Summer solstice

Many calendars and almanacs label today, the day of the summer solstice as the “first day of summer.” In the United States, the beginning of summer is observed Memorial Day weekend and the end of summer comes on Labor Day weekend. Even weather forecasters now assign the term “summer” to the dates June 1—August 31, making the seasons match the months on the calendar. Few of us really treat the solstice as summer’s beginning. For William Shakespeare, the solstice marked Midsummer-Night. But the summer solstice has never inspired the celebration and festivity given to the winter solstice at the end of December.

I recently wrote a chapter for an upcoming book to be called “Murphy’s Gremlins.” In this chapter, which talks about time and seasons, I remark that our Creator is not obsessive or compulsive about time. The book of Genesis says that God created the sun and the moon to mark days and years and seasons. After the flood, God also promised a continuing cycle of planting and harvest, day and night, summer and winter. But an OCD Creator would have timed the earth’s journey around the sun for an exact number of days—probably 360 days. Such a Creator would have timed the moon’s journey around the earth and the completion of its cycle of phases for an exact number of days—probably thirty days. We would live with twelve months of thirty days in a year of 360 days and never have days left over. But God did not create that way.

Instead, the earth’s journey around the sun is roughly—not exactly, mind you, but only roughly—365 ¼ days. The moon’s journey around the earth takes between 28 and 29 days, and its passage through its phases requires a day or two more. Many cultures, including the Hebrew, the Chinese, the Arabic, and the Roman (during the Republic) began a new month with each new moon—as soon as the crescent of the moon can be seen in the sky, it is the first day of the month. At the end of the Republic, though, Julius Caesar mandated a calendar that contained twelve months but ignored the moon. Caesar also added a day to the calendar every fourth year to keep seasons from slipping away from solstices and equinoxes. It took centuries for the Julian calendar to slip; Julius Caesar may not have expected his calendar to be used for such a long time. Pope Gregory revised the Julian calendar to accommodate the reality that the earth’s journey around the sun is only roughly 365 ¼ days. It took a long time for other parts of the world to adjust to the new Gregorian calendar.

Some annual observances rely on a lunar calendar that predates the Julian Calendar. Passover, Israel’s memory of its escape from Egypt, is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month of spring—the fourteenth day being the night of the full moon. Christian observances of Easter and related holidays also are set according to the first full moon after the spring equinox. Muslim holidays and Chinese holidays are likewise set by the lunar calendar

But other observances follow the Julian-Gregorian calendar. Christians observe Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, on December 25, no matter what the moon is doing. Some people claim that Christians chose that date because of non-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice. They wanted faithful Christians to have a reason to celebrate at the same time. The date may also have been chosen through a faulty reading of Luke’s Gospel. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was burning incense in the Temple in Jerusalem when the angel Gabriel told Zechariah that Zechariah and his wife would have a son. Thinking that Zechariah was high priest and that his burning of incense was part of the Day of Atonement (which happens around the autumn equinox), they calculated that Zechariah’s son (John the Baptist) was born nine months later. Since the announcement of Christ’s coming birth came when Elizabeth (Zechariah’s wife) was in her sixth month of pregnancy, the same scholars marked the announcement by Gabriel to Mary around the spring equinox and the birth nine months later, just after the winter solstice.

On Christian calendars, the birthday of John the Baptist is observed on June 24, just after the summer solstice. But, unlike Christ’s birthday, John’s birthday is not such a big deal. Summer solstice observances have always paled in comparison to winter solstice festivities. Especially in the United States, the summer solstice has disappeared as a holiday. We begin summer at the end of May and conclude it at the start of September. In between, our biggest celebration is Independence Day, the Fourth of July, a mere two weeks after the solstice. Our enthusiasm and energy is saved for that occasion.

Seasons change. Days and months and years run their course. Solstices and equinoxes take place on schedule, as do all our man-made holidays and observances. But for those who care (if there be any out there), a joyous summer solstice to you all. J.

No need to jump, part two

I have found a way to work my latest story idea into a long-standing unfinished novel that has been brewing for roughly thirty years. The main character, Roger Sorenson, will be the poisoning victim I mentioned in my last post. The story begins with his death and the beginning of the police investigation. It then jumps backward in time to the beginning of his relationship with Rose Gardner, his ex-wife who is a suspect in his murder.

Ernest Gardner had nothing in his life but his business and his family, and long ago he combined the two into one. His wife is long-gone, but all three of his daughters—Rose, Lily, and Violet—work at his florist shop. (Those names may be too cute, but for the time being they will work as place-holders.) Ernest’s florist shop is no small business at one end of a strip mall, ordering produce from chain suppliers. The shop occupies most of a city block, complete with greenhouses, showrooms, and office space. Ernest inherited the business before he was married, and his daughters have grown up with the business. Violet is still in school, but she works in the shop evenings and weekends. Lily is a full-time worker in the greenhouses. Rose, the eldest, has taken business classes and earned a degree; she is the company bookkeeper for Ernest’s shop.

For several years, Ernest has hired a student or two from the university across town to assist in the office with clerical work. He has never hinted this thought to any of his clerks or to any of his daughters, but at the back of his mind Ernest is always hoping to create a match. He would like to find a husband for his daughters, an educated man, but a man willing to take an interest in the family business. Rose is old enough and set in her ways; Ernest doubts at this point that any romantic match will come her way. Lily and Violet seem more eligible matches for the young men Ernest hires. Rose is strong-willed, firm in her opinions, and confident in her abilities. (Shakespeare may have helped a tiny bit to invent this character and her situation.)

Roger Sorenson is this year’s clerk. He is finishing his classwork to earn a doctorate in Philosophy. He has already begun contemplating the topic of his thesis. Most of his mind is focused on his schoolwork, but he appreciates the extra income from the clerk’s position. Moreover, Roger is a quick learner. In a few weeks he learned the basic tasks in the florist business; not only can he handle office paperwork, but he is also capable of serving in the shop, waiting on customers.

One day, when Roger and Rose are in the shop, a man enters and attempts an armed robbery. Roger heroically protects Rose from harm and disarms the robber, but not before Roger is injured. (I have fantasized this event in many ways over the years; the details will not be hard to write.) Because all his family is out of town, Roger is welcomed into the Gardner household to continue his recovery once he is released from the hospital. Rose is at his side as often as her schedule allows. Romance and marriage will follow.

Since Roger is studying philosophy, he will have many opportunities during his convalescence to explain the workings of philosophy to a skeptical Rose. To show the value of his discipline, Roger will begin with aesthetics—the question of what things are beautiful, and why. Rose must analyze flowers and flower arrangements according to structured thought rather than intuitive design. From that beginning, Rose will also learn about ethics and finally about the eternal questions regarding the universe—what is real, and how do we know? These questions become increasingly important as the accused robber and his friends present a version of what happened that fateful day in the shop which is dramatically different from the event as Roger and Rose remember it.

A jury hears the evidence, including the conflicting testimony, and it convicts the robber of attempted murder. He spends the next several years in prison, learning from his fellow prisoners about crime, making connections with other members of the local criminal community. His release from prison happens only a few weeks before Roger receives the package of poisoned candy. By this time, Roger and Rose have been married and divorced. Did she send him the candy, or was she framed by the man who once threatened her with a gun? Will the truth ever be found?

This story permits the insertion of various explanations of philosophy and its applications to contemporary life. One version or another of this book has been in my mind for many years. Like me, Roger Sorenson is a Christian, a fan of Kierkegaard, and an avid reader of western civilization’s classic works. Can he share this passion with Rose, or will the Great Thoughts be the nemesis of their relationship? J.

She speaks, yet she says nothing–what’s with that?

Language is a strange and wonderful thing. Whereas Pythagoras believed that reality at its most basic level consists of numbers, the Bible reports that God spoke the universe and all that it contains into existence. Moreover, when the Son of God entered creation to redeem and rescue it from evil, one of his followers identified him as “the Word” and wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

On the other hand, when a group of people defied God and sought to build a tower as a symbol of their defiance, God overturned their rebellion by causing them to speak different languages. Humble and loving people could have overcome this opposition by learning to communicate with one another, but arrogant people like the tower-builders each insisted that he or she was speaking the only proper language and that those who spoke another language were wrong. As a result, the tower was never built.

Since that time, languages have changed, mixed, spread, and in some cases disappeared. English is largely a blend of Germanic and Latin vocabulary and grammar, with some Celtic and other influences stirred into the mix as well. As a result of that mixture and of centuries of change, English contains many mysteries, such as the contradictory pronunciation of the words “tough,” “though,” “through,” and “thought.” New words regularly appear. The word “inflammable” means “likely to burst into flame.” At some point in the twentieth century, someone feared that people would misunderstand the word “inflammable” and shortened it to “flammable.” Now both words are in the dictionary, with identical meanings, even though it appears they should be antonyms rather than synonyms.

A friend of mine thought she could obtain an easy A in high school by taking classes in Spanish. After all, she spoke Spanish at home with her family every day. To her disappointment, she discovered that speaking Spanish at home was not the same as understanding Spanish. Her grammar was not up to her teacher’s standards, her spelling was incorrect, and her vocabulary was smaller than she realized. Getting a good grade in her own language turned out to be far more difficult than she had expected.

This week another blogger took me to task for referring to the meaning of the Greek prefix “anti” in the title “antichrist.” In the Greek of the New Testament, as written in the first century A.D., the prefix “anti” means “taking the place of,” not so much “in opposition to,” as it signifies in contemporary English. The blogger’s rebuttal of my comment surprised me so much that I did not respond, and now it’s water under the bridge, too late for a meaningful discussion. If I offended anyone by seeming too proud of my knowledge of Biblical Greek, I apologize. But the blogger’s suggestion that knowing Greek and Hebrew are not helpful for understanding the Bible carries things a bit too far.

On the one hand, to learn the commandments of God and to see that we have not kept those commandments does not require any knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. The English translations convey that message quite well. To recognize Jesus as the Son of God who redeems and rescues sinners through his sinless life and sacrificial death also requires no special language skills. Once again, the translated Bible conveys that message effectively. To know of his victorious resurrection, his guarantee of eternal life in a new creation, and his ongoing presence in this world also requires no Greek or Hebrew studies. In this case also, the basic message is communicated flawlessly in any translation of the Bible.

Anyone who presumes to teach others about the Bible should go beyond these basics. Even if he or she does not learn to read Hebrew and Greek fluently, he or she at least should be capable of consulting reference books on the Bible and understanding their application. Not only does the Bible need to be translated from ancient languages into contemporary languages; information about the cultures in which the Bible was written needs to be learned as well. Misunderstandings of certain verses and conflicts between different interpretations of the Bible are reduced (but, alas, in a sin-stained world, not eliminated) by consulting the Bible in its original languages and contexts rather than trusting contemporary translations to convey the full meaning and nuance of each word, each sentence, and each paragraph.

The other blogger mentioned a case in which a man from Athens corrected a preacher who referred to some Greek word or phrase from the New Testament. Because no details were included, I cannot tell whether the preacher was truly in error or if the preacher was kind and polite enough not to insist to the man from Athens that the preacher was correct in his interpretation. Consider a similar scenario: a person in France has studied Elizabethan English in order to understand the plays of Shakespeare. Now this French person is teaching a class on Shakespeare. A man from North Carolina challenges the teacher’s explanation of a certain line, insisting that he has spoken English all his life and is better qualified to explain Shakespeare than anyone who grew up in France. (By the way, Andy Griffith performed a wonderful routine about Romeo and Juliet in which, when Juliet exclaims, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefor art thou Romeo?” and Romeo responds, in a thick Carolina accent, “Why I’m right here.”)

A Cuban-born woman once asked me the rule for when the letter t should be pronounced like a d in English. Until that time I had not noticed how often Americans pronounce ts as ds. Say the sentence “I wrote a letter to my sister” with crisp ts and notice how odd it sounds. But if a rule exists about when ts sound like ds, I’ve never learned it. By the same token, Spanish speakers often distinguish “b as in burro” and “v as in vaca” because their bs and vs sound the same.

Language is a strange and wonderful thing. When we think casually about communication, we tend to think of a single message being sent from one person to another. But there are several versions of each message: the version the creator intended, the version actually produced, and the version received by the audience. To further complicate matters, there is the actual creator and the creator assumed by the audience, as well as the actual audience and the audience assumed by the creator. When carefully studying a message, all these versions and participants must be kept in mind. It’s a wonder that two of us can communicate at all in this crazy world. J.

Five stages of waking up

Some people greet each day with a smile. They open their eyes and thank God for another day to be alive. They consider themselves blessed to be able to get out of bed once again and get started on a brand new day—the first day of the rest of their lives, they say.

Others do not wake so quickly and easily. Leaving bed is a chore and a burden. The new day holds no promise of good things to come. They would prefer to delay its beginning for a while.

In fact, recent studies have shown that the second group of people goes through five stages while waking and getting out of bed. They may not experience them in the same way, to the same degree, or even in the same order. Still, the pattern is regular enough to be described. The five stages of waking are anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

ANGER: That blasted alarm clock! Why does it have to be so loud and so early? If the alarm clock is not to blame, if the sun is shining through the window or the birds are singing, the anger is no less. And if waking is due to the neighbor mowing, the anger is all the greater.

DENIAL: It’s not morning, not yet. Someone has made a mistake. I set the alarm clock for the wrong time. And what business does anyone have getting up so early in the day? I need sleep more than I need to get up and get anything done this morning.

BARGAINING: This is why snooze buttons were invented. Just ten minutes more in bed, or maybe just five minutes. (I learned in college—without the help of professors or textbooks—the dangers of denial and bargaining when combined with a snooze button. For this reason, I always place the alarm clock across the room from the bed. I cannot switch it off before my feet have touched the floor.)

DEPRESSION: I’ll just stay in bed. The rest of the world can get through the day without me. I have nothing positive to contribute. Sleep is the only thing I’m good at. (This is no joke. People battling depression report that getting out of bed is the hardest task of the day. Counseling, awareness, and—in some cases—medication can be helpful in this regard.)

ACCEPTANCE: In most cases, the anger and denial and bargaining and depression are swallowed by the real need to start the day. The bedcovers are pushed back, the feet hit the floor, and its on to the bathroom to start the routine: brush teeth, shower, comb hair, get dressed, and whatever else needs to be done before breakfast and the first mug of coffee.

Lest perchance thou dost believe that I am inventing all these stages out of thin air, consider how William Shakespeare depicted them (although not in the proper order) in Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 5:

 

JULIET (Denial)

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

That pierc’d the fearful hollow of thine ear;

Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.

Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

ROMEO (acceptance, depression)

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,

No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks

Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

JULIET (denial, bargaining)

Yond light is not day-light, I know it, I;

It is some meteor that the sun exhal’d

To be to thee this night a torch-bearer

And light thee on thy way to Mantua.

Therefore stay yet, thou need’st not to be gone.

ROMEO (denial, bargaining)

Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death,

I am content, so thou wilt have it so.

I’ll say yon grey is not the morning’s eye,

’Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow;

Nor that is not the lark whose notes do beat

The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.

I have more care to stay than will to go.

Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.

How is’t, my soul? Let’s talk, it is not day.

JULIET (anger, depression, acceptance)

It is, it is! Hie hence, be gone, away!

It is the lark that sings so out of tune,

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.

Some say the lark makes sweet division;

This doth not so, for she divideth us.

Some say the lark and loathed toad change eyes;

O now I would they had chang’d voices too,

Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,

Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day.

O now be gone, more light and light it grows.

ROMEO (depression)

More light and light, more dark and dark our woes!

 

 

E for effort

Leave it to college students to discover a new approach to higher education.

I was visiting with some students in a classroom one evening this week. One student described a video he had recently watched (presumably on YouTube) which demonstrated that contemporary education is failing because it is built on a social model that is obsolete. I replied that efforts to reform and restructure education have been around since the 1960s. Another student then remarked, “Why should a person have to take algebra in college if that person is going to be an artist and will never use algebra?”

“The usual answer,” I replied, “is that studying algebra develops thinking skills that are used in a lot of areas other than mathematics.”

The first student then said that education should be more career-oriented. The students were careful not to use history as an example—I am their history instructor—but the students did mention classes they are required to take that have no use in most careers. “The usual answer to that,” I said, “is that education includes more than learning how to do a certain job. Students need to learn how to make a living, but they also need to be exposed to various things that make living worth-while.”

A couple other students nodded. “But why should they have to pass those classes?” the second student asked. “Being exposed to other things is good, but—as long as they come to class and do the work—why should they need to pass the class or take it again if they didn’t pass?”

“That,” I told him, “is a very good point.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation for a while. A high school graduate should be able to do basic computation—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. He or she should be capable of giving correct change, balancing a checkbook, and filling out a simple tax form. A high school graduate should be able to communicate—to read, to write, and to speak in public. Beyond that, a high school graduate should be exposed to science, to history, and to the fine arts—visual arts, music, literature, and drama. It’s best for a high school graduate to have skills in some vocation, especially if that graduate does not plan to continue on to college. For that matter, all those things are true of a college graduate. Each college student should go deeper into his or her chosen field while at college, while also being exposed to a range of experiences from the sciences, the fine arts, and the liberal arts.

But why should they have to pass the classes not related to their major or career?

We already have a grading system perfect for this change, since grades are assigned as A, B, C, D, or F (for failure). Why not add an E for effort? If a professor or instructor perceives that a certain student is trying his or her best in the class but just not getting it, why not give that student an E? Those who don’t show up for classes and don’t turn in assignments would still receive the F, but the student who tries to comprehend algebra or history or chemistry or music appreciation and fails should be given some credit for his or her effort. After all, the object of education is to expose the students to various facets of life. That object has been achieved. Why demand that the student take the class again, when that will only sour the student upon the subject matter, reversing the point of that exposure?

This idea would suit high school and undergraduate college work. Elementary students are still mastering basic skills, so an E for effort would not be appropriate at that age. Likewise, graduate students are focusing on deeper and narrower aspects of their chosen specialty, so an E for effort would be pointless. Honors students would not be allowed to accept an E, nor would an E be given for a class in the student’s major or minor department. In all other cases, though, whether the class is required for all students or chosen as an elective, if the subject has no bearing on the student’s career or personal interests, why not leave the teacher the option of awarding an E?

An E would not enter into a student’s grade point average. That average would reflect only the student’s basic skills in computation and communication, as well as the student’s mastery of knowledge and application relevant to his or her career. The artist would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to master algebra. The engineer would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to understand Shakespeare. But the artist was exposed to algebra, and the simple effort to handle it enriched his or her thinking skills. The engineer was exposed to Shakespeare, and he or she may return to Shakespeare’s work later in life with a better opportunity to understand and enjoy that work.

What do you think? Should high school and college teachers be permitted to grant their students an E for effort? Why or why not? J.