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None Of The Above

Anything that doesn’t fit into existing categories

So Am I an Old Man Yet?

72 today. I am quietly rejoicing for having logged another year. Each year we survive is a win. But each year I ask myself: Am I old yet? and every year, well, I can’t in all honesty say yes. I used to think that 65 was the border separating middle age from old age. But when I turned 65 in 2017, I couldn’t shake the feeling of still being middle-aged. So I shoved the border back a few years, to 72. Here I am. And damn if I don’t feel a whit different than I did at 65.

I’ve written about several of my birthdays at some length, and make a few points in those entries that I don’t intend to make again. Here’s 58, 60, 66 (I didn’t do an entry when I turned 65) 69 and 70.

So when does a person become old? My hypothesis: There comes a point when it becomes impossible to live without a little (or maybe more than a little) help. That’s when you become old.

It’s not a dumb question. As we age, things lose functionality. Little failures accumulate, with an occasional larger failure as a sort of quantum leap. A lot of those you can see coming and dodge; I’ve never smoked nor done drugs and don’t drink much. Low-carb has kept my weight down. It’s unclear how much getting plenty of sleep helps, though from all I’ve read it’s a lot.

A few you can reverse with medical help. I’ve been told I’ll need cataract surgery eventually, and whereas my sight isn’t strongly impaired yet, I’m not looking forward to the surgery itself. Joint replacements exist for knees and hips and probably a few others. So far, my joints are in reasonably good shape. Carol and I have been doing some intense weight training since 2003, and I’m pretty sure I now have more muscle than I did when I was in my 40s.

As I’ve written before, sure, I’ve been lucky. That said, a lot of luck you make yourself. Simple caution and not doing stupid things have kept me from spraining or tearing anything essential. I practice sanity, refuse to engage in tribal screaming matches, and don’t take myself as seriously as I might. Laughter feels good, even if you’re laughing at yourself. I keep my brain busy.

Yes, I now have a certain amount of metal in my mouth. In truth, that metal works better than the teeth it replaced. The rest of me is still original stock. I still have my tonsils and my appendix, granting that neither buys me much beyond peculiar bragging rights.

All of which suggests that I’m not old yet. I may someday need a cane or braces of various kinds. 75? 80? 85? Who knows? I’ll take it as it comes. As a grade school friend of mine often says of life, Enjoy the ride. I’m a contrarian optimist. I am enjoying the ride. And as long as I’m enjoying the ride, I suspect I will not think of myself as old.

Odd Lots

  • Spooky or creepy music in SF/Fantasy/Horror flicks is assumed to rely on the theremin. I just discovered the Ondes Martenot, which sounds like a theremin but is easier to play. Furthermore, it’s been around for most of 100 years. Not sure how I got into my 70s without ever stumbling on it. Good link on YouTube.
  • Carol and I don’t go out to the movies much anymore. We stream or buy a DVD for anything we want to see. This writer offers a cogent explanation for why theaters are largely to blame for this phenomenon. (Crappy movies are the rest of the explanation.)
  • This sounds a little (or more than a little) grandiose: A meteotsunami subjected the shore of Lake Michigan in Holland, Michigan to—oh, no!—a 2-foot wave. When I was a kid this phenom was called a seiche, and Chicago got its share, rare though they might be. Certain types of bad weather including strong winds and rapid changes in atmospheric pressure are to blame. Again, I’m surprised I made it to my 70s without ever seeing the word.
  • No small number of people have claimed that "return to office" mandates are back-channel layoffs, a way to reduce headcount by having heads quit voluntarily. Now some research seems to indicate that this is the case.
  • Ok, this is mondo weird: I spun through the McD’s drive-thru not long ago for an iced coffee and got two pennies (and some other coins) in change. Both pennies were 1981-Ds. What are the chances?


  • I was looking for Revolutionary War flags and stumbled upon a list of flags on Wikipedia that would do Sheldon Cooper proud.
  • Beethoven was a classical music composer, but his body was full of heavy metal, specifically, lead. The Mayo Clinic analyzed a few strands of the maestro’s hair, and found 64 times the lead found in a typical American today. This likely led to the many medical problems Beethoven had, including deafness.
  • Lazarus 3.4 is now available, built with FreePascal 3.2.2. It’s a bugfix release and there isn’t a lot of New Stuff, but get it anyway! There’s nothing else quite like it in the OSS universe.
  • A few days ago I received an email inviting me to the—wait for it–Lane Technical High School Milwaukee World Naked Bike Ride. I thought it was a hoax but no—naked bike rides are evidently a thing in big cities. Now, Lane Technical High School (which I attended 1966-1970) is in Chicago, not Milwaukee. There is in fact a World Naked Bike Ride in Chicago on my 72nd birthday tomorrow, but they didn’t invite me. I don’t own a bike, and I’m a long damn way from Milwaukee, or Chicago. That said, I doubt there will be a World Phoenix Naked Bike ride any time soon. It was 113 the other day. People would die.


Hey, I’m still alive, but I haven’t posted since May 27th and people are starting to ask. A lot of my writing energy is being sucked up into the final pieces of The Everything Machine, which is a full-length drumlins novel where I (finally) spill the beans about what the drumlins are and where they came from. Carol and I have been “going to church” online since COVID, and a couple of weeks ago we decided to attend in person. Four days later, I came down with the worst cold I’ve had in years.

Wait. It was the only cold I’ve had in years: specifically, since I began taking quercetin and zinc in the spring of 2020. Now, we both got COVID some time back, but we knocked it out with a 5-day course of HCQ and zinc. What this means is that we now have reliable natural immunity and I’m not worrying about catching the damned thing again. And just in case we do, I got a telemed firm to prescribe some ivermectin for us.

But this cold hit me in spite of the quercetin and zinc. I’ve begun to wonder if taking quercetin for four years has developed a tolerance for the drug in my system, rendering it less effective. This has happened a number of times in the past with other drugs. My response to drugs has peculiarities: A root canal procedure years ago showed that I do not respond at all to nitrous oxide. Nothing. I asked the dental tech if the gas was flowing. She took a whiff from the cannula and said, Yup, it’s flowing. Regardless, I ended up as tense as always, watching some movie in the TV mounted on the ceiling while they excavated a bad tooth.

After Colorado legalized RMJ in 2014, I bought a vape and tried it. Nothing. And I do mean nothing. I sometimes wonder if (as the first girl I ever dated said) I’m too weird for words. Shortly after Coriolis imploded, I got an acupuncture treatment to make me feel better. It worked! I felt better for…a week. I went back for another go. Nothing. Placebo effect? Probably. I’ve never entirely understood how sticking a bunch of needles in people acts against depression—or anything else.

As June wound down, we were delighted to have my sister’s family stay with us for a few days. They drove down from Chicago, visited some relatives in Texas, and stopped along the way to see the Painted Desert, Meteor Crater, and us. Gretchen stayed with us while my BIL Bill took their kids to VidCon in Anaheim. She’ll be here until next Sunday or Monday, when the rest of her gang heads back from Anaheim. In the interim I have some high-quality sister time, something that’s been scarce for the past few years.

I do have a couple of entries planned, but one of them has been in the works for months and I have yet to put a single word down on it. I have enough bullet points for an Odd Lots, which I intend to post today or tomorrow. June hasn’t been empty offline, which is why Contra’s been empty online. Time to get that particular train back on its track and steamed up.

A Memorial Day Salute…

Robert Williams - cropped - Color Corrected…to Robert Williams, Jr. of Necedah, Wisconsin, who gave his life for his country in 1944. I’ve mentioned him before and will mention him again; he was my mother’s high-school sweetheart, and had he returned from the War, I am pretty sure they would have married—and I would not now exist. Does this bother me?

Don’t be silly. Love and honor matter.

I don’t know a great deal about Bobby Williams. My mother did not talk about him. I’m pretty sure she moved to Chicago from Wisconsin in 1945 once she knew Bobby was never coming back. I knew nothing more until Craig Williams, one of Bobby’s grand-nephews, contacted me in 2020, and explained how he died during the Victoria in Prom Dress Alonewar: His Navy torpedo bomber crashed into the Pacific on March 9, 1944. Craig sent me a number of photos, including the Navy’s 21-gun salute at his funeral (below) and one of my mother when she was 17, in her prom dress for the Necedah High School Senior Prom. (At right.)

In a slightly weird coincidence, both Bobby and my father were radio operators during the War, Bobby on a torpedo bomber in the Pacific, and my Army father first in Italy and later North Africa.

I’m not sure how much more I can say. WWII was a horrible thing. The best I can say about it is that after VJ Day, people understood that the world might not survive another World War. So far so good. I still worry sometimes.

Alas, millions of good people like Bobby Williams had to die to put that lesson across. I honor all of them, and always will. But Bobby Williams loved my mother until his last breath, for which I honor him, and also hold him in tremendously high esteem. He looks like the kind of guy I could hang out with, trade stories, and knock back a couple of glasses of wine with over dinner. Knowing that I can never meet him doesn’t in any way change my honor or my esteem.

Or…who knows? He’s on my prayer list. Maybe “never” is too strong a word.


Robert Burns Williams JR. Funeral Hawaii

More Classical Triumph

By popular demand, here come a few more triumphant and mostly triumphant (or at very least stirring) works of classical music, each one with a link to a recording on YouTube. I’ve considered all suggestions and rejected several for not having enough melody (Adams’ “A Short Ride on a Fast Machine”) or enough energy (Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of the Nobles”) to carry off the feel of triumph. I like those too, but I’m on a mission here, and feeling sprightly tonight.

I’m about out of time for fooling with Contra today and want to post this before supper. I’m still looking for candidates and still considering a few, like Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” and Aaron Copland’s “Outdoor Overture,” which is a touch peculiar but deserves way more play than it gets. Again, I’ll start collecting pieces for a third entry, though it won’t be soon, since I’m at 104,000 words and struggling to finish The Everything Machine. So let’s have at it!

  • William Tell Overture: March of the Swiss Soldiers, by Rossini, 1829. Ok, guilty: I skipped this one the first time because who doesn’t know, well, The Lone Ranger theme song? Although nominally a march, it always sounded to me more like a mad scramble or (in most people’s minds) a guy on a galloping horse. The music world now agrees that the piece is indeed a “galop,” which was a rapid dance movement in the 1700s that became the forerunner of both the polka and …wait for it… the can-can.
  • A Moorside Suite: March by Gustav Holst, 1928. The conclusion of a three-movement suite, all of which is worth hearing. This concluding march expresses both confidence and triumph right through its final bars, which don’t explode but instead say, “We won. Live with it!”
  • The Running Set, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1933. Here we have, not a lead-up to an explosive ending, but an absolutely manic five minutes beginning to end that I often characterize as “an Irish jig on meth.” It is probably Vaughan Williams’ most obscure work, drawing on four folk dance tunes and cranking the meter up to 11. Here’s about as much description as I found on a quick scan. Ok, sure, no explosion at the end, just a single forward chord. But given what came before it, hey, that’s all that I require.
  • March of the Trolls by Edvard Grieg, from his “Lyric Suite,” 1894. The orchestra tries to play a pretty melody, and here come those darn trolls, not marching but madly scrambling from rock to rock in their cave and making an awful racket. They go away, and the orchestra tries again. Can’t have that. Here come the trolls, back from whateverthehell trolls do, scrambling into their cave, double time. March? Trolls don’t just march. Moral: Don’t try to play pretty melodies near the trolls’ cave. They’ll win every time.
  • Troika by Sergei Prokofiev, from “The Lt. Kije Suite,” 1934. It was a movie: The previous incarnation of Captain Tuttle is born, falls in love, marries the girl, and then goes for an invigorating sleigh ride! That’s the life—but make sure you stop there, because the next movement is a downer. Really, it’s ok; Lt. Kije (like Captain Tuttle) never actually existed.
  • Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg, from his ”Peer Gynt Suite” (1876). Sure, how can we play “March of the Trolls” and then not go to the next mountain over and try to sell the Mountain King some solar panels? No, King Carbon lives above a coal mine and avoids the Sun. So you have to sneak out again, with the King’s bodyguard following along behind. You go faster, they go faster, and before you know it, it becomes (yes!) another mad scramble to jump over chasms and race down the mountain to the valley, where there are fewer grouchy kings (or trolls) and more pubs.
  • Symphonie Fantastique 5: Dream of a Black Sabbath, by Hector Berlioz, 1830. Most people in the classical music universe consider this a musical depiction of an occult nightmare. It’s not. It’s something utterly different and better: a musical metaphor of good triumphing over evil. So it begins: the creepy crawlies skitter and gesture and finally join together in an infernal dance (1:18) The nightmare is underway, and the minor evils make themselves known, posturing to each other, some noticing a brief bit of a different force (2:27) that strikes fear in their hearts. At about 2:50, the Big Bad opens up its Eye in the tower and, with funereal bells in the background, looks down at its minions while the Deus Irae pronounces its rank as top of the evil heap. But at 4:52 something new and terrifying happens: The Army of Good arrives at the gate and makes its presence known with the rhythm of marching stallions. Sneaking around circa 6:35, evil starts to worry. That’s quite an army that Good has out there. Time to engage! Down the gates fall and in comes the army, trampling the minions and making its way up the Tower to confront the Bad Boss. Up the tower stairs the minions retreat, sneaking and hopping (8:20) and falling over the railings (6:12). None can truly face the forces of Good. At the top of the stairs, Good unleashes its power against the Big Bad. Big Bad responds (9:01) Good overpowers evil, the Deus Irae plays for the end of Big Bad, and the Tower crumbles to dust and rubble on top of the doomed minions. Good rides off triumphant. No matter how bad you think you are, don’t mess with those guys. Really. REALLY.

Heh. I’ve wanted to write that last item that for a long, long time!

Playlist: Classical Triumph

I like happy endings. If you’ve read any of my fiction, you know that I write them. Bummers are popular in literary fiction, and were when I got my liberal arts education fifty years ago. (This is why I don’t write literary fiction. That shoe just don’t fit.) But this applies to music as well as fiction. The three characteristics I look for in music are these: Melody, Harmony, and Energy. I’ve enjoyed an occasional sad song (like “The Parting Glass”) for various reasons, but if a sad song has none of those three characteristics, I won’t buy it—and if there’s a skip button, my index finger finds it at some significant fraction of c.

Energy is the one I get the most pushback about. Who doesn’t like a peaceful tinkling Mozart piano piece? Well, if I can’t hum it…me. I have always used music to rev me up and break me out of blocks in my thinking or especially my writing. Energy in music is a very big thing for me.

So in today’s entry I present a playlist of some classical pieces that carry a special grip on my imagination: the music of triumph. No gentle fade at the end. Uh-uh. I want a musical explosion that makes me want to stand up and cheer. Yes, I’m that kind of screwball. If you didn’t know that already, well, this playlist will make it abundantly clear.

All links are to performances on YouTube. There are many others available.

  • Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zoroaster), by Richard Strauss, 1896. This one has special significance for me, because it’s the unforgettable opening piece in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which may be my favorite film of all time—and the film I asked Carol out to see for our first date in 1969.
  • Symphony #3, Organ, final movement, Maestoso, by Camille Saint-Saens, 1886. It was years after I saw the 1995 film Babe that I first heard this larger work from which the Babe theme borrowed. The thunderous organ sequences are like nothing else I’ve heard in classical music. It opens with an explosion, and ends with an even bigger explosion. What’s not to love?
  • Building the Crate, by John Powell, from the Chicken Run soundtrack, 2000. I’ve mentioned this one before, and whereas it strikes some people as slightly goofy in spots, it’s definitely stirring. There’s a touch of klezmer in it, and for a few seconds a chorus (if that’s the word) of…kazoos. It’s all about the chickens triumphing, something one doesn’t generally associate with chickens. But triumph they do, with callbacks to films The Great Escape and The Flight of the Phoenix.
  • Lincolnshire Posy 6: Lost Lady Found, by Percy Grainger, 1937. Short and to the point, and definitely gets across the triumph of finding a beloved person after a long and difficult search.
  • The Planets: Jupiter, by Gustav Holst, 1917. If you’ve heard anything in this playlist, you’ve heard ol’ Jupe. Although subtitled ‘The Bringer of Jollity” (is that still a word?) its utterly explosive ending makes me consider it “The Bringer of Triumph.”
  • Russian Sailors’ Dance, by Reinhold Gliere, 1927. Written as part of a ballet called The Red Poppy, it starts out low and slow, gathering speed and force as it goes, until it reaches a manic but completely satisfying explosion at the end.
  • Towards a New Life, by Josef Suk, 1931. I never heard this until KBAQ played it a couple of years ago. It deserves way more than obscurity. A triumphant march for full orchestra, it has roots in Czech nationalism and lyrics in the Czech language for which there is no English translation. (The linked performance is instrumental only.) Some think the trumpet solo opening is too long; if you agree, skip the first 90 seconds.
  • Symphony #9. The New World: Finale, by Antonin Dvorak, 1895. There are a few slow parts in this finale to Dvorak’s all-time best work, but they act to frame the explosive energy of the rest and make it stand out by contrast. That’s ok; sometimes we have pause for a bit to take a breath, in our lungs and sometimes in our lives. No matter; the explosion at the end makes the quiet parts worthwhile.
  • Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev, finale, by Modest Mussorgsky, 1874. In spite of the countless times I’ve heard it, this piece continues to bring a tear to my eye, often as not. Especially when preceded by the creepy and subversively diabolical movement “Baba Yaga’s Hut,” (as here) to me it symbolizes humanity staring down Evil, kicking its ass across the galaxy twice, and then dropping it down the black hole at the galaxy’s core, where it belongs and will trouble us no more. Triumph you want? Triumph I’ll give you!

That’s all for now. Got any more? I’m always in the market for music like this.

Niklaus Wirth 1934-2023

We lose our heroes one by one. By the time you’re in your 70s, like I am, you begin losing them a lot more frequently. We lost Don Lancaster back in July. Don’s books taught me how digital logic worked way back in the last half of the ‘70s. His writing was so good that I imitated it when I began to write computer articles and later books in the 1980s.

Niklaus Wirth died earlier today, in Switzerland, at 89. He was another hero, who taught me how to write computer programs that could be read. Pascal wasn’t the first programming language I ever learned; that honor (or perhaps dishonor) falls to APL and a little later, FORTH. I wrote a text formatter in mainframe APL in 1978. It was 600 lines of squiggly jibberish. By the time I got to the bottom, I had already forgotten how the top worked. FORTH, well, the less said, the better. I think of it as Yoda’s programming language. If you’ve ever messed with FORTH, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

My friend Mike Bentley introduced me to Pascal in 1980 or 1981. I bought a compiler for my CP/M machine soon after. Pascal/MT+ was awesome, so awesome I decided to write a book about it. I was about halfway through the book when Turbo Pascal popped up above the horizon. By the time I finished the book on Pascal/MT+, Turbo Pascal had taken over the Pascal universe, and I rewrote Pascal from Square One for Turbo Pascal. (The publisher retitled the book Complete Turbo Pascal for reasons I have never understood.)

I learned Pascal by cut’n’try. I learned how to write good Pascal by reading Wirth’s wonderful 1976 book Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs. My flameout with APL left me with the indelible conviction that software must be readable by the people who didn’t write it—and not after hundreds of hours of hair-tearing, either. I learned C, billed as a “high-level assembly language,” which is a contradiction in terms. My view: Go as high as you can go, or as low as you can go. To me, that meant Pascal (or BASIC, or COBOL) on the high end, and real assembly language on the low end. C source code is needlessly obscure, and by that I only mean it could be a lot more readable if its creators chose not to be proud of its obscurity. There’s actually a contest for writing the most unreadable C programs possible, which I think tells you a lot about C and its partisans. There was a time when C could do things that Pascal couldn’t. Those days are long, long past, and I will no longer argue the point here.

I learned Wirth’s Modula 2 programming language when products became available in the 1980s. I read up on Modula 3 (1988) and Oberon (1987) but never coded in them. As best I can tell, they expanded Pascal’s power without damaging its comprehensibility. Pascal itself has long been out of Wirth’s control, and today we have tremendously powerful implementations of Pascal like Delphi and Lazarus/FreePascal. But without Wirth, people like me would still be writing in BASIC or COBOL.

I write this eulogy without a heavy heart. Niklaus Wirth made it to 89, and reshaped much of the software development universe in the process. To me, that means he won—and won big.

Godspeed, sir. We will never forget you.

The Parable of the White Tile

[Excerpted from my book, Odd Lots, 2021]

Centuries ago, during the Age of the Great Cathedrals, a mighty church was rising against the rolling green hills of a distant Christian land. The king of that country had retained the world’s greatest architects, masons, sculptors, and artists to build the church, which would be a task of many years, perhaps decades. The greatest of all the artists that the king had employed had come from far away, and made his home in the shadow of the church, knowing that he would be pouring most—and perhaps all—of the rest of his life into its completion.

He was an artist of a special skill, the creation of mosaics. With nothing but colored tiles he could paint scenes and landscapes so real, so luminous, that they seemed to have a life of their own, as though they were windows into the ineffable realms of Heaven itself. His task in the building of the church was a mosaic above the main altar, sixty feet high, depicting Mary, Queen of All Saints.

The mosaic would require tens of thousands of colored tiles. The Artist made each of the tiles himself, alone, by hand, at a small bench behind the main altar. Each tile was precisely what the mosaic required. Each one was shaped individually in the Artist’s hands, and no two were alike. His skill was great: No more than were needed were made, none were ruined, and none were thrown away. After the tiles had been colored and fired, the Artist took them up on the scaffold himself, and cemented each tile individually and precisely into its place in the great mosaic.

The Artist was the greatest that his craft had ever produced, and he had promised Jesus and Mary that this mosaic would be his masterwork. God saw how the Artist loved the tiles he had crafted, just as God loves all of His children, and in a special way God allowed the tiles lives according to their natures, and made them recognize the Artist as their master, because tiles have neither minds nor souls with which to recognize God. The Artist spoke to the tiles as he shaped them, fired them, painted them, and positioned them in the mosaic. As the years went on and the mosaic took shape, the tiles would speak to one another and to the Artist, who praised each of them for its part in the greater work that was unfolding. The tiles listened to the Artist, and they were happy.

All but one. At a particular place within the mosaic was a white tile. The tile knew the tiles all around it, but no more than that, because a tile within a mosaic cannot see the picture of which it is a part. The white tile looked to its neighbor tiles, and realized that all of them were made of gold. The white tile was large, and its angles were irregular. All of the surrounding tiles were smaller than the white tile, and of compact and regular shapes. Where the golden tiles had neat corners, the white tile had sharp spikes. This made the white tile unhappy.

One day, as the Artist was positioning new tiles into their places in the mosaic, he heard the white tile calling out to him: “Master! Master! Why am I so strange and ugly?”

The Artist heard the white tile, and stepped down a few rungs on the scaffold to where the white tile was, so that he could speak to it: “You are not strange and ugly, my child. You are precisely what I needed you to be.”

The white tile was not convinced. “But all the tiles around me are made of beautiful gold! I have no color at all!”

The Artist shook his head, and smiled. “White is the greatest of all colors, dear one, because it contains all other colors. Every color of the rainbow lies within you.”

The white tile was still not happy. “But I am huge and gross, and have no shape. All of my angles are sharp, and nothing about me is regular. I am nothing but a jagged, ugly, spiky white blotch. Why, master? Why?

The Artist leaned forward toward the tile. As his eyes grew closer to the mosaic, he reminded himself that he could see the tiles the way they could not see themselves, and that he could understand their places in the heavenly image in a way that none of them could ever understand. So it was with great tenderness that he reached out a fingertip, and gently touched the white tile while he replied:

“Because, my dear child, you are the dazzle at the center of Our Lady’s golden crown.”

Tree vs. Tree at Christmas

It occurred to me years ago that the ancient Christmas carol “The Holly and the Ivy” really has nothing to do with ivy, even though ivy is mentioned side by side with holly in the title and the refrain. It’s almost as though something was left out of the lyrics:

“The holly and the ivy, when they are both full-grown,”

Ok, I give. When the holly and the ivy are both full grown, then what? The holly has the berries, the blossoms, the thorns, and in the full version, the bark. Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown. The ivy has…nothing.

I haven’t thought about that silly little issue in a lot of years, until KBAQ played a song this morning called ”Ivy, Chief of Trees, It Is,” by British composer Sarah Cattley (with a little help from Yoda, there might be.) You can find a very nice performance here with great harmony. Lyrics are here. The Latin “veni coronaberis” means “Come and be crowned.”

So here we are: Two Christmas carols about trees that wear the crown. Will there be civil war in the woods? A duel? A fistfight?

Wait. Hold on. Something weird is going on here: Holly is a tree. Ivy is ground cover, or at best something crawling up the sides of elite college buildings. A little snooping on Wikipedia yielded a clue: An older carol that may have been originally penned in Middle English, called “The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly.” The lyrics in modern English are these:

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a-cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,
Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.
Nay, ivy, nay, etc

Ivy hath chapped fingers, she caught them from the cold,
So might they all have, aye, that with ivy hold.
Nay, ivy, nay, etc

Holly hath berries red as any rose,
The forester, the hunter, keep them from the does.
Nay, ivy, nay, etc

Ivy hath berries black as any sloe;
There come the owl and eat him as she go.
Nay, ivy, nay, etc

Holly hath birds a fair full flock,
The nightingale, the popinjay, the gentle laverock.
Nay, ivy, nay, etc

Good ivy, what birds hast thou?
None but the owlet that cries how, how.
Nay, ivy, nay, etc

(A quick query shows that “laverock” is what they called the lark in Chaucer’s era.)

Wikipedia suggests that holly and ivy are emblematic of the male and female principles. So it’s not a fight over a crown; it’s the battle of the sexes, with the deck severely stacked against women. I also wonder if “The Holly and the Ivy” as we sing it today was sanitized back in the 19th Century, leaving out the verses that slander poor ivy: Holly stands inside, warm by the fire; ivy is left outside to freeze, and so on. If such sanitizing was ever done, I see no mention of it online. So the mystery remains.

I’m looking around for interesting Christmas-related topics and will post the best here. So stay tuned.

Hallowhy: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualism

I’m fascinated by the Victorian/Edwardian period of history, which is where steampunk is usually set, as well as weird westerns. My WIP drumlins novel The Everything Machine is in some respects a space western. But quite apart from a lot of other fascinating things from that era (The Great Eastern! Brunel!) there is the puzzle of spiritualism. It’s that time of year again, so I can ask and perhaps answer a question that popped up as I read about the phenomenon of spiritualism, which was quite the thing in the Victorian era and for some time after, from roughly 1850 until 1940. It came out of nowhere and spread explosively, then vanished almost as quickly. Yes, there are a few spiritualist churches still in operation, but they’re notable not because of their ubiquity but because of their scarcity.

Here’s the (double) question: Why did spiritualism appear? And why did it vanish?

My tl-dr answer: Lotsa deaths. Also antibiotics, and television. Let’s talk about that.

Most people agree that spiritualism began in 1848 in the farm town of Hydesville, outside Rochester NY. There were two young sisters living in a small house with their parents. As you’ll note if you read Colin Wilson’s excellent Poltergeist (see yesterday’s entry) having pubertal girls in a house is practically begging for poltergeist activity.

And so it was. In the house of the Fox family, there began all the usual: scratchings, bangings, growls, raps, and more bangings. Some of the booms could be heard over a mile away. (Subwoofers didn’t exist in 1848.) Katie, the younger sister at 12, was a bit of a snot. The general assumption was that the noises were the work of the devil. So Katie jumps up in the midst of audio pandemonium, and yells, “Here, Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do!” She then pounded the kitchen table twice with her fist. The noise stopped for a moment, then two loud raps answered. Katie and her older sister Margaretta listened to the invisible whatsit echo their own noises, then established a sort of code for answers: noise (of whatever sort) meant “yes.” Silence meant “no.” Using this code, they questioned the family poltergeist, and soon established a more complex code for spelling out words. The poltergeist claimed to be the spirit of a dead peddler who had been murdered and buried beneath the cellar of the house. He gave his name as Charles Rosma, and a little digging in the cellar and behind a wall turned up bones and a peddler’s carry box used for door-to-door sales work.

The story spread like wildfire across America and then across the Atlantic to Europe, and soon lots of other people were talking to “spirits” via pounding on tables or—later—making the tables tap out codes with their legs. After that came the “planchette,” which is a kind of pointer, to be used on a board printed with the alphabet. (These were not called “ouija boards” for quite awhile after.)

Certain people had a talent for talking to whatever was tipping tables or moving planchettes around. Other people didn’t, but tried it anyway—and in some cases, got some minor interactions. By the 1860s, formal spiritualist groups coalesced around the world, many claiming to be parts of a new religion. By the 1880s, spiritualism had also become a sort of parlor game played by groups of bored teens and young adults, some of whom freely admitted moving the planchette or table with their own muscles. After all, you had to touch the planchette or table with human hands to make it work. Faking it was easy, and getting laughable answers was the goal of the game.

Down the years after 1850, different methods of talking to dead guys appeared: automatic writing, trance mediums, and direct voice, among others. Despite being a game for many young people, it was taken seriously by many adults, and a spiritualist canon (most produced by automatic writing) appeared, explaining what spirits do on the job and off, where they go to school, and what sorts of surroundings they live in. Spirits claiming to be deceased relatives of the “sitters” (the people attending what later became known as seances) came through often, sometimes to say very little more than “I’m all right! It’s beautiful here! Can’t wait to see you again!” Despite a slightly grim edge to such communications, people were ecstatic to hear from their dear departed. There was plenty of religion abroad in the Victorian era, but spiritualism offered something none of the other religions could: Messages from departed loved ones.

Something people now in the 21st century generally fail to understand is that there were a lot of departed loved ones back then. And not just old people. Many children died of diseases like diphtheria, pneumonia, or that hideous killer “consumption”: the Victorian term for tuberculosis. Spouses became widowed far earlier and oftener than now. Death in childbirth was common, and supposedly happened to one in twenty pregnant women trying to give birth. Stillborn children and infants who lived for only a day or even a few hours were quite common.

If you read the contemporary literature of spiritualism (I have) it becomes obvious that everybody back then had deceased loved ones: parents, children, infants, grandparents, spouses, close friends.


There was a huge market for Spiritualism (I’ll cap it now because it had become a global movement/religion and not merely an idea) and Spiritualism catered very well to that market. Spiritualism cruised along at full roar (or maybe full bang) for decades. It reached what might be considered its peak during WWI, when a great many new deceased love ones happened. After WWI and the Spanish Flu of 1918, death rates continued to fall due to chlorinated water, indoor plumbing, sanitation in medicine and the first vaccines. Penicillin appeared in 1942, and it was the first antibiotic of many. People no longer died from infected minor cuts and scratches.

Once WWII was over, death was no longer an everyday thing in American life and elsewhere in the developed West. People were (mostly) living their threescore-and-ten, and death in childbirth was not the scourge it had been in the 1890s. The demand for talking to dead people was nowhere near as strong. The supply of seances and mediums thinned out. Little by little, people lost interest.

That was Spiritualism’s first whammy. There was another.

In the last quarter of the 19th Century, entertainment was scarce, and mostly confined to the well-off. There were concerts. But there was no broadcast radio, and until the 1920s, few phonographs. For music in the 1880s, it was concerts or nothing. (Or in some cases playing your own piano.) Concerts cost money, as did plays. So what did bored young people do for entertainment?

Table-tipping. Planchettes. It was a craze. It was cheap. Modern histories generally don’t state this, but if you read the contemporary reports, seances had become a parlor game.

Fast-forward to 1930. There was radio. There were movies. Not free—but increasingly inexpensive as time went on. Seances had competition. Then, in 1948, TV happened in a big way. Sets were still expensive, and until the early-mid 1950s people often watched them in bars. But demand brought down prices, and by 1955, TV ruled the entertainment world.

How could seances compete with Sid Caesar?

They didn’t. Spiritualism became an eccentric current in an increasingly distant past. Now, there’s an asterisk to this story: In the early 1960s, Parker Brothers (the game people, makers of Monopoly) bought the rights to a product called Ouija, which had been produced and sold since 1910 or so by a William Fuld. It was basically an inexpensive prefab planchette system. By 1965 Parker Brothers was targeting Ouija at tweens and teens with commercials on both radio and TV. I was there; I saw them. The girl down the block got one for her birthday and twisted my arm into trying it with her. Nothing happened. She was annoyed. I was relieved.

Many millions of boards were sold. In 1968, in fact, Ouija outsold Monopoly, which boggles my mind, at least. I wonder how many people actually treated the “game” seriously. I also wonder how quickly the damned things went into the trash.

That’s the story as I understand it. When death was an everyday thing, the demand for Spiritualism was high. As death rates went down and death became a sad but uncommon occurrence (compared to the midlate 1800s) the demand went off a cliff. Parker Brothers tried making it a game, and although I have no real data, no one I knew except the girl down the street had a Ouija board.

As with poltergeists, I take no particular position on Spiritualism. NDEs and channeling have taken over nickel-and-dime afterlife exploration. A couple of weird events in my life suggest that there is an afterlife, and it’s a fundamental concept in Catholicism, if not described well. I’ll take author John Hick’s opinion as my own: It’s there, but we won’t know what it’s like until we get there.

I’m good with that.