Wednesday Wonders: Seeing the real magic

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know!

And now for a story that starts out a bit Hollywood-centric, but it will become more general as we go on.

I recently made another foray to The Magic Castle in Hollywood, which isn’t quite as hard to manage as it’s reputed to be. All you have to do is befriend magicians, and ask — or know people who know magicians. Or, if you have the money, you can become an associate member for a $1,500 initiation fee and $750 per year, or just stay in the adjacent Magic Hotel. If you’re into magic, it’s well worth the visit.

If you don’t have that kind of money and have to rely on connections, note that the valet parking is a bit pricey at $14 per car, but if you don’t mind a walk you can get there from the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station, or just use a ride-sharing service. The food is excellent but, again, on the higher end. However, eating in the dining room does get you admission to the main room shows, which is where the big effects happen, so factor that into the price of the meal. If you don’t mind missing the big shows but are still hungry, food at either of the bars is in the typical restaurant range for L.A., and it is likewise very good.

Now, like a lot of people who were once little kids, I went through my fascination with magic phase, and had the obligatory kits and tricks. There was also a magic shop a few miles from my house that I used to ride my bike to during my middle school days, and the owner was kind enough to let me hang around and watch him demonstrate tricks or watch magicians try out new effects or card moves.

The only problem was that when it came to doing magic I did not have the manual dexterity for it. My hands were adapted to playing piano, not to sleight-of-hand, so unless a trick did itself, I wasn’t very good at it, so I never pursued it. For a long time, I kind of resented magicians for this reason, until I discovered Penn & Teller. Their whole shtick is partly about revealing how some old classic tricks are done, but even then they’ll top it by using the exposed version to show what kind of mad skills it takes, or subvert it by then hiding a bigger trick behind the reveal — in effect showing you everything while hiding something even more amazing.

Anyway, it was ironically through their giving away of secrets (something that some other magicians absolutely hate them for) that really increased my appreciation of magic. I went on to learn about how all sorts of tricks worked, but then watching magic became an entirely different sort of thing for me. Audiences who don’t know the tricks (no, I’m not going to call them No-Maj, thanks!) are wowed and amazed and baffled. Meanwhile, when I watch, I appreciate the sheer talent of a skilled magician while I watch exactly how they’re misdirecting the audience. I may know the punchline to the trick the moment the magician sets it up and long before it’s revealed, but that’s an entirely different level of enjoyment.

I’d compare it to the difference in experience between a musician and a non-musician watching a performance. The latter may just appreciate the music on an emotional and aesthetic level. Meanwhile, the former may be watching it from a completely different place, which could very well offer frequent thoughts of, “Holy crap, how did they make those two keys fit together in counterpoint and have two separate lyric lines suddenly mesh perfectly?” (This is also known as “pulling a Sondheim.”)

The other night at The Magic Castle, I was lucky enough to be sitting at the right hand of the close-up magician who had invited my friend as he did a half-hour routine especially for our group at a green felt-topped table that was quickly surrounded by spectators not in the inner circle. And for his whole routine, I knew enough to ignore the misdirection and always watch what the hand he didn’t want us to look at was doing. I did catch one specific move that I think may have actually been just to fake me out because it shouldn’t have been necessary for the trick that followed, but as I found out afterwards, he was as onto me as I was to him. When I complimented him afterwards,  he said, “You’ve done magic, haven’t you?”

“No, I’ve just studied it a lot,” I replied.

During his routine, while everyone else was watching what he wanted them to, I was just as enthralled watching how skillfully he was pulling off what he was hiding — every palm and ditch, force and false cut, load and steal, every stack and double lift. In magician’s terms, I was giving him a burn. But my intent was never to go, “A-ha, you just (reveal trick)!” No. It was to be awed on an entirely different level. His skills are absolutely amazing.

The Magic Castle is like that, and the place is full of little bits of magic to be discovered, but probably one of the most remarkable is Irma, the ghost piano player who performs in the lounge behind the upstairs bar. The effect is simple. When she’s not on break, ask Irma for a song, and unless it’s something ridiculously obscure, she’ll start playing it. (I stumped her with Echame la culpa, but I figured that it wouldn’t be in her repertoire anyway.)

She’ll also answer questions with short musical bits. For example, someone in our party asked if she was in love with anyone, and this was answered with “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”

Obviously, the grand piano with no one sitting in front of it is somehow remotely operated, but the big question is how. And remember: Irma has been a part of The Magic Castle all along, since its opening in 1963, at which point the effect presented itself exactly the same way, more on which in a moment.

I’ve heard people theorize on it, conjecturing everything from tons of player piano rolls, to voice recognition and AI, to a hidden player pulling up sheet music via computer. And, of course, it all works through hidden microphones. The first two are unlikely, the third is unnecessary, and the microphones don’t explain everything that happens.

Once you start really paying attention to what’s going on, you’ll discover that there’s one thing a lot of people don’t realize. In fact, I didn’t realize it until we walked into the lounge with our magician host and Irma immediately started playing The Pink Panther, which he pointed out is his theme song. Also, when he set his trick bag on the table in front of us and went to the bar, the table slowly rotated so the bag was suddenly in front of me. When he game back, we told him what had happened and he said it was just Irma’s way of being funny.

After that, one of our party joined us with a glass of tequila and yes — Irma played a few bars of that song. Much later in the evening, after we paid one last visit to Irma and were on the way out, she started playing Anything Goes — the first song asked for that night by the one member of our party who’d never been there before and who had had the tequila. He had started walking out without a word.

So there’s no possible way that it’s just microphones, but I could not spot any likely place for cameras to be hidden. Not that it’s not possible, although it’s more likely that they still rely on the low-tech method of people with microphones behind two-way mirrors to relay information to the — pardon the expression — ghost in the machine that is the human player hidden somewhere. This would certainly be a logical use of some very old mind-reader act trickery, after all.

Personally, I’m entirely convinced that Irma is operated by a human piano player who is not relying on computers or AI or any other fancy technology. Rather, it’s a human who is just relying on their own talents and skill. And that is the biggest magic trick of all.

Remember that the next time someone amazes you with what they can do, and thank them for it — then go out there and be amazing at what you do.

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! ¡Feliz día de la acción de gracias!

The return of Friday free-for-all #88: Tech, retirement, food

Friday free-for-all is back for 2022! Here are some more random questions.

Happy New Year! Now it’s time to go back to our more regular schedule, so here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

Does technology simplify life or make it more complicated?

Yes.

It actually does both, and it all comes down to the human user. If you know how to use the technology and do it properly, it can greatly simplify life. If you never bother to learn how to use it the right way or all the tricks and tips to making it work for you, then it will complicate your life.

I have seen this in every office job I’ve ever had. Hell, any job that involved computers, which has been all of them, not to mention copiers, fax machines back in the day, any telephone more complicated than the buttons needed to dial, smart phones now, and so on.

I’ll also toss in VCRs, DVD players, modern TVs, and anything with a built-in clock that sometimes needs to be set.

If I walk into your place and the time on your VCR is flashing “12:00,” I’m going to judge you — first for not figuring out how to do one of the simplest things on a VCR, and second for still having a goddamn VCR. (It’s sitting right next to your turntable for your vinyl collection, isn’t? Fucking hipster.)

Of course, I’ll also notice this if your stove or microwave is either flashing “12:00” or the time is arbitrarily off by any number of hours or minutes.

It’s just that most things nowadays auto-adjust themselves for the beginning and ending of Daylight Saving Time as well as reset after a power outage or battery removal/shut down. Hell, I’ve got an alarm/sleep-sound generator that has to be about fifteen years old by now, and even it self-adjusts for DST.

But, beyond that, if you’re going to be using software, take the time to learn how to get it to do what you want. Another way I judge people’s skills is by looking at a Word Document from them. then seeing if it’s set for the default font (Calibri — ech!) with the useless BS paragraph settings of 1.5 lines and 10 pts before or after each or, worse, both.

Also, they tend to never turn off the automatic double-space after a period, which is absolutely useless and wrong, or the automatic superscripting of abbreviated ordinals — st, nd, rd, and th.

Whenever I have to update or reinstall Word, these are the first things I change. In my case, it’s usually Times New Roman 12 pt, single lines, and no forced paragraph spacing, and that stupid two spaces after a period goes right off, along with the superscripts.

There are ways to tell in Excel as well, which mostly revolve around word wrapping (as in turned off) and number formatting (as in whatever the cell defaulted to.) There’s also a definite lack of complicated formula, so that someone might enter A1+B1+C1+D1+E1+F1 in a cell instead of =SUM(A1:F1).

This all falls under the category of “Tell me that you never learned to use this software properly without telling me you never learned to use this software properly.”

It has become fun, though, to watch people in Zoom meetings edit a Word doc on their screen and see that they only know one (tedious) way to do it. Type the stuff, highlight it, then find the right ribbon at the top of the screen in order to apply whatever format you’re trying to.

It’s really not that hard to memorize the essential shortcut keys which has the great advantage of not interrupting your typing flow. If I want to go to bold mid-sentence, I don’t have to do the highlight, pick from the menu, and click BS. I can literally turn it on and off with a two-key combo.

Incidentally, it seems like the higher up someone is, the less they know about how to use technology — or when not to. Most of the productivity software they pick (and I’ve dealt with this for years) actually makes it harder for the team to function, not easier.

So, as with a lot of things, what you get out of technology is what you put into it. Bother to learn it and it will reward you. Shirk off, and you’ll wind up hating it.

When do you want to retire, and what do you want to do after you retire?

Well, being a creative person, this is kind of a trick question. When it comes to working at being creative, writing every day, and so on, then I am never going to retire. I am going to do this until the day they have to pry my keyboard from under my cold, dead hands.

As for when would I want to retire from selling my time to someone else for money, that’s also going to be a while. First, I do like the money coming in, and right now it’s for what I’d be doing anyway. It’s also nice to be able to work remotely so that I could theoretically live anywhere in the world as long as I had an internet connection.

I’m probably going to be doing the working for someone else thing for as long as they’ll have me or until I win enough in a lottery to be able to buy a modest home somewhere and cover my living expenses for thirty or forty years (with other retirement contingencies padding that out.)

As for what I’d like to do after I retire, the big thing would be to expand my creativity, since I’d finally have the time to get back to graphic arts and design, music, and video production — all of which are very time-consuming — but all of which could also come together into one big project or a series of projects written, directed, filmed, edited, scored, and produced by me.

Oh — on top of time-consuming also very expensive, unless you luck into a good prosumer editing program with regular and cheap updates (which I did), and your ancient graphics editing software continues to be compatible with newer computers (which it finally didn’t.)

The one advantage to having used the latter for so long, by the way, was that I was having to figure out how to do things that had long since been turned into new functions in later versions, like auto-masking foreground objects, color matching, and so forth.

What food do you absolutely hate?

I know that you’re probably expecting something specific, like brussels sprouts, but that’s not what I’m going to list. I mean, I could rattle off green beans, string beans, beets, cauliflower, olives (black or red), most fruit that hasn’t been turned into juice or jelly (it’s a texture thing), and definitely melons of all kinds.

But that’s not what I’m going to list here.

No. The food that I absolutely hate is any kind of “dare you to like” culinary bullshit that oozes out of the fetid taste of some pretentious chef (especially of the celebrity kind) and particularly if the word “gastro” appears anywhere in the name of the establishment and/or on the menu.

If I see a place advertised as a gastro-pub, I run the other way for two reasons. One, I know that I’m not going to like the food at all. Two, I know that I’m not going to like the people who do.

These chefs have an amazing ability to take classic fare and absolutely ruin it. Just searching at random, I found one place offering a “Ruben” sandwich (it’s actually Reuben), that pays lip service to shaved pastrami, coleslaw, and horseradish, but then uses something called “sour cherry Dijon mustard,” which is exactly the abomination it sounds like and then, instead of putting it on rye, uses something called “townie focaccia,” which is exactly the wrong kind of bread.

And, trust me, nobody can fuck up a good cheeseburger like one of these gastrolls can. They’ll either seem to be going along normally until the last ingredient, which makes it inedible — like you’re reading along and it sounds great until they add mint-infused Thai peanut sauce reduction — or it just goes south from the beginning, through everything and the kitchen sink on top of that poor, innocent meat.

Avoid places that use terms like infusion, reduction, sous vide, sea salt, jam or jelly in connection with anything not normally made into either, and compote, Also find out whether they ever use liquid nitrogen while “cooking,” because this is a huge red flag.

I think the only reason that these gastrochefs pull this shit is because they hate really rich people and want to play Emperor’s New Clothes with them constantly. There’s probably a constant gambling pool going on in the kitchen, too — whoever can concoct the most disgusting combination and not only get people in the restaurant to eat it and say they love it but to get a good review from a food critic for that item wins the entire pot for that week.

I’m probably not wrong, but I’m definitely not eating their shit.

Bonus Post: Happy turkey day!

While Thanksgiving may only be an American holiday, I’d like to point out why I’m thankful for all of my international fans.

Or, to put it in Spanish, ¡Feliz día del pavo!

My fans in the U.S. all know that today, Thursday, November 26 2021, is Thanksgiving. Outside of the U.S., not so much. So what is Thanksgiving, exactly?

As we were taught in schools for ages, it was the day that the Pilgrims invited the Indians (the word used at the time) to have a big feast of celebration. The white people were the heroes who allowed the not-white people to come to the table.

But let’s put a little reality twist on that, shall we? Thanksgiving wasn’t even made a holiday until 80 years ago in 1941, when FDR signed legislation making it the fourth Thursday in November. Ironically, this came exactly thirteen days before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging the U.S. firmly into World War II.

As for the actual happenings of that original Thanksgiving… um, not so much. The Pilgrims didn’t invite anyone to the table but themselves, and they feasted on crops stolen from the natives. But the joke was really on them, because ultimately they arrived here with absolutely zero idea how to survive in their new home, especially through the winter.

A better name for the holiday should be “Colonial Invaders give thanks to the natives who, despite having their lands and property stolen, still taught those invaders how to survive.”

Fortunately, I think that a lot of parts of America have gotten away from this whole “Pilgrims and natives have dinner and everyone is happy” BS, and we’ve just focused on the holiday as a harvest festival — but the “harvest” part of it really has no meaning in areas that are not heavily involved in farming.

Modern American Thanksgiving is all about this: Stuffing our faces at get-togethers with family or friends (the better version of family), and then hunkering down for our choice of binge-watching TV, game night, or way too much (American) football on TV.

The day after, called Black Friday, is all about running out and spending way too much money on crap that we don’t really need in the deluded belief that it’s all really been marked down to bargain basement prices when it actually hasn’t.

To me, Thanksgiving is all about getting together with good friends for that big dinner, followed by good conversation and game night, and it provides the perfect opportunity for each of us to be thankful for the friends in our lives — the family we have chosen.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my many friends and followers here, including those from the U.S. but, more importantly, the surprising number of fans I have internationally. I don’t know why you’re here — enlighten me in the comments, please, and don’t be shy — but I can’t help but think that in at least a few popular places I’m doing a service by teaching people English and American culture.

Meanwhile, in others, it’s just yet another reminder that the internet has no borders — something to which the Earth itself should aspire. So even if you’re in a place where this isn’t officially a holiday, harvest or otherwise, Happy Thanksgiving!

Tomorrow begins my semi-annual vacation during which I leave you with my pre-programmed and curated collection of video countdowns to Christmas Day and then on to New Year’s, but trust me, I’ll still be here, and there might still be bonus videos or surprises.

So hang on, keep coming back, and enjoy the rest of the holiday season!

Taste the rainbow: Food and drink that aren’t really that color

<em>In honor of Pride Month, here’s a flashback to an article that takes a culinary trip over the rainbow.</em>

Color is a very important aspect when it comes to the human experience of food. You may think that it’s all about taste and nothing more, but all of the senses are involved to some degree. Smell is a big part of taste and the two are very closely related. Touch is also involved via the physical sensation in your mouth. That clam chowder may smell and taste fine and look good, but if there’s sand in it, it’s going to be the feel of it in your mouth that gives it away.

It can also affect whether you like certain foods. For example, while I love the taste of a lot of fruits, I’m not a big fan of the experience of eating them because of the texture. Something about peaches and other squishy fruits, grapes, and strawberries just puts me off, but blend ‘em up in a smoothie and I’m there.

But getting back to color, it can override all of those senses and change reality, especially if something is just the “wrong” color. For example, testing in reverse, scientists died a steak blue and fries green, then served them to subjects under lighting that made them appear their normal colors. The subjects rated the meal — generally, it tasted just fine — and then the special lights were turned off, revealing the true colors, at which point the meal they just ate and enjoyed became unpalatable.

This is because of another very important component of color and food that played into our survival, the same as smell did and does: If the color ain’t right, don’t eat it. It’s almost instinctual. If a food that isn’t supposed to be green turns any variation of that color through blue, don’t eat it. Likewise if any food turns gray, black, or white and fuzzy, throw it out untasted.

It can work in reverse, though, and food companies exploit this as much as they can — not only to get you to prefer their product, but to make the color consistent, whether the taste is or not. Taste and color are so intertwined, in fact, that there are a whole bunch of foods that come in false colors, were so manipulated that we only accept one color out of many, or were forced by governmental lobbying to only show their true colors. Here’s a tour through the rainbow of false-colored food.

Red

Those bright red maraschino cherries that pop up in everything from ice cream sundaes to mixed cocktails aren’t really that color at all. Maraschino cherries originated on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, where they were brined in sea water and then soaked in a maraschino liqueur from Italy.

While they were brought to America early in the 20th century, during the Prohibition Era they couldn’t be soaked in alcohol so, instead, an American university professor from Oregon brined them with a calcium salt solution to bleach them white, later poaching them in sugar syrup and injecting them with red dye.

Yes, of course. Americans found a way to make a healthy fruit into a heavily processed and unhealthy garnish for both ice cream and booze. Yay… us?

Orange

(And… the one color I can’t display here!)

Oranges aren’t really that orange and are actually ripe when they’re green but get dyed orange in most places except California, but that wasn’t what I was going to say anyway. And yes, there are no naturally orange cheeses, but since all American cheese looks spray-tanned anyway, that’s probably not worth going into. You can read up on it on your own.

Nope. The real answer is: “What’s up, doc?” Say hello to the carrot, which wasn’t originally orange at all — and is a great example of GMO food that is a staple of organic and vegan markets because all that GMOing was done a long time ago. And yes, selectively cross-breeding plants is genetic modification, just done on a much slower and less reliable scale. The advantage to the latter is that you have much more control over the results you get, and you get them much faster. But in terms of what’s happening in the plant’s cells, there are no differences at all. Two different plants swap different parts of their genome to create a new organism.

Carrots used to come in a lot of different colors, like corn, but the TL;DR of this one is that through a random linguistic accident, the leader of Holland became known as William of Orange (referring to a place, not a color,) and the Dutch were known for growing carrots. A century after William’s passing, they developed and then exclusively grew orange carrots in honor of William, and so a major food preference was born. Would you even consider a white or yellow or purple one a carrot? No. Probably not. What you think of as a carrot is a GMO created in tribute to a monarch. So… yay…?

Yellow

This one is a little bit of a reversal because it’s a food that isn’t naturally a particular color, is considered to be that color now, but was barred from being it for decades because of dairy industry lobbying. I’m of course referring to margarine, which nowadays is either golden yellow, paler yellow, or even white.

But it wasn’t always so, and when it was first developed in the 1870s as a cheaper (and, through a modern lens, healthier) plant-based alternative to butter, the dairy industry lost their shit. They tried to limit the manufacturing and marketing, then settled on getting the government to say, “Hey, margarine makers, you can’t dye the stuff to look like butter.”

In their natural forms, butter is yellow/yellowish and margarine is white. The dairy lobby managed to get state laws passed saying that such non-dairy foods couldn’t be dyed or, in the case of New Hampshire and South Dakota, that it had to be dyed… pink.

The government also got into the game, taxing margarine at different rates depending up on whether it was colored or uncolored. You can read about the whole megillah here. The short version is that margarine isn’t naturally yellow, for a long time the dairy industry tried to keep it white, but margarine eventually won.

Green

This one is short and sweet (or sour and spicy) with two things you’d naturally assume to be green: pickles and wasabi. In reality, the former generally isn’t green enough and the latter isn’t green at all because, if you’re getting it in America, you’re not really getting wasabi.

While pickles come from green vegetables (cucumbers) they often aren’t “green enough” after the pickling process, which makes sense, since it involves brining them, and any brining process will bleach things out. What’s odd, though, is that the green color we expect is restored via several yellow dyes.

Meanwhile, what you’re getting in Japanese restaurants or with your sushi trays at supermarkets is not real wasabi at all. Real wasabi is rare and expensive, and even a pound of freeze-dried powder is ridiculously pricey — $187 a pound, or almost $12 an ounce. Forget getting the real plant, ground fresh, because it’s hard to grow, very rare, and once it’s picked, it’s flavor doesn’t last long at all.

So… what you’re getting instead? Horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring. Enjoy!

Blue

For this, we only need to go as far as a beverage called Blue Curaçao, which certainly is blue in the bottle but, in reality, is actually an orange liqueur. Going from orange to blue is a good trick whether you do colors in pixels (RGB) or paint (RYB) because, either way, pure blue doesn’t have anything in it to make orange. So I’m not going to investigate too hard to figure out how they do it.

Purple

Okay, to be honest, I couldn’t find a single real food item that’s dyed purple when it’s not originally that color, but I did run across the idea that there’s no such thing as Purple Drank, Grape anything, or so on. In fact, here’s a scary soda fact for everyone: without artificial coloring, every last soda on the planet would be clear despite the flavor, but this brings us back to the top. Sight is just as important as smell and taste when it comes to the flavor of things.

Most purple drinks — not purple. Probably the most obvious one on the list. But in any case, avoid if you can anything called Purple Drank.

So ends our tour of the rainbow. Thanks for reading, liking, and subscribing. And, as always, if you want to click that tip jar up there and contribute, well… fire away, and thanks!

Wednesday Wonders: Seeing the real magic

In honor of the Magic Castle slowly reopening, here’s a reprint of a piece inspired by my visit long ago to the place, in November 2018. It was my second trip but, I hope, not my last.

And now for a story that starts out a bit Hollywood-centric, but it will become more general as we go on.

I recently made another foray to The Magic Castle in Hollywood, which isn’t quite as hard to manage as it’s reputed to be. All you have to do is befriend magicians, and ask — or know people who know magicians. Or, if you have the money, you can become an associate member for a $1,500 initiation fee and $750 per year, or just stay in the adjacent Magic Hotel. If you’re into magic, it’s well worth the visit.

If you don’t have that kind of money and have to rely on connections, note that the valet parking is a bit pricey at $14 per car, but if you don’t mind a walk you can get there from the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station, or just use a ride-sharing service. The food is excellent but, again, on the higher end. However, eating in the dining room does get you admission to the main room shows, which is where the big effects happen, so factor that into the price of the meal. If you don’t mind missing the big shows but are still hungry, food at either of the bars is in the typical restaurant range for L.A., and it is likewise very good.

Now, like a lot of people who were once little kids, I went through my fascination with magic phase, and had the obligatory kits and tricks. There was also a magic shop a few miles from my house that I used to ride my bike to during my middle school days, and the owner was kind enough to let me hang around and watch him demonstrate tricks or watch magicians try out new effects or card moves.

The only problem was that when it came to doing magic I did not have the manual dexterity for it. My hands were adapted to playing piano, not to sleight-of-hand, so unless a trick did itself, I wasn’t very good at it, so I never pursued it. For a long time, I kind of resented magicians for this reason, until I discovered Penn & Teller. Their whole shtick is partly about revealing how some old classic tricks are done, but even then they’ll top it by using the exposed version to show what kind of mad skills it takes, or subvert it by then hiding a bigger trick behind the reveal — in effect showing you everything while hiding something even more amazing.

Anyway, it was ironically through their giving away of secrets (something that some other magicians absolutely hate them for) that really increased my appreciation of magic. I went on to learn about how all sorts of tricks worked, but then watching magic became an entirely different sort of thing for me. Audiences who don’t know the tricks (no, I’m not going to call them No-Maj, thanks!) are wowed and amazed and baffled. Meanwhile, when I watch, I appreciate the sheer talent of a skilled magician while I watch exactly how they’re misdirecting the audience. I may know the punchline to the trick the moment the magician sets it up and long before it’s revealed, but that’s an entirely different level of enjoyment.

I’d compare it to the difference in experience between a musician and a non-musician watching a performance. The latter may just appreciate the music on an emotional and aesthetic level. Meanwhile, the former may be watching it from a completely different place, which could very well offer frequent thoughts of, “Holy crap, how did they make those two keys fit together in counterpoint and have two separate lyric lines suddenly mesh perfectly?” (This is also known as “pulling a Sondheim.”)

The other night at The Magic Castle, I was lucky enough to be sitting at the right hand of the close-up magician who had invited my friend as he did a half-hour routine especially for our group at a green felt-topped table that was quickly surrounded by spectators not in the inner circle. And for his whole routine, I knew enough to ignore the misdirection and always watch what the hand he didn’t want us to look at was doing. I did catch one specific move that I think may have actually been just to fake me out because it shouldn’t have been necessary for the trick that followed, but as I found out afterwards, he was as onto me as I was to him. When I complimented him afterwards,  he said, “You’ve done magic, haven’t you?”

“No, I’ve just studied it a lot,” I replied.

During his routine, while everyone else was watching what he wanted them to, I was just as enthralled watching how skillfully he was pulling off what he was hiding — every palm and ditch, force and false cut, load and steal, every stack and double lift. In magician’s terms, I was giving him a burn. But my intent was never to go, “A-ha, you just (reveal trick)!” No. It was to be awed on an entirely different level. His skills are absolutely amazing.

The Magic Castle is like that, and the place is full of little bits of magic to be discovered, but probably one of the most remarkable is Irma, the ghost piano player who performs in the lounge behind the upstairs bar. The effect is simple. When she’s not on break, ask Irma for a song, and unless it’s something ridiculously obscure, she’ll start playing it. (I stumped her with Echame la culpa, but I figured that it wouldn’t be in her repertoire anyway.)

She’ll also answer questions with short musical bits. For example, someone in our party asked if she was in love with anyone, and this was answered with “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”

Obviously, the grand piano with no one sitting in front of it is somehow remotely operated, but the big question is how. And remember: Irma has been a part of The Magic Castle all along, since its opening in 1963, at which point the effect presented itself exactly the same way, more on which in a moment.

I’ve heard people theorize on it, conjecturing everything from tons of player piano rolls, to voice recognition and AI, to a hidden player pulling up sheet music via computer. And, of course, it all works through hidden microphones. The first two are unlikely, the third is unnecessary, and the microphones don’t explain everything that happens.

Once you start really paying attention to what’s going on, you’ll discover that there’s one thing a lot of people don’t realize. In fact, I didn’t realize it until we walked into the lounge with our magician host and Irma immediately started playing The Pink Panther, which he pointed out is his theme song. Also, when he set his trick bag on the table in front of us and went to the bar, the table slowly rotated so the bag was suddenly in front of me. When he game back, we told him what had happened and he said it was just Irma’s way of being funny.

After that, one of our party joined us with a glass of tequila and yes — Irma played a few bars of that song. Much later in the evening, after we paid one last visit to Irma and were on the way out, she started playing Anything Goes — the first song asked for that night by the one member of our party who’d never been there before and who had had the tequila. He had started walking out without a word.

So there’s no possible way that it’s just microphones, but I could not spot any likely place for cameras to be hidden. Not that it’s not possible, although it’s more likely that they still rely on the low-tech method of people with microphones behind two-way mirrors to relay information to the — pardon the expression — ghost in the machine that is the human player hidden somewhere. This would certainly be a logical use of some very old mind-reader act trickery, after all.

Personally, I’m entirely convinced that Irma is operated by a human piano player who is not relying on computers or AI or any other fancy technology. Rather, it’s a human who is just relying on their own talents and skill. And that is the biggest magic trick of all.

Remember that the next time someone amazes you with what they can do, and thank them for it — then go out there and be amazing at what you do.

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! ¡Feliz día de la acción de gracias!

The unbearable whiteness of eating

I’ve probably mentioned bits of my family background before, so some of this may be a repeat, but it’s heading toward an entirely different story, and it was brought to mind because of a coupon.

I’m a regular shopper at Ralphs, a supermarket chain owned by Kroger, and I have their rewards card. It’s the only chain I’ve shopped, other than Trader Joe’s, my entire adult life.

So, for a while now, every six weeks, I get about a dozen coupons in the mail. They come in two sheets of six each, and it always works the same way. The first page: Coupons for stuff I buy all the time. This one gets used up.

Second page: Stuff I might have bought once in the past, or lasts so long that I don’t need it, or is something I never have or would buy. This one usually stays intact.

One of the coupons they always send me is for a free jar of mayo — sometimes my preferred brand (Kraft) and sometimes not (Best Foods.)

Tonight was a free jar of Best Foods, and as I put it in the fridge, I realized, “Damn, I have a lot of unopened mayo in there.”

Fortunately, and contrary to popular belief, mayo has a long shelf life despite containing eggs because it is full of vinegar, too. Why do you think they leave it on the non-refrigerated shelves in the market?

But this surfeit of mayo reminded me that, when I was growing up, my fridge at home was not like this at all. There would be nary a jar of mayo to be found.

Flashback to my mom’s origin story. She was the daughter of an Irish Catholic couple from a suburb adjacent to Joseph Biden’s birthplace, Scranton, Pennsylvania. Grandfather was a coal miner. Grandmother was a baby machine.

No, seriously, that seemed to be all she did. Over the course of twenty-six years, from the ages of about 19 to 45, she popped out thirteen babies. If you’re counting, that’s one every two years. She started all of that not long before the Great Depression — not a good time for a laborer, even one in a union, to try to be raising that many kids.

Only seven of them made it to adulthood. There were a lot of stillbirths, and one who died in middle childhood. I’d assume miscarriages as well. But my mother was right in the middle of the surviving bunch, so she and her one older sister wound up helping grandma raise the other kids.

The oldest was one of her sisters, and the two boys, of course, were never expected to do “women’s work.” (Rolls eyes.) This left her two younger sisters and the youngest, who was born with Down’s Syndrome right around the time grandma turned 45.

He was her last.

Anyway, my  mom learned everything she knew about homemaking from Grandma Molly and Aunt Pat, particularly cooking, although food at home at the time was necessarily… not great.

They had nine mouths to feed on a limited budget, not to mention that a lot of them were not very adventurous when it came to what they ate, so it was apparently a lot of meat and potatoes. It was a typical Irish-American diet, I suppose.

But it all had to be done in bulk and cheaply, and there was a World War in there somewhere as well, so for a while they had to deal with rationing.

By the time my mom married my dad, who was a white collar professional and decidedly middle (if not upper-middle) class, she had improved her culinary skills enormously, but she still leaned toward the money-saving choices from her childhood.

She was also the only one to move all the way across the country to California, and I think being here influenced her cooking enormously — she had quite a few specialties of the Mexican and Italian food variety, which played nicely into a genetic thing that I improbably share with my dad’s half-German side of the family.

For the Bastians, the rule is “the spicier the better.”

But… the occasional lasagna or enchiladas or tamale pie were rare treats, maybe once a month, because I watched and learned from her, and they were involved and complicated.

Spaghetti and meatballs, not so much, since the only intricate part there is the meatball prep, but the cooking the spaghetti part was so simple that Mom could and did trust Dad to do it. (Took me years to figure out that was because it was something he could basically not screw up.)

Outside of the specialties, though, we were also pretty much meat and potatoes, with Sunday dinner traditionally being a huge rump roast with potatoes, usually mashed, and a side of thick-cut cooked carrots if I were lucky, or green beans if I weren’t.

I despise green beans. No one can convince me that they do not only exist as wax fruit that is inexplicably slipped into cookpots for no good reason.

But, without the sides, that Sunday dinner would turn into roast beef sandwich lunches for both Dad and me for the rest of the week, and I had no complaints.

And those sandwiches? Roast beef on Wonder Bread with Miracle Whip. Our house also lacked butter — for Mom, it was Parkay Margarine all the way or, as I say now, “¿por qué margarina?” We also had Carnation instant milk, which was (is?) powder mixed with water, and the only “cheese” I ever knew were individually wrapped Kraft American singles, which IIRC were always referred to as “cheese food product,” which sounds about as unappealing as possible.

The plastic each slice came wrapped in probably had more nutritional value and tasted better.

Mom also committed what I now consider from my own experience cooking and baking as the ultimate culinary sin. She used Bisquick.

In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a product designed for people who couldn’t be arsed to measure out and whisk together a little flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda — and anathema if you need to leave out the last two ingredients for health reasons.

So, yeah… Other than the occasional ethnic meals, my culinary upbringing was about as damn white as you could get. In the case of the bread, mayo, and Bisquick, quite literally. It always amazed me, because she certainly could have afforded a lot more and better, but the habits we develop in childhood, especially when it comes to food choices, can be very hard to break.

Then I went off to college. It was a Catholic university — which I attended for the film school, not the religion — but, ironically, it opened up a whole new world of food for me.

On my first lunch from campus food service on my first day living there, I had a burger and I had real mayo on it, which I had never tasted before.

OMFG, what a revelation. The sugary blandness of the very misnamed Miracle Whip faded into memory as I discovered the sassy, tangy goodness of real mayo enticingly teasing my taste buds.

And then there was wheat bread, which actually tasted like something, and delivered every bite of sandwich with a little hug. Don’t get me started on tasting real butter for the first time, and then the goodness of butter spread thick on hot wheat toast.

Then there were the real cheese and milk that, like the butter, actually came out of a cow and were not created artificially or reconstituted. Swiss cheese. Cheddar cheese. Mozzarella. Gorgonzola. Bleu cheese. Feta. Goat cheese. Cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese! Glorious cheese!

And I was absolutely addicted to milk. I still am. But even real non-fat milk was better than the reanimated corpse milk I’d grown up on, and I’d even occasionally dare a 2%.

This was also when and where I first took my tongue around the world. In a culinary sense, you pervs. I was already familiar with Mexican and Italian food, but discovered Chinese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, Salvadoran, and German cuisine — I’m probably missing a lot on that list — largely thanks to my university having a very diverse student body, both of native-born Americans from different cultures and international students from different countries.

Did I mention that my very Catholic university had an amazing bagel bar every morning, with every conceivable kind of bagel and shmear, along with lox and onions and the works?

And how amusing it was to see the Catholic high school kids the first week not know that you cut it in half and the stuff goes inside, you don’t spread it on top?

But, like I’d been, they were also clearly lacking in certain culinary experiences, so I shouldn’t really make too much fun of them. I’ll reserve that mocking for people who are having authentic tamales for the first time and don’t know that you have to take the corn husks off before eating because, I mean, duh. That should be obvious, right?

That’s like trying to eat your Taco Bell burrito while it’s still wrapped in the paper. And that’s just silly.

About as silly as what I was stuck eating until I turned 18 and went off on my own, but I really can’t fault my mother for it. She did amazing things with what she was limited to, but she also went beyond those boundaries.

It was just the common basics of the everyday that were so much wrapped up in her past as the daughter of a poor working man with a big family. On the other hand, it kept me also stuck firmly to her roots instead of realizing how well-off dad actually was, so it kept me from growing up to be an entitled brat.

At least I’ve come to terms with it, and no longer consider having grown up on Miracle Whip and Wonder Bread to be child abuse. But, nowadays, it should be. Oh, yes, it should be.

Image “White bread sandwich with cheese” by Freefoodphotos at FreeImagesLive. Licensed under (CC by 3.0) Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving however you celebrate it, although the following explains why you should not do it in person. Meanwhile, tomorrow marks the beginning of a special treat — my annual Christmas Countdown featuring a different one of my favorite holiday-themed music videos every day.

This will — or should — be a holiday season unlike any most of us have known during our lifetimes. I can only imagine that the holidays of 1918 and maybe even 1919 were just as disarrayed as now, and for the same reasons.

But I also wonder — what about all the holiday seasons during WW I and WW II, in particular, when all of the fathers, uncles, and other males in the extended family might not have been around to celebrate?

And yet, it is very important this year that we do what Americans used to prove themselves very good at: Sacrificing in the here and now for the long-term benefit of everyone. Rationing was one of the central features of WW II, after all, with people giving up or cutting down on certain things so that they could go to the war effort.

Of course, people back then showed the same warts we do now, and when word spread of something scheduled to be rationed, guess what happened? Yep. Same thing as happened to TP and hand sanitizer back in March. People stormed the stores and hoarded it.

So greed and selfishness are not modern inventions.

In order to make the system work, everyone — adults and children alike — got a ration book with coupons allowing them only so much of certain commodities at a time. But some of the limits were severe. For example, people were allowed three gallons of gasoline a week at a time when cars got really crappy mileage.

To be fair, though, not a lot of people owned cars at the time, so that might be like the modern equivalent of “You can only recharge your electric car to 25% once a week.”

Rationing didn’t just include commodities like fuel and food. It also covered clothing and manufactured goods, like cars, bicycles, and typewriters. Why? Simple. All of the raw materials required to make those things were also necessary to make aircraft, ships, weapons, bullets, and uniforms for the troops — and this at a time just after Japan had wrecked part of the U.S. fleet when they attacked Pearl Harbor.

One of the strangest things rationed was women’s nylons, and I’ve heard stories from my grandmothers about how, back in those days, they would actually use eyebrow pencil or something like that to draw fake seams down the back of their calves so it would look like they were wearing nylons.

So… why nylon? Simple. That’s what they made parachutes out of.

Ironically, once the war was over, all that stuff came screaming back into the economy as War Surplus, and stores selling that stuff are still around to this day.

The place where I live was built just after wartime rationing finally ended, sugar being rationed up until 1947. But one of the selling points of the place is that all of the kitchens have stainless steel countertops, and that stainless steel came right back from all of the aircraft factories in Van Nuys that no longer needed it.

Other fun fact: All of the peepholes in our front doors were made out of repurposed bomber gunsights with the hairline cross-sights removed.

The point of all this is that people had to make huge lifestyle adjustments — in the case of World War II, for over five years. And that’s just in America. People in Europe and the USSR had a lot more adjusting to do, and a lot more sacrifices to make.

So, as we come into this holiday season even as COVID-19 numbers in terms of new cases are outpacing by far the ones that sent us into lockdown way back in March, we have to remember not to do now what wrecked our brief success in the spring.

That is, once we hit Memorial Day, people in general got lazy and selfish, and started going out without taking precautions and acting like the crisis was over. And with every major holiday and event, numbers spiked and new hotspots sprang up — Independence Day, Labor Day, and every unmasked mass gathering, whether at a presidential rally or BLM protest — although the latter group were far more likely to wear masks.

What this means is that this holiday season is a time when Americans need to sacrifice again, and do what our grandparents and great-grandparents did during World War II in order to win. Give up those things that you think you really need right now, do with less, and take the time for focus on yourself, recalibrate, and recharge.

You can easily do without seeing family from another part of the state or out of state in person this year. You can do without getting together for that big dinner and whatnot. And you can easily have a family Zoomsgiving with everyone safe in their own homes, but still hanging out.

The best part: during Thanksgiving, Zoom has waived the 40-minute time-limit on meetings via unpaid accounts, so knock yourselves out — but with virtual gatherings only, please.

And the same will be true of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve. Stay safer apart. Period.

All that said, and as a preview of what’s to come here from now until Christmas, here are two Thanksgiving-themed music videos that could not be more different. Or maybe not. The first is a very traditional seeming musical tribute to the holiday until you read between the lines — because it just may be that what at first appears to be a huge feast being set out for a family gathering is really just a meal for one. (Oops. Spoilers…)

The Second is William S. Burroughs, and his ever apt, insightful, and true to this day Thanksgiving Prayer. Enjoy!

Image source, Bart Everson, (CC) BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Slanguage

One of the interesting things about idiomatic expressions in any languages is that, while the words in them may each make complete sense, stringing them all together may seem to make no sense, at least to someone who isn’t a native speaker or, if they do make sense, the literal meaning is far different than the idiomatic meaning.

A good example of the latter in English is the expression “a piece of cake.” Literally, it’s just a bit of dessert. Nothing odd about that. But, of course, English speakers know the other meaning. A “piece of cake” is something that is done or achieved very easily: “Passing that test was a piece of cake.” Why does a fluffy, iced treat mean this? Who knows.

By the way, the Spanish equivalent of the expression is “pan comido,” which literally means “eaten bread.” Again, it’s a food metaphor, but why it would indicate that something is easy is still a mystery. Maybe, because after you’ve eaten that bread, no one can take it back? So maybe it makes an ounce more sense than its English counterpart. Maybe not.

When it comes to all the words together making no sense, though, we come to an English expression like “cold turkey.” If you didn’t know what it meant, you might assume it refers to a really lousy Thanksgiving dinner. However, what it really refers to is quitting a habit instantly — for example, quitting smoking by just stopping. And yes, the habit is usually something addictive, like smoking, drugs, or alcohol. There’s no clear source for the phrase, although it may have come from come from an alteration of the phrase “to talk turkey,” meaning to speak honestly and plainly, modified with “cold” as in “cold, hard facts” — to deliver something without emotion.

Another fun expression that is more British than American English is “taking the piss,” a short version of “taking the piss out of.” You could be forgiven if you thought this referred to urologist’s daily routine, and don’t confuse it with “taking a piss,” which is somehow both literal and backwards at the same time. I mean, really — doesn’t one “leave a piss” rather than take it?

This expression has nothing at all to do with urine. Rather, it means basically mocking someone or joking at their expense, although how this came to mean that is still unclear. It may have come from Cockney rhyming slang, and the fact that it’s popular in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland, but not in Canada attest to this, although one really wild and unfounded theory refers to the use of urine to tan leather — take this one with a big fat grain of salt. One other possible etymology links it in to another slang term, piss proud, which relates to that quaint phenomenon most men are familiar with called morning wood.

Now back to the top and an interesting idiomatic expression from Spanish in which each word makes sense but all of them together don’t add up to the idiomatic meaning: de par en par. Literally, it’s “of pair in pair.” I’ll give you a moment to take a wild guess as to its actual meaning.

This paragraph provided as a think break before the spoiler. Here’s a really weird idiomatic expression from Swedish: “Att glida in på en räkmacka.” Literally, it means to slide in on a shrimp sandwich. What it really refers to is somebody who didn’t have to work to get to where they are. An American version might be “born on third base” or “born with a silver spoon in their mouth.” Okay, enough of a break. Any ideas on what “de par en par” means?

Okay, here we go. For some reason that I haven’t yet been able to determine, it means “wide open.” And you can put all kinds of open things in front of it: “una puerta de par en par,” a wide open door; “con brazos de par en par,” with open arms; “un corazón de par en par,” an open heart, and so on. (Interestingly, negating the expression by changing it to “sin par en par” does not mean “shut.” Rather, it means unparalleled. Weird, eh?)

If anybody does happen to know why this expression means what it does, please share in the comments. For that matter, if you know the whys of any of the English slang phrases I’ve mentioned, do likewise.

Chapter Fourteen

This chapter comes with its own cookbook, documenting DIY condiments and a few recipes I’ve customized. But first… advice on learning how to do something and a shout out to some friends.

Putting it all together

If you’ve come this far, then you’ve followed my journey through some really hard work, and if you’ve managed to get a good start at it, congratulations. Don’t stop and don’t give up. But half of the fun of changing your life is finding new and more creative ways to do it. This chapter is going to be all about the practical, and I’m going to share some of the recipes and replacements that I’ve discovered and altered to fit my diet over the last year and a half.

Previously, I’ve discussed healthier versions of various seasonings and condiments, but you can also make your own versions of the latter, and the best part about doing so is not only do you have complete control over what goes into them, but you can fiddle around and adjust the recipes to suit both your own dietary needs and your palate.

And, like anything else, the only way to get better is through practice. The more you do anything, the better you get at it. Look at one of my non-cooking examples: I walked into my first improv class at the beginning of 2017 being absolutely terrified of even trying it. Just under a year later, at the end of 2017, I started doing it for real for audiences as often as I could and I am loving it.

Another example I haven’t mentioned. At my (former) workplace but still freelance office away from home (long story), there’s a ping pong table. Before I got out of the hospital, I never even tried to play. I thought I’d be terrible at it, honestly. It was something that I watched my two office besties, Peter and Cooper, do all the time for well over a year, and they were both quite good at it, but I was intimidated.

But then, not long after I got out of the hospital and was feeling better, I figured what the hell, let’s give it a shot. And I sucked. Peter and Cooper could both kick my ass with their eyes closed, although to their great credit they really held back at first. And they also taught me, little by little. While I’m not as consistently good as either of them to this day, I can still manage to sometimes hold my own and win a game or two, although I will never take it as seriously as Cooper does and I will never mind losing to Peter because he’s nice about winning.

But I do digress.

My point was that my progression on both fronts — improv and table tennis — is one of the biggest lessons I want to share with you, my loyal readers. You can’t get good at anything if you don’t try, but you have to understand that when you try it at first you’re probably not going to be any good at it. If you are good from the start, then congratulations. You’re a prodigy, and you should absolutely keep going.

Don’t be afraid to ask others for advice or to teach you. Peter and Cooper taught me how to play ping pong, among many other things. Rick, Holly, Jen, and Abel, along with all of my fellow students, taught me how to do improv, among many other things — and every audience I appear in front of teaches me a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t.

I’m going to share a little bit with you about how to cook, but don’t be afraid to seek out the help of others. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, an American chef and food writer, can teach you all about the science of cooking in his books and blog, and there’s a copy of his weighty tome The Food Lab in my kitchen right now — although be careful with his stuff, because he does lean a bit toward too much salt. Listen to him for the how of cooking; not so much for the exact ingredients.

It might seem strange that I’m both promoting and criticizing Lopez-Alt in the same paragraph, but the fact that he teaches science-based cooking brings up a good point. When it comes to the strict chemistry of things, salt is really, really useful. It’s a preservative. It helps to denature proteins and make them cook better, and it facilitates necessary reactions in baking. When I first discovered him, way pre-hospital, I followed his recipe for scrambled eggs, which involved tossing in a teaspoon of salt with the raw eggs, then letting them sit for fifteen minutes before whisking and cooking.

And yes, they were the best scrambled eggs I’d ever had. And they had at least 2,325 mg of sodium from just the salt, never mind what came from the eggs and milk. In other words, it was nearly twice what I’m supposed to have in an entire day in a single breakfast item.

So… not really a viable roadmap to follow without editing the ingredients yourself and acknowledging that some bits of cooking magic will be impossible. On the other hand, if you stick to his methods regarding cooking tools and times and techniques, then he’s absolutely worth following.

There are also cookbooks geared toward specific dietary needs, like both editions of the American Heart Association’s Low Salt Cookbooks, which happen to be sitting right next to my copy of The Food Lab unironically. Any brick and mortar bookstore or online retailer (although, please, go to the former first!) will have an array of books designed for low-sodium, low-fat, sugar-free, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, halal, and any other kind of diet you can think of. You can also find books, and plenty of blogs, teaching general cooking techniques.

One go-to blog for me personally is SodiumGirl which, despite the title, is oriented toward low-sodium diets. Other useful sites are FatSecret for tracking calories and keeping a food diary, and EatThisMuch for meal-planning, although you’ll need to set up a free account in order to customize beyond daily Calorie count. I tested it without being logged in, and the first suggested menu under vegetarian options blew my sodium count with breakfast alone, so be aware.

But let’s get to cooking and start it out simple, with the All-American trio of condiments: ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Thirteen or start with the Prologue.

 

Chapter Thirteen

It isn’t all puppies and unicorns when you try to improve yourself, and I’m no exception. In this excerpt, I discuss the setbacks I hit and how I dealt with them.

Inevitable setbacks

Since this chapter flashes back to the Prologue, it’s appropriate to have its own prologue. Remember the diary we started back in Chapter Five? Well, I keep one, too, and I documented a lot of what I went through below, good and bad, although I wrote this chapter after I came back out the other side. If it reads at times like I’m in the midst of the Sturm und Drang, it’s because I’ve basically collaborated with myself from that time period when everything seemed like it went pear-shaped.

And yes, I’m quite aware of the irony of using a food metaphor in a book that’s supposed to help you lose weight, but at least it’s a somewhat healthy food metaphor. But I do digress…

For me, Labor Day weekend of 2017 was a high-point in this entire process. That’s when the incident I mentioned in the prologue happened. What I didn’t mention there was the purpose of the camp. It’s put on by a group called the California Community of Men, or CalComMen for short, which is basically a heart-centered social group for, as the leader puts it, “men who love men.”

They specifically avoid using the label “gay” alone because the group is more inclusive than that and covers the entire spectrum of men — gay, bisexual, transgender, and yes, even straight. A big part of avoiding labels, I’ve learned, is that there are a lot of men in the group who came out very late in life, many of them who had already been married to women and had families. I’ve done none of those things, but there are also plenty of other members like me, so it all balances out.

A lot of their events are clothing optional, which was another attraction for me. And no, it’s not all about sex parties. I should explain that there actually is a range when it comes to men’s social groups like this, ranging from the very prudish ones that don’t have any kind of nudity or hanky-panky going on at their events all the way to the ones for which that’s their entire raison d’etre. If I remember correctly, the group on the no sex side is almost totally spiritual and political in nature, while the group where sex is all but required goes by a rather quaint acronym that is a homonym for the crew of a submarine. Since I’ve never been involved in either of those groups directly, I won’t name them here, but you can probably find them if you look.

Of course, the sex fest group really gets the definition of naturism wrong, because it absolutely isn’t about sex at all. It’s about being comfortable with your own body and getting in touch with nature. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I’ve pretty much always been a nudist, I feel comfortable that way, and especially now that I’ve gotten back into shape I have no problems hanging around naked with other people.

But, as it turned out, this camp had suddenly become pretty much not clothing-optional except for a couple of indoor events mainly because one of the attendees at the previous session had not followed the rules, ending up in places he shouldn’t have been, which got the attention of neighboring camps. But that was fine with me because that wasn’t what this whole experience was about.

It was about trying new things and testing myself and making a lot of new friends and when I came back home, I was on a total high. I had also taken the Tuesday after Labor Day off at work, so I and my cabin-mate, whom I had met the day before camp because he needed a ride up from L.A., decided to go back via Palm Springs and spend the day and night at a small clothing-optional resort that had hosted CalComMen earlier that summer. Shout out to Tortuga del Sol. We practically had the place to ourselves.

I had an appointment with my cardiologist the day I came back to work, and my heart had improved nicely. This was also when I impressed him when I told him that I was losing weight despite eating things like pasta.

“Pasta!” he exclaimed to me, incredulous. “You eat pasta and look like this? You should talk to my wife and tell her your secrets.” He punctuated this by patting his belly.

And then, the next day, I got laid off from my job of a decade that I had loved so much because the company was having cash-flow issues, largely driven by lackluster web sales, something that has become more and more common everywhere that isn’t a website that starts with “A” and ends with “mazon.” It wasn’t a total layoff and I’m still writing for them freelance, but, obviously, it’s a lot less income and I’m no longer an employee, so I get to do things like pay for my own health insurance which, obviously, is really, really important to me because of everything that’s happened.

At about $460 a month for the same plan I had from work, I thought it was expensive until I tried to fill a prescription before my COBRA had kicked in — one of my heart meds of the “you can’t stop this one cold turkey” variety — only to find out that its real price was more than half of my monthly premium. Fortunately, Kaiser is very understanding, so instead of charging me outright, they agreed to bill me with the idea being that by the time that did happen my insurance would have kicked in and I’d pay the usual $11. And that’s what happened.

And yes, why a life-saving prescription would actually be more than my car payment in the first place, I have no idea. Welcome to America!

But… it was only because of a few things that my world did not crash down immediately. Number one, like I mentioned, I was still on a total high from camp. Number two, for once in my life I’d saved money like a madman, so there was a nice cushion waiting. Number three, the severance deal I got was ridiculously generous, so I was essentially paid through the end of the year, along with the freelance income and unemployment I’d be getting.

On the other hand, I do tend to have what’s called seasonal affective disorder, also known as “it gets dark early, so I get depressed easily.” The rest of September and October went pretty well, but as November came around and the clocks changed, I started to drift into a much darker mood and saw my motivation slip away as well. Now, I didn’t relapse by gaining weight or smoking again, but I was definitely no longer on my end of summer high.

Around the holiday season — which, in America, is basically “everything after Halloween,” —  I also had back-to-back romantic fake-outs. The first was someone who friended me and messaged med on Facebook after he’d joined a group I belonged to. At first, he hit on me hard and I bought it for a little bit, but things began to not add up pretty quickly. For example, he claimed to be an engineer living in the U.S., but his English was barely passable — and you don’t get that kind of degree without good language skills. He claimed to be from Brazil, but I couldn’t get a word of Portuguese out of him, and he’d just ignore any questions I asked him in Portuguese. (It’s a quirk of Google Translate that Spanish to Portuguese is much more accurate than either of those languages to or from English, so I came fairly well-armed.) As soon as he mentioned that he’d be going to Africa to negotiate a contract for a project, that’s when the dime dropped, so I just played along until he tried to bait the inevitable scam.

The way the scam works in a nutshell is that the Con Artist (them) asks the Mark (you) to help them out by cashing a large check for them. They can’t do it because they don’t have a bank account or they’re trying to hide the money from a spouse or the government, or whatever reason. By the way, in exchange for doing this for them, you get to keep a generous chunk of that check — 10%, 25%, whatever.

When the Mark falls for it, the check appears to be absolutely legit. It goes into their bank, it clears, and they send the balance, less their fee, on to the Con Artist, who promptly vanishes. It isn’t until weeks or months later that the Mark’s bank finds out the check was a fake — and guess who gets left holding the bag for the money that never existed? It’s called Advance Fee Fraud, and it’s a really, really old scam.

Of course, when my would-be con artist mentioned going to Africa, I told him to beware of Nigerian Princes and he asked me what that meant. I then proceeded to explain to him exactly the advance fee scam he was going to try to pull on me, but I guess he didn’t get the clue. When he asked me if I had a bank account, the alarm bells were going off big time, so when he asked if I could help him get money from a business partner “through your account,” I flat out told him “No” in Portuguese.

Funny coincidence, though — at just about exactly his moment, one of my good friends posted a video on Facebook from a man who’d gone through almost the same thing — minus the lonely hearts angle. Instead of blocking his scammer or reporting him, he told him, “I know you’re trying to con me, but tell me where you are and why you’re doing this, and I’ll see what I can do to help you legally.”

And, what do you know, he actually did. His scammer was in Liberia, and the man told him that he needed pictures from his country and would pay for the ones he could use. The scammer sent some photos and… they were awful. Eventually, the man sent him a $30 digital camera that was still much better than whatever the scammer was using… and the photos still sucked. But after the man gave the scammer some tips, the photos improved. This led to an Indiegogo campaign with the goal of creating a book of the pictures to document life in Liberia.

It succeeded, and as the man promised, he sent half the money from book sales to his now would-be scammer, with the promise to contribute the other half to some cause in Liberia. The Liberian photographer told the man that the schools there really needed help. This led to the photographer using the rest of the book money to basically buy out all the school supplies in town and give them to the students, happy ending for everyone.

Yeah, my friend is great at finding inspirational stuff like this. I’ve told him many times, although I still don’t think he believes it, that he has always inspired me to be a better person because he’s such an awesome human.

So… I made the same offer to my would-be scammer. I told him I was on to what he was doing, but if he told me where he was and why he was trying to scam people, I’d see what I could do to help him. I made that offer a couple of times, in fact.

Unlike the Liberian, he just kept doubling down. “I’m in Maryland, and I need you to use your account to get me money from my business partner.”

Well, so much for that, and I unfriended him. But you can’t say I didn’t try. Right?

* * *


Continue reading “Chapter Thirteen”

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