Sunday Nibble #5

One of the nice side benefits of my current day job that wasn’t really in the description — although getting her approval was a part of the interview process — is that I’ve really connected with my boss’s wife, whom I’ll call Ms. R. That was probably inevitable, though, because she’s a stylist by profession, but also an artist, talented painter (though not actively doing it now) just generally creative, and Jewish.

I mention all of those because I think that’s why we had such a strong and immediate connection.

I share the creative bits with her and, while I’m not actually Jewish, I effectively went through middle and high school being the token goy among predominantly Jewish friends or, as I call it, lucky as hell, so that was the major cultural imprint on me in my formative years. If I were a menu item, I guess it would be an atheist curry of Catholic-Jewish cultural fusion. Spicy corned beef and kreplach served from Russell’s teapot.

One of the things Ms. R does is decorate the place per season and holiday, and by this point I’ve been through all of the major post-Labor Day holidays. Oh… I should mention that the “office” is the boss’s house, and my specific office is the living room. Since Ms. R spends most of the time when she’s not at her salon in the kitchen, dining, and living rooms, she and I interact a lot.

However, I didn’t really get involved in the whole design and layout thing until the last few days. They’re hosting a Valentine’s dinner on the Sunday after for a group of old friends of the boss — people who’ve known each other since they were kids, and now it’s grown to the originals, plus their spouses, kids and, in some cases, grandkids.

Her party set-ups can be a multi-day process that I get to watch from my desk, and this was one of them, but the Monday before the event, Ms. R started asking for my opinion on her table arrangements. At first, my thought was, “Okay, I’m gay, but I’m not that gay, so I can’t help you,” but then I realized, “No, wait, I’m also kind of obsessive, I do graphic design, and holy crap, let me at it.”

So it suddenly became all about symmetry, as in figuring out how to distribute not quite enough of each kind of plate, glass, napkin ring, etc., between two tables to accommodate 20 guests when all of the setting stuff only came in units of 6, 8, or 12.

The second she asked it, goddamn… my one kind of non-debilitating psychological quirk kicked in, and I managed to arrange the hell out of those tables and impress the hell out of Ms. R even more.

See, the kind of obsession I have has to do with regular patterns of things. Toss me something that looks symmetrical and I am damn well going to count rows and columns just to figure out how many divisions there are.

If you ever saw the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, then you’ll understand, because for a lot of the time the entire set was covered in a projected grid (pictured in this article), and during the pre-show, you can be damn sure I figured out how many squares there were by counting the rows and columns and doing the math.

By the way, it was a brilliant book and a brilliant adaptation, and one that sneaks up on you. All I’ll say is that one very important detail about our narrator is never stated, but rather slowly revealed, and it’s up to us to figure it out.

I won’t leave you anything to figure out. While I can be compulsive in the pattern counting thing, I’m not obsessive, so if I can’t manage to do the count I won’t feel like my universe will end.

However… if something isn’t quite symmetrical, likewise I am going to start rearranging in my head, and that’s exactly what I started doing for my boss’s wife. And it kind of was a revelation to me because, while I’ve had experience as a graphic designer (major symmetry concerns) I have never had any kind of experience in what is essentially interior or set design, but realized today that I might actually have a natural knack for it.

And so with a few simple suggestions, I suddenly made Ms. R very happy by perfecting the layout of two separate dining tables meant for twenty people. I’m still not sure how I did it, but apparently I did.

Still… cool boss, fun wife, great job, and I get to be both intelli-gay and designo-gay. Plus I can’t wait to see what happens for St. Patrick’s Day (¡mi gente!), all the May and June stuff, Independence Day, then my repeat cycle when we hit Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Baby Jesus Day, and back to New Year’s repeat…

Of course, this year we have the bonus of the Olympics and Election, and I’m sure that those events are going to be memorialized, too. Ms. R is a big fan of Japanese art and culture, and that’s where the Olympics are this year. She’s also a political junky, watching the news every morning on the kitchen TV as she prepares for the day — luckily, our politics align — but I suspect that there will be an election night party of some sort as well.

Whether it turns out as a celebration or a funeral is still anyone’s guess, but I can be optimistic at least. Especially working in such thoughtfully designed surroundings.

The Saturday Morning Post #3

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter Two. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here and the previous one is here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novela is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. One thing you did miss is that there was a major earthquake in the previous chapter. The next takes place in the aftermath.

THERE’S ALWAYS A WEI

The first thing I think of is 1994. At the time, I was living in a house in Woodland Hills, not that far from the epicenter, and it felt like someone picked the place up, dropped it, then shook it violently for a while until someone else took over and started shaking it harder. It really seemed like one earthquake on top of another. It was also long before dawn, right before 4:31 in the morning.

Today’s quake didn’t do double duty, but it certainly bounced and rolled like no one’s business. It was just past two thirty in the afternoon when it hit, and I was down in the laundry room in the basement of my place, talking to a couple of tenants, when the Earth moved.

One of them was from L.A. and instinctually ducked under a folding counter. The other was not, and turned into a statue, so I grabbed her and pulled her under the other counter. The machines danced a few inches away from the walls, plaster dust trickled from the roof, the rumbling was horrible, and the shaking was scary. The laundry room door slammed open and shut several times — proof that the old “Stand in a doorway” advice was not good. When everything finally settled, the lights had gone out. The L.A. native and I were laughing in relief, while our immigrant (from North Dakota) was crying her eyes out.

We consoled her, then grabbed the emergency flashlights that were plugged into the wall outlets. Best investment I ever made. They’re always fully charged, and when the power goes out, they turn on. Every room and hallway here had them. We made our way upstairs and to the lobby, then continued to the second floor and the dark hallway.

The only thing I could think about the whole time was whether my babies were safe. I was relieved to see that the second floor was still there. At this point, most of the doors of the occupied rooms had opened, and the residents were poking their heads out, two from each room holding flashlights. The same was probably happening downstairs in the studios.

“How are you doing, my children?” I asked, and they all eagerly answered, “All right, and you, Madam Wei?”

I swear that their enthusiasm keeps me alive. And I replied, “I’m fine, and here’s the news. No rent next month because of this disaster, but let’s put on a show!”

This was greeted with cheers and applause and genuine sounds of concern and, really, if this natural disaster seems to have done more damage than it felt like, then not only May, but June, July, August, and maybe even September might be free. And if the government doesn’t pony up… Well, I hate to charge people to learn, so let’s get back to that in six months.

The good news is that there are no injuries. Some of the dogs and all of the cats have gone into hiding, although Jun, our ten-year-old yellow Lab, is acting like we’re all playing some exciting game and she  wants in on it, and Chanming, the one-eyed, five-year-old German shepherd, is his usual stoic self about everything.

People and pack accounted for and safe, it’s time to start assessing the damage. Needless to say, anything that wasn’t nailed down is all over the place. Fortunately, I’d taken the great advice from friends to earthquake proof as much as possible, so that we didn’t have cabinets flying open or falling over, and all of the important things, like monitors, theater lights, sound and light boards, and so on were firmly nailed down, so to speak.

Our hanging lights were always triple-chained to the grids and gobos and gel frames were very securely attached to the units. Our catwalks were also anchored to the walls at both ends, unlike a lot of theaters I’d seen where they were suspended on chains and could swing freely. I could only imagine the kind of damage one of these could do to the paint and plaster if it slammed back and forth repeatedly, especially in a black box space like ours.

Alonzo, one of our chefs who had been in the middle of making lunch, confirmed that the automatic gas shutoff had done its job. Fortunately, he hadn’t been boiling or heating anything on the stove at the time, although three of the half-dozen six-foot long subs he’d been preparing to cut up and share with everyone had found their way to the floor, ingredients scattered and lost.

It’s probably about twenty minutes after the quake now, so probably about three. That gives us about four and a half hours to sunset, and close to five until the end of civil twilight, so I begin planning in my head.

While I don’t have the fondest memories of my homeland — at least, not its government — there are a few things rooted in me by my upbringing that are invaluable now. One is a sense of regimentation and focus, so the ability to know what to do and when to do it. We were also a country prone to massive earthquakes. When I was 20, a 7.8 quake destroyed the city of Tangshan, about a two hour drive west of Beijing. My university assembled a team of “volunteers,” and I’m sure you know what those quotes mean, although, honestly, most of us wanted to help anyway, because it was just in the nature of our upbringing: Your comrades need you now!

I learned more about disaster relief in the week that we were there than I ever thought I’d need to know. We set up emergency shelters, helped find survivors under the rubble, performed first aid, offered rudimentary counseling, ran our equivalent of what you’d call soup kitchens, and coordinated with various NGOs that arrived to help, as well as with the Red Army.

Ultimately, all we really wound up doing was helping the few survivors. Oddly enough, most of them were coal miners who had been underground at the time. Over a quarter million people died in that quake — possibly a lot more — and it’s called the second or third deadliest in recorded history. That’s for the planet, not for the country.

So I know my way around this stuff. The power is probably going to be out for at least three days if not more, and maybe intermittent when it comes back. There are five thirty-gallon water heaters in the building, so that would be enough drinking water for everyone for four days. We do have a pallet of bottled water in the back, so about 1,200 bottles, which is good for another nine days almost. The gas won’t be back on until someone comes out to physically reset the shut-off. Food in the fridges and freezers might last for a couple of days if we’re very judicious about opening the doors. Otherwise, we’re going to be dipping into the canned good so, other than tons of tuna salad, everyone is going to be mostly a vegetarian for the next few days.

The plan pops into my head, and I explain to everyone. First order of business, go grab the surviving sandwiches in the kitchen and be done eating in fifteen minutes. Then, we’re going to hit the streets. There are 40 of us, including me but not the chefs, so we’re going to split into four groups of 10, each one going a different cardinal direction for as many blocks as they can cover in half the time until they need to be back.

Our goal is to see what’s up with the rest of the neighborhood, and help whomever we safely can, reconvening here by 7:15 p.m., at which point the chefs, who’ve been guarding the fort, will see what kind of dinner they can whip up for us. At 7:45, we’re going to take our generator and lights out into the street, and perform for the neighbors — mostly some improv, with musical acts, and whatever choreo or scenes people are working on.

I explain my reasoning behind this, which my kids get instantly. “We are doing this to keep everyone’s morale up during these dark days, and we are going to do it every night until the power and some sense of normal comes back.”

That got enthusiastic applause.

When we all emerge into the surprisingly harsh daylight, it’s clear that things are not normal. We can hear car alarms and distant sirens, and smell smoke in the air. People are standing all up and down the block looking bewildered, and several buildings to our south have lost their façades or collapsed into the street. I’m amazed that our building looks so undamaged. Then again, it’s retrofitted many times over the year. That’s one of the reasons I bought it.

I remember a moment after the 1994 quake when I’d stepped outside and started chatting with a neighbor, and he told me, “Yep. The only time people in L.A. meet their neighbors is right after a disaster,” and he was right. I’d never seen half of these people before, but as my team headed south and started talking, I realized how many small business owners were in this neighborhood, along with tons of renters. The really funny thing was how many of them told me, “Oh, yeah. I’ve been meaning to come see something at your place, but never found the time.”

“Well,” I told them, “The show tonight is free. Come around just after sunset.”

We came to an old brick Korean Church that had splatted into the street and, unfortunately, the quake had hit right in the middle of their afternoon service. I had flashbacks to Tangshan as I looked at the dusty red pile and spotted a few hands frozen in death above the rubble. My best guess was that there were no survivors here unless the place had a basement, so I led my group on.

Farther down was a newer apartment building that had, for want of a better term, knelt north. The area over the entrance to the garage had collapsed, so that the upper three stories were not level. Basically, the north end third floor was at the level of the south end second floor. Most of the tenants here seemed to be standing in front, but I decided to ask: “How many residents do you think there are, and is anyone obviously missing?”

There was silence and muttering, and then one woman raised her hand. “Cindy in 306,” she said. “She’s retired and kind of a shut-in, but takes care of everyone’s dogs, so she’s probably home.”

“Thanks,” I tell her. “Oh, by the way, I’m Alice.”

“Edna,” she introduces herself. “I own this place. Well… this mess, I guess.”

“Where is her apartment?” I ask.

“There,” the woman points. It’s the top right corner, the part that has dropped a story.

“So… that front corner apartment?” I ask. She nods. “Right,” I reply, then turn to Adam Melendez. He’s one of my current favorite tenants. Mostly a dancer, also a poet. He’s gayer than anything, doesn’t apologize, and is incredibly masculine. He’s also 6’5” and works out. He could probably bench press a pick-up truck. In other words, the ideal rescue team member. “Come with me. We have work to do.”

He nods and follows me without hesitation. We pass through the entrance — the glass lobby doors have been thrown off their hinges, so no need to deal with buzzers that wouldn’t work anyway, then pass into the open court and take the wobbly stairs up to the third floor. When we get there, it’s like walking down a steep hiking trail, but we take it slowly, because every step is met with a complaint from some creaky board or another. It truly feels like one wrong move will bring the whole house of cards down.

We finally get to the last door, which is marked 306, although it’s ceased functioning as a door. When the floor collapsed, everything else went wonky, so the door itself has been ejected into the hall and the jamb is a weird parallelogram. Square peg in a funky hole. We move the door out of the way and enter the apartment, only to find ourselves involuntarily skating down into the far left corner, which is where the bedroom is.

“Anybody here?” I call out.

“Help!” comes the weak voice.

I smile to Adam and he takes my arm and helps me walk down the incline and through another wrecked doorway. Once inside, we find the woman, Cindy, who is basically lying in the corner of the room which is now like the bottom of sno-cone cup, if that makes sense, and it’s clear that she can’t get out. She’s maybe in her early 60’s with long blonde hair and black polyester off-the-rack dress. No shoes, and very much an Earth-mother vibe. I can smell the ashtray from here, which is so anachronistic that it boggles my mind — I thought that everyone in L.A. quit smoking around twenty years ago.

Anyway… she looks so grateful and Adam has no problem working his way down into the corner and then picking her up like she’s nothing. She fawns over him a little bit until he tells her, “Wow, my boyfriend would love to hear that,” at which point she just beams and says, “All the best boys are gay,” and this makes me feel all the better about saving her.

We manage to get her back up the hall, down the stairs, and out the door and, again, get applause, which surprises me because, really, isn’t this what we, as humans are supposed to do? Why are you applauding things that should not be extraordinary?

All right, maybe another culture gap. But, onward, as we continue our rescue trek. I think we’ve made it about ten blocks when Janisha, whom I’ve appointed time monitor, calls it. “Halfway to sunset.” There’s a building in flames about three blocks away that I’d love to help with but, reluctantly, I accede and announce, “All right. Time to head home and pick up what we’ve missed.”

We make it back at five minutes after seven, behind one group but before the other two, which both make it back before seven fifteen. Inside, we find out that our chefs have whipped up an amazing chicken salad — five pound cans of chicken plus gallons of mayo (which does not need to be refrigerated, contrary to popular belief), — along with celery, parsley, onions, paprika, lemon juice, and tomatoes. They stuff this into a bunch of pita bread they had on hand, then side it up with coleslaw and tons of canned corn. Although the corn isn’t heated, it is buttered, thanks to the pump-jugs of the liquid stuff we put on the popcorn at our theater concessions.

After we eat, we head to the street to perform and, thanks to all four of our teams having informed everyone along the way that the show is happening, we have quite the crowd waiting as we come outside. We decide to use the sidewalk in front of the theater as our stage, and begin with a musical number, something one of our members has been working on, but which seems appropriate now, a song called, “Walls Came Down.”

Metaphorically, it’s about the end of divisions between people, but taken literally, I suppose it applies to an earthquake. Either way, though, in the wake of this quake, those walls between people have come down even as the walls of buildings have. By the time it’s over, people are crying and hugging each other and applauding. Then, we launch into the improv and get people laughing.

My one big rule when we do improv is this: “Don’t be dirty.” Maybe it’s my Chinese heritage in action, maybe not, but there’s really no need to be rude to be funny. In fact, you can be funnier when you don’t have that crutch — and tonight, my kids follow that rule right down the line, and the audience loves it. After the improv, it’s a mini dance concert, an intermission, and then some solo singers and bands. After that, there are some acting scenes, both dramatic and comedic, before another intermission and a late night improv show.

And we only have three aftershocks during the whole thing, one minor one in the middle of the first improv, which the players manage to incorporate beautifully, a slightly bigger one during the first intermission, and the third moderate one about three minutes before we end the show and invite everyone to hang out and chat. In my experience, this is unusual. We did have the one big aftershock half an hour after the first — that’s almost a guarantee — but haven’t felt much since. Then again, when you’re walking around, sometimes it’s hard to feel them.

It’s about 11:30 when we’re all done, and have told the audience to keep coming back as long as the power is out, and then we all head inside and upstairs and to bed. It’s sort of surreal watching the flashlights dance up the stairs and eventually blink out as everyone vanishes into their rooms. I’m finally left with the chefs, Alonzo and Aki, who assure me that everything will be fine. I’m not so sure, but let them retreat to their rooms, then head out into the street, where I listen to the silence, and take a deep breath of the smoke and dust and everything else noxious that this event has blown into the air.

Los Angeles is not going to be the same for a long time, but I am going to do my best to help fix it.

Photo credit: Wilshire Boulevard, Korea Town, Los Angeles, ©  2016 Jon Bastian

Friday Free-for-All #2

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What small thing makes you angrier than it should?

The one thing that consistently makes me angry is other drivers — particularly when they’re doing stupid things or just not paying attention. Or, worse, when they don’t get the concept of how to let another lane that’s forced to merge into theirs.

“Oh no. Those cars want to get in. Better ride the bumper of the car in front of me!”

And when the green left turn arrow turns green, as soon as the other a-holes who are still turning left through what’s now a red light for them clear, move your goddamn ass. Every day, I see a left-turn light that’s timed to get at least half a dozen cars through in a cycle manage two, or maybe three, all because the first person doesn’t go as soon as they can, and then the next two people leave gaps before they get going.

I have actually counted a full six seconds between the time I’ve made my left turn and am fully in the new lane and the time the car behind me is just crossing out of the crosswalk to start the left turn.

But these aren’t small things. They can really screw up traffic and make everyone late or, worse, they can cause accidents.

I also get angry at the human version of this — i.e., the one that happens when people are on foot, and I’ve ranted about that one as well, but again I think it’s justifiable to get angry when people are so oblivious that they manage to single-handedly block everything from a doorway to an escalator to a grocery store aisle. Put them in groups, and they can block an entire sidewalk.

But when it comes to things that are probably trivial that make me angrier than they should, the winner is people leaving shopping carts all over the parking lot at stores. And I know how they justify it. “Well, they pay people to bring the carts in, why should I do their job for them?”

Except… this isn’t automated checkout I’m referring to here, because that truly is an abomination, and an attempt to save money by making the customers do the work for free and reducing the actual paid staff.

Unless and until they create a cart-retrieving robot that can do it without missing any carts, accidentally grabbing anything that isn’t a cart, or ramming into cars or people, it’ll be that underpaid and increasingly a lot older than high school bagger/stocker who has to go out into whatever weather there is to make up for all those lazy asses who just dump their carts wherever.

Regarding that automated cart, Walmart was floating the idea back in 2016, but there’s been no hint of it happening since then. And since shopping cart theft is a major problem and expense for grocery stores, why spend even more money on something that might still manage to wander off despite its “go home” programming?

But let’s get back to that justification, because there’s another reason that “Well, they pay people to bring the carts in, why should I do their job for them?” is just plain wrong.

They don’t pay them to bring the carts back from everywhere. They pay them to bring them back from those cart corrals that are conveniently located all over the parking lot. Chances are that a shopper is never no more than thirty feet from one, if that, and it should be no big deal to roll that cart right on over and in.

But, no. And I’ve seen people dump carts everywhere. The more considerate among the lazy will try to place them out of the way at least, but I’ve seen people leave them right in the middle of an empty parking spot, behind someone else’s car or, worst of all, in the blue-striped section right next to a handicapped space.

Each one of these is heinous in its own way. Leave it in the middle of a spot? That means someone else can’t park there without stopping — potentially blocking other cars in the lot — then dealing with someone else’s laziness to make room for their own car.

Leave it behind someone else’s car? What if they happen to not see it before they back out? I’ve seen that one happen, and it can cause a huge mess, from damage to that person’s car (that the store winds up paying for, meaning that the customers ultimately do) to the cart being propelled to who-knows-where, slamming into other cars, moving or not, or people, or possibly even rolling into the street.

All because someone couldn’t be arsed to walk a few yards.

The worst though, as mentioned, is the handicapped space, and people who dump carts in the striped area immediately to either or both sides of the spot. Why? Because these areas are designed to allow entry and exit access to vans equipped with wheelchair ramps.

Generally, these areas are eight feet wide because that’s the amount of space needed to lower the ramp at a shallow enough angle that the person in the wheelchair can exit the van and still be in the striped zone once they’re on the ground.

If someone puts a cart there, it can make it impossible to deploy the ramp, and if the disabled person happens to be the only occupant of the vehicle, there’s no way that they’re going to be able to pop open a door, hop out to move the cart, then jump back in their wheelchair and use the ramp. I mean, come on. Think about it for one second.

Anyone thinking, “Oh, they can just call for someone to help” is the exact opposite of what the Americans with Disabilities Act is all about. It was designed so that people with disabilities or who are differently abled shouldn’t have to ask anyone for help.

And anyone especially thinking, “Oh, there are way too many handicapped spots anyway, they can find another one,” A) May your genitals suffer a scorchingly painful, regular, and incurable outbreak of shingles combined with either jock itch, a yeast infection, or both, and

  1. B) A handicap is what golfers get. That word should be expunged. Even “disabled” is iffy nowadays, seeing as how most people who are differently abled are still quite able to function in society because, well, you know… some people figured out and fought for how to make that possible.
  2. C) If someone takes advantage of the disabled parking placard system when they’re not — e.g. convincing a less than ethical doctor to sign the certificate when the only problem is that their patient is too lazy to walk an extra twenty feet — may they always wind up in the line that looks short, but is actually jam-packed with complaining Karens, and old people with lots of coupons who pay by check, and then be sandwiched between the two single parents with the pair of toddlers each that they won’t control, with both of the kids being screamers and throwers. Every damn time they go to the store, and so that it never takes less than twenty minutes to make it through check-out.

And you know what? I’ve now convinced myself that the whole “not returning the carts” issue is, in fact, not really a small thing, either. It does have a big effect on people. It’s just invisible to most of the inconsiderate class who doesn’t think ahead and empathize.

Which makes me reflect back on my driving anger and point out my own possible blind spot. How do I know for sure that the driver in front of me didn’t get T-boned when making a left turn, or got slammed into when someone merged abruptly into their lane, or they slammed into someone else, or they’ve had too many speeding tickets, or they’re just having a bad day, or have a cold, or…

I could go on, but there are probably reasons that those people aren’t assholes at all. Instead, they’re just human, and I’m the one being the asshole. After all, despite all of the “stupid” I see on my daily commute, I check out Google Maps when I get up, calculate the proper time to leave, and I’m never late to work. So it really doesn’t affect me at all.

Or, in other words, maybe that was the answer all along. A small thing that makes me angrier than it should is drivers just being human.

Image source: Image Howard Lake, used via Creative Commons (cc) 2.0.

Theatre Thursday: The worst collaborator

It’s funny how sometimes it can take forever between the time you write something and the time it winds up on stage. I think I was just lucky with my first two full-length plays, which were produced within two years of each other and, more importantly, not long after I finished them to the point that I felt like they were shareable.

Two others, no, not so much. Bill & Joan, my play about William S. Burroughs and the fateful night he shot and killed his wife, I actually finished writing not long after that first full-length went up and I finished it before the second one was produced. I had a lot of readings at the time, and some interest, but nothing happened until years later, when one of the actors involved in those readings got in touch with me and said, “Hey, can I pitch this to my theater?”

I said yes, and we pitched it to the current board for that year, meaning that I got to sit face-to-face with French Stewart, whom I absolutely adored from 3rd Rock from the Sun. And… he and the other two turned us down. I still think he’s awesome, though, and it was clearly a case of, “Yeah, I don’t see a role for me in this,” which was absolutely true.

Nevertheless, my actor champion persevered, and when we pitched it to the new triumvirate board the next year, they said yes. And so began the very, very interesting process of suddenly collaborating on a play with the most difficult of co-writers of them all: Myself, from the beginning of my career, looking back from the well-established middle.

Oh boy. It was going to be a difficult job overhauling this one and, in fact, I’d have to say that I threw out at least a third of the original script, if not more — a lot more — and rewrote vast swatches of it. Now it might seem paradoxical to do that. After all, if it was good enough to get picked up to be produced, doesn’t that mean it was good enough as it was?

Short answer: Hell no.

That’s what’s so amazing about the process of rehearsal and working with a director and an amazing cast. It’s all about discovery, reconnecting with why you created a piece in the first place, and (especially with the perspective of so much time between origin and outcome) the ability to suddenly see the flaws with utter clarity.

One of these days, I may go back and do a comparison of the draft we started with and the one we ended with, but I know that we got to the extreme of me combining characters in different ways, adding some and dropping others, and this play was even my incentive to go back and re-learn Spanish to the extent that I am now pretty damn fluent in it.

Why? Well, the main action is set in a jail in Mexico City, and from the beginning, the two cops doing the interrogation spoke a lot of Spanish. However, when I first wrote it, it was my badly-remembered high school Spanish that had abandoned me some time during college. With the help of two Hispanic actors in the roles and a lot of self-study, it suddenly felt like I was crafting those lines as carefully as I crafted the English.

And the entire time, it was an experience in confronting my younger self every day, understanding why I’d written what I’d written, but then realizing, “Wow. I really have learned a lot since then, haven’t I?”

Currently, rehearsals have just begun for another play of mine that isn’t quite as old as Bill & Joan, but which I did write in another life time and which is also very different than my other full-lengths, which are all either based on real people or set in historical periods.

This one, Screamin’ Monkey Love!, is a modern day farce with the tag line “Sex, money, real estate. That’s what family’s for.” There was actually an attempt at producing it with the same director back around the time I wrote it, but that fell apart unceremoniously.

In this case, re-reading the thing in preparation was a lot less cringe-worthy. Then again, this play was more mid-career and benefited from coming after the time I’d spent actually working in film and TV and after multiple professional stage productions.

The weirdness in this collaboration, though, really came more from the inspiration rather than the execution. Unlike my other plays, as I’ve mentioned, this one is set in the modern day and was inspired by events in my own life, not to mention that the primary motivation I gave to one of the lead characters happens to be my own as of yet un-obtained dream.

Not to mention that real-life tragedy intervened and put me off the thing for a while only five months after our ill-fated first attempt.

The thumbnail version of Screamin’ Monkey Love! Is that it’s a story about two brothers who both want to inherit their father’s house and secretly conspire to do so. The older one hires a woman to pretend to seduce the father in order to marry him and take over the place in the traditional way — either she bangs Dad to death or takes it all in a divorce, but then turns it over to other brother per an agreement they’ve made that I won’t say too much about lest I give away too much of the plot.

The inspiration for the whole thing was finding out that my father, in his 80s, had met a woman, in her 20s, at the grocery store, and she had gotten flirty and whatnot with him, and this sent up red flags and alarm bells for my half-sister and me.

Hey, I know what personality traits I inherited from my dad, and it was clear that we had to act fast. It was also very clear that she was probably Romani, and they are known for this kind of thing: Meet old man shopping alone in grocery store, assume that he’s a widower with means, make a move.

The other inspiration was, of course, the fact that I have always wanted to own a house but, being a Gen-X person in Los Angeles, that was never at any point remotely in reach without me having been a venal and heartless asshole at some point.

So… combine the two elements, ta-da, there’s the play. The first attempt went well until it didn’t, and then six months later, my dad died and evil half-sister announced, “Oh, by the way, his house is in my name. Don’t even try.” Never mind that she had taken advantage of his Alzheimer’s to convince him that I was invading his house every night with friends and slowly making him paranoid about me. But that’s a completely different play that I might write one day.

The house in question would be the house that I grew up in and she didn’t, incidentally. The only possible house I could have ever owned, and her absolutely (pardon the expression) cuntiness in this moment turned me against her forever and, frankly, made me shelve the play because… bad memories.

I guess that time heals all wounds and, if there’s real justice, time will wound all heels, so jumping back into this play, it’s just a romp and all of the darker connotations have fallen off. So the challenge here is to collaborate with my younger self while being able to ignore the crap that I know younger me went through right after but which younger me had no idea that he would.

I did give myself a distraction from that one, though, without even knowing it, because one of the intentions I set for myself in writing the piece was to hat tip two of my playwriting idols, Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde and, in fact, the entire finale of this play is an intentional nod to The Importance of Being Earnest in more ways than one.

Still… the glibness of my younger self in tossing this one off did give me pause at a few points when I had to stop and ask, “Damn, too harsh?” Until I remembered, “Nah. Not the audience’s family, and too long ago for me to really care. Proceed!”

Wednesday Wonders: More fun with Excel

Every so often, an Excel formula challenge comes up that takes more than a little dissecting and pondering before the solution becomes clear. I had one of these recently, and when I finally did hit on the answer, I even surprised myself. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first a little backstory.

One of my job functions was to create a Policies and Procedures manual explaining all of the workings of the place from my perspective, and to keep it updated. It’s currently somewhere around 70 pages, and to make it easy for the user, it’s a Word Doc that is extensively cross-referenced with a full glossary of the many complicated terms in the Medicare insurance business. There are also a number of appendices, from the very inside baseball explanation of the various Medicare Supplement Plans to a useful but very specific guide to the nearest fast and fast casual dining establishments relative to the office which links out to Google Maps for each destination.

Another inclusion was a schedule of pay periods and pay dates which I originally included as a quick and simple table cut and pasted in from Excel starting with the pay period from when I originally created it. But it was static and although it covered a couple of years, would eventually go out of date.

So my challenge was this: How to create a dynamic table in Word by linking to an entire table in Excel that would always start during the particular pay period the document was opened in. For example, as I write this, our current pay period goes from February 3rd to 16th, with payday on the 21st. But if someone were to open the document in a week, then the first entry should show February 17th to March 2nd, and so on.

The three columns in the table show just that for each pay period: the start date, the end date, and payday. Each row below shows the next period, etc.

Normally, this would be a simple matter of doing an IF/THEN calculation. IF (today’s date) is greater than a period’s start date and less than its end date, then use the start date in that cell, otherwise increment to the new date.

Now, this would be great if I could create a table of all the start dates for however many years and then link to it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option.

The other usual method for incrementing periodic changes wouldn’t work here at all. Normally, you could look at the cell above and use something like “IF (old cell) is less than 10, (this cell) equals (old cell) + 1, otherwise (this cell) equals 0.” Then (this cell) becomes (old cell), repeat.

The problem is that you can quickly run afoul of the circular reference problem,

This happens when two or more cells have formulae set up so that each one provides input to the other at the same time. The simplest example would be something like inputting “=A1+B1” in cell A1. This is telling Excel that the value in cell A1 is equal to itself plus B1. The problem is that B1 changes the value of A1 no matter what it is, so A1 has no value until B1 does, but even if B1 has a value, it will keep constantly changing the value of A1. It all leads to an endless loop, and computers do not like endless loops. That’s why program like Excel have a hard-coded braking system that will stop an endless loop before it happens. If you ever accidentally do enter one, you’ll notice that the program gives you an error message, draws little arrows to point out the offending cells, and evaluates the initial culprit to zero.

Which is the lone way around of saying that I had to figure out a way to calculate the current pay period start date based on the current date and do it all in one cell without evaluating any outside expressions.

Excel nerds, if you’d like to go grab a nosh or latte and think about this now, please do and compare your answer later. Everyone else, here’s how I managed to figure the problem out — again, after a lot of thought and contemplation.

The problem, restated: Calculate a table of payroll period start, end, and pay dates dynamically based on the current date, and without relying on any kind of lookup function using a pre-determined database. In other words, this puppy had to do it dynamically, with only one input point.

When I finally found the solution, I damn near shit my pants in joy, because it was really so simple and elegant, but it took a lot of thought, and gets to the heart of how Excel handles dates.

The only way that a computer can work with dates is to count them as a certain number of days since a fixed day. The behind the scenes work converts a particular number into a particular date. The catch is that a system can only handle dates after their zero point, and not before. If you enter 08/01/1899 into any Windows or Apple program, it won’t know what to do with it. Start with any date on or after 01/01/1900, though, and you’re fine, because that’s the start point.

So… in Excel, any date is just the number of  days since that start point, and if we go with the first start date of my company’s payroll period in 2020, we get January 6 which, in the terms stated, is 43,836. If you don’t believe me, divide this number by 365.25, and you get 120.02, which is just a hair over the number of years it’s actually been.

But forget that. The important number is 43,836, because, to Excel, that means the same thing as Epiphany, which is January 6, 2020 — the start of a pay period where I work.

The key insight I had here was this: The important bits were those days that were exactly increments of 14 days after the starting point — and having a starting point and increment meant that I suddenly had two constants to plug into the equation, and that made all the difference, because constants are the anchors that everything else could be hung on, and it could happen in a single source cell.

Two constants would be modified by a single variable — what is today’s date? And the answer to that question comes in the form of another great Excel function, NOW(),  which simply returns the number for the date at the point it’s invoked.

So… given an arbitrary pay period start date of January 6 and a pay period of 14 days, the first cell formula looks like this:

=43836+(INT(((NOW()-43836)/14))*14)

Where 43836 is the constant date value for January 6, 2020, 14 is the constant interval in days, and NOW() is the variable based on today’s date. Inside the brackets, we get the integer value of Today minus the start date divided by the interval, and then multiplied by the interval outside of the integration.

What all that fancy math does is this: decides whether the current date is evenly divisible by 14. If it’s not, then it uses the original start date. If not, it increments it by a number that just happens to work out to be the actual number of increments since that first day. If it’s not obvious, it works like this. The +(INT(((NOW()-43836)/14) part determines how many pay period past the original date that NOW is. The *14) part puts back the days to land on the right week.

Yes, it was a struggle to figure it out and it worked beautifully, and I felt that my Excel Jedi score was vastly boosted. But… oh. Did I mention that I had to make this whole thing work as a dynamic spreadsheet insert inside of a Word Doc with no external links to Excel?

Oops, I guess? I did it again.

Talky Tuesday: Listen up!

Words are wonderful things in any language because they can communicate so much. Even more so, at least as far as English is concerned, the words themselves don’t have to make much sense and yet can still convey so much.

Just look at the two opening stanzas of Lewis Carroll’s brilliant Jabberwocky. Most of the words aren’t real words, and yet the thing still makes sense in its own way:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Now, why does it make such sense? Mainly because here Carroll is mostly just playing with the nouns and verbs. He mostly leaves the other parts of speech alone. This tells us a lot about how English works, because if I said, “Did those mamleplompers from the widget fiskers over in Nimblebleck caravel up the shashandy yet, or do I need to frelgoik the yerpers in the warehouse,” wouldn’t it sound like it made some sort of sense, and you only didn’t get it because you didn’t know the jargon yet?

Real world example: “So if we go with the birthday rule, you can update your supplement next May, but there’s nothing we can do about your Part D until open enrollment, and as for your spouse, since they’ve already qualified for Part A but had prior coverage, it comes down to whether they fall under IEP or ICEP, which all depends on when Part B became effective.”

In that case, all of the words are English, but that probably made not a lick of sense to most of you and, six months ago, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me either. Yes, jargon is a foreign language as well, and English (and all other languages) has many jargons.

But the fuckery can go a lot further than Carroll ever took it, and if we jump into the 20th century, we meet James Joyce, who wrote an entire novel, Finnegans Wake, using multi-lingual puns to create a language that almost did and didn’t make sense. And yet, somehow (to those of us who’ve braved it) it does somehow communicate meaning. The trick, I think, is to read it out loud, which turns it into an hallucinogenic experience. That’s right. Reading this book will make you trip balls.

Here’s just a taste from the first chapter:

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.

Really, read it out loud a few times, and it will start to make sense. Trust me.

Another author who played with language in a different way was William S. Burroughs (one of my influences), but rather than making up words, he instead broke up narrative coherence through a rather brute-force physical technique called the cut-up technique. This literally involved cutting pages apart and then sticking them back together in random order.

It’s not prevalent in his early works beyond the galleys for Naked Lunch being sent to the printer separately and then put together and published in the order they were returned, which wasn’t the order they were written in. But in his later works in the 60s, he published his Nova Trilogy, three books created using this method. This article has an excerpt from the second book in the trilogy, The Ticket that Exploded.

The next one to play with language was Samuel Beckett, and while I don’t think he used the cut-up method, he did manage to create endless staircases of words that always seemed to be going somewhere but then which would hit a landing and start over. In his case, there weren’t really any cut-ups and all of the words and sentences made sense, but the ultimate effect was always a frustrating trek that dragged us along without taking us anywhere.

Well, at least not anywhere in terms of story, but good Beckett moments like this done with commitment by a talented actor can get us to exactly what he was aiming at. A great example of his style is the famous speech by Lucky in Waiting for Godot. He’s a character who is mostly mute for the entire show, led around by a noose around his neck, but when he gets his moment, well… you can watch for yourself.

Of course, the key to each of these authors is to actually listen to what they have written, and I see people constantly not do that. In fact, most people I know dis Joyce, Burroughs, and Beckett because they’ve tried to read or see their stuff and just didn’t get it. Meanwhile, they love Carroll as long as it’s Alice, but go beyond that and their eyes roll back faster than an odometer on a sleazy used car lot — especially when he was writing about math.

And that is a shame. Because, really, none of them are that hard to understand if you just take the time to read it, experience it, and ignore the literal while letting everything else wash over you. And, ultimately, Joyce’s intent was to recreate the experience of a dream, which only ever makes sense to the dreamer, because the cast and metaphors and everything else only have meaning to them, screw you Freud.

Honestly, I think that the main reason that all of these works by all of these authors are not appreciated is because the public takes half a second to try to understand, then throws up the, “Nope, sorry. Hard. Bye!” flag, and that’s it.

And, honestly, that is one of the biggest failings of society. It’s certainly one of the things that makes me cull my friends if they don’t have it. Mainly… be at least a bit curious about the world around you, and try to learn one or two new things. Or more. But, most important of all, your reaction to a new thing or bit of information should never, ever be, “Oh, no. That is way too hard for my little brain to learn.”

Instead, it should be… “Oh, cool. Opportunity.” Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t. If you do get it, maybe you won’t be into it, or maybe you will — but you won’t ever know if your first response is “No.”

Image: John Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock, 1871

Momentous Monday: Ending canine prejudice

There’s a reason that I call this site The Word Whisperer. That’s because prior to starting it, I worked for a decade for the Dog Whisperer, and for a good part of that I was Senior Editor and Head Writer on his website, as well as keeper of the corporate voice and (sssh, don’t tell!) the ghostwriter for all of his online articles and a lot of his media interviews.

So, in other words, I was deeply into all things dog, and one of the subjects that he was passionate about and which I crusaded for was the plight of the pit bull. As in by the early 2000s, they had become one of the most maligned and misunderstood breeds in the country.

They were banned everywhere, simply based on perception, and especially the misconception that “pit bull” is a breed of dog. It’s not. It’s a type of dog, comprising at least four distinct breeds.

But for those of us who are pit bull fans because, face it, they are sweet dogs, there was a recent victory as the city of Denver voted to overturn their pit bull ban originally imposed in 1989. No mean feat, considering that the anti-pit bull crowd turned out to argue against it but, trust me, I’ve had experience with them, and they are an emotional bunch who won’t let facts get in the way.

What they like to ignore is that any dog can be dangerous and that unknown breeds of dogs involved in incidents are often reported as pit bulls, especially if they’re over a certain size. They also ignore the fact that dogs can sense when a human is anxious or uneasy around them, and this can actually lead to attacks. So… the people who fear pit bulls act fearful around all dogs, and bad things are going to happen.

This was a question I dealt with in one of my more popular articles on Cesar’s site, which I’m now going to plagiarize and paraphrase from, because I can. (Bastards scrubbed all of the bylines recently, but that’s a long story I’m not going to go into until TMZ is writing me a big-ass check.)

The question I asked: How did pit bulls get such a bad rap?

Would it surprise you to learn that pit bulls used to be America’s darlings? Before the mid-80s, stories of pit bull attacks are practically non-existent. As noted, there is also confusion over exactly which breed of dog is a pit bull — American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire terrier and, at times, the bulldog. This confusion seems to have dogged the breed from the beginning, as there is some disagreement over the origin of pit bulls.

In one theory, pit bulls began during antiquity as the so-called molossus, a now-extinct breed that was used by the Greeks as shepherds and guard dogs. In times of war, they marched off to battle with their humans. Eventually, so the theory goes, the Molossus made it to early Britain, where it became known as the mastiff. In the first century CE, Rome discovered the breed after defeating the Britons, and the dogs spread all over the empire. For the next four hundred years, they were used as war dogs, and intermixed with various local breeds all over the European continent, becoming the forerunners of the modern pit bull.

A competing theory places the origin of the pit bull in England at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, when butchers would use large, Mastiff-type dogs as “bullenbeissers,” which translates as “bull biter.” Trained to latch onto a bull’s nose and not let go until the animal was subdued, these dogs were the only way that humans could regain control when a bull became agitated. Unfortunately, this practical if dubious use eventually led to the “sport” of bull-baiting, where dogs were put in a pit with an intentionally riled-up bull and spectators placed bets on which dog would hold on the longest, or bring the bull down. You’ve probably guessed it by now, but this is also the origin of the terms “pit bull dog” and “bulldog.”

Still not a specific breed, the bullenbeissers were bred with terriers, combining their intelligence with the strength of the mastiffs. As bull-baiting came to be banned in the 19th century, dog fighting became popular as an underground and quasi-illegal activity in the UK. British immigrants to the U.S. at that time brought dog fighting, as well as their dogs, to the New World. However, as the breed spread to Americans and Americans spread across the continent, pit bulls began to be put to their original use, as general purpose herding and working dogs. Because of their fighting history, though, the American Kennel Club would not recognize the breed until 1936, although they defined it as a Staffordshire terrier, distinct from the American pit bull terrier.

Far from being considered a killing machine on legs, pit bulls seem to be an American favorite in the early half of the century — indeed, during World War I, the country itself is personified as a pit bull on army recruitment posters, and several pit bulls go on to become famous in the American military. Referring to an athlete as a pit bull is a very common sports metaphor through the 1930s, and it is meant as the highest compliment. There is also a famous racehorse in the late 1930s named Pit Bull, as well as a number of pit bull stars of early motion pictures. Frequently, pit bulls are associated with children, as in the Our Gang comedies, as well as with Buster Brown, both in short films and as the corporate mascot for a shoe company. The famous RCA Victor image of a dog and a gramophone also featured a pit bull terrier.

All of that pit bull love went away by the mid-80s, and by New Year’s Day 1986, over thirty communities are considering breed specific legislation and bans on pit bulls. What changed?

For one thing, despite being illegal in all fifty states, dog fighting made a comeback in the 80s, and the pit bull is the dog of choice. It is also the preferred guard dog for drug dealers and gangs, with a hugely publicized attack in 1987 in which a pit bull guarding a marijuana crop in California mauls and kills a two-and-a-half year-old boy.

By the summer of that year, every single proposed ban has become law, but not necessarily with the support of animal professionals. Kent Salazar, head of Albuquerque’s animal control division, commented at the time of their proposed ban on pit bulls that he didn’t think a ban on pit bulls was necessary, saying, “We have all the means to protect people with clauses about vicious dogs.” He also noted that, a few years previously, Doberman pinschers were the target of such bans. His words went unheeded, and Tijeras, New Mexico, just outside of Albuquerque, passes the toughest pit bull ban of the time, allowing animal control officers to seize and destroy them on sight without compensation to the owner.

The various pit bull breed bans are decried by animal control officials as “the most concentrated legal assault on a pit bull they can recall,” as well as “canine racism.” The Houston Chronicle quotes unnamed officials as placing the blame for the problem squarely on humans. “(M)any of the pit bull attacks are due to a skyrocketing number of poorly bred and badly trained dogs raised by backyard breeders, who are trying to cash in on the pit bull’s growing reputation as a cheap, but deadly effective guard dog, particularly in urban areas.”

Nearly thirty-five years after the beginning of this anti-pit bull hysteria, the tide seems to be turning a little bit, but every step forward is followed by a step back. Even as Florida is attempting to overturn all breed-specific legislation, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin is considering imposing a new ban. Yet it only takes a brief look at the history of pit bulls to realize that the dogs are not the problem; the humans who misuse them are. For over a hundred years, holding the owners personally responsible was enough to prevent attacks, and the breed was perceived as very child-friendly. With outreach and education, it may be possible to restore that image and rehabilitate the pit bull’s reputation, restoring an iconic American dog to its rightful place among mankind’s best friends.

Maybe Denver will be a first step back toward the direction of sanity and a reminder: It’s never the dog’s fault. It’s always the human’s.

Photo: The author being viciously mauled by the Dog Whisperer’s pit bull Junior. © 2017 Jon Bastian.