Sunday Nibble #4

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

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

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

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

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

Whee!

The second oldest profession?

Acting is an odd profession. It’s all about pretending, but doing it in a very real way, at least emotionally. Stage combat, physical injury, death, making out, and love scenes are all faked, of course, but done in a manner that makes them seem real.

In one play of mine, the finale of the first act was one character shooting another in the forehead from across the stage right in front of the audience with the blood and apparent bullet hole appearing live, without cover. It was a brilliant piece of work by the director, tech crew, and actress.

A different play involved a man apparently being murdered in his drunken sleep by a young man wielding a metal hammer, and this was a simple case of misdirection. Timed to a black-out, the younger actor raised the weapon, apparently aimed at his victim’s head, then brought it down — and missed just as the lights went out, hitting a part of the bed rigged to give us the sound of the impact.

That one got gasps from the audience every night.

Another odd thing about the profession of acting is that it’s about the only mainstream one (not counting stripper, prostitute, or porn star) in which a person can get nude in front of their coworkers and customers and not be charged with sexual harassment. Well, at least as long as they keep it in the context of the show. (Note that I’m lumping models who do nude photoshoots or who sit for artists in with actors, because what they do is a form of acting.)

This “nudity in acting” thing has actually led to some interesting exceptions in the public decency laws. Los Angeles County, for example, specifically exempts “persons engaged in a live theatrical performance in a theater, concert hall or similar establishment which is primarily devoted to theatrical performances.”

Other jurisdictions have similar laws while some others don’t. This situation arose when the Supreme Court basically punted on the issue of obscenity in 1973, leaving the decision up to local communities. At the same time, there really aren’t any Federal prohibitions on nudity in places like National Parks, although if they are co-run by a local state or county, then the latter’s laws will take precedence.

But the subject was acting, and one of the very necessary things any cast, acting company, or other assemblage of performers absolutely needs to have is trust — in themselves and in each other.

Trusting yourself comes from within and grows as you train and progress, but your fellow players can also help build your self-trust even as you come to trust them more. Any dramatic production, particularly theatrical, can be compared to a company of soldiers preparing for battle. This isn’t to trivialize what soldiers do. Rather, it’s to emphasize that what happens on stage relies on a cohesive unit that functions as one.

With scripted performances, the emphasis is on following that script and the blocking, not deviating from what was rehearsed while bringing full emotional truth to it, all while experiencing it as if for the first time.

Improv is a little bit different creature because, of course, there is no script. I know there are people who doubt that, but trust me, it’s true. If we do plan ahead, the extent of it is to decide beforehand which particular games are going to be in the show, but this is really more to make sure we don’t bore the audience by having a lot of similar games being played in one match, as well as to make sure that our players and referee are familiar with the rules of what they’re going to be playing that evening.

Otherwise, we really do make up everything on the spot.

And that takes a special kind of trust because we’re going in without a script and without a safety net. Well, without a safety net beyond each other.

One thing about improv that can actually be a problem for some people at the beginning: Anybody can be anyone. That is, when you jump on stage with one or more scene partners, you won’t necessarily be playing your own age, gender, or orientation. We once had a very delightful moment in which a (real-life) father and college-age daughter wound up playing a father and teen-age daughter — except that she played him and he played her, and it was hilarious.

I’ve played boyfriend to a girlfriend played by a younger straight man; mother to a pair of daughters, one played by an older man; and niece to an uncle played by a younger woman, to name just a few.

Improv can also get very physical very fast, especially when we’re sending up particular genres, like romance or a Tennessee Williams play, or in some games that demand it physically, like Big/Little and Moving Bodies. Then there’s always the infamous “cleave” move when the genre that comes up is Shakespeare. It’s basically an abrupt pull in and embrace that looks like the cover of a bodice-ripper, and can be hilarious when it happens between two men in a context other than anything romantic.

“ANTONIO: Nay, thou villain dog, dark not my door, lest I draw sharp steel to you implore.”

“PETROLIO: What, good knave, a threat do you intend? ‘Tis just one way to bring it to an end.”

[PETROLIO cleaves ANTONIO to him. ANTONIO drops his sword and gasps.]

The key point is that one of two things happens. Everyone establishes what their boundaries are and everyone else respects them, or everyone makes it clear that they don’t have boundaries. Surprisingly — or maybe not, because improvisers are all a little weird — I don’t really hear a lot of boundaries being set among our team members.

Or maybe it just gets back to that really trusting each other part.

Since last Monday was the first Monday of the month, it was workshop night for the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League, and it was all about team-building through creating trust, which generally makes for a pretty intense and physical night.

One of the more interesting exercises involved us forming a giant human knot with fourteen people. Step one: Stick out your right hand and take the right hand of somebody in the circle not on either side of you. Step two: Repeat with your left hand and a different person. Step three: Untangle yourselves from the knot.

One of the things that becomes obvious from the get-go is that this is not a trivial problem. You’ve got arms over arms and under arms, and people that seem impossibly blocked from swapping places with each other. But, eventually, we start to figure things out and give each other instructions — “You step over their arms, but duck under theirs.”

“Turn around to your left, then bring your right arm over your head.”

“You get low and we’ll pass over you.”

And it didn’t seem to take all that long until we’d managed to untangle the knot. The big surprise is that we wound up in a circle with every other person facing out except for three people together all facing the same way, which was probably the point where the last two hands joined.

In the second round, the only rule was that we could not talk at all, and we didn’t even manage to do much in the way of untangling, which was a fascinating mini-lesson in communication. Even though we were trying to communicate through body language and facial expression, that somehow didn’t translate, and we only seemed to be able to make the knot worse.

We also did a sort of circular version of a trust-fall, although I prefer to think of it as vertical crowd-surfing. Called “Willow in the Winds,” one person stands in the center with everyone circled around, and then they fall. The rest of the group catches them and pushes them in another direction and the process repeats. Basically, it’s a game of pass the person while letting them almost fall but never really.

To the group’s credit, most of the people on the outside (yours truly included) eventually opted to go into the center, and I have to say that it was a very Zen experience, at least once I learned to just let go and let myself actually fall and trust that everyone would be there. And they were, even if a few times I wound up dipping pretty low, and it also became obvious which parts of the circle were physically stronger than others.

The most surreal exercise also turned out to be the most relaxing. I think it was called “Belly Circle,” and it was pretty much that. One person lied down, then the next person lied down with their head on the first person’s stomach. The third person did likewise to number two, and so on until we’d made it all the way around and the last person wound up with their head on the stomach of the first person.

I wound up with my head on the stomach of one of the tinier women and the head of one of the tinier men on mine, and like I said, my reaction wasn’t discomfort or anything like that. Rather, it was very, very relaxing. And why not? I was suddenly a sandwich, and the bread happened to be two people I already trusted a lot in the group. I could have easily fallen asleep then, and I think a lot of other people on the team felt the same.

And that’s kind of the ultimate trust thing, primate edition: The ability to fall asleep with one of your fellow “monkeys with thumbs” somehow touching you.

Full circle back to the “acting is weird” thing. It’s really only weird if you aren’t an actor or improviser. If you are, then you get it. We travel in a different world, have different rules and boundaries and, oh yeah — mostly only share those with our fellow performers.

And, anyway, it’s all just pretend, right? Except for all of the real that happens right there on that stage in every performance.

Like a prayer

This began as an attempt at a Sunday Nibble, but then I took such a deep-dive that it turned into a full article. Riffing on language does that to me.

Pop quiz. Can you identify this fairly well-known piece and the language it’s in?

Fæder ūre, ðū ðē eart on heofonum,

Sī ðīn nama gehālgod.

Tō becume ðīn rice.

Gewurde ðīn willa

On eorþan swā swā on heofonum.

Urne gedæghwamlīcan hlāf syle ūs tōdæg.

And forgyf ūs ūre gyltas,

Swā swā wē forgyfaþ ūrum gyltendum.

And ne gelæd ðū ūs on costnunge,

ac alȳs ūs of yfele.

It may look like something very foreign, and it both is and isn’t. It’s also a good clue as to why one of the biggest barriers to time travel might not be the technology, but rather the language. Jump in your time machine, set it for 1,025 years in the past, and that’s the language you’d have to figure out… in what would eventually become England. c. 995 C.E.

Yep. That quote above is in Old English and it’s the Lord’s Prayer. Whether you’re religious or not, or if the religion you grew up with was not Christianity, if you grew up in the west, you’ve been exposed to it, so you probably kind of know the words.

Notice, too, that a few words stand out as being completely unchanged:  and, on, and of. Everything else, nope. This was the original native language of the British Isles — at least the parts with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, because the Gaelic tribes were doing their own thing — and it didn’t even begin to resemble what we speak know until the French came along.

A couple of centuries after the Norman Conquest in 1066, the text had changed to the following, which should seem a lot more familiar. This is the version as of 1389:

Our fadir that art in heuenes,

halwid be thi name;

Thi kingdom cumme to;

be thi wille don

as in heuen and in earthe;

giv to vs this day our breed ouer other substaunce;

and forgeue to vs oure dettis,

as we forgeue to oure dettours;

and leede us nat in to temptacioun,

but delyuere vs fro yuel.

Amen.

Other than the v/u swapping going on and the strange spelling, it’s mostly readable to a modern audience. Also notice that there are now a lot more words that are unchanged to this day, and not just short ones. But jump ahead to 1526 and see how much more modern it sounds:

O oure father which arte in heven,

halowed be thy name;

let thy kingdom come;

thy wyll be fulfilled

as well in erth as hit ys in heven;

geve vs this daye oure dayly breade;

and forgeve vs oure treaspases,

even as we forgeve them which treaspas vs;

leede vs not into temptacion,

but delyvre vs ffrom yvell.

For thyne is the kingdom and the power,[4]

and the glorye for ever.

Amen.

Finally, there’s the King James version which was quite understandable, and which was written near the end of Shakespeare’s life, after he had almost single-handedly created Early Modern English.

Our father which art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name

Thy kingdome come.

Thy will be done,

in earth, as it is in heaven.

Giue us this day our daily bread.

And forgive vs our debts,

as we forgive our debters.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver vs from evill:

For thine is the kingdome, and the power,

and the glory, for ever,

Amen.

By this point, we’re only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the modern version:

Our Father, who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy Name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

As we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power,

and the glory, for ever and ever.

Amen.

And now circling back to the original topic of language and time travel, this is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen tackled in any depth, but more than anything, language could be the biggest barrier to any time travelers, even if they’re going back in time in their own country, or at least in their own culture — and traveling back five hundred or a thousand years wouldn’t be the only difficulty. Ironically, jumping back to any point prior to a decade ago and after the American Civil War would also be fraught with language problems.

Why? Because language evolves at the speed of communication. In the 10th century, English remained its own isolated thing and didn’t begin to change until French soldiers under William the Conqueror came in and took over. They brought in both a lot of new vocabulary and a class division in language. The nobility spoke French. The peasants spoke English. Where the two met — i.e. where the peasants served the nobility — vocabulary bled into each other. That is why we have two distinct classes of food words, one set old English and the other French.

Basically, the living animal got the English and the cooked version got the French, so we have cow and beef; chicken and poultry; lamb and mutton; and pig and pork, to name a few.

Once the age of exploration kicked in at the end of the 15th century, English also began to take on a lot of words from other languages. At first, these came from Spanish, Dutch, and more French — the big colonial powers of the time — but eventually also began to come in from the places colonized. This era was the lead-up to the acceleration of change and the development of modern English after Shakespeare’s time, which ended when he died at the beginning of the 17th century.

Now there’s one thing to keep in mind, and that’s the phenomena of regional dialects and slang, which were common in English in both Britain and the U.S. up until the early 20th century. Again, it came down to communication, and people living in isolated pockets didn’t really communicate that much with people in others. Only the upper classes got to do that kind of traveling, but they were also not prone to speaking in slang.

This led to things like completely different accents even across as small a space as England, which is about the size of California. And in other countries, it was even more extreme. In what eventually became Germany, people from the west could not understand people from the east and vice versa, since dialects there turned into a continuum. Likewise, in Spain, things broke down into Castilian (i.e. “real” Spanish), Catalan, Galician, and Occitan.

Back to English in the 20th century, though, and once movies with dialogue and radio became a thing, boom. That speed of communication accelerated, and the rate of evolution and homogenization of the language took off. For a while between the 1930s and 1950s, there was even such a thing as the “Mid-Atlantic” accent, which was a hybrid of British and English designed to resemble neither but be understandable by both. Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Mason used it a lot.

During this era, dialect and slang became national, accents started to smooth out, and the new defining feature of vocabulary went from being location to cohort.

Or, in other words, the quickest way to give away your approximate age rapidly became the way you spoke. At least up until a point, and that point was when communication became immediate and instant with the rise of the internet. Over the last decade, the evolution of language has become a constant, with new words being created and old words being dumped every single moment. And every neologism instantly propagates and is adopted or dropped.

In modern terms, then, the separators have gone beyond location and cohort, or have at least landed on a different definition. No, instead of where you are and how old you are, it has more to do with where you are online and what you’re aware of. This still doesn’t help with time travel, though, because even with the internet, you can’t prepare enough.

Go on. Jump into your time machine and go back, say, fifty years, to 1970, and land in Manhattan. Try to have a conversation with a local and see how long you can go without saying something that makes them say, “What?” Or, conversely, how long it is before they say something that makes no sense to you at all.

Try various intervals back to a century ago, or more. Feeling out of your depth? That is the rapid evolution of our language in action. It’s also why complaining about changes in it is futile, and yes I’ll flag myself for this one, because I do love to bitch about abuse of grammar. Although I will contend that abusing grammar and creative or novel uses of words are two very different things. Give me a clever neologism, hooray you! Fuck up the use of an apostrophe? Fifty lashes!

“Sit” by any other name

In what now seems like another lifetime, I used to write for Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s website. Here is an article originally published in two parts under the heading Dogs and Language, Part 1: ¿Se Habla Spaniel? And Part 2: Sprechen Sie Dachshund?

If you’re bilingual, have you trained your dog in more than one language? If you only speak one language, have you ever tried nonsense words on your dog? Either way, the purpose of this exercise is to separate the language you speak from what you’re communicating to your dog.

Whether you’re bilingual or monolingual, for this exercise you will need to come up with a list of words in a language you’ve never used with your dog before. Basically, you will substitute the words your dog knows with words your dog has never heard.

Go on. Dig up that high school Spanish. Go to an online translator, pick a random language, and make a list. Make up meaningless words. The important point is this: pick one word in the new language and match it to a something your dog knows.

For the next week, only use the replacement words whenever you would use the familiar ones — but think the familiar word while saying the new one. It also helps if the new words don’t sound like the old commands — choosing the German “sitz!” to replace the English “sit” wouldn’t really work, but using another word for sit that sounds nothing like it would be ideal.

If you’ve done this exercise right, very soon after you change the words, you should find your dog responding to them without hesitation, as if you’re still speaking the language they know.

What’s going on here?

If you’ve kept your intent the same and used the new words in the same context as the old, then your dog isn’t listening to what you say at all; she’s paying attention to your energy and body language — and your expectations.

Dogs are all about expectations. Groups of dogs work as a unit, instinctively, and follow the leader by sensing and mimicking body language. If you still don’t believe this, then try the following exercise.

Silence is golden

The instructions for this week are simpler, but also more difficult. For one week, use all your usual commands on your dog, but… you cannot say a word. You can use gestures, posture, and facial expressions. You just cannot say words or make sounds. If it helps, you can pretend to say the words in your head, but that’s it.

In each case, make sure that you have your dog’s attention — they should be looking at you calmly, and making full eye contact. But, once that’s achieved, communicate away in silence. You will probably feel the need to move your hands and arms. Go ahead and do so. You will probably feel stupid and nothing will happen for the first few tries. Don’t give up.

If you remain calm and focused, it won’t be long before your dog understands and responds. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two before your dog follows is picking up on what you’re telling him without a word, and before this doesn’t feel so strange and awkward for you. But, by the end of the week, you should be able to speak to your dog from across the room with merely eye contact and facial expression.

What’s going on here?

Again, in nature, dogs do not communicate with words. When they communicate with growls or barks, they really aren’t speaking to each other. The tone of a bark or growl is produced by a dog’s energy and body language, so such sounds are really more a communication of “How I feel right now” as an indicator of pain, danger, excitement, etc.

When one dog wants another to sit, it doesn’t make any sound. It will merely walk toward that dog while presenting as large a posture as possible, and bump into it if the message is not received. If the message is still not received, then a couple of well-placed paws will probably put the errant dog in line.

In any case, the path to forming that deeper connection with your dog or dogs begins with learning how to communicate like a dog, rather than in working against that and forcing your dog to communicate like a human.

Leave the human words behind, and you will develop an even stronger bond with your beloved canine. In return, your dog will love you even more for understanding it, and using its own language.

Stupid human tricks for becoming better leaders

Anything that will put you in closer touch with your own body or improve your human communication skills will help you to become more in tune with your dog. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Yoga: You don’t have to be as flexible as a gymnast to do yoga, and there are varying levels and classes. Instructors are usually willing to accommodate your abilities, and doing all these weird stretches will help you get in touch with your body, and your body language.
  2. Dance/Aerobics: Again, you don’t have to be Fred Astaire to dance. Look around, and find something fitting your experience. Tap and Ballet are probably only for people who’ve had some dance training, but things like ballroom, waltz, or country line are probably accessible to anyone. If you don’t want to do dance in quite so formal a way, then look for an aerobics class.
  3. Improv: Although an aspect of theatre which frequently involves words, improv classes are excellent for teaching you the skill of listening, as well as teaching you to be constantly in the moment. Since dogs are also constantly living in the moment, improv is a good way to learn to be more dog-like.
  4. Volunteer: As in volunteer at your local animal shelter, where you’ll get to interact with lots of dogs that are not your own. Practice using the silent command method on each of them. Practice calm, assertive energy while walking them. Also inquire with your local veterinarians to find out if they need volunteers; ask your own vet if they will trade volunteer time for medical care.
  5. Read to Kids: No, really. Contact your local libraries and elementary schools to find out whether they have reading programs. And, although the above dog advice leans toward the non-verbal, reading to a room full of five-year-olds and keeping their attention is good practice, since many studies indicate that adult dogs operate at the same intellectual level as a human five-year-old. It’s not just the words keeping them pinned to their seats… what non-verbal cues are doing the job?

If all of the above fail, then there’s this: Take your dog on a long walk, in silence — but don’t forget to bring plenty of water for both of you. Your dog will let you know when you’ve walked long enough and it’s time to go home. Before that, your dog will let you know what it’s like to be a dog. Listen to the silence and learn.

Postscript: I actually wrote this piece, and included #3 up there, long before I started doing improv. Weird. I was giving myself future advice, I see.

Photo: Author’s dog Sheeba, taken by Stephen M. Grossman.

Sunday Nibble #1

Because weekends are hard but I want to keep posting, here’s a snack-sized bit to enjoy with your Sunday morning tea/coffee/milk/CBD/whatever.

Sometimes, words in one language automatically look inappropriate in another, and today I give you the Spanish word… leer.

In English, it’s one syllable, and means to stare at someone inappropriately. “Don’t leer at me, dude.”

“He leered at her so much that she called HR.”

“Notice: Leering at patrons or artists is not accepted here.”

The word should also not be confused with the always proper noun Lear: “He landed his Lear Jet on Tuesday;” “The Bristol Cities Community production of ‘King Lear’ premiers on Thursday.”

In Spanish, “leer” is two syllables, and pronounced a lot like the English word “layer,” except with the emphasis on the second syllable: lay-AIR. In Spanish, it means “to read.”

It also happens to have a couple of variations by conjugation that, while pronounced differently, are spelled out lazy and without accents and look like other English words, mainly “leo”, the astrological sign; “lei” that Hawaiian airport gift thing;  leia, that Star Wars princess; lea, where cows hang out; lean, how you like your meat; Lee, a common name.

Going completely out of my head

I took a circuitous route into the world of improv performance and although I’d had acting training as part of my minor in college and have appeared in various theatrical productions both then and in the more recent past, my primary focus was behind the scenes as a writer. I hadn’t had any formal improv training up until a few years ago.

Now, as an actor, I didn’t have a problem developing and holding onto a character, and as a writer I was creating them all the time, generally acting them out in my mind as I transcribed their words. Of course, it’s a lot easier to do it in these situations because you have the one luxury that improvisers don’t. Time.

So when I was playing an entire Shakespeare show with an Irish accent, I had the time to learn it and practice it and make it stick because it had become second nature. Likewise when I played a bear, or the trippy Spanish-speaking mystical Jesus stand-in in Tennessee Williams’s weirdest play, I had rehearsal time to make all of the discoveries in the text and the performance in order to hone the character.

Contrast that to improv, where if you’re lucky you might get a character prompt and have twenty or thirty seconds to think about it while the referee explains the game to the audience. More likely, though, you only get mere seconds, if that, as the ref turns to the audience for a scene suggestion and you won’t know what it is until they turn back and shout, “Your suggestion is earbuds. Players, are you ready?”

“Yes!”

Whistle. “Begin!”

And that’s all of the character development time we get. Early on, it would always trip me up and I’d wind up playing myself because I was too busy trying to come up with the “platform” of the scene — who, what, and where — for however many of us went on stage to start, or to fill in  if somebody provided part of the platform.

What? Create an entire character on top of that? Are you crazy?

As I’ve written about previously, I learned that my big challenge was letting go of thinking, but it wasn’t until our ComedySportz Rec League coach and improv mentor shared a particular technique with us that I suddenly started to make big breakthroughs.

It’s called VAPAPO, but I’m only going to discuss a couple parts of the acronym so you can get a taste. If you really want to know all about (and get some great improv advice that applies to life as well), you can go buy Jill Bernard’s Small Cute Book of Improv for only five bucks plus two dollars shipping. It’s only fair, since she created the method.

There’s a logical split between the two halves, with the APO being a more advanced and trickier take on the VAP, so I’ll just explain the first three letters and how they helped me.

In case it wasn’t clear already, VAPAPO is a quick character development technique, one that can be activated instantly at the top of any improv scene and quickly drop you into a character. And remember, it doesn’t matter what character you land on. It’s even good to surprise yourself, because that will take you further out of your head and lead to more discoveries and surprises for you and the audience.

So… what do the V, A, and P stand for? Voice, attitude, posture. Pick one, dive into it, and boom. Instant character.

And it really does work. We recently spent an entire workshop practicing each one of the letters, and I surprised myself with what I came up with. For example, Voice is simply that, and a great place to just play around. Experiment with what it’s like if you speak higher or lower; use an accent or dialect; alter the natural rhythm of your speaking between staccato and drawn out; whatever you can imagine. Then take whatever voice you landed on and live it the character it creates.

You’ll find that focusing on the voice affects everything else you do in the scene. For example, in one exercise, I started playing around with a very drawn out, Mid-Atlantic sort of accent, and it wasn’t long before it affected everything else, so that I was standing very upright with my chin in the air, literally looking down on everyone else, and boom — judgmental, elitist  critic of everything was born.

Of course, quite the opposite happened when I let my voice become very become very… stutter… and doubtful about… everything, doubling back, restarting, repeating, etc. And suddenly I found myself with very submissive and docile body language, though still a lot of energy. It’s just that all of that energy was suddenly be expended in self-defense, self-deprecation, and justification attempts of everything. Instant neurosis!

The second letter, A, is for attitude, which just means picking a general outlook on life. Is this person optimistic, pessimistic, hopeful, cynical, naïve, jaded, or whatever? Grab one and run with it. Now imagine how it can change a scene. Let’s say the other performer begins with, “Margaret, happy birthday. I made your favorite breakfast for my favorite daughter. Pancakes!”

Grab an attitude and stick to it, and you could reply with…

“Pancakes, mother? Seriously? You know I’ve eliminated gluten.”

“Pancakes? Oh my god, my favorite. I love you mommy! Did I mention that’s why I’m never moving out?”

“Pancakes. Waffles. Toast. Whatever. Brent dumped me. Life is bleak and meaningless…”

Or so many more, because in improv there are no right answers.

Note that not only do these give your character a strong point of view, they give the other improviser something to react to in an equally strong way, It’s a gift in both directions.

And this brings us finally to P, which is for posture, although you can also think of it as physicality. Basically, it’s everything your body is doing and, personally, I’ve found it to be my strongest “get out of my head” tool. If I just throw myself into some odd shape or movement and follow that, voice and character tend to follow automatically.

Of course, it does work the other way around, where the voice or attitude will tell the body what to do, but for be the advantage of working from the body up instead of the brain down is twofold. There’s the obvious and aforementioned getting out of my head, but the other advantage is that it’s often good to start a scene with some silent space work instead of just launching into the dialogue, so taking the posture/physicality approach kills two birds with one stone.

It gives you something to do and creates your attitude about it in silence while allowing a moment for the voice and character to emerge.

There’s an old joke from my stage acting days that usually emerged when doing period pieces that were not in modern dress, and it was this: “When in doubt, play the costume.”

Funny thing is, it works. Why? Because the costume can dictate your posture or physicality without you even having to try. Imagine that you’re playing in some Victorian era show that has all of the women in bustles, corsets, and high-heeled buttoned boots. Or that puts the men in high, tight starched collars, waistcoats and tails. That gives you a much different physicality than, say, a cast in jeans and T-shirts, or full Elizabethan regalia, or doing a nude scene.

In every single case, you’d move differently as a human and an actor. The trick for improvisers is that we don’t actually have the costume, we have to imagine it, but if the suggestion for your scene is, say, “hazmat clean-up,” what a gift from your audience is that? Because, from the get-go, you’re suddenly wearing one of those bulky hazmat suits, and everything else about you comes right out of that.

Or it should. And the best part is that even if you have three or four performers onstage all doing the hazmat suit thing, the experience of being in it will affect each one of them differently, so that you won’t get a cookie cutter. Rather, you’ll get a smorgasbord.

The following quote is apparently from Jill, but it came via my improv mentor and I can’t find a link back to an attribution for her, so please take this as another plug to buy her book, because it’s full of gems like this that, again, reply to the real world as well: “The fact that you don’t have the same life experiences or perspective as everyone else on your team is your superpower. The ways in which you are uniquely you are an asset. Improv that stays the same and draws from the same well is dull and will die out. You’re necessary. Shoot across the sky and illuminate the night.”

And that, dear readers, is how you get out of your head and experience the wonderful juggling act that is doing improv.

More stupid Excel tricks: a secret power of IF

The hardest part about working with data, especially in large sets, is the people who input it in the first place. The reason they make it so difficult is because they’re inconsistent, not only in their day-to-day habits, but between one or more different people all entering info into the same database.

When you’re creating something solely for yourself, then by all means be as inconsistent or idiosyncratic as you want. But if it’s a group project creating information that someone like me is going to have to derive useful information from at some point in the future, inconsistency can make my job infinitely more difficult.

This is the reason why things like style guides were created — and they don’t just exist for the written word. Accounting and data management have their own style guides. So does computer programming, although that field has the advantage, because the program itself won’t let you get it wrong. Excel is the same way, although it won’t always tell you how to make it right.

Little things can cause problems and cost a business money. Sally may prefer to spell out words in addresses, like Avenue or Boulevard, while Steve likes to abbreviate with Ave or Blvd. Sam is also big on abbreviations, but always with periods. Seems innocuous, doesn’t it?

It does until the only way to make sure that a massive mailing doesn’t go to the same household at the same address twice is to compare the addresses to each other. That’s because, to a computer, 1234 Main Street, 1234 Main St, and 1234 Main St. are all completely different addresses. There’s no easy way to fix for that because computers don’t have a “kinda sorta look the same” function.

Garbage in, garbage out

It’s also important that a database be designed properly. For example, names should always be entered as separate units — title/prefix, first name, middle name, last name, suffix. They can be combined later when necessary. A lot of good databases do this, but it’s completely worthless if somebody enters the first and middle names in the first name field or adds the suffix to the last name. You may have heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out,” and this is a prime example of that. All of the right fields were there, but if used improperly, it doesn’t matter.

Of course, the proper fields aren’t always included. One example I’ve had to wrestle with recently is a database showing the various insurance policies people have had with the agency. Now, that is useful and necessary information, as well as something that legally needs to be maintained. And it’s all right that a person gets one row of data for each policy that they’ve had. Some people will have one or two rows, others might have a dozen or more.

So what’s the problem? This: There are no data flags to indicate “this is the policy currently in effect.” This is doubly complicated since it’s Medicare related health insurance, so someone can have up to two active policies at a time, one covering prescription medications and the other a Medicare supplement. Or a policy may have expired after they decide to drop an MAPD and go back to “original” Medicare but the only way to know that is to look for an ending or termination date — if it was ever entered.

The secret power of “IF”

This is where one of my “stupid Excel tricks” came into it. You may or may not be familiar with some of the numeric functions dealing with columns or rows of numbers, but they basically operate on a whole range. They include functions like SUM, MAX, MIN, and AVG. The usual usage is to apply them to a defined range or series of cells and they have no operators, so you get things like:

=SUM([Range])
=MAX([Range])
=MIN([Cell1],[Cell2],[Cell3],...[Cellx])

Here’s the fun trick, though. If you add one or more “IF” statements within any of these functions, you can perform the operation on a sub-range of data defined by certain criteria. In the example I’m giving, it would look at all of the insurance effective dates for one person and determine the most recent one, which is usually a good indicator of which policy is in effect.

Generally, each item you’re evaluating is in the form of [DataRange]=[CellValue], or in actual Excel terminology, it might look like “$A$1:$A$470=A12” for the version entered in row 12. After the criteria ranges, you enter the range that you want to perform the operation on, close out the parenthesis, then enter.

So let’s say that we have last name in column B, first name in column D, and the dates we want to look at to find the latest are in column N. Our formula would look like this, assuming that the first row has the field headers and the data starts in row two:

=MAX(IF($B$1:$B$525=B2,IF($D$1:$D:$D$525=D2,$N$1:$N$525))

If you’ve entered it right, the formula should be displaying the right number. In effect, you’ll have created a column down the far right side in which the value opposite any particular person’s name equals the maximum date value, meaning the latest. Then you can do an advanced filter (oh, google it!) to pull out just the unique name data and date, then use that to do an INDEX and MATCH to create a dataset of just the most recent plan and effective date. (I covered those two functions in a previous post.)

Or… the original database administrator could have just put those current plan flags in the data in first place, set them to automatically update whenever a newer plan of the same type was added, and voilà! Every step since I wrote “This is where one of my “stupid Excel tricks came into it” 396 words ago would have been unnecessary. Time and money saved and problem solved because there was never a problem in the first place.

The art of improv in Excel

On the other hand… solving these ridiculous problems of making large but inconsistent datasets consistent with as little need as possible to look at every individual record just lets me show off my ninja skills with Excel.

It’s really no different than improv. Badly entered data keeps throwing surprises at me, and I have to keep coming up with new and improved ways to ferret out and fix that bad data. In improv, this is a good thing, and one of our mottos is, “Get yourself in trouble,” because that creates comedy gold as things in the scene either get irredeemably worse or are suddenly resolved.

In real life, not so much. It’s a pain in the ass to have to fix the curveballs tossed at us by other people’s laziness and lack of diligence — unless we approach it like a game and an interesting challenge. Then, real life becomes improv again in the best sense.

And I’ll find it forever amusing that the same rules can apply to both a spontaneous, unplanned, free-wheeling art form, and an un-wielding, rigid and unforgiving computer program. They both have their rules. Only the latter won’t allow them to be bent. Okay, some improv games have rules that are not supposed to be bent. But half the fun is in bending those rules, intentionally or not.

With Excel and data-bashing, all of the fun is in following Excel’s rules, but getting them to do things they were never intended to.

Image source: Author, sample output from a completely randomized database generator in Excel used to create completely artificial test data for practicing functions and formulae without compromising anyone’s privacy. Maybe I’ll write about this one some day, if there’s interest.