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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Bright Fights, Big Cities

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Rivalries are fun, but even more fun when you win. I know, because this weekend Harvard beat yale in The Game for the 8th year in a row (the Harvard Band remains undefeated).

I have experienced both sides of the rivalry see-saw. For one, I cheer for team Democrat, which is so bad at competition they couldn’t win a game of solitaire. I also live in Los Angeles, which tries hard to convince the world (and itself) that it is just as good as New York. It’s an awesome city, to be sure, but people come to the U.S. to see New York, then maybe L.A. later (after a quick trip up to Boston to photograph the John Harvard statue).

There is some serious rivalry between cities, as evidenced by the glut of “Umpteen Reasons My City is Better than Your City” lists clogging the internet, and the fact that anyone from Chicago will spend hours arguing it is the best place in the universe – never mind that they moved somewhere else.

(Smaller cities and towns are just as competitive; I’m from north-of-nowhere Berlin, New Hampshire, and you can bet we knew having the paper mill made us better than those lame-o’s in nearby Milan.)

Like rivals like, and within groups of relative equals those rivalries are free to get nasty and silly – like how I never capitalize the word “yale”.

Since I am a citizen of both the Ivy League and a top U.S. city, and am riding high off of my school’s continued Ivy dominance this weekend, and had yet another run in with a super-proud non-resident Chicagoan recently, I decided to mash up the rivalries. Because superficially judging your peers is fun! And mash-ups are totally in right now.

New York: NYC is the Harvard of cities. Harvard’s motto is “Veritas”, which means “Truth”, but I think of it more like, “Preach”. The truth is, there is only One. No matter how many other schools achieve equal quality, it will still be the only one whose graduates get to say, “I went to Harvard”. And then have everyone hate them. “I’m a New Yorker” carries similar magic.

Los Angeles: That makes L.A. yale. Totally legit in its own right, but it will just never catch up to the First. yale tries so hard, their motto is even a one-up on Harvard’s: “Lux et Veritas” (Light and Truth). It doesn’t matter how many national tours come to Los Angeles, New York still has the only Broadway. Quality has nothing to do with it – you can’t catch up with history.

Chicago: It seems like Chi-town should be Princeton, but Dartmouth fits best. Both schools are academically equal to the Big Two, but location carries weight. Chicago is a mecca of culture in the middle of our middle, featuring difficult travel to and from and godforsaken winters. Princeton, NJ is no metropolis, but it isn’t the Vermont/New Hampshire border, either. Dartmouth’s actual motto is, “A voice crying in the wilderness.” ‘Nuff said.

Boston: Princeton gets paired with Boston. It can hang with the big dogs but is palpably smaller, and Boston’s two main themes are History and Academics. The fact that Princeton not only hosted Albert Einstein but also still hosts his brain satisfies both categories.

San Francisco: I love SF, but its residents either have a giant chip on their shoulder or a massive inferiority complex (or both). Plus a mild haze of depression (for which I blame the fog). Sounds like Brown to me! Denizens of both passionately love their home – and resent their peers even more. Brown is also the quirkiest of the Ivies, which San Francisco certainly matches, and to top it off Brown’s motto is, “In God we hope.” That kind of has to be your motto when you live in earthquake central.

Atlanta: As the major city nobody seems to think about or even remember most of the time (except when watching The Walking Dead), Atlanta is the Columbia of cities. The parody lyrics to Columbia’s fight song are “Columbia! (‘What?’) Columbia! (‘Oh..,’)” for this reason. Both grab a little attention now and then with stunts like the Olympics or James Franco, but then quickly fade back out of mind.

Washington D.C.: U Penn’s parallel could be New Orleans, but Washington wins. Penn is the third-oldest Ivy, but is usually thought of late when listing the schools, in much the same way that D.C. is a major city very few people respect. I personally remember Penn as always good for a party (which is why NOLA was in the running), but motto is the key: “Laws without morals are useless.” (*cough* Congress *cough*)

Austin: Finally, Austin gets the honorary Cornell award for, “Aw, aren’t they cute trying to hang with the big kids.” Both came a little late to the party (Cornell is 100 years younger than the next-youngest Ivy), both embrace their weird with gusto (Cornell’s motto – “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study” – is practically a mission statement), and both are so isolated by wilderness (upstate New York; the insanity of Texas) that depression is a major issue for their residents.

If only Austinites had the support of similar safety nets.

The Rural Juror

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This week, I finally lost my jury duty virginity. It was just as magical as I had imagined it would be, and so much more because it was real.

Parts of the experience were disappointing; some of it was scary-exciting (armed guards!); none of it was as painful as I’d heard it would be, except for the beginning – getting up at 6:30am. Sure, it was all over way too fast (they released us for the day at lunch time), and ultimately the whole thing was a bit underwhelming, but what can you expect from your first time?

I definitely plan to do it again, and maybe next time I’ll even get to finish (a trial – what did you think I meant? Perv.)

All sexual innuendo aside for a moment (just a moment, I promise), I really was excited to get to experience jury duty after all this time. Nineteen-and-a-half years after becoming a registered voter, to be exact. (Which makes the whole thing extra special, since nineteen-and-a-half is also the number of years I was a human before losing my more literal virginity.)

New Hampshire never called me to serve (and as far as I can remember, never even called anyone I knew), nor did Connecticut, and I was starting to think California would snub me too. My heart went all aflutter when the summons finally appeared in my mailbox last month. I’m a real citizen now!

Yes, I realize this joy makes me weird. But you know what’s sad? That it makes me weird. The ladies who ran the jury room – bless them, they have to do that every day and they have it down to a finely-tuned vaudeville routine – had quite a few bits about how NOT to get out of jury duty:

Don’t claim your boss won’t pay you (that form you filled out already says he will); don’t say you can’t understand English (if you passed your citizenship test, you do); don’t report for duty and then hide in the bathroom…you get the idea. They have clearly seen every trick in the book – which means people regularly try to pull them.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a small town girl with a fondness for civic duty, but I simply do not understand wanting to get out of jury duty. (That last sentence is my attempt to justify the title of this piece, because I really wanted to make the 30 Rock tribute happen.)

Wouldn’t it be great if we actually thought about jury duty the way we think about sex?

Sure, it’s not something for every day, or we’d never get our work done, but when the time comes, it’s special. That summons appears in the mail – date night, baby! We get a little dressed up (no ironic “guilty” tees or costumes), show up on time, and prepare ourselves for anything (I could not believe how many people brought nothing to pass the hours of waiting).

Not every outing will end in a connection. Sometimes, we go home disappointed. Other times, we make a match (to a jury pool), but it isn’t a match made in heaven (dismissed). And every once in a while, if we’re lucky, we end up finding a long-term partner.

Maybe it’s a short trial; maybe a really long one. Some pairings will be awful, some fascinating but ultimately pointless, and sometimes – some very rare times – we will be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time and it will be important.

The best part is, just like with love, we never know which one it’s going to be. Jury duty = sex? Motion sustained!

Harold and Mauve

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Page 1One evening, Harold lay on his bedroom floor contemplating the futility of his existence.

 

After some thought, he decided to end it all. But he needed something to do it with.

He pulled out his trusty black marker and started to draw a bath. Before he could finish, the marker ran out of ink.

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Harold saw this as another example of life’s random cruelty.

So he turned his head away to gaze into the darkness under his bed. There was something under the bed besides darkness.

Harold reached and pulled out the object. It was his old purple crayon, nearly worn down to a stump.

 

Harold shrugged. He finished drawing his bath. Then he drew a hairdryer, a plug, and an ‘on’ switch.Page 3

He reached up to push the hairdryer into the bathtub, but stopped.

The years under Harold’s bed had dried out his old crayon. Now its purple was faded and gray.

Mauve,” said a deep part of Harold’s brain. “Hello, Mauve,” said the rest of it. Harold decided he liked Mauve. He would take his crayon on one last adventure.

 

Page 4Harold mounted the hairdryer on the bathtub edge, and set sail. He drew one mauve star for guidance.

It was lonely out in the middle of the ocean. For the first time in his adolescence, Harold didn’t like the feeling.

He wanted more Mauve.

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Harold made land, and drew himself a short pier to dock his tub.

 

With a strange new feeling – curiosity? – he took a long walk off the pier and into the void.

Page 6

 

The void was boring. So Harold drew some gravestones for company.

He lay down on his back in solidarity with the dead. It felt relaxing and familiar. But his crayon wouldn’t let him rest.

Harold drew some birds in the sky, so Mauve could fly. They were vultures, and they started circling.

Harold thought it would be nice to give them a place to land, so he drew them a tree.

The tree looked unfinished, so he added a noose.

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To his surprise, Harold did not want to use the noose. Knowing it was there was enough.

He noticed a break in the trunk of the tree, where his old crayon had crumbled a little.

Harold drew a fancy car to fill in the dent in the tree. It was a very nasty accident.

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Feeling restless, Harold climbed inside the banged-up car. He drew a long road in front of him and drove off.

Harold didn’t like that the road had no end, so he drew a horizon line and drove off of it.Page 10

As the car fell, Harold looked at his faded purple crayon. It was almost used up. But Harold didn’t want to let go yet.

So he drew the long side of a building. He added a window edge and grabbed on.

Hanging by one hand, Harold drew the rest of the window and a building ledge to stand on.

Harold looked at the nub of his faded crayon. He looked down past his toes. It was a long way down from up here.

Harold drew the tiny wreckage of the car far below.Page 11

Behind him, Harold looked in the window. He made his bed, and the familiar trappings of his gloom.

Harold raised the sash and climbed inside. He lay down on the bed and drew the covers up around him.

With the last speck of his crayon, he drew the moon outside his window. And colored it in, Mauve.

Page 12

 

Harold smiled as he fell asleep, gazing at the moon of Mauve.

 

He could always end things tomorrow if he had to.

Manic Pixie Dream Hurl

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When Cancer 3 broke up with me, we were in the final stages of planning his belated birthday celebration – a weekend away at a lake-side cabin with a half-dozen of his closest friends. In the same breath, he told me that he didn’t feel like being in a relationship anymore but he hoped I would still come on the birthday trip; it was going to be so much fun! Was he serious? Of course he was; who else was going to make his birthday cake?

Four years earlier, my relationship with Cancer 2 came to an abrupt end when, as I helped him pack for Coachella, he noted how great it was we had started out as friends – because when our relationship ended we’d be able to go right back. Almost a year in, he honestly thought that a breakup would change nothing about our dynamic except the sex. (And who are we kidding? At 23 he probably thought occasional sex would still be an option too.)

I could chalk those two experiences up to random chance or an astrological streak of stupidity, but my rebound after Cancer 3 – not born in July – also ended things by swearing my value to him and proclaiming his desire to keep me around. Which – benefit of the doubt – he might have followed through on had I not called him a lying asshole. (In my defense, he totally was one.)

Two instances might be coincidence, but three is a trend. FOUR is a frakking Code Red.

This month, as I face yet another Eggplant who wants to have his Kate and eat others too, I have to admit that this has become a serious problem. In my head, I hear the voices of every grandmother in history chiding that “no man will buy the cow if he can get the milk for free,” and I am starting to think they have a point. Not the point they meant, of course – you should absolutely test drive a car before committing to it – but in the sense that it seems every man I find desirable wants to guzzle the precious leche of my love and attention at no cost.

Over palliative mimosas this weekend, my wise friend sunk the nail with a single swing of the hammer: “You are their Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That’s the problem.”

My inner feminist immediately reared up, wanting to shriek, “Inconceivable!” After all, the MPDG is a construct of male writers that serves as a prop in the self-actualization of their deeply soulful (read: mopey and infantile) autobiographical protagonists. Surely I, a real-life writer of the female variety, would never allow myself to become the creation of some guy!

Sure, Brain. You keep telling yourself that.

There are many characteristics of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – she is usually attractive, and quirky, and highly spirited – but the key trait (the thing that makes her awful) is that she has absolutely no needs, issues, or even goals that are independent of her main man. This is in no way actually true of me, of course, but it consistently seems true to the men in my life.

It starts with an at-least-partially immature man. Peter Pans are pretty common these days, especially in creative professions, and I have a penchant for them to boot. Combine this with my improviser’s philosophy of trying to live in the moment, and the result is an infinity mirror of reflected nonchalance. He exhibits early concerns about things getting “too serious”; I validate with no expectations beyond the enjoyable Now (and the assumption that eventually love will render us naturally committed); time fills my heart with memories of happy moments and teaches his to stop worrying about my hopes or desires.

In the middle, it is entirely my fault. While I should not try to be less intelligent, or vibrant, or attractive (do I smell humble pie in here?), I do need to quash my over-achiever’s drive to aim for perfection. I often hide or apologize for moments of emotional weakness, because I am afraid that he will be annoyed and leave – instead of trusting that if a few bad moments make him go I don’t want him around to begin with. I invest so much energy into getting to know his life better that I forget to notice if (or demand that) he also shows interest in return. To be a legitimately low-maintenance person is fine, but being no-maintenance drives a girl straight into Manic Pixie Fantasy Hell.

By the end, it’s no wonder it doesn’t occur to them I won’t want to be their friend. I have asked for minimal emotional investment on their part, so they cannot understand how great mine has become. They haven’t had to think about my feelings in ages, so they cannot comprehend that it might feel bad to be around them. All they see is me being stubborn – removing myself from their lives as a punishment. Why can’t I just keep thinking that they are awesome, like I always have, and watch them be awesome around other, newer, more exciting women?

The myth of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that after she does her job of helping the main character self-actualize, her purpose is served and she leaves his life (or his romantic life) with no consequences. At least, no consequences for him. In fantasy land, there are no hurt feelings because she doesn’t have any feelings to begin with. In real life, hanging out with someone who used to love you back feels worse than food poisoning.

(Okay, very little feels worse than food poisoning. But it is close.)

The Shame of the Game

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Am I the only one who feels terrible any time someone tells me I am a good person? Or guilty whenever I am praised for good work? Perhaps it is because I know something my complimenters don’t – the truth about what really goes on inside my head.

As a New Englander marinated in three solid centuries of Puritan stock, I have engrained in my DNA the need to be “of use”. I like to help, to listen, to be there for my friends whenever possible – as, I am sure, do most people. But that doesn’t mean I am not also a completely selfish bastard. If my inner monologue is any indication, I absolutely am.

One time, not too long ago, when I had hit a particularly rough patch with Cancer #3, I found myself in need of some serious girl talk (a mood that doesn’t strike me terribly often). Fortunately, I was already set to meet up with two different girlfriends that week, so things were looking up. Both of these were good friends, and I had certainly been there for them many times; I had no doubt they would return the favor and impart whatever wisdom or tough love I needed.

When it came time for the first get together, my friend opened with her distress at a recent argument with her fiancé and her resulting uncertainty about their impending nuptials. In the card game of girl talk, “possibly broken engagement” trumps “frustrating boyfriend” every time, so of course we spent the evening talking through her doubts and fears and options. Of course. But while I was a good friend on the outside, I was bitter Jan Brady on the inside. She gets to be engaged, planning a wedding, AND have the more serious problem this week? Why does she get to have everything? Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!

My next shot at girl talk went even worse. This friend had a large family with a genetic predisposition to cancer and other ailments, so inevitably that week one of her relatives had finally succumbed to his or her long battle with illness. Which is awful, of course – exponentially worse than dealing with a commitment-phobic forty-something Eggplant – and also entirely out of her control. Of course we spent our time talking through her frustrations and sadness and all of the family dynamics that go along with planning a funeral. Of course I was there for her… but in my head I was also thinking, oh my god, I hate you, everyone you know dies all the time! When is it ever going to be time for MY problems?

In my head, I am an asshole. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad girl. I may pick up the phone and be cheerful, but in my head I hear the cursing because you called while I was in the middle of a crossword puzzle. Sure, I will go to your show / party / game, and even cheer you on, but in my head I hear the running calculation of whether or not I can still get home in time to read or watch Jon Stewart before bed. My text response will be pleasant and caring, but in my head I am pining for the days of the Pony Express.

This is my secret shame whenever anyone tells me I am a good friend. Or whenever I am commended for a job well done; sure, I am proud of my work product and I did finish by deadline, but I also know that I spent the first three-quarters of my time binge-watching seasons 1-3 of Leverage. I probably could have done better work, and finished early.

But I can’t admit to that; then I would be guilty of a humblebrag. Ugh. Life is impossible.

How Do I Love Me (Let Me Count the Ways)

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Narcissus didn’t stand a chance. All he had to do to live a long and healthy life was avoid reflective surfaces, yet there he sat, in his prime, wasting away on the edge of a lake. Seems pretty weak – except it was inevitable. While he certainly wasn’t a perfect man, Narcissus did have a really, really good-looking reflection.

It is well documented that my heart and I have an unhealthy affinity for narcissists. This is clearly not good for me, as evidenced by the fact that my most successful relationships thus far are with my two dependent cats and a ’96 Toyota. I have tried to kick the habit time and again, but I keep running into the same snag: the problem with narcissists is that there is a lot of awesomeness there to adore.

The original Narcissus was literally part god. He was the love child of the river god Cephisus and a sexy nymph named Lyriope, so his esteem for his own physique was 100% legit. Even Apollo – the real-deal god, not the pilot from Battlestar Galactica, though I personally would take either – was infatuated because Narcissus was so frakking pretty. While I have never had the pleasure of a romantic entanglement with such an exceptional beauty, experience has taught me that every narcissist has some remarkable trait that makes him worthy of affection – his own as well as mine.

(Of course, there are also plenty of folks with a completely unfounded esteem for their own greatness, but we should label them accurately as what they really are: delusional asshats.)

Like Jane Goodall of the Ego jungle, my years in the field have brought me vast knowledge of these cold yet fascinating creatures. They are not all alike, but they are all capable of driving a lover to despair. In hopes of saving even one future Aminias – the Narcissus admirer who kills himself in the Greek version of the myth – or Echo – who in Ovid’s telling retreats to the mountains to end her days in lovelorn solitude – I feel obligated to share my research with the world.

Within the Genus Narcissa I have so far categorized three distinct Species: the Passionate Artist, the Depressed Intellectual and the King of the Room. Which makes me Dorothy in a very F-ed up version of The Wizard of Oz.

Artiste Passio is the most classic species of narcissist. This guy is all about his talent, which only makes him increasingly talented. I have pined for brilliant writers, hilarious performers, and more musicians (okay, bass players) than I care to admit, but regardless of medium the outcome is the same: there is no room for anything but “the craft”. Sure, these Artists love the attention, the admiration, and the praise we shower on them, but that is all they love. From whom the praise flows is irrelevant – unless that “whom” happens to have financial backing. Shutting off the affection faucet will often get the Artist’s attention (he might even take steps to keep it flowing freely), but do not mistake a love of being loved for actual love of the lover. We are merely faces in his adoring throng.

A more controversial species is the Literati Depresso – not because it is controversial to be depressed (heck, it is practically vogue these days), but because calling a depressed person a narcissist isn’t exactly PC. I don’t care; I have had enough relationships with depressives suffering from everything from chemical imbalances to Woody Allen to know that a certain amount of self-obsession is needed to maintain that level of inner torment. It takes impressive focus and mental agility to see every interaction as a reflection on themselves, analyze all new information in terms of how it impacts their life, and suspect that every personal thought might hold the secret to their impossible existence. No question, these Eeyores have remarkable brains, but rest assured there is no capacity reserved for wondering how we are feeling today. (Unless it is how we are feeling about them…)

Rex Locus is the third and most insidious species of narcissist – the King of the Room. This is the guy with Personality. Mr. Awesome. His defining characteristic is that people love him, but the problem is his lack of ability – or possibly courage – to sincerely love anyone in return. Narcissus loved that Echo followed him everywhere, so he called out that she should show herself; when she rushed out of hiding and hugged him, he recoiled at the intimacy and literally shoved her aside. The King of the Room does the same. His ‘why’ will vary from one to the next – he’s a loner, he’s a rebel, we aren’t perfect, we’re too perfect – but it will always be some version of, “Uncertainty and vulnerability scare me! So…. I’m gonna go meet a room full of new people now.” Like sharks they keep moving forward, leaving us to flounder in their wake.

Still, we chase these narcissists time and again, keep Echoing their greatness, and we probably always will. Pain fades over time, but Talent, Intelligence, and Charm remain potent drugs. Narcissus didn’t stand a chance against his own beauty; how can we Echos be expected to resist?