When the Band Begins to Play

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a grand tradition that has thankfully faded since its heyday prior to World War I. For one day only, I conducted a school band. There are a few things you might need to know about me before you realize the absurdity of that statement. First, I haven’t played in a band, school or otherwise, for more than twenty years. Second, to the best of my recollection, I have never conducted one. Until last week.

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By far the coolest hats in school. photo credit: Prayitno / Thank you for (12 millions +) view Red Raider Marching Band Pulaski H.S. ~ Wisconsin via photopin (license)

After World War I, the American school band movement, with roots in the mid-19th century, found its footing as a large number of military trained musicians returned to civilian life and brought with them a set of skills they could put to good use in public schools. Before that, school band was kind of an afterthought. If it existed at all, it was generally led by whatever teacher maybe had a little musical knowledge and wanted the extra cash.

But with an influx of actual talent and a hefty push from the instrument manufacturing industry, 1923 saw the first Schools Band Contest of America in Chicago. Small and poorly organized at first, the contest continued to improve and grow, encouraging the spread of school band programs and spawning the mostly state level contests of today.

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What I thought I looked like.

More than 90% of American schools now have some form of band education, and it’s a great thing that they do because students who participate in music have improved logic and reasoning skills, increased coordination, higher levels of engagement in their education, better stress management ability, greater self-confidence, and better standardized test scores on average than their nonmusical peers.

I’m grateful that the schools my kiddos attend have strong band programs with talented teachers. Of course that does mean that sometimes those teachers travel with parts of the program for performances and competitions, and have to leave the rest of their students in the hands of whatever substitute teacher may have a little musical knowledge and wants the extra cash.

This brings me to my conducting gig last week. I’ve been trying to do some occasional substitute teaching in our district lately, which has turned out to be a great way to get to know the teachers and administrators in the schools my kids attend. It does also occasionally stretch me a little outside of my comfort zone.

Last week, two of our directors accompanied the high school band to a competition, and I stepped in to help back at home. I started my day in study hall with about twenty high schoolers that didn’t go on the trip. No problem there. I also got to enjoy listening to the rehearsal of some impressive middle schoolers who stayed on task while one of their own teacher-designated peers guest conducted.

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What I actually looked like.

But then there was the grade school, where I found myself in charge of a class of sixth graders just getting their musical bearings. Fortunately, the lesson plan was specific and thorough. I had access to the students’ musical exercises through an app so I could have them play along. That helped smooth over my shortcomings somewhat. Then we got to an exercise that could be played as a round and the students, who had been remarkably cooperative, really wanted to do it.

The app couldn’t help me with that. With trepidation, I assigned parts, counted off the time, and waved my hand in a 4/4 cross pattern like I almost knew what I was doing. I kind of even sort of gave cues when it was time for each new section to start. Then I provided them with a nice big cutoff at the end, which they played right through because they’re sixth graders and they weren’t watching me anyway. But much like my early American school band movement predecessors, I somehow muddled through.

Fortunately this week, the real band directors are back.

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Dancing Like She’s Never Danced Before

It’s prom season here in the great state of Missouri. Every Saturday night from now until early May, dinner out at any local chain restaurant in the area (McDonald’s included) will come with a red carpet-worthy display of colorful chiffon and smart waistcoats.

I kind of love it. Even though I’d rather muck out horse stalls with a pair of chopsticks than watch the Oscars, I do enjoy seeing people dressed up in their finest frills. Since my own children aren’t old enough to participate in that grand old tradition yet, I soak up the images of the overly fancy diners and photos of my friends’ teenage kids posted on social media, with the advantage that I don’t have to be the one up all night worried that they’re not making good choices.

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To be clear, I don’t know any of these people, but don’t they look nice? photo by Ilhabela, via Pixabay

I do hope they all have a wonderful time, that they make it home safe with their hearts and their dignities intact, and that they dance their socks off. Because they have a fair amount of pressure and angst in their lives and most of them could use a night of cutting loose on the dance floor to work some of that out of their systems.

Just maybe, on a larger and more tragic scale, that’s what it was all about on a steamy July day in 1518, when Frau Troffea of Strasbourg in Alsace began to dance. She did so in the middle of the street, to a tune that played only in her head, without explanation or regard for anyone who might be watching. She simply danced.

And she didn’t stop.

After a few days, people began to join her. Within a week, thirty-four dancers had danced into the danger zone on the streets of Strasbourg. A month later the crowd had swelled to four hundred, still without any logical explanation.

Absent any better ideas, the authorities directed the building of a stage and enlisted the services of local musicians to provide an environment suitable for those getting’ jiggy with it to work the jiggy out of their systems.

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If people around you start dancing for no apparent reason, I think you just have to go with it.

Eventually, and after a large number of the afflicted dropped dead from sheer exhaustion, the massive, spontaneous flash mob stopped.

We know of Frau Troffeau from the writings of Swiss physician and alchemist Theophrastus von Hohenheim (whose historical stage name is Paracelsus). He arrived in Strasbourg a few years after the event with an eye to establishing a medical practice there. Paracelsus believed that the epidemic most likely stemmed from the vengefulness of unhappy wives, citing Herr Troffea, who allegedly hated nothing more than his wife’s dancing.

And while Paracelsus’s explanation probably seems as strange as the dance epidemic itself, historians and physicians today don’t have much to offer as a better explanation. One prevalent theory is that the symptoms were caused by Claviceps purpurea, a fungus that infects rye and other grains, served as the basis for the development of LSD, and has been known to cause people to go a little loopy.

But another maybe plausible suggestion is that this was a social psychological disorder stemming from the trauma of living in a time of frequent plague, natural disaster, and generally poor living conditions. I guess I sort of get that. Like Meghan Trainor, I feel better when I’m dancin.’

The citizens of Strasbourg weren’t the only victims of this most unusual epidemic, either. From the eleventh century to the middle of the seventeenth, numerous accounts of similar incidents pop up throughout Europe. Most of these are well documented. This actually happened. A lot of people really did dance themselves to death. And then it just stopped.

But all things considered, maybe in the Middle Ages that wasn’t such a bad way to go. Dancing can definitely be therapeutic, as can getting dressed up in your fanciest duds and going out to dinner with your friends. So have fun, kids.

Just remember to stop before you drop.

Naked with Lava-tude

In 1948, former Royal Navy WWII pilot, accountant, and avid nudist Edward Craven Walker sat in a pub in Dorset County, England and noticed an inventive homemade device bubbling away on a stovetop in the pub’s kitchen. What he saw was an egg timer created by a regular customer using a cocktail shaker and two immiscible liquids, one of which danced before his eyes like some kind of alien blob.

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Tech security company Cloudflare has a wall of Lava Lamps in its San Francisco office that it uses to generate random seeds for its encryption algorithms. It also adds a pretty chill vibe to the place. photo credit: niwasan Lava lamp Gallery – colección invierno 2009-2010 via photopin (license)

Walker was entranced by the bubbly display and mulled it over for a long time after, deciding to experiment with the concept himself in hopes of finding a way to make a lamp device that worked in a similar fashion. He retreated to his mancave shed where, presumably naked, he tried different containers and liquid combinations until he found something that worked.

In 1963, he introduced the world to his Astro Lamp. Just one year later, a US Patent was filed and in 1965 the Lava Manufacturing Corporation in Chicago bought the American rights to what they would call the Lava Lite Lamp, because groovy alliteration sells. Or at least it did in the late 60s and 70s.

I mention lava lamps today, because according to several websites devoted to listing “this day in history” events, like brainyhistory.com, on-this-day.com, and some random guy on Facebook (who, admittedly comes off a little sleazy and maybe not entirely legit) insist that April 5, 1965 was the celebration of “Lava Lamp Day.”

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Groovy. And maybe that’s reason enough to celebrate.

Try as I might, I cannot determine why this particular date is important in the history of the Lava Lamp. It’s not the day the US Patent was filed. I suppose it could be the day the American rights were purchased, or even the day the lamps hit the US market, but I’m not able to verify either of those guesses. I also can’t find any reference to an actual celebration either in 1965 or beyond, that revolved around the Lava Lite Lamp. What I’m left with, then, is the assumption that it might be entirely made up and lifted and shared, as so many things on the Internet tend to be.

Still, when you come across a Lava Lamp (if you ever have then you know what I’m talking about), it’s hard to look away. And though the popularity of Walker’s psychedelic invention waned through the eighties as people became mesmerized instead by big hair and shoulder pads, it enjoyed a resurgence in the late nineties and well into today.

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The Internet is pretty quiet about how the original Lava Lamp Day was celebrated, but I imagine it looked something like this.

My son, who was not alive in sixties or seventies, even has one in his bedroom. If you felt so inclined, you could probably find your own right now at your local discount store. Or your basement. And if you’re the crafty type, you can try to make your own. There are plenty of instructions available on the Internet, most of which don’t even require nudity, but then Walker’s exact formula for perfect lava-tude is a proprietary secret. Also, as previously demonstrated, the Internet may occasionally be less than reliable.

Running is Still Stupid: A Tale of Perseverance as Told by an Ugly Guy

In 1915, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany and a prolific writer known to his readers simply as Lord Dunsany, produced an updated version of another prolific storyteller’s work. He titled the tale “The True History of the Tortoise and the Hare.” Part of Aesop’s Fables, the original story tells of a plucky tortoise, who though slow and steady, defeats an arrogant hare in a foot race.

It provides a wonderful lesson in perseverance, or at least that’s how I always heard it. But Lord Dunsany’s version turns out a little differently. In it the hare thinks the whole idea of the race is remarkably stupid and he refuses to run. Later, after the tortoise has claimed his victory, the two are on a high hill and seeing a distant forest fire, decide the fastest of them should warn the forest creatures. All of the witnesses to the race event then perish, which is why few had heard the real end of the story before.

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Lord Dunsany, looking very smug after killing off all the forest animals. By Bain News Service, publisher – Library of Congress Catalog, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This may not have been Aesop’s original intention, but then, this may not have been Aesop’s story. Over the years, the collection of Aesop’s fables (or the Aesopica, which is a pretty great word) has grown to include more than seven hundred tales, many of which can be traced to origins that do not in any way coincide with Aesop’s life. So really, to credit a fable to Aesop is more about assigning a genre.

Also it’s not entirely clear there was an Aesop at all. Aristotle, along with other contemporary sources, describes a slave who loved to tell stories, born around 620 BC. About where exactly he was born or whose slave he might have been, sources disagree. It’s not until the 1st century AD that there was an effort to write a sort of biography, known as The Aesop Romance. From this account, attributed to no single author and freely expanded by many for hundreds of years, we learn that Aesop was an exceptionally ugly man who received his gift of storytelling from the goddess Isis.

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Speedy. photo credit: Riccardo Palazzani – Italy Testuggine delle Seychelles via photopin (license)

And that, I think, is as likely as a tortoise outrunning a hare.

So it’s probably safe to say that Lord Dunsany, or any other writer, can pretty much do whatever he wants with the story. Though I like the message that perseverance pays off in the end, I’m fond of the 1915 version as well, in which the moral is obviously that tortoise brains are as thick as their shells and there’s nothing slow and steady about a forest fire. Also, from the hare we learn that running is stupid.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, or if you’ve read Launching Sheep, then you may recognize this as my personal running mantra. Also, you may recall that I only need a running mantra because I am a sucker for a goofy event. I really do despise running.

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I only run for the tutus.

But when I recently saw there would be a Bunny Run 5k close by, including a costume contest, I decided to participate. I even did a little bit of training to prepare so I didn’t injure or embarrass myself. Then I worked on my costume. At the suggestion of my very clever husband, I decided to be the tortoise among the bunnies.

Race day dawned dreary and dull. And stormy. And cold. But because I had worked so hard on my costume (and trained a little for the run itself), I pulled myself out of bed on that awful Saturday morning and ran.

This slow and steady tortoise definitely did not win her race, but I did win the prize for best costume and I finished in a time that made me happy, ahead of a good number of bunnies. Also, no one died in a forest fire. Because it was raining.

Running is stupid.

Puritans Inhaling Swamp Gas

Sometime in late February of 1639, a man by the name of James Everell, along with two of his Puritan buddies, rowed his boat up the Muddy River of Massachusetts and spotted a weird light in the sky. The light appeared as a large flame, about three yards square, and then began to dart around the sky, taking on a different shape, like that of a swine, presumably still on fire.

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Maybe that fancy, dancy light was just the aliens’ way of inviting the men to a pig roast. photo credit: eric dickman Pig Roast ’05 via photopin (license)

After a few mesmerizing hours of watching the flaming pig streak back and forth across the sky, the three men realized that during that time, they had somehow ended up a mile upstream from where they’d been with no recollection of how they’d gotten there.

But here’s the really strange part. These three pals actually told people they’d watched a flaming pig fly through the night sky. By people, I mean they told John Winthrop, then governor of the Massachusetts Colony and among the puritanest of Puritans. On March 1, 1639 he wrote down the account in his now well-studied diary. It’s clear he found the tale a little odd, but also that he believed the tale-tellers to be credible men who generally made pretty bang-up witnesses.

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John Winthrop. If this man told me he’d been abducted by aliens, I’d probably believe him. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a few possible explanations, then, for what these reliable men saw. First, and obviously most likely, this could be the earliest written account of a North American UFO sighting and alien abduction. Alternatively, these gentlemen could have been boating to a safe distance away from the stocks before overindulging in their puritanical beer. Or of course the whole thing could just be an example of spontaneously igniting swamp gas reflecting off Venus.

Governor Winthrop proposed another explanation nearly five years later when two similar events occurred. During the second of these later events, a voice accompanied the mysterious lights. Winthrop’s most reliable witnesses said they heard the words, “Boy! Boy! Come away! Come away!”

The governor notes fourteen days later, the same voice could be heard again. The reason, he suggests, is that the colony had recently experienced a nearby shipwreck resulting in an explosion. All the victims’ bodies were accounted for except one. Logically, Winthrop theorized the Devil had possessed the body and was now using it, along with a freaky light show, to terrorize the colonists. Hmm. Maybe.

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This guy knows what I’m talking about. photo credit: c r i s They’re Coming To Take Me Away / 135.365 via photopin (license)

Then again, perhaps a bunch of enthusiastic otherworldly visitors were calling to their human would-be abductees as they have so many times in generations since. Personally, I’m a little skeptical, but perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you, or someone whose story you find credible, have experienced something that to the rest of us might seem a little far out there.

If so, then National Alien Abduction Day, observed in the US on March 20 every year for at least the last decade, may be just the day for you. As for me, I think I’ll avoid the swamp gas and the puritanical beer that day. Perhaps I’ll fashion a nice aluminum foil hat, too, just in case.

Tough Questions on the Way to School

On the way to school the other day, my ten-year-old, seatbelt clicked and settled into the back of the car beside his overstuffed backpack, asked me a serious question. “Mom,” he said. “If gummy bears were lifesize and fighting in a war under terrible conditions, and if they could regenerate, would they sacrifice their limbs so their fellow soldiers could eat?”

Obviously my first thought was: what?

But I am the lucky mom two clever and creative sons, so this was not the first time I’d been asked a question for which I couldn’t possibly fathom an answer. I moved quickly on to my next thought: What have I done wrong as a parent that this child would ask such a warped question? It must be his dad’s fault.

My son began to drum on his backpack, indicating that he was losing patience. That’s when I realized he wanted an actual answer, so I blurted out the first one I could come up with. “Yes,” I said, decisively. “I believe gummy bears would be heroic enough to do that.” Fortunately, we reached the school before he could ask a follow-up question.

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Gummi bears, marching off to war. Photo courtesy of Ronile via Pixabay

My husband hadn’t left for work yet by the time I got back home, so I decided to put the question to him, expecting to share a laugh about the strange things our kiddos come up with sometimes. Instead, without skipping a beat he said, “No. It would be unwise in a situation of deprivation because the gummy bears wouldn’t have the energy they’d need to regenerate. They wouldn’t be much use in battle without arms, now would they?”

I recognized immediately that this was a more thoughtful answer than the one I had given. Also that it really is his fault our sons are a little warped. Still, the question stayed with me, because even though his answer made a lot of sense, I couldn’t make it fit with the image of the Gummy Bear.

The first Gummi Bears were made by German confectioner Hans Riegel, a couple years after he set up shop in his kitchen to create the simple hard candies his wife then delivered to customers by bicycle. By 1922, the two-person candy operation was struggling and Hans came up with a great idea to save it. Gelatin-based candies were just starting to really hit the spot for European customers with products like gumdrops, Jujubes and Chuckles. Riegel decided to create his own chewy, fruity version in the shape of cute little bears.

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“Haribo” is a combination of Hans Riegel’s name and Bonn, the name of his hometown.

The bears were a hit and by 1939, the small candy-making operation, renamed Haribo, had grown to employ four hundred people and produce ten tons of gummy bears each day. Today the same company, still owned and operated by members of the Riegel family, produces enough gummi bears each year to circle the earth four times if laid out head to jiggly toe.

Haribo had some pretty lean years, too. During World War II, Han Riegel died, leaving the company in the hands of his two sons who both wound up prisoners of war. By the time they were released, the company was down to thirty employees and couldn’t produce enough bears to circle the earth even once.

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According to the cartoon, Gummi Bears bounce here and there and everywhere, which I suppose makes them good soldiers? These also look like they’re plotting something. photo credit: Werner Kunz Some macro experiments: Gummi Bears via photopin (license)

Fortunately, the Riegel brothers turned out to have pretty good heads for business and, if the theme song of Disney’s 1985 cartoon, The Adventures of the Gummi Bears, can be believed, gummies are pretty bouncy. The brothers soon turned the company around and were employing more people than ever, pushing their way into markets across Europe with a slightly squashier and friendlier looking bear.

By 1980, the bears had made it to America and though there are now several companies that have latched on to Hans Riegel’s brilliant idea, the world still has plenty of Haribo loyalists. And why not? Because these gummi bears, though brought low by the horrors of war, managed to fight their way back, to continue putting smiles on faces the world over.

So yes, I do still think that a sentient, life-size gummi bear, if faced with the awful privations of war, would do all it could to bring joy to those around it, even if that wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Gummi bears, after all, are known for being tasty and chewy and for making people happy. They are not particularly known for their wisdom.

Next question, please!

Basically a Toddler

Finally it’s March. I don’t know about you, but by the time we reach this point in the year, I usually feel pretty chewed up by winter. As I age, too, I find it harder and harder to endure the cold, dark months between Christmas and March. Yes, I do realize there are only two. And that one of them is short. That doesn’t make me dislike them any less.

Truthfully, though, I’m not that big a fan of March either, because in my part of the world, it behaves a little bit like a toddler. One moment it’s the sweetest: all babbling brooks and birdsong, blowing sunshine kisses. The next minute the sky starts grumbling, the temperature drops thirty degrees and before you know it every tiny hint of a bud is covered in two inches of full on tantrum ice.

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The saying, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb,” may be astrological in origin. Or maybe some Sumerian blogger was just getting poetic. By John Hevelius 1690, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But even though I think my analogy is pretty spot on and should probably become a thing, no one has ever said March is basically a toddler. Or if they did, no one ever repeated it, which is a shame. No, instead it comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.

That sort of works, too. Even though lions take a lot of naps and from a distance can resemble lazy old housecats on bad hair days, they also have scary teeth, loud roars, and are generally pretty willing to chew you up if given the chance. And lambs? Well, they’re just cute and stupid, the kind of animal you don’t have to give a lot of thought to except to say, “Awww.”

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Awww. Photo courtesy of cathy0952, via Pixabay.

I suppose I can get behind the adage since people have evidently been using it for so long. According to this article in The Paris Review, the earliest known written reference to the saying is found in a book published in 1732 called Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British by Thomas Fuller. So then the saying was first used either in the early 18th century or in Ancient Mesopotamia or possibly somewhere in between, which narrows it down quite a bit.

Because I so painstakingly dedicate myself to thorough-ish research on this blog, I did, of course, take the time to search through the book, just to make sure the phrase was in there. Or at least that’s what I meant to do. Fuller includes thousands of sayings. Some of them we still use today. Many of them I probably heard my grandma say once or twice. Others strike this modern reader as just plain silly. I admit, I got a little lost.

Some of my favorites:

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What exactly am I supposed to do with this mustard?  photo credit: Marthinshl Heinz Mustard Heinz Mustard Photography IPhoneography Product Photography via photopin (license)

“An apple may be better given than eaten.”

“He who is born a fool, is never cured.”

“If an ass goes traveling, he’ll not come home a horse.”

“If the old dog barks, he gives counsel.”

“Tailors and writers must mind the fashion.”

“After meat, mustard.”

I never did find a reference to March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb, but it’s probably there. I also didn’t find any sayings suggesting that “March is basically a toddler,” so I think I may have coined it. And really, some years, March starts out a little more lamb-like and some years the nasty cold rages right into April, behaving just like a toddler that refused to take his afternoon nap. It’s a thing.