Sunday nibble special: Reality bites

I worked for Cesar Millan for ten years, and I was there when the incident in question with Lidia happened. Here are my thoughts on it.

Truly about a nibble, indeed.

I suppose that I should just address this now, sooner than later, because I know I’m probably going to start drawing some sort of media attention because, reasons. Also, the public story broke on Friday, and friends started sending me links left and right.

The media has been hyping it as “Cesar Millan’s pit bull Junior killed Queen Latifah’s dog,” with a side of, “Oh, and bit a top young gymnast.”

Although the second part did happen a bit over four years ago, it’s just now making the news. The very short version is that a woman named Lidia Matiss has filed suit against Cesar Millan, primarily because, she claims, his recently deceased pit bull Junior mauled her leg, leading to the end of her promising gymnastics career.

In addition to that, she alleges that Junior also mauled one of Queen Latifah’s dogs to death at Cesar’s Dog Psychology Center and, she says, that was covered up by the staff being told to claim that the dog was hit by a car.

As my readers may know — and the name of the website is a big clue — I used to work for Cesar. In fact, I worked for him for just over a decade, originally as operations manager for his online business, but then as his head content creator and editor and in-house ghostwriter.

So there are things I know and things I don’t, but I can really only comment on what Lidia alleges in her lawsuit. Not that I’m under any kind of NDA but, like I said, there are things I know and saw and things I don’t, so I have to tread a very fine line to avoid committing libel.

What I can say is that there is at least one misrepresentation in the story, and that’s that every single version I’ve seen states that Lidia was bitten in a building that Cesar owned. I know that that one is not true because I was at many a meeting before we moved into it and near the end of my tenure there, and it was all about leasing the space.

What Cesar did own was his Dog Psychology Center, but let me pull back the veil here a little bit on how his whole enterprise operated.

The first thing you should know is that Dog Whisperer and Dog Nation and Better Human Better Dog and anything that appears under the National Geographic banner had nothing at all to do with the company I worked for in more than an arms’ distance way.

Well, with one exception that I’ll bitch about later.

But, in other words, Cesar on TV was an entirely different division from our company, which started out as Cesar Millan, Inc. (CMI) and eventually became Cesar’s Way (CW), both of which handled the business of his online presence and etail sales. It may or may not have been his loan-out company as well, but I was never privy to that information, so I cannot comment on it.

While it was CMI, it shared offices with MPH Productions, which was the company that originally brought Cesar to NatGeo and pitched the show. Well, okay… they took the idea that two female producers had pitched to them, because they’d found Cesar, and sold it to NatGeo.

CMI shared offices with MPH for the first few years in a space on Hollywood Way in Burbank that was long since converted into a Target Express across the street from a Model Train Shop. If you ever want to hang out where my desk was, stroll inside and find the aisle that gives you a straight-line view of the optometrist across the street. Near the back of that aisle and about eight feet from the wall is where I would have been sitting.

What I can say about those days is this: Cesar got screwed by MPH — that much was proven in a lawsuit that dragged on for ages but finally resulted in the two women and Cesar winning back the rights to the name “Dog Whisperer.” Second was that MPH was ridiculously generous to everyone on their staff and CMI’s — because they were apparently spending Cesar’s money.

And yet, there was still this weird arms’ distance thing. In those days, if Cesar ever came by the office, he was definitely kept on the south side, where MPH was, and even though the CMI folk were the ones who ostensibly worked for him, we were treated like red-headed step-children, at least by MPH.

Back to the division of labor thing, though. MPH dealt with NatGeo to make the show. Meanwhile, CMI dealt with Cesar’s wife at the time, Ilusion, in order to design and market various products, including DVDs not produced by NatGeo, training accessories, toys, and so on.

We also coordinated and staffed his seminars which, at the time, were nationwide.

During my first two years there, we had two gigantic issues with third parties. Well, sort of third parties, but this brings up yet another division in CesarLand.

In addition to the NatGeo side of things, mostly run out of Washington DC, and our Burbank offices, there was the Dog Psychology Center. When I started, it was located in what was basically a donated parking lot in South Central L.A. It wasn’t given a lot of attention on the show, but functioned mainly as a long-term rehab place for problem dogs Cesar was training.

Eventually, he did make enough money from the show to buy the acreage in Santa Clarita, California, that became the Dog Psychology Center (DPC), and I was very privileged to visit that place many, many times over the years, and meet a lot of the animals, including Lorenzo the Llama, Marty the Donkey, who was a total sweetheart, and Cesar’s entire flock of goats, who would play hard to get until you thrust a handful of lettuce at them.

But, again, the DPC was a totally separate entity. It had its own staff and director, and as far as any of us from CMI were concerned, we only got to go up there by special invitation.

That’s probably getting a step or two ahead, though, because those DPC trips didn’t become regular until another event happened and, again, while I’m not privy enough to the internals to make any positive assertions, the short version is that outside auditors were brought in, they looked at the books, and cried, “Foul!”

That was in 2009, when a Man Called Bob (which should be in all caps with TM next to it) swept in, saw what was going on, announced, “Well, this is bullshit,” and CMI divorced MPH and moved along the way.

We wound up at first in a building we all dubbed The Bouncy Castle, which was found by Cesar’s younger brother Erick Millan. It was… weird, but exactly what we needed. (Side note: Erick is a ridiculously talented designer and all-around nice guy who eventually moved back to Mexico to establish his own design firm.)

After we moved, and since a Man Called Bob convinced Cesar to trust him, Cesar was suddenly a lot more accessible to us, and I think it was the first time he actually realized that he had a team that was bigger than the DPC and the marketing hacks at Nat Geo.

This was also the building I was working in when I took a chance and Cesar suddenly realized, “Shit. This dude writes?”

It all happened because I suggested a bit of entertainment for the holiday party to a Man Called Bob, got him to approve a budget, and then I rewrote the lyrics to two Christmas carols to be Dog Whisperer themed, brought in six actors to sing them, and Cesar flipped his shit in joy.

That was about five years after I’d started working for him, but it was a major career change. I went from operations manager to content creator, editor, and unofficial Voice of Cesar overnight.

We eventually moved out of the Bouncy Castle and wound up in a place closer to Burbank Airport that we dubbed The Shoebox, but it was a move up for a few big reasons. One was that we brought our warehouse operations in-house, so no longer had to rely on a third-party fulfillment center, which saved my successor a ton.

We also had studio space and editing suite within that warehouse in which we could do quick videos — either product demos or more elaborate greenscreen stuff, and we had an in-house video/editing team as well, which started to crank out online content independent of NatGeo.

Finally, the nicest part of it being a two-story building was that all the corporate people — execs, legal, Foundation, and creative (meaning Cesar’s brilliant brother Erick) wound up on the second floor. Meanwhile, the newly created Digital Team in charge of all things online got to share the rather much larger than we needed ground floor.

Side note: From day one to this point and beyond, the office was always dog-friendly, and I brought both of mine nearly every day. In fact, I took advantage of this to finally break my dog Shadow out of her fear-aggression toward other dogs, and I think that Sheeba just became so blasé about the idea of “let’s go to work with daddy” that she wound up being comfortable anywhere.

Don’t take that as a total endorsement of Cesar, though, because that was mostly me, although I did have to know his philosophy and methods backwards and forwards in order to write about them, sometimes as myself, but more often as him — and that was as weird to me as it sounds.

So from late 2012 to 2017, I became “The Voice of Cesar,” writing his weekly column/fan message, co-ghostwriting one of his books, and creating a ton of non-bylined dog advice articles, implying they were his.

There was no attempt at fraud here, though. Just a show biz reality. Very few celebrities, unless they were already known as writers in the first place, write their own material, whether it be their books, blogs, social media posts, etc.

The vast majority of them are created by the web marketing teams for a few really good reasons. One is to protect the celebrities from themselves, making sure that they don’t commit any major faux pas. Another is to keep the voice consistent and, ideally, properly spelled, and grammatical. Finally, there’s the simple fact that the celebrity is probably far too busy in front of the camera or doing live interviews and the like to have any time to sit down and write.

All of this applied in Cesar’s case with one other factor, of course. English was not his first language and he didn’t even start learning it until he came to America when he was an adult. He can speak it perfectly well, but actually writing the words is a challenge for him, particularly when it comes to spelling.

I can vouch for this, though — in Spanish, he’s super-literate.

But… when it came to being part of the necessary deception, what did I care? He paid me good money to do that, even after the company cut bait and fled to its final, smaller HQ, which happens to also be the place in which Lidia alleges that Junior bit her.

We still had a warehouse in the back and a small video production department, although the editing suite was now a not-so-sound-proofed office sharing space with the digital team.

Oddly enough, although it was a one-story building, it was basically split into three zones, so we had the same division. Executives in the front, digital team in the middle, and warehouse and shipping in the back. I was in the middle, with a direct line of sight view through the door to the front office and front doors if the door in the adjoining wall were open, which it usually was. Important in a moment.

Meanwhile, the DPC was still doing whatever it was it did miles away. And I was a true believer in Cesar right up until the end, but for a few years now, I’ve been not so sure.

As for the Queen Latifah thing, I vaguely remember some mention of one of her dogs being killed, but we never heard anything besides the “dog ran in front of a car” story ourselves, so I’m not touching that one. The only people who know the truth were working at the DPC at the time.

The one thing I can state as a fact is this. I was there, in the office, on at least one instance when Junior bit Lidia. I didn’t see the actual bite, but, as noted, my cubicle was in direct line of sight of her mother, Lisa’s, office, so I had a very good view of Lisa and Lidia coming out, Lisa exclaiming that Junior had just bit her daughter, and Lidia limping, although I couldn’t see the actual injury because she had that leg turned away from me.

A Man Called Bob jumped into action and saw to it that Lidia got rushed off to the ER. I honestly don’t remember how Cesar reacted because, by that point, those of us on the Digital Team, i.e. in the back half of the office, were too busy discussing the incident ourselves.

But what I can state absolutely, without committing libel, is that Cesar’s dog Junior did, in fact, bite the back of Lidia’s leg — calf or thigh, I’m not sure. But since she was the daughter of CW’s Of Counsel at the time, it was all kinds of awkward.

Did Junior bite her more than once, either that day or on subsequent days? Not to my knowledge, Was he generally vicious?

Well, again, all I can discuss is what I know, and since I knew Junior for most of his life, having met him as a squishy little pup, he was never vicious toward me, or either of my dogs. Then again, I think that he always liked me, so the worst “mauling” I ever got from him was when he decided to come over, lean onto me hard, and then lick my face.

Ooh… how vicious!

Honestly, though, Cesar’s response to the lawsuit is weak. His lawyers basically said that Lidia should have assumed the risk, knowing that Junior was unleashed around the office. One big problem: The “bring your dog to work” policy came with a caveat. If your dog was ever vicious and bit another dog or human, then they were banned.

I cannot deny that I saw the aftermath of the bite, but that’s all that I can say. I didn’t see the actual extent of the injury. I just know that Lidia was taken to the ER immediately. I also don’t remember exactly when in 2017 this happened, although I know it was near the end of my tenure.

For whatever reason, Cesar’s Way decided to disband the digital team and go with an outside contractor for online marketing. I was laid off the Friday after Labor Day in 2017, although I was retained to keep writing Cesar’s weekly columns for a nice monthly salary through the end of March 2018, and did receive a ridiculous severance package, including reimbursement for my unused sick time, which was all of it.

The only sick time I did use was because of that weekend in August 2016 I’d wound up in the hospital, so that was a different year. But that experience, getting laid off, and the ton of money I walked away with led directly to the creation of this website.

In other words, yes, Cesar treated me and the rest of us well once he realized he had employees but, on the other hand, we were also trained to look the other way a lot — or at least gaslight ourselves whenever some scandal threatened.

I mean, as the team maintaining his online image, we were the ones who had to jump in to protect things, and we only ever got the story that came down to us from the executive suite. In protecting the boss, we were really protecting our jobs.

Tell me that you’d do differently — although most of what we had to deal with didn’t involve people being bitten or dogs being killed. Rather, it was gross misrepresentation by Cesar-haters (who are legion) of his techniques.

Are his abilities as a dog shaman perhaps inflated a bit? Probably. (He tried to do his thing with my dog Sheeba, and she basically gave him stink eye and ignored him.) Does he rampantly abuse dogs just for fun? That’s a hard no.

But… I was an insider for a long, long time with Cesar, and I can say that he’s no saint. No one is. I don’t have any of the dirty laundry and honestly don’t know whether it really exists. All I know is that Lidia is not lying, at least about her injury.

So, to Lidia… godspeed.

Saturday Morning Post #81: Between Zero and One (Part 1)

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, I flash back to my own life around the time I wrote this, in 2000 or 2001. This was pretty much the state of the internet at the time, and I was working from home as a graphic designer, little suspecting that I would be doing something very similar 20 years later but enjoying it a lot more. Like the lead character, I’m also very big on doing my own hardware and software upgrades, and get easily frustrated when tech fails.

Unable to locate host.

“Piece of shit.” Tyler banged his mouse against the desk in his usual litany of frustration, clicked reload. He waited two seconds, the limit of his patience, clicked reload again. Nothing, and then the error box of death popped up again with its annoying reminder noise. Unable to locate host.

“My ass,” Tyler shouted at his monitor. Still, he couldn’t help but always titter at that error message. It sounded like something an addled priest would say during Mass. Oops, I seem to have misplaced Jesus today… Of course, it had been a long, long time since Tyler had set foot in a church. Or anywhere, for that matter.

He let go of the mouse, went to the keyboard and hit control “R,” holding the keys down as the screen flickered. “Reload this,” he muttered, waiting.

Infinite seconds of nothing, annoying sound, error message the same again.

“Fuck.” Tyler spat. Okay, fine, maybe somebody had hacked the site — although he would hope that a major bank, his bank, was fairly hack-proof. No, it was some transitory problem, something stupid and mechanical, a broken switch or system traffic. Everything would be back up soon. Well, what the hell, in the meantime he could check out his favorite group look at some porn.

He went to his favorites, the folder named “Babes,” scrolled down to “Lusty Busty Beauties” and clicked. This was always good for a few minutes of amusement, any time of day.

Why was everything taking so long? He wasn’t connected by modem. That was so 1998. He was jacked in direct on a T-3 line, forty-five million bits a second. The first naked babe should have popped up on his screen instantly, if not faster.

UNABLE TO LOCATE HOST.

Tyler stared at the screen, frustration mounting. What was going on here? The problem must be on his end. He exited his browser, checked to make sure the operating system didn’t still think it was running (he was going to have to email a nasty note to the browser people over that recurring problem) then ran the program again, waiting.

The error came back, hovering over the empty gray screen of an unconnected browser. “Oh, fuck you,” Tyler grunted. He exited the browser, then rebooted the system. Billions of dollars spent on developing and marketing software and operating systems every year, and they still couldn’t get them right.

While his computer died and came back to life, he padded out to the kitchen, stepping around knee-high stacks of magazines and personal papers, grabbed a cup of coffee from the pot, took a sip. He glanced at the clock. It was four-thirty. Good, so it was just past noon in England and only about ten‑thirty tomorrow night in Sydney. He felt like chatting with some of his friends, maybe he’d do that when he was done with the banking.

He wandered back to the second bedroom he used as an office, where his computer was just finishing up the ever so long process of restarting. He sat down, ready to go back online when another error message popped up. “Unable to establish connection.”

He let out a frustrated shriek, then reminded himself of rule number one in the computer business — check for low density, high impedance connections. To the non-geek world, that was better known as a pulled-out plug. Sure, that must be it, simplest thing in the world to fix. He got down on his hands and knees, stuck his head far under the desk and peered around the back of his computer case as best he could.

He banged his head on the desk when he started to emerge for the flashlight. What idiot had ever decided that all the connections should be on the back of the computer, anyway? Even with the radio linked keyboard, mouse, printer and webcam, there was still an octopus of cords back there. Tyler grabbed the flashlight and turned it on. Then, he stared at the thing, which refused to illuminate. He flung it across the room, then turned on the overhead light, got back down under the desk and moved the computer to the side, tilting it and squinting.

Everything was plugged in where it was supposed to be. The thick blue wire was firmly in its socket. He jiggled it just to make sure. Yep. Connected. He traced the wire to the wall, where, likewise, it was firmly connected. He unplugged it, put it back in place until it clicked, just to make sure.

This was disconcerting. He heaved himself back into his chair, stared at the screen, then started checking out the settings for his network card. Nothing had changed, everything was correct. He knew these settings by heart, and they were fine. He tried connecting again. Nothing.

If Tyler designed operating systems, these error messages would be the first thing to go, replaced by a graphic of a hand giving the finger. That’s all they were anyway, the computer’s way of saying, “I know there’s a problem, but I’m not going to tell you what, exactly, it is. Nyah, nyah, human.” Was it too much to ask a three thousand dollar piece of plastic and metal with a three hundred dollar operating system to be a little more forthcoming when it failed? Shit, doctors wouldn’t make very much money if they worked that way. “Sorry, Mr. Smith, you’re dying. We don’t know what of, and we can’t stop it, but you’re done for.”

“Motherfucker…” Tyler shouted, banging the desk. He sat there, nostrils flaring for a moment, then shut down the computer and grabbed the screwdriver. “Prep the patient,” he said to himself. “We’re going in.”

* * *

Several hours, five cups of coffee, many reboots and an assload of frustration later, Tyler threw down his screwdriver and fell into a kitchen chair, wanting to cry. He’d taken the network card in and out five times, trying it in different slots, playing with the switches on it, flipping back and forth through the manual, which was about as informative as those error messages. Nothing worked. Every time he tried, every time that he knew this would be the time, it was the same thing. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero.

The sun had come up and he could hear neighbor’s cars starting, people heading off for their day. The poor, deluded fools, hurrying off to the rat race which would always begin with some hellishly slow commute, racing the clock and always losing, to go sit in someone else’s place and do someone else’s business and give up every bit of freedom. Tyler had gotten out of that game a long time ago, discovering the joys of telecommuting and Internet consulting, and he didn’t miss any of it.

Except, right now, he could be working and he wasn’t, for reasons he couldn’t fathom. He put the computer back in place, turned it back on, knowing it would be no different this time, and sat there, fuming. He grabbed his Rolodex, flipped through it and found the card for his service provider. He’d listed their customer service hours from eight a.m. to five p.m..

Great, so he’d have to wait two and a half hours? He was about to start cursing all over again when he remembered that the company’s offices were in New Jersey. Maybe that meant eastern time. Maybe he was in luck…

He dialed and waited, listening to the Muzak and the “Someone will be with you shortly” message. He put the phone on speaker and popped up his graphics program, idly flipping through the many photos of women he’d collected, scantily clad and less so, a gallery of objects that were all his any time he wanted them.

He was staring at the unblemished, golden round ass of a girl identified as Tracy (although he’d also run across her as Donna, Eileen and Kitten) when a voice intruded on the speaker. Tyler snatched up the phone. “Yeah, something’s wrong with my connection…” he said, voice cracking and gravelly this early in the morning.

“Let me check that for you, sir,” the chipper voice on the other end said. Tyler hated being called sir on the phone. He was only twenty-six, although he always sounded older. After the usual interminable business of giving his information and proving who he was, the Muzak was back and he waited again. He looked at the girl on the screen, wondered if the girl on the phone looked anything like her. Probably not. But he could pretend.

It seemed like hours but was really only two songs later that someone came back on the phone, but it wasn’t the girl. It was a man, who identified himself as a supervisor. Tyler’s heart fell. Now what? He’d paid his bill. At least, his bank did, automatically, every month. Unless they’d fucked that up.

“Mr. Allen, sorry to inconvenience you, but we’ve had a problem in your area,” the supervisor explained, trying to sound jovial.

“What kind of problem?” Tyler demanded.

“A construction crew — the electric company, actually — well, they cut right through our main fiber-optic line with a backhoe. Our entire system is down on the west coast because of it, but we are taking steps to get it back up.”

“They backhoed your backbone?”

The man laughed. “You could put it that way.”

“So, it’s not my computer?”

“No, no. It’s us. I’m real sorry about this. We will be offering a free month’s service to all of our customers, once things are resolved.”

“How long’s it going to be out, then, a couple of hours?”

“Well, Mr. Allen, I’m afraid not. It’s going to take a little bit longer than — “

“How long?”

“At least until Friday,” the supervisor said quietly, his jovial tone gone.

“Friday!” Tyler screamed. “Fucking Friday?”

“At the earliest, yes.”

“What the hell am I supposed to do until then?”

There was a pause on the other end, then the supervisor went on. “We are doing everything we can to restore your service as quickly as possible, Mr. Allen. We did explain all of this as soon as we knew about it, we sent an email to all of our customers.”

“You sent an email?”

“Yes, it explains everything.”

“An email?”

“Yes, did you get it?”

Tyler wanted to bite the phone in half. As it was, his left hand was practically splintering the plastic. He stood, breathing heavily. “Of course I didn’t fucking get it, you goddamned asshole. How the fuck can I get a fucking email if your fucking system is blown all to fuck for fuck’s sake?”

“Mr. Allen, there’s really no need for such language.”

“Fuck… you!” he screamed, then he slammed the phone down. Friday. Friday at the earliest. No, that couldn’t be. It was a bad dream, that’s what it was. He had work to do, clients to satisfy, people to chat with, things to… look up. Friday may have been their answer, but Friday was no good. To hell with Friday, he needed to be connected right now.

He was about to go online to look up other service providers when he realized that was a stupid idea, then went all around the house looking for the phone book. He finally found it under the bed and, even though the “Use Until” date on the cover was over a year ago, he flipped through it, found Internet Service Providers and started calling… and then realized that, while it may have been well into that supervisor’s work day, things still hadn’t really started out here and this was the local phone book.

Jesus, was that an archaic idea. Just local numbers? When would the phone company figure out that business had gone global? If he could look it up online, he’d find a company on the east coast that was ready to deal in five minutes.

But if he could look it up online…

Tyler slammed the phone book, stared at the clock, then stomped out to the kitchen. He’d have to wait two or three hours. Two or three hours, or wait until Friday. At the earliest.

Life sucked.

* * *

“Sure, we can get you T-3 service, you say you have all the hardware set up?”

“Yes,” Tyler said hopefully.

“And I’ve checked your location, we do service that area.”

“Great, great,” Tyler said. “So, how soon can you do it?”

“Let me check…” the woman paused, consulting something. “I can have a technician out there in… three weeks.”

“But I don’t need a technician, everything is set up, just turn it on.”

“That would be our self-service option — “

“Yeah, yeah, self-service, whatever. How long does that take?”

“We can have your service activated by… a week from Thursday. And right now, we have a special promotion — ”

“A week from fucking Thursday?” Tyler said.

“Y-yes. And our promotion — ”

“No sooner?”

“No, sir, I’m sorry.”

“And don’t call me sir.”

“All right. It’s a very good promotion  — ”

“Ram your fucking promotion up your ass, bitch.”

And he slammed down the phone for the seventh or eighth time that morning. He’d lost count. What was the problem with people? In theory, it would take all of five seconds to reroute his hook-up.

He had a DNS, his computer was a server, just send someone out to swap the wiring from the old company to the new one’s cables, change a little designation in a database somewhere, let it propagate, and bang, he’d be back in business.

The whole point of humans creating the internet in the first place was so that the entire system of military and university computers would stay connected, and no information would be lost in the case of all-out nuclear war.

Somebody had explained it once as the difference between good Christmas tree lights and shitting ones. If you bought shitty lights, where everything was wired in series, if one bulb burned out, the whole string went dark. But if you bought the good lights, where everything was wired in parallel, if one bulb burned out, none of the others would even notice.

In theory. The weak link was the human link, as in it would take some poor lazy asshole to get up out of a chair and go do something, and that was what took all the time, all the waste, all the frustration. That was the real reason computers sucked when they failed. They were designed by humans. Machines should have been superior to their creators, but they were not.

Of course, if that was the case, the human condition really did not bode well for the creative abilities of god.

It was noon by the time he finished with the last company, heard the same refrain. The earliest anyone could hook him up was a week and a day. The real world operated at a snail’s pace. He hung up with a quiet, “No, thank you.” He’d long since used up all the good profanity he knew, getting pretty creative around the twentieth call, pretty resigned by the thirtieth.

Of course, there was always the annoying fallback of using a dial-up service, even if it did mean switching temporarily to a regular modem. He went to the linen closet, opened it and surveyed the graveyard of abandoned peripherals. There were CD‑ROMs, floppy drives, old keyboards, two printers, a trackball, half a dozen joysticks, an ancient black and white webcam, a newer but just as outdated color one, and a stack of cards with uses that Tyler had practically forgotten. He pulled down the cards, flipped through the stack looking for that familiar UART chip.

Nope, nope, not that one, no, no… none of them were modems. None of them. That was unbelievable. He’d been through a dozen modems in the last five years, he had to have one sitting around.

Then he remembered. The day he’d gotten his T-3, he’d burned all the modems, actually put them in a metal bucket, doused them with lighter fluid and gleefully torched them. Sure, it had set off the smoke alarm in the living room, but it had been worth it. Ancient history, consigned to the fate it deserved.

In retrospect, it had been a really bad idea. But it was the thought that counted, and Tyler knew what he had to do now. Go out, buy a modem, and deal with it until Friday. At the earliest.

He started for the door, then realized he was wearing his robe and pajamas. Oops. Change first, then go out. He went to the bedroom, dug through the mound of laundry, found some clothes that didn’t smell too bad and changed. Okay, that was done with, now… wallet and keys, that was it. Wallet and keys, where were they? He hunted around the house for a good fifteen minutes before he found them, dusty and forgotten under a stack of magazines.

He also found his watch, which was actually still working. He looked at the date on it. September 10th. That sounded familiar. It took him a minute to remember, then he realized it had been just over a year since he’d last gone out this door. He hadn’t had to. He did all his business online, got paid by his clients through direct deposit, ordered everything from the Internet, even his groceries, had it all delivered.

He never went out to the movies but consumed a steady stream of DVDs by mail rental, ordered his stamps, his books and his CDs, got his news of the world, had all his friends, online. He knew people all over the world, chatted with them incessantly. He had sex with a lot of them, in the safest way possible, sometimes with the webcam, sometimes just with words.

He’d probably gotten off a lot of middle-aged businessmen who pretended to be teenage girls that way, but as long as Tyler didn’t know, he didn’t care. And if that method failed, there was always Kitten or Donna or Eileen, or whoever they really were, just an assortment of glowing dots writhing all over his great, big twenty-one inch monitor, beckoning him in the dark.

It was like somebody had cut both his legs off with that random backhoe. He wondered if the company had been lying to him. Was it really the power company? Blaming the power company in California was like blaming Palestinians in the Knesset. Was his service provider lying to cover up an inevitable act of human negligence and laziness?

That still didn’t change the length of time he’d have to wait, and he couldn’t wait. He put on his watch, pocketed his wallet and keys, went to the front door and grabbed the knob. He took a deep breath, then pulled the door open and stepped outside.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #77: Pet, ghost, charity, dystopia

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

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

My friends already know the answer to this question. It wouldn’t be anything big or exotic or unusual, nor would it be anything mythic or legendary.

Nope. My ideal pet is, was, and always will be a dog. The three in my life so far have all been amazing in their own very different ways, from mama dog who raised me more than I raised her, to the clingy, needy one who always came to me first and only for protection and who taught me a lot, to the super-smart, aloof one who, nevertheless, always tipped her hand when it came to giving away how attached she really was to me.

Dogs are loving, loyal, intelligent, and they have emotional lives just as rich as ours. They are able to understand us as well as communicate with us, and have clear wants and needs. They are playful and compassionate and, unlike their feline counterparts, it’s extremely rare that a dog will ever suddenly turn on its human and attack.

In fact, on those one or two rare occasions when my dog was in pain and I didn’t know it and I touched them the wrong way, while their instinct was to turn around and bite me, I could also see the instant “kill switch” for that instinct activate as their brain basically screamed at them, “Nooooooo!” and their teeth would never get near me.

But they did get their point across, and it also meant that a visit to the vet ASAP was in order.

The only reason I don’t have a dog now, just over sixteen months after Sheeba passed, is that 2020 and 2021 have been very unusual years Well, duh. And both years were basically repeats of each other.

The first two months, everything seemed fine, but then we slammed into lockdown in March. It looked like the coast was clear in July, so we came outside — and then cases skyrocketed again so that two weeks later we were back to masking and isolating.

It looks like it won’t be until almost the end of fall until we might sort of attempt normal after vaccinated people get booster shots and the unvaccinated come to their senses. Then again, with the governors of several states doing their best to contravene all of the best practices to fight this thing and with in-person school starting up in various places, we could see it get worse before it gets better.

After all, this is exactly the trajectory we saw with the Flu Pandemic of 1918 — and they didn’t even have a delta variant to deal with, much less a mu.

If you were a ghost, how would you haunt?

I’m reminded of Chris Rock’s line in Dogma, where he plays the thirteenth apostle Rufus, who’s kind of a spirit, kind of not. “You know what the dead do with most of their time? They watch the living. Especially in the shower.”

I guess that’s not exactly haunting, unless I decided to suddenly become visible and shout, “A-ha — caught you!” when somebody was in the middle of having a little “me time,” and I would not be above a bit of ethereal voyeurism.

However, I think I’d also like to go the A Christmas Carol route after a fashion, and it would involve this. Determining which politicians or other influential people really needed to pull their heads out of their asses on an issue and have a true change of heart.

In that case, you can believe that I’d be haunting them day and night to express my opinion and convince them to do what needed to be done — change a vote, support or oppose a bill, talk some sense into their constituents or, in the most extreme cases, to resign office and leave politics altogether.

Which charity or charitable cause is most deserving of money?

Right now, there are two tied for first place: the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and the reasons should be obvious if you’re paying attention. Both are fighting to protect women’s reproductive rights and body autonomy in the face of concerted efforts to destroy Roe v. Wade.

Ironically, the Roe v. Wade case, which legalized abortion in the U.S. with the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling, started out as one woman’s legal challenge against the abortion laws in… Texas. So yes, we have come full circle, with the Supreme Court suddenly sitting on their hands and doing nothing to block a ridiculous and draconian anti-abortion law in Gilead.

Oh, sorry. I mean in Texas.

In addition to fighting against laws like this and for the rights of women to control their own reproductive choices, the ACLU also constantly fights for the constitutional rights of all American citizens.

And while a lot of people naively have the impression that the ACLU is some far-left organization, nothing could be further from the truth. They are actually neutral, and have defended groups at both political extremes, with one of the more famous cases being their defense of the First Amendment rights of a neo-Nazi group in the 1970s to hold a march and rally in Skokie, Illinois.

As far as they’re concerned, the Constitution belongs to and protects all Americans, and they’re right.

Runners up: The Southern Poverty Law Center (social justice and civil rights for the BIPOC community), Natural Resources Defense Council (environmental protection), and Human Rights Campaign (LGBTQ+ rights and protections).

Consider donating today to each of them today, if you can, and think about making it monthly. Giving $5 to $15 a month to each of these organizations only costs you $25 to $75 dollars, but it can do so much for the world.

I know it’s what I started doing the same day that 45 was elected.

And for my readers outside of the United States, please think about helping them to help us as well, or find the equivalent organizations in your own country and donate.

(Note: I am not being compensated or asked to make these endorsements in any way by any of these organizations. I just believe in all of them very strongly.)

Which apocalyptic dystopia do you think is most likely?

Probably the one that the super-elite and the politicians they own are doing their best to engineer for us right now.

They’re aiming for a world where a handful of people control the vast majority of the capital and resources of the entire planet while allowing a larger (but still relatively small) group of much “poorer” elites to serve as their cheerleaders — elected officials, celebrities, sports stars, the media, etc.

So it’s a pyramid with multi-billionaires at the top, a hidden layer of almost billionaires handling their money and their legal affairs, a very public layer of multi- and mono-millionaires providing the bread and circuses, and then everyone else, who are slowly being driven into serfdom via income inequality.

And the multi-billionaires at the top have one desperate hope: That all of those serfs never realize that they — all of them — are the only reason that those multi-billionaires have anything. Cut off the tap, and all of their money, influence, and power goes away.

But… having created this servant class that will never escape poverty and slowly ensuring that they are also less educated and more distracted by petty, shiny things, the rulers have no interest at all in doing anything about climate change.

Why would they? They have the resources and assets to buy their way out of any danger. Oh, Manhattan is flooding and Toronto is hot as balls? Finland is lovely this time of year.

Dubai may be melting on the outside, but they’ve just built a new, environmentally controlled domed city where it’s always 72°F inside (22°C if you prefer), every one of the luxury high-rise towers uses its exterior space to raise more than enough food for the rich people inside, and the starting price for one of the smaller luxury condo suites is $75 million. But we are sure that you’d want something more fitting your station, above the 109th floor, taking up three stories and covering 10,000 square feet per floor, starting at only $250 million.

Or, get what you really want — one of the penthouse estates with roof access including a half-acre garden and patio, and five floors of residence beneath, with 24 ensuite bedrooms, six additional bedrooms, ten bathrooms, one restaurant-style and two gourmet kitchens, a digital IMAX/3D/4DX screening room that seats 100, entertainment room/arcade, full IRL conference room with attached offices and 3D virtual conference room, and shared rooftop helipad.

All of this in a neat 130,000 square feet, starting at only $1.2 billion.

Of course, the lowly staff in Dubai are made up of various refugees, many of them from Afghanistan but, by this point, a lot of them also environmental refugees, fleeing lands that have either become too hot to live in or have just flooded out. What a break for the multi-billionaires, though, because these people work for practically nothing.

Meanwhile, back home in the states, if you happen to toil for one of the companies owned by one of these people, you probably haven’t had the option to flee. If you’re lucky and live in a state like California, then your gross pay for a month could be $2,600 — but that’s before taxes, and it’s only $31,200 per year.

After taxes, you’re taking home a whopping $2,077 per month. But, hey, you work for one of those multi-billionaires and you don’t do it remotely, remember? So here’s what’s available to rent in your area: Small studio, shared bathroom, no pets or cooking in room, 150 square feet, $2,500 per month.

You want cheaper, then you have to commute farther, but that costs a lot more in time and money — gas and being stuck in traffic, or train/bus/subway fare.

Side note: I once met a woman who worked in Burbank, California, but lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and she commuted to work every morning and went home every night… by commercial jet. Sounds insane and expensive, right? Well, here’s the thing…

At the time, housing and cost of living in Phoenix were so much ridiculously lower than in L.A., the extra $250/week for the commuter block of tickets on the regular Southwest flights was still less than the difference in mortgage, daycare, gas, etc. Not only that, but the half hour hop by plane was still less than half the time of any commute in the area that could have put her family in a comparable economic situation.

And keep in mind that she was an executive for a pretty big organization. She just thought of the plane ride as taking “a bus with wings.” Of course, this was before 9/11, and also before Southwest discontinued their commuter ticket package deal. Because of course they did.

Okay, great — so if you don’t want to eat or have health insurance or anything else, that crappy studio is still not doable. Maybe you can find a room in a house or apartment to share, but that’s not much better.

Even if you find someone who’s paying $5,000 a month for a four-bedroom place, it will cost you $1,250 for one of those bedrooms, maybe with an attached bath, but then there are still utilities, internet, whatever other random costs, and so on.

So you’re probably not saving any money at all, and really do live paycheck-to-paycheck. Just hope that you don’t get sick or injured because you don’t have any health insurance or any PTO.

And if you really want to save, then you have to wind up in some sort of co-shared housing where you only pay $500 a month-ish, but then you’re basically living in a giant dorm with no private bedroom, and if you’re not in you’re early 20s or if you’re a single parent with a kid, that’s probably not the deal for you.

Or, in other words, your multi-billionaire overlords are willing to make it affordable for you to have a bed in a warehouse surrounded by strangers. And if you want any help, don’t ask the company. That’s what food stamps and welfare are for, after all.

All the while, the oceans are rising, the weather is going insane and getting more extreme, every week is another natural disaster of unprecedented proportions, and more and more of you living in warehouses are also finding yourselves being phased out of your jobs.

Suddenly, they’re either being outsourced, mostly to Chinese political prisoners making 2 cents U.S. a day, or ¥13 (Chinese yuan), or being done by A.I. and robotics, which are ironically much more expensive than the prisoners, first in terms of recovering R&D costs and then in terms of daily power consumption.

Hell, in reality, the A.I. and robotics probably cost more than you do in the short term, but they never complain, never take pee breaks, never sleep, never, ever think of unionizing or going on strike and, if they do break, they can either be replaced instantly or fixed quickly and much more cheaply than it would cost to fix you in a hospital.

The end game of this dystopia is that the super-wealthy manage to rid the world of as many “undesirables” as possible. To call back to a previous question, Ebenezer Scrooge expressed their thoughts exactly when he replied to a man seeking charitable donations for the impoverished thusly: “If they would rather die… they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

It’s the classic selfish mindset of the kind of person who would even try to become a billionaire in the first place: “Less for you means more for me.”

But despite that old aphorism, probably penned by Malcolm Forbes, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” that’s really not true at all.

It should read “He/she/they who dies is still dead no matter how much shit they owned.”

And if these bozos manage to kill the planet, they’ll be sadly disappointed when they try to hop onto their little dick-shaped rockets and escape into space. For one thing, they have no idea how many highly trained and highly paid people it takes back on the ground to keep them alive in those rickety tin cans.

For another, they just have no idea, period. So in an ideal universe, we’re actually living in a YA novel, all of this is prologue, and our Gen Z heroes are about to emerge, kick ass, take names, and make the French Revolution look like a polite request for someone sitting in your theater seat to move.

Hm. Bozos — bezos. Coincidence? I think not.

Theatre Thursday: Brush up your Shakespeare?

I was recently listening to yet another fabulous Matt Baume podcast on his Sewers of Paris channel, an interview with Jeffrey Masters, trained Shakespearean actor who instead shifted to journalism and podcasting when he came from New York to L.A. and realized that Hollywood didn’t give two warm shits about the Bard.

Kind of a shame, really, but a question did come up in the podcast, clearly asked by a non-actor.

“Isn’t Shakespeare harder to do?”

And Jeffrey eventually end-ran his way around to the answer I would have given: No. In fact, Shakespeare is actually much easier to perform because, face it, he was so much better a writer than any of our modern English language playwrights, and I’ll peg “modern” as having started as soon as British theatres reopened after the restoration of King Charles II.

Honestly, given the choice between having to learn all the lines for a major role in Shakespeare or a one scene walk-on by… name any major Broadway playwright of the 20th or 21st century — O’Neill, Hart, Miller, Simon, Shepard, Hansberry, Norman, Churchill, Hellman, Miranda, Vogel, Rebeck, Wasserstein, Kushner, Mamet…

Well, while a lot of them are amazing writers, with the first five only doing “White people theatre” and the last practically being a Jewish neo-Nazi, if we leave all of that out and just focus on the words…

Shakespeare is still far, far easier to memorize, learn, and put some real emotional power behind.

Why?

Well, number one is that Shakespeare did tend to write his stuff in iambic pentameter, so that you had lines on a regular meter: “ba-DUM-ba-DUM-ba-DUM, ba-DUM-ba-DUM-dum.”

Note that there are five emphasized syllables there — the “DUM” bits, and each of those is preceded by an unstressed syllable. We can ignore that dangling “dum” at the end. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not.

But fill this phrase up with words, and here’s an example of what you get:

To be or not to be, that is the question…

Of course, he didn’t always do this, and really messed with things in MacBeth. For example, the witches spoke in trochaic tetrameter — four syllable feet with the first emphasized, as in “BUBB-le, BUBBLE, TOIL and TROUB-le.” But what really made things weird in the play was one particular and yet very common word…

Which appeared three times in that paragraph.

It wasn’t just the rhythms and beauty of Shakespeare’s words that made his stuff easy to learn and perform, though. It was that he gave his characters rich inner lives and strong needs, and that went from his leads all the way down to his spear carriers.

One great example was when I played every single spear-carrier in The Comedy of Errors, and although it was really only two characters combined who physically appeared in multiple scenes but only spoke in a few, Willie Shakes had me covered, because he left enough breadcrumbs in those lines to give me a motivation and a through-line.

Basically, my character was a rent-a-cop only motivated by the money, which became really important in those moments when I suddenly had to deal with the leads in the show.

“He is my prisoner, if I let him go, the debt he owes will be required of me.” Note that “prisoner” is two syllables here; pris-ner. And I still remember that goddamn lovely line almost twenty years later — which my director made me deliver in an over-the-top bad 50s Broadway Irish accent.

Don’t ask.

But somehow my plea worked, the wife of Lead #1 paid me off, and life was good for my character from then on.

Another time I stuck Shakespeare in my head came after that show and when I somehow managed to lock myself out of my own car radio, but my dealer couldn’t fix it. Since it was in the days before Bluetooth and I had a 20-minute commute from home to Dreamworks SKG every day, I did the only logical thing.

I learned every single monologue delivered by Gloucester aka Richard III in all of the history plays he appeared in — which, was basically all three Henry VI plays, plus the Richard III one. And then I recited them over and over on the way to and from work for months.

Now? I don’t remember a lot, but that’s only through lack of repetition.

As for other roles by other playwrights I’ve done? Good luck. They have neither rhyme nor reason and, quite often, no greater motivation or inner life if they are not the lead characters.

A quick example of a play in which I also played a jailer character was Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out,” which in general was an amazing story documenting exactly why A) Jailing sex-workers and drug users was totally ridiculous, and B) Why the way they were treated upon release all but guaranteed they would wind up back in the system.

Anyway, I was one of the two guards dealing with her in prison in the flashback wraparound, and while it kind of felt like there was supposed to be a “good guard”/”bad guard” dynamic going on because I was kind of nice to her in one scene, there really wasn’t enough to hang that on.

Why? Because in all my other scenes, I was just as dickish to her as the other guard. I was a fucking prop, and nothing more. Boring!

Simon, O’Neill, and the other perpetrators of WYPIPO theater? Okay, I guess that your stuff was really important when Irish immigrants and Jews were in the non-represented classes, but guess what?

Just during or after WWII, the Irish (my people!) fucked their way such a big dent into culture that we actually earned our “whiteness” after having been considered sub-human up until the 1920s. No, seriously — Irish immigrants used to be classed about one half-step above people labeled as Negroes. Don’t ask — it was a really, really ugly era in American history.

Meanwhile… Jews were also treated equally badly and, again, it was only after WWII, and when the horrors of the Holocaust were finally revealed that Americans did yet another “Oh, shit… that’s fucked up dance.”

End result? In the late 40s and 1950s, American Jews took over the film and TV industry (in a good way) and changed the face of American humor forever.

Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Sid Caesar, and on and on and on? Do any of those names sound familiar?

But… back to the point… if you’re afraid of Shakespeare and speak English, then you do not belong on stage at all, period.

Flash back to the aforementioned list of Jewish creators and, guess what? Every single one of them was probably deeply steeped in Shakespeare.

I know that Brooks, Allen, Bruce, and Caesar were, at least.

Again, though… the problem with trying to learn dialogue from modern playwrights is that there is no damn poetry in it. Not that I can’t memorize those lines. It’s just that it takes a metric fuckton longer to do so.

And… no matter how many words you write, they are never going to be as pretty as those from the Bard of Avon.

BTW, as a produced and published playwright, I include myself on that list. Yeah, I probably have written some interesting shit, but it’s nowhere as easy to learn as what the Bard put down,

Fight me!

Wednesday Wonders: Let’s get dark (Part 1)

Sometime between when humans discovered fire and when Antoine Lavoisier finally figured out how it worked, there was an hypothesis floated in the 1660s that things burned because of an element called phlogiston that existed within things that could burn, and letting it out created the flames.

It’s kind of chicken and egg, really — did things burn because that’s what the phlogiston in them did, or did they only burn when it was somehow let out?

But Lavoisier and his experiments ended all that nonsense just over a century later, when he proved that combustion was actually the result of rapid oxidation of a flammable material in the presence of a fuel source.

Also: some substances lose mass when they burn and others gain it. It all depends upon how oxygen deals with the reaction.

Ether frolic

Then there was also the idea of ether (or aether), the postulated medium necessary for light to be able to propagate through what was otherwise the vacuum of space. This was another product of the 17th century.

Sir Isaac Newton, to his credit, rejected the idea early, mainly based on the idea that any media that would channel and direct light would also fuck with gravity, and so the orbits of the planets wouldn’t work the way that they did. In a very weird way, this was kind of a prediction of how relativity and quantum mechanics would suffer a nasty break-up centuries later.

The more that scientists determined the properties that the ether would have to have in order to guide light the way it had been alleged to do, the more ridiculous the concept became. Newton had been right. The density of the ether required would have totally screwed every star and planet in space by making them motionless.

Einstein eventually drove the nails into the coffin of the concept of ether with — surprise — his special theory of relativity, which really changed a lot of things in science.

One of the big ones is something that’s going to come up here later.

A brief note on terminology

One of the most misused scientific terms is “theory,” because it means two really different things depending upon who’s using it. Unfortunately, far too many non-scientists of the politician/armchair pundit variety have abused the word “theory” in order to attack actual science.

So you’ll quite often hear things like people saying “Evolution is only a theory,” not realizing that the words “only a” do not belong. The problem is that to most non-scientists, the word “theory” means “an idea I have about how the world works but with no research yet,” or, more frequently, “something I pulled out of my ass.”

This makes it very easy for them to look at something like Evolution and say, “Oh, it’s just a theory.”

Funny how you never really hear people say that about gravity, right?

But what lay people like to call theory is, in scientific terms, an hypothesis. And yes, it absolutely is nothing more than an idea, or a concept, or something that a researcher in a particular field really did pull out of their ass.

Why? To do the work necessary to see whether it’s true.

The best part is that it does not matter at all how ridiculous that original hypothesis is. Why? Because this is when we pick up the scientific method, and it works like so:

  1. Determine what your hypothesis is and how you want to test it. Note: Keep it to real science. Once you start to try to measure or theorize on things like people’s behavior or ideas or whatever, you’ve veered off into social “science,” which is not science at all. Fight me, biatches. I minored in psych in college, so I know what I’m talking about.
  1. A real scientific hypothesis might be something like this: “Why can we not predict whether stars under X solar masses will either go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole?” “Why do we still find DNA from Denisovans in modern humans when there is no evidence at all that they ever co-existed?” “Why does natural selection seem to like to re-create crabs over and over?” (Note: Humans and Denisovans did cross-breed at one point. The examples are just “what-ifs.”)
  2. And everyone of those questions then ends with, “Because… this,” and that’s where the hypothesis goes. These are still just guesses, though, of how a process might work. “Because we do not know the exact composition of the ultimate solar core, and the density of the elements in it,” or “Because Denisovans never met modern humans directly, but they did interbreed with earlier species of compatible breeders who did mix DNA with modern humans,” or “Because that kind of shelled, flat form with multiple arms and giant weapons up front provided a lot of protection on land and sea, so that’s why it kept coming back.”
  3. .. after the “because this,” it’s data collecting time, and that’s where the science happens. Observe stars with ever-increasing resolution to figure out the exact composition of their cores; keep testing that DNA, both Y and mitochondrial, and you will eventually figure out when and where the first Denisovan got horny enough to hump the first proto-human and, ta-da… another uplink on that Y-DNA chain.

And, finally, if you’ve ever had crotch crickets, you know that crabs are obviously the most evolved to survive lifeform on the planet, whether they’re zip-lining down your pubes, torturing the hell out of your crotch (and anyone it’s ever been near to in the last 36 hours), or reminding you of the real reason that Anakin hates sand. But a really good scientific subject for this would be, “How the hell do I destroy these little itch-mongers without having to shave everything and then carpet-bomb my crotch?”

  1. Ask “why” question, postulate “because” answer, compile a shitload of data and analyze it. Trust what tells you you’re full of shit, take several more looks at what tells you you’re right — then run the whole damn experiment all over again with a different group.
  1. Lather, rinse, repeat, and eventually come up with something that either completely proves that your hypothesis was wrong, or that is a study you can share, which you do, with your fellow scientists.
  2. They go out, look at your study, try to get the same results within their own group, and then report back. Sometimes, they will find the exact same things, which is “Hooray!” Other times, they will find discrepancies, which might mean that there were errors in the original data or design, but these can just lead to more scientific studies.
  3. Lather, rinse repeat, until it looks like the hypothesis does explain the process. Peer-review one last time, then publish.

And that is the scientific method in a nutshell. All of those various experiments and peer-reviewed studies eventually lead to some sort of consensus with replicable results that explain how and why a particular thing occurs.

Then, and only then, do you get to jump out and declare…

THEORY!

So, for example, going back to one of the original hypotheses, the theory might now explain “How stellar dynamics determine whether a star of given mass will go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole.”

And this new theory will include hard data, along the lines of “A star needs to have a mass less than X but diameter of Y in order to go nova, mass greater than X and diameter between Y and Z in order to become a neutron star, and mass greater than X and diameter less than Z in order to become a black hole.

A theory can also be disproven, rewritten, or confirmed multiple times. That’s how science works. But then there are those rare occasions where two theories both seem to be true, and yet create completely incompatible explanations for how the universe works.

Big and little

You’ve probably heard of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity,” but there are actually two. The first, published in 1905, was his Special Theory of Relativity, most famous for giving us E=mc2, giving us the idea of mass/energy equivalence. That is, for any given mass, if you convert it entirely to energy, you’re going to get a really, really big boom because the value of c (the speed of light in a vacuum) is so huge, and then you square it and use it as a multiplier.

I think that most people have an intuitive understanding that this formula is what predicted the ultimate destructive power of nuclear weapons, which don’t even completely convert the mass in them into energy.

But the real purpose of this first theory of relativity was to show how space and time are connected, and it proved why no object with any rest mass could move at the speed of light. Its mass would increase with velocity, becoming infinite before hitting the speed of light, therefore making it impossible to make it go any faster, because there just isn’t enough energy.

See, the equation works both ways. But it did not account for acceleration. It only dealt with objects moving at the speed of light. It took ten years, but then Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity.

Here, among other things, accounting for acceleration and momentum made the results even freakier because the expanded formula squares both the E and (mc2) parts, then adds the product of that mass’s momentum, also times c squared.

It also dragged (pun intended) gravity into the equation, as in the Special Theory explained how space and time were linked, and the General Theory explained how gravity could affect them — reading “affect” as bend and distort.

That was the major mind-bending idea behind it that still hasn’t been disproven. Gravity is some kind of force that works across the universe on cosmic scales, and it basically tugs on the fabric of reality — space and time — doing things like making objects with mass attract each other or making objects with mass slow down time.

This theory came with an easy test. Since Gravity actually affected the fabric of space, any collision of two sufficiently massive objects should create ripples in space itself. It took a century, but in 2016, the first gravity waves were measured, confirming Einstein — yet again.

So we have plenty of evidence showing what gravity can do, that it is probably an inherent property of mass, and it can bend space, time, and light — but we still have no idea what it does.

Attempts to come up with a hypothetical “graviton” particle that carries the gravitational force, analogous to things like the photon, gluon, and electron, have so far been unsuccessful — meaning that gravity cannot be explained via quantum physics.

This is probably entirely a matter of scale.

To be continued next week…

Image Source, European Space Agency, licensed under (CC 4.0) International

Talky Tuesday: Y iz speling inglish so hard?

I’ve often joked that I’m glad I happened to be born in a country where English is my first language, because if it weren’t, the spelling alone would have forever kept me from even trying to learn it as a second.

I mean, it makes no sense. On the other hand, a lot of (but not all) other languages have spelling conventions that do make sense. Even Irish Gaelic, which I tried to learn but gave up on because I could just not pronounce it, allegedly has very strict spelling rules.

To be fair, though — English is all over the map. Exhibit 1:

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/DU9w9qLynwE

How did we wind up with this messy orthography? It mainly happened because two dudes, one in England and one the the U.S., decided to write the definitive English dictionary, but followed different rules. But it also has to do with the convoluted descent of the language itself.

Let’s take a quick trip through time — but it’s going to start about five hundred years before what you were probably (or possibly not) taught in high school.

This would be Caedmon’s Hymn, a fragment from sometime in the 7th century C.E., which would mean over 1400 years ago. Here’s the opening line: “Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard…”

Any idea what that means? Well, probably not. The translation is, “Now must we praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian…”

Perhaps the only word that jumps out as even close to anything in modern English is “Weard,” but only if you realize that English at this time capitalized nouns, and “Weard” is very close to “Ward,” who is legally not the guardian but the guarded. Think Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s young “ward.”

“Nu” might kind of hint at “now,” but with a very warped vowel-sound.

Let’s check out the language about four hundred years later.

Here’s the first line of Beowulf, written in the early 11th century CE, in the original: “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon…” This translates to “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” You probably recognize exactly one word in that sentence: The first person plural pronoun “We.”

Maybe, if you look closer, you might realize that “þeodcyninga” has the word “king” hiding in it, and is probably the possessive form of the noun built on the stem “cyning,” which would have been pronounced with a hard “C” at the beginning.

This is Old English, but it might as well be a foreign language, right? Let’s take another little jump forward:

“siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at troye…” This is the opening line of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written around 1100 CE in a dialect of Middle English, and it’s probably a little easier to understand. In modern English, it reads, “After the siege and the assault of Troy…”

The funny looking letters that appear to be lowercase p’s in which the round part slipped down is actually the equivalent of the letters “th,” so you could interpret it as “sithen the sege,” and that second word reveals the reason for the biggest misunderstanding modern English speakers have about Middle English.

If you’ve ever seen something like “Ye Olde Shoppe,” that’s where this comes from. Instead of replacing the “þ” with “th,” early typesetters (who didn’t have the character) used a “y” instead, because to them it looked similar, and hence a non-existent word was born.

But back to the point, if you read that line out loud slowly, you can pretty much hear the modern English meaning in it. But look at how much the language had changed in just a century. Why? Simple. Beowulf and The Green Knight lived on opposite sides of the Norman Conquest.

This had a huge impact on the English language, infusing it with French. It’s a big part of the reason why we raise cows, pigs, and chickens, but eat beef, pork, and poultry. The farmers and cooks were lower-classes, so spoke English. The people who ate it were upper-class and rich, so spoke the courtly language, which was French.

Let’s jump ahead to 1392 and The Canterbury Tales, written in a later version of Middle English. I’ll bet that you can understand this one perfectly well: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…”

It’s basically giving us the setting — in April, when the rains of that month end the drought in March that affected plants right down to their roots.

Set the time machine for 1469, and Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, and look at this opening line: “HIt befel in the dayes of Vther pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned…”

I don’t even need to translate that, do I? Except maybe to point out that “Vther pendragon” is better know as “Uther Pendragon,” father of King Arthur.

One last jump of 140 years, and we get this line, for which I don’t even need to cite the author or source: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

And so was modern English born.

Think about that one for a moment. If you were to jump into a time machine, you could only really safely go back a touch over 400 years, or maybe 550, and still be able to communicate with other English speakers — and that’s not even accounting for The Great Vowel Shift.

But spelling was not standardized in Shakespeare’s day. Here’s an example from Twelfth Night, aka Twelfe Night, or What You Will.

And if you want a really funny take on the language of the era by a very famous American author, check out Mark Twain’s hilarious short story 1601, which is naught more but an extended fart joke at Queen Elizabeth (I)’s expense.

Shakespeare would have loved it.

But after Shakespeare died in 1616, it was less than a century and a half before Samuel Johnson felt compelled to compile a dictionary of the English language. His initial attempt was to “fix” the language, but he soon admitted that this was folly.

Unfortunately, he didn’t really fix much, and it’s thanks to him that we have such weird (British) spellings as programme instead of program, tonne instead of ton, and all of those words with “ou” instead of just “o,” like “colour,” because he had this weird boner for maintaining the spellings of words from non-English sources, like French and Latin.

Meanwhile, Noah Webster was born three years after Johnson’s dictionary came out in 1755, and the United States as an independent nation were born by the time he was in his early 30s. He started working on his own dictionary with a goal toward simplifying spelling, and it came out in 1828 after a preliminary run at it in 1806.

Of course, Noah learned 26 languages in order to properly classify English words, and his dictionary was considered by many to outclass Johnson’s in every regard.

But this meant that there were still two English dictionaries with quite different spellings, and with authors who didn’t really simplify anything.

Sure, Webster gave us the short forms of program and ton, and the less nonsensical versions of “tyre” (tire), “kerb” (curb) and “gaol” (jail), but that was about it. He could have quashed such nonsense like the letter “C” (totally redundant as long as we have K and S around); really simplified vowel sounds by standardizing them as single letters and creating strong and defined diphthongs and, finally, getting rid of those stupid silent vowels, mostly “E”, that like to creep at the end of words after a consonant and change the pronunciation of the internal vowel.

So, again, come on. “Maik” is a much more sensible spelling than “make,” which would be two syllables in most other languages.

Speaking of “syllables,” what’s with those double letters? In Spanish, two L’s together makes sense because they are pronounced differently — “Lavas,” meaning you wash, is pronounced just like that: “lavas.” But “llaves,” meaning keys, is pronounced “ya-vays.”

Well, unless you’re from Argentina, in which case it becomes “sha-vays,” but the less said about that the better.

But it gets really weird because American English prefers things like “traveler,” while British English insists on “traveller.” Or what about “judgment” vs. “judgement?” (Hint: Sorry, Brits. You’re wrong. It does not need that second “e”. Webster was right.)

Ben Franklin had tried to simplify spelling before Webster, proposing a new alphabet, but that never caught on. Then again, some of the Founders actually proposed making the official language of the new nation Hebrew instead of English.

Or maybe they were actually going to go for German. Who knows?

In any case… English is the bastard child of Anglo-Saxon, Danish, French, Latin, German, Celtic, and (in latter days) borrowings from every country and culture we’ve managed to touch. As such, our spelling is a total hodgepodge and a hot mess, and it’s probably never going to get fixed.

On the other hand, a couple hundred years from now, everyone may speak Emoji, which would be a weird full circle back around from Egyptian hieroglyphics, where everyone knows what the little pictures mean even if they pronounce them in their own language.

Honestly, I’m not sure whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Stupid Excel tricks #1: INDEX and MATCH

Enter the matrix… math

There is an entire class of functions in Excel that take things to a whole new level, and they are called matrices. Maybe you ran across this in math in school and have forgotten, maybe not, but the idea with a matrix is that it takes one grid of numbers of X x Y dimensions and uses operators to manipulate it using another grid of numbers that may or may not have the same dimensions.

The great part is that to use these functions in Excel, you don’t need to know any of that. Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s exactly like using a cookbook. Plug in the ingredients as specified, voila, the dish pops out the other end.

Maybe you’ve used the functions VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP, or maybe not, but they can be useful if you want to match exactly one criteria in a table and if the data you’re looking up is somewhere to the right of that criteria. So it’s perfect if you have something like a unique account number on the far left and want to use that to look up a name or phone number to the right of it:

=VLOOKUP(M2,$A1:$L556,6,FALSE)

This tells Excel to take the value in cell M2, compare it to all of the values in column A of the named range, then look up the value in the sixth column counting from the column defined in the second variable (in this case, F) where the first column is equal to M2. “FALSE” just means to use an exact match, whereas “TRUE” would mean to use an approximate match.

Again, this is great if you’re searching something with unique values in both places — there is only one account number, and only one data point associated with it.

Now what if you have multiple entries for the same person with different account numbers, or multiple sizes and colors of a product with differing prices, or you need to search on more than one data point in different columns, or your table was set up with the criteria you want to use somewhere to the right of the data points you’re searching?

Welcome, matrix functions! These are two nested commands that work miracles together. The first is INDEX, and what it basically does is point to a column with data that you’re going to pull stuff from, then follow that up with the criteria you’re going to use to do that. You can see the difference from the LOOKUP functions right off the bat, because those start with the single data point you’re going to use to search the data. The INDEX function starts with the place you’re going to get the answer from.

The MATCH function is the matrix math, and it allows you to specify multiple criteria matched to different columns in the source data. The nice part about it is that you can have as many different criteria as you need — first name, last name, account number; size, gender, color, style; title, author, binding, edition; and so on. And each of these can point to any particular bit of data you need — monthly cost, price, location, phone number, address, and so on. Any bit of data in the table can be found this way.

If you want to put a physical analogy on it, it’s this. LOOKUP functions are a librarian with a sliding ladder that moves horizontally or can be climbed vertically. But the way it works is that they first move it or climb it in the direction you specify until it hits the target word. Then, it slides or climbs the other direction however many rows or columns you specified, and has now targeted exactly one cell with the answer. Oh — and it can only move to the right or down from that initial search cell.

On the other hand, think of INDEX and MATCH as a whole bunch of librarians who have set out all over the same bookcases, but are simultaneously searching the rows and columns, and calling back and forth to each other to indicate what bits they’ve found that match.

If you work with any kind of inventory or any data sets where people’s info is broken down (as it should be) into separate first and last names and account identifiers, then you need to know these functions, because they will save you a ton of time. And the basic way they work is like this:

INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0))

(Note: All column and row designations here are arbitrary and made up, so they don’t matter.)

That might look complicated, but it’s not. Let’s break it down. The first part, referring to the E column is the “Where” of the formula. That is, this is the column you’re pulling your data from. For example, if you want to use size, color, and style to find price, then this would be whatever column has the price data in it.

Next, we nest the MATCH function, and this lets INDEX know that what comes next will be the instructions it needs. The “1,” inside the parenthesis is a flag for MATCH, telling it to return one value. After that, each nested thing — and you can have as many as you need — follows the form “Single cell to look at equals column to search.” So, as seen here, for example, in the search data, column W might be the first name, and cell W2 is the cell corresponding to what we’re looking at. Meanwhile, column C in the target data includes first names, so what we’re saying is “Look for the single value of W2 down the entire column of C1 to C1405. The dollar signs are there to lock it as a fixed range.

All of the other parentheticals here follow the same pattern. Maybe X is the column for last name in the source and D is where the last names are in the target; and AA is account number, as is J.

The two other interesting things to note in building matrix equations: The single cell and the column are joined by an equals sign, not a comma, and this is important because, without it, your formula will break. What this tells Excel is that whatever the matrix pulls out of single cell must equal what’s in the column at that point.

The other thing to notice is that between the searches within parentheses, there aren’t commas, but rather asterisks, *, which indicate multiplication, and this is the heart of Matrix math.

What this tells the formula is to take the results of the first thingie, apply those criteria and pass it along to the second. In other words, if the first evaluation turned up nothing, that is mathematically a zero, and so it would quash anything coming from the second and third functions. On the other hand, if it comes up as a one, then whatever the second formula turns up will stay if there’s a one, dump if not, and then pass on to the third, fourth, etc..

Lather, rinse, repeat, for as many steps down the process you’ve created. A false result or zero at any point in the matrix math will kill it and result in nil. Meanwhile, as long as the tests keep turning up positives, what will fall out of the ass end of it is the honest legit “This data is the true data.”

Funny how that works, isn’t it? The only other trick you need to remember is that after you’ve entered this formula, you need to close it out by hitting Ctrl-Shift-Enter to let Excel know it’s a matrix formula. Then, if you want to copy it, you can’t use the usual Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V. Instead, you have to highlight the column with the formula at the top, then hit Ctrl-D. Voila… the whole thing duplicates down the column — which is what the “D” in the command stands for. To do the same thing across a row, the command is Ctrl-R, which you could think of as “repeat” or “replicate.”

And there you have it — a way to search multiple criteria in a row in order to find a specific data point in a table. You’re welcome.

But there’s more! One very important trick I’ve learned is how to avoid getting the dreaded “N/A#” in your results, because that totally breaks any summation you’re doing on the data. So I add an extra layer to the whole thing with a combination of the IF() and ISERROR() formulas.

This can make the thing really long, but worth it. I suggest entering the short INDEX formula first, make sure it’s working, and then use F2 to edit the cell, highlight everything and hit CTRL-C. Next, add “IF(ISERROR(” before the existing formula, move your cursor to the end, close out the ISERROR with a right parenthesis, “)”, then add comma, 0 (zero), and hit Ctrl-V to paste a copy of the original formal at the end. Close that with a final right paren.
The whole thing looks like this:

IF(ISERROR(INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0))),0,INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0)))

Sure, it gets a little long, but the advantage will be that if what you’re looking for isn’t in the source data, you’ll get a nice zero instead of an error message. And if you’re searching a text field, like size or name, then use “” instead of 0 after the ISERROR to get a blank cell.

Sunday Nibble #80: Not playing around

(I can’t believe I’ve written 80 of these by now. Wow.)

I was thinking about the film Free Guy recently because it’s still being advertised in the media. Well, at least online, but I suspect it’s a bizarre case of, “Oh — you already bought it, so we’re going to show you more and more ads for it because our algorithms are too stupid to realize that movies are not like milk or eggs.”

Anyway, I realized that it was kind of surprising how much I really liked the movie despite not being a big gamer at all.

Okay, that’s not quite correct. Like most kids of the Information Age, I dropped plenty a quarter into one video game or another over my formative years and absolutely haunted the arcade on my college campus — well, for a short while, anyway.

It got to the point where I couldn’t close my eyes at night without seeing the sprites from my favorite games flying past my eyes. Plus, my right elbow started to hurt. So, I toned it down a lot once I was past my Freshman year — which was one semester long because AP credits from high school made me a Sophomore in my second semester.

I could have graduated early but instead, since I got to opt out of a number of core classes that would otherwise have been required, I had plenty of extra room to take on a minor. So, being the little over-achiever that I was, I added two.

They were Abnormal Psychology and Theatre, and yes, those both go hand-in-hand and were especially helpful with my screenwriting emphasis in my Communications Major.

No need to critique the poor life choices I made when I was around 18 and 19. I’ve spent plenty of time since then doing it myself.

But that was the first strike against me becoming a hardcore gamer like a lot of my friends did: Not a lot of time in which to do it.

Oh, sure. I had gotten into side-scrollers, but those were also the ones that gave me weird nocturnal visions and which I ran out of time for anyway. The second strike was that I really had no interest in FPS games of any sort, nor with MMORPGs.

Translation for non-nerds and/or people who wouldn’t know a Poké Ball from a Dragon Ball, or a Pokédex from a Rolodex, but who would know what the hell a Rolodex was:

FPS stands for “First-Person Shooter,” which is basically a game in which you take on the role of the protagonist, see everything from their POV mostly (unless you choose a different camera angle) and proceed to blast the shit out of whatever enemies you come across with an increasingly powerful array of weapons that gain their powers as you “level up.” (There’s a freebie definition for you.)

Generally, it’s all about running around, collecting valuable objects like coins or health points, moving up levels by completing missions and killing off mini-bosses and (see above) blasting the shit out of whatever enemies you come across.

Generally, these games end when you meet the Final Boss, and you damn well better have all of your weapons and health points and everything else maxed out and come in with everything blazing, because if you don’t you will lose here by having the shit blasted out of you in two seconds.

As for the other one, the unpronounceable so it’s an initialism and not an acronym “MMORPG” stands for “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.”

You can probably tell from the definition, but while FPS games are as old as computers and consoles with the speed and graphics sufficient to handle them (i.e., the 1980s), MMORPGs were not even possible until the internet existed and until everyone had a connection fast enough to make it feasible to play without constantly lagging or glitching out.

Not that those still aren’t problems, of course.

The RPG part of it is probably vaguely familiar to anybody who’s ever heard the infamous phrase “Dungeons & Dragons,” because that’s exactly what it is. Well, generically, at least. Players go into an invented world with its own lore and rules, create a character to play, are assigned attributes based on whatever formula the game uses, and then team up and go from there.

Typically, there might be anywhere from five to eight types of characters, which will broadly cover occupations like soldier, healer, magician/shaman, leader/royalty, non-human supernatural entity, wizard, and so on. A typical team may comprise only one each of the more powerful types, like magicians, leaders, and wizards, but have multiple players in the other roles — within limits, of course.

Too big a team can get unwieldy quickly, though, so there are usually pretty reasonable limits.

It does sound fun in practice, right? Yeah, but not so much in theory for two reasons. One is that you’re playing with a whole bunch of other people. Two is that you can communicate with each other, originally just in chat but more recently via voice as well.

Did I mention that for a lot of games, there are no age-restrictions, so you wind up with a major fanbase of tween and teen boys awkwardly mixed in with everyone older? It can get very toxic very fast because tween and teen boys are basically major assholes when you hand them a controller, stick them front of a screen, and give them the power to mouth off anonymously using a screen name that more likely than not has the word “Dick” in it and ends with the number 69.

I’m not really big on collaborating in games anyway that are not face-to-face (IRL or Zoom) and not played with people I actually know, so that’s why I give MMORPGs a hard pass.

As for FPS games, I’m just not a big fan of running around and blowing shit up — and this gets back to the gigantic irony of me really liking Free Guy so much. See, the whole conceit of that movie is that our hero, Guy, is a non-playable character (NPC) in a game very much like the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series.

If you’ve really, really been living under a rock… the GTA games are in the category of open-world action-adventure, with some of the installments approaching the level of being RPGs and others sticking more toward being FPS.

As for open-world, I think that it’s really what computer gaming was created for and, done right, it can be fantastic. Open-world means that game play takes place in an unlimited (sort-of) map and you are free to wander wherever you want to without being constrained to a single path or mission.

In fact, that idea is the whole point of the ending of Free Guy, but you’ll just have to see it to get it.

I did try to get into exactly one open-world game, and that was L.A. Noire. It was a third-person‑ish RPG in which the player is a fledgling LAPD detective paired with a succession of senior partners through the streets of 1947 downtown Los Angeles, and that setting was one of the two things that got me interested.

The other was that a friend of mine had done the motion-capture and voice and was the physical model for one of the suspects in one of the many cases in the game.

But I never really made it that far because the interface and controls were just so wonky. Maybe it would have worked better with an actual controller or joystick, but trying to walk or drive the characters anywhere always wound up slamming them into walls.

That, and it also required creating an account with yet another online game host. Sorry, but computers have this thing called local storage, graphics cards, and memory, so I really should not have to play any game I paid for on anything other than my own computer onto which I installed it.

If you’re keeping score, that’s another major gaming pet peeve. Keep it local, goddammit. I don’t need to access the cloud to play — just like I shouldn’t have to access the cloud to edit Word or Excel documents. There’s a reason I’m sitting on three terabytes of storage, after all — it’s so I don’t have to share it with Microsoft, Amazon, Google, or any of the other robber barons riding our necks to try to squeeze out our last dollar.

But I do digress. The final nail in the coffin for L.A. Noire was that gameplay mechanics made it really unclear what changed based on the reaction you gave to an interrogation. Ask a question, then you can either believe the witness, doubt them, or accuse them of lying — then watch as their response to that was not particularly helpful.

But cross FPS games and MMORPGs off the list because I never got into playing with others in the same virtual space and I really never got into the “let’s shoot anything that moves” mindset. What I did discover was my absolute joy over a computer’s ability to simulate pretty much anything.

Hell, in my early coding forays in high school when we barely had graphics, everything I tried to create was designed to simulate something in the real world. The backend for that was sexy as hell. Gather your statistics, stick ‘em in a table, use these and algorithms to determine turn-based outcomes, and ta-da!

Create an economy, an ecosystem, a city, a planet, whatever — and let what happened to it be determined by player input.

Ironically, I’ve basically just described the computerized version of an RPG. And, okay, I have no real issue with those because, in fact, when I did get my game nerd on, I was totally dedicated to a sub-genre of RPGs.

These would be simulation games, just like the ones I tried to cook up myself, except that I always managed to muck up the code in a fashion similar to the hilarious but just an urban legend story of Nuclear Gandhi from the game Civilization, who’d start dropping A-Bombs on everyone as soon as India’s aggression level dropped.

See, apparently, Gandhi’s starting level was at 1. India becoming a Democracy dropped the score by 2 points, and because of the way the original programming handled math, when Gandhi’s number went negative, it rolled back to the biggest possible 8-bit number, 255, so… bombs away!

Cool story, bro, but it never happened.

Oh… I was never a fan of Civilization either, because it had one of those other features I really hated about games — turn-based outcomes. That is, as everyone’s turn came up, they would take their sweet time adding tokens or points or whatever here or there to the various units they’d deployed all over the map, then the big old hand of fate would move ahead and everything would be re-calculated and changed.

Bor-ing.

The first simulation game I stumbled upon and liked was something called Life & Death, and I remember picking it up really cheap in the bargain bin at whatever local computer geek big box store was still around at the time because it was after the sequel came out.

The game was simple genius. It managed to work even on VGA systems in four colors, and put you in the role of an abdominal surgeon who would have to diagnose and then operate to fix various conditions, like appendicitis, kidney stones, and a heart aneurism.

It was not about killing people to get stuff — it was about saving people and learning, and it was kind of awesome. I have to say “Kind of,” because I never actually managed to make it through any of those operations and keep the patient alive.

Kind of ironic, too, that nowadays at least these operations now frequently just involve shoving a tube up a vein and either using a tiny lariat, a burst of sound, or a little balloon to fix things.

If you’d like, you can still play both the original Life & Death and its sequel Life & Death 2: The Brain online in all their low-res glory.

But then a company called MAXIS came along, releasing the holy grail in a game called SimCity. It sounds like just what it says on the tin: You create a simulated city.

Oh, sure — there were obstacles and disasters to overcome, but it didn’t involve shooting anybody, but did involve a lot of collaboration to make deals with neighboring cities that were either created by the computer or which you created yourself.

It went through various iterations over the years, and really hit it big with SimCity 4, Which took the 3D graphics and everything else to entirely new levels. There was really no winning goal or clear endpoint. The joy of the game was pure creativity, and that was it.

Eventually, MAXIS got sucked up by the evil empire known as EA, and their “improvement” on SimCity was to completely destroy it through a bastardization called SimCity Societies.

I actually bought this one at a “Going Out of Business” fire sale at Circuit City when it went tits up, and I think I paid maybe five bucks for a game that had originally retailed at nearly $70. Oops!

I only tried to play it about twice, though, because EA (via a third party) had taken everything out of SimCity that made it so enjoyable — zoning, watching neighborhoods develop, building roads and subways and monorails, dropping in to watch your citizens wander around the place, and so on. Instead, they focused on everything that made it tedious.

That is, construction was pretty much one building at a time, there was no coherent road-building system, and everything really relied on micromanaging and tweaking the attributes of each particular building based on the kind of residents who lived there and their wants.

Yeah, basically, it brought back the worst parts of RPGs.

The final nail went into that coffin when Microsoft decided that the DMCA controls that had been put on original CDs of all the games became a security risk, so it wasn’t even possible to install or run them anymore after Windows 7.

Yeah, fuck you Bill Gates. Why include the ability to run a program as if it’s on an older version of Windows if you’re still going to tell us we can’t?

At least MAXIS gave us The Sims, in which we get to drill down to focus on one household within the greater simulated city, and control the lives of the people who live there — although some people take it to extremes.

I haven’t tested yet whether I can actually install The Sims on my current computer, but I might try some day when I have time. That and Rollercoaster Tycoon, which is probably the best of all because, unlike most of the others, it has a design/sandbox mode where you’re not playing for any points or rewards, and you just get to build and test rides all day long.

And that is the awesome part of gaming.

Saturday Morning Post #80: Sunday Supper, Part 2

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, I present the second of two parts, in which I steal from my own life — sort of. This is a highly fictionalized account of what I imagine my mother’s life was like when she decided to escape from her family back east and wind up in Los Angeles. In part one, we see her large family back home in action as she announces her big move to their shock, then arrives in town and gets a job as a waitress on Wilshire Boulevard. I think this is the only period piece in the collection, although all of the stories were written in 2000-2001.

The hours and the days and weeks went by, and Anne was enjoying herself, even though she was just covering expenses with very little left over. Things in L.A. were more expensive than back home, but the pay was better as well, and there wasn’t a coal mine in sight.

And she seemed to have become popular with the businessmen of the boulevard, who filled her stations as they piled in for breakfast, treated her politely and tipped well. There was one in particular she had noticed, a man who looked amazingly like that actor, Tyrone Power, but he always sat at the counter.

She was nowhere near forward enough to talk to him. Besides, there was an unwritten rule that the girls didn’t steal customers from one another. Still, she often contemplated smacking him with a menu as she went by, telling him, “There’s a really nice booth over there in the corner, honey…”

She’d had to buy new shoes after a few weeks and got them at Woolworth’s, cheap sneakers but at least her feet didn’t hurt as much anymore. That was about the only extravagance she could afford herself, even though it was no extravagance nor a luxury at all.

The luxuries lived behind the plate glass windows of the May Company, and every day after work she’d walk by to stare in the windows, watching as the fashions on the aloof mannequins changed from week to week.

It was a Tuesday in March, the first Tuesday in March in fact, that she realized two things. She hadn’t gone to church since she’d come here — she’d felt no need. And, tomorrow was Ash Wednesday, something she didn’t even remember until she heard a couple of customers talking about how disappointed they were that they couldn’t make it down to Mardi Gras this year.

She thought for half a second about finding a Catholic church tomorrow, getting the old smudge on the forehead, then realized there was no point. Her mother wasn’t here to watch her. No one was. Ash Wednesday had been one of those few moments of collaboration among the children growing up.

Every year, one of them would be designated to go to church, then they’d all meet up secretly near the playground and swap the ashes around, hoping Margaret would never be the wiser. At least they never had to include Jimmy in their plans. Margaret always took him to church herself, and he was too mentally deprived to fear or loath it.

At least Donal had stayed in touch. He wrote to her every week, and she wrote back occasionally, sending her letters to his office at the College instead of to home. He was coaching the school debate team now, and if they did well enough, they might be coming out to UCLA in the summer. She hoped they did. He was the only member of her family who had grown greater with distance.

And she stood in front of the May Company windows again, but since it was a special day, she decided to go inside, just for the hell of it, see what the big attraction was. She pushed her way through the glass and brass revolving door and found herself in Mecca, racks of clothes and housewares and all the latest fashions and technology of the day arrayed before her and above her. There were a thousand Siren calls in the place, but any approach would be dashed on the rocks of insufficient funds.

Still, she wandered and gazed, avoiding the helpful salesgirls with sorry downcast “Just lookings,” finally finding herself standing in front of a tall revolving rack covered with hats, each one lovingly balanced on a small velvet dome just so.

She turned the rack, admiring them all but not touching, and then her eyes fell on a simple low-brimmed cloche in tan, the exact same color as her one good pair of shoes, the ones she never wore because she had nowhere to wear them.

The ones that went perfectly with her green wool skirt suit, which she also never wore but kept wrapped in plastic in the closet so the moths could not enjoy it before she’d had a chance to. She imagined herself decked out in that outfit, wearing that hat, maybe even a purse to match, going somewhere interesting, having Sunday brunch served by someone else, perhaps running into that man who looked just like that actor, Tyrone Power, finding out who he really was…

“That’s a beautiful hat,” a Salesgirl had materialized, a perky young woman in a May Company blazer, hair and make-up perfect. “Here, try it on.”

“I… I was just looking — “ Anne protested, but the girl plucked the hat from its pedestal and placed it on Anne’s head, adjusting it to her satisfaction.

“Oh, you look lovely in that. Here, see?” The Salesgirl picked up a hand mirror and held it up and Anne caught her breath when she saw herself. The hat was beautiful, adding just the exact something to her appearance, her auburn hair emphasized by its fawn back hue. She stared for a moment, imagining herself owning it — then imagining it sitting in the closet, with her good shoes and green suit, gathering dust, a dream deferred, something to wear and nowhere to wear it.

She carefully took the hat off and set it back on the pedestal.

“It’s lovely, but…” she shrugged.

“You can never have too many hats,” the Salesgirl chirped, annoyingly perky. “We also have bags and gloves to match.”

“I really… No, thank you.”

“Okay. But if you change your mind, let me know, Anne.” Seeing a no sale, the girl vanished. Anne looked down at her blue and white uniform, realized she was still wearing her name tag and took it off, slipping it into her pocket. She looked at the hat again, turned the rack and looked at the others, which only made this one object more desirable. There was nothing else on that rack she wanted, but nothing she could afford.

Or, was there? She realized she had no idea how much that hat was, so she picked it up again, making sure the Salesgirl was nowhere in sight, then turned it over and fished out the price tag, turning it over, seeing the number.

Seven-fifty they wanted for it. That was dinner for two weeks, bus fare for a month. That was… it was ridiculous, is what it was. Maybe seven-fifty was nothing to all the women who came here to visit their husbands at work, then go shopping, then go back to their big houses with maids and tennis courts and swimming pools.

But to Anne, right now, seven-fifty might as well have been a million bucks. She put the hat back and quickly walked out of the store.

* * *

Celebrities lurked in L.A, and quite a lot of them wound up at Anne’s tables, although she didn’t recognize half of them. That was never a problem, though. Gladys, now one of her best friends, would always sneak over and whisper to her. “Do you know who that is at your station?”

And Anne’s reaction was always, “Yeah. So?”

Before she’d come to L.A., she’d imagined what it would be like to see stars in person. Her first encounter had been Lana Turner, in the grocery store, looking decidedly unglamorous. She wasn’t wearing a tight sweater, but a loose-fitting blouse, dungarees, and a scarf on her head. If she was wearing any make-up at all, it was nothing more than a discreet splash of lipstick.

She pushed her cart down the same aisles that Anne did, buying all the same things, although the more expensive versions. Anne had played the old game of staring while pretending not to and wound up quite by accident behind Lana in the checkout line.

When Anne saw that this screen goddess was buying TP and tampons, too, a lot of the truth about what L.A. really was sunk in, and she was never starstruck after that. L.A. was a factory town, just like Detroit or Muncie or Wilkes-Barre; the only difference was that instead of cars or clothes or coal, L.A. made movies.

“Guess who I saw at the store today,” she imagined the conversation in a motor city suburb. “The guy who paints the red parts on the Chevy.”

“Wow.”

And, after all, weren’t actors just the same? The visible result of all the work of many unseen faces? They were the tail fins and paint jobs; but the real heroes were the ones who designed the cars in the first place and figured out how to make them run.

In Detroit, the engineers were king. In L.A., the engineers who were screenwriters and directors and editors and stunt-folk could walk down any street at any time and not even be noticed unless they were someone like Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles.

“You hear about the Polish actress who came to Hollywood?” Shirley had told Anne once, one in a series of many off-color jokes.

“What about her?” Anne asked.

“She was so stupid she screwed the screenwriter.”

Anne supposed that if Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole had sat at her station, she might have been impressed and a little fidgety. Then again, Sinatra was, well, Sinatra, and Cole was, despite everything else, a black man, and Anne had never met a black man in person before coming to L.A.

Her first, in fact, was Otis, the fry-cook, who was always singing in the kitchen, but the two of them hardly had time to speak to each other, beyond cryptic shouts of “Adam and Eve on a Raft” and “Burn one!”

And, among the waitresses, eighty-six. This was an ancient secret code, and Shirley had told her that it came about because it rhymed with “nix.” It meant that the customer coming in was to be avoided at all costs.

Either they were a lousy tipper, or extremely demanding and petty, the type of person who would send their toast back three times because it wasn’t done exactly right. Maybe people could act like that at Ciro’s or the Brown Derby.

But this was Van de Kamp’s, for Christ’s sake, a store-front diner of good reputation but low prices for the working stiffs of the Miracle Mile. As far as Anne was concerned, if a customer was a royal pain in the ass, they’d get the same right back, and to hell with a tip. Politeness got politeness, and she refused to take any crap from anyone.

And, so, after a few months, Anne had developed a reputation as a hard-boiled waitress. The other girls were in awe of her ability to lay it on the line and tell the nasty truth to a customer, at risk of tips. Anne managed to offend a lot of the women who came in, but endeared herself to many of the men, who would take her abuse and leave generous tips, almost in spite of themselves.

Anne had permanently endeared herself to Shirley the first time Mrs. Rothburn had come in during Anne’s tenure. Mrs. Rothburn was somewhere between sixty and death, a specter of wrinkled parchment skin stretched tight over a skull, always wore the same red wool suit with matching tam, and always brought in her dog, a miniature Doberman, Baby. Mrs. Rothburn and Baby would sit in a booth, and any comments about violations of the health code would be met with a cold, haughty look that said, “So? Insult me and kiss your tip good-bye.”

And, for months, the other girls had silently served the two of them in their back booth, returning the toast to the kitchen four or five times, enduring diatribes about the runny eggs, and waiting anxiously for the moment when Mrs. Rothburn would clear the booth, leaving a lousy five per cent tip, opening up the space for a more gracious customer.

Until Mrs. Rothburn entered one morning, amid whispers of “Eighty-six,” and wound up at Anne’s station. Anne grabbed a menu from the rack, turning to Shirley to ask, “Isn’t that illegal? Bringing a dog in here?”

“You try telling her that,” Shirley spat back.

“Okay,” Anne replied, strutting to the booth.

“You can’t bring the dog in here,” Anne said by way of introduction. Mrs. Rothburn eyed her up and down with a withering stare.

“Baby and I have been eating here since before you were born, young lady,” she said, snatching the menu away and slamming it, unopened, on the table. “I would like the breakfast special, eggs over easy, not overcooked, toast well done, and a glass of orange juice for Baby.”

“I can’t serve the dog,” Anne answered, unaware that every waitress in the place was watching from afar.

“You certainly will,” Mrs. Rothburn shot back.

“I certainly won’t. It’s a violation of the health code.”

“Health code, schmelth code. You will get Baby her orange juice, or I will have her bite you.”

Anne inhaled, glaring at this strange creature. “Lady,” she said, stuffing her order pad into her apron, “Either of you bitches gets their teeth near me, I will bite that little rat right on the ass.”

Everything stopped for half a second, while Mrs. Rothburn stared back in disbelief. Finally, she stood, stormed from the booth to the door, and announced dramatically, “I will never come back to this place again. Really. The nerve.”

As she swept out the door, the other waitresses and the regulars applauded. Anne took a modest bow and, when Mrs. Rothburn finally returned two weeks later, it was without Baby, and she insisted on sitting at Anne’s station, was practically deferential and actually left a fifteen percent tip. Anne only wished her mother could see her now.

After all, she was the one who had unintentionally taught Anne how to handle difficult, pushy, obnoxious women by giving her plenty of practice in doing it.

She realized, though, the morning that Mrs. Rothburn came back, that this weird town called L.A. was her home now. Pennsylvania was a distant memory, with no reason left there to ever return.

* * *

Easter was approaching, only a few weeks away, and Anne felt that she had to do something. Despite the miles, that old Catholic guilt still lurked. No way she was going to waste her time following her mother’s old weekly rules, but it was The Day, the one day of the year when lapsed Catholics still felt compelled to play along.

There was a church down the block from her house, and for a long time she thought it was a Catholic church. It looked like one, it was named after a Saint, it was always jammed on Sunday. Maybe she’d go there. She’d almost talked herself into it when she walked by one Saturday afternoon, then read the sign for the first time.

It said, “Anglican Catholic Church.” Not Roman? She didn’t know there was anything besides Roman Catholic. Well, okay, there was that Armenian Catholic church back home that she had gone to with her best friend Beverly once, to Margaret’s consternation. But if it wasn’t Roman it wasn’t Catholic, as far as Anne’s mother was concerned. There was only one church, accept no substitutes.

She asked Shirley later if she knew the difference. Shirley’s father was Jewish, her mother was Lutheran and her husband was Catholic, and she’d actually had one semester of college, so she knew a bit about religion and history. “Anglican Catholic,” she explained, “is the church started by Henry the Eighth when he got all snippy about the Pope not giving him a divorce.”

“So… it’s Protestant?”

“It’s English,” Shirley said. “All the ceremony, none of the guilt, from what I hear. You’d almost never know the difference.”

“Really?” Anne thought about it. All of the ceremony. Everything necessary for Easter. And a good Irish Roman Catholic girl spending that holiest of days in an English Protestant church would be enough to make Margaret dig a grave and then roll over in it. If only she ever knew, which she never would.

Or, hell, maybe she’d just go to the movies on Easter. She assumed that, unlike Wilkes-Barre, the theatres in L.A. would still be open that day. It was still just a factory town, after all, and movie palaces were the real houses of worship here.

* * *
One late morning the Monday of Holy Week, Gladys grabbed Anne’s arm, whispering anxiously, “Do you know who that is at your station?”

Anne shrugged, balancing two trays.

“So?” Gladys stared at her. “You going to get his autograph?”

“Of course not.”

“Why not?”

“He came here to eat and be left alone, just like anyone else.”

Gladys stared at Anne’s customer, and Anne gave her a cautionary stare. Gladys vanished into the kitchen then, and Anne continued on to serve her stations, starting with her celebrity in the back booth; grilled cheese and chocolate shake.

And… he came in for an early lunch, the man who looked like Tyrone Power, with a couple of associates, and they took a booth in Anne’s section. She wasted no time in getting their menus to them, and as she passed them out and asked if they wanted coffee, she noticed the man look at her, then look again intently.

He glanced away before she looked back, but she stared at him a moment. He was handsome, with a brilliant smile, and seemed like the kind of man who would completely care about anyone he loved.

“‘Scuse me, miss…” It was her celebrity, two booths away. She walked over and he asked her for more water and she came back to refill his glass. He seemed like a nice man, too. Just a person, despite his fame, despite the fact that everyone else was trying to stare at him without being noticed. That had to be utterly nerve-wracking.

If that’s what fame meant, then Anne didn’t want it, didn’t want to be a product of the L.A. factory. Then again, Memphis was just a factory town, too.

And the man who looked like Tyrone Power seemed to take special notice of her when she came by their booth, smiling yet looking away coyly as he ordered, but doing nothing more. She was trying to think of a way to impress him when she noticed the wedding ring on his finger and her heart sank. So much for that.

But when she came back with the check, she noticed the wedding ring was gone, and the man looked at her name tag, said, “Anne is a beautiful name.”

“Thanks,” she said. “What’s yours?”

“Bob,” he said simply.

“Hi, Bob. You know, there’s usually a booth when you come in in the morning. Much more comfortable than the counter.”

She walked over to her celebrity customer then, hearing the quiet comments from Bob’s friends. Yes, he was interested in her, and they all knew it and… well, she’d find out, wouldn’t she?

But she’d be cool about it. She always was. That was her other survival technique. Yes, she could fire off blistering retorts when offended, but she could also hold it all close to the vest when she was interested, and she was very interested in this man named Bob, even if he did have a wedding ring.

She gave the celebrity his check and went back to the order window, where Gladys was grabbing dishes.

“Are you going to get his autograph?” she asked.

“No,” Anne said.

“Can you, for me then?” she asked.

“Gladys, he just wants to eat and be left alone.”

“Yeah, but it’s — “

“It’s a customer,” Anne said.

And that customer was leaving now, but he called out thank you to Anne as he left and when Anne got back to the table, she found out that letting him eat in peace had paid off. Sitting there for his dollar-ten order was a ten dollar bill, and he’d written “thank you” on the check, signing his name beneath it: “Elvis Presley.”

She gave Gladys the autograph, but she kept the tip.

* * *

On Easter Sunday, Anne went to church for the first time since arriving in L.A., deciding to try the Anglican place down the block, and enjoying it very much. Shirley had been right. It was all of the pomp and ceremony, all the glitz and glamour of Catholicism, with none of the guilt.

The place was not oppressive or gloomy, and neither were the people. In fact, at the post service coffee klatch, everyone came over to introduce themselves, welcome her to the church, and mention how much they just adored her new hat.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #76: Skill, youth, fashion, offense

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

What skill do you wish more people took the time to learn?

Well, speaking as a resident of the U.S. and on behalf of quite a number of people for whom English is their first language (Canada, y’all get a pass here), I really wish that more people who only speak English would learn at least one other language, no matter how young or old they are.

The U.S. itself has no official language, despite what so many ignorant people seem to think. Sure, some states do, even a state as liberal as California, but only because our ballot initiative system is so screwed up. And, then again, our state government wisely ignores the “English only” BS that was passed in the 1980s, so it doesn’t really matter.

But learning another language and getting good at it is probably the best way to broaden your perspective, connect to another culture and — ironic, I know — learn a lot more about your own. Want to really, really learn about English? Study Latin, German, or French.

Or if you want a deeper dive into the effects of colonialism, study Spanish, any one of a ton of First Peoples’/Indigenous languages from the Americas, Hawai’ian, or take your pick from the language groups of the Philippines.

You’re welcome. Hey, at the very least, you’ll be able to order at your favorite local ethnic restaurant without sounding like a moron, so there’s that.

What do you really wish you knew when you were younger?

Oh, if I knew this one, I would have been dangerous. It’s a simple rule that applies any time, really, before you’re at least a few years out of college and into your first real adult job where they let you actually give your opinions about shit.

So… from infant sentience to maybe 26, essentially.

And the secret is this: Everyone else your age that you meet is just as goddamn insecure and scared and worried as you think that you are. It’s just that some are better at pretending that they’re not. Want to rule the school? It’s easy.

Give up your fear and cease to give a royal fuck about what anyone else thinks of you. Make bold statements. Commit outrageous creative acts. Be so daring that you inspire others.

I got a great example in this a couple of years ago, when I reconnected with one of my old college roommates on Facebook. When we finally got into an extended chat, we told each other what we had thought of each other at the time, and I was blown away.

See, I thought that he was this really confident, mature guy who was wise in the ways of the world and knew things about how life worked that I possibly couldn’t because I just felt so emotionally immature and totally insecure, and really didn’t know how to relate to people.

But he told me that his apparent bravado was just a cover-up for his shrieking insecurity, and that he always thought of me as one of the most intelligent people he’d ever met. But see, that was because I tended to use information and knowledge as a shield against my own insecurity — “if I tell you this fact, you won’t see my fear.”

It was a totally eye-opening experience not so much from what I learned about him but what I learned from him about me. It’s never easy to find out that someone else’s impression of you is so ridiculously positive, but it is encouraging.

So, when you’re young, if you’re the one who asks intelligent questions or approaches people and makes them feel welcome and heard, you’re going to be the coolest one in the room. But never do it to cover up insecurity. Learn first that all of your insecurity is self-produced and it probably can’t hold a candle to all of the insecurities that the #1 Influencer on campus actually has.

After all, if they’re so confident, why would they feel the constant need to basically scream, “Look at how amazing I am, and isn’t all the stuff I own just bonkers?”

But… guess what? The grown-ups are just the same, only worse. Inside every Karen, who seems to not give a shit what anyone thinks about them, there’s really an insecure child who feels utterly helpless without being a control freak. Hence, when they hit an obstacle, they start abusing the staff and screaming for the manager/

They’re not powerful. They’re pathetic.

So, kids, when the adults try to stifle your personality or creativity just because they think they can, well… if you truly wind up with all this adult knowledge stuck in your young head, dispatching them should be no problem at all, because they are even more insecure and worried than your own cohort.

Finally, if you rebel in the right way by driving them nuts without making them prosecute you, even if you get kicked out of school, you’re going to have set up the platform to becoming a superstar.

But I think that part has always been true.

Who do you think has the biggest impact on fashion trends: Actors and actresses, musicians, fashion designers, or consumers?

Oh, this one is easy. It’s the idiots who think that fashion trends have any importance at all. Or, in other words, the stupid consumers who buy it. This is one of the reasons that The Devil Wears Prada is so great.

Meryl Streep’s character, Miranda Priestly (yeah, no symbolism in that name!), builds up this incredible defense of what she does and why it’s important and it sounds plausible — but it’s a house of card(igan)s and even while it’s brilliantly argued in the film by her character, it also falls apart even while she’s extolling a (very particular) shade of blue and how it became a “thing.”

Simply put, her influence only exists because some people actually give a shit about what she decrees to be fashionable. And upon her words rise or fall the designers, and then the actors, actresses, musicians, and other influencers who get the free clothes to parade on red carpets in order to try to sell it to…

Oh yeah. The group I started with. The consumers. And it’s simple. Stop buying their shit and paying too much for it, wear what is within your budget and comfortable, and you could destroy the fashion industry in a season.

Or, you know — grow a set and make your own fashion. Truth to tell, some of the best-dressed people I know shop exclusively in vintage stores and thrift shops or even make their own. This is how hippies created their own unique style, and it was also the punk aesthetic before that got co-opted by… whatever they called hipsters in the 80s. Poseurs, maybe?

But ooh. Power! Take that non-designer purse or cheap wallet, spend in the right places, and bring down one of the most pretentious industries in the world.

Sequel idea to the above move: The Angel Wears Whatever the Fuck They Want To.” Coming to Amazon Prime, Spring 2022.

How much effort should an individual put into not offending others?

Well, it depends. Are you an artist, comedian, satirist, marketer or other creative doing your job? Then it’s practically your role to offend, with a couple of caveats.

Always punch up, and never down. Making fun of the homeless or addicts or the poor, etc.? Yeah. Fuck right off. Making fun of someone because of a trait they can’t control — like age, race, handicap, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, etc., then also fuck right off.

Belief systems have a wider range, since they are traits that people can control. So if they follow a particular religion (or not-religion) or political bent or whatever, but do not use it to punch down at others, then give them a pass.

If, however, they use the beliefs they have chosen to be dicks to people, then you owe them no courtesy, whether you’re a working artist or not.

Making fun of politicians, billionaires, celebrities, people richer than they ever need to be, and other random elevated idiots? Fire the hell away with both barrels.

And the last two bits apply to average people as well, on the internet and in real life. If they’re an elected official or espouse a certain ideology or political view and use that to try to oppress people for what they are instead of how they believe, then take the gloves off and punch away.

But if you aren’t dealing with assholes who choose to be assholes, then opt for compassion.

That obnoxious Karen screaming at a grocery clerk for daring to tell her to pull her mask over her nose? Yeah — give that bitch some sass and chase her out of the store.

Meanwhile, that maybe homeless person with the cardboard sign on the off-ramp… well, you may not feel inclined to give them money because it may not actually help, but the least you can do is just shut up and not call them names while you’re waiting at the light.

Oh yeah — I’ve seen this shit from far too many Karens in Range Rovers that I just know their gentrifying, developer husbands bought the Climate Change inducing vehicles mainly to keep their harridan trophy wives out of their hair.

That, and the little detail that driving a Range Rover is the universal language for “Caution: Giant Asshole on Board.”

Oops. I just punched up. See how that works? If they don’t like it, they can go cry on their yacht.