Talky Tuesday Returns: Do the Duo

While Duolingo can help teach the basics of language, it’s not the best long-term tool. Here’s why.

As of today, I’ll have completed a streak on Duolingo, the language learning program, of 2,834 days. That works out to 7 years, 9 months, and a few days. However, I started Duo a few years before I decided to keep the streak going.

The primary language I studied there was Spanish, although I did attempt a few others with varying degrees of success, which taught me something very important: Duolingo is only going to get you so far. I managed to become completely fluent in Spanish, but didn’t have the same luck with German, Norwegian, Swedish, Hindi, Dutch, French, Romanian, or Irish.

A site like Duolingo really can’t stand on its own. With Spanish and German, I’d taken classes before, back in high school and college, although I studied Spanish for about three times as long as I studied German. The others, I had no experience in.

The other advantage I had when I took up Spanish again was immersion. I could set the car radio to Spanish language stations, as well as doing the same for all of my devices. Spanish language magazines are available everywhere here, as are books. Spanish TV or movies were also just as accessible.

The other languages, not so much, really. I think there is (or was) a classical music station that has a program entirely in German on weekend mornings, but the rest are a lot harder to find.

But it leads to a really interesting paradox because, despite using Duo on a daily basis, it really feels like someone just handed me a kid’s book in English and said, “Here, practice.”

I don’t know why I continue on, but there are a few very consistent student misunderstandings that crop up regularly that I find either amusing or infuriating, depending on my mood.

The first, and most infamous, is the first time the phrase “el agua está fría” comes up. This usually happens fairly early, and it sets off the same discussion every time in the comments.

A number of students will latch onto the “el,” a masculine pronoun, and say, “But ‘agua’ ends in -a, so isn’t it feminine?” Others, who are just a little more clever (or not) will ask, “Why is it fría and not frío here when el agua is obviously masculine?”

Yes, this one makes heads explode.

The simple answer is that “agua” is never masculine. The only reason the “el,” or masculine definite article (“the”) is there for the same reason that English uses “an” before words that start with a vowel — it’s easier to pronounce.

Any Spanish noun that starts with a stressed “a,” regardless of gender, will always take “el” in the singular because it’s just easier to say.

“La agua” is just as difficult and odd-sounding to a Spanish speaker as “a elephant” is to an English speaker.

This is very quickly followed by all of the nouns whose spelling doesn’t apparently follow gender rules, and this is another point when heads explode. Cometa, programma, planeta, mapa, and sistema are all masculine nouns despite the “a” at the end. Most of them come from Greek, and when grammar moved from Greek to Spanish, Greek nouns of this form were masculine, so they kept their gender. It’s just something that needs to be memorized.

There aren’t as many variations the other way around, with feminine nouns that end in “o,” but one of the first ones learners will run into is “mano” for hand, which is feminine: la mano. This is because the word came from Latin, where the adopted word form was feminine.

I’d like to say that the confusion people experience stops there, but it doesn’t. The next big one that English speakers just flip their shit over is translating something like “he is eating dinner” to “él come la cena.”

The reason that English speakers get so bent out of shape with this one is because they’ll insist that it’s wrong, and has to be a literal translation from English. “Él come la cena” translates from Spanish as “he eats (the) dinner,” but in Spanish it’s also understood to mean that he is eating dinner.

It’s surprising how many English speakers will try to argue that the only right translation is “él está comiendo la cena,” and while this does literally translate into “he is eating dinner,” it’s rarely used in Spanish. The reason for this is that the present progressive form in Spanish is generally only used when something is happening right this moment.

“Él está cayendo del avión” would work – “He is falling out of the airplane,” as in right this very moment, and as a way to stress the urgency of the situation. Dinner is rarely that urgent.

Don’t worry. There are more, and as soon as we get to discussing liking things (or other feelings about them) there are more exploding heads, particularly with the phrase “me gusta…”

I think the problem here begins when people first learn the greeting, “Mucho gusto!” It’s usually translated as “Nice to meet you,” or something like that, but easily leaves the impression that “gusto” is just the first-person present tense of the verb “gustar,” and so learners might go away thinking that “Mucho gusto” means “I like it a lot.”

It’s not, though. Here, gusto is just a noun, and a better translation that they should teach alongside it (but don’t) is, “Much pleasure.”

Then we get into the verb form of “gustar” to express liking for something and this is where explanations often fall down because they don’t start out with the lesson that the verb “gustar” in Spanish works the opposite of the verb “to like” in English.

In English, you say, “I like horses.” In Spanish, you’d say, “Me gustan los caballos.” The first thing that confuses learners is that the verb “gustar” here seems to be third person plural, and they wonder why it isn’t “me gusto los caballos.”

The simple explanation is that the object of the sentence is different. In English, horses are the thing that is liked by the speaker, or subject. I (subject) like (object). In Spanish, the horses are the subject and the speaker is the object, which is why the “backwards” grammar.

In Spanish, it’s literally (object) am pleased by (subject.) “Horses are pleasing to me.” The verb gustar matches the subject, which is why it’s plural when it refers to plural things even if the object is singular.

The two big things that Duolingo will never really teach you are the two most important things to learn in any language. The first is that the rules are not set in stone. In Spanish, masculine and feminine are not always determined by their spelling. Generally, they are, but there are exceptions, and people just need to learn these.

It’s the same in English with, for example, such a well-known “rule” as “I before E except after C, or when pronounced A, as in neighbor or weigh.” But there are all kinds of weird exceptions to this rule — in fact, probably more of them than actually fit the rule. Go ask Keith. He can tell you.

The other big thing is this: You cannot just translate literally from your language to your target language. That’s not how they work, and you’re just going to get in trouble that way. English and Spanish don’t even have the same number of words for “to be,” “for”,” or “on/in.” And Spanish word order can be very different because it can use pronouns before verbs to indicate who is doing what to or for whom.

English doesn’t have that feature plus it also always requires pronouns. In Spanish, it’s perfectly fine to say, “Como fresas,” and everyone will know that you mean, “I’m eating strawberries.” The “yo” (or I) is implied in the verb “como,” which is first person singular and might as well just translate as “I eat” in the first place.

It saves time and is a really great feature, although you’re always free to throw the pronoun in to remove ambiguity — for example in some tenses where the first and third person verb forms are the same, or when you’re using third person in general and the subject isn’t clear.

You can’t leave out pronouns in English, so a sentence like “Eats strawberries” doesn’t make sense. Who’s eating them? And in cases where the verb would be “eat,” leaving out the pronoun can make it sound like a command or ad slogan: “Eat strawberries!”

The flip side of this in English is that we get to leave out articles, though, where Spanish doesn’t. But, again, that’s just one more reason to never translate literally from one language to another. You really have to take the time to learn the word-order and syntax of your target language.

A look back at the beginning

Taking a look back at the beginning of this site, and how and why it happened.

This entire website started in September 2017 and it was originally all meant to be marketing for a book I’d written about an experience I’d recently lived through.

The brief chronology of events was that I’d wound up in the hospital in August 2016, completely turned my life around before going to a winter retreat in February 2017, which gave me the impetus to write the book.

I completed a draft fairly quickly, but then in September 2017, after going to the Labor Day version of the camp I’d gone to in winter, I came back to find out that the company I’d worked for for a decade was falling apart. I was laid off from full-time but hired on a freelance basis through March. At that point, I had a lot of money in the bank, so I wasn’t too worried — yet.

I decided to see if I could make the jump to freelance writer. It just so happened that two good friends of mine, Hank & Sharyn Yuloff, who are marketing gurus, were about to run a weekend marketing bootcamp and asked me if I wanted to help out running the weekend.

This basically involved sitting at the back of the room, checking people in as they arrived, made sure everyone had the supplies they needed, handing out and collecting necessary paperwork, and occasionally taking photos during the seminar. It also meant that I was attending the seminar and getting paid to learn, and it helped.

I registered this domain and site during that first meeting day, and the rest is history.

That was, surprisingly, only just over four years ago, but so much has happened between now and then that it’s like it was another universe. I made a go at freelancing and picked up a few assignments, but not enough. I applied on all the online job boards and got exactly zero replies. I applied for and got unemployment, and at least my previous job had paid me enough that I got the weekly maximum.

Savings slowly dwindled until I had to reverse my usual standard. Previously, all my paychecks went via direct deposit into my savings account, and every pay day (meaning every other week) would figure out what bills and expenses were due in that period, then transfer from savings to checking. It was like the money I didn’t transfer didn’t exist, which is how I built my savings up so much.

But it got to the point where my savings were basically empty — well, I kept the minimum $1,500 in there, that was it. But for far too long, all money coming in went right to checking and I had to juggle creatively.

I finally got a day job — Hank and Sharyn — which I’ve written about here. This was my year-and-a-half adventure in the world of Medicare Insurance. I started in August, 2019. In fact, my start date was August 26, 2019, which was three years to the day that my hospital adventure began.

Oddly enough, my last day there was February 26, 2021.

Of course, while this job kept me afloat and I was doing improv by this time, everything went south when COVID showed up in early March 2020. I wound up going on unemployment again for a while, then working remotely a couple of months until we started back up in the office before I gave notice so I could begin a fully remote freelance writing job.

And it wasn’t until I looked at where I was back in February 2017 — six months out of the hospital — that I realized how much everything that happened between then and now, almost five years later, has done to detail all that.

So I figured that it was a good time to go back to where this blog started and revisit Chapter One of The Guide to Do-It-Yourself Miracles. Because, apparently, my own advice didn’t stick.

* * *

Chapter One

“All right. I’m admitting you to the hospital via the emergency room.”

These are not exactly the words I was expecting to hear late on a Friday morning in summer. It was August 26, 2016, to be precise. It was the day before my boss’ birthday, and I was supposed to go into the office that afternoon to record a group video message to him. And, besides…

“Can I go make arrangements for my dog first at least?” I asked.

The doctor, who was an Indian woman currently giving me the stern look worthy of a disapproving Indira Gandhi, shook her head. “Would you like to die?” she asked, matter-of-factly.

Well, that was not good news.

I tried bargaining, but she was firm. She couldn’t exactly detain me against my will, but she urged my compliance in the strictest of terms. I tried to tell her why it was important that I go into the office briefly and arrange for someone to look after my dog. She was having none of it.

“Will anyone die if you don’t go to work?” she demanded.

“No…”

“Do you have friends you can call to go take care of your dog?”

“I… yes.”

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have even been a question, but even up to that point I was trying to deny the obvious. I was dying. I probably even should have been dead. But, like too many stubborn men, I had put off paying attention to the warning signs for way too long. And, like too many men, it wasn’t until whatever was going wrong with me affected my junk that I finally paid attention.

See, by this point, I had been rapidly gaining weight — nearly 45 pounds since the beginning of the year. I knew this and still know it now because I’d been tracking my weight since September of 2013, in an effort to lose some. In that first entry, from September 13, 2013, I logged a morning weight of 227.8 lbs. Even at 6’2”, that’s a BMI decidedly in the obese range already, and although I’d been taking steps to lose weight and tracking things diligently, my body decided at the beginning of 2016 to give me a hearty, “Screw you and your diet efforts!”

Hell, I’d stopped eating red meat entirely the October before. Wasn’t I supposed to start shrinking because of that? I was only eating poultry. I was doing fast days. Hell, there were weeks when I only had energy bars for lunch, and still I was swelling up like Violet Beauregard at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

By late August, I’d actually been sleeping sitting upright in my office chair rolled into my bedroom for a few months, wrapped in a comforter, because I could not breathe when I lay down. I could barely walk — not only because my legs were so swollen, but because almost any effort sent me gasping for air. The dog suffered because of it. We used to go up and down the neighborhood and around several blocks. Now, I’d sneak her outside and ten feet away to do her business, then right back in.

Now you’d think that a rational person would have taken any one of those things as a sign and gone right to the doctor, but I had two strikes against me in that regard. First was that whole natural male stubbornness.

“Oh, it’ll get better.”

“Oh, I’m not that sick.”

“What? I feel fine!”

Right.

Second was a bit more personal, but I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this. I suffered a severe case of what is technically called iatrophobia — fear of doctors — although, in my case, it wasn’t so much a phobia as it was a deep-seated mistrust, and it went straight back to a series of events that affected me deeply in my teenage years.

I won’t go too much into it here (out of respect) except to say that my mother fell victim to a mystery illness. In retrospect, it may have been lupus, or not. But the very short version of a too long story is that she died when I was way too young after a series of doctors seemed to basically scratch their heads and try a ton of medications. Ultimately, I think their ill-informed attempts to treat her symptoms rather than find the cause are what killed her. She’d been injected with steroids, given pain-killers and anti-inflammatories, poked and prodded and, mostly, ignored.

I specifically remember her complaining to me once that she had told her (exclusively male) doctors many times that her symptoms got worse whenever it was her time of the month. She told me this not very long after I’d learned what “time of the month” was in Sex Ed in the first place, by the way. But her male doctors just told her, “Oh, it’s all in your head.”

Yeah, I can hear the record-scratch for a modern audience on that absolute mind-boggler of a sexist statement, but nobody would have caught onto that in the late 80s. Of course hormones have an effect on medicine and how you’re feeling and everything else. Incidentally, to this day, most medicines are only tested and normalized based on men.

See, women get excluded from clinical trials because of the idea that they might one day get pregnant, so there’s no data whatsoever on the effect a lot of meds might have on women. Lather, rinse, repeat the vicious circle.

Sigh.

Anyway… I lost my mom and my dad lost his best friend and partner, and so I really never went to doctors. I can count on less than one hand the times that I ever did as an adult, whether I had health insurance or not — and too many of those times were bad experiences.

Prior to this visit, in fact, I had a nightmare adventure visiting an urgent care center that shall remain nameless (except: Not Kaiser) because of a sore finger, where I was utterly misdiagnosed with gout, and then they lost my blood samples after I left. Oh yeah — in order to get to that urgent care, I had to convince the insurance company, which had misplaced my primary care hospital nearly forty miles from home, that I in fact did not live in Huntington Beach, but in North Hollywood.

Good thing for me that I had mostly been healthy enough to feel immortal, right?

So this is why your humble narrator slept sitting up for a few months and tried to deny that he was in real trouble, and didn’t seek medical care until, as mentioned above, things started to affect his favorite things — which were those bits between his legs.

* * *

Oh, balls

If you’re an average male, your scrotum is about the size of a plum, depending on the weather. If you’re gifted, maybe a lemon, and if you’re a freak, a baseball. If you get up to stuff like pumping or inflating… well, you shouldn’t, but even then, that was nothing on what happened to me.

Imagine a nice, big cantaloupe. Now try to hold one of those between your thighs and walk. Also, try to imagine that this surprise set of elephant nuts is trying to strangle your penis. No — it’s trying to make your penis disappear, which makes it really awkward when it’s time to pee.

That was me on the Saturday night before I wound up in the hospital, when I insisted on driving all the way over to the West Side to see a friend’s staged reading of their musical in progress. How or why I did it, I have no idea — but fortunately the friends of mine in attendance who saw me and to whom I confided the truth had some advice for me.

“You should be in the goddamn hospital right now.”

Yeah, I guess I should have been. So the following morning I went to urgent care where, ironically, I met my primary care physician for the first time because he happened to be on rounds. I don’t think he was all that happy to see me. But, as I said in the intro, I’m sure that his first impression was not a good one: “I hope this fat sack doesn’t expect me to pull a miracle out of my ass when he hasn’t bothered to even show up despite being insured.”

Honestly, I totally deserved it if that is what he thought.

Of course, what really happened was that he ran a couple of tests — as it turned out, for an infection and an STI — prescribed some antibiotics, and sent me on my way. Probably standard procedure, but possibly also a different kind of test of me. I’d pretty much confessed my iatrophobia to him on first sight, and he didn’t seem impressed by that.

But a funny thing happened on my part when Dr. Williams came into that room. My fear of doctors vanished. He was a nice guy. He seemed to be a bit annoyed with me but, at the same time, was not at all judgmental. He listened. He explained. Nothing scary or nasty happened. He was clearly there to help, and there was a course of action. Maybe everything was going to be okay.

So I filled the prescription, headed home, and hoped for the best.

By Wednesday, my scrotum had gotten even bigger — what’s next up from a cantaloupe? And I wasn’t breathing better, and wasn’t feeling better, so I called Dr. Williams. He scheduled an echocardiogram for Friday morning, so that’s where I went. And it was after that test that the cardiologist gave me the life-changing news.

“You’re going to hospital now, or you’re going to die.”

Well, all right then…

* * *

How hearts fail

If this were a one-person show instead of a book, this is the point when the sound of a heartbeat would fill the theater and the lights would go to black, then the heartbeat would gradually get slower and more labored as slides projected in the darkness with a voiceover.

Congestive heart failure happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Congestive is exactly what it sounds like: traffic gets backed up, so your blood cells can’t get to where they need to go. Symptoms include fatigue, diminished ability to move around, shortness of breath, and swelling.

Guess which of those symptoms I had. Yeah, it’d be all of them.

In my case, my doctors told me that my heart function was at 15%. In a normal person, it’s expected to be 55% or above. So, while 15% isn’t as bad as it could be against a hundred, it’s still pretty bad. This percentage represents the ejection fraction — that, is the amount of blood that the left ventricle actually manages to squirt upward per beat. In a sense, this is your heart’s money shot, and the higher the better.

On top of this, I also apparently had a bit of mitral valve backwash. That is, blood that was trying to make it up and out that left ventricle was pouring back down instead. End result: Fluid gathering, first in my legs, then in my ass, finally, washing up into my torso and back down into my scrotum.

In retrospect, I think that the doctor who had admitted me was right. I probably would not have lived more than another week if I hadn’t gone into the hospital right that moment. As it was, I spent about the next ten hours in the emergency room, in a private room on a gurney, hooked up to a Furosemide IV.

Furosemide is a powerful diuretic. A diuretic makes you urinate — and that I did, about every fifteen minutes for most of that weekend. Now, since they were monitoring fluid in and fluid out, I had to use a plastic urinal, and I couldn’t count how many times I filled one of those things over the next three days. All I do know is that I walked out of that hospital 45 lbs lighter than I’d been when I walked in.

* * *

In hospital

As a patient, I’d only been in a hospital one other time in my life — the first sixteen days after I was born two months premature, so I don’t remember any of it. I was a frequent hospital visitor as both of my parents were dying, though, so I did not have great associations with the places.

Ironically, my original ambition had been to be a doctor, although I just didn’t have the math aptitude to pursue a scientific profession. I also volunteered in a hospital in high school and then worked in two during and just after college, and these experiences did not help enamor me of the location, either.

Hospitals are full of sick people and they never really quiet down. I had learned that one firsthand working as a security guard while I was in college, when first the swing guy didn’t show up and then the night shift guy didn’t show up, so I worked a twenty-four hour shift. Hey, it was a small hospital.

Did I mention that the fine people I worked for at the time screwed me out of the ridiculous overtime on that one, by the way? Although in retrospect I could have screwed them back fifteen ways from Sunday in a lawsuit. But I didn’t. (I didn’t work for the hospital, by the way — it was a contractor that staffed multiple hospitals, and the people who ran the company were dicks, in the modern and film noir meanings of the word.)

But I do digress…

I found the entire hospital experience that summer to be surprisingly… pleasant, actually. And yes, that was a surprise to me. I actually had two IV lines in me — one in my left hand and the other in my right arm — and the biggest surprise there was that they didn’t bother me at all.

I had always wondered how people could put up with having needles in them for a long period of time, and now I know. Part of the reason, of course, is that an IV isn’t a needle in your arm, it’s a cannula, which is a very thin and flexible tube that’s actually inserted via a hypodermic needle. I didn’t realize this until they finally pulled it out and bent it.

In a lot of ways, being in a private hospital room is a lot like being in a very fancy, although very boring, hotel. There’s also a magnificent staff available 24/7 to wait on you, and a parade of doctors. When they need to do tests or take X-rays, one of the wonderful nurses will give you a ride, either flat on a gurney or in a wheelchair. There’s even cable and WiFi!

One of the most interesting changes I’ve noticed in medicine from my days working in hospitals is how much everything has become geared toward modesty, which is a sad side-effect of America’s returning puritanism and sexual repression that began in the ‘90s. Even when my doctor was examining my scrotum out of necessity — cantaloupe, remember? — I still had on my underwear and a gown, and he only uncovered what he actually needed to see. This was also true when they did an ultrasound on the same place in the hospital — the tech was basically groping around under a towel.

Now, I’m not a particularly shy person, so these kinds of concessions don’t really mean a lot to me, but if you’re the kind of person who avoids medical care because of modesty, it looks like that issue has been minimized if not all but eliminated. Of course, I never had to have a catheter, so there wasn’t any reason for doctors or nurses to poke around down there in the first place. In fact, they told me to keep my underwear on when I changed into the hospital gown.

That part wasn’t so pleasant after three days straight, by the way.

* * *

Not that bad, really

The hardest part of the experience was that first day, really, and mainly because I spent about ten hours in the emergency room before they took me up to the hospital proper. By the time I got up there, the kitchen had closed and I hadn’t eaten anything before the test, so by that point it had been well over twenty-four hours since I’d had food. “Dinner” on the first night consisted of graham crackers and juice, although I was limited during my stay to a maximum of 1.2 liters of fluid per day — which ain’t a lot.

The food for the rest of the weekend really made up for all of it, though.

This is something I thought that I would never say or write, but I actually have fond memories of that weekend in the hospital. Maybe it was being the center of attention — a little bit — but it was also an enormous sense of relief. My health had been going downhill since at least the previous Thanksgiving by that point. Now, suddenly, people were doing something about it and I was feeling better.

One of the most memorable encounters of the weekend happened on Saturday, though, when I first met my cardiologist, Dr. Manela. Keep in mind that this was a Saturday, and the doctor walked into the room wearing a kippah. If you’re a goy, you might know that as a yarmulke, but the key point is that despite the doctor being very Jewish, he’s dropping in on me on the Sabbath, and those two little details really gave me confidence. Long story, which I’ll probably tell elsewhere, but while I’m technically Catholic while raised as a very secular Protestant who ended up a total atheist, I’m also very, very Jewish culturally because all of my closest friends growing up were — so I tend to trust Jews more than I trust any other religious group, because they truly are concerned with life. That, plus they don’t try to convert people, which is a big bonus.

That was exactly the reason that such an observant Jew was able to work on the Sabbath and meet with me, by the way. See, there’s this great little bit in their rules that says, “If what you’re doing will save a life, then you go and work your ass off, and don’t even pay no never mind to whether it’s the Sabbath, or whether it’s kosher.”

Who’d a thunk it — a religion that uses logic. Wow.

The news that Dr. Manela came to give me was this: “Hi. Your heart failed.” And he was then truly shocked by my lack of shock. In fact, he even pointed it out, telling me that most of the time that he told people this, they freaked the hell out. My response to him was that I tended to react that way to bad news, because the only logical response was to say, “Okay, that’s a thing. Now what do I do to fix it?”

I think he appreciated that answer — a little bit then, but a hell of a lot more as time went on, more on which later.

Saturday was also the day that I met one of my weekend nurses who, more than anyone, was really responsible for making my stay a fantastic experience. He was nice, he was caring, he was funny, and he really took his time to explain to me what was going on, and to just sit down and talk. I don’t even remember whether I told him about my whole iatrophobia thing, but I definitely told him about the circumstances (read: swollen nutsack) that brought me there in the first place, and on Sunday he asked me, “Uh… can I see it?”

Keep in mind that he’s straight (sorry, boys), and his interest was strictly professional, but it was actually really endearing. I mean, honestly, in America, elephantiasis is probably not something he’d see every day, or any day, and, while that was not the cause of my produce department sized funbag, it was still an interesting end result, at least.

Like I said, I’m not shy, but this led to one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever had. Yeah, we’re talking about my balls, there they are somewhere inside of all that, and how’s your wife again? Definitely a bonding moment.

* * *

About my dog

Now, the observant and animal-lovers among you are probably still wondering one thing. “What about your dog?”

Thanks for asking.

Her name is Sheeba and when I went into the hospital she was eleven years old. While she kind of acts very independent, she’s actually a lot more clingy than she pretends to be, especially to me and especially after her older sister, Shadow, passed away in September 2014. She doesn’t exactly have separation anxiety, but she doesn’t do well on her own.

That’s a kind of interesting side-effect of my day job, which I haven’t mentioned yet. For the last decade, I’d worked for the Dog Whisperer, also known as Cesar Millan, and it was a dog-friendly office. So Sheeba and Shadow always got to go to work with me, and Sheeba especially did so after Shadow was gone — practically every day. But the downside of that one was that when I had to leave her at home alone because I was kind of busy trying not to die, it was not good for her.

I did manage to contact one old friend who knew her from about a decade ago, then give her my keys to go drop in for feeding and walking. The problem was that Sheeba didn’t remember her, so fled and hid behind the bed. So switch-up to a friend Sheeba had dealt with more recently, and he managed to actually get in there and walk her and feed her.

Still, when I came home on Monday, it wasn’t pretty. Sheeba practically exploded when I finally came back, she had blown her coat all over the place, and had torn down and chewed up the metal blinds in my bedroom. My absence was clearly a traumatic experience for her, and if there was a downside to my hospital experience, this was it.

I suppose, though, it was better to come back to her three days later than to have never come back at all.

* * *

You gotta have heart…

Your heart is a muscular organ. It’s neither your largest nor your smallest. Those honors belong to your gluteus maximi (in your butt) and the stapedius (in your ear) respectively. However, it’s certainly the most important. You could live without your largest and smallest muscles, although you probably couldn’t walk or hear. Without your heart (or a mechanical replacement) you die.

The heart’s job, which begins about six weeks after conception and ends about eight minutes or so before your death (in most cases), is to move your blood around your body. Your blood has several jobs. One is to bring oxygen to your cells and take carbon dioxide away. Others are to fight infection and close up wounds. It’s also the medium in which nutrients and hormones get around, being distributed from the source organs in your digestive and endocrine systems.

If you have an average resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute, then it will beat 31,557,600 times per year, more or less. Live to the age of three score and ten years mentioned in Psalm 90:10, and it will beat over 2.2 billion times. (Ooh… the atheist just quoted the Bible. Yeah, I’m allowed to do that. It’s a pretty important literary source.)

Ironically, the only other muscles in your body that work as hard or harder are the two diminutive muscles in your inner ear, but only because they are constantly responding to everything that you hear. By the way, some humans still have muscles in their outer ear that allow them to actually move them. I happen to be one of those rare humans who does, and I can wiggle my ears like nobody’s business. That has nothing to do with anything, but it’s fun to brag about and it’s always amused my dogs.

But I do digress…

The average human heart is the size of its human’s fist, and it weighs about 11 ounces. This is far less than the human brain (3 pounds), lungs (1.9 pounds) and liver (3.5 pounds). This is also far, far less than the weight of your skin, which is your biggest organ, clocking in at a probably surprising but impressive 16% of your weight. In my case, that’s 27 pounds now. It used to be 44. Also surprisingly: despite my rapid weight loss, I did not wind up with any extra dangly skin bits.

But the point of all these facts and figures is this: This not particularly large organ that weighs just less than a can of soup and which hides behind your sternum (the bit that connects your ribs) and between your lungs (the left one of which is smaller to accommodate it) starts working before you’re born and cannot rest for a second until you die. When it’s doing its job right, you hardly notice it. But when it isn’t…

Oh yeah. You’ll notice then. The only question is whether you’ll pay attention to what your heart is telling you and live or, like me, ignore the obvious and nearly die.

I’m really fond of the “live” option, personally.

* * *

Fear

There was only thing that had kept me out of that hospital room and out of my doctor’s office: Stupid, useless fear. There’s a famous line in Frank Herbert’s Dune that is a recurring motif because it’s the mantra of a religious order and it begins like this: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”

I’d update that in my case to say that Fear Is the Killer. It kills ambition, it kills progress, and it can kill people. It can prevent us from achieving what is possible and from learning who we are. It stops us from moving forward and locks us in a safe, little box that might as well be a coffin. Fear is the mother of prejudice and the father of hate; the creator of division and the birthplace of ignorance.

The opposite of Fear is Love, and Love is the mother of Hope, Harmony, and Humanity.

Once I got over my fear, amazing things took place, way beyond mere physical healing. See, a funny thing happens when you face one fear and nothing bad happens. You start to face more of them, one after the other, until you’re killing fears left and right.

The incredible doctors and nurses of Kaiser Permanente helped put my heart back together, but then I took that ball and ran with it because I’d been given the greatest thing in the world: A second chance at life.

I think that I’ve lived more in those days since I got out of the hospital than I had in the entire time leading up to them. It’s a great feeling, and now I’m going to tell you how to do it for yourself, but the journey out is a story best begun with the journey in.

* * *

Sunday Nibble #92: Hiding in plain sight

On the connection between the arts, the LGBTQ community, and how the second use for any new tech is porn.

It has taken basically forever for those who are not white, Christian, heteronormative, cis-gender people to be centered in any way, shape, or form in popular culture, especially in mass media like movies and TV.

Although there were several early attempts in the late 70s — q.v. Billy Crystal in Soap — they tended to be campy stereotypes and while, granted, every character in Soap was a campy stereotype, Crystal’s Jodie Dallas was dragged through the indignity of suddenly deciding he was “transexual” after being dumped by his shady bisexual boyfriend — “because every gay man really wants to be a woman, right?” as late 70s logic went.

Eventually, Jodie settled down with (and knocked up) a woman, although I think their baby turned out to be the antichrist or something. Or maybe that was the priest who had an affair.

Yeah, not the greatest of times there, eh? It really wasn’t until the early 90s, when people like Scott Thompson from The Kids in the Hall just said “fuck it” and came out, RuPaul broke through the taffeta ceiling, and it was only real when Ellen (not a nice person) came out in real life and on her sitcom.

Boom — the 90s came to an end. You’re gay? Cool. Here’s your boarding pass to the 21st century. Enjoy!

Except, maybe, not so much. There was still a lot of shit to deal with. But what about all the shit that came before?

Once the media gained the ability to record and preserve performances, a certain hierarchy emerged. Now keep one thing in mind. The second use of any new technology is porn. Period.

Some dude invents cave painting as early movies and uses firelight to make it look like a herd of elk is running across the cave wall? Cool.

One cave over, someone else has already figured out how to use the same techniques to create erotic dances featuring everyone’s favorite big-breasted fertility goddess, as well as the first cave-painting feature called Threeway: Hunter, Hunter, Gatherer.

At every stage of the development of art, it really only happened because some dude was trying to figure out a more realistic way to paint titties or dick or both.

Once photography happened, you just know that half of every professional shot taken was some guy convincing his girlfriend, mistress, fiancée, wife, or best friend to strip off and pose with the good stuff.

Film? Yeah, in those early days for every legitimate short or Great Train Robbery, there were at least ten “Millie Gets Railed” or “Horny Farmhands” or “When the Parson Came to Call.”

Hell, in the very early days of legitimate film, full frontal nudity was very common, and it didn’t end until the early 1930s (right after the introduction of sound) when the spoilsports clamped down with the Hayes Code, which didn’t end until after it was declared unconstitutional in 1952 and was finally abandoned in 1968, when the MPAA started its ratings system.

Still, when the Code ended, mainstream Hollywood really didn’t go into full-on porn. The closest they got was Midnight Cowboy, to this date the only X-Rated movie to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, but to be honest, nowadays it’s a very, very mild R, and the only reason it was so shocking back then was that it depicted (gasp!) male homosexuality because it was about a guy who came from Texas to New York to be a male escort to rich women, but was not above turning the occasional male trick on the side.

But he wasn’t gay, dammit!

The X-rating quickly ended, though, because the MPAA had never trademarked that letter and the porn industry co-opted it to prove that you’d be seeing the real thing. It was eventually replaced with NC-17, but since that’s box office poison because, again, prudes in the industry, it is rarely if ever issued, and most moviemakers would rather release their films as “Unrated.”

Let’s get back to that hierarchy of art again. While porn is the second use of any new art or technology, the older any art or technology is the less likely it is to be censored.

Now when you think of naked art, what comes to mind?

Most likely you’re thinking either Greek or Roman statues or a ton of paintings from the Renaissance onward — the former which influenced the latter — but a lot of which nowadays are pretty much a part of the curriculum for, at the least, high school students studying art, not to mention being common décor in public spaces.

I mean — would a reproduction of the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s David be all that shocking anywhere nowadays? Really, no — although some quarters still seem to have a big issue with the fact that David has a dick.

Next up came literature, as in the written word, prose, poetry, and sometimes theatre scripts. And this also goes way back. Hell, just read certain bits of the King James Bible if you want pure porn.

Later on, when serialized novels became popular entertainment because people had nothing better to do than gather together and read out loud to each other, the most popular works were also very obscene and pornographic. Don’t believe me? Read something like Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais to your family and see how long it takes you all to be laughing so hard you’re all crying while also marveling at how filthy it all is while yet being relatable.

Literature is doing and saying things that other art forms can only imagine until we get to the 20th century, and then the subject matter becomes even more daring because, surprise surprise, certain people are working in the field in disproportionate numbers.

In case you’re wondering, I’m talking about mostly gay men (and some lesbians) who have gravitated to working in all areas of theatre in the 1920s in big cities, mainly New York and the touring circuit, and this is where they feel safe.

They are actors, dancers, playwrights, set, lighting, and costume designers, stylists, make-up artists, dressers, assistant directors, choreographers, and so on.

These are mostly not considered to be “masculine” professions because, really, did these jobs even exist outside of big cities?

But it all came together in New York with the unwritten rule: If you don’t stick out too much, you can be as gay as you want behind the scenes and we welcome you, and you get to go on tour with the shows as well.

Of course, not welcome everywhere. When Mae West’s play The Drag opened in Connecticut in 1927, there was instant scandal, and she wound up going to jail for it. Given the title, yes, the play was about exactly what you think it was about — a closeted gay socialite trapped in a loveless marriage.

Mae was an ally even then, and it’s no wonder that her biggest fans until the end of her career and long life were gay men. Of course, she cast actual gay men in The Drag, finding them through open calls at a gay bar in the Village — this at a time when the acting unions banned gay men from having speaking parts on stage.

Irony much?

Apparently, audiences loved the play when it opened. The problem were the prudes and bluenoses who condemned it.

But as long as it wasn’t put out blatantly on the stage, people were too naïve to notice, and so the gay underground went on. The stage in particular, but movie musicals as well, provided perfect cover for all of these young, queer folk. after all, it was an era in which unmarried people did not have sex, ever!

This was partly due to religious ethics and morality and all that bullshit, of course, but the real practical reasons were that truly effective birth control didn’t exist — there was no pill, and at the time, vasectomies were pretty much only used for eugenics — that is, to prevent “undesirables” from being able to reproduce.

No self-respecting red-blooded American man, after all, would willingly give up the ability to make babies, married or not. And while abortions were available, they were still mostly illegal, so only performed in underground clinics or by very expensive doctors.

You’ve probably heard the term “back-alley abortion,” and this was the era for it, although women had other methods, good and bad, like douching with Coca Cola right after sex.

As a kid, I remember my uncle telling a story about an unmarried women who’d gotten pregnant but couldn’t afford the abortion doctor. A friend told her, “Gladys, here’s what you do…” (Women in these stories are always named Gladys.)

“Gladys,” the friend explains, “You drink half a fifth of whisky, then climb up on the kitchen table — make sure the chairs are out of the way. Roll off and land on the floor, and voila. No more baby.”

In my uncle’s version of the story, Gladys downed half that fifth, got up on the kitchen table and rolled off and, as he put it, “She broke her leg but still had the damn baby.”

But, like the clergy, being in a Broadway Chorus was perfect cover — fraternizing between the chorus boys and girls was just not allowed because they were professionals.

Naturally, this left plenty of time for same-sex fraternizing (sororizing?) behind the scenes. And, as we all know, it’s perfectly innocent when two boys or two girls past college age but unmarried live together, right?

And then, gays began showing up in films, although deeply coded. They were often depicted by somewhat prissy actors, but never in sexual roles — look up people like Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton — the former sort of slightly openly gay, the latter in denial for life.

But if a producer or director wanted to dog whistle to audience members who knew, “This guy is a homo,” they’d cast people like them.

After World War II, two conflicting events happened. Number one was that a lot of young men who had gone off into the armed forces discovered during their tours of duty that they did, in fact, love other men. When they came home, they generally arrived in major port cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, New York, New Orleans, Miami, etc.

Instead of heading back home to the Midwest or South, they just stayed in these port towns and found their own kind, and it’s no accident that each of these cities became major gay hubs in future.

But, at the same time, the government, partly freaking out over the Soviet Union suddenly becoming an adversary, banned gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, and proceeded to hunt down those they could find not only in the military but with government jobs.

Meanwhile, Joseph McCarthy was busy finding monsters under his bed in the form of a Communist Infiltration of America. (Hint: It never happened, at least not in the way that HUAC envisioned it.)

But gay men and lesbians in the late 1940s and early 1950s went back to hiding in plain sight. This time, they founded their own communities within those port towns and yet again took on certain jobs — gay men, for example, became hairdressers, interior decorators, designers, personal assistants, or went to work in creative positions for the Hollywood studios.

Tons of lesbians became flight attendants because they were not allowed to get married — another convenient excuse for the parents.

In all of these positions, they were less likely to be investigated, as well as less likely to be fired in a lot (but not all of) them if they were found out as gay.

The ultimate safety for a gay couple, of course, was to start their own successful business, and many a combination antique store and interior design house, florists, a B&B with its own stylist, or music/acting/dance school came out of these disguises.

There were those certain professions that men went into if they wanted to signal that they were gay without being too obvious — interior/set decorators or designers, stylists, make-up artists, or fashion/costume designers, to name just a few, and any of those had their place either serving the wives of rich men or within the studio system itself on set.

By the end of the 1960s, things started to change after the Stonewall Riots, which led to the first pride parades a year later in 1970. It was still an uphill struggle, not helped by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s (and the way it was totally ignored by the Regan Administration), but in some ways that plague galvanized the community.

The old prejudices started to be forced away in the 1990s for a lot of reasons — more representation in the media, more celebrities coming out, and (on a personal level) more and more people realizing that friends and family they’d known for years were gay when they fell ill and came out.

The thing is, these people were the loved ones of those they had to come out to near death, and this really started to change opinions.

After the turn of the century and as medical science started to get a handle on AIDS and HIV, things really started to progress, albeit slowly, until same-sex marriage became the law of the land, LGBTQ+ groups and representation started popping up everywhere, and our current generation of kids in high school and college don’t even question the idea of sexual orientation, or that biological/assigned sex and gender are very different things.

It’s a very different kind of hiding in plain sight, but one that doesn’t so much involve hiding who you are as it does being who you are without hiding it. It’s a nice place to be, as long as we can keep the momentum going forward, but it’s still going to take a lot of work.

Image source: I, Psongco, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday Morning Post 92: Six-Pack Mary (Part 1)

The Saturday Morning Post is back with an all-new story from 24 Exposures.

Returning after a hiatus, we continue with more stories from my collection 24 Exposures, which was written around the turn of the century.

Myron had decided, sadly, that he just wasn’t marketable anymore. He’d passed the magic age of thirty, but unlike his luckier friends, he looked like he had. That, and, despite the gym, he’d developed a bit of a gut. Oh yeah, and thanks to his maternal grandfather, his hairline was inching ever backward. Still, for a long time, he’d been hopeful, still going to the same clubs, hanging out with the same people, cruising the same guys. He was handsome, his friends told him that. Only, now, instead of getting lucky all the time or even once a week or occasionally once a month, there was nothing. Nobody looked at him, nobody hit on him, nobody wanted him.

It had been one year, seven months and nineteen days since the last time he’d gotten laid — and even that one had been a last-call desperation parking lot mutual handjob, and nothing more. All right, fine, maybe his wild days were over. He’d try to live with that, but in the meantime, he’d also keep trying, keep playing the game, hanging out in Boys’ Town even though he’d long since stopped being one of the boys.

There was this kid on the dance floor tonight, somewhere between twenty-one and six-foot three. Blond, muscular, grinding away and having a great time. He was wearing black boots and a pair of tight leather shorts that laced up the sides, an unbroken line of tanned flesh showing behind the laces, and god, would Myron like to get some of that, slowly untie those things until the forces of nature and the sleeping monster inside couldn’t be contained anymore and pop, the shorts would fall to the floor and… and fat chance, Myron. He’d seen this kid before, and he was a total cock-tease, especially last Hallowe’en, when his costume had been a G-string and green body paint. And only two years ago, Myron would have walked over to him and said hello and maybe have had a chance.

He contemplated buying the boy a drink, trying that old approach, when Myron saw Roger strolling toward the dance floor. That tired old thing — the girl had to be fifty if she were a day, and that couldn’t have been real hair. An nobody’s teeth were that white. That sad queen was just fighting the truth, and she looked old. Myron hated Roger, but at least seeing that relic made Myron feel a bit younger.

And Roger walked right up to the boy, they kissed each other and, with one hand stuffed proprietarily down the back of those leather shorts, Roger led the kid off the dance floor and out of the bar and —

“Motherfucker,” Myron muttered to himself. It was the money. Of course it was the money. Roger was old and ugly and pretentious as hell, but he had cash. Wads of it. And Roger didn’t, and he really hated that bitch.

“Hi, My,” it was Michael, one of the only people in these places who’d talk to him anymore. Michael readily admitted that he was (gasp) forty-seven, his hairline had receded further than a speedfreak’s gums, he was at least thirty-pounds overweight, and yet Myron knew he scored all the time. True, he’d never actually seen Michael leave a bar with anyone, but on those few occasions when he ran into him in the street, he’d have some pretty young twink with him. And, Jesus, even the way he dressed — Michael looked like he shopped exclusively at the Big K. How the hell did he do it?

“Okay, what’s wrong?” Michael asked as he sat. Myron shrugged, nodded his head toward the dance floor.

“Why do I keep coming here?” Myron asked. “I haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of getting laid, but…”

“But, like everyone else, you keep doing the things that used to work. Yeah, I know. Getting older sucks ass.”

“Yeah, but you…” Myron gestured vaguely. They both knew what he meant.

Michael laughed, took a swig of his beer, shook his head. “Pathetic, isn’t it? I have to beat them off with a stick — pardon the expression — but I make you look like Ricky Martin.” Michael studied Myron a long moment, making him uncomfortable. Myron could tell he was considering something, dreaded what he knew was coming. Michael was going to tell him how he should improve himself, all the things he’d already tried to no avail. Go to the gym — failed. Minoxidil — he was one of the impervious ones. Botox, facelift — not without insurance, babe. Myron was ready for that boom to fall when Michael instead drained his beer, put cash on the bar and got up.

“Follow me, I’ll tell you my secret.”

“Gee, Michael, could you?”

“Call me Mike. And, yeah. Come on.”

Myron followed him out of the club, past the sweaty throng who didn’t notice them, out the doors into the cool and quiet air and up the crowded street. It was Saturday night, prime time, and they were everywhere, the callow objects of desire who had become unobtainable Holy Grails.

At the corner, some hot little skate punk was strolling by with his friends. He trotted over, gave Michael a big hug. “Mike! Call me, okay?” the kid gushed, hopeful. “You still have the number?”

“Sure do,” Mike said. The kid smiled and hurried back to his friends. Myron just gawked.

Michael — Mike — didn’t say anything as they walked the rest of the two blocks to the Greenery, went inside, got a quiet booth in the back and sat contemplating their menus. Myron didn’t want to push it and Mike said nothing but small talk until their meals had arrived.

“So…?” Myron finally asked as he dug into his Caesar salad.

“So,” Mike replied, “You used to get it pretty regularly, right?”

“All the time,” Myron said. “I couldn’t go into a club without getting hit on.”

“Yeah, me too. Then it stopped, and I couldn’t figure out why. I hadn’t changed, not that much. And it stopped for me forty pounds and a head of hair ago. It was like a neon sign popped up over my head. ‘Danger! Thirty! Danger!’”

“I never looked thirty…”

“You don’t look thirty. Anyway, these kids can smell it, they know. You were there, you remember. They have this perverse belief that they can walk into a bar, get lucky and find a boyfriend. They all want to get married, and most of them want to marry guys their own age. They don’t wake up to that bullshit until later. Until too late. By the time most of them hit our age, they’re either half of an old married couple, rich enough to buy it or just tired of the whole thing.”

“But you’re not tired of it.”

“Hell no. But you only get tired of the game when you start losing, and believe me, I’m still winning.”

“Right, which is why we’re here, isn’t it?”

Mike smiled, wiped fried chicken grease off his chin and put down his napkin. “Right,” he said. “The secret to winning at the game at this stage is to change the rules.”

He let the statement hang there, but Myron was clueless. Change the rules. Didn’t that mean paying for it? Or dating people who were — gack — their own age? Mike let Myron look puzzled for a moment, shoveled a lump of mashed potatoes into his mouth, swallowed. Then he leaned forward, spoke quietly.

“The big secret,” he said. “You want these boys all over you, there’s one thing you have to do.”

Silence, until Myron could take it no more. “What?” he demanded.

“Go back in the closet.”

Myron dropped his fork. “What?”

“You heard me. See, if you’re an old, desperate queen, nobody cares. But if you’re a challenge…”

“A challenge?”

“It’s exactly what they do to us, but in reverse. Get it? I guarantee, when you were twenty-five, you wouldn’t have looked twice at half the guys you want to jump on now. But they’re not interested in you, and that just makes you more interested in them. But… if they think you’re straight — “

“Whoa, hold on. That’s what you did?”

“Yep. So, all of a sudden, I’m not an easy lay. Like I said, I’m a challenge. There’s a huge hurdle they think they have to get over to get into my pants, and when they succeed, they think they’ve pulled a big coup. They’re suddenly more desirable, least they think so, because they’ve managed to get a piece of something that has no desire for them.”

“Pretending you’re straight…”

“More than pretending, Myron. You can’t just go around telling people you’re straight. That doesn’t work. And you can’t hang around in the bars all the time anymore. Only every so often, and you tell the boys it’s just when your wife is out of town — “

“Wife?”

“Absolutely essential. No, you don’t have to get married. But you do have to create that illusion, or didn’t you notice?” Mike waggled his left hand, revealing the gold band on his ring finger. “It’s a little bit of an investment, naturally — half the closet full of ‘her’ clothes, tampons in the bathroom, that kind of stuff. But, believe me, it pays off.”

“This is insane.”

“I know it is, but it works. Hey, you think I like dressing like this?”

Myron studied him. Cheap blue dress shirt with a small rip in the sleeve, and he could see Mike’s T-shirt through the thin material. That, and he was wearing brown pants, heavy polyester, with a black belt. Mike stuck his foot out and Myron looked down. Brown loafers, white socks.

“Disgusting, isn’t it?” Mike laughed. “I cringe when I get dressed in the morning, but sometimes you have to swallow your pride.”

“And you get laid a lot?”

“All the time. That kid we met in the street? He’s convinced I’m his special project, the confused bisexual who’s trying to come to terms with things but can’t. I always kick him out afterwards, get all nervous and guilty. But goddamn, he could suck a bowling ball through a garden hose.”

Myron laughed, disbelieving. And yet, he’d seen Mike around with plenty of hot ones. Could it really be so simple?

“So, how do I start?” Myron asked.

“Are you out at work?” Mike asked.

“Yeah.”

“Then step one is to find a new job. Something in a liberal office where people can be open, but where they don’t know you. And you live in this part of town?”

“Right up the street.”

Mike shook his head. “Rule number two. It’s okay to live in WeHo, but not this side of town. This is the gay ghetto. I mean, you could keep living here, but then you’d have to be seen with a living, breathing fake wife, which just complicates things. No, at the very least, you need to be east of Fairfax and south of Melrose, although a move to the Valley couldn’t hurt.”

“Blech.”

“I’m just trying to help here.”

“It seems so… extreme.”

“Desperate times, desperate measures. Hey, if you don’t ever want to get laid again, fine…” Mike signaled for the check. Myron thought about what he’d said. It was just too much. Changing jobs, finding a new apartment, getting two new wardrobes. Or hanging out in the bars, the sad, drunken queen in the corner, never getting hit on, never meeting anyone, getting drunker and sadder and older and fatter and…

And fuck that. Maybe Mike was right. Myron had seen the evidence himself. Mike scored. A lot. And, by all rights, he shouldn’t have.

Mike studied Myron’s face as he signed the credit card slip. “You’re seriously considering it, aren’t you?”

“It’s so much, though.”

“But, believe me, it’s worth it.” Mike stood. “Just think about it. I know it’s a lot to get your head around right now, but you’ll appreciate it eventually.” He started for the door, Myron standing to follow. Mike stopped. “Oh, one other thing. Your name? Myron. It’s kind of… well, kind of gay. You have a middle name?”

“Bruce.”

“Ouch.” Mike thought about it a moment. “Ron. Try that on for size. Very butch-sounding. No straight man would ever willingly go by ‘Myron.’”

“Gee, thanks. I think.”

“Don’t mention it. Ron.”

Mike laughed, patted Myron on the shoulder and walked out. Myron just stood there, staring after him, not knowing what to do.

Roger and his twink came in the place and the owner greeted them, escorting them to the best table. Before they’d even sat down, Myron hustled out the door into the cold night air and walked the two blocks home, not looking at anybody.

* * *

The return of Friday free-for-all #88: Tech, retirement, food

Friday free-for-all is back for 2022! Here are some more random questions.

Happy New Year! Now it’s time to go back to our more regular schedule, so here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

Does technology simplify life or make it more complicated?

Yes.

It actually does both, and it all comes down to the human user. If you know how to use the technology and do it properly, it can greatly simplify life. If you never bother to learn how to use it the right way or all the tricks and tips to making it work for you, then it will complicate your life.

I have seen this in every office job I’ve ever had. Hell, any job that involved computers, which has been all of them, not to mention copiers, fax machines back in the day, any telephone more complicated than the buttons needed to dial, smart phones now, and so on.

I’ll also toss in VCRs, DVD players, modern TVs, and anything with a built-in clock that sometimes needs to be set.

If I walk into your place and the time on your VCR is flashing “12:00,” I’m going to judge you — first for not figuring out how to do one of the simplest things on a VCR, and second for still having a goddamn VCR. (It’s sitting right next to your turntable for your vinyl collection, isn’t? Fucking hipster.)

Of course, I’ll also notice this if your stove or microwave is either flashing “12:00” or the time is arbitrarily off by any number of hours or minutes.

It’s just that most things nowadays auto-adjust themselves for the beginning and ending of Daylight Saving Time as well as reset after a power outage or battery removal/shut down. Hell, I’ve got an alarm/sleep-sound generator that has to be about fifteen years old by now, and even it self-adjusts for DST.

But, beyond that, if you’re going to be using software, take the time to learn how to get it to do what you want. Another way I judge people’s skills is by looking at a Word Document from them. then seeing if it’s set for the default font (Calibri — ech!) with the useless BS paragraph settings of 1.5 lines and 10 pts before or after each or, worse, both.

Also, they tend to never turn off the automatic double-space after a period, which is absolutely useless and wrong, or the automatic superscripting of abbreviated ordinals — st, nd, rd, and th.

Whenever I have to update or reinstall Word, these are the first things I change. In my case, it’s usually Times New Roman 12 pt, single lines, and no forced paragraph spacing, and that stupid two spaces after a period goes right off, along with the superscripts.

There are ways to tell in Excel as well, which mostly revolve around word wrapping (as in turned off) and number formatting (as in whatever the cell defaulted to.) There’s also a definite lack of complicated formula, so that someone might enter A1+B1+C1+D1+E1+F1 in a cell instead of =SUM(A1:F1).

This all falls under the category of “Tell me that you never learned to use this software properly without telling me you never learned to use this software properly.”

It has become fun, though, to watch people in Zoom meetings edit a Word doc on their screen and see that they only know one (tedious) way to do it. Type the stuff, highlight it, then find the right ribbon at the top of the screen in order to apply whatever format you’re trying to.

It’s really not that hard to memorize the essential shortcut keys which has the great advantage of not interrupting your typing flow. If I want to go to bold mid-sentence, I don’t have to do the highlight, pick from the menu, and click BS. I can literally turn it on and off with a two-key combo.

Incidentally, it seems like the higher up someone is, the less they know about how to use technology — or when not to. Most of the productivity software they pick (and I’ve dealt with this for years) actually makes it harder for the team to function, not easier.

So, as with a lot of things, what you get out of technology is what you put into it. Bother to learn it and it will reward you. Shirk off, and you’ll wind up hating it.

When do you want to retire, and what do you want to do after you retire?

Well, being a creative person, this is kind of a trick question. When it comes to working at being creative, writing every day, and so on, then I am never going to retire. I am going to do this until the day they have to pry my keyboard from under my cold, dead hands.

As for when would I want to retire from selling my time to someone else for money, that’s also going to be a while. First, I do like the money coming in, and right now it’s for what I’d be doing anyway. It’s also nice to be able to work remotely so that I could theoretically live anywhere in the world as long as I had an internet connection.

I’m probably going to be doing the working for someone else thing for as long as they’ll have me or until I win enough in a lottery to be able to buy a modest home somewhere and cover my living expenses for thirty or forty years (with other retirement contingencies padding that out.)

As for what I’d like to do after I retire, the big thing would be to expand my creativity, since I’d finally have the time to get back to graphic arts and design, music, and video production — all of which are very time-consuming — but all of which could also come together into one big project or a series of projects written, directed, filmed, edited, scored, and produced by me.

Oh — on top of time-consuming also very expensive, unless you luck into a good prosumer editing program with regular and cheap updates (which I did), and your ancient graphics editing software continues to be compatible with newer computers (which it finally didn’t.)

The one advantage to having used the latter for so long, by the way, was that I was having to figure out how to do things that had long since been turned into new functions in later versions, like auto-masking foreground objects, color matching, and so forth.

What food do you absolutely hate?

I know that you’re probably expecting something specific, like brussels sprouts, but that’s not what I’m going to list. I mean, I could rattle off green beans, string beans, beets, cauliflower, olives (black or red), most fruit that hasn’t been turned into juice or jelly (it’s a texture thing), and definitely melons of all kinds.

But that’s not what I’m going to list here.

No. The food that I absolutely hate is any kind of “dare you to like” culinary bullshit that oozes out of the fetid taste of some pretentious chef (especially of the celebrity kind) and particularly if the word “gastro” appears anywhere in the name of the establishment and/or on the menu.

If I see a place advertised as a gastro-pub, I run the other way for two reasons. One, I know that I’m not going to like the food at all. Two, I know that I’m not going to like the people who do.

These chefs have an amazing ability to take classic fare and absolutely ruin it. Just searching at random, I found one place offering a “Ruben” sandwich (it’s actually Reuben), that pays lip service to shaved pastrami, coleslaw, and horseradish, but then uses something called “sour cherry Dijon mustard,” which is exactly the abomination it sounds like and then, instead of putting it on rye, uses something called “townie focaccia,” which is exactly the wrong kind of bread.

And, trust me, nobody can fuck up a good cheeseburger like one of these gastrolls can. They’ll either seem to be going along normally until the last ingredient, which makes it inedible — like you’re reading along and it sounds great until they add mint-infused Thai peanut sauce reduction — or it just goes south from the beginning, through everything and the kitchen sink on top of that poor, innocent meat.

Avoid places that use terms like infusion, reduction, sous vide, sea salt, jam or jelly in connection with anything not normally made into either, and compote, Also find out whether they ever use liquid nitrogen while “cooking,” because this is a huge red flag.

I think the only reason that these gastrochefs pull this shit is because they hate really rich people and want to play Emperor’s New Clothes with them constantly. There’s probably a constant gambling pool going on in the kitchen, too — whoever can concoct the most disgusting combination and not only get people in the restaurant to eat it and say they love it but to get a good review from a food critic for that item wins the entire pot for that week.

I’m probably not wrong, but I’m definitely not eating their shit.

Epiphany 2022

Things I’ve learned about people during 2021 that will come in handy in 2022.

Today, January 6, 2022, is the feast of Epiphany in the Western Christian calendar, but in the Orthodox Eastern calendar, it’s actually Christmas Eve. And if you’ve ever wondered where The Twelve Days of Christmas came from, this is it.

January 6 is twelve days after the preceding December 25, or Christmas. So the 12 days idea makes sense as either a countdown from (western) Christmas to Epiphany or from the Nativity and the Magi giving gifts to (eastern) Christmas.

Or something like that. It’s all kind of confused. The salient point here, though, is that “Epiphany,” in its non-religious sense, means “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.”

The last two years, from March 2020 through December 2021, were full of epiphanies large and small, especially as a lot of us wound up in isolation, only really communicating through social media and video conferences.

Here are some of the epiphanies I had — some personal, some general.

  1. I could get used to this, really.

At the very beginning, it meant that I got to stay home with my dog, not deal with the daily commute, and focus on my own stuff. Of course, it got more difficult after my dog died on May 1st, leaving me totally alone.

I managed to survive on unemployment until August, when I went back to my former job working remotely from home — which meant that I had to install actual high-speed internet and WiFi, but this tuned out to be a good thing. And yes, like a lot of people, I found out that I had been making more on unemployment than with my very underpaid day job.

In late September, we had to go back to the office to work in person — operations there are still kind of trapped in the 80s, with way too much on paper and hardly anything digitized. Beginning in December, right after the rush at the office ended, I picked up a freelance and totally remote gig on the side, which quickly turned into an offer of full-time remote work.

I gave notice at the old job in mid-February, started the new job on March 1st at the salary I had asked for — and, note, it was a hell of a lot more than I had been making — and so it’s been work at home ever sense.

Except for those couple of moments when it looked like it was safe to come out, I’ve mostly stayed at home except to go to the grocery store, always masked outside of the house, and I got my first two vaccine shots in April and May. I haven’t managed to get the booster yet, more because it’s not as available than anything else.

But I’m in no rush to leave this cocoon at all. Honestly, except for a dog, everything I need is here. I’ve also long been debating leaving L.A., simplifying, and moving into a smaller but cheaper place outside of the city. I really only need a good internet connection, a nice view, and, ideally, a small house with a backyard (for dog) and pool (for me.)

  1. The people who get it really, really get it

Oddly enough, most of my friends are creative types — actors, writers, directors, dancers, singers, artists, and so on. And, without fail, 99% of them got it from the beginning. They were the first to mask up, wash their hands constantly, social distance, and advise others to do so.

And it wasn’t easy. I spent a few months out of work from a muggle job but at least was able to keep on writing on my own. Others, not so much. As theatre and live events shut down, they were all put out of work. But did they bitch about it and start blaming the government, from local to state to federal?

Nope. They understood the seriousness of the situation and did what they had to do. In fact, during the down time, one amazing friend, Jon Lawrence Rivera, learned how to make Filipino food, like his mother used to do. What he soon learned, though, was that Filipino cooking took place on a huge extended family size scale, so there was always way too much leftover.

He put out a simple message to his friends online: “I have extra food. Who wants some?”

It soon ballooned as he found himself providing food to out-of-work artists who desperately needed it while also being the beneficiary of those who could afford to bringing him the ingredients, tools, and take-out containers he needed to cook. Thus was born Flip Kitchen.

And Jon was far from the only person to turn their idle time into charitable acts. I had friends with crafting or sewing skills turn to cranking out masks by the dozens in the early days when they were scarce, as well as making plastic flip-down face shields.

Also, as soon as they figured out how, people in the community began to get together again virtually, doing play-readings, semi-staged performances and the like, as well as just holding company meetings on a regular basis for moral support.

I had at least four readings of my own work during this time, including Part 1 and Part 2 of my epic play Strange Fruit, as well as a monologue in The Voices of Afghanistan project based on authentic narratives from people who were forced to flee that country and cast entirely with actors who were either native Afghans (and recent escapees) or Afghan-Americans.

The surprise bonus to all of this was that my audience was suddenly a lot bigger than one theater in Los Angeles. The whole thing really felt like what it must have felt like near the beginning of the Great Depression, when FDR used his Works Progress Administration (WPA) to foster artists and keep them creating. Except that, this time, we’re mostly doing it for ourselves — because Republicans won’t let the government do it for us. Speaking of which…

  1. The people who don’t get it are really, really clueless

It’s probably no surprise that this group of people tend to be muggles — i.e. the non-creative types, and thanks to the insurance agent day job I had, I got plenty of chances to interact with them. They were mostly West Valley business types — realtors, bankers, lawyers, plumbers, contractors, and whatever assorted whatnot.

What this generally meant, 99.95% of the time, was that none of them really had a creative bone in their bodies. A friend of mine who crosses into that group via his work with his wife as a marketing guru regularly inadvertently confirms this.

Now, my friend and his wife are creative geniuses as well, and not at all muggles. But one of the things he regularly does is to post a question on Facebook, which can range from “Fill in the blank” to “If… would you” to questions about best movie, musical group, etc., to caption contests.

And, inevitably, a few consistent things happen among the muggles but not the creatives. Although the “Fill in the blanks” are supposed to be one answer per person, there are a couple of guys who jump in at the top and will rattle off three to five answers — usually the most obvious options — and I think they’re both lawyers.

Another rule is this one: “Don’t repeat a previous answer.” How many people do you think check? Yep. Not a lot, apparently.

But the ones that really separate the creative from the muggles are the caption contests. The answers to these will range from the random to the non-sequitur to someone just commenting on the photo rather than trying to caption it.

Basically, these people seem to be the ones who do not know how to (or even attempt to) read the instructions first.

This is the benign version of the people who don’t get COVID or the necessary precautions. They are the assholes who wear their masks below their noses in enclosed public spaces, don’t get vaccinated, stand too close in line at the store, rush out immediately to the nearest public event just because they can, and so on.

At their worst, they will mock people who take precautions for “living in fear,” and blame everyone else for having to stay home and live on unemployment until things return to normal.

Except… they don’t return to normal while we have the deniers around, or the ones too stupid or arrogant to read the instructions first.

  1. Some people are perpetually needy

You probably have these folk in your social media, too, but their posts center around one theme: “My life sucks and it’s not my fault!” In some rare cases, this is actually true. Victims of domestic abuse, those with chronic illnesses or diseases, children abused or abandoned by their parents/caregivers, or refugees forced to flee their homelands all come to mind.

These people are allowed to complain and seek help on social media when and however they need to.

But then there the ones who are just ongoing victims of their own poor choices, like a couple with no marketable job skills who run off together at 18 and proceed to have one baby after another until they’re constantly asking everyone for help with everything. This isn’t the only cause of this sort of thing — I’ve seen childless couples who married late do it, although they tend to be constantly begging for stuff — does anyone have a sofa they no longer need and want to give away, does anyone have an extra TV, and so on.

Probably must infuriating are the parents that always seem to be posting about family trips and vacations, home improvement projects, or investments in things that really only seem like hobbies — and then, every other month, it’s GoFundMe time because their car’s transmission went out or their washing machine blew up, or part of the ceiling fell in.

These are also the people subject to vague-booking: “So that happened. Dammit.” “That was $750 I didn’t need /s” or “The landlord said it’s not their job to fix it.” These always come across as blatant please to get friends to enter with sympathy (“Oh no, honey, what happened?”) and then gradually draw out the story, but only in a manner that paints the OP in the most sympathetic light.

Now, these people have always been around, but they’ve just become a lot more obvious in the last year or two. Gee, wonder why? I can think of at least half a dozen that are constantly clogging up my feed with this shit, although I’ve taken mostly to ignoring them. Sometimes, when it gets really heinous, I’ll put them on mute for a month. But I’ve decided that there’s no need to engage anymore.

  1. Suddenly, everyone is an expert

This probably requires no explanation in the post-COVID world, as so many people go to YouTube University and are suddenly epidemiologists. But it goes beyond that one and can be particularly fun to shoot down when someone starts to opine in some area I’m very familiar with.

People have particularly naïve and wrong ideas about what it’s like behind the scenes on film and TV, for example, and can spout off with some bullshit explanation about why Actor A is an asshole because they did thing X on the set for movie Z to Actor B, of course taking whichever side the celebrity gossip mag pitched as the “hero” in the headline. And yes, the whole Rust shooting incident brought people out of the woodwork by the ton, all of them suddenly arms experts convinced that Alec Baldwin was absolutely guilty of murder.

Proving that none of them has any idea of how a film set is supposed to work in cases like this and, when it breaks down, why it’s not the actor’s fault. The actor isn’t supposed to have to worry about this shit because there’s a team of professionals taking care of it. Except when they aren’t.

So those were some of my epiphanies from 2021. What are yours? Tell us in the comments!

This piece not to be confused with Epiphany from January 2020.

I do not like anime

I’ve never liked anime, and I’m not sure why. It just struck me as “not interesting” from the beginning.

私はアニメが好きではありません。

I was reminded of this tonight while listening to Matt Baume’s The Sewers of Paris podcast, featuring Andy Casadonte. In each episode, Matt interviews a different member of the LGBTQ+ family, specifically delving (at first) in the entertainment or media that most influenced who they are.

For this particular guest, it was anime, particularly queer anime, but for a reason. He had gone to college in New York to study illustration and came way out, but then his first job was in Tennessee, working on the decidedly conservative kids’ show Veggie Tales, so he went right back in.

Queer anime was his private lifeline to maintaining his identity.

Now I can relate to that. I just never got into any of it — anime, manga, whatever. And the thing that people may not realize is that anime, etc., has been a part of American culture a lot longer than most people think.

It did not all start in the 1980s with Pokémon. (Surprise: Pokémon didn’t even come around until the mid-90s.) Anime started to come over to the U.S. in the early 1960s, at the same time as early Japanese electronics.

“Anime” at the time consisted of a few Japanese cartoons, badly dubbed into English and animated in a very stilted manner. And this was also a time when “Japanese electronics” was equated with “cheap crap.”

My how times change, huh? But a lot of it was part of the post-War effort by the U.S. to turn Japan’s economy around and make sure that it didn’t fall under the influence of China or Russia. (Reminder: For most of the 20th century, Japan was at war with, and later conqueror of, China.)

You may have heard of at least one of these proto anime — a little thing called Speed Racer, which arrived in the U.S. in 1967. Fun trivia: In the original, Speed Racer’s real name was Go Mifune, with the last name being a tribute to the Japanese film star Toshiro Mifune.

I think that growing up I always kind of had a back-of-mind awareness of anime on TV, but it was more in the sense of instantly changing the channel if I happened to hit any — the big advantage to being an only child.

This included running across anything Gundam, which created the concept of robot mecha suit anime that was later co-opted in the U.S. with the Transformers. All I knew was that any time I watched more than a few minutes here or there of any anime series, they all became completely repetitive, overwrought, overacted, and generally pretty silly.

Of course, I eventually ran across otaku, who are the fans of the graphic novel versions of the anime, known as manga — but if you criticize one of their favorite shows in front of them, run — lest you fall victim to a long, long lecture about what the story really means, the symbolism you don’t get because you’re not Japanese, etc.

Hey — I shouldn’t need a doctoral course in order to watch a kid’s cartoon, okay?

And yet, I know plenty of adults who live and breathe this shit, and I just don’t understand it. Sure, it does give ample opportunity for cosplay, and I know of an underground (literally, not in the political sense) group of shops in Little Tokyo in Downtown L.A. that covers everything, but is also very compartmentalized.

On one side, there are three shops that must all be run by the same people or company, but each one appeals to a slightly different aspect of the culture — one is anime, one is manga, and the third focuses on models, action and scale figures, and Funko Pops for days. I know that all of the Pokémon stuff is in one of the three stores, but I can’t remember which one.

On the other side are the cosplay shops. I’ve never been into either of those, but I think that one specializes in the more casual, cheaper side of it — like Halloween dress-up — while the other caters to professional cosplayers who go to all the conventions, or cons.

(*Note: Go to them when they happen. I haven’t been down near those shops since 2019, so I don’t even know whether they survived, but I do know that the cons have been few and far between since March 2020.)

But all art is matter of taste, and of course there are people who just do not understand the genres, programs, or directors that I can’t get enough of. So, as long as someone isn’t trying to push anime on me as the greatest thing ever created, I’m fine.

Then again, I’ve never even had the slightest inclination to dress up as a character from a Kubrick film — not even Alex or one of his Droogs — and the closest I come to any sign of ridiculous fanboy-ism in my place is the three-foot tall Kylo Ren figure standing in my corner.

And yet, I haven’t even been able to make it through all of season one of The Mandalorian, and haven’t even looked at any of the others. Although, to me, any 3D animated Star Wars property is not canon. Sorry, but I find it really hard to watch badly digitized and designed versions of characters I’ve already seen in photo-realistic films, especially when they were originally played by actors and not VFX.

But maybe that’s just me.

“Tuesday is Soylent Green Day!”

The 1973 film Soylent Green is set in 2022. Find out why they may have predicted the future so accurately.

And 2022 is also Soylent Green year, at least according to the movie Soylent Green. I had wanted to find a number of films, TV shows, or science fiction novels set in 2022, but this was pretty much the only one. Well, the only good one that you might be likely able to find streaming.

I didn’t include any films that were in production after 2019 but somehow set in 2022, because those don’t really count — no one knew when they were finally going to come out, after all. But that’s okay, because Soylent Green had enough of an impact on the zeitgeist of the time (it was released in 1973) that a lot of people still know its most famous line, which I won’t repeat here, and the story still holds up as relevant to today because we’re still facing a lot of the same issues.

Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

The film itself is based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room!, which establishes the major themes and ideas that we see in the movie, although it’s set earlier in the film, in 1999. This allows Harrison to be even more off in his predictions of the future, at least in the specifics, but the general trajectory was correct.

In his novel, the world population has reached 7 billion people, something that wouldn’t happen in reality until October 31, 2011. In 1999, it had only just passed 6 billion.

Still, the idea was that the people were consuming the planet’s resources faster than they could be replenished, and if something wasn’t done, there would be a Malthusian catastrophe. Neither the book nor the movie deal too much with climate change, although the world of Soylent Green does seem to be perpetually too hot — and that’s in New York City, although we don’t know the season.

Watching the movie now, a lot of things will look disturbingly familiar, including washes, underpasses, and the like having been turned into vast homeless camps, although in this dystopian vision, that’s extended even further, so that even the steps to our hero’s brownstone walk-up have become sleeping space for more homeless people — and our hero is a cop (Charlton Heston).

The one other big thing that resonates with now is that there are a lot of very, very poor people, and very few rich ones — and those few rich people live in luxury that no one else can imagine — high-rise luxury apartments with incredible views, deluxe amenities, heavily armed security and bodyguards, and access to food — like real steak, strawberry jam ($150 for a tiny jar on the black market), and “furniture,” which actually refers to people who come with the apartments and are pretty much sex slaves to the owners.

Although the only two pieces of “furniture” we see in this really cringey hangover from the 1970s are women, one can only imagine what the full range of the catalog was, considering that the people ordering it could afford what they wanted as well as avoid any criminal issues arising from it.

Incidentally, a lot of thses super-rich also happen to be executives with Soylent, the company that makes the plant-based, processed food that’s pretty much all that’s left. You know. Fill a monopoly, make it scarce, then make everyone dependent on it.

Yeah, not that much different than now.

The film is worth checking out as a precautionary tale that draws closer to reality every day, and despite the obviously dated design — which actually works in the film’s favor, because they didn’t try to go too far out with “futurizing” it — it’s quite watchable and holds up. Heston and his roommate/police partner Sol (Edward G. Robinson) are the center of a piece with an all-star cast, and the opening montage alone takes us through about two hundred years (relative to 2022) of American history and its effect on the landscape, resources and atmosphere, entirely in still pictures.

Check it out of it can.

A year-end victory

Through perseverance, I finally got my state to fix an error and cancel what they were trying to bill me in error.

The way we pay income taxes in the United States is, to see the least, very weird. For one thing, our Federal Tax Code is very complicated — although contrary to the myth that one very anti-tax group tried to start, it is not 70,000 pages long. Not even close.

The current tax code is about 2,600 pages long — maybe — although no one really knows for sure. It is part of the much larger Federal Code, which covers Federal Law in the U.S., which is a huge subject.

Once a year, the average wage-earner is expected to understand the ins-and-outs of that tax code, file some forms with the Internal Revenue Service, figure out whether they owe money or should receive a refund, then send it all off, fingers crossed.

This is called “filing a return,” and that’s just the Federal part. If you don’t live in one of 9 states that does not have state income taxes, then you have to file those, too. These are different forms, they go to a different taxing entity — in California, it’s the Franchise Tax Board — and there are subtle differences between what is and isn’t taxable income between the two.

And it’s up to us to figure all of that out, fill out the forms correctly, and send them in. But dog forbid you should make a mistake, because that can lead to major annoyances.

They don’t do it this way in other countries. Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Chile, and Spain, among other countries, already send “pre-populated” returns to citizens.

In Japan and the UK, they don’t even bother with the returns in most cases, instead using what they call “precision withholding.” Both countries track what you’ve made, what’s being deducted, and what credits and exemptions you’re qualified for. They make regular adjustments to amounts withheld through the year, with the goal being a zero balance at the end — neither taxes nor refund owed.

Now, the thing is, both the Internal Revenue Service and State Tax Boards have all of that same information already, and they could do exactly the same thing. At the end of the year, you get a letter saying, “Here’s what we calculated. Please make any corrections or adjustments on the form, and return it to us with your payment or check if we owe you a refund.”

Boom. Done.

For my 2020 tax return, I ran head-long into the major flaws of this system. It was already a rough year to begin with, and the usual deadline had been extended for a second year in a row. But a bit of misinformation led me to a $750.00 penalty plus interest and all that and, ultimately, the threat of a lien on my property.

Here’s what happened.

For the last few years now, America taxpayers have had to show proof of health insurance for each calendar month or pay a penalty. I don’t know what the Federal maximum is, but the State for California is… $750.00.

Now, I never got the tax form in the mail showing proof of insurance, and the agent I was dealing with at the time mixed up State and Federal. As I found out later, the Federal government waived the proof of insurance requirement for 2020 because of ongoing COVID issues.

California, however, did not.

But my agent told me that both were waived, and since I hadn’t gotten the forms, I figured that this was accurate.

What she hadn’t mentioned was that she had signed me up to get the forms electronically, but then for whatever reason I never got any email me telling me that they were waiting. Oops.

So I filed Federal and State taxes. Everything went well with the Federal — although it took forever — but then I eventually got a check for about $860 or so, which included yet another of the $600 stimulus payments.

As for the State, I instead got a bill for about $840, which was the non-insured penalty plus interest. As soon as I got it, I called them, but then ran into the first roadblock.

Despite the system still being set up for it, there were apparently no humans available for customer service — this was around late June early July of 2021. I was told to create and account online for faster service but, lo and behold, there was some issue with creating that account which I was never able to resolve.

So the only thing I could do was file an amended return, including the proof of insurance form, also recalculating the income tax due because the information on how much Federal unemployment was taxable had been really unclear and confusing, recalculating the actually no-insurance penalty due, and sending it all in.

I paid the tax part of it, about $199, online right away, but couldn’t really pay the penalty until they confirmed it. And that was that, until I got a notice insisting that I still owed the $840 or so.

Repeat trying to phone in process, same results. Try to create account. No luck. Hope that this notice was just mailed in error and that the amended return had been received and entered.

This goes on until November, with a new and more threatening letter each month, no way to contact a human being, still no online account. And then, this month’s fun — a Notice of Lien, which is basically saying we’re going to put a claim on… something you own in order to get our money.

Thing is, they don’t say what. If they’d wanted, they could have just taken the amount out of my Savings account, and that would have been the end of it despite their error. But it also implied that they could have put a lien on my car and forced its sale (or prevented me from selling it) and so on.

Now, I know from experience that if they know the cash is sitting there, that’s what they’ll take, because it’s easiest. And while I could afford that, it would still leave me with having to prove that they had, in the words of the California State Tax Code, “gloriously fucked up.”

The funny thing though, is that during this whole process of threatening letters, never did I see a single penny slip from any of my accounts. In a last-ditch effort to figure out what was going on, I called the number on the notice.

This number was different than the others. In fact, at this number I actually got through to a real human being. I guess they figure most people calling this one will be desperate to pay before the lien goes into effect.

I wasn’t most people. But the woman who answered was very helpful and, once I’d provided sufficient identifying information and explained the situation, she looked up my records in their system.

She informed me that I owed $115.21, and if I paid it today that would be the end of it.

Oddly enough, that number sounded damn close to what I had calculated as the actual no-insurance for one month penalty due, and I told her that of course I’d be paying it today, thanked her very much for her help and was greatly relieved, finally.

Apparently, they had just done their year-end accounting close, meaning that they finally cross-checked payments made, forms filed, made adjustments, and came to the same conclusion that I had.

They could take their (by now) $884 penalty and shove it, but here’s the $115 I actually owe.

I paid it shortly thereafter, and it looks like that’s the end of it. Now, granted, it’s been a weird year and they’ve been understaffed, but they could still do better.

The way to do that better is to follow the Japanese or British system, of course. But then what would all of the poor tax accountants and lawyers and tax software people do?

Honest answer — continue to make a fortune off of the rich. I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever hired any of those people before in my life, and I even managed to successfully maneuver this one on my own.

But nobody should have to. The government knows what we made and what we owe. They can damn well bill us. Period.

The best and worst days for the holidays

Which day of the week is best for Christmas and New Year’s and which is worst? You might be surprised. Read on!

This year, Christmas and New Year’s Day both fell on Saturday, which is really the second worst day they can happen, the worst being Sunday.

At least a Saturday puts the Eves on Friday, so most places will give people half a day off, and then there’s the Sunday after the holiday to get ready to come back to work.

But if the holiday is on Sunday, then the Eves are on Saturday, so any extra time off before or after is solely at the discretion of employers. Some will still give a half day off on Friday. Others will give both Mondays off, but most of them will give neither, although in the case of a Sunday Christmas, the public holiday is on Monday, the 26th, and the New Year Holiday is on Monday, the 2nd.

This year, Christmas and New Year’s both fell on Saturday. Whee! 2021’s last little middle finger to us, I suppose.

As for the best day for the holidays to fall? I suppose that would be on Thursday, with Wednesday’s second. The reasoning? With Christmas and New Year’s on a Thursday, the inclination is to just take Friday off. And while some bosses might want to drag their staff in for the three work-days in the net week, that really doesn’t make any sense, either. Nothing gets done in a two-day workweek, and Wednesday is probably going to be a half-day anyway.

This also kills the other Friday, so in effect, people get a little vacation that runs from Christmas eve on Wednesday afternoon and doesn’t end until the Monday after New Year’s day, in this case, January 5th.

Wednesday may or may not work out in a similar fashion, but there’s no harm in trying to argue similar logic.

Of course, things are very different for one of the few floating holidays in the U.S. By floating, I mean that they always happen on the same date, rather than the same day of the week.

For example, most Federal holidays have been fixed to Mondays, with the exception being if they happen on a Saturday, in which case Federal employees get the Friday off. If the holiday falls on Sunday, then Monday is the official holiday.

The main floater is Independence Day, aka the 4th of July, which tells you right there why it’s always on the same date every year with the Saturday/Sunday exception noted above. But sometimes it can fall on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, and of these, Wednesday is the absolute worst.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky and it’s on Tuesday or Thursday, then your company may take the Monday before or Friday after off as well. But if it’s on Wednesday, you’re SOL. You’ll be working on Monday and Tuesday, have a single day off, then be back at it on Thursday and Friday, making for the most awkward workweeks ever.

While Halloween might fall on any day of the week that happens to be October 31, it’s not an official holiday (yet), so it really doesn’t matter what day it is — although West Hollywood and other gay communities, where it is a high holy day, will often schedule Halloween as a celebration that takes place the entire weekend closest to before or after the actual day.

So the timing of Christmas and New Year’s this year could have been better, but they also could have been worse. Just be glad that you got at least one Sunday in before having to go back to work!

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