Theatre Thursday: It takes character

While every writer is probably a bit different, here’s where I get my characters from.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Skeeze  from Pixabay.

Wednesday Wonders: Jon on Scarne

How magic is a combination of psychology, stagecraft, and technology.

Almost one hundred and twenty years ago, a guy named Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia was born in Steubenville, Ohio. You won’t recognize that name. Seeing as how he died in 1985, you might not recognize the name he became famous under. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a magician doing card tricks, played pretty much any card or dice game, or counted cards in blackjack (at least, if you did it his way) then you know the name John Scarne.

Now why is a magician, card manipulator, and author of books on gambling showing up on a Wednesday Wonder post? Because there’s a corollary to Clarke’s Third  Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The corollary is “Any sufficiently advanced magic is the product of technology.”

Magic tricks have always been based on scientific principles. They are a combination of mathematics, physics, and psychology, and sometimes throw in chemistry, geometry, and topography, for good measure. Of course, the best magicians wrap all of that science in the arts, so that the perfect illusion (“Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money.”) is a full-on performance wrapped up in a story, supported by stagecraft, acting, music, and the whole nine yards.

Of course, note that the word “stagecraft” is kind of meta, because what we in theatre call stagecraft is often what illusionists call magic, so it’s an infinite loop there. A magic trick is stagecraft. Stagecraft is a magic trick. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But what Scarne did goes even beyond all of that, and one look at this card manipulation film of his from the 50s should convince you of that. Yes, I’ve studied magic enough to know that he’s using all kinds of tricks, like false deals and double lifts and so on to do what he’s doing but… at the same time, while the trick seems focused on the Aces, he’s not manipulating four cards at once here. He’s controlling eight — and all of them in a specific order, full speed ahead.

One of his more famous appearances was as Paul Newman’s hands in the movie The Sting. Newman’s character shows some pretty impressive card manipulating skills, all done by Scarne, but if you watch that video clip take special note. At the beginning, we cut to the hands with the cards. Then, at 0:36, the filmmakers pull their magic. The hands move out of frame at the top just long enough for Newman to put his own hands back, then pull off a not so fluid full-flip of the fanned deck, as the camera casually tilts up to make us think that those were his hands all the time. Ironically, I think that the insert shot of the flubbed attempt to bow shuffle was actually Scarne and not Newman.

But knowing that part of the trick brings up an even bigger issue. The only way they could have shot this was with Scarne behind Newman and reaching around, meaning that he had to do all of that manipulation of the cards totally blind.

Let that register, then go watch that clip again as he keeps the Ace of Spades right where he wants it. And nice symbolism on the part of the filmmakers, since that card is traditionally symbolic of death, and death both real and imagined play a big part in the film.

So how does magic trick us?

A lot of the time, it uses psychology and subverts our expectations. An obvious move to do something innocuous, like pull a wand out of our coat pocket, might in fact hide one or more surreptitious moves, like grabbing an object to be produced or ditching an object to be vanished, or both, or something else. One of the best demonstrations of how this works was given by Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, on their show Fool Us.

Anyway… that video will teach you almost everything you need to know about sleight-of-hand — except how to actually master it.

Another way that magic fools us is to play with our perceptions of space, and as mentioned in the link above, the Zig Zag Illusion is one of the best examples of making the audience think that something is impossible while hiding the secret right in front of them. I happen to own several pocket versions of this trick, one involving a rope and the other a pencil, and the principle is always the same. The Zig Zag Trick involves deceptive optics, psychology, and misdirection.

Of course, one other big trick in magic, especially in card tricks, is math, and I’m going to give away one that I love to do to make friends go “WTF?” Here’s the effect: I deal out 21 cards, then ask then to mentally pick a card, not tell me, but only tell me which one of three piles of seven cards it’s in. I gather up the cards and then deal them out again, and ask which column their card is in.

This is where I pull the stagecraft, playing up the idea that I have psychic abilities while dealing out the cards, Here’s the trick. When you hit the eleventh card, set it aside, face down, then deal out the rest. This sets you up for the ultimate brain scorch as you casually turn up that eleventh card and ask, “Is this the one you chose?”

And of course it is, and your victim squees in amazement. And how does it work? Simple. It’s all math. Each step of the way, you take the pile of seven cards with your spectator’s chosen card and put it in the middle. Since your piles are 3 by 7, the end result is that the first pass will force the chosen card to turn up somewhere between 8 and 14 in the pile. Next time around, it gets jammed to being either 10th, 11th, or 12th, and the last deal nails it. Although, pro tip, after the second deal, the chosen card will be the fourth one in the chosen column, and the 11th one you deal out. So… much opportunity for building up the reveal while reminding your mark and audience that they chose the card freely, and never told you which one it was and, bam! Is this your card?

And, if you followed the instructions, it absolutely will be. Bonus points: Once you understand the math behind it, you can vary it on the fly, so that it’s not always the 11th card — 4th or 18th will work as well. You can even change the total number of cards, provided that you’ve memorized where the target card will finally be forced to.

Scarne totally got all of this, but it really feels like his insights have been forgotten 36 years after his death. ‘Tis pity… Now pick a card.

More frequently misused expressions

Here are 20+ common English expressions that even native speakers get wrong.

Welcome to another installment of things you’re saying wrong. I’ve previously covered commonly misused words, as well as oft-mangled phrases. Today will be more of the latter, so let’s just get right to it.

  1. Bated breath, not baited breath

The phrase means to wait for something with great excitement. For example, “Billy spent the night waiting for the family trip to Disneyland with bated breath.” The meaning of “bate” here is to moderate or restrain, so Billy is trying not to be too excited. To bait one’s breath might lure all kinds of fish, but it’s just not the right word. Like many of the examples on the list, the error is probably caused by people only having heard the phrase but never having seen it written down, so they just make big assumptions.

  1. Beck and call, not beckon call

And no, we’re not referring to the musician here. While “beckon” and “call” are somewhat synonymous, the two don’t go together in this phrase. It can be confusing because one of the meanings of the word “beck” is a beckoning gesture. However, beck is a noun and beckon is a verb, so the one noun just goes better with the other which, in this case, is call, which is not being used as a verb.

  1. Case in point, not case and point

The idea with this phrase is that the case proves the point you’re making. They are not coequal; one supports the other. So if your point is that not wearing a motorcycle helmet is dangerous and then you cite the case of a 25-year-old man who suffered permanent brain damage after an accident because he wasn’t wearing a helmet, then that story is the case in point — the example that supports your claim.

4.    Commander-in-Chief, not Commander and Chief

This one gets misused all the time, and I’m not sure why. It’s a military title for the President of the United States, but the president only has one such title, which is the position of Commander, further clarified by indicating that the president is also the chief commander. Here, “in-chief” is an adjective describing the commandership, it’s not an additional title. Another great example of the “seen, never heard” phenomenon.

5.    Damp squib, not damp squid

There’d be nothing unusual about a damp squid, of course, since they spend their lives in the ocean, but this expression refers to something that winds up being a dud — “The product launch went off like a damp squib.” In other words, nothing really happened. A squib is a small explosive usually powered by gunpowder, so if it gets wet it doesn’t go “boom.” A notable use of squibs were to simulate actors being hit by bullets in older films — a squib and a fake blood pack would be connected together under the actor’s clothes with a slit in the fabric in front and a little metal plating in back. Blowing up the squib would make the fake blood squirt out. This technique pretty much went away when Hollywood realized, “Hey — we can do this shit with CGI now!”

  1. Do a 180°, not do a 360°

This one is not just a word usage error but a complete mathematical mistake. What the expression is supposed to mean is to do an about-face. That is, change your direction or position or point of view to the exact opposite of what it was. “Nancy’s favorite color used to be red, but then she saw the new fall designs and did a total 180°, so now she loves green.” If you do a 360°, then you wind up right back where you stared because you’ve figuratively gone full circle. Or maybe that would be literally.

  1. Dog-eat-dog world, not doggie dog world

Yeah, a bit gross if you’re an animal-lover, but the more violent version is the correct one, and it refers to the cut-throat nature of life, at least in some circles. It’s a variation of the expression “every man for himself.” Again, it should be obvious how only ever hearing this expression led to the kinder, gentler version.

  1. Due diligence, not do diligence

This one comes from the land of law and business, and while you definitely have to do stuff to achieve it, the correct word is “due,” because it refers to what is necessary. “Due diligence” refers to the process by which a person, entity, business proposal, or other potential contractual arrangement is investigated. For example, if someone applies for a job at a bank, due diligence would involve looking into their background for any criminal record, outstanding debts or other financial problems, and anything else that might make them high-risk for entrusting them with sensitive customer information, or access to any kind of cash or instruments with monetary value at all.

9.    For all intents and purposes, not for all intensive purposes

Another great “heard not seen,” although I can’t even figure out what an intensive purpose would be. Intent refers to the mental reasoning behind any action; purpose refers the intended outcome of those actions. Put them together, and what you’re basically saying is whatever phrase follows this one, it fulfills both the reasoning behind the action and the intended outcome, although it’s not necessarily positive. “For all intents and purposes, the new law killed the proposed mall.”

  1. Free rein, not free reign

Oh, to confuse your monarchy and your horses! A reign is what a king or queen has, and you can remember that because both King and Reign have a G in them. A rein is how you steer a horse — and if you give your horse free rein, it can go whichever way it wants to. If you give your monarch free reign, they’ll probably wind up assassinated or deposed, so don’t to that. Unless you hate your monarch.

11. Hunger pangs, not hunger pains

Not to be confused with “hunger games.” While a pang is related to a pain — because it means a sudden, sharp pain — it’s specific to the expression.

12. Make do, not make due

Here we have the opposite of “due diligence.” The only way to actually make something due is to send a bill or invoice — but that’s not what this expression means. In fact, it’s kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum. “Make do” means to get along with what you have; that is, by making existing resources do what they need to. “They couldn’t afford a new car yet, so that had to make do with the ancient Fiat they inherited from the grandmother.”

  1. Moot point, not mute point

A moot point is far from mute because the latter means silent, while moot point is one that should be quite open for debate or discussion — although it depends on which side of the pond you’re on. If you’re in the U.S., it’s also just as likely to mean something that’s not worth discussion. Still, this one is definitely not an example of heard and not seen, because “moot,” with a long double-O, sounds nothing like “mute,” which has a long liquid-U.

14. Nipped it in the bud, not nipped it in the butt

As attractive as the idea of biting someone’s ass can be, this one actually comes from the field of horticulture (“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think!”), and the proper word is “bud,” as in a flower bud. And if you nip that off just as it’s budding and long before it blooms, ta-da! You’ll never grow a flower off of that stem. So this is very related to the concept of cutting something off at the roots.

15. On tenterhooks, not on tender hooks

Another heard, not seen. This refers to being in a state of suspense, but with tenterhooks, that was literal. They were involved in the process of drying cloth, which was stretched out in a frame called a tenter. And how was it held taut in that frame? With tenterhooks, duh. Tender hooks really feels like an oxymoron and would make Clive Barker sad.

16. Peace of mind, not piece of mind

Okay, for all of us with fierce mamas, we probably have examples of when they went down to our schools and gave dipshit administrators a piece of their minds, but that’s a different expression. Although, of course, it’s probably also the source of confusion. “Peace of mind” pretty much means just that — calming the fuck out of your brain bucket.

  1. Shoo-in, not shoe-in

I don’t know where you’re sticking your shoes, but this phrase refers to someone who will just cruise into a job, elected office, chosen university, whatever, with no struggle. But, in this case, the “shoo” refers to sort of a reverse chase. That is, just like it’s easy to shoo a mouse out of your kitchen with a broom, these privileged people get easily chased into those positions of, well, privilege.

 18. Statute of limitations, not statue of limitations

This one is kind of hilarious, because the idea of a statue setting limits just makes me think of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who. They are definitely the ultimate Statues of Limitations! Otherwise, though, the word you’re thinking of is “statute,” which refers to a law — and a statute of limitations determines how long after the fact someone can still be charged with a crime. Unfortunately, this confusion can lead to a really unfortunate mix-up between statutory rape, which is a terrible crime against a minor, and statuary rape, which is just a really unfortunate display of bad behavior in a sculpture garden. Although the latter is far more preferable than the former.

  1. Take a different tack, not take a different track (or tact)

Again, words mean things, and this expression comes from the world of sailing. A tack was a way you turned your sails to take full advantage of the wind. In a related note, “the whole nine yards” actually means that you were hanging all of your sails on a three-masted ship, because each of those masts had three yardarms. In other news, because of the way that those yardarms stuck out of the masts, “yard” became the preferred Elizabethan slang for dick. You’re welcome!

  1. Whet your appetite, not wet your appetite

This is what happens when you no longer need to sharpen your own knives or razors. Whet means just that — to hone or sharpen or make more acute. To “wet your appetite” doesn’t really make any sense if you think about it.

  1. Worse comes to worst, not worse comes to worse

Another nice no brainer. I mean, if you start with worse and end with worse, where have you really gone? Nowhere. The only way down from worse (or bad) is worst. Period.

  1. You’ve got another think coming, not you’ve got another thing coming

Ironically, this one seems really ungrammatical in its original form, but “another think” is, in fact, how it was originally and has always been attested. And think about it honestly for a second. What, exactly, is the other “thing” coming their way? This really just sounds like the threat of a dick in the face. Calm your jets!

  1. Bonus Round: One that’s right now, or now right

And this brings me to “spitting image,” which way back when started out as “spit and image.” Or maybe not. It’s just a really messy expression all around. But, in this case, I think we’ve actually managed to land on something simple and acceptable. Maybe.

Momentous Monday: Relativity

A reminder that, while we can test our DNA or trace our family trees, we still all come from in the same place.

Almost 470 years ago, in 1553, a man named John Lyly (or Lilly, Lylie, or Lylly) was born in Kent, England, the grandson of a Swedish immigrant. A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, he was kind of a big deal in his day. He was an author and playwright of some renown, and while he failed in his attempt to be appointed the Queens Master of the Revels, he did serve in Parliament as well as served Queen Elizabeth I for many years.

Around two hundred and eighty years after that, somewhere in Massachusetts, a child was born. He grew up to become a man, and he moved west. It was the era of Manifest Destiny in America, a dark time in our history. That child was John Lyly’s seventh great-grandson.

At least we weren’t using the term “Great White Hope.” Yet. To be honest, we should have used the term “Great White Death.” But, among the death there was still hope, and that child born in Massachusetts who grew up to be a man put his ideals into action.

Along with a great wave of German immigrants to America, all of whom despised slavery, this man went west, crossed the Missouri river and landed in Kansas. For me, the movie How the West Was Won is a family documentary.

When he arrived in Kansas, he helped found the town of Burlington, was one of two attorneys in the town (and also one of two blacksmiths, the other of whom was the other attorney), mayor of the town at one point, and a proud member of the Republican Party.

Yeah… quite the opposite of my politics now, or so you’d think. Except that, before the Civil War and up until FDR, the Republicans were the liberal party in America, and the Democrats were regressive. (Woodrow Wilson was a major racist, by the way.)

That child who grew up to be a great man moved west in order to help bring Kansas into the union as a free (i.e., non-slave) state. And that child, who grew up to be a great man, was my great-great-grandfather, Silas Fearl.

Since he was Lily’s seventh great-grandson, that makes me Lily’s eleventh. (It doesn’t seem to add up, but don’t forget that I have to add in the two generations between me and Silas., plus myself.)

Fast-forward to nearly two-hundred years after Silas was born, and the evolution of the internet, and I am in touch with people who share my ancestry with him. It makes us very distant relatives, to be sure, but it means that we have a very definite connection, some by blood and some by marriage.

And this is the reason for this post. One of those third or fourth cousins, via Silas Fearl by blood, posted some pictures of her kids, and when I looked at them the thing that most struck me was this. “Wow. This person and I have an ancestor in common.” And, in fact, looking at these faces, I could see certain elements of my own face, of my dad’s, and of my grandpa’s, and of the great uncles I managed to meet, and of the people in a family portrait taken when my father’s father was an infant.

Even so many steps apart on the branches of humanity’s family tree, I could see some of me and my immediate family in them… and across the distance of never having met and Facebook, my first reaction was an enormous empathy. “This is a bit of me, and I want to protect it from everything bad forever.”

And, in a lot of ways, I have to suspect that this is just an illusion, an effect created by the empirical proof I have seen that means “You and I are related to each other.” That, and the evolutionary and biological forces that make us most protective of those who share our DNA.

Except that… I’ve felt this same way toward people who are absolutely not related, but I’ve still seen myself in them… and this is when I realize the harm that intellect can do to our species.

Intellect relies on so-called facts that it has been told. So, “Hey, you and this person are related” is a fact that ropes emotions into relating to the news. So… subject, object, emotion, bond.

In reality, anybody whose picture I see online is related, it’s just not as straightforward as “You and this person have the same great-great-grandfather.” I can trace part of my ancestry back to King Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine — The Lion in Winter is, for me, another unintended family documentary.

By that connection, I’m related to most of the population of England and the eastern US. Now, go back through them to another common ancestor, Charlemagne, and I’m related to most western Europeans and Americans — if you expand the definition of “America” to include all countries on both continents, north and south.

And, if you go back far enough to the last point in humanity’s evolutionary history at which the family tree’s branches split, then you could honestly say that everybody you have ever met is related to you and shares your DNA and your blood to some degree.

You should be able to recognize your features in them no matter their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion. You should be able to see their humanity, and yours, in their faces.

And, go back far enough then we are related to all animal life on this planet. Go back a little farther, and we are related to all life not only on this planet, but in the universe. Go back far enough and follow the laws of physics, and all of us, everyone, everywhere, were once the exact same bit of incredibly condensed matter.

The universe is the mother of us all, and all divisions are illusionary.

I’m reminded of some old Beatles lyrics at the moment. “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” (And I had to look that up. It’s from I Am the Walrus and not Come Together.) Anyway, that’s a pretty good summation of my realization.

Once we put human history on a cosmic scale, our differences and squabbles become absolutely meaningless. All of us were born from the stars. All of us are in this together. Let’s act like it…

Image: The author’s great-grandparents and their four sons, including the author’s paternal grandfather.

Sunday Nibble #96: Dog talk

Dogs I have loved and their incomprehensible super powers.

I’ve noticed a really interesting phenomenon with two of the three dogs I’ve owned as an adult. Well, technically one-and-a-half, because the first one, Dazé, started out as the family dog that we adopted after the first dog died. Basically, we started out together when I was still doing the whole K-12 thing and lived with my parents when I went to college.

But although she was supposed to have been my mom’s dog, Dazé was having none of that. She decided that I was her human almost from the beginning — we adopted her at 12 weeks old — and when I finally moved out on my own after college and as soon as I was able to, she moved in with me and then never left. She was probably the most intelligent dog I’ve ever met, and also one of the most easy-going. She loved people and other dogs, and yet somehow always managed to be the boss dog in any pack. The first place I moved her to, there was a Rottweiler mix that started as a puppy but who grew into a giant of a dog that could stand on her hind legs and look me in the eyes, and I’m 6’2”. Didn’t matter. That dog, Toad (my former roommate has an odd but wonderful sense of humor) totally deferred to Dazé in everything, and all it took was a look from my dog. She never bared her teeth or made threats or anything. It was amazing to watch.

This carried on later when I lived in a house with two other guys and four other dogs, all of which were much bigger. Dazé weighed about 30 pounds, while the other dogs each weighed at least 90. That didn’t matter. It was a house rule, at least among the dogs, that none of them were allowed in “my” room, even if I tried to beg and coax them in. I remember one particular night when the roomies were both out of town and it was storming something fierce. I’d let one of the dogs, Sarah (an Irish Wolfhound, so you know the scale) into the backyard because she gave me that “Gotta pee” look. But when she was done, I decided to let her in via my room, which had a sliding door that opened onto the yard, rather than through the kitchen. So I opened it, called her in, and despite the downpour and sad look on her face, she really, really didn’t want to.

And what was Dazé doing? Just sitting on the bed, looking calm and harmless. I finally managed to get Sarah to come in, but she slinked so low to the ground and dashed through so fast, that the message was obvious:

“SorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorryokayImout.”

And Dazé just stayed on my (ahemn — her) bed, doing nothing.

I never really did figure out how she had this super power, although I did see one crack in it at a New Year’s Day party held by a playwright friend of mine. Her theory was that since we could never really know the exact birth dates of our dogs unless they came from a breeder (hint: they never should) then we might as well just peg it to the start of the year and go from there. So everyone was invited to bring their dog.

All well and good, Dazé gets along with dogs, but then a party guest who had snorfed a little too much herbal refreshment started giving Milk Bones to my dog and the hostess’ dog, Hank, who was a pretty hefty yellow Lab mix. Well, the inevitable happened. She tossed one too close between them, Dazé went to grab it, and Hank decided to put her head in his mouth. It was more of a warning than an attack, but she ducked and fled, and when she came back to me — and it was very clear that she was in “Daddy, daddy, help” mode — I was able to pick her up like she was a Kleenex. She’d gone so limp in fear that she really seemed to weigh nothing. There was a tiny nick on her head that was bleeding, and it was the one and only moment I ever got to see her lose her mojo.

Flash forward to current dog, who has a lot in common with Dazé, but a brief side trip through dog number two, Shadow. I adopted her when she was about a year old, exactly eleven days after Dazé finally passed, and she came to me as a fearful rescue, a white German Shepherd mix who started out terrified of me until I just ignored her, but once she realized that it was okay for her to sleep in my bed with me and that I gave her food, she bonded totally. Just like with Dazé, I was her human. However, she never really developed the talent that Dog 1 and Dog 3 did, and although I loved her very much, I have to say that she was the problem child I had to have in order to learn.

When Shadow was five, I decided that she needed a companion, and so I adopted Sheeba, who was 11 months old, and who had been thrown out of a car for reasons I’ll never understand. What struck me about her in the shelter, though, was that she just seemed so calm — and this was even more amazing when I found out on adoption day later that week that I first saw her about two hours after she’d been brought in after being saved from the streets.

Sheeba is a lot like Dazé. Put her in a pack situation, and she goes into boss mode. The big difference with her, though, is that it’s really clear that she does it physically instead of mentally. Dazé would just give a look. Sheeba tends to get in the other dog’s face and puff up. (By the way, the two of them were just about the same size.)

And yes, she’s gotten into her share of fights — several times with Shadow, and once or twice with friends’ dogs. These mostly revolve around food, as in, “Bitch, back off my dish, or Ima hurt you.” A big thing I learned when I had both Shadow and Sheeba was this, too: As a human, do not try to impose the alpha/beta roles, because it will lead to disaster. See, in my mind, I did the typical parent thing. “Older kid gets first dibs and such.” Yeah, that works with humans. With dogs? Not so much.

If I’d been aware enough from the start, then I would have made Sheeba alpha, and that would have made both of them happy. Instead, I tried to make Shadow alpha, which only managed to piss off Sheeba and make Shadow even more nervous.

Oops.

But… all of that said, the real point here is this: What I learned from Dazé is that dogs really do speak to us, too. We just have to learn to listen. Now, I’m not sure whether I’m the one who took so long to pick up on it, or she’s the one who took so long to figure out how to train me, but… during the last five or six years of her life, I started to notice that she would approach me with intent, make eye contact, and then basically create a subject-verb-object sentence (SVO) by where she was looking.

The funny thing is that this is actually the way that English works, too. “You do this” is probably one of the simpler examples. Stripped down in dog talk, though, it omits finer points of vocabulary like adjectives and adverbs, although, to be honest, these really seem to come out of attitude — a really impatient, huffy dog is coloring the entire sentence with “fast” or “soon.” In a lot of ways, that’s like any form of sign language, where the tone of the sentence isn’t portrayed in what the hands are doing, but rather in the face and expressions.

In that context, it makes total sense, because our dogs have basically had to figure out how to teach us how to understand their signing. And that’s pretty amazing.

Both Dazé and Sheeba eventually started doing this, and it always took the same pattern. After they’d gotten my attention, they’d make eye contact, which meant “You.” Then they would pointedly turn their head to look at something, so literally using an action as an action word, although I think that “Dog” probably only has one universal word that can mean do, make, get, or give. This really isn’t all that far off from human languages, which not only frequently have one verb that can mean all of those things, but it’s also one of the most irregular verbs in the language. (Side note: It’s almost a guarantee that the verb for “to be” was, is, and/or will be ridiculously irregular through all tenses in every language.)

Anyway, so… look at me, then turn the head — subject, verb. And what happens next? Object, which is where the dog looks — their bowl, meaning “food,” the sink, meaning “water,” the cupboard, meaning “treat,” or the door, meaning “walk,” or… anything else. The point here is that the need the dog expresses is not abstract, and that is probably where the species separate.

After all, a five-year-old can tell its parents, “I want to go to Disneyland when school is out.” A dog, not so much. While they may have a sense of language, they do not have a sense of time. If you doubt that, compare how excited your dog is to see you come home after five minutes vs. five hours. Not really a lot of difference, right?

A long time ago, humans naively believed that we were the only species to develop language, but that’s clearly not true. If we define language as set of syntactic methods to communicate, then most species have language, and humans are not unique. We are probably unique in the sense that we alone use written or inscribed symbols to represent the sounds that make up our language, which is what you’re reading right now, but we do not absolutely know that we are the only ones.

The point, really, is this: We all need to step back from this idea that humans are the superior life forms (hint: we’re not) and, instead, start to listen to all of the others, and to nature itself. If you’re lucky enough to have pets of any kind, start to pay attention and listen. They may be trying to tell you something, and are getting totally frustrated that you’re too stupid to understand. Dog knows that this is how Dazé finally taught me.

Did I mention that the first couple of times she tried the “You give food” thing with me, she actually gave me a dirty look when I didn’t get, audibly sighed in frustration, and then pointedly repeated it until I finally got it? Because that is exactly what she did. And that is why I got it the first time Sheeba did it. Which is interesting in itself, because it means that one generation of dog managed to teach me a language that I was able to understand in a much later generation, and, holy crap, how amazing is that?

Image: Dazé, Shadow, and Sheeba © Jon Bastian

How have your pets communicated with you? Let us know in the comments!

Saturday Morning Post 96: Truth or Dare (Part 2)

Part 2 of the next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one. Previously, Kevin, Rick, and Pedro started a game of Truth or Dare that may be spiraling out of control as Pedro is up for the next “Truth.”

“Pedro, truth or dare?”

“Shit. I’m not drinking bongwater. Truth.”

“Okay,” Rick thought, not really wanting to stick Pedro with anything nasty. He was too nice a guy for that. He thought, then settled on something innocuous. “When was the last time you got laid?”

Pedro didn’t even hesitate, but he looked nervous. “Last week, Tuesday afternoon,” he said.

Rick thought for a second, then gasped. “Wait a second, weren’t you at work?”

Pedro nodded.

“You got laid at work?”

“Bzzzzz,” Kevin interjected. “That’s another question.”

“Oh, you want to know as much as I do.”

“Sorry,” Kevin said, but it was true. Rick did want to know, but he wasn’t going to give Kevin the satisfaction. But he thought about it. Who did Pedro do on Tuesday? And, apparently, “do” was the right word. But who…

“Shit,” Rick said out loud, realizing. He looked at Pedro, who was looking away, calling out, “My turn. Kevin. Truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Rick said. “Take a dare.”

“It’s not your turn,” Kevin replied.

“Okay,” Pedro thought, looking to Rick. He really wanted to help Rick out here, but didn’t know Kevin well enough to dig up anything really juicy. He’d have to go for an old standby. “How many times did you jerk off today?”

“Didn’t have to,” Kevin spat back, chuckling.

“Liar!” Rick pointed accusingly.

“Excuse me, drink,” Kevin answered him, pointing with his elbow. “No finger pointing.”

“Since when?”

“It’s a standard rule of drinking games. I thought you used to go to a fancy school.”

“Well then, you should know that another standard rule is you can’t say the ‘d’ word. Imbibe, asshole.”

“Imbibe this,” Kevin gestured, but he picked up a shot glass and downed it anyway. Rick did likewise.

“My turn,” Kevin said. “And, new rule — “

“Whoa, what?” Rick cut in.

“Another standard rule of dr — imbibing games, read the manual. Whoever’s turn it is can make up a new rule. And my rule is, if anyone violates another rule, they have to do the next dare, no matter whose it is.” He smirked and touched his nose and Rick really wanted to smack him upside the head. “Now. Rick, truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Rick muttered.

“Losing your confidence, huh? Okay, how many times have you jerked off today?”

“None,” Rick answered.

“Liar — “

“Wrong,” Rick said. “Today started at midnight, and neither of you have seen me play with myself since then, right?” Kevin looked genuinely surprised by that explanation, which was true. Then, he laughed and downed another shot.

“I meant in the last twenty-four hours,” he said.

“Well, better luck next time. My turn, and a new rule. You can only take ‘truth’ twice before you have to take a dare, and the rule is retroactive. Kevin, truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin answered, but realized the trap before Rick could point it out. “Aw, shit. Dare,” he corrected himself.

“Hm…” Rick thought about it a while, then stood, walking to the kitchen. Kevin fidgeted, smiling wanly at Pedro.

“I think you’re fucked now,” Pedro said.

Kevin returned, carrying something behind his back. “Okay,” he said. “You have to put this down the front of your pants for three minutes.”

“What, your mouth?” Kevin sniped, but it was empty bravado, especially as soon as Kevin brought his hands forward, held out the frozen solid packet of blue ice.

“Oh, no fucking way, G,” Kevin said.

“Then it’d be game over and I win,” Rick taunted him, dropping the packet on the table, where it clunked and turned half a revolution, frosting white already.

“I’ll freeze my nuts off,” Kevin protested.

“You’ll never miss ‘em,” Rick prodded.

“One minute.”

“Three.” Rick was enjoying this, and it was par for the course. There were no convenient distractions in the game this time, nobody upon whom Kevin could deflect attention.

“Two…?”

Rick pretended to think about it, finally nodded. “Okay. Down the pants, two minutes. Inside the underwear.” Pedro laughed as Kevin reached for the blue ice, picked it up, tossed it from hand to hand.

“This shit is cold,” he said.

“I know,” Rick said. “Down the hatch.” Kevin huffed and stood, loosening his belt. Then, he gave Rick a really dirty look and shoved the blue ice on in. It took about three seconds for it to kill the dirty look and Kevin let out a yelp, fumbled the pack back out and dropped it on the floor, falling backwards onto the couch, holding his crotch.

“Son of a bitch,” he grunted.

“Well, nice try, but that doesn’t count, so you drink,” Rick told him snidely.

Kevin pointed an elbow at him. “And the next dare, you get to share, ‘cause you just said the forbidden word, motherfucker.” He tossed down his shot of Tequila and Rick cursed inside. Even when Kevin lost, he somehow managed to win.

“Okay, Pedro, truth or dare?”“

Pedro pondered. This was getting nasty between Rick and Kevin. On the other hand, Kevin didn’t know Pedro that well, he’d probably give him some stupid, easy dare, then Pedro would pick Rick and give him a free pass and the game would lighten up a bit. Confidently, he answered, “Dare.”

Rick rolled his eyes and Kevin smirked and Pedro realized he’d blown it.

“Welly, welly, well,” Kevin said. “This one is for you and Rick, since he broke the rules last time. Hm. What will it be, what will it be?”

Kevin stretched out his thinking, making a big show of it as Rick and Pedro swapped an apologetic look. Whatever was cooking in Kevin’s evil mind, this would be a good one. Suddenly, his face lit up and he froze for an instant, hands lifted in preparatory gesture. “Okay, okay,” he said. “The two of you… are going to go take a little swim in the pool, for five… no, ten minutes. But… you’re going to do it, from here all the way there and back, butt naked.”

“Come on, Kev, I live here.”

“It’s three in the morning, G.”

“So?”

Kevin got that stupid cockeyed grin again and clucked like a chicken. Rick looked at Pedro. “You up for this, Petey?” he asked.

“Nothing I haven’t done before,” Pedro said. “And it’s my dare, anyway.”

Kevin jumped up giggling and Rick and Pedro started to get undressed. The whole process took a good five minutes as they continued to haggle with Kevin. Towels? “No.” Flip flops? “Too noisy.” Keys? “What’s a matter, don’t you trust me?” Frankly, Rick didn’t, but by now he and Pedro were bare-assed in the living room and Kevin was standing at the door, all smiles, unlocking the deadbolt. His sole concession had been allowing Rick to take his watch, alarm set for ten minutes.

“Gentlemen, enjoy. I hope the water isn’t too cold.”

He opened the door and Rick lead the way, he and Pedro dashing down the courtyard. At least most of the lights were off and the moon was nowhere in sight. They got to the pool and waded in quickly. The water was a chilly shock at first, but at least it was dark and quiet. After a few seconds, Rick actually enjoyed this feeling and he swam underwater to the deep end, surfacing under the diving board. Pedro popped up nearby. Rick squinted the water out of his eyes, looked into the distance. Kevin was standing in the pool of light by the far apartment door, doing hysterical gymnastics, gleeful at his triumphant dare.

“He’s such a little fuck,” Rick whispered to Pedro.

“Why do you hang out with him, anyway?”

“I really don’t know,” Rick answered.

“You’ll have to get him really good on the next dare.”

“Oh, I will,” Rick said. “You know, it’s funny, I’ve lived in this building for two years, and this is the first time I’ve been in the pool.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Half the time, it’s full of screaming kids. Who the hell wants to swim around that? God knows how many of them probably piss in here.”

“Eeew.”

Rick kicked off from the wall and did the breaststroke to the shallow end, then came back. Pedro clung to the wall and Rick joined him again. “You can swim, can’t you?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Pedro answered. “You know, this is the second time this month I’ve been in a pool naked.”

Rick didn’t want to say it, but he did. “That have anything to do with the last time you got laid?” He thought Pedro shrugged, but couldn’t tell in the darkness. “It was Mrs. Cooper, wasn’t it?”

“Shit,” Pedro’s outburst gave him away. “Don’t mention that to anybody, okay?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t. I’m not surprised, though. I’ve heard things about her.”

“Rick, honestly, her husband will kill me if he thinks I told anyone about it.”

“You did fuck her?”

“Oh yeah.”

“And?”

“And it was great. But, really, don’t say anything, okay? Especially not now, not if I’m going to have to get out of this pool soon.”

“Understood, buddy. Hey — good for you.”

“Thanks.”

“Okay, changing the subject. How should we get back at Kevin for this one?”

“Tie him up naked and dump him in a bad neighborhood.”

“Ooh, you have an evil side. That’s new.”

“I was kidding.”

“It’s a possibility, though.”

“It’s too cruel. Come on, you know him better than me. He’s got to have some weakness.”

“He’s too shallow for that. You think it’s been ten minutes yet?”

“Not even close.”

“Kevin’s still watching, he doesn’t know how long it’s been either. Fuck him. Let’s go.”

“Give me a second.”

“Right.”

Rick swam for the shallow end and climbed out of the pool. It was an evening in summer and not terribly cold out, but the water on his body made it seem chilly. He wished he’d managed to bargain for those towels now. Instead, he stood there with his back to the pool, watching distant Kevin laughing, waiting for Pedro to join him. What was Kevin’s weakness? What would absolutely humiliate him, neutralize him for good?

Rick didn’t have a clue, and then he heard the slosh of water as Pedro climbed out of the pool behind him. “Ready?” Rick asked.

“Yeah,” Pedro said, hands crossed in front of him, shoulders hunched in as he shivered. “Let’s go.”

Rick grabbed his watch off the lounge chair, hitting the “off” button on the timer, and he and Pedro trotted back to the apartment. When they were halfway there, Kevin suddenly darted inside. Rick heard the door close, but was unconcerned. He got there first, tried the knob anyway, knowing it was locked. Pedro stopped next to him, shifting from foot to foot, looking like a drowned Doberman.

“Aw, shit…” he groaned.

“Don’t worry,” Rick whispered. “Play along.” He tried the knob again, rattling it, then rang the bell. “Come on, Kevo,” he said not too loudly. “Let us in.”

Kevin peered out the window by the door, cheeks chipmunked by a grin, body racking with laughter as he pointed with his elbow. Rick rang the bell three insistent times, gave Kevin a look.

“Motherfucker,” Pedro snapped.

Rick sssshed him. “I have a key hidden, I’m just adding to the effect,” he whispered.

“Oh,” Pedro nodded. “Just add fast. Shrinkage, you know?”

“Kevin…” Rick pointed at the door insistently. Kevin stuck his face up to the window, gave them a double finger and disappeared.

“Right,” Rick said, bending over and picking up a rock from the flower bed by the door, hefting it in his hand as he peered in the window. Then he turned the rock over and slid open the hatch in the bottom, pulling out his spare key, put the rock back and very slowly unlocked the deadbolt. Just as slowly, he unlocked the lower lock, then looked at Pedro, quietly said, “One, two, three…”

On three, he threw open the door, he and Pedro shot in and Rick shut and locked the door behind him. Kevin was standing in the kitchen pouring himself a glass of Tequila, looking startled. So startled, in fact, that he over-poured.

“Uh, hi, guys. I was just going to let you in.”

“Your turn, Pedro.”

“Aw, you guys win, I give up,” Kevin shrugged.

“Pedro?”

“Okay. Kevin. Truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“New rule,” Pedro went on. “No more truth. Dares only.”…

To be continued…

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #92: Birthday Edition

Some random birthday memories over the years, in Q&A form.

In which I answer random questions — this time, my own questions about things relating to my birthday, which is today. An ongoing series.

Least favorite birthday party?

Ironically, it’s also the first one I vaguely remember, and was ruined by… a flu pandemic. (There were a lot of those going around when I was a kid, apparently.) It was my 4th birthday, and everyone had the flu, although I don’t remember anyone I knew of dying from it.

Although my mother had planned a big party for our backyard and sent out all the invitations, in the days before, invitee’s parents apparently started calling in to cancel because their kids had suddenly broken out in high fevers and were very sick.

Ultimately, the only kid who showed up, Scott, lived a couple of doors north of us — the one direction on the street I never went — and although I didn’t really know him, we did have sort of a small party together, with cake and that was about it.

I don’t remember getting sick, but I do remember our moms lifting us up onto the picnic table in the backyard so that we could both blow the candles out together. Facing each other. As you do when there’s a pandemic going on.

Sigh. Still — it could be worse. All those unvaccinated parents with sick kids could have just shown up because, “It’s just the flu.” At least people weren’t that stupid back then, and we had all the Moms to work as the CDC contact tracing network at the time. If one person came down with it (flu, measles, mumps, chicken pox, etc.) pretty soon they’d all have a good idea of who had it and who was going to start showing symptoms.

Memorable birthday faux pas?

When my play Bill & Joan was produced, we timed it around the centennial of William S. Burroughs’ birth, which was on February 5. Mine is the day before but something we didn’t know until we were in production was that his wife Joan’s birthday was also on February 4th. (That detail hadn’t been added to his biography when I’d originally read it.)

I think that our show nights were Thursday through Sunday, so my birthday had already passed before our next show, and I don’t even remember whether it was a Thursday or Friday night; possibly a Saturday.

Anyway, an old friend of mine had come to see the show but the gathering afterwards was generally always theatre company members and the friends of the cast who’d come to see it. My friend was the only one outside the company I knew that night. So we went down the block to a bar that was the unofficial hang-out for the theatre company to catch up.

Then I started to get texts from our AD. “Where are you?” I told him and he called me. “Your director wants to talk to you right now.”

“What about?”

“Just get back here.”

I excused myself and walked back — maybe it was notes or something — only to arrive and be greeted by “Happy birthday” and a cake fashioned out of a bunch of cupcakes. I blew out the candles, thanked everyone, then grabbed two cupcakes and headed back to the bar with the intention of bringing my friend back. I eventually did, but the whole thing may have seemed kind of assholey on my part.

Still, no one had told me “stick around” in the first place — and I really don’t like impromptu birthday observations with mostly strangers.

Most interesting birthday activity

This was been when I turned 21, although it’s a lot more wholesome than it sounds. Two friends of mine took me out to see a movie on opening day, although it must not have been that good, because I don’t remember what film it was.

Next, they took me out to dinner (their treat) and we went to the fancy place — Denny’s actually connected to the mall. Okay — fancy for starving college students. The other two were both seniors who had already turned 22 and were a few months from graduation.

Anyway, we had dinner and when the waitress came over to ask about dessert, the other two insisted to her, “Card him! Card him!” She did, realized what day it was, and explained that Denny’s had a very special special for 21st birthdays — a drink called the Hurricane.

I had no idea at the time what it was, but the waitress announced that it had a lot of rum in it. I looked it up just now, and it was actually created in the early 1940s in New Orleans. Apparently, they had a lack of fruit juice but a surplus of rum. Go figure.

This drink certainly didn’t lack in the rum department, and it came in a glass that was huge — in fact, one that became known as a “hurricane glass,” named after the drink.

And yes, I see the enormous irony in a drink from New Orleans being called that. Maybe because this one could probably get you as wasted as Katrina.

Anyway, I had the drink and we eventually left, but it wasn’t the hurricane that made the evening fun. Nope. Their last surprise was that we were all going ice-skating — something I’d never done before but had expressed an interest in.

Now let’s do the math here. Take friend out for birthday. Get him a pretty strong drink. Take him to the ice rink to do something he’s never done before. Was their intention that maybe I’d be so relaxed that I’d take right to it or so drunk that I’d fall down and break my ass?

Surprisingly, I actually took right to it, and didn’t fall down once — and yes, that surprised the hell out of me. We were on the ice long enough that the cold and the physical activity plus time started to cut the effects of the alcohol, and I got to love the whole experience.

Fortunately, I hadn’t driven, but you can bet that I sought out the ice rinks closest to the university and made it a habit to regularly visit after that.

Favorite celebs I share the day with

There are so many, surprisingly, and a lot of them are very interesting people. There’s the eccentric

Emperor Joshua Norton, who became a beloved figure in San Francisco and is still practically a saint there today; Charles Lindbergh, although not really a favorite because he’d probably be a big TFG supporter now; Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto; Rosa Parks, who wouldn’t give up her seat; Ida Lupino who, like Lucile Ball, was a very powerful woman in Hollywood in her time; George Romero, noted horror film director; Alice Cooper, noted rock star and horror film character; Jonathan Larson of Rent and Tick Tick Boom fame; Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden; and singer Natalie Imbruglia.

It’s a really eclectic bag, but I think the one thing in common can be summed up by the word “eccentric.”

Worst thing to happen on my birthday

Well, this was the worst thing for her, not for me, since I don’t even remember it happening. But it was on my birthday that Patty Hearst was kidnapped.

Most traumatic

I went to school. When I came home, my mom was in the E.R. and my dad had burned my birthday cake. For some reason, Mom had started to hyperventilate, so next door neighbor, who was visiting at the time, drove her to the E.R. Dad was called home early, really couldn’t do anything at the E.R. at the moment, so decided to bake my cake and managed to incinerate a basic Betty Crocker mix. No, I have no idea how one manages that.

This was the beginning of a long medical odyssey for my mother, although I never thought of it as my birthday ruined. Rather, it was the start of a difficult period for all of us as we and her doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. They never did, but to this day I’m convinced that it was actually the treatment attempts that ultimately killed her.

Now, I believe in modern medicine, I had great doctors that saved my life once thanks to it — but doctors were also different when my mom got sick, and I remember meeting her primary care physician one time. Total asshole who apparently didn’t think that women had the ability to know or report on what they felt happening inside of their own bodies.

Repeat: Total asshole.

Best gift

I’m really not into material gifts and actually never have been, not even as a kid — my birthday was close enough after Christmas for that former holiday to be the big one.

As an adult, the best birthday gifts I’ve ever gotten have been time with friends — just hanging out to celebrate, and that’s it. Although out of those, the bestest has been when one of the many times one of my best friends took me out to dinner for one of my favorite foods — usually Mexican or Thai — and we just hung around and talked one-on-one for a long time.

That’s better than any gift that can be stuck in a box, wrapped, and then very soon thereafter be lost, stolen, or break but, in any event, will never last as long as the memory of time with loved ones.

If it’s your birthday today or around this time of year, happy birthday Let me know when it is/was in the comments, and share a memory of your favorite celebration.

Theatre Thursday: On the shoulders of giants

Four film directors who have had an enormous influence on my artistic sensibilities.

A while back, I wrote about two writers who had a big influence on me, one directly in real life, and the other stylistically. But I’ve also been influenced by four film directors, one of whom directly inspired me to stupidly pursue a career in this business. Unlike one of the writers above, I never met any of them, and they all also happen to be dead now.

In a nutshell, and in order of influence, those directors are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell, and Nicolas Roeg. Sure, four old, white British men (Kubrick being an American ex-pat), but I didn’t know better as a kid, okay? All I knew was that my dad took me to see Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of those many times when the Cinerama Dome opened a would-be blockbuster that bombed, so they had to fill time with something else — and this movie blew Star Wars right out of the water. It was Science Fiction that felt real. There was no sound in space, the movie took its time, the soundtrack was mostly classical music in a future context, and I walked out of that first viewing thinking, “Yeah. I want to do this.”

Present me would love to time travel back to then, grab that kid by the shoulders and shout in his face, “No, dumbass. You want to figure out how to make enough money to pay other people to do this for you so you’ll be richer than Croesus.”

Young me wouldn’t have listened.

Anyway, a few years later, I discovered the several “Art House” cinemas in Los Angeles like the Nuart Theater, mainly because I noticed that they showed other Kubrick films. They also didn’t seem to really pay a lot of attention to ratings, so I could get my young ass into R-rated films. Note: There are absolutely no penalties, legal or otherwise, for a theater not following the MPAA ratings when they sell tickets. None. Nada, and one theater openly defied an NC-17 rating. It’s all smoke and mirrors, folks. So anybody can go to an R-rated movie. It’s just the idea that ratings are some legal bar that makes them effective. But I do digress…

So I worked my way through the Kubrick oeuvre, then stumbled into Hitchcock, and while he created in a G-rated world, his films were just as amazing for different reasons. Kubrick’s works are all about Big Ideas passed through the filter of human experience. 2001 deals with the evolution of the human species, past and future; Clockwork Orange handles crime and punishment; Dr. Strangelove takes on war and peace; Barry Lyndon is all about the class system, and so on.

Hitchcock, though, was all about plot, especially when layered with suspense. Kubrick would make you think. Hitchcock would make you sit on the edge of your seat and clench your butt. Hitch was also far more prolific than Kubrick, which is why I think that there isn’t a single Kubrick film I don’t love, but I’m not a fan of every Hitchcock film.

The ones that really bowl me over, though, are North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Rope. Oops… Psycho isn’t on that list? Well, for me it’s not, because it really doesn’t stack up against the others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great film, but in the context of the rest of his works, it’s actually on the lower end of the scale.

The other thing that struck me about both of these directors, though, is that they were technical innovators. Both of them constantly came up with new ways to do things on film. Hitchcock actually has a particular shooting technique named after him, and Kubrick managed to out-Star Wars Star Wars a decade before Star Wars without a single computer in sight.

After Hitchcock, though, those art house movies led me to another director who worked on a completely different plane, but to whom I clung immediately: Ken Russell. And if Kubrick specialized in ideas while Hitchcock mastered in plot, I’d have to say that Russell’s playing field dealt with emotions in general, or fantasies specifically. His biopics were amazing exercises in giving us emotional truths through metaphors.

Three in particular, each of which dealt with famous composers, run the scale (pun intended) from lightest to heaviest in fantasy: The Music Lovers, about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with some fantasy sequences, but not a lot; Mahler, about the composer Gustav Mahler, about half and half; and Lizstomania, almost entirely fantasy and, while it seems to be the most off-the-rails of them all in covering the life of Franz Lizst, it is actually the most accurate in its metaphorical way, because Lizst really was the first rock star, even if it happened 120 years before the Beatles.

Russell used fantasies and dreams to explore the emotional life of his characters, and it is beautiful. He’s another director with an oeuvre limited enough that I think I’ve seen almost all of his films, and while I have ups and downs, I don’t think there are many I don’t like. For calibration purposes, I’d rank Lair of the White Worm as worst, and the aforementioned Mahler as best.

After Russell, the art houses introduced me to another influence, a director named Nicolas Roeg. And the thing he specialized in was playing with time. Not a single one of his films took place in chronological order, and this was what taught me the power of editing. He’s probably best well-known for a film that most people haven’t seen but only know about because David Bowie starred in it: The Man Who Fell to Earth. And here’s the thing. This is one damn difficult movie to sit through, and it wasn’t my first Roeg film, so I came to it knowing his style.

Here’s the order I learned Roeg, as far as I can remember. Don’t Look Now, which is an amazing and stylish suspense horror film that isn’t gory, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie; Walkabout, which deals with issues of privilege at a time when that wasn’t even a concept, as White Girl and White Boy (literally their names in the credits) are dumped in the Australian outback by their suicidal father, only to be saved by an aboriginal Black Boy who is on his Walkabout, which is a right of passage for his belief system. Needless to say, guess who it doesn’t end well for.

And before I got to The Man Who Fell to Earth, I also saw Roeg’s first big “Hey, look at me” movie, Performance, which actually gave us an incredible, well, um, performance from a young, often nude, and sexy Mick Jagger.

But the most important takeaway for me from Roeg’s films was this. Do not tell your story in chronological order. Tell it in emotional order. If the thing that happens in normal Act 3 seems meaningless then, but can serve as set-up for later, then move it up. And if the thing from Act 1 that seems meaningless up front takes on power later, move it down.

Put them all together, and this is where my playwriting goes: Stories about big ideas that are still very plotted, but which also use fantasy and surrealism to explore emotional truths, and tend to not take place in chronological order. In fact, only one of my produced full-length plays takes place in literal time, and that happens to be the first one produced.

And so there you go. I constantly play with ideas, plots, emotions, and chronology. The big idea comes first, and I build the story from that via plots that are driven by emotions. Once that’s in place, I chop the story up and order it based not on when, but on how the emotions drive the timeline and the plot. And this is how four very different directors created my artistic vision.

(Not noted above, Terry Gilliam, who I didn’t realize really was an influence at first, but taught me the idea of not taking anything too seriously, least of all yourself, and also confirmed that I was playing the game of cut and paste creativity properly.)

So who are your major influences? What have you taken from them, and how do you use that? Tell us in the comments!

Wednesday Wonders: Adding depth

3D in film and television is older than you think, but every new tech innovation takes longer than you’d expect to get to market.

In April, 1953, the first-ever experimental broadcast of a TV show in 3D happened, via KECA-TV in Los Angeles. If those call letters don’t sound familiar to any of my Southern California audience, that’s because they only lasted for about the first four-and-a-half years of the station’s existence, at which point they became the now very familiar KABC-TV, the local ABC affiliate also known as digital and broadcast channel 7.

The program itself was a show called Space Patrol, which was originally a 15-minute program that was aimed at a juvenile audience and aired daily. But once it became a hit with adults, ABC added half-hour episodes on Saturday.

Remember, at this point in television, they were at about the same place as internet programming was in 2000.

By the way, don’t confuse this show with the far more bizarre British production of 1962 with the same name. That one was done with marionettes, and judging from this promotional trailer for a DVD release of restored episodes, it was incredibly weird.

Anyway, because of its subject matter and popularity, it was a natural for this broadcast experiment. This was also during the so-called “golden age” of 3D motion pictures, and since the two media were in fierce competition back in the day, it was an obvious move.

Remember — at that time, Disney didn’t own ABC, or anything else. In fact, the studios were not allowed to own theaters, or TV stations.

The original 3D broadcast was designed to use glasses, of course, although not a lot of people had them, so it would have been a blurry mess. Also note that color TV was also a rarity, so they would have been polarizing lenses rather than the red/blue possible in movies.

Since it took place during the 31st gathering of what was then called the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters (now just the NAB) it was exactly the same as any fancy new tech rolled out at, say, CES. Not so much meant for immediate consumption but rather to wow the organizations and companies that could afford to develop and exploit it.

Like pretty much every other modern innovation in visual arts and mass media, 3D followed the same progression through formats: still photography, motion pictures, analog video and broadcast, physical digital media, streaming digital media.

It all began with the stereoscope way back in 1838. That’s when Sir Charles Wheatstone realized that 3D happened because of binocular vision, and each eye seeing a slightly different image, which the brain would combine to create information about depth.

Early efforts at putting 3D images into motion were akin to later animated GIFs (hard G, please), with just a few images repeating in a loop.

giphy-downsized

While there was a too-cumbersome to be practical system that projected separate images side-by-side patented in 1890, the first commercial test run with an audience came in 1915, with  series of short test films using a red/green anaglyph system. That is, audience members wore glasses with one red and one green filter, and the two images, taken by two cameras spaced slightly apart and dyed in the appropriate hues, were projected on top of each other.

The filters sent each of the images to a different eye and the brain did the rest, creating the illusion of 3D, and this is how the system has worked ever since.

The first actual theatrical release in 3D premiered in Los Angeles on September 27, 1922. It was a (now lost) film called The Power of Love, and it screened at the Ambassador Hotel Theater, the first of only two public showings.

You might think that 3D TV took a lot longer to develop, since TV had only been invented around this time in 1926, but, surprisingly, that’s not true. John Logie Baird first demonstrated a working 3D TV set in 1928. Granted, it was an entirely mechanical system and not very high-res, but it still worked.

Note the timing, too. TV was invented in the 1920s, but didn’t really take off with consumers until the 1950s. The world wide web was created in the 1960s, but didn’t really take off with consumers until the 1990s. You want to get rich? Invest in whatever the big but unwieldly and expensive tech of the 1990s was. (Hint, related to this topic: 3D printing.)

That 30 year repeat happens in film, too. As previously noted, the first 3D film premiered in the 1920s, but the golden age came in the 1950s. Guess when 3D came back again? If you said the 1980s, you win a prize. And, obviously, we’ve been in another return to 3D since the ‘10s. You do the math.

Oh, by the way… that 30 year thing applies to 3D printing one more generation back as well. Computer aided design (CAD), conceived in the very late 1950s, became a thing in the 1960s. It was the direct precursor to the concept of 3D printing because, well, once you’ve digitized the plans for something, you can then put that info back out in vector form and, as long as you’ve got a print-head that can move in X-Y-Z coordinates and a way to not have layers fall apart before the structure is built… ta-da!

Or, in other words, this is why developing these things takes thirty years.

Still, the tech is one step short of Star Trek replicators and true nerdvana. And I am so glad that I’m not the one who coined that term just now. But, dammit… now I want to go to Tennessee on a pilgrimage, except that I don’t think it’s going to be safe to go there for another, oh, ten years or so. Well, there’s always Jersey. Or not. Is Jersey ever safe?

I kid. I’ve been there. Parts of it are quite beautiful. Parts of it are… on a shitty reality show. Pass.

But… I’d like to add that 3D entertainment is actually far, far older than any of you can possibly imagine. It doesn’t just go back a couple of centuries. It goes back thousands of years. It also didn’t require any fancy technology to work. All it needed was an audience with a majority of members with two eyes.

That, plus performers acting out scenes or telling stories for that audience. And that’s it. There’s your 3D show right there.

Or, as I like to remind people about the oldest and greatest art form: Theatre Is the original 3D.

Well, nowadays, the original virtual reality as well, but guess what? VR came 30 years after the 80s wave of 3D film as well, and 60 years after the 50s. Funny how that works, isn’t it? It’s almost like we’re totally unaware that our grandparents invented the stuff that our parents perfected but which we’re too cool to think that any of them are any good at.

So… maybe let’s look at 3D in another way or two. Don’t think of it as three dimensions. Think of it as two times three decades — how long it took the thing to go from idea to something you take for granted. Or, on a generational level, think of it roughly as three deep: me, my parents, and my grandparents.

Talk about adding depth to a viewpoint.

Image licensed by (CC BY-ND 2.0), used unaltered, Teenager wears Real 3D Glasses by Evan via flickr.

Talky Tuesday: Punctuation

The fascinating origins of five common punctuation marks.

One of the side-effects of people texting and posting online — particularly if they do the latter with their phones — is that punctuation and, often, capitalization go by the wayside. I can understand this if you are using a phone, because the keyboard can be tiny, even on our modern oversized smart phones.

Generally, messages and posts done this way are short enough that missing punctuation, as well as regular paragraphing to indicate changes in thought, can’t hinder the meaning from getting through, at least not that much. Everyone is going to know what you mean in a short text, right?

But the longer you go and the more you write, the more you really do need to punctuate and paragraph your text. For example:

one of the side effects of people texting and posting online particularly if they do the latter with their phones is that punctuation and often capitalization go by the wayside i can understand this if you are using a phone because the keyboard can be tiny even on our modern oversized smart phones generally messages and posts done this way are short enough that missing punctuation as well as regular paragraphing to indicate changes in thought cant hinder the meaning from getting through at least not that much everyone is going to know what you mean in a short text right

How much harder was that paragraph to read than the two that opened the article? Same text exactly, just without any punctuation marks or paragraph breaks, so no road map. Which one would you rather be handed to read out loud with no preparation?

That’s pretty much the raison d’être of punctuation in any language — to clarify meaning, and especially to facilitate reading the words, whether out loud or in one’s head. But did you ever wonder where those punctuation marks came from?

Today, I’m going to focus on English, so we won’t be dealing with things like the cedilla, which you see in the word façade, or the tilde, which is common in Spanish words like mañana. I’ll even pass on the French punctuation seen above in the italicized expression which just means “purpose” — literally, reason for being.

Depending upon the source, there are either fourteen or fifteen, but I’ll be focusing on fewer. I don’t agree with the latter list’s fifteen, which is a bullet point. I consider it more of a formatting tool than a punctuation mark. In a numbered list, while the numbers may or may not have period after them, nobody thinks of the numbers as punctuation, right?

I’ll also be skipping brackets and curly braces because they really aren’t in common use. And, finally, lists of more than five items tend to get cumbersome, so I’m going to stick with the most common ones and take a look at where they came from.

By the way, missing from both of the above lists: our friend the ampersand (&) which I definitely consider a punctuation mark, but which actually used to be the 27th letter of the alphabet. In fact, under its original name, you can’t spell alphabet without it, but those two letters eventually morphed into the pretzel or, as I see it, Panda sitting down to eat bamboo, that we all know and love today. And yes, you’ll never un-see that one.

Here are the origin stories of five heroic punctuation marks.

  1. Period: While the period, known in British as the “full stop,” is probably the most common punctuation mark in European languages, it came from the same forge as all of the other “dot” punctuations, including the comma, colon, semicolon, and ellipsis. The concept of the period was originally created by a Greek playwright, Aristophanes, who had grown tired of the published works of the time having no breaks between words, making the scrolls very hard to read.

Originally, his system involved placing dots either low, in the middle, or high relative to the heights of the letters, and the position indicated the length of the pause, much as a period, comma, and colon indicate different lengths of pauses nowadays. However, his system did not pass directly to us. The Romans were not big fans of punctuation, and a lot of their works were copied down in so-called scriptio continua, or continuous writing.

IFYOUREWONDERINGCONTINUOUSWRITINGINLATINLOOKEDJUSTLIKETHIS◦EXHAUSTINGISNIT

Ironically, punctuation didn’t come back into it until Christianity began to take hold in the crumbling Roman Empire. Monks tasked with copying manuscripts by hand brought back the marks they knew from the classical Greek of Aristophanes’ era, largely to preserve the meaning of the textx, frequently biblical they were copying.

And, again, if they were working to translate the Old Testament, which was largely written in Hebrew, they were going from a language that lacked punctuation, word spacing, and vowels, with the added bonus of only being written in the present tense. Yeah, that must have been a hair-puller. And, no doubt, the New Testament stuff they were working with probably had many of the same issues, since it was written in the Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the late 1st century.

These were the people instrumental in writing down the first official version of that bible in the early 4th century, starting with the Council of Nicea, and over the next 1,100 years, they also kind of invented emojis of a sort. What? They were bored college-aged dudes who weren’t allowed to get laid. What else could they do?

So things proceeded on the punctuation front without a lot happening until that dude Gutenberg got to printing in the 15th century. And that was when all of the existing punctuation got locked down because it had to be. That’s what standardization via mass manufacturing does, after all. Not necessarily a bad thing by any means.

  1. Question mark: This was another punctuation mark created by a person, Alcuin of York, an English poet and scholar who was invited to join the court of Charlemagne, who was first King of the Franks, then King of the Lombards, and finally Emperor of the Romans from the late 8th to early 9th centuries. If you have any western European blood in you, he is your ancestor — and that‘s not a “probably.”

Alcuin was a prolific author and very familiar with the old dot system of the Greeks, but he sought to improve it, so he created the punctus interrogatives, which is pretty much the Latin version of what we call it now, although his probably looked more like this: .~.

That kind of resembles a confused emoji standing on its head.

And while you may think that the question and exclamation marks are connected, with the latter just being the unsquiggled version of the former, you’d be wrong. In fact, no one is really sure where the exclamation mark came from, and it didn’t even appear on typewriter keyboards until the relatively late date of 1970.

  1. Hyphen: In the present day, hyphens pretty much exist only to join words that haven’t quite become full-on compounds But once upon a time, before computers had this wonderful ability to justify text and avoid breaking one word across two lines, hyphens did exactly that. They told you whether a word had been broken and to look for more of it on the next line. In practice, it would look something like this:

 He contemplated the scene, not sure what he was going to find, but fully ex-

pecting it to be something dangerous; something he’d rather not have to con-

front on his own.

Yeah. Messy and awkward, isn’t it? And yet, if you read any published material from earlier than about the late 80s, this is what you get and, honestly, it’s as annoying as hell.

The hyphen itself goes back, again, to ancient Greece, where it was a sort of arc drawn below the letters of the words to be joined. It was still common enough when Gutenberg got around to creating his moveable type that it was adapted. However, since he couldn’t figure out how to include punctuation below the baselines of his letters for very practical reasons, he moved the hyphen to the medial position we all know today.

  1. Parenthesis: These most useful of marks were a product of the 14th century, and also brought to us by the creativity of monks copying manuscripts. And, again, I’ll remind you that these geniuses happened to be a part of their era’s version of what we’re currently calling Gen Z. You know. The ones after the Millennials that you should be paying attention to.

Anyway… in their wisdom, these monks decided to draw half circles around certain parts of the text (mostly to indicate that it was connected to but not part of the main idea) in order to set it off from the rest. In a lot of ways, parentheticals became a mental aside for the reader — hear this in a different voice.

And, like tits and testicles, parentheses are intended to always travel in pairs. (Yes, I know that not everyone has two of either, but note the “intended” part. Nature tries. Sometimes, she fucks up.)

  1. Quotation marks: These are yet another thing that the Greeks created, the Romans ignored, and medieval monks brought back. Originally, Greeks in the second century B.C. used sort of arrows to indicate that a line was a quote, and they stuck them in the margins. This form of quotation mark is still visible in modern languages, for example in the Spanish «quotation marks», which are pairs of little arrows.

When we got to the sixteenth century, they became a pair of commas before a line and outside of the margins, and indeed to this day, you’ll see this in ,,German quotes,‘‘ which have two commas before and two open single quotes after. Nowadays, you can’t say he said, she said without quotation marks.

So there you go. The origins of five-ish common punctuation marks. Which one is your favorite, and why? Tell us in the comments!

 

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