Friday Free-for-All #59: Multiple viewings, theater or home, hobby time, techsplosion

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

What movie have you seen more than seven times?

For starters, I know that I’ve watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey way more than seven times. Once home video and DVD happened, watching 2001 on New Year’s Day instead of a certain parade became a long-standing tradition with me.

The more than seven viewings is also true of several of his films, including Dr. Strangelove, or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and A Clockwork Orange.

I can’t leave off The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m pretty sure I saw that more than seven times in high school alone, and The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Ten Commandments also make the list because they are still being rerun at least once a year on TV.

I can’t forget the Star Wars Original Trilogy and most of the Prequel Trilogy. The Sequel Trilogy hasn’t been around long enough yet. As for Star Trek, The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home are the only ones I’ve definitely seen that often.

There are a few James Bond films — definitely Goldfinger, Live and Let Die, and Moonraker (one good, one okay, and one cheesy as hell) again because of the TV return thing.

I’m not sure, but I think that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (that’s the amazing Gene Wilder-starring version and not the Tim Burton travesty) probably also makes the list. Oh. Also, Cabaret, All that Jazz, and Westside Story.

There are probably others, but these are the ones that I can definitely put in the more than seven list.

Do you prefer to watch movies in the theater or in the comfort of your own home?

This is an answer that’s changed enormously. Once upon a time, my reply would have been absolutely in a theater, because that’s where they were made to be seen.

But then as my interest in seeing all the latest MCU/DCEU franchise films fell to zero, waiting for home video or streaming became enough mostly — although I would still go out for the big event films that interested me, mainly Star Wars installments and Bladerunner 2049.

The last film I did see in an actual theatre was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, back in February 2020. It was a mid-weekday thing and there were about four of us in the place.

So already having discovered the joys and convenience of streaming, not to mention the lower cost if it’s something on a service you already have, by the time the theaters shut down it was a no-brainer, and I’m not really inclined to go back anytime soon.

Honestly, seeing a Marvel movie on a big screen doesn’t really add much to it, not compared to the quality I can get at home. Plus I also don’t have to put up with other people, sticky floors, or an endless parade of pre-show trailers and adverts.

What hobby would you get into if time and money weren’t an issue?

I would become a total model train geek, although it would be about more than just the trains. I’d want to create an entire miniature city in a dedicated room, like a full basement, and build it in something like N Scale, which is ¾” to 1 foot, or 1:160 scale.

This would make a model of the Empire State building just over 9 feet tall at the tip of its mast, although it would take 33 linear feet of model to make up one mile of street, so it wouldn’t be a very big city. (Z scale would cut this down to 24 feet per mile, but definitely sacrifice some realism.)

To get a scale model of all of San Francisco into an area 33 feet on a side, you’d wind up with city buses being just under half an inch long and a tenth of an inch wide. You’d only need to cut the N scale in half to model two square miles of Midtown Manhattan.

But wait… it does say that time and money aren’t an issue, right? So instead of building a single square mile of city in a basement, why not go for a warehouse or buy an abandoned big box store? Aim for something that would fit fifty or a hundred square miles of city, and if it had multiple floors, go for various layouts — urban mega-city, suburban smaller town, historical city — with a scale ten mile footprint, you could easily build two separate 19th century Main Street towns surrounded by countryside and connected by railroad and telegraph.

And I wouldn’t need to go it alone. Hell, it could become an entire project that would employ model and miniature makers, urban planners, painters, designers, builders, electricians, programmers, and more. Give the big city a working harbor and airport, also have miniature cars and people moving around, design it to not only have a night and day cycle but seasons and weather as well, and it could be quite a thing.

It could even become a tourist attraction. Hell, they already did it in Hamburg, Germany.

And why does the idea fascinate me so much? Maybe because I was into model trains as a kid, although never had a neat, permanent layout. But this also led to me becoming a big fan of games like Sim City, in which I could indulge my curiosity about building and creating things and see where they led — especially urban landscapes.

Hm. Give me all the resources, and I just might make TinyTowns a major tourist destination.

Why did technology progress more slowly in the past than it does now?

I believe that this is because technological development is exponential, not algebraic. The latter is a very slow, additive process. You go from 1 to 1+1, or 2, then to 2+1 for 3 and so and so on. Repeat the process 100 times, and you land on 101.

Take the simplest exponential progression, though, in which each subsequent step is double the one before it. That is, go from 1 to 1×2, or 2, then 2 to 2×2 for 4, and so on. After a hundred steps, your result is 1.25×10^30, or roughly 1 followed by 30 zeros, which is one nonillion.

For perspective, a yottabyte — currently the largest digital storage standard yet set — is equal to one trillion terabytes, the latter currently being a very common hard drive size on a home computer.  The number noted above is ten thousand times that.

It’s exactly how we wound up with terabyte drives being so common when, not very long ago, a 30 megabyte drive was a big deal. That was really only within a generation or so. This relates to Moore’s Law, stated in 1965 as “the number of transistors in a computer chip doubles every 18 to 24 months.”

What wasn’t stated with the law was that this doubling didn’t just affect the number of transistors, and therefore the number of simultaneous operations, that a chip could perform. It extended to every other aspect of computers. More operations meant more data, so you could either speed up your clocks or widen your data buses (i.e. length of allowable piece of information in bits) or both.

And this is why we’ve seen things like computers going from 8 to 64 and 128 bit operating systems, and memory size ballooning from a few kilobytes to multiple gigabytes, and storage likewise exploding from a handful of kilobytes to terabytes and soon to be commercial petabyte drives.

Perspective: A petabyte drive would hold the entire Library of Congress print archive ten times over. If would probably also hold a single print archive and all the film, audio, and photographic content comfortably as well.

Now, all of this exploding computer technology fuels everything else. A couple of interesting examples: Humans went from the first ever manned flight of an airplane to walking on the moon in under 66 years. We discovered radioactivity in 1895 and tested the first atomic bomb 50 years later. The transistor was invented in 1947. The silicon chip integrating multiple transistors was devised in 1959, twelve years later.

And so on. Note, too, that a transistor’s big trick is that it turns old mathematical logic into something that can be achieved by differences in voltage. a transistor has two inputs and an output, and depending how it’s programmed, it can be set up to do various things, depending upon how the inputs compare and what the circuit has been designed to do.

The beauty of the system comes in stringing multiple transistors together, so that one set may determine whether digits from two different inputs are the same or not, and pass that info on to a third transistor, which may be set to either increment of leave unchanged the value of another transistor, depending on the info it receives.

Or, in other words, a series of transistors can be set up to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. It’s something that mechanical engineers had figured out ages previously using cogs and levers and gears, and adding machines and the like were a very  19th century technology. But the innovation that changed it all was converting decimal numbers into binary, realizing that the 0 and 1 of binary corresponded perfect to the “off” and “on” of electrical circuits, then creating transistors that did the same thing those cogs and levers did.

Ta-da! You’ve now turned analog math into digital magic. And once that system was in place and working, every other connected bit developed incredibly over time. Some people focused on making the human interfaces easier, moving from coding in obscure and strictly mathematical languages, often written via punch cards or paper tape, into not much improved but still infinitely better low level languages that still involved a lot of obscure code words and direct entry of numbers (this is where Hex, or Base 16 came into computing) but which was at least much more intelligible than square holes a card.

At the same time, there had to be better outputs than another set of punched cards, or a series of lights on a readout. And the size of data really needed to be upped, too., With only four binary digits, 1111, the highest decimal number you could represent was 15. Jump it to eight digits, 1111 1111, and you got… 255. Don’t forget that 0 is also included in that set, so you really have 256 values, and voila! The reason for that being such an important number in computing is revealed.

Each innovation fueled the need for the next, and so the ways to input and readout data kept improving until we had so-called high-level programming languages, meaning that on a properly equipped computer, a programmer could type in a command in fairly intelligible language, like,

10 X = “Hello world.”

20 PRINT X

30 END

Okay, stupid example, but you can probably figure out what it does. You could also vary it by starting with INPUT X, in which case the user would get a question mark on screen and the display would return whatever they typed.

Oh yeah… at around the same time, video displays had become common, replacing actual paper printouts that had a refresh rate slower than a naughty JPG download on 1200 baud modem. (There’s one for the 90s kids!) Not to mention a resolution of maybe… well, double digits lower than 80 in either direction, anyway.

Surprisingly, the better things got, the better the next versions seemed to get, and faster. Memory exploded. Computer speeds increased. Operating systems became more intuitive and responsive.

And then things that relied on computers took off as well. Car manufacturers started integrating them slowly, at first. Present day, your car is run more by computer than physical control, whether you realize it or not. Cell phones and then smart phones are another beneficiary — and it was the need to keep shrinking transistors and circuits to fit more of them onto chips in the first place that finally made it possible to stick a pretty amazing computer into a device that will fit in your pocket.

Oh yeah… first telephone, 1875. Landline phones were ubiquitous in less than a hundred years, and began to be taken over by cell phones, with the first one being demonstrated in 1973 (with a 4.4 lb handset, exclusive of all the other equipment required), and affordable phones themselves not really coming along until the late 1990s.

But, then, they never went away, and then they only just exploded in intelligence. Your smart phone now has more computing power than NASA and the Pentagon combined did at the time of the Moon landings.

Hell, that $5 “solar” (but probably not) calculator you grabbed in the grocery checkout probably has more computing power than the Lunar Lander that made Neil Armstrong the first human on the Moon.

It’s only going to keep getting more advanced and faster, but that’s a good thing, and this doesn’t even account for how explosions in computing have benefited medicine, communications, entertainment, urban planning, banking, epidemiology, cryptography, engineering, climate science, material design, genetics, architecture, and probably any other field you can think of — scientific, artistic, financial, or otherwise.

We only just began to escape the confines of Analog Ville less than 40 years ago, probably during the mid to late 80s, when Millennials were just kids. By the time the oldest of them were second semester sophomores in college, we had made a pretty good leap out into Digital World, and then just started doubling down, so that two decades into this century, the tech of the turn of the century (that’d be 2000) looks absolutely quaint.

Remember — we had flip phones then, with amazing (cough) 640×480 potato-grade cameras.

Compare that to 1920 vs 1900. A few advances, but not a lot. The only real groundbreaker was that women could now vote in the U.S., but that wasn’t really a technological advance, just a social one. And if you look at 1820 vs. 1800, or any twenty-year gap previously, things would not have changed much at all except maybe in terms of fashion, who current world monarch were, or which countries you were currently at war with.

And that, dear readers, is how exponential change works, and why technology will continue to grow in this manner. It’s because every new innovation in technology sews the seeds for both the need and inevitability of its next round of advancement and acceleration.

We pulled the genie out of the bottle in 1947. It’s never going back in.

Contrarians

There is an interesting class of words in English called contronyms. They are defined as words that have two contradictory definitions. You might wonder how this happens. There seem to be three different reasons.

The first is that the words are homographs. If you remember your Latin, this comes from the words “homo” for same, and “graph,” which refers to writing, so homographs are words that are written the same, but that’s the only thing they have in common. Contrast this to homophones, meaning same sound but with different meanings. Additionally, the words should have different etymologies. That is, they did not come from the same source words.

A good homographic example of this is the word “cleave,” which can either mean to join together or to split apart. “The bride and groom cleaved onto each other until hard times cleaved them apart.” The former sense comes from the Old English word cleofian, with the same meaning. The latter comes from Old English clēofan, to separate, which actually is a different word despite looking so similar.

The second way contronyms happen is through a form of polysemy, which comes from the Greek for many (poly) signs (semy, the root of semiotics.) [That link is provided for the sake of showing sources, but unless you’re a linguist it will make your head explode trying to read it. —Ed.] The main point to remember is that contronyms can happen as language evolves and a word begins to be used in a different sense by different groups.

Frequently, this refers to technical jargon, although it doesn’t always create contronyms. A good example is the word “insult.” In the medical field, it refers to a physical injury and not nasty words Medically speaking, adding insult to injury would be completely redundant.

A modern example of a contronym created this way is the word “sick” — in one sense, it refers to something that’s not well off: “Javi is feeling very sick today.” In another sense, it means something that’s really excellent: “Javi busted out some sick rhymes to win that rap battle.”

Finally, contronyms can happen when two different versions of the language use words in a different sense. The classic example of this is the word “table” as used in meetings. In American English, when a bill is tabled, that means that it’s removed from discussion and either dropped or put on hold. In British English, when a bill is tabled, that means it’s brought up for debate.

A few fun examples

There are a lot of contronyms, not just in English, but in other languages. Spanish has its own autoantónimos, and some of them even match their English counterparts. For example, rent/alquilar refers to the act of either renting from someone or renting to someone; sanction/sancionar refers to imposing a penalty or officially allowing something.

They can be a lot of fun, so let’s look at a few from a very long list, used together in their opposite meanings, along with some alternate meanings the word might also have.

Bill: When it’s not on a duck, you can pay a bill with a twenty-dollar bill, so this word has your money covered coming and going.

Bolt: When a lightning bolt strikes nearby, you might be inclined to bolt the door fast and stay inside, or you may bolt in fear and run away.

Custom: Everybody had followed exactly the same custom for years: to custom order for the New Year so that everyone’s shoes were completely different.

Dust: After the detectives dusted for prints, I had to dust the furniture to get it all off.

Fast: After a brief fast, I wanted to run away fast, but alas I was held fast because my belt got stuck to the chair.

Garnish: He was a chef who loved to garnish the entrees with parsley and cherry tomatoes, but was very sad after his divorce when his ex got a judge to garnish his wages.

Give out: (a rare two-word contronym!) He gave out his business cards tirelessly until his energy gave out completely.

Left: By the time there was only one bottle of wine left, all of the guests left and walked to the left, disappointed.

Off: Bob the Burglar thought that the alarm was off until he broke inside and set it off.

Out: It wasn’t until all of the lights went out that they could see how many stars were out at night.

Oversight: The oversight committee thought that they had monitored everything, but they realized their big oversight too late to fix it.

Refrain: “I wish you would refrain from singing that,” the teacher demanded, but the students went on and sang the same refrain again and again.

Rock: Joe was always solid and immobile as a rock until someone started to play rock music, at which point he would rock back and forth uncontrollably.

Strike: During the general sports strike, the replacement archers managed to strike the targets every time. Meanwhile, the baseball batters weren’t so lucky, getting strike after strike.

Throw out: (another two-worder!) I’m just going to throw out this idea for everyone to consider, but we really need to throw out the trash.

Trim: Before we can trim the Christmas tree, we really need to trim some of these branches.

Weather: The house had weathered many a winter season until its walls became too weathered to stand any longer.

Wind up: (two-worder number three!) I don’t mean to wind you up, but after you wind up this jack-in-the-box, we really need to wind up the evening and go home.

Why?

Some of the most interesting and fun contronyms lend themselves to neat wordplay, some of which I indulged in above. Since one of the hallmarks of humor is the unexpected, throwing a pair of contronyms into a sentence can be a great tool for spicing up your writing. I would offer an apology for my puns but I think I can write a pretty good apology in support of the concept. And there’s another word with great Greek roots: Apo-, a prefix meaning, among other things, a response or defense; logo, which means word; and –ia, a suffix in Greek indicating either a female singular or neuter plural noun or adjective.

So… words in response to or defense of something. This may sound like a subtle difference, but it’s not. If I offer an apology for my puns, then I’d say something like, “I am really sorry that I’ve made those puns.” If I write an apology for puns, then it would be a long piece tracing their history, showing examples, and describing why they are a valid form of humor — the exact opposite of apologizing for them.

But I won’t apologize for puns. Especially not when a contronym also has other meanings, because that’s where we can get into triple word score on a single sentence.

I mean, I’m not trying to be mean, but I think that puns are a wicked mean form of humor, you know what I mean.

Photo: “Black Sheep Meets White Sheep” (cc) 2011 by Leon Riskin, used unchanged under Creative Commons license 2.0.

While the planet became small, the people got smaller

I love the internet because it means that I’m in regular contact with people all around the planet, and have gotten to know a lot of them quite well. I have friends on every continent except Antarctica, but I’m working on that one.

Otherwise, I’ve got Australia and all of Asia covered, from those islands off of the southeast part of it to the major countries in it, from Japan to Russia, as well as Thailand. A tour through the Middle East and Africa brings us to Europe, then finally back to the Americas, where obviously the bulk of my friends are in my home country, the U.S., but quite a lot of them are also in Latin America because I’ve taken the time to become bilingual enough to communicate.

The one thing that most strikes me about chatting with any of these people no matter where they are in the world, what culture they come from, or what language they speak, is that they all want the same things that I do, and that my friends from my culture do. Remove all of the surface decorations, and every human is the same as every other one.

Having been on the internet since the beginning has definitely had one major effect on me. Hell yes, I’m a globalist, but not in the “corporations take over the world” mode. Rather, my form of globalism is this: The citizens of the planet take it back from the corporations. It’s the difference between Corporate Globalism (bad) and Humanist Globalism (good).

Corporate Globalism is a falsehood. It doesn’t unite the world by eliminating barriers and borders. It does quite the opposite. Or, sure, it pays lip service to trading partners and global commerce and all that, but how does it achieve it? By creating artificial barriers and borders.

Truth be told, the developed nations of the planet produce quite enough food to feed the underdeveloped nations, and have quite enough resources to actually pay a decent living wage to the people they currently exploit in them.

The trouble is, the corporate class has a gigantic blind spot. They don’t realize that helping the entire planet profit and prosper will, in turn, lift everyone up, themselves included. If our current billionaires stopped being so selfish for a decade or two, they would reap the rewards and become trillionaires. Give a little bit back today, collect repayment with interest tomorrow.

So that’s one of the ways people became smaller even as the world did even though they should have become bigger. The super-rich decided to keep on hogging everything for themselves, not realizing that this will leave nothing for no one, and when they’ve managed to kill off everyone slaving away to support their lifestyles, they will be left stranded, desolate, and with no idea how to do even the most basic things to survive.

“Sylvia, do you know which button on the stove turns it on to cook water?”

“No, Preston. I have no idea. We could ask Concepción.”

“She died last winter because she couldn’t afford medical insurance, remember?”

“Oh. Crap.”

At the same time, far too many regular people have become too small as well, because they’ve bought the lies of the super-rich, which all boil down to this: “Those people who (aren’t like you/aren’t from here/believe differently/speak another language) just want to come here and steal your stuff.”

Never was a bigger crock of shit foisted on the world than this thinking, which we have seen in many countries in many different eras — and we are definitely seeing far too much of it today.

And it’s nothing but the ultimate in projection, a specialty of the 1%. They are the ones who are afraid of everyone else coming to take their stuff, and they should rightfully be afraid of exactly that, because parts of the world are starting to catch on. Humanist Globalists want to eliminate borders, trade barriers, and the idea of separate nations. Yeah, I know that this can sound scary, but it does not mean eliminating national identities.

It’s kind of the opposite of that. In essence, countries would become the new corporate brands, with their citizens or residents as stakeholders. There wouldn’t be hard lines between them, but there would be ideas and commodities that each particular brand specialized in. It’s kind of a new form of capitalism where the capital isn’t the artificial idea of money. Rather, it’s what it always should have been: The people who work in the system, the fruits of their labor, and the outcome of their ideas. And, in turning it into a “share the wealth” model on a planet-wide basis, we really would have a rising tide that would lift all boats.

The Americas (all of them) sell popular culture, with dashes of Britain, Australia, and Japan included. Europe sells us ideas on how to do things better, especially in urban planning and social policy. Asia sells us technology. Africa sells us the raw materials to make this all happen. The Middle East buys everything because, in an ideal world, they no longer can sell their oil, but if they want to turn Saudi Arabia into the world’s biggest solar farm, let them have at it. And, in every case, the workers who make all of this happen are the real stakeholders.

This is essential in the near future on two fronts. One is in getting our act together to deal with the climate crisis we’re facing and, if we can’t stop it, at least mitigate it. There are going to be climate refuges by the end of this decade, like it or not. We may already have some fleeing Australia. It’s only by eliminating all borders that we can give these people a place to go without politics becoming the cruel boot-stomp in the face that sends them back.

The other front is in getting off of the planet, and the “space race” model born of the Cold War has got to go. Sure, the U.S. vs. USSR is what put us on the Moon first, but later Apollo/Soyuz missions proved that space could be a borderless entity. By this point, when we have multiple nations and private companies firing things into space, we’re basically in the modern version of seafaring in the early 17th Century, a point by which governments (England, Spain, Portugal, France) were financing expeditions to discover new lands, but so were private entities (The Dutch East India Company, Dutch West India Company, etc.)

This was really only a century after Columbus, and we’re a half century past the moon landing, so the timing fits, the only difference being the players, which are now the U.S., Europe, Japan, China, Russia, Iran, Israel, India, both Koreas, Italy, France, and the Ukraine. And, on top of that, add Elon Musk and Richard Branson, the aforementioned companies East (Branson) and West (Musk) that will probably do a better job of it.

All of which reminds me of the opening sequence of the movie Valerian and the City if a Thousand Planets, which is going to be a cult classic one of these days. I mean, come on. Just look at this.

But I do digress. The point is that as long as we remain trapped on this tiny muddy rock stuck in orbit around a flaming nuclear ball and with lots of rocks flying around that may or may not end all human life as we know it without warning, then we are stuck with what we were stuck with. The planet isn’t making any more oil or precious metals. It is kind of making more land, but only if you rely on the very long-term volcanic upwelling of new islands, although this is more than offset by the loss of land that’s going underwater.

We do get new oxygen, for the moment, but only for as long as we maintain the planet’s lungs, which are all of the forests we seem hell-bent on chopping down.

The only things we do get more of every second of every day are… energy, from the sun, wind, and tides, all natural forces. They are limitless, at least for our purposes, driven by physics, and if we could harness even one tenth of their energy, we could change the world and save ourselves.

Why doesn’t it happen? As it’s been put in the past, there’s only one reason. Corporations haven’t figured out how to put a meter on natural processes. And this is perhaps the stupidest thinking ever. What about hydroelectric dams or nuclear plants? Hell, what about waterwheels or old-school windmills? All of those use natural sources. All of those have made money for people who controlled them.

What they don’t get is this: Solar, wind, and tidal power, after the initial infrastructure investments, will be far cheaper per kilowatt hour to create, but far more profitable at even one tenth of the kilowatt hour price that power companies now charge. The only reason these backwards thinking troglodytes embrace fossil fuels is because they see a resource that is running out, and so one that they can keep jacking the price up on as it becomes rarer and rarer.

Metaphor: This is like a butcher who has run out of meat, so starts cutting up and selling his children, until he runs out of children, so then starts cutting up himself starting at the feet, and isn’t even aware of the problem because he keeps telling himself, “I’m still selling stuff, and I’m still breathing! I’m still breathing. I’m still… oh, shit. That was a lung.”

Renewable resources, especially of the unlimited kind, are immensely more profitable than finite resources for exactly that reason: You can keep selling them forever, and if you can keep selling them at a small price, demand goes way up, so the economy of scale makes you a lot more profit than you’d get by hiking the price on a vanishing commodity and so reducing demand.

In order to save ourselves and make sure that our grandchildren and their grandchildren actually get a planet to inherit, we need to do one thing right now: Start thinking big by not being so small-minded. Tell yourself every day: There are enough resources for all of us on this planet if only everyone would share. People who don’t want to share are bad, and should be voted off of the island and/or planet. It is only by eliminating all borders and unnatural divisions that we can save this planet by making it one. No, you won’t lose your precious self-identity if this happens. If anything, it’ll just get more fun because you’ll get to tell your story to lots of people with their own stories as you all share.

There’s the key word again, and another reminder of the motto we need to start living by: “One Planet. One People. Please.”

Image: © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

May the fourth be with you

Okay, this isn’t actually the anniversary of the premiere of a certain film — it was May 25, 1977 when a film called just Star Wars opened. But in the nearly 44 years since then, the entire franchise has become a cultural phenomenon. It’s literally been around long enough that some teenage fans of the first film more likely than not may now have grandchildren who are into the current films and shows.

“May the fourth be with you” is a perfect example of that. Somewhere along the way, Star Wars Day was created and while it’s not an official Lucasfilm/Disney event, they still use it to pay tribute to the franchise. Oh — and sell stuff, of course.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Star Wars Day is May 25, since the premiere was here on that date.

There’s not a lot of agreement of how the holiday came about, or where the phrase referring to the date originated, although it’s been attested to as early as 1979, although the first publication was in 1999 in the book The Science of Star Wars by the astrophysicist Jeanne Cavelos.

Incidentally, she was born on May 26th. Missed it by that much.

Now, if you were raised with any touch of Catholicism prior to a certain time, whenever you hear “May the force be with you” (or “the fourth”), you will almost automatically reply, “And also with you.” That’s just a thing. It’s unavoidable. Embrace it.

If you’re more of a Dark Side person, don’t worry. Two days from now, it’s Revenge of the Sixth.

I’ll keep this short, but I will point out one thing: I saw the original trilogy before 1997, which means that I saw… the original trilogy. But Lucas was never one to leave things alone, so as my Star Wars day gift to you, here is just a hint of what he changed when he re-released Episode IV in the late 90s and early 10s.

Well, except for changing the title to Episode IV: A New Hope once Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back came out.

I can’t say that I totally disagree with some of these changes, and the color timing, especially in the 2011 version, is much, much better. However, say it with me…

HAN SHOT FIRST!

Thank you, and May the Fourth Be with You.

It’s okay to stop and ask for direction(s)

In the past, I’ve written about the improv concept of getting yourself in trouble and then making it worse. I should have mentioned that this is fine for improv, but in the real world, not so much. And yet, people manage to do this all the time.

Sometimes, it’s due to psychological conditions. Hoarding is a classic example, and there are even TV shows about it — yeah, way to exploit a serious disorder, y’all. The thing is, hoarding progresses gradually. There are actually five levels to it, and reading that list will make a lot of us feel better about our own housekeeping skills — as in “Phew. I’m sloppy, but not a hoarder.”

The thing is, though, that hoarding, like any mental illness, is treatable, but the hoarder has to seek treatment first.

Here’s the other thing. There are conditions that are not mental illnesses that can still get people in trouble but could be avoided if only they ask for some help.

Basically, anything in your life that feels like it’s gotten out of your control or gone beyond your area of expertise is a good candidate for getting help on, and the condition is called “swamped,” which isn’t an official psychological definition, but definitely a fact of modern life. This is especially true if you’re feeling swamped and don’t know where to begin to take action and fix the problem.

Most of us don’t know how to do that. It’s human nature, although it’s a bigger problem for Americans in general and men in particular, because asking for help can be seen as weak and definitely makes someone feel vulnerable. There’s always the chance of hearing “No,” in which case the floor falls out from beneath us. In other words, a big bar to seeking help when we need it is fear.

Another one is over-confidence and simple blindness to there being an issue until it’s too late.

Imagine that you’re setting out on a road trip to visit good friends who recently moved to another state, and they told you their address, but you forgot to look it up before you started driving. No problem, you can look it up at some point before you get to their state, and anyway the scenery is beautiful, so you’ll just keep driving.

You set out from California, aimed for Minnesota, and you’re doing well up to the point you’re thinking about popping open the GPS somewhere halfway across Colorado, but when you do you find out you have no signal up in the mountains and, later on in Kansas, you find out that you have no data out here at all. “Well, that’s cool,” you think as you pass into Oklahoma. All you have to do is make a big left turn at Iowa, and boom, straight into Minnesota.

But then you notice that you’re driving into Arkansas, then Tennessee, wind up in Georgia, and you’re suddenly seeing road signs indicating “Miami, 250 miles.” You do manage to get data when you hit Miami, only to find out that you’re about 1,760 miles and six states southeast of your original destination with no idea how to get there.

Now, obviously, you’re not going to make that 28 hour California to Minnesota drive in one solid shot. It’s basically a three-day trip if you’re not being touristy (or are being cheap) and a two-day trip if you’re a maniac. Okay, a day and a half-shift if you’re a trucker on speed. Still… you have to eat and pee at some point. And at any one of those points, you could have simply asked someone, “How do I get from here to Minnesota?” (I feel that I’ve mentioned the gopher state enough times now to actually pop in a link and see if their Visitors Bureau will toss me a sponsorship. It can’t hurt to ask. See what I did there?)

By not asking, our hypothetical traveler had a destination in mind but then things literally went south. Oh. Did I mention that this traveler was going to attend their friends’ wedding and would have arrived on time without the wrong turn? Instead, they’ve missed the big event completely.

This is exactly what we do in our real lives when we sense that something is going out of control but then keep on driving, enjoying the scenery, and hoping that it will magically work itself out. But here’s the problem. Just as self-driving cars are not quite a ubiquitous thing, self-driving lives never will be. Get out of the car every now and then and ask for directions.

You need to exit your fear-bubble and ask for help when you need it. That is literally what friends and family are for, especially friends. Hey, they’re that special F-word for you for a reason. It means they want to hang out with you and spend time together and help you when you need it and feel safe being vulnerable enough to ask you when they need help.

Family are the people you have to like because you’re related to them. Friends are the people who like you despite not being related. And, to bring it full circle, when you ask the best of your friends for help, their first response is exactly the same as the best improv teammate.

“Yes! And…?”

Image source Wonder woman0731, used unchanged, under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

Sunday Nibble #59: 408 days later

March 20, 2020. The theatre company where I’d done improv and worked a second job had shut down ten days earlier — “Temporarily, of course.” But this Friday afternoon, the day after the start of spring that year, was the day that the Mayor of Los Angeles made the announcement, only a couple of days after the Mayor of San Francisco had made the same announcement.

The city was shutting down, and all non-essential businesses were to close. Masks and social distancing were required, and frequent handwashing was advised. Everything became quiet, and strange, and tense.

Grocery stores were still open in those early days, although they all had long lines outside and very limited occupancy inside, and we all remember the abrupt disappearance of toilet paper, soap, laundry detergent, and meat from the shelves.

It wasn’t until later that we learned the TP thing was not due to hoarding but rather to a shift in supply and demand. With people going to workplaces every day, that’s where most of the TP got used. Suddenly, demand in those places cratered while demand in private homes shot up.

The problem was that office TP and household TP were produced in different facilities, to different standards, and with different supply chains. One wound up with a surplus, while the other wound up with a demand it couldn’t immediately meet.

But you’ve probably forgotten that when TP finally did start to become available in stores again, it was that one-ply, terribly thin, shit-quality (pun intended) stuff we all knew from our work crappers. A friend of mine describes that kind of bum wad as “Bible paper” in terms of thinness, and he’s absolutely right.

Of course, I happened to start the lockdown with a nearly-new four pack of the really good double-ply stuff, and since I don’t go through TP that fast, I wasn’t really worried about that. No, I had bigger things to worry about. Like… money.

See, I’d lost both of my jobs in the same week, with no idea when they’d come back, They had barely kept me afloat as it was, and I’d been relying on the dwindling remains of my savings that I’d had to start dipping into back in 2018, as well as the largesse of friends who loaned me what I needed. (Damn, I hate having to rely on that.)

But then a couple of funny things happened. The first was, of course, the original stimulus check. Thanks to being able to deposit via my phone, I still have mine sitting in front of me, and that $1,200 did help, even it was delayed because some egomaniacal manbaby had to stall so he could slap his name all over them.

I actually found out while writing this that I’m getting another check, presumably the $1,400 version, very soon, and it really makes be feel guilty because, basically I’m now at a place where I don’t need it. Oh, I’m not rejecting it because I’m going to pour it right back into the economy getting two very necessary but delayed car repairs done that will only leave maybe enough to rent an AMC Theatre for a private screening with friends. But I figure, that way, the money really is helping to stimulate the economy. Percolate up and all that, right?

I think the date on the first stimulus check is May 1, 2020, which was the same day as the biggest disaster of that year for me, as I commemorated here yesterday. That was when my dog Sheeba died, making my isolation at the time complete.

Needed money, tragic death. Good thing, bad thing. They love to travel in pairs. But there was another fortunate accident, and at least I got to take advantage of that one almost immediately.

This revolved around unemployment, which I applied for on the same day the Mayor made his announcement. Now, I heard horror stories from a lot of people, who took forever to get approved. The thing was that I had only started my full-time job the August before and the theatre job was pretty much part time. So, when I went to apply, I still had an open claim.

This meant that I basically just jumped right back in. Sure, the weekly benefit was a lot lower but there was that sudden $600 a week from Federal unemployment. This meant that, for the four months I was collecting, from April through July, I was actually making more being out of work than I had been while in it.

Around July, I started back very part time at the old job, eventually transitioning into going back full time — and to the office mostly — in September. Of course, the “office” was the boss’s house, and at most there would usually be four people in it, all masked and in separate rooms. On those rare occasions when one of the employees who was working remotely did come in, they were also masked and in their own private room.

The boss still did set us up to all work remotely, which was a good and complicated trick considering that the field was health insurance, meaning that we couldn’t all just call in from our home PCs. Nope. We each had office laptops that were encrypted as hell with a bunch of layers of authentication and security to get in, and his IT contractors had kill-switch ability on all of them the second they might have been stolen, lost, or otherwise compromised.

Yeah, remote-bricking an entire computer. It was some serious James Bond level shit.

There was also a VOIP clone of my office desk phone at home, which was very weird. And so for the rest of 2020, I mostly worked in the office, usually only doing the from home thing on weekends, not moving over to more at-home until the end of our busy season in late December.

And, of course, the money anxiety came back. Luckily, thanks to the ridiculous unemployment benefits, I sort of had savings again, but was looking at expenses kicking the shit out of income by about, well, this time in 2021.

But then at the beginning of December, an old friend and coworker contacted me and explained that he was now Creative Director at a company, and did I want to write some freelance articles for them?

“Hell yes,” was my response, and it also happened to relate to the subject matter I’d spent the five years leading up to life’s big rug-pull in 2017 writing about, so it was perfect. So was the money! So from December to February, I wrote four articles a month and made a nice bonus.

But then a funny thing happened. My friend contacted me and said, “Hey. Want to work for us full time, on staff?”

“Does the Pope shit in the woods?” I thought. “Hell yes,” I said.

“Make us an offer, then,” he told me, and my brain exploded.

See, the norm I’m used to — and probably the one that most of my American readers who aren’t on an executive or “talk to my agent” level is this. The way a job offer works is, “Okay, here’s the position, here’s the rules, and we’re going to pay $X” — usually expressed as either per hour, or salary per year.

And we are trained to never say, “Oh, okay. But I’d need $X+ to take the job.” That’s the fastest way to lose it. And when I suddenly was put in the position of having to come up with my own price, I realized how many times I’d basically been totally fucked and undervalued in the past.

(Hint: most of you have. Resist in the future!)

Still, I didn’t want to be unrealistic and ask for too much, but I also didn’t want to ask for too little. What I did know was that by the time my last job imploded when the company went under, I was pretty happy with what I was making. I could pay all my expenses, save money every month, and handle both occasional emergencies and little luxuries.

So I did what I felt was most fair. I started with my final salary at the last job, calculated what it would have been after three years of raises at what I’d typically received each of the ten years overall I’d worked for the company, then adjusted for inflation.

Yeah, it was a bigger number than I’d ever earned in my life, even when I was working in TV, but it didn’t feel that outrageous, so I pitched it to my friend and said, “If this sounds ridiculous, please let me know.”

Apparently, it wasn’t. So as of March 1, 2021 —346 days after lockdown began, which is 49 weeks and 3 days — I left my fun but low-paying job in the Medicare field and moved back to my favorite, which is writing stuff.

And, in perhaps the most ironic twist of all, I’m working with a multi-national team so that everyone works remotely anyway.

You’re reading this on May 2, 2021 — day 408 since lockdown began, aka 58 weeks and 2 days. Or another way to put it is one year and 44 days. And so much has changed in that time it’s ridiculous.

I had my first vaccine shot on April 24, and will have my second Moderna jab on May 22. I went back onto company health insurance May 1 and won’t have to deal with Covered California and their stupid, wonky website again for a while. And I’m already making more than I spend, am saving money and, most of all, am preparing to bring a dog back into my life.

So… 2020 was a long dark tunnel that really capped off two pretty shaky, shitty years for me in the first place. But I managed (somehow) to slither through it alive, and it looks like 2021 is going to become another rebirth — hey, the Phoenix deal is my thing, and at this point, I seriously think I’m finally going to just break down and get my first (and only) tattoo, and yes, it’s going to be that damn bird.

The Saturday Morning Post #60: The Rêves Part 38

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles. In this one, the shit hits the fan.

Math after aftermath

Social and mainstream news media blow up almost immediately, but it has nothing to do with JPL.

The headlines are sensational and lurid, and the live reporters wide-eyed and disbelieving. At home, Brenda just stands in front of the TV, staring at the news, arm up and still holding the remote, other hand on her cheek, and mouth wide open.

Jonah walks in, looks at the screen and mutters a quiet, “Fuck!”

Esme strolls through to the kitchen. “Heard the news?” she says casually. “Well, told you so!”

Joshua has heard none of the news because he booked it out of JPL through the emergency exit, called the car to him, then headed off to the one place where he thought he could find an answer: Simon’s grave. Well, his and the boys’.

Was it possible that Lorre had betrayed them all, and actually given away the one way to destroy them, knowing that he’d be safe in Joshua’s trap?

He could have, in theory — but then once Pearl and Anabel knew what he was going to have Ausmann do, why did they allow it to happen if it meant their destruction? They must have known the same trick that Preston and Danny did, and there were three of them as well. All six of them could have Mecha merged into a giant Rêve that could have crushed Ausmann like a bug.

So he couldn’t believe that the Rêves were gone. He tried to keep that thought out of his head — he couldn’t stand to lose Simon twice. Once was traumatic enough. He sped to Glendale, drove through the cemetery gates, and slammed on the brakes as soon as he saw what was going on.

There were hundreds of people, wandering around looking very disoriented, all of them naked, and none of them looking more than maybe 25.

Joshua rolled down his window and started driving slowly, calling out. “Simon! Preston! Danny!” over and over. The walking people didn’t seem hostile at all, just confused — and then he realized something.

He recognized a couple of famous faces there. Famous dead faces, and as they’d appeared when very young, including Jimmy Stewart — and it was really disconcerting to see him nude. Not that he wasn’t attractive at his apparent age, just that it was a jarringly anachronistic image.

He continued to drive until he got up near Simon’s grave, an area that was mostly deserted, since everyone seemed to be heading down to congregate near the main administration buildings in the first area of the huge grounds.

He came around the corner, and there were Simon, Preston, and Danny, just casually hanging out near Simon’s grave. He parked and ran to them.

“Told you this is the first place he’d look,” Simon told the boys. Joshua raced up and hugged him hard, and realized that he was quite tangible and very warm.

“You’re back,” he said, starting to cry. “Back, alive, and in the flesh.”

“Well, sort of,” Simon said. “We’re kind of… best of both worlds, I guess. Flesh and blood, but with Rêve abilities and powers, and so forth.”

“Did you know this was going to happen?” Joshua asked, turning the question to all three of them. They looked at each other and then shrugged.

“We all knew, all along,” Preston explained. “Well, not the Class II’s, which is why they supported Ausmann.”

“They didn’t believe they could be destroyed,” Danny added.

“But none of you were,” Joshua replied.

“Exactly,” Simon said.

“The whole idea was to let Ausmann think he could do it, and then lead him right into the opposite thing. But you were there, you know how it worked.”

“But I didn’t know that everyone was going to get physically resurrected!” Joshua insisted.

“Would you have helped if you did?” Simon asked.

“I… no. Yes. I don’t know! It’s such a huge question, and here I was left right out of the loop. For one thing, how many billions of Rêves came back?”

“Not that many,” Preston explained. “The effect is limited to either end of the machine, nothing in the middle or distant from it.”

“Thank you for your service,” a voice called out. Joshua turned to see Anabel approaching. She was wearing a woman’s dress in colonial American style and carrying a huge armload of clothes, which she dumped on the ground.

“What? There’s a mini history exhibit up in one of the chapels. I figured you gentlemen might want to put something on before you go home, and while it’s a bit earlier period than your preferred hunting garb, it’ll keep you legal.”

“Thanks,” Joshua replied, uncertain, as they sorted through the clothes and everyone but Joshua put them on, since he didn’t need to. They wound up looking like refuges from an unfortunately all-white dinner theatre production of Hamilton.

You’ll be back, I can tell — ” Preston started to sing.

“Shut up,” Danny told him.

“What happens now?” Joshua asked her. “I mean, I guess you’ve all gotten what you wanted.”

“We’ve gotten the means to what we want,” she corrected him. “This was just the first step.”

“There’s more?” he asked, nervously.

“You’d have to ask Pearl about that,” Anabel replied. “Oh, don’t worry. Since we share your world now, they’re nothing nefarious or dangerous to humans.”

She turned to the others. “And you do know that you still have some of your abilities, right?” They nodded. “Just don’t try walking through any walls.”

She turned away and then vanished in what looked like a rapidly receding puff of smoke.

“Well, guess I have to take the long way home,” Joshua said to them sadly, but Simon put his hand on Joshua’s cheek. “Never alone,” he said. “We’re riding with you. Like humans.”

“Nice,” Joshua sighed quietly. He even let Simon drive. The trip home was uneventful, although they did notice they were getting the occasional strange looks from other cars at their outfits.

They got back to the building and parked, then got in the elevator, which wasn’t a problem for the formerly dead crew anymore. It stopped in the lobby and their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Gresham, got on, coming back from a walk with her dog Joan.

“Hello,” she nodded, and they replied in kind, but then she looked at Simon, started, went white and fainted, Preston and Danny catching her.

“Oh dear,” Joshua sighed. “I have a feeling this kind of thing is going to be a problem. He, Preston and Danny carried her off on her floor while Simon continued on up. They got her to one of the banquettes in the hallway and sat her down to revive her.

She eventually came around and looked at them.

“Are you feeling all right, Mrs. Gresham?” Joshua asked. “Do you need anything? Water? To see a doctor?”

“No, no, I’m okay now,” she insisted, looking around. “Wait, where is… there are only three of you?”

“There only ever were,” Joshua reassured her.

“But I could have sworn I saw…” She trailed off and covered her mouth, then laughed. “No, but of course not, he’s no longer with us. I’m just… maybe it’s my meds, or maybe I’m just going demented. I’m sorry to scare you all like that. He just looked so real.”

“Simon, I’ll assume,” Joshua said. “Yeah, he was the most real person I ever knew.”

“I am so, so sorry for your loss, dear,” she said, patting his hand.

“Thank you,” he replied. “And don’t feel bad. I still swear I can see him around our unit sometimes.”

They helped her up and walked her to her door. Once she’d opened it, Joshua told her to call if she needed anything or felt faint again, and then he and the boys headed back upstairs, heaving a collective sigh of relief in the elevator.

That was close,” he told them.

Once they got inside, Joshua fired up the TV and nine-screened it to all the major media outlets, from liberal to neutral to conservative. At the same time, Simon started streaming sources on their phones, tablets, laptops and PCs, and then they all sat down to watch and learn, with each of them focusing on a particular corner of whatever device they were watching.

The conservative media was definitely leaning religious, with headlines like, “Second coming imminent?” “Herald of the Apocalypse?” and “Has the Resurrection come?”

Meanwhile, more liberal media were running headlines like, “Science faces ultimate challenge in cemetery mystery,” “Viral hoax or supernatural event?” and “The real life Walking Dead.”

The press in the middle seemed less certain of what to do with it, so their stories had the most factual headlines: “Thousands of nude people appear in local cemeteries,” “Is Spencer Tunick at it again?” and “The ultimate case of religion vs. nudists?”

They watched and made notes for a couple of hours, and not once was JPL mentioned, but there were certainly op-ed pieces and person-on-the-street interviews, and it quickly became clear that the world was starting to lose its collective shit as the story spread.

The first negative report came from NBC, which cut to live footage of a scene in which a bunch of armed men in pick-up trucks rode up in front of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and let loose with military grade arms against the naked dead who were casually walking out from the front gates. And… nothing happened. The bullets appeared to hit them and leave brief red splotches on their skin, but these quickly vanished, even as the walls behind them showed real damage.

Meanwhile, the resurrected Rêves just kept walking, unconcerned — but the boys in the trucks who were formerly so confident in and proud of their abilities turned tail and fled, and there were probably many pants shat at the same time.

It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that ABC broke in with news from Pasadena, and Joshua and Simon finally found out what had really happened above ground.

And, as no one knew, this story wasn’t supposed to break, but Davis couldn’t resist, spotted a now working payphone, and had called up her sister-in-law to give her the scoop to pass on.

So the new viral thing on social media became “Dead revive, old rethrive,” and the mainstream media spent the rest of the day trying to get comments from the law enforcement agencies involved, but they kept stonewalling (per the media) or protecting their people (per reality) by not revealing any details.

Into the evening, the conservative media started asking whether there wasn’t some government plot to suppress a magic “fountain of youth” formula or process, while the liberal media was still asking for specifics on who was affected by this, and who or what was behind it.

The media in the middle, meanwhile, just focused on which celebrity was either a) fucking, b) marrying, or c) divorcing which other celebrity, with all the same questions asked about the second celebrity, and so on, in a meaningless clusterfuck of gossip that kept the stupid and weak-minded focused on trivia instead of reality.

In reality, Joshua realized, there was no good single way to explain all of this. He knew the science behind it completely, but the details of that would make the average citizen brain explode in two seconds. Meanwhile, Preston understood but did not believe all the religious bullshit bits that could explain it, and Danny kind of remembered, but didn’t want to explain, so none of them could do that.

And Simon was in total agreement with Joshua. There was nothing any of them could say to convince any of the peons of any particular persuasion to not believe what they had already hitched their wagons to.

“Well… fuck,” they sighed in unison.

“Now what?” Joshua asked.

“I have no damn idea,” Simon said. “Except, we’re kind of locked in here for the moment, so what does the magic box on the wall say?”

“It says ‘Honey, I love the way you think.’ Let’s strap down and watch up.”

“What about us,” Danny asked.

“You are family now, and you know it,” Joshua replied.

“We know,” Preston replied. “Just making sure that — ”

“Things are going to be weird enough,” Joshua admonished them. “There’s strength in numbers, right? Four is better than two. And it’s a fuckton better than one.”

“I’m not sure, but I still think that we don’t need to eat,” Simon explained.

“Doesn’t that make you all cheap dates, then?” Joshua laughed. “But how is that possible? If you have physical bodies now, don’t they need to run off of something?”

“Did you notice how all the Rêves in the cemetery weren’t affected by those bullets?” Simon pointed out.

“We’re a lot more solid than we used to be,” Simon said, “But not quite physical in the same way.”

“Physical enough,” Joshua said. You have body heat. And I can smell you when I get close enough.”

“Sorry,” Danny moped.

“Not that,” Joshua told them. “I’d recognize Simon’s scent anywhere, and it came back today.”

This seemed to cheer up Danny, who looked at Preston, and they just locked eyes for a while as Joshua turned down all the devices to just their streaming entertainment home screen.

“Any preferences?” Joshua asked, but Danny and Preston were heading for the hallway.

“It’s been an insane day,” Preston said. “We’re going to bed.”

“It’s like two in the afternoon,” Joshua reminded them.

“Just a nap,” Danny called back as they exited up the hall. “We’ll be back.”

“It has definitely been an insane day,” Simon said.

“Agreed. So what do you want to watch now?” Joshua asked.

“Honestly, I just want to watch you breathe,” Simon told him.

“God, I love you,” he replied.

“I love you, too.”

They looked into each other’s eyes a long while, kissed briefly, then snuggled on the couch. Joshua handed Simon the remote.

“Here,” he said. “You can drive.”

In the guest bedroom, Danny and Preston had entered, locked the door, and just looked at each other, both suddenly anxious.

“Physical enough,” Danny whispered.

“We can touch each other now, for real,” Preston replied. They simultaneously reached their right hand up to each other’s left cheek, pulled in, and started kissing, gently and slowly at first. Both of them were thinking that it wasn’t technically incest, since they weren’t exactly related, and it was questionable whether they could be considered clones.

What they quickly realized, though, was that each of them knew exactly what they liked, both of them liked the same things, and they were quickly driving each other wild in mad ecstatic fits because they never had to ask what to do, what with, and to which body part.

It wasn’t long before their clothes were strewn all over the room and they hit the bed, writing around in dozens of ever-changing positions, moaning and cooing in urgent little outbursts of pleasure, mouths regularly coming back together so their tongues could wrestle.

Both of them honestly felt more than once that everything felt so good they were going to pass out, if not leave their body entirely. They proceeded to get more adventurous, and louder, although one of them was still yet to top the other.

When they finally started taking turns fucking, the sexual frenzy meter went off the Richter scale.

In the other room, Simon and Joshua heard the bed suddenly start bumping into the wall, and then the muffled but obvious shouts and shrieks of passion. They just looked at each other and smiled.

“I guess that was inevitable,” Joshua said.

“Well, wouldn’t you, if the opportunity came up?” Simon asked.

“In a hummingbird heartbeat,” Joshua agreed.

Preston and Danny started getting louder and the thumping got faster. Their moans and outbursts of “Oh fuck,” and “God,” in a crescendo until a moment of silence, and then almost simultaneous and very loud grunts.

Joshua and Simon smiled at each other again. They both knew that sound very well. The guest room went quiet after that.

“You don’t think they’d mind living in our second unit, do you?” Joshua asked Simon.

“No, but I think the neighbors fifteen floors down and a half mile away might,” Simon joked.

They went back to ironically watching the 1965 satire The Loved One, which had actually been shot in Forest Lawn, and which was a devastating critique of the funeral industry.

In the guest room, Danny and Preston collapsed into each other’s arms and lied there in a sweaty, sticky pile of exhausted satisfaction for a long time.

Eventually, they looked at each other. “Dude — ” they said at the same time.

“You first,” Preston replied.

“No, you,” Danny insisted.

“Okay,” Preston said. “Do you have any idea how huge a market there is for gay twink identical twin incest porn?”

“No idea,” Danny said.

“Enormous,” Preston explained. “We’ll basically be able to cum money.”

“Wow. I was only going to suggest doing an Only Fans,” Danny replied. “But I can see where a niche market would help.”

“Forget Only Fans,” Preston said. “Too many people on there now who promise a lot and deliver nothing. We’d set up our own site. I’m sure Simon and Joshua can help us with that. And I do have name recognition.”

“Right, but don’t most of your fans know you’re dead? Er… you were… you died at one point?”

“Hm. I wonder if the market is bigger or smaller for gay twink identical twin incestuous necrophilia porn?”

“What if Preston was actually one of three identical triplets?” Danny suggested. “And his brothers, hearing of his death, decided to come out to L.A. to start their own career?”

“Hm,” Preston said, intrigued. “But then I’d have to become someone else.”

“Technically, so would I,” Danny reminded him, “Because when you died, I died. It’s just that your fans never knew that you were me.”

“Goddamn,” Preston laughed. “When I left Idaho, I never imagined that there’d one day wind up being three of me!”

“Technically,” Danny said.

“Technically is the best way to be right,” Preston reminded him. “So, I’m in. You?”

“Let’s do this,” Danny agreed.

Elsewhere, others were making big decisions on career changes. In the Simi Valley, Davis and Lewis were considering their new-found youth, and how a career in law enforcement had nearly gotten them killed.

“You remember what we really wanted to do in college, honey?” Davis asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Lewis replied. “Except we were both kind of afraid.”

“I know,” she said. “But now? Come on. We were naked on the news. What more could we fear?”

“Premature baldness and breast cancer?” he offered.

“Cynic!” she chided him. “Okay, who did we always want to be?”

“Nichols and May,” he replied.

“Exactly!” she said. “And what stopped us?”

“Wanting to be able to pay rent and eat!” he exclaimed.

“But now… we own the house outright, we have a buttload of savings and investments, and our formerly old asses are now young and cute again. Which means…?”

“You’re going to leave me for a younger man?” he quipped.

“Stop!” she shouted. “Although, don’t stop, because that’s actually it. You’re doing right now. Ad-libbing your ass off. You’re a really funny man, Randall. Why do you think I married you? What stopped us from pursuing our dream ain’t stopping us now, because we have the time and the money.”

“So what are you suggesting, exactly?” he asked.

“Improv classes,” she replied. “And then we get to become the next Nichols and May.”

“And then what?” he asked.

“Oh, who knows? Maybe never famous beyond a handful of loyal fans at some tiny black box in the Valley, maybe we wind up starring on SNL and then going on to movie careers. But no matter what, it means that we can just forget our policing past and finally have fun in our lives.”

“We had fun, didn’t we?” he asked.

“We did,” she said, “But we’ve also been given a second chance. Or did you miss that part?”

“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to wrap my mind around it.”

“As are we all, dear. Just thought I’d try to help.”

“Oh, you did,” Davis replied. “You did enormously.”

“So?” she asked.

“So when is our first improv lesson?”

She laughed in delight and hugged him. “I’d scheduled it for the beginning workshop, which starts on Tuesday night.”

“You knew I was going to say yes, didn’t you?” he laughed.

“Why the hell do you think we’re going to be so good at improv?” she shot back.

“Why do you think I love you so damn much, Paula?” he replied.

Another career change was in the works, and when Brenda’s phone rang, she answered immediately when she saw that it was Rita calling her back.

“What the mother-loving actual hell is going on out there right now?” Rita exclaimed. “See, if you’d just taken the state job — ”

“Rita, I know how it works,” Brenda replied, “And I wouldn’t even have seen my first day of actual work until at least the first quarter of ’25, so let’s not pretend we could have done anything to prevent this.”

“I’m guessing that you know how it happened, and that your two boys in the fancy costumes were involved.”

“Which is all water under the bridge right now, Rita. I’ve got a proposal, and we can do it right now, either state or county, although I think that county will be more relevant, because as far as I can tell, the phenomenon is limited to there.”

“All right. Try me. What you got?”

“What we’ve got is an untold number of formerly dead people who have come back physically and, between you and I, the explanation is totally rational and scientific. Oh, I mean, it’s all that weird quantum physics spooky action stuff. But there’s nothing supernatural about it.”

“Tell that to my mom,” Rita sighed.

“Yours too?” Brenda replied. “Anyway… these people have been gone anywhere from a few to a couple hundred years, at most, but that’s enough at either extreme. They have returned physically, but have no assets, nothing that they own, and to all levels of government, they don’t exist.”

“Because they died.”

“Exactly. And for the ones who died a long time ago, they don’t even have living friends or relatives, or at least not ones who know they exist. But they’re here, and we have to find a way to integrate them into society, and give them ways to support themselves.”

“Sure, but what’s the trade-off?” Rita asked.

“You kidding me?” Brenda replied. “They are a direct connection to the past. These people lived it, and they know things about it that our generations have forgotten, or never even knew. We could fill a hundred libraries with their memories, and maybe that is the trade-off.”

“Librarians?” Rita scoffed.

“Now you’re just being obtuse on purpose,” Brenda scolded her. “No. They tell their stories. In as much detail as they have, day-to-day from what they can remember, and we record it all. They also answer questions from our historians and archivists, identify if they can forgotten locations and objects, and fill in all the blanks in our history.”

“Okay. That does sound useful. In exchange for…?”

“Room and board, and maybe re-training for modern fields of employment? And you know, we still have so much abandoned real estate after the plague, even after we housed all of the homeless in it. We could supplement it with a subsidy to any descendants who would take any of them into their own homes.”

“Okay, I only ask because you know it’s my job to shoot holes in proposals like this,” Rita cut in.

“Of course,” Brenda agreed.

“But have you accounted for how the living might feel about the undead? Fear? Resentment? Animosity? Outright hostility?”

“Oh, I’m sure they will,” Brenda replied, “Which is why I think our first step is outreach and getting them into our custody to keep them safe.”

“What if they won’t go willingly?” Rita asked.

“I think that my boys in the fancy costumes might have a pretty powerful and persuasive connection in that regard,” Brenda told her.

“Do tell,” Rita urged her.

“No details. Just that let’s say she… well, not she, they, could be considered the… monarch of all of the Rêves.”

“They got a monarch?” Rita exclaimed.

“Sort of,” Brenda demurred.

“Shee-it!” Rita exhaled, before pausing. “Okay. I’ll pitch to the supes and see what they say. Anything else?”

“Yeah,” Brenda added. “Tell them that if the county doesn’t do it, I’m going to anyway, whether they like it or not, and I’ll make it the biggest non-profit they’ve ever seen.”

“Good luck with that,” Rita said, not as insincerely as it might have sounded, and they hung up.

There were two reasons that the tachyon transmitter had not stirred up billions or even hundreds of millions of the dead. One was distance, and the other was time — which made perfect sense in terms of physics, of course.

Physically, the thing seemed to only have an effect within a 150 kilometer radius, which limited it to an area bounded by a circle passing through Mount Palomar and continuing around in an arc that passed outside of Victorville, just north of Bakersfield, just west of Santa Barbara, and through a lot of Pacific Ocean, which didn’t bring back anyone.

Neither did two of the three islands in range — one of the Channel Islands and San Clemente Island, although Catalina Island and its Avalon cemetery were right in range.

As for the time limit, it had nothing to do with when the machine was created, even though the Rêves did not first appear until 1993. Rather, it had to do with how long there had been outside settlers in the region, but also whether there were any specific records or memories about them.

It was the Class II phenomenon all over again. Historical figures that had been remembered, even from the earliest colonial days, came back. The ones who weren’t remembered by history or their descendants did not.

And most of the indigenous people, the Tongva, happened to come back as the equivalent of Hadas as well, but they kept themselves hidden from the Hadas silvestres. They all hated the Spanish who had subjugated them, so would never refer to themselves in that language in the first place.

If they did name themselves, it was something like iisawut taamit, or “sun wolves,” although they all just accepted that they had moved into the spirit realm while remaining earthbound and had no idea what they had done to deserve it.

At the moment that Ausmann had fallen through the pipes, breached containment, and effectively shut the machine down, there was a sudden rain of ash from the air everywhere. At the same time, all of the Hadas came racing back to Pearl, who was meditating on the mountain next to Ausmann’s ruined hide-out.

The entity Pearl reintegrated all of them and, like all of the other Rêves, suddenly took on a very tangible form, except that they were now twelve feet tall and, instead of appearing always as Janis Joplin, Pearl constantly cycled through every face and body of ever one of the Hadas.

It was exactly what they knew would happen, and the one desired outcome of this whole adventure, although the one detail that Pearl had withheld from all of the Rêves and humans involved.

They were now incredibly powerful — the storm they had conjured just over two weeks ago was nothing compared to what they could do now, but they didn’t want to do that.

Pearl’s goal in engineering this was to help the stupid Vivants learn how to live with and on the planet, and perhaps the only way to do it was to give them an existential shock even bigger then the ultimately subverted plague disaster of three years earlier.

Then, it would be time to offer them Pearl’s help. They could actually change weather patterns, help undo damage, and help nature help humans — and vice versa.

Pearl decided to take a stroll around the mountain top, and it felt good to be this alive again, this tall, and this powerful. They were going to do great things for this planet, dammit. It was something that every one of them had wanted to do throughout their human lives, and they had never lost track of that goal.

And then, near the top of the mountain, a large wolf appeared on the road, and just stared at Pearl, who stopped. It was proportional to Pearl, with gray and white fur, and eyes that shone with the light of the Sun.

It sat and sniffed the air, then regarded Pearl with a head-tilt to the left. Pearl placed a hand on their chest, then nodded. The wolf rose and approached slowly, head down. A familiar energy was sweeping over Pearl now. It was the same one they sent to Rêves they were approaching — one that said you are loved, you are safe, be calm.

Very slowly and carefully, Pearl put their hand on the wolf’s head and in that instant their mind was flooded with images of hundreds of thousands of faces, all of them indigenous people, of every age and gender, and all of them were smiling and laughing.

It honestly made Pearl forget themselves and lose all concept of identity until it suddenly stopped when the wolf ducked its head away from their arm. Their eyes met again, and the wolf placed its heavy paw on Pearl’s right wrist, as if to acknowledge some agreement.

They exchanged no words mind(s) to mind(s), but many ideas and feelings, and Pearl finally just nodded. They knew who this wolf was, and the wolf knew who they were, and they both wanted the same thing.

As one, they turned to face the road down the mountain and knew that they had to head into the center of the home of humankind. They could have flashed themselves there in an instant, but there was a tacit agreement between them as well — “We must make this journey in the old way, on foot.”

That was probably the wolf, although Pearl wasn’t sure.

“It is the path of humility, and the best remembrance to not let our powers make us arrogant.”

Yeah, definitely the wolf, Pearl thought. And so they started the long walk down the mountain.

* * *

Three dog night

I’m rerunning this post in honor of the first anniversary of the death of Sheeba on May 1 of last year. I cannot believe I’ve made it so long without getting another dog — but 2020 was not the year for it.

My fans and followers may have wondered why the logo on my page is basically a flag with a dog on it, although my connection to the Dog Whisperer is probably a big clue. But the specific silhouette on that flag is my dog Sheeba, whom I adopted when she was eleven months old.

She was with me for the next fourteen and a half years and passed away one week ago today. It’s the first time in almost twenty years that I’ve been dog-less, but that last gap only lasted eleven days. There have been three dogs in total that I’ve wound up calling mine, although the first was originally the family dog and meant to be my mom’s.

As a tribute to Sheeba, here are the tales (and tails) of three dogs who were very special to me.

Dazé

She was the only dog of the three adopted as a puppy. My Mom and Dad found her at a rescue when she was twelve weeks old, although I’m really the one who picked her. Or maybe it was vice versa. In my youthful excitement, I dashed in ahead of my parents and soon came to this little white puppy who was just hanging out under an inverted rabbit cage.

I went over and knelt down and said “Hi,” and I swear I could see her thought processes as she gave me a look and a head tilt, then smiled back and sat down as if to say, “Okay. I choose you!”

I talked my parents into that one — her rescue name was Lucy — and we took her home.

My mother didn’t bond with her at all. In fact, at one point, she was on the verge of taking her back and we’d even made it as far as the shelter, but my seething anger changed her mind. Whether it was my dad who talked some sense into her or sudden Catholic guilt, I don’t know, but after that, there was never a question of taking the dog back.

I didn’t name her. My parents dubbed her Daisy, although I always spelled it Dazé. She attached to me almost immediately, and I was the one who trained her and taught her tricks, and she was a very fast learner.

She was also the only dog of mine that I have ever trusted 100% off-leash in public, although I never did it that often. But she was still the family dog, so there was a point when I’d moved out and couldn’t be with her for various reasons — starving student, dogs not allowed, and so on.

But once I’d gotten my first adult job and moved into a house with friends, it was time. My mother had died by that point and my dad had adopted a second dog, so it was a very easy task to talk him into letting me bring Dazé into my life full time.

Now while I was living in that house, I went out with a couple of friends around Thanksgiving to a bar in, I think, Silver Lake, and on the walk back to the car during a cold, west, misty late night, we saw something on the ground. Definitely an animal, with its head stuck in a Häagen-Dazs container.

Now, being an animal lover, I didn’t hesitate for a second to pick it up and pull that container off, even though we were in an industrial neighborhood and it could have easily been a rat. No. It was a puppy, and all I could do was bring it home.

The most likely explanation was that it was part of a litter from a guard dog at the shuttered auto repair yard that had wandered off, but I could bring it back in the morning.

One of my roommates vetoed that suggestion very logically. “If it got out once, it could again, so why let that happen?”

Thus did Toad come into Dazé’s life, and although the tiny pup eventually turned out to be a gigantic and very loving Rottweiler, Dazé was always the boss. She was fascinated with the pup from the very start, although eventually would play tricks on her, like act all excited to go outside until someone opened the door. Toad would race into the yard and Dazé would stroll back into the house, happy.

That was probably the most significant thing about Dazé. She was always boss dog without even trying. Later on, I lived in a house with two other adults and four other dogs, each of them huge. Keep in mind that Dazé weighed about 28 pounds and was what would be considered medium.

Didn’t matter. She was completely in charge, and all of those other dogs followed her rules, no matter what the humans said. Apparently, Dazé had banned the other dogs from “her” room, so even if I invited them in, they were having none of it.

She took good care of me for almost seventeen years, and it wasn’t until she abruptly stopped eating at the beginning of April that I figured out something was wrong and took her to the vet. (Hint: One of her nicknames acquired over the years was “Food Whore,” so the not-eating thing was serious.)

She was diagnosed with pancreatitis, normally treatable, but then two other problems popped up: kidney failure and cancer. And the problem there was that treating one would make the other worse and vice versa.

One day shy of four weeks after she stopped eating, we said good-bye at an animal hospital in Glendale.

Shadow

I had been told originally that Dazé was an American Eskimo and West Highland Terrier mix, although we didn’t have doggie DNA tests back then. Still, I searched online for those two breeds and available dogs, and found exactly one: An Eskie/White German Shepherd mix with an organization called German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County.

They had assumed she was part Eskie because while she looked like a white GSD, she was a lot smaller — about 35 pounds — and she was around a year old. But I was smitten, applied, had the interview and home inspection, and then was approved.

Two volunteers brought the dog to me. Her rescue name was Marina, and her initial reaction to me could not have been more different than Dazé’s.

The volunteers snuck out, and Marina refused to have anything to do with me. She went out on the patio and curled up in a corner, keeping a wary eye on me, and nothing I could do would get her to come in.

It gave me major flashbacks to my mom wanting to return Dazé. Had I made a huge mistake? So I decided to just ignore the dog and go about my business. Little did I know that this was exactly the right decision.

Eventually, I was in my bedroom when I heard the jingle of her dog tags at the door. Without looking at her, I sat at the foot of the bed, then just patted the space next to me. It took a while, but then I felt her jump onto the bed and come over and sniff me, and then she sat next to me.

That was the moment she decided that I was okay, and then became clingy as hell for the rest of her life — and that was okay.

Now, my parents’ choice of the name Daisy was totally arbitrary and something that had always bothered me, because that girl was way too tough for that name. If it had been my choice, I might have gone for something like Athena or Boudica.

So I decided that I was not going to call this girl Marina, but that I would also wait a week so that she would let me know what her name would be — which she very quickly did.

For one thing, she followed me everywhere, like my shadow. She also had the ability to suddenly appear in a room without making a sound, like a shadow. Finally, on walks at night, she would stop and stare into the shadows.

So… Shadow she was.

Personality wise, she was pretty much the opposite of Dazé. She was nervous and insecure and, like I mentioned, very clingy. She was still very smart, but definitely had separation anxiety. She also wasn’t great around strangers and could have fearful aggression toward other dogs — although I eventually figured out that a big cause of that was me being worried that she would show fearful aggression.

Dazé sometimes slept on the bed with me, while Shadow always did, or at least tried to. See, Dazé understood the rules: When daddy is having sexy time, I stay in my bed. Shadow, not so much, and even though we’d banish her beforehand, more often than not we’d suddenly become aware of her very quietly trying to sneak up onto the foot of the bed.

Like I said, clingy. Probably her most notable example of that happened whenever we had either thunderstorms (rare here) or fireworks (not so rare.) She would start shaking uncontrollably, then come to me and get on my lap.

Now, while she was entirely capable of just jumping up onto my lap while I was sitting at my desk, she wouldn’t do it under these circumstances. Instead, she’d put her front legs across my lap, and then laboriously climb the chair until she was up there, where she would sit and tremble.

I did manage to get her over thunder, though, by turning it into a game. We were in my second bedroom office (back when I had two bedrooms) during a storm, so I opened the blinds so we were looking at the street in front of the apartment.

When I saw a flash of lightning, I would happily tell her, “Here it comes. Here it comes,” and so on, then, when the thunder hit, I’d go, “Yay!” while hugging her. After a few tries, it actually seemed to do the trick.

There is some overlap between Shadow and Sheeba, but I’ll get to that in the next part. Suffice to say that Shadow taught me more by being not quite so perfect than Dazé ever did by definitely being perfect.

And, unlike Dazé, Shadow’s decline was not quick. She had suddenly started losing weight despite maintaining the same diet, so over the course of a few months, her vets tested her, and ruled out everything. She didn’t have cancer, or pancreatitis, or any kind of organ failure.

Yet… it got to the point where I had to swap her collar for Sheeba’s, because Shadow had gotten too skinny for hers to not slip off of her head. The inconclusive tests went on for well over a year until the morning I woke up and Shadow had lost all control of her legs and was stuck on the floor by the closet, having soiled herself.

I took her to the vet and they told me that there was nothing to be done. It was time. As with Dazé before, I absolutely insisted on being with her at the end, and I made sure that Sheeba was there, too.

And just like with Dazé before and Sheeba after, I had no qualms whatsoever about crying like a baby in front of both strangers and the staff at the Pet Doctors.

Shadow was a special girl because she leaned so heavily on me whereas Dazé had been so independent. Probably not a surprise, either, that she had the shortest lifespan of any of my dogs. But the thing she most reminds me of now in thinking about her is that yes, eventually the pain of loss does go away. It just takes time.

Sheeba

Which brings us to number three dog, and probably the most interesting of the bunch. Because of Shadow’s separation anxiety, I decided that she should probably have another dog around the house, so I headed over to the East Valley Animal Shelter to see what was there. This was the day before Labor Day, and I was immediately smitten by a small black dog  with a white “sword” on her chest and “spats” on her feet — if you’re paying attention to the pictures, you’ll see that I definitely have a “type.” What most struck me about her was that she seemed so calm despite being in a shelter, just sitting there by the front of the kennel, hanging out.

They estimated that she was about eleven months old.

I didn’t even find it out until later, but I first saw her about two hours after she’d been brought in, which is impressive thing number one. Number two: Apparently, she had been thrown out of a car. I didn’t find that part out until after I’d adopted her.

Oh, right. There was a waiting period until she was available, but you can bet your ass that I was in line at the shelter the second it opened at 7 a.m. the following Friday, and the dog who didn’t even have a shelter name came home with me.

This was before I worked for Cesar, but somehow I knew enough to not just shove Sheeba into Shadow’s space, so a friend took her in at first because step number one had been having her spayed, and she needed some healing time.

What I also didn’t know then is that it’s a very bad idea to put two female dogs together, related or not, and it should only be two males or a male and female. Oops.

In what we called the Dog House, with the four big dogs, two were male and one was female, so I suppose that worked things out, although Toad was also female, and Dazé did meet her as a puppy, although she still pulled shit on her.

Anyway, we finally introduced the two on a walk. By this point, following my “one week to name” rule, I had settled on Sheeba — using that spelling so it would have the same number of letters as Shadow — and for me it fit because, more than anything, Sheeba just seemed to have a calm and very regal air about her.

She always kept her head up proudly while sitting or lying prone, and there was just always something in her eyes that expressed some vast and ancient wisdom. This girl knew.

She was also always pretty aloof when it came to physical affection. She was never cuddly, and I could never get her to sleep on the bed. She was also never into toys at all. Play fetch? Sorry, that was beneath her.

But she excelled at hanging out with humans, and over the years she was the one — not Shadow (who was too nervous) — who came to various writing groups and rehearsals and to my box office shifts at ComedySportz (until another bitch said “No”)

I did bring Shadow to work as well while I was at the Dog Whisperer, although, again, she was definitely freaked out by it. Sheeba was… fascinated.

Everyone who ever met her loved her, and I can’t count the number of times a stranger on the street would complement her looks.

What did confuse people, though, was that the white dog was Shadow and the black dog wasn’t. I got tired of explaining how that came to be.

Once Shadow was gone, I couldn’t have been more grateful to have Sheeba around the house and, again, while she never was really cuddly, she did fall into a routine with me, and tipped her hand a couple of times that, yeah, she really did love me.

She did show excitement whenever I did come home from work after those times I couldn’t take her, and this led to one of her nicknames: “Monkey.” This came about because I’d come in the back door and hear her from the bedroom letting out excited sort of squeals that sounded like a monkey’s call.

One of the things I most loved doing with her was taking her to the dog park, because she would alternate between engaged and aloof. Sometimes, she would take off running to romp and play with the other dogs and just have a hell of a time. Others, she’d meander off on her own and take a long time to wander around the edges of the park by herself, investigating and sniffing everything.

And, every so often, after she’d wander a good bit away, she’d stop and look around until she spotted me, and then come running back.

Out of the three of them, her decline was the fastest. She was fine and doing well until the Tuesday evening before the end. That night, she started wandering around the apartment aimlessly, stopping to stare into corners, or trying to walk into narrow spaces between furniture and the walls.

Neither of us slept much that night, as I had to keep helping her go back to her bed. Wednesday morning she seemed better, but then that night it was more of the same and, this time, she started to get wobbly on her back legs.

Thursday morning, I actually did get her outside for a walk, but after she peed, she went a few steps and her back end plopped down. I had to carry her inside. The rest of the day, I was helping her up constantly and, tough little girl that she was, she refused to stay in her bed where she’d be safe.

I also noticed that she hadn’t eaten since Tuesday, and when I tried to give her food or water by hand, she’d only just flick her tongue at it instinctively, but not drink or eat anything.

Friday morning, I called her vet and the earliest they could see us was at 3:50 in the afternoon. I spent the longest day of my life just hanging out with Sheeba, bringing her up onto the couch with me to cuddle and comfort her, and otherwise trying to make her comfortable.

At 4:44 p.m., it was done and she was gone, and I came home to a house that has been the emptiest of any place I’ve ever been. Yes, it doesn’t help that this happened during lockdown. Then again, my dogs never have the best timing.

Will there be a dog number four? Oh, yeah. Inevitably. I just don’t know how soon.

Friday Free-for-All #58: Movie love, movie hate, major useless, and “normal”

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

What terrible movie do you love?

This one is easy. A lot of critics and others think that the movies Caligula is total crap, despite the all-star cast. But the thing is this — it is actually a really faithful retelling of Suetonius’ The lives of the Twelve Caesers.

Sure, Suetonius may have been totally full of shit and he may have libeled the fuck out of Caligula for the sake of kissing up to later Emperors. Still, ignore that part of it, and the film’s story follows the source pretty closely.

In fact, if anything, the producers actually held back on the sex and violence. But, come on. What’s not to love about this flick? Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud, plenty of eye candy for all genders and preferences in the supporting cast, and script by Gore Vidal – even though he disowned it — but he shouldn’t have.

Seriously, ignore the scissor sisters BS that Guccione snuck into it because he could just before he had to smuggle the footage out of Italy to avoid obscenity charges, boom, done.

One really interesting aspect of the anniversary edition I own is that one of the features on the DVD is raw footage from a scene set in Tiberius’ (infamous) grotto on Capri, where it looks like all kinds of bizarre sex acts are going on in the background – but unedited and from angles not used in the film, it’s quite clear that what you thought you saw was far more graphic and nasty than what was really happening. The magic of film!

What is the most overrated movie?

Oh, there are many, but two stand out because they won Best Picture and had absolutely no goddamn business doing so.

Exhibit A: Forrest Gump.

Exhibit B: Gladiator.

I mean, come on. In the case of the first movie, it’s the glorification of stupid, and I did not ever for one second connect with or empathize with Gump. Why would I? He obviously has mental problems and, given the era, if his Mama wasn’t able to help, he would have been put into an institution, preventing the rest of the movie, period.

Still… Forrest’s character through the rest of the film is an object lesson in this: The mentally ill, despite their condition, are still quite capable of being total assholes.

Second film, Gladiator… as a Roman History buff, this stack of shit just loses from the get-go. And it only gets worse from there, for ten thousand reasons. One big one beyond the rape of history at the end?

Well, true Gladiators were not slaves. They were celebrities. Think MMA fighters now, or social media influencers. So if they got tossed into the ring, it was not to die. It was to play up a high-profile slap fight at the most.

But don’t even get me started on the whole “Pissed off Gladiator killed Commodus in the ring, in public” bullshit.

Anyway, long story short: No way in hell that Gladiator deserved a single accolade, much less “Best Picture.” Nope. It was a steaming pile of crap then, and it still is now.

What is the most useless major in college?

I’m going to have to go with Philosophy – and not that I’m pegging it as a major, not a course of study. I absolutely think that everyone should have to take two philosophy courses in college, one general and the other more specific – but beyond that, majoring in it is pretty pointless.

You learn that when you take your lower division general philosophy course and realize that quite a lot of these philosophers were basically talking out of their asses, and most of them were stuck in the same error that wasn’t even discussed in philosophy until the 20th century.

That is, they forget to include themselves and their own experiences in seeing how their philosophies formed, and instead tried to create these grand mystical rules for what is “reality.”

And it all started with the worst of them, Plato, and his “ideal” forms. This meant that for every object, there was an ideal version of it that existed in some invisible ethereal realm, and that version was the one invoked every time an earthly imitation was created.

Carpenter makes a chair? He’s just copying from that ideal. Singer creates a song – echo of the ideal, and so on. Of course, he never talked about whether that dump your kid just took was a copy of the ideal ethereal shit. What he implied, though, was that everything ever yet to be invented was just floating out there somewhere, waiting to be invoked down here.

He did have one good bit though, his parable of the “slave in a cave.” In it, a slave is chained to a rock in a cave, constrained so that he’s facing the back wall with the entrance behind him. Way beyond the entrance is a bright fire. All the slave can see of the outside world are the shadows on the wall, created by people and animals and the like passing between the fire and the entrance.

In other words, he was saying, we could not perceive the real world of these ideal forms because our perception was limited. And that’s a kind of yes, kind of no, although I’d think of it more in terms of things like we couldn’t conceive of germ theory until we’d made the microscopes to see them, or couldn’t fathom the skies above until we had telescopes and math. Lots and lots of math.

There is, though, a great parody of Plato’s Cave that I first heard from the late, self-proclaimed “guerrilla ontologist,” Robert Anton Wilson. In that version, a slave and a Buddhist are chained up in the cave, just watching the shadows. Then, the Buddhist suddenly slips his chains off and walks outside, staying there for a while.

The Buddhist finally returns to the cave calmly, sits down and puts his chains back on.

“What did you see out there?” the slave asks, excitedly.

The Buddhist replies, “Nothing.”

Anyway, don’t major in Philosophy. It’s not worth it and doesn’t translate to anything marketable.

What seemed normal in your family when you were growing up, but seems weird now?

How rarely my parents had any kind of dinners or parties or invited guests, to the extent that the few times we did host something really stand out in my mind. And the lack of invited guests growing up extended to my friends. I was expected to go play elsewhere, and god forbid that I invite one of my friends into my Mother’s Holy of Holies.

I think we did host a couple of extended family Thanksgiving dinners, as well as my Mom’s older brother when he was in town with his college debate team (he was the professor/coach, who came with his two students, and I can still remember their names to this day: Vinnie and Tim.) Mom’s mom came and stayed with us twice, and one of my cousins (my mom’s niece) came and stayed with us once.

My mom did plan to host my 4th birthday party, but that happened to be the year that we had a bit of a flu epidemic, the end result being that the only guest who finally was well enough to make it was a kid down the street named Scott, whom I didn’t really know. Yeah, awkward!

When I was in Kindergarten, my parents did invite my teacher, Miss Jones, over for dinner and it wasn’t until I became an adult that I wondered. Jones was my father’s mother’s maiden name. Any relation? Although it’s such a common name, who knows.

Anyway, this all seemed normal until I grew up, and then saw friends who were constantly hosting parties of get-togethers, or frequently had relatives or distant friends visiting for a few days, and it blew my mind.

People did this? How weird. How… intrusive. And, unfortunately, I think I wound up inheriting the “No guests!” gene (definitely from my mother), and I cannot come up with more than maybe one time I hosted an overnight guest – an old friend and former roommate – and I’ve never hosted a party. Keep in mind, I’m only counting the times when I’ve lived alone. I’ve had plenty of roommates who were really into the parties and weekend visitors and the like.

And I don’t mind that. I think I was just not programmed on how to do this shit. Of course, I used to live along in a two-bedroom apartment back when that was affordable, but nowadays, it’s a one bedroom, so unless I’m really intimate with an overnight guest, there’s really nowhere to put them.

Theatre Thursday: How I wound up where I am

I never intended to go into acting in any way, shape, or form. I still consider myself a writer first, a musician second, and person who’s not afraid to go onstage or speak in public with or without a script third. And yet, here I was, up until March 2020, performing onstage without a script two or three times a month and loving every second of it.

It’s an odd road that brought me here with some interesting steps along the way. My earliest theatrical experience was the obligatory elementary school play. I don’t remember the first one beyond that I played some sort of a woodsman with a group of other boys, all of us armed with cardboard axes. I do remember the second, an adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

I probably remember it because I had lines and everything and was kind of a featured character. I’m pretty sure the character I played was a boy named Obi, and he was a big deal in it because he was lame. Since he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t follow the other kids when the Piper lured them off, and so became the sole witness to tell the grown-ups what happened. I think this was around fifth or sixth grade.

In middle school and high school, I mostly floated around band instead of drama, although the two merged when I played piano in a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie. Yeah, kind of anachronistic by that point, but the music is fun and it’s a safe show for that demographic while pandering to being about rock music.

I also wrote my first play as a final assignment for my AP English class. The teacher asked us to write a parody of something that we’d read during the two semesters of the class, and I hit on the idea of writing a two act musical that parodied everything. It became pretty epic, combining A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Crime and Punishment, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (we dodged The Catcher in the Rye because the teacher thought we’d read it when we hadn’t), various works of Shakespeare, and I don’t remember what else.

All I do remember was that it took the various characters from the stuff we’d read and tossed them into our very own high school, had a few songs that I actually wrote the music and lyrics to, and I got an A+ on the thing despite the teacher later admitting that he hadn’t had time to read the whole thing. It was over 50 pages, after all, when I think most other people turned in four.

One memory I do have from the experience, though, was when I excitedly tried to tell my father about it, and his reaction was basically, “Why the hell are you wasting your time doing way more than you have to when the assignment was to just parody one thing?”

Yeah, way to be encouraging there, Dad. I was doing way more because I got inspired, and that’s what’s kept me going as an artist ever since. So the A+ was kind of my personal vindication.

This was the same English teacher who taught a class that combined film history with filmmaking, an art form I loved ever since my dad took nine year-old me to one of the frequent revivals of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was frequently revived because every time a film at one of the cinemascope theaters around town bombed, they would toss this film or one of a handful of others up for the remainder of the originally booked run time. 2001 re-ran a lot in the 70s and 80s. The other great love it instilled in me was of the genre of science fiction, especially so-called “hard” science fiction, of which the film is a great example.

The appeal to me of hard science fiction is that it tries to follow the rules of real science without relying on making stuff up or defying reality. This means that Star Trek is a bit squishy and Star Wars is totally flaccid, but I’m still a Star Wars homer because that series caught me as a kid and has kept me as an adult, and Kylo Ren became my new favorite character with his first appearance, never mind cementing it with his last.

So, in what in retrospect was probably the stupidest decision of my life, I went to film school to major originally in directing, soon “downgraded” to screenwriting once I learned that the university did not cover the budgets of their students’ films.

I’m sorry, WTAF? We’re paying y’all how goddamn much to learn, and that doesn’t go into some kind of production budget overall? Especially when we’re renting the equipment (okay, that part free) and getting the film/video stock from you (not free). Studio time and sets free, but gosh, are they limited. Location shoots and shit like paying your actors or at least stuffing them with food — all on you!

Yeah… electrons and paper were cheaper. But, even then…

The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that my sensibilities were nowhere near the mainstream and would never mesh with Hollywood in any way, shape or form. I didn’t really know or appreciate it at the time, but I had pretty much already learned how to write. What I should have done was majored in something practical that would have made me a lot of money early so that I could then stop working for other people, invest, and then have the whole artsy career thing.

Yes, if I had a time machine, that’s the life-path I would go back and beat into my 16-year-old self. “You’re either going to study some business thing, like get a license in insurance or real estate, do it for a decade and hate it but cash out, or you’re going to hit the gym with a personal trainer and then become a model or porn star or both and love it but then cash out. Then you can pretty much be what you want to be.”

So I hit college and film school and in the middle of my first semester I get a call from a theatre professor who had been talking to one of my film professors, who had mentioned to her that I played keyboards and owned a synth. “Would you be interested in playing for the musical we’re doing this fall?” she asked.

“Oh hell yeah.” It was an obscure piece written by the people who created The Fantasticks, an off-Broadway musical that ran for 42 years. The one we did, Philemon, was less successful, most likely because it’s a lot darker and basically deals with a street clown in 1st century Rome who winds up impersonating an expected Christian leader in order to out Christians in a Roman death camp only for the clown to actually try to inspire a revolt and it doesn’t end well for anyone.

But… I had a great time doing the show, made a lot of new friends, and got talked into auditioning at the next semester company meeting for the next show. I did it mainly based on the fact that “There’s no way in hell I’m going to get cast in a play as an actor.”

I got cast. And since doing a show gave credits, not to mention that I’d started college basically a semester ahead thanks to credits from high school AP classes in English, Spanish, and History, I had room to add a minor. So what did I do? I added two — theatre and psychology.

Oh, look, Dad. I’m overachieving again.

I performed in or was on crew for at least two shows per semester from that point on, although three or four were the norm, especially after I’d gotten involved with the Del Rey Players, who were essentially the “amateur” theatre club on campus.

By the time that college was over, I’d written a couple of not-that-good screenplays, but had really connected more with theatre in general, and all of my friends were theatre people, not film people. (There was a lot of crossover, though.)

Still, I had it in my head that I was going to go into film, but I started writing plays. My first after college “real” job was working for the Director’s Guild pension plan offices because, again, I was naïve enough to think that that was close enough to the industry to get in (hint: it was not), but it is where I met a woman, Thana Lou Tappon — although she went by just Lou — and when she heard that I was into theatre, she invited me to join up with a playwriting class she was in, and that became a life-changing moment.

The teacher and mentor I met was  man named Jerry Fey. Basically, he somehow wound up teaching a playwriting class as part of the UCLA Extension for a semester and realized two things. One, he loved teaching. Two, he hated the bullshit that came with academia. So he tapped his favorite students, and set off on his own. And to his great credit, he did it for free.

It was in his group that I created and developed the first-ever short plays of mine to actually be produced, and then wrote the first full-length that was produced and not just anywhere. My debut as a playwright was at a little theater called South Coast Rep. Basically, it’s the Center Theater Group of Orange County or, if that means nothing to you, one of the many regional theaters that is Broadway equivalent without being on Broadway.

In fewer words: I managed to start at the top. And that’s not to blow my own horn but rather to honor Jerry, because none of that would have happened without his guidance and input… and then, not more than a year after my premiere, he didn’t show up for class one day and I was the one to make the phone call from the theater which was answered with the news that he had died the night before. Official version: Liver cancer. Real reason? We’ll never know. I do have to wonder, though, whether he knew back when he started teaching for free on his own, and was giving back in advance of his inevitable demise.

But what he left behind was a group of people who kept going as a workshop for years, dubbed themselves The Golden West Playwrights, and we are still friends — hell, family — to this day.

Flash forward past other produced plays, one of those plays getting me into a Steven Spielberg sponsored screenwriting program that was fun but led to nothing except for a close friendship with a famous science fiction writer, then winding up working for Aaron Spelling, and the same play getting me my one TV writing gig, and then winding up in a playwrights’ group at another theater company, The Company Rep, only to balls up enough to audition for one of their shows and make my return to the stage, this time doing more Shakespeare, playing every guard, officer, soldier, and whatnot in The Comedy of Errors, and doing it with a broad comic Irish accent — something that inadvertently led to me doing a Michael Flatley impression in the show that brought the house down. Yeah, the director’s idea, not mine, although I accidentally suggested it.

Other roles I did with that company include the Spanish speaking Dreamer (aka Jesus stand-in) in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which only ran for 60 performances on Broadway, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come along with about eight other characters in a musical version of A Christmas Carol and, my favorite, Duna, the depressed unicycle-riding bear in a story theater style adaptation of The Pension Grillparzer from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. (Holy crap. I just remembered that one of the shows I played piano for in high school happened to be Story Theater, by Paul Sills. Whoa!)

Anyway, the nice thing about playing the bear was that it was an entirely physical part, no lines, and I pretty much got to just run with it. There was one moment in particular that I loved. During a long monologue by a character in the foreground, I let myself be fascinated by the glass grapes decorating the stole worn by the grandmother character to the point that I would suddenly drool big time — actor secret, hard candy in the corner of the mouth right before entering. That would get a nice “Ewwww!” from the audience, and then I would go and bite those grapes and Grandma would fend me off with her handbag. It was a beautiful moment of silliness, and I loved it.

That company eventually folded and I went back to working for home media and then a celebrity website with a play or two produced in the meantime. And then things went weirdly full circle.

I didn’t mention that my previous experience with improv also happened in college. First was when I did a radio show my freshman year with fellow students. We started out scripting the thing as a half-hour sketch show, but when it became clear that we couldn’t create material fast enough to keep up with production we moved into improv mode, although our use to lose ratio became ridiculous — something like record four hours in order to get twenty good minutes.

And compound that with me just not being able to come up with anything good, so I had to drop out. At the other end of my college career, we attempted an improv evening at an after party with the aforementioned Del Rey Players, but I couldn’t do that without going incredibly dirty and not going anywhere else with it either.

So, end result, while I liked improv as a concept and audience member, I feared it as a performer. And then I found out that one of the actors involved in one of the plays of mine that was done in the ‘10s also happened to teach improv with a company, ComedySportzLA, that was located in El Portal Theater — the same place where The Company Rep had been when I joined it, ironically.

I knew that I loved to watch improv but had had bad experiences trying to do it, but what better way to find out whether I could? So I went to see a few shows, then started taking classes, and then wound up actually doing improv for real live audiences and, holy crap.

If I had that time machine now, I would go back to my fifteen-year-old self and say, “Okay. Find the job that will make you the most money in the fewest years — it will probably involve computers and the internet — and go take improv classes as soon as you can. Hell, if your high school doesn’t have a ComedySportz team yet, convince your drama teacher to get one and do it right now.

Yeah, that would have been the much faster route to now. On the other hand, I’m not complaining at all about how I wound up where I wound up. Just wondering whether one slight tweak or another in the past wouldn’t have put me in a completely different place.

But… don’t we all?

Image: Philippe De Gobert, Grand room at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, (cc) Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

P.S. On Monday, February 17, the ComedySportz Rec League is hosting their 11th anniversary show and pot luck. You should come see us. PM for details.