Monday, January 21, 2013

On Squirrels, Penguins, and Ravens

In all seriousness, today is commonly recognized as an important day of celebration. MLK, Jr. Day is a truly righteous holiday, allowing all Americans to consider the sacrifices that Dr. King made on behalf of equality for all people in this country. He is a true American hero, and he deserves the recognition that he receives, now and forever.

However, this voice in the wilderness is not prone to staying serious for too long, so let’s move on to matters less important, but far more open to ridicule. Today is a confluence of three wonderful things for us here at Central Standard. The first is a warm up for an even more momentous day next month, the second allows me to really put my true personality on display, and the third is something that makes me prouder than I have any real right to be.

First, today is Squirrel Appreciation Day. Many of you already know of my love for Groundhog Day (my favorite minor holiday), so I was pleased to discover that today was set aside for a more diminutive rodent relative of the whistle pig. Not only am I pleased to have a day to acknowledge all of the diligent hard work of squirrels everywhere, burying acorns, nesting in people’s attics, and destroying more bird feeders than any other non-bird yard animal known to man, but I am happy to have this day as a stand in for yesterday’s Penguin Appreciation Day, which, sadly, I neglected to recognize in due time. (A sorrowful tip of the pen to all of my penguin friends out there.) As a result, all of squirreldom receives all of my love today.  And, they shall receive it in a most excellent way, since today is also, National Hugging Day.

There is nothing like a good hug, is there? One thing that makes me the happiest is to hug someone. As a matter of fact, I have been known to hug complete strangers while walking down the street. It is just hard not to show your love for your fellow man when all it takes is to wrap the two arms you probably have around the torso that another person probably has. Needless to say, hugs become more complicated when approaching someone without a torso, but a dedicated hugger can usually accomplish a decent enough hug with nothing more than a neck or a leg to grapple with. And, of course, non-torso situation really do not come up that often.

So, today brings together two celebrations that certainly can be recognized jointly. I charge you all with going out today and hugging a squirrel!  And, while you are at it, give thanks that today is not Bear Appreciation Day, Mountain Lion Appreciation Day, nor Shark Appreciation Day.

Oh, yeah, and that third thing? How excited I was yesterday watching a collection of men whom I have no actual connection to, pound another collection of men I have no connection to into the turf of Gillette Stadium.  I know that it is irrational to feel pride that a team with a certain uniform wins a game. After all, what role did I have in the accomplishment? None. But, it would take someone with a better psychological mind to explain why so many of us feel the connection that we do to certain sports teams, and, in the long run, I don’t care. I am an unapologetic Ravens fan. I was there for their first game, and I have rooted them on no matter where I happen to live.  So, I say without shame that I did a little dance last night when the whistle blew, and the scoreboard read Baltimore 28, New England 13. Go Ravens! We’ll see you on February 3 in New Orleans. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Yesterday was the anniversary of the date in 1377 when Pope Gregory XI moved the papacy from Avignon, France, to Rome. It stands to reason, however I have little evidence to support it, that today must be the anniversary of the date in 1377 when the pope had his cable turned on and unpacked his record collection.

Gregory and his small retinue of hundreds moved into a charming fixer-upper and proceeded to plan his vegetable garden and to innovate new ways to torture heretics. The house immediately became a magnet for Rome’s cognoscenti, literati, and illuminati. Unfortunately for the thirty-second most unoriginally named pope (all of the Johns (including an antipope (John XVI) and a non-existent pope (John XX)) and the first ten Gregorys are ahead of him), he died not long after his move, leaving his garden plan unexecuted (but not a few heretic--they WERE executed) and casting all of Catholicism into a lengthy spat.

Before I get into The Great Schism, I would like to revisit the fact that there is a nonexistent pope. Somehow the papal historical record labeled one of their honchos incorrectly. John XIV was apparently counted twice (perhaps due to the action of another antipope, Boniface VII (sometimes the history of Western religion reads like a Marvel comic book: Pope/Antipope)).  I am not kidding when I tell you that the papal record apparently refers to John XIV AND John XIV the second.  How can you have a John XIV the second?  Isn’t that like having a John Jr III?  It doesn’t make any sense.  But, when the pope who would be XX came around--a guy referred to as (again, no joke) Spanish Peter--he decided to correct the record (assuming there already had been XX popes named John) and he skipped the XX and went right in as XXI.  As it turns out, John XIV and John XIV the second turned out to be the same guy.  Um, duh?  No wonder some Christians believe the world is only 6000 years old--they can’t even keep track of sequentially numbered guys named John.

But, anyway, the pope elected after Gregory XI was from Naples, and the French, being used to a) having a short walk to the pope’s house (pre-1377) and b) speaking French to the pope (okay, you got me, it was probably Latin, but there’s no joke there…is there?), did not like the new guy. So, they did what any reasonable collection of people will do when an election doesn’t go their way—they split. Literally. And, so, The Great Schism began, and Europe had to choose a patriarch. This was highly confusing to Europe. The pope was supposed to be the closest human to God, and now there were two?  How could that be right? As it turned out, most of France and Scotland went with the antipope in Avignon, and everybody else sided with the Neapolitan pope.

For thirty years, cardinals tried to solve the problem. The best solution they could come up with occurred in 1409, when, in an attempt to sort out who was the legitimate pope, they elected a second antipope, giving them, you guessed it, three popes to choose from! I have no idea how they managed such an unbelievable act of incompetence.  Maybe they thought they were voting for one thing and voted for another? Perhaps the ballot was printed in too small a print, or it was written in the vernacular (which they did not understand). Be that as it may, the episode of The Great Catholic Comedy from season 13 titled “Aw, Schism!” began to rival the most madcap episodes of I Love Lucy ever filmed at DesiLu Studios.

Eventually, the cardinals figured out the difference between one pope and three popes (or one pope and two antipopes), and they recognized the legitimacy of the Roman “line” of popes. They call it a line, but that would imply heredity, wouldn’t it?  Are only popes allowed to reproduce? I will stop this line of inquiry here, I don’t want to upset too many of my family members.

Needless to say, the Roman popes eventually moved out of Gregory XI’s little cottage and started their own city-state, Vatican City. Hmmm, city-state. Didn’t the Greeks have city-states? And wasn’t there a big break up between the Greek and Latin Church in 1054? And wasn’t that The Great Schism? Does that mean we should refer to the 1377 break as The Great Schism the second?  And, really, y’all, what’s with all the schisms? Can’t we all just get along? 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The March of History

This weekend, the Monkey House was enthralled and delighted by the success of the Baltimore Ravens in their playoff game against the Denver Broncos. With one more playoff win, the Ravens can play in Super Bowl XLVII on February 3, in New Orleans, LA. On this day in 1967, the very fist Super Bowl was played in Los Angeles, CA. The game was called the AFL-NFL World Championship, and a lot of things were different about football and the US, when the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs.

But that is not what I really want to talk to you about. Today, about a hundred years earlier (1870) to be exact, Thomas Nast published a political cartoon that gave the Democratic party its symbol: the jackass. They would prefer to refer to it as a donkey, most likely, but I think we can all agree that most Democrats, simply by nature of being politicians, are jackasses. Incidentally, four years later, Nast drew an elephant in a cartoon to represent the GOP, and, instantly, those jackasses became elephants.

That is not what I really want to talk about, either. In the world of letters, today was the day, in 1899, when California school teacher Edwin Markham published his poem, “The Man with the Hoe.” Inspired by Millet’s 1863 French painting of a similar name (only in French), the poem contains the lines, “Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave / to have dominion over sea and land”? I sometimes feel that way when I look in the mirror and watch my bulbous nose spread slowly across my face. Anyway, a great scandal occurred when Markham’s poem was reprinted in an Eastern newspaper as “The Man with the Ho.” The paper broke sales records that day, but was forced to field countless complaints later for “not delivering the goods.”

Yet, again, that is not what I really wanted to talk to you about. In 1987, Paramount used this day to announce that they would place a 30-second ad for Diet Pepsi at the front of their videocassette release of Top Gun. So, the movie that gave us “the need for speed,” and miraculously bright shots of Tom Cruise’s pearly whites, may also be responsible for the thirty-five minutes of wretched merchandising in the movie theatres, today. Thank you Paramount for every Bod commercial I have ever had to tolerate.

However, let me get to my point since the previous is not what I wanted to talk about, either. What is really on my mind is that on this day, in 1981, Omaha, Nebraska, native Bob Gibson was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot.  This is remarkable not because of Gibson’s stellar career, his ferocious personality, nor the fact that he hails from the largest city in my current home state.  This is remarkable because this year’s Hall of Fame balloting, 32 years later, produced not one inductee.  That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, not one baseball player currently being considered for inclusion was deemed worthy of the Hall.  Not Mark McGwire (again), not Roger Clemens, not Barry Bonds, not anyone. The highest vote getter, at 68% (you need 75% to get in), was Craig Biggio, a highly respected second baseman, in his first year of eligibility, whose claim to the Hall rests on his 3060 hits (a pretty good number).

And why is it that baseball's writers, who are the gatekeepers of the Hall of Fame, have found no one from among a heady list of recent stars to invite into the HoF? Well, I blame Lance Armstrong. His recent fall from grace has cast a pall upon every sportsman and woman of his era. After all, if Lance was a juicer, they all must have been, from Sammy Sosa to Smarty Jones.  And, if they were all cheating, do they belong in the pantheon of their sport?

I will let you decide. I gotta go…Oprah’s on!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

As Plain As The Nose On My Face

There has been a raging debate online over the past several years among the scientifically-minded. Both PhD’s and kitchen doctors around the globe have been weighing in on the age old question of whether or not our ears and nose grow as we age.  Everyone, from Arthur Perry, MD, blogging on The Doctor Oz Show’s website, to Philster and Master Wang-Ka, posting on The Straight Dope’s message board, has an opinion on this topic.
But opinions are not facts, and consensus is not truth. The only thing that can sway this debate, the only thing that can answer this primordial conundrum, is science. Perhaps we can look to studies by British physicians, or papers published by Japanese doctors, or investigations by German scientists, all cited in an April 25, 2011 article in the online edition of The Guardian (UK). Maybe we can consult the troublingly anonymous Medical FAQ website. As authoritative (or otherwise) as some of these sites may seem, their scientific reliability pales in comparison to the tried and true method of observation and comparative physiology known as looking in the mirror and comparing your face to your grandfather’s.

According to Krogh’s principle, somewhere in the world there is some animal upon which any problem that affects humans can be studied. Were this true, someone somewhere would be using National Institute of Health grant money to accurately measure the size of mouse and pig ears over an animal’s lifetime, or trying to grow a nose of immense size in a Petri dish.  (Wasn’t there some such scene in Woody Allen’s The Sleeper? A dream sequence with giant noses on legs?  Or am I imagining that? Digression!) There may very well be a poorly publicized slave of science toiling away at his ever-growing nose study, but, at the present, we have no information to prove it. And so, we are left only with the tools of science at our disposal, our eyes, our memory, a poorly-lit mirror, and our slowly expanding facial characteristics.

For we stood before the mirror this week and were struck by the ridiculous size of our own ears. In a slight panic, we looked to our nose and noticed that perhaps it is growing a bit more bulbous. We scoured our memory for that face, that face of our grandfather, a man born in America of Polish immigrant parents.  We are aware of the fate of the Polish men (and not a few of the women) in our family. First, they are born with feet wider than any human should have.  And, as time goes on, the feet widen.  Next, the ears and nose grow in length. The cartilage continues to grow, and, in the case of the ear lobes, gravity plays one of its crueler tricks. The lobes seem to drip down toward the ground, pendulous flaps of opaque skin, swinging unattractively in the breeze.

It is unmistakable that this is indeed happening to me. As a matter of fact, if one observes the following artist’s renditions, one can plainly see the growth in both the nose and the ears on my face.

Here is a pretty accurate crayon on napkin sketch of me as a young child. Note the relatively small facial features.

Here is a current depiction of my features in the same media. Note the marked change in the size of certain aspects.

Thus, as we used to say in Geometry class, “QED, bitch!” It is proven. The nose and ears do grow throughout life. I am proud to have committed myself once again to the scientific method. It is an honor to have sacrificed so much in the way of dignity in my search for the truth.

And, Doctor Oz, if you ever need a blogger on your highly regarded scientific website, I am your man!

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Better Living Through Science

Wednesday, January 9, is National Static Electricity Day. In my research for this shocking day (glad I got that one out of the way so early), I stumbled upon the Altius Directory, which, as best I can tell, is a business service that checks the Internet for information about your business, or it sells domain names, or it posts articles about little known calendar events like National Static Electricity Day. However, after reading Altius’ posting on “National Static Electricity Day,” I knew less about static electricity than I had before I read it. A sampling of the highly entertaining article reads:

Many of us would have experienced, when we suddenly touch any metal, we experience a sudden static or shock. Sometimes as soon as we take off our hat, our hair stands straight. This especially happens in winters. Therefore, the sudden shock and the hair standing out is a result of static electricity. To know a little more about it we should be aware of a few things around us.
As we all know that everything that surrounds us is made of atom. According to scientists there are 115 pieces of atoms; therefore everything is made of atoms. (“National Static Electricity Day”)

I suspect that the author of this article is not a native English speaker. Regardless, it is abundantly clear that he/she is not a scientist.

So, what is static electricity, beside the reason for winter-time hat hair? As we all remember from primary school science, static electricity is an action that takes place at an atomic-particle level, and, as we all know from reading Altius’ website, everything is made of the 115 pieces of atoms. So, when you walk across the carpet in your socks, you gather up some atoms’ electrons on your feet. When you reach out to turn on your stereo, the negative charged electrons attract positively charged particles from the stereo (made of atom!), causing the arc that you can sometimes see, and also causing the short circuiting of your stereo because it is plugged into a non-grounded outlet. What, that doesn’t happen to you? Oh…lucky.

Most people don’t know this, but Wint-O-Green LifeSavers also produce static electricity. When you bite this particular flavor of ring-shaped mint, sparks do fly. You might not be able to see it, but it happens…particularly in the dark. This is generally believed to be caused by the mints being rubbed on a balloon before being packaged. Each ring is packed with electrons, which are discharged when they come in close contact with human teeth, which everyone knows are positively charged. It is scientifically accepted that excessive consumption of Wint-O-Green LifeSavers can force so much electrical force on the teeth that they are jarred in their sockets. Young children who eat too many LifeSavers nearly always need braces later in life.

Static electricity has also been blamed for other, more singular, disasters. It is an unconfirmed possibility that static electricity was responsible for the explosion and burning of the German airship LZ129-Hindenburg in 1936. Because the far safer gas, helium, was rare and difficult to obtain (as all Nebraska football fans know), the German designers of the Hindenburg designed it to utilize hydrogen, which is highly flammable, and in a great enough concentration and pressure can result in a giant star not unlike our Sun. Ironically, had the Germans used helium, rubbing the outside of the airship vigorously would have resulted in it sticking comically to the side of the Empire State Building, but, alas, such a scene was not possible.

So, today, eighty-three years after a tragic disaster caused by atoms, we have a day during which we, as a nation, are asked to take a moment to recognize the awesome power of “the sudden shock and the hair standing out.” After all, without static electricity, brothers and sisters the world over would have had one fewer way to torment their siblings.

God bless the atom, and God bless America!

Sunday, January 06, 2013

One Realization That Leads to Another

Today is the Feast of Epiphany, according to Western Christians. According to Wikipedia, the feast day commemorates not only the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, but the “revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ.” I’ll buy the Magi’s arrival; it’s the manifestation of God part that stretches the date’s credibility. Not that there is anything wrong with it. It just isn’t for me.
The same Wikipedia page has a link to the page for “Epiphany (feeling).” Which credits James Joyce for possibly coining the usage of epiphany to mean “an experience of sudden and striking realization.” His stories in The Dubliners all involve characters coming to some realization that alters their view of themselves or the world around them. It is conceivable that large doses of beer and whiskey may have had something to do with those “striking realizations.” Interestingly, for me, anyway, the author of this particular page also equates William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as a terminology of epiphany, as well. How do Christians feel about having a word so closely associated with the first big feast day of the year secularly implying “drug-influenced state(s)” and beer-soaked revelations? Then again, the Magi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh are both popular for use in incense, and we know who burns most of the incense, don’t we? Let’s just say many of us stop “burning incense” when we get out of college.
Perhaps, in a related vein, back in 1974, Tom Scholz was burning incense when he had an epiphany in his basement in 1974, and the song “More Than a Feeling” manifested itself in his mind. Boston, my favorite band EVER, released the song on their 1976 debut. I am certainly not trying to equate Tom Scholz with the Son of God. Nor am I implying that “More Than a Feeling” is a song of anything more than mild musical significance. It just happens to be where my mind took me on this particular intellectual exercise.
Maybe more significantly, today is also the birthday of Jeanne d’Arc, according to some sources. Being an inveterate skeptic, I suspect that her birthday is more than likely not on January 6. It just seems too coincidental that the day that the (arguably) second most famous Christian martyr (sorry John, the Baptist) was born on the same day as the manifestation of the first most famous martyr as a human being. Then again, if one negates the manifestation of the Son of God thing (see paragraph one), Joanie’s birthday is a bit easier to swallow. At any rate, Joan was a fascinating young woman--most likely delusional, but fascinating nonetheless. And without her inspiring and tragic tale, we would not have one of the most beautiful silent films ever (The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)) nor one of the best-known Smiths songs (“Big Mouth Strikes Again”). Granted one might argue that the Smiths couldn’t have written that song without the invention of the Walkman, either. You might also argue that they might have written the song even without the allusion to Joan (or a Walkman), but that just wouldn’t be the same song, would it. At any rate, wouldn't it be sad if the Smiths were most well-known simply for "Girlfriend in a Coma." Seriously.
Most unfortunately, however, today is the final day of Winter Break for kiddos in this neck of the woods. Tomorrow, we will be back to shaping young minds. And I hope to find more time to keep up with this blog, albeit with a new focus. Instead of Central Standard's traditional, unfocused, hard to maintain ramble from random thought to random thought, I hope to focus on today's tone of edification and the loose division of fact and opinion to create a regular discussion of topical current and historical events.  If anyone has any ideas for topics, leave a shout in the comments.
Thanks for stopping by!