Sunday nibble: Find the photographer!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Just over a week after I ran this story, the L.A. Times inadvertently confirmed my guess with a photo credit on yet another similar shot of the DTLA skyline, taken from… the Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area. Now I don’t know whether to feel vindicated, or annoyed that they’ve given the location away so that it will now be overrun by tourists. Not that it probably already isn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

“Children?”

“No. I mean, not yet.”

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

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

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

“No.”

“What’s her name?”

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

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

“Y-yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

“Oh, thanks,” Myron said.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t he… you know?”

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

“Joyce? Mousy Joyce in accounts payable?”

“Yep. Good luck.”

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

Doug laughed.

“What?”

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

“Bite me.”

“Watch out, I might…”

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

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

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

“And, how is… everything?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think those boobs are fake?”

“Probably. Know how you can tell?”

“I have no idea.”

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

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

“I hadn’t noticed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doug nodded.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

When sleeping: Fan or no fan?

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

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

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

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

I might invest in a Bluetooth speaker before long.

Movie at home or movie at the theater?

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

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

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

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

Mac or PC?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working alone or working in a team?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok Go: My top ten video countdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable Mention

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

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

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

10. Obsession

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

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

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

9. The One Moment

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

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

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

8. White Knuckles

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

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

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

7. End Love

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

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

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

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

6. This Too shall Pass

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

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

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

5. The Writing’s on the Wall

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

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

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

4. Needing/Getting

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

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

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

The planning needed behind it all is mind-boggling.

3. Here It Goes Again

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

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

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

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

2. I Won’t Let You Down

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

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

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

1. Upside Down & Inside Out

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

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

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

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

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

Two more Nights at the Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talky Tuesday Returns: Do the Duo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, this one makes heads explode.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A look back at the beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

Well, that was not good news.

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

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

“No…”

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

“I… yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, it’ll get better.”

“Oh, I’m not that sick.”

“What? I feel fine!”

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

* * *

Oh, balls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, all right then…

* * *

How hearts fail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

In hospital

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

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

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

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

But I do digress…

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Not that bad, really

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

About my dog

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

Thanks for asking.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

You gotta have heart…

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

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

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

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

But I do digress…

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

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

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

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

* * *

Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Sunday Nibble #92: Hiding in plain sight

On the connection between the arts, the LGBTQ community, and how the second use for any new tech is porn.

It has taken basically forever for those who are not white, Christian, heteronormative, cis-gender people to be centered in any way, shape, or form in popular culture, especially in mass media like movies and TV.

Although there were several early attempts in the late 70s — q.v. Billy Crystal in Soap — they tended to be campy stereotypes and while, granted, every character in Soap was a campy stereotype, Crystal’s Jodie Dallas was dragged through the indignity of suddenly deciding he was “transexual” after being dumped by his shady bisexual boyfriend — “because every gay man really wants to be a woman, right?” as late 70s logic went.

Eventually, Jodie settled down with (and knocked up) a woman, although I think their baby turned out to be the antichrist or something. Or maybe that was the priest who had an affair.

Yeah, not the greatest of times there, eh? It really wasn’t until the early 90s, when people like Scott Thompson from The Kids in the Hall just said “fuck it” and came out, RuPaul broke through the taffeta ceiling, and it was only real when Ellen (not a nice person) came out in real life and on her sitcom.

Boom — the 90s came to an end. You’re gay? Cool. Here’s your boarding pass to the 21st century. Enjoy!

Except, maybe, not so much. There was still a lot of shit to deal with. But what about all the shit that came before?

Once the media gained the ability to record and preserve performances, a certain hierarchy emerged. Now keep one thing in mind. The second use of any new technology is porn. Period.

Some dude invents cave painting as early movies and uses firelight to make it look like a herd of elk is running across the cave wall? Cool.

One cave over, someone else has already figured out how to use the same techniques to create erotic dances featuring everyone’s favorite big-breasted fertility goddess, as well as the first cave-painting feature called Threeway: Hunter, Hunter, Gatherer.

At every stage of the development of art, it really only happened because some dude was trying to figure out a more realistic way to paint titties or dick or both.

Once photography happened, you just know that half of every professional shot taken was some guy convincing his girlfriend, mistress, fiancée, wife, or best friend to strip off and pose with the good stuff.

Film? Yeah, in those early days for every legitimate short or Great Train Robbery, there were at least ten “Millie Gets Railed” or “Horny Farmhands” or “When the Parson Came to Call.”

Hell, in the very early days of legitimate film, full frontal nudity was very common, and it didn’t end until the early 1930s (right after the introduction of sound) when the spoilsports clamped down with the Hayes Code, which didn’t end until after it was declared unconstitutional in 1952 and was finally abandoned in 1968, when the MPAA started its ratings system.

Still, when the Code ended, mainstream Hollywood really didn’t go into full-on porn. The closest they got was Midnight Cowboy, to this date the only X-Rated movie to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, but to be honest, nowadays it’s a very, very mild R, and the only reason it was so shocking back then was that it depicted (gasp!) male homosexuality because it was about a guy who came from Texas to New York to be a male escort to rich women, but was not above turning the occasional male trick on the side.

But he wasn’t gay, dammit!

The X-rating quickly ended, though, because the MPAA had never trademarked that letter and the porn industry co-opted it to prove that you’d be seeing the real thing. It was eventually replaced with NC-17, but since that’s box office poison because, again, prudes in the industry, it is rarely if ever issued, and most moviemakers would rather release their films as “Unrated.”

Let’s get back to that hierarchy of art again. While porn is the second use of any new art or technology, the older any art or technology is the less likely it is to be censored.

Now when you think of naked art, what comes to mind?

Most likely you’re thinking either Greek or Roman statues or a ton of paintings from the Renaissance onward — the former which influenced the latter — but a lot of which nowadays are pretty much a part of the curriculum for, at the least, high school students studying art, not to mention being common décor in public spaces.

I mean — would a reproduction of the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s David be all that shocking anywhere nowadays? Really, no — although some quarters still seem to have a big issue with the fact that David has a dick.

Next up came literature, as in the written word, prose, poetry, and sometimes theatre scripts. And this also goes way back. Hell, just read certain bits of the King James Bible if you want pure porn.

Later on, when serialized novels became popular entertainment because people had nothing better to do than gather together and read out loud to each other, the most popular works were also very obscene and pornographic. Don’t believe me? Read something like Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais to your family and see how long it takes you all to be laughing so hard you’re all crying while also marveling at how filthy it all is while yet being relatable.

Literature is doing and saying things that other art forms can only imagine until we get to the 20th century, and then the subject matter becomes even more daring because, surprise surprise, certain people are working in the field in disproportionate numbers.

In case you’re wondering, I’m talking about mostly gay men (and some lesbians) who have gravitated to working in all areas of theatre in the 1920s in big cities, mainly New York and the touring circuit, and this is where they feel safe.

They are actors, dancers, playwrights, set, lighting, and costume designers, stylists, make-up artists, dressers, assistant directors, choreographers, and so on.

These are mostly not considered to be “masculine” professions because, really, did these jobs even exist outside of big cities?

But it all came together in New York with the unwritten rule: If you don’t stick out too much, you can be as gay as you want behind the scenes and we welcome you, and you get to go on tour with the shows as well.

Of course, not welcome everywhere. When Mae West’s play The Drag opened in Connecticut in 1927, there was instant scandal, and she wound up going to jail for it. Given the title, yes, the play was about exactly what you think it was about — a closeted gay socialite trapped in a loveless marriage.

Mae was an ally even then, and it’s no wonder that her biggest fans until the end of her career and long life were gay men. Of course, she cast actual gay men in The Drag, finding them through open calls at a gay bar in the Village — this at a time when the acting unions banned gay men from having speaking parts on stage.

Irony much?

Apparently, audiences loved the play when it opened. The problem were the prudes and bluenoses who condemned it.

But as long as it wasn’t put out blatantly on the stage, people were too naïve to notice, and so the gay underground went on. The stage in particular, but movie musicals as well, provided perfect cover for all of these young, queer folk. after all, it was an era in which unmarried people did not have sex, ever!

This was partly due to religious ethics and morality and all that bullshit, of course, but the real practical reasons were that truly effective birth control didn’t exist — there was no pill, and at the time, vasectomies were pretty much only used for eugenics — that is, to prevent “undesirables” from being able to reproduce.

No self-respecting red-blooded American man, after all, would willingly give up the ability to make babies, married or not. And while abortions were available, they were still mostly illegal, so only performed in underground clinics or by very expensive doctors.

You’ve probably heard the term “back-alley abortion,” and this was the era for it, although women had other methods, good and bad, like douching with Coca Cola right after sex.

As a kid, I remember my uncle telling a story about an unmarried women who’d gotten pregnant but couldn’t afford the abortion doctor. A friend told her, “Gladys, here’s what you do…” (Women in these stories are always named Gladys.)

“Gladys,” the friend explains, “You drink half a fifth of whisky, then climb up on the kitchen table — make sure the chairs are out of the way. Roll off and land on the floor, and voila. No more baby.”

In my uncle’s version of the story, Gladys downed half that fifth, got up on the kitchen table and rolled off and, as he put it, “She broke her leg but still had the damn baby.”

But, like the clergy, being in a Broadway Chorus was perfect cover — fraternizing between the chorus boys and girls was just not allowed because they were professionals.

Naturally, this left plenty of time for same-sex fraternizing (sororizing?) behind the scenes. And, as we all know, it’s perfectly innocent when two boys or two girls past college age but unmarried live together, right?

And then, gays began showing up in films, although deeply coded. They were often depicted by somewhat prissy actors, but never in sexual roles — look up people like Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton — the former sort of slightly openly gay, the latter in denial for life.

But if a producer or director wanted to dog whistle to audience members who knew, “This guy is a homo,” they’d cast people like them.

After World War II, two conflicting events happened. Number one was that a lot of young men who had gone off into the armed forces discovered during their tours of duty that they did, in fact, love other men. When they came home, they generally arrived in major port cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, New York, New Orleans, Miami, etc.

Instead of heading back home to the Midwest or South, they just stayed in these port towns and found their own kind, and it’s no accident that each of these cities became major gay hubs in future.

But, at the same time, the government, partly freaking out over the Soviet Union suddenly becoming an adversary, banned gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, and proceeded to hunt down those they could find not only in the military but with government jobs.

Meanwhile, Joseph McCarthy was busy finding monsters under his bed in the form of a Communist Infiltration of America. (Hint: It never happened, at least not in the way that HUAC envisioned it.)

But gay men and lesbians in the late 1940s and early 1950s went back to hiding in plain sight. This time, they founded their own communities within those port towns and yet again took on certain jobs — gay men, for example, became hairdressers, interior decorators, designers, personal assistants, or went to work in creative positions for the Hollywood studios.

Tons of lesbians became flight attendants because they were not allowed to get married — another convenient excuse for the parents.

In all of these positions, they were less likely to be investigated, as well as less likely to be fired in a lot (but not all of) them if they were found out as gay.

The ultimate safety for a gay couple, of course, was to start their own successful business, and many a combination antique store and interior design house, florists, a B&B with its own stylist, or music/acting/dance school came out of these disguises.

There were those certain professions that men went into if they wanted to signal that they were gay without being too obvious — interior/set decorators or designers, stylists, make-up artists, or fashion/costume designers, to name just a few, and any of those had their place either serving the wives of rich men or within the studio system itself on set.

By the end of the 1960s, things started to change after the Stonewall Riots, which led to the first pride parades a year later in 1970. It was still an uphill struggle, not helped by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s (and the way it was totally ignored by the Regan Administration), but in some ways that plague galvanized the community.

The old prejudices started to be forced away in the 1990s for a lot of reasons — more representation in the media, more celebrities coming out, and (on a personal level) more and more people realizing that friends and family they’d known for years were gay when they fell ill and came out.

The thing is, these people were the loved ones of those they had to come out to near death, and this really started to change opinions.

After the turn of the century and as medical science started to get a handle on AIDS and HIV, things really started to progress, albeit slowly, until same-sex marriage became the law of the land, LGBTQ+ groups and representation started popping up everywhere, and our current generation of kids in high school and college don’t even question the idea of sexual orientation, or that biological/assigned sex and gender are very different things.

It’s a very different kind of hiding in plain sight, but one that doesn’t so much involve hiding who you are as it does being who you are without hiding it. It’s a nice place to be, as long as we can keep the momentum going forward, but it’s still going to take a lot of work.

Image source: I, Psongco, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday Morning Post 92: Six-Pack Mary (Part 1)

The Saturday Morning Post is back with an all-new story from 24 Exposures.

Returning after a hiatus, we continue with more stories from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century.

Myron had decided, sadly, that he just wasn’t marketable anymore. He’d passed the magic age of thirty, but unlike his luckier friends, he looked like he had. That, and, despite the gym, he’d developed a bit of a gut. Oh yeah, and thanks to his maternal grandfather, his hairline was inching ever backward. Still, for a long time, he’d been hopeful, still going to the same clubs, hanging out with the same people, cruising the same guys. He was handsome, his friends told him that. Only, now, instead of getting lucky all the time or even once a week or occasionally once a month, there was nothing. Nobody looked at him, nobody hit on him, nobody wanted him.

It had been one year, seven months and nineteen days since the last time he’d gotten laid — and even that one had been a last-call desperation parking lot mutual handjob, and nothing more. All right, fine, maybe his wild days were over. He’d try to live with that, but in the meantime, he’d also keep trying, keep playing the game, hanging out in Boys’ Town even though he’d long since stopped being one of the boys.

There was this kid on the dance floor tonight, somewhere between twenty-one and six-foot three. Blond, muscular, grinding away and having a great time. He was wearing black boots and a pair of tight leather shorts that laced up the sides, an unbroken line of tanned flesh showing behind the laces, and god, would Myron like to get some of that, slowly untie those things until the forces of nature and the sleeping monster inside couldn’t be contained anymore and pop, the shorts would fall to the floor and… and fat chance, Myron. He’d seen this kid before, and he was a total cock-tease, especially last Hallowe’en, when his costume had been a G-string and green body paint. And only two years ago, Myron would have walked over to him and said hello and maybe have had a chance.

He contemplated buying the boy a drink, trying that old approach, when Myron saw Roger strolling toward the dance floor. That tired old thing — the girl had to be fifty if she were a day, and that couldn’t have been real hair. An nobody’s teeth were that white. That sad queen was just fighting the truth, and she looked old. Myron hated Roger, but at least seeing that relic made Myron feel a bit younger.

And Roger walked right up to the boy, they kissed each other and, with one hand stuffed proprietarily down the back of those leather shorts, Roger led the kid off the dance floor and out of the bar and —

“Motherfucker,” Myron muttered to himself. It was the money. Of course it was the money. Roger was old and ugly and pretentious as hell, but he had cash. Wads of it. And Roger didn’t, and he really hated that bitch.

“Hi, My,” it was Michael, one of the only people in these places who’d talk to him anymore. Michael readily admitted that he was (gasp) forty-seven, his hairline had receded further than a speedfreak’s gums, he was at least thirty-pounds overweight, and yet Myron knew he scored all the time. True, he’d never actually seen Michael leave a bar with anyone, but on those few occasions when he ran into him in the street, he’d have some pretty young twink with him. And, Jesus, even the way he dressed — Michael looked like he shopped exclusively at the Big K. How the hell did he do it?

“Okay, what’s wrong?” Michael asked as he sat. Myron shrugged, nodded his head toward the dance floor.

“Why do I keep coming here?” Myron asked. “I haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of getting laid, but…”

“But, like everyone else, you keep doing the things that used to work. Yeah, I know. Getting older sucks ass.”

“Yeah, but you…” Myron gestured vaguely. They both knew what he meant.

Michael laughed, took a swig of his beer, shook his head. “Pathetic, isn’t it? I have to beat them off with a stick — pardon the expression — but I make you look like Ricky Martin.” Michael studied Myron a long moment, making him uncomfortable. Myron could tell he was considering something, dreaded what he knew was coming. Michael was going to tell him how he should improve himself, all the things he’d already tried to no avail. Go to the gym — failed. Minoxidil — he was one of the impervious ones. Botox, facelift — not without insurance, babe. Myron was ready for that boom to fall when Michael instead drained his beer, put cash on the bar and got up.

“Follow me, I’ll tell you my secret.”

“Gee, Michael, could you?”

“Call me Mike. And, yeah. Come on.”

Myron followed him out of the club, past the sweaty throng who didn’t notice them, out the doors into the cool and quiet air and up the crowded street. It was Saturday night, prime time, and they were everywhere, the callow objects of desire who had become unobtainable Holy Grails.

At the corner, some hot little skate punk was strolling by with his friends. He trotted over, gave Michael a big hug. “Mike! Call me, okay?” the kid gushed, hopeful. “You still have the number?”

“Sure do,” Mike said. The kid smiled and hurried back to his friends. Myron just gawked.

Michael — Mike — didn’t say anything as they walked the rest of the two blocks to the Greenery, went inside, got a quiet booth in the back and sat contemplating their menus. Myron didn’t want to push it and Mike said nothing but small talk until their meals had arrived.

“So…?” Myron finally asked as he dug into his Caesar salad.

“So,” Mike replied, “You used to get it pretty regularly, right?”

“All the time,” Myron said. “I couldn’t go into a club without getting hit on.”

“Yeah, me too. Then it stopped, and I couldn’t figure out why. I hadn’t changed, not that much. And it stopped for me forty pounds and a head of hair ago. It was like a neon sign popped up over my head. ‘Danger! Thirty! Danger!’”

“I never looked thirty…”

“You don’t look thirty. Anyway, these kids can smell it, they know. You were there, you remember. They have this perverse belief that they can walk into a bar, get lucky and find a boyfriend. They all want to get married, and most of them want to marry guys their own age. They don’t wake up to that bullshit until later. Until too late. By the time most of them hit our age, they’re either half of an old married couple, rich enough to buy it or just tired of the whole thing.”

“But you’re not tired of it.”

“Hell no. But you only get tired of the game when you start losing, and believe me, I’m still winning.”

“Right, which is why we’re here, isn’t it?”

Mike smiled, wiped fried chicken grease off his chin and put down his napkin. “Right,” he said. “The secret to winning at the game at this stage is to change the rules.”

He let the statement hang there, but Myron was clueless. Change the rules. Didn’t that mean paying for it? Or dating people who were — gack — their own age? Mike let Myron look puzzled for a moment, shoveled a lump of mashed potatoes into his mouth, swallowed. Then he leaned forward, spoke quietly.

“The big secret,” he said. “You want these boys all over you, there’s one thing you have to do.”

Silence, until Myron could take it no more. “What?” he demanded.

“Go back in the closet.”

Myron dropped his fork. “What?”

“You heard me. See, if you’re an old, desperate queen, nobody cares. But if you’re a challenge…”

“A challenge?”

“It’s exactly what they do to us, but in reverse. Get it? I guarantee, when you were twenty-five, you wouldn’t have looked twice at half the guys you want to jump on now. But they’re not interested in you, and that just makes you more interested in them. But… if they think you’re straight — “

“Whoa, hold on. That’s what you did?”

“Yep. So, all of a sudden, I’m not an easy lay. Like I said, I’m a challenge. There’s a huge hurdle they think they have to get over to get into my pants, and when they succeed, they think they’ve pulled a big coup. They’re suddenly more desirable, least they think so, because they’ve managed to get a piece of something that has no desire for them.”

“Pretending you’re straight…”

“More than pretending, Myron. You can’t just go around telling people you’re straight. That doesn’t work. And you can’t hang around in the bars all the time anymore. Only every so often, and you tell the boys it’s just when your wife is out of town — “

“Wife?”

“Absolutely essential. No, you don’t have to get married. But you do have to create that illusion, or didn’t you notice?” Mike waggled his left hand, revealing the gold band on his ring finger. “It’s a little bit of an investment, naturally — half the closet full of ‘her’ clothes, tampons in the bathroom, that kind of stuff. But, believe me, it pays off.”

“This is insane.”

“I know it is, but it works. Hey, you think I like dressing like this?”

Myron studied him. Cheap blue dress shirt with a small rip in the sleeve, and he could see Mike’s T-shirt through the thin material. That, and he was wearing brown pants, heavy polyester, with a black belt. Mike stuck his foot out and Myron looked down. Brown loafers, white socks.

“Disgusting, isn’t it?” Mike laughed. “I cringe when I get dressed in the morning, but sometimes you have to swallow your pride.”

“And you get laid a lot?”

“All the time. That kid we met in the street? He’s convinced I’m his special project, the confused bisexual who’s trying to come to terms with things but can’t. I always kick him out afterwards, get all nervous and guilty. But goddamn, he could suck a bowling ball through a garden hose.”

Myron laughed, disbelieving. And yet, he’d seen Mike around with plenty of hot ones. Could it really be so simple?

“So, how do I start?” Myron asked.

“Are you out at work?” Mike asked.

“Yeah.”

“Then step one is to find a new job. Something in a liberal office where people can be open, but where they don’t know you. And you live in this part of town?”

“Right up the street.”

Mike shook his head. “Rule number two. It’s okay to live in WeHo, but not this side of town. This is the gay ghetto. I mean, you could keep living here, but then you’d have to be seen with a living, breathing fake wife, which just complicates things. No, at the very least, you need to be east of Fairfax and south of Melrose, although a move to the Valley couldn’t hurt.”

“Blech.”

“I’m just trying to help here.”

“It seems so… extreme.”

“Desperate times, desperate measures. Hey, if you don’t ever want to get laid again, fine…” Mike signaled for the check. Myron thought about what he’d said. It was just too much. Changing jobs, finding a new apartment, getting two new wardrobes. Or hanging out in the bars, the sad, drunken queen in the corner, never getting hit on, never meeting anyone, getting drunker and sadder and older and fatter and…

And fuck that. Maybe Mike was right. Myron had seen the evidence himself. Mike scored. A lot. And, by all rights, he shouldn’t have.

Mike studied Myron’s face as he signed the credit card slip. “You’re seriously considering it, aren’t you?”

“It’s so much, though.”

“But, believe me, it’s worth it.” Mike stood. “Just think about it. I know it’s a lot to get your head around right now, but you’ll appreciate it eventually.” He started for the door, Myron standing to follow. Mike stopped. “Oh, one other thing. Your name? Myron. It’s kind of… well, kind of gay. You have a middle name?”

“Bruce.”

“Ouch.” Mike thought about it a moment. “Ron. Try that on for size. Very butch-sounding. No straight man would ever willingly go by ‘Myron.’”

“Gee, thanks. I think.”

“Don’t mention it. Ron.”

Mike laughed, patted Myron on the shoulder and walked out. Myron just stood there, staring after him, not knowing what to do.

Roger and his twink came in the place and the owner greeted them, escorting them to the best table. Before they’d even sat down, Myron hustled out the door into the cold night air and walked the two blocks home, not looking at anybody.

* * *

The return of Friday free-for-all #88: Tech, retirement, food

Friday free-for-all is back for 2022! Here are some more random questions.

Happy New Year! Now it’s time to go back to our more regular schedule, so here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

Does technology simplify life or make it more complicated?

Yes.

It actually does both, and it all comes down to the human user. If you know how to use the technology and do it properly, it can greatly simplify life. If you never bother to learn how to use it the right way or all the tricks and tips to making it work for you, then it will complicate your life.

I have seen this in every office job I’ve ever had. Hell, any job that involved computers, which has been all of them, not to mention copiers, fax machines back in the day, any telephone more complicated than the buttons needed to dial, smart phones now, and so on.

I’ll also toss in VCRs, DVD players, modern TVs, and anything with a built-in clock that sometimes needs to be set.

If I walk into your place and the time on your VCR is flashing “12:00,” I’m going to judge you — first for not figuring out how to do one of the simplest things on a VCR, and second for still having a goddamn VCR. (It’s sitting right next to your turntable for your vinyl collection, isn’t? Fucking hipster.)

Of course, I’ll also notice this if your stove or microwave is either flashing “12:00” or the time is arbitrarily off by any number of hours or minutes.

It’s just that most things nowadays auto-adjust themselves for the beginning and ending of Daylight Saving Time as well as reset after a power outage or battery removal/shut down. Hell, I’ve got an alarm/sleep-sound generator that has to be about fifteen years old by now, and even it self-adjusts for DST.

But, beyond that, if you’re going to be using software, take the time to learn how to get it to do what you want. Another way I judge people’s skills is by looking at a Word Document from them. then seeing if it’s set for the default font (Calibri — ech!) with the useless BS paragraph settings of 1.5 lines and 10 pts before or after each or, worse, both.

Also, they tend to never turn off the automatic double-space after a period, which is absolutely useless and wrong, or the automatic superscripting of abbreviated ordinals — st, nd, rd, and th.

Whenever I have to update or reinstall Word, these are the first things I change. In my case, it’s usually Times New Roman 12 pt, single lines, and no forced paragraph spacing, and that stupid two spaces after a period goes right off, along with the superscripts.

There are ways to tell in Excel as well, which mostly revolve around word wrapping (as in turned off) and number formatting (as in whatever the cell defaulted to.) There’s also a definite lack of complicated formula, so that someone might enter A1+B1+C1+D1+E1+F1 in a cell instead of =SUM(A1:F1).

This all falls under the category of “Tell me that you never learned to use this software properly without telling me you never learned to use this software properly.”

It has become fun, though, to watch people in Zoom meetings edit a Word doc on their screen and see that they only know one (tedious) way to do it. Type the stuff, highlight it, then find the right ribbon at the top of the screen in order to apply whatever format you’re trying to.

It’s really not that hard to memorize the essential shortcut keys which has the great advantage of not interrupting your typing flow. If I want to go to bold mid-sentence, I don’t have to do the highlight, pick from the menu, and click BS. I can literally turn it on and off with a two-key combo.

Incidentally, it seems like the higher up someone is, the less they know about how to use technology — or when not to. Most of the productivity software they pick (and I’ve dealt with this for years) actually makes it harder for the team to function, not easier.

So, as with a lot of things, what you get out of technology is what you put into it. Bother to learn it and it will reward you. Shirk off, and you’ll wind up hating it.

When do you want to retire, and what do you want to do after you retire?

Well, being a creative person, this is kind of a trick question. When it comes to working at being creative, writing every day, and so on, then I am never going to retire. I am going to do this until the day they have to pry my keyboard from under my cold, dead hands.

As for when would I want to retire from selling my time to someone else for money, that’s also going to be a while. First, I do like the money coming in, and right now it’s for what I’d be doing anyway. It’s also nice to be able to work remotely so that I could theoretically live anywhere in the world as long as I had an internet connection.

I’m probably going to be doing the working for someone else thing for as long as they’ll have me or until I win enough in a lottery to be able to buy a modest home somewhere and cover my living expenses for thirty or forty years (with other retirement contingencies padding that out.)

As for what I’d like to do after I retire, the big thing would be to expand my creativity, since I’d finally have the time to get back to graphic arts and design, music, and video production — all of which are very time-consuming — but all of which could also come together into one big project or a series of projects written, directed, filmed, edited, scored, and produced by me.

Oh — on top of time-consuming also very expensive, unless you luck into a good prosumer editing program with regular and cheap updates (which I did), and your ancient graphics editing software continues to be compatible with newer computers (which it finally didn’t.)

The one advantage to having used the latter for so long, by the way, was that I was having to figure out how to do things that had long since been turned into new functions in later versions, like auto-masking foreground objects, color matching, and so forth.

What food do you absolutely hate?

I know that you’re probably expecting something specific, like brussels sprouts, but that’s not what I’m going to list. I mean, I could rattle off green beans, string beans, beets, cauliflower, olives (black or red), most fruit that hasn’t been turned into juice or jelly (it’s a texture thing), and definitely melons of all kinds.

But that’s not what I’m going to list here.

No. The food that I absolutely hate is any kind of “dare you to like” culinary bullshit that oozes out of the fetid taste of some pretentious chef (especially of the celebrity kind) and particularly if the word “gastro” appears anywhere in the name of the establishment and/or on the menu.

If I see a place advertised as a gastro-pub, I run the other way for two reasons. One, I know that I’m not going to like the food at all. Two, I know that I’m not going to like the people who do.

These chefs have an amazing ability to take classic fare and absolutely ruin it. Just searching at random, I found one place offering a “Ruben” sandwich (it’s actually Reuben), that pays lip service to shaved pastrami, coleslaw, and horseradish, but then uses something called “sour cherry Dijon mustard,” which is exactly the abomination it sounds like and then, instead of putting it on rye, uses something called “townie focaccia,” which is exactly the wrong kind of bread.

And, trust me, nobody can fuck up a good cheeseburger like one of these gastrolls can. They’ll either seem to be going along normally until the last ingredient, which makes it inedible — like you’re reading along and it sounds great until they add mint-infused Thai peanut sauce reduction — or it just goes south from the beginning, through everything and the kitchen sink on top of that poor, innocent meat.

Avoid places that use terms like infusion, reduction, sous vide, sea salt, jam or jelly in connection with anything not normally made into either, and compote, Also find out whether they ever use liquid nitrogen while “cooking,” because this is a huge red flag.

I think the only reason that these gastrochefs pull this shit is because they hate really rich people and want to play Emperor’s New Clothes with them constantly. There’s probably a constant gambling pool going on in the kitchen, too — whoever can concoct the most disgusting combination and not only get people in the restaurant to eat it and say they love it but to get a good review from a food critic for that item wins the entire pot for that week.

I’m probably not wrong, but I’m definitely not eating their shit.

%d bloggers like this: