Contrarians

There is an interesting class of words in English called contronyms. They are defined as words that have two contradictory definitions. You might wonder how this happens. There seem to be three different reasons.

The first is that the words are homographs. If you remember your Latin, this comes from the words “homo” for same, and “graph,” which refers to writing, so homographs are words that are written the same, but that’s the only thing they have in common. Contrast this to homophones, meaning same sound but with different meanings. Additionally, the words should have different etymologies. That is, they did not come from the same source words.

A good homographic example of this is the word “cleave,” which can either mean to join together or to split apart. “The bride and groom cleaved onto each other until hard times cleaved them apart.” The former sense comes from the Old English word cleofian, with the same meaning. The latter comes from Old English clēofan, to separate, which actually is a different word despite looking so similar.

The second way contronyms happen is through a form of polysemy, which comes from the Greek for many (poly) signs (semy, the root of semiotics.) [That link is provided for the sake of showing sources, but unless you’re a linguist it will make your head explode trying to read it. —Ed.] The main point to remember is that contronyms can happen as language evolves and a word begins to be used in a different sense by different groups.

Frequently, this refers to technical jargon, although it doesn’t always create contronyms. A good example is the word “insult.” In the medical field, it refers to a physical injury and not nasty words Medically speaking, adding insult to injury would be completely redundant.

A modern example of a contronym created this way is the word “sick” — in one sense, it refers to something that’s not well off: “Javi is feeling very sick today.” In another sense, it means something that’s really excellent: “Javi busted out some sick rhymes to win that rap battle.”

Finally, contronyms can happen when two different versions of the language use words in a different sense. The classic example of this is the word “table” as used in meetings. In American English, when a bill is tabled, that means that it’s removed from discussion and either dropped or put on hold. In British English, when a bill is tabled, that means it’s brought up for debate.

A few fun examples

There are a lot of contronyms, not just in English, but in other languages. Spanish has its own autoantónimos, and some of them even match their English counterparts. For example, rent/alquilar refers to the act of either renting from someone or renting to someone; sanction/sancionar refers to imposing a penalty or officially allowing something.

They can be a lot of fun, so let’s look at a few from a very long list, used together in their opposite meanings, along with some alternate meanings the word might also have.

Bill: When it’s not on a duck, you can pay a bill with a twenty-dollar bill, so this word has your money covered coming and going.

Bolt: When a lightning bolt strikes nearby, you might be inclined to bolt the door fast and stay inside, or you may bolt in fear and run away.

Custom: Everybody had followed exactly the same custom for years: to custom order for the New Year so that everyone’s shoes were completely different.

Dust: After the detectives dusted for prints, I had to dust the furniture to get it all off.

Fast: After a brief fast, I wanted to run away fast, but alas I was held fast because my belt got stuck to the chair.

Garnish: He was a chef who loved to garnish the entrees with parsley and cherry tomatoes, but was very sad after his divorce when his ex got a judge to garnish his wages.

Give out: (a rare two-word contronym!) He gave out his business cards tirelessly until his energy gave out completely.

Left: By the time there was only one bottle of wine left, all of the guests left and walked to the left, disappointed.

Off: Bob the Burglar thought that the alarm was off until he broke inside and set it off.

Out: It wasn’t until all of the lights went out that they could see how many stars were out at night.

Oversight: The oversight committee thought that they had monitored everything, but they realized their big oversight too late to fix it.

Refrain: “I wish you would refrain from singing that,” the teacher demanded, but the students went on and sang the same refrain again and again.

Rock: Joe was always solid and immobile as a rock until someone started to play rock music, at which point he would rock back and forth uncontrollably.

Strike: During the general sports strike, the replacement archers managed to strike the targets every time. Meanwhile, the baseball batters weren’t so lucky, getting strike after strike.

Throw out: (another two-worder!) I’m just going to throw out this idea for everyone to consider, but we really need to throw out the trash.

Trim: Before we can trim the Christmas tree, we really need to trim some of these branches.

Weather: The house had weathered many a winter season until its walls became too weathered to stand any longer.

Wind up: (two-worder number three!) I don’t mean to wind you up, but after you wind up this jack-in-the-box, we really need to wind up the evening and go home.

Why?

Some of the most interesting and fun contronyms lend themselves to neat wordplay, some of which I indulged in above. Since one of the hallmarks of humor is the unexpected, throwing a pair of contronyms into a sentence can be a great tool for spicing up your writing. I would offer an apology for my puns but I think I can write a pretty good apology in support of the concept. And there’s another word with great Greek roots: Apo-, a prefix meaning, among other things, a response or defense; logo, which means word; and –ia, a suffix in Greek indicating either a female singular or neuter plural noun or adjective.

So… words in response to or defense of something. This may sound like a subtle difference, but it’s not. If I offer an apology for my puns, then I’d say something like, “I am really sorry that I’ve made those puns.” If I write an apology for puns, then it would be a long piece tracing their history, showing examples, and describing why they are a valid form of humor — the exact opposite of apologizing for them.

But I won’t apologize for puns. Especially not when a contronym also has other meanings, because that’s where we can get into triple word score on a single sentence.

I mean, I’m not trying to be mean, but I think that puns are a wicked mean form of humor, you know what I mean.

Photo: “Black Sheep Meets White Sheep” (cc) 2011 by Leon Riskin, used unchanged under Creative Commons license 2.0.

Seven deadly grammar sins that aren’t

There are certain grammar “rules” that everyone knows, but a lot of them are just wrong, or have so many exceptions that it’s pointless to follow them. Here’s a quick rundown.

An easy error with “an” and “a”

What we get taught: If a word starts with a consonant, the singular article before it is “a.” If it starts with a vowel, then you use “an.”

Why it’s wrong: Using a or an doesn’t depend on whether it’s a vowel or consonant. It depends on the sound. And it may even depend on the dialect. But here’s a simple example: “What are you doing an hour from now?” The word “hour” starts with a consonant, but “a hour” is just wrong because the sound is an open vowel.

As for dialect, an American would probably say “there’s a hospital there,” while a Brit would probably say “there’s an hospital there.” Here’s a vowel example: “There is a universe yet to be discovered.” Why? Because in that case, it starts with a consonant (or semi-vowel) sound: “you-niverse.”

There is never a reason that “their” is singular

What we get taught: The only singular pronouns are he/him/his, she/her/hers, or it/it/its. When the number is singular but the subject is unknown, use the masculine pronouns. They//them/theirs can never be singular, dammit!

Why it’s wrong: Because it’s the goddamn 21st century, and English as a language doesn’t have enough genders to fit the ones that exist. In some ways, it’s kind of nice that English is so genderless, except for those parts when it tries to insist that there are only two genders, and this is one of them. So they/them/theirs are just as valid in the singular as any of the others, and a lot more humanizing than referring to non-binary people as “it.”

It’s really linguistic evolution in action, and very similar to Spanish adopting the conventions of ending nouns and adjectives with either “x” or “@” to be gender-neutral in what’s generally identified as the Latinx or Latin@ movement. (The nice part about @ is that it combines the masculine O ending and the feminine A, although that’s not a hard and fast rule in Spanish, either. La mano and el planeta could tell you a thing or two about that.)

But… here’s the point. Not everyone fits into either he or she and that is a reality of the present. Therefore, it is entirely all right to use they as a third person singular, and it’s best that we refer to it as the gender-neutral form rather than what they call it in German, Romanian, or other languages with the unfortunately dubbed “neuter” case. Because that one always sounds less than, but the idea with ignoring this rule is to be ever more inclusive. “Their” is one (of many) inclusive gender-neutral or non-binary pronouns available now. Ask people theirs, then use them. It’s not that hard.

James’s rule: Don’t add an “S” after the apostrophe to words ending in “S”

What we get taught: If a word ends in “S,” then you make the possessive by only adding an apostrophe, and not an apostrophe S.

Why it’s wrong: This completely ignores how the word is pronounced, and it boils down to this. If you were saying it out loud, would you pronounce the extra S? In most cases, the answer is yes. For example, look at “The car of Jon” vs. “Jon’s car.” Extra S gets pronounced. So… “The car of James” vs. “James…” That’s right, when spoken, it sounds like “Jameses car,” so the correct possessive is “James’s car.” When you get into plural possessives ending in S, as the link points out, it’s the same deal. When a family named Jones owns a thing, then you pluralize first, then follow the rule for plural possessives and wind up with “The Joneses’ House.”

To glibly split infinitives is wrong

What we get taught: It is wrong to split an infinitive in English, by which we mean nothing can come between “to” and the basic verb form. To be, to do, to go, to eat, etc.

Why it’s wrong: Because some pedant in 19th Century England decided to just make things up. But this rule doesn’t make any sense at all, either. It’s right up there with the stupidity of throwing that extra “U” into words like color or flavor. And, bonus points: English is one of the few languages with infinitives that can even be split because, unlike most other languages that do it with a prefix, suffix, or stem word to create a singular word infinitive, we insist on throwing a preposition in front of a mostly neutral form to create an infinitive. Ooh, look. That was an infinitive right there! English is weird.

Ending a sentence with a preposition is something to watch out for

What we get taught: Never end a sentence with a preposition. It’s wrong. Don’t do it!

Why it’s wrong: Cue up another pedant, in this case John Dryden, who, according to that link, was not well-liked by his contemporaries despite his success, or maybe because of it. His whole shtick was trying to force Latin Grammar onto the English language because he really loved him some Latin. But here’s the problem: Although English is partly a Germanic language and German follows a lot of the grammar left over from Latin, English managed to escape that first via Anglo Saxon and next via a mega-dose of Romance Language grammar via the Norman Invasion. Preposition placement in Latin was very carefully dictated. in English, not so much. Put that preposition wherever you think it needs to go.

There’s a very famous anecdote often attributed to Winston Churchill, but probably not him, in which a subordinate made a note on a speech or some such telling him to not end a sentence with a preposition. The reply, which was probably not Churchill, but rather just a joke, was that he wrote back, “This is an impertinence up with which I will not put.” The point here being that this sentence explains perfectly why this rule is so stupid and useless.

“I” before “E” except after “C” is the best of policies

What we get taught: I before E except after C, or when pronounced “A,” as in “neighbor” or “weigh.”

Why it’s wrong: Because there’s not a single thing right about it? There are more exceptions to this rule than there are rules, so it shouldn’t be taught at all. So where did it come from? Simple. Early grammar textbooks in the mid-19th century, designed to be shipped out to remote schoolhouses, and which included lots of lists of little rhyming rules like this that were sometimes right but often wrong. This one just happened to be short and simple, and so it stuck, even though it’s very, very wrong.

And never start a sentence with a conjunction

What we get taught: Using and, so, but, etc. should never come at the start of a sentence.

Why it’s wrong: But so many writers do it. And it can be very useful. So why the problem? Again, it’s made up. Or, rather, it’s an oversimplification of when conjunctions are needed to connect two clauses directly, or when they’re not. The problem, as is frequently the case, are the fanboysfor, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These cannot start sentences because they do connect to the previous clause. The other conjunctions? Not so much, so have at them!

In conclusion

As they say, you have to learn the rules before you can break them. But sometimes, you have to learn that the rules are just plain wrong, and these are examples of that. If you have any favorite grammar “rules” that are wrong, share them in the comments.

The art of war

Ending just over a century ago, World War I, originally known as The Great War or the War to End All Wars, turned out to be none of the above, since it was eclipsed by its sequel, World War II — to date, the planet’s only nuclear war — which also outdid the first World War in terms of “greatness” if you take “great” to mean number of deaths. Also, obviously, the fact that there was a II to follow the I — and many other wars thereafter to the present day — means that World War I didn’t end any wars at all.

What’s often forgotten about the aftermath of that wr was the effect it had on the people who lived through it — sometimes barely — and especially the effect it had on the arts and culture, as well as the politics of the rest of the first half of the 20th century. It left a generation that was as stunned as the post-Vietnam generation. In fact, it gave us the original term for what we now call PTSD: shell-shock.

In the arts, it gave us things like Dada, which led to Surrealism, which were both efforts to deal with the absolute horror of what really was the first modern war. After all, WWI gave us the first aerial warfare with planes (after a brief prelude in Mexico), the first trench warfare and the first large-scale chemical warfare. It also led to the development of new techniques in plastic surgery. Hey, gotta figure out how to rebuild all those faces that got blown off, right?

But it was the art connection that really hit home, because I can think of three films that dealt with World War I that have really stuck with me — the first because of the way it manages to demonstrate the pure horror of that war and all wars, and the other two because they show, brilliantly, how that war went on to influence the arts and artists of that generation as they grew up after it.

The oldest film and oldest source is Johnny Got His Gun, based on a book written Dalton Trumbo in 1938 — or, in other words, right before the sequel to the Great War was released. Ironically, he was later blacklisted as a communist in the 1950s. The movie came out in 1971, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. Both it and the book tell a first-person story about a young veteran of World War I who comes home with all of his limbs and his face blown off. He basically has no way to communicate with the world, and keeps reliving the war while telling us what he can sense — which is mostly the sounds and touches from the nurses around him.

It’s a very dark and hopeless story. This man has basically been condemned to be trapped in his own practically useless body which is just being kept alive because, well, it’s what you do for the wounded, right? He is denied euthanasia and can’t even commit suicide. Even though he finally manages to try to communicate in Morse code by banging his head on his pillow, he’s ignored — just like so many veterans of that (and other) wars have been.

The second film, Savage Messiah, is one of Ken Russell’s earlier biopics. Released in 1972, it tells the story of artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Gaudier was his birth name, but he had a rather unconventional relationship with a much older woman and took her name as a hyphenate way before it was even a thing, even though they never married.

Eventually, he marches off voluntarily to fight in World War I, and one of the scenes near the end of the film is one that has stuck with me since I first saw it in an art-house revival years ago. One character is reading a letter from Henri on the front that is glorifying the war, talking about killing the enemy. Another character, pitched as somewhat of an antagonist, says, “Whoever wrote that should be shot,” and the man reading the letter replies, “He was. This morning.”

And that is how we find out that this artist and sculptor is dead. It’s one of those rug-yank moments that works so well.

The final film, Max, came out thirty years after Savage Messiah, but is perhaps the strongest synthesis of the “how this war affected the arts” with “how this war got a sequel.” In it, John Cusack plays the titular character, a would-be artist who lost his painting arm in the trenches and so who is now just an art dealer and agent. He meets a young Hitler, portrayed by the brilliant Noah Taylor, and tries to mentor him, but it does not go well because Hitler cannot understand the human side of art while Max cannot see Hitler’s nascent fascism in his works.

One of the highlights is a Dadaist performance piece by Max in which he is lowered, apparently nude and with lost arm in full view sans prosthetic, into a giant meat-grinder while he talks about the war, tons of ground beef pouring out the business end. While the character of Max Rothman in 1918 may have been fictional, the film is still a very effective take on the emotional scars that this war left on everyone who had to live through the battlefield. Only the dead were left with just physical scars, and not emotional ones, although that’s probably not better.

Of course, there are a bunch of top-rated World War I movies, some made before, a lot made after; some of which I’ve seen, a lot of which I’ve haven’t, along with the long list of all World War I movies. Also, I can’t forget Black Adder Goes Forth, which basically ended a beloved series with (SPOILER ALERT) all of the characters rushing out of the trench to their certain deaths. But, c’mon. It’s a Black Adder series. That shouldn’t be a surprise at all, considering how the first one ended.

Finally, to really bring it full circle, Rajiv Joseph wrote a play about the start of World War I called Archduke which was pretty amazing and that played in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 2017, exactly a century after the U.S. finally entered WWI.

Oh yeah. The other big effect of that war? It’s the one that solidified the U.S. as a world super-power after we fired the first shot in the Spanish-American War but before we stole the thunder from Britain and France by finally jumping in to end the First World War. That part is not necessarily good, though, either.

What films about war particularly move you? Tell us in the comments!

On the shoulders of giants

A while back, I wrote about two writers who had a big influence on me, one directly in real life, and the other stylistically. But I’ve also been influenced by four film directors, one of whom directly inspired me to stupidly pursue a career in this business. Unlike one of the writers above, I never met any of them, and they all also happen to be dead now.

In a nutshell, and in order of influence, those directors are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell, and Nicolas Roeg. Sure, four old, white British men (Kubrick being an American ex-pat), but I didn’t know better as a kid, okay? All I knew was that my dad took me to see Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of those many times when the Cinerama Dome opened a would-be blockbuster that bombed, so they had to fill time with something else — and this movie blew Star Wars right out of the water. It was Science Fiction that felt real. There was no sound in space, the movie took its time, the soundtrack was mostly classical music in a future context, and I walked out of that first viewing thinking, “Yeah. I want to do this.”

Present me would love to time travel back to then, grab that kid by the shoulders and shout in his face, “No, dumbass. You want to figure out how to make enough money to pay other people to do this for you so you’ll be richer than Croesus.”

Young me wouldn’t have listened.

Anyway, a few years later, I discovered the several “Art House” cinemas in Los Angeles like the Nuart Theater, mainly because I noticed that they showed other Kubrick films. They also didn’t seem to really pay a lot of attention to ratings, so I could get my young ass into R-rated films. Note: There are absolutely no penalties, legal or otherwise, for a theater not following the MPAA ratings when they sell tickets. None. Nada, and one theater openly defied an NC-17 rating. It’s all smoke and mirrors, folks. So anybody can go to an R-rated movie. It’s just the idea that ratings are some legal bar that makes them effective. But I do digress…

So I worked my way through the Kubrick oeuvre, then stumbled into Hitchcock, and while he created in a G-rated world, his films were just as amazing for different reasons. Kubrick’s works are all about Big Ideas passed through the filter of human experience. 2001 deals with the evolution of the human species, past and future; Clockwork Orange handles crime and punishment; Dr. Strangelove takes on war and peace; Barry Lyndon is all about the class system, and so on.

Hitchcock, though, was all about plot, especially when layered with suspense. Kubrick would make you think. Hitchcock would make you sit on the edge of your seat and clench your butt. Hitch was also far more prolific than Kubrick, which is why I think that there isn’t a single Kubrick film I don’t love, but I’m not a fan of every Hitchcock film.

The ones that really bowl me over, though, are North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Rope. Oops… Psycho isn’t on that list? Well, for me it’s not, because it really doesn’t stack up against the others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great film, but in the context of the rest of his works, it’s actually on the lower end of the scale.

The other thing that struck me about both of these directors, though, is that they were technical innovators. Both of them constantly came up with new ways to do things on film. Hitchcock actually has a particular shooting technique named after him, and Kubrick managed to out-Star Wars Star Wars a decade before Star Wars without a single computer in sight.

After Hitchcock, though, those art house movies led me to another director who worked on a completely different plane, but to whom I clung immediately: Ken Russell. And if Kubrick specialized in ideas while Hitchcock mastered in plot, I’d have to say that Russell’s playing field dealt with emotions in general, or fantasies specifically. His biopics were amazing exercises in giving us emotional truths through metaphors.

Three in particular, each of which dealt with famous composers, run the scale (pun intended) from lightest to heaviest in fantasy: The Music Lovers, about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with some fantasy sequences, but not a lot; Mahler, about the composer Gustav Mahler, about half and half; and Lizstomania, almost entirely fantasy and, while it seems to be the most off-the-rails of them all in covering the life of Franz Lizst, it is actually the most accurate in its metaphorical way, because Lizst really was the first rock star, even if it happened 120 years before the Beatles.

Russell used fantasies and dreams to explore the emotional life of his characters, and it is beautiful. He’s another director with an oeuvre limited enough that I think I’ve seen almost all of his films, and while I have ups and downs, I don’t think there are many I don’t like. For calibration purposes, I’d rank Lair of the White Worm as worst, and the aforementioned Mahler as best.

After Russell, the art houses introduced me to another influence, a director named Nicolas Roeg. And the thing he specialized in was playing with time. Not a single one of his films took place in chronological order, and this was what taught me the power of editing. He’s probably best well-known for a film that most people haven’t seen but only know about because David Bowie starred in it: The Man Who Fell to Earth. And here’s the thing. This is one damn difficult movie to sit through, and it wasn’t my first Roeg film, so I came to it knowing his style.

Here’s the order I learned Roeg, as far as I can remember. Don’t Look Now, which is an amazing and stylish suspense horror film that isn’t gory, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie; Walkabout, which deals with issues of privilege at a time when that wasn’t even a concept, as White Girl and White Boy (literally their names in the credits) are dumped in the Australian outback by their suicidal father, only to be saved by an aboriginal Black Boy who is on his Walkabout, which is a right of passage for his belief system. Needless to say, guess who it doesn’t end well for.

And before I got to The Man Who Fell to Earth, I also saw Roeg’s first big “Hey, look at me” movie, Performance, which actually gave us an incredible, well, um, performance from a young, often nude, and sexy Mick Jagger.

But the most important takeaway for me from Roeg’s films was this. Do not tell your story in chronological order. Tell it in emotional order. If the thing that happens in normal Act 3 seems meaningless then, but can serve as set-up for later, then move it up. And if the thing from Act 1 that seems meaningless up front takes on power later, move it down.

Put them all together, and this is where my playwriting goes: Stories about big ideas that are still very plotted, but which also use fantasy and surrealism to explore emotional truths, and tend to not take place in chronological order. In fact, only one of my produced full-length plays takes place in literal time, and that happens to be the first one produced.

And so there you go. I constantly play with ideas, plots, emotions, and chronology. The big idea comes first, and I build the story from that via plots that are driven by emotions. Once that’s in place, I chop the story up and order it based not on when, but on how the emotions drive the timeline and the plot. And this is how four very different directors created my artistic vision.

(Not noted above, Terry Gilliam, who I didn’t realize really was an influence at first, but taught me the idea of not taking anything too seriously, least of all yourself, and also confirmed that I was playing the game of cut and paste creativity properly.)

So who are your major influences? What have you taken from them, and how do you use that? Tell us in the comments!

Fangry

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the petition started by fans demanding a re-do of Season 8 of Game of Thrones, and this may have given you a flashback to last year, when fans of Star Wars demanded the same thing in the same way for The Last Jedi. Hm. Oddly enough, that was Episode VIII, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Of course, there’s no chance in hell that any of this is going to happen. Personally, if I were one of the producers on the receiving end of that petition, my response would be, “Okay, sure. Season 8 cost $90 million. When I checked, 218,141 of you signed the petition. So if each of you sends us $412.56, we’ll do it.” (Note: I am not going to link to the petition at all, and the reasons why not should become obvious shortly.)

This is called “putting your money where your mouth is,” although I’m sure that many of these fans who are complaining are either torrenting the series illegally or sharing HBO to Go passwords with each other, which just makes it more infuriating.

As an artist, nothing galls me more than armchair quarterbacking from the fans. Note that this is different than critiquing. If a fan sees one of my plays or reads one of my books and says, “I really didn’t like how the story played out,” or “I couldn’t relate to the lead character,” or similar, than that is totally valid. But as soon as a fan (or a critic) gets into, “It should have ended like this,” or “I would have written it like that,” or “this character should have done this instead,” then you’ve gone over the line.

Note, though: Professional critics do not do this. That’s what sets them apart from angry fanboys.

Thanks to the internet, we’ve moved into this weird area where what used to be a consumer culture has morphed into a participatory culture. Sorry to go Wiki there, but those are probably the most accessible ways in to what are very abstract concepts involving economics, marketing, and politics.

There are good and bad sides to both, which I’ll get to in a moment, and while the latter has always been lurking in the background, it hasn’t become as prevalent until very recently. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs understanding and context to work.

So what do we mean by consumer and participatory? The short version is “buy stuff” vs. “give stuff.” A consumer culture focuses on getting people to spend money in the pursuit of having a better life in a capitalist economy. Its marketing mantra is, “Hey… you have problem A? Product X will solve it!” It is also aimed at large groups based on demographics in order to bring in the herd mentality. Keeping up with the Joneses writ large. “Everybody is doing it/has one!”

Ever wonder why people line up down the block at midnight in order to get the latest iPhone or gaming console on the day it comes out? It’s because they have been lured, hook, line, and sinker into consumer culture. But here’s the thing people miss, or used to miss because I think we’re becoming a bit more aware. Because demographics are very important to consumer culture, you are also a product. And if some corporation is giving you something for free — like Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc. — then you are the only product.

Participatory culture is one in which people do not just buy, watch, or read the products, but in which they give input and feedback, and the rise of the internet and social media has pushed this to the forefront. Ever commented on a post by one of your favorite brands on how they could make it better? Ever snarked an elected official for whom you’re a constituent? Ever blasted a movie, show, or sketch in a mass media corporation’s website? Congratulations! That’s participatory culture.

As I mentioned above, it’s not new. In the days before the internet, people could always write letters to newspapers, legislators, corporations, and studios. The only difference then was that it was a bit harder — physically creating the message, whether with pen and paper or typewriter, then putting it in an envelope, looking up the address via dead tree media, taking the thing to a post office, putting a stamp on it, and dropping it off.

Phew. That’s some hard work. Now? Fire up Twitter, drop an @ and some text, click send, done.

And, again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve had more direct responses from my own elected officials to my social media comments than I ever did back in the days of mail of the E or snail variety only. The mail responses were always form letters with the subtext of, “Yeah, we get this a lot, we don’t care, here’s some boilerplate.” Social media doesn’t allow for that because it becomes too obvious.

But where participatory culture goes too far is when the fans turn it into possessory culture. Again, this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s only become more common because being a participant and not just a consumer has become so much easier.

Here’s the anecdotal part. I’ve spent a lot of my working career in the entertainment industry, particularly film and television, and a lot of that dealing directly or indirectly with fans. And one thing that I can say for certain is that people who aren’t in the industry — termed “non-pro” by the trades and often called “muggles” by us — don’t have a clue about how it all works.

If you don’t know what “the trades” are, then you probably fall into the muggle category. Although it’s really a dying term, it refers to the magazines that covered the industry (“the trade”) from the inside, and which were read voraciously every day — principally Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Billboard.

But I do digress.

In college, I interned for a game show production company, and one of my jobs was reading and properly directing fan mail, or replying to it with one of a dozen form letters they had printed out en masse, because yes, the questions or complaints were so predictable. One of the big recurring themes was the mistaken belief that the host of the game show personally wrote, directed, edited, and selected contestants for the entire thing. Yeah, no. Unless the host was an executive producer (and the only example that comes to mind is Alex Trebek, for whom I almost worked), then the only thing the host did was show up for the taping day, when they would do five half-hour shows back to back.

And so… I would read endless letters with sob stories begging the host to cast them, or complaints about wanting them to fire one or another guest celebrities, or, ridiculously often, outright requests for money because reasons (always from red states, too), prefiguring GoFundMe by a decade or two.

A lot of these letters also revealed how racist a lot of Americans were then (and still are) and yes, the response to that crap was one of our most sent-out form letters.

This pattern continued though, on into the days of the internet and email. When I worked on Melrose Place, we would constantly get emails telling the stars of the show things like, “I hated what you did to (character) in that episode. Why are you such a bitch?” or “Why don’t you change this story line? I hate it.”

Really? Really.

Gosh. I guess I never realized that scripted TV had so damn much improv going on. Yes, that was irony. And here’s a fun fact: While a lot of it may seem like it’s improv, SNL is actually not, and doing improv there is the quickest way to never get invited back.

At least those comments were much easier to respond to. “Thank you, but Heather Locklear does not actually write her parts, she only performs them. We will pass your concerns on to the producers.” (Which we never did, because, why?)

Still… misguided but fine. And even things like fan fiction are okay, because they aren’t trying to change canon so much as honor it — although it can sometimes spin off the rails, with Fifty Shades of Gray being the ur-example of a fangirl turning a Twilight fanfic into a super dumpster fire of bad writing and terrible movies and still somehow making a fortune off of it — the perfect storm of participatory culture turning around to bite the ass of consumer culture. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but if anybody did this to my work, I’d probably want to punch them in the throat.

Of course, there are always textual poachers, who approach fanfic from a slightly different angle. Their aim isn’t to make their own fortune off of rewriting stuff. Rather, it’s to, well, as a quote from the book Textual Poachers says, “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.”

So that’s perfectly fine. If you’re not happy with how Star Wars or Game of Thrones turned out, then write your own damn version yourself. Do it on your own time and at your own expense, and enjoy. But the second you’d deign to try to demand that any other artist should change their work to make you happy, then you have lost any right whatsoever to complain about it.

castle-rock-misery-stephen-king

Don’t be Annie Wilkes. Stephen King knew that.

See how that works? Or should I start a petition demanding that the other petition be worded differently? Yeah. I don’t think that would go over so well with the whiny fanboys either.

The perception of art is completely subjective while the creation thereof is completely under the artist’s control. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it, don’t watch it, don’t buy it. But, most of all, don’t tell the artist how they should have done it. Period. Full stop.

You have the right to remain silent

I’ve often told people that I’m glad I grew up in an English-speaking country, although not out of any kind of chauvinism. Rather, it’s just that if I hadn’t learned English as my first language, I doubt that I ever would have been able to learn it as my second, and a huge part of that is because the spelling and pronunciation of things just seem to make no damn sense. There’s an example right there: we spell it “pronunciation” as a noun, but as a verb it’s “pronounce.” Ta… what? Where’d that extra “o” come from?

The only other language I can think of off the top of my head where the spelling seems to make no sense is Irish Gaelic. Let’s just look at a few names. The example a lot of people probably know is Sinéad, as in Sinéad O’Connor. Now, if you didn’t know, you’d probably think it was “Sineed” or “SinEE-ad,” but it’s not. It’s “shi-NAYD.” A couple of Oscar shows back, we all learned that Saoirse wasn’t “sao-irse” or “sa-oyers,” but “SEER-sha.”

So what would you make of the names Niamh or Caoimhe? Neeam and Cammy, right? Nope. Neev (or NEE-av) and KEE-va.

Now, I’m assured that the rules of pronouncing words in Gaelic are completely consistent and easy to remember, but I’ve tried to learn the language, since it is part of my genetic background, and failed miserably. Then again, looking at the last three names together, it does start to make sense, although it’s still a brain breaker.

No such luck in English. It’s tough enough to plough through without silent letters messing things up. Even if you had read it in your head before you read it out loud, you could still make big mistakes if you’re not completely fluent.

I’m not even going to get into all the multiple ways various vowels and diphthongs can be pronounced — and note that diphthong can either be pronounced as “dipthong” (more common) or “difthong” (rarer.) I’m more interested in one particular culprit for this post, though: The Silent E.

In English, the pronunciation of vowels is not consistent as it is in a lot of other Indo-European languages, particularly the Romance languages. In the latter, whatever their vowels are — typically A, E, I, O, U — each have the same pronunciation. In Spanish, for example, they are ah, eh, ee, oh, oo. To jump to Germanic, they are very similar in Deutsche, too: ah, ay, ih, oh, oo.

Any changes come through putting two vowels together, and they’re also consistent. For example, in German, put “ie” together and you get “ee.” In Spanish, put “ui” together and get “uee” On the other hand, other combos in Spanish just give you two syllables. “AE” in a word like “caer,” for example, gives you “ky-air,” the infinitive form of the verb “to fall.”

There’s another concept Spanish has that English doesn’t: Strong and weak vowels. A, O, and U are strong. E and I are weak. And it plays out like this — by affecting certain consonants that come before the vowels, as well as how the vowels combine. In Spanish, the affected consonants tend to be C and G. When the C comes before a strong vowel, then it has the hard K sound (casa — kah-sa); when it comes before a weak vowel, then it’s an S (ciudad — see-ooh dahd). Likewise, when G comes before a strong vowel, it’s more of a hard G (dame gasolina… that second word is pronounced just like in English) and before a weak vowel, more of an H; general, “HEN-eh-ral.”

Final note: notice that the “CIU” combo in “ciudad” is pronounced “see-ooh. That happens when you put a weak vowel before a strong one. It’s the opposite of the “UI” combo. When the strong vowel comes first, the weak one gets absorbed, more or less.

None of which has anything at all to do with how fucked up English vowels are, except as an example of a language with easy and consistent rules. Know how the vowels and diphthongs in Spanish or German or Italian work? Then you’re good to go, and can read and pronounce any word you run across. Period.

Meanwhile, in English, we have little word pairs like these: cat, Cate; fat, fate; gat, gate; hat, hate; mat, mate; Nat, Nate; pat, pate; rat, rate; sat, sate; bit, bite; kit, kite; sit, site; bon, bone; con, cone; don, done; non, none; ton, tone; dun, dune; run, rune.

There are probably a lot more, but I stuck to single-consonant starts. The interesting thing to notice, though, is that we have examples for every first vowel except for E. The only example I can kind of stretch out of it are “Ben” and “Bene” (bin and baynay), but that only works because the latter word is Latin, and both of its E’s are pronounced.

Another thing to note: In other Germanic and Romance languages, the final E is always pronounced. For example, in Italian, the words “molto bene” and “calzone” are pronounced “mole-toe bay-nay” and “kal-zo-nay.” (At least they are by modern Italians. Italian-Americans, who came here before the language was codified after WW II get it “wrong.” At least according to modern Italians.) And, in German, a good example is the word “heute,” which means “today.” It’s pronounced “oy-tuh,” with a great diphthong to start and a pronounced E that doesn’t affect the vowels to end it.

Oh, by the way, the Spanish word for “today” is “hoy,” which is pronounced almost the same as the German word without that little extra syllable at the end.

And, honestly, “syllables at the end” is kind of the trick to it because, once upon a time, before the Great Vowel Shift and back in Chaucer’s day, the E on the end of English words was pronounced as its own syllable. In Shakespeare’s day, the E in the last syllable was also pronounced, especially in participles, so that pronounced would have been pronounced pronounce-ed. This is why modern Shakespearean texts will be marked in one of two ways, depending on the meter… you may see the word as markéd writ, or otherwise unstressed, it is just mark’d.

And while grammarians have tried to come up with logical reasons for silent E’s on the end of words, it’s really a stretch because, again, it’s all based on the vagaries of how English is pronounced in the first place. And there’s a particularly heinous example with a word like “lead.”

If it’s a verb, it’s pronounced the same as “lede,” which is a journalistic concept referring to the most important part of the story which usually starts it off — hence, it leads the piece. However, the reason it’s spelled that way is to distinguish it from the noun, lead, which is pronounced the same as “led,” which is the past tense of the verb to lead.

Confused yet? The reason that journalism needed the easy distinction is because lead or leading (short E) refers to the space between lines of type. When type was set by hand, lines were literally separated by one or more thin strips of lead one point or 1/72nd of an inch thick. The term did carry over into the computer world for a long time, though, only eventually giving away to “line spacing” in modern digital publishing. But lede, lead, led, and lead’s friend read all bring up a good point: Vowels in English make no damn sense.

They used to, and that brings us back to Chaucer and English before the great vowel shift — and before Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster independently sat down to decide how words “should” be spelled. (Hint: Johnson was a pedantic putz, and a big part of the reason that English spelling makes no sense. Webster tried to simplify a bit, but not enough.) See, if you read the prologue to the Canterbury Tales out loud and pronounce every word exactly how it’s spelled, remembering that every vowel is pronounced, even the last E’s in words like “bathed” and “veyne”, and that every vowel has only one pronunciation, you can recite it and sound exactly like a speaker of Chaucer’s English without even knowing the language.

Good luck for any non-English speaker trying to read a modern English work and getting it right. It would come out about as clear as me trying to read Gaelic. I’d imagine that this is probably a good approximation of what this mutt language called English looks like to a non-speaker. Here are the first lines of Chaucer in Gaelic: “Nuair a chuir cithfholcadáin i mí Aibreáin an triomach i leataobh, is féidir go dtéann sé go dtí an fhréamh …”

Yeah. I have no idea, either. I do know that Ben Franklin tried to reform English by creating a slightly new alphabet — or alfabet — in which each letter had only one pronunciation, but it never caught on. Too bad, because most of the rest of English is actually a lot easier. After all, possible it is to greatly do much manglement to the words and syntax yet thus ensues a sentence over all intelligible still in English speech, it is. There aren’t a lot of languages you can do that to.

So I’m glad I learned this difficult chimera first. It makes it easier to deal with a lot of the others.

Photo credit: Carole Raddato, The Chimera of Arezzo, c. 400 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence

23 and me (and thee)

Warning: after you read this, you’re going to start seeing the numbers 23 and 5 everywhere. Sorry.

When I was 23 years old, I first encountered and read the very trippy book The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. I’ve mentioned the latter several times here, and probably will again. Along with several others, he became one of my major writing influences early on.

Now, the thing about me coming to read the book for the first time when I was 23 is that it seemed to come about completely by happenstance. I mentioned to a coworker, who was a Wiccan, that I’d just turned 23, and she said, “Oh, you need to read this book.” I did a little research into it, thought it looked interesting, and headed down to the Bodhi Tree, the now-defunct Melrose Avenue bookshop that specialized in all things new age and esoteric.

The thing is massive — something like 800 pages, I think, and was published in trade paperback format, which is the bigger size in comparison to mass-market paperback. Trade paperbacks are close to the dimensions of standard hardcover books.

Anyway, I started to read it, and the book hooked me immediately. Why not? I was 23, and it was full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It also affectionately mimicked and imitated the styles and structures of things like Joyce’s Ulysses and the cut-up technique preferred by William S. Burroughs. Threads of the story weave in and out of each other in constant interruptions, the identity of narrator keeps changing by passing among omniscient third person to first-person from the characters — some of whom seem aware that they are characters in a novel, maybe — and the whole thing plays out as a neo noir detective mystery wrapped around a psychedelic conflation of every far right and far left conspiracy theory of the time, with a healthy dose of science fiction, fantasy, and eldritch horror.

Besides Joyce and Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft and his universe receive various nods, and one of the protagonists (?) travels about in a golden submarine that evokes both the Beatles and Captain Nemo at the same time.

One of the running ideas in the book is the mystical importance of the number 23, which pops up constantly in the narrative. This also implies the importance of the number 5, which is the sum of 2 and 3. This is also why, in later years, it was tradition for Wilson to always publish his newest book on May 23rd.

There are some very interesting facts about the number, actually — and it shouldn’t escape notice that Wilson’s last initial, W, is the 23rd letter of the Latin alphabet. Those facts do go on and on, too. Here’s another list that has surprisingly little overlap with the first.

William S. Burroughs was obsessed with the number 23, which is mentioned in the novel, and many works created post-Illuminatus! capitalize on the concept by using it. You’ll find 23s in things like the TV show Lost, various films including Star Wars Episode IV, and two films that specifically deal with it, the American film The Number 23 and the German film 23, although the latter would be more properly called Dreiundzwanzig.

There are, of course, also plenty of examples of the number 5 doing interesting things as well.

So here I was, reading this amazing brain-bender of a book at the young age of 23, and I started to wonder whether there was any truth to this idea. You know what happened? I started seeing the number 23 everywhere. It would be on the side of taxis and buses — bonus points, sometimes I’d see 523, 235, 2355 or similar combinations. It would show up on receipts — “You’re order number 23!” It would be one of the winning numbers or the mega number for the current lottery winner. The total when shopping would end in 23 cents, or else 67 cents, meaning that I’d get 23 cents in change.

Wilson eventually gives up the secret to the secret, although not in this book. He does offer another interesting exercise that worked for me at the time, although probably not so much anymore since people don’t tend to carry change around any longer. He referred to it as The Quarter Experiment, although I think of it as “Find the Quarter,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. When you’re out and about walking around, visualize a quarter (or local coin in your currency of similar size, about 25mm) and then look for one that’s been dropped on the ground.

Back in the day, Wilson claimed success with this and, sure enough, so did I. It’s worth it to click the link above and read the explanation, as well as the several ways to interpret it. (It’s also worthwhile to check out and do the other exercises listed, but especially number four. Too bad the list didn’t make it to five.)

But, again, people just aren’t as likely to drop quarters because they probably only trot them out to do laundry, especially with most parking meters accepting debit and credit cards now. A lot of public washers and driers are also doing the same, so we may be swiftly approaching a day where the only likely place someone might drop some coins is in front of one of those grocery store change converter machines.

Still, you can probably do this experiment fnord with any other object likely to be dropped, like a pen, or a receipt, or keys.

After I finished my first read of Illuminatus!, I went on to read almost all of the rest of Wilson’s oeuvre, both fiction and non. He wrote a number of books outlining his philosophy, like Prometheus Rising and Right Where You Are Sitting Now, as well as his Cosmic Trigger series, which is a cross between autobiography and philosophy, and the amazing novel Masks of the Illuminati, in which James Joyce, Albert Einstein, and Aleister Crowley walk into a bar in Geneva and things get trippy. I’ve always wanted to adapt this one into a play or film and, in fact, it was influential in the creation of my own play Three Lions, which involved Crowley, Ian Fleming, and Hermann Hesse. (Available for production, if you’re interested — here’s the first scene.)

Okay, Wilson has got too many works to cite individually, so just go check out his website for the full list. Meanwhile, this is where we’re going to go meta and full circle.

I’ve re-read Illuminatus! multiple times, and in fact started another read-through about (d’oh!) five weeks ago. Every time through it, it’s a completely different work and I get different things out of it. When I was 23, it was one story. Each of three times after that, it was another. Now, it’s yet again completely different and I just realized that this is, in fact, my fifth pass through the text.

So it was weirdly appropriate when I found out that a friend of mine from our improv company was going to turn 23 on April 30. That date itself is significant because a large part of the present story of the book takes place in April and May, but on top of that I suddenly had the chance to return the favor that my coworker had done for me oh so long ago, so I gifted my young friend a dead-tree copy of the anthology version.

Hey, I survived that journey and I think it made me a better person. Might as well share the love, right? My only hope is that somewhere down the line, after he’s read it a bunch of times, he’s in the position to pass the torch to another 23-year-old.

Pictured: My photo of the covers of my original U.S. paperback versions of the books, which I was lucky enough to find in a used bookstore for cheap a few years back. Interestingly enough, that bookstore is called Iliad Books, and it used to be next door to a video rental place called Odyssey. Both of those also figure into the fnord book. Yes, it’s quite the rabbit hole.

Not pictured: my autographed by RAW himself original edition and my later “checkerboard” cover version from the 90s.