Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Adjust your calendars accordingly

Today is Leap Day, the extra day that we tack on to February every four years to keep the calendar in time with the seasons. We do this because the Earth does not orbit the sun in a nice round 365 days, but rather in 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds. So remember check your stopwatches.

Ancient peoples based their calendars on many things, from the movements of the stars to the activities of plants and animals. The Greek poet Hesiod told farmers to begin the harvest when the constellation Pleiades was rising and to begin plowing when it was setting, and to sharpen their farming tools when Persian began invading their country. Most early calendars were based on the stages of the moon, with lunar months of about 29 days each. But the problem with the lunar calendar is that it's about 11 days short of the actual year, so instead of having to add a leap day every few years, you have to add a leap month.

The Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to develop a calendar with 12 months and 365 days. When Julius Caesar rose to power, the Romans were using a calendar that was so faulty they often had to add an extra 80 days to the year. In 46 B.C., after his affair with Cleopatra, besides the clap, Caesar decided to bring back the superior Egyptian calendar with him, and this became known as the Julian calendar. In the first version of the Julian calendar, February had 29 days most years and 30 days in leap years. Caesar named the month of July after himself, so when Augustus came to power, he decided he needed a month too. He named August after himself, but he had to steal a day from February in order to make August as long as July. (Again, this is what comes from spending too much time at the orgies.)

The Julian calendar worked well for a while, but in the 13 century, a sick old friar named Roger Bacon sent a letter to the Pope. He had calculated the actual length of the solar year as slightly less than 365.25 days, and he pointed out that the Julian calendar was adding one leap day too many for every 125 years. The result was that Christians were celebrating holy days on the wrong dates. Bacon wrote, "The calendar is intolerable to all wisdom, the horror of astronomy, and a laughing-stock from a mathematician's point of view." Bacon was eventually imprisoned for implying that the pope had been fallible, and his writings were censored.

It wasn't until 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII hired a group of Jesuits to fix the calendar, and they came up with the complicated system of omitting the leap day at the beginning of each century, except for those centuries divisible by 400. When Pope Gregory made the change (with his Papal Bull), the calendar was about 10 days off, so Gregory deleted 10 days from the year. People went to sleep on Thursday, October 4 and woke up on Friday, October 15. (Don't even ask.)

At first, the Gregorian calendar was only accepted in Catholic countries, and even there people were uncomfortable about losing 10 days of their lives. It led to protests and financial uncertainty, since people weren't sure how to calculate interest or taxes or rent for a 21-day month. Protestant countries didn't adopt the new calendar until much later, and this meant that for a long time, if you crossed the border of certain European countries, you had to set your clock back or forward by at least 10 days. When Great Britain finally accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1751, 11 days had to be deleted from the year. The change led to antipapal riots, because people believed the pope had shortened their lives. Mobs gathered in the streets, chanting, "Give us back our 11 days!" When the British colonies in America made the change the following year, Ben Franklin wrote in an editorial, "Be not astonished, nor look with scorn, dear reader, at ... the loss of so much time. ... What an indulgence is here, for those who love their pillow, to lie down in peace on the second [day] of this month and not awake till the morning of the fourteenth."

The Gregorian calendar has since been accepted everywhere as the standard. It is so accurate that we will have to wait until the year 4909 before our dates become out of step with the Earth's orbit by a full day.

So now you know.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

I'm not trying to be facetious

but is Rick Santorum kidding?

Has he really misunderstood one of the basic tenets of the founding of the USA or is he really saying that he believes that the Founding Fathers wanted to start a theocracy (much like Iran?)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy VD - the gift that keeps on giving

While you're opening your Valentine Day Cards and eating your special candy, opine on this -

When Rome was first founded, wild and bloodthirsty wolves roamed the woods around the city. They often attacked and mauled and even devoured Roman citizens—which, incidentally, is why the city took more than a day to build.

With characteristic ingenuity, the Romans begged the god Lupercus to keep the wolves away. Lupercus was the god of the wolves, so he was expected to have some influence on their behavior.

He didn't.

Wolves kept attacking and Romans kept dying.

This led the Romans to the obvious conclusion that Lupercus was either angry or away on business. It was a serious problem either way. Now, to this point in their history, the Romans had addressed all of their problems with one of two solutions: the first was to pray to their gods. Okay, they'd tried that. It didn't always work.

The second solution was to get drunk out of their minds and have an orgy.

So, in an effort to get their slacker god's attention, they had a huge party in his honor. They called it Lupercalia. It was an early April holiday celebrated on February 15 because, in spite of their classical educations, the Romans were as bad at reckoning months as they were at building roads—it was impossible to leave the city, for example, because all their roads led right back to Rome.

Because it was a spring holiday, and because Lupercus either didn't know or didn't care how many Romans were devoured by wolves, and because the Romans weren't wearing anything under their togas, Lupercalia gradually became a kind of swingers' holiday.

On Lupercalia Eve, Roman girls would write their names on slips of paper that were placed into a big jar. The next day, every eligible young man in Rome withdrew a slip of paper from the jar, and the girl whose name he had withdrawn became his lover for the year. Also on the eve of the Roman feast, naked youths would run through Rome, anointed with the blood of sacrificed dogs and goats, waving thongs cut from the goats. If a young woman was struck by the thong, fertility was assured.

Marc Anthony, naked and gore drenched, after a crazed run through the Roman Forum on the feast of Lupercalia, offered Julius Caesar the imperial crown of Rome. Caesar demurred and told Marc Anthony to go home, take a shower and get dressed.

As an interesting aside, they would often sew their lovers' names on their sleeves, from which we get the expression, who the hell taught you how to sew? Also, this must have been one hell of a party.

Romans were still attacked and killed by wolves, but no one really gave a damn now that they were all getting laid.

The festival endured.

Hundreds of years went by.

In the early years of Christianity, the Roman Emperor Claudius II was having problems with his army. Many of his soldiers were married men, and they couldn't be convinced that marching off to god forsaken barbarian backwaters to kill disgusting savages was more important than staying home and having sex with their wives.

Claudius ordered his soldiers not to get married. To be absolutely safe, he ordered priests not to marry soldiers. Not many soldiers wanted to marry priests, so this wasn't a big problem (some of the soldiers would have been happy to marry other soldier but that's another story.)

Now, there was one old priest who thought the emperor's policy was unfair. It wasn't so much that he wanted to marry any soldiers—he enjoyed playing the field—but he felt that he ought to be able to perform the holy rite of matrimony for soldiers who wanted to marry women (and be tipped accordingly - remember this is the Catholic Church - nothing happened unless you remember to tip your priest.) He began conducting secret Christian marriages.

The old priest was quickly arrested and imprisoned. On Lupercalia Eve of 270 AD—that's February 14, remember—he was decapitated.

That priest's name was, of course, Marius.

Arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded right alongside him, however, was another priest who'd been performing secret marriages—a handsome young priest named Valentine.

We don't know much about ole Valentine, but there are a lot of apocryphal stories. There's one about how, while he was in prison, Valentine fell in love with the blind daughter of his jailer and eventually taught her to see. There's another one about Claudius being so moved by Valentine's eloquent defense speech that he offered to call off the execution if the priest would abandon Christianity. But there's also a story about an old lady putting her dog in the microwave, and you don't see me going off on that tangent. As time went on, people forgot about old Marius, who hadn't been very photogenic. People remembered the handsome Valentine, and eventually he was canonized.

There was a new saint in town—St. Valentine.

And, like most saints, he'd been dead for years. But for all the fuss over what he did while he was alive, he has been absolutely spectacular in death.

His relics are on display today at St Francis's Church in Glasgow, Scotland. They can also be seen at the Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, Ireland. They're also at the Church of Saint Praxedes in Rome and the Collegiate church of Saint Jean-Baptiste and Saint Jean l'Evangéliste in Roquemaure, France, as well as eight other churches, two cathedrals, and all over Ebay. The Raelians could learn a thing or two from this dead saint.

If you do the math and were to gather all of St. Valentine's remains from all these churches, you'd have enough raw material for three new bishops, two deacons, and a linebacker. Giving eyesight to the blind is impressive, but as saints go it's the equivalent of a card trick. Multiplying your remains after you're dead, though. . . there's a miracle.

But, as the French say, let us return to our sheep.

(And let's not ask what the French intend to do with their sheep.)

One day the Christian Church took control of the calendar, which the Romans had reduced to one long series of overlapping holidays. The Christians moved Lupercalia back a day and renamed it St. Valentine's Day. No one objected to this change, since Lupercus still hadn't saved a single freaking soul from the wolves and the Romans still weren't wearing anything under their tunics.

And so St. Valentine's Day came to be celebrated as a harbinger of spring, a glorious tribute to the romantic splendor of Christian marriage, and a time for some good old-fashioned pagan fornication.

More centuries passed.

Christianity became more widespread, the calendar was finally perfected, and the holiday evolved into what it is today: a glorious midwinter celebration of passion, romance, and toe-curling sex. In some countries it's also celebrated by married couples.

(It should be noted that St. Valentine was removed from the Christian Calendar in 1969 because the church could not abide one of its sacred holidays being so flagrantly commercialized.)

Valentine's Day Cards

Let's go back for a moment to another apocryphal story about Marius' good friend Valentine.

On the day he was finally led to his execution, the jailer's daughter - the blind girl he'd taught to see--couldn't bear to say goodbye. Valentine understood, naturally—he had the patience of a saint—so he said goodbye in a letter. He signed it, "From your Valentine."

"The phrase," one source informs us, "has been used on his day ever since."

But that's not true. I should have known it wasn't true, since the source happened to be the guy sitting next to me in a bar where I did all my research.

The first true Valentine Card—and by that I mean the first such card signed by anyone whose name wasn't actually Valentine—was sent in 1415 by Charles, the Duke of Orleans, to his wife.

The Duke had been captured at the battle of Agincourt and was locked up in the Tower of London, and probably wasn't trying to be romantic so much as clever. Signing a love-letter "Your Valentine" didn't mean "your adoring spouse" or "your loving boo-boo." It meant, "your husband, still in jail, probably about to have his head chopped off."

Two-hundred-and-fifty years later, Samuel Pepys, who was probably familiar with the whole Duke of Orleans thing, wrote romantic poems to his wife on Valentine's Day and signed them "Your Valentine." Since he was neither in jail nor about to have his head chopped off, this was probably the first real Valentine.

Today, of course, billions of Valentines are exchanged each year, many of them from people not in jail or facing decapitation.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

It does sound right calling it Woodchuck Day

It's Groundhog Day.

In honor of the occasion, here's a little history -

Groundhog Day, February 2nd, is a popular tradition in the United States. It is also a legend that traverses centuries, its origins clouded in the mists of time with ethnic cultures and animals awakening on specific dates. Myths such as this tie our present to the distant past when nature did, indeed, influence our lives. It is the day that the Groundhog comes out of his hole after a long winter sleep to look for his shadow.

If he sees it, he regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather and returns to his hole.

If the day is cloudy and, hence, shadowless, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground.

The groundhog tradition stems from similar beliefs associated with Candlemas Day and the days of early Christians in Europe, and for centuries the custom was to have the clergy bless candles and distribute them to the people. Even then, it marked a milestone in the winter and the weather that day was important.

According to an old English song:

If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again.

The Roman legions, during the conquest of the northern country, supposedly brought this tradition to the Teutons, or Germans, who picked it up and concluded that if the sun made an appearance on Candlemas Day, an animal, the hedgehog, would cast a shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of bad weather, which they interpolated as the length of the Second Winter.

Pennsylvania's earliest settlers were Germans and they found groundhogs to in profusion in many parts of the state. They determined that the groundhog, resembling the European hedgehog, was a most intelligent and sensible animal and therefore decided that if the sun did appear on February 2nd, so wise an animal as the groundhog would see its shadow and hurry back into its underground home for another six weeks of winter.

The Germans recited:

For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, So far will the snow swirl until the May.

This passage may be the one most closely represented by the first Punxsutawney Groundhog Day observances because there were references to the length of shadows in early Groundhog Day predictions.

Another February 2nd belief, used by American 19th century farmers, was:

Groundhog Day - Half your hay.

New England farmers knew that we were not close to the end of winter, no matter how cloudy February 2nd was. Indeed, February 2nd is often the heart of winter. If the farmer didn't have half his hay remaining, there may have been lean times for the cows before spring and fresh grass arrived.

The ancient Candlemas legend and similar belief continue to be recognized annually on February 2nd due to the efforts of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

Growing Fame

From offering support of political events, to rooting for area sports teams, to becoming the star of a Hollywood movie, Dr. Phil has increasingly been in the public eye. Early observances of Dr. Phil's predictions were conducted privately in the wooded areas that neighbor the town. Today's celebration sees tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world as revelers await Phil's appearance as most fans wait to see their favorite rock stars.

The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper is credited with printing the news of the first observance in 1886 (one year before the first legendary trek to Gobbler's Knob. Let's polish the Knob everybody):

"Today is groundhog day, and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen his shadow."

Over the course of Dr. Phil's appearances, Phil has had numerous noteworthy highlights:

During Prohibition Dr. Phil threatened to impose 60 weeks of winter on the community if he wasn't allowed a drink.

In 1958 Dr. Phil announced that it was a "United States Chucknik," rather than a Soviet Sputnik or Muttnik that became the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth.

In 1981 Dr. Phil wore a yellow ribbon, and nothing else in honor of the American hostages in Iran. Several elderly women and young children fainted. Strong men had to be restrained from gouging their eyes out.

Dr. Phil traveled to Washington DC in 1986 to meet with President Reagan. He was joined by Groundhog Club President Jim Means, Al Anthony and Bill Null.

Dr. Phil was arrested for humping Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburg's leg in 1987.

In 1993, Columbia Pictures released the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray.

Dr.Phil frequently appeared on the Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman show.

In the years following the release of the movie, record crowds numbering as high as 30,000 have visited Gobbler's Knob to 'polish the Knob' in Punxsutawney!

BTW, the damn vermin Phil saw his shadow but Staten Island Chuck (apparently his cousin) did not, so six more weeks of inane psychobabble!!!