The Saturday Morning Post #6

Following is an excerpt from the first chapter of a not-yet-titled book made up of thirteen short stories and one novella, each story told by a different narrator and the novella stepping outside to bring all of the stories together. It’s very much a story of Los Angeles, and takes place in some of my favorite parts of the city. You can read from the beginning starting here, or catch up with the previous chapter here.


The last week and a half since the Riverside quake has been exhausting, but gratifying. That’s always the way with disaster relief, and especially when we have to wait for the dilly-dallying of the bigger NGOs — not naming any names. I could have mobilized the UECLA — United Ecumenical Council of Los Angeles County — by the day after the quake, and it would have taken one text an hour after to mobilize my own group, the United Atheists of America, or UAA.

And before you try to point out any contradiction between those two groups working together, I’ll just say that I’ve spent the last decade reminding the religious groups that “ecumenical” is a big tent, and yes it includes atheists and agnostics (and Satanists), even though neither we atheists nor the other two groups will ever consider our positions to be religious beliefs.

I’ve had this job since right out of college. Well, actually, I’ve been in this department since then, but worked my way up fast. I majored in both religious studies and public policy, and the two meshed really well. I’ve been Director of Communications for the UECLA for four years now, and Director of the UAA for seven.

Oh. My name is Rebekah Clement, and you’ve probably seen it on various press releases over the last few years if you live in L.A., as well as having seen it be ripped and defamed for just as long a time if you happen to follow any particular fundie or orthodox religion or subscribe to their newsletters.

Funny thing, though. At least where I work, I have watched the number of regular churchgoers plummet. It was about 30% when I started, and now it’s hovering at 22%. It was certainly interesting, after I’d given the first invite, to see how many people either just wandered off, or followed the couple of totally secular groups I pointed out.

And that kind of thing was a major anchor that kept me from freaking out, because I’d been stuck downtown since the quake doing duty for the county, and then wound up in Koreatown on Friday, embedded with the Red Cross. I’d tried to contact Matt after the quake on Tuesday, but got no answers. I didn’t even get voicemail when I called our landline.

Yes, we still had one, but it was more a requirement from both of our employers than anything else, since governments tend to lag about thirty years behind reality. I mean, honestly, my office still had fax machines. Really?

I was trying to stay calm, but I remembered my parents’ stories of Northridge, which happened two years before I was born. They had lived in Sherman Oaks at the time, and their neighborhood was devastated because it happened to follow the old path of the Los Angeles River. Even though the river bed had been concrete since the 1930s, there was still enough alluvial flood-plain for the whole thing to liquefact in the shaking, and that’s exactly what happened to their two-story house, which basically became a one-story house as the first floor sank eight feet and the upper half of the front façade fell off. Luckily, they weren’t injured and were able to walk across the fallen wall onto dry land, but the place was never going to be rebuilt.

Fortunately, though, my dad had actually bought the earthquake insurance and the supplemental insurance that covered the deductible, so that the payout enabled them to buy a new and pretty similar house a bit more northeast — and for cheap, because it was “freak out and move” period for a lot of transplants, aka “highly motivated sellers.” That’s the house I grew up in. Oh yeah… even though their old house had been wrecked, they still owned the land, so they also sold that off when I was in high school, which paid my college tuition. I think that it eventually became the site of a commercial development.

But… this job had been getting really annoying because I had to pretend to be objective because… “I work for the county,” per my job description. On the other hand, it was getting harder and harder to deal with these bigoted religious assholes who hated anyone outside of their system while smiling and claiming to be inclusive as I had to host ecumenical breakfasts post disaster. Of course, that didn’t mean that I couldn’t point people away from these dicks, and I certainly did — especially when I wound up in the Koreatown Camp.

The Sunday after the Riverside quake, I couldn’t have been happier than to realize that less than a third of the people under the breakfast tent decided to follow some kind of religious leader. In reality, way more than a third of them went off to do theater and improv, another third and change wandered off to just go do… whatever, and the rest of them seemed to follow the several milder mainstream religions — a lot of Catholics, a lot of Anglicans, a lot of MCCs. The only people who seemed to follow the few fundies were the resident Koreans, but that wasn’t surprising. They had been exploited by those monsters since the time of the Korean War, and the colonial hooks were deep in them. I was just surprised that most of the members hadn’t died off by now.

Then again, since this place had been Koreatown in name only since about fifteen years ago, there weren’t a huge number of Koreans to follow.

At least I wasn’t leading the atheist meeting. Not that I wouldn’t have wanted to, but it gave me a much-needed break to try to get in touch with Matt again. This time, I tried calling and texting, since the Red Cross brought WiFi and chargers with them, but I still got nothing. Voicemail picked up on neither. But he had to be all right. He worked in Van Nuys, farther from the epicenter than I’d been when it hit, and we lived on the West Side, in the house on Euclid in Santa Monica that he’d inherited when his grandmother died.

We had also lucked out when they opened up the Q Line, because he could now take the train from Santa Monica to Van Nuys. I’d been taking the E Line since I’d started the job. Hell, it had been so long, I remembered when it was still the Expo Line.

I started googling damage reports and so on, and found nothing major in either of those places. Santa Monica had not been swept away by a tsunami, and Van Nuys hadn’t been sucked underground. In fact, most parts of the Valley seemed to be fairly well-off, which seismologists explained by the various mountain ranges surrounding it creating so-called “earthquake shadows.” I’d had no idea that those were even a thing, but I guess it makes sense. And it was certainly nice payback to the Valley, which had been host to two of our previous big quakes, Northridge and Sylmar, and so had gotten wrecked.

They even brought Lucy Jones out of retirement on the newspods to explain the earthquake shadows. And I don’t think I need to mention how happy I’ve been about California having nothing but female seismologists in the public eye since forever, female senators for almost as long, and, finally, a female governor since the inauguration in 2023. Well, okay. Transwoman, but that still counts.

Suck it, fundies.

But… none of this explains why I still can’t get hold of Matt. The cell phone thing… maybe, but only if all the towers around him are down, or he isn’t able to charge his phone. But the landline is still mystifying, and despite the TelCos spending so many years trying to propagandize us into the idea that we all still needed them in case of disaster, no one ever bought that bullshit.

Of course… while most of our handsets at home were wireless, the base station had one of those really old-fashioned handset on a cradle things, and if the shaking knocked it off, the phone would go “off the hook,” in a literal, not figurative, sense, and that would block all of the other lines. I couldn’t remember whether that would block voicemail from answering or not, because I wasn’t sure whether that lived on the phone or happened at the phone company.

So… phew-ish?

Still… I was stuck down here until such point that… oh, what did the guidelines say? I was here until “…a majority of the faith-community organizations within your district are able to once again provide for the pastoral care of their members in their own, original physical spaces or FEMA-approved emergency structures in the case of buildings that have been yellow- or red-tagged. Alternate venues provided by other existing businesses or residents are also acceptable, provided that they have the same maximum occupancy capacity as the space they are replacing. Representatives are expected to remain on-site for at least thirty days after initial event, with two days of home-leave allowable commencing at the end of shift on the ninth day after the inciting event, and on the ninth-day after return from each home-leave. Except during home-leave, disaster pay and overtime are in effect, and per diem at current county rates and secure, suitable lodgings within two miles by ride service or forty-five minutes via public transit, station-to-station (should the lines be operational), will also be provided in the form of a TAP card. Most lodgings will be single-occupancy except for married couples both of whom are employed by the county or city of Los Angeles, or upon the written request of two un-related employees om different departments, after direct-report review and approval.

I remember watching an improv show by a theater company in my area right after the quake that had a game they called “Yay, Boo!” and this was definitely it. Combat pay and overtime? Yay! Remain on-site thirty days? Boo! Per diem and suitable lodgings provided, yay! Nine days between home visits? Boo! That meant I’d have to wait. There were so damn many registered faith-community organizations within the area we were covering that it could easily take months to get them all accommodated.

And Matt still wasn’t answering, I couldn’t get hold of him on social media, and I wasn’t sure what the hell to do. At least we didn’t have children, so that was a little bit less to worry about…

Image taken in 1948, Fukui, Japan;  now public domain under Australian law. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Bert Cohen. 

Wednesday Wonders: Thoughts into action

Today, March 11, 2020, marks the 209th anniversary of the birth in 1811 of a man named Urbain Le Verrier, a French astronomer and mathematician. One thing he is remembered for is his hypothesis that our solar system had a second asteroid belt, located between the Sun and Mercury. It, of course, does not.

But there was one other thing he did that led to a big discovery. Before we get to that, though, we need to jump back to almost exactly 30 years before Le Verrier was born — March 13, 1781.

This was when the astronomer William Herschel took a look at his third survey of the night sky and realized that one of the “stars” in it was not a star, it was a planet. By sheer luck, he had managed to find Uranus.

This was no mean feat, because the five “classic” planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — had been discovered in ancient times and were always a part of human culture.

They were also easier to spot because all of them could be seen by the naked eye. Uranus can be, too, but it is incredibly dim, which is probably why it wasn’t picked out as a planet a lot sooner. Not to mention that its year was a lot longer, so its apparent motion relative to the stars would take a much more time and patience to notice.

But for the other planets, motion is what made them stand out. The constellations and everything else appeared to travel together across the sky, but these five objects had their own  different and predictable pattern.

In other words, Venus, which frequently appears in the eastern sky after sunset (in the northern spring) or the western sky before sunrise (in the northern fall), will appear to move from constellation to constellation as the year progresses. What’s really happening, and what it took astronomers a long time to figure out and a longer time to convince the public of, is that it was the Earth that was moving around the Sun, along with all of the other planets.

In effect, all those stars out there could basically be considered fixed objects, as if they were painted on the inside of a giant sphere that we’re moving around in. Oh, they’re not fixed at all, and they all move too — the Big Dipper will look really different in thousands of years — they just move too slowly for humans to notice the change.

It’s a variation of the old “moving landscape effect”, more properly known as motion parallax. That is, if you’re riding in a vehicle as a passenger, look out the side window, and you’ll notice that nearby objects, like freeway guardrails, trees along the road or close buildings appear to zip past, while slightly farther objects cruise along more slowly and the most distant objects, like far-off mountains, appear to barely move at all.

It’s this effect plus the telescope that finally allowed Herschel to find Uranus. And, by the way, it’s actually pronounced oo-RAN-oos (or you-RAN-us, if you must), so enough of those jokes. Don’t make the IAU change its name!

Uranus turned out to be a really odd duck of a planet, though, one of the more interesting facts being that its axis, unlike every other planet, is tilted on its side. The others basically rotate with their north poles being “up” and “down” relative to the plane of the ecliptic. Not Uranus. Its axis is tilted more than 90 degrees, meaning that it’s rotating on its side. Astrophysicists aren’t sure yet why this happened, but the leading conjecture is that something about the size of Earth smacked into it once it had substantially formed as a planet, knocking it over, and it can’t get up.

But there was one other oddity, and one that was only noticeable because of the work of Sir Isaac Newton. He’s that gravity guy — and no, an apple didn’t fall on his head, although he did wonder why things fell and whether they all did it at the same rate.

This led to him coming up with some laws of gravity that have proven to be pretty damn accurate. So damn accurate, in fact, that once Uranus had been discovered, something quickly became apparent: It wasn’t quite orbiting the Sun the way that it should be according to how the gravity of the Sun and other planets should have affected it.

This is what got to Urbain Le Verrier. There were noticeable differences between what Newton’s laws said Uranus should be doing and what observations showed that it was doing, but Newton wasn’t wrong, so something else must have been going on here.

Here’s a little note for people who still don’t know the different scientific terms. A law is something that is an irrefutable fact. It’s been observed, tested, confirmed, and reconfirmed far too many times for it to be falsifiable, and generally comes with a formula to back it up, like Newton’s f = ma, or force equals mass times acceleration.

If anything appears to violate a law, then there’s something else affecting it, period. And a law doesn’t come with an explanation, it just is what it is. In terms of gravity, the law just says, “Stuff falls at this speed,” which in an equation is F = Gm1m2/r2, or, more commonly, the force of gravity is inversely proportional to the distance between the centers of two objects, with G being the gravitational constant. Simplified, gravity on Earth is described as g = GM/r2, where M is the mass of the Earth. Which is 5.972 × 1024 kilograms, or 6.583 × 1021 tons, by the way. You’re welcome.

Law is top of the ladder in science. Theory is next, and in science it doesn’t mean what it does in popular vernacular. A theory is an explanation of how and why the law works. It says “After a ton of reproducible experimental results and rigorous testing and attempts at falsification, this idea here is our absolute best statement of what we think is really going on.” For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity is an explanation of how Newton’s laws work.

So Le Verrier, being a math dude, looked at the discrepancies and ran the numbers, and although he was really flying blind, here’s what he managed to do, using Newton’s Laws and a lot of calculation. He reverse-engineered our solar system to the point that he said, “Okay. Uranus is acting weird because there’s this other planet out there, and here’s where you’ll probably find it in the sky.”

August 31, 1846: Le Verrier announces his prediction to the French Academy.

September 18, 1846: He mails his prediction to Johann Galle of the Berlin observatory. The letter arrives five days later.

September 23, 1846: Galle finds Neptune, within one degree of where Le Verrier says it will be.

Fortuitously, this is the day of the autumnal equinox — one of two days in the year when Earth’s axis has zero degrees of tilt. That has nothing to do with Neptune, but it’s a nice touch in the story, and something that gives the astronomically inclined a little warm fuzzy.

Now just think on that one for a moment. Herschel only found Uranus because he’d been looking at the sky repeatedly and noticed something a bit off, and he made his discovery at least ten millennia after all the other planets had been discovered.

It only took sixty-five years (and six months) for the next planet to be discovered, and how that happened says a lot about how science should work. The theoretical folk (Le Verrier) used the math and formulae to come up with solid predictions, and then the experimental/observational folk (Galle) put those into action. End result: instant planet!

Throughout human history, we have had thinkers and we have had doers, and both are indispensable to progress. We will always need idea people, who can come up with solutions, questions, or fixes. We will always need action people, who can take those solutions, questions, or ideas and make them happen.

Together, the two are an unstoppable force. Just take Le Verrier and Galle as an example. They did, in seven decades, what all of humanity had been unable to do for tens of thousands of years before Herschel found Uranus.

Now just imagine what would happen if we applied this model to every field. Let the thinkers do their thing, then they hand their ideas to the doers, who do theirs. I think that the overused corporate term for this is synergy, but it works. If we can discover planets out there with it, imagine what we could do with it down here.

Image: Neptune by NASA, public domain.

Rebranding contest and giveaway!

Answer a question, win a cool prize

Hello, gentle readers and faithful fans, and pardon the interruption to the theme schedule, but with the start of Daylight Savings Time, and in honor of my recently having passed 200 posts, this is also a good time to do some spring cleaning.

See, I originally named this blog The Word Whisperer because, well, I’d just come off of a decade working for the Dog Whisperer, a lot of that spent as his main content creator and, honestly, interview and article ghost writer and all that.

But we’re now at the point where I haven’t done that for him for a good two years this month, he’s kind of faded from sight, so I need a new thing.

I leave it to you, my dear fans and readers, to tell me what I should rebrand as, and you can do so right here:

You can also offer your own suggestions in addition to voting for the given choices, but if any of your suggestions come in the form of (Thing) Mc(Thing)face, you will be eliminated from the pool of possible winners immediately. Fair warning.

If none of the options wins a clear majority, then there will be a run-off, but here’s some good news. The prize for this round gets awarded no matter the results. Oh yeah. There’s a prize, and it’s this: a copy of Simon Pegg‘s memoir Nerd Do Well. Apparently, fans of my blog are also fans of him, and the winner will be chosen completely at random, so it doesn’t matter if you vote for the final choice. All that matters — like this year — is that you friggin’ vote!

Bonus points: If you share or reblog this post in any way on social media, you’ll get an extra entry, one per share, reblog, retweet, whatever, so you’ll up your odds of winning. Just let me know that you did and send me the link!

Friday Free-for-All #1

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 by request, 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.


It’s Talky Tuesday!

As I announced yesterday, inspired by the reception of my Countdown to Christmas series of posts, and as a way to give me a writing prompt every day, I’m going to experiment with a theme for each day. This started with the first Sunday Nibble, followed later by Saturday Morning Reading, with Monday’s subject of history, one of my favorites, revealed yesterday.

Today’s theme is Talky Tuesday because it will be all about another of my favorite subjects: language. Okay, so the “talky” part is purely figurative until I turn this into a podcast, but I couldn’t think of a better word that relates to language and creates alliteration with Tuesday.

And while “Wordy Wednesday” might have seemed like a natural, having only four possible letters — S, M, T, and W — limits the options, especially if one insists as one does on using the full “th” alliteration for Thursday, but finds a better fit of subject for that than another alternate for Wednesday’s theme, which will be revealed tomorrow.

And I know I blew the alliteration on the weekend, but that’s because I came up with those first. I suppose one could become the Sunday Snack, while I’m really tempted to call the other one the Saturday Morning Post. Incidentally, the original Saturday Evening Post is still around and will celebrate its bicentennial next year. While its presence nowadays is more online and it’s owned by the Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical Society (Franklin kinda sorta founded the magazine), it still prints six issues a year. A far cry from coming out in time for the second mail delivery every Saturday, but still impressive in this day and age.

The print magazine in its heyday also made Norman Rockwell a very famous artist and American institution to the extent that many of his cover illustrations are still instantly recognizable to this day to people not at all familiar with the original magazine,

But now you’ve got me going down a side path because I love diving into rabbit holes and sharing interesting bits of trivia, and you’ve managed to get me bringing up history in the set up for the language theme. Gee, thanks!

So let’s bring on the topic at hand!

More frequently confused words

As I’ve discussed recently, English is a mongrel of a language, cobbled together over centuries with the collision and mixing of various other languages and with a propensity after the fifteenth century to borrow words from everywhere. If you’ve ever taken algebra — or a siesta — you’ve used borrowed words. You can also see the roots in the words themselves. In the sentences above, discussed and centuries come from Latin, language, and collision are French, cobble and mongrel are Anglo, and our borrowed examples are, in order, Arabic and Spanish, although Spanish has a ton of Arabic words courtesy of the Moorish occupation of Southern Europe for centuries.

Hint: Any Spanish word that starts with “al” is probably Arabic because “al” is the Arabic equivalent of “the,” and the two wound up stuck together. So… algodón, cotton;  alfombra, carpet (not to be confused with carpeta, file folder); alazar, to hoist or erect (not to be confused with al azar, at random); alcalde/alcadesa, mayor.

But… the point is this. English, like many other languages, has become more of a spoken medium than it is a written one, at least on a large scale. That’s part of the reason why internet news aggregators get choked with video links instead of text, and yeah, this one drives me nuts. No, I don’t want the story read by talking heads who obviously don’t get it because I’m probably not in a place where I can listen to the audio or watch the video, just give me the words, please.

And for god’s sake, make sure that they were edited and proofed by a professional, although I despair more and more by the moment of that ever happening, and in major media outlets more often than not I see articles that my high school English teacher would have failed without remorse.

That said, to the people who don’t read a lot, it does become obvious when they post online, because they will play the “sounds like” game with a lot of words (when they’re not just making up spellings, but that’s something for a completely different post), and frequently manage to grab exactly the wrong word.

Ripped from today’s… social media comments (no, really) here are six more words that are frequently mixed-up and misused.

Away and aweigh

I’ve seen this mistake made frequently when someone is referring to a ship leaving port and getting underway, and given that the arts of sailing and seafaring are very alien to most modern people — particularly those who live in urban or landlocked areas — it’s a very understandable mistake to see “Anchors away!”

I mean, on the surface, that makes sense, right? What are you trying to do? Get away from the port or the dock, and it somehow involves removing the anchors that are holding you there, right? And if you have a naïve understanding of how anchors work, that adds another level of sense to it. Anchors are notoriously heavy, right? So they must work by weighing down the ship (ooh… look at that word!) and keep it from moving until they’re cast away. Ooh. Another seafaring word when you combine them into castaway!

Except… that’s not how anchors work. Anchors may be heavy in human terms (or not), but they weigh nothing compared to the weight of the ship. What they do do is drop to the seafloor or lakebed, and then dig into the sediment with those hooky-thingies on them. You know. The whole reason an anchor is shaped like that. Its job is to grab that mucky slop down below and dig into it so that the ship stays where it’s been moored.

By the way, have you ever noticed that a grappling hook looks a lot like an anchor? Yeah, that’s because it does an anchor’s job in reverse.

But… a ship would never cast its anchors away because then they’d have nothing to moor themselves with at the next port, or to do likewise in an emergency at sea. What ships do do is call “anchors aweigh,” and it’s an expression ultimately built out of old English.

The word “weigh” refers to a really old English expression meaning to lift, measure, or carry, while the “a-“ prefix most likely takes on the middle English mean of “off” or “from.” So… the proper phrase, “anchors aweigh,” means to lift the anchors from… in this case, whatever silt or sludge they’re stuck in. And the word “aweigh” happens to have been coined specifically and only to refer to the concept of hauling up an anchor.

Lean and lien

Yeah, actually seen in a “give me free legal advice because I can’t adult enough to figure out how to google that that’s a thing” post on a social media site, something along the lines of (paraphrased to protect a-hat’s identity): “My bank just put a lean on my car because I missed a few payments. How can I not lose it?”

Well, the simple bonehead advice is, “Talk to your bank and arrange to make those payments, dumbass.” But, on top of that one, if your bank leaned on your car, assuming that your bank is a big building of at least one story, I don’t think that there’d be much of a car left.

The word they were thinking of is lien, and it’s basically any official charge placed against a piece of real property. Anyone who’s ever bought a car from a dealer and contracted to make payments knows it well, since the phrase “lienholder” will appear on the registration until the day you pay that loan off.

There’s also a nice ironic reminder on this one. “Lien” happens to be the French word for “link,” and in its traditional sense, that’s what a lien was — a link between a physical piece of property and the money owed on it. Boom, done. But… go to French websites, and that word means more often than note “click here to go there.”

Fortunately, the quick way to remember and not mistake “lien” and “lean” is that the first two letters of “link” are “Li.”

Illusion and allusion

In this case, the former is definitely used to mean the latter far too often. An illusion is an image, mirage, or the word that GOB prefers to trick. An allusion is a literary reference. You’ll see the former in Vegas constantly. You’ll have to think back to 10th grade English to remember that latter one, which is basically referring to something without referring to it.

Frankly, my dear, allusions can be… tricksy, and not as clear-cut as you’d assume without making an assumption out of it or you and me. But let’s rejoyce in the idea that one doesn’t need to reference a hawk to describe a handsaw unless one is being chased through an empty field by a crop-duster.

And that was a paragraph packed with allusions. The idea that I just made you think of at least a few books, movies, authors, and directors was no illusion.

Ascent and assent

Thanks to that pesky silent “C,” I see the latter word misused to replace the former a lot more often: “The mountain climbers planned to begin their assent at five a.m.”

Well, of course you’d want a mountain climbing team to agree on everything before they start going uphill, but they can’t start the climb until they begin their ascent.

The word ultimately comes to English via French and Latin, with the Latin source being the word “scendere,” to climb. You can easily see the pair of English antonyms that come from this: descend and ascend, along with their noun versions descent and ascent.

The prefixes determine direction. A descent is a climbing from, while an ascent is a climbing to. In our interpretation of “climb,” these become up and down.

Assent, while it also comes from Latin, took a very different route and it comes from the prefix “ad” and the verb “sentire,” to feel. When “ad” is combined with a word starting with “s,” it becomes “as.” The prefix itself implies moving toward, so an assent is moving toward a feeling, i.e. the group coming to a common decision.

Interestingly enough, the French took the Latin word for “to feel” to mean “to smell,” and this lead directly to the English word “scent,” but not to the English word ascent. Go figure. It’s just one of those weird linguistic coincidences.

But… it does give us a mnemonic to tell them apart. What is a smell? “A scent” that goes up your nose. Meanwhile, a message you receive “as sent” agrees completely with what the sender intended.

Mantle and mantel

This pair is regularly swapped, and it’s easy to see why. Strictly speaking, a mantel is the one that’s around a fireplace and nothing else, while a mantle is a cloak or covering, or part of the surface of the Earth that comes above the crust.

But to confuse things, mantel itself is a fifteenth century variant of the Middle English mantel, which came from the Latin mantellum, which means cloak. So, ultimately, a mantel is just a cloak for a fireplace, but if you put a mantle near your fireplace, it’ll probably burn up.

Yes, derivations can be silly and make no sense sometimes, but here’s a way to remember the very special word that only goes around your fireplace. What’s in your fireplace? The fire. In Spanish, that’s el fuego. And what are the last two letters of the right word? That’s right. “El.”

Now, I could confuse things a bit more by giving you an “le” mnemonic for mantle by reminding you that “the cloak” in French is “le manteau,” and that second word should look familiar, but I think the fire clue should be enough.

Sorted and sordid

A rare find in the wild, but indeed it did appear, with the former word being used in place of the latter in the context of “delving into those sorted (sic) affairs,” when, of course, those affairs were sordid.

Again, though, if it’s a word someone has only heard, sorted, like away, makes some kind of sense, if only because sordid affairs tend to involve a lot of bits and pieces, so the assumption that somebody would have to sort them to work them out makes total sense.

The funny part here is that sordid is by far the older word, and while sort came into English in the 13th century, the dictionary only attests “sorted” to the 1950s, believe it or not, and only in a specific jargon usage in geology, although I know many an Australian who’d differ with that opinion, since the love to deal with getting confusing situations sorted, i.e. figured out.

As for sordid, it came from the Latin word for dirty. Specifically, the Latin word for dirt with the suffix –id indicating “born from.” So… filthy things are sordid.

I can’t think of any really good reminder here other than these. First, if it’s dirty it’s got double D’s, like sordid. Or… sordid kind of sounds like the answer when someone asks, “Hey did you read that trashy article in (insert gossip rag here)” and you say, “So I did,” with the proper drawl. (“Sah uh did.”)

And there you go. Which pair of confused words annoy you, or which ones do you always mix up? Let me know in the comments below!

Sunday Nibble #2

Shorter bite-sized pieces with no particular destination meant to enjoy on what should be a day off, or at least a day of fun.

According to Freedictionary, there are 92 English words that end in -yme, although most of them are scientific words made up of “enzyme” with prefixes. One relates to botany (cyme) and the other to medicine (zyme).

This leaves three common words, two of which are probably familiar to everyone and one that is not: Rhyme, thyme, and chyme. The first, of course, refers to arranging words that end with similar sounds — a very common human trick, most needed for a limerick.

Thyme is, of course, an herb used for seasoning, and also well-known from the song Scarborough Fair, which is a traditional English ballad going back to at least the 17th century, famous for the refrain, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.”

The third word, chyme, is somewhat… gross. It refers to the glop your stomach turns food into before passing it on to your intestines.

Each one of these words has a homophone, which is a word pronounced the same but with a different meaning and, often, a different spelling. Those are rime, time, and chime.

Although “rime” is an alternate spelling of “rhyme” (q.v. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner), it generally refers to a relative of frost caused when super-cooled water droplets freeze on impact with a surface. I didn’t think it was appropriate to mention until now, but there is a fourth –yme word, berhyme, now archaic, which means to use as the subject of a rhyme, especially to lampoon. “In Poe’s The Raven, the author berhymes his lost love, Lenore.” And this word can go both ways, as either berhyme or berime. Yes, it sounds like to berime would be to coat something in rime, but that word doesn’t exist, and to rime is sufficient.

Time is money, time flies, time is fleeting. The times, they are a-changin’.

Time is simply the measure used to determine that something has happened. No time, nothing happens. It’s also very convenient for putting events in order — “The meeting is at 10 a.m., after which we will break for lunch at 1 p.m., then reconvene at 2:30.” Of course, to a physicist, time is what you measure with a clock.” Why? Because the way that scientists measure time is by observing change. It’s the phenomenon their clock follows, not the other way around.

You’ll know this firsthand if you’ve ever cooked something for the time mentioned in the recipe only to find out that it wasn’t quite done, so you had to keep it in longer. The “bake for 45 minutes at 375 degrees” is only a suggestion. The reality is when the thing you’re baking hits the desired internal temperature, which could be 35 minutes or it could be an hour. And if you’re a scientist don’t even try to use time to put events in order, because the first question you have to ask is “Which reference frame am I ordering events in?”

Finally, we have chyme and chime. The latter is both the thing that a bell does and the word my computer keeps trying to auto-correct chyme to every time I type it. Since those bells chiming are usually connected to a big clock, chime relates back to time, and one of the more famous usages of the word is in a Shakespeare quote (Falstaff, Henry IV Part 2, III-ii: “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”) This in turn became the title of an Orson Welles film, The Chimes at Midnight, which I haven’t seen, but which looks amazing.

And just to bring all three words together in one thought, Orson Welles basically pulled all the Falstaff bits from Shakespeare, put them back together to make Falstaff the hero in the Prince Hal saga (hint: he was not in the original), and came up with something that George Lucas would describe as “rhyming with the original.” In case you forgot, Lucas said that all of the films in the first two trilogies rhymed. Oddly enough, and haters be damned, I think that the final trilogy managed to do that too.

But, as our ComedySportz referees are fond of saying, “That’s time!”

Family secrets

It’s strange sometimes the connections that social media can make, and one of the more interesting but also odder ones that happened recently on Facebook was when someone messaged me at random and said, “Hey, are you any relation to (First Name) Bastian who went to (Dead President) High School?”

Well, as a matter-of-fact, that person, let’s call him Will, happened to be my much older half-brother, so I replied that yes, I was, but had to inform this stranger that Will had died way too soon back in 1992.

This was when I found out that the stranger, let’s call him Don, was the son of the people who lived next door to the house my parents bought right after they got married — yeah, people used to be able to do that in L.A. — and I only didn’t recognize the last name because my parents always apparently mispronounced it.

Now here’s the thing I always have to explain about my family, but I’m sure I’ve brought it up here before. Both of my parents were married previously, to people their own age. In fact, to their high school sweethearts, so they were living examples of why that’s a bad idea. Mom very quickly had marriage number one annulled because he was an abusive asshole. Dad endured marriage number one for nearly 18 years despite her being an alcoholic shrew. Well, at least that was the issue once whispered to me by an aunt, my dad’s sister-in-law.

But the point is this: When Dad met Mom, he was the 40-ish professional and she was the 20-something waitress in the diner across from his office. They met because he always came in the same time every day for breakfast. They married, they had me, and then they moved to the West Valley. The end result of all of this was that I’m kind of a generation off on my dad’s side but right in the middle on my mom’s side, just like she was.

So while I technically have three older siblings, they’re all a lot older than I am and I never grew up with any of them that I can remember. Two of them were old enough to be my parents and the third happened to be a lot younger than those two. That’s one half-sister and two-half brothers, although I don’t know whether that counts as three siblings or one-and-a-half.

The one other thing you should know about Will is that, like me, he was gay, although being a generation before me, he was gay at a much less friendly time and yet was never in the closet, at least not with the fam. Growing up, I always knew about him and “Uncle” Larry, they were part of the family, and I understood, even when I was a really little kid, that the two of them had the same kind of relationship my parents did.

Oh… meaning emotional besties who lived together part, not the icky sex part, because I didn’t learn about that until later, obviously. But they came as a set. Will and Larry. Mom and Dad. Same thing.

Still, because he was a gay role model to me, he was the sibling I loved the most and looked up to, not to mention that whenever he was around, we just connected, because he was also a musician, he was funny and creative, and always encouraging. But, because he was already an adult when I fell out of mom and he had moved off on his own, we never really got the opportunity we should have had to connect. I also never got the chance to come out to him, and when he died way too soon, that door shut forever. Hell, I’d barely come out to myself when that happened.

And then, this stranger contacted me on Facebook asking if I was related, and then confessing that he and Will had been best friends in High School, as well as something a bit more, because while this neighbor, Don, explained later that he didn’t even know what “gay” meant or was when he was in high school, he shared that kind of relationship with my bro, if only briefly, and before I was born.

As he explained it in a message to me, “I had no idea I was gay when I knew him. Actually I knew, but didn’t know what to call it. He was kinda my ‘teacher’ about things like that. I will always be indebted to him for helping me. I remember the night in front of a church in Canoga Park where he kinda ‘explained’ things to me, and showed me some things.”

And I have no idea what explaining and showing mean there, but I did get a long narrative recounting some high school adventures of the two and, damn… I discovered a side of my favorite died-too-young half-sibling that made me think, “Okay. Maybe not a role model.” He loved to play hooky from school, which is something I can honestly say that I never did or even contemplated except, of course, for the one time it was sanctioned on Senior Ditch Day in high school, but since it’s the school approving it, it doesn’t count as being truant.

But my god. These two cut school, they shoplifted, they threw spitballs and M&Ms in class, and tormented an English teacher. The only way my older half-bro could have been more different than me was if he’d been straight.

And these were all things that made me think, “Wait. I looked up to this one?” And, as Don told it, Will was clearly the bad influence in this situation. Plus he apparently did not get along with my mom, although she never tipped that off to me, although it is a common issue in step-family relationships.

Then I think about one of the big reasons he wasn’t around when we were adults. While I was still in high school, the somewhat successful salon he’d started suddenly closed, and he and Uncle Larry moved to Vegas. Apparently, they’d decided that not paying taxes (federal, state, or payroll) were a good idea. So, in effect, they played hooky yet again, except with a more serious set of consequences. All along, I’d thought that this had been Larry’s doing, but with this new advice from Don, I realize, “Nope. Probably Will.”

It doesn’t make me love him any less in retrospect. It just makes him more human. And makes me wish even more that we could have been more present in each other’s lives when we had the chance, but at least I’ve found a proxy who was there, and that’s one of the few benefits among the vanishingly small reasons to keep feeding social media.

Photo: First wife, half-sister, Dad; at least “Will” and I inherited his looks. Will moreso. He was a dead-ringer. Me, not quite as much.