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

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

What single event has had the biggest impact on who you are?

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

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

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

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

Two different sides of the same abuse coin, really.

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

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

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

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

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

Are bigger or small schools better?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lightning round: This or that?

High-tech or Low-tech?

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

New Clothes or New Phone?

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

Rich Friend or Loyal Friend?

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

Big Party or Small Gathering?

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

What’s worse: Laundry or Dishes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus which: Pandemic.

Monday meal: Two ladies, two bitches (Sunday Nibble #31 Part 2 of 2)

This started as a “Sunday nibble,” but became an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I’m splitting the profiles of two women who have had a profound impact on me into two parts. In case you missed the first part, his is the second of the two ladies. The bitches were two of the female dogs I’ve owned, who were also influential in my life This is part two. Here is part one.



She wasn’t all that young when she taught me, so I’ll assume that she’s either dead now or very old, but I had a very interesting relationship with one of my two high school AP English teachers. She was Ms. Betty Bivins — well, she went by “Mrs.”

She was a wide, thick-set but not heavy older woman with red hair that may or may not have been henna. My overall impression of her was that she consisted of squares and cubes with Conan O’Brien’s hair-do before he became famous for it, and a penchant for textured pantsuits that resembled flocked wallpaper in tones of either orange, red, or green over white or cream.

The word formidable comes to mine in both talent and personality, and this is appropriate, because she was my first actual Grammar Nazi.

I hated her for it from the start. But by the end, everyone in the class and I knew all the rules backwards and forwards, and for the semester I wound up in a regular (not remedial) English class (the why explained below), the grammatical and technical abilities of those kids were clearly nowhere on our level.

What she did was this: She gave us a list of common grammar and spelling errors, like mixing up it’s and its, or confusing your/you’re or there/they’re/their, along with commonly misspelled words like, well, “misspelled,” or “privilege,” and whether to use “affect” or “effect.” (That one has a sneaky hidden triple point score, thank you psychology!)

I think there were something like fifty items on the list, and she had a master book with our names down the first column and the rule numbers at the top, with two check boxes under each rule all the way down.

When we turned in a paper, if we messed up a rule, she’d make a check in the book and mark it in red on our paper with the rule number. If we ever made the same error twice, that particular paper would fail no matter how good it otherwise was, and that would affect our overall grade.

I know that one because of her, by the way.

She was, in effect (see what I did there?) the kind of editor I became, and young me wasn’t happy about it at first, especially on that one day when I screwed up and “it’s’d” when I should have “its’d.”

Now, I kept a diary back in the day and I remember finding it as an adult and reading through it, very amused for two reasons. One was that I didn’t really write about any of the more… interesting stuff that happened in my life (Narrator voice: “Sex. He means sex. Mostly masturbation, but also sex.”)

The other is that in those first days of high school, I raved about most of my teachers, and then would just tersely note: “Xth Period. English. Hate it.” And no, I don’t remember what period it was. I do remember reading, as an adult, my entry on the day I got my first mark in the Big Book of Grammar sins, though. “Xth Period. English. Bitch, bitch, BITCH!”

But, of course, stubborn little bitch that I am thanks to Mom, I was determined to never fuck up anything in the Big Book again, and I didn’t. And I started to realize that Ms. Bivins really encouraged my writing. A lot. And eventually, we clicked, and during my second semester, she was my favorite teacher and AP English was my favorite class, second place a tie between AP History (Mr. Sholl) and Spanish (Ms. Navarro).

There is a point to mentioning AP, too, which is going to come up in a second. “AP” stands for “Advanced Placement,” and this is a high school track that actually counts as college credit. In fact, because of all my high school AP classes, I actually started college as a second semester Freshman and could have technically graduated a semester early, but instead stupidly took on two minors. And an extra semester of debt.

So we get near the end of first year, I’d been telling Ms. Bivins about a science fiction novel I’d been working on. I think I may have even bravely given her some pages, and she suggests, “You know, you could write this next year as an independent study in lieu of your English class, with me as your advisor…”

Side note: although it was (cough) a few years before The Purge, that science fiction novel was basically that, but set in a distant dystopian future. And, ironically, I was given the idea by a fellow student who was already in the “regular” English class first semester and he explicitly pitched it as, “I think this is an interesting idea, but there’s no way in hell I could ever write it, but you could.”

I titled it Free for All, and I actually still have a printed manuscript of the damn thing around here somewhere.

Anyway, what reason was there to say “No?” to something that could become the next great YA novel? So we created the pitch for the independent study, she got it approved at the school level and, as far as I knew, it was good to go before summer break according to someone at LAUSD downtown.

I came back that fall for the new semester, and when I got to what was supposed to be my independent study class, Ms. Bivins welcomed me with a look on her face that made me think her entire family had just died in a fiery car crash.

She explained that only that week, during the student-free day before classes started (aka “yesterday”,) some ass-clown administrator downtown had said, “Wait. You can’t do a core class like English as an independent study!”

But here was the Catch-22. I couldn’t just go right back into the AP English class either because, reasons. So I found myself being escorted by a very sad Mrs. Bivins to a regular English class already in progress, where I spent a semester in hell because it was just so goddamn boring.

It felt like repeating the curriculum and reading level from back in middle school — Tom Sawyer and Lord of the Flies and the like. Been there, done that. And, like I mentioned, the level of English written in that class was, well… average, really. If you’re not sure what that is, go read the comment section for any online newspaper or media website, then count the number of times you cringe because of the writing. Yeah, that level.

Now, it wasn’t that these people were stupid. It’s just that not everyone is good at language arts in general, or their own native language in particular — never mind if they’re not a native speaker. I get that. I’ve known Medical Doctors and PhDs in other fields who couldn’t spell or string together a coherent written sentence to save their lives, but they are good at what they do.

And I cannot count on all my fingers, toes, and other parts (i.e. hair) the number of plumbers, handy-people, mechanics, cleaners, and so on who don’t speak much English at all, but who light up in Spanish when I tell them I understand — and who are ridiculously good at their jobs.

Seriously, if we ever have a disaster in space, all we need to do is send up a Mexican with some duct tape, PVC pipe, a tile knife, a couple of adjustable wrenches, a mallet, one black plastic trash bag, and a friend, and that shit is coming home safe and sound.

(Note to anyone taking issue with the last paragraph: It was a humorous way of saying that the ingenuity of people from Mexico or of Mexican descent never ceases to amaze me. White people whine and call a professional. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans look at the problem and solve it. Period. They could MacGyver their way out of anything. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between growing up with privilege and not. But I do digress…)

As for all those wypipo who never learn how to English… in a lot of cases, they do learn their own technical jargon very well, so you might be surprised to see that lawyers aren’t necessarily literate outside of their particular bailiwick. They can write briefs, arguments, and opinions all day, but ask for an essay, and it ain’t gonna happen.

Hint: this is why paralegals really exist. To fix the regular English screw-ups that sneak into their bosses’ stuff so that they don’t look stupid in front of the judges.

But here is the insidious thing: In Mrs. Bivins shooting for the Moon and missing so that I landed back with the muggles for a sad late summer and most of autumn, she actually did me a gigantic favor without ever having to explain a thing, because I don’t think she even realized it, either.

Let’s get back to that “AP” part. See, it also happened to be that most of the people in all my AP classes were also people I’d been in classes with all through school since about first grade, provided that we all went to the same three schools. So, minor cast changes along the way, but for the most part, we seemed to wind up on the same train from age 6 to 18.

Now, it made sense in elementary school when we all spent the entire day in one room, with one teacher. But once we popped up into middle school and the sudden wonder of six different classes, six different rooms, and six different teachers, it should have gotten more random.

It didn’t. So on day one in middle school, there I was in home room, with mostly all the same people I’d been in class with on the last day of elementary school — and that continued on through the days and the years.

The only place it seemed to break down was in P.E., but I can’t help but think that this was strictly engineered by the sadistic coaches, who wanted to toss a bunch of jocks and nerds all together in one locker room at the same time, and then tell them, “Shower time!”

Yeah, we had to nude up and do that back then. I didn’t mind at all, But it was the only class I could remember that seemed to mix all levels of students, from advanced on down. Then again, while any typical period might have dozens of different classes in dozens of different rooms at the same time (my school were huge), P.E. had all of them at one time, in one place.

But the exception proved the rule. The only time I had class with people I wasn’t always in class with from the beginning was in the only class that did not test intellect, only physical ability.

Oh yeah… we’d all gone through that one at about twelve years old. I remember failing miserably on all counts so, while those of us from many levels did P.E. together technically, I was still lumped with my fellow nerds in the same Coach’s group, and at least he was less of an asshole than the others.

That didn’t stop them from having us do things like play flag football against the group full of aggressive jocks. It was like The Hunger Games, except with less death.

Still… why all of this grouping?

Well, ultimately, it was because all of us, around the beginning of 1st grade, were given an IQ test in that wonderfully systemically racist way of perpetuating “white superiority,” seeing as how IQ tests were originally created by big fans of eugenics.

But we took those tests and, unbeknownst to us, we were sorted into groups. I happened to wind up among the top tiers — “Gifted” and “Profoundly Gifted,” although I never heard those words until years later. But the end result was that our cohort, who were tested as well above-above average on the alleged “IQ” test were fast-tracked to…

Well, honestly, privilege. Now, granted, it was Los Angeles, so at least our gifted group was not 100% white, and everyone in it earned it. But here was the problem. Well, two problems.

One is that the particular IQ test they were still using at the time was later determined to have an enormous cultural bias, which did tend to weed out people from lower socio-economic backgrounds of all kinds. The other is that, because of this test, the top group got more resources and attention than everyone else when, ironically, we were the ones who probably needed it the least.

Put Mrs. Bivins in a “regular” English class, and she could probably bring them up to “our” level in a semester. Meanwhile, give us the rule book and make it a challenge for us to catch each other’s errors and… same result, cheaper method.

But this forever opened my eyes to how our entire school system is not really interested in improving everyone. Rather, it’s only interested in dumping everyone in their proper box, from Alpha to Epsilon, and doing form a very early age.

Sound familiar? It should. That’s Huxley’s Brave New World right there. Which, come to think of it, Mrs. Bivins did have us read during our second semester. So… maybe she had always planned ahead, and was setting up an object lesson she knew that I’d get? I don’t know. All I do know is that she, more than anyone else, gave me the push onto the path of pursuing this crazy “be a writer” thing.

Image source, Mohamed Hassan via Pexels. Licensed for free use.