Sunday, February 26, 2012

Leap Year

Every four years, 2012 being one of these, we have a Presidential election in the United States, the Summer Olympic Games are held, and it is Leap Year.  I am not sure exactly when I understood what a Leap Year was but I am guessing it had to be 1960 or 1964.  From when I first understood it, Leap Year both fascinated and confused me.
When I was a mere lad, I wanted everything to be ordered and had a bit of a tough time understanding when it wasn’t.  It was not a huge deal, but I wanted more order than there was in the physical and natural world.  Many of these area were also man made.  Not having much choice and say in the matter, I did cope and adapt.  
The calender certainly was one of these areas.  Why twenty four hours in a day?  Why does the next day start at midnight?  Shouldn’t a day start at dawn?  Why did we have twelve months?  Why weren’t there ten?  Why did the months have different number of days?  Who invented that and why?  And the biggest question of them all was what is with this thing called Leap Year?  We add an extra day to the calendar every four years?  Why?
Well it seems that the earth takes a bit more than 365 days to revolve around the sun.  It actually takes 365.2422 days.  Why?  I guess, the answer is that it just does.  God created Heaven and earth.  It took him seven days to do so.  God gave us 10 fingers and miraculously we operate in a base 10 mathematical world.  When shouldn’t the heavens operate the same way.  Why didn’t He take his time and  make the week 10 days and a year be 100 or 1,000 days with no decimal places?  That would have been neat and orderly.  It would have somehow appealed to me more back in 1960 or 1964.  Why 365 days?  Even more so, why 365.2422 days.
It just is what it is..  I am more accepting of that today on This Side of Fifty then way back then.
Because of this .2422 days, Julius Caesar added an extra day every four years back when he ruled enough of the world to make such decision and have such decisions stick.  It was such a big deal and he was such a powerful emperor that they called his new calendar the Julian Calendar.  Doing this every four years did not quite solve the problem especially when they did it every three years (due to over exuberance?) for the first 100 or so years.  Really?  I suppose this all makes sense as they were using those confusing Roman Numerals exclusively back then.  This every three year Leap Year added an extra day every 128 years.  I suppose this was harder to detect without televison, the internet, factoring in the Fall of the Roman Empire, and perhaps the fact that most people did not live that many years.
It took 1500 years to fix this issue.
In February of 1582, Pope Gregory XII created or commissioned the creation of the calendar most of the world uses today.  
The Gregorian calendar was first adopted in Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain in 1582. The Gregorian reform consisted of the following changes:
  • 10 days were dropped in October 1582.
  • New rules were set to determine the date of Easter.
  • The rule for calculating Leap Years was changed to include that a year is a Leap Year if:

Gee, that clears it all up.  Kinda.  
When, as a boy, this concept of Leap Year settled in, I was fascinated by the idea of February 29th.  It only comes around once every four years.  The huge question that came into my mind was what if February 29th was your birthday?  In the non-Leap Years, would one celebrate their birthday on February 28th or March 1st?  Even more important to the younger me was how someone born on Leap Year would count their age.  Did they count calendar years and say they were 12 or would they say they were 3?  I would certainly divide my age by four just to mess with folks.  I assumed the former but both made sense.  I wished I had known someone born on Leap Year but I never have.
Who is actually born on Leap Year?  A quick Internet search showed a small list of notable people:
  • Pope Paul II - 1498
  • Gioacchino Rossini - 1792 - the composer of operas
  • Moraji Desai - 1898 - prime minister of India
  • Dinah Shore - 1916
  • Carlos Humberto Romero - 1924 - President of El Salvador
  • Tony Robbins - 1960 - a motivational speaker
The Henriksen Family in Norway claims the record of most children born on Leap Year.  Karin Henriksen gave birth on three successive Leap Years.   Her daughter Heidi was born in 1960.  She gave to her son Olav in 1964 and Leif-Martin in 1968.  This is an amazing statistic.  The Henriksens have the record as far as I am concerned.
The only major historical event I could find that happened on a Leap Year was in 1940 when Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for Gone with the Wind.  She was the first African American to be so honored.
I read on Wikipedia that such folks are referred to as either "Leapers" or "Leaplings."  I have never heard anyone called this.  I would prefer Leapling over Leaper for sure.  Leaper is just too close to leper.
All this aside, this February 29th will probably be a routine day for most people.  There will bits on the news but mostly people will simply go about their business.  I am sure will be some youngsters, however, trying to make sense of this concept of an extra day.
Happy Leap Year er... Leap Day to one and all.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Coexist Bumper Stickers

I was on the phone with a friend, Steve Kelly, recently while driving. I was heading north on I-94 on my way to teach. I saw a car with a Coexist bumper sticker. Since Steve sees things the way I do, I decided to ask him a question.

“Hey, I am behind a car with one of those Coexist bumper stickers. Guess what kind of car it is?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Steve replied “A Subaru.”
He was correct. It was a Subaru. Neither of us could recall seeing a Coexist bumper sticker on any other brand of car. Of course, this brought up a lot of questions:
  • Did they only sell these bumper stickers to Subaru owners?
  • Does every Subaru come with one in the glove box?
  • Are Subaru owners the only people who care about the future of the world and mankind?
  • Is there something magical about these cars that makes their owners care more about the future of the world and of mankind?
  • When did they stop slapping “Envision World Peace” bumper stickers on their cars and replace them with Coexist bumper stickers?
  • Where does one even buy a Coexist bumper sticker? 
The Subaru questions were all too metaphysical to solve in one short car ride. But, that last question intrigued us. Where indeed can one buy a Coexist bumper sticker? Neither of us had ever seen one in a store. You can only see them on Subarus. As we were both driving, we did not have access to the Internet which we both knew could provide answers to this question. So, we had a good laugh and drifted off to another inane but less metaphysical question. 

Having finished a days work and having a few minutes before turning in, I recalled the question of where to buy a Coexist bumper sticker. So, I googled it. Here is a big duh... There is a Coexist foundation:  

Since 2006, Coexist has been working to promote better understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims, and between these communities and others, through education, dialogue and research.

I thought I had really hit on something. I looked on the website for a store where I figured I could buy all kinds of items with the Coexist logo from baseball caps to t-shirts and most certainly bumper stickers. But no! No? Really? There is no store. If the Coexist Foundation didn’t create and sell them, where are these bumper stickers coming from?

I looked at the logo of the Coexist Foundation more closely. Something was wrong, it was similar but not the same as the bumper stickers we see melded to the rear of Subarus. The Coexist Foundation only has the Crescent, the Star of David, and the Cross. The blue and white bumper stickers have these icons but also the peace symbol, the Yin-Yang icon, and an ‘e’ that has the male arrow and the female plus sign sticking out of it. I would have never ever guessed there could be two or more different Coexist logos. Why? And why are there only bumper stickers for one of them and why are they only on Subarus? I digress.

The question is where can I buy one.

I finally got smart. I had only been googling “Coexist." I next googled “Coexist bumper sticker.” Voila... I can get one for the most affordable price of $1.50 at where until recently you could also by whale meat in a can (that is whole boggy bit). Who woulda thunk that something so Subaru could be gotten for such a proletariat price on such a universal website.

The blue bumper sticker which started all this has and a phone number written in small print on the bottom left hand side of the bumper sticker. On the bottom right hand side, also in small print, is the sentence “Profits help fight hunger, fascism, and social injustice. They sell a wide variety of items dedicated to promoting peace and coexistence that is if you do not count the George W. Bush toilet paper. Other products include:
  • Celebrate Diversity refrigerator magnets
  • Coexist rainbow hoodies
  • Of their ten bestsellers, nine of the items have the Coexist theme
  • There is a button that says “Ask not what your planet can do for you, ask what you can do for your planet.” This button is on-sale for $1.50 which is half off of the original $3 price!
  • There are “My karma ran over my dogma” bumper stickers and buttons. I found these quite amusing.
  • There are bumper stickers that use the same symbolography as the Coexist bumper stickers to spell out Tolerance, Peace, and Believe.

The Peacemonger is Jerry Jaspar of Visalia, CA. He was dubbed a Peacemonger in 2002 when the US invaded Iraq leading to the downfall and eventual demise of Saddam Hussein. He believes that 9/11 was a CIA sponsored attack. I am not so sure I can buy into that but I respect his steadfast devotion to peace and tranquility for the all the peoples and religions of the world. I would love that too. I just assign a much lower probability to it ever happening than Mr. Jaspar does. Possibly this is because I believe “Their dogma ran over my karma.” He doesn’t sell bumper stickers that say this.

There used to be another bumper sticker that seemed to be on every other Subaru before the Coexist bumper stickers. That was the Envision World Peace bumper stickers. I do not see them anymore. The seem to have gone out of fashion when some clever humorist created a bumper sticker that said Envision Whirled Peas. I actually even thought about buying one of those bumper stickers.

Politically correct notes and caveats:
  • No Subarus were actually hurt in the writing of this blog.
  • The author of this blog is not affiliated with the Subaru Automobile Company, The Coexist Foundation, or nor has he accepted any compensation of any kind from any of these organizations.
  • The author of this blog actually believes that Subarus are good cars. He might consider buying one but is afraid his inner liberal would then be exposed to the world.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

February 2012: Eighth Anniversary Letter

I like writing this letter the most of any of the monthly offerings.  It is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how I came to write this letter.  I get to comment how it has evolved, expanded, and where it might be going.
While this is the 8th Anniversary of this letter that began in February 2004, June 24th will mark the 10th Anniversary of my writing 500 words or more per day.  It began as all handwriting and for two years, I did not share anything that I wrote.  I kept at because it helped me to think more clearly.  It helped me remember ideas, thoughts, and philosophical questions that had been idle and stale in the dark corners of my mind. 
I used to hate to write.  In high school and college, trying to piece together a 500 word essay was tortuous to say the least.  I was not good at it and the grades reflected it. Yet, for some reason, I envisioned myself as a writer.  It really did not make any sense but the vision never left me.  It just kept growing. 
It was not like I had a lot of encouragement either.  No teachers ever raved about my writing.  The few articles I published in the school and then Armenian papers were received somewhere between lukewarm and warm. 
Upon writing these lines, the name Dorothy Trosko, popped into my mind.  She taught English Composition in my senior year at Stevenson High School in Livonia, MI.  She had a tough reputation and I was apprehensive taking her class.  I do not believe I ever got more than a B in any of her assignments.  It was quite frustrating.  I tried harder to no avail.  I do believe she taught me how to write a paragraph.  No other English teacher stands out in my memory.  Perhaps, that is where the seed of all this was planted.
Over the years, I keep visioning and envisioning myself as a writer.  I simply did not write a lot or write regularly until 2002.  As mentioned above, when I did write, it was not the most pleasant of experiences.  It was tough grinding work.  Now, it is almost the exact opposite.
Handwriting versus typing:  When I began, I hand wrote every daily page.  I liked to use fine ball point pens.  In 2011, I do not think I hand wrote more than twenty days of my daily writing regimen.  This past half of the year, I probably did most of my daily writing on my iPad and the Zaag keyboard.  It is very convenient and has taken the place of the old fashioned notebook in which I used to take notes and handwrite my daily journal.  Since I bought the iPad in July, most every personal and business blog posting were drafted on my iPad in Apple’s word processing application:  Pages.  When I was thinking about publishing the postings, I would email them to myself from the iPad.  I would open the documents on my laptop and finish the final edits in MS Word for my monthly letter or Google Docs for just about every other blog post. 
I am amazed that I am still writing 500 words a day going on ten years.   I am even more amazed at how the mechanics of writing has evolved over the past three years with the rise of the good cloud based software like Google Docs and the simply wonderful iPad.   I am sure it will change more in the next two perhaps even more dramatically.
Where do you get the time?  I hear this question a fair amount of time.  Often it is from people that write and have a sense of the amount of effort that goes into penning such a letter.  My cousin Raffi Hovannisian recently asked me this question when he was in Chicago earlier this month.  It was a funny question coming from Raffi who amazes me with his busy schedule.  I wonder where he gets the time and energy running the Heritage Party in our Motherland of Armenia.
The answer to this question is pretty straight forward.  I spend anywhere from a half hour to an hour a day writing.  The blog postings and this letter are the fruits of that labor.  Depending on the topic and how, as they say, the juices are flowing, the daily writing could take 90 minutes.  It has taken as little as 15 minutes.  I wish I could get it all down to 15 minutes a day.  I would immediately begin writing 1,000 words a day if that were the case.
A new biography has come out about Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin.  I did not buy the book but was amazed by a review I read in Time magazine.  By all accounts and measure, Dickens was prolific.  He wrote at least 35 major novels, 1 play, at least 4 non-fiction books, and many short stories.  What blew me away was that when he was into it, and he often was into it, he would write two novels at a time and drive himself to write 7,500 words a day.  He would handwrite 7,500 words a day!  He would handwrite 7,500 words a day using a pen he had to dip into an ink well!!  Amazing. 
He would start a new novel when he was half way through with another.  He was so driven that he would immerse his hands into a bucket of cold water to alleviate cramping and other pains that would naturally come from writing so much.  For example, he wrote The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist at the same time.  When he finished The Pickwick Papers, he began on Nicholas Nickleby.
At 1,000 words an hour, Dickens was writing for a full 8 hour day.  1,000 words an hour is an amazing clip.  If it took him an hour and a half, that would have made for a twelve hour day. 
Ladies and Gentleman, I am no Charles Dickens… neither in quality nor in output.  I would love to be.
Writing in the Internet Age:  I love this time.  I can sit at my desk, in a coffee shop, or in my easy chair.  I can be writing on either my laptop or iPad in any of these locations.  I can only imagine how productive Charles Dickens would be today with all the technology we have.  He would have definitely saved time on drafts and re-writes.
I really covered this in my November 2011 letter, The Internet Really Makes it all Easier.   I can be sitting and writing in any of aforementioned venues and if I need a quote or need to verify a fact I simply hit the internet.  A little Google search and, voila, the question is answered.  I do not have to get up and consult an encyclopedia or go to the library.  What can I say, I am made to write in these times. 
Case in point, I could not remember the author of the Dickens biography that was published in late in 2011.  A simple search of the internet and I had the name Clare Tomalin.  How can I not love this capability?
Who reads what:  In 2011, I wrote two blog pieces that attracted more attention than anything I had ever written.  Note that nothing I have written has remotely come anywhere near going viral. 
In May, I wrote a piece called The Rapture - May 21, 2011.  I posted the piece on May 20th.  I was surprised when I looked at the blog statistics on Sunday May 21, the day the world was supposed to end, that almost 200 people had read my little piece.  That was the greatest number of hits my blog ever got on one day.  I had been averaging 25-50 hits per day.  I did not think it was my greatest posting but it was certainly timely and for once I wrote it just before the event.  Usually I am writing about something that has already happened.  This was more upfront and proactive.  There is a lesson in here. 
In October, I wrote a piece The Detroit Lions.  It was basically my reaction to the professional football team of my home town.  They had been unbelievably dismal all of my life as a sports fan.  This past season they became less dismal.  I wrote it while watching Monday Night Football and seeing the Lions easily beat the Chicago Bears.  This single posting took off like a rocket.  It became the all time most read posting in October and continued on through today being the most read piece on a daily basis.  As of February 22 just before midnight, this page has had 4.525 hits.  I was amazed by the power of sports.  In May, I wrote about the The University of Michigan Hockey Team.  In September, I wrote about Michigan Football in when they beat Notre Dame for the second year in a row.  If I were interested in traffic, I might simply focus on sports.
The next closest piece was the Rapture posting but no more.  In May I wrote one on the assassination attempt on the famous singer Ibrahim Tatlises from Turkey.  This posting Sweet Voice Sweet Voice is currently in second place with  617 page views.
For these top two posts, The Detroit Lions and Sweet Voice, almost all of the traffic comes to my blog from image searches.  I have images of both the Detroit Lions logo and Ibrahim Tatlises from the 1980s in these postings.  People are searching for images and get directed to my blog pages.  Cool.  If I were interested in generating traffic, I might simply use photos of hot sports teams and celebrities.
I wrote other pieces I was quite proud of this past year.  Oddly, my liking something I wrote does not necessarily correlate to others liking it.  In January I wrote one called STFU!   It is basically a rant against anyone and everyone who feels the need to preach to me how I should think, what I ought to be doing, or who I should have voted for… or not voted for.  I felt great writing that piece.  It was a great catharsis.  It resonated with several of you.   Neither my wife nor mother appreciated the use of the “F” word.
I wrote a piece, Hokehankist, in July.  It was a reflection on the Repose of the Soul service in the Armenian Church.   It is the part of the Armenian Liturgy that impacts me the most.  A lot of people wrote personal notes telling me how much they related to that posting.
The bottom line is that I cannot predict what people will like.  Things I thought were sure fire hits were received lukewarmly.  Pieces I have that of as lukewarm, were very warmly received and resulting a surprising output of sentiment.  I am not trying to do this to gain readership or a following.  At this point, it is something I just do.  I do it every day.  To the statistician in me, it is curious to see what I like versus what resonates with people. 
I have read many times that writers have to write.  I have trained myself over these past ten years to do just that.  I have to write. The topics are varied and come from the news and ideas or notions that come from the recesses of my mind.  Many a night, I am writing just before I turn in.  I have to do it and will not go to bed before completing this daily regimen.  
Tom Vartabedian:  I have a friend, supporter, and mentor.  Tom Vartabedian is a wonderful man.  He is personable and easy going.  Tom truly sees the glass as half full.  His enthusiasm and energy is contagious.  From his last name, Tom is clearly Armenian and he takes his heritage seriously.  Tom by profession is a journalist and photographer.  Born and raised in Massachusetts, he spent 40 years with the Haverhill Gazette.  He is retired but as busy and prolific as any retired journalist could be.  If you meet him you might easily underestimate his age by a good fifteen years. 
I believe Tom held editorial positions at the Haverhill Gazette.  I cannot comment directly on his managerial and editorial skills, but I am sure he was very good at it.  I can almost say for certain, regarding his profession, Tom first love is to cover good stories and write about them.  This is how I know Tom.  He has a long standing relationship with The Armenian Weekly where he regularly pens a column called Poor Tom's Almanac and does feature stories.  I have been reading Tom's work for years and venture to say he has been a contributor to the Weekly for at least 40 years.  I am a long term reader of his and have become his friend in the past fifteen years.
In that time, perhaps longer, Tom has taken to covering the Armenian Youth Federation Annual Olympics Games.  These games that include swimming, track and field, and tennis take place every Labor Day weekend.  Tom has taken most of the photos and written most of the articles for The Armenian Weekly's Annual Olympics Special issue.  People cannot wait to get that issue and that is primarily because of Tom.  He is everywhere the whole weekend with his notepad, pen, and camera.  He is interviewing and taking pictures.  Then voila after a few weeks, the special issue comes out and it is always a masterpiece. 
This past year Tom was recuperating from heart bypass surgery.  Tom arranged for three of us to do what he used to do by himself.  We barely made got it done and the issue was two weeks late!  That is how organized and prolific Tom is.  Three of us could not replace him.
On January 12 of this year, The Armenian Weekly published a vintage Tom Vartabedian article on Cher.  Take a read of it and see why I love to read Tom's work:   The Armenian Side of Cher. 
  Thanks: I would like to thank everyone who has been so supportive of my writing over the past year.  The aforementioned, Tommy Vartabedian, a great newspaperman, is first and foremost on this list.  He is always encouraging and always complimentary. His support means a great deal to me.  
I thank my son, Aram, for his editorial contributions.  Judy for her general support.  I thank Mark Axelrod, Marty Shoushanian, Dale Dvorak, Ruth Swisher, Nadya Uygun, David Gavoor, and Greg Postian for commenting on and acknowledging many if not every letter I send out.
Thanks to Ara Topouzian for not writing and giving me grief for not mentioning or thanking him.  This reference should keep him quiet for another month.
Thanks to Raffi Bandazian and Ara Surenian for encouraging me to move things to a blog.  Special thanks to Marilyn Zavidow, my Westport, CT to Grand Central train buddy, who was a great collaborator in the planning of the letter and actually came up with the name This Side of Fifty.  
As I do every year, I like to remember the man I never met, Aram Kevorkian, whose own monthly letters inspired my to write this monthly letter to friends and family.  

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Wheel of Fortune?

It hard to imagine that I would ever be writing about a TV game show.  It is even harder for me to believe that if I ever wrote about a TV game show that it would be about the Wheel of Fortune.  Am I really this hard up for topics?  

I have never ever watched an entire Wheel of Fortune show from beginning to end.  I have never done that because Pat Sajak, the long standing host, irritates the holy heck out of me.  I do not know what it is about this fellow but the word smarmy comes to mind.  

Smarmy?  I do not believe I have ever typed that word before.  Did I use the right word?  I looked it up because I occasionally will use a word that I am not sure of the exact meaning and get it wrong.  I do believe I used the perfect word according to the which defines smarmy as “A certain attitude often accompanied by a squinty look and a superior smile that makes you instantly hate a person. Similar to snobby.”  Yep, that’s it.

I did not set out to write a slam piece on Pat Sajak.  He has done quite well without my support thank you very much.  His popularity was so high in the 1980s, he even hosted his own talk show in 1989.  People were thinking he would be the next Johnny Carson.  I did not see it that way at all and thought he would flop.  The show lasted fifteen months.  

The Wheel of Fortune was created by Merv Griffin in 1975.  Chuck Woolery was the first host.  Sajak became the second host in 1981 and has been hosting the show ever since.  He obviously has plenty of fans as he has made a very very nice living hosting this show for such a long run.  I read he is contracted through 2014.  Good for him.  The last time I saw a bit of the show in late 2011, Pat did seem a lot less smarmy to me.  He is now 65 years old and smarminess, as we all know,  is young man’s game.  So, either he has matured or I have become more tolerant..  I am going with the former.

Why is The Wheel of Fortune even a topic?  Just this week it came out that good old Pat admitted to having hosted the show drunk more than a few times in the early days.  For some reason, that made him more human to me.  The stories were like “Pat Sajak was drunk behind the ‘Wheel.’”  So, the topic came up in conversation.  Perhaps, it was the hosting tipsy that brought out his smarmy side.

You cannot talk about The Wheel of Fortune, the most popular syndicated game show in the US, without talking about Vanna White, the hostess of the show since 1983.  Her job all these years is to look pretty and to turn the letters.  Early on she physically rotated the triangular cylinders that revealed the letters.  Recently she touches TV screens that reveal the letters.  I never understood her role after the letters went electronic.  I always understood her popularity.   She will be 54 years old this year and she’s still got it.

I am probably just jealous of both of them for having landed and kept their lucrative and cushy gigs for thirty years.

Maybe I will watch an entire show sometime...