Momentous Monday: Meet the Middletons

Thanks to boredom and Amazon Prime, I watched a rather weird movie from the 1930s tonight. While it was only 55 minutes long, it somehow seemed much longer because it was so packed with… all kinds of levels of stuff.

The title is The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair, and while the content is 7exactly what it says on the tin, there are so goddamn many moving parts in that tin that this is one worth watching in depth, mainly because it’s a case study in how propaganda can be sometimes wrong, sometimes right and, really, only hindsight can excavate the truth from the bullshit.

While it seems like a feature film telling the fictional story of the (snow-white but they have a black maid!) Middleton Family from Indiana who goes back east ostensibly to visit grandma in New York but, in reality, in order to attend the New York World’s Fair of 1939, in reality this was nothing more than a piece of marketing and/or propaganda created by the Westinghouse Corporation, major sponsors of the fair, poised on the cusp of selling all kinds of new and modern shit to the general public.

Think of them as the Apple or Microsoft of their day, with solutions to everything, and the World’s Fair as the biggest ThingCon in the world.

Plus ça change, right?

But there’s also a second, and very political, vein running through the family story. See, Dad decided to bring the family to the fair specifically to convince 16 year-old son Bud that, despite the bad economic news he and his older friends have been hearing about there being no job market (it is the Great Depression, after all) that there are, in fact, glorious new careers waiting out there.

Meanwhile, Mom is hoping that older daughter Babs will re-connect with high school sweetheart Jim, who had previously moved to New York to work for (wait for it) Westinghouse. Babs is having none of it, though, insisting that she doesn’t love him but, instead, is in love with her art teacher, Nick.

1939: No reaction.

2020: RECORD SCRATCH. WTF? Yeah, this is one of the first of many disconnect moments that are nice reminders of how much things have changed in the 81 years since this film happened.

Girl, you think you want to date your teacher, and anyone should be cool with that? Sorry, but listen to your mama. Note: in the world of the film, this relationship will become problematic for other reasons but, surprise, the reason it becomes problematic then is actually problematic in turn now. More on which later.

Anyway, obviously richer than fuck white family travels from Indiana to New York (they’re rich because Dad owns hardware stores and they brought their black maid with them) but are too cheap to spring for a hotel, instead jamming themselves into Grandma’s house, which is pretty ritzy as well and that says grandma has money too, since her place is clearly close enough to Flushing Meadows in Queens to make the World’s Fair a day trip over the course of a weekend.

But it’s okay — everyone owned houses then! (Cough.)

And then it’s off to the fair, and this is where the real value of the film comes in because when we aren’t being propagandized by Westinghouse, we’re actually seeing the fair, and what’s really surprising is how modern and familiar everything looks. Sure, there’s nothing high tech about it in modern terms, but if you dropped any random person from 2020 onto those fairgrounds, they would not feel out of place.

Well, okay, you’d need to put them in period costume first and probably make sure that if they weren’t completely white they could pass for Italian or Greek.

Okay, shit. Ignore that part, let’s move along — as Jimmy, Babs’ high school sweetheart and Westinghouse Shill character, brings us into the pavilion. And there are two really weird dynamics here.

First is that Jimmy is an absolute cheerleader for capitalism, which is jarring without context — get back to that in a moment.

The other weird bit is that Bud seems to be more into Jimmy than Babs ever was, and if you read too much gay subtext into their relationship… well, you can’t read too much , really. Watch it through that filter, and this film takes on a very different and subversive subplot. Sure, it’s clear that the family really wishes Jimmy was the guy Babs stuck with, but it sure feels like Bud wouldn’t mind calling him “Daddy.”

But back to Jimmy shilling for Westinghouse. Here’s the thing: Yeah, sure, he’s all “Rah-Rah capitalism!” and this comes into direct conflict with Nicholas, who is a self-avowed communist. But… the problem is that in America, in 1939, capitalism was the only tool that socialism could use to lift us out of depression and, ultimately, create the middle class.

There’s even a nod to socialism in the opening scene, when Bud tells his dad that the class motto for the guys who graduated the year before was, “WPA, here we come!” The WPA was the government works program designed to create jobs with no particular aim beyond putting people to work.

But once the WPA partnered with those corporations, boom. Jobs. And this was the beginning of the creation of the American Middle Class, which led to the ridiculous prosperity for (white) people from the end of WW II until the 1980s.

More on that later, back to the movie now. As a story with relationships, the film actually works, because we do find ourselves invested in the question, “Who will Babs pick?” It doesn’t help, though, that the pros and cons are dealt with in such a heavy-handed manner.

Jimmy is amazing in every possible way — young, tall, intelligent, handsome, and very knowledgeable at what he does. Meanwhile, Nicholas is short, not as good-1ooking (clearly cast to be more Southern European), obviously a bit older than Babs, and has a very unpleasant personality.

They even give him a “kick the puppy” moment when Babs introduces brother Bud, and Nicholas pointedly ignores the kid. But there’s that other huge issue I already mentioned that just jumps out to a modern audience and yet never gets any mention by the other characters. The guy Babs is dating is her art teacher. And not as in past art teacher, either. As in currently the guy teaching her art.

And she’s dating him and considering marriage.

That wouldn’t fly more than a foot nowadays, and yet in the world of 1939 it seems absolutely normal, at least to the family. Nowadays, it would be the main reason to object to the relationship. Back then, it isn’t even considered.

Wow.

The flip side of the heavy-handed comes in some of Jimmy’s rebukes of Nicholas’ claims that all of this technology and automation will destroy jobs. While the information Jimmy provides is factual, the way his dialogue here is written and delivered comes across as condescending and patronizing to both Nicholas and the audience, and these are the moments when Jimmy’s character seems petty and bitchy.

But he’s also not wrong, and history bore that out.

Now this was ultimately a film made to make Westinghouse look good, and a major set piece involved an exhibit at the fair that I actually had to look up because at first it was very easy to assume that it was just a bit of remote-controlled special effects set up to pitch an idea that didn’t really exist yet — the 1930s version of vaporware.

Behold Elektro! Here’s the sequence from the movie and as he was presented at the fair. Watch this first and tell me how you think they did it.

Well, if you thought remote operator controlling movement and speaking lines into a microphone like I did at first, that’s understandable. But the true answer is even more amazing: Elektro was completely real.

The thing was using sensors to actually interpret the spoken commands and turn them into actions, which it did by sending light signals to its “brain,” located at the back of the room. You can see the lights flashing in the circular window in the robot’s chest at around 2:30.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the 1930s if the robot didn’t engage in a little bit of sexist banter — or smoke a cigarette. Oh, such different times.

And yet, in a lot of ways, the same. Our toys have just gotten a lot more powerful and much smaller.

You can probably guess which side of the argument wins, and while I can’t disagree with what Westinghouse was boosting at the time, I do have to take issue with one explicit statement. Nicholas believes in the value of art, but Jimmy dismisses it completely, which is a shame.

Sure, it’s coming right out of the Westinghouse corporate playbook, but that part makes no sense, considering how much of the world’s fair and their exhibit hall itself relied on art, design, and architecture. Even if it’s just sizzle, it still sells the steak.

So no points to Westinghouse there but, again, knowing what was about to come by September of 1939 and what a big part industry would have in ensuring that the anti-fascists won, I can sort of ignore the tone-deafness of the statement.

But, like the time-capsule shown in the film, there was a limited shelf-life for the ideas Westinghouse was pushing, and they definitely expired by the dawn of the information age, if not a bit before that.

Here’s the thing: capitalism as a system worked in America when… well, when it worked… and didn’t when it didn’t. Prior to about the early 1930s, when it ran unfettered, it didn’t work at all — except for the super-wealthy robber barons.

Workers had no rights or protections, there were no unions, or child-labor laws, or minimum wages, standard working hours, safety rules, or… anything to protect you if you didn’t happen to own a big chunk of shit.

In other words, you were management, or you were fucked.

Then the whole system collapsed in the Great Depression and, ironically, it took a member of the 1% Patrician Class (FDR) being elected president to then turn his back on his entire class and dig in hard for protecting the workers, enacting all kinds of jobs programs, safety nets, union protections, and so on.

Or, in other words, capitalism in America didn’t work until it was linked to and reined-in by socialism. So we never really had pure capitalism, just a hybrid.

And, more irony: this socio-capitalist model was reinforced after Pearl Harbor Day, when everyone was forced to share and work together and, suddenly, the biggest workforce around was the U.S. military. It sucked in able-bodied men between 17 and 38, and the weird side-effect of the draft stateside was that suddenly women and POC were able to get jobs because there was no one else to do them.

Manufacturing, factory jobs, support work and the like boomed, and so did the beginnings of the middle class. When those soldiers came home, many of them returned to benefits that gave them cheap or free educations, and the ability to buy homes.

They married, they had kids, and they created the Boomers, who grew up in the single most affluent time period in America ever.

Side note: There were also people who returned from the military who realized that they weren’t like the other kids. They liked their own sex, and couldn’t ever face returning home. And so major port towns — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, Boston, New York, Miami, New Orleans — were flooded with the seeds of future LGB communities. (T and Q+ hadn’t been brought into the fold yet.)

In the 60s, because the Boomers had grown up with affluence, privilege, and easy access to education, they were also perfectly positioned to rebel their asses off because they could afford to, hence all of the protests and whatnot of that era.

And this sowed the seeds of the end of this era, ironically.

The socio-capitalist model was murdered, quite intentionally, beginning in 1980, when Ronald fucking Reagan became President, and he and his cronies slowly began dismantling everything created by every president from FDR through, believe it or not, Richard Nixon. (Hint: EPA.)

The mantra of these assholes was “Deregulate Everything,” which was exactly what the world was like in the era before FDR.

Just one problem, though. Deregulating any business is no different from getting an alligator to not bite you by removing their muzzle and then saying to them, “You’re not going to bite me, right?”

And then believing them when they swear they won’t before wondering why you and everyone you know has only one arm.

Still, while it supports an economic system that just isn’t possible today without a lot of major changes, The Middletons still provides a nice look at an America that did work because it focused on invention, industry, and manufacturing not as a way to enrich a few shareholders, but as a way to enrich everyone by creating jobs, enabling people to actually buy things, and creating a rising tide to lift all boats.

As for Bud, he probably would have wound up in the military, learned a couple of skills, finished college quickly upon getting out, and then would have gone to work for a major company, possibly Westinghouse, in around 1946, starting in an entry-level engineering job, since that’s the skill and interest he picked up during the War.

Along the way, he finds a wife, gets married and starts a family, and thanks to his job, he has full benefits — for the entire family, medical, dental, and vision; for himself, life insurance to benefit his family; a pension that will be fully vested after ten years; generous vacation and sick days (with unused sick days paid back every year); annual bonuses; profit sharing; and union membership after ninety days on the job.

He and the wife find a nice house on Long Island — big, with a lot of land, in a neighborhood with great schools, and easy access to groceries and other stores. They’re able to save long-term for retirement, as well as for shorter-term things, like trips to visit his folks in Indiana or hers in Miami or, once the kids are old enough, all the way to that new Disneyland place in California, which reminds Bud a lot of the World’s Fair, especially Tomorrowland.

If he’s typical for the era, he will either work for Westinghouse for his entire career, or make the move to one other company. Either way, he’ll retire from an executive level position in about 1988, having been in upper management since about 1964.

With savings, pensions, and Social Security, he and his wife decide to travel the world. Meanwhile, their kids, now around 40 and with kids about to graduate high school, aren’t doing so well, and aren’t sure how they’re going to pay for their kids’ college.

They approach Dad and ask for help, but he can’t understand. “Why don’t you just do what I did?” he asks them.

“Because we can’t,” they reply.

That hopeful world of 1939 is long dead — although, surprisingly, the actor who played Bud is still quite alive.

Image: Don O’Brien, Flickr, 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), the Middleton Family in the May 1939 Country Gentleman ad for the Westinghouse World’s Fair exhibits.

Sunday Nibble #21: Some Flag Day Birthdays of Important People

In the United States, June 14 is Flag Day, which commemorates the adoption, by the Second Continental Congress on that date in 1777, of the official flag of the British colonies. This is the familiar banner of 13 alternating red and white stripes, and a blue field with a circle of 13 white stars in it.

However, it’s important to remember that while it came after the Declaration of Independence, it also came before the country won its independence, so it started out as the battle flag of a rebellious territory. The only reason it finally became the first flag of the U.S. was because we won that war.

That’s an important distinction to make when it comes to flags, even if some people forget and have to be reminded. It’s also probably not true that Betsy Ross created that first flag. Rather, this was propaganda created nearly a century later to benefit the guy who created the famous painting of… Betsy Ross creating the first flag.

Hm. I wonder if Bob Ross is related? “And let’s paint a happy little rebel right here…”

But Flag Day as an official holiday was not declared until 1916, by Woodrow Wilson, U.S. President and noted racist dick, This was the year before the U.S. entered World War I, by the way, although it was still called The Great War at the time because Germany hadn’t come back to release the sequel and the special edition of the first one, which involved a lot of retconning.

Now, it’s probably just a coincidence, but quite a lot of babies born on Flag Day would have been conceived because their parents fucked on Labor Day weekend — no, really, they’re about 280 days apart — and although that’s just the average, it still gives us the image of Labor Day turning into labor day on Flag Day.

Which brings us to the topic at hand: People born on Flag Day who have made significant contributions to the world, ordered by date of birth.

  1. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811) Author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), a somewhat heavy-handed and patronizing work that was sympathetic toward the plight of American slaves when it was written — a terrible example of YT people missing the target now, but incredibly progressive for its time.
  2. Pierre Salinger (1925) American journalist, author, and politician, press secretary for JFK and LBJ, briefly an interim appointed senator for California, and campaign manager for RFK in 1968. Later, a reporter for ABC News. Notably, he never lied while he was press secretary.
  3. Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928): Argentine Marxist revolutionary, poster child for generations of college students who think they’re Marxists and don’t read his story — he did a lot of good, but was not as good as his fans think. Basically, kind of like everyone else.
  4. Marla Gibbs (1931): African-American actress, made famous by her role as George Jefferson’s maid Florence in the 1975 TV series The Jeffersons. She was one of many actors in the 70s and 80s who elevated black people in American mass media, presenting them as people who were not just pimps and junkies but, rather, who were just like everyone else.
  5. Jerzy Kosiński (1933): Polish born immigrant to America, writer. Best known for the novel Being There and the movie based on it, about a man who is so simple and who grew up so isolated from the real world that he becomes an everyman, a blank slate that people project their hopes and fears onto. While he has absolutely no real personality, empathy, education, or people skills, his fans still think he’s the greatest thing to ever happen. Hm. Sound familiar? The only difference is that Kosiński’s Chance the Gardener character was totally benign and harmless.
  6. Steny Hoyer (1939): A Democratic congressman from Maryland, former House Minority Whip and current House Majority Leader. In his last election in 2018, he defeated his Republican opponent, William Devine III, 70.3% to 27.1%.
  7. Boy George (1961): English singer, songwriter, DJ, and fashion designer who became famous for bringing gender-bending and sexual ambiguity to pop music in the early 1980s. He was largely responsible for making Boomers clutch their pearls as their Gen-X kids latched onto the music and style. OMG, Boy George wore make-up and flowing outfits that could have been gowns or muumuus and, most importantly, pissed off old people by his mere ambiguous existence.

So there are seven significant people I could think of who were born on this day. There are certainly a lot of others who may be lesser known or have done less, but I can’t think of any more important, at least not in the modern age.

Happy birthday to these seven, and happy Flag Day to my American readers.

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 6

More of the L.A. social event of 2029. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here.

TAKING HOPE

Adam and Tony had finished getting dressed and exited by the time the crowd went wild, and there was a sudden very bizarre opening medley of greatest hits. Both of them knew that their parents had liked this music, and their grandparents more so, and while they didn’t have a lot of experience, the women in question were still iconic enough that they knew their names, at least.

“We should watch this, dude,” Tony commented and Adam just nodded agreement and took his arm and they wandered across the street to the bottom of City Hall steps to try to find a good viewpoint.

“Oh my god, did I just cum so hard I died?” Tycho announced to his group. They had managed to snag a spot center stage, at the bottom of City Hall steps, so they essentially had front row seats, and Tycho had been a big fan of two of these women since forever, thanks to his favorite gay uncle having exposed him to their music.

Finley had no idea who any of them were except Cher, and he was kind of a fan, but more of her movies than her music. James couldn’t care less about Bette or Cher, but had been a Barbra queen since forever. Adam and Tony only knew their names, but Bette seemed to be the funniest one with the best jokes, and even if the music was way too last century for them, they still dug the personalities. It was like three naughty grandmas just letting loose and having fun.

Jackson and Cindy were huddled together against one of the multi-lingual steles declaring the place “The park for everyone,” really enjoying what to them was a nostalgic trip back to elementary school when each of these women had first started to become popular. When he was nine, Jackson’s parents started to watch Sonny and Cher on TV, and they didn’t go off the air until he was fifteen, so he thought it was just one show that had been on a long time. What he never realized back then is that The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour ran from 1971 to 1974, and then The Sonny and Cher Show came on in 1976, but only lasted a year.

He vaguely remembered some Bette Midler song from around sixth grade that sounded like it was from WW II and was very up-tempo and fun, but was never really into Barbra because most of her stuff was just too slow.

Cindy mostly remembered Cher for her song Dark Lady, which was all over the radio starting from when she was about nine. She’d been a little too young to remember Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves, but Jackson certainly did. And two of Cindy’s favorite films, which came out during and just after her junior year of college, starred Bette Midler — oddly enough playing two different characters named “Barbara,” in Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People. Now that woman was funny. When the icons were finished, Jackson gave Cindy “that” look, and she just smiled back. They walked out of the park hand-in-hand and rode the A Line back out to where they had parked somewhere with a lot more space and much cheaper, as in free. Sure, Jackson could have easily afforded to drive all the way downtown, or even rented a self-driver for the day, but neither Cindy nor he wanted to appear to be part of the upper-crust, preferring to hang with the real people at the bottom of the Park for Everyone.

After this part of the concert was over, Tycho and Finley decided to wander off and James followed. Tony wanted to go, too, but Adam insisted that they stay.

“It’s late, babes,” Tony replied.

“I know, but come on. Next up is Shakira, Maluma, Pit Bull, and some secret special guest. No way are we leaving now.”

“Really? Tony protested.

“If you stay,” Adam told him in a sing-song, “I will fuck you to within an inch of your life once we get home.”

“Can the other guys watch?” Tony asked.

“Duh,” Adam teased back.

“Okay, then!” Tony smiled and they held hands and wandered around the crowd until the next performance started at 10:30. Along the way, they ran into Rafael and Vince, who were there for the same reasons. No way in hell was Rafael going to miss this one, and he dragged his bromantic partner along.

A half hour into that show, the reception in upper Grand Park for the rich people came to an end, and the staff began ushering them out, with Park staff guiding them up the hill to 2 Grand Avenue, which was the designated loading area for their various limos. People this rich simply did not “park” anywhere, and god forbid they drove themselves, although a good number of them arrived in their self-driving cars and then sent them off to wait until summoned at one of the special “robo-park” garages around the area. These were basically giant car filing cabinets that used vertical space.

The typical configuration comprised six lifts next to each other with thirty stacked spaces, and what was essentially an elevator shaft going up and down thirty floors above and below street level. They would load from the top down, first come, first served, and self-driving cars only. A car would drive in, payment would be authorized wirelessly, and the preferred charging method would be instigated, whether via plug-in or battery swap. Some of them even offered brushless washing. After each car, the lift would rise to make the next space available, and so on,

This meant that one of these garages could pack 180 cars into the parking footprint of six spaces and, since the part going up, but especially the part going down, was essentially just an elevator shaft with no cables — the whole thing was driven by ratcheted motors — construction was fairly cheap.

As for the guests, the park employees had herded all of them to the top level of the park above the fountain within twenty minutes, and the main reception area was vacant of all but staff. They had already gotten the message to assemble in the Mosk Courthouse lobby after the party shut down, and the people giving the message had acted sufficiently anxious, so everyone was a bit nervous and on edge, most of them wondering, “Damn. What did we fuck up?”

Alejandra finally entered, and went into her best actress mode to appear pissed as hell. She paced back and forth in tense silence a few times, shooting an occasional look at the staff, none of whom made eye-contact. Finally, she stopped and said, in her best sarcastic tone, “Yeah, I want to thank you all so much for your ‘help’ with my only daughter’s wedding.”

“I noticed that none of you had anything at all to do with convincing our various guests to open their wallets and donate tonight.” She knew that this would get an angry but hidden reaction, because she had never said that was part of the job. She let it rest for a moment, then decided to give the big reveal. She had tortured them enough.

“Of course, that’s because no one asked you to. That was my job, and they sure as hell donated to charity tonight. Thanks to them, we took in over a hundred million dollars for my favorite charity.”

This was met with a lot of nonplussed looks, as in, “Okay, so?”

“Oh, silly me. I forgot to mention my favorite charity. And that each beneficiary of that charity is going to get about two hundred grand.” She took a dramatic pause, then gestured toward the staff. “Um… that’d be you. All of you. You’ve done a fantastic job making this event a success, and your bonuses are going to net out to just what I said.”

She had brought the crowd from confusion to disbelief, but then members of her accounting staff began to pass out the checks. Archaic, she knew, but this would have more impact, and she watched as people quickly ripped open the envelopes, looked at the amounts, and most of them suddenly started crying tears of absolute and sincere joy.

“See, if you hadn’t made things run so smoothly, nobody would have been inclined to donate anything. So, no, I never asked you to make our guests open their wallets tonight because I didn’t have to. You did it all on your own, and on top of that, you made this one of the best nights of my life, along with my family. On behalf of my daughter, son-in-law, his parents, my husband, and the City and County of Los Angeles, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. Now head on down to City Hall and enjoy the rest of the People’s Concert. You’ve earned it!”

She blew them a kiss and exited, and the room erupted into chatter, cheers, hysterically happy tears, group hugs, and general jubilation.

It actually wasn’t until Alejandra left her bonus ceremony that Adrian finally managed to buttonhole her and introduce himself to her. As soon as he said the words “Toby Arnot,” though, she started to pull away, but Adrian went into full-on schmooze mode and told her, “He’s actually very anti-gentrification, and if you just give him five minutes, I’m sure you’ll want to help him.”

“He has two,” she snapped. “Starting now.”

Adrian hustled her to where Toby had been waiting, not ten seconds away, and he wasted no time launching into his spiel. He explained how he wanted to maintain a former motel with affordable housing, as well as support an arts group and Alejandra seemed interested but indifferent. But then he uttered what were apparently the magic words. “Wendy Rue is trying to eminent domain both properties and — ”

And that was as far as he got. “— and turn the places into unaffordable housing for foreign billionaires who really shouldn’t own shit here. Right?” Adian and Toby nodded. “I’ve heard enough,” she said. “I’ll make a note, and first thing Tuesday, I’m going to file the RAI on her. Just send me the property addresses. Actually, do you know of anything else in the area she’s trying to pull the ED on?”

“No,” Toby said, “But I can find out.”

“Well, so can I. On second thought, I’m just going to put out a general RAI on anything in her district.”

“Thank you so much,” Toby told her.

“No,” she replied. “Thank you. And you,” she added, nodding to Adrian. “Without people like you to point out how the elected are trying to abuse the city, we don’t really know. We’ll be in touch.”

“Do you need my — ”

“No, Toby,” she replied. “Everyone downtown knows who you are!”

She walked away and Toby turned to Adrian with the biggest grin Adrian had ever seen on his boss. “Wow,” Toby muttered. “Beyond amazing!”

Adrian’s knees went a little weak on that one, wondering what kind of bonus was going to come from the superlative version of the magic six-digit bonus phrase.

Mission accomplished, the two of them finally wandered down to the People’s Concert, arriving just before the start of the portion featuring A-Pop, a boy band from Asia with members from China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand — Li-Wei, Hiroji, Seojun, and Kiet. They were known all around the world, so didn’t require family names, and the crowd went nuts when they took the stage.

* * *

 

Friday Free-for-All #18

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What is the most important thing a person can do to improve themselves?

If you ever driven for more than five minutes in a big city or shopped in a crowded store, then you’ve experienced exactly what I’m going to be talking about.

A lot of people completely lack self-awareness, in ways both big and small, and this can cause problems everywhere, not just to themselves, but everyone they encounter.

Now, there are various kinds of self-awareness, and not everybody is lacking in all (or any) of them, although some people may be lacking in several. Some kinds of self-awareness are:

Spatial: This is awareness of yourself in relation to your surroundings, which includes the physical space, objects in it and, of course, other people. It comes in both static (non-moving) and kinetic (moving) varieties.

Personal: This is the meta-version of self-awareness, and indicates how aware you are of, well, how aware you are of yourself.

Intellectual: This is awareness of what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re capable of learning. The major effect of lack of self-awareness here comes in two varieties. One is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which people with a low ability at something greatly over-estimate their ability. (Classic example: Florence Foster Jenkins.) The other is a variation of learned helplessness, in which case people convince themselves that they could never learn a particular subject.

Cultural: Lack of awareness here leads to cultural-blindness. That is, you are only capable of seeing your own culture and traditions as reasonable and valid, while putting down or despising others.

Emotional: This is awareness of the emotions you are expressing through body language, tone, word choice, and facial expression, as well as those that others are expressing through similar means, and the effects that each person has on the others and vice versa.

Put them all together and you get SPICE, although the order has nothing to do with the particular importance of any single element. I arranged them to create an easy mnemonic.

So why is self-awareness important?

The very simple version is that the more self-aware you are, the more aware of other people you’ll be, so you will start treating them with more courtesy and giving them more attention. This will have a positive effect on them, make them more inclined to hang around with and be pleasant to you, and might even help them further develop their self-awareness.

It becomes a positive feedback loop for all involved.

Increasing your self-awareness will also help you spot people who lack it and have the empathy to figure out how to gently steer them toward it.

I’ve got some tips on increasing your self-awareness, but first I should give some examples of what happens when people lack it.

Spatial

The most obvious example of this one is the “human blood clot” that tends to form in doorways, particularly at any kind of party that involves people standing and wandering around indoors. We’ve all experienced it. There’s a huge living room, maybe a front porch or a backyard or, if it’s an apartment, maybe a balcony.

And yet… people wind up jammed in the doorways so that nobody can easily move through them. In other places, like stores or on sidewalks, this becomes the “liquid human” phenomenon. What does that one mean? Well, any liquid will expand to fill the container it’s put into, which is why the surface of, say, that tea in your glass will always be level. (The ice, not so much, but that’s a different thing.)

In cases of store aisles or sidewalks, the expanding happens so that a single person (or a group) will manage to take up the entire width of whatever they’re walking down. In grocery stores, this happens when somebody decides to walk and stand next to their cart instead of in front of or behind. On the sidewalk, it happens when a group of friends decides to walk side to side and, inevitably, more slowly than anything else on that now blocked sidewalk.

Add a vehicle of any kind, and it just gets worse.

Personal

Again, being the meta-version, when you are not personally self-aware, you are not aware at all of any of the ways you aren’t in the others. This is the heart of the knot that will get pulled apart shortly.

Intellectual

Have you ever had a discussion (or argument) with someone who was so absolutely convinced that they were right that nothing you said could persuade them otherwise — even if they were arguing in your area of expertise and from a place of complete ignorance? If you haven’t, just go check out a science discussion group and wait for a flat-earther or anti-vaxxer to show up.

This is an example of someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know. They assume that they have insight to knowledge that the experts don’t, and so no matter how many facts or how much data you throw at them, they “know” the truth because (fill in utter gobbledygook here.)

Now, have you ever tried to teach someone something, no matter how simple, only to watch their eyes glaze over, their palpable confusion, and their finally quitting in frustration? This is the opposite end of the same lack of self-awareness: the inability to realize what you can learn because you’re convinced you can’t. A lot of people have this block over things like math or foreign languages, but they don’t need to.

Cultural

This is probably the most dangerous kind of lack of self-awareness, and if you’ve ever heard someone berate a stranger, telling them “Speak English!” then you’ve run across one manifestation of it. This is the belief that the culture someone grew up in is the only one that exists, or that should exist, and that every other culture needs to blend in and vanish.

And note that these people are not exclusively U.S. citizens. I’m just using them as the example I know the best, but the same thing definitely happens in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa, and all of the Americas.

Needless to say, these people have never tried to move into another culture or, if they did, will hypocritically insist that they be accommodated — and there’s a nice circle for you. At home: “How dare you not speak my language and respect my religion!” Abroad: “Why don’t you all speak my language and respect my religion?”

See that disconnect? And, while far rarer it still happens, the flip side of this one is inappropriate cultural appropriation — dressing white kids up as “Indians” (cough… Native Americans) for Thanksgiving programs, white kids trying to speak in Ebonics, white nerds going all mecha-weeaboo, etc.

I personally saw this in one of my favorite college professors, who was as liberal as hell and didn’t have a racist bone in her body. However, she had spent her graduate year abroad in India to study theatre history — that part was quite valid — but came back dressed like a Rani, or at least like a Bollywood star — sarongs for days, hair dyed black, kohl and bindi. She was also fond of often tossing the aside, “I’ve been to India, you know.”

By the way, I dropped by campus about ten years after graduation to learn two things: One, she was actually a lot younger than I’d thought at 18. Two, she was actually blonde, and had by this point reverted to white culture, although more of a late Edwardian mode, like she’s watched way too many Merchant Ivory films.

Emotional

Emotionally unaware people will often behave aggressively without realizing it, either by raising their voices, gesturing, or using particular words. They also often react inappropriately to the emotional responses of others, and misinterpret those responses. Now, emotional self-awareness is the area that autistic people naturally have difficulty with, and I am by no means including them in the “Hey, you need to get self-aware” crowd. Theirs is a different issue, and one that they probably can’t magically fix themselves. But otherwise, people can. It’s just that this one probably only follows when the others are dealt with first.

So… how do I become more self-aware? I’m glad you asked.

Developing Spatial Awareness

Performing artists develop this skill in the course of learning their craft, whether it’s acting, dancing, singing, or playing an instrument. So, obviously, those are great ways to develop spatial awareness but, of course, not everyone is inclined to be a performer.

You can still develop the skills, though. The reason that performing artists have to be so aware is because they are generally working with other people or, if they’re doing a solo bit, they’re still working with the space they’re in. That’s because they have to interact with that space and the objects and people in it, and often with very precise timing.

If they didn’t, you’d see a lot of dropped ballerinas, or actors colliding when they weren’t supposed to, or props flying all over the place.

To develop this sense in real life, take some time each day to pay very close attention to where  you are, what it feels like when you’re still and when you’re moving, and to things around you. You can start at home in a very familiar room, and walk around it with intention.

Later, try this in a less familiar or strange public place, preferably one with not a lot of people around. Pay attention to how you move, what path you wind up taking and why. Whenever you find yourself stopping, take a look at where you’ve stopped and, again, ask yourself why you stopped there. Also look around to see whether you’re blocking a path for anyone else.

Finally, go into a room at home that you’re very familiar with, look around for thirty seconds, then leave that room, go someplace you can’t see into it, then write down as many things as you can remember from that space, starting in one corner and working your way around so that everything appears pretty much in the order it’s in the room.

Take as long as you want, then go back to the room and see how many things you got, how many you missed, and how accurate you were in the relationships or locations.

Extra credit: Learning improv is an incredible tool for developing self-awareness in all areas. Now, I know that performing and actually doing improv is not for everyone, but a lot of improv companies do offer workshops for non-performers that teach techniques specifically to improve skills at listening, spatial awareness, interpersonal relationships, and so on.

Developing Personal Awareness

The best part about this one is that it comes with development of the rest, although you should be constantly checking in to take inventory of the progress you’ve made, why it worked, how it made you feel, and what you want to do next. Again, this is the meta-awareness part.

Developing Intellectual Awareness

Pick a skill and learn one new thing in that area per day. The great part is that we now live in an age where tutorials and free lesson plans and all kinds of educational opportunities are available on our computers and devices, right in the comfort of our own home.

If you want to learn a language, for example, Duolingo is a great start, and you only need to devote a few minutes a day to it. It’s also free with very non-obtrusive ads which you can eliminate for a small fee.

There’s also Khan Academy, which offers courses in all kinds of subjects, again all free. They cover STEM topics, Arts & Humanities, History, Computing, and Economics. They do seem to be lacking in social sciences and languages, but those are also available if you search.

I was terrible at math as a student but figured I’d never need it as an adult — until I did. But it was then that I realized I wasn’t bad at math. My teachers were just bad at teaching it.

That’s why Common Core is actually a good thing (sorry, nay-saying parents) — because it teaches math in more than one way. Some kids are going to understand the old school, rote, “this is how it’s done” method. Others aren’t going to get that, but are going to latch right on to alternative methods that work, even if they confuse adults.

It’s the same thing with learning on your own online: You get to find the method that works for you, and suddenly come to the awareness that it was never your inability to learn. It was that you were being taught in the wrong way.

Some people are visual learners (here are some graphs and videos!), some people are auditory learners (listen to this!), and others will only get it if they read it (turn to page 42!) Schools tend to focus on one method, usually the one preferred by the teacher, and the other kids get left behind.

You’re an adult. You don’t need to get left behind, and you can learn what you want to. So go for it!

Bonus points: Remember the “listing things in the room” exercise for developing spatial awareness? This can also help you improve your memory, because it is the basis for a technique called the Memory Palace, which has enabled people to do ridiculous things like remember the order of a deck of cards after one pass through it.

Think you can’t remember things? You can teach yourself to do so, and use that as a method to help with all the other things you’ve decided to learn on your own. The most important thing to remember: We don’t stop living until we stop learning.

Developing Cultural Awareness

This can be the most difficult one of all, because it requires listening to yourself very carefully as well as listening to others in order to uncover your own hidden biases, or just phrases you use that can be taken in the wrong way.

Some people would deride this as “being PC,” but I’d prefer to think of it as “not being an insensitive jerk.” Some of the examples might seem quite innocuous, but they can have an impact.

For example, have you or anyone you know said something like, “The wolf is my spirit animal?” It can be a pretty common expression among white people, and we don’t intend any disrespect. The idea we’re trying to express is “This is the animal I most identify with.”

Okay, fine — but you’re doing it in terms that, to Native Americans, are very explicitly tied up in their religion. Imagine someone from a non-Christian culture saying something like, “For me, curry is the Body of Christ and tea is his Blood.”

Yeah, that would piss off a lot of Christians, conservative or not.

So… don’t do it to Native Americans and First Nations people.

Luckily, you had a white woman give you a perfectly acceptable alternative that comes right out of your own modern pop culture. Try saying instead, “The wolf is my patronus.”

Boom. Same idea, not offensive.

And there are other problematic expressions. For example, saying, “Yeah, my boss is a slave-driver.” Oh, really? You mean that he or she literally owns your ass, beats you regularly, doesn’t pay you anything, and might even keep you actually chained to your desk?

Or is it that she or he sometimes asks you to work late or come in on a weekend, and gives you extra assignments when you’re already busy? But you could quit any time you wanted to and just walk away without being hunted down by dogs and/or an angry lynch mob?

Yeah. Don’t say “slave-driver.” Try “task-master.” Or you could to for the ultimate diverse word, “asshole,” since everybody has one. Or… just realize that almost every boss does exactly what your boss does, and you’re not special.

You’re certainly not suffering like someone who was forcibly taken from their home and family, put in chains and sold to the highest bidder if they survived the trip across the Atlantic.

But, again, the goal here is listening to your words and deciding for yourself whether they could be taken as culturally insensitive. And there are more of them than you might think. Hell, at least one of them is still available in your grocer’s freezer case today.

This is another way in which improv helps. At my company, ComedySportzLA (and at all CSz companies in general), we have something called the “Brown Bag Foul,” in keeping with the sports theme, and it’s called if anyone — player or audience — says anything rude, crude, offensive, R-rated, or otherwise not family friendly.

And yes, awareness of it does keep us on our toes and very conscious of not taking the low road or the cheap shot. Although there is one big irony in it all — that brown bag itself could be construed as connected to yet another racist blast from the past.

Like I said: this is the most difficult one because it requires constant listening.

Developing Emotional Awareness

The funny thing about Emotional Awareness (aka emotional intelligence) is that most lists of how to develop it include “Developing Self-Awareness” as one of the most important steps involved. The rest depend on your preferred learning method, so chose from one of the links in this paragraph, or search for your own path.

And this was never meant to be this long, but it’s a big subject. Happy Friday, and happy self-awareness!

The horror, the horror…

The following is a repost of a piece about one of my favorite horror films, because it combines Vincent Price, Shakespeare, and some very dark comedy.

I am not a fan of horror movies, at least not in their modern incarnations. Of course, a lot of classic horror — like every version of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc., actually isn’t modern horror. Neither are more recent examples, like Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, Alien, The Shining, John Carpenter’s The Thing, or Prince of Darkness.

It’s suspense. Those films were about the lurking potential danger of the monster. And even if in some cases the beast would lash out and kill, it was more about the group dealing with it in an intelligent way, and reacting emotionally to what was going on.

Once the genre started up in slasher mode, with each film trying to out-gore itself while including all of the tropes, I noped out. When we finally hit full-on torture porn in the naughts, I refused to watch any of them anymore. [Warning on that link: While the content is good, the author does terrible violence to proper use of the apostrophe. The horror!]

Still, there are two films that could be counted as somewhere in the zone between slasher and torture that I still consider favorites because there’s just something different about them. One of them you’ve probably heard of: David Fincher’s Se7en, and the fact that a particular uncredited actor in the film turned out to be a predatory monster in real life just adds to it. But again, this film isn’t about the murders. It’s about the journey the two detectives take in trying to catch the killer.

It’s the psychological manipulation that John Doe uses to drive David Mills to do exactly what he’s supposed to do that gives the film its zing. That, and theming the murders on a very well-known trope, the seven deadly sins. It’s intelligent horror not done as a mindless slasher film or an over-the-top splatter-fest. So, again, more suspense.

You’ve probably never heard of the other film, which is a Vincent Price vehicle called Theatre of Blood, but it is a classic, and it shares a lot with the much later Se7en. (Theatre came out in 1973.) In it, Price plays the serial killer with an agenda.

He’s a Shakespearean actor whose style is probably too classically old-school for the era. A quick search showed that the productions of the time at the Royal Shakespeare company favored modern dress and abstract sets. Their 1970s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona looks like a swinger’s pool party, and other productions of the time were equally anachronistic.

Of course, one could argue that Shakespeare should only ever be done in modern dress because that’s what the Bard did in his own time, but, frankly, it’s a lot of fun to have the period costumes with the language.

But I do digress.

In Theatre of Blood, Price’s character, Richard Lionheart, is bitter because a London critic’s society did not give him their best actor of the year award. He comes to their after-party to confront them and claim what he thinks should be his, but they mock him mercilessly. It’s his humiliation that drives his desire for revenge, and the method he uses is… priceless, pardon the pun.

He knocks off the critics one by one following the murders and deaths in the previous season of Shakespeare plays he starred in, and he exploits his knowledge of the critics’ quirks and weaknesses to do it. Being the consummate actor, Lionheart dresses for the roles, sometimes going full-on traditional, as when re-creating moments from Troilus and Cressida, Richard III, or The Merchant of Venice, or going modern dress for Julius Caesar, Cymbeline, Othello, Henry VI, Titus Andronicus, and a failed attempt at Romeo & Juliet. He goes full-on Richard Lionheart for the King Lear inspired finale, though.

Basically, it’s horror done with class and elan and, while there are some gory moments, the film doesn’t dwell on them or make them overly graphic. It’s more about a very clever killer we root for and yet, ultimately, a slightly more clever hero. That, and the fact that Lionheart’s victims tend to be major assholes in their own right.

Price is a standout, ably abetted by (pre-Dame) Diana Rigg as his dutiful daughter, and backed up by an amazing cast of British actors of the era. The film is a comedic gem, and if you’re a horror fan, theatre nerd of any stripe, but particularly if you’re a huge Shakespeare nut, this one is worth finding and then inviting a bunch of like-minded folk over for a viewing.

Wednesday Wonders: Red-blooded? Not necessarily

Back in January, I wrote about various foods that aren’t actually their original natural colors for various reasons. These include cherries, oranges, margarine, wasabi, and Blue Curaçao. Now, I’m going to go for the flip side of that one.

When I ask, “What color is blood?” I’d guess that your immediate answer would be “red.” And if you’re a member of certain species, then that is true, those species being humans and most vertebrates.

But that’s not true of every species at all. It depends entirely upon chemistry.

Red

So, if you’re red-blooded, what does it really mean? It has nothing to do with courage, valor, patriotism, or any of those silly attributes. What? Goldfish have red blood. So do dogs and cats. But why is that the case?

It’s simple. Well, it’s actually ultimately complicated, but all you need to really know is that the hemoglobin in our blood, which is the molecule that binds to oxygen and circulates it through our body, contains an iron molecule at the center of a ring structure.

This is what allows your red blood cells to circulate oxygen, out from your lungs, around your body, and back again as carbon dioxide.

If you’re wondering, “Okay, why red? I can’t see oxygen in the air,” think about this. Have you ever seen rust? What color is it? And what is rust? Oxidized iron.

In the body, in reality, the blood in the lungs starts out bright red and winds up a duller and more rust-like color by the time it comes back. But it’s red because of that iron.

But blood doesn’t necessarily need to use iron.

Yellow

Swap the iron out for the metal vanadium, and you get yellow blood, which is found, for example, in beetles and sea cucumbers. Surprise, though: vanadium does nothing to circulate oxygen, so its presence is still a mystery.

Green

While you might associate green blood with a certain popular Star Trek character, one human did surprise surgeons by bleeding green during surgery, although that was due to a medication he was taking rather than alien origins.

Otherwise, it’s really not normal for humans. But there are a few species of lizard that are very green on the inside and, ironically, it’s due to the same chemical that our bodies produce as a waste-product of red blood cell death, but which would kill us if it built up to levels that would actually turn our blood green.

That chemical is biliverdin, which is filtered out by human livers as quickly as possible via conversion to bilirubin.

It’s not such a problem for these species of lizards discovered in New Guinea, which have levels of biliverdin more than twenty-times that ever seen in a human.

Blue

Figuratively, “blue blood” refers to a member of the noble class. The English expression is actually a direct translation of the Spanish sangre azul, and it came from the noble classes of Spain wanting to distinguish themselves from the darker skinned Moorish invaders.

The nobles of Spain claimed descent from the Visigoths, who were actually Germanic and when one has paler skin, the veins that show through their skin appear blue, hence the term. Although, keep in mind that while veins may appear blue, the blood in them actually isn’t.

It’s just a trick of light and refraction, much the same way that our Sun is actually white, but our atmosphere makes it look yellow and, in turn, makes the sky appear blue.

If you want to find real blue blood, you’ll have to seek out certain octopodes, crustaceans, snails and spiders, which are all related. Instead of hemoglobin to transport oxygen, they use hemocyanin, and you can see the clue in the name: cyan is a particular shade of blue.

Instead of iron, hemocyanin uses copper as the oxygen-binding element. When copper oxidizes, it doesn’t rust. Rather, it corrodes, so while corroded copper picks up a green patina, when it carries oxygen in blood, it imparts a blue color.

One of the most famous blue animal bloods came from horseshoe crabs, who until recently were harvested in order to collect their blood because it could be used to test for bacteria, contamination, and toxins during the manufacture of any medicine or medical device intended to go inside of a human.

While the blood harvesting isn’t intended to harm the animals, many of them were still dying in the process, so scientists finally switched to an artificial substitute.

Purple

Finally, we come to the blood color that Romans would have considered the most noble, but find it mostly in lowly worms. These animals use the molecule hemerythrin to transport oxygen, which has two molecules of iron. Before it’s oxygenated, it’s transparent. Once it’s oxygenated, it turns light purple, almost violet.

So there’s a rainbow tour of blood, proving that we have plenty of “alien” biology already here on Earth, as well as that the simplest of molecular changes can make a huge difference in a surface appearance.

Image via (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Talky Tuesday: Careful where you stick your ‘but’

Conjunction junction, what’s your function… this is a refrain many of us might know from Schoolhouse Rock, but the important conjunction here is “But.”

And is the conjunction that puts words together: “This and that.” Or is the one that allows both options: “This or that.”

Then there’s but, which pretty much excludes whatever comes before it.

You’re probably already jumping ahead to a common sort of phrase it appears in, but let’s hold back for a moment.

“I like pasta and sushi,” she said. So what’s the function of that sentence? Inclusion, pure and simple.

How about this one? “I’ll take pasta or sushi.” Both options are acceptable although, while it’s not clear whether the speaker is making the choice or only responding to the options given by someone else, there’s no judgement.

Finally, “I like pasta but not sushi.” This is basically a refusal, whoever was given the choices. The speaker reads a menu to make their own choice, picks pasta, done. Or… the speaker’s date asks what they want, and the reply is pasta, not sushi — which could be a really big dismissal of what the date likes, intentional or not.

However, this conjunction gets a lot more troublesome in other contexts, as we’ll see in a moment. First, let’s look at the others.

“And” and “Or” are inclusive, always.

“Do you want to watch some BBC, and then Netflix?” Boom. Both. Done.

And “Or” isn’t as inclusive, but not dismissive. “Would you rather watch BBC or Netflix?”

“I don’t have a subscription to Netflix, so BBC?” (or vice versa) or even “I don’t like (BBC/Netflix), so the other?”

When we get to but, there’s a bit of a problem. Any invocation of “but” requires a condition to go with it. You cannot just say, “I like A, but not B.” Even though that B comes with a not, that “not” means nothing without a qualifier.

And when the construction that comes before “but” is in the form of “I’m not a (blank)…” then you really need to think long and hard about what the hell you’re saying.

As in things like, “I’m not racist, but…” Guarantee you that the next words out of your mouth are going to be 100% racist.

And stick any other –ist or –ic in there, and you’re done.

“I’m not homophobic, but I wish that gay men weren’t so swishy.”

“I’m not misogynistic, but why are women so pushy?”

“I’m not racist, but why don’t Mexicans speak English?”

And on and on and on.

Well, I hope you get the idea by now.

Any phrase that begins with “I’m not (X) but (Y) immediately tells the rest of us that you are absolutely X, and you absolutely believe that whatever bullshit you spew in Y is true.

Period, end of quote.

So, especially in these trying times, if you ever try to say, “I’m not X, but…” stop right there before you open your mouth, think about what you were going to say, then go ask a smarter friend to bail your ass out before you go full-on stupid.

And… happy almost summer, and or happy surviving the really weird times w’re going through right now.

Momentous Monday: We, the jury

Here’s a funny story. Once I hit adulthood and after college, I got called to jury duty about every four other year or so. Now, I’ll admit that I quickly figured out that the best way to game the system and not get called at all was to re-schedule for a major holiday week — either Thanksgiving week, or one with Yom Kippur or Passover in the middle.

The other trick, once they got into the phone-in system was to wait until as late as possible in the day to call and see if you were selected.

In the first case, none of the attorneys or judges wants to schedule a trial to start up right before or after a holiday, so those weeks tend to not need people. In the second case, all the nervous nellies call starting right at five p.m. and they will get called. Meanwhile, if you wait until ten or eleven in the evening, all the slots have probably already been filled.

These tactics haven’t always kept me out, but I can only think of three times that I’ve actually had to go down to the courthouse, and I’ve never had to go more than two days in a row.

By the way, I have no objections to the concept of jury duty. I just think that it needs to pay people enough to live on while they do it. Sorry, but $15 a day are untenable wages, period, whether one’s employer compensates or not.

Still — it’s much better, at least in L.A., than it used to be. I remember a judge in one case explaining to us that back in the old days — the 1960s and prior — “jury duty” was set for 30 days, and it meant that people called had to report to the courthouse every day for 30 days, and just sit there and wait until they were called, or not.

No wonder everyone wanted to duck it. I mean, what a shit system, right?

Eventually, the term shortened to 14 days, and then they figured out that telephones where a thing, and by the time I first got called, we’d gotten to the point of, “Don’t come in until we call, but we’ll call you if we need you if you call us to check.”

So, more often than not, I’d get that summons and wind up never having to show up at all.

I only ever made it onto a jury once, sort of. I was chosen as second alternate for a drunk-driving trial. We were empaneled on the first day, testimony began, then we were dismissed for the day before four p.m. and asked to come back to the Van Nuys courthouse the next morning.

Well, we came back and then were told to wait outside. And wait. And wait. Finally, one of the officers who was supposed to testify — I don’t remember whether he was a Sheriff or Highway Patrol — came out in full uniform, looked at us and laughed in full-on condescending asshole mode. “Thanks for coming on down!” he scoffed, and it was yet another moment of me wondering, “Who do these people work for, again?” (And “full-on asshole mode made me think “Definitely Sheriff.”)

Anyway… the defendant had basically hired one of those bus-stop bench attorneys who was trying to drag things out as long as possible until they came to some plea bargain, and we were no longer needed. Gee. Thanks! We never did find out whether he got off or not, because we had become discards of the system by that point.

Next time around was a murder trial, and I really wanted to be on that one, but for whatever reason I was rejected. I did figure out, though, what case it referred to, followed the proceedings, and was very happy to hear that the jury found the defendant guilty, because he obviously was.

And then… I wound up in the jury pool for one of those cases where ridiculous anti-gang laws led to something along the lines of “The guy we’re trying once dated the sister of the guy who sold the gun to the guy who drove the car of the guy we convicted of homicide, so that first guy is also guilty.”

Okay, not quite as convoluted in real life, but close. Defendant loaned his car to a friend, who drove some other guy to a place where said other guy did a drive-by and killed someone. Defendant was being tried for that homicide, even though he had no idea that’s what he was loaning his car for. (Guess the race of the defendant, by the way.)

When it got to the questioning, one of the things the prosecutor asked each of us was, “Could you find someone guilty under a law you did not agree with?”

Now, I could have committed perjury and said, “Yes,” then proceeded to refuse to convict. But there’s the problem. Could I find someone guilty under that kind of law, especially when that kind of law seems to be targeted directly at people of color?

Oh, hell no. And when the prosecutor — who, by the way, was one of those perfectly obnoxious conservative Hate Barbies — heard my answer, she got me kicked off the panel, and that was it.

I never heard what happened in that case but… I also have not been called back to jury duty since, which has been over eight years now, and it makes me wonder: Did I wind up on some kind of list? Did I garner some sort of “I’m not going to rubber stamp your bullshit” badge?

On the one hand, that would be flattering. On the other… even with a jury trial, some people never do get justice. Sometimes, especially not with a jury trial.

Sunday nibble #20: Estos tiempos raros en un mundo desconocido

Like most sites that generate daily content, I’m always working a bit ahead and pre-scheduling posts, and I don’t think that should be any big secret. Short of hosting a live podcast, there shouldn’t be any pretense that the content happened spontaneously.

Even a lot of what you see on broadcast news isn’t live, outside of the in-studio reporters introducing the pieces. Here’s a surprise: You know those “Live from…” stand-ups that reporters do? Unless they’re interacting directly with the on-air crew and answering questions, those aren’t quite live, either.

And, of course, there are occasional reruns, something that broadcast TV does regularly — although streaming has made it another on-demand feature. But this didn’t start with TV. It goes back at least to newspaper columnists having their “best-of” columns re-run when they went on vacation, and re-issues of books and albums are the same thing.

It also depends on whether there’s a particular theme or format, which I gave myself at the beginning of this year, although I’ve certainly stretched my own rules a few times. I’ve also allowed myself a couple of spots where I can go freeform, like Sundays.

But as I write this piece, we’re ending the seventh day of protests around the country over the murder of George Floyd. And yes, unlike the news outlets that won’t call something what it is, I’m not going to say “the death of George Floyd.”

I mean, I was upset about the deaths of both of my grandmothers, but they were old. I was also upset about the death of my dog a month ago as I write this, but she was also very old.

Death is something that just happens, and tends to come when time and health dictate it. Accidental death is a sudden incident, probably random and unforeseeable, that quickly leads to time and health dictating it, like a car skidding on black ice and crashing through a crowded bus kiosk.

Murder is a death that is imposed from outside with intent, and there is nothing random or unforeseeable about it.

George Floyd was murdered, the entire world is protesting it, and things don’t seem to be getting better here yet. Perspective: in 1992, the Rodney King riots and concomitant martial law, curfew, and shut-down lasted about a week.

Paradoxically, these protests are both more peaceful and more violent than 1992. It all depends on where you are and how your local police respond. They are also more organized, and it is quite obvious this time that the organized, peaceful protesters are also trying to stop the opportunistic looters from stealing and destroying property.

Pile all of this on top of an ongoing lockdown that, at least in L.A., had just started its eleventh week last Friday and pending retail re-openings may have been completely derailed, especially once we see whether and what effects the protests had in making the coronavirus spread faster.

I couldn’t have predicted this a week before it started, and from this point of view I certainly can’t predict what the world will be like when you read this on June 7th, or whenever you get to it. All I can say is that we are truly going through trying times, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before — and yet probably far milder than what anyone who has ever lived through an actual warzone has had to experience.

Outside where I am, it’s quiet. There was some looting and a fire a few miles northwest of here earlier today, on streets I’m very familiar with, and Hollywood (as usual) was another hotspot. The county has been on overnight curfews that started at 6 p.m., although at the last minute they cranked Monday’s back to start at 5 p.m.

Still different than 1992, when the initial curfews were 24/7, so there’s that. But we are indeed living through strange times in an unknown world.

Be safe, be well.

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 5

More of the L.A. social event of 2029. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here.

TAKING HOPE

The food and festivities at the private party were just as lavish as the wedding, with six different buffet options, each one curated by a different five star L.A. chef, and each one centered around one specific thing. There was the beef buffet, poultry buffet, pork buffet, seafood buffet, vegetarian buffet, and vegan buffet. Each one basically laid out several paths through a seven course meal,

Dessert was being provided by three different vendors, with a variety of cakes baked traditionally, gluten-free, dairy-free, gluten- and dairy-free, vegan, and certified created nowhere near any surfaces to have ever come into contact with any kind of nuts or tree nuts or their byproducts. There were six of them, each one designed to resemble a famous Los Angeles Landmark: the City Hall cake was traditional; the Cinerama Dome cake was gluten-free; the Capitol Records building was gluten- and dairy-free; Griffith Observatory was vegan; and the Hollywood sign and Mount Lee was certified nutless. So to speak.

All of this really amused the hell of Edna, especially the allergy stuff, and she thought to herself as she looked at all the posted menus, “Jesus fucking Christ, half of the kids born after 1990 wouldn’t have lasted a day in 1984.” She blamed it on clean-freak parents of the era, who never let their kids play in the dirt, and soaked everything in anti-bacterial sanitizer.

Science said that she was probably right, but that message had only just started to get through about five years earlier, once superbugs started killed absolutely everyone in hospitals — doctors, staff, patients, and visitors alike.

Toby was just impressed by the smooth logistics of the whole thing. The Cathedral had been packed to the rafters, and a quick search told him that it held 3,000 people. He couldn’t even conceive of what kind of an event staff that would take, and he was very into logistics, so he stopped to ask one of the Captains of the staff about it.

“How many people are working catering on this little party?”

The Captain immediately went into proud bragging mode. It was clear that he’d been waiting for someone to ask exactly this question. “Not counting security, or the creative level — executive chefs, bakers, designers, stylists, and so on, and just counting the serving staff, there are 312 people,” he replied.

“Wow,” Toby said. “Impressive.”

“That breaks down to 24 barbacks; 36 floor captains, like myself; 48 bartenders; 84 cooks and washers, split about two to one; and 120 servers and bussers, split four to one. Oh. In case you can’t do the math in your head, that’s 56 cooks and 28 washers, plus 96 servers and 24 bussers.”

“Are there really three thousand guests?” Toby went on.

“A little over that,” he explained. “But it’s okay. The Plaza above can hold 5,000, and the park can hold 50,000, easily.”

“Can it?” Toby said, incredulous.

“Were you here about ten years ago during the last protests?” he said. “It held way more than that. Then again the thing did spill out all over the city and the country, so it was hard to say. And right after the quake, we had a lot of people who’d been displaced camping out here.”

“I guess it cleaned up quick.”

“That’s kind of what L.A. does,” the Captain explained. “It probably comes from there being so many crewies and performers living here. We see something amiss, we have the natural reflex to come together and fix it before someone important, like the lead or a producer, sees it. It’s self-preservation in action.”

“I suppose it is,” Toby mused before adding, “Thank you. Carry on!” He slipped a five wrapped around to hide three hundreds into the tip jar on the Captain’s counter as he walked away.

“Oh, thank you very much,” the Captain called out.

“Don’t mention it,” Toby called back then stopped and turned back. “Sorry. I’m rude. What’s your name?”

“Nathan,” the Captain replied.

“Toby,” Toby said, stepping back and extending his hand. They shook and smiled at each other.

“Have a great rest of your day,” Toby said.

“You, too,” Nathan answered. “And… thanks!”

Toby walked away reminding himself that he would have to make a conscious effort to do more of this. Not only to get out of his aerie and into the real world, but to interact with the real people — the ones who actually make things happen. And, of course, the ones who helped others like them on that level, despite limited resources.

He found it ironic that he had been moved less by the quake than he had been about his simple inability to do anything to help a fellow human in distress while in line to buy ice cream, and it had been eating him up ever since.

That was why Toby hung back, and asked Adrian to stay with him (to Adrian’s great annoyance) while everyone else who wasn’t part of the über-class (or was that the non-Uber class?) trotted down the hill through Grand Park, to dance dance dance their booties off. Toby had bigger fish to fry, and Adrian was going to be his lure.

“This is my booty, it’s so fine. I love this booty, ‘cause it is mine,” Finley remembered hearing that line somewhere as they got down to the party, but it took him a while to remember where and when. It had been Tycho, dancing and singing in the shower with him one morning together during about their first or second week at the Lexen, and it was Finley’s booty, not Tycho’s, that he’d been singing about, right before Tycho dove down to rim the hell out of him.

That seemed so long ago now.

Everything did, and it was surreal. So much was still in ruins, and yet so much had seemed to have bounced back right way. The aftershocks had really died down, and people’s sense of being constantly on edge had as well, although the sense of community stayed.

The concert and party amazed them all, and Tycho and Finley got to meet and hang out with all of Adam and Tony’s fellow housemates from Alice’s art collective, as well as Alice herself, Edna, Cindy, and Finley’s boss Jackson.

They had arrived around 7:30, near the end of the act with Maná, Natalia Jiménez and others. A lot of the group knew who the artists were and a lot didn’t, so they hovered at the bottom edge of Grand Park, some watching the show and others talking — particularly the white boys.

“Do I get to design your wedding?” Finley asked Jackson after he and Cindy had announced their engagement.

“No,” Jackson replied, “But I’d be honored if you were in the wedding party.”

“Alice is going to be my maid of honor,” Cindy said.

“I am so happy for you, dear,” Edna chimed in and Jackson gave her a long look.

“Aren’t you Wanda Cox?” he suddenly asked her.

“Not anymore,” she said. “Not since my husband and co-star died. But thank you for remembering.”

Jackson was amazed. He had grown up a film buff and while he had been too young to see most of her films when they first came out, they did run in the old revival houses as examples of the attempt at a higher class of porn from the era. Then again, the late 60s and 70s were a lot looser with their film standards once the Hays Code was laughed out of the industry, with one X-rated best picture winner, Midnight Cowboy, and in the year The Godfather came out and was the 22nd top-grossing film of 1972, it was beat out by the not-quite-pornographic but still X-rated (and apparently somewhat rapey IRL) Last Tango in Paris at number eight, and the totally hardcore porno Beyond the Green Door at number three. All of those films played in legitimate cinemas, too.

And not every X-rated film was just porn. A Clockwork Orange, If…, Performance, and others, were all legitimate stories that didn’t hold back on the sex and nudity. The trend ran until about the end of the 70s, when the X-rated Caligula opened in first-run theaters, and combined a big name, all-star cast, with an award-winning novelist screenwriter, lavish sets and costumes, the story of a mad Roman emperor, and wall-to-wall fucking and depravity and violence and cumshots galore.

Oddly enough, the same actor, Malcolm McDowell, was the lead in three of those named films, Performance being the only exception, where that honor went to Mick Jagger.

Jackson had seen a lot of the Shakespeare films Wanda Cox had done with her partner, Stony Boon, back in the 60s, before Linda Lovelace became famous for fellatio, and a number more of the films they did together during that brief time when porn because mainstream, often with literary sources: The Adventures of Fuckleberry Finn, The Harlot Letter, The Cunt of Monte Crisco, Bone with the Wind.

He also remembered that each of them also occasionally did gay porn separately, and had seen Wanda’s films Moby Dyke, Who’s Afraid of Vagina Woolf?, and For Whom the Belle Toils. Stony had actually done a lot more gay male films — On the Choad, Brothering Heights (apparently, incest-themed), The Son Also Arouses, The Picture of Dorian Gay, and James Juices’YouSissies,’ among many others, but the only one Jackson had seen, on a dare, was The Catcher and His Guy, which is where he learned that pitcher and catcher were the terms that referred to the guy sticking it in and the guy getting it stuck in respectively. He was rather surprised, though, to see that Stony was the titular catcher. Since Stony was a married man, Jackson had thought it would be the other way around, but he was young then, only in his mid-20s, and the world outside of the LGBTQ+ community still had so much to learn.

It also made him sad that, by the time he’d caught up with their later movies, Stony had been dead already for at least five years, one of the first victims of the AIDS epidemic that would change everything for so long a time. Jackson had often wondered whether Wanda had suffered the same fate, although he’d mostly forgotten about them by the time the internet could have easily answered that question.

But here she was, alive and a survivor. He surreptitiously checked on his phone after that and was blown away to find out that she was 82. She really didn’t look a day over 55, but she hadn’t had any obvious work done. He envied her secret, but supposed that maybe it had been all of that sex she’d had back in the day, and her clear lack of guilt or shame over it. After all, Linda Lovelace had a famous change of heart, became a born-again Christian, and died at 53.

Adam had heard Jackson’s comment and searched “Wanda Cox” on his phone, only to find out who she had been back in her day, and to read the tragic story of her husband, who was hotter than hell in a strangely nerdy way. He clued Tony in on it, but Tony surprised him by saying, “Oh, yeah John Richfield. I’ve heard of him.”

“You think she could hook us up to get into porn?” Adam asked.

“Dude, she hasn’t done it since… shit, probably when our parents were in kindergarten. “I doubt that she has any connections.” Tony replied.

“Yeah, but we’ve always talked about doing it,” Adam responded, “And she must have advice.”

“There are probably better — ” but Adam was already walking over to Wanda and Tony just muttered. “Shit.”

“Hi,” Adam said to her. “I overheard that name and looked you up, and, well, see, my boyfriend and I are interested in doing porn, and I was wondering if you had any advice…?”

She laughed and smiled at him. “Honey, first of all, don’t use the ‘P’ word. It literally means ‘writing about whores,’ and that ain’t what it’s about. Call it ‘adult entertainment.’ Second, are you interested in doing it because you like money, or you like fucking?”

“Fucking, but with an audience.”

“All right, that’s the right answer,” she said. “Second, I haven’t been in the biz since it was just discovering video, and I certainly haven’t been connected to anyone else. Remember, my husband and I were our own production company, and that’s long gone. Anyone else in the business at the time still alive would have been our rivals, so… sorry. Bridges burnt. I couldn’t provide you any connections, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“No, no, I wasn’t asking that,” Adam replied. “I just meant… how do my boyfriend — ” Tony appeared and latched onto Adam’s arm. “Hi, honey. Yeah, me and him — ”

“He and I,” Edna corrected.

“Right. How do we get into the business in the first place?”

“You boys are so precious. And really cute together. And I bet that you two could make a fortune. But, how old are you? Eighteen, nineteen?”

“We’re both 23,” Tony chimes in.

“But you can pass for younger, so say you just turned eighteen. You’ll get a bigger audience. And you’re both 23, but don’t know the answer that my 82-year-old ass does? Amazing.”

“That’s why we’re asking?” Adam adds, tentatively.

“We’re almost a third of the way through the 21st century, my dears. Everyone is their own production company and studio. You want to become adult entertainment stars, then you start fucking on camera. If you have a trusted friend who wouldn’t mind, get them to do the filming, maybe even spring for editing. Then you tease it in ways that all the various social media will allow, and set up your own firewalled pay sites that you drive your fans to for the whole, uncensored thing. It also helps to find a gimmick. My husband and I had literary parodies. What do you two do otherwise?”

“We’re both actors and improvisors, and I’m a dancer,” Adam explains.

“Great. And who’s the top and who’s the bottom?”

“Um, actually,” Adam and Tony both mutter, “Neither?”

“Versatile, both of you? Fantastic! Yeah, you two could clean up in this business like I did. I’m thinking maybe some kind of on-demand fan channel, as in they pay a ton to think that they’re ordering you two around.”

“Think?” Tony asks.

“Well, of course,” she explains. “They don’t know that the options that pop up on screen aren’t fan suggestions, and naturally you set the algorithm to always make at least half of them be the most popular fan suggestions. But behind the scenes, the two of you pick the few options you’re willing to do and in the mood for, ta-da — the fan voting turns out to match those results.”

“Isn’t that like, election fraud, or something?” Adam wonders.

“Darling, this is porn, not politics, pardon my use of the ‘P’ words. It doesn’t matter. The fans will be happy no matter what you do, and you’ll hit a combo that makes some of them feel like they got their choice often enough that they’ll keep coming back. And, when it comes to adult entertainment, it’s all about keeping them coming.” She paused. “Back.”

“Wow,” Tony muttered as Adam nodded.

“Thank you so much, Ms. Cox,” Adam said, shaking her hand.

“You’re welcome,” she said, “But Wanda Cox died with my husband. I’m just Edna now.”

“Thank you, Edna,” Tony and Adam chimed in in unison, and then she headed off with Alice and the two of them just looked at each other.

“I guess we know what we’re doing tomorrow,” Tony said, and Adam just smiled, took his hand, and led him off into the crowd. Maná and Natalia had finished by this point, and it was going to be half an hour before the next act.

“We’ve got half an hour until the Divas,” Adam whispered into Tony’s ear. “Know of anywhere around here we can fuck?”

“Any?” Tony replied. “Honey, I know of at least a dozen places.”

“Oh, really,” Adam said in mock shock. “And how would you know that, you slut?”

“Because I was a slut before I met you, and did a lot of my sluttery here.”

“So what are you now?” Adam asked him in a sort of well-rehearsed game.

“A slut for you.”

“Great. So…?”

“Ad hoc,” Tony explained. “You notice how many porta-potties there are?”

“Um… pardon the expression… a shitload?”

“Exactly. So…?”

“So you want to fuck me in a shitter?” Adam asked, incredulous but, again, just acting.

“No,” Tony replied. “I want to fuck in the shitter.”

“Sold!” Adam gurgled, and then they took hands and raced to the nearest portable toilet. At least they weren’t the open pit chemical disasters that their parents might have faced. Instead, they used high tech to suck down the nasties immediately, remove them to a separate processing tank located discretely behind the row of shit-cans, and immediately start turning all of that organic material into sources of electricity.

Porta-potties of their parents’ era were maybe one step above an outhouse. These were probably two steps above first-class shitters on an airplane. And yes, they even had bidets.

None of which really mattered as Adam and Tony stepped in, locked the door, got nude, and got busy, Adam bent over the sink while Tony plowed away. They both came just as they heard the announcer declare, “Here they are. Give it up for Barbra, Bette, and Cher… or is it Bette, Cher, and Barbra? Or even Cher, and the other two… Or…”

“Shut up, David,” the very familiar voice of Bette Midler blasted out over the speakers.

“We don’t care what order we’re in,” Barbra Streisand intoned.

“We’re just lucky to be alive.” That was clearly Cher.

“Everyone, give a big welcome to… OMG O-G-aycons!”

* * *

To be continued…