Friday Free-for-All #1

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know! For this one, we go back to the first Friday Free-for-All ever.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to decide what this theme would be. On the surface, it seems like “just write whatever you want to” would work, but I tend to do that otherwise, constrained only by the subject of the day. But then I ran across a site that generates random questions, and realized that this was the way to go. In a sense, I’d be letting AI interview me. But to make it truly random, rather than take the first question, I pulled ten, and then used Excel’s RANDBETWEEN function to pick one from that list.

And you’re all invited to play. Feel free to answer the question yourself in the comments and let’s see what we all come up with. Now with no further ado, here we go…

What personality trait do you value most and which do you dislike the most?

This is a very interesting question because there are so many possibilities for the first one — sincerity, intelligence, punctuality, honesty, integrity, and so on. But beyond all of those, which are all very good things to have in my book, I think the one that anchors them all is curiosity about the world, and a desire to constantly learn new things.

All of the most interesting people I know are still students, whether they only graduated from high school six months ago or whether they’ve been retired for ten years. And they don’t necessarily have to be taking classes, but if they’re reading, listening to podcasts, studying on their own, whatever… it shows. And that kind of interest in self-growth extends to every other part of their life.

These are the people who actually remember things that I tell them when, for example, they can’t figure out how to do something on their computer. Their minds are definitely in “one and done” mode.

Me: “To do thing X push keys Y and Z, and then follow with A and B…”

Them: “Ah, got it, thanks.”

And the truly curious ones do, and never ask me the same question twice. The incurious ones, though? Every five goddamn minutes. “How do you do that thing, again?”

“Jesus, Mildred. I told you. Hit control-whatever, click on particular box, done.”

The great thing about curious people is that they never create the mindset of “oh, this is hard,” or “I can never learn that.” Instead, they dive in with a hearty and enthusiastic need to know and confidence in their ability to know it.

I’ve experienced both sides constantly in my own process of re-learning Spanish again and learning improv for the first time as an adult way out of college. The fellow students I encounter fall into two camps. One group asks questions and accepts answers. The other group complains and whines — “What I said should be right because…” This is always followed by a wrong example, and then they don’t listen to explanations.

The absolute classic version of this for students of Spanish is this: “It should be la agua, because agua ends in ‘a’ so it’s feminine.”

Except… this is one of those rules you just have to know. Yes, agua is feminine, but Spanish doesn’t like to put “la” before a word that starts with a stressed “a.” It’s exactly the same reason that English uses “an” instead of “a” before a vowel sound. It’s just easier to say.

So… the singular version of agua, which is still feminine, uses the masculine article to avoid the “a/a” crash: el agua. Other examples include el águila and el arpa. Note that with indefinite articles, it’s okay to go either way.

But, yeah. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen someone who is clearly only at a ¿Qué Hora Es? level of  Spanish insisting that they’re right. It’s… cute. Infuriating, but cute.

Now, when it comes to the one I dislike the most, you might think that I’d go for the easy opposite, which is “incuriosity.” However, that’s not it. I can just ignore incurious people and let them go on with their empty little lives. The personality trait I dislike the most is what we could probably classify as flakiness. That is, making a commitment to doing something, and then bailing out with no advance notice or explanation.

Now, this is different from saying you’ll come to something and then letting me know, last minute or not, that you can’t. That is totally fine. If you send a text an hour before with literally any reason in it, or even not a reason, then we’re cool.

“Sorry, stuck at work.”

“Sorry, forgot I had this other thing.”

“Sorry, I really don’t feel like it tonight.”

“Sorry, my S.O. surprised me with other plans.”

Those are all fantastic, and so is something as simple as the no reason, “Sorry. Can’t.”

That’s cool, too, because at least you’ve told me not to wait for you to show up, so you’ve respected me by doing that, and you’re awesome.

But… if you’ve told me, and especially if you’ve done it enthusiastically, “Oh, yeah, I’ll be there for sure,” and then your place is taken by crickets at time and date, and then you don’t bother to catch up later and say why… WTF, really?

That’s flakier than a bowl of morning cereal, and it’s not an attractive look for anyone. Want to know how to get fewer invites to anything? To paraphrase Archer, “This is how you get [fewer invites to anything.]”

Okay, I think they said ants, but whatever. The point is… if someone asks, you answer, and a simple “Yes” or “No” without excuses is acceptable. This is modern life. Enjoy it.

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

Sunday Announcement

Due to unforeseen medical circumstances, I may be taking a hiatus from the site, or at least re-running select articles for a while. Note: The medical issue is not related to COVID-19 in any way, as far as I know.

But there are two main issues that leave me in the dark here at the moment.

The first: I don’t have Kaiser medical insurance right now. I had that with a former employer and then via Covered California, and it was great. Of course, Kaiser is a not-for-profit medical group and, while it’s an HMO (which a lot of people hate) I loved it for exactly that reason.

Make an appointment, go to the medical center of your choice, and all of the specialists, diagnostic equipment, and in many cases hospitals, are all right there. So are the lab and pharmacy.

The second: I do have insurance through my employer right now, but the company is in one state and I’m in another. It’s also a PPO, which I don’t have a lot of experience with. I guess the key is making sure that any provider I’m referred to is “in network.” That wasn’t a problem with Kaiser, because if it said that name on the building, then it was in network.

The challenge has been trying to find one provider to start with that is in network, and that search hasn’t been successful. Once I get to that point and get admitted, that’s when I hope that the doctors can get to work and fix things, which aren’t that different than last time.

But I just don’t know yet how long that’s going to take to get the process started. So… I’m going to try to pre-program various existing posts to re-run again for the next couple of weeks. I’ll try to avoid anything that’s too topical, but it’s not always easy.

And, as opportunity presents itself, I will pop in with an update on what’s going on.

Thanks for your understanding and yes, I know — medical care in the U.S. sucks.

Saturday Morning Post 97: Truth or Dare (Part 3)

The third and final part of the next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one. Kevin, Rick, and Pedro game of Truth or Dare has spun even farther off of the rails.

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“New rule,” Pedro went on. “No more truth. Dares only.”…

“You can’t do that,” Kevin said.

“He just did,” Rick cut in. “What’s your dare, Kevie?”

“I’m not playing anymore,” Kevin whined. “You win.”

“I think Kevin here needs to go for a naked walk,” Rick said to Pedro.

“Right,” Pedro said. “Kevin. Clothes off.”

“I’m not playing — “

Before he could finish the sentence, Rick was there, knocking the glass from his hand, grabbing him in an arm lock, the other hand clamped under his chin, holding his face up.

“The game isn’t over until the host says it is, and there’s one more round to go.”

“Guys, come on…”

“Pedro, help me here.” Pedro nodded as Rick moved his hand from Kevin’s chin, grabbed the front of his t-shirt and ripped. He tore it all the way down, let go of Kevin’s arm and yanked it off.

“Hey, okay, enough — “ Kevin protested, but Pedro suddenly grabbed his ankles, lifting his feet off the ground. Rick caught Kevin by the shoulders and they dragged him into the living room, wrestling him to the ground. He put up a good struggle, but he was really no match, finally trying to curl into a ball, holding his boxers on. Rick grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and, in two quick cuts and a yank, the boxers were history.

“There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Rick said. Kevin sat up on the living room floor, face red, legs together, body hunched, trying to hide in the carpet.

“Okay, there, you had your fun,” his voice wavered, truly close to cracking now. “Give me my clothes back, I’m going home.”

“The fun’s just beginning,” Rick said, standing above him, hands on his hips. “What’s the big deal? We’re both still naked. It’s just a game.”

“This isn’t funny.”

“No. You know what’s funny? A guy who manipulates everyone around him, always manages to cause trouble without getting into any himself. Mr. Instigator, aren’t you? What’s your story, Kevin, really? Why do you get off on making problems?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do. Or maybe you don’t. But if you don’t, then you’re a lot sadder than I thought you were. Hey, Pedro, what do you think we should do with him?”

“I don’t know. You want to go dump him in Compton?”

“That’s too far. Maybe just Van Nuys.”

“Rick, man, come on. What did I ever do to you?”

That hit a nerve. Rick thought about it, realized the answer was “Plenty.” Never anything openly or obvious, but Kevin had screwed lots of things up. Generally, it involved ruining some macking attempt by Rick at a party. He’d be moving in for the score on some hoochie, really catching her eye, and then Kevin would pop up, make some rude comment and vanish. But that would be enough. Women often judged men by their friends, rightly or wrongly, and their interest would wane.

And there were all those times that Rick would have succeeded at a party, stepped away to get drinks for himself and his new found female friend, and come back to find that Kevin had horned in, wouldn’t go away, became a parasite, and yet was apparently ignorant of the intrusion. Many a night with Kevin around had ended with a woman suddenly excusing herself, saying her friend had a headache and she had to go now, and the phone number she’d give Rick in parting was always wrong.

“Get up,” Rick suddenly said. Kevin rolled his eyes and huffed. Rick grabbed his arm. “Up, now.”

“Give me my pants,” Kevin said.

“Stand up and you’ll get them.”

They stared at each other, Kevin glowering, Rick realizing he’d never seen him look so angry. Finally, Kevin hauled himself to his feet, stood there with his hands covering his crotch, nostrils flaring.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m up.”

“And now you’re down,” Rick said, and he knocked Kevin cold with a single right hook that sent him spread-eagle onto the sofa, TKO.

* * *

The first thing Kevin noticed when he woke up was that he was staring at the carpet, lying across the coffee table. The second thing he noticed was the duct tape on his mouth. Third was that his wrists and ankles were tied to the table legs. Fourth, and most disconcerting in his mind, was that he was still naked, ass in the air, and he couldn’t move.

He heard Rick and Pedro off in the kitchen, talking in whispers, pausing, talking again. He pulled with his arms, but it was useless. He was pretty well secured.

Rick appeared from the kitchen, still naked, half full glass in his hand. Kevin lifted his head, turned his eyes. Pedro was hanging back, looking worried, fully dressed.

“Sorry about that, Kevie,” Rick said as he knelt in front of him, dick at eye level if Kevin looked anywhere but the floor. “Looks like you’ll have a little bit of a shiner there, but you kind of earned it.”

Kevin grunted an angry inaudible sentence through the duct tape. Rick lay on his side and looked up at him.

“I know, you’re probably pissed. But it was your turn for the dare.”

Kevin’s eyes flashed and he yanked and kicked, to no avail. Rick went on, “See, it could have been truth, but rules are rules. The truth part was so much simpler. How come you always get away with it?”

Kevin’s eyes widened, one thick eyebrow lifted. What?

“You know what I’m talking about,” Rick continued. “Everything you do, everybody you fuck with, and it never seems to come back to you. It’s like you’ve got this magic karma or something. I mean, what, were you Gandhi in your last life? Hell, you’re skinny enough to be, aren’t you?”

Rick reached out and pinched Kevin’s bicep, feeling bone. The kid was thin, pale, soft. If it weren’t for the genitalia, his body could have easily been that of a very tall, late-blooming thirteen year-old girl. “Remember Jennifer?”

A worried noise blew muffled through the duct tape. “Oh, yeah, see, you do. And you know exactly what you did. I didn’t think you were completely oblivious.” Rick lay on his back, looking up at Kevin now. “There I was, about to score with this hot young blonde with the huge tits, and poof! Kevin appears, to work his bad magic. ‘Hi, Rick. That rash clear up yet?’ ‘Oh, looks like Big Mac is gonna get him some special sauce.’ ‘G, thanks for letting me borrow your crab shampoo…’ But I can never figure out whether it’s revenge or stupidity. If it’s revenge, well, you’re in big trouble then, Kevie. If it’s stupidity, I’m here to give you some smart lessons.”

“Rick…” Kevin saw Pedro’s feet out of the corner of his eye, half-turned toward the door. “I’m going to go now, okay?”

“Sure, sure,” Rick said absently. “Hey, I told you, don’t worry. We’re just playing a game. Right?”

“Right. See you later.”

And Kevin heard Pedro leave, heard the door close, but something in the way Rick had said “right” scared him. It wasn’t a reminder, it was a warning, but whether it was to him or Pedro or both, he didn’t know. He tried to tell Rick the fun was over, let him go, but it came out as gibberish.

“Now, where were we? Oh, yeah. I guess you did the dare, now it’s time for the truth, so here we go. Truth, Kevo. Do you do it for revenge or are you just stupid?”

“Ow!” Kevin yelled as Rick suddenly tore the duct tape off his mouth, leaving his lips raw. And then Rick grabbed Kevin’s hair with his left hand, lifted his head, looked into his eyes.

“Which one is it?” he demanded.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kevin insisted.

“Liar,” Rick admonished. He brought his right hand up, gently touched the side of Kevin’s face. Kevin flinched at the unexpected pain. “That’s going to be a nasty bruise,” Rick said. “Ruin your pretty-boy looks for a while. As if.”

“What do you want?” Kevin choked out.

“I want the truth, that’s all,” Rick said.

“I haven’t done anything to you,” Kevin insisted. “Really. I haven’t. You’re my friend, Rick.”

“You don’t have any friends.” Rick leaned down, looked right in Kevin’s eyes. “Isn’t that right? Deep down, you know it. You don’t have any friends.”

Kevin’s lip trembled and he let out one gasp before he sucked it all in and changed strategies. “Melinda knows I was coming here tonight,” he said. “And Stacey. So if anything happens — “

“Kevie, I’m not going to hurt you. Anyway, you think either of them would really care if you just vanished? You’ve pissed them off, you’ve pissed me off. But, most heinously, you’ve pissed off somebody very important to me, and I want you to apologize.”

“Okay, who, I’ll do it,” Kevin sputtered. Rick grinned, leaning up on his knees, both hands wrapped in Kevin’s hair now.

“Well, see, you’ve really done a disservice to Little Rick here, by interfering in his affairs so many times.”

Kevin tried to turn his head away as Rick raised his hips, bringing Little Rick — who wasn’t that little — right into the line of sight. Kevin closed his eyes, but Rick put a thumb on the black eye, insisted, “Open wide and say you’re sorry.” Kevin squinted his eyes shut tighter but Rick kept pressing until he had no choice but to relent. He opened his eyes and Rick’s penis was less than an inch from his nose. It was limp, but it was a dick, for Christ’s sake. Kevin could smell the stale musky scent of Rick’s pubic hair, tried not to breathe.

“Now, say you’re sorry,” Rick said.

“I haven’t done anything,” Kevin squealed back, closing his eyes again.

“Yes, you have,” Rick replied. Then, he leaned forward and Kevin felt this warm, soft thing press into his face, Rick’s hairy balls swing around his nose. He breathed through his mouth, trying to pull his head back, hoping those things would drop low enough that he could bite them off, then he’d say he was sorry. But Rick pulled Kevin’s head forward, pushed his hips, rubbing that thing all over his face and Kevin could feel it getting less soft, though not much less.

“Stop it!” he finally screamed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, okay, I’m sorry, for whatever you think I’ve done, I’m sorry, leave me alone, let me go. I’m sorry…”

“Well, I believe you,” Rick said, loosening his grip slightly. “But little Rick doesn’t. He says he wants you to kiss him to prove you’re sorry.”

“Rick, goddammit, this isn’t funny anymore.”

“This isn’t a joke. Pucker up, Kevie.”

Kevin screwed his eyes and mouth shut, trying to turn his head away, but Rick tightened his grip again, put his thumb to the bruise. Kevin cried out, trying to fight, but Rick twisted him around, then pressed his dick to Kevin’s lips. Kevin’s face went tighter and Rick let his head go, stepping away.

“See?” he said. “I knew you didn’t mean it.”

Rick picked up his drink and took a sip, absently scratching his side, watching this pathetic mess who had been such a confident boor only an hour earlier. This demon that had caused so much trouble, now completely helpless, ruined, scared.

Helpless.

Rick realized he’d gotten fully hard when that thought crossed his mind, but it wasn’t a sexual kind of arousal. It was power. He had complete control over Kevin, the boy was utterly subdued, and god, was it making Rick horny. He hadn’t expected that, hadn’t expected that at all. So this was the real excitement of war, he decided.

He put down his drink, went to the door and locked the deadbolt. He turned and looked at Kevin’s frail white body, sprawled over the coffee table, knees on the floor. He gave his dick an idle stroke, then walked back to the table, stood in front of it, looking down.

“You’re just a pathetic little girl,” he said. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes, whatever you say,” Kevin threw back sarcastically. Then he looked up, saw Rick’s erection pointing at the ceiling, and let out an incoherent gurgle of fear. “No…” he pleaded. “No, god, no, please…”

“Shut up,” Rick said, then he put the duct tape back over Kevin’s mouth. Kevin shuddered and started yanking at his bonds in earnest, helpless. Rick went around behind him. Yeah, from this angle, skinny waist and wide hips, it could have been a young girl. He stuck the middle finger of his left hand in his mouth, got it good and wet and shoved it, with little fanfare, up Kevin’s ass all the way to the third knuckle. Kevin’s hips leapt off the table and he tried to pull away, but couldn’t.

Rick pulled his finger out, thought about gently working his way into things, then figured, “Fuck it.” He’d gone too far to back out now, and power was an aphrodisiac. And so, he put down his drink, got on his knees behind the table, spread Kevin’s cheeks wide with his hands and jammed his painfully hard dick all the way home in one stroke, then raped the little fucker, jamming in and out and Rick didn’t stop until he’d cum and Kevin had given up any struggle, flopping like a rag doll onto the table, broken and finished, and in this evening’s game of truth or dare, Rick emerged the only winner.

* * *

Rick had felt guilty after last night, had cleaned Kevin up with a warm washcloth, then untied him and gently pulled off the duct tape. But, at that point, Kevin had been an inert lump, not really moving, face contorted in an expression of pain and fear. He didn’t do anything when Rick freed his hands, just flopped onto the floor. He was no threat anymore. Rick carried him to the bedroom, put him in bed and covered him, then grabbed a blanket from the linen closet and slept on the couch.

Morning.

Rick woke up to bright ten a.m. light, head banging. He sat up, remembering what had happened, looking at the coffee table in trepidation, seeing no one there. Aw, shit. He’d really been wasted last night, he didn’t mean to… maybe he hadn’t.

No. He had, he knew it. Fuck. He dragged himself off the couch, wrapping the blanket around his waist, went into the bedroom.

He’d expected Kevin to be gone, but he wasn’t. He was lying in the bed, crunched up in a fetal position, clutching a pillow. He looked so… harmless now. He was facing the door, and Rick could see the ugly purple-yellow bruise on his face. He regretted doing that, really he did.

He went to the bed, gently sat down on the edge, whispered a timid, “Kev?” Nothing. He raised a hand to reach over, pulled back. He dreaded this moment. “Kevie?”

Kevin’s eyes slowly opened, looked up at Rick. Neither of them moved for a long moment. Then, the silence of the room was broken by Kevin’s sharp intake of breath, a series of sobs. He sat up, staring at Rick, who didn’t know what to expect. If Kevin tried to kick the shit out of him right now, he wouldn’t fight back.

And then Kevin threw his arms around Rick, held him tight, face buried in his chest, sobbing. “I thought you were my friend, Rick,” he cried. “I thought you were my friend.”

Rick stared down at him. That face was so sweet and innocent. He was a child impersonating an adult, really. He listened to Kevin crying for a moment, and then wrapped his arms around him, held him.

“Sssssh,” Rick said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Kevie, really. I am so sorry.”

“I thought you liked me,” Kevin went on, and Rick felt the hot wet tears splattering down his stomach.

“I do like you,” he answered. “I really do. I do like you, Kevin. Sssssh.”

And they stayed like that for a long time, Kevin crying and Rick gently rocking him back and forth, holding him in his arms, wanting to do anything to stop his pain, to protect him from the cruel world, to make the hurt go away. And he knew, in that moment, that he and Kevin would be inextricably linked, bound together by fate, for years, for decades, if not forever.

“Ssssh,” Rick repeated, again and again, as this gentle harmless angel cried and cried in his arms.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #93: Out of place, reality, growing up, smell

Another Friday, answering another set of random questions.

In which I answer random questions generated by a website. An ongoing series.

In what situation or location would you feel the most out of place?

Any kind of right-wing political rally or fundamentalist church service. A Monster Truck Rally or NASCAR race might fall under the umbrella as well.

At least these aren’t that common in Los Angeles County — well, the parts that aren’t far inland. We tend to get the rallies and fundies in Orange County. The Monster Truck Rally might show up at the Pomona Fairgrounds, which is where they hold the L.A. County Fair, but that’s obviously oriented toward a more rural crowd.

They do have some NASCAR race event coming up at a new stadium in Inglewood — I think it’s the one where the Sup — sorry — “Big Game” is going to be played — but as someone pointed out, that event is mostly going to draw its crowds from the Riverside and Inland Empires. That is, the red parts of the state.

The stadium itself is in the middle of an historical Black neighborhood in L.A.

What do you think about reality TV? Why is it so popular?

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s a genre that is completely without value. Note that Documentaries are a completely different animal. But the whole Bachelor/Bachelorette/Big Brother/Duck Dynasty/Real Housewives stuff is just complete crap. I’ll even include all the existing “talent” shows on this list. And yes, Drag Race is a talent show.

The problem is that they are so orchestrated and manipulated behind the scenes that what we’re seeing on screen really bears no resemblance to reality. It’s manufactured drama, some shows far worse than others, and it has the added detriment of continuously creating celebrities who should not be celebrities at all. Most of them never even deserved the first fifteen minutes.

These shows can also destroy the lives of their contestants, as well, and not in obvious ways. Yes, suicide is an epidemic among reality show contestants, present and former, and not just in the U.S. But the damage can destroy the living as well.

Look at home makeover shows. A lot of the time, the actual work isn’t done by contractors, but by set builders and decorators instead. There may technically be permits, but that stuff isn’t necessarily built to last. When it is, the new add-ons can sometimes trigger a new tax-assessment on the property, which is carried out based on the current market value, plus the improvements.

So a family that’s owned their home for twenty or thirty years and had been paying property taxes on those rates and original values may suddenly find their assessment is twenty or thirty times that old value, with higher property tax rates as well. They’ve been thrown into a situation where they can no longer afford the house they’ve lived in because the new property taxes are more than what they would have ever paid for a mortgage for the original place.

As for Drag Race, contestants on the show can spend a fortune on their looks — wigs, shoes, outfits, make-up, etc. — and most of them go onto the show not being rich or famous already. This is rather ironic, since in the early days of drag it was a do-it-yourself, thrift-shop affair. The kids were having fun by being creative, not by buying thousands of dollars of fabric or designer dresses.

As for why I think it’s popular — it’s junk food for the brain. It gives viewers a storyline to follow about “common” and “real” people who are neither of those things. It gives them drama to talk about with family and coworkers later and fills a hole for people without more creative outlets.

It’s kind of sad, really, and what’s sadder is that the money train seems to show no signs of slowing down.

What did you like / dislike about where you grew up?

Since the question asked both, I’ll answer both. I grew up in what started out as an exurb of a major city only to itself eventually turn into a small city with its own suburbs. When my parents had first moved there, it was a fairly new development, although they were not among the first wave of people to buy homes out there, nor were they the first owners of their house.

Interestingly, by the time my parents got there, a lot of the original homeowners were on the verge of finally seeing their kids reach adulthood — or so I’ve heard from conversations from an old neighbor who was one of those teens when I moved in as an infant.

Things that I don’t or barely remember are that they had not quite connected a main road across a rail line but finally built the right-of-way when it became clear that everything was going to keep developing to the west and that this street was going to be one of the major thoroughfares.

The topography of the place was basically low mountains to the south with what had probably originally been a pass or narrow valley at the bottom. This had been plowed out to make way for the Ventura Freeway and Ventura Boulevard, which in turn were what enabled the whole area to develop. (The Boulevard obviously came first.)

Like most of the San Fernando Valley, it was built on property that had once been rancheros, first when the southern half of California was a part of Mexico, and later on after it had become part of the United States. As the various cities across the Valley developed, evidence of the rancheros faded slowly, but since this was the far west end of the Valley, the rural nature of the environment faded last.

Not that there was a lot of it left in my neighborhood growing up, although I was two blocks from Pierce College, which was dedicated mostly to teaching agriculture and farming and which is still there to this day.

Meanwhile, Ventura Boulevard had all the fancy stuff, including the high school, and all the shops and fast-food places. Victory, after it had been put through, tended to mostly go through residential areas, but our grocery store was one mile east, and the huge mall, Topanga Plaza, was about three miles west.

It was also safe, most of my friends were Jewish, so I grew up learning comedy and hanging with the intellectual crowd, and for some reason we got a lot of the same stuff — multiplexes, automatic scoring bowling lanes, big box stores, and so on, that only seemed to pop up in the more urban and distant parts of town.

Well, at first. I think that we were actually a test market for a lot of things.

What I disliked about where I grew up was that, as I became older, I realized how far it was from everything else. It was not a trivial matter to get to Hollywood by bus, for example, and points beyond, especially downtown, were out of the question — especially in my pre-car days.

Hell, it was bad enough to convince my mom to let me make the bike ride to North Hollywood, which is only about thirteen miles by car now and which is not at all an uncommon bike commute for adults nowadays. Of course, they also now have the Metro bike path that follows the Orange line from the West Valley right to NoHo, so it’s a lot easier.

Another thing I really disliked as I became more and more aware of it was that the area had become where all the white racists had moved in order to escape the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the city, especially just over the hill in Hollywood. Of course, they’d also fled to the south-west corner of the Valley because parts of it in the North were beginning to have too many Hispanic and Latino residents for their liking. Never mind that it was only in the extremely northern parts of the Valley, and pretty far east from there.

Since then, the justice has been poetic, as most of my old neighborhood is now pretty heavily mixed white and Latino, with those old racists having fled farther west into Simi Valley. But at least I never had to deal with a lot of the racist parents directly growing up, and once I graduated high school, I was out of there.

What is it they say? A nice place to grow up but I wouldn’t want to live there.

What smell brings back great memories?

This isn’t something that I’ve smelled in a long time, but whenever I do, it brings back the same memory. The smell is a wood-fire stove, burning early in the morning. It’s off in another part of the house, so the aroma is subtle, but it’s definitely there. It mingles with whatever part of the crisp morning air outside manages to sneak in.

Then — add bacon. The sudden smell of frying bacon that manages to come in and permeate everything, making the smell of the wood fire even stronger somehow.

The smell means that it’s time to get up. Grandma is making breakfast. I don’t need to tell myself twice. I get dressed, hurry through the chilly back house, then through the vinyl accordion door into the front house, closing it behind me.

Here, the wood-fire stove heats everything and the family gathers. Pretty soon, we’ll have scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, home-made biscuits, milk, apple juice, wheat toast with plenty of butter and apple preserves, and I can’t even remember what else.

It only takes a whiff of a wood-fire stove somewhere and a hint of cooking bacon and I go right back to those mornings from my childhood. Funny how smell is supposed to be the strongest sense, and the one that most powerfully evokes memories, isn’t it?

More frequently misused expressions

Here are 20+ common English expressions that even native speakers get wrong.

Welcome to another installment of things you’re saying wrong. I’ve previously covered commonly misused words, as well as oft-mangled phrases. Today will be more of the latter, so let’s just get right to it.

  1. Bated breath, not baited breath

The phrase means to wait for something with great excitement. For example, “Billy spent the night waiting for the family trip to Disneyland with bated breath.” The meaning of “bate” here is to moderate or restrain, so Billy is trying not to be too excited. To bait one’s breath might lure all kinds of fish, but it’s just not the right word. Like many of the examples on the list, the error is probably caused by people only having heard the phrase but never having seen it written down, so they just make big assumptions.

  1. Beck and call, not beckon call

And no, we’re not referring to the musician here. While “beckon” and “call” are somewhat synonymous, the two don’t go together in this phrase. It can be confusing because one of the meanings of the word “beck” is a beckoning gesture. However, beck is a noun and beckon is a verb, so the one noun just goes better with the other which, in this case, is call, which is not being used as a verb.

  1. Case in point, not case and point

The idea with this phrase is that the case proves the point you’re making. They are not coequal; one supports the other. So if your point is that not wearing a motorcycle helmet is dangerous and then you cite the case of a 25-year-old man who suffered permanent brain damage after an accident because he wasn’t wearing a helmet, then that story is the case in point — the example that supports your claim.

4.    Commander-in-Chief, not Commander and Chief

This one gets misused all the time, and I’m not sure why. It’s a military title for the President of the United States, but the president only has one such title, which is the position of Commander, further clarified by indicating that the president is also the chief commander. Here, “in-chief” is an adjective describing the commandership, it’s not an additional title. Another great example of the “seen, never heard” phenomenon.

5.    Damp squib, not damp squid

There’d be nothing unusual about a damp squid, of course, since they spend their lives in the ocean, but this expression refers to something that winds up being a dud — “The product launch went off like a damp squib.” In other words, nothing really happened. A squib is a small explosive usually powered by gunpowder, so if it gets wet it doesn’t go “boom.” A notable use of squibs were to simulate actors being hit by bullets in older films — a squib and a fake blood pack would be connected together under the actor’s clothes with a slit in the fabric in front and a little metal plating in back. Blowing up the squib would make the fake blood squirt out. This technique pretty much went away when Hollywood realized, “Hey — we can do this shit with CGI now!”

  1. Do a 180°, not do a 360°

This one is not just a word usage error but a complete mathematical mistake. What the expression is supposed to mean is to do an about-face. That is, change your direction or position or point of view to the exact opposite of what it was. “Nancy’s favorite color used to be red, but then she saw the new fall designs and did a total 180°, so now she loves green.” If you do a 360°, then you wind up right back where you stared because you’ve figuratively gone full circle. Or maybe that would be literally.

  1. Dog-eat-dog world, not doggie dog world

Yeah, a bit gross if you’re an animal-lover, but the more violent version is the correct one, and it refers to the cut-throat nature of life, at least in some circles. It’s a variation of the expression “every man for himself.” Again, it should be obvious how only ever hearing this expression led to the kinder, gentler version.

  1. Due diligence, not do diligence

This one comes from the land of law and business, and while you definitely have to do stuff to achieve it, the correct word is “due,” because it refers to what is necessary. “Due diligence” refers to the process by which a person, entity, business proposal, or other potential contractual arrangement is investigated. For example, if someone applies for a job at a bank, due diligence would involve looking into their background for any criminal record, outstanding debts or other financial problems, and anything else that might make them high-risk for entrusting them with sensitive customer information, or access to any kind of cash or instruments with monetary value at all.

9.    For all intents and purposes, not for all intensive purposes

Another great “heard not seen,” although I can’t even figure out what an intensive purpose would be. Intent refers to the mental reasoning behind any action; purpose refers the intended outcome of those actions. Put them together, and what you’re basically saying is whatever phrase follows this one, it fulfills both the reasoning behind the action and the intended outcome, although it’s not necessarily positive. “For all intents and purposes, the new law killed the proposed mall.”

  1. Free rein, not free reign

Oh, to confuse your monarchy and your horses! A reign is what a king or queen has, and you can remember that because both King and Reign have a G in them. A rein is how you steer a horse — and if you give your horse free rein, it can go whichever way it wants to. If you give your monarch free reign, they’ll probably wind up assassinated or deposed, so don’t to that. Unless you hate your monarch.

11. Hunger pangs, not hunger pains

Not to be confused with “hunger games.” While a pang is related to a pain — because it means a sudden, sharp pain — it’s specific to the expression.

12. Make do, not make due

Here we have the opposite of “due diligence.” The only way to actually make something due is to send a bill or invoice — but that’s not what this expression means. In fact, it’s kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum. “Make do” means to get along with what you have; that is, by making existing resources do what they need to. “They couldn’t afford a new car yet, so that had to make do with the ancient Fiat they inherited from the grandmother.”

  1. Moot point, not mute point

A moot point is far from mute because the latter means silent, while moot point is one that should be quite open for debate or discussion — although it depends on which side of the pond you’re on. If you’re in the U.S., it’s also just as likely to mean something that’s not worth discussion. Still, this one is definitely not an example of heard and not seen, because “moot,” with a long double-O, sounds nothing like “mute,” which has a long liquid-U.

14. Nipped it in the bud, not nipped it in the butt

As attractive as the idea of biting someone’s ass can be, this one actually comes from the field of horticulture (“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think!”), and the proper word is “bud,” as in a flower bud. And if you nip that off just as it’s budding and long before it blooms, ta-da! You’ll never grow a flower off of that stem. So this is very related to the concept of cutting something off at the roots.

15. On tenterhooks, not on tender hooks

Another heard, not seen. This refers to being in a state of suspense, but with tenterhooks, that was literal. They were involved in the process of drying cloth, which was stretched out in a frame called a tenter. And how was it held taut in that frame? With tenterhooks, duh. Tender hooks really feels like an oxymoron and would make Clive Barker sad.

16. Peace of mind, not piece of mind

Okay, for all of us with fierce mamas, we probably have examples of when they went down to our schools and gave dipshit administrators a piece of their minds, but that’s a different expression. Although, of course, it’s probably also the source of confusion. “Peace of mind” pretty much means just that — calming the fuck out of your brain bucket.

  1. Shoo-in, not shoe-in

I don’t know where you’re sticking your shoes, but this phrase refers to someone who will just cruise into a job, elected office, chosen university, whatever, with no struggle. But, in this case, the “shoo” refers to sort of a reverse chase. That is, just like it’s easy to shoo a mouse out of your kitchen with a broom, these privileged people get easily chased into those positions of, well, privilege.

 18. Statute of limitations, not statue of limitations

This one is kind of hilarious, because the idea of a statue setting limits just makes me think of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who. They are definitely the ultimate Statues of Limitations! Otherwise, though, the word you’re thinking of is “statute,” which refers to a law — and a statute of limitations determines how long after the fact someone can still be charged with a crime. Unfortunately, this confusion can lead to a really unfortunate mix-up between statutory rape, which is a terrible crime against a minor, and statuary rape, which is just a really unfortunate display of bad behavior in a sculpture garden. Although the latter is far more preferable than the former.

  1. Take a different tack, not take a different track (or tact)

Again, words mean things, and this expression comes from the world of sailing. A tack was a way you turned your sails to take full advantage of the wind. In a related note, “the whole nine yards” actually means that you were hanging all of your sails on a three-masted ship, because each of those masts had three yardarms. In other news, because of the way that those yardarms stuck out of the masts, “yard” became the preferred Elizabethan slang for dick. You’re welcome!

  1. Whet your appetite, not wet your appetite

This is what happens when you no longer need to sharpen your own knives or razors. Whet means just that — to hone or sharpen or make more acute. To “wet your appetite” doesn’t really make any sense if you think about it.

  1. Worse comes to worst, not worse comes to worse

Another nice no brainer. I mean, if you start with worse and end with worse, where have you really gone? Nowhere. The only way down from worse (or bad) is worst. Period.

  1. You’ve got another think coming, not you’ve got another thing coming

Ironically, this one seems really ungrammatical in its original form, but “another think” is, in fact, how it was originally and has always been attested. And think about it honestly for a second. What, exactly, is the other “thing” coming their way? This really just sounds like the threat of a dick in the face. Calm your jets!

  1. Bonus Round: One that’s right now, or now right

And this brings me to “spitting image,” which way back when started out as “spit and image.” Or maybe not. It’s just a really messy expression all around. But, in this case, I think we’ve actually managed to land on something simple and acceptable. Maybe.

Saturday Morning Post 96: Truth or Dare (Part 2)

Part 2 of the next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one. Previously, Kevin, Rick, and Pedro started a game of Truth or Dare that may be spiraling out of control as Pedro is up for the next “Truth.”

“Pedro, truth or dare?”

“Shit. I’m not drinking bongwater. Truth.”

“Okay,” Rick thought, not really wanting to stick Pedro with anything nasty. He was too nice a guy for that. He thought, then settled on something innocuous. “When was the last time you got laid?”

Pedro didn’t even hesitate, but he looked nervous. “Last week, Tuesday afternoon,” he said.

Rick thought for a second, then gasped. “Wait a second, weren’t you at work?”

Pedro nodded.

“You got laid at work?”

“Bzzzzz,” Kevin interjected. “That’s another question.”

“Oh, you want to know as much as I do.”

“Sorry,” Kevin said, but it was true. Rick did want to know, but he wasn’t going to give Kevin the satisfaction. But he thought about it. Who did Pedro do on Tuesday? And, apparently, “do” was the right word. But who…

“Shit,” Rick said out loud, realizing. He looked at Pedro, who was looking away, calling out, “My turn. Kevin. Truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Rick said. “Take a dare.”

“It’s not your turn,” Kevin replied.

“Okay,” Pedro thought, looking to Rick. He really wanted to help Rick out here, but didn’t know Kevin well enough to dig up anything really juicy. He’d have to go for an old standby. “How many times did you jerk off today?”

“Didn’t have to,” Kevin spat back, chuckling.

“Liar!” Rick pointed accusingly.

“Excuse me, drink,” Kevin answered him, pointing with his elbow. “No finger pointing.”

“Since when?”

“It’s a standard rule of drinking games. I thought you used to go to a fancy school.”

“Well then, you should know that another standard rule is you can’t say the ‘d’ word. Imbibe, asshole.”

“Imbibe this,” Kevin gestured, but he picked up a shot glass and downed it anyway. Rick did likewise.

“My turn,” Kevin said. “And, new rule — “

“Whoa, what?” Rick cut in.

“Another standard rule of dr — imbibing games, read the manual. Whoever’s turn it is can make up a new rule. And my rule is, if anyone violates another rule, they have to do the next dare, no matter whose it is.” He smirked and touched his nose and Rick really wanted to smack him upside the head. “Now. Rick, truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Rick muttered.

“Losing your confidence, huh? Okay, how many times have you jerked off today?”

“None,” Rick answered.

“Liar — “

“Wrong,” Rick said. “Today started at midnight, and neither of you have seen me play with myself since then, right?” Kevin looked genuinely surprised by that explanation, which was true. Then, he laughed and downed another shot.

“I meant in the last twenty-four hours,” he said.

“Well, better luck next time. My turn, and a new rule. You can only take ‘truth’ twice before you have to take a dare, and the rule is retroactive. Kevin, truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin answered, but realized the trap before Rick could point it out. “Aw, shit. Dare,” he corrected himself.

“Hm…” Rick thought about it a while, then stood, walking to the kitchen. Kevin fidgeted, smiling wanly at Pedro.

“I think you’re fucked now,” Pedro said.

Kevin returned, carrying something behind his back. “Okay,” he said. “You have to put this down the front of your pants for three minutes.”

“What, your mouth?” Kevin sniped, but it was empty bravado, especially as soon as Kevin brought his hands forward, held out the frozen solid packet of blue ice.

“Oh, no fucking way, G,” Kevin said.

“Then it’d be game over and I win,” Rick taunted him, dropping the packet on the table, where it clunked and turned half a revolution, frosting white already.

“I’ll freeze my nuts off,” Kevin protested.

“You’ll never miss ‘em,” Rick prodded.

“One minute.”

“Three.” Rick was enjoying this, and it was par for the course. There were no convenient distractions in the game this time, nobody upon whom Kevin could deflect attention.

“Two…?”

Rick pretended to think about it, finally nodded. “Okay. Down the pants, two minutes. Inside the underwear.” Pedro laughed as Kevin reached for the blue ice, picked it up, tossed it from hand to hand.

“This shit is cold,” he said.

“I know,” Rick said. “Down the hatch.” Kevin huffed and stood, loosening his belt. Then, he gave Rick a really dirty look and shoved the blue ice on in. It took about three seconds for it to kill the dirty look and Kevin let out a yelp, fumbled the pack back out and dropped it on the floor, falling backwards onto the couch, holding his crotch.

“Son of a bitch,” he grunted.

“Well, nice try, but that doesn’t count, so you drink,” Rick told him snidely.

Kevin pointed an elbow at him. “And the next dare, you get to share, ‘cause you just said the forbidden word, motherfucker.” He tossed down his shot of Tequila and Rick cursed inside. Even when Kevin lost, he somehow managed to win.

“Okay, Pedro, truth or dare?”“

Pedro pondered. This was getting nasty between Rick and Kevin. On the other hand, Kevin didn’t know Pedro that well, he’d probably give him some stupid, easy dare, then Pedro would pick Rick and give him a free pass and the game would lighten up a bit. Confidently, he answered, “Dare.”

Rick rolled his eyes and Kevin smirked and Pedro realized he’d blown it.

“Welly, welly, well,” Kevin said. “This one is for you and Rick, since he broke the rules last time. Hm. What will it be, what will it be?”

Kevin stretched out his thinking, making a big show of it as Rick and Pedro swapped an apologetic look. Whatever was cooking in Kevin’s evil mind, this would be a good one. Suddenly, his face lit up and he froze for an instant, hands lifted in preparatory gesture. “Okay, okay,” he said. “The two of you… are going to go take a little swim in the pool, for five… no, ten minutes. But… you’re going to do it, from here all the way there and back, butt naked.”

“Come on, Kev, I live here.”

“It’s three in the morning, G.”

“So?”

Kevin got that stupid cockeyed grin again and clucked like a chicken. Rick looked at Pedro. “You up for this, Petey?” he asked.

“Nothing I haven’t done before,” Pedro said. “And it’s my dare, anyway.”

Kevin jumped up giggling and Rick and Pedro started to get undressed. The whole process took a good five minutes as they continued to haggle with Kevin. Towels? “No.” Flip flops? “Too noisy.” Keys? “What’s a matter, don’t you trust me?” Frankly, Rick didn’t, but by now he and Pedro were bare-assed in the living room and Kevin was standing at the door, all smiles, unlocking the deadbolt. His sole concession had been allowing Rick to take his watch, alarm set for ten minutes.

“Gentlemen, enjoy. I hope the water isn’t too cold.”

He opened the door and Rick lead the way, he and Pedro dashing down the courtyard. At least most of the lights were off and the moon was nowhere in sight. They got to the pool and waded in quickly. The water was a chilly shock at first, but at least it was dark and quiet. After a few seconds, Rick actually enjoyed this feeling and he swam underwater to the deep end, surfacing under the diving board. Pedro popped up nearby. Rick squinted the water out of his eyes, looked into the distance. Kevin was standing in the pool of light by the far apartment door, doing hysterical gymnastics, gleeful at his triumphant dare.

“He’s such a little fuck,” Rick whispered to Pedro.

“Why do you hang out with him, anyway?”

“I really don’t know,” Rick answered.

“You’ll have to get him really good on the next dare.”

“Oh, I will,” Rick said. “You know, it’s funny, I’ve lived in this building for two years, and this is the first time I’ve been in the pool.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. Half the time, it’s full of screaming kids. Who the hell wants to swim around that? God knows how many of them probably piss in here.”

“Eeew.”

Rick kicked off from the wall and did the breaststroke to the shallow end, then came back. Pedro clung to the wall and Rick joined him again. “You can swim, can’t you?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Pedro answered. “You know, this is the second time this month I’ve been in a pool naked.”

Rick didn’t want to say it, but he did. “That have anything to do with the last time you got laid?” He thought Pedro shrugged, but couldn’t tell in the darkness. “It was Mrs. Cooper, wasn’t it?”

“Shit,” Pedro’s outburst gave him away. “Don’t mention that to anybody, okay?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t. I’m not surprised, though. I’ve heard things about her.”

“Rick, honestly, her husband will kill me if he thinks I told anyone about it.”

“You did fuck her?”

“Oh yeah.”

“And?”

“And it was great. But, really, don’t say anything, okay? Especially not now, not if I’m going to have to get out of this pool soon.”

“Understood, buddy. Hey — good for you.”

“Thanks.”

“Okay, changing the subject. How should we get back at Kevin for this one?”

“Tie him up naked and dump him in a bad neighborhood.”

“Ooh, you have an evil side. That’s new.”

“I was kidding.”

“It’s a possibility, though.”

“It’s too cruel. Come on, you know him better than me. He’s got to have some weakness.”

“He’s too shallow for that. You think it’s been ten minutes yet?”

“Not even close.”

“Kevin’s still watching, he doesn’t know how long it’s been either. Fuck him. Let’s go.”

“Give me a second.”

“Right.”

Rick swam for the shallow end and climbed out of the pool. It was an evening in summer and not terribly cold out, but the water on his body made it seem chilly. He wished he’d managed to bargain for those towels now. Instead, he stood there with his back to the pool, watching distant Kevin laughing, waiting for Pedro to join him. What was Kevin’s weakness? What would absolutely humiliate him, neutralize him for good?

Rick didn’t have a clue, and then he heard the slosh of water as Pedro climbed out of the pool behind him. “Ready?” Rick asked.

“Yeah,” Pedro said, hands crossed in front of him, shoulders hunched in as he shivered. “Let’s go.”

Rick grabbed his watch off the lounge chair, hitting the “off” button on the timer, and he and Pedro trotted back to the apartment. When they were halfway there, Kevin suddenly darted inside. Rick heard the door close, but was unconcerned. He got there first, tried the knob anyway, knowing it was locked. Pedro stopped next to him, shifting from foot to foot, looking like a drowned Doberman.

“Aw, shit…” he groaned.

“Don’t worry,” Rick whispered. “Play along.” He tried the knob again, rattling it, then rang the bell. “Come on, Kevo,” he said not too loudly. “Let us in.”

Kevin peered out the window by the door, cheeks chipmunked by a grin, body racking with laughter as he pointed with his elbow. Rick rang the bell three insistent times, gave Kevin a look.

“Motherfucker,” Pedro snapped.

Rick sssshed him. “I have a key hidden, I’m just adding to the effect,” he whispered.

“Oh,” Pedro nodded. “Just add fast. Shrinkage, you know?”

“Kevin…” Rick pointed at the door insistently. Kevin stuck his face up to the window, gave them a double finger and disappeared.

“Right,” Rick said, bending over and picking up a rock from the flower bed by the door, hefting it in his hand as he peered in the window. Then he turned the rock over and slid open the hatch in the bottom, pulling out his spare key, put the rock back and very slowly unlocked the deadbolt. Just as slowly, he unlocked the lower lock, then looked at Pedro, quietly said, “One, two, three…”

On three, he threw open the door, he and Pedro shot in and Rick shut and locked the door behind him. Kevin was standing in the kitchen pouring himself a glass of Tequila, looking startled. So startled, in fact, that he over-poured.

“Uh, hi, guys. I was just going to let you in.”

“Your turn, Pedro.”

“Aw, you guys win, I give up,” Kevin shrugged.

“Pedro?”

“Okay. Kevin. Truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Kevin said.

“New rule,” Pedro went on. “No more truth. Dares only.”…

To be continued…

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #92: Birthday Edition

Some random birthday memories over the years, in Q&A form.

In which I answer random questions — this time, my own questions about things relating to my birthday, which is today. An ongoing series.

Least favorite birthday party?

Ironically, it’s also the first one I vaguely remember, and was ruined by… a flu pandemic. (There were a lot of those going around when I was a kid, apparently.) It was my 4th birthday, and everyone had the flu, although I don’t remember anyone I knew of dying from it.

Although my mother had planned a big party for our backyard and sent out all the invitations, in the days before, invitee’s parents apparently started calling in to cancel because their kids had suddenly broken out in high fevers and were very sick.

Ultimately, the only kid who showed up, Scott, lived a couple of doors north of us — the one direction on the street I never went — and although I didn’t really know him, we did have sort of a small party together, with cake and that was about it.

I don’t remember getting sick, but I do remember our moms lifting us up onto the picnic table in the backyard so that we could both blow the candles out together. Facing each other. As you do when there’s a pandemic going on.

Sigh. Still — it could be worse. All those unvaccinated parents with sick kids could have just shown up because, “It’s just the flu.” At least people weren’t that stupid back then, and we had all the Moms to work as the CDC contact tracing network at the time. If one person came down with it (flu, measles, mumps, chicken pox, etc.) pretty soon they’d all have a good idea of who had it and who was going to start showing symptoms.

Memorable birthday faux pas?

When my play Bill & Joan was produced, we timed it around the centennial of William S. Burroughs’ birth, which was on February 5. Mine is the day before but something we didn’t know until we were in production was that his wife Joan’s birthday was also on February 4th. (That detail hadn’t been added to his biography when I’d originally read it.)

I think that our show nights were Thursday through Sunday, so my birthday had already passed before our next show, and I don’t even remember whether it was a Thursday or Friday night; possibly a Saturday.

Anyway, an old friend of mine had come to see the show but the gathering afterwards was generally always theatre company members and the friends of the cast who’d come to see it. My friend was the only one outside the company I knew that night. So we went down the block to a bar that was the unofficial hang-out for the theatre company to catch up.

Then I started to get texts from our AD. “Where are you?” I told him and he called me. “Your director wants to talk to you right now.”

“What about?”

“Just get back here.”

I excused myself and walked back — maybe it was notes or something — only to arrive and be greeted by “Happy birthday” and a cake fashioned out of a bunch of cupcakes. I blew out the candles, thanked everyone, then grabbed two cupcakes and headed back to the bar with the intention of bringing my friend back. I eventually did, but the whole thing may have seemed kind of assholey on my part.

Still, no one had told me “stick around” in the first place — and I really don’t like impromptu birthday observations with mostly strangers.

Most interesting birthday activity

This was been when I turned 21, although it’s a lot more wholesome than it sounds. Two friends of mine took me out to see a movie on opening day, although it must not have been that good, because I don’t remember what film it was.

Next, they took me out to dinner (their treat) and we went to the fancy place — Denny’s actually connected to the mall. Okay — fancy for starving college students. The other two were both seniors who had already turned 22 and were a few months from graduation.

Anyway, we had dinner and when the waitress came over to ask about dessert, the other two insisted to her, “Card him! Card him!” She did, realized what day it was, and explained that Denny’s had a very special special for 21st birthdays — a drink called the Hurricane.

I had no idea at the time what it was, but the waitress announced that it had a lot of rum in it. I looked it up just now, and it was actually created in the early 1940s in New Orleans. Apparently, they had a lack of fruit juice but a surplus of rum. Go figure.

This drink certainly didn’t lack in the rum department, and it came in a glass that was huge — in fact, one that became known as a “hurricane glass,” named after the drink.

And yes, I see the enormous irony in a drink from New Orleans being called that. Maybe because this one could probably get you as wasted as Katrina.

Anyway, I had the drink and we eventually left, but it wasn’t the hurricane that made the evening fun. Nope. Their last surprise was that we were all going ice-skating — something I’d never done before but had expressed an interest in.

Now let’s do the math here. Take friend out for birthday. Get him a pretty strong drink. Take him to the ice rink to do something he’s never done before. Was their intention that maybe I’d be so relaxed that I’d take right to it or so drunk that I’d fall down and break my ass?

Surprisingly, I actually took right to it, and didn’t fall down once — and yes, that surprised the hell out of me. We were on the ice long enough that the cold and the physical activity plus time started to cut the effects of the alcohol, and I got to love the whole experience.

Fortunately, I hadn’t driven, but you can bet that I sought out the ice rinks closest to the university and made it a habit to regularly visit after that.

Favorite celebs I share the day with

There are so many, surprisingly, and a lot of them are very interesting people. There’s the eccentric

Emperor Joshua Norton, who became a beloved figure in San Francisco and is still practically a saint there today; Charles Lindbergh, although not really a favorite because he’d probably be a big TFG supporter now; Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto; Rosa Parks, who wouldn’t give up her seat; Ida Lupino who, like Lucile Ball, was a very powerful woman in Hollywood in her time; George Romero, noted horror film director; Alice Cooper, noted rock star and horror film character; Jonathan Larson of Rent and Tick Tick Boom fame; Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden; and singer Natalie Imbruglia.

It’s a really eclectic bag, but I think the one thing in common can be summed up by the word “eccentric.”

Worst thing to happen on my birthday

Well, this was the worst thing for her, not for me, since I don’t even remember it happening. But it was on my birthday that Patty Hearst was kidnapped.

Most traumatic

I went to school. When I came home, my mom was in the E.R. and my dad had burned my birthday cake. For some reason, Mom had started to hyperventilate, so next door neighbor, who was visiting at the time, drove her to the E.R. Dad was called home early, really couldn’t do anything at the E.R. at the moment, so decided to bake my cake and managed to incinerate a basic Betty Crocker mix. No, I have no idea how one manages that.

This was the beginning of a long medical odyssey for my mother, although I never thought of it as my birthday ruined. Rather, it was the start of a difficult period for all of us as we and her doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. They never did, but to this day I’m convinced that it was actually the treatment attempts that ultimately killed her.

Now, I believe in modern medicine, I had great doctors that saved my life once thanks to it — but doctors were also different when my mom got sick, and I remember meeting her primary care physician one time. Total asshole who apparently didn’t think that women had the ability to know or report on what they felt happening inside of their own bodies.

Repeat: Total asshole.

Best gift

I’m really not into material gifts and actually never have been, not even as a kid — my birthday was close enough after Christmas for that former holiday to be the big one.

As an adult, the best birthday gifts I’ve ever gotten have been time with friends — just hanging out to celebrate, and that’s it. Although out of those, the bestest has been when one of the many times one of my best friends took me out to dinner for one of my favorite foods — usually Mexican or Thai — and we just hung around and talked one-on-one for a long time.

That’s better than any gift that can be stuck in a box, wrapped, and then very soon thereafter be lost, stolen, or break but, in any event, will never last as long as the memory of time with loved ones.

If it’s your birthday today or around this time of year, happy birthday Let me know when it is/was in the comments, and share a memory of your favorite celebration.

Saturday Morning Post 95: Truth or Dare (Part 1)

The next short story from my collection “24 Exposures.”

We continue with another story from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century. Some old, familiar characters pop up in this one.

Another boring Sunday night, and it was the three of them again, Kevin, Rick and Pedro, sitting around Rick’s apartment, not much to do and not much energy to do it with. Rick was the lynchpin here. He worked with Pedro and went to school with Kevin, although he was halfway to quitting the job and half a grade point from getting booted out of school. He didn’t really care at the moment. Monday was his day off from work and his first class wasn’t until two o’clock. He sat on the floor, carefully shredding and combing a fat bud in preparation for another bong load while Pedro watched intently and Kevin sat on the sofa, legs crossed, holding Rick’s giant stuffed panda in an almost inappropriate way, chattering a mile and a half a minute about nothing.

“G, it was amazing,” he said, bouncing on the couch. “You should have seen it.”

“Uh huh,” Rick muttered, not listening.

“The cops came and everything, it was classic.” He giggled in that annoying way of his, like a Catholic schoolgirl seeing her first porno, then got a very serious expression. “G, call her.”

“Man, it’s two in the morning.”

“She’ll be up. Come on, call Melinda.”

“No.”

“Maybe she’ll bring her sister…” Kevin said, almost singsong.

“In your wet dreams, dude,” Rick said.

“I bet they would,” Kevin shot back, grabbing the phone off the dining room table.

“You’re a pig and you’re stupid,” Rick replied. “Here, suck on this and shut up.” He held out the results of his efforts and Kevin put down the phone, grabbing the bong and extending his hand for the lighter. “Melinda and Stacey are not some lesbian sister act. They’re nice girls. You should respect them.”

“Oh, I respect them,” Kevin said, making it sound even more obscene than he intended. “I saw Melinda’s tits once.”

“Yeah, so? I saw your mother’s tits.” Rick shot Kevin a grin, then saw the look on his face, like he almost believed that comment. “Kidding,” he added. “Sorry.”

“Don’t… don’t say stuff like that, okay?”

Jesus, Rick thought, that sure hit some weird soft spot. It was like he’d shot Kevin’s dog or something. “Hey, dude, I said I’m sorry, okay?” Rick offered. Kevin nodded and moped, head down, and then let out a choked sob.

“Shit, Kevin, I didn’t mean it, really.”

Kevin gestured vaguely and Rick and Pedro looked at each other, a little embarrassed. “Kevin…?” Rick started, but then Kevin looked up, a big shit-eating grin on his face. “Psych!” he said. “I don’t cry for nothing. Never.” Triumphantly, he picked up the bong and took a gurgling hit off of it.

“Sometimes, you’re such an asshole,” Rick said.

“I aim to please,” Kevin answered while holding in the hit, passing the bong to Pedro. Pedro took it and fired away while Rick stared at Kevin, incomprehending. Sometimes, he didn’t know why he hung out with this guy. Then he heard Pedro huffing up the smoke and remembered — Kevin did get the best weed Rick had ever had. Pedro was cool. If Kevin was King Asshole, Pedro was some kind of anti-asshole. Quiet, polite, agreeable. That got a little boring sometimes, but at least he wasn’t obnoxious. As Pedro passed the bong to Rick, Kevin finally exhaled. Rick put his mouth over the skunky tube, then looked at Kevin.

“So, when the hell did you see Stacey’s rack, anyway?”

“Melinda’s rack.”

“Same difference.”

“They’re not completely identical. We were playing truth or dare.”

“Aah, of course. And I bet the game was your idea, right?”

“Not that time, no.”

Pedro looked at Rick oddly. Rick noticed, raised an eyebrow. “Truth or dare?” Pedro asked.

“Yeah, some stupid party game for high school girls and sexually repressed college boys,” Rick explained.

“Who usually aren’t sexually repressed by the time the game is over, thank you very much,” Kevin added. He looked at Pedro, who still looked confused. “What, you’ve never played?”

“He’s not a skank like you are, Kevie,” Rick said, then put the fire in the hole and sucked away.

“It’s not a skanky game. It’s like group therapy,” Kevin explained to Pedro. “You really never played it?”

“No,” Pedro answered, shaking his head. “The girls I know aren’t like that.”

“Catholic school, is it?” Kevin laughed.

“He said aren’t like that, douchebag,” Rick barked out, holding the smoke.

“That’s right. Some of the best pussy I’ve gotten has gone to Catholic school.”

“Would that be St. Rosy Palm and the Sisters of Perpetual Motion?” Rick asked, punctuated with the proper gesture. Kevin shot him the finger, then popped off the couch and sat in front of Pedro.

“I still can’t believe you’ve never played it,” he said.

“And we’re not,” Rick said, rapping him on the shoulder and passing the bong.

“I wasn’t suggesting it, ass-wad,” he answered, grabbing the bong. “I don’t see any girls here.”

“No, just a big pussy.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“Bite me.”

Kevin gnashed his teeth in Rick’s general direction, giggled, then took another hit. Rick turned to Pedro. “Don’t mind him, he doesn’t get out much. You okay? You’re kind of quiet tonight?”

“Fine,” Pedro said. “Very stoned, though.”

“Yes sir, I do agree,” Rick said. “This is certainly the most primo example of fine herbage you’ve yet commandeered for our personal use, Kevo.”

“Too many words, G,” Kevin said, passing the bong to Pedro, who declined and passed it to Rick. Rick took another hit, watching the other guys as he did so. Both of them were assuming the horizontal position, happily stoned floor flounder on the cheap carpet. Rick glanced at the clock. Five after two. It seemed like an hour since he’d last looked and it had been two o’clock. Time dilation had been achieved. He slowly eased the bong into position on the table, then lay down himself, staring at the ceiling, fascinated with the faint brown water spot that crept out of the wall and through the off-white cottage cheese. It had been there as long as Rick had. Longer. It would be there, no doubt, long after he’d gone.

Kevin was muttering some stoner monologue, about how there’d be no wars in the world if political struggles were settled with a game of truth or dare. “Like, I bet we’d just smear Fidel Castro in one move. ‘Okay, G, I dare you. Shave your beard.’ He wouldn’t do it, game over.” He laughed again. Rick flinched at the sound, which seemed to echo off the ceiling. It really was a puerile, girly giggle, an involuntary burst that always sounded like Kevin had just been gang tickled by a flock of animate feather dusters.

“Oh, you’re not Cuban or nothing, are you, Pedro?” Kevin asked, Rick flinching anew at that question.

“I was born in Pacoima,” Pedro answered.

“Truth,” Kevin spouted. The response was silence, which Rick knew was the most frustrating thing in the world to him. “I said, ‘truth,’“ Kevin continued.

“We’re not playing,” Rick said.

“I’m bored,” Kevin whined. “Anyway, it’s a drinking game.”

“It is not,” Rick shot back.

“It can be,” Kevin explained. “Anything can be a drinking game.”

“I like drinking games,” Pedro offered from somewhere across the carpet. “None of us’s got to do anything in the morning.”

“Let me get the drinks,” Kevin heaved himself up from the floor and stumbled off to the kitchen.

Rick turned his head, found his nose an inch from Pedro’s right ear. “Now you’ve done it,” he said.

“What?” Pedro asked, turning his head, eyes almost crossing to focus.

“I’ve seen him do this before, he’s always the first one to start this and the first one to back out of anything mildly embarrassing.”

“Yeah, but like he said, no girls here. How bad could it get?”

“You don’t know Kevin,” Rick sighed. Kevin was an instigator, the kind of person who took passive-aggressive glee in giving a group the right nudge, then watching all their neuroses and problems play out on each other while he sat back, always seemingly immune to it all. He had the annoying ability to fade away in a crowd when the sparks started flying, Mr. Innocent in the corner, never connected to the trouble he caused once things got rolling. Rick had no doubt that Kevin had seen Stacey, or Melinda, or whoever’s tits at a party, but he also had no doubt that he hadn’t had to make that demand to get his wish. Just a little clever manipulation of some other poor, dumb schmuck who wanted a peek — toss a few offhand comments into a brain already set on purée, and the resulting cocktail was Kevin’s recipe, someone else’s hemlock.

Why did people seem to like him? That was what Rick didn’t get. But hell, half the time, he liked Kevin, or put up with him, at least. It had to be that face. Not that he was cute. No, it was that he looked innocent and harmless, like an altar boy suddenly thrust into an adult body. No, not thrust. Stretched. He was tall and skinny, and you’d find bigger muscles in a bucket of KFC, although it was a toss-up between man and chicken which one was more deeply fried.

Anyway, no matter how annoying he got, telling him off would have been like punching a kitten.

Kevin came back with the Tequila — the good stuff, not the Cuervo, the putz — and three shot glasses, at least one of which still had most of the gold intact on the three Greek letters down the side. That was the only memento Rick still had from his eighteen-month freshman year at Purdue. That, and there was a faceless picture of his ass still floating around on the Internet, his souvenir to the world from his first and only Freshman Nude Olympics snow run.

But that had nothing to do with why he left.

“So,” Kevin explained, setting the glasses on the table and slopping Tequila into them, “You call truth or dare, and you have to answer honestly or do the dare, or else you drink.”

“And the point of this game is…?” Rick asked, sitting up.

“Staving off boredom,” Kevin answered simply.

Pedro dragged himself to the table and sat there waiting. Nobody said anything for a while. Finally, Pedro asked, “Who goes first?”

“I will,” Rick said. “Kevin — truth or dare?” he asked, knowing already what it would be.

“Truth,” Kevin said.

Ah, yes, always the safe way. “Okay, Kevo,” Rick said. “Are you a big fag?”

“Hell, no,” Kevin answered without hesitation. “My point, and… Rick. Truth or dare?”

“Dare,” Rick replied, defiantly.

“And the man’s got serious scrotage,” Kevin said to Pedro, thinking. “Let’s see…” Kevin’s eyes flickered around the room and he bit his lower lip. Then, he picked up the bong and passed it across the table. “Have a sip, Ricky.”

Okay, Rick thought, that didn’t take very long to get disgusting. But he wasn’t going to let Kevin get away with it tonight. He took the bong, looking Kevin right in the eye, Pedro staring in disbelief. Rick smiled, hoisted the bong in a toast and said, “Salud.” Then, he lifted it to his lips and tilted it back. God, the smell could have killed a hog, but he knew the thing was opaque enough that no one would notice he kept his lips shut. The water was cold and rancid, but none of it actually got in his mouth.

He put the bong down and coughed in half-mock disgust. Kevin’s face was motionless, mouth open and Pedro had fallen on the floor, moaning, “Oh, man. Gross.”

“My point,” Rick smiled.

“Fu-u-uck,” Kevin finally said.

“Pedro, truth or dare?”…

To be continued

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #91: Sports, fictional place, dictator

The latest Friday Free-for-All questions. What are your answers?

In which I answer random questions from a website. An ongoing series.

How often do you play sports?

Never. I’ve never been a fan of sports, firstly because I was a premature baby so born with lung issues. I spent sixteen days in an incubator, then had bad bronchitis at seven years old. This left me with issues getting enough oxygen if I exerted myself, especially in the crappy childhood air I grew up with in Los Angeles.

This was also when they made us run endless laps in elementary school for some reason, but I could only ever make it halfway through one before gasping for breath but, of course, the toxically masculine male teachers would just call those of us who couldn’t do it “pussies,” instead of maybe talking to our parents about possible health issues.

For the most part, I’d wind up walking those laps with my other friends who, for various reasons, couldn’t run them at any kind of speed either.

This naturally led to a lifelong disdain for sports in any form — made even a bit worse after I developed viral pneumonia at fourteen, lost about a third of my bodyweight, and never redeveloped the muscles, except in my legs for some reason.

My brain never gave me a problem gasping for air when I exerted it, so that’s the organ I used, and to this day and I could give less than two warm shits about any major sporting event. And I understand that there’s some kind of allegedly important one happening in America soon but, again, I’d have to muster some bit of interest to figure out what it is, and I really don’t care.

What fictional place would you most like to go?

I tend to prefer real places, actually so this is a tough one. It seems like an easy choice at first until you remember how many places are actually dangerous. Hogwarts, never, although a trip to Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade might be fun, as long as JK’s TERFy ass were nowhere around.

Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory appears to be okay if you’re an adult and not stupid, and they’ve probably got some great stuff in the gift shop at the end. The Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz could also be really cool at the right time, since none of the witches seem to go there (it’s under the Wizard’s protection,) but the décor, costuming, and everything else Deco is amazing and worth a visit for a photo safari.

From Star Wars, Coruscant would be a romp, since it is the capital planet of the Empire, and it would just be a matter of hitting it at the right time and knowing the right people. A possibly safer location from the other side of the rebellion would be Canto Bite, naturally.

Ideally, though, I’d love to go to that America that only exists in the dreams of the Founders, the pages of the Constitution, and the ambitions of FDR and others — well, with a lot less racism. It’s the one where we managed to create and sustain the Middle Class Dream, expand unions and universal health care to everyone, regulated the living fuck out of corporations on through and beyond the 1980s to the present day, never elected Ronald Reagan or listened to the Moral Majority, and continued the Civil Rights, Gay Rights, and Equal Rights movements of the 1960s without any impedance.

This is especially from the Supreme Court, which would look very different than it does now or ever has, and in which politics and jurisprudence would be kept in strict separation. As if that’s humanly possible.

If you were dictator of a small island nation, what crazy dictator stuff would you do?

Well, it would only be considered “crazy” by capitalists, because they are the ones whom, for the most part, would be the non-beneficiaries of all my dictates. The main one is that nothing here shall be done for profit, except that it supports the person making or doing it and allows them to then turn the excess into tools and material for the next round of work.

Oh — did I mention our immigration policy? You can come from any country or any background, as long as you create art of any kind or know a useful trade (electrician, plumber, carpenter, engineer, IT, etc.) We do tend to discourage fanatically religious types, bigots, conspiracy theorists, or anyone who ever supported a former U.S. President in any way, shape, or bloated form.

Dictates for the people:

  1. Mind your business. This was an early motto for the Colonial U.S., but it holds. If what your neighbors are doing doesn’t affect you, allow them their joy. This doesn’t mean that they can hold loud outdoor concerts at three in the morning, of course. But if the household across the way seems to have more than the usual number of husbands/wives, for example, let them be.
  1. Offer help when it seems needed. Is your neighbor’s front yard looking a bit run down? Have you not seen your elderly neighbor on their regular rounds in a couple of days? Is another neighbor’s mailbox getting full and they never mentioned going on vacation? Nothing wrong with giving a knock on the door or sending a text if you know the number to see what’s up and offer assistance.
  2. Sometimes, your “freedom” does not outweigh the public good Although one of the requirement for immigration and continued residency is to be fully vaccinated for whatever is on the list, every so often something new will come along. Our inclination is to seal the borders until we know what we’re up against, quarantine anyone who’s been off-island within a certain time period, try to capture the virus or pathogen in the wild for study if we can, and require general safety protocols, like masks, social distancing, and no indoor businesses except for buying essentials with limited customers allowed.
  3. Enjoy life. That is an order from your dictator. Don’t spend all your waking hours working, but make sure you have pets, family and/or a close circle of friends.

Sunday Nibble #94: Me encantó Encanto

Another amazing movie from Disney: Encanto knocks it out of the park.

Every so often, a movie comes along that has a message so moving and engaging, combined with strong characters we all feel for, that by the time the third act starts, you’ve already dissolved in tears of empathy, compassion and, ultimately, joy that don’t end until the closing credits.

Encanto is one of those films. Yeah, I was crying my face off from a particular moment near the end and couldn’t stop. You will, too, if you have a heart.

I knew that it was coming to Disney+ eventually but took my time before I watched it because I was hoping that they’d do what they did with Coco and do a Spanish dubbed version of the film, but that’s apparently not happening. (They did do a dub for the foreign market, but it didn’t screen here like Coco did.)

Oh — and it does feel like Encanto could be one of a trilogy of films that started with Coco. Here’s to a third.

Both films deal with familias latinas — Coco in Mexico and Encanto in Colombia. Both stories concern grandmothers who are trying to control their families, either openly or not, although Coco covers a few more generations than Encanto; five generations in the former and three generations in the latter.

So in Coco, it’s our lead character’s great-great grandmother who suffers a loss that leads to everything else, while in Encanto, it’s the lead’s grandmother. This makes sense, though, because Coco’s back story plausibly begins in the 1930s or and while Encanto isn’t set in a specific year, we do know that the miracle that kicked things off for the family Madrigal happened fifty years ago.

Honestly, given Colombia’s history of conflict, it could have been any time in the 20th century, but given some modern references by the children in the film that may or may not just be Easter Eggs for adults, I’m going to assume that it takes place now, with the clock starting in the 1970s. The people in the encanto seem to be from another time because they’re been cut off from the outside world.

The era of the 1970s is not at all insignificant in Central and South American history, of course, and while it’s never clearly stated or hinted at until the end, our lead family, the Madrigals, got caught up in the endless guerrilla fighting alternately backed by the U.S. or USSR, depending on whether the rebels were capitalists or commies.

In the case of Colombia, the U.S. was backing the government, although the USSR may not have been that directly involved because the whole thing had started as a civil war.

Some grownups may carry this baggage into the film while kids won’t, of course, but they will get the idea of a refugee family in danger that is given sanctuary thanks to a miracle (the milagro) that will create a Valley surrounded by tall mountains that keeps away whatever unpleasantness is going on outside.

This is the Madrigal family’s personal Encanto, and it soon becomes clear that their house, known as Casita, is the center of the miracle. Every member of the family, starting with Abuela’s three children, goes through a ceremony in turn where they are taken to one of the upstairs doors. Once the kid takes hold of the doorknob, they gain a special power and the room beyond that now-glowing door becomes their sanctuary — some of which (as one character inadvertently references Doctor Who) are bigger on the inside.

Maribel’s immediate ancestors include mother Julieta, who has the power to heal people with her cooking; aunt Pepa who is overly emotional and can control the weather when it’s not controlling her; and uncle Bruno who… well, we don’t talk about Bruno.

Antagonist Maribel’s two oldest sisters, Isabela and Luísa, have the powers of being pretty while creating roses everywhere and super-strength, respectively, and Luísa is an amazing bit of inclusion and representation.

The character, as animated, has very muscular arms, which is in keeping with her miracle power that allows her to casually carry five donkeys at once, juggle boulders, and even lift buildings. Apparently, Disney didn’t want her to be so muscular but the animators refused to make changes.

Disney relented when Luísa merch began flying off the shelves because people were drawn to the character as, well, originally drawn. In fact, she quickly outsold both Isabela and Dolores merchandise, which were intended as the “pretty princess” options.

Apparently, girls nowadays don’t want the pretty princess. They want the strong princess, and that message is coming through loud and clear.

Another very subtle bit of representation in the film is in the character of Camilo Madrigal, our lead Maribel’s cousin, who is also fifteen. As his parents say, “He doesn’t know who he is yet,” and his special power is the ability to shapeshift — and it’s not limited by gender.

It’s actually not limited by anything (except that he can only change into human form), and so he jumps around between male and female, young and old, and so on. He’s the theatre kid of the family, which is also a bit more code. Camilo’s magical power, really, is being totally non-binary.

Luísa and Camilo are two of the more engaging and interesting characters in the film. The third is ostensibly the villain, the not-talked about Tío Bruno, one of Abuela Alma’s triplets — but there is a lot more to his character than meets the eye, and he is brilliantly brought to life by the animators and especially his voice actor, the always amazing John Leguizamo.

The less said about Bruno is actually the better, because he is a character worth being slowly discovered. One thing I will say about him, though — he is another example of representation and is pretty much coded as the stereotypical gay uncle. Look at the clues: Only boy with two sisters, never married, withdrew and hid his magical gift from the family when it was rejected by them, lived in basically a closet for years while still trying to keep the family together, and really needed to be accepted by his mother.

Reading him like this really adds depth to the character. It also helps make sense of everyone else depicting him as some kind of scary green-eyed monster (especially Camilo, who should know better), which is not at all like an entire generation of gay uncles experienced.

The songs throughout are amazing, but that’s because Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the eight numbers in the film, with Germain Franco, who also scored Coco, providing the non-singing soundtrack. While We Don’t Talk About Bruno ensemble staging has become the runaway hit from the show, sister Luísa’s solo number Surface Pressure, which she performs while also carrying out her literal heavy-lifting duties for the townsfolk, really exposes her character.

So let’s look at every possible way that Encanto is not a big Hollywood movie: Almost entirely latine voice cast, except for white guy Alan Tudyk, who plays a clueless tucán: check. Main cast are all women, with the men mostly in the supporting roles: check. Set entirely in a foreign country most Americans are not familiar with: check. Heavily into magical realism, abetted by musical and artistic styles from the region: double check.

In other words, it’s not a film about white guys in armor saving the world, and it’s all the better for that. It has something to inspire and encourage kids who might see themselves as different or left out in their families, and even has lots of reminders and encouragement for adults who may once have been those kids.

The design of everything is jaw-droppingly amazing, with the use of color, lighting, and character design feeding into every part of the narrative. The animated characters in particular are incredible. They are so well delineated that we know who each one of them is at a glance, but none of them are shallow stereotypes, either.

This is a great family night film, especially if your family doesn’t always get along, and I dare you all to not have the last act go by without it turning into a silently, sniffly cuddle-fest on the couch, during which time everyone will have put their devices down.

There will be hugging it out when the lights come up.

Even if you’re just streaming it alone, this film will talk to you and then sing to you, and it’s very much worth the time to watch it. Hell, watch it a few times.

If you’re a music nerd and have seen the film or don’t mind spoiler-ish material, check out the video below. It’s a deep-dive into the song We Don’t Talk About Bruno, which explains how much is going on not only in what we experience on the surface, but in the musical structure behind it.

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