Momentous Monday: Dog talk

Quarantine is hard, so in lieu of not posting anything, here’s a blast from the past, an article posted one year ago but which is still relevant today. In fact, this one is even more relevant because, when I wrote it exactly one year ago, I had no idea that all three of my dogs would be past tense by now.

I’ve noticed a really interesting phenomenon with two of the three dogs I’ve owned as an adult. Well, technically one-and-a-half, because the first one, Dazé, started out as the family dog that we adopted after the first dog died. Basically, we started out together when I was still doing the whole K-12 thing and lived with my parents when I went to college.

But although she was supposed to have been my mom’s dog, Dazé was having none of that. She decided that I was her human almost from the beginning — we adopted her at 12 weeks old — and when I finally moved out on my own after college and as soon as I was able to, she moved in with me and then never left. She was probably the most intelligent dog I’ve ever met, and also one of the most easy-going. She loved people and other dogs, and yet somehow always managed to be the boss dog in any pack. The first place I moved her to, there was a Rottweiler mix that started as a puppy but who grew into a giant of a dog that could stand on her hind legs and look me in the eyes, and I’m 6’2”. Didn’t matter. That dog, Toad (my former roommate has an odd but wonderful sense of humor) totally deferred to Dazé in everything, and all it took was a look from my dog. She never bared her teeth or made threats or anything. It was amazing to watch.

This carried on later when I lived in a house with two other guys and four other dogs, all of which were much bigger. Dazé weighed about 30 pounds, while the other dogs each weighed at least 90. That didn’t matter. It was a house rule, at least among the dogs, that none of them were allowed in “my” room, even if I tried to beg and coax them in. I remember one particular night when the roomies were both out of town and it was storming something fierce. I’d let one of the dogs, Sarah (an Irish Wolfhound, so you know the scale) into the backyard because she gave me that “Gotta pee” look. But when she was done, I decided to let her in via my room, which had a sliding door that opened onto the yard, rather than through the kitchen. So I opened it, called her in, and despite the downpour and sad look on her face, she really, really didn’t want to.

And what was Dazé doing? Just sitting on the bed, looking calm and harmless. I finally managed to get Sarah to come in, but she slinked so low to the ground and dashed through so fast, that the message was obvious:

“SorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorryokayImout.”

And Dazé just stayed on my (ahemn — her) bed, doing nothing.

I never really did figure out how she had this super power, although I did see one crack in it at a New Year’s Day party held by a playwright friend of mine. Her theory was that since we could never really know the exact birth dates of our dogs unless they came from a breeder (hint: they never should) then we might as well just peg it to the start of the year and go from there. So everyone was invited to bring their dog.

All well and good, Dazé gets along with dogs, but then a party guest who had snorfed a little too much herbal refreshment started giving Milk Bones to my dog and the hostess’ dog, Hank, who was a pretty hefty yellow Lab mix. Well, the inevitable happened. She tossed one too close between them, Dazé went to grab it, and Hank decided to put her head in his mouth. It was more of a warning than an attack, but she ducked and fled, and when she came back to me — and it was very clear that she was in “Daddy, daddy, help” mode — I was able to pick her up like she was a Kleenex. She’d gone so limp in fear that she really seemed to weigh nothing. There was a tiny nick on her head that was bleeding, and it was the one and only moment I ever got to see her lose her mojo.

Flash forward to current dog, who has a lot in common with Dazé, but a brief side trip through dog number two, Shadow. I adopted her when she was about a year old, exactly eleven days after Dazé finally passed, and she came to me as a fearful rescue, a white German Shepherd mix who started out terrified of me until I just ignored her, but once she realized that it was okay for her to sleep in my bed with me and that I gave her food, she bonded totally. Just like with Dazé, I was her human. However, she never really developed the talent that Dog 1 and Dog 3 did, and although I loved her very much, I have to say that she was the problem child I had to have in order to learn.

When Shadow was five, I decided that she needed a companion, and so I adopted Sheeba, who was 11 months old, and who had been thrown out of a car for reasons I’ll never understand. What struck me about her in the shelter, though, was that she just seemed so calm — and this was even more amazing when I found out on adoption day later that week that I first saw her about two hours after she’d been brought in after being saved from the streets.

Sheeba is a lot like Dazé. Put her in a pack situation, and she goes into boss mode. The big difference with her, though, is that it’s really clear that she does it physically instead of mentally. Dazé would just give a look. Sheeba tends to get in the other dog’s face and puff up. (By the way, the two of them were just about the same size.)

And yes, she’s gotten into her share of fights — several times with Shadow, and once or twice with friends’ dogs. These mostly revolve around food, as in, “Bitch, back off my dish, or Ima hurt you.” A big thing I learned when I had both Shadow and Sheeba was this, too: As a human, do not try to impose the alpha/beta roles, because it will lead to disaster. See, in my mind, I did the typical parent thing. “Older kid gets first dibs and such.” Yeah, that works with humans. With dogs? Not so much.

If I’d been aware enough from the start, then I would have made Sheeba alpha, and that would have made both of them happy. Instead, I tried to make Shadow alpha, which only managed to piss off Sheeba and make Shadow even more nervous.

Oops.

But… all of that said, the real point here is this: What I learned from Dazé is that dogs really do speak to us, too. We just have to learn to listen. Now, I’m not sure whether I’m the one who took so long to pick up on it, or she’s the one who took so long to figure out how to train me, but… during the last five or six years of her life, I started to notice that she would approach me with intent, make eye contact, and then basically create a subject-verb-object sentence (SVO) by where she was looking.

The funny thing is that this is actually the way that English works, too. “You do this” is probably one of the simpler examples. Stripped down in dog talk, though, it omits finer points of vocabulary like adjectives and adverbs, although, to be honest, these really seem to come out of attitude — a really impatient, huffy dog is coloring the entire sentence with “fast” or “soon.” In a lot of ways, that’s like any form of sign language, where the tone of the sentence isn’t portrayed in what the hands are doing, but rather in the face and expressions.

In that context, it makes total sense, because our dogs have basically had to figure out how to teach us how to understand their signing. And that’s pretty amazing.

Both Dazé and Sheeba eventually started doing this, and it always took the same pattern. After they’d gotten my attention, they’d make eye contact, which meant “You.” Then they would pointedly turn their head to look at something, so literally using an action as an action word, although I think that “Dog” probably only has one universal word that can mean do, make, get, or give. This really isn’t all that far off from human languages, which not only frequently have one verb that can mean all of those things, but it’s also one of the most irregular verbs in the language. (Side note: It’s almost a guarantee that the verb for “to be” was, is, and/or will be ridiculously irregular through all tenses in every language.)

Anyway, so… look at me, then turn the head — subject, verb. And what happens next? Object, which is where the dog looks — their bowl, meaning “food,” the sink, meaning “water,” the cupboard, meaning “treat,” or the door, meaning “walk,” or… anything else. The point here is that the need the dog expresses it not abstract, and that is probably where the species separate.

After all, a five-year-old can tell its parents, “I want to go to Disneyland when school is out.” A dog, not so much. While they may have a sense of language, they do not have a sense of time. If you doubt that, compare how excited your dog is to see you come home after five minutes vs. five hours. Not really a lot of difference, right?

A long time ago, humans naively believed that we were the only species to develop language, but that’s clearly not true. If we define language as set of syntactic methods to communicate, then most species have language, and humans are not unique. We are probably unique in the sense that we alone use written or inscribed symbols to represent the sounds that make up our language, which is what you’re reading right now, but we do not absolutely know that we are the only ones.

The point, really, is this: We all need to step back from this idea that humans are the superior life forms (hint: we’re not) and, instead, start to listen to all of the others, and to nature itself. If you’re lucky enough to have pets of any kind, start to pay attention and listen. They may be trying to tell you something, and are getting totally frustrated that you’re too stupid to understand. Dog knows that this is how Dazé finally taught me.

Did I mention that the first couple of times she tried the “You give food” thing with me, she actually gave me a dirty look when I didn’t get, audibly sighed in frustration, and then pointedly repeated it until I finally got it? Because that is exactly what she did. And that is why I got it the first time Sheeba did it. Which is interesting in itself, because it means that one generation of dog managed to teach me a language that I was able to understand in a much later generation, and, holy crap, how amazing is that?

Image: Dazé, Shadow, and Sheeba © Jon Bastian

How have your pets communicated with you? Let us know in the comments!

Sunday Nibble #10: Plus ça change

It seems that any sudden societal upheaval in America follows the same basic pattern as the COVID-19 situation, as follows.

  1. Rumors of something bad coming, ignored.
  2. A little bit of the bad thing happens, the media starts to mention it.
  3. A couple more bad things happen, and suddenly the media turns it into a trend.
  4. Continue escalating hype until people freak.
  5. Store shelves stripped bare.
  6. The government fails to react.
  7. Shit gets real.
  8. The government finally sort of does… something?

Specifically, I’m thinking of the L.A. riots, which were nearly 30 years ago, but the same pattern seems to apply to the AIDS crisis (without the hoarding but with the freaking, I think) and it probably applies to the Watts Riots and the Spanish Flu and every other sudden crisis.

But I’m having a definite déjà vu over this one, even though I was a far younger and very naïve person (politically and otherwise) back on April 29, 1992. Okay, same day of the month as this post, a month early, totally unintended.

But that April day was when Los Angeles exploded in violence because the police officers who had beaten Rodney King for no reason were acquitted.

From what I remember, the story broke by the minute, and my dad freaked out about it as soon as he heard the verdict. Of course, he had lived here through the Watts Riots, so he had previous experience. I did not.

Time to stock up on everything, said he, and the stores were insane — much like they were a week before all of California shut down ten days ago.

Water and TP aisles empty, a lot of other essentials practically gone. Well, you know the drill. You all just lived through it.  At the time, though, the assholeishness of it didn’t occur to me because I was still working on installing that whole self-awareness subroutine, but, looking back… yeah. Even my dad had been a greedy asshole about it. Everyone had.

The shutdown due to the riots lasted all of about five days. And, on top of that, I realized that my dad really shouldn’t have been so worried. It was Woodland Hills, way out in the West Valley, aka “The place all the white people moved to in the 60s in order to avoid sending their kids to school with non-white people.”

Poetic justice: I went to school there with a lot of non-white people, and now a lot of the part of Woodland Hills I grew up in and where my parents lived is now heavily Hispanic. I love it. It was when this influx began that all the scared whypipo moved to the Simi Valley.” (My parents tried to join the exodus, but no one wanted to buy their house.)

As for Simi Valley, it’s the home of the Reagan Library, which tells you everything you need to know about it and its demographics. They wanted the place built there, even though the only real connection he had to the city was that he was once governor of the state.

Oh, yeah. One other thing Simi Valley: It was also the venue to which the trial of the cops who beat Rodney King was moved, apparently, with the ultimate defense goal of finding a jury favorable to… the cops. Why would that jury be favorable? Because so many police officers lived there.

And then LA. exploded into violence over a jury verdict delivered in a different county. But that explosion never got anywhere near Woodland Hills because, of course it didn’t.

Now, the eight steps at the top of this article seemed to have taken place all in one day in the case of the L.A. riots — maybe because it threatened rich white people?

Other times, events have moved in much slower motion. Reading the history on it, in the case of the AIDS crisis it took well over a decade to go from point 1 to point 8, and point 6 was intentionally extended, most likely causing the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

And in our modern age, we’ve gone through the cycle in a hyper-fast manner. Still slower than the L.A. riots — or maybe not, because all of the trial drama and build up for that  one took months.

But when it came to Corona Lockdown, we went from 1 to 8 in about three months at most, also stalling for far too long at 6, and we all reacted in the same damn exact way.

Let’s be greedy little bitches and grab everything we can.

And that is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I think that the key, though, is in step 7, as in when shit gets real, but for the 1%. First off, when they realize that they are not immune — and we’ve already had an A-list actor and spouse, several members of Congress, and various other celebrities test positive.

Second is when this realization is going to make them start spending their money on fixing shit, and they’re going to realize that they only caught it because the people they depend on do not have the same access to health care and income security that they do.

All the sheltering in place in the world does no good if their maid has to take public transportation because she can’t afford a car or insurance, and can’t take sick days off if nobody pays her for them.

If a billionaire can’t work for a month it makes no difference, because all of their passive and residual income from investments or rents and royalties keeps rolling in. Until, of course, the stock market tanks and their investments become a bit less valuable, and that’s another thing that makes them think about how helping others will help themselves.

Did I mention that the maid and all those other low-paid workers who interact closely with the billionaire probably don’t have the best health insurance or lowest deductible plan, if any?

And that Mr. or Ms. 1% doesn’t even really notice the help much so that they certainly don’t notice when the maid is coughing all over the counters while cleaning them, or that they themselves have a habit of leaning over their personal assistant from much closer than six feet while telling her what you need her to schedule, all because they’re trying to stare down her top.

They won’t even put two and two together when they suddenly feel feverish, because the only way they’re going to decide to get tested is if they come down with full-blown symptoms or if they hear that someone in their social circle has tested positive or reported symptoms.

Even then, and even if they test positive, they aren’t going to do a thing to help anyone outside of their circles until the big red flag is hoist.

That’s right. We won’t see really important action from the 1% until the grandest event of them all: Somebody in their class dies from this virus — and that is inevitable. Once that happens, you’re going to see mountains moved like never before to block the spread and find a cure.

Just look at how the straight community’s tune changed the second that Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. Hey, there’s a reason Magic is still alive and a year older than Rock Hudson was when he AIDS killed him. You do the math.

Yep. Suddenly, death comes calling on their kind and the 1% goes socialist harder than your Bernie bro nephew who’s majoring in PoliSci at Berkeley.

“Pay the peons to stay home and the hell away from me! Give them all the health insurance they need for free so they don’t make my family sick. And let’s do something about all these homeless. No more evictions for now, everyone gets enough money to pay their rent. Ah, hell. Here’s property I bought and never developed, cover it in motor homes. Just keep the homeless the hell out of where I am, okay? And figure out how everybody who can works from home. Give ’em the equipment to do it.”

It’s Scrooge the morning after the four ghosts visit. Sad, but if they’re paying for your Christmas goose, just shut up and cash the checks, no matter how big an asshole your Scrooge was up until their sudden revelation.

Kind of ironic but fitting, really, that the deadly virus of “Trickle Down Economics” that Ronald Reagan foisted on America in the 80s — and which directly created the shitshow we’re living now — might actually start to trickle the hell down because of another deadly virus.

See, the big flaw with “trickle down economics” was the assumption that if you gave rich people more money, they would liberally toss it down on their subordinates, everyone would get raises, and it would be good times.

In reality? Not so much. The only trickle down the working class experienced was getting pissed on by the owners.

The fatal flaw of capitalism is that people — no matter their social status or personal wealth or lack thereof — tend to act, on an anonymous playing field, in their own best interests and no one else’s.

Yes, there are definitely altruistic human beings. Mr. Rogers’ “helpers” do exist, but they are few and far between.

In capitalism, which is a zero sum game, most of the players will only be altruistic when incentivized, and the incentive that works the best is to steer them toward an action that, while serving others instead of themselves, will ultimately cost them less in the long run.

Death is the great equalizer, after all. Not to mention that there is no one so rich that they wouldn’t trade their entire fortune in exchange for fending off death. If our modern robber barons can pull the same trick for only a quarter of their fortune, they will think it had been worth the price, and their selfishness might ultimately leave the world a better place.

We shall see.

Theatre Thursday: The house is dark tonight

As of now, Los Angeles is six days into the lockdown, it has been eighteen days since I last worked box office for ComedySportz L.A., and seventeen days since I’ve done improv on stage, and I have to tell you that the last two have been the hardest part of the whole social distancing and isolation process.

Not that I’m complaining, because shutting down all of the theaters, bars, clubs, sporting events, and other large gatherings, as well as limiting restaurants to take-out only, are all good things. Yes, it does cost people jobs — I’m one of the affected myself, and dog knows I have a ton of friends who are servers or bartenders — but California has also stepped up in making unemployment and disability benefits much more readily available.

And maybe we’ll all get $1,000 from the Federal government, maybe not. The down the road side benefit of this human disaster is that it may just finally break our two-party system in the U.S. and wreak havoc with entrenched power structures elsewhere. And, remember, quite a lot of our so-called lawmakers also happen to belong to the most at-risk group: Senior citizens. So there’s that.

But what is really hurting right now is not the loss of the extra money I made working CSz box office (although if you want to hit that tip jar, feel free — blatant hint.)

Nope. The real loss is in not being able to see and hang out with my family regularly: the Main Company, College League, and Sunday Team; as well as doing improv with the Rec League every Monday night.

And with every week that passes when I don’t get to take to that stage, I feel a bit more separated from the outside world, a bit less creative, a bit less inspired.

I know that I shouldn’t, but honestly, improv in general and Rec League in particular has added so much to my life for the last two and a half years that having to do without it is tantamount to asking me to deal with having no lungs. And no heart.

185 coronaviruses walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry, we’re closed.”

The coronaviruses say, “As you should be.”

And no one laughs. It’s not a time for laughter, but it is a time for support. And while I can’t do improv in real life with this wonderful funny family of mine, I can at least reach out to them all and say, “Hey. How are you doing?” I can also reach out to my loyal readers here and ask the same question.

It’s been amazing, because several of my improviser pals have started doing podcasts or the like. I can’t name names or link here, but I’ve got at least one improv friend who has been doing virtual shows in which he somehow manages to broadcast phone-to-phone routines through what must be a third phone.

Another friend of mine has been reading various scripts, screenplays, or fan fiction live online while also getting twisted on various intoxicating substances, and it’s been hilarious. Then again, he’s hilarious, and although he’s fairly new to the company, he quickly became one of my favorite players.

Okay, so the upside is that I’m now free Friday through Monday evenings again. Yay?

Maybe. The downside? I still don’t know who, out of all my friends and loved ones, is going to die. And that includes me.

But when you have fiscal conservatives like Mitt Romney suddenly advocating for what is pretty much the Universal Basic Income idea supported by (but not created by) Andrew Yang, you can easily come to realize that what we are going through right now, in real time, is an enormous paradigm shift.

More vernacularly, that’s what’s known as a game-changer.

The current crisis has the clear potential to change the way society does things. It may accelerate the race that had already been happening to make all of our shopping virtual, as well delivering everything with autonomous vehicles or drones. In the brick and mortar places that do remain, you may be seeing a lot fewer actual cashiers and a lot more automated kiosks.

This is particularly true in fast food places. McDonald’s alone has been on a push to add kiosks to 1,000 stores per quarter since mid-2018. Compare that to Wendy’s, which the year before set a goal of putting the machines in only 1,000 stores total.

They’re even developing the technology to let AI make recommendations based on various factors, like the weather, or how busy the location is.

But as these jobs go away, ideas like Universal Basic Income and cranking up the minimum wage become much more important — especially because people in these minimum wage jobs are, in fact, not the mythical high schooler making extra cash. Quite a lot of them are adults, many of them with children and families to support.

We are also already seeing immediate and positive effects on the environment due to massive shutdowns of transportation and industry. Scientists had already shown how airline travel contributes to global warming because the shutdown of flights for three days after September 11 gave them a unique living lab to study it in.

And remember: That was pretty much a limit on foreign flights coming into the U.S. What’s happening now is on a very global scale. We’re suddenly dumping fewer pollutants into the atmosphere, using less fossil fuel, and generating lower levels of greenhouse gases — and it already has been for longer than three days, and is going to be for a lot longer than that.

One of the must sublime effects, though, has been in one of the hardest-hit countries. In Italy, the waters in the canals of Venice are running clear for the first time in anyone’s memory, although this didn’t bring the dolphins to them nor make the swans return to Burano. The dolphins were in the port at Sardinia and the swans are regulars.

While a lot of the specific environmental recoveries are true, a lot of them are not. Even NBC was taken in by the hoax that National Geographic debunked.

There’s something poetic in the irony that, as humans have been forced to shut themselves inside, animals do have opportunity to come back into the niches we displaced them from, even if only temporarily.

It’s not always a good thing, though. In Bangkok, the lack of tourists — an abundant source of free food — led to an all-out monkey war between two different tribes.

All of this is just a reminder that all of us — human, animal, and plant alike — live on and share the same planet, and what one does affects all of the others.

The ultimate example of that, of course, is a pandemic. It now seems likely it all began with patient zero, a 55 year-old man from Hubei in Wuhan province, who was the first confirmed case, back on November 17, 2019. But the most likely reservoir from which the virus jumped to humans was probably the pangolin — just more proof that it’s the cute ones you always have to beware of.

It may seem strange to start on the topic of theatre and veer hard into science via politics, but like everything else on the planet, it’s all interconnected. Art, politics, and science are opposite faces of an icosahedral die that never stops being thrown by the hand of fate.

Or by completely random forces. Or it’s a conspiracy. Or it’s all predictable if you have enough data.

Stay safe out there by staying in, wherever you are. See you on the other side but I hope to keep seeing you through it on a daily basis. I’m not going anywhere, dammit.

Image Source: Fairmont Theater, (CC BY-ND 2.0) 2009 Jon Dawson. Used unchanged.

Friday Free-for-All #5

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What was the worst date that you’ve ever been on?

This one has two completely different answers, because I’ve been on two really bad dates that I can still remember, but for completely different reasons. One turned out bad as in “get the hell out of my life” bad. The other turned out bad as in “well, that experience wasn’t the greatest, but…”

I’ll start with the bad-bad date, which happened about six months before the bad-good date. It was around Thanksgiving, and friends of mine decided — since I’d ended a long term relationship about six months before this — that they’d fix me up with a friend of theirs, saying that we were perfect for each other, and so on.

So we both met at a holiday party, and I was immediately not really interested. I don’t even remember his name or his face. But he was persistent, and one thing I lacked at the time was resistance. I didn’t really know how to say “No.” So he dragged me into a bedroom, we made out, he did show me a couple of things I hadn’t experienced before, and then we wound up making out in my car.

Yeah, I know. I shouldn’t have ever let it get to that point, but I did. And then he asked if I wanted to go out, and I stupidly agreed. Yes, the quickest way to a man’s heart is… not through his stomach.

We arranged a date for a weekend not long after. A couple of things to point out. During the party, I had mentioned that I didn’t have a Christmas tree because I didn’t want one and didn’t do that sort of thing because I thought it was stupid and a waste of a perfectly good tree, and anyway I don’t really celebrate Christmas and never decorate for it.

So… he shows up at my place with a potted mini-pine with LED lights all over it, because he thinks it’s sad that I don’t have a Christmas tree. Okay, missed signal number one. Next, he takes me to dinner at some really fancy, really over-priced restaurant in WeHo, insists that it’s his treat, and proceeds to basically break the bank on everything.

He orders expensive shit for himself. He orders expensive shit for me. And oh does he start going through the drinks. Well, for him. I’m not having anything stronger than Coke (as in -a-Cola). But he has one cocktail after another, and there are appetizers and entrees and aperitifs and salads and coffee and dessert and who knows what else, and I can’t help but notice when the check comes that he’s spent damn near four hundred bucks, not including tip.

And the only thing I can think is, “Wow. I am so fucking unimpressed.”

Why? Well, first, I’m not a whore. If I were, I would have skipped dinner and said exactly how much it would have cost to do what to which part of me. Second, there really wasn’t a lot of “getting to know you” time involved during this whole snarf fest despite the time it took. There was a lot of “This is about me,” and “Here’s what I think about you.” And while the latter part was complimentary, it really wasn’t making a connection.

But then the dinner part ended and thank god I drove, because he was tanked, and when we got back to my place and because of my unfortunate young and naïve inability to say no (I bet the women reading this can relate) I felt obligated to invite him up and… yeah. Bad sex ensued. Really bad.

What made it bad, besides “everything?” Well, let’s just say that he was not really well-endowed (not necessarily a big deal, because I’m an ass-man), but that he insisted on wearing a cock-ring and, more annoying, kept doing the late 90s version of (long since illegal) poppers, which was a small bottle of video recorder head cleaner that he’d sniff. And he tried to get me to sniff, although I at least told him in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t going to happen, even when he tried to sneak it under my nose.

Funny how I could easily say no to drugs, but not to sex, right?

Ultimately, I came, he went, and I never gave him a second chance. The scary part was a month or so later when one of the friends who’d set us up called me and apologized profusely. Apparently, the guy they’d set me up with A) Had a boyfriend at the time, B) Was using that boyfriend’s credit cards to pay for the whole date, and C) Didn’t know that his boyfriend had killed his own former boyfriend, and it was dead boyfriend’s credit cards the guy I went out with had been given.

So… WTF? Oh yeah, the topper? Murderous boyfriend lived next door to me.

I dare anyone in the comments to top that as worst date ever. At least I never heard from Bad Date Dude again, and never wound up on boyfriend killer’s radar, although I think he was arrested not long after the whole fiasco.

Here’s the palate cleanser, though, because a “bad” date I had six months after that turned out to be a really good one.

I was at a coffee shop down the hill from where I lived. It was April 29, a Saturday. A friend of mine — who, oddly enough, was also a friend of the friend who’d set me up on disaster date — came in with a woman and man I didn’t know. They saw me, we waved, and after they got their stuff, they came to sit with me.

And all I could think, looking at the guy with them, was, “Holy shit, he’s cute.” And I do remember his name. Steve.

Anyway, the four of us hung out for a while and talked but, big shy dumbfuck I was at the time, I didn’t really talk a whole lot to Steve, just listened as he was talking to the others, but when it came to trying to connect, nothing. And I went home kicking myself, but later on I called my friend, Dan, and asked him.

Now, as it turned out, Steve was a friend of the woman in the group, Michelle, who was a friend of Dan’s, so this was a friend of a friend of a friend thing in both directions. And when I called Dan and said, “So, hey, what do you know about Steve?” He told me that Steve had already called Michelle and asked her what she knew about me. She didn’t, so she had already called Dan… bing. So Dan gave me Steve’s number, I called him up, and we talked for three hours.

We set our first date not long after — Friday, May 5th -— and damn did everything go pear-shaped. He had planned for us to go to an L.A. Philharmonic concert at the Hollywood Bowl, so we drove out there only to discover that… the Bowl was dark, because the Phil at the time was still performing in DTLA, and summer concerts at the Bowl were still a month or so off. There was also no way to make it downtown before at least the end of the first half.

Well, okay. Then let’s go get dinner. And, since I’d been working for a local LGBTQ+ publishing company that had just compiled a local restaurant guide (as in I’d just gathered a bunch of listings) I knew of a highly rated place we could go. So we went, and got there, and found out… No. It’s already gone out of business.

And there were a couple more failed attempts along the way, but the funny thing was that as we went along on this adventure, we talked to each other, got to know each other, and by the end of the evening, it wouldn’t have mattered if our first date meal turned out to be day-old donuts we fished out of a back-alley dumpster. All that would have mattered was that we were doing it together.

We eventually wound up at some restaurant in WeHo, had dinner, then headed back to his place, probably rented a DVD, and then had amazing sex. And it turned into a long-term relationship that eventually ended for the stupidest of reasons, but we’re still friends to this day.

But I still can’t remember the name of bad-bad date guy to save my life.

So there’s a tale of two worst dates. One the worst because of who I was with and why I went on it. The other the “worst” because I wanted so much more for whom I went on it with, but wound up getting exactly that.

That was the real lesson, though. The only thing that makes it a bad date is the wrong person. It you’re with the right person, then no way will it ever be a bad date. If you’re with the right person, the Ninth Circle of Hell is Heaven. Hell, (pun intended) with the right person, it’d be time to go ice-skating.

Sunday Nibble #6

There’s an old expression, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” It’s often attributed to P.T. Barnum, but there’s no proof that he ever said it. A more interesting way of stating it was very definitely Oscar Wilde’s: “(T)here is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” which appears in the first chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

A better version of the saying (because it has two interpretations) has been attested to about 1931 and that version is “No publicity is bad publicity.” One reading is that all publicity is good, and there’s no such thing as bad publicity because the important part is getting your name out there. The other reading is that not having any publicity is bad because it doesn’t get your name out there.

It’s the same thing Wilde said, mostly, just in a more American, less eloquent way. But that brings us to the subject of this article: Really unfortunate product names. They could be bad publicity by turning people off and making them ignore them. Or they could be good publicity by making people take notice and decide, “Hell, I’ll buy that just because the name is so bad.”

Now, I’m not going to be including things like products  with names that are not dirty in their native tongue but sound nasty to English speakers, so don’t look for Finland’s Megapussi, which is just their term for “big bag” that they slap on a lot of different brands of potato chips.

I’m also not including the infamous penisland.com website because it’s obviously a parody, and not an unfortunate choice by the company Pen Island. Although why no one started a business with two of those letters moved to the left is beyond me. That place would make a fortune.

Also excluded: Cock Flavored Soup, because I think that it might be a leg-pull by GraceKennedy designed to lead to all kinds of immature humor. While the product is legit — the company exists and is Caribbean — I can’t find any reference to this being a legitimate Jamaican dish, and Cock Flavored Soup doesn’t have any cock in it. There never was, unless the chef got sketchy in the kitchen. Still, if Jamaican Cock Soup does exist, I bet that it goes great with a little Jamaican jerk seasoning.

But, without further ado, here are five product names that could have taken another pass through the marketing committee.

  1. From Greece, welcome to Vergina Beer. As if that’s not bad enough, it’s the name of the city in Greece it comes from, and compound that with that city’s Vergina Beach hotel. All right, technically it’s one of those words that’s not dirty in its native Greek, but it was too good to pass up. I mean, just think of all the awkward conversations, especially in a British accent.

“So what did you do all summer, chap?”

“Oh, I stayed in Vergina.”

“Lucky bastard… I was stuck in Manchester the whole time.”

  1. Actually courtesy of Britain, be sure to stick some spotted dick in your mouth. It’s not a brand name, but the name is bad enough. Basically, it’s a “pudding” with currants and other fruits and veggies in it, and these are what give it its spots. I put “pudding” in quotes because what they call pudding in Britain is what Americans would think of as a really awful hybrid of failed French toast and a stale muffin slammed into a mold (or mould) and then dried out enough to be, well, British cuisine. Basically, if the only thing you taste isn’t egg and stale bread, it’s not really pudding over there.
  1. What should you get once you’ve had your spotted dick? A Wunder Boner might be in order. Note, though, it’s not a new brand name for sildenafil or tadalafil, which are the generics for Viagra and Cialis. Ironically, while a Wunder Boner sounds like it would give one wood, it sort of does the opposite, and it will allegedly make your fish limp in two seconds, or one quick motion of your hand.
  1. From the land down under, probably the appropriate place to use this, we get Wack Off insect repellent. Okay, to be charitable, maybe they were referring to the action of whacking insects off of one’s self. But probably not. Remember, Australia is also the home of Golden Gaytime ice cream, but I’m not going to call that one unfortunately named because, honestly, it sounds like fun.
  1. The most heinous one, though, is probably the newest. What do you get when you cross a brownie with a donut? Sane minds would have come up with the donie, but oh, no. This one had to go in the worst possible direction, and so behold the Bronut. I can only imagine the conversations this one starts.

“Bro, I’m Chase. What can I get you?”

“I’d like half a dozen bronuts, please.”

“Cool, okay. Chad, Brent, Kyle, get out here.”

“Sorry… what?”

“Six bronuts, three dudes, right?”

“Um, no. I meant the… that pastry thing. The one you’ve been advertising everywhere?”

“Bro, these guys are pretty pasty. I mean, could they be any whiter?”

“Bronuts, bro. Like it says here, look at the picture, hell, look at the article on my phone. These ones even have Pop Rocks in them— “

“Heh heh heh. Pop rocks.”

“Dude. Bronuts. Brownie, donut. Do you have any of those?”

“Oh. Oh, sorry. You want the shop across the street, man.”

“Oh, right, got it. Sorry. Sorry, my bad. Hey. What do you sell here, anyway?”

“Chad, Brent, and Kyle.”

“Ah. How late are you open?”

“Ten p.m.”

“Great. Maybe I’ll come back… Chase.” (Pause) “No homo.”

“We’ll be here. Ten bronuts, then?”

“If I find someone to bring back, let’s make it a dozen.”

(They fistbump. Customer exits. Fade out. THE END.)

Then again, maybe the people who named these things knew exactly what they were doing. After all, I’m writing about them now, and a lot of them show up in searches for “Worst product names.”‘ It might be genius.

Friday Free-for-All #2

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What small thing makes you angrier than it should?

The one thing that consistently makes me angry is other drivers — particularly when they’re doing stupid things or just not paying attention. Or, worse, when they don’t get the concept of how to let another lane that’s forced to merge into theirs.

“Oh no. Those cars want to get in. Better ride the bumper of the car in front of me!”

And when the green left turn arrow turns green, as soon as the other a-holes who are still turning left through what’s now a red light for them clear, move your goddamn ass. Every day, I see a left-turn light that’s timed to get at least half a dozen cars through in a cycle manage two, or maybe three, all because the first person doesn’t go as soon as they can, and then the next two people leave gaps before they get going.

I have actually counted a full six seconds between the time I’ve made my left turn and am fully in the new lane and the time the car behind me is just crossing out of the crosswalk to start the left turn.

But these aren’t small things. They can really screw up traffic and make everyone late or, worse, they can cause accidents.

I also get angry at the human version of this — i.e., the one that happens when people are on foot, and I’ve ranted about that one as well, but again I think it’s justifiable to get angry when people are so oblivious that they manage to single-handedly block everything from a doorway to an escalator to a grocery store aisle. Put them in groups, and they can block an entire sidewalk.

But when it comes to things that are probably trivial that make me angrier than they should, the winner is people leaving shopping carts all over the parking lot at stores. And I know how they justify it. “Well, they pay people to bring the carts in, why should I do their job for them?”

Except… this isn’t automated checkout I’m referring to here, because that truly is an abomination, and an attempt to save money by making the customers do the work for free and reducing the actual paid staff.

Unless and until they create a cart-retrieving robot that can do it without missing any carts, accidentally grabbing anything that isn’t a cart, or ramming into cars or people, it’ll be that underpaid and increasingly a lot older than high school bagger/stocker who has to go out into whatever weather there is to make up for all those lazy asses who just dump their carts wherever.

Regarding that automated cart, Walmart was floating the idea back in 2016, but there’s been no hint of it happening since then. And since shopping cart theft is a major problem and expense for grocery stores, why spend even more money on something that might still manage to wander off despite its “go home” programming?

But let’s get back to that justification, because there’s another reason that “Well, they pay people to bring the carts in, why should I do their job for them?” is just plain wrong.

They don’t pay them to bring the carts back from everywhere. They pay them to bring them back from those cart corrals that are conveniently located all over the parking lot. Chances are that a shopper is never no more than thirty feet from one, if that, and it should be no big deal to roll that cart right on over and in.

But, no. And I’ve seen people dump carts everywhere. The more considerate among the lazy will try to place them out of the way at least, but I’ve seen people leave them right in the middle of an empty parking spot, behind someone else’s car or, worst of all, in the blue-striped section right next to a handicapped space.

Each one of these is heinous in its own way. Leave it in the middle of a spot? That means someone else can’t park there without stopping — potentially blocking other cars in the lot — then dealing with someone else’s laziness to make room for their own car.

Leave it behind someone else’s car? What if they happen to not see it before they back out? I’ve seen that one happen, and it can cause a huge mess, from damage to that person’s car (that the store winds up paying for, meaning that the customers ultimately do) to the cart being propelled to who-knows-where, slamming into other cars, moving or not, or people, or possibly even rolling into the street.

All because someone couldn’t be arsed to walk a few yards.

The worst though, as mentioned, is the handicapped space, and people who dump carts in the striped area immediately to either or both sides of the spot. Why? Because these areas are designed to allow entry and exit access to vans equipped with wheelchair ramps.

Generally, these areas are eight feet wide because that’s the amount of space needed to lower the ramp at a shallow enough angle that the person in the wheelchair can exit the van and still be in the striped zone once they’re on the ground.

If someone puts a cart there, it can make it impossible to deploy the ramp, and if the disabled person happens to be the only occupant of the vehicle, there’s no way that they’re going to be able to pop open a door, hop out to move the cart, then jump back in their wheelchair and use the ramp. I mean, come on. Think about it for one second.

Anyone thinking, “Oh, they can just call for someone to help” is the exact opposite of what the Americans with Disabilities Act is all about. It was designed so that people with disabilities or who are differently abled shouldn’t have to ask anyone for help.

And anyone especially thinking, “Oh, there are way too many handicapped spots anyway, they can find another one,” A) May your genitals suffer a scorchingly painful, regular, and incurable outbreak of shingles combined with either jock itch, a yeast infection, or both, and

  1. B) A handicap is what golfers get. That word should be expunged. Even “disabled” is iffy nowadays, seeing as how most people who are differently abled are still quite able to function in society because, well, you know… some people figured out and fought for how to make that possible.
  2. C) If someone takes advantage of the disabled parking placard system when they’re not — e.g. convincing a less than ethical doctor to sign the certificate when the only problem is that their patient is too lazy to walk an extra twenty feet — may they always wind up in the line that looks short, but is actually jam-packed with complaining Karens, and old people with lots of coupons who pay by check, and then be sandwiched between the two single parents with the pair of toddlers each that they won’t control, with both of the kids being screamers and throwers. Every damn time they go to the store, and so that it never takes less than twenty minutes to make it through check-out.

And you know what? I’ve now convinced myself that the whole “not returning the carts” issue is, in fact, not really a small thing, either. It does have a big effect on people. It’s just invisible to most of the inconsiderate class who doesn’t think ahead and empathize.

Which makes me reflect back on my driving anger and point out my own possible blind spot. How do I know for sure that the driver in front of me didn’t get T-boned when making a left turn, or got slammed into when someone merged abruptly into their lane, or they slammed into someone else, or they’ve had too many speeding tickets, or they’re just having a bad day, or have a cold, or…

I could go on, but there are probably reasons that those people aren’t assholes at all. Instead, they’re just human, and I’m the one being the asshole. After all, despite all of the “stupid” I see on my daily commute, I check out Google Maps when I get up, calculate the proper time to leave, and I’m never late to work. So it really doesn’t affect me at all.

Or, in other words, maybe that was the answer all along. A small thing that makes me angrier than it should is drivers just being human.

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

Theatre Thursday: How I wound up here

I never intended to go into acting in any way, shape, or form. I still consider myself a writer first, a musician second, and person who’s not afraid to go onstage or speak in public with or without a script third. And yet, here I am, performing onstage without a script two or three times a month and loving every second of it.

It’s an odd road that brought me here with some interesting steps along the way. My earliest theatrical experience was the obligatory elementary school play. I don’t remember the first one beyond that I played some sort of a woodsman with a group of other boys, all of us armed with cardboard axes. I do remember the second, an adaptation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

I probably remember it because I had lines and everything and was kind of a featured character. I’m pretty sure the character I played was a boy named Obi, and he was a big deal in it because he was lame. Since he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t follow the other kids when the Piper lured them off, and so became the sole witness to tell the grown-ups what happened. I think this was around fifth or sixth grade.

In middle school and high school, I mostly floated around band instead of drama, although the two merged when I played piano in a middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie. Yeah, kind of anachronistic by that point, but the music is fun and it’s a safe show for that demographic while pandering to being about rock music.

I also wrote my first play as a final assignment for my AP English class. The teacher asked us to write a parody of something that we’d read during the two semesters of the class, and I hit on the idea of writing a two act musical that parodied everything. It became pretty epic, combining A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Crime and Punishment, Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (we dodged The Catcher in the Rye because the teacher thought we’d read it when we hadn’t), various works of Shakespeare, and I don’t remember what else.

All I do remember was that it took the various characters from the stuff we’d read and tossed them into our very own high school, had a few songs that I actually wrote the music and lyrics to, and I got an A+ on the thing despite the teacher later admitting that he hadn’t had time to read the whole thing. It was over 50 pages, after all, when I think most other people turned in four.

One memory I do have from the experience, though, was when I excitedly tried to tell my father about it, and his reaction was basically, “Why the hell are you wasting your time doing way more than you have to when the assignment was to just parody one thing?”

Yeah, way to be encouraging there, Dad. I was doing way more because I got inspired, and that’s what’s kept me going as an artist ever since. So the A+ was kind of my personal vindication.

This was the same English teacher who taught a class that combined film history with filmmaking, an art form I loved ever since my dad took nine year-old me to one of the frequent revivals of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was frequently revived because every time a film at one of the cinemascope theaters around town bombed, they would toss this film or one of a handful of others up for the remainder of the originally booked run time. 2001 re-ran a lot in the 70s and 80s. The other great love it instilled in me was of the genre of science fiction, especially so-called “hard” science fiction, of which the film is a great example.

The appeal to me of hard science fiction is that it tries to follow the rules of real science without relying on making stuff up or defying reality. This means that Star Trek is a bit squishy and Star Wars is totally flaccid, but I’m still a Star Wars homer because that series caught me as a kid and has kept me as an adult, and Kylo Ren became my new favorite character with his first appearance, never mind cementing it with his last.

So, in what in retrospect was probably the stupidest decision of my life, I went to film school to major in screenwriting. The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that my sensibilities were nowhere near the mainstream and would never mesh with Hollywood in any way, shape or form. I didn’t really know or appreciate it at the time, but I had pretty much already learned how to write. What I should have done was majored in something practical that would have made me a lot of money early so that I could then stop working for other people, invest, and then have the whole artsy career thing.

Yes, if I had a time machine, that’s the life-path I would go back and beat into my 16-year-old self. “You’re either going to study some business thing, like get a license in insurance or real estate, do it for a decade and hate it but cash out, or you’re going to hit the gym with a personal trainer and then become a model or porn star or both and love it but then cash out. Then you can pretty much be what you want to be.”

So I hit college and film school and in the middle of my first semester I get a call from a theatre professor who had been talking to one of my film professors, who had mentioned to her that I played keyboards and owned a synth. “Would you be interested in playing for the musical we’re doing this fall?” she asked.

“Oh hell yeah.” It was an obscure piece written by the people who created The Fantasticks, an off-Broadway musical that ran for 42 years. The one we did, Philemon, was less successful, most likely because it’s a lot darker and basically deals with a street clown in 1st century Rome who winds up impersonating an expected Christian leader in order to out Christians in a Roman death camp only for the clown to actually try to inspire a revolt and it doesn’t end well for anyone.

But… I had a great time doing the show, made a lot of new friends, and got talked into auditioning at the next semester company meeting for the next show. I did it mainly based on the fact that “There’s no way in hell I’m going to get cast in a play as an actor.”

I got cast. And since doing a show gave credits, not to mention that I’d started college basically a semester ahead thanks to credits from high school AP classes in English, Spanish, and History, I had room to add a minor. So what did I do? I added two — theatre and psychology.

Oh, look, Dad. I’m overachieving again.

I performed in or was on crew for at least two shows per semester from that point on, although three or four were the norm, especially after I’d gotten involved with the Del Rey Players, who were essentially the “amateur” theatre club on campus.

By the time that college was over, I’d written a couple of not-that-good screenplays, but had really connected more with theatre in general, and all of my friends were theatre people, not film people. (There was a lot of crossover, though.)

Still, I had it in my head that I was going to go into film, but I started writing plays. My first after college “real” job was working for the Director’s Guild pension plan offices because, again, I was naïve enough to think that that was close enough to the industry to get in (hint: it was not), but it is where I met a woman, Thana Lou Tappon — although she went by just Lou — and when she heard that I was into theatre, she invited me to join up with a playwriting class she was in, and that became a life-changing moment.

The teacher and mentor I met was  man named Jerry Fey. Basically, he somehow wound up teaching a playwriting class as part of the UCLA Extension for a semester and realized two things. One, he loved teaching. Two, he hated the bullshit that came with academia. So he tapped his favorite students, and set off on his own. And to his great credit, he did it for free.

It was in his group that I created and developed the first-ever short plays of mine to actually be produced, and then wrote the first full-length that was produced and not just anywhere. My debut as a playwright was at a little theater called South Coast Rep. Basically, it’s the Center Theater Group of Orange County or, if that means nothing to you, one of the many regional theaters that is Broadway equivalent without being on Broadway.

In fewer words: I managed to start at the top. And that’s not to blow my own horn but rather to honor Jerry, because none of that would have happened without his guidance and input… and then, not more than a year after my premiere, he didn’t show up for class one day and I was the one to make the phone call from the theater which was answered with the news that he had died the night before. Official version: Liver cancer. Real reason? We’ll never know. I do have to wonder, though, whether he knew back when he started teaching for free on his own, and was giving back in advance of his inevitable demise.

But what he left behind was a group of people who kept going as a workshop for years, dubbed themselves The Golden West Playwrights, and we are still friends — hell, family — to this day.

Flash forward past other produced plays, one of those plays getting me into a Steven Spielberg sponsored screenwriting program that was fun but led to nothing except for a close friendship with a famous science fiction writer, then winding up working for Aaron Spelling, and the same play getting me my one TV writing gig, and then winding up in a playwrights’ group at another theater company, The Company Rep, only to balls up enough to audition for one of their shows and make my return to the stage, this time doing more Shakespeare, playing every guard, officer, soldier, and whatnot in The Comedy of Errors, and doing it with a broad comic Irish accent — something that inadvertently led to me doing a Michael Flatley impression in the show that brought the house down. Yeah, the director’s idea, not mine, although I accidentally suggested it.

Other roles I did with that company include the Spanish speaking Dreamer (aka Jesus stand-in) in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which only ran for 60 performances on Broadway, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come along with about eight other characters in a musical version of A Christmas Carol and, my favorite, Duna, the depressed unicycle-riding bear in a story theater style adaptation of The Pension Grillparzer from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. (Holy crap. I just remembered that one of the shows I played piano for in high school happened to be Story Theater, by Paul Sills. Whoa!)

Anyway, the nice thing about playing the bear was that it was an entirely physical part, no lines, and I pretty much got to just run with it. There was one moment in particular that I loved. During a long monologue by a character in the foreground, I let myself be fascinated by the glass grapes decorating the stole worn by the grandmother character to the point that I would suddenly drool big time — actor secret, hard candy in the corner of the mouth right before entering. That would get a nice “Ewwww!” from the audience, and then I would go and bite those grapes and Grandma would fend me off with her handbag. It was a beautiful moment of silliness, and I loved it.

That company eventually folded and I went back to working for home media and then a celebrity website with a play or two produced in the meantime. And then things went weirdly full circle.

I didn’t mention that my previous experience with improv also happened in college. First was when I did a radio show my freshman year with fellow students. We started out scripting the thing as a half-hour sketch show, but when it became clear that we couldn’t create material fast enough to keep up with production we moved into improv mode, although our use to lose ratio became ridiculous — something like record four hours in order to get twenty good minutes.

And compound that with me just not being able to come up with anything good, so I had to drop out. At the other end of my college career, we attempted an improv evening at an after party with the aforementioned Del Rey Players, but I couldn’t do that without going incredibly dirty and not going anywhere else with it either.

So, end result, while I liked improv as a concept and audience member, I feared it as a performer. And then I found out that one of the actors involved in one of the plays of mine that was done in the ‘10s also happened to teach improv with a company, ComedySportzLA, that was located in El Portal Theater — the same place where The Company Rep had been when I joined it, ironically.

I knew that I loved to watch improv but had had bad experiences trying to do it, but what better way to find out whether I could? So I went to see a few shows, then started taking classes, and then wound up actually doing improv for real live audiences and, holy crap.

If I had that time machine now, I would go back to my fifteen-year-old self and say, “Okay. Find the job that will make you the most money in the fewest years — it will probably involve computers and the internet — and go take improv classes as soon as you can. Hell, if your high school doesn’t have a ComedySportz team yet, convince your drama teacher to get one and do it right now.

Yeah, that would have been the much faster route to now. On the other hand, I’m not complaining at all about how I wound up where I wound up. Just wondering whether one slight tweak or another in the past wouldn’t have put me in a completely different place.

But… don’t we all?

Image: Philippe De Gobert, Grand room at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, (cc) Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

P.S. On Monday, February 17, the ComedySportz Rec League is hosting their 11th anniversary show and pot luck. You should come see us. PM for details.