Zero or hero

The concept of zero might seem completely intuitive to modern minds. You can’t get to any multiple of 10, 100, 1,000 or so on without it, for one thing. It’s also often the bottom number on various gauges or dials — think speedometer or volume setting — or at least a middle point on things like thermometers or equalizers.

And yet, when humans first started to math, the concept of zero didn’t even exist. Why? Because it wasn’t necessary. The origin of human math had nothing to do with science or geometry or any of that. It was all about commerce.

Math began with counting, which began in the marketplace. What happened here was simple. Somebody with something to sell would set up a stand. Somebody looking to buy would approach. The latter would use whatever was legal tender in trade in exchange for what the former had to offer.

That legal tender could be precious metal stamped in some sort of official fashion or, earlier than that, it could tools, jewelry, stones, or other commodities. For example, one person might be offering a lamb for six chickens.

In order to make the exchange, two things were necessary after the price was set. The seller had to be able to count out the number of things on offer and the two of them had to calculate the price, based on cost per unit times the number of units.

Hello, integers, which are those whole numbers with no decimal places. And hello the idea of multiplication, except that it wasn’t necessary per se. Multiplication is just repeated addition. Remember this, because it, along with the idea that division is just repeated subtraction, will be important later.

So the seller agrees that one lamb costs six chicken and the buyer wants four lambs. The seller counts out the four lambs and sets them aside in a pen. The buyer counts out six chickens for each lamb, but there’s never any multiplication. They might even do each transaction one at a time.

The end result, though, is that the seller winds up with four fewer lambs and twenty-four more chickens.

What he doesn’t know is that the buyer is going to use three of those lambs to buy a cow, and then set up a very profitable business selling milk, dairy products and, thanks to his neighbor, calves for veal.

Now what’s the one thing that never enters into these transactions at all?

Zero.

The seller cannot offer to give you zero lambs. The buyer cannot offer to pay with zero chickens. In the context of commerce, zero is meaningless because it’s not countable. You cannot have zero number of things.

And so math cruised on for millennia without any idea of zero.

The Sumerians did have sort of a placeholder for zero by around 3000 BCE, but it was a character used between digits in cuneiform writing to represent an empty place in the counting. Babylonians accounted for this zero but did not have a character for it. They would leave a gap, so that 402 would be written as 4 2. However, there would be no distinction between 42 and 420, which would both be written as 42.

This would probably make stoners who love Douglas Adams’ writings very happy.

The Mayans invented zero independently around 4 CE, but it wasn’t until the mid-5th century that Hindu mathematicians developed the idea. This was picked up by Arab mathematicians and it would have spread to the West except for the unfortunate thing called the Crusades.

Western mathematicians were all ready to embrace it, but since what were actually Hindu numerals were known as Arabic numerals by this point, the Catholic Church said, “Are you kidding? No good ideas can come from our enemies,” so the concept of zero was considered the devil’s work for a while.

In case you think that people can’t be that stupid about numbers for purely ideological reasons, a recent survey showed a surprising number of people opposed to teaching Arabic numerals in schools — even though they are the familiar digits we’ve all used for centuries.

Since the Hindus started using it in serious math, though, zero has proven itself to be invaluable. It provides a point at which numbering scales can change — you can’t go from positive to negative without passing through it, after all — and it serves as a universal error warning whenever a formula winds up trying to make it the divisor in an equation.

There are also some fun questions you can ask about zero. Don’t worry. There’s very little actual math involved in learning the answers. Except for the last one.

Is zero an even number?

At first glance, this seems like it’s unanswerable because zero has no numerical value. Like 1 being sort of a prime but not, it feels like zero would be neither odd nor even. But as soon as we look at the definition of an even number… well, let’s look at that.

The first definition of an even number: It’s evenly divisible by 2. You can check that out with any random even number. For example, 14/2 = 7, or 8/2 = 4. The result can be either odd or even, and prime or not, as those two examples show. And some numbers can be divided by 2 more than once — 4/2 = 2.

So is zero divisible by 2? Oh yes, and an infinite number of times: 0/2 = 0. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Another property of an even number: It’s a multiple of 2. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you start with an odd or even number. The result will always be even: 16 x 2 = 32; 47 x 2 = 94, and so on.

And what happens with zero? We get 0 x 2 = 0, and so on. And since the first step indicated that zero is probably even, it’s still even.

One other determinate of an even number: It never changes the odd/even status of whatever number you add it to. The sum of two even numbers is an even number; the sum of an even and odd is odd. (I’ll leave it to you to figure out the rule of the sum of two odd numbers, which should be obvious by now.)

Now, what number never changes the status of whatever it’s added to? That’s right — our old friend zero. So, yet again, it acts like an even number.

The final test of an even number: On the whole number line, it appears between two odd integers — for example, 16 comes between 15 and 17. As for zero? Its neighbors are 1 and -1, which are both odd.

QED.

You can’t do that on television (or anywhere else)

Now, there are two things you cannot do with zero, one famously and one lesser-known. The first is that you cannot divide by zero. And no, this does not give you infinity. It give you… well, it just breaks math, period.

Division by zero, by the way, happens to be one of the proofs that travel at the speed of light is impossible. (It does not say you can’t go faster, though, as long as you skip that one troublesome point between positive and negative.)

Remember when I mentioned that multiplication is just repeated addition and division is repeated subtraction? Well, this leave multiplying by zero perfectly fine, because if you add any integer zero times, you get 0. Meanwhile, if you start with zero, no matter how many times you add it, you still get 0.

But let’s look at what happens when you try to subtract zero and figure out how many times you can. Well, guess what? No matter how many times you subtract zero, you still have the original number, so you can subtract 0 from 1 every femtosecond of every day since the Big Bang and you still will not have an answer by the time the whole thing fizzles out in cosmic entropy in a few trillion years.

But… that number is not equal to infinity. Why? Because, again, it breaks math. If dividing by zero equals infinity, then 1/0 equals infinity, and so does 2/0. If both numbers over the same divisor equal the same result, then you’ve just “proven” that 1=2. In fact, you’ve just proven that any number, whole, fractional, rational, transcendent, or not, equals every other number.

So… math breaks. The preferred result of division over zero is “Undefinied.”

Zero power!

Finally, there’s the idea that you cannot raise 0 to the power of 0. Basically, anything to the power of zero equals 1, and anything to the power of 1 equals itself. The rest follows the familiar squares and cubes and so on.

So, in theory 0 to the power of 0 equals one, but here’s the quick debunk of that. Another way to get to something to the power of 0 starts with the power of 1 — any number to the power of 1 is that number. So 2^1 = 2, 5^1 = 5, and so on.

And if you divide any number to the power of one by itself, you do get that number to the power of zero, so you get 1. Why? Because when you divide one number with an exponent over another, you subtract the exponents on the bottom from the ones on top.

So 2^1/2^1 gives us the same thing as 2/2, which is 1.

You probably see the problem coming here. While 0^1 may or may not be equal to 1, as soon as you write 0^1/0^1 it becomes irreducible because of our old bugaboo division by zero yet again.

So zero to the power of zero remains undefined as well.

How to get from zero to one

Before I get to the 0 to the power of 0 problem, here’s a very interesting one. There’s a mathematical function called a factorial, which is represented by an exclamation mark. What it means is that you take the number before that mark and multiply it by every integer less than it down to one.

It’s very useful in things like statistics and calculating odds. Here’s an example. The expression 5! means to multiply 5 by the integers below it, so you get 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1. This works out to 20 x 6 x 1, or 120.

Now it should be obvious, but one way to go from X! to the number below it is to calculate X!/X. Why? Because you’re removing the top term. 5!/5 removes the 5 and, in effect, gives you the digits for 4!: 4 x 3 x 2 x 1. That works out to 24, which happens to be 120/5.

This is all great, and then you get to 1!. And if you want to calculate 0!, you need 1!/1. And what does that work out to?

Well, it happens to be 1/1, or 1, meaning that 0! equals 1. Of course, you can’t go from 0! to -1! because you wind up dividing by 0,

Of course, there are other, much more complicated reasons that 0! = 1, but I’ll leave that explanation to the fabulous Professor James Grime of Numberphile to explain. Also, kudos to Numberphile for all the ideas reiterated here today. They are a great resource.

Image: Ajfweb at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pride Month Thoughts: Parent Fails

I really envy all the kids with Gen-X or Millennial parents who actually got to grow up with realistic expectations when it came to sexual orientation, gender, or life choices in general.

Being the weird Gen-X offspring of a half-boomer/half-not marriage (my mom was my dad’s second wife, and he went for much younger on round two) I didn’t get those options at all. Nope. I got that Boomer Bullshit in a heavy dose, and it’s had an adverse effect on me to this day.

See, my parents’ basic expectations were this. I would go through school and excel (which I did) then go to college (which I also did) and major in something that would make me ton of money (which I didn’t, since I pursued the arts and not medicine, science, or business.)

Regardless of major, the next big expectation was that I would meet and marry some girl — either a high school or college sweetheart, but for god’s sake, before twenty-five, I would help her pop out at least two babies, and very early into the marriage we would have bought a nice suburban home. Well, I would have, based on my ridiculous corporate income, at a low interest rate, and with a 30-year fixed mortgage in a cheap suburban development.

My role in this fantasy: Chief breadwinner. Her role: to basically be my unpaid maid, servant, and nanny. (Note: My parents’ fantasy, not mine, and it was entirely based on the one that my own parents had lived in raising me.)

So we already have so goddamn many assumptions going on that would never come true. I was never going to find or marry that dream-girl, and while I could have done it with that dream-boy instead, every message told me, “Oh no. You can’t.”

The other big problem? My parents just assumed that I’d find a woman to take care of all the domestic shit, so they could never be arsed to teach me how to do any of it. Cooking? Cleaning? Laundry? Baking? Good luck. In their vernacular, these were not “boy things” at all.

Fortunately, I did manage to learn how to do laundry thanks to having gone to college with women, and I’d picked up cooking and baking by hanging out in Mom’s kitchen. Ooh… don’t tell Dad!

As for cleaning… yeah, I suck at that one because the alleged wife who was supposed to do it for me for free for life… oh, right.

But this is a short object lesson in how parents can easily fuck up their children by forcing unrealistic expectations on them. And, honestly, there’s one more really heinous fuck-up my parents committed that really borders on passive child abuse, but since they’re both long dead, it’s probably not worth bringing up because the arguments against them no longer have any teeth.

The important thing, parents, is this. Never limit your kids’ possibilities. Rather, expand their horizons. Don’t tell them who they’ll probably end up loving and marrying. Instead, ask them who they think they might love or marry, and then how they foresee their lives together playing out. Listen to the answers, and then encourage those stories and narrative and do you goddamn jobs as parents.

Sadly, mine didn’t. But I’m hoping that for of all my fellow Gen-Xers who are baby-makers, and all generations to follow, that we create narratives that give our kids the broadest spectrum of options possible.

Happy Pride!

When corporations actually went to war

In the present day, corporations go to “war” via legal means — buying a controlling interest and then changing the Board of Directors, hostile takeovers, leveraged buyouts, or just simple cash offers.

Consequently, you may wind up with a gigantic monopoly (even though that’s not supposed to be legal anymore), or an ever-shifting series of mergers. The latter gave us things like Warner Bros. moving on to be Time-Warner, then AOL Time-Warner, the AT&T owned WarnerMedia, and possibly soon to be Warner Bros. Discovery.

Sometimes, we get the equivalent of a pirate raid, which happens when private equity firms come in and buy out a struggling company. Oh, they have no intention of rescuing that company. Rather, they’re just there to eliminate as many jobs as possible before selling off all of the tangible assets, like property and equipment for a profit.

Once they’ve sucked out what they can, there’s usually an IPO to make it look like the company is coming back, and then the private equity firm bails out and sells everything off. The practice is called Buy, Strip, and Flip, and it really should be outlawed.

Remember Sears? Before the internet, they were the Amazon of their day via their mail-order catalog through which you could buy just about anything. As of January 2021, the chain is dying, with only a few dozen stores left in the entire U.S. There’s exactly one man to thank for that.

And yet, for all of this corporate chicanery, it could be worse and, in fact, it was back at a time when rival corporations had much more direct ways of carrying out hostile negotiations.

They went to war. And it was on June 19 in 1816 that the Battle of Seven Oaks broke out, not between two hostile nations, but between Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and North West Company. It was actually the last battle of an ongoing war between the two, which was finally ended when the British government forced the two companies to merge and put an end to it.

They were mainly Canadian companies, which is why the British government was able to get involved. Then again, HBC was sort of the de facto government in the fur trading areas of North America from the time they were chartered in 1670.

They were chartered by the king, but were not exactly a true governmental entity. Think of them more as a contractor with exclusive rights. These just so happened to clash with the North West Company, which didn’t have a royal charter but was truly a private company. They petitioned Parliament to get some access to the lands HBC controlled in a monopoly, but were refused.

The North West Company managed to make an end run via land, reaching Charlton Island, where they claimed territory belonging to the Inuit, and managed to make four times as much in fur trading as HBC did.

And so, the war was on.

I can only imagine what it would be like if rival companies settled their differences or handled mergers like this nowadays — Walt Disney company and Warner Bros. Discovery suddenly get into a disagreement over certain bits of intellectual property and boom! The streets of Burbank turn into a bloodbath as armed PAs and ADs take to the streets.

Yeah, I don’t see that happening. Although maybe we could institute a system in which we keep equity firms at bay by adding one single requirement. The equity fund managers have to run a gantlet flanked by all of the rank-and-file employees in danger of being laid off once the sale happens. So, basically, everyone.

They’re allowed to be armed with only non-ballistic and unsharpened hand weapons, but that leaves plenty. Also, they’re criminally immune for any injuries or deaths caused.

Now, all those managers have to do is make it from the front of the gantlet to the “safe box” in the corporate office lobby in order to make their deal and buy the company — and the bigger the company and the more employees there are, the longer that line.

Oh yeah — the equity fund has to fly every employee of the company to wherever HQ is, put them up in private hotel rooms with a per diem, and pay their full salary for the duration.

A ridiculous proposal? Sure. But it’s no worse than warfare, for one thing. Even better — it would definitely scare off these corporate vultures who, because of their rampant greed and lack of empathy, don’t deserve to eat in the first place.

Sunday Nibble #66: Putting the Sun on pause

Happy summer solstice! This is the day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere with the longest period of continuous sunlight, which increases with latitude.

On the equator, at 0 degrees latitude, day time and nighttime are pretty much equal all year long. The farther north you go, the longer the period of sunlight. At my latitude, which is about 34 degrees north, we’ll get 14 hours and 26 minutes of sunlight on that day.

When you get to Reykjavik, Iceland, you’ll experience 21 hours and 8 minutes of sunlight plus 2 hours and 52 minutes of twilight, which adds up to 24 hours during which the sun never really sets, and if you make it to the North Pole, you’ll experience a full 24 hours of sunlight.

It’s exactly the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, where this is the winter solstice for them, and the period of the longest nighttime, which works in a similar fashion to the north but in the opposite direction, with the night getting longer the farther south you go.

Don’t worry, though. In December, the tables are turned, and then it’s the summer solstice in the south and the winter solstice in the north.

The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin word for stopped or stationary, and this comes from what the Sun apparently does. From the time of the winter solstice, the Sun appears to climb higher and higher into the sky and it continues to do so for six months.

Then, on the summer solstice, it reaches its highest point and then appears to pause for about three days before turning around and heading back down toward the equator.

The mid points are the equinoxes, which is when the Sun’s apparent position is crossing the equator, and this is when all points on the planet have day and night time of equal length regardless of hemisphere.

We have two equinoxes, vernal and autumnal, more commonly known as the spring and fall equinox, which mark the beginning of these seasons.

Put all four together in order, and there you have humankind’s original and most basic calendar. Once the pattern had been recorded and recognized, annual events became much more predictable — the change of seasons, the likelihood of seasonal flooding, and so on.

The Moon became a secondary counter and, in fact, we landed on the idea of a lunar calendar long before the solar one. The word “month” is derived from “moon,” and one month is approximately the length of one complete cycle of the Moon’s phases, from one full Moon to another — or one new Moon to another, depending on your culture’s preference.

So why do equinoxes and solstices and seasons happen in the first place? By the very fortunate circumstance that the Earth’s axis is tilted at about 23 degrees relative to the Sun when it’s at either solstice, and the tilt remains constant relative to the Earth.

It’s probably best demonstrated with an animation to make the concept clear, so here you go, courtesy of YouTuber Brad Freese:

From the Sun’s point of view, the Earth keeps tilting back and forth as it goes around. Meanwhile, to the Earth, it looks like the Sun is bobbing up and down. The end result is the same either way: changing period of daylight that are more extreme the closer you get to the poles, seasons, and the origin of the first human calendar.

Now, a year generally has 12 full moons in it but the number of days in a lunar year, 354, is a bit short of the solar year of 365.25 days, so about every two and a half years, we get that elusive (or not so much) Blue Moon, which is just the 13th full moon of a calendar year.

But when you take 12 and divide it by 4 — the number of solstices and equinoxes — you get a nice even number, 3. So divide each solstice or equinox into three “moons,” or months, and all you have to do then is watch the phases of the Moon to know when the seasons will change.

You might have noticed that neither the lunar days nor the solar days quite add up to the number of degrees in a circle, which is 360. But add them together, rounded — 354 + 365 — and you get 719. Divide that by 2 and round it again, and you get 360.

This is actually a really interesting number, because it has so many factors, which are numbers it can be evenly divided by. If we include 1 and 360, there are 24 of them (24 being a factor of 360), and in fact every single digit number except 7 is a factor, which is very useful.

Beyond that, a lot of the numbers relate to units of time we still use now, particularly 12, 15, 24 and 60, and it’s divisible by 10, which makes it very compatible with our common base 10 system.

By the way, the Babylonians, who were big astronomers themselves, used a Base 60 system, in which the number 360 would have been expressed as their equivalent of 60.

It’s interesting to think that the larger parts of our timekeeping system are not as arbitrary as they might seem and have a strong basis in reality. As for how we chose to count weeks and the hours in a day, that’s part is totally arbitrary.

We could have just as easily divided each day into 36 hours of 40 minutes each or 18 hours of 80 minutes each, but we didn’t. Why? Who knows, but the most likely explanation is that 12 hours of “day” and 12 hours of “night” just echoed the annual pattern nicely.

Hours, by the way, were the very last thing to be measured and determined, since if you just divided amount of daylight by 12, the length of the hour itself would change throughout the year The more important markers were sunrise and sunset.

By the way, a word about the image up top. This image is what’s called an “analemma,” and it represents the position of the Sun in the sky over the course of the year, in this case, in the Northern Hemisphere. The points where they cross represent the equinoxes.

Also note that the top half forms a smaller loop than the bottom half. That’s because of a nice quirk of orbital mechanics. The Earth is at its farthest point from the Sun around the beginning of July, right after the northern summer solstice, and at its closest around the beginning of January, right after the northern winter solstice.

So… in July, the planet is actually moving at its slowest because it basically reaching the “top” of the orbit. That is, the Sun’s gravity has flung it as far away as it’s going to get, so it’s now going to slow down and come plunging back. Think of it like throwing a baseball in the air.

Once the Earth has passed through the equinox again, it’s now being pulled in by the Sun, so moves a lot faster in the same period of time.

But what I really wanted to point out was this. Although astronomers insist that “Uranus” is actually pronounced “oo-ra-NOOS” in order to avoid immature jokes, what did they name this image?

Analemma.

Anal Emma. Yeah, those mofos knew exactly what they were doing.

Image source: Giuseppe Donatiello, (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons

The Saturday Morning Post #67: Pamela Rewarded Part 2

Continuing a short story from a collection I wrote around the turn of the century. In part 1: It’s September, 1999, and Pamela is the producer of a hit TV show — the only hit on a crappy network, which just won an Emmy. But that didn’t stop the network from deciding that this would be the last season, and the show ends in May, 2000. Also, keep your eyes peeled for an appearance by someone you may have met a couple of Saturdays ago in another short story from this collection.

The last season came together and Pamela had managed to talk Vince and Mister out of their stupider ideas — no, she was not going to have a disgruntled ex-employee blow up the family’s church during services in the penultimate episode leading into the sweeps month two-hour series finale, nor have the oldest son come out as gay. “This show is not Sunset Circle,” she’d told them in response to that one, taking one last swipe at Chuck and Cindy and their show, which had been renewed. Again.

At least she managed to talk them into giving two of the daughters less than happy endings. In the back of her mind, these were her secret spin-off seeds that might bear fruit later.

But as May rolled around, it was time for that annual ritual, the wrap party, that was always at its most maudlin when it happened for the final time.

She stood by the bar at the Century Club, Althea and Oded at her side, holding court as one network exec after another came by to say how sad they were that Father’s Daughters was over. She smiled, shook their hands, pretended to accept their condolences, knowing exactly which ones had voted her down. The grand finale aired in two days, the writers’ offices had long since been abandoned and the studio space was already re-rented and being re-tooled for a new show. This party was a footnote, but an obligatory one, the official wake for the corpse that was already decomposing.

The actors were avoiding her, the ones that had bothered to show up. A cast of seven regulars and three top-of-show recurring roles, and four of them weren’t there. The leading lady, the oldest daughter, middle daughter’s boyfriend and the wise-beyond his years teenage son, all missing in action. So was a big chunk of the crew and half of the writing staff. That would never have happened before, not in the days when she had everybody walking on eggshells to keep their jobs. But that power had been broken. She couldn’t fire people who didn’t work for her anymore.

The exec parade petered out and Pamela finished her drink — club soda — and Oded took her glass unbidden, heading to the bar for refills. Pamela wasn’t paying attention to him, though. She rarely did. She was wondering where her son had snuck off to, then she looked at her daughter.

Althea was brooding, face down, looking bored out of her skull. She’d been doing that a lot lately. Pamela had tried everything to snap her out of it — a shopping trip to the original Neiman-Marcus in Dallas, a new car, tickets and a backstage pass to an N’Sync concert, a spa-day makeover. Nothing worked. She’d never thought of things like family counseling or Prozac, not for any of them, because they weren’t that kind of family. They were a happy family, an ideal family, Pamela was convinced of that. They were the family that rarely existed in the real world, the old-time, traditional, fully functional TV family. There were no flaws here, none that Pamela could see.

“Isn’t this a great party?” she said to Althea.

“Can we go?” Althea muttered.

“In a while,” Pamela answered. “I kind of have to be here, you know.”

Althea rolled her eyes, sighed.

“Hey, tomorrow, why don’t you and I go to Tiffany — “

“I’m busy tomorrow.”

“All day?”

“Yeah.”

“You know, somebody has a birthday coming up,” Pamela sing-songed. “Have you made your list yet?”

“No.” Althea glanced up, on the edge of saying something, but then she looked down again, shook her head, started to walk away. “I’m going to dance.”

And Pamela was reaching after her, but Althea had blasted off and was already halfway to the dance floor. “Why don’t you dance with Oded?” she called out, but it was buried in the noise from the DJ and the thousand schmoozy conversations. That was the real function of one of these parties, she knew. Finding the next job. Nobody was here for her.

Nobody, goddammit. Nobody. The few of her own people who’d bothered to show weren’t even coming to this corner. She could see all the writers’ assistants huddled on the balcony, looking down at the dance floor, glum. Her story editors were off with Chuck, laughing and joking.

Her co-executive producer wasn’t here yet, but that was par for the course. It always took that woman four hours to get ready to go anywhere, and it was amazing she ever found designer-anything for these affairs in her size, which was thirty-four if it was a day. Still, Steph was the only one Pamela could trust, the one who was always letting her know who was out to get her, the one confirming rumors that would otherwise have just been paranoia.

“I’m worried about so-an-so” coming from Steph’s lips was usually the thin end of the wedge that would always end, a few weeks later, in somebody else getting fired. She was a good person to have around.

But, until she got here, Pamela was standing alone by the bar in the Century Club, feeling isolated in the darkness, waiting for the proper obeisance to be paid. She remembered some old movie line, some Chinese actor, saying “I see a room full of empty people.” That was certainly true. Empty, and apparently blind.

Oded returned, handed her the glass. She looked at it, thrust it back to him.

“Where’s the goddamn ice?” she snapped.

Oded shot back to the bar without a word.

* * *
Pamela sat in the garden behind the house, best-selling novel she was trying to option for a movie-of-the-week splayed open on the ground next to her iced-tea. It was the story of a young Irish Catholic priest in Seattle who becomes an Anglican minister in order to get married, but then moves to England when his wife’s father gets sick. The whole thing was perfect for TV. But after two months, she hadn’t convinced anyone else of that. At least she didn’t have to worry about going broke, not for a long time, but a big shot of cash soon would still be nice. It always was.

Her life had been perfect for TV. She’d lived one sitcom after another, wound up in a one-hour drama, ending in a heartwarming family show. Her first husband had been a soldier, her high school boyfriend. She’d married him in a fit of panic before he shipped off to Viet Nam. God, whenever she thought about that, she felt so old.

By the time he’d come back two years later, she’d really grown cold on him, but they were married, after all, and he came with benefits — medical insurance, housing. He’d also come out of the war relatively unscathed, decision made to become a career soldier.

But it had turned into a strange marriage of convenience a few years later, when she caught him with that Navy boy — and didn’t really care. Roger had freaked out, but she told him they had a pretty nice arrangement. She got to live a lot of places, meet a lot of people. He got to have the show wife, obligatory for an officer. And necessary, to cover up other activities, which could have led to a court martial and dishonorable discharge. But, naturally, if he was fooling around, there was no reason for her not to. She’d always wanted children.

Roger never knew that Walter was actually his. It had been a very strange night, after a very rough year. Pamela had been pregnant — that one belonged to a very nice young Sergeant who worked with Roger at the DOD — but then she had a miscarriage. That had been at Thanksgiving. Then, about a week later, Roger came in, drunk, depressed. She’d been inside all day, hadn’t watched the news, so she had no idea.

But he was crying and started drinking everything in the house. Then he lay on the sofa next to her, put his head in her arms. She stroked his hair and he kept crying, then he suddenly sat up, turned and kissed her, jamming his tongue in her mouth. God, they hadn’t done that since high school.

Suddenly, he was all over her, which was strange, but she didn’t stop him. He pulled off her clothes with silent need, dragged her into the bedroom while pulling off his own, then threw her on the bed and climbed on top.

Pamela was amazed. She had never been fucked with such desperate energy before, or as roughly. Roger was pounding her like uncooked Chicken Kiev, headboard slamming into the wall, and then he ripped the fitted sheet off the bed as he clutched it in orgasmic spasm, elastic snapping into Pamela’s shoulders as Roger shuddered out a groan, then rolled off of her.

He didn’t remember a thing in the morning, and she never reminded him. But she would never forget the night that Walter was conceived. How could anyone of her generation ever forget the date December 8, 1980?

Just to make sure, she didn’t see the young sergeant again until the doctor told her she was pregnant. But she never told Roger that he was the baby’s father. Better that way. Yes, officially, Walter was Roger’s son. But the emotional value of Roger not knowing that would help if any future arguments about those sorts of things came up.

Althea was definitely not his, and Pamela didn’t have to withhold any information to assure him of it. That night in December was the one and only time she and her first husband had ever had sex. One single incident in nearly twenty years.

And then it was over, divorce finally granted not long before Roger suddenly “retired” from the military. She always knew there was something funny about that, him leaving the service at the ripe old age of thirty-nine after an abrupt three pay-grade promotion, and with a ridiculous pension.

But they’d made a deal. Roger would never try to see Walter, and Pamela would release all rights to any of his benefits. She hadn’t been living with him for about five years at that point, anyway. She’d already moved out to Los Angeles. She ran into Roger once, after the divorce, saw him getting out of a brand-new BMW — a seven series, not a three, meaning he really had money, he wasn’t just pretending. They chatted briefly, he mentioned his house in Laurel Canyon, which he’d just bought. So, maybe Pamela had gotten the short end on that one.

But that didn’t matter. It freed her up to marry Dennis, finally. It was about time, since they’d been together for four years already. The kids needed a father in the house, and Dennis repaired motorcycles for a living, out of the garage. Sure, it was a little blue collar, but it gave her time, so she could take a job as a production assistant for a TV show and work insane hours. But some day, she hoped, it would be worth it.

Apparently, though, she wasn’t the only one working long hours. She’d found that out when she went to look for a screwdriver in the garage one night, opened the toolbox and a plastic bag fell off the bottom of the worktable, splitting open on the floor, spattering white powder across her feet.

She could smell it from here and knew what it was, and she went ballistic. Nobody was going to endanger her children like that. If the cops raided the place, arrested them both, what would happen to the kids?

When Dennis returned that evening, she dragged him out to the garage, pointed at the debris on the floor and said one word. “Bye.” That night, she had a twenty-four-hour locksmith change everything. The next morning, she called a lawyer to arrange one divorce and one arrest. As soon as she was absolutely sure she wouldn’t get into any legal trouble by reporting what was in the garage, she called the police, told them the story and they found Dennis three hours later. Of course, that hadn’t been difficult. He was already in custody, picked up for drunk driving the night before.

By that point, she’d maneuvered over to a position as writer’s assistant on a hit half-hour sitcom. It was an easier show than most, because every episode was written by the producer. He didn’t have a writing staff. He didn’t need one. The man seemed to work twenty-four hours a day, and he was funny, pulling off elaborate verbal riffs in dialogue that just kept building and building on jokes until it all just exploded in a brilliant comedy gut-punch right before the act out. He’d been doing that for two seasons now, solo, with no sign of slowing down.

Then, one day, he suddenly had her calling writer’s agents, setting up meetings. And he farmed out a script to an up-and-coming twenty-two-year-old. And then another, two in seven weeks. By the middle of the season, he was wondering aloud to Pamela whether he should hire a writing staff next season. By the time they got picked up for another two seasons and had eight shows left to shoot for this one, he offered her a script. Of course she said yes, despite having no experience, which she admitted — but he just told her that never stopped anyone else in this business.

And suddenly, Pamela had become a TV writer and climbed up a rung, and she became a staff writer the next season and she never knew why the producer had suddenly changed his ways. She wasn’t in the gossip loop. Yet.

She never would know that the man had been one of Dennis’ clients, and the arrest had spooked him out of all his bad habits.

That falling bag had been her big break in more ways than one.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #65: Worst hair, missed movie, new instrument, weirdest thing

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What’s the worst hairstyle you’ve ever had?

This goes back to my musician days, and it started when I told my stylist, “I want to grow it as long as I can.” Well, that long turned out to be more than halfway down my back. Keep in mind that I’ve got really thick, wavy hair, so it’s not the kind of thing that adapts well to that style.

Sure, if I had thinner, straight hair, it would have been awesome. But had had this shit on my head for a couple of years, which made summers hell, not to mention that it made morning prep a lot more difficult because it took a lot longer to wash and a lot longer to dry.

The other trick when my hair gets long is that one side naturally combs up and the other combs down and I can never remember which is which, but if I get it wrong it’s a nightmare. That’s why I would also have my stylist keep the sides fairly short but with the major warning: “This can in no way resemble a mullet, because it’s not the 80s anymore.”

Yeah, this was total grunge era.

Anyway, the day finally came along that I got sick of it and told her, “Okay, cut it off,” and I haven’t really gone back since.

Well, that’s not quite true. In 2020, I’d had my last hair cut in February, and by July it was getting pretty long and crazy, at which point I just said “fuck it” and shaved my head for the first time in my life. That was actually interesting and, since I wasn’t really going anywhere, didn’t have a big effect on my life.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until February 2021 that I got my next cut, a freebie courtesy of my at-the-time boss’s wife, who was a stylist — but now it’s June again, and it’s turning into another rat’s nest or, as a former co-worker used to call it, my “Mad Scientist Hair.”

Still, nowhere near has bad as when I actually had it trained to crawl down my back. Left to its own devices, my hair mostly behaves.

What movie has everyone else seen but you haven’t?

There are probably a few, but the one that most surprises people is probably E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Why? Because I just had less than no interest in seeing it when it came out. It felt like Spielberg had already trod that path with Close Encounters, and from what I’d seen in trailers and ads, it just seemed too cutesy-stupid, even for a kid but especially for an adult.

Years later, when they replaced guns with walkie-talkies, it definitely went into my “Don’t bother” pile.

If you could pick up any one instrument and instantly be a virtuoso at it, what instrument would you choose?

This one is easy, but multiple option. It would be any of a handful of stringed instruments, although while learning some make the others easy, it’s not always the case. So I’d say either guitar, banjo, or fiddle, reasons below.

Keep in mind that guitar also gives you electric bass and ukulele, while fiddle gives you violin, cello, viola, stand-up bass, and contrabass. The difference? The first three have frets. The others do not. Or, in other words, a guitar and friends will tell you where to put your fingers. With the noble strings of the orchestra, you just have to figure it out and remember.

Plus… bow. Guitars and friends don’t have bows. You can finger your orchestral strings if you want, but it’s a specialized move called “pizzicato.”

Now guitars do have picks, while bass may or may not and ukulele doesn’t. Then there’s the banjo, which comes in several flavors — four strings, so close to a bass, or five string, so between bass and guitar, except that the fifth string is much shorter and is considered a “drone.” And while you can pluck them or play them with guitar picks, there are also metal banjo picks that go over your finger and which wouldn’t really work with the others.

Oh yeah — in a lot of cases, you also get a built-in tambourine — or at least a drumhead — with a banjo.

But why my interest in any of these — these being guitar, fiddle, banjo, or uke? They are portable, are easy for a crowd to hear, and you can sing when you play them. Or, in other words, the perfect party entertainment or busker tool if you feel like hitting up your local metro station for some pocket change. Or just making people happy.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found lying on the ground / side of the road?

Oddly enough, this goes back to my musician/bad hair days. The ol’ band had been in the recording studio and were heading home fairly late at night. Now, even though three of us lived together, we had come to the studio from different work locations, so were all in separate cars. Meanwhile, the rhythm guitarist and drummer lived on the other side of the hill, so they headed south while the rest of us headed east.

We were way up in the buttfuck boonies of Chatsworth or something, so our route home took us past Northridge Hospital. I happened to be in the lead, but then suddenly slammed to a stop when my lights picked up something very pale and white in the road.

My bandmates pulled up behind me and we got out to find an old woman in a nightgown lying across the slow lane.

Well, that wasn’t good.

She was alive and conscious, but as we approached, she told us, “Leave me alone. Leave me here. I want to die.”

There being no cellphones, one of our bandmates ran over to the ER entrance only to be told that they couldn’t do shit unless she walked in. Great. So he found a payphone and called the police, who eventually showed up.

The entire time, we kept our cars parked around her, emergency lights flashing, and watched for approac1hing traffic in order to warn it around. Probably not necessary, though, because I think it was very late on a Sunday night — that’s how we got really cheap studio time — so no likely hood of much traffic.

The cops, typical for cops of that era, were completely unsympathetic dicks, at least to her condition, pretty much openly mocking her. However, they at least did have the power to get the ER crew to come out, flop her on a gurney, and admit her.

I have no idea what happened after that. I do know that it was a different era, and the attitude of medical professionals has changed enormously since then. And it still spooks me to this day that had I not realized it had been a human in the road and just perceived it as some junk or a plastic bag, I might have unintentionally granted her wish, with my bandmates accidentally ensuring that the job was done.

And the weirdness of the entire situation is why I remember it to this day.

Theatre Thursday: The ghost light is still burning

I haven’t performed on a stage in public for one year, three months, a week, and a day now and at this point I don’t know when I will again. Except for the main company, the rest of the improv troupes that used to be part of the whole have disbanded and although our Monday night Rec League group has met and practiced via Zoom the whole time, it’s just not the same.

As I see live theatre start to sneak back into reality, it just reminds me of how much I miss the experience of performing — and the great irony of that is that I never set out to be an actor or improviser in the first place. My goal was always to be a writer. I just fell into the acting accidentally.

Like probably everyone, I’d done a couple of elementary school plays, but didn’t really think of those as acting. In my first, I was one out of six lumberjacks with construction paper axes and no, I have no idea what the play was, except that I don’t think it was Little Red Riding Hood but it was staged right in the classroom.

In my last year of elementary school, we did do a production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin and we did it on the actual stage in the auditorium. I actually had a fairly featured part — a young boy named Obi. Since he was lame, he wasn’t able to follow the piper with the rest of the children, so he was the only one who knew what could happen and was able to tell the adults.

I had a big speech and everything, although we had a glitch. There was a student who transferred to the school a fairly short time before the performance but, in the interest of having everyone participate, the teacher cast him in a speaking part. Not having had enough time to prepare and rehearse, he totally forgot his lines — which were all in the same scene that was my big one.

Since none of us were particularly good at ad-libbing, the production sort of slid off the rails until someone finally ran on and handed him the book — although he did wind up repeating the speech that was my cue, which got awkward, since the only thing I knew to do was to repeat my scene as well.

When I did get into drama class in middle school, I really sucked at it, so that made me performance shy except for playing piano and keyboards for a couple of musicals. In college, I had no intention of pursuing theatre, except that the music thing came up to lure me back in.

One of the theatre professors heard from one of my friends that I owned a synthesizer, so she contacted me to ask if I wanted to play in the combo for the musical she was directing that fall, which was my first semester of freshman year.

It sounded like fun, so I figured, “Okay, what the hell,” and did it, and it was a game-changer. There were four of us in the combo — piano, bass, drums, and synth. The musical was an odd little show called Philemon, originally produced off-Broadway in 1975, although it never really went on to become a hit, more on why in a moment.

What’s most notable about it, though is that it was created by the same team that had created The Fantasticks fifteen years earlier, and that show still holds the record for longest continuous run of any show in the U.S. The off-Broadway premiere was in 1960 and it didn’t close until 2002.

It could be argued that San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon had a longer run, premiering in 1974 and not closing until 2020. However, it did change venues and it was also a very topical review, so the numbers, performers, subject matter, and lyrics were changing constantly, so it could just as rightly be argued that it wasn’t really the same show or in the same category.

But I was talking about meeee! Back to Philemon: It’s actually a very dark show. Set in third century C.E. Antioch during the Roman occupation, the premise is simple. The location is a Roman prison (concentration camp, perhaps?) holding arrested dissidents, Christians among them.

The rumor is that a famous Christian leader, Philemon, is coming to liberate them. The Romans would really like to figure out who the Christians are but in order to do it, they need a fake Philemon. It just so happens that an amoral street performer and clown, Cockian, has just been arrested, but the head of the camp has an offer for him.

You’ve probably figured out that the offer is to pretend to be Philemon and flush out the Christians, and the story goes from there. The songs were actually surprisingly good and fun to play, and since we were sitting behind the set which was covered with scrims, we could see everything onstage while the audience could not see us — at least not until our curtain call moment, when a change of lighting revealed us.

One of my favorite stories from that play involves a number in which I played a single note as undertone during a monologue, slowly bending the pitch down. I quickly figured out the trick of putting a pencil under the key so I could just focus on the pitch bend, but noticed something else during the course of the run.

This monologue was a speech given by a character who had been discovered to be Christian and sentenced to be flogged to death, and the actor in the role convinced the director to let him do the scene nude — which actually made sense in context. Of course, they kept it tasteful for the audience and most of the rest of the cast was sitting under the upper level of the set at that time, so they couldn’t see anything.

The band, however, had front row seats for Liam’s backstage entrance and butt-ass naked climb up the ladder to that platform, so we got to see everything. But that’s not the interesting part.

No — it’s that I started to time how long I had to play that single note while we were in dress rehearsals, and it started out at about two and a half minutes. But then, once the audience came in, Liam’s performance got more and more dramatic and emotional every night. By the time we closed, that note was almost six and a half minutes.

That’s called milking it.

The next semester, my friends from Philemon talked me into going to the theatre department’s first meeting, then egged me into auditioning for the next play. Figuring that there’d be no way in hell I’d get cast, since I wasn’t even a theatre major, I auditioned — and got cast in a fairly prominent speaking role.

Well, damn. And then I became a theatre minor, did a bunch of shows in college with both the theatre department and the school’s student drama club, and enjoyed it all immensely. But after graduation, I hung up my performing hats for a while and just focused on writing.

I think, by that point, I’d taken to just performing in real life, so didn’t really need an artificial stage. Plus the format of the writing workshop I belonged to consisted of all the writers getting together weekly and then doing dramatic reads of each other’s pages, and I got quite a lot of practice at cold reading and acting, not to mention a chance to perform. I was involved with various groups like that for years, right up until I made the switch to improv.

Of course, writing would eventually bring me back to performing, and this happened after I had joined the writing arm of a theatre company that was on the verge of collapsing. That would have been Actors Alley at the El Portal Theatre, and once it did blow up, somebody else created The Company Rep from its ashes.

At first, I just stuck with the writing group, but after they had moved to a larger theater and announced that they were doing Camino Real, I just had to jump back in again, and so I did. I auditioned, got a really great part that was mostly non-speaking, so very physical, and although I’m sure that show was sheer torture for the audience, it popped me right back on that performing horse again.

The Company Rep didn’t last too long, but I did manage a few really fun roles as well as tech gigs during that time. And then, the biggest irony was that when I got into improv, it was with the company that occupied exactly the same 99-seat space within the El Portal Theatre that Actors Alley had died in and The Company Rep had been born in.

Full circle, then, when the improv company shut down in 2020.

“We’re actors. We’re the opposite of people!” That’s perhaps my favorite line from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is a wonderfully loopy meta take on Hamlet. Indeed, the whole Stoppard masterpiece is just one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays as seen from the POV of two minor characters who are summarily dispatched by the melancholy Dane when he turns the tables and alters a letter.

But it’s true. It’s probably the case for a lot of actors, but when we’re not onstage, we can be introverted, awkward, and shy. Throw us on stage, though, with or without a script, and that’s when we’re given permission to come alive.

If only theatre weren’t still dead right now. But, as I said in the title, the ghost light is still burning, so there is still hope that we’ll be back, bigger and better than ever. Hey — a little plague couldn’t stop Shakespeare, right? It’s not going to stop us.

Wednesday Wonders: Up the tree and down the rabbit hole

Due to certain things I recently learned from my DNA, I’ve gone back to the online family history records maintained by the Mormons and, say what you want about the church, when it comes to genealogy, they are an amazing resource because they’ve kept copies of everything, originally in multiple locations, and now online.

Of course, they got into genealogy for all the wrong reasons. Originally, it was because they did not admit black members, so all of those family trees were designed to weed out people who might violate the reprehensible “one drop rule.” They justified this based on the so-called Curse of Ham.

Eventually, the Church did start to admit black members — they couldn’t get enough white ones, apparently, plus they discovered Africa as fertile ground for planting their missionaries — but I can never bring up the role of the Church of Latter Day Saints in giving such a boost to genealogists without including the really nasty reason why.

But the fascinating thing about genealogy is the history it can expose as the people and places in your tree come to light. Since my DNA test showed that I’m definitely descended from my father’s mother, I decided to fill in her tree and did it methodically.

Basically, I started with her father, and filled in what parts of his line I didn’t have already, building by adding each successive generation of parents and then following the paternal line up until I hit the earliest ancestor.

Next, I came back down and did the same for his mother, also following her paternal line. Once that was done, it was time go back up my great-grandfather’s lineage, only this time filling in the tree for each wife at each step.

Interesting thing, by the way: It’s amazing how often the people keeping the records really seemed to have no interest in the wives. I’ve had many a line that continues back centuries for the males that peters out after a few generations with someone having an unknown wife with no birth or death dates, or no spouse listed at all, and then no parents after that.

At least this made it easy to fill out the matrilineal part of that first great grand-father out of four — well, to be precise, my paternal grandmother’s father. I repeated the steps basically moving across the line, so my grandmother’s mother was next — although I’m still working up her lines and haven’t even gotten to my paternal grandfather’s ancestors.

One other note: I’ve found it necessary, on the way up, to only include the children I’m descended from after about five generations. This isn’t to discount the other kids in any way. It’s just that some of these people had a metric fuckton of children, and including them all makes it really hard to hop up and down the line when I’m trying to find the next ancestor to enter into the program.

Surprisingly, though, in those (not infrequent) cases of cousins marrying, the common ancestor will usually manage to reveal themselves when then program suddenly asks me, “Is this John Jones the same as this John Jones?” And they usually are.

Oh — I don’t use “Jones” facetiously here. I apparently have a ton of Jones ancestors who were in Kentucky and who definitely married cousins a lot.

But that’s something else you quickly learn when you do genealogy: The cousin thing was totally the norm until fairly recent times. Why? Because most people never traveled very far from the town or village they were born in. Your dating pool can be limited to second or third cousins very quickly.

Another thing I learned from this exercise: I am apparently related to the Breckenridge Family, who started out very influential in local politics in Kentucky, but then took it national. Among its prominent members are a U.S. Representative, two Senators, and a Vice President, mostly in the 19th century.

And this brings up the ugly history of John Cabell Breckinridge, who started out as a U.S. Senator from Kentucky but then wound up as Secretary of War for the Confederacy. Oops. He fled the country after the war, winding up with his family in Canada via England, but eventually returned after President Andrew Johnson removed his own spine and offered amnesty to all former Confederate officials.

At least I’m not directly descended from him. But this wasn’t the only fascinating thing I learned about America from doing this.

Nope. That would be the discovery of one of my 8th great-grandfathers, Christen Thomasson, who was born in 1654 in a place called New Sweden. And where was New Sweden?

Well, nowadays, it’s known as part of the states of Pennsylvania and Delaware, but for 17 years, from 1638 to 1655, it was a Swedish colony in North America. It was in the year after Christen was born, in fact, that New Sweden came to an end as they lost another battle in an ongoing war with the Dutch, who took it over — although my Thomasson ancestors did not appear to move.

And yes, the Dutch had colonies here, too — probably not a surprise because you’ve heard that famous story of how they originally bought what would later become Manhattan and called it New Amsterdam. (And the territory may not even have been owned by the natives who sold it to them. Fun!)

Now, I’ve long known about the Dutch and British and French and Spanish colonies in the new world, but the Swedish one was totally new to me. Even more interesting is that my mother’s ancestors managed to wind up living near what had once been part of New Sweden, except about two hundred years after it had ceased to be a Swedish colony.

It remained part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland until it was all finally seceded to England in 1674, nineteen years after the Dutch had taken it from the Swedes.

Oh… one other dirty little secret from history for you: All of this Dutch colonization wasn’t so much carried out by the government back in the Netherlands. Rather, it was perpetrated by a corporation, the Dutch West India Company. One of their major imports to their colonies were slaves kidnapped from Africa.

They’re not to be confused with the Dutch East India Company, which was an even bigger, vertically integrated top-down monopoly that focused on exploiting India and the far east for their spices, cloth, foodstuffs, and whatever else they could suck out while they weren’t also busy colonizing.

I’m sure there are some modern-day object lessons hiding in the stories of the bad shit that happens when government takes the reins off and lets private companies get that powerful, but I’ll let you find them for yourselves.

Oh yeah… the Dutch East India Company was financed by bonds and private investors, not by the government.

And these are the rabbit holes you run down when you start seriously climbing your family tree again.

Talky Tuesday: Respecting pronouns

Apparently, some people get their panties in a twist over the mere concept that people can have pronouns that are different than what you, personally, think they should be. Maybe it’s a childhood friend you grew up with who has now announced that they’re transgender, or a celebrity who was famous as their assigned-at-birth sex before confirming their actual gender.

Hell, maybe it’s even someone you’ve never met, but in your opinion the pronouns they’re asking for don’t fit your perception of them.

Well, here’s how to respect those pronouns. If someone tells you what their pronouns are, you thank them and then use those pronouns. End of story. Sure, you might slip up now and again at first, but if you catch yourself doing that, just say, “Oops, sorry,” and make the correction.

It’s really actually pretty easy, and just requires a bit of empathy and respect. And you know what? Despite knowing a lot of transgender individuals now, I rarely ever run across anything beyond he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs.

Even though I’ll see official dropdown lists on some forms that include all kinds of things that didn’t exist previously, I really don’t see people gravitating to those. Hey, all of us like the familiar, and he, she, and they have been with us forever.

Side note: “They” has been used in English as a singular pronoun since the 14th century, so anyone trying to argue that it’s plural is just plain wrong, and you can tell them that. It’s really the closest to a neutral pronoun that English has.

But… now that we’ve simplified how to respect people’s chosen pronouns, let me get to that other part, where people abuse the hell out of pronouns on a daily basis. They really aren’t all that complicated, especially in English where we don’t decline the hell out of everything, and yet the wrong ones get used in the wrong place all the time.

Here are a few examples of pronoun abuse:

Me and him went to the store today.

His philosophy totally changed myself.

Do you know whom is knocking on the door?

The kitten licks it’s paws.

They gave awards to she and I.

And so on.  Also, as I mentioned, pronouns aren’t all that complicated in English. We have subject pronouns, which indicate who’s performing the action in a sentence. We also have object pronouns, which tell us who’s on the receiving end of that action. Finally, we have possessive pronouns, which tell us when somebody owns or has something else.

Right off the bat, English is simplified because there is no difference between direct and indirect pronouns. In other languages, it does make a difference whether someone is doing something directly to you or doing something to another object to give it to you.

For example, in English, whether you hit a ball to someone or hit them with the ball directly, the pronouns are the same: “Hit the ball to him!” “Hit him with the ball!” In Spanish, it’s not the same in the cases of “you” (singular familiar) and “he,” in which case the pronouns change from ti to te and le to lo. And it can get more complicated in other languages.

But let’s look at what’s happening wrong in each of the examples above.

WRONG: Me and him went to the store today

The short reason it’s wrong: these are object pronouns when they should be subject pronouns. The two people in the sentence are the actors, so they are the ones going to the store. If you used a pronoun for “store,” then it would be the object pronoun.

I quick way to spot the error is to drop one of the pronouns and see if you sound like Tarzan. Clearly, “Me went to the store” and “him went to the store” are just wrong. Also remember, when ordering pronouns in groups, the speaker always comes last, so the correct sentence is, “He and I went to the store today.”

WRONG: His philosophy totally changed myself

I actually heard someone say this in an interview and wanted to punch my phone. The problem? The “-self” pronouns are reflexive. They’re what happen when you are both the subject and object pronoun. Think of Nelson’s famous “stop hitting yourself” from The Simpsons.

By definition, someone else cannot affect a change on yourself, only on themselves. (Also note the plural construction of the singular themselves there.) There are two correct versions here. One is the simple direct object verb: “His philosophy totally changed me,” and a reflexive cause and effect version: “His philosophy made me totally change myself.”

WRONG: Do you know whom is knocking at the door?

I like to think of this one as a mistake of pretense — as in when someone wants to show off that they know the pronoun “whom,” but then also instantly proceeds to demonstrate that they have no idea how it works. “Whom” is another object pronoun, and usually follows a preposition: To whom, from whom, for whom, with whom, etc.

There’s a quick rule of thumb to see if you’ve got “whom” right. Replace it with “him” in the sentence. It’s easy to remember because they both end in “m.” So: “Do you know him is knocking on the door?” is clearly wrong, and the correct word is “who.”

WRONG: The kitten licks it’s paws

Now we come to the possessive pronouns, which really trip people up, because they don’t work like other possessives. In most cases, you add an apostrophe, with rules depending on whether the possessor is singular or plural or whether the word ends in S or X — although there’s some disagreement on the former.

So, singular: Jon’s article. Maria’s car. Plural: The Peoples’ Choice. Trick plurals: The men’s group, the children’s choir, the women’s union. The Joneses’ house.

As for the names ending in S rule, there are two schools of thought on that. One is that classical names always get just an apostrophe, and not an apostrophe S. So Jesus’ parable, Socrates’ method. But there’s a split on modern names. Some people insist that these names only get an apostrophe, and that’s it.

Others, though, for ease of pronunciation, say that these words should get the full apostrophe-S.

So you have Cass’ bar vs. Cass’s bar, or James’ theatre vs. James’s theatre. Clearly, the latter look a lot like how they are pronounced. But these are all nouns. Let’s get back to the pronouns.

Basically, none of them have apostrophes because they don’t need them: My book, your shoe, his wallet, her degree, our house, your (pl.) cars. The one that trips people up is “its,” because of that pesky S — but it’s not needed in possessives. Correct example from above: The kitten licks its paws.

The way to remember this one is that in the word “it’s” the apostrophe represents the missing “I” in the contraction “it is.” So when you see “it’s” in a sentence, read it out as “it is,” and if it makes no sense, then you want “its.” “The kitten licks it is paws.” Nope.

Finally, don’t confuse the possessive pronouns with the adjectives of possession. “My book” is pronoun and object. “That book is mine” is a noun and adjective. Although do note that, technically, in English, mine (and thine) were used as the sort of equivalent of “a” and “an” when it involved coming before vowels.

You’ll see it all the time in Shakespeare: “Be still my heart, yet weep, mine eyes.” (Made up line.) And it’s quite prominent in an old American song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic in the line, “Mine eyes have seen the glory…”

It’s really fallen out of fashion, but it was there for the same reason that we don’t like to say “a elephant.” It’s just clunky.

WRONG: They gave awards to she and I

This is sort of a reversal of the “me and him went to the store” problem. In this case, the subject pronouns have been used as objects, and you can spot it the same way: Drop one pronoun. Also note that, unlike the object version where the speaker comes last, with subject pronouns, the speaker comes first, so the correct sentence would be, “They gave awards to me and her.” Yeah, why it works like that, I have no idea, but just trust me. “To her and me,” just like “I and he went,” would totally grate on a native speaker’s ear.

So: The moral of the story is that pronouns are things to be respected and treated with care. Our language has taught us to use them properly lest we sound less than educated. Don’t forget to let the people around you now educate you on how to use theirs properly, and then do it, lest you continue to sound less than educated.

That’s right. A lesson in grammar and gender of the non-grammatical sort — and remember this: Every grammar rule I just explained to you will be a metric fuckton harder to remember than how to get people’s pronouns right.

You’re welcome.

The Saturday Morning Post #66: Pamela Rewarded Part 1

All you need to know: This story, which I’ll have to serialize, was part of the 24 Exposures collection, which I wrote around 1999-2001. It’s definitely pre-911, pre smart phones, pre social media. This story, though, was largely inspired by my own career in television. Enjoy!

She held the thing in her hands, feeling its weight, admiring its elegant yet simple curves, sweeping up from the base and straining for the heavens with its big, round summit. It was huge. And heavy. Much heavier than she’d expected.

She lifted it up to her chin, then carefully slid it into place, backwards onto the high shelf, where two precisely arranged pin-lights perfectly augmented its gleaming golden highlights, its engraved plaque, upswept wings and wire-work globe. It was a woman, winged Victory or a take on Nike, carrying the world. It was a token that the woman looking at it, Pamela, had succeeded, finally, in a man’s world.

“The Emmy is up, let’s go out to dinner!” Pamela shouted, her voice booming off the high ceiling and enormous walls. Her husband, Oded, came dashing into the room, that worried look on his face that he’d done something else wrong. “Where are the kids?” she asked him.

He shrugged. “Walter, off with his friends somewhere. I think Althea’s in her room.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be watching them?” She was giving him that look he hated.

“Walter’s on winter break, let him enjoy it.”

“My daughter isn’t.”

“Uh… Althea doesn’t really like me following her around everywhere. She is seventeen — “

“Seventeen, not eighteen. Seven. Seven, as in not eight, not old enough, not an adult — “

“Okay, okay, got it,” Oded waved her off. He hated it when she started writing TV dialogue, and especially when she started spouting her own show’s party line, mid-argument. Frequent mid-argument, lately. “Should I go get her?”

“Yes,” Pamela blurted, volume up to emphasize the stupidity of the question. Oded hurried out of the room. “Well,” she thought to herself, “At least I managed to find the one docile Iraqi on the planet.”

She looked at the Emmy again, staring at it. At hers. It was the crown jewel of her life, new centerpiece (besides herself) of this four-million-dollar house with the full five-car garage, money pouring in hand over fist because TV was a mammon machine (for the right people), the servants, the garden, two kids, her husband. And an Emmy.

“Here we go again,” she thought to herself as she got to work very early on Monday morning, her office still stuffed with week-old congratulatory baskets and flowers and other clones of Things Executives Sent that were all bought at the same Store Where Executives Get Them. Well, more correctly, Where Executives’ Assistants Order Them by Phone, she thought as her assistant popped in the door, messages in hand. He was holding one out to her, saying words she hadn’t quite focused on yet. But she never let on to that. Instead, she had subtly conditioned her staff to over-explain everything, so she could catch it the second or third time around, then cut them off. Always make them feel like the dumb ones, that was the key.

“Narita called three times already. She said Mister wants to see you as soon as you’re in — “

“Now?” she asked. Her assistant nodded. “Okay,” she said, instinctively reaching for her purse as he stepped out the door. How did make-up always manage to vanish in the car? She touched up her lips and her eyes, checked the hair, the teeth. Made a mental note — collagen, no; Botox, god yes; have Louanne touch up the roots Friday; remember to get that cap checked. Good. Instinctively, she knew this was just going to be an official face-to-face congratulations for finally snagging the company its golden lady, a thank you from the old man for all her help. Still, any trip up to Mr. Torand’s office that hadn’t been scheduled three weeks in advance made her nervous.

She walked the long hall, came at last to the far lobby, and saw the guard pick up the phone the instant she was in sight, heard him say, “She’s here.” Before she could speak, he’d hung up and was buzzing open the door. “They’re expecting you,” he said, and she passed through to the inner sanctum.

They are expecting you. How did he mean that? “They” meaning the boss and his execs, or they meaning the boss and… network execs? Maybe, but they never went out of their way to compliment awards. Anyway, the pick-up for next season and the one after that were a slam dunk. That was all the compliment she needed.

Narita stood up and said hello, escorting Pamela to the big door. She swung it open and stepped into the room, where the boss’s big oak desk was dwarfed by the walls, looking a third its real size at the end of a long, white carpet. Mr. Torand was the only one in there. It wasn’t until she saw Narita that Pamela realized the guard was talking about the assistants when he said “they.” Well, of course he would. His “they” was not Pamela’s “they.” His “they” didn’t matter. Obvious now, but Pamela hadn’t thought of it before. At least it meant the meeting would be short and easy.

Mr. Torand was standing by a bookshelf, which was crammed with People’s Choice type awards, staring intently at a singing bass, which was going through its routine. He was humming along with it, laughing. Pamela approached cautiously. She was always amazed at what the boss found amusing. Sometimes, it was hard to believe he was the founder of a billion-dollar empire. He looked like somebody’s slightly ditzy grandfather, and preferred jeans, sneakers and sweaters around the office. He was holding a pipe in one hand, which he now brought to his lips and lit. He took a puff, chuckled at the fish again, then looked toward her, gave her a big smile. “Pammy, how’s my girl?” he asked. He was one of those people who was so respected that a comment like that never elicited any negative response. He was too old for it to have those connotations, a relic of a different world. “Like my fish?”

Pamela forced a smile. “It’s very funny. Where did you get it?” Of course, she knew damn well where. It was the sixth one she’d seen this month.

“Chuck got it somewhere for me, I don’t know exactly.” He looked at it again and chuckled. He loved animated toys. He still owned one of every Furby ever made, but he never used a computer.

“So…” he suddenly turned the fish off, trotted to the door and closed it, signaling to Narita, no calls. Bad sign, Pamela thought, getting a little nervous as she walked to his desk. He gestured her over to the sofa instead. Really bad sign, Pamela knew. She sat, sinking into the leather bedlam that spanned three walls. Mr. Torand sat in an armchair.

“You guys,” he began. “We finally have an Emmy.” He looked dreamily at the ceiling. He’d been in the business for decades but was never associated with that elusive “quality” that put TV shows into rarefied ranks. And yet, he’d had one hit after another, so he was obviously doing something right. Since his own peers did the nominating for the real awards, it was obvious they had begrudged him his success until, finally, acknowledgement had become unavoidable. At least, that’s what he’d thought when the winner was announced. He’d found out not long after that there were other reasons, and so the Emmy lost a little bit of the vindicatory power it had wielded on awards night. And sweet Jesus, he had to try to explain that now. How the hell was he going to do that?

Pamela saw the drifting look in his eyes, the slightly open mouth, avoiding her gaze. She knew that look. It was the stasis before disaster, the firefly moment when the news is telegraphed before delivery. It lasted half a second, and then the old man inhaled, flipped his hands, began.

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” he said. “But I just got the call from the network, and they’ve decided not to pick you up after this season. Your last episode will be next May. I’m sorry.”

The floor fell away. She couldn’t believe it. She stared at the old man, rage building. What were they thinking? Hers was the only show that had any kind of audience on that crappy network. The only one to ever even be nominated for an Emmy, much less win one. The only goddamn thing they had going for them, and they were pulling the plug?

“Motherfuckers,” she spat out. “Why?”

“They said that they felt the series had explored all the areas it had to explore and that it tapped out its potential, and nothing further could ever live up to how good it was in the past. They decided to end it on a high note.”

“I got them a fucking Emmy!” she shouted, then caught the faux pas. “We have done more for them than anybody else.”

“I know, I know, Pammy,” he said. “You guys have been doing great work. I fought for you, I really pleaded with them, said you had a lot more great material in you, could win them a few more next year, but… well, you know how political these things can be. What with Billy getting fired last year, and he was a big supporter of yours. Look on the bright side. Syndication.”

True, she thought. After seven years, there were enough shows in the can to make Father’s Daughters as ubiquitous as I Love Lucy. The money would keep rolling in for a long time. But, despite that, she was going to become the most useless commodity in the industry in eight months. Well, realistically when they wrapped, in six months: An out-of-work show‑runner.

“Anyway,” the old man went on, “we want to do something really special with the farewell arc and the finale. I’ll have Vince come by with our ideas later.”

And he was standing already. That was it. So she knew two things, at least. One, there was no way in hell the network would be convinced to change their mind, not by anyone, not for anything. Two, all the old man’s comments about fighting for her had been bullshit. That was par for the course. Pamela stood, walking to the door. The one thing of which there was no shortage in the television business was bullshit. The politics made it as horrific and treacherous as a junior high school playground.

Oh, but the money.

And syndication —money for nothing, and the tricks are free.

* * *
Her head was reeling as she walked back down the long hallway. As she neared the elevators, she heard familiar voices, the producers on another company show. She stopped and listened. News traveled through this place like air through a natural blonde.

“But, come on, that show was over two seasons ago,” one of them said. It was Chuck, who had had more cancellations and resurrections than anybody else on the planet.

“True,” that was Cindy, his co-producer. “It was pretty tired last season. I’m surprised they’re even going to try to squeeze one more out of it.”

“Well, how many times can you do the ‘Father Rick Saves the Runaway Teen’ story, anyway?” Chuck laughed. “Bor-ing.”

Well, of course someone like him would find it boring, Pamela thought. His shows were always overheated soap operas, one couple after another playing randy roulette, no basic values, everybody out to screw everybody else, literally and figuratively. His shows weren’t like real life. They were like… hell, they were just like TV.

“Think she’ll manage to fire this staff before the series ends?” Cindy wondered.

“Why not? She’s done it, what, five times?”

Pamela drew herself up, thinking “God, what losers.” She decided this was the moment for the awkward end-of-act entrance, the big handjob that would bring the viewers back after the commercial: “INSERT Pamela, just off the lobby, listening. She reacts, then walks by.” No… “She reacts, then draws herself up with dignity and walks by.”

“Hello!” Pamela called out. Cindy blanched, but Chuck, ever the pro, smiled and waved as if nothing had happened.

“Hey, congrats on that Emmy,” he called out.

“Thanks,” Pamela answered, continuing on. She wrote the tag in her head. “Chuck and Cindy exchange a look. Busted. Fade out. End of Act.”

But not end of show. Not for one more season.

* * *