Across the multiverse

It can be daunting, sometimes, to think about the precarious pathways that led to each of our lives, and then led to the lives we have led. In my case, answering a want ad in Variety two years out of college led to an office job that changed everything — not because of the job, but because of the people I met, and connections that led directly to me pursuing a career as a playwright with some success and also to working in television and eventually doing improv.

But I never would have wound up there if my parents hadn’t met and married, and that only happened because my mother had one bad first marriage that led to her moving across the country and winding up working as a waitress in a restaurant across from the office where my father, who was also ending his bad first marriage, worked. He wound up there because he had taken advantage of the G.I. Bill to study architecture and so was a structural engineer for one of the more prestigious firms in Los Angeles. In another case of amazing coincidence, I wound up working about a block from where his office and her restaurant had been when I went into the TV biz twenty-ish years after he worked there.

So my father wound up doing the G.I. Bill thing because he was a veteran and that happened because there had been a war. But he was only in America to fight on our side because his grandfather had come here in the first place, and my father’s own father and mother wound up in California. That happened because my grandfather worked for the railroads. I also think it was because my grandmother got knocked up with my dad’s older brother at about eighteen and before they married, but that’s beside the point. Or maybe not.

If my mother had stayed where she’d been born, she never would have met my father. If my great grandfather had never left Germany, than one of my ancestors may have died on the wrong side of WW II. And if that had happened and my mother came to Los Angeles anyway, there’s no telling whom she might have met and married. It could have been a big power player in Hollywood. It could have been a dishwasher in the restaurant. The unanswered question, really, is whether who I am came only from her egg or from dad’s sperm, or whether I would have never existed had the two never met. Impossible to say.

What’s really fascinating are the long-term effects of random choices. I do improv now because of one particular actor I met about six years ago. I met him because he was involved with a play of mine that was produced in 2014. That play happened because an actor who had done a reading of it when I first wrote it, twenty years previously, remembered it when he was at a point to play the lead and bring it to a company. That reading happened because it was set up by a woman who produced my second full-length play — and who is still one of my best friends — and that happened because of all the attention received by my first produced full-length play, which happened because of a woman I met at that first office job out of college I mentioned before. She was in a writing group, heard I was interested in being a writer and invited me to join. Ta-da… a link in a damn long chain of consequence happened.

And that third play, about William S. Burroughs, only happened because I somehow heard about his works when I was probably in middle school, and only because the title “Naked Lunch” made a bunch of twelve-year-olds giggle. But reading that book when I was about fourteen, and realizing it was about so much more, and then discovering the rest of his works along with Vonnegut and Joyce and Robert Anton Wilson and so many others set my sails for being a writer, and out of all of them, Burroughs had the most fascinating life story, as well as the personal struggle I most related to, since he was a gay man, after all.

And, I suppose, I can attribute my interest in the salacious and interesting to the fact that my mother had such an aversion to them. She could watch people on cable TV get their heads blown off for days, but show one tit or one ass — or god forbid a dick — and she would lose it. It was good-old Catholic body shame, and I never understood it, mainly since I’ve been a naturist since, like, forever. Of course, the extent of my exposure to that church was to be baptized as a preemie “just in case,” and then not a lot else beyond the scary crucifix that always hung in my bedroom and the scarier icons and statues I’d see when we visited my mom’s mom.

Ironically, I’ve actually come to relate to Catholicism, although not so much as a religion, but more as a cultural touchstone and anchor for my Irish roots. Yeah, we bog-cutters love the ceremony, but piss on the bullshit, so that’s probably why it works. Give me the theater, spare me the crap. Sing all you want, you middle-aged men in dresses, but touch the kids, and we will end you.

But I do digress… because if we’re going to go down the Irish rabbit hole, that is an entirely different path by which I could have not wound up here today. At any point, one of my direct ancestors on my mother’s side could have taken vows, and then boom. No more descendants to lead to me.

Or any of my grandparents or parents or I could have walked in front of a speeding bus before their descendants were born or before I had my first play produced, and game over. History changed. I could have signed up with a temp agency on a different day and never wound up having met my best friend.

Then again… I have no idea who I would be if any of these different paths had been taken at any point in history all the way back to the beginning. It’s really daunting to consider how many ancestors actually had to come together to lead to the genetic knot that is you or me. But you and I exist as who we are. Rather than worry about how easily that could not have happened, I suppose, the better approach is to just revel in the miracle that it did. Here we are. It happened because other things happened. And thinking too hard about why those other things happened might actually be a bad thing to do.

Why you should learn another language (or two or three)

For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been a major language nerd. I think it started when I was about seven years old and discovered that the stationary aisle of the local grocery store sold pocket dictionaries meant for travelers and I wound up buying the entire set because they were within the means of my first-grade allowance. I remember for sure that I had Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Russian. I think that Latin was another one, although I’m not as sure.

This began a life-long adventure, and I collected dictionaries and books on foreign languages left and right. I remember one dictionary that translated twenty-six languages side-by-side, and at its biggest, my library covered everything from Arabic to Vietnamese and nearly everything in between.

Sadly, I lost most of that about a decade ago in an abrupt move. However, all of those same resources are now online, so I didn’t really lose as much as I thought. And, since languages evolve, books may not be the best resource anymore. For example, when I first started learning Spanish, Ch, ll, and rr were considered separate letters, something that the Academia Real Española changed a few years back.

Speaking of school, when I found out on the first day of 7th grade that we had to take a language class and I was assigned to Spanish, I was ecstatic. I studied it for the next four years and when, after my junior year of high school, I had satisfied my language requirement, I said “What the hell?” and took a year of German, followed by another year of German as a Freshman in college. Fun fact: I swear that we learned more in the first two weeks of college German than I had in an entire year of high school German.

Other languages I’ve toyed with over the years, in no particular order: Italian, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Gaelic, Japanese, and ASL. However, I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in any of them, although (for reasons that will become obvious below) I’ve actually become pretty good at being able to understand a lot of French, Italian, and Portuguese when I read it, and a lot of Italian when I hear it.

After school ended, I really didn’t keep up with studying or using Spanish or German, and so over time they faded — German more so, because I’d studied it less, obviously, but a lot of the Spanish as well and, while I could still understand more of it than the average gabacho, the finer points had escaped me.

Flash forward to about six years ago, when a play I’d written much closer to my high school years got produced, and a big part of it was set in Mexico City, meaning that there were two police characters who spoke a lot of Spanish. When I first wrote the play, that language was a lot fresher in my head, but because we were doing a lot of development and I was doing a lot of rewriting in rehearsal, it became necessary to write new dialogue for them. Fortunately, I had two native speakers in the cast who helped, but I realized that it was probably time for a refresher course, so I dove back in.

Six years later… I am surprised at how fluent I have become. I’m actually able to have conversations with people without getting lost and, it probably goes without saying, that in America’s current climate, being a white guy who speaks Spanish is probably as much a political statement as it is a cultural one. Apoyo ciento por ciento nuestros hermanos y amigos de Latinoamérica. Somos una gente y una familia todas conjuntas. And if you can understand that without running it through Google translate, good for you. (Oh, by the way… do not trust Google translate.)

So… about six years after I started to relearn Spanish as an adult, I’m at the point where I’m tackling an entire book in the language, and I’ve been reading the Spanish version of “Ready Player One.” Oh… one other thing. A few years ago, I tried to read «Rebelión en la granja», the Spanish translation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” and I couldn’t even get through the introduction. Now, I’ve been breezing through the Spanish version of “Ready Player One,” and I’m really enjoying it. It’s funny and entertaining and all the jokes are coming through. I’ve also gotten to the point where I’m not stopping to look up words and I’m not translating into English in my head, and I am picking up new vocabulary by the bucket-load.

This isn’t a humble brag or anything. Rather, it’s encouragement. Americans whose first language is English are notoriously terrible when it comes to other languages, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are tons of resources online for learning another language, as well as groups of learners and speakers helping each other all over the place. And it is never too late to learn or to relearn. I had forgotten enough Spanish that I’d really dropped to near Peggy Hill levels of literacy. Now, I read the news in Spanish every day, I’m plowing through a YA novel in Spanish, I watch TV shows and movies and YouTube videos in Spanish, and I’m doing just great with it.

Can I pass myself off as a native and get away with it? Oh, hell no. I know that I make stupid mistakes all the time, like forgetting to plop the pronouns in the right place or messing up the gender of nouns or using present tense when it should have been preterit or imperfect, and being clueless on subjunctive and por vs. para. But… in making the effort, I find that native speakers are just as forgiving to me as I am to someone who is clearly not a native English speaker but gets the idea across. “Ooh, I can’t understand this person because they said ‘I has’ instead of ‘I have’ said no one with any empathy ever.”

And that’s really what it’s all about. The story of the Tower of Babel is a metaphor, but it is a very powerful one. It probably wasn’t a god that created all of those languages, but rather human nature, because we love to word play and make stuff up and create tribes based on common knowledge and in-jokes. But the end result is the same: We have turned different languages into a divisive thing when they should not be.

It never ceases to boggle my mind that so few Americans whose first language is English ever learn any other language. The figure is around 20%. And I know from experience — because I like to use other languages in my writing — that a lot of American Anglophone’s heads explode on sight of anything that isn’t English. And that’s just ridiculous.

Fun fact: Some of the founding fathers wanted to make America’s official language Hebrew instead of English. And when it comes to how languages work, Hebrew, like all the other Semitic languages, is about as different from English as you can get. They’re the Wheel of Fortune of Languages — “I’d like to buy a vowel.” (If you get that joke, I love you.)

If you speak more than just English, chime in in the comments and let us know which languages you speak and whether you’re American or not. If you are American but only speak English, then here’s my challenge to you. Think of a language you would like to learn, then go and learn it, and also tell me in the comments which language it is and why. And remember, like I said above: It is never too late to learn, and learning a new language is nowhere near as hard as you think it is.

After all — you learned your first language when you were a baby, right? And you probably spent at least the first four or five years with no official training other than people speaking it at you. See? That’s how easy it is to learn.

 

Rewind

If you could go back in time to your younger self — say right out of high school or college — what one bit of advice would you give? I think, in my case, it would be this: “Dude, you only think you’re an introvert, but you’re really not. You just need to learn now what it took me years to understand. No one else is really judging you because they’re too busy worrying about how they come off.”

But that worry about what other people thought turned me into a shy introvert for way too long a time. At parties, I wouldn’t talk to strangers. I’d hang in the corners and observe, or hope that I knew one or two people there already, so would stick to them like your insurance agent’s calendar magnet on your fridge. Sneak in late, leave early, not really have any fun.

It certainly didn’t help on dates, especially of the first kind. “Hi, (your name). How’s it going?” Talk talk talk, question to me… awkward silence, stare at menu, or plate if order already placed.

Now this is not to imply that I had any problem going straight to close encounters of the third kind way too often, but those only happened when someone else hit on me first. Also, I had a really bad habit of not being able to say “No” when someone did show interest. I guess I should have noticed the contradiction: Can someone really be an introvert and a slut at the same time?

What I also didn’t notice was that the times I was a total extrovert all happened via art. When I wrote or acted, all the inhibitions went away. Why? Because I was plausibly not being myself. The characters I created or the characters I played were other people. They were insulation. They gave me permission to just go out there without excuse. (Okay, the same thing happened during sex, but by that point, I don’t think that introversion is even possible or very likely.)

However… the characters did not cross over into my real life. I was awkward with strangers. I was okay with friends, but only after ample time to get to know them.

And so it went until I wound up in the hospital, almost died, came out the other side alive — and then a funny thing happened. I suddenly started initiating conversations with strangers. And enjoying them. And realized that I could play myself as a character in real life and have a lot of fun doing it. And started to not really care what anyone else thought about me because I was more interested in just connecting with people and having fun.

The most important realization, though, was that I had been lying to myself about what I was for years. The “being an introvert” shtick was just an excuse. What I’d never really admitted was that I was extroverted as hell. The “almost dying” part gave the big nudge, but the “doing improv” part sealed it. Here’s the thing. Our lives, day to day and moment to moment, are performance. Most muggles never realize that. So they get stage fright, don’t know what to do or say or how to react.

But, honestly, every conversation you’ll ever have with someone else is just something you both make up on the spot, which is what improv is. The only difference is that with improv you’re making up the who, what (or want) and where, whereas in real life, you’re playing it live, so those things are already there.

Ooh, what’s that? Real life is easier than performing on stage?

One other thing that yanked me out of my “I’m an introvert” mindset, though, was an indirect result of doing improv. I’ve been working box office for ComedySportz for almost a year now — long story on how and why that happened — but I’m basically the first public face that patrons see, I’ve gotten to know a lot of our regulars, and I honestly enjoy interacting with the public, whether via walk-ups to the ticket counter or phone calls. Young me would have absolutely hated doing this, which is another reason for my intended message to that callow twat.

And so… if you’re reading this and think that you’re an introvert, do me a favor. Find something that drags you out of your comfort zone. Remind yourself that no one else is really judging you because they’re too busy worrying about themselves, then smile and tell way too much to the wait-staff or checker or usher or whomever — and then don’t give a squishy nickel over what they might think about it.

(Note: “squishy nickel” was a fifth level choice on the improv game of “New Choice” in my head just now. Which is how we do…)

Sunday nibble #36: An epic undertaking

This will be short and sweet because yesterday was quite involved — the reading of Part 2 of my epic play, Strange Fruit. And yes, it turned out to be as long as I had always aimed for, coming in at probably about six-and-a-half hours for the two parts together, not including intermission or any parts that would take longer in full performance, of course.

You can view both parts at the LA Writers Center Facebook page, on their video tab.

The Saturday Morning Post #34: The Rêves, Part 12

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

Las hadas silvestres

Anabel had easily shot into the Earth and then up, not recognizing the place she emerged in, although she had heard the name mentioned: Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There was nothing sinister-looking about it, but maybe they didn’t even know that Ausmann had a lair hidden far beneath it.

She found her way to the A Line tunnel and into downtown, and then followed the E Line out to Santa Monica, and then the sea. Here, she followed the water up the coast a ways until she had reached Topanga, and then ventured up into the mountains above the beach, where she found a quiet bit of slightly forested meadow.

Ausmann had had some nerve asking her for their rules. He was going to have to figure those out himself, but there was one thing he was never going to figure out. There was a class of Rêves that none of his hunters would ever even encounter.

In fact, they didn’t even consider themselves to be Rêves. They referred to themselves collectively as Las hadas silvestres; basically, wilderness faeries.

And, to be honest, they didn’t even refer to themselves collectively. They tended to refer to themselves as a singular Them, which the Rêves always sensed as capitalized, mostly out of respect. They was genderless, ageless, raceless, and sexless. They was everywhere.

They comprised thousands of thems apparently, but They existed as a singular mind, or at least a collective consciousness, and They tended to stick to places where nature still held sway and humankind didn’t often invade.

You could find Them in the ocean, the mountains, and the deserts, and Their territory covered far more than any single Rêve’s did. Las hadas never even really took any kind of visible or tangible form. They were just there as a feeling or a whisper on the wind. The Rêves could always hear and sense them, but so could some humans.

How they had gotten to be who they were was a matter of Rêve legend and lore, although it was more true than not, and it had begun with a plague as well, although not the one that Anabel had lived through, nor the one that Preston had not survived.

This one was a virus that had hit in the 1980s, and many of the people it had killed in the cities were there because they had been rejected by their families. They were young, and healthy, and then they suddenly started getting sick and catching the strangest of illnesses before they started dying, and since most of them didn’t have any family to speak of (or anyone that the government would let speak as their family), a lot of them wound up being cremated.

At first, it was mostly gay men, but that demographic shifted quickly. There were addicts who shared needles, and transwomen who’d had sex with infected cis-men. Hemophiliacs fell victim as well, and so did the female partners of men who claimed to be straight but weren’t. And so did people who’d gotten blood transfusions at the wrong time.

The first three groups were the ones who had a lot of members die forgotten and without family, and whose bodies were burned, and they wound up finding themselves wandering. A lot of their ashes had been dumped at sea or tossed to the wind up in the mountains.

Then they started to find each other. Groups of them knew each other, and connected to other groups, and then one day they met a soul that had already been wandering out here for over a decade.

Her name was Janis, as in Joplin, and she’d been cremated and scattered after death.

While she hadn’t been forgotten and had plenty of fans who remembered her, she had ignored all of that and managed to hold on to her true self and just enjoy the Zen of nature. She always figured that it had had something to do with being burned and not buried, but she wasn’t going to waste any time trying to find out.

She became a magnet for the newcomers, sort of a hub around which they all gathered, and that’s when they declared Themselves to be Las hadas silvestres.

Over the years, others were added to their number — mostly those who died alone and forgotten, and for whom whatever local jurisdiction decided it was easier to just burn the body and scatter the ashes.

Many an orange grove in the area had benefited from those cremains, too.

Another big wave came in 2020, when cemeteries and undertakers could not keep up with the need for burials, and coffin makers couldn’t meet demand, although not everyone who’d been cremated chose the Joplin option. Plenty of them still felt the call of their loved ones and became Rêves instead.

Speaking of Joplin, Anabel did know that Las hadas allowed people to think of Them as Pearl in case the intricacies of pronouns became too confusing, as they most certainly did for someone of Anabel’s generation, and it was easier to say than Las hadas silvestres.

And so Anabel sat in the meadow with its view of the vast Pacific below the hills and cliffs of Southern California, and she manifested herself in a supplicating pose, hovering three feet above a large stone, arms at her sides and slightly raised, palms forward, head half-bowed and eyes closed.

Hovering above the Earth in her sky blue evening gown, she was actually lucky that no hikers passed by because she would have been totally visible — and vulnerable — to humans in this moment.

She also would have instantly led to sudden reports of a sighting of the Virgin Mary in the Santa Monica Mountains, and that wouldn’t have been good.

“Pearl,” Anabel sighed. “The Rêves need your help. We have a human who is hunting us and taking us, and we don’t know why. Pearl, please let me know what to do.”

She let her thoughts go blank except for one last one: “Pearl, please help.” Shortly, the wind kicked up a bit and the long meadow grass began to shudder back and forth, giving a slight whistle in the wind.

She sensed a presence, as if hundreds of warm arms embraced her and felt a flow of positive thoughts, as if an endless line of people were marching by to greet her and saying, “You’re going to be okay.”

Then she heard the voice in the rustle of the grass, “Anabel. Anabel,” it seemed to say.

“Yes?” she said out loud.

Then her memories of her encounter with Ausmann, from start to finish, came flooding back like a movie was playing in her head, and it was incredibly detailed, although she was watching from outside of her own POV, so she noticed things that she had not before. She had no sense of agency or volition. It played out as it had played out, although she paid very close attention to Ausmann, as well as the computer screens on his desk that had not faced the tank she had been trapped in.

What she managed to spot on it shocked her. Well, at least what she understood. There were a lot of graphs and charts that were useful without explanation, but there was one image with text, clearly a report, and headline stunned her.

“Toward a workable method for eradication of supernatural entities.”

Eradication.

Elimination.

“My god,” Anabel thought. “Genocide.”

And then the version of her in the tank shot out the side and her POV shot up into the Earth and darkness and popped out into the bright sunlight of the meadow, only now she was on her back, and she felt thousands of hands supporting her as they slowly and gently lowered her to the ground.

For the first time that Anabel could remember in ages, she cried. She hadn’t even really cried when her father died. She was never given to that kind of emotion, but here she was.

Something shadowed the Sun and Anabel looked up to see a young woman with blonde, shoulder-length hair, an engaging smile, and a slight Texas drawl. She wore an elegant silk blouse with an intricate design on the front, sleeves that started tight at the upper arms but then exploded into a series nested maunches ending in flared bells. She had lots of rings and bracelets on both hands, and a tattoo on her left wrist.

Her pants were very tight, probably also silk, and these too ended in flairs. A pair of octagonal glasses with rose-tinted lenses was perched on her nose.

Anabel might have mistaken her for human, but she had to have been at least twelve feet tall, and her feet weren’t on the ground either.

“Hello?” Anabel said.

“I don’t usually do personal appearances, man,” the woman said, “But this feels like a special occasion.”

“Are you… are you Pearl?”

“I am me, and them, and we are me and… fuck, what’s that Beatle’s lyric?”

“Sorry?”

“Whatever, man. You asked for help, and it really looks pretty bad. Like nothing none of these cats have ever seen, dig, man? What was that word? Oh, right. Genocide. Yeah, that is some total Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot shit right there, man.”

“I’m a woman,” Anabel said, not knowing what to think otherwise.

“I know, man,” Pearl replied. “And We’re not. Not normally, not anymore, but unfortunately, the only way We can get through is to, you know. Go all class two, and let the image the humans have of us take over. Joke’s on them, though, because I’m still in control.”

Pearl smiled and laughed and Anabel wasn’t sure what to think, but Pearl’s demeanor changed completely.

“Oh, shit. I’m scaring you, aren’t I? Sorry, sorry. Sorry, sorry… sorry, man.”

Pearl shrank down to human size, feet settling on the ground, then smeared out into a group of people of all types who all looked very normal and sympathetic. They held their hands out and Anabel was suddenly standing again.

“We will do what we can to help the Rêves,” They said, “But we cannot do it by killing any humans.”

“Then what can you do?” Anabel asked.

“Warn them to change their ways,” They announced.

“Do it,” Anabel replied.

“Done,” came the reply as the manifestation of Pearl vanished, but the word was a whisper on the wind instead of anything audible, and then the wind died down.

Far offshore, there was a sudden flash of lightning and as Anabel squinted, she could see a line of dark clouds start to rise above the entire horizon. There was more lightning, but no thunder.

“Damn, they work fast,” she thought as she made her way back down to the E Line and then to home, arriving just at nightfall. There was no storm up here yet, but there did seem to be a breeze rising from the west.

* * *
Image source: © 2017 Jon Bastian, Camp Round Meadow, Big Bear, CA

Friday Free-for-all #33: Museum, pride, regret and genre

Would you rather spend the day at an art, history, or science museum?

This is like asking me, “Which one of your dogs would you keep if you had to give up two.” Well, rhetorical, since I’m down to none now, but meaning if I only ever could have ever had one of them, which one.

But… I’d prefer a museum that manages all three, and the closes I’ve ever come to that was the time that my greatest boss over, the late and great Dave Rogers, took us (meaning his digital team of nine) to LACMA to see the Stanley Kubrick Exhibit, on his dime and during work hours.

And it was all three — the history he researched to make his movies, and the art he created to help out his team, including tons of actual models, highlights being the Space Baby and scale models of the entire spaceship Discovery and the gimbaled set that created the famous rotating section; there were also cameras and lenses and explanations of how they worked and what they did, including the famous f/.07 Zeiss lens from NASA that he used to shoot Barry Lyndon by candlelight.

Barring that ideal combo, I’d take a science museum any day.

What have you created that you are most proud of?

Well, I’m kind of proud of my novel, The Rêves, that I’ve been serializing here on Saturday mornings, but since I haven’t quite finished it yet, I can’t say whether I’m totally proud or not.

But then there’s this: Strange Fruit. Duh… obvious plug. Part 1 was read back in August, and the video is still available online. It’s my intentionally epic, four-act, six hour tribute to plays like Angels in America that deals with racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism in America in the 20th century, but which has only become more relevant today. Part 2 is being read… tomorrow, at 11 a.m. Pacific Time, and you can watch it on the LA Writers’ Center Facebook page or at Howlround. End plug.

When was the last time you immediately regretted something you said?

One of those moments when I had an “Oh shit, words do matter” bit of reverse l’esprit de l’escalier. In other words, rather than thinking of what I should have said after leaving, I thought about what I shouldn’t have said.

Short and sweet set-up: I saw an online request for extras for a music video that was very political and related to a recent case of police violence against a Black human (a few years ago already), so went down to a nearby park on a weekend morning and was one of the dozens of performers backing up the writer/director/performer.

It only took a couple of hours and multiple takes. In several of them, we were buzzed by a drone to get footage that was ultimately really impressive. Later that afternoon, we were all invited to come down to a photo studio to do some individual (or family/couple) shots on a seamless background.

Now, as I was leaving the morning shoot, I went over the woman responsible for the whole thing, and not even thinking I said, “Thank you so much. That was a ton of fun.”

That’s just something I’d say, mostly because my writer brain likes rhymes and whatnot. But after I left, I realized that our erstwhile producer/director/writer/performer was a bit on the short and rotund side, and my brain said, “Oh, fuck…” I literally could have said anything else; I could have expressed that in a shitload of ways that didn’t somehow bring in terms that could seem judgmental.

Or was I just overreacting? I don’t know. What I do know is that I came down for the individual shoot, did a few minutes in studio and left, and then in the final cut, I realized that I got like one shot from the studio stuff while a bunch of people were featured multiple times, and in the group shots, same thing — face in the crowd, nothing more.

Now, in reality, given the subject matter of the video, it was just more likely that me being an older white guy with resting bitch face didn’t quite fit the theme as well as  all of the lovely BIPOC extras did, so it was probably just that. But, to this day, I still wonder: “Did she think I was calling her fat? Because FFS, I was absolutely not.”

What’s your favorite movie from each genre?

Oh, dear. That’s a long list, so I’m not going to link any of them because that would take forever, but you can search the ones that interest you. Here we go… in alphabetical order by genre.

Action: Die Hard

Adult: Caligula

Adventure: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Animation: Coco

Blaxploitation: Dolemite Is My Name

Comedy: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Crime: The Godfather

Dark Comedy: Serial Mom

Disaster: Earthquake

Docudrama: Kinsey

Documentary: F for Fake

Drama: amoresperros

Epic: The Ten Commandments

Experimental: Holy Motors

Fantasy: Excalibur

Foreign Language: Y tu mamá también

Heist: A Fish Called Wanda

Historical Drama: The Lion in Winter

Horror: Theatre of Blood

Martial Arts: Kung-Fu Hustle

Mockumentary: All You Need Is Cash (TV film, but it counts)

Musical, Adapted: Cabaret

Musical, Original: Moulin Rouge

Mystery: Murder by Death (genre jumper)

Parody: Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Play Adaptation: Noises Off

Political Thriller: The Manchurian Candidate (original)

RomCom: Jeffrey

RomDram: Parting Glances (which gave us Steve Buscemi and Kathy Kinney, a fabulous twofer)

Satire: Network

Science Fiction: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey

Screwball Comedy: The Hudsucker Proxy

Shakespeare: Titus

Slasher: Absolutely fucking none of the them

Space Opera: Star Wars (absolutely fucking all of them)

Splatter: See “Slasher”

Sports: Million Dollar Baby

Spy: Gold Finger

Superhero: Deadpool 2

Teen: American Pie

Thriller: North by Northwest

War: Full Metal Jacket

Western: Blazing Saddles

Zombie: Shuan of the Dead

Phew! Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments.</div>

 

The voice

Recently, I was working at what’s called the Small Business Marketing Plan Bootcamp, run by two old friends of mine, Hank and Sharyn Yuloff. Well, I’ve known Hank longer, lost touch with him for a while, then re-encountered him at random because we had a friend in common we’d both met long after, and then Hank absolutely hated the movie The Blair Witch Project. Long story, but it was another one of those weird moments in which the most random of events somehow led to big things later on.

If you come to their bootcamp and I’m working it, he’ll probably tell you the whole story. Short version, he sent an email rant about the film to one of my friends, A, who’d co-founded the site with me and D (all three of us had been in a band together way the hell back in my “stupid enough to be in a band” days), and A also told him he should write a review for Filmmonthly.com. When the review popped up, I saw his name and, since it’s an unusual one, I contacted him to say, “Hey… didn’t I know you once?”

As for the Filmmonthly website, it’s still there, although A, D, and I passed it on to other people a long time ago, but since all three of us were the publishers for a long time, it’s unfortunately kind of hard to search for any of our reviews specifically there because our names are pretty much embedded in every page, although I can at least lead you to my deep analysis of the movie A.I., and my review of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut. And, to top that all off, my other in-depth analysis, of The Big Lebowski, wound up enshrined forever in that mythos in the book Lebowski 101.

But I do digress… All of that intro was by way of saying that I’ve known Hank and Sharyn forever, they are amazing people, they have certainly plugged me a lot to their clients, and in this latest seminar, Hank said something that initially really pissed me off.

It was a day dedicated to the importance of social media, and during the portion about blogging. (Side note: This blog itself only exists because they gave me a freebie bootcamp a couple of years ago, although Hank told me that it wasn’t me getting a freebie from them. Rather, it was them investing in me, and he was right.) Anyway, after they’d talked about the importance of creating content and so on, somebody asked, “What if you can’t write? Should you hire a ghostwriter?”

Hank’s immediate answer was, “No. You have to write it because it has to be in your own voice.”

And, honestly, my sudden instinct was to jump up and yell, “Oh, that’s bullshit!” I mean, one of the words on my business card is “ghostwriter,” and it’s basically what I did for a certain cable TV star for five years, creating a weekly column for his readers, along with maintaining the marketing and corporate voice for his website and magazine that entire time. Hell, my titles were Senior Editor and Head Writer.

On top of that, as an experienced and award-winning writer of plays, TV, film, short stories, and long-form fiction, I’ve got a lot of experience in writing in other voices. That’s what writers of fiction do — we speak as other people. And so one of the biggest talents I think that I bring to the corporate world is exactly that: the ability to write as someone else. Give me your voice, I’ll imitate the hell out of it.

But I refrained from saying anything during the bootcamp because, after all, it’s his and Sharyn’s show, so I’ve got no place in rocking the boat (or, as we say in improv, not “Yes, Anding” them), but then after he said it, I started to think a bit more on the concept, and realized that we’re sort of both right in different ways, especially as he explained his reasoning.

See, most of the people at this seminar were entrepreneurs — small business people, either running their own show or with a very small staff. And that does make a difference in establishing a corporate voice because they are most directly the voice of their own corporation or company. Why? Because when they go out to recruit or meet potential clients, it’s just them. It’s not their CFO, or CEO, or Marketing Team, or Social Media mavens, or copywriter because those people do not exist in their organizations. And, so, if all of those blog posts sound one way but, in person, they sound another, clients are going to rightfully sense the difference and nope right outta there because the person they met online and the person they met IRL don’t mesh up, so the person IRL sounds inauthentic.

Brand killer.

That was my own a-ha moment. Keep in mind that I can get tetchy when anyone says, “Hey… anyone can write!” My knee-jerk reaction is, “No. False.” But, you know what? It’s partly true, but let’s go through all the steps.

We all grow up using language. It’s what humans do. And, honestly, it’s what a ton of animals and birds do. Most primates, most cetaceans, pretty much every mammal, parrot, crow, octopus, and even some trees and fungus, whatever. Linking together a bunch of signals — whether words, sounds, images, smells, or chemicals — and having those linked signals relay a message from one entity to the other… that’s pretty much what all intelligent life does.

Boom. Communication. That is what language is. If you can successfully tell that driver, “Hey, hit the damn brakes so you don’t run over my baby,” whether you do it with words, screams, frantic hand waves, a sudden bouquet of smells or hormones, or a well-timed text, then you have communicated very effectively.

But… there’s a huge difference between “effective” and “well,” and I think this is where my feelings and Hank’s feelings on it both part and converge again.

Yes, everybody has their own unique voice, and that has to do with words they use and patterns of speech, and so on. But… the really important part is how all of those separate phrases and sentences and what not add up into a coherent story. And this is where what I do comes in.

If you’re an entrepreneur, should you write your own blogs? Oh, absolutely, but only sort of. Absolutely because, honestly, if you can talk, you can put words down in a written medium. Even if you can’t talk — most humans learn how to communicate with words, whether it’s in spoken language, sign language, or even just written down.

What most humans don’t learn is how to structure the mass of those words into an interesting and compelling story. This is where I come in, and where Hank and I came back into agreement not long after.

He phrased it the best, although I paraphrase it now, in terms of attorneys. “The man who represents himself has a fool for a client.” He followed that up with, “The person who edits their own writing, likewise,” and I could not agree more.

And that’s really what I do — I’m the third eye on your manuscript, I’m the midwife who makes sure to clean up and swaddle your baby before we dump it in your lap. I’m the guy who jumps in the way before you step out into traffic and shoves you back onto the curb, and I’m also a pretty big history and science nerd, so I will stop you from looking silly by knocking the anachronisms out of whatever you’re writing and polishing up the science. Final bonus points: I was raised by an amazing grammar-Nazi English teacher, so I’ll give you the same.

I’m not cheap, but I’m worth it. Trust me. If you want to raise your marketing antlers above the herd of crap that’s all over the place out there, then drop me a line. Rates are negotiable, and depend a lot on subject and page count. Hint: If you’re doing history or Sci-Fi, or your word count is under 40,000 let’s talk discounts. Scripts, plays, and screenplays also considered. But if you want to invest in your future and get some returns, then invest in me first, because I will definitely steer you there.

Four expressions that are older than you think

One of the things I do when I edit and fact-check other people’s books and scripts is to check for anachronisms, which are things that are out of their proper time. For example, let’s say that a major plot element in a thriller is a stolen thumb drive with the names of every undercover agent on it. That’s a great MacGuffin… unless you set your script before 2000, when USB thumb drives were not commercially available. (At a stretch, I’d give you 1999, since we’d be dealing with governmental agencies and all that.)

A very common one that I’ve seen so many times that it’s one of my first searches on period pieces is use of the term “Ms.” Well, not all period pieces, since any story set before 2009 is now considered a period piece, but definitely those that are set before about 1972, which is when the term started to become part of mainstream vernacular. Oddly enough, though, it was first proposed as a neutral alternative to Mrs. and Miss as early as 1901, although it was used as a written abbreviation of “mistress” only as far back as the 17th century. Keep in mind, though, that this usage had nothing to do with treating women as equals and everything to do with male scribes figuring out how to spare themselves writing six letters by hand every time they recorded a record about a single female.

But this brings up an interesting point. Technically, yes the term “Ms.” is a lot older than you’d think. On the other hand, its usage in its modern sense pretty much began as noted above, in the early 1970s. There are other expressions, though, that really are a lot older than you think, so in the spirit of my story about inventions that are older than you think, here we go.

Robot

We haven’t quite perfected the fully autonomous humanoid robot, although Honda’s ASIMO has come close. Keep in mind, though, that they’ve been working on it for over thirty years now. And, surprisingly, while there’s a certain resemblance to the name of a famous science fiction author, the name ASIMO really refers to “Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility.”

The author in question, Isaac Asimov, is famous for writing a lot of both science fiction and science fact, but one of his series, I, Robot, is famous for establishing the Laws of Robotics. However, while they’ve always been popular with science fiction fans, they really didn’t explode onto the scene until a kind of lame 2004 film adaptation, although if you’ve ever owned a Roomba, Scooba, Braava, or Mirra, then you’ve done business with the iRobot. But either of these would probably make you think that robots are a fairly recent invention.

Of course, if you owned any kind of modem between the 1970s and mid-1990s, it might have come from the company US Robotics. Guess where they got their name… That’s right. Also Asimov.

But if you’re only a film fan and not a tech or science fiction nerd, you might think that robots were created in the 1950s, with the appearance of Robby the Robot in the film Forbidden Planet. Never mind that, at least in literature, Asimov got to robots by 1940, because that’s still too early.

The actual origin of the word “robot” is in a 1920 play by Karel Čapek called R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. He adapted that word from an old Church Slavonic term rabota, which meant slave or serf. And if you’d like to, you can listen to a reading of the play itself.

To do someone

If someone were to say to you, “Hey, do me,” you’d probably take it in a sexual sense, right? And that also seems like a really modern usage of the phrase. Just thinking back through pop culture, I have it my head that Austin Powers said something like, “Oh, do me, baby” (he didn’t,”) but the slang must have begun with the Beatles in 1968 on the White Album, with the song “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.”

I really couldn’t find any clear sources for “do it” or “to do” in a sexual sense back from 1968, but I did find one from 1588, in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which reads as follows:

                                   DEMETRIUS
     Villain, what hast thou done?

                                     AARON
     That which thou canst not undo.

                                    CHIRON
     Thou hast undone our mother.

                                     AARON
     Villain, I have done thy mother.

If you doubt this reading, then just take a look at this scene from Julie Taymor’s brilliant adaptation, and you’ll see that it’s exactly how Willie Shakes intended it to read.

Motherfucker

You might think that this one was invented by Samuel L. Jackson, who uses it so eloquently, or maybe it was a product of the 1960s. While the movie M*A*S*H infamously was the first major motion picture to use the back half of the word, it was Myra Breckinridge that turned things on its head by using the word in full, but bleeping “mother” instead of “fucker.”

Prior to the 1960s, this term is alleged to have been used by slaves in America before the Civil War to describe owners who would rape the slaves’ mothers as a psychological breaking tactic, but this probably isn’t true. The earliest attestations come from a court case in 1889, so its origin probably dates back a bit earlier than that, although in the case documents it’s an adjective, motherfucking, instead of the noun, motherfucker. The noun form didn’t pop up until 1917, when a black soldier referred to the draft board as “low-down motherfuckers.”

Seeing pink elephants

This is an old expression to indicate either that someone was habitually drunk or they were an alcoholic experiencing DTs due to lack of booze. Nowadays, the expression has mostly fallen out of use with the understanding that alcoholism is a disease, and nothing to joke about, although it’s still a part of pop culture because of Disney’s original 1941 version of Dumbo, but that isn’t the origin of the expression or the idea. And while it is frequently attributed to Jack London in his 1913 novel John Barleycorn, it actually goes back a bit farther than that, to sometime between 1883 and 1903, ten years before that book came out. It had a lot to do with the disappointment of audiences who were expecting to see a rare white elephant — white because of its albinism — but the beasts actually turned out to be closer to pink. In case you haven’t seen it, the scene in Dumbo is an incredible bit of animated surrealism called “Pink Elephants on Parade” — and I swear that the animators hid one of those infamous Disney toon penises at about the 2:40 mark. Watch the elephant’s trunk.

What’s your favorite slang expression that’s a lot older than people think?

Momentous Monday: Us and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

It’s no exaggeration to say that 2020 has been rough on everyone. It started with Australia on fire and the death of Kobe Bryant, and then just went pear-shaped from there.

We hadn’t even made it to the start of spring when everything went on hold. For me, “normal” started to leave my world in early March, when my improv company shut down — cutting me off from one job as well as a weekly chance to perform that I truly enjoyed.

It came to a full stop on March 20, when Los Angeles shut down a day after San Francisco did. In a lot of ways, I was fortunate because I’d had an unemployment claim from earlier in 2019 that was still active, so didn’t have the problems signing up for it that other people apparently did.

Although I didn’t get the full amount of unemployment because I hadn’t worked enough in the target periods they looked at, that extra $600 per week from the Federal government helped (thanks, Congressional Democrats!)

So, I stayed at home mostly, with weekly masked trips to the grocery store, and it was amazing to see how quickly the two places I regularly went to — RiteAid and Ralphs — adapted. At the same time, though, a lot of Americans acted like selfish little children.

Some states were slow to react if at all, the Federal government totally dropped the ball, and while places like New Zealand got a handle on it (it helps to be an island nation), the U.S., not so much, so that as of now over 200,000 people have died.

Every month seemed to bring something new. In April, we had rumors of “Murder Hornets,” which didn’t really pan out, but then May brought us the death of George Floyd. This on top of so many other murders of Black Americans at the hands of the police set off a wave of fury and protests, which had the side-effect of finally making White American racists reveal themselves.

The end of May brought us people who just couldn’t resist celebrating Memorial Day without masks or social distancing, boosting the plague numbers even more.

It wasn’t pretty. And natural disasters didn’t help. Puerto Rico was pounded by multiple earthquakes of greater than magnitude 5 at the beginning of the year when they still haven’t recovered from hurricane Maria in 2017.

June brought us a couple of gun-toting lawyers threatening protestors marching past their house, and July had more protests, violent counter-protests, and the like.

In August, wildfires started in the west and the Administration started fucking with the USPS. By September, the entire west coast was on fire, while the gulf coast and other points in the south were being slammed by one hurricane or tropical storm after another.

And, of course, 2020 also brought personal disasters to a lot of us. Back on May 1, I lost my beloved dog Sheeba, who was almost 16. She didn’t even start to show symptoms until Monday night, and was gone by Friday afternoon.

A lot of people I know have suffered similar losses. Maybe it’s just a matter of selective attention because I went through it, maybe not, but a lot of my friends seemed to lose dogs or cats this year. And many other lost people, friends and family, to diseases not necessarily COVID-related. There were a notable number of cancer deaths, too.

And then there are those friends of mine who suddenly have to deal with parents of a certain age and declining mental condition who are going to require either placement in a senior care center or some other professional care, and the need for the young to stay away from the elderly in the wake of this pandemic just complicates issues enormously — especially when the kids live in an entirely different city than their parent or parents.

But all of these things, every single damn one of them, pales in comparison to the biggest disaster that has befallen the U.S. yet this year, and has put us into unknown territory that we are going to have to navigate through very carefully.

I’m talking, of course, about the death last Friday of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She was the last bulwark protecting the Supreme Court from falling into fascist, reactionary hands for a generation, and the greatest hope of progressives was that she’d live until the inauguration, then announce her retirement as soon as Joe Biden was sworn in.

I won’t even get into the utter hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell saying he’ll ram through whomever Trump nominates when he refused the same courtesy to Barack Obama because “it was too close to the election” (eight months beforehand)  when this one comes up less than seven weeks before.

So… call your senators, especially if yours has an R after their name. Remind them of the 2016 “McConnell Doctrine,” and demand that they follow it. Let the Voters Decide!

And then damn well vote in November, and vote like the future of this country depends on it, because it does. Do we fully become Nazi Germany circa 1939, or pull back from the brink and return to sanity?

That choice is in your hands… for now. But if we fuck it up in November, we may lose that power forever, and this experiment in Democracy ends.

Sunday Nibble #35: A life online

The world may be going to hell in a very big handbasket, and whether we’re all going to die of the plague, roast to death as temperatures rise (either drowning in the rising seas or choking on the endless smoke or both), or we’ll perish in a WW III most likely started by a collapsing and fully fascist United States of America.

Or we could luck out and turn things around. But one thing I have to marvel at is what an amazing era of technology we live in. It’s only the beginning, but we’ve gotten pretty far, pretty fast.

Now, I happen to be of that part of Gen X that has never not been online at any point in their adult lives. In fact, I used a networked computer before I got my driver’s license, way back at the tender age of 15.

But… I was an adult before the founding of either Google (1998) or Wikipedia (2001), and although I wrote all of my scripts and such on computers, I still had to rely on analog research methods until the beginning of this century — mostly libraries and books.

For one black comedy set during the Civil War, my research was pretty much limited to the big book of Ken Burns The Civil War documentary, with occasional library trips and heavy use of my handy Columbia Desk Encyclopedia.

Damn, at one time, I had a huge personal reference library full of dictionaries, specific encyclopedias, writers’ reference books on various subjects that pertained to a particular genre — I think I had Crime and Science Fiction — as well as buttload of foreign language grammars and translating to English dictionaries, including ones like Old English, Hebrew, Hawaiian, Gaelic, Arabic, and Japanese.

Side note: I’ve made a sincere effort in my life time to learn ten languages besides English. I managed fluency in one (Spanish) and, through that, the ability to kind of read and understand one that I studied but could never hear the pronunciation of and another that I never studied (French and Portuguese, respectively), know more than I should but nowhere near enough of the language of the country my last name comes from (German), two for specific purposes of script writing (Italian and Norwegian), two just to try out non-Latin alphabets (Japanese and Russian), one because there seem to be a lot of tall, hot men from there (Dutch), one because the opportunity came up through a theatre company I was in (ASL, until our teacher moved), and one because it’s spoken in the country from whence came half of my genetic heritage (Irish Gaelic).

Funny story, though. Spanish and German are the only two languages that I studied in school. The rest but three were on my own, and most of those were before the internet days. At best, I managed to find recorded lessons to listen to in the car, and for a while I got pretty fluent at basic Russian, but that was about it. As for the other two, once I left school, I kind of lost my abilities in either for a long time.

I remember one particularly informative moment when I traveled to Mexico with an ex, who was himself half Mexican on his father’s side, and realized once we got down there that I couldn’t understand shit, and I couldn’t say shit beyond very simple phrases — that despite studying Spanish in school for five years.

So… I used to have to try to learn languages through books or, if I were lucky, from a human teacher, but good luck with any kind of immersion in it. Likewise, in writing any kind of reality-based fiction, the research was tedious and time-consuming.

And then came the internet. Sure, in the early days (and I was there on the ground floor) you really couldn’t look up shit. I did happen to work for one of the first companies to jump into it with both feet.

This happened to be The Community Yellow Pages, a publication for the Lesbian and Gay community started in 1969 by Jeanne Córdova, who is a piece of lesbian history herself, and whom I was fortunate enough to have known.

She started the guide as a very thin phonebook with both Yellow (commercial) and White (residential) pages, and it was a way to advertises businesses that were either gay-friendly, or owned by gay people and, probably, the white pages part was a de facto but not really acknowledged dating section. (It was eventually discontinued.)

Anyway… 1994 rolls around, the internet is just getting going and, because one of Jeanne’s (many) siblings lives near Silicon Valley and is very tapped into what’s going on, that sibling (a younger sister) convinces her that online is the way to go.

I only worked for the CYP a couple of years, but it was an interestingly schizo time, because we were simultaneously selling people on this paper edition that would come out once a year, along with this electronic thing that could be searched from anywhere and which could be updated if needed.

And… the paper version was by far the best-seller. Bonus points: at that time, we could have done the layout digitally, but didn’t, and so for the few months leading up to publication, we had an actual layout artist come in and physically paste-up the boards that would be photocopied to create the masters for the final run.

Eventually, though, the sleeping giant of the internet’s potential awakened in quick order, first with Google indexing everything, and then Wikipedia accumulating knowledge.

And say what you want about the latter, but over time the ol’ Wiki has really become a stellar example of the “wisdom of crowds” concept. Plus which, it should never be a primary source, but just a guide to finding the same, which are now also all over the internet.

So researching and writing became a lot easier, but so did learning languages, especially after the launch of Duolingo in 2012, as well as the realization that it’s possible to set devices like phones and computers into other languages — and that cars have radios, which make possible both language-learning podcasts over modern tech or, depending on language, radio stations in the target language via old tech.

So those of us with computers, tablets, phones, or other devices, have access to the biggest research library ever assembled. It definitely dwarfs the fabled Library of Alexandria, and most likely has a lot more material than the Library of Congress — which would fit on ten single terabyte hard drives, by the way.

And it’s not just books and stuff like that. It’s full of music, movies, photos, and everything else that humans have left in their wake, all of it there to access either for free or for a nominal fee.

So if we make it through this Anno Horribilis of 2020, then maybe we’ll make it further and continue to see technology make leaps and bounds that our grandparents could never have even imagined.