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.

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.

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.