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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Just Do It Over (5)—Leap Day

[a] Leap Feb RF
It takes a big event to knock Seinfeld Ethnography off the front page of Round and Square on a Wednesday morning. Not "this week" big. Not even "this month" big. No—we are not even talking "biggest thing this year"...big. The only thing that would get in the way of super-powered shower heads for Kramer, Jerry, and Newman (next week) is Leap Day. This is "once every four years" big. This is February do-over big. The shortest month of the year just got a little bit less short.

[b] Leap RF
Do you know that if you were born on February 29, would only be thirteen years old? My dad told me a version of this when I was a North Dakota sprite—just old enough to know that he was pulling my leg but still young enough to be mildly bewildered, so habituated had I (already) become to the equation: birthday=birthday. No, no, I can hear pre-kindergarten (2008) Leap Day'ers cry. "S/he would have had only thirteen celebratory birthdays on Leap Day," you shout in unison, "but s/he still grows older every year."

[c] Nope RF
Yes, of course. Actually, the details are a little bit "off" in the example above, but for reasons that not everyone (other than Leap Day babies) might grasp, so enculturated are we (do you sense a theme?) to celebrating birthdays. It's very simple, though. Of course, you were around for Leap Day 1960, since you were born on that day (this is not a difficult concept; it is akin to the traditional Chinese idea that a baby is one on the day of birth). So 1960 would be one—one Leap Day, not one year, of course. 1964 made it two, and 1968 made it three. 1972, 1976, and 1980 made it four, five, and six. An Orwellian timbre dominated as 1984 made it seven. Eight, nine, and ten followed in the Olympic and (U.S.) election years of 1988, 1992, and 1996. The turn of the millennium made it eleven, and then...(bear with me) 2004, and 2008 made it twelve and thirteen. Today makes fourteen. If you were born on Leap Day in 1960, you are now a member of AARP, if not actually retired. Right? So you have "seen" fourteen Leap Days come and go, as it turns out, fifty-two year-old.

Happy Birthday, Tony (Awaken the Giant Within) Robbins.

So I have a quick question. Do Leap Day kids (or adults) celebrate a Leap Day birthday differently than the other three in the cycle? Is it extra-special? 

This is structure and culture, stuff, and I will be devoting a new series to it soon on Round and Square. The structure does not allow the little cherub to celebrate on 2/29 three out of every four years. That is a calendrical structure and it cannot be willed away; a child (and family) must choose. Choosing to celebrate on 2/28 or 3/1 (or 1/1 or Super Bowl Sunday or Armistice Day) is the choice that intersects with structure. Assuming that people will celebrate on a day near the vanished 2/29 is culture (not to mention a fair dose of common sense). So what do Leap Day birthday folks do? I am looking forward to hearing your comments on the matter. How do they "negotiate the structures" of intercalation?

[d] Yup RF
We aren't quite done, though. There is one more little turn of the rack to consider before we (non-Leap Day mortals) stop thinking about it for another four years. Let me raise the issue in the form of the same simple question above. We established that Anthony Robbins and other people born on February 29, 1960 are fifty-two years old and have seen fourteen Leap days. Check ✓. 

But what if you were a former Prime Minister of India, born on February 29, 1896? How many leap days would you have passed before you...well...before you became prime minister in 1977? "Well that is simple," I hear you mutter. "It's the same as before, and we won't forget Prime Minister Desai's day of birth in 1896 this time. It's one for every four years...duh."

Seeing my impatience, you begin to count, exaggerating the years for their effect on this question-asking moron. "1896, 1900, 1904, 1908, I really have to continue with every American presidential election and summer Olympic Games (scheduled, but some canceled because of World Wars)?" 

"Yes, please proceed." 
[e] Computing RF
"O.k., dull-boy, here goes: 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944...this is beginning to seem like an exercise in American politics...Truman, Eisenhower, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter. There, you have it. Twenty-one Leap Days. Morarji Desai was eighty-one years old and had passed twenty-one Leap Days when he succeeded Indira Gandhi and became prime minister of India in 1977. Duh."

"Well, duh yourself," I reply. 

Only calendrically aware Leap Day babies (or really old ones) know this bit of Gregorian trivia. Desai was, indeed, eighty-one when he became prime minister, but he had only lived through twenty Leap Days. How is this possible? Structure, event (choice), and culture—that's how. Born in 1896, Desai enjoyed his first Leap Day on February 29, 1896 (the British pretty much forced the use of the Gregorian calendar; colonial power is like that)

[f] Structure and event RF
He was a little under four years of age in 1900 when he (I speculate) realized that he had been ripped off, just as turn of the century Leap Day babies had been in 1800 (and, in retrospect, for all of the "00" years of the Common Era except those that are multiples of 400). Young Mr. Desai did not get another Leap Day until 1904—the little guy's eighth "birthday." Of course, after that he had nineteen consecutive Leap Days, in four year intervals, until he ascended to the Prime Ministership in 1977. More would follow after that. He lived until ninety-nine, and fell just ten months short of getting another Leap Day on his centennial. 

So what's up with that?," I hear you cry. "No Leap Day in 1900? Was there a war or something? 

Yes, there was a war or something. There is always a war or something, but it doesn't have much of anything to do with the calendar.

[g] Calendrical drift RF
Lack of a Leap Day in 1900 has everything to do with structure, history, and culture. You see, there is this quite unalterable structure called the year—and, no, by that I do not mean human calendars. I mean the precise amount of time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun. We learn from early on that it takes 365.25 days. About 365.25 days. February 29th is all about 365.25. Simple, right? Add an extra day every four years and you get 365.25. Perfect.

No, that would be rather imperfect, my friend. It's about 365.25. It actually is 365.242199 days (365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 46 seconds). Those lost eleven minutes and fourteen seconds can start to add up over very long stretches of time. So how do we resolve the unchanging structure that is the year with the calendar? And don't get me started on the fact that "the year," too, is in a long process of change, or we'll never finish. Great minds have struggled through time with this question. Here's how they do it deep in the heart of Gregoria: they skip February 29th in "00" years that cannot divide evenly into four hundred. That means that, out of every four hundred years (let's say 1601-2000) there will be 97 leap days rather than 100. In its own culturally strategic way, it comes close to resolving those problematic little eleven plus minutes of shortfall, year after year. 

And don't get me wrong. 11:14 can add up. Just ask "Julian."

[h] Text 11:14
Rosemary Wood can misplace that much (and half again more) White House tape and have it make for some largish political and historical questions. If the last 11:14 was cut off of a sleepy NBA basketball game in Hershey, Pennsylvania on March 2, 1962, Wilt Chamberlain would only have scored sixty-nine points. You can bake a tray of cookies and boil al dente thick spaghetti in that amount of time. You can read the opinion pages of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, and you can hear the first segment of the Morning Joe on MSNBC—all in a little more than eleven minutes. You can order, savor, and eat a Chicago-style hot dog and still leave time to wash it down with a cup of coffee. You can drive from Chinatown to the University of Chicago in light traffic, and you can make it through your TSA check (usually) in that amount of time. 11:14 is nothing to sneeze at (indeed, nothing at which to sneeze).

And you can also seriously mess up the agricultural life of your people if you let those minutes and seconds add up over, say, a few millennia. Even if you just let them accumulate over several centuries, they will start to gum up that calendar on your castle wall. Next thing you know, the vernal equinox is ten days early. Next thing after that, Ben Franklin goes to bed (early) on September 2nd and wakes up (early) on September 14th. That's pretty jarring, but it is how structures rear their mighty strengths..and human beings (eventually) deal with them—negotiate them.

Enough of that for now. You don't need to spend all of Leap Day reading about Leap Day, even though I haven't even begun discussing the other little adjustments that are made—like adding an extra second to a year every now and then. We've just covered the big issues of Leap Day, and we'll leave further micro-calendrical calculations for our Structure, History, and Culture series (starting next week).
***  ***
So happy birthday, Morarji Desai, Tony Robbins, and other Leap Day birthers. You have struggled with your yearly "calendrical negotiations" of birthday time since Beijing was polishing the Bird's Nest for the Summer Games. After the barren years of 2009, 2010, and 2011, you've earned this day. And if you were born on one of the last few Leap days, you might—if you take good care of yourself—just be around long enough to get ripped off and cheated of your Leap Day in 2100. Book your anger management programs in advance. You'll have much more important things to celebrate on February 28+, 2100.

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