power of women. After all, who makes it out alive finally?

Starship Troopers (1997)

If you take this film on face value, you’re not going to get it. But, really, it’s the logical extension of Verhoeven’s RoboCop world. You’re especially not going to get it if you’re a fan of the Heinlein works it’s based on, mostly because Heinlein was kind of a Libertarian douche, by which I mean “selfish child who thought he was better than everyone else,” q.v. Ayn Rand.

But, in American terms, Verhoeven was always an outsider, and this is one where he went for it. While pretending to go all-in for American jingoism and bullshit, he actually made an incredibly anti-war movie, and made it funny and biting satire at the same time.

Hollow Man (2000)

Forget the recent Invisible Man, a shallow attempt by Universal to become Disney. This film, twenty years ago, is the real deal. It basically is The Invisible Man, under a different title, casts a Hollywood heartthrob, and then Verhoeven lets him do everything that any toxic male asshole would do, given the power to be invisible. And naked. And both at the same time.

And this film happens to be the key to all of the others, because the thing that Verhoeven has been toying with and exposing all along, even back to his Dutch films, has been this: Toxic Masculinity. And there’s not even a question about that. Now, I haven’t seen any of his films post 2000 — Black Book, Tricked, Elle, and Benedetta — but I have seen enough of his works to think that it’s the whole toxic male thing he’s been railing against since the very beginning of his career.

And why shouldn’t he? After all, it’s what the Nazis used to ruin his childhood and his country, right?

Sunday Nibble #56: Town and country

I really consider myself a city dweller through and through, and enjoy the liveliness and bustle and sheer scale of large urban areas. I was born in Los Angeles — East Hollywood, actually — and grew up in what I guess would be considered an exurb of the city rather than a suburb.

But the exurb I grew up in happened to be pretty well-developed even at the time. It was, however, about as far as you could get from Hollywood and Downtown L.A., seeing as how our city limits shared its western border with L.A. County proper. Cross that line and you’d wind up in Ventura County.

It was a major bedroom community for the rest of the city outside of the San Fernando Valley, though, and for most of my life growing up, my dad worked right next to Century City. In fact, his office building at 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard abutted the border between Beverly Hills and L.A.

They were on the Beverly Hills side, but my dad could walk a block and wind up in Century City, which was a development actually designed and built by the architectural firm he worked for.

It opened in the mid-60s, but really felt like the city of the future and definitely stood in for just that in a lot of TV and movies shot in the 60s and 70s.

Now, from when I was around about nine years old or so, my dad started taking me to the movies, either in Century City or Hollywood, and once I hit my teens, it was a big treat to catch the bus by my middle school once we were dismissed and ride it all the way down Ventura Boulevard to Hollywood and Highland to meet my dad and go see a movie.

To this day, Hollywood and Highland is the “landing point,” if you will, for public transit from the Valley into the City. It’s the first Metro Red Line Station on the other side of the hill — or the last one if you have a city POV.

At the time, it was about an hour and a half bus ride — actually, it still is — even though it could theoretically be about twenty minutes by car outside of rush hour. Then again, the old 83 bus didn’t take the freeway, and it made stops. But it got me there.

So dad and I would go to Grauman’s Chinese, or the Egyptian, or the El Capitan, or sometimes he’d drive me to another part of town, like Century City, and we’d see a movie together, and it was awesome.

It’s a big part of why I made the stupid decision to try to become a film director only to realize too late, in film school, that my talents weren’t geared toward directing, but rather writing. I would have been an English Major, Spanish or History minor otherwise, I suppose. Or any mix of the three.

But the combination of films we went to and all those trips on public transit through urban corridors also gave me a major interest in Science Fiction, and I whiled away a lot of those bus trips imagining that I was actually on some sort of futuristic monorail or, if I got really creative, that we were on an interstellar craft.

Yeah, I was a total nerd. Still am.

But… besides movie night with dad, there was one other thing in my childhood and teen years that I loved more than anything else, and it belies me being a city boy. That is, a couple of times a year, usually around Easter and Thanksgiving, and sometimes in the summer, mom and dad and I would travel up north about 350 miles to visit my dad’s mother and stepfather on their farm in Atascadero.

Oh, my parents and grandparents always called it The Apple Orchard, but it was a farm as far as I was concerned. But first some backstory.

My dad’s mother was actually born in Oklahoma but wound up in Kansas, where she met her husband, who worked for the railroad, which connected Topeka, Kansas, to Victorville, California. Important later.

She always lied about her birthplace, though, saying that she’d been born in Missouri and had traveled to Kansas when she was three with her family by covered wagon.

Cute story, but… I eventually found official documentation that told me she was born in Oklahoma, and by the time she was three, they had cars and shit, so she didn’t make any trip in a covered wagon.

What she did do that was amazing — and she never bragged about this — was manage to be a single parent raising two boys after her husband basically abandoned the family when the kids were 15 (my uncle) and 12 (my dad). And she was working as either a hotel maid or waitress at the time.

Oh yeah… the other little detail is that my uncle was born way sooner than nine months after my grandmother and grandfather got married, and he was born in… Victorville, which is also where they got married.

So what it seems like, since she was 18 and he was 19 at the time, is that grandpa knocked up grandma, it became a scandal back home, abortion was out of the question, so they fled west. Interestingly enough, though, all of grandpa’s immediate family followed, and they all wound up in Los Angeles.

Grandma’s family, not so much.

But back to the single mother raising two sons. Said sons went off to war and grandmother married her second husband, and from that point on seemed to realize the value of investing in real estate.

So I know that she variously owned homes in Burbank, then Pacoima, and then a house in Atascadero proper and then, ultimately, The Apple Orchard (cough — farm) further up in Atascadero, which was fourteen acres abutting a creek and with its own well.

The two of them built their own house on the property despite being in their 60s by that time, and the only thing they didn’t do on their own was dig the basement and pour the foundations.

Oh… one other thing to mention is that to me, Neva and her second husband Sam were always my grandparents, even though he was really my step granddad. Meanwhile, to my much older half siblings, who had known my biological grandfather, Sam was just “Sam.”

I never met my actual grandfather because he was a resident of the mental hospital in Camarillo for more than half his life and you had to be eighteen to visit. He died when I was thirteen.

But back to city boy/country boy… to me as a kid, The Apple Orchard was magic for a ton of reasons. First off, it was its own little enclave at the end of a long dirt road, with this simple house that was always brightly lit and smelt of the wood stove.

It had a basement with all of my grandpa’s audio equipment — and he was quite the audiophile — but also, there was a slope behind the house that led to the rest of the property. The first chunk was my grandfather’s iris garden — although “garden” really isn’t a big enough word for what he had going.

He was actually pretty well-known as an iris breeder and pioneer in creating new types, so this part of the place was basically a huge experiment in action.

At the bottom of the slope was the poultry pen, with ducks and chickens and roosters, and the Evil Fucking Goose. I call it the EFG because it would spread its wings and hiss at everyone, plus the bastard nipped me more than once. Best revenge was the Easter Dinner when that fucker was the greasy main course. No regrets.

Beyond here, though, there were several storage buildings full of amazing artifacts from my grandparents’ lives, and then just more wilderness.

Meanwhile… on the upper half across from the house, this was where the sheep and pigs lived, and I totally loved going over there to hang out with them. Pigs are very smart and affectionate and, actually, so are sheep.

Walk into a group of them and show some respect, and they’ll just smile and “Baaa” at you for days. Plus rubbing their wool with your hands is one of the best moisturizers ever. (Look it up, it’s called lanolin.)

On top of all that, a bunch of peacocks lived in the trees in front, and the neighbors in the house beyond that had horses, and yes, I spent plenty of time at their fence just talking to and petting those beautiful animals.

So combine all of that with waking up in the mornings to the smell of wood fire and bacon, then walking outside into frequently cool crisp air to just listen and realize that what you were hearing was almost total silence, only broken by the occasional caterwaul of a peacock, baaa of a sheep, distant burbling of the creek, or wing snap of a flock of birds taking flight, and it was another kind of paradise.

Oddly enough, this world fed into my Science Fiction thing as well, so that in addition to one of my themes in writing it being, “Wow, what great things can we bring in the future?” another one is always, “Okay, so what if we fuck it up and have to go back to living in simpler times?”

Of course, in my modern life, since I’ve finally landed a position that is 100% remote work and which may only necessitate occasional travel, I really might be able to live anywhere I want to. The only drawback is that it would be more of an effort to visit IRL friends I care about but, then again, there’s always Zoom, and if I move to some place more like my grandparents’ farm, then I may become the incentive to be the one visited instead of having to do it the other way around.

Who knows? The decade is young and the plague isn’t over, but anything can happen. And, as far as I’m concerned, I’m happy with either city or country. All I need to bring along are my brain and my senses.

Well, and the computer and internet, too.

The Saturday Morning Post #57: The Rêves Part 35

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

The third day

Preston and Danny had stayed up all night watching everything they could find, and they even found one of Preston’s early scenes, which probably every young male actor in same-sex videos had done in their progression from solo to full-on fucking.

It was the classic scenario of the physical exam, which Preston’s character ostensibly had to take before joining the college swim team, and was shot on a very detailed set depicting a doctor’s office, with all of the real equipment and furniture.

The “doctor” was a very handsome 30-something man, and the whole thing played out like a normal exam — at first. Questions and answers, taking temperature, looking in the mouth, eyes, and ears, feeling the lymph nodes in the neck and behind the ears, and so on.

They even took their time with the process of Preston getting undressed, the doctor testing his reflexes, palpating his abdomen, and so on, everything seeming normal until the prostate exam, when Preston let out a loud moan as the doctor probed.

“Do you like that?” he asked, and Preston nodded. “And are you having any problems with your male parts?” the doctor continued as Preston rolled over and laid on the table, now a bit aroused.

As was the case in every version of this scenario ever shot, the answer was yes, and the solution was for the doctor — wearing neoprene gloves and using KY — to administer a hand-job to his naked patient to “cure” the problem.

It covered a few fetishes and genres all at the same time. In addition to the medical doctor, and twink and young dad type angles, it featured what was called CMNM, aka “clothed man, naked man,” which was a thing.

Since Danny was mentally more focused on his days prior to Preston’s career, it always boggled his mind at how many very specific terms and descriptions there were for things, but he really understood why the internet’s Rule 34 was absolutely true.

Rule 34 in a nutshell: If you can imagine it, then there’s internet porn of it.

“There’s probably already gay ghost twincest porn out there somewhere,” Preston suggested one time.

“And we’re not looking for it,” Danny replied. “Or making it!”

Joshua still wasn’t up by noon, although that was understandable given his very late night/early morning, on top of what must have been a lot of depression over Simon. But at about twelve thirty, Danny and Preston suddenly turned and looked at each other.

They’d both felt the same thing, and just shared a smile and a nod.

“Want to do the best thing ever for someone?” Danny asked.

“I’m way ahead of you,” Preston replied. “We just have to wait until… you know.”

“I know,” Danny said.

It was about one o’clock when Joshua finally emerged from his room, hair a mess, dressed casually, shoeless. He wandered past them and said, “Good morning,” as he went into the kitchen and fired up the coffee.

“Good afternoon!” they called back in unison.

“Any big plans today?” Danny asked.

“Just figuring out how to shut down the machine. You guys?”

“We don’t have any ideas on that,” Preston said. “We’re no scientists. But we do know that, sometimes, it helps to get out, wander around, maybe visit a familiar place to help yourself think.”

“What are you boys up to?” Joshua asked.

“Up to helping you deal with things, man,” Danny explained. “That’s all. C’mon. We can see it. You’re not exactly the happiest camper in the world right now, and you won’t be until… you know.”

“Won’t be until…?” Joshua asked.

“Until Simon has come back,” Preston said. “But you know it takes time.”

“And sitting around here just reminds you of him. Obviously.”

“Why don’t we go hang around the NoHo Station?” Preston offered. “You like that place.”

“Oh. So go from one place that reminds me of Simon to another that does?” Joshua shot back.

“Baby steps?” Danny offered weakly.

“I know you two are up to something, but I’m going to play along,” Joshua told them. “I actually trust you.”

He opened his laptop, checked that it was fully charged, took the memo he’d printed, folded it up and pocketed it, then shut his laptop, threw it in the bag, and went to put on shoes and brush his hair.

Danny and Preston were looking at each other like a couple of giddy kids. They gave Joshua hearty good-byes as he left, then dematerialized and set off on their mission.

Joshua walked down to the NoHo Station, descended the escalators by the Orange Line platform and crossed the tunnel to the turnstiles, where he slapped his TAP card and then headed down another escalator to the platform.

As was their custom — his and Simon’s — he went all the way to the end near the tunnel where the incoming trains from Universal City would appear, sat on the last bench, then opened his laptop and got to work.

His thought was that somehow damaging the constraining structures on the machine would effectively shut it down as it would break the containment of the plasma field that was actually acting as a neutrally charged primary barrier to the tachyon stream within.

Cut off the outer magnetic field corralling the plasma, it would expand and cool, suddenly deionizing, which would give it a negative charge. While the tachyon stream itself would be neutrally charged, without the barrier, its tendency was to move in space in all dimensions, so a breach in the plasma would allow the stream to firehose out through the nearest crack, as it were.

The trick was figuring out how to cut off that magnetic field, and that was why Joshua was studying all of the blueprints for the machine, and every last physical spec, running each one of them through load-limit calculations.

He very quickly got quite lost in his work, and had no idea how much time had gone by.

Meanwhile, Preston and Danny had flown over to the cemetery and Simon’s grave, because they had sensed his return. Well, probably, Pearl had sensed it and “pinged” them in her own way, but now they had to find him, because he was probably wandering around the place, a little lost and confused and, sure enough, they finally did find him. Ironically, he wasn’t all that far from Preston’s grave.

“Hello, Simon,” Danny said as Preston gave a friendly wave. Simon looked at them oddly.

“Wait… I think I remember you,” he said.

“Of course you do, Simon,” Preston explained as they approached. “You know us quite well. So does your husband. Joshua?”

Simon seemed to search his memory for a moment, then brightened up. “Joshua. I remember the name.”

“It’s okay, buddy,” Danny said. “You’re newborn, so to speak, so things are kind of fuzzy right now. What do you remember?”

“Flying,” Simon said. “Well, it felt like flying, and then… pain. And then this crazy warm numbness, in and out flashes of bright lights and all kinds of beeping and hissing and voices, and then… more numbness and then I’m standing here in this cemetery. What’s going on?”

“You died,” Preston told him. “Actually, you were murdered, by a man named Ausmann. But thanks to a machine that he built a long time ago and that you know about, we’re all back. Only not quite in our human form.”

“And Joshua is waiting for you,” Danny added.

“Joshua,” Simon said, although it wasn’t clear whether it was a question or a statement.

“Your husband,” Preston reminded him.

“Where is he?” Simon asked.

“We can take you to him,” Danny replied.

“And we can teach you one of our favorite methods of travel.”

“You guys?”

“All of us,” Danny said.

“You’re a Rêve now,” Preston told him. “Do you remember that word?”

“Oh yeah,” Simon replied, seeming to have a sudden realization, which was a good sign.

“Come on then,” Danny said, and he and Preston flanked Simon, each one taking an arm, as they lead him down into the ground and then onward until they intersected with the Metro line and followed the tunnels on up through the stations, finally coming out at NoHo.

Of course, Danny and Preston were able to be visible to Joshua immediately, but Simon was not, so he just appeared as a smoky shadow on the wall.

“How’s it going?” Danny asked.

“I think I’m getting close,” Joshua said.

“Great,” Preston replied. “We brought you a surprise.”

Joshua glanced where he was pointing and saw the obvious Rêve shadow on the wall. “Sorry,” he said. “Let it know I’m not trapping them anymore.”

“Who said you had to trap this one?” Danny told him.

“Just look,” Preston ordered.

Joshua sighed and looked at the shadow and then it drifted out of the wall as black smoke, coalesced, and Simon was standing there, dressed in full Rêve-hunter regalia, looking fifteen years younger, and smiling.

“Hi!” he said, giving a little wave. Joshua rushed over to hug him, arms not really connecting all that much, although he did feel some sort of physical resistance to indicate that something was there — just not much tangible, and with no warmth or smell.

“I missed you so much,” he told Simon.

“So did I,” Simon said. “So… now what?”

“I’m planning to destroy Ausmann and save the Rêves, including you,” Joshua explained.

“Oh, right. About that…”

“What?” Joshua asked.

“I think we just need to talk,” Simon told him.

“Shit,” Joshua exclaimed.

“Not like that talk,” Simon reassured him. “Obviously, things are a bit… different now.”

“Thank you, Captain obvious.”

“So, my place or yours?” Simon asked.

“How about ours?” Joshua countered.

“Is it, really?” Simon replied.

“Stop that!” Joshua told him, shutting and bagging his laptop. Let’s go.

Preston and Danny dematerialized, presumably heading home as Joshua and Simon started down the platform towards the escalators, Simon telling Joshua on the way, “Maybe I should fade out. What would the neighbors think if they saw me come home?”

“True,” Joshua agreed, and Simon vanished. When Joshua got home, he left the front door open and told Simon, “Re-appear once you’re inside.”

“Um…” Joshua turned to find Simon already standing behind him, Preston and Danny standing on either side.

“How long did you know he was back?” Joshua asked them.

“About a half hour before you got your lazy ass up,” Danny said.

“And you couldn’t have just brought him back here?”

“Please,” Preston said. “Where’s the drama and romance in that?”

“Well, thanks…” Joshua said. “But the two of us have some things to discuss, and we’d like to do it in private. Please?”

“All right,” they agreed.

“Go tell Ausmann he’ll be hearing from us soon, and then let Pearl and Anabel know that Simon is back.”

“Oh, we’ll tell Ausmann,” Preston said. “But we don’t have to tell Pearl. They already know.”

Seeing Joshua’s confused look, Danny added, “Who do you think told us?”

“How doe sh… Pearl know?” he asked.

“They’re everywhere, they know everything,” Preston explained. But we’ll leave you two for your reunion.”

Danny saluted, and they made their usual exit off the balcony.

“I wish they wouldn’t do that,” Simon mused.

“So, other than everything, what’s on your mind?” Joshua asked, sitting. Simon sat next to him.

“This has been a very weird experience,” he explained. “I mean, I feel like I’m a sentient being, and I have all my thoughts and most of my memories. And I’m talking to you.”

“Then doesn’t that make you a sentient being?”

“With no actual body, or nervous system, or brain? I don’t even think I have internal organs.”

“But here you are, talking to me, thinking thoughts. I’m not conjuring you up from my memories.”

“No, but we know that’s how the Rêves… exist,” Simon countered. “I’m a Class I because of you. But that’s just the thing,” he added. “I exist. I don’t live.”

“Sure, you’re living,” Joshua assured him. “It’s just a little different than it was before.”

“Organization, growth, reproduction, metabolism, homeostasis, response, and adaptation. Those are the seven criteria for biological life on Earth. We can probably strike reproduction right off that list, and growth. Metabolism?”

“Apparently, energy from the environment is what sustains the Rêves, so they do have a form of metabolism. And homeostasis — you’re maintaining your form, which means you have organization. That’s, what? Three out of seven. I’m guessing you’re also capable of response and adaptation.”

“But no growth, no reproduction,” Simon sighed.

“Do you feel alive?” Joshua asked him.

“Yes, and no,” Simon said. “Things don’t feel like they normally do. I mean, like physical senses. I’m kind of numb, and I don’t feel any kind of temperature. When I walk on hard surfaces, they feel squishy, like I could sink into them. And when I’m doing that shadow and smoke thing, the world looks and sounds really, really weird.”

“How are you doing emotionally?” Joshua asked him.

“Other than that I can never really touch you again? I am glad to see you again. At least we have that.”

“Same here. I suppose you’re as angry at Ausmann as I am.”

“I didn’t feel anything about him between the time I died and the time I found myself flying up out of the ground and wandering around the cemetery. I’m not sure I feel anything now.”

“I can’t say the same there,” Joshua replied.

“But they — the ‘they’ who say things — say that revenge is a dish best served cold, and I’m probably room temperature. So, what do you have in mind?”

Joshua quickly explained what he’d learned about how the machine could be used to destroy the Rêves, and how they were going to turn Ausmann 180 away from that. The best way to help the Rêves and win the war would be to shut the whole things down.

“Which is impossible,” Simon replied.

“Except in cases of containment breach.”

“Which can be suicidal.”

“It depends on how you do it,” Joshua explained, getting out his laptop and showing Simon his notes. “All we have to do is rupture the pipes carrying the magnetic field through a super-cooled super-conductor, the plasma containment goes, and the tachyon beam takes off. This breaks the connection with the other end, and the catastrophic shut-down mechanisms activate.”

“Great. So, how do we rupture the pipes?” Simon asked.

“You’re the materials and properties expert,” Joshua replied. “All of the specs are in that spreadsheet, so take a look and tell me.”

Simon went to the computer, surprised to find that the trackpad actually sensed his finger, and he could press the keys and click the buttons.

“Weird,” he said.

“You probably have some sort of electromagnetic field dancing around your edges,” Joshua said, “Same as human skin, so you’re repelling the electrons in whatever you touch, only maybe not as strongly.”

“Whatever works,” Simon said, continuing to study the specs and make calculations.

Joshua had printed out pictures and schematics of the chamber around the generator end of the machine, which was where they’d be targeting the attack. The generator itself was sealed and heavily fortified, the plasma beam escaping at the end of an eight-foot tube coming from the generator.

There was a catwalk high above this overlooking the first stretch of containment field and super-cooled pipes.

What had been most intriguing during this whole thing was that Joshua finally learned how they made tachyons, which were not a new particle at all. Instead, they were just ordinary photons that had been given that extra kick to go just over the speed of light in a vacuum, or c.

While it took an enormous amount of energy relative to each photon to kick it past the speed limit, it was not a huge amount of energy in absolute terms because each photon was so tiny. As soon as it was going faster than c, it would be fired into a material designed to slow it down, but here was the paradox of tachyons.

Once they’d exceeded the speed of light, that was when they started to travel backwards in time, and when you put the brakes on something go backwards in time, the apparent effect is that it starts to move away from you faster. Well, at least faster backwards in time, which is the same thing as slower going forwards.

The end result was that once the machine got going, the tachyons coming out of it emerged before they had been created inside of it — at least from our point of view.

Speaking of time, it had been over an hour, both of them deep in study, when Joshua noticed Danny and Preston on the balcony, Preston doing the helicopter to get his attention, then gesturing to ask if they could come in now.

Joshua waved and they entered.

“How’s Ausmann?” Joshua asked.

“I think he jizzed himself when we told him you had Lorre and it would be soon,” Preston explained.

“Anything else?”

“Dude has gone totally paranoid espionage hound up there,” Danny told him. “Racks of costumes, disguises, prosthetic make-up — the good, studio kind, not Halloween store shit. We didn’t even recognize him when we popped in.”

“So I guess it works,” Preston added.

“Well, when I finally send you to get him, don’t forget to let him know that once he arrives, the disguises come off.”

“Oh my god,” Simon suddenly exclaimed and Joshua hurried to him, Preston and Danny following.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Weak spot,” Simon replied, pointing at the yellow tubes that shepherded the magnetic field around. “These aren’t that strong, and especially not when they’re under the stress of the temperature differential between the outside and the inside. Hit them at a join, and they’ll pop apart.”

“How hard do we have to hit them?” Joshua asked.

“How far are we hitting from?”

Joshua pointed out the scaffolding above the pipes, Simon checked the measurements and did the calculations. “Wow,” he finally said. “We’d only need to drop about 80 kilos on there.”

“To take one out?” Joshua asked.

“To take out as many as it hit,” Simon corrected him.

“Yes!” Joshua cheered under his breath.

“So, now what?” Simon asked.

“Now, we have to come up with a plausible way to get Ausmann up there and convince him that he can destroy the Rêves.”

“He’s not going to wreck his own machine to do that,” Simon said.

“I wouldn’t put anything past him by this point,” Joshua replied. “But we can come up with some other fake thing he can do.”

“Unless he knows the science of the machine well enough.”

“I’m guessing he doesn’t,” Joshua told him, then thought for a moment before snapping his fingers. “Paradox!”

“What?”

“We tell him that if he creates a paradox with the machine, it will destroy the Rêves. And in order to create a paradox, he has to drop matter with mass into the beam. It doesn’t even need to be that much. Maybe just a baseball-sized piece of something, which will fall between the pipes.

“It will accelerate into the past but break the laws of physics at the same time, and that is what will send the Rêves back to their graves. Ooh. Is that dramatic enough?” Joshua asked.

“Chilling,” Simon said.

“Imagine it in Peter Lorre’s voice. Speaking of which, I think it’s time to teach him his lines now,” Joshua added.

“You really have Peter Lorre?” Simon asked.

“Well, just the Class I version of him. Class II is wandering around, probably somewhere in Hollywood, living it up.”

“I suspect Drew’s handiwork,” Simon said.

“You suspect correctly. I suppose it’s time to train him, but let’s wait until tomorrow and get a fresh start. Right now, I just want to hang out with you.,” Joshua told him.

“Should we leave?” the boys asked.

“Nah,” Joshua said. “You both can stay. You feel like family now, anyway.”

Preston and Danny both “Awwed” in unison as the four of them settled in for another night of bingeing, although they all settled down early because tomorrow would probably be a busy day.

It began with Preston and Danny managing to prepare another breakfast, intended for Joshua and Simon but, of course, Simon didn’t need to eat, nor could he. After breakfast, Joshua stood and announced, “So, shall we decant the spirit and see what we can teach it?”

Simon nodded. “Yes, of course!”

Joshua retrieved the trap and placed it in their home containment box, letting Lorre out while keeping him sealed in.

He was surprisingly calm when he appeared in the cage, but that might have had something to do with three Rêves watching him along with one Vivant. He turned to them and smiled.

“Oh, hello,” he said, his accent not as strong as it was onscreen, but still noticeable. “Is Andy here?”

“No,” Joshua said. “He couldn’t come over, but we’re all good friends of his.”

“Ah, I see,” Lorre said. “And where is here?”

“North Hollywood,” Simon explained, to Lorre’s surprise. He turned and looked toward the balcony.

“High-rises in North Hollywood now?” he exclaimed. “I know I have been gone a long time, but now I have seen everything.”

“You haven’t been up here recently?” Joshua asked.

“I’ve only come back recently,” Lorre explained.

“I know exactly what you mean,” Danny said, kneeling in front of the cage. “The same thing happened to me as — ”

“Danny!” Joshua snapped, shooting him a warning look. Real Lorre hadn’t noticed he’d been split, and Joshua wanted to keep it that way.

“So what can I do for you gentlemen?” Lorre asked.

“We have a very important mission for you,” Joshua explained, going on to tell the story of Ausmann, his hatred of the Rêves, and his attempt to destroy them.

“And he tasked us with finding you in order to find out all of the Rêves’ weaknesses.”

“Why would I tell him that?” Lorre asked.

“Not you,” Joshua said. “The version of you from all of your movie roles. You did tend to play characters who were…”

“Don’t be kind,” Lorre said. “That was my specialty. Cowards, turncoats, murderers, and punks. I rather enjoyed it, actually.”

“Excellent,” Joshua said, “Because that’s what this guy is expecting, and you’re going to pretend to give it to him. Cower in fear, and then appear to sell out your own kind.”

“But I don’t?””

“Of course not. You’re going to give him bad information. I assume that you, like every other Rêve, knows about the machine, and how it could destroy you.”

“Oh, yes. Rev up the engine, and we are gone.”

“Exactly. So that’s not what you’re telling Ausmann.”

“I should think not,” Lorre replied.

“Here’s what you will be saying,” Joshua continued, and he and Simon explained the scenario and the words to Lorre, tossing the concept back and forth until it felt like he really got it.

“So it would be necessary to place some mass into the — plasma beam, you called it? — in order to disrupt the machinery and destroy us?” Lorre repeated. “That’s what I should tell him?”

“Pretty good. Yes,” Joshua explained.

“What if he asks me why?” Lorre wondered.

“You’re just an actor. Actually, you’re supposedly just the collective memories of all the characters you ever played, so you don’t know why. It’s just accepted wisdom among the Rêves.”

“Well, that makes my job easier, I suppose,” Lorre laughed. “Oh. But what if he asks why I would participate in my own destruction?”

“Tell him that as long as you’re down there behind the beam when it happens, you’ll be fine.”

“What if he doesn’t believe me?”

“Why would he not? Anyway, none of it matters if he doesn’t believe what you tell him about dropping mass into the beam, and he’ll only buy that if you pull off the role of the cowardly traitor, so that he thinks you are just your characters. You’re a good enough actor that I’m sure you can pull that off.”

“Why, thank you, young man.”

“Joshua,” he introduced himself.

“Peter,” Lorre said. “Oh. But I guess you knew that.”

“No I apologize, because I have to put you back in to the trap until we take you to Ausmann. It’s the only way he’d believe that I could bring you there.”

“I understand,” Lorre replied. “Here’s to our mission succeeding. See you on the other side!”

Joshua nodded and triggered the trap. Lorre vanished into it. The cage ejected the disk out the slot, and Joshua put it in the vault where it would be safe until they needed it.

“I think it’s going to work,” Simon told the others.

“I hope you’re right,” Joshua replied. “Now, can we get our minds off of this for a bit?”

“Binge and bang?” Simon asked.

“Well, we’re not going to get much bang, are we?” Joshua said.

“I was being metaphorical. At least I didn’t say ‘Netflix and chill.’”

“That’s because only old people say that anymore. “

They settled together on the sofa, Danny and Preston on the other side (after they’d asked if they could, of course), then went through the arduous process of deciding what to watch, finally settling on Dune — the 2021 version, not the 1984 David Lynch version or the 2000 television version.

Danny and Preston were thrilled to learn that it even existed. Meanwhile, even though Joshua and Simon had already seen it multiple times, they could always watch it again, and they couldn’t wait for Part 2 to come out, since the first film had stopped halfway through the book, leaving Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica, stranded in the desert of Arakis, after being betrayed by an intricate plot by a rival family.

And then they meet up with the Fremen. If you’re a Dune fan, you’ll know.

It was a long movie, but worth it, and the boys loved it. It also brought up some great memories for Simon and Joshua, and they were giving each other that look, Joshua finally sighing in frustration.

“You have no idea how much I wish we could… actually have sex right now,” he told Simon.

“So do I,” Simon said before looking at him for a long time, then glancing back at the boys, who gave him encouraging looks. “There is… one thing,” he finally said, very awkwardly.

“What’s that?” Joshua asked.

“I guess you’d call it… strength in numbers?”

“Okay, I’m not sure I like where this is going,” Joshua said, “And how would you know, anyway?”

“It’s just how this works, I guess,” Simon replies. “When you become a Rêve, you wind up with all of the knowledge. We’re all kind of interconnected. Only, sometimes, we can be very connected.”

“How, exactly, do you mean ‘connected?’” Joshua asked.

“Did you ever wonder how the Hadas could have caused that storm when every one of them was reduced to scattered ashes, and except for via Pearl, they can’t really manifest a human appearance like we can?”

“Um, no?” Joshua replied.

“That’s strength in numbers,” Danny said. “And three are enough to… do what you gotta do with your husband.”

“So… if I did agree to this, theoretically… how does it work?”

“Simple,” Preston said. “We just lend our energy to Simon so that he can become tangible enough to get freaky with you so you both can feel it.”

“Lend?”

“It’s kind of a temporary merge thing, basically,” Danny said.

“Aren’t you two worried about mooshing back together and just becoming Preston?” Joshua asked.

“Too late for that,” Preston replied. “We are definitely distinct now.”

“It sounds interesting,” Joshua said, “But I don’t know.”

“Sounds like you need a sample,” Simon announced, gesturing. Danny and Preston walked up behind him and then seemed to vanish into him, Simon appearing more and more solid until he stepped forward, took Joshua in his arms and buried his face in a kiss.

It was warm and wet and real, with Simon’s arms wrapped around him, and it took Joshua back to the days and nights before Simon died. When they broke, they stared into each other’s eyes, and all of Joshua’s resistance was gone.

Well, almost all of it. “Are those two aware of… things during this?” he asked Simon.

“Full disclosure,” he heard Preston’s voice, “Yes.”

“But we have to stay in here. If we come out, then Simon can’t do this anymore,” Danny added.

Joshua wasn’t sure whether to think of it as an audience or a four-way, but he stared into Simon’s eyes again.

“So, you’re not going to break out with two extra dicks or sprout a stray asshole or mouth anywhere, right?” he asked.

“Nope,” Simon reassured him. “They’re going to stay where they are. They’re going to feel everything I fell, and I’m sure they’re going to enjoy it, but just forget they’re along for the ride, okay?”

“As long as they don’t start moaning or anything,” Joshua said.

“Sorry, dude. You two are hot. Hard to promise that,” Preston whispered.

Joshua looked at Simon again and gave him a quick kiss. “Fuck it,” he said. “You only live one… sorry.”

“So, fuck it?” Simon said.

“Fuck me,” Joshua replied. Simon picked him up — which surprised the hell out of him, and proceeded to do exactly that. Several times. Until way too late that night became too early the next morning.

* * *

Friday-free-for-all #55: Ideal pet, favorite brands, homeless, compliments

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments. And for some reason, this installment inadvertently wound up with a number of commercial plugs. Are you listening, potential sponsors?

If you could have any animal as a pet, what animal would you choose?

Well, this question is a no-brainer. A dog, period. There is no better pet than a dog, although I don’t think that “pet” is the right word. Companion, family member, protector, friend — I’ll take all of those words.

I’d also adjust the question to this one: “If you could accept any animal into your family, which one would it be?”

And the answer would still be “dog.”

What brand are you most loyal to?

Well, it depends on what product we’re talking about. For phones, smart and non, Samsung, period. They make good stuff, and I like it — and in a recent ranking battle of Samsung and Apple, Samsung won hands down.

Then again, Apple products are shit, and if you asked me which brand I hated the most, they’d win.

For computers, for ages it was Gateway or nothing, and I can’t count how many PCs and laptops I bought from them. Sadly, they are no more, but I’ll stick with Acer or Dell. Chips by Intel. And OS is always, always Microsoft.

Did. I mention “fuck Apple?” Because I should. Apple makes computers for computer users who do not understand computers at all. If an Apple/Mac crapbox breaks down, you’re screwed. If my PC craps out, I can fix it — and I have, many times over many boxes.

Mayo: Kraft rules, Best Foods drools.

Cars: This was a long-fought decision that spanned Datsun, Subaru, Honda, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Saturn, Toyota. And while the VW was fun to drive, the ultimate winner is… Toyota. As long as they keep making manual transmissions.

Supermarkets: Ralphs. As long as I don’t have to admit that Kroger exists.

Designer shit: Nautica, but only from Ross Dress for Less because, what? You think I want to pay that much for a pair of pants? Piss off.

What’s the first thing that you think when see a homeless person?

Why do we have to live in a society where this is even possible? Housing — like education and healthcare — should be a right, and at the very least there should be free government housing, no strings attached, for people who can’t afford more at the moment.

As it is right now, there is so much abandoned commercial and industrial property, that cities should just start moving in and converting places. You could house hundreds in abandoned malls, for examples, and give each of them their own space.

A typical department store is about 250,000 square feet. That’s 500 feet on a side, or any combination that multiplies to 250,000. You could fit several hundred 900 square foot apartments into that footprint, per floor.

Now remember that a typical suburban mall usually has anywhere from two to four anchor stores, so multiply those hundreds of units by that many, then add in all the other retail space, which is where you could put the two and three bedroom units.

There could be several different types of spaces, depending upon to whom they’d be open. One type would be for the truly homeless who have no job, no place to go, and tend to wind up living in tent cities or under freeway bridges. This would give them secure shelter, an address, and a chance to start over — a safe place to stay if, for whatever reason, they can’t go on back to make it in society.

Another type could be the sudden emergency shelter, designed for people who are being evicted but can’t find new housing right now, battered spouses with or without children who need to escape a bad situation, or those who have lost their homes to disasters natural or otherwise.

The final category would be twofold: One for students, as in those going to college, so that they could focus on studies and not worry about rent or having to work in addition to school in order to survive. The second would be for seniors on fixed incomes who don’t own property or have the means or income to maintain what they do own.

All of the shelters would also create jobs in various areas from management to maintenance, and by keeping some retail — like grocery and drug stores and limited food courts — they could provide people with affordable necessities right outside their door.

But, really, in a country like the U.S., there should not be a single homeless person. We need to take care of everyone.

What was your favorite restaurant when you were in university? How about when you were a child?

Well, part of that is a tricky question, isn’t it?

In university, I’ll ignore the great on-campus restaurant we did have which was not a part of our pre-paid food service, but which had amazing burgers, and was designed as the practicum for upper-level majors in the field of restaurant management and etc. I can’t remember whether it was called The Lair or the Lion’s Den, although either would have fit, since our team was the Lions. (To complicate matters, there was a bar off-campus in town which had whichever name that the dining hall didn’t.)

The meal card cafeteria for students, BTW, was named after the food service contractor that ran it, SAGA — which, as we always pointed out, was just “A GAS” backwards. Many a “freshman fifteen” was born in that place.

But, having been a theatre minor, the hands-down favorite university restaurant answer is… Denny’s. and for four simple reasons…

  • They were open 24 hours, meaning that we could go there after the end of a show any night of the week, or especially after tech day hell.
  • They had comfort food for days, and that’s all that we wanted — plus breakfast at any hour.
  • They were cheap as fuck, meaning they fit a college budget. Plus free refills.
  • Chances were that we knew our server from school, so we could stay extra-long, got treated really well, and also got a bit generous in tipping.

Now, the second part of the question is trickier because I had no choice in restaurants as a kid. But I do remember two. Well, one by name very well, the other as a life-long mystery.

The one I remember well is the International House of Pancakes, aka IHOP, and my parents would take me there now and again and it was awesome. There were pancakes. And other breakfast stuff. And all kinds of syrup. And the roofs of the buildings were really cool — two steep blue A-frames that crossed each other.

The one I don’t remember as well, we only went to a few times, and this was when my parents took me on a drive-up vacation to San Francisco when I was about four, meaning “Brain still in mushy stage when memories don’t stick yet.”

My perception was that every night we stayed there for about a week, we went to some drive-in/sit-down combo restaurant in a big, round, probably Googie style building, where I’d have the

most amazing chocolate shake, served in a metal cup.

I don’t remember whether we drove there or walked, or whether we ate in the drive-through or went inside. For all I know, it could have actually been the diner attached to the motel we stayed at (TraveLodge) or a stand-alone restaurant across the street.

I just remember it being on top of a hill, it was always after dark, and the inside was brightly lit but the walls were all glass. I have more vivid memories of the coldness and the taste of the shake.

The only things I clearly remember from that trip, sort of, are these: First, a toy my parents bought me in Chinatown with a box and sliding lid — slide the lid open and a dragon popped up.

Second, a tour through the city on the upper deck of a converted London-style bus.

Third, how we missed being trapped in an elevator by seconds after a blackout on Fisherman’s Wharf when an underground transformer blew up — we heard the bang and saw black smoke coming up from a street maintenance cover.

Finally, I remember how we drove home with half a dozen loaves of sourdough bread warming in the back window of our car all the way down.

What was a random compliment that someone gave you that really stuck in your memory?

This one comes from the before times, the long ago, when we were not quarantined or isolated, and I was still doing improv and working box office at the theatre way back when, and one of the company members from the Sunday Team, who shall remain nameless, flat out told me, “I appreciate you.” And that was a total warm fuzzy.

I mean, it’s just such a simple statement, but it comes with so much good will and gratitude, and I recommend trying it yourself. People really seem to appreciate being appreciated, and it really does endow a sense of value.