Tuesday, February 19, 2019

*That* Day in February

It may seem very odd indeed to make a post about that day in February on the 19th -- a day that this year was on the 18th and originally (in 1732) on the 22nd. My own interest in that day came about because I entered the U.S. Army on February 21, 1956; and the next day was a day off. The next day, of course, was Washington's Birthday; it had been made an National Holiday in 1885. Then, in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act; it became effective in 1971. Since that Act Washington's birthday is celebrated on the third Monday of February every year; that gives the nation three days off in February. The third Monday this year fell on the 18th. The same day also celebrates Abe Lincoln's birthday, which actually took place February 12, 1809.

All those who dislike the study of history do so because too many dates compete for our attention -- with little reward for the actual knowledge. This post illustrates the reason why. Presidents' Day. Okay. It's on the calendar. As for the rest, what difference does it make?

Sunday, January 20, 2019


It took a while this winter. The first big snow came yesterday. All earlier attempts by our local Winter Fairy to produce the first genuine “must shovel” snow had failed. She had, presumably, become confused by Global Warming talk and trends. The earliest attempts came in November but never even fully covered drives, never mind roofs and roads. “It snowed a little,” was the phrase. And while the white did unevenly mark the grass out back, it was light enough so that even shy autumn leaves could hold up small brown sails; some even moved east in the wind, reminding me that Fall Raking had fallen short of one hundred percent.

So January 19, 2019 (a properly uneven year) came with skies triple-grey and dumped snow any which way. It cumulated to about four inches and piled under wind-pressure to hillocks high enough so that taking the garbage out resembled an Arctic trek. We too got snow, not just the East Coast. But continuing to trouble our local Winter Fairy, in Alabama they had tornadoes.

Very white out there, very bright the sun. Lovely, lovely. A neighboring oak’s still holding on to leaves with the usual oaken tenacity; but that’s just a species. Other trees have all obeyed; the evergreens are decorated with white jewelry.

Question to the Fairy? Will this first 2019 storm be the last as well? Who knows, these days. Everything’s confusing when oceans boil and icebergs melt.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Conscription and Some Relatives

Back when I was in the military, thus well before 1973, military conscription was still in force. Most of the men I served with were therefore draftees. Tending to the contrarian, I had enlisted voluntarily and was therefore considered to be Regular Army. I signed up for four years; the Draft kept people for just under two. In addition I served another extra year so that we (Brigitte and I) could organize our transition from Germany to the U.S. more efficiently. We’d met in Germany and married there.

One of the largely overlooked benefits of the Draft was that large numbers of at least the male population actually experienced most aspects of military work. That experience taught a person that military life and work was, most of the time, about as far removed from heroism as is construction, farming, factory work, or professional sports. And what with the public fully aware of the nature of this lifestyle (let me call it that, tongue in cheek) the tendency to view soldiers as heroes was not continuously on display back then; now it is on display far too much. But that sort of talk or oration has its own benefit too. When people glorify “our heroes,” we  may be sure of two things. First, they may never have served themselves (indeed they had often heroically schemed to avoid service) and, second, they often praise our heroes to cover themselves with borrowed (if sometimes fake) glory—not because they believe a word of what they say.
These thoughts arose as I put away one of my 2018 calendars named “America the Beautiful.” Its thematic, built of photographs of statues (half the months) and landscapes (the other half), is “patriotic.” In effect, it is similar to the glorification of the ordinary GI, but at a larger scale. To be sure, the landscapes show that the American land is beautiful—but so is land across the globe. As for heroics and military events, all countries have the equivalents in their history. Using such images to point at “beauty” has a flavor of self-praise; it’s innocent in the calendar, but it's a way of bending from the hard truth of things.

It only takes small steps from these instances (and flag-worship too) to White Supremacy, American Exceptionalism, and other dangerous forms of tribalism. To praise the soldiers, let’s praise service. To praise the country, let’s praise its mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and plains. Patriotism? Let’s pay our taxes. The higher achievements of humanity are never mere collectives you can put on— like fatigues.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

2019: Superstitiously Yours

I’m not superstitious, but, alas, inside of me (down in the slums of my not that shining city of a self) lives another person, actually a very close but often troublesome friend. And that friend certainly is. Superstitious.

One of my superstitions is that even years are unlucky. Therefore I wear my watch on my right wrist (Wrist 1) in even years because the watch will counter the misfortunes that come with my left wrist (Wrist 2). Now like most right-handers, I’ve worn my watch on the left. But then, years ago now, I began to wear my watch on my right wrist whenever the year became divisible by two. I began this in order to fight the bad vibrations which, I thought, a year like 2018 would certainly bring. The year 2016 had, again, proved my dark self’s superstition (nor had my watch, on the right hand, help): the election results that year. And when 2017 arrived, with my watch still on the right wrist, I decided that I would leave it where it was—in its “guarding” location—even if the year was, otherwise, favorable, being uneven. 

Today, a little late for January, I am once more faced with the choice. Do I treat 2019 as a year that needs protection against malign forces that invisibly hover beneath grey and even sunny skies? Or do I burden my left wrist with a watch and, for some days, look on the wrong wrist for the time?

The BREXIT vote in the UK suggests that 2019 has not yet taken a positive hold. To be sure, Theresa May kept her office as Prime Minister the next day, but only by a slim margin of 20 votes. Anyway, she won. In an even year she certainly would have been kicked out: thus my dark self assures me. The U.S. is still a member of NATO. Thank you, uneven year. But can I be sure of you? And Mueller is still biding his time and may be barred from making his Mueller Mysterium public.

So decision time is difficult. A helpful idea, however, might be tried in 2019. I have, like most fogeys of my age, more watches than I have years left to live. For about $11.99 I can get a battery for one of them and, in this crucial but unpredictable year, wear two watches, one on each wrist. You’re wise. You get it. Such matters actually mean something when you are forced to wander slums.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Dawn of the Monarchs

Some preliminary notes on context. In the summer of 2014 we moved from the east to the west of the Detroit metro area. In the east we lived in Grosse Pointe; now we live in a village called Wolverine Lake.

In Grosse Point Brigitte chanced upon a butterfly egg on a dill plant. The dill was growing in the crack of the concrete near our garage. Brigitte coaxed that egg into our first butterfly—raised indoors and then released. It was a Black Swallowtail. Thereafter we raised several generations of Swallowtails; they came to lay eggs on plentiful patches of dill we were always raising deliberately or by chance. Eventually we got to wondering why Monarchs never left traces enough for us to add them to the output of our Butterfly Ranch, as we came to call our tiny backyard. This led us to plant some milkweed there; Monarchs like to start new life on large milkweed leaves. That planting was around 2013, possibly earlier, but no Monarch ever came or, as we now believe, we never noticed.  Monarch lay very, very tiny eggs, faintly yellow in color, easily mistaken as mere spots on the leaves. From these spots come tiny caterpillars that, initially, require a powerful magnifier even to see. So 2013 passed. We packed and moved to Wolverine Lake.

Here, for some reason, Swallowtails haven’t yet found our forests of dill. We have much more yard here; thus we also planted several milkweed plants. On these, thanks to the much more educated eyes of our neighbor, Pat Littlefield, Monarchs left their eggs. With Pat’s help, we have finally succeeded in nurturing three of those invisible yellow spots into as many gorgeous Monarchs. We’re showing our third, a young lady, called Scarlet. When the first two, Romeo and Juliet, were ready to take wing, we had not yet mastered the art of releasing butterflies while also managing a camera.

So now the Era of the Monarchs has begun here, in the west. More to come. As for ancient history, see the index and click on Butterflies. You'll see information on Monarchs as well, but not one that we had raised ourselves and released after its emergence from its translucent pupae.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Green Thursday

Whenever Easter week arrives, and Thursday of that week, we always wrestle with the naming of the day. It takes a while before we re-remember that it is called Maundy Thursday. Not surprisingly, I’ve got a post on that subject going back some years (link). Today we discovered that in German the day is called Green Thursday. That religious day like that would carry a color (well at least since the 17th century and only in Germany) was another surprise and took some research to grasp.

It turns out that German etymologists are not in full agreement on how green came to be attached to Easter Thursday. The Biblical reference around which the discussion swirls is Luke 23:31. In the King James version it says:

For if they do these things [the abuse of Jesus on the way to the cross] in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry.

In German the word used for tree is wood (Holz); green wood is alive while dry wood is dead. 

The green wood here is Jesus himself, made clear in the full quotation, which I take from the Jerusalem Bible (Luke 23:26-32):

As they were leading him [Jesus] away, they seized on a man, Simon from Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and made him shoulder the cross and carry it behind Jesus. Large numbers of people followed him, and of women too, who mourned and lamented for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children. For the day will surely come when people will say, “Happy are those who are barren, the wombs that have never borne, the breasts that have never suckled!” Then they will begin to say unto the mountains, “Fall on us!”; to the hills, “Cover us!” For if men use the green wood like this, what will happen when it is dry?’ Now with him they were also leading out two other criminals to be executed.

Green, thus has multiple meanings here: life itself, youth, freshness, and, by implication, sinlessness. Green Thursday is thus a day of forgiveness of sin, the renewal of the soul, dry wood made green again. The other explanations offered by etymologists range to references of season, to eating habits on Maundy Thursday in Germany (heavy on vegetables in a fasting season) and other similar associations. But the biblical reference is used most often, and, it seems, rightly so. The words come from Jesus’ mouth as he is making his way to crucifixion—to be followed by Resurrection!

The Hungarians and the Poles (to mark Brigitte’s and my places of birth) call this day Great Thursday. The French call it Jeudi Saint; that Saint we would here render as Holy.

Brigitte, whose gift for words is very deep, correctly surmised, before any research took place, that the Green in that Thursday may hark back to the green palms seen just a few days before on Palm Sunday. That turned out to be one of the competing explanations the German etymologists mentioned as well!

*   *   *   *

In the course of this venture we also looked up why the Germans call Good Friday Karfreitag. The meaning of that Kar escaped us. That word comes for Proto-Germanic karo or kara, sorrow, trouble, and care. The word care comes from kara. If we wished to follow the German model, we’d call Good Friday Care Friday.

Friday, January 19, 2018

On "Ignorance is Bliss"

I suppose that at its core Bliss is the feeling of being completely and overwhelmingly protected. Being a baby in one’s mother’s arms comes to mind. Ten days ago (a week ago Tuesday) I had a massive nosebleed that sent us to the Emergency Room. Naturally. Such things always happen at 2 in the morning. My ignorance of nosebleeds had amounted to bliss before this event. Afterwards, I learned that nosebleeds are almost never fatal. This makes sense when you think about it. No large artery reaches the incredibly complicated tissue fields of the nose designed to pick up hundreds of different faint odors. But there are arteries, nonetheless, very fine ones. Three ER and four Ear-Nose-Throat doctor visits later, I also learned that if the cause of an ordinary nosebleed cannot be found, the cause must lie with those fine arteries in the upper nose. They come from all sides and then meet centrally to coordinate their collective work. Surgeons have discovered ways to introduce the tiniest wires into those arteries. At their tips are tiny cameras and other more active devices; the surgeons can see what’s going on—and do all that needs doing. But this admirable solution is only necessary if more straight-forward cauterization of the nose tissue, carried out through the vast great canyon we think of as the nostril, cannot be used.

Circumstances so conspired that it took eight days before the actual trouble became clear last Wednesday. Then about five minutes later, electrical cauterization had already fixed me. I was on my feet and walking, without a plastic waste-can under my chin, back into the snowy world in company of Monique—she who had spent two nights and several days guarding me while the otolaryngologist probed for the proper answer.

Under these conditions, I’m very much inclined to ignorance is bliss on many, many of the things that make up this octogenarian body.

Then today I have an e-mail from my oldest friend, Phil. He tells me that, after much thought, he had decided to forgo a scheduled “spinal fusion” in his neck. All I know is that pain had been involved, and what with the pain gone, why do anything at all? Right! Right! Do I want to know more? No! No! What if I had another nosebleed? And while spending torturous minutes pressing a bloody towel to my nose other thoughts, about spinal fusion (in full detail) would rise into my mind? That might cause a fatality nosebleeds are not supposed to cause…

Sunday, January 7, 2018


In the wake of at least two days of national dispute concerning President Trump’s mental health and fitness to serve in office—capped by Mr. Trump’s announcement that he is very smart, very stable, indeed a genius—all that’s left for this nation to restore proper order and sanity from border-to-border and sea-to-shining-sea is to organize a formal IQ test for the president, administered by some appropriate agency, e.g., the Department of Homeland Security or possibly the EPA. Based on Presidential Tweets, Mr. Trump’s ability to score at least 98 percent on that IQ test is so certain that actually taking the test would seem to be redundant. Therefore American Mensa, an element in Mensa International, should declare President Trump a member.

Trump as a member of Mensa, however, produces some awkward problems. The name of this organization is taken from the Latin for “table”; more to the point, that table is supposed to be round, symbolizing the meeting of equals. And that’s a problem, isn’t it? Mr. Trump may not wish to subordinate himself in such a way to the world’s aristocracy of intellect.

The solution, I suggest, is a renaming exercise. Mr. Trump, having been invited to join, will no doubt immediately tweet saying: “I’m Mensa. Didn’t I tell you?” The first part of that tweet, ignoring apostrophes and case, could be rendered as IMMENSA—or making Intellect Great Again. Mr. Trump could then get to work on having IMMENSA’s symbol changed to a gigantic cone—of which he would be the tiniest but highest atom at the very top.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Seven Sisters and Two Brothers

Once upon a time there were seven sisters and two brothers. Their mother was Detroit, their father was Edison. The first sister was born in 1915, the last in 1921. The two brothers, who were twins, saw birth in 1951; they are still alive. The sisters all died in a major explosion on August 10, 1996. That would make the oldest sister 82 that year. The event is known as the detonation. That sounds ominous, but in fact it was highly controlled.

So how do I know—first, that both the sisters and the still living brothers were or are not human and, second, that they were smokestacks of two great side-by-side power plants on the eastern edge of the City of Detroit? Two reasons.

When we first moved to the Detroit metro in 1989, Brigitte and I both worked downtown in the Penobscot building. We commuted on Jefferson Avenue along the shores of what is known as Detroit River—the water-way that connects Lake Saint Clair and Lake Erie. On the way home we could see the sisters and the brothers distantly to our right. The second reason is that we got a lovely pair of coasters for Christmas this year. One is titled Seven Sisters Two Brothers; the other Penobscot Building. Thus we have memorials of the two great views that first symbolized Detroit for us.

An image of the coaster and a 1952 photograph of the plant are below:

The coaster on the left comes from GT Home Detroit, accessible at https://www.gthome.space/. The one on the right was taken by one Dave Wasserman from Virginia and is shown in the Detroit Memories Newsletter at this site. I’ve chosen that last image because it still shows smoke coming from the sisters. The plants were all converted eventually to burn natural gas.

The remaining Brothers represent a capacity of 240 megawatts. To make sense of that, Detroit Edison’s total summer capacity is 11,000 MW, of which Brothers is 2.2 percent. And Detroit Edison itself supplies 37 percent of Michigan’s total electric power; that Michigan total is 29,831 MW.

Now couple of more notes. The Sisters generated power from 1915-1921 until approximately 1986. Then they just stood there, idled, until they were brought down by a controlled demolition in about five seconds or so, the smokestacks, as shown in the coaster above, falling to the left, the leftmost leading the way. Vast brown clouds took their place temporarily. The Brothers operated on coal from 1951 to 1987. Then they were converted to natural gas.

A final touching sort of point. Those fallen Sisters left a deep hollow in the souls of power engineers. How do I know that? I know that because I discovered this morning that there still is a power plant called Seven Sisters. It is located Manitoba, Canada, on the Winnipeg river. It doesn’t burn anything. It’s a big dam powering turbines. The plant has an odd name for a hydropower facility with only six turbines. But you go with your heart—and never mind the count…

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Reading out the Window

Not a typo. To be sure, my first act on rising is looking out the window. But then the world I want to see is really merely Weather. I already know my drive, backyard, pear tree, and the rest—or the trusty Honda and the houses across the way.

So Window here means World generically, and early on I’m reading it because the world window is made of paper: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Detroit News (all depending on the day). A screen would be another kind of Window, but I wake first and the TV makes a noise that might wake Brigitte. That would be. Sad. So paper it must be at first, and for me by preference. I get more from paper and with fewer distractions.

Given the built-in bias in every form of medium, Windows is the real word here. Reading out the Windows, plural. WSJ? Stocks. NYT? All the news that’s fit to print. Well, not quite. The Detroit News? Sports. It takes some effort to figure out what sport deserves half the front page—unless you recognize the code words, e.g. Simpson blankets Bohannan. Is blankets a name, noun, or verb?

My own reading is very selective these days, and the time spent on the W (be that Window, Windows, Weather, or World) less and less. That’s because as you retire (in every sense of that word), you notice that you no longer recognize the names, be that Simpson, GreenSky, Nvidia, or MoneyGram. Much effort must be expended even recognizing what, say, Nvidia does. And when you do, you’re  no longer interested.

I note here that W is not quite the last letter of the alphabet, but close. Thus the World is not quite all there is to read about. There remains something that transcends the W. XYZ. So after reading out the Windows for a brief spell, I fold the papers for Recycling and turn to XYZ. In practice that means tidying up or, on a day like today, dressing warmly to shovel some snow. Doing that I see a big green truck pulling up. The letters GFL are on its side. Even our trash hauler is going in for abbreviations! But what does that mean? Remove the goggles; peer more closely. Ah. Green for Life. But all out there is white and blowing…

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Sober Second

The second day of this or any other new year illustrates Nature’s “No comment” take on the human adulation of symbolic transitions. Yesterday was brilliantly sunny. To be sure by evening the sky had clouded up so that the much heralded Supermoon on New Year’s eve was hidden. Today, on the second, everything is very cold and properly grey again. From my upstairs typing spot, where the view is of my roof, the active of my three chimneys is shown producing the fog of smoke. Snow’s everywhere, showing its dirt; this is old snow, folks. New stuff is supposed to come, but as yet the three flakes I’ve seen were just a half-hearted test run.

Every year we joke about “last year,” meaning five minutes ago—as Times Square is made the stage for not very funny jokes by Media folk. And the bedroom, when you reach it, at 0:05 am, might just as well be 2014, 2015 or any other year in recent memory. Nature is wiser than we are. Time must have a stop, to be sure. But there is no time in Nature. What Nature shows is cold-eyed endurance, especially this time of year.

The third will be even more normal, no doubt; and 2018 will therefore really be here: a change in our accounting. Even years are what? Luckier? More trying? Look out the window. Neither luck nor doom are visible.

Concerning supermoons, by the way, this site has two posts; the first, here, explains what they are; the second, here, corrects an error made in the first. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Tiding on Tides

What with bright sunshine, on a very cold Nordic sort of morning, illuminating our still standing or hanging Christmas decorations, my mind suggested that soon, thus on or around January 6 of the year that dawns tomorrow, I would have to return this household to its ordinary state. Yes. For me the Christmas season began in childhood on December 6, St. Nicholas day. In Hungary we put our nicely shined shoes into the window on the evening of December 5. By morning Mikulas (as we called him) arrived; he filled our shoes with candies and fruits nicely highlighted with red paper and silver ribbons. Random thought: if a fat man can get down through a small chimney in the U.S., he can certainly breach a pane of glass in Hungary… Now at its other ends, the Christmas season always ended on January 6 for me, the day of the Magi.

Making sure that I still had all this correctly, I checked on the dates. At my age such exercises are recommended; various problems with memory surface as you overstay… In my brief research, I encountered the word “tide” multiple times, as in Christmastide and Yuletide. Very well. In eighty and counting years I’d simply accepted that word; today the question arose: Whence tide? Good question.

If you use a smart-phone as your computer—no need to get up—you rapidly learn that the only tide that seems to exist is that caused by the moon on ocean shores in two kinds of forms, ebb and flood. But in Yuletide the word must has some other root. Upstairs, therefore, to consult a real computer. Online Etymology Dictionary informs me that “tide” comes from proto-Germanic tidiz, or “time division,” thus meaning a period or season. The use of the word for shore tides came late, in the mid-14th century… The word tidings, as in news, shows how a useful concept comes about. It is rooted in the fact that as time changes, things happen. Tidings come from old English tidan, “to happen,” and that word arises from the original tide as well. The Dutch for “newspaper” is tijding pronounced exactly like “tiding”; the German is Zeitung, a word in which the z present in tidiz is prominent still.

Contemplating such mysteries, I might add, refresh one’s mind when the only tidings on TV seemingly center on how in card games one kind, or single card, trumps all the others.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Hour on Earth Day?

Earth Day, which is today, should by definition have 24 earth hours. But as it happens, Earth Hour has already been celebrated in 2017 on March 25. We missed it. And the reason for that is the confusion between the hour and the day. Those two words represent quite different environmental festivals.

During Earth Hour, which extends from 8:30 to 9:30 pm, all unessential lights must be turned off. The festival began in Australia and was first celebrated on March 31, 2007, a Saturday. Since then  Earth Hour is usually on the last Saturday of March. Our first celebration was on March 29, 2008—and we remember it distinctly—the first global celebration, on that day from 8 to 9 pm local time. The day and year was vague in our minds and took a fair amount of research to pin-point—but we were there, at our dining room table, a single candle separating us and doing is feeble best to contribute its carbon dioxide to Global Warming. That evening television brought coverage of lights going out at 8 local time as darkness covered the planet. And the feeling of unity across the earth was almost palpable.

Earth Day, by contrast, is celebrated on April 22. The first year was 1970. These days 193 countries across the planet celebrate the day under the coordination of the Earth Day Network.

Having missed the Earth Hour on March 29, we intend to celebrate it tonight at our house. Lights out at 8:30. We will endure an hour in darkness before rushing back to CNN and MSNBC to see what monstrosities DJT has managed in that hour of darkness: the Invasion of Tibet, perhaps, or the repeal of the U.S. Constitution by next Wednesday? One has to know these things in advance, you know.

Friday, March 31, 2017

When Reading Are You Genre-Neutral?

The word genre is most commonly associated with literature—as in literary genre. Its root is, ultimately, the Latin genus. That word means (per Online Etymology Dictionary) “race, stock, family; kind, rank, order; species, sex.” So it is a kind of something. So far as novels are concerned, historical, romance, and detective are all different in kind. Genre-neutrality (not that I’ve ever seen that phrase used) thus means a total indifference to differences in literature. Poetry is equal to fiction.

But what about another word, gender? Well, it so happens that gender comes from Old French gendre, a variant of genre. It meant the same thing as genre and, pronounced, had the same sort of sound. That sound? Well, take the word jaundice. Forget about the dice part and pronounce the jaun; then add a fain r-sound. “Jaunre”. Both versions of genre have roughly the same sound; in gendre, the r is a little more audible. The meaning of the word in both cases is still the same, thus kind, category, type, or sex.

In English, with the tailing re changed to er—thus making the d clearly audible—the word has become almost exclusive a description of a person’s sex, not necessarily or exclusively in the physiological sense but also or predominantly in its sociological or cultural sense (gender roles, gender identity).

I’m not genre-neutral, to be sure. And as for gender-neutrality, I believe that the striving for total equality can go too far. The inspiration for this post was a note from my old friend Phil Cavanaugh which reminded me that, like him, I too have had a vague sense of unease when seeing that word—or not seeing it—on questionnaires when invited to indicate whether I am an M or an F.

A byproduct of the research I conducted to see what gender means was the discovery that in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and elsewhere the word hijra is in common use to mean a third sex—thus transgender persons who were born but do not feel male. The word—and it has endless variants—goes back to antiquity. It looks as if we here, in the West, are just starting to make peace with the recognition that ambiguity is part even of the sexual experience. The Wikipedia article on the hijra is here and well worth reading.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Health Care Summary

A rather thoughtful, complete, and sober assessment of the health care issue in the United States is presented on Patio Boat (link). If you would like to see this subject properly sorted, please follow the link. Here is a carrot in the form of that post’s initial sentence:
If you’re wondering who socialized medicine in the United States, it wasn’t Barack Obama. It was Ronald Reagan.