Guns of August

Russian troops- poorly trained, incompetently, inadequately armed, but many in mumber

Russian troops- poorly trained, incompetently led, inadequately armed, but vast in number

One hundred years ago this month, the world entered into a conflict that became known as The Great War and, eventually, World War I.  While the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist on June 28th of 1924 and Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia one month later, it might have been a localized war between the two.  If not for a series of alliances.  But by August, the die was cast.  In that fateful month, Germany declared war on France, Britain declared war on Germany, Montenegro declared war on Austro-Hungary, Austro-Hungary declared war on Russia, Serbia declared war on Germany, Montenegro declared war on Germany, France declared war on Austro-Hungary, Britain declared war on Austro-Hungary, Austro-Hungary declared war on Belgium, Japan declared war on Germany, and Japan declared war on Austro-Hungary.  Although the Ottoman Empire did not technically enter the war until November, it closed the Dardanelles that month, pinning a part of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea.  Since Britain, France and Germany had colonies in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and in the Pacific where battles were fought, the world was at war.

Over the top of the trenches and into the machine guns.  Frontal assault into sure death was the norm.

Over the top of the trenches and into the machine guns. Frontal assault into sure death was the norm.

These were not idle declarations of war.  By the end of August, Germany had overrun Luxemburg and Belgium (with no declaration of war), and the Allies (France and Britain) had been pushed back across the Marne River into France, with thousands of casualties on both sides.  Russia had suffered a costly defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg, with 140,000 of their soldiers dead, wounded or captured.  Combined British and Japanese forces captured the German-held port of Tsing-tao in China and New Zealand troops seized the German half of Samoa.  First blood had been drawn, in the tens of thousands, and it would not end for four years and millions more deaths.  Brave men would charge into the certain death of machine guns on the orders of short-sighted generals who did not vary their tactics in the face of more efficient weaponry.

Interested onlookers at the Versailles Peace Treaty negotiations in 1918.

Interested onlookers at the Versailles Peace Treaty negotiations in 1918.

Barbara Tuchman described the dominoes that fell to bring about the Great War in her book, The Guns of August (from whence I got my title for this blog).  Many of the ills in today’s world came as a result of the Great War.  The vindictive peace at Versailles in 1918 had a direct effect on the rise of Nazism in Germany.  In spite of one of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points being self-determination, colonialism persisted.  In fact, the Ottoman Empire’s holdings in the Middle East were broken into mandates administered by France and Britain.  These lines became countries, without regard to ethnic or sectarian populace, and have much to do with the current problems in the Middle East today.  The fall of the czar in Russia was hastened by the war and the Kerensky democratic government’s continued support of the war had much to do with its fall to communism.  From there, it spread to China and North Korea with the aid of Russian support.  Many of the Balkan problems can be traced to the creation of Yugoslavia as a reward to Serbia after the war.

A French soldier and a German soldier in the same trench, no longer fighting.

A French soldier and a German soldier in the same trench, no longer fighting.

Idealism can be deadly.  When men enlisted on both sides, they were sure they would be home by Christmas.  They went with a youthful patriotism and enthusiasm.  Yet they were soon bogged down in the mire of trench warfare and thick mud.  When America entered in 1917, it was to be “the war that ends all war.”  Obviously, that was not the case.  George Santayana wrote, “Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.”  What can we learn from this war one century ago?  Here are a few of my observations:

1. Winning a battle does not ensure winning a war.  Winning a war does not ensure winning a lasting peace.  Both sides dreamed of winning the big battle that would force the other side to sue for peace.  Battles were won, many times by the Germans, but it was four years of a bloody war of attrition before Germany sought peace.

2. The spoils of war will always spoil. Refrain from taking them.  The French were still livid at the Germans seizing Alsace-Lorraine after the Franco Prussian War forty years before.  President Wilson claimed self-determinism of all people to be a goal when America entered the war, yet that was not the case when peace was finally made.  It was the winners seizing whatever they wanted and playing political games with the rest.  That sin haunts us to this day.

3. Do not start a war, but make sure you win.  Then have an exit strategy and plan for the fallout that happens even if you win.  The sides were too evenly matched and the sheer numbers of men and equipment made a quick victory impossible.  It became a war of grinding away at each other, destroying men and economies. England had a thriving, world dominating economy at the onset of the war and never recovered that strength.  Both sides were anxious to get into the fight and, in a very real sense, neither side won.

4. Wars are often fought with the tactics and strategies of the previous one.  But situations change, as do weapons and combatants.  Be ready to change your strategies, tactics and weapons as quickly as needed.  That did not happen in the Great War, with generals pouring men into hopeless offenses.  A definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result.  By that definition, both sides had many insane officers.

5. Everybody lies. Well, almost everybody.  While T.V.’s Dr. House may not have always been right about that, too often it is true.  Doubt what everyone says, but yourself. Maybe even yourself.  Err to the side of caution on the oxymoron, “military intelligence.” Many men have died because of faulty intelligence before a battle.

6. There will always be another war.  This was to be the “war that ends all wars,” yet that obviously was not the case.  All too often, the previous war leads to the next one. And the outcome of that often reverses the gains of the previous one.

Does following these six points ensure success in war?  If you say “yes,” please check out point 6.


Word-Cross or Crossword Puzzles

The Mother of all Addictions -Crossword, that it.  December 13, 1913

The Mother of all Addictions -the Crossword one, that is. December 13, 1913

My name is R.L. Cherry and I am an addict. If I go too many days without my crossword puzzle, I break into a cold sweat and become disoriented. A pun clue for disoriented would be someone who emigrates from China to the USA. Sorry, I couldn’t help it. Too many crossword puzzles. I blame my condition on Arthur Wynne, an Englishman whose first “word-cross” puzzle appeared in the New York World on December 13, 1913. He is generally considered to have created the first form of this addictive pastime, but some dispute this. Yeah, I know I should have written this on the centennial of that date, but I was not aware of this fact until recently. Art’s puzzle was diamond shaped instead of the current standard square and had no blacked-out spaces, but the genie was out of the bottle and, like crack cocaine, soon had unsuspecting puzzlers addicted. Fortunately for people like me, it does not destroy body and mind like cocaine, just takes control of them. Wynne and the World were sole suppliers until the Boston Globe took a piece of the action in 1917. By the Roaring Twenties, the nation was hooked on “cross-word” puzzles. Interestingly enough, The New York Times, which now publishes the acme of American crossword puzzles, wrote in the 1920′s that they were a “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport . . . [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.” They did not include them in their paper until 1942. English newspapers held firm against the onslaught until 1930, when the Times succumbed. British crossword puzzles are quite different however, from the ones on this side of the Pond. And the rest is history. Well, all of that was history, too.

My personal story began in the 1980′s. I was pretty much puzzle-free for most of my life. Sure, there was the occasional experimentation in my youth. Most people do, right? They just never admit it. Anyway, a woman who was a secretary at our business offered me a puzzle from the local paper, the San Bernardino then-named Sun Telegram. How often does it start that way, a friend saying, “Just try it. You can walk away any time you want to.” It was an entry-level puzzle, not the hard stuff. I remember when I had the clue of “a Malaysian canoe.” The answer, of course, was a proa. I said, “Not fair. Who ever heard of a ‘proa’?” I should have walked away then, seen that this could not end well. Instead, soon the Sun Telegram no longer gave me the thrill I needed. I progressed to the Los Angeles Times and, finally, to the real hard stuff, the New York Times. Sure, I occasionally dabbled in the Boston Globe’s and the San Francisco Examiner’s offerings, but they were just diversions, not completely satisfying. New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz became my main supplier, giving me the stuff that I needed. I was happy, at least for the time it took to finish my morning puzzle. Then I moved to the Isle of Man in the British Isles.

British Crossword Puzzle

British Crossword Puzzle                            For the solution to this puzzle, click here

Crossword puzzle withdrawal is not a pretty sight. The sufferer often finds him or herself rooting through old newspapers and books for a hidden puzzle. Sleep is difficult, often interrupted with visions of grids and clues. Fortunately, I found the British version. It is much different from the American one. As you can see by the example here, they have fewer crossing of letters and fewer words in the grid, making it necessary to solve each clue without the help of the crossing words for other clues. They make extensive use of puns and word play. The clues normally have two parts, one a more direct hint and the other more obscure. The solver must completely immerse oneself in that thought pattern. If you have read my book, Christmas Cracker, you experienced one when Morg encounters the diabolical British crossword puzzle in the course of solving a mystery. Often I would not solve the puzzle in one day, but would clip it out to finish it the next day. But the next day had a new one, adding to the pile. I became frantic, trying to complete puzzles days old while not finishing the current one. I was in serious danger of on words when we moved back to America.

I now have my habit under control. I can do my crossword in the morning, then have a normal life for the rest of the day. The only problems are Monday and Tuesday. Will Shortz starts the week (Monday) with an easy one, steadily making them more difficult each day until nirvana on Saturday. Sunday’s puzzle is large and difficult enough to give a thrill. But Monday and Tuesday’s are just too easy. There is no high in finishing them. I avoid them, knowing that they will only leave me with a craving for the harder stuff. But I endure it. I’m tough. Wait, is that a crossword puzzle from the Times that I never worked? Give it to me! You value that hand, give it to me now!

My Corpse, My Corpse, a Compromise for My Corpse


Richard III No Coward in Battle

Richard III
No Coward in Battle

Before I make my compromise proposal, I will give a recap of my post back in August of last year.  I wrote about the legal battle over the skeleton of Richard III, who  had been killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field, near Leicester, while battling Henry Tudor (soon to be Henry VII) in 1485.  His mutilated body was buried in a graveyard in the Greyfriars church in Leicester (no cathedral burial for Richard).  When Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries, the friary was seized and sold.  Eventually, poor Richard’s grave was destroyed and forgotten.  Sic transit gloria.



Richard III's Bones

Richard III’s Bones

Vilified by Shakespeare’s masterful propaganda piece, Richard III, as a man of a twisted body, mind and soul, he came to be considered the epitome of cruel, ruthless ambition.  However, in the last century several groups were formed to promote a more sympathetic view of Richard.  In 2011, the oldest one, the Richard III Society, began a search and, eventually, found Richard under a green 1987 Mini Cooper.  Well, not exactly, but he had been paved over for a parking lot, so he might have been under one at some point.  Anyway, the government, Leicester City Council, the University of Leicester, Leicester Cathedral, York Minster, and the Richard III Society all agreed to let Richard lie in Leicester Cathedral.  He was even to get a table tomb, like many more beloved English monarchs.  It looked like Richard might rest in peace.

The Broom Plant a.k.a Genista

The Broom Plant
a.k.a Genista

Enter the Plantagenet Alliance.  The word Plantagenet evidently was a nickname given to Geoffrey of Anjou because he wore a sprig of the broom plant (genista) in his bonnet, planted brooms to provide cover for his hunting grounds or for some unknown reason lost in the mists of time.  Not long after he went to the happy hunting grounds, his son became Henry II of England in 1154.  Three centuries later, Richard, Duke of York, called himself Richard Plantaginet (sic) when he took the throne and was the last Plantagenet king.  After Richard was disinterred in 2012, some fifteen collateral descendants (not direct-line, but from a relative) formed the Plantagenet Alliance to stop the Leicester contingent from having his bones.  (Too bad Geoffrey hadn’t been nicknamed Broom.  The Broom Alliance would have been funnier).  The Alliance said they should decide and York Minster was their choice.  Other proposals cropped up, including Westminster Abbey and the Worksop Priory Church.  That last, little-known place was proposed by the MP from that region, claiming it was a good compromise because it was located halfway between Leicester and York.  I’m sure it had nothing to do with the expected £4,000,000 in tourist revenues from Richard’s bones.  The courts recently ruled that Richard would stay in Leicester, saying that there was “no direct evidence of any definitive wishes expressed by Richard III as to his place of burial.”  The Alliance is threatening an appeal.  The Mayor of Leicester has said, “Those bones leave Leicester over my dead body.”  Lawyers’ fees could outstrip tourist revenue if something is not done.  So I have a proposal: divvy Richard up.

Many saints of the church have a bone here and another one there, known as relics and often stored in a fancy container known as a reliquary.  Take ST_OSWALDSt. Oswald, a sanctified king of 7th century Northumbria.  Originally buried at Bardney Abbey, three of his bones are still there, or so they say.  Peterborough Cathedral claims an arm and monasaries across England (Bath, Glastonbury, Reading, St. Albans, Christchurch (Hants), Tynemouth and York) say they have a bone or two.  Hildesheim, Germany, built a shrine that supposedly houses his head,  All of these locations got some play from the pilgrimage crowd.  Many others, including St. Andrew, St. Paul, and St. Thomas á Becket, are scattered as well.  Why not Richard?  While I would not call Richard a saint (all indicators point to him having killed his young nephews for the throne and had at least a couple of affairs), it would end the legal haggling and expenses of those involved to follow those precedents.  Put his rib cage (heart) in Westminster Abbey, near his wife Anne Neville.  His head (brain) should go to York, where he plotted his rise to power.  His pelvis is a different matter.  He had two, maybe three, illegitimate children of unknown mothers.  Since John of Gloucester was the most famous one, let Gloucester Cathedral have his pelvis until better claimants arise.  As for the rest of his bones, bury them at Leicester.  Well, except for his right hand.  I’m sure Richard would want that to go to St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, in front of the tomb of Henry VII, middle pointing skyward.

 “As long as I don’t get covered too much in egg and tomato I’ll be all right.”

“As long as I don’t get covered too much in egg and tomato I’ll be all right.”

To date, the royals have abstained from  commenting on where should Richard’s final resting place should be.  I suppose they feel they have had enough embarrassment in the press for verbal faux pas in the past and are lying low.  But now is the time to act, before the nation descends into a civil war to rival the so-called War of the Roses.  Send Richard’s bones to be ambassadors of good will and financial gain to the far regions of England.  I know he would have a good laugh about that.

Memorial Day

I normally like to write tongue-in-cheek posts.  I do love witty pieces and make my own attempt to follow in kind.  While I hope that this will not be morbid (like the one about my dearly-departed Aussie, Jilly), it will be a reverent remembrance of an uncle I never met, Earl Owen Thresher.

Earl Owen and his fiance in happier times

Earl Owen and his fiance in happier times

Earl Owen (Eardie) was born on December 27, 1921.  He was my mother’s baby brother, the youngest of five children, and my mother loved him dearly.  He had been engaged to a girl, but they had a fight and broke up in October of 1941.  So, as young men often do, he reacted rashly and joined the Marines to get away from it all.  They made up and got back together, but there’s no going back on an enlistment.  After boot camp on Perris Island, he went into the First Maine Division.  Then December 7, 1941, came around.

Earl Owen's enlistment picture

Earl Owen’s enlistment picture


You can read a factual account of Earl Owen’s (using first and middle name is a Southern thing) service record by clicking here.   While he is listed as in the Fifth Marines, he was proud of being in First Marine Division, a part of the Fifth and known as “the Old Breed.”  While they were also called the “Raggedy-Ass Marines,” an officer said that, “the tradition of hard, dirty service started in the First.”  I will not cite the military data from that website, but will tell you what my mother told me.  Earl Owen was not a born soldier.  He wept when he returned for Christmas in 1941, telling how rough it was in the Marines.  This is not a criticism of the Corps, since they were going to fight a tough enemy and had to have tough men, but rather an attempt to convey how difficult a task it is we ask young men (Earl Owen was 19 years old) to do for us.  My mother said he feared he would never see his girlfriend or his family again.  And he did not.  On September 26, 1942, he was killed by enemy machine gun fire while on patrol on Guadalcanal.  His body was never returned to the States.

Earl Owen on his last leave before Guadalcanal.

Earl Owen on his last leave before Guadalcanal.

My mother told me stories of Earl Owen, his wit and his joi de vivre.  She said he always had a smile, a twinkle in his eye.  Once, when he was late for school, she took the blame (and punishment) for him.  It reminds me of how my two older sisters have treated me though the years.  She told me how his girlfriend did not marry or even date for many years after his death.  She told me how much she loved him.  PFC Earl Owen Thresher did not receive a Congressional Medal of Honor, a Silver Star or even a Bronze Star.  He had no Arlington burial.  He was one of many young men who gave their lives for this country and get no recognition.  They fight and die without any press, without any fanfare, without any ticker tape parades.  They just do their duty.  To me, he and his ilk are heroes.  I hope that, on this Memorial Day, he and so many other men who gave their lives for us will not be forgotten.

Easter Sunday Remembered

Easter 1951 with my mom, sisters and me.  Hey, it's baby fat!!

Easter 1951 with my mom, sisters and me. Hey, it’s baby fat!!

As long as I can remember, Easter Sunday has been a special day in my family.  Although my family definitely wasn’t rich, my parents found enough money to buy me a new suit if we I had outgrown my old one (from the discount stores of the day, J.C. Penney’s or Sears and Roebuck’s) and provide candy for our Easter baskets.  I always wore a suit to church.  Form follows function and the function was to give God our best.  For my sisters, my mom would sew a new Easter dress each year.  My oldest sister always wanted a “store-bought” one instead.  When she was in junior high, she saved up her baby-sitting money and purchased one.  Although it was not of the quality of the ones my mom made, it was “store-bought” and that was what mattered.

After church, my mom would lay out a lunch with a baked ham that had been cooking all morning.  My sisters and I would stuff ourselves on ham and scalloped potatoes before experiencing that high that only a chocolate bunny can bring.  While Halloween was a time of candy gluttony, Easter was a time of connoisseur candy.  Now obviously I did not get Godiva bunnies or truffle Easter eggs, but there was something about those chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chicks that was just, well, special.  It was quality rather than quantity.  At least quality in my young mind.

Then there were the dyed hard-boiled eggs.  I loved dyeing them in the solution made from dissolving  tablets in water, using flimsy wire holders to dip them.  Of course, they never looked as pretty as the pictures, but it was still fun.  However, I did not really like eating them.  I could barely stomach them, far preferring scrambled ones.  The pleasure was in the decorating, not in the eating.  So for many days after Easter, my dad would have hard-boiled eggs in his lunchbox.  Fortunately, he did enjoy them.

Easter in the Late '50's Dapper Dude with an Easter Bunny.   See, I told you it was baby fat.

Easter in the Late ’50′s
Dapper Dude with an Easter Bunny.
See, I told you it was baby fat.

Now there are those who decry the Easter bunny and colored eggs for Easter as pagan traditions of fertility.  Even the name Easter, they say, comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, Eostre.  That last has not been proven, but it is etymologically likely.  Well, there’s nothing wrong with “baptizing” a celebration, taking those “fun” parts that do not violate any Christian principles and incorporating them into a Christian holiday.  Many of those Christmas traditions so many cherish, like a Christmas tree, mistletoe and a yule log in the fireplace, were “baptized” as well.  There is nothing evil about enjoying yourself while celebrating a Holy day, a.k.a., a holiday.  God created fun.

Okay, I’m off my soapbox and back to remembering.  As you can tell from the pictures, celebrating Easter has been a long-standing event in my life.  And it continues to this day.  Having become an Anglican, I am into “smells and bells,” i.e., formal worship with incense and ritualism.  There is something that tugs at the heart strings when the organ hits the opening chords of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Hail Thee Festival Day.”

I admit, it does not appeal to everyone.  It’s sort of like sushi, you love it or you hate it.  No middle ground.  And I love it.

In my white suit with the late, great Jilly-dog.

In my white suit with the late, great Jilly-dog wearing her formal kerchief.

I have said before that I am an unabashed traditionalist.  I hate it when Shakespearean plays are given a modern setting and/or modern language.  I still believe in taking my hat off when entering a restaurant and opening the door for a woman.  Sadly, I admit that I have sinned in no longer opening the car door for my wife.  Mea culpa.  However, I continue to wear a suit to the Easter service, a white one for the last couple of decades (I know white is only for between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but rules can be broken for a good cause).  I have no intention of trying to make anyone else do so, but I feel I must.  Maybe it was by being taught, but then again maybe it was genetic.  It is who I am.


Don’t Kill the Cat

Yeah, I know I'm great.

Yeah, I know I’m great.  But you’re chopped liver.

Let me state that, although I’m not really a “cat person,” I do get along rather well with those domesticated tigers.  In fact, when we saved one from certain death at our business, it adopted me.  Yonke Gato (Junk Cat) would crawl up my arm and go to sleep across my shoulders as I did paperwork at my desk.  He would also bite and claw about anyone else.  Maybe it wasn’t so much love, but mutual respect and honesty about how we felt about each other that formed our relationship.  I didn’t pretend to love cats and he didn’t pretend to love people.

Pet me, pet me.

Pet me, pet me.

I did own a cat for several years.  Her mother abandoned her and her siblings in our garage in Lake Arrowhead, CA.  We named her Fosbury after Dick Fosbury, developer of the Fosbury Flop.  Like Dick, she was a high jumper, even though she was the runt.  All of her litter mates died (sorry cat lovers, but it’s the truth).  She became the proverbial “Cat from Hell.”  She would rub up against your leg, but when you reached down to pet her, she would  grab your hand with her front claws and bite it.  Hard.  She also would leave us “gifts” on the front doormat.  Heads of gophers, skinned grey squirrels, blue jay feathers and body parts.  They made for pleasant surprises when you opened the front door.  When we moved overseas, a couple we knew offered to take her and we gladly accepted.  They were afraid, however, that their big tom might pick on her.  Vain fear.  She tormented him so badly that he kept throwing up when he ate.  They finally gave her a private room in the house so tom could keep his dinner down.  Amazingly, the couple still corresponded with us and sent occasional photos as Fosbury morphed in Jabba the Hutt.

Maybe that’s why I found it interesting that when author Alan Beechey recently gave a talk on mystery writing at the Unicorn Writers’ Conference in Portland, Connecticut, he cited the first rule of writing a mystery as being “Never kill a cat.”  It gave me pause.  No, not paws, pause.  He said that it wasn’t good to kill a dog in your book and that it was rarely good to kill a child, but you should never kill a cat in your story.  It’s better to kill off an innocent child than a cat?  Why is it that cat lovers make them sacrosanct?bast

In ancient Egypt, cats held a special place.  They were near and dear to the goddess Bast.  In fact, killing a cat got you the death penalty.  That, I must say, is a fate even worse than having your book be a flop because you have a killer knock off kitty in your mystery.  However, it just goes to show you that love of felines is a long-standing tradition.  It seems that mystery readers walk like an Egyptian, at least in their pet preferences.

Being a dog lover, I don’t really understand the puss aficionados.  Dogs will mourn their masters (or mistresses), even loyally tending their graves. (click here).  Cats are more inclined to view late owners as a source of protein.  (click here)  This is not to disparage Tabby.  If anything, it makes the feline more pragmatic than  the canine.  After all, will starving yourself help bring back a loved one?  You just want to make sure kitty knows you’re taking a catnap rather than having a coronary.

Back to the first rule of mystery writing, perhaps it has to do with many mystery readers being cat owners.  I’ve never seen the pet demographics on whodunit readers, but it could be.  Perhaps many mystery readers are ancient Egyptians with long life spans.  That sounds like the basis for a new series to rival Twilight.  Whatever the case, I am wise enough to heed the warning.  I can assure any potential readers of my books that no cats will be killed in any of them.  In fact, no cats will be harmed in the making of them or in their plots.  I pledge that I will respect the rights of all cats.  So if you’re a cat lover, you can indulge in reading my books without any guilt.  Sort of like having a Diet Coke that tastes like a hot fudge sundae.  Enjoy.

Bad Irish Jokes

I love a good joke.  However, ethic jokes have a very bad rep, often for good reason  If a joke is meant to demean or insult, it is not funny.  But if it is meant to poke fun with no criminal intent, I feel it is fine.  For instance, I recently heard a Jewish joke that I think is funny:  How does Moses make his tea?  He brews.

Shanty Irish

Shanty Irish, or a stupid Mick, from a mid-1900′s newspaper shows the prejudice of that time.

If you don’t get it, say it out loud.  It is a pun, a play on words that does not insult in any way.  I feel the same about Irish jokes, ones that are now being bandied about all over the Internet because of St. Patrick’s Day.  No insult, no foul.  Yet, too often Polack jokes that were meant to insult and demean are now rebranded as Irish in “honor” of the day.  Let me demonstrate.  First, I will give a joke I like and next one I do not.

A Presbyterian minister from England was assigned to a new church in Northern Ireland.  On his first Sunday, he was driving home when he ran into another car at a blind intersection in the wilds of county Londonderry.  When the other driver hopped out of his car and came over to him, the minister’s eyes went wide.  He was a Catholic priest, wearing his clerical collar.  Now the Catholics and Protestants are known to have some issues and many Irish don’t love the English, so the minister braced himself for the worst.  The priest leaned down and peered in the minister’s window.  “Are you alright?”  The minister breathed a sigh of relief and got out of his car.

“I think so.  A little shaky is all.”

“Ah, me too.”  The priest looked down at the dented fenders.  “They’re bejanxed.  I fear we need roadside assistance.  I’ll call on my mobile.”  The priest walked off a bit and called.  Then he came back to the minister.  “You look brutal.  I could use a nip to steel me nerves.  How ’bout you?  I’ve got a bottle of Jamesons in the boot (trunk).”

The minister was relieved that all the horrible things he’d heard about the the Irish Catholics weren’t true.  A drink sounded good.  “I could use a short one.”

The priest opened his trunk and pulled out a bottle of Irish whiskey.  He opened it and handed it to the minister who took a swig and handed it back. The priest studied him.  “You still look a bit pale, lad.  Would you like another?”  The minister gladly took another stiff drink and handed it back to the priest.  “That’s enough for me. The rest is yours.”

The priest screwed the cap back on and dropped the bottle back in his trunk.  “I’ll wait until after the Guarda (police) have been here.”

The Catholic priest is a bit wily, but you like him.  Maybe if you’re a Presbyterian minister you might be upset at the gullibility of that character, but no one is idiot in the joke.  It’s funny without being insulting.  Now compare it to this one I found on the Net:

Pat and Mick landed themselves a job at a sawmill.  Just before morning tea Pat yelled,”Mick! I lost me finger!”  “Have you now?” says Mick. “And how did you do it?” “I just touched this big spinning thing here like thi–Damn! There goes another one!”

The Irishman could be a Polack, a Jew or whatever ethnic group you want to insult.  It has nothing to do with Ireland or the Irish.  It’s intent is to make a certain ethnic group look stupid.  It is a not funny.  Why do such jokes persist?  Maybe just to make little people feel bigger by putting someone else down,  The old saying is that dying is easy, but comedy is hard.  Let’s let the stupid, insulting jokes die and go for the hard comedy.

The Ides of March

Julius Caesar: The Ides of March Guy and Calendar Changer

Julius Caesar:
The Ides of March Guy and
Calendar Changer

When it comes to the most famous date in ancient Rome, the Ides of March comes to mind.  In fact, for most it is the only date that comes to mind, thanks to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  “Beware the Ides of March,” the soothsayer tells the doomed Caesar in Act I Scene 2 of that play.  Of course, because of his ambition Caesar doesn’t, and the rest is history and a great play.  But what exactly was the Ides of March?

To answer that, first I must give an explanation of the Roman calendar.  The first one was called the calendar of Romulus (the legendary founder of Rome) and had ten months: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Iunius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December.  Most of the names are familiar if you change the ones with a first letter of “I” to a “J”  because there was no “J” in the Latin alphabet.  The first three months were named after Roman deities, Mars, Maia and Juno.  The last six came from the Latin words for five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten.  Where Aprilis came from no one knows.  It supposedly had been created about 753 B.C.  Since six of them had 30 days and four had 31, the total number of days in the calendar was 304 and it had some problems coinciding with the solar year.  The next one, the Calendar of Numa, was claimed to have been created by the second of Rome’s legendary seven kings, Numa Pompilius.  It added three months (Ianuarius, Februarius, and Mercedonius, also known as Intercalaris).  In this calendar, 30 days hath September, Aprilis, Iunius, November, and December.  All the rest have 31, except Februarius which has 28 and Mercedonius which has none except on a leap year when it has 27.  Is that clear as mud?

When Julius (actually Iulius) Caesar came along, he decided to simplify things.  He axed Mercedonius and changed the number of days to thirty days hath September, Aprilis, Iunius, and November.  All the rest have 31, except Februarius, which has 28 unless it’s a leap year, then 29.  Sound familiar?  Once you change the names of Sextilis to Iulius and Quintilis to August (changed after the death of Julius and Augustus Caesars respectively), you pretty much have our modern calendar.  Each month has an Ides.  In Martius, it’s the 15th.  So why not just call it quindecim, the Latin word for 15?  Because it wasn’t one the fifteenth each month.  Get out a pad and pencil so you can keep track of what follows.  It is guaranteed to confound.

The Romans didn’t just number the days of their months from one to 28, 29, 30 or 31.  No, they had to be difficult.  After all, that’s Latin’s middle name.  Only three days are defined: Kalens, Nones and Ides.  Kalens (from whence we get the word calendar) is the first day of the month.  Easy.  Nones is the 5th day of short months and the 7th day of long months, while Ides is the 13th day of short months and the 15th day of long months (like March).  Hmm.  A little more difficult, but not too bad.  What about the other days of the month?  After the 1st (Kalens), the date is how many days before the Nones, until it reaches Nones.  You count nones itself in the counting.  So March 2nd would be “six days before the Nones of March” (VI Nonis Martiis in Latin), while April 2nd would be “four days before the Nones of April.”  A little more confusing.  Then you use the number of days before the Ides until you get to the Ides.   March 11th would be “five days before the Ides of March,” whereas the 11th of April would be “three days before the Ides of April.”  What about after the Ides?  Those days become the number of days before the Kalens of the next month.   March 29th would be “four days before the Kalens of April,” while April 29th would be “three days before the Kalens of May” (ante diem III Kalenis Maii).  Well, that works unless it’s the day before Kalens, Nones or Ides, then it’s “pridie.”  In Latin, March 31 would be “pridie Kalenis Aprilibus.”    Got it?  If you do, what would February 28th be in a regular year and in a leap year?  I never said this would be easy.

Julius Caesar's Friday the 13th was on  Wednesday the 15hth

Julius Caesar’s Friday the 13th was on Wednesday the 15th, the Ides of March. Happy Anna Perenna Festival, Julius.

So, was the Ides of March to the Romans like Friday the 13th to us, a day known for bad luck?  Not at all.  It was a festival day for Anna Perenna, who was either an old woman who gave food  to the plebeians (poor class) when they went on strike in the 5th century B.C. or Dido’s sister who fled Carthage after Queen Dido’s suicide (an interesting tale, but not for this post).  Nice to have a holiday for someone and not know who she really was.  So the soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar had nothing to do with the day itself, but what was going to happen to him on it.  In Latin, the date when he was killed is Idibus Martiis DCCIX Anno Urbis Conditae, abbreviated as Id. Mar. DCCIX AUC.  The year is 709 AUC, how long since the traditional founding of Rome (Anno Urbis Conditae) in 753 BC, instead of 44 BC.

After Caesar’s assassination, however, referring to the Ides of March did become synonymous to referring to the assassination.  Not long after that deed, the famous statesman Cicero, no fan of Julius Caesar, wrote, “The Ides of March are encouraging.”  His meaning was obvious to any Roman.  Maybe that’s why Julius Caesar’s good buddy Mark Antony had him killed.  However, if not for Shakespeare most people today would have no idea even what the Ides of March is.

So, if you are at a cocktail party with boring people, you can now give a detailed explanation of the Ides of March to them.  By the time you finish, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be the only one left.  If the hors d’oeuvres are better than the company, it might be worth doing.

Presidents Day


February Birthday Boys George and Abe

February Birthday Boys
George and Abe

When I was growing up, we had two school holidays in February: Lincoln’s Birthday on the12th and Washington’s Birthday on the 22nd.  Now we have Presidents Day on the third Monday in February.  Then again, all telephones had rotary dials and were connected to the wall by a wire.  Times change and so does much of what we are accustomed to.  Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.  While I don’t remember having any special ceremonies to honor Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, I do remember having my teachers speak about the men whose birthdays we observed as those days approached.  The school kids with whom I have recently spoken had not experienced this walk though American history.  In fact, some didn’t even know that Presidents Day is supposed to honor George Washington.  It’s just another day for stores to have sales.  How did it happen that we now “celebrate” this holiday when we do?

It all started with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968.  This moved Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday from his actual birth date of January 15th to the third Monday in January, George Washington’s Birthday from his actual birthday of February 22nd to the third Monday in February, Memorial Day from the traditional grave-decorating day of May 30th to the last Monday in May, Columbus Day from the day Columbus landed in the New World on October 12th to the second Monday in October and Veterans Day from the date of the end of World War I to the fourth Monday in October.  Due to protests by veterans organizations, Veterans Day was restored to November 11th.  Considering Columbus’ current unpopularity in some circles, it may soon become Indigenous People’s Day or Native American Day as it already has in some places.  However, the important point is that all of these holidays are becoming removed from the appropriate days for the people whom they honor.

For proof of this point, consider Presidents Day, supposedly honoring George Washington.  The third Monday falls on a day between February 15th and 21st, yet Washington was born on the 22nd.  Since Lincoln’s Birthday was never a national holiday and he was born on the 12th, obviously it is not to honor him.  It is merely a sanitized, convenient excuse to take a paid holiday.  I fear that there will come a time when other holidays will lose their original meaning.  Will Thanksgiving become Football Day, celebrated on the fourth Monday of November?  Will Christmas become Santa Day on the fourth Monday in December?  Like unruly stallions, will they be gelded so that they are easily tamed to be nothing more than meaningless excuses for an extended weekend?

General George Washington

General George Washington

I propose that we return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when holidays and the daysthey were celebrated on had meaning.  Let’s remember George Washington for what he was: a man who put patriotism above personal security, wealth and ambition.  He was a man of substance and position who risked it all for this nation.  He would have been executed as a traitor and his estate seized if the British had captured him.  He led a ragtag group of citizens who eventually became the Continental Army.  He inspired his compatriots to continue to resist in the face of what must have oft seemed certain defeat.  Reluctantly, he became President.  After two terms of office, he voluntarily stepped down, thereby establishing the two-term tradition that was not broken until Franklin Roosevelt.  Such a republican form of government was unknown in the world at that time and many wanted him to become king, to give stability to the government.  Yet, he refused, trusting in the people to have the wisdom and strength to make this country endure.  The more you read about Washington, the more admirable he is.  So let’s give him back his day on his birthday instead of some safe, generic Presidents Day that can never fall on it.  Then let’s make all our holidays remembrances of what they were originally established to remember.  If they don’t fall on a Monday, live with it.

Toast to the Lassies and Toast to the Laddies

I am an unabashed traditionalist. I love having traditions and following traditions.  That includes personal ones like having oatmeal (porridge) and tea for breakfast, doing my New York times crossword puzzle (except for the too-easy Monday and Tuesday ones), and  playing Santa every Christmas.  I follow family ones for birthdays and Christmas as well, such as decorating the house like Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation (well, not quite so much, but close).  Although I was brought up a Baptist, I became an Anglican partly because of their traditional worship.  Since the Robert Burns Supper has certain strong traditions, why would I mess with those?  Well, mess with the Toast to the Lassies and Toast to the Lassies, to be exact.

Robert Burns, Scotland's unofficial national poet.

Robert Burns, Scotland’s unofficial national poet.

For those of you who are at sea with all this Scottish stuff, Robert Burns was Scotland’s favorite song writer and poet.  He lived from 25 January, 1759, until 21 July, 1796.  In his short 37 years on earth, he wrote 558 song lyrics and poems.  Ever heard of “Auld Lang Syne” or “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose”?  Then you know some of his works.  Every year since 1802, Scots, those of Scot’s descent, and those who just love a good party get together all over the world for a Robert Burns Supper on or near his birthday of January 25th to celebrate Burns and his poetry.  There is a tradition of having the haggis (a steamed pudding of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with oats and spices) presented with Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” recited.  A toast is made to women by a man and a response by a woman, known as the Toast to the Lassies and the Toast to the Laddies.  Finally, an Immortal Memory speech is given in honor of Burns.  These are the current traditions.  And I recently wrote a Toast to the Lassies and Toast to the Laddies that are done in a responsive manner, much like a formal debate.  Was this all that nontraditional?  I say not so.

Kelly and I at the 2014 Robert Burns Supper

Kelly and I at the 2014 Robert Burns Supper

Originally, women were not allowed to attend Robert Burns Suppers except as cooks or servers.  Fortunately, times change and so has the Supper format.  I am not so much of a traditionalist as to exclude the very people that Burns loved most: the lassies.  Having bent that far, it is not that much farther to make the toasts a little more fun.  Click here for how it went at the Gold Country Celtic Society’s Robert Burns Supper this year when Kelly and I did our toasts.  I have to say that I told Kelly that she would get the best lines and I delivered.  But it was all in fun.  Below are the written toasts. Feel free to use them for your Robert Burns Suppers if you are so inclined.  I only ask that you mention my name.


The Toast to the Lassies and the Toast to the Laddies

R.L.:  Tonight we’ll be giving the Toast to the Lassies and the Toast to the Laddies responsively.  I will make a pithy and profound observation about the lassies and my wife Kelly will give her rebuttal.  In the interests of equality, we will try to keep them about equal, even though I am sure that will be difficult for her.  You see, studies have shown that lassies speak an average of 20,000 words per day, while men speak only 7000, or about 1/3 as many.  Thankfully, I was not the counter on that study.  According to Dr. Luan Brizendine from Cal Berkeley, that act of talking itself “triggers a flood of brain chemicals which give women a rush similar to that felt by heroin addicts when they get a high.”  So men, if you wonder why your lassie often sounds like a video on fast-forward, she’s tripping out on talk.  So don’t blame her if she uses three times the words needed to tell a story.  It’s her fix.  Not only that, the good doctor says that women devote more brain cells to talking than men.  That means that men have more productive things to do than idle chatter.

Kelly:  Productive things?  You mean reproductive things.   According to the same doctor, men think about sex every 52 seconds.  Women, once a day.  In fact, she says that men’s “sex processors” in their obsessed brains are twice as big as in women.  Any brain cells lost to talking are taken up by sex, not by noble ideas.  What’s wrong with talking anyway?  If you ask a laddie how his day has been, he says, “Fine.”  Or, more often than not, “Lousy.”  That is NOT a description.  How about “I closed a huge deal for the company and I’ll be getting a raise,” instead of “Fine?”  Or “I lost a major account, I got fired and we’re going to lose the house,” instead of “Lousy?”  Which one sounds more like a man and which one takes more brains cells to say?  And communication is not the only area of men’s brains that is inferior to women’s.  Dr. Brizendine stated, “Testosterone also reduces the size of the section of the brain involved in hearing – allowing men to become “deaf” to the most logical of arguments put forward by their wives and girlfriends.”

R.L.:  Ah, logic.  Men, do you think your lassies make logical arguments?  Aren’t women known for intuition rather than logic?  According to Merriam-Webster, intuition is “a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence: a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why.”  Logic is a “reasonable way of thinking about or understanding something.”  Not the same thing.  We’re talking feelings versus reason.  For a man, you win an argument by scoring the last point.  For a woman, you win it by descending into tears.  Maybe that’s why no woman has been elected president.  Do you trust the fate of the free world to be in the hands of someone who weeps uncontrollably while watching Sleepless in Seattle?

Kelly:  Perhaps you’d rather entrust our nuclear arsenal to someone who yells and screams at the TV if the ref makes a call against his team.  Laddies do have emotions, but they’re much less developed than women’s.  To again quote Dr. Brizendine, “Women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion, while men have a small country road.”  In other words, if the ref makes a bad call or it’s the horny moment in his sex-thought cycle, no other emotion can get past his one-lane bottleneck.  Compassion?  It’ll have to wait until the road clears.  So, is the fate of the world that’s determined by a push of a button safer with a male?  If the missiles are male, maybe it isn’t such a danger.  After all, if they get lost on the way to their target, they’ll never stop and ask for directions.

R.L.:  Maybe that’s because they don’t need to ask.  According to Professor Holloway at Columbia University, men have a better sense of direction than women.  We can find what we aim for, whether it is a target or a T-shirt.  If men go shopping, we make a beeline to buy.  When women go shopping, it’s “roamin’ in the gloamin’.”  The Daily Mail newspaper reported that a woman might become bored after shopping for two hours, but it’s 26 minutes for a man.  They also reported that 58% of the men would pretend to enjoy shopping if they were offered a reward.  However, unless his lassie were having her once-a-day sex thought, no man would have much hope of that.    Plus it’s difficult for men to go shopping with women because lassies are indecisive, they have trouble making up their minds.

Kelly:  Women have trouble making up their minds?  Any woman who has sat through a New year’s Day with the TV on and her laddie with the remote control knows the meaning of indecision.  Is there a reason why he can’t settle on one game and watch it to the bitter end?  Instead he hops from the Gator Bowl to the Heart of Texas Bowl to the Capital One Bowl to the Outback Bowl to the Rose Bowl to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.  Who knows who is playing who?  Is Michigan playing Wisconsin?  Is Stanford playing Baylor?  Who cares?  There might be a good movie on, but instead you sit and watch the images flicker from bowl to bowl while he eats a bowl of Tostitos as he hogs the remote.  However, there is hope.  If he drinks enough beer, he will fall asleep in his chair.  Then you can grab the remote and switch to Sleepless in Seattle.

R.L.:  Let’s finish these toasts with something we both agree on: Rabbie Burns was Scotland’s greatest poet and he loved the lassies.  It’s very appropriate that we toast the lassies in his honor.  If you took out all the love songs and poems he wrote, you’d wipe out the majority of his works.  And without “My Love Is Like a Red, Red, Rose,” any of collection romantic poetry would be sadly lacking.  Even feminists should like him.  After all, he wrote, “And even children lisp the rights of man, Amid this fuss just let me mention, The rights of women merit some attention.”  That was pretty 21st century thinking for a man writing in the late 1700′s.  At that time, the law of coverture said that a man and wife were one, with the man owning all the property and making all the legal decisions.  They couldn’t vote or hold office.  Rabbie was movie-star handsome, too.  A hunk with a heart.  Women should love Rabbie as much as he loved them.

Kelly:  You mean the Michael Douglas of bonnie, old Scotland?  Sex therapist Shelagh Neil says that “Burns could well fit the modern description of a sex addict.”  Although no one seems to be sure about how many lovers he had, we know of at least six and he only married one of them, Bonnie Jean.  He fathered at least 13 children if you count the one who died at birth along with its mother, poor Highland Mary.  And most of them were born out of wedlock.  He believed in equality for women alright: every good-looking woman should have an equal opportunity to hop into bed with him.  I’ll grant you that he wrote beautiful, romantic poems.   What better way to a woman’s heart.  And body.  Judging by the famous Alexander Nasmyth portrait, he was a sexy-looking guy.  But he wasn’t a man you’d want for a husband.  However, we do agree that he was Scotland’s greatest poet and he loved the lassies.  Just too many of them.

R.L.:  Well, it looks like we’re out of time.  And, for once, I’m getting the last word.

Kelly: You betcha!

R.L.:  Gentlemen, be upstanding for a toast to the lassies.  To the lassies!

Kelly:  Ladies, be upstanding for a toast to the laddies.  To the laddies!