Momentous Monday: Ending canine prejudice

There’s a reason that I call this site The Word Whisperer. That’s because prior to starting it, I worked for a decade for the Dog Whisperer, and for a good part of that I was Senior Editor and Head Writer on his website, as well as keeper of the corporate voice and (sssh, don’t tell!) the ghostwriter for all of his online articles and a lot of his media interviews.

So, in other words, I was deeply into all things dog, and one of the subjects that he was passionate about and which I crusaded for was the plight of the pit bull. As in by the early 2000s, they had become one of the most maligned and misunderstood breeds in the country.

They were banned everywhere, simply based on perception, and especially the misconception that “pit bull” is a breed of dog. It’s not. It’s a type of dog, comprising at least four distinct breeds.

But for those of us who are pit bull fans because, face it, they are sweet dogs, there was a recent victory as the city of Denver voted to overturn their pit bull ban originally imposed in 1989. No mean feat, considering that the anti-pit bull crowd turned out to argue against it but, trust me, I’ve had experience with them, and they are an emotional bunch who won’t let facts get in the way.

What they like to ignore is that any dog can be dangerous and that unknown breeds of dogs involved in incidents are often reported as pit bulls, especially if they’re over a certain size. They also ignore the fact that dogs can sense when a human is anxious or uneasy around them, and this can actually lead to attacks. So… the people who fear pit bulls act fearful around all dogs, and bad things are going to happen.

This was a question I dealt with in one of my more popular articles on Cesar’s site, which I’m now going to plagiarize and paraphrase from, because I can. (Bastards scrubbed all of the bylines recently, but that’s a long story I’m not going to go into until TMZ is writing me a big-ass check.)

The question I asked: How did pit bulls get such a bad rap?

Would it surprise you to learn that pit bulls used to be America’s darlings? Before the mid-80s, stories of pit bull attacks are practically non-existent. As noted, there is also confusion over exactly which breed of dog is a pit bull — American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire terrier and, at times, the bulldog. This confusion seems to have dogged the breed from the beginning, as there is some disagreement over the origin of pit bulls.

In one theory, pit bulls began during antiquity as the so-called molossus, a now-extinct breed that was used by the Greeks as shepherds and guard dogs. In times of war, they marched off to battle with their humans. Eventually, so the theory goes, the Molossus made it to early Britain, where it became known as the mastiff. In the first century CE, Rome discovered the breed after defeating the Britons, and the dogs spread all over the empire. For the next four hundred years, they were used as war dogs, and intermixed with various local breeds all over the European continent, becoming the forerunners of the modern pit bull.

A competing theory places the origin of the pit bull in England at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, when butchers would use large, Mastiff-type dogs as “bullenbeissers,” which translates as “bull biter.” Trained to latch onto a bull’s nose and not let go until the animal was subdued, these dogs were the only way that humans could regain control when a bull became agitated. Unfortunately, this practical if dubious use eventually led to the “sport” of bull-baiting, where dogs were put in a pit with an intentionally riled-up bull and spectators placed bets on which dog would hold on the longest, or bring the bull down. You’ve probably guessed it by now, but this is also the origin of the terms “pit bull dog” and “bulldog.”

Still not a specific breed, the bullenbeissers were bred with terriers, combining their intelligence with the strength of the mastiffs. As bull-baiting came to be banned in the 19th century, dog fighting became popular as an underground and quasi-illegal activity in the UK. British immigrants to the U.S. at that time brought dog fighting, as well as their dogs, to the New World. However, as the breed spread to Americans and Americans spread across the continent, pit bulls began to be put to their original use, as general purpose herding and working dogs. Because of their fighting history, though, the American Kennel Club would not recognize the breed until 1936, although they defined it as a Staffordshire terrier, distinct from the American pit bull terrier.

Far from being considered a killing machine on legs, pit bulls seem to be an American favorite in the early half of the century — indeed, during World War I, the country itself is personified as a pit bull on army recruitment posters, and several pit bulls go on to become famous in the American military. Referring to an athlete as a pit bull is a very common sports metaphor through the 1930s, and it is meant as the highest compliment. There is also a famous racehorse in the late 1930s named Pit Bull, as well as a number of pit bull stars of early motion pictures. Frequently, pit bulls are associated with children, as in the Our Gang comedies, as well as with Buster Brown, both in short films and as the corporate mascot for a shoe company. The famous RCA Victor image of a dog and a gramophone also featured a pit bull terrier.

All of that pit bull love went away by the mid-80s, and by New Year’s Day 1986, over thirty communities are considering breed specific legislation and bans on pit bulls. What changed?

For one thing, despite being illegal in all fifty states, dog fighting made a comeback in the 80s, and the pit bull is the dog of choice. It is also the preferred guard dog for drug dealers and gangs, with a hugely publicized attack in 1987 in which a pit bull guarding a marijuana crop in California mauls and kills a two-and-a-half year-old boy.

By the summer of that year, every single proposed ban has become law, but not necessarily with the support of animal professionals. Kent Salazar, head of Albuquerque’s animal control division, commented at the time of their proposed ban on pit bulls that he didn’t think a ban on pit bulls was necessary, saying, “We have all the means to protect people with clauses about vicious dogs.” He also noted that, a few years previously, Doberman pinschers were the target of such bans. His words went unheeded, and Tijeras, New Mexico, just outside of Albuquerque, passes the toughest pit bull ban of the time, allowing animal control officers to seize and destroy them on sight without compensation to the owner.

The various pit bull breed bans are decried by animal control officials as “the most concentrated legal assault on a pit bull they can recall,” as well as “canine racism.” The Houston Chronicle quotes unnamed officials as placing the blame for the problem squarely on humans. “(M)any of the pit bull attacks are due to a skyrocketing number of poorly bred and badly trained dogs raised by backyard breeders, who are trying to cash in on the pit bull’s growing reputation as a cheap, but deadly effective guard dog, particularly in urban areas.”

Nearly thirty-five years after the beginning of this anti-pit bull hysteria, the tide seems to be turning a little bit, but every step forward is followed by a step back. Even as Florida is attempting to overturn all breed-specific legislation, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin is considering imposing a new ban. Yet it only takes a brief look at the history of pit bulls to realize that the dogs are not the problem; the humans who misuse them are. For over a hundred years, holding the owners personally responsible was enough to prevent attacks, and the breed was perceived as very child-friendly. With outreach and education, it may be possible to restore that image and rehabilitate the pit bull’s reputation, restoring an iconic American dog to its rightful place among mankind’s best friends.

Maybe Denver will be a first step back toward the direction of sanity and a reminder: It’s never the dog’s fault. It’s always the human’s.

Photo: The author being viciously mauled by the Dog Whisperer’s pit bull Junior. © 2017 Jon Bastian.


Sunday Nibble #4

While the internet really was born in 1989 and didn’t explode until 1993, it was born in 1969, with the first (failed) outside attempt to log on to what at started as a military network designed to survive nuclear war. And while Al Gore was derided for having claimed to invent the internet, A) he never said that, and B) he actually was instrumental in crafting legislation that led to what we have today.

Also, the internet, like GPS, was a majorly expensive government program originally designed for the military that we wound up getting back because great minds said, “Hey. The people paid for this shit, and it’s really useful, so hand it over.”

But the real point of this nibble is to remind you that today, February 16, is a hidden but important anniversary in the history of the internet. It’s considered to be the birthdate, in 1978, of the first computerized bulletin board system, or CBBS, the precursor to BBSs (the “internet” of the 80s through early 90s) as well as a head-start on the whole concept of HTML and creating a mark-up language in order to allow different computers with different operating systems in different parts of the world to “talk” to each other.

The first CBBS was basically a glorified answering machine, one user at a time via a dial-up modem that must have been painfully slow compared to now. But it got the ball rolling, and it was created by a couple of dudes who were in their early 30s at the time but who, ironically, would be derided as boomers now. Well, at least the one who’s still alive. The (recently) dead one, not so much.

So as you have your morning avocado toast, or breakfast scramble, or latte to go, or whatever it is you nosh on early on a Sunday morning, just keep in mind that today is a milestone — one among many — that led directly to your ability to read this on your phone while your car tells you how to get to where you’re going.


The Saturday Morning Post #2

Continuing excerpts from my novel of L.A. in Short Stories plus one Novela, here is part of Chapter Two. If you want to catch up, check out the first one here. The one thing to remember is that each of the 13 short stories is narrated by a new character, and the novela is told from an omniscient point of view tying it all together. Also,  these are not the entire chapters, just a taste of the first act of each.

* * *


This job actually turned out to be pretty sweet. All I have to do is go downstairs and across the street every morning to catch the B Train to Pershing Square, then take the short walk to my boss’s condo. Normally, I catch the 8:11 to get there. Technically, I could take the 8:23, although it wouldn’t allow me time to grab and eat my usual breakfast at Starbuck’s at 5th and Hill before making it to his place right next to Bunker Hill.

The schedule changes when he has late night/early morning meetings with overseas clients, and last night was one of them, in which case I catch the 10:11 train. Since he shifts his lunch schedule on these days, I shift my breakfast. The only rule on these days is that I don’t enter the condo/office before 11 a.m. on the dot, although I also seem to earn bonus points for being on the dot. As usual, I wave my phone and the door automatically unlocks. I know well enough to stay on the southwest corner, where the kitchen and offices are located, until he eventually emerges, usually around 11:45, from the other side of the place.

Those 45 minutes are mostly taken up by me dealing with toks, messages, and other random crap. I usually finish with all of it just about the time that my boss finally emerges from his quarters with a cheery, “Good morning, Adrian. How are you doing?”

I inevitably lie and say, “Oh, great. And you?” And he generally answers in one of three ways. “Meh,” “Fantastic,” or “Amazing.” I’d long since learned that only the latter answer is desirable, because it means that he’d sealed a really great deal the night before, and he tends to be rather generous when that happens.

Oh. His name is Toby Arnott, by the way. International marketing. He’s 35, which makes him only eight years older than me. I admire him and I fucking hate him.

“I’m doing okay,” I reply to him. “And you?”

“Amazing,” he answers, and I swear it gives me an erection. Why not? The first time he gave me a bonus after “amazing” it paid off my student loans. The second time, I managed to make a down-payment on the condo in a NoHo hi-rise I’m now living in. Oh, sure, I have two rent paying roomies, a lovely gay couple in their 30s who help with the mortgage, but I don’t mind. And my view of the NoHo Metro, Kaiser’s Medical Office Building, and points south and east is amazing.

By the third and fourth times, I decide to be smart and squirrel the money away as an emergency rainy day fund. Today is the fifth time.

He taps away on his phone, gives me a smile and raised eyebrow, then gives one final tap before he waltzes off to the kitchen. I hear the incoming ding but don’t dare swipe for the longest time. I mean, knowing him, it could say anything from “You’re fired” to “Here’s half my company.”

As I hear him happily whistling over the sound of the gurgling coffee maker, I finally bite the bullet and open the message, figuring it would be something trivial.

It isn’t. Every other bonus he’s ever given me has been five digits. This one is six, and I’m not sure whether to pass out, cum in my pants, run out the door screaming “I quit,” or all of the above.

Oh, and the first digit in that number is a six as well. If we’re going to get technical, the exact number is $623,451.26. I later learn that this is the net amount on an actual payment of $1,000,000, but the real question is “Why?”

See… guys my age get really suspicious when older people — men or women — get really generous. Our natural inclination is to think, “Okay. You’re paying because you want to fuck me, right?” And yeah, while I consider myself basically straight, in the past, and I’ll admit it, there were times when I took some cash to make ends meet and did things I wouldn’t normally have done.

Honestly, I consider it all to be training as an actor, nothing more nor less. Can’t act it if you haven’t done it, right?

But, anyway, I look at this number and my head is swimming. Is this real? Is he fucking with me? I know for a fact that he’s straighter than I am, so he’s not trying to get into my pants. And it’s just a number on screen, not a deposit to my bank yet. But if it’s real… holy fuck. Condo paid off tomorrow. Shit, everything paid off tomorrow. And condo and balance turned into the next step up. A house — which is generally an impossible dream for someone my age in this town.

Toby comes out of the kitchen with a cup of coffee in one hand and two fake egg McMuffins on a plate in the other that he makes in the really over-priced machine in there. He gives me a smile and a nod.

“Great work, Adrian. By the way, that should have hit your account by now.”

He heads back around to the residence part of the condo and, as soon as he’s gone, I’m logging into my banking app on my phone. My hands start shaking and my knees go weak as soon as I see that he’s not lying. That exact amount has been direct-deposited into savings, just like my regular paychecks, only a lot bigger.

I also start getting messages from a VP at my bank immediately saying that we should meet to discuss my change in finances. I ignore them as fast as they come in.

It also takes all of my willpower to not scream out “Holy fucking shitballs, yes!” But then I feel something else.

On the one hand, it’s been great working for this guy. Toby has taught me a lot and treated me well and, to be honest, the hours are easy, there’s paid time off and benefits, I get to run a lot of errands for him, meaning I get to drive his Tesla, and, face it, the bonuses are ridiculous. Nobody my age is making this kind of bank without being, well, a major asshole or a full-time porn star.

Although that’s kind of my one hesitation. See, Toby tells me all about what he does for a living but, at the same time, he doesn’t seem happy about it at all. “Kid,” he often tells me, “Don’t ever go into marketing. It’s the quickest way to lose your soul.”

“Yeah,” I want to reply, “But it sure as hell seems like the quickest way to make a shitload of money.”

I don’t reply this, though, because, apparently, the “shitload of money” part has ceased to interest him. And, of course it has, because why else would he have any interest in throwing so much money my way when he has no interest in throwing anything else (i.e. his cock) in the same direction?

There is one thing I’ve learned about him in the year and a half I’ve been here, and it’s that he tends to get very generous with me when he’s feeling very guilty about something else. I know that he’s making these crazy deals all the time. “Amazing” means I’m getting a bonus. “Fantastic” means he made a deal, but I’m not getting anything. “Meh” means he didn’t make any deals, although I’m never sure whether it’s because he didn’t have anything scheduled or that he didn’t manage to do it.

The first time I got an “amazing” and a bonus was about six months in, but about half an hour after that, he started telling me this story about something that had happened to him the night before. I didn’t make the connection at the time, nor did I after my second bonus. But the third time around, I realize that these are the only times he shares things like this with me. Otherwise, it’s all business talk and advice on marketing.

I don’t really remember the details of any of those stories other than they all involve Toby having a sense of failing to help someone when he could have, and while he never makes it explicit, I get the impression that he’s giving me the money to make himself feel better about what he considers a failing.

So this morning, as I remember how terribly grateful I am for the AC up here because it’s another scorcher of an April day, I get started on updating Toby’s calendar based on toks, various texts he’s sent me on priorities, so-mes and my own refined sense of how he does things and what order he prefers to deal with them. But I know that I’m not going to make it that far, because in about fifteen minutes, I’m probably going to be getting the latest Toby Tale of Failure and, sure enough, he comes out of the other side of the condo exactly fifteen minutes later like clockwork, returns the plate to the kitchen, asks me what’s next on his agenda — vid con with New York in twenty minutes to recap last night’s deal — and then casually leans on the wall next to my desk and starts telling his story, almost as if he’s delivering a monologue to no one.

I’ll spare you the details because I also don’t feel comfortable sharing Mr. Arnott’s personal 411s, but I will say that it involved a very late-night celebratory run for ice cream that had an unfortunate ending for an individual not my boss — and not his fault — but which still apparently left him feeling very, very guilty for not having done the right thing.

It’s moments like this that I really wonder whether he isn’t a saint who just went into the wrong business. I mean, if I felt one half as guilty about shit (in this case, literal) on the day-to-day as he does about these minor things that inspire him to basically gift huge sums of money to his personal assistant, I wouldn’t make it through a week.

It’s weird, really. I mean, I’m just a starving wannabe actor who lucks out with this gig at the right time. Since I’d arrived in L.A. five years ago, I’d been living in this funky sort of art commune in Koreatown. It was an ancient two-story 1920s brick and stone office building that some crazy-rich woman bought and converted into a weird hybrid of hostel and studio. Her name was Wei-Tso Yung. Although she had adopted the American name of Alice, everyone called her Madam Wei.

She had apparently been a big deal in Peking Opera back in China up until the 1980s, but then the form had started to fall out of favor for a lot of reasons. She had tried to explain it to me once, and the best I could gather is that the language it was performed in had become archaic and modern audiences didn’t understand it. Think Shakespeare to American ears, only times ten. The storylines also pre-dated Maoist China, which became problematic.

When the whole thing was modernized, especially with creative duties moving away from the performers and to the writers and directors, she rebelled, which didn’t go over well with the government. While on a concert tour to Singapore, she sought asylum, and eventually wound up in America, where she taught singing and movement successfully for a number of years, along with performing with a touring Peking Opera Company in America that followed the traditional ways — if you had to translate it anyway, the archaic language didn’t matter. She had also invested in various franchised businesses which had turned out well for her, mostly nail salons, liquor stores that made most of their money selling lottery tickets, and photographers specializing in actors’ headshots.

And so, when it came time to settle down to do what she really wanted, Madam Wei decided that it was to use her wealth to help creative people. And why not? By her calculations, she could spend twenty million a year, get nothing back, and make it to a hundred and twenty without going broke…

Friday Free-for-All #1

I wasn’t sure how I was going to decide what this theme would be. On the surface, it seems like “just write whatever you want to” would work, but I tend to do that otherwise, constrained only by the subject of the day. But then I ran across a site that generates random questions, and realized that this was the way to go. In a sense, I’d be letting AI interview me. But to make it truly random, rather than take the first question, I pulled ten, and then used Excel’s RANDBETWEEN function to pick one from that list.

And you’re all invited to play. Feel free to answer the question yourself in the comments and let’s see what we all come up with. Now with no further ado, here we go…

What personality trait do you value most and which do you dislike the most?

This is a very interesting question because there are so many possibilities for the first one — sincerity, intelligence, punctuality, honesty, integrity, and so on. But beyond all of those, which are all very good things to have in my book, I think the one that anchors them all is curiosity about the world, and a desire to constantly learn new things.

All of the most interesting people I know are still students, whether they only graduated from high school six months ago or whether they’ve been retired for ten years. And they don’t necessarily have to be taking classes, but if they’re reading, listening to podcasts, studying on their own, whatever… it shows. And that kind of interest in self-growth extends to every other part of their life.

These are the people who actually remember things that I tell them when, for example, they can’t figure out how to do something on their computer. Their minds are definitely in “one and done” mode.

Me: “To do thing X push keys Y and Z, and then follow with A and B…”

Them: “Ah, got it, thanks.”

And the truly curious ones do, and never ask me the same question twice. The incurious ones, though? Every five goddamn minutes. “How do you do that thing, again?”

“Jesus, Mildred. I told you. Hit control-whatever, click on particular box, done.”

The great thing about curious people is that they never create the mindset of “oh, this is hard,” or “I can never learn that.” Instead, they dive in with a hearty and enthusiastic need to know and confidence in their ability to know it.

I’ve experienced both sides constantly in my own process of re-learning Spanish again and learning improv for the first time as an adult way out of college. The fellow students I encounter fall into two camps. One group asks questions and accepts answers. The other group complains and whines — “What I said should be right because…” This is always followed by a wrong example, and then they don’t listen to explanations.

The absolute classic version of this for students of Spanish is this: “It should be la agua, because agua ends in ‘a’ so it’s feminine.”

Except… this is one of those rules you just have to know. Yes, agua is feminine, but Spanish doesn’t like to put “la” before a word that starts with a stressed “a.” It’s exactly the same reason that English uses “an” instead of “a” before a vowel sound. It’s just easier to say.

So… the singular version of agua, which is still feminine, uses the masculine article to avoid the “a/a” crash: el agua. Other examples include el águila and el arpa. Note that with indefinite articles, it’s okay to go either way.

But, yeah. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen someone who is clearly only at a ¿Qué Hora Es? level of  Spanish insisting that they’re right. It’s… cute. Infuriating, but cute.

Now, when it comes to the one I dislike the most, you might think that I’d go for the easy opposite, which is “incuriosity.” However, that’s not it. I can just ignore incurious people and let them go on with their empty little lives. The personality trait I dislike the most is what we could probably classify as flakiness. That is, making a commitment to doing something, and then bailing out with no advance notice or explanation.

Now, this is different from saying you’ll come to something and then letting me know, last minute or not, that you can’t. That is totally fine. If you send a text an hour before with literally any reason in it, or even not a reason, then we’re cool.

“Sorry, stuck at work.”

“Sorry, forgot I had this other thing.”

“Sorry, I really don’t feel like it tonight.”

“Sorry, my S.O. surprised me with other plans.”

Those are all fantastic, and so is something as simple as the no reason, “Sorry. Can’t.”

That’s cool, too, because at least you’ve told me not to wait for you to show up, so you’ve respected by request, and you’re awesome.

But… if you’ve told me, and especially if you’ve done it enthusiastically, “Oh, yeah, I’ll be there for sure,” and then your place is taken by crickets at time and date, and then you don’t bother to catch up later and say why… WTF, really?

That’s flakier than a bowl of morning cereal, and it’s not an attractive look for anyone. Want to know how to get fewer invites to anything? To paraphrase Archer, “This is how you get [fewer invites to anything.]”

Okay, I think they said ants, but whatever. The point is… if someone asks, you answer, and a simple “Yes” or “No” without excuses is acceptable. This is modern life. Enjoy it.

Image source: Image Howard Lake, used via Creative Commons (cc) 2.0.


Theatre Thursday: How I wound up here

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 am, 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 in screenwriting. 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. 

Wednesday Wonders: Now, Voyager

+Wednesday’s theme will be science, a subject that excites me as much as history on Monday and language on Tuesday. Here’s the first installment of Wednesday Wonders — all about science.

Now, Voyager

Last week, NASA managed something pretty incredible. They managed to bring the Voyager 2 probe back online after a system glitch forced it to shut down. Basically, the craft was supposed to do a 360° roll in order to test its magnetometer.

When the maneuver didn’t happen (or right before it was going to), two separate, energy-intensive systems wound up running at the same time and the probe went into emergency shut-down to conserve energy, turning off all of its scientific instruments, in effect causing data transmission back to home to go silent.

The twin Voyager probes are already amazing enough. They were launched in 1977, with Voyager 2 actually lifting off sixteen days earlier. The reason for the backwards order at the start of the mission is that Voyager 1 was actually going to “get there first” as it were.

It was an ambitious project, taking advantage of planetary placement to use various gravitational slingshot maneuvers to allow the probes to visit all of the outer planets — Jupiter and Saturn for both probes, and Uranus and Neptune as well for Voyager 2.

Not included: Pluto, which was still considered a planet at the time. It was in a totally different part of the solar system. Also, by the time the probes got there in 1989, Pluto’s eccentric orbit had actually brought it closer to the Sun than Neptune a decade earlier, a place where it would remain until February 11, 1999. While NASA could have maneuvered Voyager 2 to visit Pluto, there was one small hitch. The necessary trajectory would have slammed it right into Neptune.

Space and force

Navigating space is a tricky thing, as it’s a very big place, and things don’t work like they do down on a solid planet. On Earth, we’re able to maneuver, whether on foot, in a wheeled vehicle, or an aircraft, because of friction and gravity. Friction and gravity conspire to hold you or your car down to the Earth. In the air, they conspire to create a sort of tug of war with the force of lift to keep a plane up there.

When you take a step forward, friction keeps your back foot in place, and the friction allows you to use your newly planted front foot to move ahead. Note that this is why it’s so hard to walk on ice. It’s a low-friction surface.

The same principle works with cars (which also don’t do well on ice) with the treads on the tires gripping the road to pull you forward or stop you when you hit the brakes — which also work with friction.

Turning a car works the same way, but with one important trick that was discovered early on. If both wheels on opposite sides are on the same axle, turning the wheels does not result in a smooth turn of the vehicle. The axles need to be independent for one simple reason. The outside wheel has to travel farther to make the same turn, meaning that it has to spin faster.

Faster spin, lower friction, vehicle turns. While the idea of a differential gear doing the same thing in other mechanisms dates back to the 1st century BCE, the idea of doing it in wheeled vehicles wasn’t patented until 1827. I won’t explain it in full here because others have done a better job, but suffice it to say that a differential is designed to transfer power from the engine to the wheels at a relative rate dependent upon which way they’re aimed in a very simple and elegant way.

Above the Earth, think of the air as the surface of the road and an airplane’s wings as the wheels. The differential action is provided by flaps which block airflow and slow the wing. So… if you want to turn right, you slow down the right wing by lifting the flaps, essentially accelerating the left wing around the plane, and vice versa for a left turn.

In space, no one can feel you turn

When it comes to space, throw out everything in the last six paragraphs, because you don’t get any kind of friction to use, and gravity only comes into play in certain situations. Bookmark for later, though, that gravity did play a really big part in navigating the Voyager probes.

So, because no friction, sorry, but dog-fights in space are not possible. Hell, spacecraft don’t even need wings at all. The only reason that the Space Shuttle had them was because it had to land in an atmosphere, and even then they were stubby and weird, and even NASA engineers dubbed the thing a flying brick.

Without friction, constant acceleration is not necessary. One push starts you moving, and you’ll just keep going until you get a push in the opposite direction or you slam into something — which is just a really big push in the opposite direction with more disastrous results.

Hell, this is Newton’s first law of motion in action. “Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion — in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.” Push an object out in the vacuum of space, and it will keep on going straight until such point that another force is impressed upon it.

Want to turn right or left? Then you need to fire some sort of thruster in the direction opposite to the one you want to turn — booster on the right to turn left, or on the left to turn right. Want to slow down? Then you need to fire that thruster forward.

Fun fact: there’s no such thing as deceleration. There’s only acceleration in the other direction.

Also, if you keep that rear thruster going, your craft is going to keep on accelerating, and over time, this can really add up. For example, Voyager 2 is currently traveling at 15.4 kilometers (9.57 miles) per second — meaning that for it to take a trip from L.A. to New York would take five minutes.

Far and away

At the moment, though, this probe is 11.5 billion miles away, which is as long as four million trips between L.A. and New York. It’s also just over 17 light hours away, meaning that a message to and response from takes one day and ten hours.

And you thought your S.O. was blowing you off when it took them twenty minutes to reply to your text. Please!

But consider that challenge. Not only is the target so far away, but NASA is aiming at an antenna only 3.66 meters (12 feet) in diameter, and one that’s moving away so fast. Now, granted, we’re not talking “dead on target” here because radio waves can spread out and be much bigger than the target. Still… it is an impressive feat.

The more impressive part, though? We’re talking about technology that is over forty years old and still functioning and, in fact, providing valuable data and going beyond its design specs. Can you point to one piece of tech that you own and still use that’s anywhere near that old? Hell, you’re probably not anywhere near that old, but did your parents or grandparents leave you any tech from the late 70s that you still use? Probably not unless you’re one of those people still inexplicably into vinyl (why?)

But NASA has a track record of making its stuff last well beyond its shelf-life. None of the Mars rovers were supposed to keep on going like they have, for example, but Opportunity, intended to only last 90 days, kept on going for fifteen years, and the NASA Mars probes that actually made it all seem to last longer than intended.

In the case of Voyager, the big limit is its power supply, provided by plutonium-238 in the form of plutonium oxide. The natural decay of this highly radioactive element generates heat, which is then used to drive a bi-metallic thermoelectric generator. At the beginning, it provided 470 Watts of 30 volt DC power, but as of 1997 this had fallen to 335 Watts.

It’s interesting to note NASA’s estimates from over 20 years ago: “As power continues to decrease, power loads on the spacecraft must also decrease. Current estimates (1998) are that increasingly limited instrument operations can be carried out at least until 2020. [Emphasis added].”

Nerds get it done.

Never underestimate the ability of highly motivated engineers to find workarounds, though, and we’ve probably got at least another five years in Voyager 2, if not more. How do they do it? The same way that you conserve your phone’s battery when you forgot your charger and you hit 15%: power save mode. By selectively turning stuff off — exactly the same way your phone’s power-saver mode does it by shutting down apps, going into dark mode, turning off fingerprint and face-scan recognition, and so on. All of the essential features are still there. Only the bells and whistles are gone.

And still, the durability of NASA stuff astounds. Even when they’ve turned off the heaters for various detectors, plunging them into very sub-zero temperatures, they have often continued to function way beyond the conditions they were designed and tested for.

NASA keeps getting better. Nineteen years after the Voyagers, New Horizons was launched, and it managed to reach Pluto’s orbit and famously photograph that not-a-planet object only 9½ years after lift-off — and with Pluto farther out — as opposed to Voyager’s 12 years.

Upward and onward, and that isn’t even touching upon the utter value of every bit of information that every one of these probes sends us. We may leave this planet in such bad shape that space will be the only way to save the human race, and NASA is paving the way in figuring out how to do that.

Pretty cool, huh?

It’s Talky Tuesday!

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s bring on the topic at hand!

More frequently confused words

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

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

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

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

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

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

Away and aweigh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lean and lien

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

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

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

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

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

Illusion and allusion

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

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

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

Ascent and assent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mantle and mantel

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

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

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

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

Sorted and sordid

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

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

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

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

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

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