Sunday Nibble #13: Taking pause

I don’t know what designation historians will come up with for the year 2020 — or even if it will be limited to just one year — but it will definitely be one of those great cultural markers that represents a hard stop, an irrefutable before and after point in human history.

It’s also going to have that significance in every single country and culture on the planet, and I can’t even think of a precedent in all of human history. There are certainly hard stops that had far-ranging though limited effects, like the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of the Aztec Empire, and the Reconquista, to mention three that mostly affected the western world.

Larger regions were affected by things like the Napoleonic Wars, and both the Great War and its unimaginatively named sequel World War II — but there were places that largely escaped the direct influence of those events. Asia, Australia, and most of Africa were untouched by Napoleon.

The World Wars may not have directly threatened every country on every continent, but may have indirectly changed things for them. It certainly changed world politics forever by leaving us with the Cold War and its aftermath.

This current plague is different in that no country on the planet has escaped it, and no person in the world is unaffected, period.

It’s as if the entire planet has become London in 1666, when the entire city was shut down by plague. The bad news there is that the thing that effectively ended it was the Great Fire of London, which destroyed densely populated and impoverished areas, driving out the rats that carried the fleas that were the ultimate cause of the disease. The true human death toll isn’t known.

Contemporary writers claimed that few people perished, but the fire burned so hot that entire communities could have been cremated without leaving any evidence behind.

It does feel, though, like we’re going to see another Great Fire in a metaphorical sense, as old institutions and ways collapse, never to exist again. If the lockdowns and lack of governmental help last long enough, then we may see widespread revolutions. At the very least, there may be general strikes that will starve the ruling classes of their income.

There is hope in the darkness, though, and I see it whenever I take the dog on a very limited walk and look up at the sky to see how clean it is. We’ve also had a lot more rain here than we’ve had for a while, and it’s unseasonal. It feels like the planet has decided to take a shower and clean up while we’re all inside.

I have friends who are at home sewing masks and others who are making videos or hosting shows on Zoom to keep people entertained. Still others are making sure that friends get things they need if they don’t have them, all while social distancing.

My improv group has been meeting regularly on Mondays via Zoom for some mutual self-care and to perform, and the main ComedySportz L.A. improv company itself has been having online shows that have been selling out every Saturday night.

I’ve seen very little in the way of stupid directly and for the most part people are maintaining social distance and wearing masks. The few moments of stupid I’ve seen haven’t been recent, and were in the grocery store, when a large group of people, generally youngish, and clearly probably not all living, together would come in to hit the liquor aisle and then all stand really close to each other.

Currently, the only stupid I’ve seen are the very few people who’ve gone to the grocery store without a mask or, extra special stupid, they’ve had a mask, but it’s pulled down so that it doesn’t cover their nose.

Sigh.

I do think that there’s a special place in hell, though, for a few Instagram “influencers” I’ve noticed who are still going out into the world to shoot their “OMG this is so fucking important” bullshit. I won’t mention names of the offenders, but one in particular was stupid enough to post time-stamped video of a bunch of unmasked people working in what I assume is some sort communal office space, or a group of people riding in the same van very close together.

Oh yeah, in that one, the person shooting also shows the speedometer, and ass-boy is doing 125 mph down the highway — while one of the group is standing in the back of the van.

I will mention one influencer who’s doing the right thing: Juanpa Zurita, who is stuck in isolation with his entire family somewhere in Mexico. They’ve been spending their time making masks and face guards for health care workers, not going outside, as well as pranking each other, and otherwise just being entertaining.

So, I don’t know. Maybe future historians will call this period “The Year When the World Stayed at Home,” or “The Great Pause,” or “The Global Reset.”

Another name for it might be “The Darwin Awards Ultimate World Championship.”

I am doing my best to not win any awards in that competition, and I hope that you are, too. Tomorrow was originally supposed to be the end of the lockdown here in L.A., but it was extended to May 15 over a week ago. I’m not holding out any hope that that date won’t be extended, either.

But whatever it takes to pull the planet through this, let’s just team up and do it.

The Saturday Morning Post #11

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 11. 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 novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. In this one, our new narrator, Edna, has an encounter with a character from Chapter 2

LOST AND FOUND

This has definitely been a very strange week of ups and downs, literally and figuratively. Last Tuesday, I saw my pet project destroyed by a natural disaster, and one that most Californians are not fully insured for. On the other hand, one of my favorite tenants was pulled out of the wreckage alive, and I hear that she’s found a new place to live down the street.

But… my building was red tagged, meaning that it’s going to be pulled, and I’ll be left with an empty lot worth far less, although I’m sure that some wealthy developer will spot it, offer to pay me less than market value, and then turn it into housing priced out of the range of most people in this neighborhood in the continuing gentrification parade.

Oh, the city has done some things to battle these evil bastards, but not enough. They’ve only managed to severely reduce and cap rents in certain parts of the city, but developers, who have always had the City Council in their back pockets, have also gotten laws passed that eliminate all rent control or caps on properties within two miles of a Metro station. Unfortunately, we are well within this distance, but I absolutely refused to raise my rents to sky-high levels.

It was so promising back during the plague days, too. Six months of no rents, no mortgages, and no property taxes. And we somehow survived it, like we’re surviving this quake. Except that after the vaccine, people went back to being their greedy, selfish selves. Well, some of them did. A lot of them got turned out of office, but their replacements… not much better.

As for this place, I’ve owned it since the early 80s. It was originally a small hotel, and the only reason it wasn’t a motel is because all of the parking was off of the alley in the back instead of in front of the rooms. The layout was a basic square with an empty middle where the swimming pool and courtyard lived. There was a small office up front, and multipurpose community room in back. When I bought it, I left the ice machines in place for that nostalgic touch, as well as the laundry rooms because they were necessary. While I had been able to convert the original 10 suites and 50 rooms into 10 two-bedrooms, 40 one-bedrooms, and 20 studios, there was no room in any of them for washing machines. Besides, back then, laundromats were plentiful and cheap and it was not considered an amenity.

I was only breaking even on this place, but that didn’t matter. It had been a good emotional investment. Besides, I had plenty of properties that did make me money. I had followed the advice I’d heard from my father constantly back in Schenectady: “Invest in real estate. It’s the one thing that never loses value because they’re not making more of it.”

Once I’d made my money, I did, but I’ll save that part for later. I mostly invested it in income properties managed by other people and kept it all at arm’s length, but then one day I found out about a place that intrigued me.

It was the Starlight Hotel in Koreatown, and I jumped on it, because the asking price was pocket change. Sure, if I did what I wanted, I’d never make money off of the property, but I made up for that by briefly going into the business of flipping houses, but only doing it in rich neighborhoods and only selling at inflated prices to assholes who had more money than they deserved.

Okay, maybe there’s a conflict there because I am raising prices in one place and not the other. Then again, nobody who isn’t filthy rich was ever going to buy a house in Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Malibu, Woodland Hills, or Brentwood anyway.

I rebranded the place as the Starlight Apartments and opened it up for tenants in January 1984, but I was as selective as legally possible, looking for people who most needed cheap housing, favoring gay people, and people of color, and even senior citizens, thinking that I could give them an education in tolerance in the bargain.

I kept the rent low, and my favorite tenant, Cindy, moved in something like more than thirty years ago. Technically, she didn’t fit my original criteria at the time, but she had some medical experience as a vet tech, which could always be useful. What I was charging her for a two-bedroom was less than most of the shitholes around here were charging for studios that had shared bathrooms, no kitchens, and no parking.

I don’t believe in raising the rents here, but I’ve preferred to keep this place a word-of-mouth secret… and then, in a few minutes on a Tuesday in April, bang. Gone. And the annoying part is not the loss of property. What I regret is that this was the only property I’d ever bought in order to help out people with their rent, and I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to rebuild because that expense itself might be too much.

The Monday after the quake, I was sitting out in front of the tents we’d set up on the sidewalk, enjoying a coffee with some tenants when a young man in a suit walked up.

“Hi,” he said. “My name is Adrian. Adrian Miller. Do you know who owns this property?”

“Me. Edna,” I reply, immediately hating him. “It’s not for sale.”

“Well, it’s not in the greatest shape, either,” he says, and I wonder whether punching him in the throat would be considered a crime given the circumstances.

“It is not for sale,” I repeat emphatically.

“I know,” he replies. “But is it up for rehab?”

This catches me off guard. “Um… what do you mean?” I ask.

“Was it fully insured?”

“Not for earthquakes.”

“I see. And after the deductible and all that, are you able to finance reconstruction?”

“Hell no,” I tell him. “So, what do you want? Because if it’s to buy and gentrify the hell out of this space, you can fuck right off.”

He stares at me a beat, and then just laughs.

“Oh, Edna, gentrifying is the farthest thing from my boss’ mind.”

That catches me off guard even more — not just his statement, but the proof that he was actually paying attention to me as a human-being when I said my name.

“Okay, Adrian,” I reply. “Tell me more.”

“Great,” he says, taking the offered camp chair before launching into it. “We’ve been walking neighborhoods since the quake, seeing how we can help out, and I had a very interesting conversation with a woman who’s living at that theater center down the street. The one who was your former tenant…”

“Cindy,” I said and he nodded.

“And she told me all about what you’d done for the tenants in your building, which is exactly the kind of thing my boss wants to support.”

“Who’s your boss, Bill Gates?”

“No. He prefers to stay out of the public eye, so you’ve probably never heard of him. Toby Arnott. How many units was the place?”

“It had 70 units on three floors,” I explained.

“Hm. We could probably make the replacement bigger — ”

“Absolutely not,” I cut him off. “I’d prefer it to look as much like the original as possible.”

“I suppose that all depends on the codes,” he said. “Obviously, it will be updated to whatever is current when the contractor pulls the permits, but the outside could look like the original, I suppose.”

“So how exactly would this deal work?” I asked him. “This isn’t some sneaky way to buy my land without it looking like that, is it?”

“No. Toby has set up a foundation for earthquake recovery, so it would be a charitable project. At the end of it, you’d still own the land and the building. We’d just ask that you continue to rent it out the way you have been, and at the rates you’d been charging, with priority to any former tenants who want to return.”

“It sounds like I’m not the only one you’re doing this for.”

He just smiled. “Actually, you’re the first one we found that’s worth doing it for. Well, the first apartment. I think we’re going to be investing in that theater company, too.”

“I’d need to see a contract and have my lawyers look at it first.”

“Of course. The next step is to bring Toby down here to meet you and see the lot. I’ll research what the building did look like, too. Oh. Do you know what arrangements your tenants have made?”

“Some of them moved back home, as in out of state. Others are staying with friends and family. I got all of their new contact info first so I can get them their deposits back, and luckily I saved the hard drives with all of the tenant records on them.”

“And you?”

“For the moment, living in one of those tents over there.”

“Well, we’ll have to change that. If you can wait a couple of days, we’ll find a long-term rental we can put you up in during the reconstruction.”

“Assuming the deal happens.”

“No, we’d do that part even without the deal.” He quickly checked his phone. Ah. The boss wants me to meet up where he’s at, but we’ll both be back around soon. Do you know of any other apartments or businesses you’d suggest we stop in at?”

I mention a few — one other landlord I know also isn’t a gouger, and a couple of family-owned shops on the street. He thanks me and heads off, and I don’t know what to think about it all.

Los Angeles was such a different place when I came here. It was right after I graduated college, May, 1969. No traffic, everything was cheap, and there was a sense that the sexual and hippie revolution that had started in San Francisco a couple of years before had finally sort of made it down here. The smog was horrible, and people smoked everywhere — elevators, movie theaters, hospitals. Hell, even doctors would puff away during exams.

None of us would even think that this was abnormal until about the mid-80s.

But… what else? Oh yeah. This was the year of mainstream movies rated X. Midnight Cowboy. That one came out the same month I’d come to L.A. Of course, this was also when “adult cinemas” sprang up advertising “XXX Movies!!!” Three X’s and three exclamations must have meant that they were three times as dirty, and they were. The month after I arrived, those riots happened at that gay bar in New York, and they would wind up changing everything more than I would have ever thought, especially for me.

I was young, ambitious, and naïve, and so wound up in early July going to an “audition” in a second floor office that was above Frederick’s of Hollywood, of all places. This was a business well-known for selling sexy lingerie, although the offices above it had nothing to do with the business below it. That’s even what the receptionist told me as I signed in.

“Everyone thinks the same thing when they come in, dear, but don’t worry. The guys downstairs don’t own the businesses upstairs.”

“I guess that’s a relief,” I say as I hand her my headshot and resume, and she laughs, a little too earnestly. “Right through there… Edna,” she adds after glancing at the name on my headshot.

I enter the waiting room and it’s surreal. One side is lined with women I could swear are my duplicates — we didn’t have the word “clone” back then, but we were all clearly of a type. On the other side sat an equally similar line of young men, every one of them tall, skinny, pale, with black hair, brown eyes, high cheekbones, and hawkish noses that complimented everything about them perfectly.

I was getting a bad feeling about this, although I had no idea that I was somehow predicting a movie line that would become famous in eight years.

A woman came out of the office finally and called two of us in — “Edna Ferris, and… Stony Boon?”

Okay, I couldn’t help but think that that was a stage name. On the other hand, the guy I walked in with was easy on the eyes and introduced himself with a deep, soft voice and strong but gentle handshake. “Stony Boon,” he said, then added in a whisper, “And no. It’s not.”

We entered the inner office and the woman who called us left, closing the door. It was a small room with one desk, and a rotund, middle-aged man in clothes that were two decades too young for him, obvious toupee, and with a cigar in his mouth. Lit, of course.

Now, before Stony could tell me his real name, it was obvious that he knew something I didn’t, and was quickly flinging his clothes off, so that in about ten seconds, he was butt-ass naked and facing the director with no shame.

“Hi, Doug!” he called out, cheerily.

“Hey, Stony. Always a pleasure. Have you met…” glances at my docs, then grimaces, “Edna… honey, we’ll have to change that.”

“I did in the hall,” he says, looking at me, “But I’d like to get to know her.”

And then it all gets awkward. I don’t know where to look. I mean, okay. Stony, or whoever he really is, actually is pretty goddamn hot, although I’m doing my best to look at everything but little Stony, which ain’t that little. At the same time, I’m feeling this weird impatience from Doug, the director, while Stony just looks confused.

“Honey, did you read the sides?” Doug finally asks me.

“Oh, yeah, sure. I recognized it immediately. Shakespeare. Much Ado About Nothing.”

“Right, you read the text, but it’s a screenplay. Did you read the action?”

“Um… no. Sorry,” I replied. Doug sighed, but Stony jumped to my defense and I don’t know why. “She’s a stage-actress, man. Don’t blame her. The first thing stage directors tell actors is to ignore the directions.”

“Well, fuck,” Doug says. “That’s why I don’t do theater,” although he pronounces it as “Thee-uh-TAH” with contempt. “If you’d read the directions, you’d know that this is the scene where Hero and Borachio fuck.”

“I’m sorry… what?” I ask him.

“You have read the play right?” he demands.

“I’ve done it four times, and I’ve played Hero twice and, trust me, she and Borachio never… have relations. That’s the entire point of the whole play.”

“Not in my version, honey. Have you even seen Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet?”

“Of course I have,” I reply.

“And, in that one, they fuck.”

“They pretty much did in the original, too,” I tell him.

“Ooh. You’re uppity. I like it. Maybe I should consider you for my Marquis de Sade movie.”

“What?” Stony and I say in unison.

“Oh, honey, don’t you get uppity, too,” Doug says, clearly addressing Stony. “I can put you back in those Fire Island Fantasy flicks in a heartbeat.”

This seems to humble Stony a bit and I’m on the verge of walking out when Doug says, “Okay. Which Shakespeare couple — who actually fuck — would you like to play with your leading man here?”

Since I’m now convinced that this Doug guy doesn’t know Shakespeare from his own asshole, I snap back, “Kate and Petrucchio,” and he leaps out of his chair. “Brilliant!” he screams. “The Taming of the Screw! It’s perfect. Let’s see that audition…”

Friday Free-for-All #10

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 skill or ability have you always wanted to learn?

This one is easy. I have always wanted to learn how to create visual art by hand. Oh, sure, I learned how do it with a camera as a kid because that’s one of the things my dad did and shared with me; and I’m pretty skilled at graphic design with a computer, but drawing, painting, sketching, and all that kind of visual art has always eluded me.

I have friends who do it, and do it quite well.

Now, oddly enough, I once attempted sculpting and was actually good at it, creating a pretty detailed and accurate human bust as part of a larger art project that I never quite finished. See, I have always been into puppets, and at one point had quite a collected of animal hand puppets acquired over the years.

Nowadays, it’s limited to one, and the largest I ever owned. It’s a sheepdog puppet named Barkley, who was a gift from an ex’s sister and her girlfriend as a thanks for us hosting them on a visit to L.A. and after I’d mentioned in a toy store that I was into puppets.

He was livid that they’d spent so much. Then again, he was toxic, and I dumped him long ago.

But I kept Barkley, and for a long time I worked on that marionette. The reason for the clay sculpture was to create the basis for the mold that would be covered with wood paste and sanded down to become the head and shoulders of the thing.

I was following instructions from a book, and got so far as creating the basic body — arms, legs and all — as well as the clothes to cover it. What I never got to were the hands, feet, and stringing it up, mainly because those last limbs were hard to find at scale, I wasn’t going to sculpt hands, and I never nerved up enough to go out and buy baby shoes in the right size.

So my handless and footless marionette was abandoned over a decade ago when I basically had to evacuate with only the essentials, and that was my one brush with any kind of practical art.

Oh, sure, I’ve attempted to draw and sketch and cartoon and paint, but always with… laughable results. It’s kind of like if you put my writing skills and my arting skills on a scale, the writing side will slam down so hard that it’ll launch my non-existent arting skills to beyond the Moon.

And that’s what I wish weren’t true. I’d love nothing more for the both of them to be equal.

Number two on the list is to learn a stringed instrument — guitar first, banjo or fiddle second, except that that’s kind of a weak get, because I learned how to play bass long ago, and it’s got strings, just fewer, and easier fingering for people like me with really big hands.

Then again, the instrument thing is a cheat, because music does translate over. If I know on a keyboard that a fifth is this many keys apart, for example, it’s easy to learn the idea that a fifth is one string over and this many frets down, an octave might be two strings over and so many frets, and all the other intervals are at easily relative places.

Hell, I grew up playing an accordion, and the bass system on one of those is much closer to the method that stringed instruments use. So the only problem I ever had with learning to play a stringed instrument was the contorted position I had to twist my left hand into.

There was never any such twisting on the accordion. Or, maybe there was, but I just didn’t notice because I was only seven years old. Still — the Circle of Fifths is the universal key to being a musician. As far as I know, there is no such similar thing that covers being a visual artist.

While visual art does have a similar Circle of Color, it teaches you nothing about how to do that art. But — epiphany — I’ve just realized that the Circle of Fifths does nothing on its own to teach you how to do that music.

A-ha moment.

And so… my artistic modes are mostly audio and technical, with an accidentally successful foray into tactile that I have yet to repeat. I would love nothing more than to get into the visual, and learn how to sketch, draw, or paint stuff.

I guess it could happen, but I just need to find time to do it…

Oh, wait. We’re on quarantine now. Sweet…

Theatre Thursday: Aphra and Edna

On April 16 and 279 years apart, two pioneering women writers passed away. One was British, born in 1640 and died in 1689. The other was American, born in 1885 and died in 1968.

The former was Aphra Behn and the latter was Edna Ferber. You may or may not know those names, and you probably don’t know any of Ms. Behn’s works, but you’ve definitely heard of a couple of Ferber’s, whether you’ve seen them or not, especially if you’re a film or theatre nerd.

Still… Aphra Behn was the trailblazer who made a career like Edna’s even possible, and while she was not the first published playwright in Restoration Era England, she was the most prolific female writer of the period, and the second most prolific overall after John Dryden.

And yet, like Shakespeare, little is known of her early life or even origins. She may or may not have been a spy in Dutch Suriname for King Charles II of England, although she probably did marry a Johan (or Johann or John) Behn. The marriage didn’t last, but she kept his name, crediting herself professionally as Mrs. A. Behn.

She actually was a spy for King Charles during the Second Anglo-Dutch war of 1665, and worked in Antwerp. Ironically, being posted to Antwerp spared her the ravages of the plague that swept London in 1666.

Of course, the king didn’t exactly reimburse her for her expenses as a spy, so she returned to England in poverty. It was only the re-opening of the theatres and the need for new plays that allowed her to earn a living.

In fact, she was one of the first English women to earn her living by writing, so she set the path for future generations. She also didn’t shy away from sexuality or sexual subjects — a scandal for the time, even though male authors likewise didn’t. For example, her poem The Disappointment is all about a young shepherd who just plain loses his boner while he’s trying to satisfy a nymph.

But now from the Aphra to the Edna, the latter being a 20th century writer whose works tended to feature strong female leading characters, along with a major secondary character who belonged to a particularly oppressed class, frequently for ethnic reasons.

Edna Ferber herself was Jewish, and America wasn’t exactly so open-armed towards Jews at the time she wrote, but that identity was important to her as well. Then again, it helped that she won the Pulitzer at 40 for her book So Big. The follow-up novel to that, Show Boat, became the basis of a hit musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein.

She was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, featured in the film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, starring my patronus, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Another notable work of hers, Giant, was adapted into the film of the same name, which starred James Dean and Rock Hudson, among others, garnered both of them Oscar nominations, and won the award for Best Director for George Stevens. What a lot of people miss about this film is that the character played by Mercedes McCambridge, Luz Benedict, is pretty much coded as a lesbian in 50s movie terms. Strong woman, doing a man’s job, no male love interest around — and dies because she tried to take on a man’s role and literally couldn’t handle a horse.

No, really. That happened.

Still, when it came to slamming their heads through glass ceilings for writers (sort of), these women were two of the pioneers. Even then, J.K. Rowling might not have been successful if she’d published as Joanne Rowling. Anne Rice did make a mark for herself under her own name in the 70s, but… unlike J.K., who was a billionaire until she gave too much away, Rice never got that rich, despite creating a bigger fictional universe.

And one has to wonder — was it because she didn’t have a male first name?

In case you’re doing the math, Rice has written close to 40 books, most of them in the Vampire/Gothic universe she created. Rowling is up to about… maybe a dozen-ish? And yet, J.K. makes a lot more money than Anne.

To be fair, though, Rowling’s kiddie wizard genre just naturally has a much larger fan-base, and the vast majority of her income no doubt comes from the movies and merchandising. Have you seen the prices on the stuff they sell in the Wizarding World section of Universal Studios?

Meanwhile, Rice’s series of vampire chronicles were never as family friendly and will always appeal to a much smaller, niche audience. It also didn’t help that while Hollywood managed an excellent adaptation of Rice’s first book in the series, Interview with the Vampire, they totally whiffed it when they combined her next two books in the series into Queen of the Damned.

Never a good sign when you replace your A-List leading actor with a lesser-known performer. Or try to combine two books that are already full stories into one movie that doesn’t do justice to either. The Queen of the Damned was, I think, the last book in the series I’d read before Prince Lestat came out. The only way to do it justice would be to adapt the entire story, as it’s told in the book, as a limited streaming series.

I suppose, for Rowling and Rice, these are all rather “first world” problems to have — and I put that phrase in scare quotes because it doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means, since it’s a political designation, not an economic one.

But Madams Rowling and Rice, and all other female writers in the modern English-speaking world, got where they are thanks to the pioneers who came before them. Edna Ferber helped pave the way in the 20th Century, and Aphra Behn stepped through the door to start the journey in the 17th.

The fact that both of them died on the same day of the year is just one of those strange coincidences that strengthens the connection between them across time.

Image: Portrait of Aphra Behn by Peter Lely, c. 1670. Public domain. 

Wednesday Wonders: Sometimes, you just need to LEGO

Okay, yes. I’m a grown-ass adult man, but that doesn’t mean that I’m still not a huge fan of LEGO, and I know a lot of other grown-ass adults who are as well. Hell, (pun intended), you can even read the Bible in LEGO.

Personally, when I was in the hospital for a weekend in 2016, watching The LEGO Movie on cable from my room really lifted my spirits. Everything is awesome, although it did suck that Juan Gabriel, el divo de Juarez, died the same Saturday night I was in there.

But for us kids of many generations, one of our fondest childhood playthings were those LEGO Building System sets that might start out as some generic 120 piece kit for building a car or an airplane or a rocket, and then would grow.

LEGO is basically Minecraft IRL Well, to be fair, Minecraft is basically LEGO online. And, as I’m sure many LEGO kids experienced, you didn’t have to build what was on the box, and once you’d combined two or more kits, the sky was the limit.

Flying submarine! Rocket house! Awesome castle!

Having grown up as an only child with just half-siblings who were all old enough to be gone by the time I was born, LEGO was one of my best friends. I could spend hours alone in my room making stuff out of them.

I kept this up probably until early high school, but then as I moved into my later teens and twenties, I was “too cool” for LEGO, so they were left behind as I moved out and into young adulthood.

Kind of a shame, too, because I had one opportunity to reclaim that big cardboard box of LEGO from my childhood home in my late 20s, but the asshole boyfriend I was living with at the time basically scoffed and asked — nah, told me, “Why would you want to bring that shit here?”

What? I used to be way too submissive.

So… I told the evil half-sister “No thanks,” and that piece of my childhood probably went into a landfill after she (the half-human Scarlet Witch) cheated me out of the home I grew up in and which was supposed to have been mine.

But I’m not bitter, I’m… No. Screw it. I’m very bitter. She can burn in hell. But I do digress.

It wasn’t until after I ejected asshole boyfriend and started working in TV that I got my hands on LEGO again, and this was in my very early 30s.

I regularly shopped at the Target down the street from the offices. This is where I discovered that they had buckets of 1,200 or more LEGO pieces on sale for about $20, and since I was making TV money, over the course of a couple of years I bought… I don’t know how many of them, but I wound up combining them all into one super stuffed bucket, and had all kinds of fun.

With my last move, they wound up in my closet, but that changed recently. Necessity is the Mother of invention. Being locked inside is the Dad. I couldn’t find my tripod, so in order to have my camera at a better angle for chats and not shooting up my nose for Zoom sessions, I finally had the need for something to hold my phone the right way.

LEGO 01

That’s why I dragged out the LEGO to build this thing.

The process of building it was very therapeutic. I started with solving the engineering problem of creating the mount, with a way to secure the camera without having it fall out or over.

LEGO 05

After making this part, the next challenge was creating a base that would be sturdy and steady, and which wouldn’t be pulled over by the weight of the camera.

In a way, it was also a proxy connection to my long-dead father, who was an engineer and architect, so making this thing was doing what he did for realsies, except on my  (physical) desktop.

LEGO 06

I essentially constructed from the top down, and couldn’t resist adding the non-essential elements, like the operator’s cabin, and the door at the bottom, pictured at the top of this article.

LEGO 07

And when it came to the show time it was created for, it worked perfectly. The phone stayed in place, the thing didn’t fall over, and it just looked beautiful in place to boot.

I think that LEGO is going to help me make it through this lockdown.

Talky Tuesday: Noah Webster explains it all

On this date in 1828, at the age of 70, Noah Webster copyrighted his Dictionary of the American Language. This in itself is a meta-event because he was one of the people most instrumental in reforming American copyright law in order to extend its terms, extending coverage from 14 to 28 years, with an option to extend another 14 to a total of 42 years.

The dictionary was originally released in two volumes for the price of $20, which may seem cheap until you adjust for inflation: $471. This meant that, effectively, it was probably only purchased by institutions like libraries and schools. A price cut to $15 ($353) did improve sales and the first edition run of 2,500 copies sold out by 1836.

It’s kind of ironic, really, that the price of a good hardcover version of the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary is actually the same or less than $15 in absolute dollar amount and would have cost about 64 cents back in the 1820s.

Webster’s original dictionary had 70,000 entries, but how did they happen? Well, not quickly. It took him 22 years and along the way he learned 26 languages in order to accurately track word origins.

His main goal was to define and create a uniquely American version of English, avoiding the classism and mutually unintelligible local dialects of England, and he really started the job not long after American independence.

He also sought to simplify spelling to avoid foreign influences on orthography, which Samuel Johnson didn’t. This is why one of the most notable differences between British and American English shows up in word pairs like centre/center, flavour/flavor, and programme/program.

By the way, Johnson lost more than he won. For example, he wanted to spell words like “public” as “publick,” and extended his “ou” fettish to words like “horrour.”

In modern times, dictionaries are compiled by lexicographers, who look for usages of words in the wild and, once they become widespread enough to be commonly known, go through the process of defining and adding them.

Note that unlike Spain or France, the U.S. does not have a single, national governing body that determines the rules of the language or the words in it.

The dictionary is adding words all of the time. Sometimes, new words wind up there fairly fast. In other cases, it takes a relatively long time. Here are some additions from April and September 2019, and a general idea of how long they were in the wild before they became “official.”

Here are a dozen recent additions.

  1. Bechdel test: Coined by Alison Bechdel in 2007, this was her way of assessing the representation of women in fiction. The question in the test is this: “Does this work feature two women who talk to each other about something besides a man?” Sometimes, the additional requirement of both female characters being named is included.
  1. Bottle episode: This is one of my personal favorites mainly because it relates to my field. A “bottle episode” is an episode of a TV series that takes place mostly in one location, and with only a few characters, and it exists entirely to save money. Often, showrunners will toss in a bottle episode when they know they want to shoot the moon on the budget of their season finale. It can actually make for compelling television, though. Although a number of examples on that list predate it, the term was first used in 2003.
  1. Deep state: This one is older than you’d think, since it’s only recently shown up in the demented ravings of certain politicians. The idea is that it’s a hidden cabal of unelected government officials working behind the scenes to influence government policy in an extra-legal way. The joke is that this system already exists in the open, and it’s called lobbying. The current usage of “deep state,” despite perceptions, goes back much further than 2016. It originated in 2000.
  1. Escape room: I think most people know what these are — elaborate interactive theatrical puzzles in which a group of people gets a certain amount of time to solve a mystery and get out. This is also one of the faster additions to the dictionary. Unlike other words here that date back twenty or more years, the first use of escape room was in 2012.
  1. Gender nonconforming: Added along with top surgery and bottom surgery, the first term originated in 1991, and the other two go back to 1992 and 1994 Gender nonconforming refers to someone who exhibits behavioral, psychological, or cultural traits not usually associated with their biological sex. The two surgeries refer to the procedures used in gender confirmation surgery to respectively make the breasts and upper body or genitals and lower body match the person’s gender.
  1. Gig economy: This is the modern system of serfdom that forces people to freelance at severely depressed wages and without benefits in order for incredibly well-off companies to save money by not actually providing living wages and things like health insurance, paid time off, and pensions. Coined in 2009, it has very quickly proven to be about the worst possible invention of late-stage capitalism.
  1. Page view: This is a web statistic, as in how many times a specific web page has been viewed by visitors. Considering that the concept of counting visits to a page goes back to the internet dark ages of the mid-90s, when every Geocities page had a hit counter, this concept took forever to finally make it into the dictionary.
  1. Purple: A new definition for the color, extended to refer to states that are neither predominantly Democratic (blue) or Republican (red). The idea of color-coding political parties goes back to 1976, but the specifics of red and blue weren’t nailed down until the election of 2000.
  1. Qubit: This is the quantum computing equivalent of digital computing’s bit, which is the most basic unit of information. The difference is that a qubit doesn’t store a single digit. It contains all of the possible states of a particle until its collapse to a single value. It was also coined over 25 years ago, in 1994.
  1. Rhotic: This one is surprising, considering that it comes from the world of linguistics, which would seem to be a natural field for harvesting dictionary words. And yet, it took 51 years for it to be added. The term was first used in 1968, and refers to whether or not the consonant “r” is pronounced in words, especially before other consonants (cart, park) or at the end of words (car, jar.)
  1. They: All right, the word itself goes way, way back in English history, arising in the 13th century as the third person plural pronoun. What became official in 2019, though — and which you can now use to shut up pedantic purists — is that the pronoun “they” is now accepted as a gender-neutral singular as applied to a nonbinary person.
  1. Vacay: The term is a very straightforward shortening of the word “vacation.” Surprisingly, it took nearly thirty years to make it into the dictionary, having been first attested to in 1991.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the dictionary. What are some of your favorite words that may or may not have been added? Let us know in the comments!

Momentous Monday: Mkay…

That’s MK as in MK-Ultra, and it’s one of the few conspiracies that actually happened although, of course, it didn’t stay secret forever. The program began on April 13, 1953, which is why I bring it up today. It was exposed by the Church Committee in 1975, meaning it stayed a secret for 22 years.

That committee was formed by the U.S. Senate precisely to investigate illegal activities by the CIA, like spying on U.S. citizens. MK-Ultra, though, was even darker than that. Its goal was nothing less than mind-control, and it had its roots in Nazi concentration camps and Japan’s infamous Unit 731. The CIA even worked with officers and torturers from both places.

The Nazis had used mescaline on prisoners as a way of trying to make them compliant. Meanwhile, Japan had focused mostly on biological weapons, although they weren’t beyond using live vivisection as a method of torture.

In case you’re wondering, while the Nazis’ main (but not only) targets were Jews, Japan mostly went after the Chinese, and they’re still not big fans of them. They aren’t so fond of Koreans either, though. But that’s got nothing to do with MK-Ultra.

Oddly enough, it was the Korean War that was the catalyst for the whole project starting, as American POWs returning from there began making claims against the U.S. that were not true. Well, not true according to Allen Dulles, newly-appointed head of the CIA.

But the determination, and the warning, was that the “commies” on the other side of the Cold War had developed mind control and brainwashing, and the U.S. had to do the same to fight back.

Never mind whether that last part was true or not. And, by the way, it only took six years for this idea to leak into literature with the publication in 1959 of The Manchurian Candidate, which came out as a very amazing and chilling movie three years later. Here’s the opening scene. You should all go watch this film now.

Again, the program started three days after Dulles gave a speech about the dangers of brainwashing and, taking a cue from the Nazis, the CIA worked with LSD, which happened to be legal at the time and, in fact, was being investigated as a psychiatric medication. Even Cary Grant tripped balls.

Of course, the big difference was that in those studies, the subjects had informed consent. The CIA, on the other hand, was pretty much playing Bill Cosby and slipping the drugs to people without their knowledge or consent.

That’s probably where tips from the Japanese biowarfare programs came in, by the way — how to “infect” somebody with something without their knowledge — although the government was also kind of open about it, at least in secret, if that makes sense.

See, after MK-Ultra got started, a man named Sidney Gottlieb arranged for the CIA to pay almost a quarter million dollars in order to import the world’s entire supply of LSD to the U.S., and then (using front organizations) urged hospitals, clinics, prisons, and other such institutions to start experimenting with it and reporting the results.

There’s a 2019 book called Poisoner in Chief that details all of this. If you’re sitting around the house not doing anything else, you should read it. Basically, the government tricked a bunch of medical and corrections professionals into unknowingly carrying out very unethical experiments for them.

That Gottlieb link above is worth a read, too, because in excerpts from the book, it details how the CIA moved its MK-Ultra program offshore to go beyond clinical abuse of LSD and actually get into abduction, torture, and worse.

The goal of brainwashing was to destroy the existing mind and replace it with a new one, although whether it actually works is up for debate. It’s easy to destroy the existing mind — i.e. “ego” — but very difficult to build a new one, at least without consent.

But if you can get consent, you don’t need to destroy anything. The new mind will build itself for you.

I can attest to this from personal experience. When I was in high school, I fell under the influence of a very evil group called Young Life, which is an evangelical Christian organization that basically invades schools and tries to recruit your kids.

How my school, or any school, let it happen, I’ll never know, but their recruiter, a 28-year-old guy named Sandy, used to somehow regularly get access to campus and come hang out and talk to us during recess and lunch.

It all started innocuously enough, with Monday night meetings that were mostly fun hangouts with skits and singing and whatever, but then at the end there’d be the, “Hey, Jesus is cool” message. And at those meetings, it didn’t come with any of the collateral “But Jesus hates (fill in the blank)” crap.

As an adult, it was clear that they targeted the awkward kids who didn’t fit in with the jocks and cheerleaders and whatnot. Marching band, for example, was lousy with Young Life members. And that was the brainwashing hook: “Hey, you’re cool here!”

I drank that Kool Aid for almost two years. I went to a couple of sleep-away camps and worked (for free) for six weeks at one in Canada, and around the end of high school I started going to a fundie Pentecostal evangelical Four Square church that openly preached the gospel of hatred against the LGBTQ community, Jews, liberals, and so on.

Thankfully, I was saved from this crap by… (wait for it) actually reading the Bible during my freshman year of college — ironically, at a Jesuit university — and halfway through the Old Testament I realized, “Holy crap, this is complete and utter bullshit.”

But the brainwashing pattern there is clear. Friend those who think they’re friendless. Make them feel needed and wanted. Reel them in.

Or… follow the government method, and drug or torture them into compliance. Come to think of it, that was the religious method too, until churches discovered marketing.

But not all of the MK-Ultra “experiments” took place in clinics. One incident in particular eventually led to the investigations of the Church Committee. In 1953, a man named Frank Olson died after a fall out of his 10th-floor hotel room window in New York City. He was actually an MK-Ultra insider and he knew all about various things, including the tortures overseas.

Nine days before the fall, he and a group of other members of the team had been dosed with LSD without their knowledge or consent by Gottlieb at a retreat for the CIA’s Technical Services staff. Well, Gottlieb did inform them, but only after they’d finished the spiked bottle of Cointreau.

It was not a great experience for several of the men, including Olson, who started considering resigning the next day. The problem was, as mentioned above, he knew everything about everything. It’s entirely likely that his trip out that hotel window was not a suicide.

Now, I’ve had personal experience with LSD, so I know what it can do. In the right doses and settings, it can be remarkable. But I can also see how somebody being given it without their knowledge and in very high amounts would easily freak out.

Without warning, it would feel like the sudden onset of acute psychosis, with hallucinations and even loss of a sense of self. Another big effect is hyper-awareness of everything, especially all of the minute sounds and smells your body produces. Yes, I’ve heard myself blink.

Your brain’s need to spot patterns in things goes into overdrive, and under the influence it isn’t limited to spotting faces in toast. Any random pattern, like white noise on a TV or a stucco ceiling will suddenly turn into elaborate geometric patterns of astounding complexity and regularity.

Mine tended to follow the kaleidoscope pattern of six triangles joined in a hexagon, although your mileage may vary. As for the “stained glass windows” I would see when I closed my eyes, those colors would generally be what I can only describe as electric neon shades of pink, purple, and cyan.

Once, while listening to Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky, those stained glass patterns also included lots and lots of boobs, probably because of the female vocalist, but it was an odd touch considering that I’m mostly on the gay side of the Kinsey scale. Not completely, but close enough for jazz hands.

So do governments contemplate insanely heinous and unethical acts for the sake of national self-preservation? All the time. Do they carry them out often? Not really, because saner heads do prevail and do put the brakes on some of the more batshit insane ideas.

Ideas like Operation Northwoods, which would have used false-flag operations to justify an invasion of Cuba in the early 60s, or the 638 ideas for assassinating Fidel Castro that were considered, but most of them never implemented.

Hm. The CIA seemed to have a boner for getting rid of Castro right before the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we know about all of that again thanks to the Church Committee. And they were so successful at it that the man died at 90 in 2016.

Keep that last part in mind the next time you think that there might be a government conspiracy going on. Governments are no good at them, and people are no good at keeping secrets. Ergo, most conspiracies fall apart quickly, and either never happen or are exposed.

As Ben Franklin said, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

Image source: Voice of America/public domain

Sunday Nibble #12: Selfie harm

Here in California, the first lockdown happened in the Bay Area — generally, San Francisco, Oakland, Silicon Valley, and surroundings.

If you don’t know the state, San Francisco is about 345 miles on a straight line northwest of Los Angeles, or a 30 minute flight, or either an 8 hour drive up the windy coast or 5 hours or so up the middle of the state on the I-5, depending upon how willing you are to hit 90 mph. most of the way.

For perspective, from the southern to northernmost points of England, geographically, it’s 424 miles on a straight line, although you’ve got to fly over Wales to do that. If we measure on a straight line that only passes through England, then it’s about the same distance.

I bring this up because one of the advantages California has is that we’re big. The state is also composed of the major urban areas that are separated by shitloads of empty or sort of connected, but by suburbs that long-distance freeway traffic doesn’t even touch.

That and, especially in Southern California, we live in our cars. San Francisco, not so much, but that’s why they locked down first and have been fairly successful at flattening the curve.

Today, L.A. and the entire state has been on lockdown for 23 days, and it seems to be working, although we’ve still got at least another 8 days to go, if not more. California’s program has been dubbed “Safer at Home,” and I can’t help but think that this is true after running across a Wikipedia list online of people who were injured or died while taking selfies.

The reasons for these accidents are attributable to animals, drowning, electrocution, falling, fire, firearm, transportation, and “other.” The top three causes of death were falls, drowning, and transportation. The greatest number of incidents were falls, but the greatest number of casualties were due to drowning.

The top five countries for selfie deaths, in order, were India (70), the United States (18), Russia (13), Pakistan (8), and Australia (5) — although China only having 2 on the list could either be accurate, or just more of their downplaying of tragedy. Who knows?

Trains on their own accounted for almost as many deaths as drowning since they can cover three categories — transportation, electrocution, and falls.

The greatest number of injuries in a single incident happened during a fire at a bakery in Chennai, India, when people refused to move away from the building while taking selfies. The incident saw 48 people injured due to burns.

Chennai was also the location of a train death, when a student celebrating his 17th birthday climbed on top of a train car and then touched a live wire, resulting in his electrocution. Oh. And this made him fall off of the car as well, so it was a trifecta.

Not to make light of these deaths, but a lot of them are pretty Darwin Award worthy. People trying to get selfies with animals, particularly elephants, seem to have a high fatality rate, accounting for 45% of all animal deaths.

As for falls, let’s just say that cliffs, bridges, balconies, and other high places are not the best locations for a shoot.

And, getting back to the Darwin Awards, one of the most spectacular and stupid selfie deaths took place in Russia when a young man pulled the pin out of a live hand grenade and posed with it. (Some accounts say it was two men, but most only refer to one victim.)

He was blown in half, but the camera and selfie he texted to a friend survived, which is how authorities knew what happened. This, among other incidents, led to Russia issuing a Safe Selfie guide. Meanwhile, Japan banned selfie sticks from train stations.

To come around full circle, where people are not self-isolating and practicing social distancing right now, they are being just as stupid and foolhardy as all of these people who died or severely injured themselves because they thought they could take a selfie in a dangerous place, lost focus for an instant, and then lost so much more.

Stay home. We’re not out of the woods yet. And, if you must go out, remember: Six feet apart, or someone winds up six feet under.

The Saturday Morning Post #10

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter 10. 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 novella is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. 

BROS IN ARMS

I am not at all afraid to admit that the earthquake scared the living shit out of me, even though I was born and raised here. But, dude, I was born in 2006. I barely remember even feeling Ridgecrest. Riverside, oh yeah, I felt it. So did Vince, my roomie in this really odd and interesting living situation we’ve found ourselves in in Koreatown, but we wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Of course, we’re two of the lucky ones in this art collective, because at the moment, we only have two other guys sharing the room which is designed for up to eight. I’m a painter and Vince is an actor. The other two are dancers although, like us (and kind of surprising for dancers) they’re also mostly straight. For you older people, “mostly straight” means a Kinsey 1. We’ve kind of given up on the idea of 0’s and 6’s really being a thing.

But the night after the afternoon of the quake — we’re going to remember 2:30 p.m. forever — Vince and I just cannot sleep because of the jitters. Meanwhile, the other two, Edward and Steve, are out like lights. “Rafi,” Vince whispers to me in the dark, “Want to go outside and just walk around?”

“Fuck yeah,” I reply. We use the flashlights on our phones, which haven’t died yet, to find our pants, shoes, and shirts, pull them on, then head out the door, down the stairs, and outside. Needless to say, it’s still pitch black out here — no electricity. Oh, sure, there are some battery powered lanterns up and down the streets, but all of the buildings and streetlights are dark.

And we look up and then see something absolutely amazing. Stars. A ton of stars, and even the band of the Milky Way, visible above Los Angeles, something that has never happened in our lifetimes. Hell, probably in anyone’s lifetimes in big cities since Edison stole the idea for the lightbulb.

We stop in our tracks and both just gasp in amazement. Oh, I’ve seen this view a few times when my family went out to visit abuelita in rural New Mexico, but I have no idea whether Vince has, because he’s a slice of white bread and from L.A.

“You ever seen anything like this?” I ask him.

“Yeah, but not here,” he replies. “Halfway out at three in the morning on a road trip to Dallas, sophomore year.”

“Oh, right,” I say, suddenly remembering. “Why didn’t I go on that one?”

“Because you went to Barcelona, douche.”

“Oh, yeah.”

Did I mention that Vince and I had been roommates all through college? We were very close and had shared a lot. At one point, he even started dating my old girlfriend after I’d dumped her, but I never resented him for it. I was there, though, to comfort him after she dumped him. It was a totally wrong thing to say, and we only used it ironically as a way to make fun of the past, but right after she left him, and when we were pretty high, we both spontaneously said, “Bros before hoes” and then cracked the fuck up.

We said it quietly, though, lest anyone overhear it and not understand our irony.

Because, come on — what a dickish thing to even think, right?

The real version that we used sincerely, like a lot of the other guys, was, “Above all, the bros we chose.” Okay, not totally accurate, since freshman roommates were assigned at random, but after that, the ones who stuck together pretty much became family, which is what Vince and I did.

And so here we were, still sharing a room after graduation, and now sharing our fear and trying our best to help each other through it while discovering an absolutely amazing sky over L.A.

“So, what do we do now?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Just wander around, stay out from under things that might fall, and not die?”

“Sounds like a plan,” he replies. We walk down to Wilshire, then decide to turn to the right and head east, aimless. This part of Wilshire, being mostly office buildings and businesses, is emptier and quieter than our street, and there’s a strangely apocalyptic feel about it all. At least, by this point, our eyes have adjusted to the dark, so we have no problem navigating.

“You think there’s going to be another big one?” Vince asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I hope not.”

“Yeah, but you remember ten years ago.”

“Read about it,” I said. “But didn’t feel either,” I tell him.

“Yeah, but the ‘big one’ turned out to only be a foreshock for the actual big one.”

“I know. But wasn’t it also far enough away that L.A. wasn’t fucked up like it is right now?”

“Shit, Rafi,” Vince said. “How bad do you think the city is?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “But one thing comes to mind.”

“What’s that?” he asks.

I don’t know why I had this realization. Maybe it was from watching too many disaster movies, but the thing that had most struck me was how the darkness was broken in a few directions by a distant orange glow — meaning there were areas on fire. They were most noticeable to the south, northeast, and west.

“The city is burning,” I told Vince.

“How can you tell?” he asked.

“The glow,” I explained. “But at least we somehow managed to not have anything catch on fire up here.”

“You’re going to get a lot of paintings out of this, aren’t you?”

“Oh, you bet your ass,” I tell him. “Nightmares are the fuel that fires up all art.”

“Like you have to tell me that,” he says. “I’ve been people watching and stealing character traits ever since we had to evacuate.”

“Well, I suppose that ‘had to’ is kind of overstating it,” I explain. “I mean, we’re still living where we were. But that lady they brought — ”

“Oh, shit, right,” he replied. “Yeah, I was being a close-minded dick. Sorry.”

“No worries, ma dude.”

We headed a few blocks up Wilshire until we reached the Wiltern, which was dark but seemed intact, then looked at each other, not sure what to do.

“South?” he suggested and I nodded, so we turned right and walked down Western for a bit. For some weird reason, this stretch seemed to be a bit more fucked up. There was a lot of pebbled glass in the street, mostly from ground-level storefronts, and the sidewalks and road seemed more buckled. The couple of bus stop kiosks we passed looked like they had been randomly twisted by angry giants, and there were more than a couple of spots where power lines and been severed and fell into the street. Luckily, there was no power in them at the moment, and at least the streets were dry.

After a couple of blocks, we turned right again to head back home. Coming back up our street, it was all familiar because we’d done it in the afternoon, although by this point most people had gone lights out, so we walked in darkness back up until we got to Madam Alice’s place, then, using our phones again, found our way back up to our room and to our snoring roommates.

“Okay,” I said. “I still don’t feel any more like sleeping now.”

“Neither do I,” Vince said. “But… look, we’ve known each other long enough, and at this point it’s all about emotional safety. If you want… I mean, if you don’t mind… I’d have no objections to sharing a bed just so that we could both feel protected… No homo?”

The second he said it, my brain said, “Oh, fuck yeah.” I mean, come on. We’d basically been protecting each other emotionally since freshman year. And it was 2029. What was a little physical security between friends, anyway?

So about two seconds after he asked, I just blurted, “Vince, fuck yeah, Homo or not. I love you, you fucking douchebag. Under the circumstances, I think that spooning the hell out of each other is the only way to feel safe.”

He just smiled, gave me a fist bump, and quietly muttered, “Bro.”

And that’s how, way into the wee hours on the morning of Wednesday, April 18, Vince and I, in our T-shirts and boxers, climbed into the bottom bunk together and held on for dear life, and it turned out that this was also the only way either one of us could have fallen asleep after the world had fallen apart and would be able to for a long time after.

Like I said, it’s about the bros you chose. And this was the moment when I realized — and I hoped that he did — that we would kill or die for each other and love each other in the most fucking platonic way possible.

And all of this came from a natural disaster. Damn. If we made it out alive on the other side, I was already thinking of how to market and sell this insight to other Gen Z guys, although I don’t know whether the older ones could quite handle it. Maybe I should just stick to painting, but I could certainly editorialize it. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid, and nothing wrong with having a buddy help you deal with that feeling.

I was out like a light once we got all wrapped up, and we didn’t wake up until the sun was blazing in the windows.

“You okay, Rafi?” Vince whispered once he sensed me stirring, and I just grunted. “Mm-hm.”

“Me, too,” he replied. “I think we’re going to get through this.”

Neither one of us rushed to get up, but we did start to talk about the most random bullshit. The weirdest thing to me, really, was feeling his voice resonate through my chest as he talked, so that it sounded like he was talking to me and speaking in another room at the same time. It was like he was here and not here simultaneously.

We continued to talk until he suddenly stopped and giggled and I asked, “What?”

“Dude,” he said, “Your voice tickles.”

“What do you mean?”

“When you talk,” he explained, “I can feel it in my chest, like a vibration, even though I can hear you with my ears. It’s… I’m not sure how I feel about — ”

“I feel it too,” I blurt out. “And, honestly, I kind of like it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, well, your voice is deeper, maybe that makes the difference.”

“Or maybe because I’m behind you?” he suggests.

“Or maybe… we should just shut up and not over-analyze and keep each other safe from this disaster?”

There’s a long moment of silence, then I hear him sigh and it feels like he holds me tighter.

“You’re right, dude. I’d come up with something right now, but I’m not good at puns and poetry and shit.”

“When the Earth starts to quake,” I say, “Our job’s the other one safe make.”

“I like it,” Vince says.

“Yeah, despite the fucked up word order. I’m a painter, not a poet.”

“More of a poet than I am. Hey, it was kind of Shakespeare.”

There’s a sudden and slight but noticeable aftershock, during which we just wrap together tighter, laughing after it’s over.

“Feel safe?” he asks.

“Fuck yeah,” I reply.

Theatre Thursday: Fact and fiction

Six hundred and seven years ago today, Henry V was crowned king of England. You probably know him as that king from the movie with Kenneth Branagh, or the BBC series aired under the title The Hollow Crown.

Either way, you know him because of Shakespeare. He was the king who grew up in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. Yes, that’s a set of four plays and since it was his second, Shakespeare sort of did the Star Wars thing first: he wrote eight plays on the subject of the English Civil war.

And, much like Lucas, he wrote the original tetralogy first, then went back and did the prequels. Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V were written after but happened before Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III.

Incidentally, Henry VI, Part 1, is famous for having Joan of Arc (aka Joan la Pucelle in the play) as one of the antagonists. Funny thing is, that name wasn’t slander on Shakespeare’s part. That’s what she preferred to call herself.

Meanwhile, Richard III, of course, is the Emperor Palpatine of the series, although we never did get a Richard IV, mainly because he never existed in history. Well, not officially. Richard III’s successor was Henry VII, and Shakespeare never wrote about him, either, although he did gush all over Henry VIII, mainly because he was the father of the Bard’s patron, Elizabeth I. CYA.

If you’ve ever seen the film My Own Private Idaho, directed by Gus Van Sant and staring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, then you’ve seen a modern retelling of the two parts of Henry IV.

Now when it comes to adapting true stories to any dramatic medium, you’re going to run into the issue of dramatic license. A documentary shouldn’t have this problem and shouldn’t play with the truth, although it happens. Sometimes, it can even prove fatal.

But when it comes to a dramatic retelling, it is often necessary to fudge things, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. It’s not at all uncommon for several characters to be combined into a composite just to make for a cleaner plot. After all, is it that big of a difference if, say, King Flagbarp IX in real life was warned about a plot against him in November by his chamberlain Norgelglap, but the person who told him the assassin’s name in February was his chambermaid Hegrezelda?

Maybe, maybe not, but depending on what part either of those characters plays in the rest of the story, as well as the writer’s angle, they may both be combined as Norgelglap or as Hegrezelda, or become a third, completely fictionalized character, Vlanostorf.

Time frames can also change, and a lot of this lands right back in Aristotle’s lap. He created the rules of drama long before hacks like the late Syd Field tried (and failed), and Ari put it succinctly. Every dramatic work has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and should have unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action.

A summary of the last three is this, although remember that Aristotle was writing about the stage. For film and video, your mileage will vary slightly.

The story takes place in one particular location, although that location can be a bit broad. It can be the king’s castle, or it can be the protagonist’s country.

It should take place over a fairly short period of time. Aristotle liked to keep it to a day, but there’s leeway, and we’ve certainly seen works that have taken place over an entire lifetime — although that is certainly a form of both unity of time and unity of place, if you consider the protagonist to be the location as well.

Unity of action is a little abstract, but in a nutshell it’s this: Your plot is about one thing. There’s a single line that goes from A to Z: What your protagonist wants, and how they get it.

Now, my own twist on the beginning, middle, and end thing is that this is a three act structure that gives us twenty-seven units. (Aristotle was big on 5 acts, which Shakespeare used, but that’s long since fallen out of fashion.)

Anyway, to me, we have Act I, II, and III. Beginning, middle, and end. But each of those has its own beginning, middle and end. So now we’re up to nine: I: BME; II: BME; III: BME.

Guess what? Each of those subunits also has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not going to break that one down further than this. The beginning of the beginning, Act I: B, has its own BME, repeat eight more times.

The end result is 3 x 3 x 3, or twenty-seven.

And that’s my entire secret to structure. You’re welcome.

But because of these little constraints, and because history is messy, it’s necessary to switch things up to turn a true story into a “based on true events” work. Real life doesn’t necessarily have neat beginnings, middles, and endings. It also doesn’t necessarily take place in one spot, or in a short period of time.

So it becomes the artist’s job to tell that story in a way that is as true to reality as possible without being married to the facts.

Although it is also possible to go right off the rails with it, and this is one of the reasons I totally soured on Quentin Tarantino films. It’s one thing to fudge facts a little bit, but when he totally rewrites history in Inglorious Basterds, ignores historical reality in Django Unchained, and then curb stomps reality and pisses on its corpse in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I’m done.

Inglorious Misspelling is a particularly egregious example because the industry does a great disservice in selling false history to young people who unfortunately, aren’t getting the best educations right now.

Anecdotal moment: A few years back, an Oscar-winning friend of mine had a play produced that told the story of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. They were a company composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans during WW II, and joining the company was the alternative given to going to an internment camp.

Of course, being racists, the U.S. government couldn’t send them to the Pacific Theatre to fight, so they sent them to Europe, and a lot of the play takes place in Italy, where the regiment was stationed. And, at intermission, my playwright friend heard two 20-something audience members talking to each other. One of them asked, “What was the U.S. even doing in Italy in World War II?” and the other just shrugged and said, “Dunno.”

So, yeah. If you’re going to go so far as to claim that Hitler was killed in a burning movie theater before the end of the war, just stop right there before you shoot a frame. Likewise with claiming that the Manson murders never happened because a couple of yahoos ran into the killers first.

Yeah, Quentin, you were old, you were there, you remember. Don’t stuff younger heads with shit.

But I do digress.

In Shakespeare’s case, he was pretty accurate in Henry V, although in both parts of Henry IV, he created a character who was both one of his most memorable and one of his more fictional: Sir John Falstaff. In fact, the character was so popular that, at the Queen’s command, Shakespeare gave him his own spinoff, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Hm. Shades of Solo in the Star Wars universe?

Falstaff never existed in real life, but was used as a way to tell the story of the young and immature Henry (not yet V) of Monmouth, aka Prince Hal.

Where Shakespeare may have played more fast and loose was in Richard III. In fact, the Bard vilified him when it wasn’t really deserved. Why? Simple. He was kissing up to Elizabeth I. She was a Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII who, as mentioned previously, was the son of Henry VII, the king who took over when Richard III lost the war of the roses.

The other time that Shakespeare didn’t treat a king so well in a play? King John — which I personally take umbrage to, because I’m directly descended from him. No, really. But the idea when Willie Shakes did that was to draw a direct contrast to how Good Queen Bess did so much better in dealing with Papal interference. (TL;DR: He said, “Okay,” she said, “Eff off.”)

Since most of my stage plays have been based on true stories, I’ve experienced this directly many times, although one of the more interesting came with the production of my play Bill & Joan, because I actually accidentally got something right.

When I first wrote the play, the names of the cops in Mexico who interrogated him were not included in the official biography, so I made up two fictional characters, Enrique and Tito. And so they stayed like that right into pre-production in 2013.

Lo and behold, a new version of the biography of Burroughs I had originally used for research came out, and I discovered two amazing things.

First… I’d always known that Burroughs’ birthday was the day before mine, but I suddenly found out that his doomed wife actually shared my birthday. And the show happened to run during both dates.

Second… the names of the cops who interrogated him were finally included, and one of them was named… Tito.

Of course, I also compressed time, moved shit around, made up more than a few characters, and so forth. But the ultimate goal was to tell the truth of the story, which was: Troubled couple who probably shouldn’t have ever gotten together deals with their issues in the most violent and tragic way possible, and one of them goes on to become famous. The other one dies.

So yes, if you’re writing fiction it can be necessary to make stuff up, but the fine line is to not make too much stuff up. A little nip or tuck here and there is fine. But, outright lies? Nah. Let’s not do that.