Five interesting inauguration days

Since I’m writing ahead of time and it’s not even January 17th yet — a day that may or may not erupt in violence — I have no idea what the circumstances will be as you read this on the morning of January 20, 2021.

Today, the duly elected Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris are set to be sworn in as President and Vice President of the United States at the Capitol in Washington D.C. at noon. Certain parties in this country think that the election was rigged, despite all evidence to the contrary. Or, rather, no evidence at all from their side.

So it could get ugly, and we could have started our Second Civil War by the time you read this — or sanity could prevail, the protests become nothing, especially given the massive presence of National Guard, DC Police, and other peacekeepers already set to be there.

It’s certainly going to be the most unusual inauguration of my lifetime, probably of any living person’s lifetime, and I’d even go so far as to say the most unusual in the entire history of the U.S.

There have been odd moments, of course, but nothing like what we’re looking at. But in the spirit of keeping things light on what could be a day that passes through some darkness before the clouds break, here are five unusual moments from past U.S. Presidential inaugurations.

  1. Andrew Jackson (March 4, 1829)

Does this quote from Whitehousehistory.org sound like anyone you know? “The ‘common man’ had come to the capital to revel in the installation of a popular champion as chief executive. Washingtonians, generally, were not so cheerful, deeming the admired champion a backwoods barbarian, his associates cronies, and his followers an uncivilized horde.”

That would be the bunch that turned up to cheer on the installation of Andrew Jackson as the seventh president, and Jackson was, to put it kindly, a genocidal monster. Maybe Harriet Tubman will finally replace him on the $20 bill.

Anyway, those “common men” came to the inauguration and then followed on to the White House for the afterparty, and it turned into a shitshow.

The mob wound up in the White House, trampling on delicate furniture, colliding with waiters and making them spill their laden trays, and generally causing havoc. As a side note, this election came four years after the previous, when none of the candidates, Jackson among them, gained enough Electoral votes, so the winner was decided by Congress.

It wasn’t Jackson, so 1828 was also a vindication for all of Jackson’s followers who felt that they’d been robbed in 1824. They just got caught up in the moment, I guess, once they managed to push their way into the White House. Plus ça change…

    1. Calvin Coolidge (August 3, 1923)

You’ll note by the date that this was no normal inauguration to begin with, and you’d be right. Coolidge, who was Vice President, originally became President #30 when Warren G. Harding dropped dead. “Silent Cal” got the news while he was visiting with the family homestead up in rural Vermont.

Not being big on publicity or anything like that, and since his father was a Justice of the Peace, Dad swore in Son on the spot in a private ceremony with a few witnesses and some members of the press. The news of Harding’s death had been delivered by hand because the homestead lacked electricity and a telephone.

The oath was repeated in Washington D.C. in front of a Justice from the Court of the District of Columbia.

Such a low-key inauguration makes it no surprise then why Dorothy Parker quipped what she did ten years later. When told that Coolidge had died, her snap response was, “How can they tell?

  1. Lyndon Baines Johnson (November 22, 1963)

Another off-date inauguration for obvious reasons, LBJ became president when JFK was assassinated. His was the only mile-high inauguration, taking place on Air Force One en route back to D.C. from Dallas.

Johnson insisted that Jackie Kennedy be there with him, mainly so that JFK’s fans would accept him as the next president. Remember, Kennedy was the patrician East Coast liberal, while Johnson was brought on board to rein in the Southerners and Dixiecrats, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to think that the JFK fans would turn on LBJ.

There were also a couple of firsts with this one: The first and only time that a President was sworn in on an airplane, and the first time that the oath of office was administered by a woman, U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes.

  1. Bill Clinton (January 20, 1993)

The most interesting feature of this inauguration was the rather unusual composition of the traditional parade to the Capitol. Rather than the usual military cadets and equestrian teams, the parade and pre-parade entertainment featured acts like a “precision lawn chair marching team,” a reggae band, and two Elvis impersonators, to represent the old fat one and the young skinny one.

Other guests in the parade included Lesbian and Gay Band of America; a company of hearing-impaired young adults using ASL to interpret lyrics from live music under the name the Sounds of Silence; former Peace Corps volunteers; residents from McCrossan Boys Ranch home for wayward boys; and a high school band from Florida, whose school was destroyed by hurricane Andrew.

As reported in the Washington Post at the time, “’We wanted to make sure that we chose a cross section of people and performers that would, to the extent possible, represent every sector of society,’ said Sally Aman, spokeswoman for the Inaugural Parade Committee. ‘We chose a group of performers that represents the theme of reunion in this inaugural.’”

Of course, almost as cool as all that inclusion was when Bill played sax at his own inaugural ball.

    1. Barack Obama (January 20, 2009)

Because Chief Justice John Roberts tripped on his tongue, Barack Obama was actually sworn in twice, once in public and once in private. Roberts’ stumble tripped up Obama as well and, especially because there were so many bitter losers waiting to delegitimize him at the first opportunity, they didn’t take any chances.

Hey, why risk some basement lawyer trying to claim, “They not do all words right, he not real pres?”

And there was yet another public ceremony, because the first one happened on a Sunday. Of course, the first one was and will always be the real one that made him President, fumbles notwithstanding, but that was followed by the private ceremony in the Blue Room of the White House, and then by the second public ceremony on Monday, January 21.

And why that second ceremony? It had nothing to do with making it legit. Rather, when January 20 falls on a Sunday, tradition dictates that the President takes the formal oath on that day, then repeats the ceremony and gives his address on Monday.

Which, nowadays, makes no sense. I mean, hell, they moved the Oscars to Sunday so more people could watch, right? And when is the Super Bowl?

Oh… bonus fun fact. Advertisers cannot refer to the Super Bowl in their commercials, even if they run during the Super Bowl. They have to call it “The Big Game.”

So, while today’s events will certainly be unusual for a lot of reasons, may they not be extraordinary, and may Thursday find us all living together in peace.

Image source, the inauguration of Barack Obama, Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA, (CC) BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Classical Era: Haydn go seek

The Classical Era in music spanned 1730 – 1820, although “Classical” has somehow also become the term to describe pretty much all orchestral music from the Baroque through to the modern era.

So it’s important to distinguish between the era and the music.

Music of the Classical Era is less complex than that of the Baroque before it, and it aimed for a lighter and airier tone. One significant development was that the piano replaced the harpsichord, and it changed the sound of the music enormously.

Although they look the same, a harpsichord and a piano are two entirely different instruments. They both have keys and strings, but when you hit a harpsichord key, the string is plucked. When you hit a piano key, the string is hit with a small felt hammer.

You can’t vary the volume of a harpsichord, but you can that of a piano through various means, such as striking the keys harder or softer, or using the various pedals. Generally, modern pianos have three.

As for the sound, a harpsichord is the more growly and ethereal of the two. One of its most famous modern appearances was in the theme song to the TV show The Addams Family, where it lends itself appropriately to the macabre tone of the franchise.

For comparison, here’s the theme played straight on a piano. It’s the same music, but it’s amazing how different the feel is.

That’s a pretty good encapsulation of the difference between Baroque and Classical, too.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was one of the more prominent composers of the era, and is even known as “The Father of Symphonies.” He built everything from simple melodies, creating larger structures from short motifs, and then created his variations by altering the order of those motifs rather than the structure.

He created the sonata form, integrated the fugue into larger works instead of just having it stand alone, and was a big proponent of the double variation form.

Before symphonies, the common form was a three movement concerto. This evolved, with Haydn’s help, into what we most commonly think of now, which is a piece with four movements and an overall structure that follows the same pattern.

Symphonies started out as three movement concertos, but soon evolved to a four movement structure that followed the same pattern: the first movement would be fast and lively, the second would be slow, the third would be a dance, frequently in triple meter, like a waltz, scherzo, or mazurka, and the fourth would be lively and driving, bringing it to a finale.

A typical example is Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G Major (“Surprise”), in which the movements are as follows:

I: Adagio — Vivace assai

II: Andante

III: Menuetto: Allegro molto

IV: Finale: Allegro molto

What’s interesting in this one is that the first movement starts slow (adagio) but then ends up very fast (vivace assai, literally “so lively.”) The second movement is “Andante,” which literally means “walking speed” in Italian, so I’d say moderate.

Next up is the third movement, a minuet, which is a form of delicate waltz in 3/4 time (which is three beats per measure), and is moderately fast. The finale is also moderately fast, and probably in 4/4 time — four beats per measure.

The opening movement trains the audience. It starts by playing in the chosen key, in this case G Major. The theme is established and repeated, then there’s a transition that migrates us to the second theme, which is usually always written in the relative to the main key.

That can be relative Major or minor, and each key has exactly one. Since we started in G Major, the relative would be E minor. If we had started in G minor, the relative would be B flat Major.

This relative theme plays two times, then we transition back to recap the original theme. After this, there’s another transition, and this is where the composer cuts loose and starts to play with the original themes.

This time, though, the secondary theme is transposed into the primary key, so that now both are being played in G Major in this example. It’s mix and match and play and explore  until finally coming back to another transition, ending with the original theme followed by a coda, which is often a repeat of a bar or short phrase from the original theme, teasing the audience up until the final chord.

This was one of Haydn’s signatures, too — drawing out that moment of finally getting to the end, which has become a trope of Classical Music. One great example of this is the end of Tchaikovsky ‘s 1812 Overture, which pulls the full-on endless ending.

Haydn also used humor in his work. The Surprise Symphony, above, is named that for a reason.

This happened largely because in the years when he was developing everything, he pretty much was the court composer for one prince. He didn’t have any contact with what was going on outside of that castle in Austria, and his job was to keep the prince amused. Hence… he changed the course of Western Music once his stuff got out.

Haydn is also the literal bridge from C.P.E. Bach to Mozart and Beethoven. He trained with the first one and mentored the other two.

He composed 106 symphonies, which is a lot. As for the surprise mentioned previously, as my music history teacher told the story, Haydn wanted to write the piece so that the second movement would get very quiet, making all the old folk in the audience lean forward to hear it. And then, bam! There’s a sudden loud orchestral sting that was meant to knock them back in their seats.

Okay, not a huge joke, but that was the trick he pulled off multiple times. You can hear the first one at about 1:15 in this video. Of course, that surprise isn’t as much of a surprise as it originally was, which is probably why modern conductors don’t vary the dynamics as much anymore — that is, the quiet part isn’t as quiet as originally played, nor is the loud part as loud.

And I had intended to get to Mozart and Beethoven in this edition, but I’ve run long, so I’ll save them for next week.

British and American words that mean different things

In 1887 in the book The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde wrote, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” He was speaking from the point of view of an Irishman living in Britain, but he was more correct than not. Like Spanish in Latin America vs. Spanish in Spain, there are some big differences between the American and British versions. Let’s leave aside spelling and terms that are mutually unknown (oven vs. cooker, for example), and just look at the words that, while they look the same in both countries, mean something very different depending upon which side of the Atlantic (aka “The Pond”) you’re on.

Clothing and Accessories

  1. Jumper — In the UK, this is a piece of outerwear, frequently knit, and designed to be worn over a shirt or blouse. In the U.S., we call it a sweater. To us, a jumper is someone who commits suicide by diving off of a high place.
  2. Fancy dress — In the UK, this is costume party, akin to what Americans would have for Halloween. In the U.S., this refers to a very formal occasion, usually with men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns. The Oscar ceremony is American fancy dress.
  3. Trainers — In the UK, these are shoes, generally of the type Americans would call tennis shoes or sneakers. In the U.S., a trainer is a person who screams at you in a gym in order to motivate you to work out.
  4. Pants — In the UK, you wear your pants under your trousers, which we call underwear. In the U.S., pants are your trousers.
  5. Braces — In the UK, braces keep your pants up and we call them suspenders, In the U.S., braces are something to straighten your teeth.
  6. Vest — In the UK, this is a sleeveless T-shirt meant as an undergarment, something Americans might call an A-front or (very disturbingly) a “wife-beater.” In the U.S., a vest is part of a three-piece suit, worn under the jacket.
  7. Purse — In the UK, this is a wallet kept in a handbag. In the U.S. it’s a bag to keep your wallet in.
  8. Boob tube — In the UK, this is a garment with no sleeves that is basically held up by friction, hope, and boobs. In the U.S., it is an old slang word for television.

Food

  1. Chips — In the UK, these are French fries; in the U.S. they are thin, crunchy salty snacks made from fried potatoes. American chips are British crisps.
  2. Biscuit — In the UK, a sweet treat made of baked dough, and you might find chocolate chips or jam in it. In the U.S., a biscuit is a dense chunk of buttery dough, generally not sweet, and frequently associated with Southern cooking, as in biscuits and gravy.
  3. Banger — In the UK, a banger is a sausage. In the U.S., it’s a gang member.

Things

  1. Solicitor — This is a type of lawyer in the UK, and probably useful. In the U.S., it’s anybody who goes door-to-door to try to sell you something, and is considered very annoying. The category includes salespeople and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among other pests.
  2. Boot — In the UK, this is the storage space in the back of your car. In the U.S., it’s a type of shoe that goes on your foot and usually extends at least to your ankle if not higher.
  3. Bonnet — In the UK, this is the thing that covers the engine of your car. In the U.S., it covers your head, but only if you’re a baby or a rather quaint woman.
  4. Trolley — UK version, this is what you put your purchases into while you’re at Tesco (that’s a grocery store); in the U.S., this is a form of public transit that frequently but not always runs on rails down city streets. San Francisco is famous for its trolley cars.
  5. Coach — In the UK, you’ll take this to transport a bunch of people from one place to another, although it won’t be called Greyhound. In the U.S., this is the person in charge of whipping a sports team into shape.
  6. Fag — In the UK, it’s a cigarette. In the U.S., it’s very derogatory term for a homosexual male and should be avoided. (Although in a lot of parts of the U.S., smoking has also become very verboten, which is a good thing.)
  7. Dummy — Use this to keep your UK baby quiet and happy as they suck on it. In the U.S., use it in a store to model clothes or as a general human-shaped object for whatever purpose.
  8. Comforter — Another word in the UK for a dummy. In the U.S., it’s a duvet, as in a big, stuffed fluffy blanket that goes on top of your sheets.
  9. Bomb — In UK theater and media, a huge hit. In U.S. theater and media, a huge failure. Note, though, that “the bomb” (or “da bomb”) in the U.S. also refers to a huge hit. Nuance matters here.
  10. Flannel — In the UK, a piece of cloth you use for washing up your face or hands. In the U.S., a type of material, usually plaid, and most often used to make shirts or blankets.
  11. Hamper — Absolutely necessary for carrying your food around for a picnic in Britain; absolutely necessary for carrying around your dirty laundry in the U.S.
  12. Casket — In the UK, this is a small box for jewelry. In the U.S., it’s a big box for a dead body.

Places

  1. First floor — In the UK, one story up above the ground. In the U.S., the story that’s on the ground
  2. A&E — In the UK, where you go for urgent care of an injury (“accident and emergency”), what’s called the ER in the U.S. In the U.S., A&E is a cable network showing Arts and Entertainment

Unfortunate Confusions

  1. Rubber — In the UK, the thing, usually on the back of a pencil, used to rub out mistakes. In the U.S., the thing you put on your dong before sex in order to avoid mistakes.
  2. Hoo-ha — In the UK, this is an argument or disagreement. In the U.S., it’s slang for a vagina
  3. Pissed — In the UK, you’re drunk. In the U.S., you’re angry.
  4. Blow off — A very British fart. A very American way to skip a commitment or appointment without making any excuses or giving warning.

And there you have it. Can you think of any other examples? Share them in the comments!

Sunday Nibble #46: An oddly appropriate number.

Yet again, I’m writing this post a week ahead of time, but at a point when I know from the internet that January 17, as in today, is supposed to be a day when… something happens; basically, the next salvo in the Coup de Twat(s) attempted on January 6.

With any luck, this time, saner heads will take it seriously, and there will be a massive response from the military and National Guard. Who knows — the previous president may not even be in power by this point, in which case Number 46 will serve the shortest term in history, making William Henry Harrison’s month look like FDR in comparison.

And Joe Biden will be #47. Although, realistically, he probably will be #46, because while I have no doubt that the House has impeached, the Senate will not convict, and the VP and Cabinet — no matter how much Pence feels personally betrayed by the soon-to-be-ex POTUS — is not going to invoke the 25th Amendment.

This is the one that allows the VP and a majority of the Cabinet to declare to Congress in writing that the President is unfit for duty, and places the VP in power. It was originally a response to JFK’s assassination, though, and so the originally intended definition of “Unfit” was “Dead.”

The only other times it’s been invoked were medical — i.e. after Ronald Reagan was shot and in no condition to lead, and at several points when a president has had to go under anesthesia for a medical procedure, like a colonoscopy.

It has yet to be invoked under a “The president is batshit insane” condition, but it yet might have been.

There is also the possibility that the 14th Amendment gets used. This is one of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Amendments designed to deal with the whole mess after the fact and, among other things, it allows Congress to ban any elected official who supports any insurrection or rebellion against the United States from ever holding any elected office again.

In other words, Congress could chose to invoke this Amendment to eject and permaban all of the Senators and Congress Reps who supported the January 6 domestic terrorists directly, as well as all of them who voted to object to the Electoral vote counting — although it’s a harder sell on the latter.

Imagine the effect of that one, though, if both things happen. That would be a handful of Senators and a hundred-odd Republican Reps kicked out and banned.

Here’s the thing, though. While the U.S. played hardball against the rebels at first — as they should have — a close election the next cycle screwed it all up, because the decision of who won did fall to Congress, and the compromise in order so appease the seditionists and get the votes for the candidate preferred by the Union was to back off on the 14th Amendment penalties.

Well, that, and not enforce that “All men are created equal” stuff so much in the South.

End result? A continuation of the systemic racism, Jim Crow Laws, white supremacy, and all the other bullshit that is the direct cause of what’s going on right now.

We could have fixed this if our leaders at that time had the balls to just say, “No,” and to punish the insurrectionist Confederates to the full extent of the law and remove all of them from civic participation forever, disenfranchise them like the felons they were, ban their flags and symbols, try them all for war crimes, and elevate the people they tried to oppress to positions of power in every single statehouse of the Confederacy.

Or, you know — do what Germany did to the Nazis. Prosecute, convict, execute, and erase.

But we totally fell down on that job, and we are living with the consequences more than 145 years after that little shit-show.

I’m really just hoping that events between then and now, and especially what may or may not happen today, do not make the Insurrection of January 6 look like a Sunday School Picnic.

However, I am not totally hopeful that this upcoming week is going to be even worse, and the most violent and divisive week in U.S. history of all time. Strap in, kids.

Or as Margo Channing said in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

The Saturday Morning Post #45: The Rêves, Part 23

The broadest of daylight

“Your little friends are a couple of real pricks,” Rita was raving at Brenda over the phone. “Complete and total assholes.”

“Why?” Brenda asked, feigning shock and trying not to laugh. “Did they ask too much for the job?”

“No,” Rita snapped back. “They told me, and I quote, ‘You can take that job offer, shove it up your ass via the governor’s, and then you can all go fuck yourselves two-to-the-sixth ways from sideways. That is how much we don’t want your shitty little government job.’ End. Motherfucking. Quote.”

Brenda had to hit the mute button on her phone for a second because she couldn’t help but laugh long and loud. Goddamn, she knew she’d liked those guys from the start.

 “Why do you think it took me a day and a half to call you? I was livid. Did you hear me?” Rita demanded.

Brenda took a couple of deep breaths, then unmuted her phone. “Yes,” she said. “So they don’t want the job?”

“Apparently not,” Rita huffed. “Which means it’s yours, more than ever — ”

“I already told you, I’m not relocating to Sacramento.”

“I know that,” Rita said. “You wouldn’t need to. We’ve done further studies with the state, and L.A. is the hotspot anyway. What else is new? And, I don’t know, maybe you can persuade your friends to do some occasional contract work for you, as a favor?”

“I could try, but I doubt it. Did they tell you the real reason they don’t want the job?”

“I took it that they aren’t big fans of government work.”

“I thought I told you that when I found them, they were working for the feds, so that’s not it,” Brenda explained.

“Then what?”

“They don’t do it for the money. Those guys are richer than shit.”

“I know. I’m the one who told you that. But then what do they do it for?”

“I think it was originally curiosity. But it’s sure not for vengeance, and they may have gotten the idea that that’s the state’s motive for it.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Rita scoffed. “You saw what that storm did down here, across three counties. It’s a combination of vengeance and prevention.”

“They might take the second,” Brenda said. “But I know them enough to say they’d never accept the first.”

“All right, all right. If we keep talking about them, our conversation is going to fail the Bechdel test — ”

“Ooh. Did you just make a meta joke, Rita? I do believe you’re developing a sense of humor.”

“Fuck you, Brenda. Do you want the position or not?”

“Mostly work from home, budgeting is ad hoc, not annual — and guaranteed — my salary is the same as the Lieutenant Governor’s, full benefits — ”

“Hey, hey… you know that I’m only sort of the middleperson here, I can’t promise anything. All I can say is, the need is getting a bit more urgent.”

“What do you mean?” Brenda asked.

“You haven’t kept up with the news today, have you?” Rita replied.

“No, what?” Brenda said, grabbing the remote to turn on the TV, flipping around and not finding any news.

“There were lots of dead celebrities roaming around Hollywood this afternoon, trying to chat up the tourists.”

 “In broad daylight?” Brenda asked.

“In the broadest of daylight,” Rita told her.

“Well… shit.”

“Think about the offer,” Rita continued. “Call me when you’re ready to say ‘Yes.’”

Before she could say anything else, Rita hung up. Brenda wandered out into the living room, dazed, where Jonah was playing some board game with Samuel, Malia, and Esme. He looked up at her and smiled.

“There she is,” he beamed. “Top secret negotiations going on?”

“Something like that,” she replied. “I’d rather be out here, where everyone admits they’re actually playing a game.”

“Well, we’d just finished,” Jonah said, “Because Malia just won. She’s too good at this.”

He gave her a meaningful look but she was already ahead of him, turning to Esme. “Hey, Mama E, isn’t it time for the kids’ evening walk?”

“Of course it is,” Esme said, standing, Malia and Samuel jumping up, excited. She took their hands and headed for the front door. “Let’s see what new adventures there are to be had,” she told them before they exited.

Jonah turned back to Brenda and they just looked into each other’s eyes for a long moment before she hugged him tight.

“I saw what you did there,” she told him.

“What?” he teased her. “I didn’t do nothin’.”

“The hell you didn’t, mister,” she chided him. “And thank you.”

“Yeah, well…” Jonah continued. “I mean, when some freak storm comes along and you’re suddenly afraid that you’re going to lose your entire family, silly little shit doesn’t matter anymore. I was hung up on the ideas that my parents raised me with. But you know what? I don’t see either of them here involved in our kids’ lives like your mom is. All they care about is whether I’m going to drag my kids into their church and, oh, hell no.”

“I love you,” Brenda whispered, kissing his forehead.

“And you know I love you, Bren,” he replied. “I’m sorry it took me so long to pull my head out of my ass and accept the truth, but it’s a beautiful truth. I have one lovely son and two amazing daughters, and the most incredible wife in the world.”

“Flattery still ain’t getting you that Tesla,” Brenda says, playfully slapping his arm.

“No… but is it going to get me a shot at child number four?”

“At our ages?” she replies. “We don’t got time for that shit.”

“Well, we can at least go through the motions,” he tells her suggestively.

“You are such a typical man. Although I’m glad you brought up going through the motions…”

“Oh.” He suddenly lets go of her and steps away, and she swears that all of the blood has drained from his face before she catches herself.

“Oh, no, no, no, honey,” she quickly explains, taking his hands. “Not us. I’m talking about my county job.”

“Oh. That. Damn. Damn, baby, that’s a relief. I thought you were going to — ”

“Shut your mouth and never think that, Jo Jo Dancer. Come on…”

She took his hand and led him into the backyard, which was still a mess, although they had managed to get the porch swing back together and working, even if it now let out a horrible groan with every oscillation.

They sat next to each other, holding hands, her head leaning on his left shoulder as she told him the whole saga — the “ghost” hunters, Rita’s original offer, the storm, how the job offer had escalated to the state level, and where she was at now.

“And I just don’t know what to say,” she concluded. “Take the job? Say ‘no thanks?’”

“Y’all know how I feel about ghosts,” Jonah told her.

“They aren’t necessarily ghosts,” she said. “We don’t know what they are.

“Creepy A-F is what they are.”

“Oh, Rita told me… hang on…” She took out her phone and searched up the local news channel, then found the link to a story: “Hollywood Hauntings?” She clicked it, started the video, and handed the phone to Jonah.

They both watched, and then their jaws dropped. A reporter was doing a stand-up near Hollywood and Highland, and what Rita had said was true. There was a veritable brigade of obviously ghostly celebrities strolling around, engaging with the tourists, some of the apparently dead quite recognizable.

Of course, not everyone thought they were ghosts. Several on-the-street interviewees raved about the special effects, or commented that it must have been some viral marketing scheme and the latest holographic technology, although a couple of people were definitely freaked out.

One woman ranted, “This is what happens when you take Jesus out of the schools. Demons! Hollywood liberal elite demons everywhere!”

The irony was probably lost on her that, right as she said this, John Wayne strolled by and tipped his hat with a, “Mornin’, ma’am” directed at her.

Another passer-by, who identified herself as a curandería who worked at a bodega just off of the Boulevard, also agreed that they were the spirits of the dead, but showed no fear of them. “They just come out earlier than día de los muertos,” she explained. “You be friendly at them, they not hurt you. I see them all the time in the shop.”

The finale of the piece was an interview with Bette Davis, in full-on Margo Channing mode, who assured the reporter that they were all there in peace, in order to join forces with the living humans.

“And what are you joining forces for, Ms. Davis?” the reporter asked.

“Miss Channing,” she corrects him, “And it’s simple. To defeat that bitch Anabel and her allies.”

As she makes a fittingly Channing/Davis exit, the reporter looks at the camera, a little confused, before explaining, “In case you’re wondering, there aren’t any special effects going on here. She looked just as transparent in person as she probably did on camera, and our researchers have assured us that there are absolutely no hologram projection systems in existence that can do this in broad daylight. So… viral stunt? Actual ghosts? Something else? That’s what we’re all wondering. Live from Hollywood and Highland, I’m Casper Muir. Back to you, Belle Drury.”

The anchors proceeded to go to expert interviews, but Jonah just let the phone fall into his lap before staring off into nothing for a long, long moment.

Brenda finally looked up at his face, watched for a bit, then quietly muttered, “Honey?”

“Fuck…” he responded under his breath. “Is this real?”

“Apparently,” she said.

“Take that goddamn job,” he suddenly told her, rather confidently and forcefully.

“Really?” she replied.

“If this shit is going down in Hollywood right now and the state thinks you have the know-how to make it stop? Then, oh hell yes, you are going to tell the governor right now, ‘I accept this fucking job.’ And then you are going to be one hell of a ghost-buster.”

“And what about the attention it brings to you? And my mom — ?”

“Doesn’t matter — ”

“And our kids?”

He hesitated on that, then looked at her. “What do you mean?”

“Public figure, government official. It seems like by definition fifty percent of people are going to hate me, whether or not my position is political — which this one certainly isn’t. But the hater assholes like to go after families…”

“I can deal with it,” Jonah insisted.

“Great. What about Theresa, Samuel, and Malia?”

“Shit,” Jonah replied.

“So, like I said, not an easy question, is it?”

“No,” he sighed. “Of course, you know I do my best thinking after a good — ”

She put a finger over his lips, knowing exactly where he was going. “So do I,” she said. “But how long could that walk with my mom and the kids be?”

“Right…”

They headed back inside to find Esme, Malia, and Samuel in the living room, playing another board game. “Hey,” Jonah announced, “You all want to go to the movies? That new Disney film just came out. You can probably still catch the first evening show.”

All three of them exploded in excitement. Actually going to the movies had been a rare thing the last few years, especially when so many people now had 8K and ultra-high-speed connections at home. And no one liked to think about the long time out.

Jonah pulled his card out of his wallet and handed it to Esme. “Tickets, popcorn, snacks, and all that,” he said. “Oh, and take my car.” He handed her the keys, which she took with a smile and a wink.

The kids ran out to the kitchen and into the garage, Esme trailing behind, turning back before she left to admonish them. “At your age, three is enough! And at my age, two is almost too many! Don’t forget protection,” she called back laughing as she exited, leaving Jonah and Brenda to look at each other, nonplussed.

“I guess it is true,” Brenda finally said.

“What?”

“Moms know everything going on in the house.”

“Do they now?” Jonah asked.

“Oh yeah,” she replied.

“Shit. Then I guess I’m fucked,” he told her.

“Not until you get that big round ass of yours into that bedroom you’re not,” she replied, giving it a good, hard smack.

“Yes, ma’am!” he saluted before running into the master suite, shedding clothes all the way.

Brenda took her time strolling in, thinking all along, “Ah, it’s good to be the queen.”

* * *

Friday Free for all #43: Pineapple, fear, and ethics

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website, although it’s been on hiatus since the Christmas Countdown began. Here, I resume with this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

How do you feel about putting pineapple on pizza?

This one is easy, and all of my friends already know my answer. Pineapple on pizza is a goddamn abomination. The two do not belong together, period. Want to ruin a perfectly good pizza? Throw some of that squishy, pulpy, bitter tropical shit on it.

Of course, it is also my firm belief that California Pizza Kitchen in fact does not serve anything resembling a pizza in any way, shape or form. And as for that Chicago deep-dish shit? Yeah, no. That’s not a pizza. That’s a casserole.

Thin crust, slathered with tomato-based sauce, then pile on the mozzarella, and top it with any combination of pepperoni, sausage, garlic, bell peppers, onions, ground beef, extra cheese (but only mozzarella, provolone, parmesan, or Romano) or olives.

Besides pineapple, all y’all can keep away your damn pineapple, Canadian bacon, and anchovies. Those do not belong on proper pizza either.

My god. The violence done to Za in this country is astounding. Just because you pile a bunch of shit on a flat, round piece of dough doesn’t make it pizza. Learn it. Love it.

What weird childhood fear do you still kind of hold on to?

I don’t hold onto it that strongly anymore, but there are still times when I can have an unintended physical reaction to the stimulus. But… for as long as I could remember until I was about nine years old, skeletons in general and skulls in particular just freaked me out.

Just looking at a picture of one, whether it was a photo of an actual skull, a fairly accurate drawing of one, or even a cartoon, would send chills all up and down my body, and I had to just look away.

The way I got over it at nine was actually rather inspired of me, although I have no idea where that inspiration came from. All I remember was that I was falling asleep and those hypnagogic hallucinations were kicking in.

You know those. It’s when you’re just starting to fall asleep but you aren’t quiet, and the movie theatre on the back of your eyelids starts dishing up random patterns of light and color.

Well, this one particular night, a couple of those blobs suddenly turned into a pair of skulls that started heading for me, and for some reason instead of freaking out about it, in my mind, I stuck my tongue out at them.

They both screamed and fled, and that killed the fear.

By the way, as a grown-ass adult years later, writing about that memory did make my entire head tingle, which is why I say I’m not totally over it, but I can still have a goose-bump reaction to the image. I just don’t experience visceral fear about it anymore.

The really interesting part is the basis of the fear, and I did not learn how it probably came about until many, many years later, when I was definitely a grown-ass adult.

Apparently when I was about three years old, my dad still had partial custody of one of my half-brothers from his first marriage. This would be the one who was still under 18 when I was that age. (The other two were already adults.)

So, as I eventually learned, one day, this half-brother, who was a tween at the time, thought that it would be funny to shove my infant ass into a bedroom closet, toss in a glow-in-the dark skull-shaped Halloween basket, then shut the door and sit in front of it.

I have absolutely no memory of this incident. But, obviously, it imprinted on my subconscious, and so this weird fear was born.

For the record, as adults, I love my half-bro very much, and I have zero resentment over the incident. So there’s always that.

If you can save another’s life and don’t because doing so would break the law, are you ethically justified in your decision?

And so we get to this installment’s really heavy question, mainly because I have to figure out a context in which it would break the law to save someone’s life with some possible ethical justification, because if I can justify doing it, it makes it hard to justify not doing it, right?

Obvious non-starters are things like busting into the death chamber and using violence to prevent a legally sanctioned execution. That would clearly be wrong and have no ethical justification. So yeah, in this case, you are ethically justified in not saving another’s life.

Now let’s get a little muddier. You’re just hanging out, minding your own business, when an altercation breaks out. And it becomes immediately obvious to you that some white guy is trying to pull some uber-Zimmerman “stand your ground” bullshit over a young black kid.

White dude has a gun pointed at the kid’s head and is both agitated and clearly ready to shoot. Meanwhile, there happens to be a very convenient and heavy stanchion right next to you that could shut up gun-boy forever and instantly.

Murder him with that and you save a life, although it’s technically homicide. Your choice?

Personally, in that situation, my choice would always be “break the fucking law if possible if it will save an innocent life.” So, yeah, I’m a pacifist, but I’d also have no problem splattering a racist’s “brains” all over the place.

Now here’s the next-level version. Same situation of innocent kid and armed racist asshole, except… that armed racist asshole is a cop.

And why does it get messy? Because, in this case, if you break the law to save a life you may also wind up losing your own. I mean, how many other cops are there watching, all with their guns drawn and with a hard-on for shooting someone?

So, in this case, I think I’d be ethically justified in not killing the cop but, instead, getting video of the whole damn thing, telling my version of the story to the media, and being a witness for the defense for the murder victim, e.g. the innocent kid who got shot in the street.

Theatre Thursday: So much for stage fright

The one thing I miss most of all during these strange days, other than hanging out with friends, is being able to go on stage and perform. I know that it’s something that a lot of people wouldn’t miss because they’d never do it in the first place, but I’m feeling the loss, and so are my many actor and improviser friends.
Studies seem to show that the one thing people fear the most, beyond death and spiders, is public speaking… and I just don’t get it. Then again, I’m a performer. Put me on a stage, give me an audience, and I am on. And it doesn’t matter whether I have pre-planned words to speak, like doing a play or giving a speech, or whether I’m totally winging it by doing improv.
To me, an audience is an invitation to entertain.
On top of that, to me, the more the merrier. I’ll take an audience of hundreds over an audience of dozens or fewer any day. The energy of a large house is infectious, and whenever I’m with a cast that’s in front of a big crowd, we all can feel it in each other’s performances. The intensity level and connections between us all go way up.
And it’s not an ego thing. It’s not about “Oh, look at ussssss!” It’s the people on stage thinking, “Look at them.”
We can see and hear you out there, and speaking for myself, if I’m doing comedy, there’s nothing I appreciate more than hearing a good laugh. If I’m doing drama, then there’s nothing more satisfying than the silent intensity of dozens or hundreds of captive eyes and minds.
Every time I go onstage, I have to wonder why anyone would fear doing it. Because here’s a simple truth that performers just know but which muggles might miss: The people watching you in the audience are a lot more afraid than you are.
Why is this? Two reasons. The first is that the audience gets to sit in the dark and be anonymous, while the performer doesn’t. You’d think that this would put the performer on the spot, but it’s quite the opposite. In fact, being in the spotlight gives the performers all of the power — and if you’ve ever been in the house of a large professional theater with a name actor onstage when someone’s cell phone rings audibly, or people are taking pictures, you’re seen this power being used with a vengeance.
This touches on the other reason for the fear: That an audience member is going to wind up being forced to participate somehow — that’s been a hazard of modern theatre ever since Bertolt Brecht broke the fourth wall, if not even earlier. Audiences can get spooked when the actors notice them and interact with them.
I’ve seen it as an audience member most obviously when I went to a production of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, which is a piece of environmental theatre first created in the 90s that casts the audience as the wedding guests. (A modern example of the form: escape rooms.) The audience starts out just sitting in the chairs under the outdoor tent for the ceremony, which is not without its family drama, although this part plays out a little bit more like a traditional play.
It’s when everyone moves inside to the banquet hall for the reception that things get interesting. Well, at least the cast tries to make them so. The audience is seated at various tables, with one or more actors planted at each. Now, I have to assume that each table had a similar set-up facilitated by a different family member. At ours, the Tina’s mother came over to tell us that Tina’s ex had come to the wedding uninvited, but that was okay. He was fine as long as he didn’t drink, so she was putting him at our table and asked us to make sure that he didn’t.
I wound up sitting next to the actor, and I sure played my part, making sure to vanish his champagne and wine glasses before he could get to them, but not only was no one else playing along, they weren’t even interacting with him. Now, I’m sure the inevitable arc for that actor is to figure out how to get “smashed” no matter what, and the character gets really inappropriate later on, but nobody at my table was trying, and I’m sure it was true at others.
I finally got to the point of abandoning my table and chatting with anyone who seemed to be a player, and damn was that fascinating — not to mention that they seemed grateful as hell that somebody was interacting with the character they’d bothered to create. I learned all kinds of things about what was going on, family dirt, some of the Italian wedding traditions, and so forth.
That’s what you have to do as an audience member when you go to environmental theatre. That’s the contract! So if you’re not into it, don’t go see those kinds of shows.
On the other hand, I’ve seen it from an actor’s POV more than a few times, and in shows that were not necessarily advertised as environmental theatre, or were not even announced as happening beforehand. In those cases, I can understand the audience discomfort. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t fun to put them through it, at least in those situations.
Those situations have also been some of my favorite show memories, though. I was in a production of an Elaine May play, Adaptation, that posits life as a game show with a large ensemble cast. I think that only the host and star of the show-within-the-show played one character. The rest of us played a ton and our “offstage” was sitting in the audience, meaning that we had plenty of asides delivered directly to whomever we wound up sitting next to between scenes. Or, sometimes, we’d turn around and deliver the line to the people behind us or lean forward and deliver it to the people in front of us, which startled the hell out of them.
I also performed in a series of Flash Theatre performances done all over Los Angeles over the course of an entire year and staged by Playwrights Arena, and a lot of those involved interacting directly with our audience, which were a combination of people who knew about it beforehand and (mostly) whichever random folk were in the area when it happened. That is perhaps the most immediate and real fourth wall breaking because there was never a fourth wall in the first place. Or, rather, the audience is inside of it with the cast, even if everyone is outside, and a lot of the shows were. It’s the ultimate environmental theatre, staged with no warning and no invitation.
Even when the play wasn’t designed to break the fourth wall, a director’s staging can make it happen, and I had that experience in a production of Tennessee Williams‘s Camino Real, where I basically played Mexican Jesus.
It’s one hot mess of a show that only ran sixty performances originally in 1955, when Williams was at the height of his powers, and I can say for certain that while it’s really fun for the actors to do, I felt sorry for every single audience we did it for. And I am really curious to see what Ethan Hawke manages with his planned film version of it. Maybe that medium will save it, maybe not.
But… our big fourth wall break came when the actress playing my mother (aka “Thinly Veiled Virgin M”) held the “dead” hero in her lap, Pietà style (while I was secretly getting a workout using my right arm to hold up his unsupported shoulders under the cover of the American flag he was draped in), and during her monologue, which was a good three or four minutes, every actor onstage except Mom and “dead” hero (there were 26 of us, I think) started by locking eyes with somebody in the audience house left and then, over the course of the speech, very, very slowly turning our heads, making eye contact with a different audience member and then a still different one, until, by the end of the speech, we were all looking house right.
Ideally, the turning of our heads should have been imperceptible, but our eye contact should have become obvious as soon as the target noticed. I should also mention that since I was down center sitting on the edge of the stage, the nearest audience member to me was about four feet away — and I was wearing some pretty intense black and silver makeup around my eyes, which made them really stand out.
Good times!
I’m glad to say that what I’m doing now — improv with ComedySportz L.A.’s Rec League — is designed to never make the audience uncomfortable, so that no one is forced to participate in any way. And that’s just as fun for us on stage, really, because the participation we get via suggestions and audience volunteers is sincere and enthusiastic. And if our outside audience happens to be too quiet or reticent during a show, we always have the Rec League members who aren’t playing that night as convenient plants who will take up the slack after a decent pause to allow for legitimate suggestions.
Yeah, I won’t lie. I definitely enjoyed those times when I got to screw with audiences. But I enjoy it just as much when we go out of our way to bring the audience onto our side by making them feel safe. I never have anything to be afraid of when I step on stage. I’d love to make our audiences realize that they don’t either.
Image by Image by Mohamed Hassan via mohamed Hassan from Pixaby.

Research everything, believe nothing

This will probably surprise no one who reads this blog regularly, but most of my fiction writing falls into one of two categories: stories based on real people or true events, and hard science fiction. I’m also a big fan of both historical and scientific accuracy, so I’ve developed the habit of fact-checking and researching the crap out of my fictional work.

It may not matter to a lot of people, of course, but if I see a glaring anachronism in a supposedly historically-based film or watch as they pull the magic element of Madeitupium out as a plot device in order to defy the laws of physics, then I will get pulled right out of the story.

A good case in point is the ridiculous dance scene in The Favourite. And it’s not just because the choreography on display would never have happened in the time period — the music is all wrong, too, in terms of instrumentation as well as certain chord progressions that wouldn’t have happened at the time, on top of not following the rigid rules of Baroque music of the era. But the even more egregious error in the film is that a central plot point is based on a bit of libel that was spread about Queen Anne to discredit her, but which is not true. If you want to learn more, it’s in this link, but spoilers, sweetie, as River Song would say. (By the way, apparently the costumes weren’t all that accurate, either.)

On the science fiction side, something like the finale of the 2009 Star Trek reboot just has me laughing my ass off  because almost everything about it is wrong for so many reasons in a franchise that otherwise at least tries to get the science right. Note: I’m also a huge Star Wars nerd, but I’m very forgiving of any science being ignored there because these were never anything other than fantasy films. It’s the same thing with Harry Potter. I’m not going to fault the science there, because no one ever claimed that any existed. Although some of the rules of magic seem to have become a bit… stretchy over the years.

But… where do I start with what that Star Trek film got wrong? The idea of “red matter” is a good place to begin. Sorry, but what does that even mean? There is only one element that is naturally red, and that’s bromine. Other elements might be mined from red-colored ore, like mercury is from cinnabar, but otherwise, nope. So far when it comes to matter, we have demonstrated five and postulated six forms: Bose-Einstein condensate, which is what happens when matter gets so cold that a bunch of atoms basically fuse into one super nucleus within an electron cloud; solid, which you’re probably pretty familiar with; liquid, see above; gas, ditto; and plasma, which is a gas that is so hot that it ionizes or basically becomes the opposite of the coldest form, with a cloud of super-electrons surrounding a very jittery bunch of spread-out nuclei. The one form we have postulated but haven’t found yet is dark matter, which is designed to explain certain observations we’ve made about gravitational effects within and between galaxies.

(There are actually a lot more forms of matter than these, but you can go read about them yourself if you’re interested.)

Which brings me to the other gigantic and egregious cock-up from the Star Trek film. This supposed “red matter” is able to turn anything into a black hole. It does it to a planet early in the film, and to a spaceship near the end. Okay, so that means that “red matter” is incredibly dense with a strong gravitational pull, but if that’s the case, then a neutron star could accomplish the same, sort of. It’s one step above a black hole — an object that is so compressed by gravity that it is basically a ball of solid neutrons with a cloud of electrons quivering all through and around it. Neutrons are one of two particles found in the nucleus of atoms, the other being protons. It’s just that the gravitational pressure at this point is so strong that it mushes all of the protons together enough to turn them into neutrons, too.

But the only way you’re going to turn a neutron star into a black hole is to slam it into another neutron star. Throw it against a planet or a spaceship, and all you’ll wind up with is a very flat and radioactive object that was not previously a neutron star.

That’s still not the most egregious error, though. The film subscribes to the “black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners” myth, and that’s just not true at all. Here’s a question for you: What would happen to all of the planets in our solar system if the sun suddenly turned into a black hole?

  1. They’d all get sucked in.
  2. They’d all stay where they were.

Bad science in movies tells us that “A” is the answer, but nope. If the sun turned into a black hole right this second, all of the planets would remain in orbit because the gravitational attraction of the sun wouldn’t change. Well, not quite true. If anything, it might lessen slightly because of the mass given up as energy in the creation of the black hole. So, if anything, the planets might start to creep into slightly more distant orbits.

The real negative effect wouldn’t be the black hole per se. Rather, it would be the sudden loss of thermal energy, which would turn all of the planets into balls of ice, along with the possible and likely blast of high-power radiation that would explode from the sun’s equator and generally cut a swath through most of the plane in which all of the planets orbit.

Or, in other words, we wouldn’t get sucked into the black hole. Rather, our planet and all the others would probably be scrubbed of most or all life by the burst of gamma and X-rays that would be the birthing burp of the new black hole at the center of the solar system. After that, within a few months or years, our planet would be as cold and desolate as Pluto and all the other dwarf planets way out in the sticks. Even Mercury would be too cold to host life. Give it a couple million years, and who knows how far out the planets and moons and asteroids and comets would have drifted.

Why is this? Because nature is big on conserving things, one of them being force. Now, not all forces are conservative — and, in science, that word just means “keeping things the same.” (Okay, in politics, too.) You might be familiar with the concept that energy cannot be created or destroyed, which is a sort of general start on the matter, but also an over-simplification because — surprise, energy is a non-conservative force.

Then there’s gravity and momentum, and both of those are incredibly conservative forces. And, oddly enough, one of the things that gravity creates is momentum. To put it in naïve terms, if you’re swinging a ball on a string, the path that ball follows is the momentum. The string is gravity. But the two are connected, and this is what we call a vector. Gravity pulls one way, momentum moves another, and the relationship between the two defines the path the ball follows.

Because gravity is an attractive force, increasing it shortens the string. But since the momentum remains the same, shortening the string reduces the circumference that the ball follows. And if the ball is covering a shorter path in the same time, this means that it’s moving more slowly.

A really dumbed-down version (so I can understand it too!) is this: if G is the force of gravity and p is the momentum of the ball, and G is a constant but p is conserved once given, then the only factor that makes any difference is distance, i.e. the length of the string.

Ooh. Guess what? This is exactly what Newton came up with when he postulated his universal law of gravitation — and he has not yet been proven wrong. So if your planet starts out one Astronomical Unit away from the Sun, which weighs one solar mass, and is moving in orbit at rate X counterclockwise around the Sun, when said star foops into a black hole its mass, and hence its gravitational attraction doesn’t change (beyond mass loss due to conversion to energy), and ergo… nope. You’re not getting sucked in.

Oh. Forgot that other often confused bit. Conservation of energy. Yes, that’s a thing, but the one big thing it does not mean is that we have some kind of eternal souls or life forces or whatever, because energy is not information. Sorry!

The other detail is that most forms of energy are non-conservative, even if energy itself is conserved, and that is because energy can be converted. Ever strike a match? Congrats. You’ve just turned friction into thermal energy. Ever hit the brakes on your car? You’ve just turned friction into kinetic energy — and converted momentum into thermal energy, but don’t tell gravity that!

In case you’re wondering: No, you really can’t turn gravity into energy, you can only use it to produce energy, since no gravity goes away in the process. For example, drop a rock on a seesaw, it’ll launch something into the air, but do nothing to the total gravitational power of Earth. Drop a rock on your foot, and you’ll probably curse up a blue streak. The air molecules launched out of your mouth by your tirade will actually propagate but still fall to ground eventually subject to Earth’s gravity. And, in either case, you had to counteract gravity in order to lift that rock to its starting point, so the net balance when it dropped from A to B was exactly zero.

And it’s rabbit holes and research like this piece that makes me keep doing it for everything, although sometimes I really wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. When it comes to history, there’s a story that an Oscar-winning playwright friend of likes to mine tell and that I like to share. He wrote a play about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a group of  Japanese-Americans in WWII who were given a choice: Go fight for America in Europe, or go to our concentration camps. (Funny, none of my German ancestors were ever faced with the decision, “Go fight for America in Asia, or go to your concentration camps. Grrrr. But I do digress.)

Anyway… after one of the developmental readings of this play, he told me about a conversation he’d overheard from a couple of college kids in the lobby during intermission (this being about a decade ago): “Why were there American soldiers in Italy in World War II?”

And this is exactly why it is as important as hell to keep the history (and science) accurate. And these are things we need to fight for. Care about your kids? Your grandkids? Then here you go. Language. Science. The Arts. History. Life Skills. Politics. Sex Ed. This is what we need to be teaching our kids, with a healthy dose of, “Yeah, we’re kind of trying, but if you see the cracks in our façades, then please jump on, because it’s the only way your eldies will ever learn either.”

So… free education here. Questions accepted. No tuition charged. And if you want the media you’re eating up corrected, just ask.

Image: Doubting Thomas by Guercino (1591 – 1666), public domain.

The Baroque Era: It’s all about the rules

The first musical style of the modern era was Renaissance, and you’ve heard imitations of it if you’ve ever seen a movie set between 1400 and 1600 — lots of lutes, pipes, and very dry-sounding drums, with the melodies usually in a minor key and odd lyrics that don’t really rhyme.

It did represent the beginnings of music moving further away from strictly religious use, although there had certainly been secular music at the time.

I’ll get to it in the section on Modern Classical music, but Carl Orff did write several suites based on 13th Century secular music, and one of the most famous bits of them, O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, gets used over and over in film and TV, often for dramatic effect, but just as often for satire.

While there were a number of Renaissance composers, I’ll be skipping over them and heading to the next musical period, which was Baroque, spanning the years 1600 to 1750. But “baroque,” which comes from a Portuguese word meaning oddly-shaped pearl, also applies to architecture and art.

The common factor to all three, though, is a certain degree of intricacy combined with regularity.

When it came to the music, the regularity was particularly strict, which is one of the reasons that I’m not a huge fan of the style. It can get repetitive and boring fast.

Symphonies did not yet exist, so composers created things like concertos, cantatas (song cycles), and operas and oratorios. But each of these was created from a collection of movements, and each movement followed very specific rules.

The composer would begin by introducing a simple melody. This would repeat twice, the second time leading to a brief transitional melody. Then, it was time for the second melody, or theme, which would be related to but contrast the first.

For example, if a piece is in a particular Major key, then the B theme might be in the relative minor. So, for a piece in G Major, the B theme might be in E minor. It repeats twice and then does its own transition back to the first theme.

Lather, rinse, repeat for both A and B.

Okay, that’s your audience ear-training. Next up: the variations, but, again the rules are strict. This isn’t jazz, so your performers can’t just start riffing. Rather, you can provide one of a few rigid transformations on the original melody.

For example, you can invert it. What this means is that you reverse the direction the notes move, starting from the first one. If you’re writing in G Major and your first measure was originally G-B-D-C-E, which is two steps up, two steps up, one step down, and two steps up, then you just change up to down.

The inverted version would be G-E-C-D-F#. And so on.

You can also reverse the theme, in which case you basically write the notes out in the reverse order. In that variation, the theme above would end with E-C-D-B-G.

You can transpose, which means moving the notes up or down. Moving the notes of a melody up or down a third often works well. In the case of our example, G-B-D-C-E would become either B-D-F#-E-G or E-G-B-A-C.

It’s not just note order, either. You can vary the tempo — for example, make the melody twice as fast or half as fast by altering the value of the notes. You can even do a rondo, which you already know if you’ve ever sung “Row, row, row your boat” with each group of singers beginning after the first refrain is sung.

Introduce variation, repeat, transition, do likewise for the B theme, and then… stack ‘em on top of each other and if you’ve done it right, you should get a very intricate layering that all manages to work together, mainly because it was created from the same two melodies and following a few specific rules.

Finally, bring it back into the station by repeating your original unadorned themes and adding a finale, quite often of the “repeat that riff eight times until it lands” type that has become a trope all its own.

This all works because music is just math, and the formulas for doing Baroque were well thought out. But, again, it makes the music formulaic. In fact, you could create an entire Baroque symphonic movement by computer by just writing the first two melodies and then letting the rules do the rest.

Hell, you could probably even get a computer to write the first two themes as well.

The formulaic nature also must have made it easy to write Baroque music, because the composers of the time were ridiculously prolific.

Georg Frideric Handel wrote a ton of works — nearly 200 compositions in total, and yes, you probably know one of them. That would be his oratorio Messiah, and if you don’t know the whole work, you definitely know the Hallelujah Chorus.

Vivaldi topped Handel with at least 820 catalogued works in his lifetime. He’s best known for his Four Seasons, and if you were to hear a snippet of any one of the four movements right now, you would recognize it instantly.

But J.S. Bach put them all to shame, composing 1,128 pieces in the 65 years of his life — although the actual catalog may go higher than that, with up to 1,175 entries.

So yes, all very prolific, but you have to remember one thing: live music of that era was basically the social media of the day. Other than books and live theatre, there wasn’t much else going on. The composers sponsored by the royalty of the day were the influencers, and they set the tone and style.

So if you think about it, it’s not that weird that Bach or any other composer could write that many things in their lifetime because, a) what else was there to do? And b) how many YouTube, Insta, or TikTok videos does the average influencer post in a typical year?

It adds up. And when you’ve been given musical rules that make it pretty much as easy as making and uploading a video to social media (and you have interns who can follow your instructions and write out those variations and create the written scores), then the job is probably a lot easier than it looks.

There were hundreds of Baroque-era composers, if not thousands. Very few are remembered now. And that’s probably an object lesson for today’s influencers. Many of you exist, few will be long remembered.

As for the rigidity of Baroque music, that lives with us to this day. It’s the secret behind every pop song that’s been on the radio since at least the 1950s. But that’s a tune for another day.

Image source: Johann Sebastian Bach in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, second version of his 1746 canvas. Public domain work.

How to create a conspiracy theory

The human mind has a great capacity for pattern recognition. It’s hard wired into us because, at the time that we were a prey animal, it was very useful to be able to recognize a lurking predator, whether it was really there or not.

It also taught us to recognize human faces, and to this day, more likely than not, if you see a pattern of two circles or dots (“eyes”) somewhere above a curve, line, or circle (“mouth”) you will see a face. Sometimes, there may even be a vertical line making up the nose.

This is the entire basis of all the text-based smiley face emoticons that preceded modern, more literal emojis.

The phenomenon is called pareidolia, and it covers more than just seeing faces. Jesus on toast, animals in the clouds, the face (or rabbit) on the Moon are all examples of this.

But humans don’t just see visual patterns. They are good at connecting dots that are not there as well. We have a tendency to create meaningful patterns from random data.

Sometimes, it can be harmless, like noticing that you always hear your neighbor leave their apartment around six in the evening, then only hear them come back after two in the morning when you’re up late on weekends, so assume that they’re a server or bartender. They also only seem to go out during the day on Mondays, the same day they never go out at night.

You could have nailed it completely, or you could be right in general and wrong in specifics — for example, they work the swing-shift in retail, or they’re on-staff at a theatre either backstage or in the house.

Yes, these are all pre-COVID assumptions. But the point is, in this case, if you create a pattern from random data, it doesn’t really hurt anyone. Well, at least not until you start to assume darker things about your neighbor and then start to intentionally gather data to “prove”  that they are involved in something really shady.

When someone goes too far in seeing those meaningful patterns in random data, they go off into full-on conspiracy theories, all of which are quite unhinged. Some are perennial and have been around forever. Others are uniquely 2020.

So, how does it happen that people can wind up believing conspiracy theories? As noted in one of the links above, it comes down to three things: A need for understanding and consistency, a need for control, and a need to belong or feel special.

“I can’t comprehend this thing, so I want to control the situation, and by saying I understand, I feel special or that I’m part of a like-minded group.”

Let’s make up a conspiracy right now! Not that none of this is intended to be taken seriously. Rather, it’s just my effort to walk you through the mental gymnastics that a typical creator of conspiracies goes through. Ready? Let’s begin.

I’ll start with today’s date: 01/11. It doesn’t look like much, but if you take 0111 in binary and convert it to decimal, you get 7. And if you take the British style date, 1101, converting it to decimal gives you 13.

Hm. Two prime numbers that also happen to be very important in all matters religious and occult. Now let’s look at three particular years, and how their digits add up:

1755: 8+10 = 18; 1+8 = 9

1906: 10+6 = 16; 1+6 = 7

1930: 10+3 = 13; 1+3 = 4

So we find a 7 and a thirteen in there again, and the two leftovers are also important numbers in mathematics, but what do you get when you add 9 and 4? That’s right. 13 again!

Ooh. What’s going on? Well, here’s the really interesting part. Those three years above, when combined with January 11, are the birthdates of these three people, in order: Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founders of the U.S. and musical subject; Albert Hofmann, chemist and discoverer of LSD; and Rod Taylor, actor most known for appearing in the original film version of The Time Machine.

Now, besides the birthdays, the connection between the two Als should be obvious: They have the same initials, AH. A is the 1st letter of the alphabet, while H is the 8th. Add that up and you get… 9 again. And counting the syllables, “Alexander Hamilton” has 7, while “Albert Hofmann” has 4.

So there’s another 974 hiding in plain sight.

Now where I’m going with this is how the musical Hamilton came to be created, and I believe it was because Lin-Manuel Miranda is actually a front for an ancient Hamiltonian conspiracy. And we get that by adding one more date to the list.

January 16, 1980. This is the day that Miranda was allegedly born, and I say allegedly because I’ve never seen his birth certificate, so it could be one of two things. He was also actually born on the 11th, but that would have been too big of a giveaway, so it was officially changed.

Or… he was actually born on the 16th via induced labor with the intention of making his birthday come 5 days after the others, and 5 is a sacred number to (wait for it) the Illuminati.

Hamilton would have been very familiar with them, if not a member himself. In fact, George Washington almost certainly was, and some people even think that he was the group’s founder, Adam Weishaupt, in disguise.

Let’s see what shakes out of Miranda’s official birthdate. January 16 gives us 1+16=17, and 1+7=8. Meanwhile, the year gives us 10+8, which is 18, meaning 1+8, for 9.

So we get the 9 again, but a new number, 8, which is considered very lucky in Asia. And if we add 9 and 8, we get 17, which adds up again to 8. This means that Miranda was engineered to be extremely lucky.

But he had to get the idea somehow in the first place, which no doubt came from Hamilton himself. So… how did that happen? Hofmann was the stage-setter, while Taylor’s character functioned as a message to the modern-day Illuminati. Well, at least the ones who were around when Miranda’s future parents were young.

Hofmann’s invention of LSD was key, because it spread into the arts community from the 1940s through mid-60s, at which point it was made illegal but was still very prevalent, and it had one pretty huge effect.

It changed the way people created art and perceived history big time. In fact, “time” is kind of the key. This was the era when stories started to be told out of chronological order, which was almost everything that directors like Nicolas Roeg did.

It was also when people started treating history a lot less reverently, which gave us shows like 1776, which told the story of the founding of America, but through decidedly modern lens.

It was also a time when People of Color started pulling a reverse on the theft of their culture (think Ragtime, Jazz, and Rock, etc.) and started creating their own versions of white classics, The Wiz being just the most prominent, but not only, example.

And none of this would have happened if Hofmann’s wonder drug hadn’t shook things up and shown people how to perceive time and the universe in entirely new ways.

Meanwhile… nearly 20 years before Miranda was born, the Illuminati of 1960 were sent their signal via Rod Taylor in the Time Machine. And how did they do it? Simple. The dates he stops on in the film. Keep in mind that the Hollywood elites who created the movie’s screenplay were no doubt Illuminati, too.

I’ll add the month and day separate from the digits of the year, and then combine both, but it all works out the same.

9/13/1917: 22 + 18 = 4 + 9 = 13 = 4

6/19/1940: 25 + 14 = 7 + 5 = 12 = 3

8/18/1966: 26 + 22 = 8 + 4 = 12 = 3

10/12/802701:  22 + 18 = 4 + 9 = 13

And let’s look at that 1940 date in particular, because it’s nearly 40 years before Miranda was born, which was about 40 years ago now. Hm. Interesting symmetry, eh? So maybe this is another Illuminati message.

Hm. 1940 gives us 5 if we add up the digits. 1980 gives us 9. Put those together, and it adds up to 14, which comes back to 5, which all points back to both the Illuminati in the past and Miranda in the future.

And how did we get from one to the other? Well, artsy folk weren’t the only one who took acid in the 60s. Plenty of scientists did, and a lot of their projects from the 60s to the 80s were off the hook.

I mean, come on — we put people on the moon, we created the internet, we created the basis for GPS and cell phones and, well, pretty much modern life now, and all that heavy pipe was laid from the 60s onward.

So don’t you think that somewhere in there a heavily insulated cabal wasn’t able to create time travel and keep it secret?

Then, at some point after 1999, the Illuminati hooked up with the brilliant creator of In the Heights, brought him back in time to meet the actual Alexander Hamilton, and this was the point when Lin-Manuel Miranda suddenly realized, “Holy crap, this dude was born in St. Kitts and Nevis, and he is clearly not white, despite the paintings, so I am going to write this thing.”

And there is your fake conspiracy theory, which I don’t believe for a second. But… keep this in mind because far too many people go through this many backflips in order to justify their pet theories.

You can make numbers do anything, really, depending on how you manipulate them. For example, notice how many numbers I ignored because they weren’t convenient, and how I’d add extra steps to get a new number that was.

Also, like a lot of conspiracy theories, I built this one backwards. I was looking for a famous person born on this day in history to profile but when I saw the combination of those three, it just hit me as a funny idea to try to figure out how Hofmann’s invention of LSD might have led to Miranda writing Hamilton, with working Taylor in there just a bonus.

It’s easy to “prove” a conspiracy theory if you design it to fit what you already believe, after all.

The saddest part is how hard it is to pry these painfully stupid ideas out of the heads or hardcore believers. And I‘m not sure that this is even possible yet. Sigh.

Image Source: bust of Alexander Hamilton by Ethan Taliesin, (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons