julius caesar, the foreskin of jesus, time to dance

Time is weird. No, wait…that’s not right. Time isn’t weird; the way people mark time, that’s what’s weird. For a big chunk of Western history, the new year began on March 1. Which makes actual sense, if you think about it. I mean, that’s pretty much the season in which life begins to re-assert itself after winter has stopped tossing its weight around.

The reason — one of the reasons — we celebrate January 1 as the first day of the new year is because Julius Caesar (yes, that Julius Caesar) decided people had fucked up the calendar, and he was just the boy to fix it. The problem was the early Roman calendar was a lunar calendar and only had ten months, ending in December (from the Latin word decem, meaning ten). Six of the months had thirty days, the other four had thirty-one. Why did some months have an extra day? Nobody really seems to know. There had to be a reason, but it was a long time ago — people forget. And really, who cares? It was fucked up, right? That’s why our boy Julius had to fix it.

Anyway, you can see the problem. The Roman year only had 304 official days. So they periodically added in a few extra days here and there (usually for political purposes), and they included a sort of block of unorganized winter days (and we all know what that’s like — it’s cold, it’s dark, one day is pretty much as miserable as another, and they all sort of blend together), and now and then they’d toss in an intercalary month of twenty-seven days. Sometimes twenty-eight days.

On with the dance! let joy be unconfined; No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet to chase the glowing hours with flying feet.

Really, considering how organized the Roman empire was, it was a terribly sloppy way to deal with time. Seasons got weird, holidays would begin too early or too late, harvest festivals would be scheduled before the harvest was ready. Nothing made any sense. Folks complained. So one day Julius said, “Okay, this shit really has to stop.” He hired a guy from Alexandria, Sosigenes, who told him, “Dude, let’s just do what the Egyptians do. Chuck that whole lunar thing and base the calendar on the sun.”

So that’s what they did. They had to create a few new months, and add in a few extra days, but they banged together a new calendar and in the year 45 BC they said, “This is the first day of January, named for Janus the god of beginnings and endings, the god of gates and passages and doorways, the god of duality and transitions. And from now on, this is going to be the first day of the new year. Party on, people.”

The people partied on, but they still pretty much celebrated March 1 as beginning the new year. I mean, c’mon…tradition. And common sense. Who feels like celebrating in the middle of fucking winter? Even after the Roman Empire (and most of the Western world) went all over Christian, January 1 wasn’t treated as the beginning of the new year. Basically, it was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Which was a pretty big deal back then. You see, eight days after Jesus was born, his folks held a bris, a mohel nipped off his holy foreskin, they gave him his name, then everybody had a nice meal. Christians didn’t go in for all that; they skipped everything but the meal, but they still thought it was a fine thing to honor the day Jesus was separated from his foreskin. (Religion is also weird.)

Eventually the Julian calendar was supplanted (if ‘supplanted’ means what I think it means — I can’t be bothered to look it up) by the Gregorian calendar, and the Gregorian calendar got refined, and science weighed in, and time was more tightly ordered, and the world became more secular, and relatively few people wanted to celebrate the circumcision of Jesus, and now when you buy a calendar at the book store it begins in January. It’s not entirely universal, but January 1 has generally become accepted as the first day of the year.

When buds are breaking and birds singing merrily, dance with me.

But it’s basically all bullshit. Thomas Mann had it right when he wrote:

Time has no divisions to mark its passing. There is never a thunderstorm to announce the beginning of a new month or year.

Really, this is just another day. A lot of folks still have to go to work, the cat’s litter box still needs to be cleaned and the dog needs to be walked, food has to be prepared and dishes have to be cleared away and washed, the snow will still fall and have to be cleared off the sidewalk, people will still be people, and you’re still the same person you were yesterday.

It’s just another day. Nothing has really changed. But so what? Sometimes what we need is a symbolic transition. A point at which we can tell ourselves this is where things begin to change. This point, right here, this is the line. From this point forward, things will be different.

Doesn’t have to be the beginning of the year. Could be a birthday. Or an anniversary. It doesn’t even have to be a temporal point. It could be any symbolic point. Once I get my own apartment, once I get my first real job, once I can run a 5K, once I graduate, once I get married, once I can afford a ticket to Spain, once I get my driver’s license, once I get divorced, once the kids have grown up and left home, from that point on things will be different. That decisive point, whatever it is, it’s worth celebrating.

Now I think of it, I’m beginning to believe there’s actually something admirable about reaching that point on the first day of January. There’s something defiant choosing a day in the middle of the least hospitable, most bitter, darkest fucking season of the year. There’s something cheeky about shouting out, “It’s January First, bitches…and it’s time to dance.”

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some things i care about and some things i just don’t

You know what? I don’t care that Anthony Weiner is apparently texting photos of his dick again. The guy obviously has a problem, but it’s his problem. I don’t need to read about it, I don’t want to see the photos, and I really don’t give a tinker’s fart about him or his dick.

I do care that his wife and his family will now have to go through a buttload of public humiliation simply because HE wants people to look at his dick. A lot of people enjoy seeing other folks get humiliated or degraded, of course; there’s an entire media industry devoted to humiliating and degrading people for profit. There are aspects of modern American society that are contemptible. I don’t like it, but it’s the price of freedom and all that, right? It’s just a fucking shame that the price has to be paid by Anthony Weiner’s wife and family.

Totally don't care about this guy.

Totally don’t care about this guy.

Here’s something else I don’t care about: Colin Kapernik Kapernich Kaepernick and whether he stands or sits during the national anthem. A lot of folks seem to be pretty pissed off about this, but Jeebus Compost — the guy is just a football player. The guy gets paid to play a violent (though sometimes beautiful) sports game. There are football players who beat and sexually assault women, there are football players who drive drunk, who get into bar brawls, who occasionally shoot at people and sometimes hit them. That sort of shit bothers me — not this Kaepernick unit and his refusal to stand in spite of tradition. I suspect Kaepernick’s political views aren’t very different from my own — but still, who cares? His political and/or moral positions are no more important to me than the person sitting at the next table in the coffee shop (well, maybe Kaepernick’s opinion carries a tad more weight with me because the woman at the next table ordered a pumpkin white mocha and it’s still August, for fuck’s sake). Colin Kaepernick can stand up, sit down, or spin around like a fucking dreidl — I just don’t care.

90yovet

This guy, I totally care about. Both these guys, in fact.

do care that the guy in the photo above stood up. I care that he made the effort, and I care why he made the effort. I don’t know the whole story behind the photo; it’s entirely possible the story that accompanies the photo is total bullshit. I like the story anyway. Here it is, all 21 words of it:

This 90 yr old stood up, Obama told him he didn’t have to stand. He said, “No Sir, you’re the President.”

That story about the nameless old man means a hell of a lot more to me than the pages that have been devoted to Kaepernick staying parked on his ass. I’m a veteran; I spent four years in active military harness. I stand up for presidents, even if I don’t like them. I stand up for the national anthem, even when I’m ashamed of some of the things my nation has done. I stand up for old folks, because getting old is hard work. And I stand up for the right to NOT stand up for presidents, national anthems, or old folks. It’s that price of freedom business again.

Finally, I don’t care if YOU care about these things. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t care about them; I’m just saying it doesn’t matter to me. You get to care about what you care about. I have friends who care deeply and passionately about things that seem totally meaningless to me. I know for a fact there are things I care about that mean nothing whatsoever to my friends and family (‘inbox’ is NOT a goddamn verb, people, it’s just NOT).

If I don’t care, then why am I writing this? Because I get email from folks asking me what I think about Colin Kaperwhatever not standing up or Anthony Weiner’s infatuation with his own dick. I’m writing this because I care about those folks and I don’t want them to think my failure to care about the crap they care about means I don’t care about them. If that makes sense.

If it doesn’t make sense…well, guess what.

guy in a green bay packers stocking cap

Last Friday I experienced the ugliest thing I’ve encountered in a long, long time. Most days I take a walk; once or twice a week I’ll extend that walk and stop in at a corner Stop&Rob convenience store. You know — a place where you can get gasoline, buy a snack, get a drink, and hit the road again. I stop there because they have fresh cookies every day.

I was standing in line to buy my cookie behind a guy wearing a Green Bay Packers stocking cap. He was maybe my age, maybe a bit younger, a little paunchier, buying a large bottled Starbucks frappuccino. I’m a friendly guy, usually, and I like to chat with strangers, so I made a comment about the Packers and the tough year they’d had. The guy seemed friendly enough, and since there was only one person working the counter at the Stop&Rob, the line was moving slowly and we had a moment to visit. He asked me who I liked in the Super Bowl.

I started to say “I’m not a big fan of Cam Newton, but I’ll be rooting for Carolina because they’re the more exciting team.”

cam newton 1

Okay, a tangent. Cam Newton is, in my opinion, the most interesting, the most creative, the most watchable, and the most annoying quarterback in the National Football League. I enjoy watching him play football. But I don’t much like him. Why? Because he always seems to know where the cameras are. He likes the attention.

Nothing wrong with that, in itself. But quarterbacks, because of the nature of the game and that particular position, are always the center of attention. Always. And they should be. But because they’re always the center of attention, it’s my very personal opinion that they should deflect some of that attention to their teammates. And to be fair, Cam Newton does that — but usually after he’s soaked up his own share of attention.

I think it’s sort of childish. But that’s the thing about the guy. He plays football with all the reckless joy of a kid. He runs with the ball a lot. A LOT. When I first saw him playing, I assumed he did that because he thought he was the best runner on the team, or because he wanted the glory. Now I think he does that because he just likes to run with the ball. I think he does it at least in part because he’s having fun. It’s a tad selfish, I think, but kids are a tad selfish. And the fact is, he really IS a good runner. Hell, he’s good at everything. And he’s really good at having fun playing football. How can you NOT love that?

cam newton4

Look at this photo. There’s Cam Newton being chased by guys who are paid millions of dollars to knock the shit of their opponents. And given the chance, they’d cheerfully knock the shit out of Cam Newton. And he’s laughing. He knows that one solid tackle could end his career, but look at him. He’s actually having fun.

I sound like a fan, don’t I. But I’m not. Well, maybe I am. But I don’t think so. Doesn’t matter. What matters is I was going to tell this guy in the Packers stocking cap that I wasn’t a fan of Cam Newton, but that I’d be rooting for the Carolina Panthers because they’re so much fun to watch.

But I only got as far as “I’m not a fan of Cam Newton…” because that’s when the guy in the Packers stocking cap interrupted me and started in on a racist rant. “I hate that guy,” he said. “No white quarterback would blah blah blah and just because he’s black he thinks he can something something showboat thug and hip hop jive dancing blah blah respect for the game yadda yadda.”

The woman running the cash register stopped what she was doing and stared at the guy in the Packers stocking cap. The guy who was paying for his gas and a pack of cigarettes turned around and stared at the guy. And after I stop being stunned, I said “Dude, back up.” I’m not at all sure what I meant by that, but that’s what I said. “Dude, back up.” And the guy in the Packers stocking cap stopped talking, realizing everybody in the Stop&Rob was either staring at him, or very studiously NOT looking at him. He says — and maybe this was the most astonishing and horrifying part of the incident — he says, “I’m not a racist, but c’mon, you have to admit…”

I don’t know what the guy in the Packers stocking cap thought we had to admit, because he never finished the sentence. It was his turn at the register. He paid for his stuff and left, and nobody said a word until the door closed behind him — at which point the woman at the register said “Holy crap.”

That scene has replayed in my mind off and on since it happened. The guy in the Packers stocking cap assumed I must be a racist too. Why? Is “I’m not a fan of Cam Newton” some sort of code phrase? A shared password racists use to identify each other in public? I think of all the times I’ve said “I’m not a fan of Cam Newton” and wonder if racists out there heard that and thought “Ah, he’s one of our people.” I think of all the times I’ve said “I’m not a fan of Cam Newton, but…” and I wonder if people were hearing “I’m not a racist, but…”

cam newton3

And it occurs to me that Cam Newton must hear this shit all the time. He must hear people using code words saying “I don’t like you because you’re black.” Every day, he must hear the most horrible, hateful, ugly shit. And you know what’s astonishing about that?

He still goes out there and plays football with the reckless joy of a kid.

He’ll be out on the field this evening; he’ll be center stage at the Super Bowl, and he’ll soak up the attention. He’ll be smiling and laughing. He’ll probably get knocked around a bit, but that’s part of the game. Doesn’t matter. Cam Newton will be having fun.

That guy in the Packers stocking cap? He did me a favor. He made me a fan of Cam Newton.

corn cribs, beer caves, kids on fire, taxi-leaping

I like a Sunday newspaper. Any local Sunday newspaper. I’m talking about an actual newspaper. A physical, hold-it-in-your-hand, lay-it-on-the-table. turn-the-page newspaper. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about the weight and heft of a Sunday paper.  Every other day of the week I’ll read the news online; I’ll weave my way through a couple dozen different news sources, national and international. But on Sundays, I go traditional.

It’s not entirely the physicality of the local newspaper that draws me. It’s the localness of the news. Since the Des Moines Register is Iowa’s only statewide newspaper, they have local stories from all over the state. Events that are important and/or meaningful to people who live in those communities. Here are some examples (these are all actual headlines and ledes from the first section of the newspaper):

Corncrib-Gazebo gets on neighbors’ nerves
Some residents of Carroll are annoyed when they look into a neighbor’s backyard and see a corncrib that’s been turned into a gazebo.

A neighbor said the gazebo ‘would look nice on an acreage or a farm, but just doesn’t fit the character of the subdivision.’ So he started a petition to have the gazebo removed. The city, however, informed him that the corncrib met municipal building and zoning codes since ‘it’s being used for outdoor entertainment, not to store or dry corn.’ Another neighbor stated the corncrib-gazebo was more attractive “than junk cars or an old boat.”

Better than junk cars or an old boat.

Better than junk cars or an old boat.

Or, as Buckminster Fuller said:

Let architects sing of aesthetics that bring
Rich clients in hordes to their knees.
Just give me a home, in a great circle dome,
Where stresses and strains are at ease.

And then there was this:

More investigation ordered of beer caves
More investigation has been ordered for the 150-year old beer caves recently rediscovered under Interstate Highway 380.

That’s right, beer caves. During the summer, a routine inspection of a highway bridge revealed a small sinkhole nearby. An examination suggested there might be a couple of caves below the highway. Some geologists were called in. Using some sort of imaging device, they found at least 11 caves, and maybe as many as 14. The caves turned out to be storage for the Christian Magnus Eagle Brewery and Bottling Works. Back in the 1850s a pair of German immigrants established the brewery, and at one point were producing around 25,000 bottles of 4.5% beer annually. The brewery was built by Cedar Lake, and during the winter months the brewery workers harvested ice from the lake, which they put in the beer caves where the beer was stored.

Christian Magnus Eagle Brewery and Bottle Works (circa 1870)

Christian Magnus Eagle Brewery and Bottle Works (circa 1870)

The brewery was shut down during Prohibition, and then demolished in 1937. People forgot about the caves, and eventually a highway was built over the area. After the discovery of the caves, the Office of the State Archaeologist was called in to explore them. An archaeologist who went into the caves described them as “impossibly dangerous.” After fifteen minutes in the caves, he returned to the surface with a few photographs. The caves will most likely be filled in to stabilize the highway and bridge.

Beer cave

One of the many beer caves hidden below the highway

In non-beer-related news:

Man catches fire, gets help
Dave Allison heard a boom inside his business’s building. “Then I saw this young kid rolling out on fire.”

Allison said “I just did what anybody would do.” And what, you ask, would anybody do when faced with a kid rolling out on fire? “I took off my coat and went over there and smothered the flames.” Obviously. Who was the kid? What caused the fire? Who knows? But the kid caught on fire and he got help. What more would you want to know? Happily, Allison did not take photos of the flaming kid before helping him. Not every news story has photographs.

Not every story in the first section of the Sunday newspaper was local. The Des Moines Register recognizes that important news takes place outside of Iowa. Which accounts for this (presumably beer-related) story:

Nebraska fan hurt after hurdling Wisconsin taxi
A Nebraska football fan is nursing an injured face after he tried to hurdle a taxi early Saturday.

So the headline is misleading. The Nebraska fan did NOT actually hurdle the taxi. He only made the attempt. I declare, modern journalism is in a sad state. Still, it’s a story worth reporting.

Mr. Bryce Consbruck, 22 years old and apparently a fan of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, was in Madison, Wisconsin to watch his team play against the Wisconsin Badgers. Seriously. Cornhuskers and Badgers are the actual names of two college football teams. At any rate, young Mr. Consbruck decided, at around two o’clock in the morning, to…well, let’s read the newspaper account:

[H]e ran into traffic and tried to leap over the taxi. He missed and hurt his face.

Madison police described Consbruck as “intoxicated.” Quelle surprise! When the police officers spoke to Consbruck, he “responded with a profanity-laced statement expressing his hope that the Cornhuskers would defeat the Badgers.” He also apparently promised not to attempt any taxi-leaping in the future.

Consbruck was cited for (and I swear I am not making this up) Sudden Pedestrian Movement. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment. Also? The Badgers beat the Cornhuskers 59-24, thereby completely ruining young Mr. Consbruck’s weekend.

There you have it. All the news that’s fit to print. I knew you’d want to know.

not a bad job

It’s eight-thirty in the morning. Dense fog and a deep, soaking mist. Cold, and getting colder. I’m walking around with my little Fujifilm X10, shooting manually because the fog and mist completely bitch-slapped the autofocus and light metering. Not many people on the street; not many people are stupid enough to be outside in that weather.

And I see this guy. He’s got a short broom — looks sort of like a modern version of an old-fashioned besom — and a long-handled dustpan. And he’s sweeping up trash off the street. At 0830 hours, in the cold, foggy mist. I shoot a couple of quick frames, thinking to myself “This poor bastard must be miserable.”

kent at work

I keep walking, he keeps looking for trash and sweeping it up. I nod to him and smile and say “You’ve got a cold morning for it.” He smiles and shrugs and says “I don’t mind so much, long as it’s doing this…” and he waves his hand up and down, like a karate chop “…and not doing this.” He waves his hand back and forth like he’s polishing a table. “Yeah, least there’s no wind,” I say.

His name is Kent. He’s been keeping the city streets clean for nearly three years. He says it’s not a bad job. “I like being outside. I get to meet people, walk around, don’t have to stay in one place.” He’s learned which business owners are nice, which ones ignore him like he’s not there, which ones are rude. He won’t identify any of the rude ones.

Kent says there’s about a dozen folks cleaning up the downtown area. He thinks most of his co-workers are pretty good or okay; a couple are lazy and some complain about the weather, but mostly they’re good people. He knows that most of the people he meets on the street don’t appreciate what he does, but he says clean streets sidewalks make the city a better place. He won’t say his job is important, but it’s clear he feels like he’s doing something worthwhile.

kent2

We talk for about ten minutes. We could have talked longer, but it’s obvious Kent feels he should get back to work. Sidewalks aren’t going to clean themselves, are they. I ask if I can take his photo. Kent sort of shuffles his feet, but nods. I take the shot, show it to him, and he grins. He tells me to stay safe; I tell him to stay warm. I go back to walking around, shooting photos; he goes back to picking up trash.

When people complain about their taxes — when they talk about cutting taxes and reducing the size of government — they’re talking about folks like Kent. Every single working day, regardless of the weather, this guy is out there making his city a more livable place. He’s making a meaningful contribution to the common good, which is a lot more than most of the folks complaining about their taxes do. Kent might not be comfortable saying his job is important, but it surely is.

And you know what’s really cool? You probably have somebody like Kent working in your city too. These folks don’t just exist in John Prine songs, you know. So take note of the people out there, and be sure to say hello to them.

shandy

Last week, rather against my will, I drank a shandy — a Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, to be specific. I’ve never liked the notion of a shandy. In the constellation of flavors, beer and lemonade seems a particularly perverse pairing. But again, last week, in an effort to be polite, I drank a shandy.

And I liked it.

shandyIt’s the fault of a Bavarian named Franz Xaver Kugler — a former railway worker who, for some unknown reason, decided to give up the rails and try his hand at innkeeping. In the early part of the 20th century, Herr Kugler opened a small establishment called the Kugleralm in the village of Deisenhofen, a few miles outside Munich. He appears to have been something of an innovator. Some of his innovations worked, some didn’t. For example, Kugler was an early adopter of a clear lemon soda, buying several thousand bottles, thinking it would be popular among the railway workers. It wasn’t. Those bottles ended up gathering dust and cobwebs in the Kugleralm cellar.

Kugler was more successful in his attempt to cash in on the bicycle craze which swept through post-World War I Germany. He helped create a bicycle path that ran through the forest, from Munich to Deisenhofen (and which, conveniently, passed directly by his inn). Herr Kugler hadn’t counted on the trail being quite so popular, however, and one summer afternoon in 1922 he found himself running short on beer. Out of desperation, he began to mix the beer with the unsellable lemon soda he had stored in his cellar.

The new concoction was different, it was refreshing, it lowered the beer’s alcohol content to the degree that cyclists could drink their fill and not fret about being able to ride without tipping over. Kugler the innovator decided to call the new drink Radlermass (radler meaning ‘cyclist’ in German).

There are LOTS of regional variations on the drink, each with its own regional name, but they’re all basically beer mixed with something like lemonade — which, to my ear, still sounds absolutely horrid. But what can I say? Now there’s a six-pack of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy sitting in the refrigerator (well, to be honest, by now it’s only a two-pack).

I know tap-heads will recoil in horror. Let them. I am (mostly) unashamed. A shandy may not be cool, but it’s cooling, and it’s pleasant to sit outside on a hot afternoon after a bike ride and read a good book and sip on a bottle of good Herr Kugler’s desperate drink. It was made for bicyclists, after all.

love and hope

I’d only walked about five yards into the woods when I saw the grave. I’d left the manicured, family-friendly part of the park and was wading into the scrub to search for morels, but the small grave marker made me pause for a while and reflect — which is, after all, exactly what grave markers are supposed to do.

This was a pet’s grave. A well-loved dog, I assume; it seems likely a person would walk a dog near those woods. The cross at one time had the pet’s name painted on it, but the weather had erased it some time ago. There was also a framed photograph, presumably of the pet, but the sun had bleached it entirely white. Still, a dog seems more probable.

RIP2It’s clearly an illegal grave. The land is public land — just over 1,800 acres owned by the county — and I can’t imagine county officials would allow folks to bury their pets there. Besides, the grave was in the woods, not visible from the part of the park maintained by park personnel. Whoever buried this dog had to bring its body to the woods at a time when he wouldn’t be spotted, carry the body far enough into the woods so the grave site wouldn’t be seen by park rangers, dig the grave, place his friend in it, and cover it up. That’s a lot of work. Whoever buried this dog had to love it enough to put its photograph in a nice cherrywood frame. Whoever buried this dog had to make the grave marker, and paint the dog’s name on it along with the letters RIP. Whoever buried this dog wanted it to rest in peace, under a Christian cross. Whoever buried this dog had to love it a lot.

There’s a sort of defiant audacity inherent in the Christian cross (and I say that as a non-Christian). Turning an instrument of governmental torture into a religious symbol is an act of insurrection. It’s an in-your-face statement of resistance. By co-opting the instrument of torture, Christians were saying to their oppressors “You can kill people, but you can’t kill an idea.” It wasn’t like the symbol of the fish — a secret code to be recognized by other Christians; it was an open display, a message to the Romans that despite the fact that he was tortured and executed, Jesus continued to live through his followers.

jesus livesThe Christian cross doesn’t really mean that anymore — at least not in its common usage. The four crosses in the photograph below, for example, aren’t symbolic instruments of torture. They’re not an expression of religious freedom or a token of a struggle against religious oppression. Those crosses are a simple expression of love and hope — love for the person who died, hope that the person is at peace in the company of their god.

in loving memoryAnd that’s why the cross is appropriate to mark the grave of somebody’s pet. It doesn’t matter that Christian theology denies the existence of a soul in animals. Nor does it matter that Christian orthodoxy says that without a soul, animals can’t be redeemed and thereby enter heaven. The cross over that pet’s grave has nothing to do with theology at all. That cross is an expression of love and hope — love for the dog, hope that it’s at peace, and hope that he’ll somehow be re-united with his friend in a better world.

You don’t have to be a Christian to see and appreciate the beauty in that.