Day 986: James Randi & The Magic Of Truth

originally published September 12, 2014

One of the television landmarks of my childhood involved magicians/dissectors-of-bullshit Penn & Teller, performing the classic splice-the-assistant trick. They then performed the trick once more on a transparent stage with transparent props in order to reveal the gadgetry and choreography that had effectively deceived us. My mother loathed the bit; to this day her stalwart faith in pure magic remains uncompromised. For me, it was an awakening.

I saw Penn & Teller’s commitment to debunkery as an invitation to question the unexplained, and to search for the truth tucked under the throw-rug of perception. This curiosity need not be an omnipresent obsession – I would much rather share in the astounded guffaws of David Blaine’s close-up audience than pry into the secrets of his masterful sleight-of-hand – but when trickery is but a front for a more nefarious purpose, this well-worn skepticism is a handy frock.

James Randi has been an activist for truth and an intrepid explorer of paranormal hucksterism for decades. When Copperfield transformed the Statue of Liberty into furtive air on national television, Randi made no effort to deflate our collective entertainment. But when pseudo-psychics make ludicrous claims of otherworldly powers in their pockets, James Randi is there to reach in and show us the lint of deception.

Naturally, he has pissed off a lot of people along the way.

The Amazing Randi rose to fame as a magician in 1956 when he broke Harry Houdini’s submersion record by having himself locked inside a sealed coffin beneath the surface of a hotel swimming pool for 104 minutes on The Today Show. But while Randi was happy to entertain a gawking audience, he was always critical of the mysticism that people would invite into their lives as fact. While employed by the Canadian tabloid Midnight, he penned a recurring astrology column by simply rearranging horoscopes from other publications and pasting them randomly under each sign.

Randi was a consummate performer. While suspended in a straightjacket over Niagara Falls on a Canadian TV special, he wriggled his way to freedom. When Alice Cooper took his shock-rock shtick on the road in 1973 for his Billion Dollar Babies tour, Randi appeared on stage in character, lopping off Cooper’s head using a trick guillotine that he had designed and built.

But it was when he turned his attention to the world of psychic powers that he started to earn a few enemies.

James Randi’s primary nemesis would turn out to be Uri Geller, the man who became famous by ruining his silverware drawer. While demonstrating to a group of people that he could easily duplicate Geller’s psychic spoon-bending phenomenon, a professor from the University of Buffalo cried out that Randi was nothing more than a fraud. Randi was quick to agree, explaining that his living was made through trickery, and that everything he had just done could be logically explained.

That’s not what the professor meant. He believed that Randi was covering for his psychic abilities by lying and calling it a trick.

Randi’s fame as a magician and escape artist were eclipsed in 1972 when he spoke very openly and publicly about Uri Geller, insisting that Geller’s “abilities” were nothing more than the work of a talented illusionist. He published a book, The Truth About Uri Geller, in 1982, and was the unquestionable victor when Geller sued Randi for libel a few years later. Had Geller billed his psychic hoodoo as showbiz instead of psychokinetic truth, Randi would probably have said nothing. But he couldn’t stand someone inflating their own importance through such blatant manipulation.

Another target of James Randi’s skeptical bitch-slappery was Ted Serios, a man who claimed he could take photographs of his thoughts. Serios – and it should be noted that Uri Geller performed this bit as well – would hold a small tube against his forehead, then snap a Polaroid of his scalp through the tube. The resulting photo would be blurry and dark, but it would often clearly depict something. Randi exposed the scam, noting that Serios and Geller would slip a small photograph and a magnifying lens into the tube before snapping the pic.

When psychic James Hydrick demonstrated that he could turn the pages of a book with his mind on a 1981 broadcast of That’s My Line, Randi offered an amendment to the trick. Deducing that Hydrick was causing the pages to turn by carefully blowing upon them, Randi scattered a bunch of Styrofoam packing peanuts upon the table. Suddenly Hydrick couldn’t turn the page.

Eager to disassemble the most heinous of public fraudsters, James Randi turned his attention to the world of televangelism. In 1986, he appeared on The Tonight Show, demonstrating to Johnny Carson precisely why noted faith healer Peter Popoff should be immediately discredited. He showed a tape of Popoff calling a woman to his stage, seemingly informed of the numerous details about this stranger by God Himself. He then laid his hands upon her and drove the devil out through her pores.

Then Randi re-played the same tape, but synced it with a piece of audio that he and his team had picked up by using a radio scanner and recorder. This captured the sound of Popoff’s wife, who was uttering the woman’s details into a receiver in Randi’s ear. It turns out the audience had been invited to fill out ‘prayer cards’, which included all of their detailed information. Popoff’s career was ruined; he declared bankruptcy the following year. Then, naturally, he returned to television in infomercial form, earning several million dollars because people are astoundingly stupid and forgetful.

The James Randi Educational Foundation was launched in 1964, offering a $1000 prize to anyone who could demonstrate actual psychic ability under scientific conditions agreed upon by both parties. That prize has grown to a cool million dollars, and has yet to be claimed. Psychic John Edward, self-proclaimed medium Rosemary Altea, and author/psychic Sylvia Browne have all been invited to take the challenge, yet with the promise of an easy million bucks for showing off what they claimed to be a genuine ability, they still haven’t done it.

Recently, Randi’s foundation has turned its attention on Theresa Caputo, known to those who allow themselves to be hypnotized by the drek on TLC as the Long Island Medium. He has been sued numerous times by frustrated charlatans, but claims he has never once paid out a dime. His debunking skills remain unchallenged, and with a million dollars on the table, one would have to assume that someone should have come forward to claim it by now, if psychic powers truly exist.

While it’s true that James Randi has undoubtedly shattered a tremendous number of hopes that ESP, telekinesis, and other such magic might be real, he should be lauded as a folk hero for disseminating mountains of truth to the masses, and showing us that, when something truly appears unexplainable and beyond the tangible grasp of understanding, it’s probably nothing more than a trick.

Day 980: The Man In The Zoo

originally published September 6, 2014

Within the margins of human behavior, how is it possible for our hunger for self-awareness to coexist with our penchant for abandoning empathy and basic compassion? History’s most exquisite brains have combed the mines of knowledge and speculation in order to pilfer as much truth about ourselves as can be swallowed by mortal minds, yet in doing so they have occasionally stomped upon our collective dignity by treating the subjects of their study as though they belonged to an unrelated sub-species.

Ota Benga was just a dude. Had the trajectory of his existence not been marred by western interference, he might have lived a blasé life of hunting, storytelling and raising a family. Instead he was plucked from the lush, equatorial forests of his youth and made a slave, a sideshow wonder, and a zoological exhibit for slack-jawed tourists.

Most of the injustices thrust upon Ota’s arc were done with the false pretense of anthropological education, cloaked in evolutionary flim-flammery and racist eugenics. But what did we learn, apart from humankind’s tragically vast tolerance for our own assholishness?

A member of the Mbuti tribe in what was then called the Belgian Congo, Ota Benga’s life was first derailed by Belgium’s King Leopold II around the turn of the 20th century. Leopold had dispatched the Force Publique, a heavily-armed militia aimed at reminding the Congolese natives that they’d best remain devoted to producing rubber for Belgium’s financial gain. Ota was out on a hunt when the armed men showed up and murdered his wife and two children. When he returned to his village, he was captured as a slave.

In 1904, an American businessman named Samuel Phillips Verner had been sent to Africa to retrieve a selection of pygmies for an exhibition at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Anthropologist W.J. McGee, eager to boost awareness of his relatively new scientific discipline, wanted to showcase a variety of global people. This wasn’t so much a display of global diversity as it was a demonstration of “cultural evolution.”

As you may have guessed, that’s merely a euphemism for “dickish, pseudo-scientific racism.”

Bought for the price of a pound of salt and a ream of cloth, Ota Benga and Sam Verner were en route to a nearby Batwa village. Once there, Verner tried to recruit more locals for his mission, though understandably the tribe was somewhat suspicious of white folks, in particular because the only ones they’d met had been a little on the murdery side. But Ota praised Verner, believing the man had saved his life from the horrors of slavery. Four Batwa men signed on for the trip.

They all arrived in St. Louis and immediately the Africans became the hit of the World’s Fair. Naturally adapting to the capitalism of their surroundings, the tribesmen learned to charge for photographs with their gawking audience. Ota charged five cents for a look at his teeth, which had been filed down to sharp points as part of a youthful ritual decoration. One newspaper called Ota “the only genuine African cannibal in America.” Fact verification wasn’t a big deal in journalism back then.

For his lack of compassion in dragging these folks to this degrading affront to science, Verner did the noble thing and brought them all back to Africa once the Fair had wrapped up. Ota continued to travel with Verner. He remarried, but his new wife was taken down by a snake bite. When Verner returned to the US, Ota came with. Verner arranged for Ota to sleep in a spare room at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The price of rent was once again to be measured in tourists.

Ota kneeled over a fake campfire and fed fake meat to a pretend child as a demonstration of life in Africa. He was a living exhibit, attracting scads of curiosity. But he longed for his freedom. He tired of being a savage for hire – in fact, he began to exhibit an outward hostility toward his employers. They wanted a savage? He’d give them a savage. When asked to seat an affluent donor’s wife, Ota pretended not to understand, picking up the chair and hurling it across the room, nearly thwacking the woman in the skull.

Museum curator Henry Bumpus suggested that maybe it was time for Ota to leave for greener pastures. Maybe someplace like…

…the Bronx Zoo. Ota took to the Monkey House exhibit and was encouraged by staff to hang his hammock there. Soon there was a sign placed beside the exhibit, informing visitors about the history of this “African pygmy.” Zoo director William Hornaday was thrilled at the exotic and somehow educational exhibit. Madison Grant, the secretary of the New York Zoological Society felt Ota should be right beside the apes. Grant was heavily into eugenics, which is an offensive branch of pseudo-science, created and studied by white people, which posits a racial ranking of evolutionary advancement among humans. Not surprisingly, white people have placed themselves on the top rung of this particular ladder.

While African-American clergymen and activists spoke out against this callous display of dehumanization, The New York Times actually defended it in an editorial, suggesting that placing Ota in a school would serve no purpose. “The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.” So much for the bastion of Great American Journalism.

Despite being granted the freedom to wander around the zoo and probably receiving a guaranteed three meals a day (from a bucket or a plate – I’m not sure which), Ota longed once more for freedom and became violent in his captivity. By the end of 1906, he was asked to leave.

Released into the custody of a Reverend Gordon, Ota was dropped into an orphanage, then eventually relocated to Lynchburg, Virginia. His teeth were capped and he was given a new wardrobe. Local poet Anne Spencer tutored Ota, and helped him to blend into his American surroundings as a citizen, rather than an object of study. He eventually found employment at a local tobacco factory, where he was popular among his coworkers, and happy to retell his life’s story in exchange for a root beer.

In his heart, Ota truly believed that he belonged in Africa. He had finally tasted the true flavor of western culture, and in comparing that with the world he’d left behind, he opted to return home. Unfortunately, the violence of World War I had cut off all transatlantic passenger travel. There was no way for Ota to return to the Congo, and no way of knowing how long this war would last. He became despondent.

On March 16, 1916, Ota built a ceremonial fire, chipped the dental caps from his teeth, and pressed the barrel of a stolen pistol against his chest. Believing would never again feel the warmth of his true home, Ota took his own life at the age of 32.

What can we learn from this? In this relatively enlightened age of moderate societal equality, the most we can gain from Ota’s story is a window into how closed-off we once were to the most basic of human rights. Yes, there was dissent from the African-American community over Ota’s treatment, but at no time in his life was he the subject of a human rights investigation. There was outrage, but it all came from the fringe, while the rest of society grabbed some popcorn and gaped at the show.

The tourists who abided this treatment and paid to see it – they’re the ones who we should be gawking at through the lens of astounding history.

Day 977: The Last American Witch

originally published September 3, 2014

In the throes of one of America’s most delightfully absurd episodes of mass hysteria, twenty people were executed in 1692-93 for the crime of probably being witches. Maybe. The Salem Witch Trials – which were merely the American performance of a fad that had been lighting it up in Europe for decades – have leaked into all formats of American high art: poems, novels, movies, and a segment of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror VIII” episode.

But while we, the sophisticated and wise citizenry of the modern age, can look back upon our ancestral paranoia with a wry titter, our bubbly sense of smug urbanity goes flat upon learning that witch trials are still happening in 2014. So-called witch-children were slaughtered in the Congo in 1999. An angry Kenyan mob burned eleven suspected sorcerers in 2008. In India, it’s estimated that between 150 and 200 women are lynched each year for being witches – some are accused of such simply because they turned down a sexual advance.

This is an era in which a car can pilot you to your destination while you restructure your fantasy football league in the back seat, and people still freak out over witchcraft? Fortunately, the good ol’ U.S. of A. has evolved significantly in the last 321 years. In fact, there hasn’t been an actual case of witchcraft accusation since… wait, 1970?

Welcome to Flowing Wells High School in Tucson, Arizona; a solid 6/10 on the national GreatSchools rating system, and home of the Mustangs. It’s also the kind of place where a rumor can be as dangerous as a drunk holding a lit match in a tumbleweed factory. This fact became evident in the aftermath of a late 1969 visit by Dr. Byrd Granger from the University of Arizona. Yes, this story about witchcraft features a woman named Granger – Harry Potter fans, feel free to rejoice. This prof happened to be an expert on witchcraft and folklore, and was happy to pass on her knowledge to the local juniors and seniors.

Part of that knowledge included the physical characteristics of a typical witch. Dispelling the belief that the stereotypical witch bore a close resemblance to Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard Of Oz, Dr. Granger explained that the standard witch look includes blonde hair with a widow’s peak, blue or green eyes, a node creating a small point on the left ear, and a penchant for wearing “devil’s green”, which lands somewhere between chartreuse and lime green.

English teacher Ann Stewart had to chuckle; the description fit her perfectly.

Every blonde teacher and student in the audience instinctively checked their ears for a subtle point. Ann didn’t need to. When she returned to her classroom, her students wasted no time in pointing out that she possessed all the signs of witchdom. They asked if she was a witch.

“What do you think?” she replied. In retrospect, a solid “No” might have been a better answer.

It had been a social studies teacher who had commissioned Dr. Granger to the school; Ann Stewart taught American literature. While she had never pieced together an all-out unit on the occult, the topic did flitter into her lessons from time to time, depending on the story she was teaching. The prospect of her potential allegiance with the world of witchcraft was amusing to Ann and her students, and she felt the silly rumor was helping to keep the kids engaged. Toward the end of the school year, she encouraged her kids to look into the history and meaning of astrology. Also, this was around the time she dressed up as a witch for a local junior high class. It was all in good fun.

But for some, it was evidence.

The incoming freshmen in the fall of 1970 brought with them the fevered tales of Ann’s appearance at their junior high the previous spring, all done up in full witch regalia. People spoke in hushed tones about the teacher – and it wasn’t only the students. A petition was circulated among the faculty, with the majority of her colleagues scribbling their names to support her removal from the school. This was a fairly conservative Tucson neighborhood, and I suppose these people simply had nothing more important to worry about.

Ann was suspended with pay on November 27, 1970. The official reason given was that she taught subjects not covered in the curriculum, that she was a poor influence to students, insubordination, that she caused mental stress in other teachers, and for “teaching about witchcraft, having stated you were a witch in a way that affects students psychologically.”

Keep in mind, the woman never said she was a witch.

Within a fortnight, the news of Ann’s suspension went international. She appealed the decision, believing it to have been made as a result of personal discord between herself and Victor Meneley, the principal. She began wearing an ebony cross around her neck – a family heirloom, but also a piece of jewelry that a witch would specifically not wear. She changed her hairstyle to hide her widow’s peak. Suddenly the fact that students (and her husband) used to greet her with, “Hey, witchie!” was no longer a cute joke. She tried to crank down the heat on the rumors after they’d already sparked an inferno.

The school and school board also did their best to downplay the witch angle. They insisted it was the other factors – the insubordination, her teaching against the curriculum – that led to Ann’s suspension. Of course they don’t believe in witchcraft, or so they claimed.

But for Ann, the damaging dents to her career, her social life and her community standing had already been kicked in.

Ann fought for her job, but spent the remainder of the school year at home with pay while her husband continued to report to the junior high where he taught. Her contract was not renewed.

I have no knowledge of what happened to Ann Stewart after 1972 when the last news story about her bizarre firing appeared in The Tuscaloosa News. She was worried about her future, about the death of her 11-year tenure with the Flowing Wells Unified School District, and deducing that obtaining her doctorate so that she could teach at the university level was pointless at her age (47 at the time).

In this era in which witch-hunting still occurs around the world – and it should be noted that warlock-hunting is not nearly as prevalent; these are ugly swipes at women in impoverished, backward cultures who are light years from getting their collective shit together – we should keep in mind that Ann Stewart’s bizarre tale occurred within the past half-century.

And as an aside, I’d like to applaud both Jerry Cohen and Betty Liddick of The Tuscaloosa News, who separately contributed some journalistic boots to the feminism groin in their coverage of this story. Jerry felt the need to point out that Ann was a “tall, plump woman”, while Betty saw it important to note, “She’s good looking in a robust sort of way.” Well done, fellow writers. I suppose dignity is relative when your subject is a wicked witch.

Day 964: The Engineering Of Consent

originally published August 21, 2014

To be perfectly clear, Edward Bernays was not in advertising. Yes, he was hired by companies, corporations and entire industries to convince the public that they should buy a given product, but there’s a fundamental philosophical difference here. Advertisers want the public to accept a product or service, and then to pay for it. Edward Bernays made use of the public’s sense of morality or their collectively accepted world-view, then manipulated those as needed in order to get us to pay for a product or service.

The correct term for Bernays’ life’s work is ‘public relations’. To say that Bernays invented P.R. would not be an overstatement – in fact, he helped to coin the term in the early 1900’s, and subsequently taught the first course on the subject at New York University in 1923. That we presently live in a society that can be manipulated and swayed by an expertly-placed pile of verbal bullshit is, in part, Bernays’ fault.

But don’t hold it against the guy. He changed the world – and in particular the North American way of life – more than almost anybody else in the 20th century. You may have never heard of him, but you have almost certainly conformed to his machinations, even if only subconsciously. As long as he gets to you – that’s all he needs.

Sigmund Freud, the great grand-pappy of psycho-analysis, was perched upon two branches of Edward Bernays’ family tree. His mother was Anna, Sigmund’s sister, and his father was Sigmund’s wife’s brother. As such, it is little surprise that psychology wormed its way into everything Bernays did. Beginning as a press agent in 1913, fresh out of Cornell University, Bernays tweaked the concept of the ‘press release’ (which at the time was only a few years old) into something magical.

When Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes was touring America, Bernays convinced a number of prominent magazines to write stories about how ballet is fun to watch. His tactic was not to take out ads and smear city walls with posters – such an effort would be viewed by the public as the ballet obviously trying to attract spectators. But by passing along this fresh angle to respected journalists, he was breaking through the collective psyche for free.

Actor Richard Bennett enlisted Edward Bernays’ help when police threatened to break up a 1913 play that supported sex education. Bernays’ solution was to legitimize the opposition to the police by setting up the Medical Review of Reviews Sociological Fund, which was an advocacy group working to fight venereal disease. It wasn’t really – it only existed to support Bennett’s play, but it did the job.

Bernays was making such an impact in the field of public re-focussing, he was invited to be part of the team whose goal was to make the muck of World War I appealing to American citizens. Here was a war that had operated for three years with no direct American involvement, and now the US government had to convince the voting populace that sending their kids overseas to get shot at was a good and noble thing. Bernays’ solution? America was going to “bring democracy” to Europe – the same shtick that has been used to justify every war since. And it worked.

It was clear to Bernays that employing fear to motivate the masses was an effective strategy. He’d learned from the words of Gustave LeBon, who had studied the psychology of crowds, and from Wilfred Trotter, who was a pioneer in the concept of herd mentality. Bernays cultivated a carefully-funnelled fear into the public perception of communism, which came to dominate the national dialog for the entirety of the Cold War.

Bernays felt that propaganda was the key to the public’s soul, though as glaring acts of propaganda came to be associated with German war efforts in the early part of the century, he aimed to be more subversive. He was a lobbyist, a loudspeaker and a pitch-man, all in the guise of a civilian. In what may be the first major political media event, he staged a ‘Breakfast with Coolidge’ event prior to the 1924 election, bolstering the would-be president’s popularity. Everyone wanted Edward Bernays on their side, pushing their agenda.

As critical as we might be of Bernays’ societal manipulation, we’ve got to give him credit for helping out one industry in particular.

A survey was sent out (by Bernays) to thousands of medical professionals, asking if a “hearty” breakfast would be healthier than the typical American repast of coffee or tea with a slice of toast. The answer, as expected, was an overwhelming yes. This is how Edward Bernays helped to establish an entirely new identity for bacon and eggs: as a breakfast food. He also arranged for several focus groups to figure out why housewives weren’t leaping all over Betty Crocker’s instant cake mixes. Turns out they didn’t feel it was legitimate cake, since all they had to do was add water. Bernays suggested removing the powdered egg and instructing housewives to add an egg – this felt more like actual baking, and launched sales through the roof.

That’s right, you only add an egg to cake mixes in order to feel useful.

Bernays’ campaigns – which, once again, were not advertising campaigns – were pure art in action. Soap-carving and soap-floating contests were held all over the country to promote Ivory soap for Procter & Gamble (better than the competition or not – Ivory soap could float). The Aluminum Company of America successfully won over the public in their bid to inject fluoride into the water supply, primarily because Edward Bernays had enlisted the American Dental Association’s support.

Charged with the freedom to vote, and to dance really goofy jigs in undercranked black & white films, women were still frowned upon when they opted to smoke in public in the late 1920’s. Enter Edward Bernays. In the 1929 Easter Parade in New York City, Bernays dispatched a number of models, then advised the papers that the women marching in the parade would be igniting “Torches of Freedom.” Those torches? Lucky Strike cigarettes. The New York Times splashed the event into public eyes, and the taboo against women puffing in public disappeared.

In this sense, one could argue that Bernays was a champion of women’s rights. His hosting of the first NAACP convention in 1920 and handling the organization’s P.R. throughout the decade could be seen as a fight for minority rights. His blatant propaganda for the United Fruit Company, which helped to expedite the overthrow of the government of Guatemala and install an American-friendly (albeit violent and evil) banana republic could be seen as… no, that was just dickish. The point is, Edward Bernays was a champion of his own bottom line and a master manipulator of public thought.

Does that make him evil? Evil is a matter of perspective. What is inarguable is that Edward Bernays became one of the most influential human beings of the last century, solely on his talent for influencing others for a living.

Though if you ask me around breakfast time, when my palate is crying for the savoury salty manna of sizzling pig-fat, I’ll tell you the man was a hero.

Day 961: Knocking On Russian Wood

originally published August 18, 2014

For those of us who actively seek out ladders under which to stroll, or who have completely forsaken blessing those who sneeze, superstition is a delightfully goofy window into the obsessive-compulsive static residue of the mind. What racist hoodoo has condemned genetically black-furred kitties to the bad-luck pile? Why does connecting one’s knuckles to a slab of dead tree ensure misfortune will be avoided? Does crossing my fingers in my Edmonton living room whenever Peyton Manning drops back into the pocket ensure a likely touchdown catch? Judging by my aching digits after last February’s Super Bowl, I’d say that’s a hearty no.

But as strange and inexplicably arbitrary as our goofy good-luck rituals may appear upon introspection, they would no doubt appear even more bizarre to an outsider. To demonstrate, I’m going to take the outsider’s approach and have a look at some of the traditional placations of imagined magic within the borders of our neighbor to the west (just past Alaska, of course), Russia.

Many of these superstitions are documented on, which appears to my untrained eyes to be a legitimate source. Others have been splashed onto a Wikipedia page with no reliable citation. So, any or all of these might be fictitious, but for the purposes of fuelling our xenophobic need to giggle at other cultures, we’ll just assume them all to be accurate and practiced by every living Russian citizen. That way we won’t feel so dumb for French-kissing the underside of our Molson Canadian cans to ensure our hockey team scores on a powerplay. Or whatever we do.

Russians get to work early on children’s self-esteem. It is considered an invitation to rotten luck if a stranger looks directly at a baby before that baby has reached a certain age (somewhere between two months and one year). If the stranger does make eye contact, complimenting the baby is an even greater transgression. One should instead say, “What an ugly baby!” And if you want to buy that ugly baby a gift, you’d best wait until after he or she is born, otherwise it’s bad luck. For someone. Maybe for the mother, maybe for you, maybe for the ugly baby.

If you’re planning a Russian dinner party (perhaps to celebrate the birth of someone’s ugly baby), don’t force an unmarried person to sit at the corner of the table. Doing so will ensure they will not marry for at least seven years. Also, if you’re passing a knife to someone, you’ll want to put it down on the table and allow them to pick it up. Handing it directly to that other person will signify that the two of you will soon get into a fight. Possibly a knife fight. Hopefully someone is carrying a spare, otherwise it’ll be a short fight.

Knocking on wood is a fate-appeasing gimmick that dates back to Germanic folklore, when one would utter something foreboding, then rap upon a tree to summon the dryads (apparently ample-bosomed tree nymphs) to protect against jinxes. In Russian tradition, the knock on wood must be followed up with three spits over the left shoulder, because that’s where the devil is. Obviously.

If you’re describing someone’s defect to another person – say, a scar, an unlanced boil or perhaps a particularly grotesque mouth herpe – it’s bad luck to demonstrate with hand gestures upon yourself or someone else. Just reenact the wound in mid-air. If you mess this up, you can counteract the bad energy by making a rapid hand-swoop toward the area and away from it, as though you are grabbing the negative mojo and tossing it aside. Alternately, you can use your hand to wipe the part of your body you’d contaminated, then blow away the evil. Be careful though – blowing that evil into a nearby Russian’s face might also be bad luck, in that he may punch you.

Naturally, the Russians have a number of superstitions surrounding vodka. The most blatant one – and the one that perhaps explains all the others – is that if you have alcohol, it must be consumed until it is completely gone. A glass should not be filled while in the air, but once filled and raised it should not be placed back upon the table until it has been drained into someone’s gullet.

Latecomers must drink a full glass as a penalty for their tardiness. And lest you forget that vodka is a social beverage, each gulp must be preceded by a clink of glasses and a toast. Don’t worry about the logical consequences of inebriation however; broken glasses are seen as a sign of luck, even if one finds oneself face-down in spilled hooch and prickly shards. The downside to breaking any of these superstitions is the intangible specter of “bad luck”. Honestly, I’m not certain how full-on societal drunkenness can hope to avoid a streak of nasty luck, but I’m not going to judge.

If a fork or spoon falls onto the ground, expect a female guest. If a knife falls onto the ground, expect a male guest. If you eat directly from a knife, you will be “angry like a dog”. If you eat directly from a knife, then drop the knife onto the ground, you will be angry like a dog at the male guest who will be dropping by, possibly because he rang the doorbell, which startled you into dropping your knife in the first place. If the knife falls through your foot, you had probably neglected to clink glasses with someone, and you should immediately engage the ugliest baby in the room in a knife fight.

If you happen across a bay leaf in your soup, that means you’ll be receiving mail from someone. Hopefully Russians are using fewer bay leaves in their soup recipes, since no one sends mail anymore. If someone sneezes when they’re telling you something, it means they’re telling the truth. Not sure if this would stand up in a Russian court of law. If your right eye itches, you’ll soon be happy; if your left eye itches, you’ll soon be sad. If both eyes are itchy, you might be allergic to whatever you’re eating. Better check for bay leaves.

If you trip with your left leg and you were born on an odd-numbered day, or if you trip with your right leg and you were born on an even-numbered day, you’ll need to ask someone to slap the corresponding hand in order to shoo away the bad vibes. If you happen to wear your shirt backwards, it means you’ll meet somebody new. However, if you open with an anecdote about how you wore your shirt backwards so that you’d meet somebody new that day, that person won’t stick around long, as they’ll think you’re an idiot.

If one of your ears are ringing, ask someone to tell you which one. If they guess correctly, you can both make a wish. If they don’t, then one of you will end up stabbed in the throat with a sharpened cow femur before the next full moon.

Okay, I made that last part up, but you get my point. Superstitions from other countries are quaint and silly, but they should really make you examine your own kooky habits to see where you’re belly-flopping into the pool of illogic, spewing droplets of irrationality everywhere. On the plus side, I no longer feel any remorse over my abandonment of saying “Bless you” after someone sneezes. Now I’ll just thank them for telling the truth.

Day 945: These Scary-Ass Kids Today

originally published August 2, 2014

Brazenly cutting through the city’s shadows with a cocksure strut, hocking Mountain Dew-flavored loogies onto public sidewalks already stained with the scuffed memory of generations of overpriced footwear. Their pants sag lower than their wilted ambition, their ball caps are aimed in all directions except those most appropriate for playing ball, while dubstep rhythms reel and bounce off their plastic-coated eardrums, fuelling their demonic scowls and shiv-happy instincts.

They’re out there, and they’re coming for us. Teenagers. Youths. Hooligans in training.

So sayeth the paranoid rumblings of the ephebiphobics, scrawled almost illegibly into notebooks, their furrowed frowns crinkling into permanent facial lines. To these skittish grownups, society is but a scraggly blond dreadlock away from Lord of the Flies meeting The Outsiders meeting The Wire. Their fears are not racial, they are not economic, and they have but a tenuous foothold in reality. After all, isn’t the typical teen an ethical off-shoot of Kiefer Sutherland’s sociopathic ‘Ace’ from Stand By Me?

It is perhaps a testament to my unwavering commitment to immaturity that I carry not a scrap of ephebiphobia in my pocket. From the Greek ephebos, meaning ‘youth’ or ‘adolescent’ and phobos, meaning ‘something that piles the heebies upon your jeebies’, ephebiphobia is an astonishingly common fear. Excuses can be made: “Kids today have no respect”; “Remember what those kids did in Columbine?”; “It’s all that YOLO and swag talk, and I don’t trust that Marky Mark or his Funky Bunch.” But the truth runs deeper.

Ephebiphobia has lurked its greasy head in the shadows for eons. Machiavelli posited that a fear of youth is what kept the city of Florence from setting up a standing army; no one wanted to give teenagers access to weapons. Ancient Greece and Ancient Venice also struggled under the weight of a similar fear. These “kids today” are fuelled by the same immortal passions and confusions that have irked elders since humankind’s loincloth years. Yet every time it strikes, society paints it with the reverence of a fresh phenomenon.

In post-World-War-II France they called it mal de jeunesse. During the Industrial Revolution the institutional structure of formal schooling was developed in response to a fear that children and teens would get up to no good once machinery (and those pesky labor laws) liberated kids from hard factory jobs. Head back even further and you’ll discover the Puritans had an issue with the ‘decadent morality’ of young people. History is teeming with regional infestations of evil kids poised to dismantle society (though oddly that hasn’t yet happened).

Part jealousy and part cultural disconnect, a societal mistrust of youth appears inescapable. Not only does it inspire the cautious scowls of shopkeepers and the occasional crossing of a street by adult pedestrians who are terrified of a potential conflict with a cluster of boisterous brats, but ephebiphobia often becomes manifested in public policy. This isn’t a mere unease – it can be a gut-swamp fear of legislative proportions.

The city of Seattle took a hint from John Lithgow’s political stance in the movie Footloose. In 1985, the city pushed through the Teen Dance Ordinance, which effectively killed the possibility of anyone other than a school throwing a dance for teens. It wasn’t an all-out ban, of course. You could throw a teen dance if you really wanted to, provided anyone under 15 had a guardian with them and anyone over 20 had a youth at their side. Also you’d need two off-duty cops to patrol the area and a million-dollar insurance policy. No promoter would even try to make a profit with these restrictions.

The term ‘dance’ also included concerts, which meant that as Seattle became the nexus of the cultural universe in the early 90’s, teens had to travel out of town to see local bands at an all-ages show. This draconian statute crawled out of city hall with the aim of curbing child prostitution and underage drug and alcohol use, but what it really did was plant its sweaty posterior upon local youth culture, hoping to stifle it into a whimper.

As with any other cultural phobias – Islamophobia, coulrophobia (that’s the fear of clowns that roughly 75% of our population now possesses, thanks to Stephen King’s It) and that cuddly little rodent, xenophobia – the media plays a part in keeping us all comfortably afraid. Pulp novels flooded drug store racks in the 50’s, cashing in upon the baby boomers’ collective cultural sledgehammer of change and feeding that inherent mistrust of the alien ‘other’ that so many adults felt as they watched Elvis Presley gyrate on their TV screens.

The leap between the choreographed sneers of West Side Story and the bloodthirsty rage of Boys n the Hood is chasmal. Youth culture has grown inarguably more violent, leading to the natural conclusion that teens themselves have become more of a menace. But have they? A quick search turned up shiny line graphs that displayed alternately an increase and a decrease in violent crime among youth. An even shinier bar graph told me that teens are only slightly more likely to get nabbed for a violent crime than a 40-44 year-old.

It could be that some people fear teenagers because they remember their own younger days, the bubbles of hormones that tickled their uvulas and steered their brains away from notions of consequence and common sense. Perhaps at some point in early adulthood they sensed a palpable cultural shift, one that relegated the flickers and zings of their youth into a cubbyhole of nostalgic quaintness, while a more sinister and vile trend captured the fancy of the younger set. Maybe they’re simply looking to justify their cultural disengagement.

I fault youth culture for a few things: the perpetual permeance of auto-tune in music, the continued media fascination with useless celebutantes (I’m looking at you, Kim, Kourtney and… Chewbacca, or whatever the other one’s name is), and the fact that a number of my brilliant WKRP In Cincinnati references are falling flatter than the tape marking off Les Nessman’s walls. But to me, there are few fears more irrational than ephebiphobia. Teenagers can be little assholes, sure, but adults are nothing more than teenagers with a few extra years of assholing experience and sometimes a little less guyliner.

I prefer to focus my fear on real dangers: spiders, zombies and the religious right.

Day 941: Welcoming Our Alien Friends, Or Perhaps Overlords

originally published July 29, 2014

Presently, our only tangible research into the cultural and societal impacts of extra-terrestrial life arriving on Earth seems limited to the fanciful concoctions from the Hollywood daydream machine. Will aliens greet us with a peaceful hand-gesture like they did to that pig-owner guy in the Star Trek movie? Will they fire up the blasters and devastate our cities like that movie where the Fresh Prince teams up with that jazz singer?

Actually, people – and I’m talking about educated people who probably wear business attire to work – have put time and effort into calculating precisely how our society would react to a party of interstellar visitors. Given the unlikelihood of this ever occurring, one could make the argument that the dude who stacks salad plates at your local Sizzler is contributing more to the smooth functioning of society than these educated folks, but I’m not here to make that argument. I’m just the messenger.

When it comes to the purported existence of our little green friends, I find it unfathomably selfish to believe we’re the only slabs of meat who have put together a society in this vast universe. I also believe it likely that someone else has fashioned some sort of tin can (or whatever they have in place of tin) and blasted into space. But to believe they’ll stumble upon us, or even care to say hi if they do? That’s where my credulity glides off the track. Still, it’s fun to daydream.

For thirty years, the SETI Institute (that’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence for you acronym-lovers) has been using science, research and speculation to look into the likelihood and nature of possible ETs who might drop by unannounced. The first part of the discussion centers around how they contact us. Do they send us a coded message like the ones we’ve launched into deep space? Do they take over our computer systems and implant a digital hello on Google’s front page? Or will they do a pop-in, no prior call, completely oblivious to the fact that we already made plans to watch the game with some old friends from college?

The SETI squad, working with the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, has a series of protocols in place for… wait, telegrams? Yes, the CBAT was founded in 1882 by Astronomische Gesellschaft (that’s a society, not a guy’s conveniently space-ish name) as the Copenhagen-centered international clearing house for everything astronomical. They used to send their most urgent messages by telegram, and when that was usurped by greater technology, they kept the name for the kitsch value.

The CBAT has a series of protocols that dictate the proper response to a legitimate message received from the great Up There, and they also have the intelligence to know that no one is going to follow these protocols. If the aliens are savvy enough to contact a major world government, maybe the government in question will follow the plan: verify the message, notify the UN, don’t respond without consulting with other leaders, and gather together people who readily admit to being fans of the Kardashians, just in case we are forced to offer the aliens a sacrifice of some kind.

Ideally our planetary newcomers will plop onto our soil with an innate understanding of our language and customs. But it’s more likely that we’ll receive electromagnetic signals or some other ethereal communication first. Either way, our collective response is going to depend on whether the visitors are friendly or if they’re the conquering type. If it’s the latter, let’s face it, we’re screwed. If it’s the former, and if they can muster the patience to put up with our bumbling response, there are a few considerations that will pop up.

First, there are the religious implications. A study performed in 2000 of American and Chinese students reveals a tendency for more conservative respondents to believe that any aliens who pop in on our world will do so with a malicious intent. As for whether the mere presence of aliens will thwart centuries’ worth of religious dogma, well that’s not necessarily true. Yes, Christianity is very earth-centric, and it’s believed that we folks on this rock are God’s pet project.

But spinning the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere would be a piece of Easter cake for the patriarchs of Christian theology. God is a busy dude; maybe while we were myopically toiling and praying in the belief that we are His big display at the science fair, he had a side project going on. This is where that convenient ‘works in mysterious ways’ bit applies. The next question then is whether the truly devout would see these aliens as equals, or as lesser creatures. And for those of us who like our church nicely separated from our state, what about the legal conundrum?

An extra-terrestrial being on earth would technically be covered under nothing other than animal cruelty laws. They would be citizens of nowhere, and given how long it took for women, children and people with assorted non-pink hues to gain basic human rights on this planet, there might be a clustered knot of legal red tape awaiting some lucky lawyers when the green guys drop in.

If they instead opt to send us an electromagnetic transmission, that’s another jumbled-up kettle of kielbasa. Who owns the copyright to these messages? Can they be legitimately sampled by Snoop Dogg or parodied by Weird Al? What if wants to use the messages in a Super Bowl ad? Someone needs to figure this stuff out.

The political mess from an alien invasion would be horrific. Nations would be fighting for the right to speak as Earth’s official spokescountry, likely causing so much grief and so many mixed messages, our new friends will be tempted to pack it in and go home. That’s assuming they contact a world leader first, and not introduce themselves to us by jamming a probe up some Kentucky redneck’s back door. I think the bigger worry with an alien arrival would not so much be that they’d kick our galactic asses, but that our own governments would stumble and fall all over themselves, like Lucy Ricardo struggling to keep up with a conveyor belt of policies, strategies and genuine schlemieliosity.

There’s always the possibility that the aliens who do finally swing over to our neighborhood will have biology that won’t mesh with what our atmosphere provides. That might be the best-case scenario: they stay up in their ship and wave hello, then let us get on our way. We also have to account for the chance that our human biology won’t jive with theirs, and that they’ll unleash some unforeseen bacteria into our air that kills us all – something they had developed an immunity to, that they’d never suspect would wipe us out.

I think we’re better off as a solo act down here.

Day 931: Children Of A Weirder God

originally published July 19, 2014

And so it was said in the First Epistle to the Corinthians (known as much for their spiritual pluck as their fine leather upholstery) that a woman’s body belongs not to her, but was purchased by Jesus through the sacrifice of his crucifixion. Which is shocking, because as a Jew you’d think Jesus could have finagled himself a better deal.

Next we turn to Matthew 4:19, when Jesus said unto a pair of fishermen that he would make them “fishers of men”. This was the Biblical snippet passed on to the women of the Children of God, a.k.a. The Family International, a cultish bastard-child spin-off of Christianity in which women were at one time encouraged to seduce men into the faith, using their charm, their guile, and their humptastic bedroom skills. They called it ‘Flirty Fishing’, and their pimps – sorry, their mostly male spiritual leaders – claimed it worked.

The Children of God parlayed the hippie sensibility for metaphysical exploration, along with the cultural acceptance of free-form boning of the Sexual Revolution, into a twisted garble of quasi-religious teachings. And somehow they have been able to pull this off and stay viable for over 45 years.

Meet Dave.

David Berg, also known as Moses David because it looks better on a cult leader’s business card, hooked up with Karen Zerby in 1968 to form the Children of God. They boasted the flavors of the day: free love, communal living and a rejection of authoritarian rhetoric. But members also needed to souse their snouts in the primordial goop of religion, subscribing not only to the most finger-wagging tenets of Christianity – along with a healthy sprinkling of apocalyptic doom – but also to the teachings of Moses David and his spouse.

According to the rules of the clubhouse, the teachings in the Bible are holy truths, but the allocutions from Moses David’s pen – which were graciously bequeathed to members in the form of over 3,000 “Mo Letters” written by David himself – were equally worthy of reverence. In fact, when the two would contradict one another (which was undoubtedly rare, but at times… necessary), the word of Mo’ David would trump that of scripture. After all, Dave was the modern prophet – Jesus Mark II. And he knew how to build a posse.

David’s early followers meandered like fruit-flies through city streets, passing out literature and proselytizing the words of both God and Dave to anyone who’d pretend to listen. As the 1970’s deflated the hippie balloon and forced a moderate adjustment to the group’s strategy, David adapted. He changed the name to the Family of Love (because that somehow sounds… less hippy-ish?), and sought to expand his reach to more countries, luring more desperate souls into a slight reframing of their Christian faith. A slight reframing that positioned him upon the altar, where all the fun was.

It was around this time that Dave concocted his own gateway to salvation, the practice known as Flirty Fishing. Female devotees would crank up their womanly charms in the presence of men who appeared vulnerable and ultimately susceptible to a seduction involving not only sex, but Jesus. When this tactic was unveiled to the masses of Children of God believers, it caused quite a rift. But offering sex as a gateway to religious conversion is akin to offering a free toaster oven for sitting through a timeshare presentation: you’ll get a lot of interested parties through the door and some small percentage of them will buy in.

Scoping out singles bars and… I don’t know, key parties, or whatever guys did in the 70’s to get laid, wasn’t going to be enough. The women – and these were often some cult member’s wife or girlfriend – would sign up through escort agencies in some cities. In this sense they were truly prostitutes, looking to bring in some revenue for the church (that 10% tithe rule for members wasn’t hauling in the dough Dave had hoped for) as well as some converts.

Not all Flirty Fishers would take their marks to bed. Some could lure men into the church’s folds through the promise of true love, or at least some future fellatio. But the ones who allowed their marks to penetrate that pious pink portal earned a higher level of respect in Dave’s twisted little world. Members were encouraged to keep meticulous records of their sacred skronking, and it’s believed that over 223,000 men had been seduced by Flirty Fisherwomen over a 13-year span. Pregnancies from such unions were encouraged; within the first five years, over 300 babies were born this way. The official name for the children conceived through this method was ‘Jesus Babies’.

One of those Jesus Babies belonged to Karen Zerby, Moses Dave’s wife. In 1974, Karen Flirty Fished a hotel employee in the Canary Islands in hopes of swaying him over to the cause. Nine months later, Ricky Rodriguez was born, unofficially adopted as Dave’s own son. No word on whether or not the room service guy took the bait.

It should be noted that 30 years later, in the opening act of a grizzly murder-suicide, Ricky repeatedly stabbed a woman who had molested him as a child. The church has had to untangle an hawk’s nest of sexual abuse cases, as well as kidnapping charges to keep children away from parents looking to leave the Family International, as they came to be called. It was this legal mephitis – along with fears of contracting AIDS into the free-loving multitudes – that led to the official discontinuation of Flirty Fishing in 1987.

The Family’s take on sex remains open to scrutiny by us ‘normies’ who tend to live by the boring code of societal standards. Marriage should in no way restrict one’s access to a myriad of partners. Women can certainly say no to sex, however a number of former Family members claim they were coerced into it, or threatened with being branded as unloving and selfish if they refused. Homosexuality is fiercely forbidden (it’s a sin, you know), although girl-on-girl action is just groovy, provided the girls involved are doing it for fun, and still devote most of their fun-sexy-time to men.

Sounds like the perfect community, if devised by a misogynist sleaze-bag, doesn’t it?

Everyone in the church is expected to have a loving relationship with Jesus. Not to be confused with standard Christianity’s take on getting cozy with the Big Guy – no, we’re talking about loving. Members are encouraged to imagine Jesus joining them during intercourse and masturbation (that’s right – no self-respecting free-love religion is going to view floggin’ one’s own flesh-potato as a sin!). It’s recommended that men imagine themselves as women – that way they won’t be engaging in gay sex with Jesus. I’m not making this up. They are actually taught this.

Look, I’m not going to preach against someone’s faith. Provided you aren’t strapping an explosive to your torso and wandering into your local KFC, I don’t care what you believe. And I admit, there’s a part of me that admires a belief structure that exalts not only angels but also departed friends, loved ones, spiritual leaders and even celebrities (the Family counts Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon among their Spirit Helpers). But I’m not sold on these kooks.

John and Arlyn Bottom were members of the group for years, finally disembarking from the cult in 1978 along with their five kids: River, Rain, Leaf, Liberty and Summer. They changed their last name to Phoenix to represent their rise from the ashes of weirdness. Leaf changed his name back to Joaquin at age 15, and both he and River became well-known actors. Actress Rose McGowan also grew up in the misty murk of this cult. None of these children of Children of God have anything nice to say about their distant past today.

I think they’re just happy to be free.

Day 888: The Real Section-8ness Of The Section 8

originally published June 6, 2014

On the 27th episode of M*A*S*H, only three shows into its second season, Corporal Max Klinger made his most serious and likely push for his dismissal from the US Army. It was a running gag throughout the first seven years of the show that Klinger would wrap himself in dresses, stoles and boas in an effort to acquire a sacred Section 8 – a discharge from the army due to a psychiatrically diagnosed case of nuttiness. But the gag should have been quashed after the episode in question – “Radar’s Report.”

In this episode, psychiatrist Dr. Milton Freedman (he’d be assigned the first name ‘Sidney’ in all subsequent appearances) tells Klinger he’ll give him the Section 8, but only by putting down in the official record that Klinger is a transvestite and a homosexual. Outraged, Klinger insists he’s none of those things – just crazy.

Beneath the surface of this punchline lies the real truth about the Section 8. This method of discharge was a frequent tool for commanding officers who wished to rid their platoon of “subversive” gays. It was a cold and calculated bayonet to the career of anyone whose preference in a mate – or even whose skin color – offended the sensibilities of a bigoted officer. Klinger could have taken Dr. Freedman up on his offer, but it would have come at a cost.

In 1916 the US Army came up with a form of discharge that hovered in purgatory between “Honorable” and “Dishonorable”. It was printed on blue paper, and came to be known as the blue discharge or a blue ticket. It was originally used to send home kids who had enlisted to fight in World War I underage, though that act of teenage patriotism was eventually promoted to an honorable discharge. For gay troops though, the blue ticket was an easy get.

Army tradition was to court-martial anyone who had been caught engaging in homosexual conduct, charge them with sodomy and slap them with a dishonorable get-the-hell-outa-here card. But with the Great War’s little brother ramping up to become more than just a tiny little sequel, it wasn’t prudent to weigh down officers with the responsibilities of dealing with each case in such an elaborate manner. The blue discharge became the method de rigeur of disposing of this “undesirable” behavior.

In 1944, it was decided that the best way to deal with homosexuals – you know, guys who are willing to give their limbs and lives for their country but happen to enjoy the company of other dudes – was to have them committed, examined by psychiatrists and discharged under Regulation 615-360, section 8. This regulation wasn’t drafted specifically for this purpose, but it fit what they were going for: not a dishonorable discharge, but well short of a smiley, congratulatory way-to-go. But once the Surgeon General of the United States Army’s office learned what happened when these troops returned home, they pushed for a policy change.

Recipients of a blue discharge – and be careful Googling this term, as you’ll stumble upon some rather unpleasant medical conditions – were denied benefits by the Veterans Administration. The G.I. Bill states that benefits are only supposed to be denied to those who receive dishonorable discharges, but the VA didn’t really care. They held off on benefits, and since most employers requested discharge papers for any potential new hires with military experience, the discrimination didn’t end at the government’s doorstep. The blue discharge was the army’s way of blindly screwing over people whose biological urges were too ‘different’.

It wasn’t only the gays who were sent back into civilian life with a blue slip of shame. 22.23% of all blue discharges during WWII were issued to African-American soldiers, despite the fact that they only made up about 6.5% of the army population. These discharges carried with them no other message than somebody’s commanding officer didn’t want to deal with them.

The American Legion fought the blue tickets, as did the NAACP, the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Veterans Benevolent Association. The Pittsburgh Courier launched a campaign against this discriminatory piece of paperwork, warning their readers not to accept one and instructing those who had on how to appeal it. The hope was that the army would either stop issuing these ridiculous tickets or that they’d become so bogged down in appeals hearings and paperwork, the blue discharge would appear more trouble than it was worth.

Carl T. Durham – a Democrat from South Carolina who served over 20 years in Congress yet who is curiously immortalized by a Wikipedia page shorter than this paragraph – headed up a committee to investigate the blue discharge situation. In their final report, Durham and his associates expressed their astonishment that people who had received these papers would be willing to speak out and risk further stigmatization. It was a form of activism that was not yet commonplace; clearly it was an indication that reforming this system was a matter of non-negotiable import to these tossed-aside troops.

Durham’s committee found that the nature of the blue discharge lent itself to “prejudice and antagonism.” They ordered that all future blue discharges receive an automatic review, that those being handed one should have a right to counsel, and that the discharge should state explicitly that it is not a dishonorable discharge. The blue discharge was discontinued not long after, in the summer of 1947. Hooray! An end to discrimination!


The Section 8 discharge – Max Klinger’s dream, until Jamie Farr and the writers agreed the schtick was getting old – still existed, and even through the Korean War and the rest of the 1950s it was being used as a way for the army to quietly dispose of its homosexual population. A population who, I should add, were still exempt from receiving benefits. By the 1970’s, a gay man or woman could leave the army with a general discharge, as long as they hadn’t been caught engaging in any homosexual acts. Essentially, the message was: “Don’t volunteer to serve your country because your country doesn’t give enough of a fuck about you to honor you if you do.”

Of course the notion of ‘volunteering’ for the army back then was less common than getting an unlucky number in the draft. This backwards discrimination would continue until 1993 when a new kind of backwards discrimination – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – would take over.

Klinger didn’t take the Section 8 because the stigma of his alleged sexual preference would be his burden upon returning to civilian life, and the Veterans Administration would deny him any respect for having served. That’s a hell of a policy.

Day 875: Why History Is Missing 10 Days (Plus The Weird Story Of February 30)

originally published May 24, 2014

One day in the mid-1570’s, a Calabrian doctor named Aloysius Lilius deduced precisely how grotesquely wrong our calendar was. We had spent centuries dragging along this defective Ancient Roman relic known as the Julian calendar, completely mucking up the proper documentation of history. Easter wasn’t landing where it was supposed to, according to the original blueprints laid out by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and the spring solstice was showing up around March 11. Everything was, to put it in the parlance of the times, wack.

Lilius was given the thumbs-up from Pope Gregory XIII to sink his knuckles into the pasty goo of calendar reform. This was a huge deal, big-picture-wise, though its impact on the general populace was minor enough that a change was feasible. Folks weren’t as clingy to their calendars as we are today. Adjusting the calendar system wouldn’t affect prime-time television schedules, Super Bowl year numberings or even milk expiry dates (since at the time, the expiry date for most any perishable item was “right fucking away”).

And so began the most radical tweak of our datebooks in over a millennium, the last major adjustment to be overseen by the church and possibly the final and most accurate solution we’ll ever see. Possibly. But I don’t know if we want to go through something like this again.

The biggest problem with the Julian Calendar was its inaccurate calculation of the year’s length. 365.25 days is an easy and pretty number to use; it gives us a leap year every four years and that’s that. Except the equinoxes weren’t behaving. Lilius determined that the year is actually 365.2524 days long, and he proposed a rather elegant solution. In order to account for the 0.002% correction necessary to keep the equinoxes where they’re supposed to be, we’d just skip leap day (February 29) on years ending in a ‘00’, except for every 400 years. The elimination of those three days every four centuries would keep the system working. This is why there was no February 29 in 1900, but there was one in 2000.

It was brilliant. Pope Gregory was ecstatic. Lilius even figured out how to gently spool his calculations into the public realm without causing too much of a hullabaloo. Given that the Julian calendar was ten days off where it should be, Lilius proposed simply skipping the next ten leap days, which would tuck the new calendar snugly into accuracy in the next 40 years. Lilius died before the reform could be instituted, and mathematician/astronomer Christopher Clavius, who picked up the reins on the project, insisted we do it right away. Ten days were to be wiped from the calendar at once.

Thursday, October 4, 1582 was followed by Friday, October 15. Just like that. The days of the week weren’t altered, but I imagine the following weekend was downright packed with birthday parties for everyone whose special day was glossed over in the ten-day shift. The number of sick days taken on Monday, October 18 due to hangovers (known then as an abundance of pukey-humors) must have been astounding.

This wasn’t a global shift, mind you. Spain, Portugal, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and most of Italy hopped on board right away. This new calendar was credited to the brain-trust of Pope Gregory (hence the name ‘Gregorian Calendar’), and the Catholic nations were quick to adopt it as the new standard. The Spanish and Portuguese colonies climbed in once word travelled to them, and eventually all the Catholic countries were on Gregorian time. France followed their December 9, 1582 with December 20, which must have really cranked up the pressure to buy Christmas gifts.

Other, less-Catholic lands weren’t quite as impressed.

Lands which fell under Protestant rule felt that this new proposed calendar might be nothing more than a subversive plot to lure unsuspecting people into the Catholic fold. Eliminating ten days? Clearly a conspiracy to get everyone to eat fish on Fridays… right? It took more than a century before Danish astronomer (and the first to measure the speed of light, so he had some scientific street-cred) Ole Rǿmer was able to talk the Protestants into considering the switch.

It’s never a good thing when a religious bias and illogical hatred of another group nudges in front of science and reason and insists on backward-thinking as the dominant model. But here was a thing as simple and innocuous as an accurate calendar that would place the equinoxes and important holidays where they were meant to be, and it took centuries to get everyone on board. And don’t even get me started on Sweden.

Sweden was ready to make the shift from Julian to Gregorian in 1700, by which time (because the Julians celebrated February 29, 1700 while the Gregorians did not) their calendar was eleven days out. But rather than make the same band-aid-rip adjustment that Christopher Clavius had talked the pope into executing, they opted for the gradual leap-day elimination over the next eleven leap years. This would mean Sweden’s calendar for most of the next half-century would be out of step with the rest of the planet’s.

To make things worse, everyone got distracted by a Scandinavian war and Sweden wound up forgetting to skip February 29 in both 1704 and 1708. This country just couldn’t get their temporal shit together. For 1712, it was decided by King Charles XII that Sweden would simply revert back to the Julian calendar, and in order to do so they needed an extra day to make up for the skipped February 29 in 1700. The solution? February 30. For one year and one year only, Sweden stretched our shortest month to 30 days.

It took even longer for the rest of the world to catch on. The British Empire (which at the time included the colonies that would eventually become America) followed Wednesday, September 2, 1752 with Thursday, September 14. Alaska, which was under Russia’s domain until 1867, didn’t shift over until then. At the same time, the International Date Line was shifted from Alaska’s eastern border to its western one, so they only had to shift eleven days instead of the requisite twelve by that time (thanks to February 29, 1800). Friday, October 6 was followed by another Friday, October 18. Might have been kinder to do that on a weekend.

Russia’s famous October Revolution of 1917 actually took place on November 7-8, but was given that title because it happened in October according to the Julian calendar. Russia slipped into Gregorian mode in January of the following year, skipping 13 days. Bulgaria made the switch in 1916 (a good way to speed up the World War, I guess), and finally Greece changed over in February of 1923. The Orthodox religions of Eastern Europe – who don’t give two shits about Pope Gregory or his calendarian madness – never changed.

Fortunately, we probably won’t see another calendar shift anytime soon. Where the Julian calendar would lose a day of accuracy every 128 years, we’re now good with only losing a day every 3300 years. Of course, eventually we’ll need to account for that…