Monday’s mentor to many: Che’Rae Adams

I started a new Monday thing of spotlighting my talented friends. Check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Those covered a triple-threat actor, improv artist, and impressionist; and a filmmaker, editor, and writer; and an artist, writer, and actor, respectively. This time around, we’re going to meet a friend of mine who helps creators become better at what they do.

I first met Che’Rae Adams eons ago when she produced my second ever full-length play to see the light of day onstage in a professional production, but she’s been a champion of my works ever since. And not just mine, but everyone’s, whether developing, producing, or directing.

Although she vanished for a while to go get her MFA in Ohio, she definitely came back into my life in a big way in the later 90s, and especially after she founded the L.A. Writers Center in 2006, also allowing me to be very involved with that. Although I don’t think I have any official title, I did co-write the book she still uses to teach her methods to writers.

At the same time, before I left LAWC to focus on improv, she and the other members helped me develop a hell of a lot of work there, both stage plays and screenplays. I can’t even count how many works I cranked out through her Monday night advanced classes.

The thing about her is, though, that she does this constantly for writers of all levels, nurturing and mentoring them and taking very personal interest in the development of their works and the improvement of their skills.

And I can tell you that this is no easy task, because I co-taught a few workshops with her, and it just bent my brain. It’s one of those weird cases of when you’ve done something for so long you’ve internalized it so much that you just can’t explain it to anyone else.

That’s my problem with trying to teach writing or music. My brain is at the point of only being able to say, “You do this because… duh,” which is no way to teach at all. If I want to try to teach, I have to sit down and force myself to work out the steps and, ta-da… that’s why I feel like I can do in writing, like I do here, but never spontaneously in person.

Che’Rae, on the other hand, is just the opposite, and I’ve seen her give many a lightbulb moment to both newbie and seasoned writers — myself included.

Of course, beyond our professional relationship, Che’Rae and I have become really good friends over the years to the point that she really does feel like she’s my true sister — and she has always, always been there for me when I’ve needed her, tossing me that life preserver a couple of times when I reached out for it.

One of the biggest impacts of COVID-19 for me, in fact, has been that she and I (and our regular game-night crew) haven’t been able to hang out together at all since March, 2020.

This didn’t stop her from producing a successful Zoom reading of my play Strange Fruit, Part One and Part Two, in August and September — but it’s still not the same.

Beyond her incredible artistic skills and ability to teach, she has a gigantic heart, with empathy and compassion to spare, and will not hesitate to give what is needed to those who ask. Plus, just being in her presence is always a huge dose of instant comfort.

She is one of my several human anti-depressants, and while chatting or Zooming online helps a little, it can’t compare to being together IRL in the same space. And missing her annual Thanksgiving gathering because I’m pretty sure it’s not happening doesn’t help either.

But… there’s always the art, and neither she nor I nor her students have given up on creating and producing that during this really weird year. If you’d like help in developing your own play, screenplay, or one-person show, you cannot go wrong with Che’Rae.

Momentous Monday: Meet the Middletons

Thanks to boredom and Amazon Prime, I watched a rather weird movie from the 1930s tonight. While it was only 55 minutes long, it somehow seemed much longer because it was so packed with… all kinds of levels of stuff.

The title is The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair, and while the content is 7exactly what it says on the tin, there are so goddamn many moving parts in that tin that this is one worth watching in depth, mainly because it’s a case study in how propaganda can be sometimes wrong, sometimes right and, really, only hindsight can excavate the truth from the bullshit.

While it seems like a feature film telling the fictional story of the (snow-white but they have a black maid!) Middleton Family from Indiana who goes back east ostensibly to visit grandma in New York but, in reality, in order to attend the New York World’s Fair of 1939, in reality this was nothing more than a piece of marketing and/or propaganda created by the Westinghouse Corporation, major sponsors of the fair, poised on the cusp of selling all kinds of new and modern shit to the general public.

Think of them as the Apple or Microsoft of their day, with solutions to everything, and the World’s Fair as the biggest ThingCon in the world.

Plus ça change, right?

But there’s also a second, and very political, vein running through the family story. See, Dad decided to bring the family to the fair specifically to convince 16 year-old son Bud that, despite the bad economic news he and his older friends have been hearing about there being no job market (it is the Great Depression, after all) that there are, in fact, glorious new careers waiting out there.

Meanwhile, Mom is hoping that older daughter Babs will re-connect with high school sweetheart Jim, who had previously moved to New York to work for (wait for it) Westinghouse. Babs is having none of it, though, insisting that she doesn’t love him but, instead, is in love with her art teacher, Nick.

1939: No reaction.

2020: RECORD SCRATCH. WTF? Yeah, this is one of the first of many disconnect moments that are nice reminders of how much things have changed in the 81 years since this film happened.

Girl, you think you want to date your teacher, and anyone should be cool with that? Sorry, but listen to your mama. Note: in the world of the film, this relationship will become problematic for other reasons but, surprise, the reason it becomes problematic then is actually problematic in turn now. More on which later.

Anyway, obviously richer than fuck white family travels from Indiana to New York (they’re rich because Dad owns hardware stores and they brought their black maid with them) but are too cheap to spring for a hotel, instead jamming themselves into Grandma’s house, which is pretty ritzy as well and that says grandma has money too, since her place is clearly close enough to Flushing Meadows in Queens to make the World’s Fair a day trip over the course of a weekend.

But it’s okay — everyone owned houses then! (Cough.)

And then it’s off to the fair, and this is where the real value of the film comes in because when we aren’t being propagandized by Westinghouse, we’re actually seeing the fair, and what’s really surprising is how modern and familiar everything looks. Sure, there’s nothing high tech about it in modern terms, but if you dropped any random person from 2020 onto those fairgrounds, they would not feel out of place.

Well, okay, you’d need to put them in period costume first and probably make sure that if they weren’t completely white they could pass for Italian or Greek.

Okay, shit. Ignore that part, let’s move along — as Jimmy, Babs’ high school sweetheart and Westinghouse Shill character, brings us into the pavilion. And there are two really weird dynamics here.

First is that Jimmy is an absolute cheerleader for capitalism, which is jarring without context — get back to that in a moment.

The other weird bit is that Bud seems to be more into Jimmy than Babs ever was, and if you read too much gay subtext into their relationship… well, you can’t read too much , really. Watch it through that filter, and this film takes on a very different and subversive subplot. Sure, it’s clear that the family really wishes Jimmy was the guy Babs stuck with, but it sure feels like Bud wouldn’t mind calling him “Daddy.”

But back to Jimmy shilling for Westinghouse. Here’s the thing: Yeah, sure, he’s all “Rah-Rah capitalism!” and this comes into direct conflict with Nicholas, who is a self-avowed communist. But… the problem is that in America, in 1939, capitalism was the only tool that socialism could use to lift us out of depression and, ultimately, create the middle class.

There’s even a nod to socialism in the opening scene, when Bud tells his dad that the class motto for the guys who graduated the year before was, “WPA, here we come!” The WPA was the government works program designed to create jobs with no particular aim beyond putting people to work.

But once the WPA partnered with those corporations, boom. Jobs. And this was the beginning of the creation of the American Middle Class, which led to the ridiculous prosperity for (white) people from the end of WW II until the 1980s.

More on that later, back to the movie now. As a story with relationships, the film actually works, because we do find ourselves invested in the question, “Who will Babs pick?” It doesn’t help, though, that the pros and cons are dealt with in such a heavy-handed manner.

Jimmy is amazing in every possible way — young, tall, intelligent, handsome, and very knowledgeable at what he does. Meanwhile, Nicholas is short, not as good-1ooking (clearly cast to be more Southern European), obviously a bit older than Babs, and has a very unpleasant personality.

They even give him a “kick the puppy” moment when Babs introduces brother Bud, and Nicholas pointedly ignores the kid. But there’s that other huge issue I already mentioned that just jumps out to a modern audience and yet never gets any mention by the other characters. The guy Babs is dating is her art teacher. And not as in past art teacher, either. As in currently the guy teaching her art.

And she’s dating him and considering marriage.

That wouldn’t fly more than a foot nowadays, and yet in the world of 1939 it seems absolutely normal, at least to the family. Nowadays, it would be the main reason to object to the relationship. Back then, it isn’t even considered.

Wow.

The flip side of the heavy-handed comes in some of Jimmy’s rebukes of Nicholas’ claims that all of this technology and automation will destroy jobs. While the information Jimmy provides is factual, the way his dialogue here is written and delivered comes across as condescending and patronizing to both Nicholas and the audience, and these are the moments when Jimmy’s character seems petty and bitchy.

But he’s also not wrong, and history bore that out.

Now this was ultimately a film made to make Westinghouse look good, and a major set piece involved an exhibit at the fair that I actually had to look up because at first it was very easy to assume that it was just a bit of remote-controlled special effects set up to pitch an idea that didn’t really exist yet — the 1930s version of vaporware.

Behold Elektro! Here’s the sequence from the movie and as he was presented at the fair. Watch this first and tell me how you think they did it.

Well, if you thought remote operator controlling movement and speaking lines into a microphone like I did at first, that’s understandable. But the true answer is even more amazing: Elektro was completely real.

The thing was using sensors to actually interpret the spoken commands and turn them into actions, which it did by sending light signals to its “brain,” located at the back of the room. You can see the lights flashing in the circular window in the robot’s chest at around 2:30.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the 1930s if the robot didn’t engage in a little bit of sexist banter — or smoke a cigarette. Oh, such different times.

And yet, in a lot of ways, the same. Our toys have just gotten a lot more powerful and much smaller.

You can probably guess which side of the argument wins, and while I can’t disagree with what Westinghouse was boosting at the time, I do have to take issue with one explicit statement. Nicholas believes in the value of art, but Jimmy dismisses it completely, which is a shame.

Sure, it’s coming right out of the Westinghouse corporate playbook, but that part makes no sense, considering how much of the world’s fair and their exhibit hall itself relied on art, design, and architecture. Even if it’s just sizzle, it still sells the steak.

So no points to Westinghouse there but, again, knowing what was about to come by September of 1939 and what a big part industry would have in ensuring that the anti-fascists won, I can sort of ignore the tone-deafness of the statement.

But, like the time-capsule shown in the film, there was a limited shelf-life for the ideas Westinghouse was pushing, and they definitely expired by the dawn of the information age, if not a bit before that.

Here’s the thing: capitalism as a system worked in America when… well, when it worked… and didn’t when it didn’t. Prior to about the early 1930s, when it ran unfettered, it didn’t work at all — except for the super-wealthy robber barons.

Workers had no rights or protections, there were no unions, or child-labor laws, or minimum wages, standard working hours, safety rules, or… anything to protect you if you didn’t happen to own a big chunk of shit.

In other words, you were management, or you were fucked.

Then the whole system collapsed in the Great Depression and, ironically, it took a member of the 1% Patrician Class (FDR) being elected president to then turn his back on his entire class and dig in hard for protecting the workers, enacting all kinds of jobs programs, safety nets, union protections, and so on.

Or, in other words, capitalism in America didn’t work until it was linked to and reined-in by socialism. So we never really had pure capitalism, just a hybrid.

And, more irony: this socio-capitalist model was reinforced after Pearl Harbor Day, when everyone was forced to share and work together and, suddenly, the biggest workforce around was the U.S. military. It sucked in able-bodied men between 17 and 38, and the weird side-effect of the draft stateside was that suddenly women and POC were able to get jobs because there was no one else to do them.

Manufacturing, factory jobs, support work and the like boomed, and so did the beginnings of the middle class. When those soldiers came home, many of them returned to benefits that gave them cheap or free educations, and the ability to buy homes.

They married, they had kids, and they created the Boomers, who grew up in the single most affluent time period in America ever.

Side note: There were also people who returned from the military who realized that they weren’t like the other kids. They liked their own sex, and couldn’t ever face returning home. And so major port towns — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, Boston, New York, Miami, New Orleans — were flooded with the seeds of future LGB communities. (T and Q+ hadn’t been brought into the fold yet.)

In the 60s, because the Boomers had grown up with affluence, privilege, and easy access to education, they were also perfectly positioned to rebel their asses off because they could afford to, hence all of the protests and whatnot of that era.

And this sowed the seeds of the end of this era, ironically.

The socio-capitalist model was murdered, quite intentionally, beginning in 1980, when Ronald fucking Reagan became President, and he and his cronies slowly began dismantling everything created by every president from FDR through, believe it or not, Richard Nixon. (Hint: EPA.)

The mantra of these assholes was “Deregulate Everything,” which was exactly what the world was like in the era before FDR.

Just one problem, though. Deregulating any business is no different from getting an alligator to not bite you by removing their muzzle and then saying to them, “You’re not going to bite me, right?”

And then believing them when they swear they won’t before wondering why you and everyone you know has only one arm.

Still, while it supports an economic system that just isn’t possible today without a lot of major changes, The Middletons still provides a nice look at an America that did work because it focused on invention, industry, and manufacturing not as a way to enrich a few shareholders, but as a way to enrich everyone by creating jobs, enabling people to actually buy things, and creating a rising tide to lift all boats.

As for Bud, he probably would have wound up in the military, learned a couple of skills, finished college quickly upon getting out, and then would have gone to work for a major company, possibly Westinghouse, in around 1946, starting in an entry-level engineering job, since that’s the skill and interest he picked up during the War.

Along the way, he finds a wife, gets married and starts a family, and thanks to his job, he has full benefits — for the entire family, medical, dental, and vision; for himself, life insurance to benefit his family; a pension that will be fully vested after ten years; generous vacation and sick days (with unused sick days paid back every year); annual bonuses; profit sharing; and union membership after ninety days on the job.

He and the wife find a nice house on Long Island — big, with a lot of land, in a neighborhood with great schools, and easy access to groceries and other stores. They’re able to save long-term for retirement, as well as for shorter-term things, like trips to visit his folks in Indiana or hers in Miami or, once the kids are old enough, all the way to that new Disneyland place in California, which reminds Bud a lot of the World’s Fair, especially Tomorrowland.

If he’s typical for the era, he will either work for Westinghouse for his entire career, or make the move to one other company. Either way, he’ll retire from an executive level position in about 1988, having been in upper management since about 1964.

With savings, pensions, and Social Security, he and his wife decide to travel the world. Meanwhile, their kids, now around 40 and with kids about to graduate high school, aren’t doing so well, and aren’t sure how they’re going to pay for their kids’ college.

They approach Dad and ask for help, but he can’t understand. “Why don’t you just do what I did?” he asks them.

“Because we can’t,” they reply.

That hopeful world of 1939 is long dead — although, surprisingly, the actor who played Bud is still quite alive.

Image: Don O’Brien, Flickr, 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), the Middleton Family in the May 1939 Country Gentleman ad for the Westinghouse World’s Fair exhibits.

Momentous Monday: Riding through history

Car repairs can come up at the weirdest times, although I have to say that this latest adventure was perfectly timed, since I’m furloughed. On the other hand, there were other inconvenient bits, mainly that the apartment complex I live at just opened two new buildings (that absolutely none of the tenants wanted jammed onto the grounds) and those buildings sit atop parking garages that are technically three stories down, but in reality six.

So, long story short there, about a week ago, I had to move my car from the spot, which for over a decade had been about thirty feet from my back door, to a new one four stories down in a parking garage. That spot is now a good two minutes away by foot and elevator. And I can’t even pull up to my back door to unload groceries anymore because they just fenced off and are excavating the parking lot behind my building to… jam in another building absolutely none of the tenants wants.

Prologue to this adventure. It was the day I went to pick up Sheeba’s ashes from the vet, on a Monday afternoon. Now, when I’d taken her there to be euthanized, I was able to go inside and be with her. That’s the one exception to the vet’s rule of all business being done in the parking lot. Picking up ashes, not so much.

So, I pull into a spot and try to call. But I keep getting… not exactly a busy signal, but a non-answer. I try that a few times, then suddenly lose the Bluetooth signal from the car — and am able to get through immediately just via the untethered phone.

This should have been clue number one.

After they put me on hold for five minutes and didn’t come back, I called again, and when they asked if they could put me on hold again blurted, “Sure, but I’m just here for my dog’s ashes” figuring (rightly) that on somebody’s next trip out to a waiting client they could bring them to me.

Did I mention that this entire time that the car was not running but the ignition was turned to accessory, and I had the AC and radio running? This will be important in a moment.

One of the techs brought the bag with Sheeba’s ashes and etc. to me, I put it on the passenger seat, thanked her, then got in, turned the key to start the car and…

Fwump.

You know that disheartening feeling? The one when you tell your ignition to ask your battery to juice up the starter to turn the engine over and your battery just says, “Meh?” Yeah, that one.

A couple more unsuccessful tries as my car suffers the automotive version of ED, unable to yank the crank and turn the engine over.

Profanities ensue. I don’t have AAA although, ironically, only two days before this, I got one of those, “Hey, we’d love for you to come back” direct mails from them and had been considering it. So I had to resort to the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire rescue known as “phone a friend.”

Three of my closest friends also happen to live physically the closest to both me and the vet’s office, so I start calling and leaving messages, and none of them answers — but that’s when I realize that although I’ve set it for otherwise, my phone loves to only show “Private Number” even if I call someone whose contact list I’m on and vice versa.

I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t answer, either.

So then I start texting, and one of my exes is the first to respond. He’s also the one who lives closest to the vet, although not closest to me. The one who lives closest texts me back moments after I’ve arranged for the ex to come over with jumper cables, though.

Now every spot in the lot is full when my friend arrives, and then it turns out that his cables aren’t quite long enough to reach from his battery to mine, since I’m parked head-in — and keep in mind that he’s got a Honda and I’ve got a Yaris, both of which are pretty short cars.

But… the couple parked to my left is about to leave, as soon as they finish their paperwork. Meanwhile, someone in a truck in the first spot in the lot pulls out, and it’s like some complicated puzzle has suddenly been unlocked. Ex drives out and around the block so truck can leave. Couple backs out and around to take empty spot, ex drives back in and parks next to me and, ta-da, jump succeeds.

And the car keeps starting, if with a hint of sluggish, for the next week and a half, although I still make an appointment with Firestone to get the battery checked. I had intended to make it for Friday, but somehow wound up making it Saturday. Still, since I’m not going anywhere anyway, it doesn’t really matter.

Except that on the Thursday before, I go down to the depths of that damn parking garage, go to start the car and… bupkis. Not even an attempt to turn over the motor, just the annoying chatter of a starter that doesn’t even have the energy to roll over and hit “snooze.”

Well, fuck.

Luckily, right after the incident while picking up Sheeba’s ashes, I decided that it would be a good idea to re-join AAA, so I did. This came in extra-handy on Saturday and, although the tow-truck was 40 minutes late, I got my car started and got it to Firestone.

And yes, the battery was bad and the positive terminal had corroded away to the point that they’d have to replace that, so I okayed the work, and then really felt like I had no choice but to wait, because by the time I’d taken two buses home, it would be time to come back again. Yes, such are the vagaries of a four mile public transit trip in L.A. when home and destination don’t quite line up on the routes.

More on this later.

The good news was that once they replaced the battery, the starter and alternator tested A-Okay, so didn’t need to be replaced. The bad news was that I needed four new tires, but they had to be ordered and wouldn’t be in until Monday.

On the bright side, the tires weren’t that old, and two of them were still covered under warranty. (Two of them were not. Oh well.)

But there were two big snags on Monday, which was Memorial Day. One, I had to be there before 9 a.m. Two, the job would be long enough that there would be no point in waiting, so I had to make my way home.

So on what was ostensibly a holiday, I actually got up far earlier than I had since my last working day over two months ago in March. Second, the only real option for getting home with maximum social distancing was via the L.A. Metro, our local transit system.

What I didn’t realize on my trip home is that there’s one bus that goes right down the street just south of Firestone, which is also the street I live on. I just have to walk a half mile to the stop. Instead, I take a bus up Lankershim to the Metro Station, then another one that goes down another street to the west — where I have to walk half a mile from the stop to home.

Since the Metro is on a Sunday schedule for the holiday, it took me almost two hours to get home — a distance of 3.9 miles. The second bus only runs hourly, and didn’t sync up well to the first.

So I sat across the street from the Firestone and waited for about half an hour before the bus pulled up, and then entered through the back door only to find that there was no way to pay the fair or use my TAP card, which is the payment system we use here — a plastic card that we can add value to, and which uses RFID technology to add and deduct fares.

The one other passenger on the bus told me, “Oh, it’s free now,” and while the bus driver told her, “That’s not totally true,” when I asked her how to pay, she just waved me off to say, “Don’t.”

So I’m guessing that buses are not charging, while trains and express or fixed line buses are, because the latter have TAP terminals at either the entrances or at the rear doors, while the buses only have them up next to the drivers, and the drivers wisely aren’t having us infectious people getting on by them.

On one of the buses today, the driver even had the forward wheelchair seat straps webbed out across the aisle so nobody could get to the front. So no fare box, no TAP device, free ride.

And, again, the only reason I took public transit instead of a taxi or some godawful app-based ride sharing abomination was that I figured it would be much safer.

Generally, that was true. The largest number of people on any of the three buses I rode that day was four, and on that particular ride, the extra two were a couple who retreated to the back. I made sure not to touch anything inside with my hands, instead just hooking my elbow around the upright poles, sitting and standing without using my hands to assist, and banging the stop request buttons with an elbow.

But, for me, the most educational part of the trip involved a ride back down a street where I had spent quite a lot of time over the previous three or four years — and it was like an amusement park tour of a carefully curated disaster zone that comes right before the right turn and into the covered building with the big, scary monster.

This would be the NoHo Arts District. Oh, not the scary monster part. I mean the tranquil, formerly not a disaster zone that the tram steers down while the tour guide — who probably does a lot of shows in the many tiny theatres in this district — hypes up the tourists from Ohio with the corporate approved script.

Goddamn, that just went all kinds of meta.

Anyway… I’ve been a regular denizen of this magic zone for most of my life, at least since my early teen years, and I’ve seen it boom and bust. If the east side of the Valley has a downtown, NoHo gives Burbank a real run for its money.

All Burbank has (had?) are the movie studios. NoHo has (had?) the nightlife, live theatre, art galleries, small VFX houses, and… the Metro — which is the single innovation that brought the place back to life just over twenty years ago.

So  this vital stretch down Lankershim from just above Chandler to the clusterfuck intersection of Lankershim, Vineland, Riverside/Camarillo, has always been magic — it’s actually the Times Square of NoHo.

It’s the southernmost tip of a place in which I have some really fond memories of living, loving, laughing, performing, and playing here, so that it has always felt like my true L.A. home no matter where else I might have lived, etc. at the time.

But, since mid-March, with the physical shutdown of ComedySportz, I haven’t been anywhere near the district. Today was my first time back, viewing it out of the windows of the bus just like I were a tourist on a Universal Studios Tram, a tourist attraction that’s only about a mile down the street, and the first stop due south from the NoHo Metro station.

It was truly surreal, starting with seeing the old home of ComedySportz, the El Portal, shut down, its marquee with a message thanking the BID and LAFD — our local security patrol and fire department — and something along the lines of “We’ll be back.”

(Note: Considering the way CSzLA was treated when this all went down, I hope they’re not. At least not under the former management. Sorry, not sorry.)

Farther down the block, we came to a series of buildings that were destroyed by a fire about two years ago, and last time I walked by, they were still boarded up and surrounded by scaffolds, in the process of being repaired.

Well, now the buildings that were damaged in the fire show no signs of it. The scaffolds are gone and the storefronts are restored, but none of them are open.

The sushi restaurant that was ground zero for the fire, Tokyo Delves, looks like it was slated to return as something else, a project stopped dead in its tracks. And I didn’t notice any pedestrians on this stretch of street.

It was truly eerie to see Pitfire Pizza closed for reasons other than remodeling or its own fire almost twenty years ago. Yeah, I was right down the block from there one night exactly a week after 9/11 when the place went up in flames and freaked all of the artists in the area the hell out.

Finally, the stretch of Magnolia down to Tujunga was similarly empty and quiet. Still plenty of cars on the road, though.

Yet… this stretch of road that is just over one mile long, with a couple of side branches on Chandler and Magnolia, is one of the most vital corridors in this part of the city. And today’s adventure in “Not getting the ‘rona” really reminded me of that. Not only of how important this neighborhood had become, but how much it potentially has to lose.

I have no doubt that it will bounce back with a vengeance. We just have to give it time.

Image, “Once Upon a Time in NoHo,” © 2019 Jon Bastian, all rights reserved

Welcome to Momentous Monday

In continuing efforts to improve your blog-reading experience here, as well as to make it easier for me to keep cranking out content, I’ve decided to theme the week, similarly to what I did starting right after Thanksgiving in my Countdown to Christmas, which is what led to me deciding to post every day in the first place.

Since the theme thing for the aforementioned thing helped me so much, I’ve decided to bring it back now, as it applies to the subjects I like to write about. I’ve already established the Sunday Nibble, which is a short piece on a random subject, and recently also started your Saturday Reading as I excerpt parts of a novel written as a bunch of short stories.

That takes care of the weekends. The weekdays will cover history, language, science, and theatre — in that order — with Friday being a potluck of whatever has struck my fancy that week.

This being Monday, the subject is History, and I’d liked to dub it Momentous Mondays. Looking for inspiration, I searched for things that happened on this particular Monday, February 10, and turned up one that is sort of relevant to now, but not for reasons that anyone might read into it. But that will be explained shortly.

* * *

When I looked up events that happened on February 10, I came up with two interesting choices. The first is that it was on this day in 1961 that the artist Roy Lichtenstein opened a show which included his painting “Look Mickey,” featuring his first use of so-called Ben-Day Dots, a general thievery (inspiration?) from/by golden age comic books, and something which would go on to somehow be the quintessential 80s pop-art stereotype. You may not know his name, but if you see one of his paintings in this style, you’d probably go, “Oh, yeah. That guy.”

But… I decided against that one because I find that kind of pop art gone commercial to be banal. While Lichtenstein tried to be edgy with the dialogue he put into the speech bubbles on a lot of his work, in retrospect a lot of it seemed to be punching down at women in general and feminists in particular. And don’t tell me that the woman in this painting, lamenting her lack of motherhood, doesn’t look a hell of a lot like Judy Garland who did, in fact, remember to have children.

For the kind of pop art gone successful that I do like, follow Banksy, who has managed to remain anonymous (and might even be a collective instead of a person) and pulled off the most brilliant art world troll ever with his insta-shredded painting that was, itself, probably a faked work of art.

So I went with the other event that happened on February 10 that caught my eye, and it was this one: On this day in 1967, the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. It had been passed by Congress for approval by the states on July 6, 1965, and it was approved one year, seven months, and four days later.

As amendments go, that’s pretty damn fast — the ERA started the process in 1972, and may or may not have been finally ratified in January 2020, when Virginia voted to do so. So what was the impetus for passing the 25th Amendment? Well, first, what is the 25th?’

First off, it codifies the idea that the Vice President actually becomes President if the current President leaves office for any reason. Believe it or not, before that, there wasn’t really a definite rule one way or the other. It just sort of became tradition when John Tyler took over after William Henry Harrison kicked the bucket after 30 days in office.

He didn’t make a lot of friends doing this and, ultimately, when it looked like his own party was going to reject him for nomination for re-election in 1844, he formed his own independent party and ran as a single-issue candidate: Annexing Texas, which had only recently become independent from Mexico. You know — the usual America invading shit. When Andrew “Yeah, I’m a Racist” Jackson threw his support behind Tyler but the writing was on the wall that Tyler wasn’t going to win, it gave him the excuse to drop out of the race, and so he joined the less-than-one-term club.

The second bit of the 25th Amendment deals with what happens when the Vice Presidency becomes vacant and, believe it or not, there wasn’t anything set up to deal with this, either. Nobody automatically succeeded, and there was no clear mechanism for the President to pick someone to fill the spot. Consequently, throughout our history, there have been some big-ass gaps in the position, with the winner being Tyler again, who never had a Vice President.

Most of these four-year pushers happened in the 19th century, with the two notable exceptions being Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1905), who never picked a successor after McKinley was assassinated, and Harry S Truman 1945-1949), who never picked a VP during his first partial term after FDR died.

The most recent time there was a gap of more than a few days was in 1974, when Gerald Ford took over when Richard Nixon resigned and it took about four months before his VP choice was confirmed.

The third part of the Amendment involves the president sending a letter to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House basically saying, “Hey, y’all. Can’t do the President thing right now. Homie gonna ride the Oval until I tell you otherwise.”

This one has actually been used a couple of times but, oddly enough, generally only when a president is about to get a colonoscopy.  It’s also clear, in Section 3, that the VP is only acting President.

The fourth part of the Amendment has never been invoked and is somewhat the nuclear option. In this one, the Vice President and majority of the Cabinet Officers send letters to the aforementioned congressional officers basically saying, “Hey, y’all, homie can’t handle doing the President thing, Blair House represents and requests promotion to the Oval.”

Or, in other words, the Vice President becomes acting President and the President is shut out, until they send their own letter saying, “Nu-uh.” There’s no time limit for this response other than, presumably, what would have been the end of the President’s term, but then the Vice President and Cabinet have four days to respond to the response, in effect transmitting their “no backsies” statement. Congress then has 48 hours to assemble and decide, by two-thirds majority of both houses, who wins.

Section Four has never been invoked, and, honestly, it really feels like a hand grenade that nobody from either party would ever fall on short of a full-on Madness of King George situation. It’s also a bit odd that the Constitution would give a prominent role to someone — the Vice President — with a vested interest in the process.

Good idea, poor execution. And at the point that Section Four were ever invoked, it seems like the congressional standard of removal should be simple majority, not two thirds. Not to mention that it sets the bar higher for the House than it is for impeachment.

So much for the what. It’s the way that is informative and scary. You see, basically, the assassination of JFK in 1963 reminded lawmakers of one thing: There was a hole in the Constitution bigger than the one Oswald put in Kennedy’s head. The Founders really hadn’t provided all that well for what happened when the President or Vice President or — OMFG! — both of them suddenly wound up out of office or unable to serve for whatever reason.

Resignation? Assassination? War? Revolution?

Now, granted, given the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution, it’s possible that the Founders figured it would be possible to go for a maximum of slightly under four years without a President or Vice President, and that Congress and the Courts could handle it on their own, or that the Vice President would only assume the powers of the President but that Congress and the Courts would decide on a replacement method if it became necessary.

They did make an attempt in 1792 — probably not coincidentally around the time George Washington was saying that he was not going to run for a second term. Popular sentiment convinced him otherwise, but the Presidential Secession Act of 1792 is a hot mess. Not only does it create the clusterfuck that is the useless Electoral College, it only stipulates what happens when both the Presidency and Vice Presidency are vacant, something that has never yet occurred in the history of the country.

Of course, Tyler was their first test of what happens when only one office goes vacant, and Congress set precedent by pretty much saying, “Oh. Okay,” once Tyler took the oath of office and moved into the White House.

The other two attempts were in 1886, goaded by the assassination of James Garfield and the death of Vice President Thomas Hendricks both leaving vacancies, and in 1947, after FDR died while World War II was still going on.

While the assassination of JFK was the obvious public impetus for the first parts of the 25th Amendment, the fourth section may seem a bit of a mystery, but it’s also dealing with an historical precedent, and one that not a lot of people know about. In 1919, just after the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke. Wilson’s wife went into full-on Nancy Reagan mode, limiting access to a bedridden president and, really, becoming the de facto president for the remaining two years of his term. She certainly limited the Vice President’s access to the man and, as history later revealed, only she and his doctor knew, and she forged his signature on documents left and right.

The 25th Amendment would certainly give a modern Vice President confronted with the same suspicious activity a good chance of rallying the cabinet and rooting out a hidden illness or manipulative spouse — although if that spouse had the balls to forge things the way that Edith Wilson did, it would probably become moot as well.

So the lesson regarding the 25th and the whole Constitution really is this: the Founders were only human, and they left so much wiggle room in there that it’s ridiculous. And that’s a big problem. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to start urging your lawmakers to take sides and close those holes, as well as to adjust things to accommodate life as it is now, not as it was in the late 18th century.

Which brings up another thought: Why is it only politicians who get to invoke the 25th? Shouldn’t that also be the domain of doctors, psychologists, and the like? That certainly would have caught out Wilson’s lie quickly.