Slanguage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stage fright paradox

Long-time readers know that in addition to being a writer, I also have some background as an actor and, for the last couple of years have been doing improv. I originally got into acting bass-ackwards in college. My first semester, one of my professors found out I played keyboards, and asked if I’d be in the ensemble for a musical another professor was directing. I agreed, did the show, and had a great time, plus made a lot of friends in the theater department. The next semester, I was invited to the theater department intro meeting and those friends dared me to audition for the show right after the meeting. I did, figuring no way in hell would I get cast.

I got cast, then went on to become a theater minor, doing a few more shows and directing some and really enjoying it. Plus, it was a good experience to help my playwriting ambitions, and here’s advice I’d give to any aspiring playwright: Even if you think you’d suck at it, act in a stage play at least once. It’ll make you a better writer because you’ll understand what actors have to go through to bring your words to life.

As for the improv, it was one of those things I’d always loved to watch but the idea of doing it scared the crap out of me. Then the chance to actually learn it from brilliant teachers came up, and I figured, “Okay. I’ll either totally suck and it’ll justify my fear of doing it, or I’ll get over that fear and have some fun.”

Option two ensued, and now, instead of it scaring the crap out of me, I live to do some improv onstage — which led to another really interesting realization recently. But first… some background.

What do you think is the most common fear among people? Death? Spiders? Heights? Germs? Snakes? Nope. Time after time, surveys show that the most common fear humans have is… public speaking! (Insert dramatic chipmunk music.)

That’s right. Most people would rather die, kiss a tarantula, walk on the ledge of a skyscraper, lick a sidewalk, or make friends with a boa, than get up in front of their fellow humans and talk. And that’s just weird. Well, at least it is to me.

Full disclosure: My three big phobias are death, amusement park rides with long vertical drops, and being the cousin who draws the short straw in the “Go with Nana to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve” contest. (You fuckers… next year!)

So there’s the context. I have no fear of public speaking or going on stage and performing. But I recently realized something even weirder: The more people there are in the audience, the better. It’s almost like that many faces looking back at me from the dark just makes my brain lock into some weird super-focused zone. The more people there are watching, the more chances I’ll take — and that is exactly what we’re supposed to do in improv. Make bold choices, take big chances.

For some reason, it also makes me spin off into characters that aren’t me — something I have trouble doing with small houses — as well as get emotionally connected and crazy in a scene. Again, what I should be doing, but what it takes that extra set of eyes to get going.

And it’s something I never would have suspected I could have done before I took the chance and started studying improv (which scared the hell out of me, remember?) in the first place. And making up characters and lying is something I’ve done in this article, if you’d like to go three paragraphs up and drop one phobia from that list.

Yes, that’s right. What do improvisers do? Get up on stage and lie to people convincingly. And the bigger the crowd we can lie to, the better. It’s kind of like how believing in fairies resurrects Tinker Bell. The more the merrier and all that. Although it does make me wonder whether politicians become consummate liars precisely because they have large audiences.

I asked some fellow performers, and they all seemed to agree: When it comes to audience size, the more the merrier, especially if they don’t know the people in the audience. One friend told me, “I find it more enjoyable for me as a performer when there is a larger audience rather than… small,” adding that an audience of strangers can be easier, because “In front of strangers there are no expectations and they can be surprised; whereas in front of friends, they already expect you to be funny or do something weird.”

I can definitely relate to that one. If I don’t know the people watching I actually feel more comfortable because I’m coming at them as a blank slate. They don’t know who I really am or what I really sound like, so I can ratchet up the characters and voices and such. Another thing I’ve found is that the bigger the house the better, as in theater size. The largest house I’ve ever performed for was at the L.A. Theater Center downtown, to a capacity crowd of maybe three or four hundred, and, surprisingly, every ounce of anxiety or stage fright just disappeared. Another friend concurred on that, saying that it’s “easier to perform in a large house with strangers. The audience feels more removed. It makes it easier for me to escape into the world of the play. In a small house, I can see and hear everything from the audience. It’s very distracting to me.”

Not everybody agreed to the large house theory, though, and one of my fellow improvisers split the difference, preferring a medium house. “A house with a dozen or fewer seems to suck the energy right out of the room. A house with more than a hundred seems to disburse the energy in a million directions.” They also didn’t preclude friends, although with a qualification: “It’s harder for me to perform in front of other performers; I feel like I’m under scrutiny. It’s much easier to perform in front of non-performing friends. I feel like they’re there to support.”

My sentiments were perfectly echoed in one other comment, though: “I love performing for strangers. I can really let go of ‘me’ and be a larger character.” Yep. Give me that room full of strangers, and I will get so large it scares even me. In a good way.

One other improviser put is nicely: “I prefer performing for strangers. There’s less consequence and no grudge match I have to deal with afterwards if they tell me they loved or hated the show.” I’ve experienced the same thing as a playwright, and I remember one fascinating conversation after a short play of mine, when I got into a discussion with an audience member who didn’t know who I was and who started ripping specifically on my piece. I could see my friends out of the corner of my eye ready to dive in and pull me off lest I started beating his ass, but to me it was actually very helpful and not at all an insult to hear a stranger speak honestly about their reaction to my work because they didn’t know it was mine. It was clearly just a matter of my piece was not a fit for his taste, and there’s nothing I can do about that, after all. Right? It’s like my utter disdain for gory horror movies. A lot of people like them. I don’t. My dislike doesn’t mean they’re crap. It just means they’re not my cup of tea.

Exception: Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, which  I love. The film is so classy that it transcends the genre. But I do digress…

One other notable comment from one of my respondents, regarding pre-show angst: “Much of that anxiety goes away once I’m on the stage,” and I have to agree. Actually, almost everything bad goes away once I go on stage. Am I feeling nervous? Under the weather? Stressed? Angry? Insert negative emotion here… Yep. Stepping out of reality and into that other world tends to take away everything but the immediate relationship between fellow performers and the audience and it is wonderful.

Performing is really the best therapy in the world for all ailments physical and mental — and I’m not kidding. I’ve gone on stage with the flu, sprained joints, right after a nasty break-up, in the midst of a panic attack, and during or after who knows how many other setbacks and infirmities. And, in every case, as soon as the lights went up and the show started, bam! The thousand slings and arrows of the real world melt, thaw, and resolve themselves into art.

Life is a…

One of the earliest things I can remember, oddly enough, is the soundtrack to the musical “Cabaret,” specifically the title track as sung by Liza Minelli, but also the opening number, “Wilkommen,” which may have inspired my love for languages, and the song “Money,” which probably introduced me to the idea that you could have two different melodies going on at the same time. Ironically, I would not see the entire movie in a theater until I was in a film class in college despite home video and all that, but this was probably for the best. It’s really something that needs to be seen on the big screen first. (And yes, this was also the film that basically screamed at me “Being bisexual is a thing!”)

But… prior to all of that, this was probably the show that infested my baby brain with the idea of Musical Theater is amazing, and made me want to perform. And the title tune, of course, features the very famous line “Life is a cabaret.” Well… duh.

Life is a performance. Life is art. Life is dance. Life is creation. If you don’t think that it is, then you aren’t living life. You’re just going through the motions. But if you take charge of your own movements and emotions, and then take every step in your day as if you’re onstage and entertaining the masses, then you are going to have a really good time. And this is what taking those early lessons to heart and going on to make life a performance has taught me. You can either be the show or the audience. But being the audience is boring as hell.

Life sure as hell is a cabaret, ol’ chum. Life is performance. Life without performance is not life at all. So consider this when you go into the muggle world (if you must), but I know that you know it if you’re an actor, singer, artist, writer, performer, whatever. It’s what Saint Shakespeare told us. All the world’s a stage. And we are but mere players on it. But play we must, and play we should and shall, because in taking up our roles we can make this planet a better place.

The only people who don’t play are the ones who are afraid of life and living. And they avoid playing by lying and not being themselves and blaming everyone else. Improv is about “Yes, and?” Guess what? The people who aren’t improving themselves are all about, “No, not.”

Nothing will stop the fun faster than “No, not.” Nothing will make the fun more amazing than “Yes, and?” So choose wisely. But keep in mind: Life is a cabaret, old chum. Life is a cabaret.

Them’s the breaks!

One little misstep on a subway platform, one big lesson in adaptability.

A funny thing happened this past weekend, while I was on the way back from the L.A. Times Festival of books at the University of Southern California, which is just south of Downtown L.A. and two simple Metro train hops from the station closest to home. The change of trains happens at a very busy station called the 7th Street Metro. This is where three lines meet up — the Red Line which runs from North Hollywood to Union Station, the Expo Line which runs from Downtown L.A. to Downtown Santa Monica, and the Blue Line, which runs from Downtown L.A. to Downtown Long Beach.

If you know the area at all, it’s quite an impressive junction because it makes it possible to get from one neighborhood to another that, once upon a time, used to be a very onerous drive by car. Angelenos in the Valley are notoriously reticent about making the trip to the Westside, of which Santa Monica is the heart, and vice versa.

But all of that is neither here nor there. Well… it’s not here, but it is there, and it was there, at the very busy 7th Street Metro last Saturday that, while I was changing trains, I took an unexpected trip, namely over some stranger’s foot, and wound up crashing hard onto the platform. I was holding my swag bag of books and other goodies in my left hand, so I wound up landing on my left knee and right wrist. My knee hit the platform proper, some sort of marble or faux version thereof. My right hand slammed down on a metal plate in that platform, and did so with such a loud bang that it scared the shit out of everyone around me.

Seriously, I think for a second they thought it was a gunshot. But it did get a sudden sympathetic wave of onlookers asking me if I was all right and, in that moment, I thought I was. Nothing really hurt badly, I was back on my feet in a second, and the person I had tripped over actually stopped as well until I assured him that I was uninjured.

I went along my way, but later that evening my wrist was feeling a bit wonky. Since I’m paying a princely sum for my own health insurance now, I figured, “What the hell. Let’s get my money’s worth and go to urgent care just so they can tell me that nothing is wrong.”

That’s not what they told me.

In fact, it turns out I have an avulsion fracture to the scaphoid bone. What this means is that somehow the ligament in my wrist popped a little chip of bone off and put it somewhere it shouldn’t be. The scaphoid bone is one of eight stuck in between the twin arm bones, radius and ulna, and the bones of the hand itself. If you hold your hands out palm down in front of you, it’s located on the inside of your wrists. And, incidentally, mine in the X-ray looks nothing like the version in the anatomy books, which is interesting in itself.

The orthopedic surgeon who bound my hand and forearm up like King Tut assured me that if one were going to break that particular bone this was the best possible way to do it. It turns out that the arteries that lead to the hand and provide all the blood to the fingers do a really complicated twisty thing around this particular bone, and it’s very easy to mess that up in a more severe fracture.

So… yay! I guess.

Here’s a bit of perspective. I have somehow managed to make it through life with only two broken bones. This is the second, and both breaks were ridiculously minor. The first happened when I was 21 and slammed the middle finger of my left hand in a window, making a hairline fracture across the bone in the tip. However, hands are really annoying things to have broken bones in because, well, they’re pretty useful. At the moment, and probably for the next month and a half, I am essentially without a right thumb. All the other fingers on that hand work, but it is amazing how tricky things can be when you lack that essential primate digit and your dominant hand is also the majority hand.

For example, I can’t use scissors right now at all, and a manual can opener is quite the challenge, although I’ve gotten good at being able to operate it with my index and middle finger. This serves to keep my dog happy, because it’s necessary for her to eat. Since I can’t get the wrapping on my arm wet as if it’s some sort of Gremlin, doing things like washing dishes or showering are a special challenge — I have to basically do the former one-handed and the latter with several plastic bags and rubber bands. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to shampoo one-handed or shave with your non-dominant hand.

Certain other activities with my left hand have been… oh, let’s just say… tricky. I’ll leave the details to your imagination, but every man reading this probably just got it.

Although they told me I shouldn’t drive (this is L.A., screw that!) I’ve managed to also figure out how to work ignition keys with those same two can opener fingers, and since I drive stick, I’m basically shifting with my pinky.

What’s also interesting is that I actually appreciate it when people look at my arm and ask, “Hey, what happened?” And that’s kind of a lesson for me when I see other people in similar situations. Or maybe it’s just me, but… go ahead and ask and don’t feel rude, because it gives us a really interesting story to tell. Okay, maybe don’t ask someone with missing limbs or in a wheelchair, but if the damage looks temporary like this, fire away, please.

For me, the most interesting part is figuring out how to work around it and not let this little oopsie slow me down at all. I’ve already done one improv show with my arm like this because, well, the show must go on, right? I also managed to successfully cook up a ton of chicken fried rice, mostly using my left hand — and if you’ve ever done that one, you know what a challenge it is, because it involves cooking a few different things before combining them all together for the finale — rice the day before, then chicken, then veggies, then egg, then everything together.

So the point is this. Although I don’t like the idea of having a wee bit of a handicap temporarily, it reminds me how resilient our species can be. Sure, it’s a gigantic, inconvenient pain in the ass to have my dominant hand partially immobilized like this, but it leads me to figure out new ways to do things, and it’s certainly pushing me toward being a bit ambidextrous, and it’s always a good thing when you can figure out how to do it both ways, pun fully intended.

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. This fall didn’t kill me, and I have a feeling I’m actually going to be better for it once I’m done with two weeks of splint and four weeks of cast. That’s called always finding the silver lining.

Quartets on the Deaths of too Many Children… Part 1

Sometimes, I write poetry. Sometimes, it’s inspired by real-world events and not who I’m in love with that week. This is one of those sometimes. Feel free to share.

Thoughts and prayers do nothing, you know
Except make you feel no guilt
One more shooting, and one more blow
This is the world you have built

How many children, how many deaths
How many guns do you need?
Suffered enough of their terminal breaths?
When will we learn to take heed?

You’d think we’d be better than that
Learn to transcend our animal past
But we kill like a hungry house cat
So our species ain’t destined to last

The secret is this, the secret is love
The secret is learn how to share
Take other people and put them above
Learn how to tell them you care

This planet is old, our species is not
But all life that lives here is kin
Learn to be happy with what you have got
Learn how to let all life in

The problem, I think, is that words interfere
Let’s tackle emotions instead
Settle on being in the now and here
List’ and react to what I just said

So here are my quartets
And here are my words
Take ‘em or leave ‘em, ta-da
Breaking the format
To bring you this point…
Smile and hug me… voila!

Neither Face nor Feelings

A while back, the website BigThink had an ultra-short science fiction story contest. This was my entry, which took first place — your Thursday night bonus.

No carnefab Manager liked hearing from an NFA Inspector, but especially not when the message said, “Fieldspec high neuro count. Site audit 213245-1330. Pres Req.” Paul Ingersoll read the message and checked the time. 213245-1312.

“Shit,” he muttered. He barely made it to the factory floor before the Inspector arrived and gave Paul the lot number from the batch in question.

“Restaurant stock, Mendocino,” he explained. “Chef reported a twitcher.”

Paul checked the number, heart sinking — one of their “perfect” batches with ideal genetics. Every vat in this factory was churning out a thousand kilo slab that had been born from those cells. Now the government said every batch from that lot might be useless. No. Not might. Was — if the Inspector’s results confirmed the chef’s report.

The Inspector was already at the nearest vat, a large, open-topped box full of pinkish liquid. Inside sat a rectangular red slab, riddled with veins and marbled with fat. This slab was only at five hundred kilos, so had a few weeks to go, and had never given any indication that it was anything but an entirely senseless block of artificially grown meat, built from cells that divided without consciousness. That was the point — to produce meat with neither face nor feelings. It had worked for nearly a century, except for the two times that it hadn’t, both long before Paul had been born.

The Inspector pulled out a wand and touched it to the slab. There was a blue flash and snap and the slab twitched along its entire length. “Okay,” Paul thought, “Not world end without genetics,” although he knew he was lying to himself.

The Inspector tapped his forearm repeatedly, sending notes to a government computer. Then, emotionless, he pulled out a biop kit, dipped a finger on each hand into a vial of blue goo that grew sterile gloves up to his wrists, sprayed anesthetic on the slab and proceeded to gingerly poke it with a rod that plucked out a small cylinder five millimeters wide and deep. He stuck the rod into a hole in the biop kit case, then sprayed the wound with healer. By the time he peeled off the gloves, the results came back, Paul feeling ill as he waited for the hammer to fall.

“Neuro count exceeds Fed Regs by one hundred sixty parts per million,” he finally said. “Recall ordered for every batch from this lot. You retire the rest. We confiscate the original germ lot. Sig off inspection and results, please.”

The Inspector held out a flat pad and Paul touched his palm to it. What else could he do? They had been producing bad meat and nobody noticed. It probably wasn’t in the original germ lot, but mutations were always possible, and so were deviations with stem cells that decided to grow into

something besides meat, fat, veins and red blood cells that were kept oxygenated by the vats. Still, stem cell deviations generally led to things like hair or teeth, sometimes a hoof. They rarely led to the development of brain cells — so rarely that this was only the third time it had happened, and Paul Ingersoll was the poor unlucky son of a bitch in charge of the factory where it happened. Had been in charge. All the recalled meat that wasn’t already dead would be euthanized. The meat in this factory would be retired, the employees held on retainer until a clean germ line was brought in. Paul, however, would be transferred. Not retired, and not laid off. He would carry the responsibility for this problem for the rest of his career, which was a long time, since he was only twenty-seven.

* * *

The warehouse known as “The Old Cows Home” covered thirty square kilometers in the California desert. Inside were endless rows of swimming pool-sized vats where retired meat went to live because nobody was sure whether it was aware or not and nobody wanted to take the chance that it was. Perhaps the bad meat that had already been sold was lucky. Even if it did develop consciousness, four minutes out of the vat without oxygen would have killed it or severely damaged any sort of brain, so it was easy to think of as dead, and no one would feel guilty if tasked to destroy it.

The retired meat was not so lucky, and neither were the people who had to deal with it. It had to be treated like a living thing, brought from the vats to the warehouse on life support, then re- installed in the larger vats, to be left for… nobody knew how long. The lots already here had arrived thirty-eight and sixty-two years previously, and were still going strong and growing. Each vat started with one slab, the size of an adult cow. The oldest slabs had filled half their 2,500 cubic meter vats, and it was time to worry about what to do when they started to outgrow those. Thanks to the Compassionate Food Act of 2034, amended 2070, killing the slabs would be murder; letting them die, negligent homicide. Paul’s job now was as one of the nurses to all this meat that would have been food had it not developed nerves and at least some rudimentary feelings. Maybe.

Everything was predicated on “Maybe.” Maybe this meat felt pain. Maybe not. No one knew because the world of 2132 was black and white, either/or, and the only way to answer the question was to commit a prohibited act. As long as there was any chance that these inanimate slabs of protein might experience an unpleasant sensation, the question was considered answered, and the answer was, “They are our responsibility for as long as they live.”

If they ever became sentient, and vengeful, Paul hoped that they would understand — they had been created out of the desire to feed the planet humanely.

* * *

You can read this story where it was originally published at BigThink.