January 10, 49 BC: Wade in the Water

Back in 49BC, Julius Caesar was a mere governor commissioned by the Roman Senate to oversee a portion of the empire that stretched from Gaul to Illyricum (pretty much most of today’s Europe except Italy). When his term of governorship ended, the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Whatever you do, Julie baby, don’t bring that army across the Rubicon River for that is treason and insurrection and very bad manners. Oh, and the punishment is death.

Caesar may have misunderstood for didn’t he just up and cross the Rubicon into Italy on January 10. His biographer suggests that he was under the control of a supernatural apparition (the Devil made him do it). Willful or not, Caesar is said to have shouted “alia iacta est” as he and his merry men waded across the shallow river (or ‘the die has been cast,” certainly more dramatic in Latin).

Crossing the Rubicon was a declaration of war, but instead of arresting Caesar the Roman Senate fled Rome in fear. Caesar, far from being condemned to death, became dictator for life. Sometimes it’s good to cross the Rubicon. Crossing the Rubicon has endured as a phrase meaning passing a point of no return.

The Hole in My Record Is Bigger Than the Hole in Your Record

RCA Victor it might be said crossed the Rubicon when on January 10, 1949, it introduced a new kind of record — a vinyl disc, just seven inches in diameter with a great big hole in the middle, the 45 (referring to its revolutions per minute). The 45 replaced the big noisy shellac disc that rotated at a breakneck 78 rpm. The first 45 rpm single was “Peewee the Piccolo.” Remember it?

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January 9, 1493: I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing

mermaidDo mermaids exist? These creatures – half woman, half fish – have found their way into the lore of seafaring cultures at least as far back as ancient Greek. You’ve seen them depicted; a woman’s head and torso and the tail of a fish instead of legs. They’re most often quite attractive, gazing upon their own countenance in a mirror and combing their long flowing tresses (like Darryl Hannah in the movie Splash, for example).

But believe in them? One might just as well believe in sirens, the half-woman, half-bird creatures who dwell on islands from where they sing seductive songs to lure sailors to their deaths. Yet there have been some notable sightings. No one less than Italian explorer Christopher Columbus has written of an encounter. On January 9, 1493, the intrepid New World traveler spotted not one but three mermaids frolicking somewhere near the Nina, Pinta or the Santa Maria (or maybe one entertaining each ship?)

He described the sighting in his ship’s journal: “They were not as beautiful as they are painted, although to some extent they have a human appearance in the face.” Columbus’ account would give ammunition to conspiracy theorists who claim that most mermaid sightings are actually manatees —  sea cows, although they’re said to share a common ancestor with elephants. Manatees are slow-moving aquatic beasts, weighing a good thousand pounds with bulbous faces but Bette Davis eyes. Most moviegoers would not mistake them for Darryl Hannah.

Henry Hudson, a British and more reliable explorer, also sighted a mermaid “come close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly on the men. A little while after a sea came and over- turned her. From the navel upward her back and breast were like a woman’s . . .her body as big as one of ours; her skin very white, and long hair hanging down behind . . . In her going down they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise, and speckled like a mackerel.” Much better, except for the mackerel part.

A few years later, Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, spotted a mermaid off the coast of Massachusetts. He wrote that the upper part of her body perfectly resembled that of a woman and that she swam about with style and grace. She had “large eyes, rather too round, a finely shaped nose (a little too short), well-formed ears, rather too long. . .” And she probably thought Smith was a little too much of a jerk.

Would you think this was a mermaid?
Would you mistake this for a mermaid?

 

Just a coincidence? 

Chic Young the creator of the comic strip Blondie was born on January 9, 1901, and Arthur Lake (surely you remember Arthur Lake) who played Dagwood Bumstead on radio, TV and in the movies died on January 9, 1987 — exactly 86 years later.  !

January 8, 1909: Getting Up To Speed

Back in the early 60s, a woman whose name has been lost to history appeared on the television show I’ve Got a Secret. Her secret for the panelists to intuit was that she could read the 689-page novel Gone With the Wind in under an hour. She was but one of the many students of Evelyn Nielsen Wood, born January 8, 1909, whose reading prowess was amped up by speed reading, her system that enabled a reader to dash through words at a rate of up to 1,500 per minute while others plodded along at the turtle pace of 250 to 300 per minute. What a leg up.

Evelyn herself could read an amazing 2,700 words per minute when she and her husband began hawking their seminars to television watchers throughout the country. Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Dynamics employed the high tech methodology of using one’s finger to trace a line of text gorging on complete thoughts rather than nibbling single words.

Speed reading sort of lost its cachet during the 90s but has had a resurgence of late thanks to smart phones and apps for speed reading. Today’s readers can stare at their phones while words whiz by at up to 600 per minute, leaving fingers free to stick in one’s ear or up one’s nose.

January 8, 1946

The kid, like most any kid of 11, wanted a rifle. And just like Ralphie, in A Christmas Story, his protective mother told him he’d shoot his eye out. In the popular film, Ralphie got his rifle in the end. Elvis didn’t.  His mother took him to the Tupelo Hardware Store and bought him a $6.95 guitar. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

He felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg. ~ P. G. Wodehouse

January 7, 1785: Jean-Pierre and the Airgonauts

HotAirBalloonBoy-GraphicsFairyBalloonomania was in full swing in Europe by the year 1785, and our intrepid French airgonaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard was right in the middle of it. Since his initial hot-air balloon flight nearly a year earlier, the frenzy had grown with balloon images plastered everywhere and even people adorned in clothing au ballon, a style that made them look like walking hot-air balloons.

But a sort of holy grail of ballooning was still to take place – the crossing of the English Channel. Blanchard had gone to England after his early successes, where he staged several flights in his strange-looking craft propelled by flapping wings and a windmill. Blanchard’s third flight there with American John Jeffries as co-pilot departed Dover Castle on January 7, 1785, bound for the coast of France, and the two men became the first to cross the Channel by air.

It wasn’t a particularly pretty flight; the two men nearly crashed into the Channel along the way. Their balloon was weighed down by questionable extra supplies such as anchors, a hand-operated propeller that didn’t work, and a set of oars with which they planned to row their way through the air. With France in sight but seemingly just out of reach, the two balloonists threw everything they could pry loose out of the balloon. When all looked bleak, Blanchard even threw his trousers overboard, lightening the craft enough to make a terra firma landing. The 2½ hour trip was a success.

Blanchard was awarded a substantial pension by Louis XVI. He later toured Europe, demonstrating his balloons and staging first flights in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland. He ballooned before monarchs, such as his flight at the coronation of Leopold II as king of Bohemia in Prague, and presidents, Washington, Adams. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe in the United States.

Charles Addams, born January 7, 1912:addams

addams1

January 6, 1993: Swinger in Chief

Legendary jazz trumpeter John Birks Gillespie, who was born in 1917 and died on January 6, 1993, was instantly recognizable by his beret and horn-rimmed glasses, his bent horn and puffed cheeks. “Dizzy” was known for his bebop improvisation and scat singing. What he wasn’t known for was being President of the United States, although he might have had things gone a little differently back in 1964.

“Dizzy for President” badges began to appear in 1963 although Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater didn’t feel all that threatened by a Dizzy candidacy. What started as a joke and a bit of fundraising for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) gathered a pretty good head of steam before the money ran out. But what a presidency he offered.

He wrote and performed his own campaign song: “Your politics ought to be a groovier thing, so get a good president who’s willing to swing. Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!” He promised, if elected, to work for civil rights and equal opportunity in the workplace. To make certain employers were blind to race, he would have job applicants where sheets over their heads to hide their skin color.

He planned to change the name of the White House to the Blues House.

He even went so far as to name his dream cabinet. Miles Davis would be director the the CIA, Louis Armstrong Minister of Agriculture. Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Woody Herman, Peggy Lee, and Count Basie would all have positions in his administration. Drummer Max Roach wanted to be Secretary of War, but Dizzy said no, because there wouldn’t be one.

If Only He’d Carried a Trumpet Up San Juan Hill

Although he was not a swinging prez, Teddy Roosevelt who died on rooseveltJanuary 6, 1919, was a president of many firsts – and mosts and onlys. Taking office in 1901 at the age of 42, he was our youngest president. (In 1904, he became the first president elected to a term in his own right after having ascended to the presidency from the Vice-Presidency upon the death of his predecessor.) In 1902, he became the first president to ride in an automobile, and in 1905, the first to submerge in a submarine. He was also the first to fly in an airplane. He was the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize (1906) and one of only three Presidents to ever win it.

Roosevelt was probably the only president to carry a big stick, which may have given him the confidence to be the only president never to use the word “I” in an inaugural address. He was the only one-eyed president, after losing the sight in one eye in a 1904 boxing match with a professional fighter. Though not the only military hero who became president, he was the only one to lead a charge up San Juan Hill.

And he was the only president named after an animal – the teddy bear – although two later presidents were named after plants.

 

 

January 5, 2018: It’s My Bean, It’s My Bean

January 5 marks the last of the 12 days of Christmas, also collectively known as Christmastide, although some folks would have January 5 the 11th day of Christmas with January 6 being the 12th day of Christmas, their having started counting on the day after Christmas rather than Christmas Day. For these folks, Twelfth Day comes after Twelfth Night, which one would think might be rather confusing. The confusion is easily mastered for Twelfth Night is celebrated with a prodigious amount of drinking.

Once everyone is pleasantly plastered, they all head out into the fields where they toast oxen and trees and rocks until they get cold and decide to go back inside only to find that they’ve been locked out and will not be admitted until they sing a few songs. Those that don’t sing freeze to death. Everybody else goes back inside where they divide up a cake that someone has baked a bean into. Whoever gets the bean gets to be King or Queen of the Bean and boss everyone around until everyone passes out.

And the twelve drummers finally stop drumming.

An Ode to Snow

Warning – the following is quite lyrical.

O glorious snow surrounding me with immense drifty mounds!  What do thy mounds conceal?  How many cocker spaniels, small children, miniCoopers have you swallowed, not to be seen again until May.  I am quite conscious of those mounds surrounding me, looming, as I go to fetch the mail, keeping close to the shoveled path lest I too be lost in the mounds ‘til May.  But the path is icy (for that’s what winter is about – snow and ice, ice and snow) and my feet, which have been more accustomed to soft earth, grassy carpeting, fly out from neath me. I fall to the cruel ice.  And here I am in a place from which I never thought I’d be needing to shout:  “Help me.  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”  But I’m not going to shout, for it seems my mouth is frozen to the icy path.  O glorious ice!  Ice that holds me close to its vast but damn cold bosom.  I wait, hoping that someone will come along – a girl scout  peddling cookies, a hot dog vendor, or the UPS man delivering a package of lip warmers.  Or have they too been swallowed by the shifting, whispering mounds of snow?  I tell myself it could be worse; I could be in Chicago.  It doesn’t help.  Now my life flashes before me, especially the part where I’m on a beach in the Caribbean.   But what’s this?  My face is stuck in the sand.  Children frolic nearby, pointing and laughing.  “Hey, mon, why’s your face in the sand?”  Tanned beauties stroll by at a safe distance whispering about senility and too many pina coladas.    A sand crab sidles up and pinches my nose, and I’m suddenly back in frozen Vermont.  But help seems to be at hand.

Two Jehovah’s Witnesses approach.   They look down at me and ask,  “Are you ready to be saved?”  “Doesn’t it look like I’m ready to be saved?” I shout, but no words come out.   They chip me free from the ice with their Watchtowers.  I thank them, accept an armload of their publications, and they ask me if I’m ready for the end of the world.  You betcha.

January 4, 2018: Come Down, Come Down from Your Ivory Tower

If you’ve been keeping track of the Christmas season, you’ll be fully aware that January 4 is the eleventh day of Christmas, kind of an also-ran as far as days of Christmas go, although eleven pipers piping does make a rather dramatic gift from your true love (especially this year as frozen pipes are busting out all over).

In addition to celebrating plumbers, the eleventh day celebrates a saint, as each of the twelve days does. Day eleven is dedicated by those folks who dedicate such things to Saint Simeon Stylites also known as Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder to distinguish him from Simeon Stylites the Younger. He is known primarily for spending 37 years on a platform atop a pillar outside of Aleppo in what is now Syria (one could make a pretty good case that in Syria on top of a pillar might be a good place to be).

Why did Simeon choose to live up there like an Arabian Rapunzel, you ask? Simeon was very likely a wise man or at least people thought he was, because they kept coming to him for advice. Many folks would be honored to be sought out for guidance. Not Simeon. Seekers annoyed him. He wanted to be left alone to pray his private prayers and possibly entertain other thoughts as well.

So he went out and found a pillar. His first pillar was a mere nine feet tall and he soon realized that people could easily shout their entreaties to him. He thus began a series of relocations, each pillar being taller than its predecessor. His final pillar was really up there, some 50 feet above the ground and its many pests.

Sort of gets you back in the Christmas spirit, doesn’t it?

Party Hearty

If the twelve days of Christmas are not exciting enough for your celebratory desires, party1 January is pregnant with potential excuses for partying, no matter how far one has to push the envelope.

Already we’ve had, in addition to New Year’s, national days devoted to both hangovers and Bloody Marys. You no doubt caught sight of the festivities as hordes of devotees took part in National Fruitcake Toss Day or sat on the sidelines during National Humiliation Day. Perhaps you were one of the three giddy participants in National Mew Year for Cats Day. And will you observe the dining protocols today as pasta lovers birdseverywhere pig out on National Spaghetti Day. Those of us who prefer cheeper pursuits, can flock together on National Bird Day, January 5. And National Feed a Bird Spaghetti Day is surely waiting in the wings, possibly coming to a January 6 near you.

If you think that most of these holidays created by people with little else to do are a tad trivial, you’re in luck. Today just happens to be National Trivia Day. Get out the pretzels and beer, the party hats and noisemakers, and contribute a nugget of trivia (one person’s trivia is another person’s essential information, you know).

 

If, at the close of business each evening, I myself can understand what I’ve written, I feel the day hasn’t been totally wasted. ~ S. J. Perelman

 

 

January 3, 1871: Oleo Oleo Oxen Free

In 1871 Henry Bradley received a patent for an amorphous concoction of cottonseed oil and animal fats that had the appearance, texture and perhaps the taste of silly putty. He called his creation oleomargarine (margarine to its close friends) to be used as a substitute for butter.
While Real Butter from Real Cows had a pleasant yellow color, Bradley’s faux butter was a stark, pasty white, more of a lard look alike that turned a lot of people off. No one spreading this white stuff on their toast would ever dream of exclaiming “I can’t believe it’s not butter.”
The answer, of course, was to color the stuff to make it look like Real Butter. But not so fast. It seems that discontented cows saw yellow margarine as a threat to the butter industry. (And this was long before a single crown appeared on a margarine muncher’s head.) They rose up and secured legislation prohibiting the sale of yellow margarine.
Margarine manufacturers used various tactics to bring color to their products. One of the oddest was a method devised by the W.E. Dennison Co. that used a capsule of yellow dye inside a plastic baggie of margarine The consumer would knead the package, breaking the capsule, allowing the dye to eventually spread throughout the margarine. Some consumers were still kneading their first lump of margarine when, in 1955, the ban on yellow margarine was lifted. Today margarine remains a glorious shade of yellow, and the naked eye cannot tell it from Real Butter. It does still taste like silly putty, however.

January 2, 1920: Here Come the Commies, Build That Wall

It was 1920 and America was gripped with fear. The country was under siege by moral perverts bent on destroying goodness, virtue and the American way of life. Spawned by the Russian Revolution of a few years earlier, the Red Menace was upon us.

Where was an American hero who would do something — build a wall, perhaps, to keep out the Bolsheviks, anarchists and labor militants not to mention Mexican rapists and murderers? U. S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer stepped to the fore. On this day in 1920, he dispatched federal agents to pool halls, restaurants and private homes in thirty-five American cities (sanctuary cities?) to round up some six thousand radicals. No warrant? No problem. Civil liberties were meant for true Americans.

“The nation owes a debt of gratitude to A. Mitchell Palmer,” said the New York Herald. “And now let there be no mawkish sentimentality about these rascals, no prattling of the sacred right of free speech from parlor socialists and others of that ilk.”

The near hysteria subsided in a few months when Palmer’s “imminent revolution” was a no-show, but ethnic profiling and guilt by innuendo had been let out of the bag. Perhaps, they would wither and die here? Or perhaps not. Among the army of federal agents unleashed by Palmer was a 24-year-old staunch anti-Communist fanatic named J. Edgar Hoover.

They’re Not Folk, They’re Fellow Travelers

The Weavers burst onto the popular music scene in 1950.  The group, founded in 1948 by Pete Seeger along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, brought a hard-driving string-band style to a mix of traditional folk songs from around the world, blues, gospel music, children’s songs, labor songs, and American ballads. Their recording of “Goodnight Irene,” held the Billboard #1 spot for 13 weeks that summer.

The Weavers went on to sell millions of copies of songs such as “Midnight Special” and “On Top of Old Smoky” at the height of their popularity. Then as fast as their careers had skyrocketed, they were nearly destroyed by the Return of the Red Scare, this installment brought to us by the jovial Joe McCarthy. When it became known that Seeger and Hays had openly embraced the pacifism, internationalism and pro-labor sympathies of the Communist Party during the 1930s, the backlash was swift and brutal. Planned television shows were canceled, the group was placed under FBI surveillance, and Seeger and Hays were called to testify before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. The Weavers lost their recording contract with Decca in 1951, and by 1953, they were barred from television and radio and unable to book concert venues. They soon disbanded.

The Weavers enjoyed a comeback in the late 1950s, but the group never shook its right-wing persecutors. Even as late as January 2, 1962, with anti-communist passion declining, their politics were used against them, On that afternoon they were told that a scheduled appearance on The Jack Paar Show would be canceled if they didn’t sign an oath of political loyalty. Every member of the group refused to sign.

Lee Hays died in 1981 shortly after a reunion brought the wandering minstrels back together for a picnic that led to a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall on November 28, 1980, the group’s last ever performance. Pete Seeger never stopped singing until his death in 2014. Ronnie Gilbert died in 2015, Fred Hellerman in 2016.

“If you can exist, and stay the course — not a course of blind obstinacy and faulty conception — but one of decency and good sense, you can outlast your enemies with your honor and integrity intact.” Fred Hellerman, accepting a Grammy Lifetime Achievement  Award for the Weavers in 2006

 ♦

barry-goldwaterIt’s a great country, where anybody can grow up to be president … except me. – Barry Goldwater, born January 2, 1909 (died 1998)

 

January 1, 45 B.C.: Et Tu, Sosigenes

saturnaliaToday is January 1, New Year’s Day, the start of a brand new year. It wasn’t always thus. New Year’s Day was celebrated on January 1 for the first time in 45 B.C. On that day the Julian calendar went into effect — created by Julius Caesar himself — with the aid of his trusty sidekick Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer. Note that the calendar was not named the Sosigenian calendar — it’s good to be the dictator.

The calendar was in a real mess at the time. It did its best to follow the lunar cycle, but it fell out of sync with the seasons and had to be corrected. Then there was the Roman Calendar Commission, which frequently added or subtracted days for political reasons, an early kind of gerrymandering. And on top of it all, the years were going backwards toward zero.

Sosigenes advised Caesar to dump the whole Roman calendar and start from scratch. New Year’s no longer came in March (leaving that month with nothing to celebrate except the Ides). A one-time bonus of 67 days was thrown in, with the promise of an extra day every four years in February (more of a crowd-pleaser in Rome than in, say Stockholm.

Once he had started fiddling with the calendar, Caesar couldn’t stop. In 44 B.C. (that’s a year later than 45), he changed the month of Quintilis to Julius (July, to friends). He would no doubt have done more damage had not a group of noble Romans assassinated him that same year.

Several years later the calendar reached zero, and since the end of the world did not come despite many predictions, the following years moved back into positive territory. Unfortunately, the Julian calendar had this pesky little 11-minute-per-year error that seemed minor at first but which by the the mid-15th century had added up to ten days, forcing Pope Gregory to step into the breach and give the world the calendar we use today and the ability to accurately celebrate the new year, awaiting only Dick Clark and the ball atop Times Square.

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short comings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion. ~Mark Twain

January 1, 1995

Gary Larson’s wacky, surrealistic comic, The Far Side, debuted on January 1, 1980, and ran for 15 years in more than 1,900 daily newspapers. It has been translated into 17 languages, and collected into calendars and 23 best-selling books. The last panel appeared on January 1, 1995:

far-side-final

Some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant—better left unstirred. ~ P. G. Wodehouse