Once Upon a Time Warp (A Brief History of Leap Day)

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It’s a tale as old as time: one of the greatest innovations of human timekeeping is credited to “Father of Leap Day” Julius Caesar, and where did he get the idea? From a woman.

Gather round, kids, for a brief story:

Once upon a time, there was a Prince with a Problem. His people, the Romans, were having some trouble keeping track of things. They, like most of humanity, had adopted a lunar calendar – first with only ten months (because, in a move that would make George R.R. Martin proud, winter was a “monthless time”), then eventually with January and February to bring it to twelve. But if the Prince and his countrymen had bothered to ask, any woman could have told them that letting life be ruled by a lunar cycle is just asking for trouble. And it was!

The Prince’s trouble was that the Man on the Moon takes on average 29.5 days to complete one of his cycles, which makes a 354-day year. Mother Earth, on the other hand, has more to do; she takes roughly 365.25 days to get all the way around the sun, which made the Roman calendar a full 11.25 days too short. Bummer. In just a few years, this communication gap had the Ides of March on the Ides of April, and that just sounds silly.

Like the Classic men that they were, the Prince and his Romans routinely ignored this inconvenient problem until it got so big they couldn’t; then they “fixed” it by inserting a random extra month into the year now and then, forcing that rascal Spring back where it was supposed to be.

Effective? Yes. Functional? Maybe. But much like a frat house, this was no way to live.

In a different part of the world, a Queen named Cleopatra and her Egyptians had devised a brilliant strategy for living in harmony with Nature. They kept a calendar of twelve tidy 30-day months, then made up the extra length with a five-day party at the end of each year. Every fourth year, that party went for six days.

Kids, if this sounds like the best idea humankind has ever had, you are right. We really missed the boat.

By the time Julius Caesar met Cleopatra, things had gotten way out of hand for the Romans. I mean, seriously out of hand – they’d ignored their time problem so long that Spring was hiding in Summer and snow was falling in May. Julius was impressed by Cleopatra’s brilliant calendar (and by everything else about her, pretty much), so he did what usually happens in these situations: stole it from her, made it a little less good, and proudly declared it his own. Typical.

First, Julius had to get his Roman calendar back on track, which could have happened by letting time take its course, but was more fun to do with brute force. (Bruté force? That would come later.) Declaring 46 B.C. the “Year of Confusion,” Julius Caesar made it 445 days long and forced that sneaky Spring Equinox back to March, where it belonged. He then sprinkled some extra days around the calendar (making his own month the biggest, of course), and decreed that every fourth year one extra day would be added to the end – which, for the Romans, was February.

Way to kill the week-long party, Julius. Way to kill the party.

And everyone lived happily ever after in harmony with Nature – except that they didn’t. There was a dark storm brewing, and it was called Accuracy. You see, kids, the problem is that Mother Earth only takes roughly 365.25 days to circle the sun. She actually takes 365.2422 days, which means that adding a full quarter day to every year then made the Roman calendar 11.2 minutes too LONG.

This seems like a small problem, sure, but like grains of sand in an hour glass, it adds up. In 128 years, the whole calendar was off by a full day, and by the time of Pope Gregory XIII more than 1500 years later, that sneaky bugger Spring was back in April instead of March.

Once again, the man in charge took drastic measures, removing ten days from October 1582 (no Halloween candy for you, kids), and declaring that, going forward, every century year – 1600, 1700, etc. – would have no Leap Day, unless that year was also divisible by 4.

That’s right, kids; bet you didn’t know how special that Leap Day was in 2000.

And so, with this new “Gregorian” calendar (because of course he renamed it after himself), we’ve got the whole 365.2422 days per year problem sorted out. For a while, anyway. It’s still not perfect, but it will be 3,300 years before we’re off by a whole day again. Let those guys worry about it.

The End*

*Or is it? The buried feminine roots of Leap Day seem to have caused some residual guilt that has seeped out in the form of misguided attempts at female empowerment. In Ireland and the U.K., Leap Day became traditionally the one day women were allowed to propose to men – and had to be compensated (with money or clothes) if turned down. In the U.S., this tradition became “Sadie Hawkins Day” (celebrated November 15th in common years), and in one city – Aurora, IL – single women are deputized on Leap Day to arrest men.

THIS YEAR, I say we tackle our own empowerment in a less condescending way, and use our special day to leap a woman one step closer to the Presidency. Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, after all – and the first day of Women’s History Month. Make some history, Hillary; one giant Leap for womankind.

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Don’t Let the Hodor Hit You on the Way Out

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There is a Hodor-sized hole in my heart right now. I knew the medieval BFG was going to be absent from Game of Thrones this season, but now that we’re almost halfway through the emptiness is palpable. No lumbering innocence. No verbal nuance. No exquisite torture from simultaneously craving more “hodor” and dreading his last.

[For those unaware, the character Hodor is a large but gentle servant of the Stark family who speaks only one word: “hodor”. Imagine Lenny from Of Mice and Men hooked up with Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, had a three-parent IVF baby with The Hulk, wrapped it in wolf pelts and tossed it backwards a few centuries. He’s perfect.]

My own Hodor is also missing this season. He, too, was a large, joyous man with an unfortunate penchant for accidental damage and a real name other than Hodor. [Geek of Thrones: fictional Hodor’s given name is Walder.]

One Hodor can do plenty of damage, intended or not; two Hodors can really mess a girl up.

Human Hodor and I bonded over our mutual love for his namesake. When I described the character to a GoT newbie as “simple-minded” and he amended, “simple-worded, not really minded,” it was the first time I realized I completely loved how human Hodor’s brain worked.

Hodor became our talisman. One evening after a Thrones viewing he bid me farewell with a kiss and a “Hodor.” It was ho-dorable. Soon, it was our standard greeting. First thing in the morning: Hodor. After receiving a thoughtful gift: Hodor! In exchange for a lovely plate of eggs: Mmm….hodor.

Before long we had hodored our way into being completely hodor about each other. Then, after a deep and emotional talk one night, he left the room and hit me with a simple text: Hodor. “Hodor too,” I replied, and that was that. Like Westley and Buttercup, we had no need for “I love you.” As Hodor wish.

Scientifically, fictional Hodor is an extreme example of a person stricken with expressive aphasia – when the Broca region of the brain suffers trauma, leaving speech limited but comprehension intact. Giant Hodor was probably a giant baby, so perhaps his mother dropped him a time or two. My own Hodor did not have the excuse of a head injury; his affliction was more traditional: fear.

From early on, he was honest about his commitment skittishness. The word “relationship” frightened him, even though the trappings of one did not. In practice, he seemed pretty gung ho about the actions of a relationship, so I didn’t mind that he was more comfortable saying “Hodor” than “I love you”. The meaning was clear to both of us, so I didn’t worry. I probably should have worried.

In the end, my Hodor turned out to have more going on in his head than he was aware of (though in his case it wasn’t a warging Bran Stark). When we broke up, he refused to admit that his fear might be greater than he thought, insisting instead that he must just not love me. Oh, the Hodor!

Maybe it’s true – maybe he didn’t – but like his namesake, Hodor also doesn’t know what happened when he ceded control of his brain for a moment. He doesn’t know that on the last night we spent together (three days before he bolted), he actually told me “I love you.”

He doesn’t know this because it was one of the last things he said before falling asleep – right between “”I love my bed” and “I also miss the coffee” (he had been out of the country for a while). I’m not sure which made me happier – that he said “I love you” instead of “Hodor” or that he placed me ahead of coffee. Holy Hodor, Batman!

I have no idea what to do with this information now. It wasn’t worth making a big deal of at the time, and I did not know our next conversation would be a breakup. At that point, it seemed a little awkward to mention it.

But as Hodor knows, little words can pack a big punch. I have recovered from many romantic devolutions caused by many problems – not being right, not being ready, not being even remotely interested; I’ve never had to get over someone who loved me back but didn’t consciously know it.

Hodors leave big shoes to fill. What’s a girl to do? Oh right, stare at Peter Dinklage for a while. Mmm…hodor.

Twitterpated (Ode to a Sight of Mail)

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Remember chain letters? Not email spam, or those “make a wish and send this to nine people within sixteen hours or you will die a nightmarish death” forwards you get from your Aunt Spinster every other day; I mean actual, physical, in-the-mailbox chain letters.

They used to show up every now and then when I was a kid, usually sent by some member of my Girl Scout troop or a camp friend, usually involving an idea exchange of some kind. The hardest part was copying the letter out a half-dozen times, by hand, because the typewriter was too loud and I was too slow on it. (Yeah, I said “typewriter” – remember those?)

Having teachers for parents came in handy, as sometimes I could convince my mom to add the letter to her pile of worksheets slated for the mimeograph machine at school. (Remember mimeograph – technically ‘Ditto’ – machines? Oh, that purple ink and the cool, soggy feel of fresh copies…) After making copies, the job usually entailed choosing a handful of new victims, adding my own address to the bottom of the chain, and then sending something – a recipe or reading suggestion – to whatever name was at the top of the address list.

Sure, chain letters have always been annoying, but at least back then you could respect that the person subjecting you to one had put a little effort into it. Plus, you had a real chance of getting some actual, physical something in return for passing it on. With chain emails, all the sender has to do is type your name and click a button – and with auto-fill features, they probably don’t even have to type your full name! It shouldn’t be that easy to inflict mass exasperation.

Remember sending messages by balloon? Not for accuracy, but for fun. We did a class project in elementary school where we tied note cards with little wishes or greetings on them to the strings of individual helium balloons. En masse, we released our balloons, then waited to see if any of the note cards would get a response. They bore instructions for those who stumbled upon them to write back saying who they were, whose message they had found, and where the attached balloon had come down. It was exciting to have your message found at all; if it had cleared the city limits you were a freakin’ rock star.

Nowadays, kids post a status on Facebook and ask people to share it, to see how many likes and posts and trips around the world it can complete in a week or something. Forget one person finding it, success is judged by the thousands. Sure, this method causes fewer avian deaths from choking on latex, but it just doesn’t feel as exciting to me.

Remember phone trees? That intricate system of parental communication to spread the word about school closures and game cancellations, and the political intrigue of which parents got placed how high on the list, and whether this was based on popularity or reliability or both… Screw Game of Thrones, phone trees were the real epic drama in our lives.

Remember pen pals? Remember note passing? Spending hours of your life drafting and re-drafting, deliberating and analyzing with friends, and consulting the Magic 8 Ball, all to find the exact, perfect way to say, “Do you like me? Check one: Yes ; No”… Taking great pains to fold your note with origami-master-level intricacy, and using every color of pen at your disposal to make it beautiful… Then playing your own version of “Six Degrees of That Cute Guy Kevin” to devise the most efficient but least risky network of girlfriends to get that note from your third period art class to Kevin in sixth period Algebra in secret… Remember that?

It took days of planning and weeks of working up the nerve, not to mention hours of tortuous waiting for the response. Each letter, each note, each thought was an EVENT. Now you can just text, “DTF?” and it’s all over in four characters. Where’s the beauty in that?

There used to be a romanticism to the way we communicated in the world. The difference between the past and today’s technological convenience is the difference between Shakespeare and two emoji’s depicting a milkshake and a throwing spear.

Which brings me to my point: I joined Twitter this week. I have shuffled off this Luddite coil and now will bear the whips and scorns of time… or whatever. My handle is @FFrontalNerd if you care to find me. Let’s see if we can make poetry in 140 characters or less (ahem, fewer). See you on the Dark Side!

Of Bikes and Men

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After accidentally destroying a mouse nest in 1785, the poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” In case we weren’t fully convinced of just how awry things can go, John Steinbeck hammered the point home 150 years later with the most beautiful exercise in soul-crushing devastation ever written. (It is brilliant and inspiring, but I will never bring myself to read Of Mice and Men a second time – much like Death of a Salesman, Native Son, and Al Gore’s speech conceding the 2000 Presidential election.)

On Sunday, the universe made sure I understood how agley things aft gang with a comedy of errors so stupid I actually stopped at one point to check for a live studio audience hiding in the bushes. They weren’t there, but the laugh track in my head was pretty loud. Since comedy equals tragedy plus the time it takes for the pain killers to kick in, I thought I’d share my story.

It started with a plan – a rare plan for me, to do Sunday right and thus do very little. The new eggplant in my life is a big Game of Thrones fan, and in anticipation of the season 4 premiere, we have been attempting to binge-watch seasons 2 and 3 (a re-watch for him, the first pass for me). This eggplant – let’s call him Hodor – has a sweet entertainment setup, so we do these GOT marathons at his place. So this Sunday, that was the plan: breakfast, GOT, lunch, maybe a hike, more GOT, dinner, then the season 4 premiere.

At 9-ish, my phone rings. I ignore it, because it is out of reach on a Sunday morning and I am not about to start my day. By 10-ish, I am emotionally prepared to face the world, and also ready to face some breakfast. What harm could there be in checking a voicemail from my dear friend Peter first? Turns out it wasn’t from my dear friend Peter – it was from his friend saying Peter had been in a biking accident, and could I please call back right away. Panic. Guilt. No more lazy Sunday.

Peter is going to be fine, it turns out, but he is in the hospital for tests and needs his insurance information sent over. Since I am also his neighbor and the keeper of the spare keys, I am the perfect person to solve this problem. Except I am not at home; I am across town. A logistical monkey wrench, but not insurmountable. It’s an hour round trip, tops.

In my head I am hearing my favorite Simpsons clip, from Treehouse of Horror III, where Homer is sold cursed frogurt. Peter was in an accident (ooh, that’s bad); he is going to be fine (that’s good!); but he needs you to get dressed and head across town (that’s bad); though it should only delay your plans by an hour (that’s good!). Hodor and I resolve to delay breakfast while I run home, and as I hug him for his understanding, that’s when my back muscles go into complete spasm. (Can I go now?)

Twenty minutes of deep breathing and tentative stretching later, I am able to get up off the floor, get into some real clothes, and make it to my car for the drive home. The entire left side of my back is still in knots, making left-hand turns really unpleasant; suddenly, everywhere I need to go is to the left. As I whine pathetically, “It hurts when I steer,” I hear my grandmother’s voice reply, “Then don’t do that.” If only.

While driving is painful, and getting in and out of the car even more so, I resolve to pull an L.A. Story and drive the three blocks from my house to Peter’s once I have retrieved the keys, because walking is the worst action of all. This, of course, is the moment my plans get run over by a bicycle for the second time that day.

Wilshire Blvd., the main drag that runs roughly a mile north of my house, turns out to be closed down for CicLAvia – the event four days a year when bikes take over the city. Closing Wilshire to cars is bad for traffic, but not being able to cross Wilshire for several miles in either direction is catastrophic. I’m all for green transportation and a healthier lifestyle, but at this point I am ready to tattoo “fuck bicycles” across my forehead.

Making one last eye-watering left turn, I ditch the car as close to Wilshire as I can and set out to cover the last mile to my house on foot. Thank goodness Hodor had convinced me not to run this “quick little errand” in my pajamas – it would have been less effective to curse the happy biking families if they were laughing at me.

Since my iPod is with all my hiking stuff back at Hodor’s, I entertain myself during the walk by singing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” from Book of Mormon. On repeat. By the time I hobble to my house, grab Peter’s keys and a sun hat (because the sunscreen is also back with my hiking stuff), and drag my hunchback-ass up the hill to his house, poor Peter has been waiting well over two hours for his insurance information. My not-so-intelligent phone manages to take a decent photo of his card after three tries, and the hospital finally has what it needs. Huzzah.

I still have to walk Peter’s dog, who, instead of pooping, seems determined to make me limbo under every low-hanging tree she can find, but eventually I get her back inside, where I “borrow” some of Peter’s ibuprofen as my reward. Sweet, sweet drugs. Back down the hill at my house, I scarf down a “breakfast” of toast, grab a heating pad and a screw-this-I-earned-it bottle of champagne, and carry them in a shopping bag hugged to my chest – the only position that doesn’t completely exacerbate my back. It is well after 1pm by now, so I start the long walk back to my car, shuffling along like a bag lady in the heat of the LA afternoon. Looks like I got some exercise in after all!

Even though the knot in my back got ambitious during the return drive and seized the muscles on the right side as well, the rest of the day went much better than the morning. Hodor declared it a day (well, a half-day) of pampering, and we did manage to finish Game of Thrones season 3 before the premiere. As a bonus, the haze of Advil and champagne made the red wedding far less upsetting than it could have been.

One last thing: a couple of episodes into our afternoon binge, Hodor’s overhead light fixture – completely unprompted by man or earthquake – fell from the ceiling, shattering glass all over his table and computer. Which just serves as more proof that you probably shouldn’t try to make plans with me in the near future. There is a good chance you will end up having to take me down to the river to tell me about the rabbits one last time…