Talkie Tuesday: More fun with British vs. American English, Part 1

While I have many friends throughout the British Commonwealth (although, apparently, not a drop of British blood according to DNA tests but despite genealogy), it always amuses me how quaint and weird British English sometimes sounds.

I love collecting comparisons of British and American expressions in order to look at their differences, and which language focuses on what. For example, in general I find that British English tends to focus on the form of something, while American English focuses on the function. That’s not always the case, though.

For this round, I’ve got 23 word pairs, and I’m going to take a look at which one is really the more accurate and pertinent of the two. Here we go. In each pair, British appears first and American second.

  1. Sun cream vs. sunscreen

This is a perfect example of form vs. function. “Sun cream” zeroes right in on the original form of what used to be called sun-tan lotion in the U.S. When it first came out, it actually wasn’t even supposed to protect you from UV rays, but rather make sure that they baked you to an even tone of skin cancer.

The first sunscreens also came in the familiar “squeeze it out of a bottle and rub it all over yourself” form, hence the obvious form designation of cream, since the stuff was generally white and about the consistency of clotted cream or whole milk.

But then along came aerosol sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and different classes of sunscreens — chemical absorbers and physical blockers. So the term “cream” really doesn’t apply to them anymore, especially not if you’re spritzing them all over yourself like hairspray.

Correctness Verdict: American English takes the point. 1-0.

  1. Salad cream vs. salad dressing

Again, another case of British English going right for the color and form of the originals, since many early salad dressings were based on mayonnaise and, in fact, in many places mayonnaise itself is referred to as just salad dressing and appears in the same aisle in stores.

But… what salad cream ignores as a term is, again, all of the many varieties of dressing that don’t revolve around cream or dairy at all. Without dairy, you couldn’t have ranch or bleu cheese or thousand island or any kind of creamy or yoghurt-based dressing.

On the other hand, there are so many other dressings that don’t contain dairy that the ones that fell out of cows only make up a tiny chunk. You’ve got Italian, Caesar, balsamic vinaigrette, Russian, French, honey mustard, roasted garlic, lemon herb, raspberry- and  honey-Dijon vinaigrette, red wine vinaigrette, sesame ginger, and  olive oil which is (surprise) the real vinaigrette. That “vin” doesn’t come from vinegar, but from vino or vine.

But… having run down the menu, it’s kind of obvious. Most salad dressings have nothing to do with cream, and since they cover up the leafy bits when used, well, I think you can guess who wins here.

Correctness Verdict: American English takes the point, bringing the score to 2-0.

  1. Allen key vs. Allen wrench

If you’ve ever put together anything from IKEA, or from any flatpack, really, then you’ve met this little L-shaped bugger. Usually no longer on one side than your pinky and no longer on the other than the last joint of your thumb, this versatile tool has one job: Screwing in bolts and the like that have hexagonal indentations in their heads.

The form factor of the thing makes it really easy to use. Stick short end into opening, turn long end until bolt is screwed totally in, done. Repeat four hundred times before you realize that you stuck the left side of the legs on the right side of the desk. Throw instructions at wall and scream.

Now, in this case, if we look at the words they break down like this. A key opens or closes something, while a wrench grabs and turns something. And while this little tool technically does grab and turn things, it doesn’t actually act all that wrench-like because you can’t clamp it only anything.

Correctness Verdict: British English for the win, and the score is now 2-1.

  1. Anticlockwise vs. counterclockwise

This one is simple to understand — either something goes around the way that the hands on a clock do, turning from left to right, or it goes the other way around. But what to call that other way?

“Anticlockwise” actually seems to have some kind of hidden political agenda to it — “Down with Big Time!” But “counterclockwise” seems a lot more neutral and just implies going in the opposite direction to the norm. Compare to a musical term like counterpoint. They didn’t call it antipoint for a reason.

And let’s not get started on “widdershins,” which neither language has decided to claim.

Correctness Verdict: American English scores, and that score is now 3-1.

  1. Baking tray vs. cookie sheet

 British English doesn’t even call cookies by the right name, instead referring to them as biscuits. Meanwhile, American biscuits are pretty much scones in the UK. And I have no idea what they actually call American cookies in Britain, but the word had better be “delicious.”

There are pretty much only three things Americans will ever cook on what the Brits call a baking sheet: Cookies, biscuits, or croissants. Okay, there’s the occasional pizza, but let’s not muddy the definition with that, especially since pizza pans are also a thing if we invest enough in our kitchen stuff.

Now since the aforementioned food items (sans pizza) all fall into the basic family of floury treats that either have a lot of butter in them or will get a lot of butter put on them, they’re really the same family of things: Buttery treats.

So we can give them the overall heading of “cookie like objects” and forget the idea that we ever really bake anything else on those sheets.

Correctness Verdict: American English scores again, making it 4-1.

  1. Block of flats vs. apartment building

 Another really baffling British term: flat to mean apartment. So, okay… and what’s “flat” about it? Not a lot. The term is probably derived from a Scottish word, “flet,” which refers to a floor or story of a house. Since most apartments tend to be on one floor, they’re also literally flat, or at least that’s how they try to justify it.

As for the block part… this also makes no sense because a lot of apartment buildings are not just giant square cubes, which is what “block” implies. In the U.S., a block refers more to a street measurement, and demarks the distance, curb-to curb, between points where a road or street interrupts a sidewalk.

In the U.S., a “city block” is generally a half a mile (805 meters), while a residential block is a quarter mile (402 meters). Buildings of all sorts sit within those blocks, but none of the buildings are called blocks, ever. Because they’re buildings. Well, duh.

Correctness Verdict: American English for the self-evident score again, now 5-1.

  1. Breakdown van vs. tow truck

Now this one is just silly. “Breakdown van” sounds like something they send around with a nice mental health counselor who will talk to you at the side of the road and make it all better. They don’t have any tools and can’t fix cars, but you can sit in the back of the van and listen to soothing music or watch calming dog videos.

Meanwhile, “tow truck” is just what it says on the tin. You break down, we send out this hefty vehicle that can winch your pathetic junker up or load it onto the flatbed and whisk it away to the car hospital.

In America, for a small annual fee, you can belong to the Automobile Club (AAA) which is a sort of regional, sort of not organization that provides a butt-ton of services to its members: Free roadside service, towing, trip planning, discounts on various travel and touristy things (and not), a monthly magazine, and cool “avoid the DMV” stuff like auto registration and, now, ability to get your “real ID” (which is total horseshit, but I do digress.)

So… Tow Truck — macho roadside savior. Breakdown Van — is that what it’s called when it’s not trying to find people who haven’t paid their annual BBC license fee? Wimpy.

Correctness Verdict: American, 6-1.

  1. Candy floss vs. cotton candy

Although there were so many better names this shit could have been called — like “Dentist’s Retirement Plan” or “Hyperactivity on a Stick” or “Fluffy Diabetes,” it’s basically hot sugar water shot out through an extruder and wrapped around a cardboard pole by some teen carny who isn’t even making minimum wage because his uncle is the star of the geek and blockhead show and the kid’s mom made him take the job in order to make sure that her brother Toby doesn’t actually injure himself too badly.

A big issue here is referring to it as “cotton,” because that crop has so many nasty connotations in American history. Hell, it was pretty much the foundational product that created decades and centuries of systemic racism.

Plus cotton candy came out of carnivals and stuff like that, and for a long time these were places where only people who couldn’t be hired by “respectable society” (read: Handicapped, disabled, deformed, mentally challenged, or not white) got jobs.

On the other hand, while “candy floss” might sound like something you’d find riding up a stripper’s ass, it has another nice, built-in reminder: Don’t stick this shit in your teeth, okay? And no, I’m not going to make a cheap British dentistry joke here because, you know what?

They’ve done got their shit together on that front. Seriously.

Correctness Verdict: Brits for the win, 6-2.

  1. Cling film vs. plastic wrap

More form vs. function, but the simple answer is “Damn, do the Brits make this product just sound needy.”

[Consumer pulls cling film from box. It wraps around his arm.]

Cling Film: Da! Don’t let go, da! I need you da! PLEASE!!!!!

Consumer: Get the fuck off of me you little freak!

[Rips plastic away and bins it.]

As opposed to:

[Consumer pulls plastic wrap off the roll and stretches it over bowl, pulling it down for a tight seal.]

Plastic Wrap: (in breathy voice) Ooh… thanks, daddy.

Consumer: You’re… welcome?

Yeah, good luck getting that out of your head next time you need to wrap a cut cucumber. But remember: whether you call it cling film or plastic wrap, the thing it sticks to best is… itself.

Correctness Verdict: America is far less needy for once? 7-2.

  1. Corn flour vs. cornstarch

They’re both made from corn, and while the U.S. does have both, they’re different, whereas American cornstarch and British corn flour are the same thing. Confusing? Of course it is.

Cornstarch, as the name implies, is ground only from the endosperm of the corn kernels, so it does not contain protein, fiber, or other nutrients, just starch. Corn flour is ground from the whole kernels, plus the germ and hulls from the corn.

Cornstarch is white and silky to the touch. Corn flour can be white, yellow, or blue, depending on the source, and is a little rougher and not as finely grained.

Both can be used as thickening agents in cooking, but you’ll need to use twice as much corn flour to get the same effect. Since flour actually involves more than just the starchy part of the source grain, I think that this one is easy to score.

Correctness Verdict: America gets the point for culinary accuracy. 8-2.

  1. Current account vs. checking account

This is another one that, to American ears, just sounds weird. We generally have two kinds of regular bank accounts: checking and savings. The latter is the one that you put money into where it theoretically earns interest, but the banks pay so little nowadays that you can have tens of thousands in there and still not make more than half a buck a month.

A checking account is the day-to-day one that you write checks (UK: cheques) from, although that’s become mostly archaic, so it’s now the one attached to your Debit card. They might as well call it a debit account.

Seriously — when was the last time you even wrote a check, or saw someone under 65 write one in a store? And even if you do occasionally get paid by paper check, when was the last time you physically took it to the bank instead of deposited it via your phone?

But… calling it a current account makes no sense at all. Current what? Currently all the money you have readily available to spend? And it’s also kind of an insult to people who aren’t the best at balancing their check books, since what they think they have and what the bank says they have aren’t going to match.

Correctness Verdict: America for having a term that makes logical sense. 9-2.

And now it’s half-time! Check out the second half for rounds 12 to 23 to find out which version of English will come out victorious.

Momentous Monday: Media madness

I’m still surprised, even in this modern era, how naïve most people outside of the entertainment industry bubbles are about how it all really works.

I started out in my early years interning for network TV, then moving to a studio writing program before going on to TV production, finally ending up in film/animation production, staffing, home media, and then back in TV production via the talent and website end of it.

And what I can tell you is this: People who’ve never worked in any aspect of the industry have absolutely not a clue how it works at all. But I already said that.

When I interned for network TV, it was for a company that produced game shows at the latter end of the wave before they briefly died, but judging from all of the fan mail we got, one thing was very clear: People in places outside of major media centers — meaning Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, seemed to think that whoever it was they saw hosting that show and holding the mic actually produced and ran everything.

So every single letter was addressed to the host of the show, and way too many of them were sob stories about how, “We’re so poor, if you just put us on, you could change our lives!” Since one of our shows was on a network that also had a popular soap opera at the time, it wasn’t unusual for us to receive mail for the stars of those shows, but addressed via our show, and it was the same damn thing.

Yep… direct appeals to the people onscreen who had fuck-all to do with actually creating the content on those screens.

In the case of game shows, there are entire staffs of people who do nothing but audition and select contestants and, with rare exceptions (Jeopardy while Alex Trebek was still with us, for example), the host of the show has nothing to do with it except for those taping days which, depending on how they schedule it, could be as little as two days a week to tape five shows, or five days a week to tape an entire season in a month.

Bring it up to modern times with total scams like America’s Got Talent, and every damn thing is manipulated and controlled from beginning to end — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I got to the studio writing program, I learned something else: Executives will pay lip service and bend over backwards trying to support… whatever. In my case, I was supposedly part of their push for LGBTQ representation. Another colleague in that program was meant to represent older women, and we had several POC as well.

And what happened? When we tried to write our stories, they were mostly ignored because they were “not what we’re looking for right now.”

Okay, so then why were you looking for us in the first place?

When I finally got into TV production for a primetime series or two, that was actually fun. I only ever wrote one episode for the second show I worked on, but otherwise, we were a great staff, and worked with fun people. Still, the fan mail was totally buggy because, again, the great unwashed just assumed that the actors they saw onscreen created everything on the spot and were in control of it.

So… god forbid that the producers created a story line that the fans didn’t like, because then the actors in those roles would get hate mail, and it was totally stupid.

Oddly enough, I never saw this problem while working for animated features, or in home entertainment, but that probably makes sense. However… what I still see to this day, especially in people having the misguided impression that anybody can become a billionaire superstar overnight on social media is exactly the same as I saw back in those days of analog broadcast media with rural fans begging the hosts to make them rich.

And I hate to break it to people, but all those big pop stars they adore? Yeah… every single one of them was discovered and then exploited by a major media company. Yes, they may be talented — or may be propped up by a team of really talented people — but, otherwise, they are all just smoke and mirrors.

You can certainly enjoy their stuff, of course, but don’t mistake the artist for anything more than the product, and don’t think that they’re solely creating it, in the same way that your favorite actor on your favorite TV show is creating that.

Sure, there are some who get lucky enough to finally take the reins. Prince is a good example but, don’t forget — there was a point in his career where he was so controlled by Warner Music Group that he rebelled by becoming The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and identifying himself by an unpronounceable symbol.

At the time, outsiders thought he was nuts, but there was method to his madness. By making the change, he made it damn near impossible for Warner to easily publicize his product — and he was holding back his best stuff, just putting out the bare minimum to fulfill his contract.

The second that contract expired, boom. Prince was back, and he started releasing new and amazing material immediately.

Other exceptions include the obvious, like Oprah, but of course it took her years to get to that position. Another is JK Rowling, who was about the only person Warner Bros. gave final approval to, although she may have finally scuttled that deal by going full-TERF.

For game show examples, Simon Cowell is directly involved in the production of his shows, as Alex Trebek was with Jeopardy, as a very hands-on producer but also a very nice guy.

But these are the rare exceptions.

Otherwise… every last act you see mentioned in the mass media, or listed on Billboard charts, or popping up on the trending lists on sites like Spotify or Amazon Music or whatever, is just a packaged product being sold to you, good or not. And, like it or not, they really have little control over which of their product actually gets out there.

Why? Because it’s a money game, run by mostly rich white men who are the gatekeepers of media. Play along, you get to be a playa. Don’t fit their marketing model? Then you get to be a poor artist. Who gets picked is a total crapshoot — or an absolute calculation.

Go look up the history of One Direction, or any boy band, for example.

So how do we solve this problem? Well, step one is to stop consuming crap from artists being sold to us by major media companies and, instead, to seek out local indie artists and supporting them. Second… go make your own art, or find your friends who do, and then tune out anyone being sold to you by a major record label, media company, movie studio, or etc.

Photo © 2018 Jon Bastian, Emmy Statue, forecourt of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, North Hollywood, CA.

Sunday Nibble #72: Keep it varied!

One of the big fails of modern science fiction films comes down to world-building — literally. It’s pretty much this: For whatever reason, most planets wind up with a one-world biome.

It’s a desert planet, or a snow planet, or a forest planet, or a volcano planet, and that’s it.

Now, I can see how our own solar system might have propagated this idea because, well, honestly, other than the Earth and Mars, look at Mercury, Venus, Neptune, and Uranus, and they really do seem to be mostly the same globally.

Mercury is a rock — but if you compare the temperature on the side that always faces the Sun and the side that does not, you’ll find a ridiculous extreme because it has both the hottest and coldest places in our solar system if you don’t count the atmosphere of the Sun itself.

So scratch Mercury off the list, because it has climate extremes as well. And if it had any kind of atmosphere (which it can’t), it would have incredibly violent storms along its terminator, which in this case would be a line circling its poles, with total sunshine on one side and total dark on the other.

Meanwhile… Venus is a hellhole with no variation, so it totally fits the science fiction planet stereotype. Way to go Venus!

Earth… I’ll get back to us in a minute.

Mars… it may look like it’s just a little off-orange dust-ball with easily revealed gray streaks, but that’s not really true. While it doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere to speak of, it does actually have seasons, and the climate, such as it is, in the polar zones and at the equator do vary.

Let’s jump over Jupiter and Saturn and take a look at Neptune and Uranus.

These last two are, in fact, the epitome of mono-biome worlds, as far as we can tell. They are just spinning globes of liquid methane and ammonia at really low temperatures, they lack surface features, and are pretty reminiscent of a planet like Giedi Prime from Dune, which was basically made of fossil fuels.

The only fail in those books was the idea that the planet could actually be habitable by any kind of hominid life-form. Nope. It would have been, at best, the equivalent of a distant oil field, exploited by pipeline or robot rigging crew, with the actual product shipped to a real home world to be exploited.

The real action on varied biomes this far out in our solar system probably comes among the many moons, of which Uranus and Neptune have a lot, and Saturn and Jupiter have many more — but let us get back to the king of planets, and the father of the king, by whom he was eaten.

Look it up, people.

While both places may look like they are just whirling balls of gas as well, one glance at them tells us that no, they are not. And while you have to go really far down in hopes of finding any kind of solid surface, a look at the top of their atmospheres says, “Wow. They have climates.”

And boy, do they.

Jupiter is famous for its storms, the most well-known of which is the Great Red Spot, which is pretty much a hurricane just south of the equator that has spun in roughly the same place for centuries. There are indications that it’s finally breaking up, but others are forming in a storm train that’s familiar to any Earthling who watches news of our own Atlantic hurricanes.

Jupiter’s storms are just bigger, nastier, and they last (figuratively) forever. Meanwhile, the dynamics of the rest of the atmosphere are incredible, with visible bands of clouds and gases violently interacting in a dance of fluid dynamics driven by the incredibly rapid revolution of the planet.

Jupiter’s circumference is roughly eleven times the Earth’s, but one revolution on Jupiter, aka one day, takes only 9 hours and 56 minutes. Meanwhile, one revolution on Earth takes 24 hours and 15 minutes.

The net result is that the velocity of any point on the Earth’s equator around its axis at around sea level is 1,307 mph (1,669 kph). At the top of Jupiter’s atmosphere, it’s 27,478 mph (44,222 kph), which is 26.5 times faster.

So storms are much more intense, winds are faster, and atmospheric friction makes it pretty hot along the Jovian equator.

It’s probably not that much different on Saturn, with the composition of gases in the atmosphere changing by latitude — and that’s exactly what happens on Earth, for different reasons.

Back to the biome. Earth in particular is defined by its climate zones, which were mapped and named by humans centuries ago.

The defining two lines are the equator, at 0° latitude, and the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5°N and the Tropic of Capricorn 23.44°S. What they basically define are the zones in which the Sun does its maximal and minimal height at noon thing as the seasons pass.

They’re named for the astrological signs that marked the passing of the solstice — traditionally, the Sun enters Cancer on June 21, which is more or less the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the Sun enters Capricorn around about December 22, which is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.

Swap results and seasons if you swap hemispheres.

Anything north or south of these Tropics (which basically means “cut-off”) up until the corresponding polar circle is considered a temperate zone. Well, was, until climate changed started to fuck it up.

As for the polar zones, these are the areas that either receive sunlight nearly 24/7 during summer or darkness nearly 24/7 during winter.

So this is why we have ice caps (sort of still) near the poles, pleasant weather for a zone between that and hot (until recently) and then a pretty warm climate spanning the equator in a pretty equal band.

Traditionally, that would give us snow, permafrost, deciduous forest, Mediterranean climate, rainforest, desert, then repeat in the other direction. Different climates depend upon where you are on the planet. So does the atmospheric composition, with some zones having more moisture and some less.

And yes, that’s all changing, but let’s get back to the point.

Where a lot of Science Fiction world-building has fallen down is in actually forgetting the lessons of our solar system, which are these. Which planets are naturally uninhabited and which ones aren’t?

Welp, Earth comes to mind as inhabited, with Mars a good candidate as former life host, along with various moons of Jupiter and Saturn as current hosts. The common thread, though, is that we’ve only found life on the planets with varied biomes — mainly, Earth.

And yet, science fiction planet designers insist on thinking that they can create planets that are all one thing — an ice world, a rain-forest planet, a volcanic world, a total desert, a salt flat with iron oxide deposits under it, a swamp world… whatever.

Here’s the problem: None of those mono-biome worlds are ever going to naturally support life. They might manage it with a lot of heavy infrastructure dropped onto them, but otherwise not. But for the ones that do happen to have varied biomes, seasons, maybe even a big moon to create tides, the sky is the limit.

And, to science fiction writers, if you want to create an inhabited planet, make damn sure that the climate and terrain change based on latitude, axial tilt, orbital period, and other realistic things. Otherwise, nobody is going to able to live on the “one terrain, one climate” space ball you’ve created.

To take just three examples, if you have a snowball world like Hoth, an ocean planet like Kamino, or a desert world like Tatooine, you’re going to have a damn hard time providing food and water for your inhabitants.

I’ll assume that, since most of the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe we see are humanoid, that we’d need to support an Earth-like atmosphere and agriculture, and other typically human needs.

The obvious workaround, of course, is that these single biome worlds are stand-ins for similar places on Earth.

For example, Hoth is not really inhabited by any kind of advanced civilization, just the local beasties — mainly tauntuans and whatever it was that lost an arm to Luke. It’s only an outpost, and is most like an analogue of the few bases that humans have in Antarctica.

Kamino, the ocean planet, likewise doesn’t really have any civilization, just the resident Kaminoans who are cloners, and who are involved in a very secret project most likely commissioned by a Sith Lord. Think of them like oil platforms in any distant place, like the North Sea, or very remote oceanic research stations.

And then we come to Tatooine, which seems to have a thriving culture despite being a desert planet of the sandy variety. But, again, this one has an analogue on Earth and in the Star Wars universe and Tatooine itself was actually filmed not all that far from its terrestrial counterpart.

See, Tatooine is the Middle East, which provided a gateway and marketplace between Asian traders from the East and European traders from the West.

All this is well and good if you’re being symbolic, but if you want to write real science fiction, then make your civilized planets as complicated and varied as Earth.

Oh yeah — the one other thing that seems to happen a lot in science fiction films: Every inhabitant of a particular planet apparently has the same language, belief system, culture, and general appearance. There are exceptions (that are not accounted for by aliens) but they are far and few between.

You could try to write that off to the idea that a planet’s cultures cannot migrate into space until they become one, but I’d argue that we seem to be doing just fine right now while sending up astronauts and missions from multiple nations, and we even seem to have just reached the Christopher Columbus phase 52 years to the day after the first humans walked on the Moon.

That would be the “letting rich assholes go up there” phase, by the way.

Also, if it seems like I’m picking on Star Wars in particular in this piece, I’m not. It’s just that I’m slightly more into that fandom (slightly) than the other two I’ll call out now: Star Trek and Dune.

They all tell fantastic stories. And when it comes to terms of defining them as hardest to softest in terms of the science in the fiction, then the order is this: Star Trek — they at least try to come up with physical rules for shit; Dune — they at least come up with biological, genetic, and psychological rules for shit, but really, really cheat it with what mélange can do; and Star Wars —100% fantasy, but that’s okay.

Or, in other words, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Star Wars makes the mono biome mistake constantly. It should be really annoying that Star Trek and, to a certain extent, Dune both do.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to the upcoming Dune movie, which will just be the first half of the book. I am. It looks very, very good, whether it takes place on a totally desert planet or not.

Saturday Morning Post #72: Stacey Shaken

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, Stacey gets a typical California wake-up call from nature.

She always heard them first. A creak or a thunk, nothing that seemed important, really. The house settling or someone moving upstairs. Except that there’s always something a little different about this creak or thunk. It’s not a random noise. It’s, “Hello! I’m here…”

Then it started.

Now, being from around here, she always did the same thing at first. Nothing. Sit at attention, cock her head to one side, think, “Here we go again.” Try to think nothing of it, but waiting for that magic moment. These things had delineations, after all. They would either decide to stop or, sometimes, like this time, they wouldn’t.

Her second thought was always, “Oh shit,” and she’d go dashing to the nearest doorway. And, usually, just about the time she’d gotten there, she’d notice that it was over, feel her heart trying to elbow her lungs out of the way, then head to the TV, flicking on every light switch she passed, grab the remote and stand in the living room, flipping through the channels looking for the special report.

While she was flipping, she played the guessing game. “Four? No, no, that had to be five. Or a really big one far away…” And all the time in the back of her mind wondering, “Aftershock or foreshock?” How soon would the next one come and how big would it be?

Finally, she found the news, two anchors sitting at their desk, trying not to look scared, because they’d just been through the same thing themselves. “We have a preliminary report that the earthquake was a four point three magnitude — “

“Four three my ass,” Stacey thought as she sat down to watch. Spend a long enough time in LA, you got pretty good at guessing these things, and that one felt like a five, at least. And no way in hell that big one back in ‘94 had been anything less than a seven, no matter what the scientists said. She’d read somewhere that there was a state law that would waive property taxes for a year after an event greater than seven, and she was pretty sure they lied so they wouldn’t have to do it.

Now that had been a nasty morning. That quake had its own personality — they all did. And that personality had been particularly evil. Everything was shaking and bouncing and rolling ferociously and then, right in the middle of it, as if the quake were adding its own personal “fuck you” to the mix, there was another jolt, bigger, and the whole thing got stronger and nastier and Stacey had been sure that this was it, it was The Big One finally come and it wouldn’t stop until everything in Southern California had been flattened.

But, apparently, it wasn’t The Big One, just a big one. It had been her first. She wasn’t even born yet when the big one before that happened, but everyone who’d been around in ‘71 assured her, “Oh, no, Northridge (the new one) was much, much bigger than Sylmar (the old one).”

Why did people name these things? Like hurricanes. Was it some attempt to make them warm and fuzzy and less threatening? It was like the ancient Greeks naming thunder and lightning “Zeus.”

Stacey looked around the apartment. Nothing seemed damaged. No new cracks, nothing fell off the walls. She jumped up, hurried into the kitchen. The cupboards were all closed, nothing fell over in here. She sniffed for gas, smelled nothing. Good.

From the other room, the special report continued. “Oh, joy,” Stacey thought, “Pointless call-in time.” That was an inevitable feature of these things. No real news to report, but the possibility that something horrendous had happened, so these idiots went to the phones, and the conversation was always the same.

“We’re on the line with Wanda from Canoga Park.” Why was it always someone from the far West Valley? “Wanda, what did you feel?”

In the kitchen, Stacey spoke out loud, along with Wanda, who sounded about seventy, “Oh, it was a pretty good shake, and a rolling motion and the dishes were rattling, a couple of pictures fell off the wall.” Why didn’t they just record one of these calls so they’d have it to use, over and over?

Stacey took a glass off the counter and put it in the sink, just in case. She’d always been meaning to go to the hardware store and get those earthquake latches, but it would be such a pain in the ass to install them in — how many? She counted. A dozen cupboards. And getting that blue museum stuff to stick behind the pictures. And those straps for the big bookcases. She would do it, one of these days, when she had the time.

Why did these things always happen after dark, anyway? And why was it that the really big ones always came early in the morning as wake-up calls? That was the worst part, really. Knowing that a big enough quake would knock the power out, shake you around in the dark and then leave you there. She opened the junk drawer, fished around for the flashlight, pulled it out. It was silver metal, a real old skool piece of work, something her father had given her a long time ago before she went off to college. She was surprised she still had it. He told her that its main use was to hit any man who tried to rape or rob her over the head. Lighting was secondary.

She flipped the switch. Nothing. Even though it was heavy enough to have batteries in it, she still opened the bottom to check. Oh yeah, it had batteries. Some cheap old ones that had corroded. The whole inside of the flashlight looked like it had rusted. She screwed the cap back on and tossed it in the trash. Mental note, get flashlight. And earthquake latches and straps. She looked at the clock. A quarter to ten. Too late right now, unless she wanted to go all the way to that twenty-four hour place in Hollywood. But how stupid would that be, to be out on the road, in case this little jolt was some kind of foreshock to something bigger? And, anyway, she’d look like a big stupid girl if she went running off to stock up just because of a minor shaker like this. It was nothing, really. Nothing at all.

Her heart had finally settled down, at least. Then the phone rang and Stacey jumped, getting startled all over again. Who’d be calling her this late? Oh, but of course.

She picked up and said, “Yeah, I felt it, Mom.”

“It was a pretty good one, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, it was nothing. The news said four point three.”

“That was at least a five. The whole house shook here. Snowball was running in circles, barking his little head off.”

“Doesn’t he always do that?”

Stacey’s mother laughed. “I think we were closer to it than you. It was a pretty good shake, and a rolling motion and the dishes were rattling. A couple of your baby pictures fell off the wall.”

“You still have those things up?”

“They fell down. Didn’t break, though.” Stacey’s mother said this last with a note of triumph in her voice.

Didn’t break. That was one of the fluky parts about really big quakes, Stacey had learned the hard way — what broke and what didn’t. Back in ‘94, she found a tall votive candle of St. Emygdius, which had been on top of a bookcase, across the room, on a table, intact. She’d also found one of her plates, in the middle of a stack in the cupboard, cracked right down the center. Back then, three blocks north of her, hardly anything happened. Three blocks south, an entire neighborhood was condemned.

“I’d still rather go through an earthquake than a flood,” her mother said. “At least a quake is over quickly. Why do you think I moved out here?”

“Yeah,” Stacey thought, “A quake is over quickly if it doesn’t destroy everything you own.” Out loud, she said, “At least you get a warning with a flood or a tornado or something like that.”

“Not always,” her mother said. “You’d be surprised. Well, dear, I’m glad you’re okay. Your father’s calling me. We were watching a movie and he doesn’t want to be up late.”

“Okay, Mom. What movie?”

“‘Twister.’ Did you ever see it?”

“Uh, yeah, long time ago. Talk to you later.”

“Good-bye, dear. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

And they hung up.

The news report was over and they’d gone back to ‘Baywatch.’ Stacey flipped through the local channels one more time. Nothing. This was a non-event, no big deal. She was silly, really, for getting so worked up about it. The upstairs neighbors hadn’t come crashing through her ceiling, her life hadn’t been trashed, the apocalypse hadn’t come. She turned off the TV, put down the remotes and headed back down the hall. But she left all the lights on.

Back in her office, she sat down to finish reading her email. This was a safe room, really. A corner room, a corner desk, no way that could fall over, right? The blinds were shut, so, if the window shattered, the glass would fall straight down. But why was she even thinking this? It hadn’t been that long since Northridge. The really big ones didn’t come all that often, did they?

She was typing an email to an old friend back east when there was a creak and a thunk and it felt like the floor dropped. Then, the shaking started, just a little rattle. She stopped typing, looked over at the antenna on her wireless phone. Then it really started, the big jolt, the rolling, yes — it was another one.

Stacey gave an annoyed look at nothing in particular, just sat there and counted to five and then it was over. Not the big one, not even a particularly big one, just a bothersome interruption. She hit “send,” deleted the old email and went on to the next.

Friday Free-for-All #70: Impact, size, inanimate, this or that

Here’s 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 single event has had the biggest impact on who you are?

One morning, an architect, Bob, who worked on Wilshire Boulevard, decided to grab breakfast across the street at the Van de Kamp’s coffee shop. He kept going to that coffee shop for breakfast every day after that and this is where he met a waitress, Gloria, who had originally relocated from Pennsylvania with her first husband and his family, but who had that marriage annulled after his abuse of her led to a miscarriage and loss of her daughter in the eighth month of pregnancy.

He’d thrown Gloria down the stairs. This is quaintly known as a “Catholic abortion.”

No. There’s nothing funny about it. That was gallows humor, because there’s more than a bit of hypocrisy involved here — not between Bob and Gloria, but with Gloria’s mother.

At the time that they met, Bob and his first wife, who had three kids, were separated and in the process of getting divorced. He was some kind of generic Protestant — his real church was the golf course — and while it was all fine and dandy that Gloria had her marriage annulled because, well, fetus died, it was wrong for Bob to get divorced because “wife drinks a lot.”

Two different sides of the same abuse coin, really.

He was a veteran of war and she was a veteran of domestic violence. He was a lot older than her, but that didn’t matter to either of them, and so the architect kept having breakfast at Van de Kamp’s, and eventually started dating Gloria, and once Bob’s divorce was finalized, they got married in Vegas with Bob’s oldest daughter (who was legally old enough to do so) as one of the witnesses.

The sole offspring from that marriage? Me. So I would not even exist without this event: A man crosses the street to have breakfast. I would literally be nothing without that moment.

Okay, sure — there are billions of just as improbable moments before that which were also necessary for me to exist, but this was the beginning of my beginning.

And, hey, come on. It’s a lot nicer and more romantic than just saying, “So this divorced dude fucked my mom…” Not untrue, but it was a lot more loving than that sentence makes it sound.

Hey, Tristam Shandy’s father forgot to wind the clock, and look what that led to.

Are bigger or small schools better?

I’ve been to both, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. My high school was enormous. Meanwhile, my university was relatively small. I think that my high school graduating class was actually bigger than the entire student body at my university.

Big school advantage, at least on the public K-12 level: Size gets you money. Well, the school, at least. A bigger student body implies a much larger property tax base at the least, so more cash going into that particular district and, since it tends to be allocated per capita, more of it goes to that school.

So we had arts and music education, fully stocked labs, well-equipped athletic teams that were consistently competitive, drivers education and drivers training, extensive AP and language programs, and on and on and on.

Yes, it was absolutely a privilege incubator, but don’t blame me for where I was born. And don’t forget that I managed to piss away a lot of that privilege by choosing to become an artist instead of an oppressor, so there’s that.

Other than the money thing, another big advantage of a huge high school is that it really works as a total reset on middle-school life. Everyone kind of vanishes and kind of doesn’t, although I was still in classes with mostly the same people I’d been in classes with since forever — at least if they continued on to the same high school.

I didn’t even figure this one out until years later, but in retrospect it was obvious. When we were all about seven years old, we went individually to talk to a child psychologist — although we didn’t know that — and he basically administered an IQ test.

I’ve seen that score and let’s just say that comparing it to every single numbered intelligence scale version through history, I wind up either off the top of the chart or in the top category. There is actually only one test in that list where I am not in the top group.

Likewise with the people I would wind up always having as classmates until we turned 18 and graduated. Basically, it was nothing more than a sorting hat which assigned us to our proper houses — genius, above average, kind of smart, average, below average, needs extra help, kind of dumb, bucket of sand, and Trump voter.

Did I mention that IQ tests are absolute bullshit and another part of white culture’s systematic racism? Because they are. Why? Because they presume a white, male, Eurocentric worldview in order to get the answers right. They assume a nuclear, two-parent family in a middle-class home. They assume a lot of things. They were designed to make people of color and people for whom English was not their first language score much, much lower.

Because how the hell else are we going to make sure they don’t get into the elite schools and get the good jobs?

But I do digress. The point is that I wound up in this fantastic nerd bubble from first grade on, and this core group of us went all the way through together, at least in our core classes, although we all also wound up in PE together — and, obviously, with the one PE teacher who was okay with going easy on our nerdy asses.

But the effect of jumping into this giant ocean after the small puddle of middle school was that our bullies, who were a few IQ grades below us, basically vanished in the maelstrom, never to taunt us again, and that was nice.

As for college, like I said, I went to a small university, and that was awesome, too. For one thing, we hadn’t been sorted in by standardized tests. Rather, we kind of self-selected by major, and then wound up meeting our first new college bestie, The Freshman Roommate, entirely based on how we answered certain questions on the application.

I actually kind of lucked out on that one, and we only had 90 men on three floors in our entire dorm. As for campus life in general, again, it was such a small student body that it felt like most of us wound up knowing each other during orientation week.

Classes were equally small, so that the students quickly formed friendships and our professors knew us each by face and name. Plus we partied. Oh, did we party hard. What? It was a Jesuit University. That was practically a rule!

The priest who was the house Father assigned to the on-campus apartment building I lived in my last three years was famous for sitting in his room on the first floor by the entrance with the door open at any time after four p.m. with a handle of scotch on the table. He’d be in full vestments, Roman collar and all, and would give anybody coming in a hearty greeting of, “Hello! Come have a shot!”

During my second semester at my university, one of my co-nerds from the super-smart nerd herd in K-12 invited me to visit him on campus at UCLA. Since they did a quarterly system instead of semesters, I was on break while they were in session, so I came on over.

I started by visiting him in his dorm, which was in a building ten stories tall and designed to house 800 students. He particularly wanted me to see his psychology professor in action, so we headed to class.

And we walked miles. Okay, maybe not miles, but if I had walked this distance on my college campus, I could have crossed it from front gate to far side and back at least five times.

We finally came to a classroom in a huge building and approached the door. I noted that we were at least thirty minutes late, and anxiously said, “Hey — isn’t it going to be a problem if we walk in right now?”

He just shrugged no and opened the door and my jaw dropped as we walked into an auditorium that was easily the size of the lower orchestra section of the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown L.A. The professor was a tiny figure on a stage far below, and yes, he was using audio amplification in order to give his lecture.

My mind was blown. My entire graduating class would have fit in this room. My friend Dave’s college graduation had to happen at the Rose Bowl, because even a world class football school like UCLA did not have a stadium big enough.

I’ve often wondered how different my life would be if I had gone to UCLA or any of the other UC schools, or even gone the CS route, like going to CSUN, which was within miles of the house I grew up in. LMU only happened because they had a film school, it was easier to get into their film program as a freshman than at either UCLA or Cal State Long Beach (CSULB), and it did have that much smaller student body.

But, verdict: Both sizes have their advantages and disadvantages. It really depends on your own wants and needs.

What inanimate object would be the most annoying if it played loud upbeat music while being used?

This one is mostly for shits and giggles, and my first impulse is to just say “All of them.” Think about it. Sit on the toilet. Turn on the garbage disposal or shower. Open your mailbox. Clip your nails. Start your car (although a lot of cars do this already). Fire up the oven or microwave. Start your crockpot or multi-cooker.

Bang. It’s a classic driving song for you!

But, again, a question: Would everyone know which inanimate object — and which one alone — plays music when used? If that’s the case, then it’s simple. The answer is either dildo, vibrator, butt-plug, or any kind of sex toy.

Eye of the Tiger starts blasting form upstairs? Yeah. Everyone in the house now knows what you’re doing. Enjoy!

Lightning round: This or that?

High-tech or Low-tech?

High-tech all the way. What century are we in? How to tell me that you’re a Boomer without telling me you’re a Boomer: Can you print that email out for me? LOL. No.

New Clothes or New Phone?

New clothes. Duh. I will use a phone until it dies or the provider or manufacturer decides to kill it. New clothes, however, really do make a new person. There is nothing more refreshing and inspiring than finding, buying, and wearing a new outfit. Plus an entirely new wardrobe is a lot cheaper than a new phone if you know how to shop.

Rich Friend or Loyal Friend?

Loyal, hands down. I’ve had rich friends. I’ve got loyal friends. Notice the verb tenses. Rich friends generally turn out to be fickle assholes because they expect you to be their friends because they’ve thrown money at you. Never mind how they actually treat you. Meanwhile, loyal friends are always there, and I don’t give a damn how much money those friends have.

Big Party or Small Gathering?

Generally, small gathering, and especially of people I know personally with a couple of strangers mixed in. Exceptions: Big Parties for special events, like weddings, funerals (although is “party” the word?), film or TV wraps, and so on, although not until we all get our shit together, get vaccinated, and destroy this delta variant crap.

What’s worse: Laundry or Dishes?

While clothes are great, laundry sucks ass if you don’t have your own washer-dryer. Even if you do, it still sucks ass. If you have a machine for dishes, stuff ‘em in, add the soap, set the cycle, boom, done. If you don’t, fill the sink, add the soap, and enjoy the Zen of washing, drying, and sticking in the rack.

Laundry? Nah. If you want to do it right, you need to separate things. Okay — you need to separate dishes, cutlery, glasses, and pots and pans as well, but those all go into well-defined slots. Laundry? Whites, colors, delicates — which have to be treated as different piles and go into different loads.

They also require different amounts of detergents, bleaching agents (as in yes/no), and temperature, cycle speeds, and so on.

Now, when you’re done with your dishes, you pretty much have them arranged in stacks that make them easy to put away, because all of your plates are here, your glassware is there, your cutlery is next to that, and your pots and pans are, well, where they should be.

Laundry? Nah. You wind up with a pile at a time because it all takes so damn long to dry, but you can’t just throw it in the drawer or hang it in the closet because now you have to fold that shit. Or pair those socks. And this part takes hours!

Pro-tip: This is why children were invented. Teach them the concept of allowance, then pay them to do your laundry, and give a bonus and raise to the one of them who does it best.

Did I mention that doing laundry is infinitely worse if you have to take it to a common laundry room where you live or, dog forbid, to a common coin-op laundromat? Because you’ll wind up with all of those separates ultimately dumped back into the same basket unfolded and unsorted because all you want to do is get out of this place which is obviously full of paid housecleaners dealing with multiple households so using an entire row of machines, recently divorced men who have no idea what they’re doing, and the screaming kids dragged along by the single moms.

Plus which: Pandemic.

Theatre Thursday: The worst collaborator

It’s funny how sometimes it can take forever between the time you write something and the time it winds up on stage. I think I was just lucky with my first two full-length plays, which were produced within two years of each other and, more importantly, not long after I finished them to the point that I felt like they were shareable.

Two others, no, not so much. Bill & Joan, my play about William S. Burroughs and the fateful night he shot and killed his wife, I actually finished writing not long after that first full-length went up and I finished it before the second one was produced. I had a lot of readings at the time, and some interest, but nothing happened until years later, when one of the actors involved in those readings got in touch with me and said, “Hey, can I pitch this to my theater?”

I said yes, and we pitched it to the current board for that year, meaning that I got to sit face-to-face with French Stewart, whom I absolutely adored from 3rd Rock from the Sun. And… he and the other two turned us down. I still think he’s awesome, though, and it was clearly a case of, “Yeah, I don’t see a role for me in this,” which was absolutely true.

Nevertheless, my actor champion persevered, and when we pitched it to the new triumvirate board the next year, they said yes. And so began the very, very interesting process of suddenly collaborating on a play with the most difficult of co-writers of them all: Myself, from the beginning of my career, looking back from the well-established middle.

Oh boy. It was going to be a difficult job overhauling this one and, in fact, I’d have to say that I threw out at least a third of the original script, if not more — a lot more — and rewrote vast swatches of it. Now it might seem paradoxical to do that. After all, if it was good enough to get picked up to be produced, doesn’t that mean it was good enough as it was?

Short answer: Hell no.

That’s what’s so amazing about the process of rehearsal and working with a director and an amazing cast. It’s all about discovery, reconnecting with why you created a piece in the first place, and (especially with the perspective of so much time between origin and outcome) the ability to suddenly see the flaws with utter clarity.

One of these days, I may go back and do a comparison of the draft we started with and the one we ended with, but I know that we got to the extreme of me combining characters in different ways, adding some and dropping others, and this play was even my incentive to go back and re-learn Spanish to the extent that I am now pretty damn fluent in it.

Why? Well, the main action is set in a jail in Mexico City, and from the beginning, the two cops doing the interrogation spoke a lot of Spanish. However, when I first wrote it, it was my badly-remembered high school Spanish that had abandoned me some time during college. With the help of two Hispanic actors in the roles and a lot of self-study, it suddenly felt like I was crafting those lines as carefully as I crafted the English.

And the entire time, it was an experience in confronting my younger self every day, understanding why I’d written what I’d written, but then realizing, “Wow. I really have learned a lot since then, haven’t I?”

Early last year, rehearsals had just begun for another play of mine that isn’t quite as old as Bill & Joan, but which I did write in another lifetime and which is also very different than my other full-lengths, which are all either based on real people or set in historical periods.

This one, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is a modern day farce with the tag line “Sex, money, real estate. That’s what family’s for.” There was actually an attempt at producing it with the same director back around the time I wrote it, but that fell apart unceremoniously only for the attempted new production to be stopped dead by COVID..

In this case, re-reading the thing in preparation was a lot less cringeworthy. Then again, this play was more mid-career and benefited from coming after the time I’d spent actually working in film and TV and after multiple professional stage productions.

The weirdness in this collaboration, though, really came more from the inspiration rather than the execution. Unlike my other plays, as I’ve mentioned, this one is set in the modern day and was inspired by events in my own life, not to mention that the primary motivation I gave to one of the lead characters happens to be my own as of yet un-obtained dream.

Not to mention that real-life tragedy intervened and put me off the thing for a while only five months after our ill-fated first attempt.

The thumbnail version of Screamin’ Muskrat Love! Is that it’s a story about two brothers who both want to inherit their father’s house and secretly conspire to do so. The older one hires a woman to pretend to seduce the father in order to marry him and take over the place in the traditional way — either she bangs Dad to death or takes it all in a divorce, but then turns it over to other brother per an agreement they’ve made that I won’t say too much about lest I give away too much of the plot.

The inspiration for the whole thing was finding out that my father, in his 80s, had met a woman, in her 20s, at the grocery store, and she had gotten flirty and whatnot with him, and this sent up red flags and alarm bells for my half-sister and me.

Hey, I know what personality traits I inherited from my dad, and it was clear that we had to act fast. It was also very clear that she was probably Romani, and they are known for this kind of thing: Meet old man shopping alone in grocery store, assume that he’s a widower with means, make a move.

The other inspiration was, of course, is the fact that I have always wanted to own a house but, being a Gen-X person in Los Angeles, that was never at any point remotely in reach without me having been a venal and heartless asshole at some point.

So… combine the two elements, ta-da, there’s the play. The first attempt went well until it didn’t, and then six months later, my dad died and evil half-sister announced, “Oh, by the way, his house is in my name. Don’t even try.” Never mind that she had taken advantage of his Alzheimer’s to convince him that I was invading his home every night with friends and slowly making him paranoid about me. But that’s a completely different play that I might write one day.

The house in question would be the house that I grew up in and she didn’t, incidentally. The only possible house I could have ever owned, and her absolutely (pardon the expression) cuntiness in this moment turned me against her forever and, frankly, made me shelve the play because… bad memories.

I guess that time heals all wounds and, if there’s real justice, time will wound all heels, so jumping back into this play, was just a romp and all of the darker connotations had fallen off. So the challenge there was to collaborate with my younger self while being able to ignore the crap that I know younger me went through right after, all while younger me had no idea that he would.

I did give myself a distraction from that one, though, without even knowing it, because one of the intentions I set for myself in writing the piece was to hat tip two of my playwriting idols, Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde and, in fact, the entire finale of this play is an intentional nod to The Importance of Being Earnest in more ways than one.

Still… the glibness of my younger self in tossing this one off did give me pause at a few points when I had to stop and ask, “Damn, too harsh?” Until I remembered, “Nah. Not the audience’s family, and too long ago for me to really care. Proceed!”

Except, of course, we didn’t, and only a couple of weeks before the scheduled opening on April 3rd, everything shut down. So Screamin’ Muskrat Love!  became the only play of mine to actually be in production and not happen. Twice.

Wednesday Wonders: Jon on Scarne

Just a little over one hundred and eighteen years ago, a guy named Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia was born in Steubenville, Ohio. You won’t recognize that name. Seeing as how he died in 1985, you might not recognize the name he became famous under. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a magician doing card tricks, played pretty much any card or dice game, or counted cards in blackjack (at least, if you did it his way) then you know the name John Scarne.

Now why is a magician, card manipulator, and author of books on gambling showing up on a Wednesday Wonder post? Because there’s a corollary to Clarke’s Third  Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The corollary is “Any sufficiently advanced magic is the product of technology.”

Magic tricks have always been based on scientific principles. They are a combination of mathematics, physics, and psychology, and sometimes throw in chemistry, geometry, and topography, for good measure. Of course, the best magicians wrap all of that science in the arts, so that the perfect illusion (“Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money.”) is a full-on performance wrapped up in a story, supported by stagecraft, acting, music, and the whole nine yards.

Of course, note that the word “stagecraft” is kind of meta, because what we in theatre call stagecraft is often what illusionists call magic, so it’s an infinite loop there. A magic trick is stagecraft. Stagecraft is a magic trick. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But what Scarne did goes even beyond all of that, and one look at this card manipulation film of his from the 50s should convince you of that. Yes, I’ve studied magic enough to know that he’s using all kinds of tricks, like false deals and double lifts and so on to do what he’s doing but… at the same time, while the trick seems focused on the Aces, he’s not manipulating four cards at once here. He’s controlling eight — and all of them in a specific order, full speed ahead.

One of his more famous appearances was as Paul Newman’s hands in the movie The Sting. Newman’s character shows some pretty impressive card manipulating skills, all done by Scarne, but if you watch that video clip take special note. At the beginning, we cut to the hands with the cards. Then, at 0:36, the filmmakers pull their magic. The hands move out of frame at the top just long enough for Newman to put his own hands back, then pull off a not so fluid full-flip of the fanned deck, as the camera casually tilts up to make us think that those were his hands all the time. Ironically, I think that the insert shot of the flubbed attempt to bow shuffle was actually Scarne and not Newman.

But knowing that part of the trick brings up an even bigger issue. The only way they could have shot this was with Scarne behind Newman and reaching around, meaning that he had to do all of that manipulation of the cards totally blind.

Let that register, then go watch that clip again as he keeps the Ace of Spades right where he wants it. And nice symbolism on the part of the filmmakers, since that card is traditionally symbolic of death, and death both real and imagined play a big part in the film.

So how does magic trick us?

A lot of the time, it uses psychology and subverts our expectations. An obvious move to do something innocuous, like pull a wand out of our coat pocket, might in fact hide one or more surreptitious moves, like grabbing an object to be produced or ditching an object to be vanished, or both, or something else. One of the best demonstrations of how this works was given by Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, on their show Fool Us.

Anyway… that video will teach you almost everything you need to know about sleight-of-hand.

Another way that magic fools us is to play with our perceptions of space, and as mentioned in the link above, the Zig Zag Illusion is one of the best examples of making the audience think that something is impossible while hiding the secret right in front of them. I happen to own several pocket versions of this trick, one involving a rope and the other a pencil, and the principle is always the same. The Zig Zag Trick involves deceptive optics, psychology, and misdirection.

Of course, one other big trick in magic, especially in card tricks, is math, and I’m going to give away one that I love to do to make friends go “WTF?” Here’s the effect: I deal out 21 cards, then ask then to mentally pick a card, not tell me, but only tell me which one of three piles of seven cards it’s in. I gather up the cards and then deal them out again, and ask which column their card is in.

This is where I pull the stagecraft, playing up the idea that I have psychic abilities while dealing out the cards, Here’s the trick. When you hit the eleventh card, set it aside, face down, then deal out the rest. This sets you up for the ultimate brain scorch as you casually turn up that eleventh card and ask, “Is this the one you chose?”

And of course it is, and your victim squees in amazement. And how does it work? Simple. It’s all math. Each step of the way, you take the pile of seven cards with your spectator’s chosen card and put it in the middle. Since your piles are 3 by 7, the end result is that the first pass will force the chosen card to turn up somewhere between 8 and 14 in the pile. Next time around, it gets jammed to being either 10th, 11th, or 12th, and the last deal nails it. Although, pro tip, after the second deal, the chosen card will be the fourth one in the chosen column, and the 11th one you deal out. So… much opportunity for building up the reveal while reminding your mark and audience that they chose the card freely, and never told you which one it was and, bam! Is this your card?

And, if you followed the instructions, it absolutely will be. Bonus points: Once you understand the math behind it, you can vary it on the fly, so that it’s not always the 11th card — 4th or 18th will work as well. You can even change the total number of cards, provided that you’ve memorized where the target card will finally be forced to.

Scarne totally got all of this, but it really feels like his insights have been forgotten 36 years after his death. ‘Tis pity… Now pick a card.

Talky Tuesday: Sick words, bro

It’s hard not to focus on all things COVID-19 lately for obvious reasons. The last year and a half have been an absolutely surreal experience, and now we have the delta variant to deal with. But, in keeping with today’s theme, I wanted to take a quick look at some words related to things like this pandemic, and explain where they came from.

Some of them are straightforward, and some took more circuitous routes. Let’s consider them in logical order.

Corona

Corona comes from the Latin word coronam, which means crown. If you’ve ever looked at the printing on a bottle of Corona beer, there’s a crown right there as the logo, and in Spanish corona is the word for crown as well. You may have heard the term “coronary artery,” They get this name because they encircle the heart, much the way a crown encircles a monarch’s head.

The corona is also a part of the Sun (well, any star). It’s the outer atmosphere of the star. Our Sun’s is usually invisible because of the glare of the star itself, but it becomes visible during a solar eclipse.

Coronaviruses as a class were given the name because the spikes on their surfaces resemble the spikes on a crown.

Virus

Virus comes from another Latin word, virus. In case you’re wondering why so many medical terms come from Latin, it’s because this was the language that physicians used for centuries in order to create terms that would be universal despite a doctor’s native language. Greek is also common due to the roots of western medicine going back to the likes of Hippocrates.

In Latin, the word can variously refer to things like poison, venom, slime, a sharp taste, or something’s pungency. The use of the word in the modern sense began in the 14th century, which was long before the invention of the microscope near the end of the 16th century. Even then, germ theory didn’t develop until the middle of the 19th century, and viruses themselves were not discovered until the 1890s.

So while the idea that “virus” was something that caused a disease may have gone back to the late Middle Ages, it was probably consider to be more like a toxic liquid in food or water, or perhaps an imbalance of the humors. Or just divine punishment, like pestilence.

Pandemic

This one is all Greek to you. It comes from two words: pan and demos. The former is the Greek prefix meaning “all.” You might recognize it from a word like “Pantheon,” with the second half coming from the Greek word theos, meaning gods. It can be a building dedicated to the gods of a particular religion, or just refer to that collection of gods in general. It can also be a building dedicated to national heroes, or a mausoleum in which they are entombed.

Another pan word is panacea, with the appendage, -akes, meaning a cure, and a panacea is supposed to cure everything — even a pandemic.

The second half of the word comes from demos, as noted, which is the Greek word referring to a village or a population, or group of people. It’s the root of the word democracy, rule by the people. However, it is not related in any way to the word demonstrate.

So a pandemic is something that comprises all of the population.

As an aside, my personal favorite pan word is Pandemonium, which was actually created on this model by John Milton for Paradise Lost. It refers to the capital of Hell — the place of all demons. I’m kind of disappointed that Dante didn’t think of it first. He only gave us the City of Dis in the sixth circle. And when it comes to religious fanfic, Dante’s is far superior. Well, qualification: his Inferno is, especially in the original Italian. Purgatorio and Paradiso are kind of boring. But still better love stories than Paradise Lost.

Pox

Despite popular misconception, this is not what Mercutio wished on the houses of Montague and Capulet before he dies in Act III of Romeo & Juliet. That would have been a plague. A pox was something different, more like a symptom, and this brings us to the first English word on the list. Pox is the plural of the old English word pocke, which referred to any kind of pustule, blister, or ulcer. The Black Plague was full of those.

Now you’re probably wondering: How does an English plural end in “X?” Simple. At one time, the plural form of words that ended in –k or –ck didn’t take an s. They changed to x. The most famous example of this is the New York borough of The Bronx. It was named for a Swedish settler, Jonas Bronck. Originally, the term was possessory: Bronck’s Land and Bronck’s River. The “x” spelling crept in, and “the” was retained although land and river were dropped to indicate that they were specific entities instead of just an abstract place name.

Pox don’t have a lot to do with corona virus, but one particular type of pox has everything to do with how we came up with the next item on our list.

Vaccine

In the 18th century, a particularly nasty viral disease was circulating: smallpox. (No, there’s not a large pox.) At best, it left its victims horribly scarred. At worst, it killed them. But there was an urban legend going around: milkmaids, who often caught the non-lethal and minor disease called cowpox (for obvious reasons), never contracted smallpox.

A physician named Edward Jenner decided to test this theory in the most ethical way possible. No, I’m kidding. He found an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, inoculated him with gunk from a milkmaid’s pustule and then, after a while, inoculated him with smallpox.

Luckily for Jenner, the kid didn’t get sick, and so the idea of a vaccination was born. The name itself comes from part of the Latin name for the smallpox virus, Variolae vaccinae. The second word, vaccinae, is an inflected form of the Latin word for cow.

And vaccination works, kids. It doesn’t cause autism, and it’s safe. Case in point: smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979. Although, keep in mind, it could always come back, and the culprit could be climate change.

Sorry about that downer. But this is why we have to be so vigilant and serious about communicable diseases. Stay home, stay safe, and don’t forget the tip jar!

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) courtesy of Alpha Stock Images, used unchanged. Original author, Nick Youngson.

Momentous Monday: Where we are now

This time last year, California was just over four months into lockdown due to COVID-19, with only essential employees able to work and limitations on store hours and capacity. Bars, restaurants, clubs, theaters, and arenas were all shuttered.

Towards the beginning of July, that was all about to change and everything was going to loosen up. But then… well, I published these words exactly a year ago, on July 19, 2020:

“But then July rolled around and just a few days ago, the state of California and the city of Los Angeles announced, “Oops. Y’all screwed it up, so we’re pushing reset and starting over.”

Sound familiar? Well, if you’re in L.A. County or the Bay Area, at least, it probably does, because we’re now going back to at least being required to wear masks in public after a very brief foray of not requiring them for vaccinated people.

It looks like we might be right on time, too, because today, I saw social media posts from a handful of friends who were all fully vaccinated but who nonetheless have tested positive for COVID-19, most likely due to the delta variant — and for every friend who posted, at least two friends of theirs reported knowing one or more people in the same circumstances.

The delta variant is more contagious. People who’ve been fully vaccinated can also get it, although their odds of severe illness and hospitalization are still reduced. The situation this year comes right down to the same thing that caused it last year: Authorities bowed to pressure and ended mask mandates too soon.

In 2020, it was in time for the 4th of July holiday, and there was a spike in new cases right after that. This year, it was because it seemed like it was time to unmask because so many people were vaccinated, and the number of new cases had dropped below the thresholds set to trigger various levels of precautions.

The problem is that there are still far too many people who cannot or will not get vaccinated. Some have sound medical reasons — compromised immune systems, chemo patients, and the like. Some haven’t yet qualified because they’re too young.

But far too many people who should get vaccinated won’t get vaccinated because they have a poor understanding of science and medicine, what vaccines are and how they work, and how this one was developed.

A big complaint people have is that they don’t know what’s in the vaccine, but that’s just because they’re lazy. A simple web search for COVID vaccine ingredients will quickly lead to the answer, and the CDC website has the exact ingredients for the three vaccines being used in the U.S.

If chemical names scare you by their very nature, compare the contents of any of those vaccines to what naturally occurs in, e.g., a banana to see how different they really are. And remember: One banana is a lot bigger dose than one vaccine.

Another anti-vax argument I hear is that it was rushed in production and approval. And while the approval process was expedited because, pandemic, the development of the vaccine technique itself goes back decades.

This technique uses messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) in order to make our body’s cells produce certain proteins, and it was being proposed as a therapeutic method at least as early as 2000. The first clinical trials happened in 2008.

So no, this vaccine was not developed overnight. The technology was there. We just needed a target for it.

Something piggy-backed on this argument goes like this: The vaccine will alter your DNA forever! And, again, this is just wrong. An mRNA vaccine works like this. It enters the body and then enters cells near the injection site. Once inside the cell nuclei, they cause the cells to do what they do: Transcribe the mRNA into proteins.

In this case, the instructions given are to create the spikes on the outside of the COVID-19 virus that allow them to infiltrate our cells. But here’s the big difference in function. When a virus gets into your cell, it completely highjacks the nucleus, shreds the existing DNA, and turns the cell into a factory for making nothing but more virus until the cell explodes and dies and sends more virus out into the body to repeat the process.

An mRNA vaccine just uses an existing function to create a particular protein without disrupting cell function otherwise, and then those proteins go into the bloodstream. Once there, the body’s immune cells find them, recognize them as not belonging, and create antibodies to destroy them.

Unlike other vaccines, mRNA shots do not contain any of the actual DNA of the virus its being used against. Compare this to things like vaccines for small pox, measles, or polio, which do use the genetic material or weakened or killed versions of the actual virus.

If anything, an mRNA jab I actually safer, because at no point are you ever exposed to the complete virus itself.

The idea was that recreating the protein spikes that identify the virus would be enough to give someone immunity, and normally it should have. The problem is that the COVID-19 virus is principally mutating in those spikes. This actually makes sense, because as we vaccinate away certain strains, the ones that aren’t recognized will persist and become the new dominant variant.

That’s how evolution works, and we’re seeing it in real time.

Now, granted, just because a virus is mutating doesn’t mean that it’s becoming more virulent or fatal. There are probably COVID variants we don’t even know about because they never actually cause any disease or symptoms.

But here’s how the unvaccinated contribute to helping the more infectious strains evolve: If someone is vaccinated against any of the strains from Alpha to Gamma, then they’re probably not going to get infected and their body will not become a virus factory.

But if someone is not vaccinated, then their bloodstream is going to become a viral playground, and the more times something copies its DNA, the more chances you have for random mutations. Some will go nowhere, some will outright kill the virus itself — but some will stumble upon some trick that defeats the vaccines and also makes it easier for them to invade new human cells.

And that’s where COVID-19 delta and humanity seem to be.

We made some strides in 2020 despite official inaction and denial on the Federal level, with only more forward-thinking governors helping their states avoid the worst, but selfishness, impatience, and scientific ignorance held us back.

It seemed like we were pulling out of it by spring of this year, with vaccines finally being rolled out in mass numbers and people actually getting them, but then the vaccination rate tanked, and we are right now back at exactly where we were one year ago.

Of course, this is why plagues are never a single-year thing. The flu pandemic of 1918 actually lasted for about two years and two months, starting with a fairly virulent strain, and then a much deadlier second wave a little over a year later.

If COVID follows this pattern, then we’re going to be masked, socially distanced, and isolated until at least May of 2022, so get used to the idea, because we’re just starting to sail into that deadlier second wave.

And, personally, all of this comes in the context of my having gone to an engagement party a good distance away that took place mostly inside in a house and among mostly strangers, and it was the first time I felt comfortable taking my mask off under such circumstances since this all started.

I don’t know yet whether that was a big mistake or not because I’m not quite sure what the incubation period is. But the vaccines appear to not give 100% immunity to the delta variant, so my mask is staying on.

Anyone who thinks that a mask mandate equals tyranny is a complete idiot — and doubly so if they won’t get vaccinated.

I’ll have to remember to come back with a July 19, 2022 post to comment on this one and its predecessor.

Sunday Nibble #71: Where do you get your ideas?

One of the most common questions I get asked about my fiction is this one: “So, where did you get your idea?”

And it’s really a legitimate question because every piece of fiction is somehow sourced in reality. And the answer is that it really depends on what I was inspired to try and what I eventually did.

In other words… sometimes, I will decide to tell a specific story about an actual person with as much factual detail as possible. And these stories come from a lot of reading and research online and off. But that only happened because I read their story in the first place and thought, “Damn, this is really worth telling.”

This was the case in particular with two of my plays, Petty Treasons and The Heretics of Alexandria. In the case of the former, I ran across the story of Catherine Hayes, the wife of a well-off London Merchant in the early 18th century.

She lived with her husband — and her two teenage lovers, with his consent. He was out of town on business frequently, and figured that the boys could help keep an eye on his money while he was away.

By some accounts, Mr. John Hayes was an abusive husband, often beating Catherine as well as threatening her two lovers, both named Thomas — Wood and Billings.

By the way, in confirming the names, because I don’t have the script in front of me, it turns out that Billings was actually the Hayes’ biological son, adopted out when he was an infant, and this came out in the trial. The things that you miss when you don’t have the internet to research a play!

Either way, John Hayes’ head was found washed up on the bank of the Thames and, in order to identify it, the magistrate had it put on a stick in public so anyone who recognized it could come forward. A neighbor of the Hayes’ soon did, and Catherine and the boys fell immediately under suspicion.

Of course, they had killed him. Well, Billings committed the actual murder, with Wood and Catherine present. But the motive was always Hayes’ abuse of his wife — that, and Billings’ claim that he was an atheist who constantly made blasphemous statements. (Something else I didn’t know when I wrote the play.)

Her story had been written once before, by William Makepeace Thackery in his novel Catherine, but she was not the heroine in his piece, of course. She was the vile harlot who murdered her lord and master, and he did not treat her well.

My take on it was of an abused woman finally freeing herself from her abuser, even if she did it via extreme means. Historically, both Thomases were hanged for murder, but Catherine was burned at the stake for the crime of Petty Treason, hence the title.

The Heretics of Alexandria tells the story of the last few days of the philosopher, mathematician, and teacher Hypatia, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, from the mid-4th to early 5th centuries C.E. She was famously murdered by a Christian mob at the instigation of a local Bishop, Cyril, and they burned down her library, which was what remained from her father’s library, which had been burned a generation earlier.

These are not to be confused with the Great Library of Alexandria, which was burned — most likely accidentally — by Julius Caesar’s troops in the 1st century B.C.E., although the entire thing wasn’t destroyed, just part of the collection. The library presided over by Hypatia and her father was descended from this one.

The historical “what-if” that I tossed into it was that Hypatia had come into possession of a codex containing a controversial version of the so-called “Testimonium Flavianum,” which was the account by Josephus on the life of Jesus that appeared in his history of the Jews.

The TF itself is controversial because it’s clearly shoehorned into the text and implies that Jesus the messiah and a miracle worker and so on. Hypatia’s version is slightly different and actually parallels the Quran, which says that Jesus didn’t die on the cross — it was someone else — and he fled to live out his days elsewhere.

Cyril suspects that she has this document, and sends one of his priests, a former student of Hypatia’s, to get it. It does not end well.

On the other hand, sometimes I will hear about a huge event without a lot of specifics, and build a story around that, creating fictional people who might have been affected. In this case, it wasn’t any single person that inspired me to write. Rather, it was the magnitude of the circumstances a bunch of people faced.

Think Vesuvius or 9/11 or the (American) Civil War, etc.

In fact, think exactly the American Civil War. In this case, a famous local newspaper columnist for the L.A. Times, Jack Smith, wrote an article about the origin of undertakers and the funeral industry, and he had one throwaway line that intrigued me.

I can’t find his original article anywhere, but I paraphrase. It was something like during the Civil War, these newly-minted undertakers would trail military units around in search of business “like so many camp followers.”

“Camp follower,” of course, is a polite way of saying “prostitute,” and the two images together just set off a spark in me. I sat down and wrote the first scene — an undertaker and his apprentice (not quite enslaved, not quite free) awake on the morning after a cataclysmic battle. The stage is littered with corpses, and the undertaker proceeds to loot the bodies for jewelry, money, valuables, and gold teeth.

Again, this being pre-internet, little did I know that all teeth would be valuable, since they went into making dentures for people. Stealing battlefield teeth was slightly more ethical, I suppose, than the normal practice of just yanking them out of the mouths of the enslaved.

I wrote the first scene as a gleeful, grotesque, and very dark comedy and, because of the time period, was able to elevate the language to spectacular heights. I also based the undertaker character somewhat on my step-grandfather, but in a very affectionate way.

So I had a scene and two characters and had no idea where it was going. So I started scene two, and out of nowhere, a women arrived looking for the body of her dead husband, and the rest is history.

This became Noah Johnson had a Whore… (or sometimes just Noah Johnson in certain markets), and it was not only my first full-length play ever produced, it was produced on a LORT stage, which is basically “Broadway scale theatre that isn’t in Manhattan.”

Yeah, it was an amazing experience and an incredible production. I’ll always have a great affection for the piece, but I consider it retired for various reasons.

And another source is very personal, as in people or family I have known, shit we have dealt with and how we’ve dealt with it, mostly from my point of view, and the outcome, although quite frequently idealized, as in “this is the ending we should have had, not the one we got.”

This one gave me Screamin’ Muskrat Love, which is perhaps my most doomed work. It’s been deep into pre-production and rehearsal twice now, with both attempts scuttled at the last minute, the most recent by COVID-19.

This one was based on an experience I had when my father was nearing the end of his life. He was in his early 80s, and we eventually found out that he’d met this young woman at the grocery store who had wormed her way in. It didn’t take my half-siblings and I long to realize that this was a classic scam — young woman looks for elderly man shopping alone in grocery store, a sure sign that he’s probably a widower.

Young woman swoops in and does a real-life catfish. Goal: Marriage and/or being made sole beneficiary in the will. At the time, it was a notorious Romany thing, and she was definitely from the Roma. This led to the original title of the play, G____ Switch, with the G-word being a very pejorative term for the Romany, although this was back in the day before I was aware of that.

Anyway, that was the basis, but the play itself bears very little resemblance to life beyond that. In my version, the older son of the old man fears that their father is going to give the family home to his dipshit little brother.

The older son hires a woman to come in and seduce the father so she can pull the scam and get the house, which then goes to that son. In order to make it easy for the transfer, he marries her despite being gay. Well, also, part of the deal is that she gets to be on his company health insurance.

The whole thing is a wild, door-slamming farce, complicated when the woman’s mother is released from prison and shows up on their doorstep — at the same time as her former cellmate.

Stylistically, I took my clues from Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde, and the final wrap-up is a blatant homage to The Importance of Being Earnest.

Apparently, the universe hates this play, though. Maybe it’s got some Romany curse on it I don’t know about. If anyone out there is a producer that wants to stage a bang-up, raunchy sex-farce with a cast of seven and (if I say so myself) wickedly funny dialogue, let me know.

But there’s another source, and one that everybody really should tap into , whether they’re a writer, actor, director, artist, social worker, or whatever.

Especially for my prose tales of fiction, which most frequently appear here in The Saturday Morning Post, they are created purely from wandering around in the world, listening to people, and paying attention to the words they spew or things they do.

Sometimes good, or bad, often ugly, but ultimately all human.

Case in point: both the short story/novella collection that I’m going to call either The Rocky Road from Walgreens or Taking Hope, and the novel The Rêves, were inspired by random sightings of people around town.

For the former, it was a guy in line at a drugstore around 11:30 p.m. buying two huge family 24 packs of TP. This was long before the days of COVID, of course.

For the latter, it was two tall, skinny dudes leaving downtown L.A. near midnight, waiting in the Grand Park Metro Station for the train. They were both dressed in very classy steampunk attire, with top hats, long coats, brocaded vests, glass googles, and the like. They vibed as if they were a couple.

Both of those incidents sparked something, and I fired off many words as a result.

So… where do my ideas come from? Ultimately, all of humankind.