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

Sunday nibble #45

Keep in mind that I try to keep my post-writing a week or two ahead of the dates they go live, so for all I know everything could have gone downhill in the past week, given events from last weekend, which is when I’m writing this.

The Sunday Nibble is back from hiatus, which began with my Christmas Countdown, and the last installment was the eighth and last in a series of short pieces I’d originally written with the intention of publishing them on a friend’s website, The Flushed.

The series title was “A short guide to knowing your shit,” and it fit right in with The Flushed, which is about all things having to do with the bathroom — although the title they would have gotten used the word “poop” instead, because they’re more PG-13. But the series never ran there.

However… I am now also guest-blogging four times a month over at Paw.com, a site all about pets, mostly of the canine and feline variety. I wound up with this job because I used to write for “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan’s ecommerce website, and one of my former co-workers there recently became Creative Director for a company that does content creation for various client sites.

He contacted me almost immediately to offer the gig, and how could I say no? It was a natural fit. Check them out, and yes, they do sell stuff, specializing in beds, blankets, and other pet-friendly products.

So yes, it’s another case of “it’s who you know,” but Creative Directors are good people for artists and writers to know in general, since they tend to have a lot of clout within their organizations. And, being Creative Directors, they hire us — the creatives.

Also, from time-to-time, I’ll still post the random movie review to a site called Filmmonthly.com, which I founded two decades ago with a pair of fellow film-lovers, one of whom was the other roommate during the tenure of the very bizarre Strauss, about whom I wrote on Friday, and the other was the roommate who took over when Strauss abruptly departed — the one whose cousin accidentally torched their kitchen with a toaster oven.

We ran the thing for a good while, and all three of us were the publishers, racking up a ton of reviews. Eventually, we all stepped back and turned it over to the next generation, although for a long time our prior work was there — until one of the people trusted with the site at some point muffed up and wound up losing a lot of the older files forever.

Things that make you go “Grrrrr.” Unfortunately, if you search my name and filmmonthly, you’ll get a ton of hits because, as publisher, my name was on every page. Most of them will not be my work.

But I did recently review a low-budget adaptation of the King Arthur story that surprisingly did not suck, so there’s that. There was also a fun little indie comedy about incest, Call Me Brother, that I also liked and reviewed.

I’ll share another secret with you. The Christmas and New Year Countdowns are my way of giving myself a vacation. I program everything to publish automatically before Thanksgiving arrives, and then on the Friday after, boom. I don’t need to write or post anything for over a month.

This works out great IRL, because this also coincides with the frantic tail-end of my busy season at work, which pretty much entails seven-day weeks and ten hour days from October 15 to December 7. Every. Single. Year.

The only exception, of course, is when the Out of the Blue Oxford Boys drop their charity single for the current year. That always gets its own special post, because they and what they do are both very special.

Which is to say that, looking back at 2020, I’m kind of amazed that I managed to post something every single day when there were many days that I felt no motivation — and I think that’s true of a lot of us who lived through lockdown.

Kind of ironic, really. All the time in the world to write, but it was hard to get motivated. Except… it did give me time to focus in on The Rêves, which I started serializing here weekly back in July, long before I actually finished it.

And now it’s 2021, and it feels like we’re going to have a new beginning, maybe, but it won’t be soon and it won’t be fast. What it will probably be is the final general realization that if we want to fight this thing, we do have to take it seriously and sacrifice.

It may not seem like it, but “sacrifice” is something that Americans can be good at when they actually do it, and when they’re not being cheer-led on by greedy, selfish leaders.

Nobody really complained when security tightened up after 9/11 and it seemed like it took an anal probe and two blood samples to get into any government building. No one complained back when they could only buy gas on days based on their license plate number.

No one complained when everything was rationed during WW II. And on, and on.

Now, I don’t know what percentage of people who voted for a certain losing presidential candidate last year are also staunch anti-maskers, but I can give you these numbers. Out of the total U.S. population, only 23% voted for the outgoing incumbent. But if we cut that number down to “all people eligible to vote,” whether they do or not, then it’s 38%.

The other candidate got 25% of the total population, and 42% of all people eligible to vote, although based on the actual vote count, it came out as 52% to 48%.

Or, in other words, for the politically engaged, a divided world, but if you look at the total population, one thing stands out. The selfish people fall to around one-fifth of the population.

And that is very hopeful, because there are more of us who can be good Americans and sacrifice, whether we vote or not (and why the hell don’t you, if you’re eligible?) than there are greedy Americans who want to burn it all down.

So… for every Karen, there are four Americans willing to stand up to her shit. And that is how we are going to turn it around in 2021, albeit slowly, and finally see normalcy return in 2022.

Simply put, there are still more Americans willing to do the right thing. We’re just not as vocal or visible as the selfish ones who like to kick and scream like infants to get their way. But their tantrum will end soon, once they’ve woken up to reality. If they ever do.

Okay, it’s another Sunday Nibble turned into a full buffet, but that’s okay. It feels like I’m coming out of hibernation, so there’s a lot on my mind.

The Saturday Morning Post #44: The Rêves, Part 22

Escape to which mountain

Ausmann had been mulling over the document in the Operation Ghost Toast for most of the three days he’d been down here. He didn’t have access to the unredacted version, but the order had been put out after they were all aware of these abominable ghosts.

This probably meant that turning the machine off would do something even worse, like make them permanent. Or more powerful.

He also knew that there wasn’t a simple “Off” switch on the thing, and that it was hooked up to so many redundant power supplies that it would take an apocalypse worse than anything actually turning it off could do in order to shut it down.

But the machine had to be the key to sending these things back to where they came from, permanently, and erasing them from the human world. His hunters, Joshua and Simon, had shown that they were subject to the laws of physics, after all. Well, some of them.

During the brief time he had interviewed Anabel, she had hinted that the Rêves did have rules, and possibly vulnerabilities, although she had refused to reveal any. Maybe they knew what could destroy them, and what turning off the machine would do.

But how to get the information? He wondered whether it was common knowledge among them, then decided that it must be. That’s what communities of beings did — educated new members on what was safe and what wasn’t. The trick was finding someone who would spill their guts and who’d been dead long enough to have learned everything.

He thought about this for a long time before he realized that famous Rêves always appeared in character, and he wondered if they were stuck in them somehow. If that were the case, then he just had to pick a dead celebrity famous for playing cowardly, sell-out characters, get them in the lab and scare the hell out of them.

He was laughing to himself at his brilliance when there was a ding and he looked up at the monitors showing the security cameras outside.

There seemed to be a police presence, although he knew it couldn’t be the Simi Valley PD, since JPL was not only in a different county, but even a city beyond — it was outside of the jurisdictions of both Ventura County and the LAPD in the city of Los Angeles.

Of course, technically, it was outside of the jurisdiction of the Pasadena PD as well, but that’s who these two officers seemed to be, so he relaxed, knowing that there was no way they had been able to get any kind of warrant that would break down these doors.

Then he felt a sudden weird wave of vertigo and started seeing double for a moment. He rubbed his eyes and sat back down until he didn’t feel dizzy, then looked at the monitor again to see that the uniforms poking around outside the guard station were all Federal Marshals.

There were six of them, very armed, accompanied by a pair of nervous-looking campus police. He couldn’t hear the conversation. He could only see that they tried the door before peering through the windows into the empty and semi-darkened guard station.

They stood around outside talking and taking notes, occasionally speaking into their radios. It couldn’t be about his wife, he told himself. At least not about her murder. They must have been looking for him to tell him she’d died, in which case they’d have bought his alibi, meaning he had no reason to worry.

But… why send out this kind of force just to tell him, “We regret to inform you…” No. This had “pending arrest” written all over it. The only things saving him at the moment were the lack of authorized guards up top and the level of security clearance required to enter — something he doubted that any of these feds had.

Still… they’d found his den, and that was not good.

Ausmann had a habit of always listening to the most paranoid part of his mind, which had always served him well. He had to assume the worst. Those assholes on the Simi PD had decided that he’d murdered his wife and had put the word out…

And all they could muster were the two Pasadena PD, most likely rookie and first year officer who would write up a lengthy report summarizing nothing. But he kept going over the back and forth: Informing him of her death, or accusing him?

They had to think that if he weren’t at home, this was where’d he’d be, and since his home was rather a more valuable pile of rubble than it had been before the storm, where else could he be? But those fucking Marshals up there would get down here eventually. Hell, they might do it in the next five minutes. All it would take were a couple of phone calls to the right people in D.C.

So Ausmann made his phone call first, dialing Jerry. The conversation was short and sweet.

“I need your help right now,” he said. “A ride from the lab up to Big Bear.”

“Right now?” Jerry balked.

“Yes, right now,” Ausmann barked at him. “Meet me on the side road, at the emergency exit.”

“I really can’t do that right — ”

“You sure as hell can, and you will,” Ausmann replied, calmly. “Remember. I’ve kept you on as a consultant. It would be a shame if you had to lose that insurance.”

“Are you threatening my wife?” Jerry asked, mouth going dry.

“No,” Ausmann continued. “I’m actually threatening you. I know all about those little deals you made on the side. Fortunately, only with friendly countries. Still, if word got out about that, well, there’s no statute of limitation for espionage, I don’t think…”

He let it trail off and there was a long silence. Finally, Jerry spoke weakly on the other end. “I can be there in forty minutes.”

“Make it thirty,” Ausmann said. “I’m in a bit of a rush.”

He hung up the phone and turned back to the monitors. The guards seemed to have moved away from the windows of the booth. Of course, what he had missed was one of the Pasadena PD looking through the window, noticing a red button on the phone suddenly going out, and then ignoring it completely.

What he looked up to see was a Federal Marshal looking through the window and clearly noticing that one of the buttons on the phone on the desk was solid red before it went out.

He turned excitedly to the others and started asking the campus police about it. They confirmed that it meant that somebody was down there.

Unfortunately, these campus police didn’t have clearance to enter the lab either, so the Marshals spent the next twenty minutes trying to figure out who could grant them clearance to go in, and then another fifteen trying to get ahold of that person.

When they finally did and tried to explain the circumstances, it didn’t help their case. They only knew the reasons they were sent, but not a lot more behind that, so this particular Deputy Director was inclined to scoff. “So you’re saying he might have committed a crime?” she asked.

“Might, yes,” the head Marshal on site replied. “That is what we were told.”

“That’s really shaky probable cause,” she told her. “Is there anything more to go on?”

“The information came from your department,” the Marshal insisted.

“Really?” the Deputy Director spoke, sounding like her eyebrows shot past her hairline. “And what the hell would we in Arlington have to do with a crime he might have committed in Pasadena?”

“Not might have committed,” the Marshal insisted. “Might commit.”

“Oh, now you’re not making a lick of sense.”

“I can only report what we were told to check on.”

There was a heavy sigh from the Deputy Director’s end, then she spoke deliberately. “Goddammit. I’m going to have to take this one up the food chain. Do you know how much I hate to do that?”

“I can imagine, ma’am. So… we are not to proceed?”

“You are to stand down until further notice. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the Marshal replied, dejected. As she hung up, she looked at her fellow officers, disappointed. “Stand down,” she said quietly. Noting their disappointment, she added, “Don’t worry. We still have time.”

Ausmann’s confusion suddenly cleared and he gave the monitors another glance to see the Pasadena PD officers both leaning on the roof of their cruiser, writing out copious notes, looking like they hated life.

He headed down the hallway and out the same door in the mountain that had saved Joshua and Simon’s bacon not long before, then waited five minutes before Jerry finally pulled up.

“What took you so fucking long?” he demanded.

“I had to get gas,” he explained.

“Right. Drive. Asshole.”

Although Jerry tried to make small-talk, Ausmann was having none of it, and for most of the ninety minutes, they rode in verbal silence, awkwardness buried in Jerry’s playlist of old 70s classics.

Of course, these weren’t coming from his phone via Bluetooth or even playing on the radio. Nope. He had a ton of home-burnt CDs clipped in holders to the sun visors. Ausmann almost wanted to applaud him for not having an 8-track player in this hunk of junk.

Ausmann himself was not a fan of “classic” rock at all. To him, it sounded like demented teen boys screaming while drugged-up chimps abused washboards with barbed wire far too close to bullhorns feeding back into their own speakers.

And the music wasn’t helping the fact that Ausmann felt completely out of place during the whole trip, like he was seeing things out of eyes that were pointed in opposite directions, or like something was trying to rip him in half.

If he’d bothered to mention it to Jerry and confess to killing his wife, he would have gotten a solid hour-long lecture on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and maybe a hint of the much more economical and readable version of the story, Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.

But Ausmann didn’t mention it, and just kept on feeling the terrible malaise all the way through San Bernardino and then up the foothills and into the mountains leading to Big Bear, although Ausmann had Jerry pull off long before they reached the summit, up a long and dark dirt road, finally reaching a hidden and isolated cabin that Ausmann had owned for years.

He’d always thought of it as his apocalypse retreat, a place to go to if the world below went to hell, and even his wife had never known about it. He would visit about twice a year to make sure that the stockpiles were up to date. The huge basement, which doubled as a bomb and fallout shelter and panic room, held enough supplies to sustain one adult human for a year, and enough guns and ammo to fight off a few hundred.

The part above ground looked like a simple, rustic cabin, although what appeared to be wooden walls were actually four-inch steel with wood veneers and bullet-proof windows. The woods around the place were dotted with sensors and night-vision cameras, as well as booby-traps.

When he and Jerry arrived, the entire place was in pitch darkness, but Ausmann lit it up by tapping a fob he always carried with him.

“Wow,” Jerry said. “This your place?”

“Yep,” Ausmann explained. “I bought it right about the time we fired up our little experiment at JPL. Since I know you know what it does, I probably don’t have to explain why.”

“Of course not. Great retirement home for you and Coraline, though, right?”

“Oh, she never knew about it,” Ausmann explained. “Drink?”

“If I’m driving back, then nothing adult, but sure, thanks.”

Ausmann nodded and turned to the bar, which had its own secret compartments, wondering what Jerry’s choice would be if he knew he weren’t driving back.

Ausmann revealed a hidden ice bucket, fully loaded, and a bar fountain, then filled a glass with ice, fired a spritz of club soda into it, then added a shot of grenadine. He topped it with a maraschino cherry, grabbed something from one of the compartments and pocketed it, then turned to hand the drink to Jerry.

“Shirley Temple,” Ausmann announced, “So you know it’s a virgin.”

They both laughed and Jerry took a sip. “But Coraline doesn’t know about this?” he asked. “You sly dog.”

“It’s really only designed to support one person,” he said. “Besides, she’s never going to know.”

“Yeah, but women have a way of finding things out,” Jerry said. “I mean, Esther never should have figured out about my little… side piece in Reno, but — ”

“Dolores?” Ausmann announced, laughing. “Jerry, even the guys on the gardening crew knew about her.”

“What? How?”

“You’re just naturally bad at keeping secrets. Hey… when was the last time you saw real stars at night?”

“It’s been ages,” Jerry said.

“It has, old friend. Come on.”

Ausmann led him outside and they walked a good distance away from the cabin, farther into the woods, until they came to a clearing and looked up. The sky truly was stunning. Unlike down in L.A., it was full of stars, from one end to the other, shimmering in quite visible shades of yellow, red, and blue. They could even see the shape of the rim of the Milky Way itself from here.

“Wow,” Jerry said.

“Indeed,” Ausmann replied. “See, there are advantages to being so far away from everything else. We are as invisible here as those stars are back down in the city. We might as well be a million miles away from everything, which is why I asked you to bring me up here.”

“Um… why did I bring you up here?” Jerry asked.

“Remember, I told you that Coraline is never going to know about this place?”

“Right, but why wouldn’t you tell her?”

“Well,” Ausmann said matter-of-factly, “By now, I can’t, because I killed her.”

Jerry gasped and turned toward Ausmann. Although it was dark, his eyes had adjusted enough to realize that he was starting down the barrel of a gun.

“Which is why I asked you to bring me up here. Because you can’t keep a secret for shit. You should have asked for the adult beverage. Sorry!”

Jerry never heard the bang and didn’t even see the flash, but Ausmann heard one and saw the other, as well as the violent red mess briefly illuminated as the top of Jerry’s head flew off.

Fortunately, for Ausmann, he had always planned for this contingency no matter who had to take the bullet, and had managed to have Jerry be standing with his back to a ten-foot-deep, coffin-sized hole that he had dug out years ago. He always kept enough lumber, a small gas-powered cement mixer, and various bits of copper piping and tin barrels nearby to make it plausibly seem to be a legit and ongoing construction project.

It wasn’t, and once he’d made sure the body was in it, he shoved all of the dirt back into the hole, smacked it flat with a shovel, and then made a note to come back and finish concealing it tomorrow.

The property had been bought in the name of a completely fictitious company that could never be connected to him, and cell service up here was practically non-existent, although he had installed a satellite system that provided TV, phone, and internet.

He returned to the cabin, descended to the basement and noted that he was a bit blood-splattered himself, so took off the clothes he’d been wearing, tossed them into the incinerator, and took a long, hot shower.

Afterwards, he picked out a pair of silk pajamas from the well-stocked bedroom closet, then fell into the California King-size bed, turned on the local news, and watched, satisfied to see that he wasn’t being mentioned. After the timer shut off everything, he drifted off to sleep, contented, only one thought on his mind.

Which one of these fucking celebrity ghosts should he capture in order to get the dirt that would destroy them all?

In the morning, he woke up and automatically turned on the TV to one of the channels that only showed old movies, pre-1980. He went about preparing breakfast, the film broadcasting to the screens in the bedroom, kitchen/living room and bathroom.

It was an old classic, Casablanca, and right about the time Ausmann was sitting down to his Eggs Benedict, he heard a familiar line being screamed on screen: “Rick, hide me. You must do something. You must help me, Rick!”

He stared at the screen and realized that he’d found his target. Of course. Peter Lorre — well-known for playing villains or cowards, but quite often the character who gave it all up when his life was on the line.

Ausmann did a quick search and determined that Lorre was buried right where most of them were, in one of the hot spots for Rêve activity. Now all he needed to do was trap that asshole, and he was sure he could learn all of the secrets that would destroy them all.

The only problem was that he couldn’t do it alone. He needed his hunters, but he wasn’t exactly sure what his status was with them anymore. He hadn’t seen them since well before the storm —

And then he had a rare moment of Duh. “Of course not,” he thought. “You’ve been too busy killing your wife and escaping that, and why the hell would they come back to JPL any…”

“Fuck!” he suddenly shouted, tossing his dirty breakfast dish into the tile above the kitchen sink, where it shattered to bits and cracked the tile, spraying bits of food everywhere.

“That was them!” he grunted out to no one in particular, remembering his last arrival at the lab, before the cops showed up, when it seemed like someone had been there, but maybe not — and now he cursed the fact that he could not return because of… because… He couldn’t even remember at the moment which group of law enforcement it had been.

And he couldn’t even guess at what his hunters had stolen… It had been something. But what? They had taken information. And whose side were they on?”

He spent the next hour pacing around the room, planning and counter-planning, guessing and second-guessing. Either Joshua and Simon were allies or they weren’t. If they were, then they would capture Peter Lorre for him. If they weren’t, then they would refuse.

Hell, if they refused such a simple request that would make them a lot of money, then they were probably working for the other side.

His way out of this mess suddenly became clear. He had to find Joshua and Simon and make them an offer. He laughed as he realized that both of them were probably too young to get it, but it was going to be an offer they could not refuse.

The real jokes, though, were that A) Of course they knew the reference, it was only one of the most meme’d to millennials movies ever, and B) When it came to playing high tech hide and seek, Ausmann was an amateur, while Joshua and Simon were pros.

Of course, Joshua and Simon didn’t know they were playing hide, but Ausmann was sure as hell going to be playing seek. Not that he’d found anything after the first day, but he was pretty determined.

* * *

Friday Free for all #42: Bizarre, fan base, what, question?

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.

Who is the most bizarre person you’ve met?

This hands down has to be one of my post-college co-workers/roommates who I shall refer to here as Strauss in order to protect… oh, who knows what?  We first met at my first out-of-college office job, and hit it off pretty well for starters.

He was a few years older, recently arrived from the Midwest with his much younger fiancée — IIRC, he was 28 and she was 21. He definitely had a very outgoing and strong personality, and I could best describe him as an old hippy soul trapped in a much more modern body.

He also had no concept of boundaries, but I was too young and naïve to see how that could be a problem.

Of course, it didn’t help that I had a massive but unstated crush on him, Anyway, I wound up spending a lot of time outside of work with the two of them, mostly getting stoned off our asses and having these wild, recursive conversations that, honestly, I really enjoyed.

When circumstances at the apartment I’d been living in changed — i.e. my two roommates abruptly announced they were moving out — it became necessary to find a new place. This coincided with both Strauss and fiancée and another work friend also needing a place, so the four of us wound up renting a c. 1919 house together in Van Nuys.

Well, house and guest house, with a tiny garage and yard. And, for some reason, I took the back bedroom in the front house, while Strauss and fiancée took the front bedroom. Our older work friend, let’s call him Darren, took the entire guest house to himself, which never really made sense.

And… when you just know someone from work or hanging out, you know an entirely different person than one you wind up living with. Long story short, Strauss was a total trip and a half. He had real problems keeping his clothes on, for one thing, which I wouldn’t have minded except that it felt like part of that was just gay-baiting me, never mind that my attraction to him was dead by this point.

He was also addicted to, well, everything, whether it was weed, coke, alcohol, LSD, and so on. Basically, if it were available, he’d do all of it, and there were many an afternoon turned evening when I’d hear Fiancée plaintively reply to him packing yet another bowl, “Strauss, we can’t possibly get any higher.”

Then there was the time I walked out into the living room late at night to get some water from the kitchen and I found him hunched over the toaster, which he’d plugged in and turned on, set sideways on shag carpet no less, in order to snort coke off of it.

Oh yeah — I don’t think either of them ever washed a dish or utensil. The used plates just piled up in their bedroom, next to the un-emptied ashtrays. While Fiancée was clearly the more mature of the two of them, I don’t know why she put up with him.

In any case, they both abruptly moved out after a bizarre scene at a party in which he sort of sexually harassed me by standing in front of me and planting both of my hands on his ass, and going on a weird, “You want that, don’t you?” monologue that just came across as a homophobic taunt.

This led to me reacting in a rare burst of aggression, so I twisted his arm behind his back and brought him to the floor. The next day, the two of them just packed up and left with no notice. Fortunately, this was right after another friend of Darren’s and mine was looking to move because the cousin he lived with had burned a hole in the kitchen counter of their apartment by leaving the toaster oven on when he went to work.

Oh, finally, it wasn’t until years later that Darren told me that he used to see Strauss standing in the back yard in the very early morning hours, variously staring at his window and mine. I have no idea what was up with that.

Which celebrity or band has the worst fan base?

Easy. The celebrity who shall be nameless who is vacating the White House on January 20. Every last one of his fans is toxic as hell.

What makes you say “What was I thinking?” when you look back on your life?

What was I thinking when I went to an expensive, private Catholic university to go to film school when I could have, instead, spent a lot less by going to UCLA or CSUN, staying in touch with a lot of my high school peeps, and majoring in something that would have given me a secure financial base from which to then finance my artistic ambitions?

If I’d gone the public route, I might have even been able to afford to go on to a Masters or Doctorate, which meant a lot more then than they do now. And if I’d been smart, I would have majored in computer science, because it was exactly the right time — and I definitely had interest in the subject.

Barring that, I could have held my nose and done marketing, or majored in PoliSci or History and gotten my Real Estate license at the same time.

And all the while, I could have done acting or writing on the side or as a minor because, as I look back on it, everything I learned about writing came, for free, from an amazing mentor I met long after college anyway.

What question would you most like to know the answer to?

Probably another no-brainer, but it’s this: Are there other advanced and sentient civilizations out there in the universe? If so, how many, and where? And how advanced?

And if there aren’t any at this moment, how many have there been that are just so ancient that they expired long before we rose? Or how many are there yet to be who are, at this moment, at the point we were hundreds of thousands of years ago?

And if there happen to be any at approximately the same stage we are give or take 500 years (and/or 25 generations) in either direction… where are they and how many lightyears away are they?

And if they’re 500 years/25 generations ahead of us but multiple lightyears away, how close are they to developing a superluminal way to get to or communicate with us quickly?

Okay, that’s not one question. Fuck it. It’s field of questions. A smorgasbord. But enjoy the meal, because every bite of it is important.

The unbearable whiteness of eating

I’ve probably mentioned bits of my family background before, so some of this may be a repeat, but it’s heading toward an entirely different story, and it was brought to mind because of a coupon.

I’m a regular shopper at Ralphs, a supermarket chain owned by Kroger, and I have their rewards card. It’s the only chain I’ve shopped, other than Trader Joe’s, my entire adult life.

So, for a while now, every six weeks, I get about a dozen coupons in the mail. They come in two sheets of six each, and it always works the same way. The first page: Coupons for stuff I buy all the time. This one gets used up.

Second page: Stuff I might have bought once in the past, or lasts so long that I don’t need it, or is something I never have or would buy. This one usually stays intact.

One of the coupons they always send me is for a free jar of mayo — sometimes my preferred brand (Kraft) and sometimes not (Best Foods.)

Tonight was a free jar of Best Foods, and as I put it in the fridge, I realized, “Damn, I have a lot of unopened mayo in there.”

Fortunately, and contrary to popular belief, mayo has a long shelf life despite containing eggs because it is full of vinegar, too. Why do you think they leave it on the non-refrigerated shelves in the market?

But this surfeit of mayo reminded me that, when I was growing up, my fridge at home was not like this at all. There would be nary a jar of mayo to be found.

Flashback to my mom’s origin story. She was the daughter of an Irish Catholic couple from a suburb adjacent to Joseph Biden’s birthplace, Scranton, Pennsylvania. Grandfather was a coal miner. Grandmother was a baby machine.

No, seriously, that seemed to be all she did. Over the course of twenty-six years, from the ages of about 19 to 45, she popped out thirteen babies. If you’re counting, that’s one every two years. She started all of that not long before the Great Depression — not a good time for a laborer, even one in a union, to try to be raising that many kids.

Only seven of them made it to adulthood. There were a lot of stillbirths, and one who died in middle childhood. I’d assume miscarriages as well. But my mother was right in the middle of the surviving bunch, so she and her one older sister wound up helping grandma raise the other kids.

The oldest was one of her sisters, and the two boys, of course, were never expected to do “women’s work.” (Rolls eyes.) This left her two younger sisters and the youngest, who was born with Down’s Syndrome right around the time grandma turned 45.

He was her last.

Anyway, my  mom learned everything she knew about homemaking from Grandma Molly and Aunt Pat, particularly cooking, although food at home at the time was necessarily… not great.

They had nine mouths to feed on a limited budget, not to mention that a lot of them were not very adventurous when it came to what they ate, so it was apparently a lot of meat and potatoes. It was a typical Irish-American diet, I suppose.

But it all had to be done in bulk and cheaply, and there was a World War in there somewhere as well, so for a while they had to deal with rationing.

By the time my mom married my dad, who was a white collar professional and decidedly middle (if not upper-middle) class, she had improved her culinary skills enormously, but she still leaned toward the money-saving choices from her childhood.

She was also the only one to move all the way across the country to California, and I think being here influenced her cooking enormously — she had quite a few specialties of the Mexican and Italian food variety, which played nicely into a genetic thing that I improbably share with my dad’s half-German side of the family.

For the Bastians, the rule is “the spicier the better.”

But… the occasional lasagna or enchiladas or tamale pie were rare treats, maybe once a month, because I watched and learned from her, and they were involved and complicated.

Spaghetti and meatballs, not so much, since the only intricate part there is the meatball prep, but the cooking the spaghetti part was so simple that Mom could and did trust Dad to do it. (Took me years to figure out that was because it was something he could basically not screw up.)

Outside of the specialties, though, we were also pretty much meat and potatoes, with Sunday dinner traditionally being a huge rump roast with potatoes, usually mashed, and a side of thick-cut cooked carrots if I were lucky, or green beans if I weren’t.

I despise green beans. No one can convince me that they do not only exist as wax fruit that is inexplicably slipped into cookpots for no good reason.

But, without the sides, that Sunday dinner would turn into roast beef sandwich lunches for both Dad and me for the rest of the week, and I had no complaints.

And those sandwiches? Roast beef on Wonder Bread with Miracle Whip. Our house also lacked butter — for Mom, it was Parkay Margarine all the way or, as I say now, “¿por qué margarina?” We also had Carnation instant milk, which was (is?) powder mixed with water, and the only “cheese” I ever knew were individually wrapped Kraft American singles, which IIRC were always referred to as “cheese food product,” which sounds about as unappealing as possible.

The plastic each slice came wrapped in probably had more nutritional value and tasted better.

Mom also committed what I now consider from my own experience cooking and baking as the ultimate culinary sin. She used Bisquick.

In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a product designed for people who couldn’t be arsed to measure out and whisk together a little flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda — and anathema if you need to leave out the last two ingredients for health reasons.

So, yeah… Other than the occasional ethnic meals, my culinary upbringing was about as damn white as you could get. It always amazed me, because she certainly could have afforded a lot more and better, but the habits we develop in childhood, especially when it comes to food choices, can be very hard to break.

Then I went off to college. It was a Catholic university — which I attended for the film school, not the religion — but, ironically, it opened up a whole new world of food for me.

On my first lunch from campus food service on my first day living there, I had a burger and I had real mayo on it, which I had never tasted before.

OMFG, what a revelation. The sugary blandness of the very misnamed Miracle Whip faded into memory as I discovered the sassy, tangy goodness of real mayo enticingly teasing my taste buds.

And then there was wheat bread, which actually tasted like something, and delivered every bite of sandwich with a little hug. Don’t get me started on tasting real butter for the first time, and then the goodness of butter spread thick on hot wheat toast.

Then there were the real cheese and milk that, like the butter, actually came out of a cow and were not created artificially or reconstituted. Swiss cheese. Cheddar cheese. Mozzarella. Gorgonzola. Bleu cheese. Feta. Goat cheese. Cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese! Glorious cheese!

And I was absolutely addicted to milk. I still am. But even real non-fat milk was better than the reanimated corpse milk I’d grown up on, and I’d even occasionally dare a 2%.

This was also when and where I first took my tongue around the world. In a culinary sense, you pervs. I was already familiar with Mexican and Italian food, but discovered Chinese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, Salvadoran, and German cuisine — I’m probably missing a lot on that list — largely thanks to my university having a very diverse student body, both of native-born Americans from different cultures and international students from different countries.

Did I mention that my very Catholic university had an amazing bagel bar every morning, with every conceivable kind of bagel and shmear, along with lox and onions and the works?

And how amusing it was to see the Catholic high school kids the first week not know that you cut it in half and the stuff goes inside, you don’t spread it on top?

But, like I’d been, they were also clearly lacking in certain culinary experiences, so I shouldn’t really make too much fun of them. I’ll reserve that mocking for people who are having authentic tamales for the first time and don’t know that you have to take the corn husks off before eating because, I mean, duh. That should be obvious, right?

That’s like trying to eat your Del Taco burrito while it’s still wrapped in the paper. And that’s just silly.

About as silly as what I was stuck eating until I turned 18 and went off on my own, but I really can’t fault my mother for it. She did amazing things with what she was limited to, but she also went beyond those boundaries.

It was just the common basics of the everyday that were so much wrapped up in her past as the daughter of a poor working man with a big family. On the other hand, it kept me also stuck firmly to her roots instead of realizing how well-off dad actually was, so it kept me from growing up to be an entitled brat.

At least I’ve come to terms with it, and no longer consider having grown up on Miracle Whip and Wonder Bread to be child abuse. But, nowadays, it should be. Oh, yes, it should be.

Image “White bread sandwich with cheese” by Freefoodphotos at FreeImagesLive. Licensed under (CC by 3.0) Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

Epiphany

If you’ve ever wondered why there are twelve days of Christmas, today is why. If you count starting December 25, then January 6 is the 12th day after, and this is the Feast of Epiphany.

 

Traditionally, it’s considered to be the day that the Magi arrived at the manger in Jerusalem to give their gifts to Grogu… er, Baby Jesus. The word epiphany itself means “sudden manifestation or revelation of the essential meaning or nature of something.”

Ironically, in America today, we are going to have another epiphany as Congress sets out to do its assigned job to certify the Electoral Votes that Joe Biden legitimately won, but which certain sore losers are going to try to oppose.

They’re going to fail, but it’s a toss-up as to whether many people on their side have the sudden epiphany that goes, “Oh, my god, I’ve been backing losers.”

It may also be a moment when otherwise apolitical people pay attention and realize, “Wow. Who are these idiots trying to override the will of the People and subvert everything America stands for?”

It comes the day after the Georgia run-off elections, although since they don’t start counting mail-in ballots until the morning of the same day, we may not know the results until at least the 6th, if not later, and we’re going to see the same “Red Tide, Blue Wave” phenomenon as in November, when the in-person votes break Republican, but the (legit) mail-in and absentee ballots go decidedly Democratic.

In the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, January 6th is actually Christmas Eve, mostly because they never switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, so they’re a bit behind. Or, in other words, they chose to never catch up to the rest of the world, which jives with certain other parties who are still trying to ignore reality.

On the Julian calendar, today is regarded as December 24, 2019.

But here’s the good news. Once all the bullshit has been swept aside — and it will be — and the electoral votes are certified, that’s it. Two weeks from now, Joseph Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, Kamala Harris will also be sworn in as the Vice President.

The end of the current regime may be dragged out by more legal trickery, and there may even be violence in the streets, but it will at most be a short and painful coda to the disingenuous symphony we’ve been listening to for the last four years. Then, it will be over, and we’ll be hearing a new and hopeful tune.

That will be the real day of epiphany. Revel in it.

Image: Sebastiano Iervolino courtesy of Pixaby, (CC0 1.0) Creative Commons Universal Public Domain Dedication.