Friday Free for all #41: Weird talents, unsettling objects, and memorized songs and jokes

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

What weird or useless talent do you have?

Other than playing the accordion, the one bizarre natural talent I have is the ability to move either of my ears, together or independently. It’s not a huge distance but it is noticeable, and I assume it to be some atavistic trait.

I also have incredible control over my eyebrows, which I can raise or arch, again in sync or independently. I actually use those a lot to express disdain, doubt, or surprise wordlessly, and they are very useful as we’re all interacting while masked.

What songs have you completely memorized?

Number one, probably all the same ones everyone in Western culture has — all the Christmas carols and traditional songs which are so ingrained in us that if one person starts singing in a room, everybody joins in.

Number two, a ton of musical theatre songs, of course, from shows like Cabaret, Evita, Chess, Little Shop, Chicago, Assassins, and so on, as well as every musical I’ve ever performed in or played an instrument for.

Number three, it goes without saying that it’s a legal requirement to know Bohemian Rhapsody by heart.

Number four, though, is my “karaoke surprise,” that is the song that I’d pull out if the opportunity ever came up to impress the hell out of people as the tall white guy proceeds to belt out a number in Spanish, and that song is Si no te hubieras ido.

It was written by Marco Antonio Solis but, ironically, his version is pretty bland and boring. I prefer the much more rocking cover by Maná. And yes, even at this ballad tempo, it’s much more lively than the Solis version.

What would be the most unsettling thing to keep occasionally finding around your house?

There are so many possibilities for this one. Since I live alone, strangers would be one. Since my last surviving dog died six months ago, finding her toys and stuff moved around would also be unsettling.

Random notes not in my handwriting would be another creepy thing, like a Post-It on the bathroom mirror every morning with something cryptic — and not even necessarily threatening or creepy. A message as simple as, “Perfect toast is hard to make” would be completely unsettling in that context.

Probably most unsettling, though, would be the sudden random appearance of former possessions of mine that I know for a fact are long gone, either due to being given away, thrown out, or left behind in a move.

Not that I’d mind at all in some cases — there are a couple of pieces of clothing that I regret forgetting to bring with me in a move; a bookshelf worth of language and resource references that I gave away before one move because I thought, “This is all on the internet now”; and a necklace that was a sterling silver pyramid with a glass eye in it that I could have sworn I brought and which is somewhere in this apartment, but in over thirteen years, I still haven’t found it.

Now, if a lot of my childhood toys started showing up in mint condition, while the “how” of it would be unsettling, it would otherwise be an eBay goldmine.

But in either case with this and the previous paragraph, it would just leave me wondering whether there weren’t some weird universal space where all of my lost or abandoned stuff went to wait for me, including all of the sox that driers have eaten and all of the pens I’ve lost.

Maybe that’s what heaven really is. You get there and they take you to this huge warehouse then give you the keys and you find a locker with all the shit you ever owned in it. Only maybe sometimes it leaks.

2020 would be the kind of year that shit would start leaking in. Of course.

What’s the funniest joke you know by heart?

Having once been a thirteen-year-old boy, I’ve memorized many a joke in my day. Those things were schoolyard currency, and the guy who could tell the most (and filthiest) jokes won the badge of Cool Dude.

Some I’ve forgotten, some are only worthy of being told by thirteen-year-old boys, and some are just so wrong that they’re best left buried in the less aware past. I still know plenty of jokes, but the one that came to mind when I read the question goes like this… albeit updated a bit for modern times.

These two brothers, Tom and Dick, have decided to go into the gig economy as delivery drivers, so they need to get a car. Their hopes are soon dashed, though, when all of the new car dealers tell them their credit isn’t good enough, and they could never afford the payments anyway.

They hit up all the used car lots, and it’s the same thing. Sure, they’re looser on the credit, but the payments are still huge. Desperate, they come to the final used car lot and explain their story. The salesman takes sympathy on them.

“Look,” he says, “I don’t have a car on the lot you can afford, but I do have a camel.”

The brothers are dubious, but the dealer takes them over to have a look. “Its feed is actually cheaper than gas,” he explains, “And it’s fully trained. It stops at red lights and goes at greenlights, and you may not think it, but camels can actually run pretty fast.”

“How much?” the brothers ask, and the salesman tells them. It’s right in their price range.

“Here, take her for a test-drive,” the salesman says, and he shows them how to get into the saddle and how to steer with the harness. The camel pulls out of the lot and then into traffic and takes off, and it is fast.

It keeps up with traffic and stops at the red lights and goes at the green, and the brothers are both thinking, “This is the greatest thing ever. It’ll make us stand out as delivery drivers.”

Back at the lot, the salesman waits for them to come back. Half an hour. An hour. Ninety minutes. After two hours, finally hops in his car and heads down the road in the direction the brothers went.

He finds them a couple of miles down the road, sitting on the curb crying. The camel is nowhere in sight.

“What happened?” he asks.

“Oh, it was great,” Tom says. “Obeyed all the lights, kept up with traffic.”

“We were sold in a block,” Dick adds. “This camel is better than any car.”

“But then we stopped at a light, and we heard somebody shout,” Tom continued.

“Hey — check out the two assholes on that camel,” Dick said.

“So,” Tom explained, “We got down and went around back to have a look, the light turned green, and she took off without us.”

(Ba-dum-tish!)

November 18: Six earth-shaping events that happened on this day

Important events happen every day on Earth, but some days get an interesting assortment. Over the course of the last 925 years, November 18 has seen a few events that went on to change history. Here are five.

  1. 1095 C.E.: Pope Urban II convenes the Council of Clermont. This council ran for ten days, until November 28, but on the penultimate day, Pope Urban gave a speech that included a call to arms in order to invade and capture Jerusalem.

This little invasion became known to history as the First Crusade, in which the members of one “peaceful” religion (Christianity) went to a foreign land and killed members of two other “peaceful” religions (Islam and Judaism) and claimed for themselves the city claimed by all of them, because reasons.

The real causes weren’t so much religious as they were the Roman Catholic Church coming to the aid of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I in his effort to drive out the Muslim Seljuk Turks and take control of Asia Minor himself. So, as usual, it was a personal thirst for power dressed up in lofty religious reasons.

Have to make the Holy Land safe for all those Christian pilgrims going to Jerusalem, right? Unfortunately, the Crusades continued on for nearly 200 years, and the Muslims ultimately won. That didn’t change until the Reconquista — which itself had begun in the 8th century — took back Muslim lands in Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.

That ended in 1492, just in time for a King and Queen in that peninsula to finance the expedition of a genocidal madman to the west so that Europe could go on to be bloodthirsty on an entirely new continent or two. You might have heard of the dude. He was named Columbus…?

  1. 1872 C.E.: Thirteen days after the fact — proving that the government being slow to move after an election is nothing new — a horrible act of voter fraud is uncovered and Susan B. Anthony and 14 other women are arrested for the heinous crime of voting while having vaginas!

It was the presidential election of 1872, which was an interesting one. Ulysses S. Grant, famous Civil War General, had been elected in 1868 after the single term of Andrew Johnson, one of the four U.S. Presidents who were never elected to that office. Grant was the favored nominee of the Republican Party, but (shades of 2016) disgruntled “party purity” members put up their own candidate, Horace Greeley, of “Go west, young man” fame.

He ran as a member of the newly minted and so-called Liberal Republican Party, but was actually nominated at the Democratic National Convention, so the mental-political mindfuck of all those terms crashing together is quite astounding, especially if you know the politics of the parties at the time.

The end result? Grant received 286 Electoral Votes. Greeley received none.

So it was on top of this rather odd background that fifteen women decided to just say “Fuck it” and go cast their ballots. Susan B. Anthony was the driving force behind it, and she basically went into the registration office before the election, demanding to register.

When she was told that state law only allowed males to do so, she cited the 14th Amendment —the post-Civil War Amendments granting equal protection — and so talked the workers into allowing her to register.

November 5, 1872, she and 14 other women voted. November 18, 1872, she was arrested, exactly as she expected. She proceeded to use her trial in order to bring attention to the concept of universal suffrage and giving women the right to vote in national elections.

The young men who accepted her registration and then her ballot were interviewed in her trial, and the transcripts make for a fascinating glimpse into politics and mindsets of the era.

  1. 1883 C.E.: Believe it or not, it took until the late 19th century for the U.S. and Canada to finally create something that we now all take for granted, especially in this era when a lot of our interactions are interstate if not international, and happen in real time.

On this day 137 years ago, U.S. and Canadian railroads instituted the five standard continental time zones, which at the time, of course, did not include the zones for Alaska, Hawaii, or any of the U.S. Pacific Island possessions.

Breaking things up into one-hour chunks, they begin in the east with Atlantic Standard Time (AST), which is four hours behind UTC, formerly known as Greenwich Mean Time, aka “The clock Queen Elizabeth II watches.”

AST really only effects two small chunks of eastern Canada. Otherwise, things kick in with Eastern Standard Time (EST), aka “The reason that things like presidential debates begin at 6 p.m. on the West Coast, when people are still driving home from work.”

This is also why the Academy Awards begin way too early, but at least they’re on Sunday now.

If you’re not from the U.S., the big time zone landmarks are these: New York, Boston, etc., five hours behind Queen Liz. Chicago and that slice, six hours. Denver, seven hours. L.A. and San Francisco, eight hours, Alaska and Hawaii, nine.

This is arguably much better than the system in China, though. Although the country physically crosses five time zones, everyone is on the same clock, set to standard time in Beijing, which is UTC+8.

This can lead to some really bizarre things. Imagine the case in the U.S. if everything were set to Chicago time. People in L.A. would have to do things two hours earlier, so the work day would be from 7 to 3. Meanwhile, New York would have to do them an hour later, so work from 10 to 6.

Then again, China is fucked up in a lot of ways that I won’t get into. (Hello to my Chinese readers, and I know you’re out there! Love the people. About the government? Not so crazy.)

But… how did we wind up getting time zones because of the railroads? Simple. Back before people could travel at such blazingly fast speeds by rail (OMG — it’s a 300 baud modem!) it really didn’t matter how each particular little town or county set its clocks.

The most likely thing would be to just say that noon was when the sun was directly overhead on a certain date, and calibrate everything from there.

Well, we live on a big ball, and a few degrees of latitude or longitude can make quite a difference. If it’s noon in the town you live in and what the folks fifty miles to your west call noon there is actually 12:45 your time, it’s not really a problem, because they aren’t going to get to you in any sort of time that will make the difference count.

Note: I’m not going to do the math to figure out the actual time difference based upon the number of degrees longitude at a certain latitude, so the numbers above are arbitrary. But you’re welcome to pick two places and do the math yourself.

Anyway… this loose designation of local time was fine until the trains started barreling through, and then there was a big problem — it made it ludicrously difficult to create schedules.

Why? Because it becomes a problem not just in space, but in time. How, exactly, do you describe on a train schedule that the 2:52 westbound out of Hutchinson arrives thirty minutes later in real time in Coffeyville, but when the train left Hutch it was 2:22 in Coffeyville.

Does it arrive at 2:52, 3:22, or at some other time? So you list both times and hope for the best? And has it progresses down the line, do you have to keep adding the individual arrival times translated to the departure stations?

So, yeah. Total nightmare, and it’s probably the reason that to this day so many algebra problems take the form of, “Train A leaves the station heading west at 40 miles an hour, while Train B leaves the station heading east at 60 miles an hour. They start out 150 miles apart. At what time does the Conductor of Train A realize that his wife has been cheating with the Engineer, and confronts and attacks him, causing the worst derailment in the history of Kansas City.”

The railroad industry wisely went for the easier solution, and so standardized time zones were born. Et voilà! On long trips, it would only be necessary to notify passengers of time changes about every thousand miles.

  1. 1978 C.E.: This is a very sad one, and also the origin of the phrase “Drink the Kool-Aid” when it’s used to indicate that someone has swallowed the thinking of a political cult hook, line, and sinker.

The setting is Jonestown, Guyana, where a man named Jim Jones had set up a cult called the Peoples Temple. Now, it started out benignly and benevolently in 1955, with an anti-racist, socialist bent, but eventually devolved into the typical cult of personality.

Eventually, after Jones moved his operations to Guyana, an American Congressman decided to visit to investigate charges of abuse brought by temple members, and everything went south once his plane landed.

The Congressman and most of his entourage were assassinated. Meanwhile, Jones ordered the members of the cult to kill themselves with cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, hence the origin of the phrase.

Those who didn’t voluntarily drink were shot, and Jones himself committed suicide.

It was a total shitshow, but it also elevated the concept of cults and awareness of their traits into national awareness, so a lot of the splash-back may have been positive.

Arguably, the events in Jonestown gave incentive to the people who had been going after Scientology, so there’s that.

    1. 2003 C.E.: I now pronounce you husband and husband. Or wife and wife. This was the day that the Massachusetts Supreme Court gave their 4-to-3 ruling declaring the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, giving the state legislature 180 days to change the law.

Goodridge v. Department of Public Health was the camel’s nose under the tent that eventually led to the legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the United States.  

Here’s an interesting side-note: The concept is not “gay marriage.” It’s “same-sex marriage.” So, in theory, it doesn’t mean that it has to be a fucking couple (a couple who’s fucking?) that gets married.

That’s right. Two straight friends or roommates could just as well tie the knot, and if they have compelling financial or medical reasons to do it, it might not be a bad idea.

I don’t know whether there are many states left that allow lack of consummation (i.e. “he never fucked me!”) as a reason for a no-fault divorce, but I certainly know of none that require sex and or the production of crotch-fruit to consider a marriage valid.

So this day in history 17 years ago was the beginning of a win for a lot more than just the LGBTQ+ community, because the right to marry brings so damn many protections with it, especially when it comes to legal, medical, financial, and end-of-life decisions.

I work in Medicare by day, so I see this a lot, when somebody who is, unfortunately, old but without spouse or children has to ask a friend to deal with all their medical decisions. And that friend can get a durable Power of Attorney.

This is well and good up to a point, but doesn’t quite give the absolute rights that being a spouse would. And if that friend is of the same-sex and not married, it would make so much sense to use marriage to make their caretaker role so much stronger.

Which is why we need to remember the real lesson of same-sex marriage.

People easily forget. There are two versions of marriage, and they need to be kept separate. One is the ceremony. The other is the legal contract.

The ceremony is the religious (or not) one and, while it may have enormous cultural, emotional, or symbolic meaning, it has absolutely no legal effect.

Guess what? Nobody wants to force anyone to perform these kinds of symbolic but non-binding ceremonies. Your church won’t marry two men or two women? Great. That’s your right. Knock yourselves out.

But… the other part, the legal contract, is something set up by the state, and that’s where everyone gets equal access to sign their names to that contract, and all those Karens claiming “Mah religious freedoms” can just step the fuck off, because when you took that government job, you agreed to follow government rules.

Back in 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court got this. Church marriage and State marriage are two different things, Church can define it however they want; State must define it to include all.

Period, end of discussion.

What things have happened for you on a November 18? Tell me in the comments!

image source: Sammy Six, (CC) BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons