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January 19, 2012

From Fly Creek: Now wait a minute!

On the ninth day of Christmas, driving down Cooperstown’s Eagle Street, I saw something  astounding! No, not “nineladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven swans” etc. I saw one jogger jogging. And puffing on a cigarette.

What? No lie, he was  bouncing along at a good clip,hood up and hands in pockets, and exhaling smoke every third step. I didn’t see him flick off the ashes; the bouncing probably took care of that.

But, odds bodkins! What was going on? Physically, that guy was multiplying the effects of his deadly habit at least times two, and probably more. He was breathing fast, and those bellows in his chest were sucking in toxins horrifically.  His heart was thumping,and so the poisons not left to ravage his lungs were pumping through his bloodstream to wreck still more parts of a very susceptible organism: Himself.

Excuse me, but what the hell? Was this a new year’s resolution gone terribly wrong?

Had he resolved to raise a vulgar finger to medicine and common sense, and to let no one push him around?

Good luck, buddy, I say— but people are going to push you around. First it will be in a wheelchair, then on a gurney, then on a morgue tray as you’re slid into cold storage. Oh, and then you’ll be pushed along on that wheeled contraption that folds as it’s slid into the hearse.

Well, good luck to him and God bless. But as I drove on, I wondered what kind of omen might that weird vision have been.

I puzzled over that all through my laps at the Sports Center, and I was still puzzling when I walked into Cooperstown Natural Foods.

“Ellen,” I asked, “Does anyone on staff here interpret omens?”

Ellen laughed, but shared my shock when I told her what I’d seen. “Maybe,” she offered, “he’s rationalizing that the jogging cancels out the smoking. People do such things.”

Indeed we do. I didn’t tell Ellen that I sometimes drink fat-free milk with a thick wedge of pie for that very reason. But then another explanation arose.

Maybe he’s taken the “end of the world in 2012” stuff seriously and figures he’s got nothing to lose.

Well, that made sense. My old boss at the college, bless him, went cold turkey on smoking and succeeded. But years afterward he was still saying that, if he got a terminal disease, he’d head right out to buy some Lucky Strikes, unfiltered.

But, poor jogger! If he’s banking on the world ending this year, he’s caught in a net of miscalculations. Even if the Mayans (and I forget whoever else) were right, our calling this particular year “2012” is purely arbitrary. What! Yes. Large parts of our reckoning of time are purely human creations, and purely arbitrary.

Not so the solar year, of course; and not so lunar months. Those were occurring long before there were humans to note them — and, eventually, to start assigning numbers and names to them. And so it was with days: darkness followed light and light followed darkness for eons before we dust mites tried to harness them with language. Troubles started to arise with the numbering of years.

(And later trouble arose with attempts to regularize each “moonth” so that 12 of them fit neatly into a year.) Earlier peoples simply numbered their years against the time when a particular monarch came to power. You can check the Gospels and see both Mark and Matthew attempting to do just this with the birth of Jesus. These days, most biblical scholars put the birth of Christ at 4 BC. That raises hob with numbering our years Anno Domini, since  by that base number, this yearis 2016. (Somebody tell that jogger!)

Things got more complicated.  Julius Caesar, feelinghis oats as Roman emperor, established his own calendar. That Julian calendar, flawed in many ways, limped along  until 1582 when Gergory XIII,feeling his own oats as pope, decided to set things straight. Part of his reform was to skip ten days as numbered by the Julian calendar to get the date March 21 onto the actual vernal equinox day.

Oh, but by 1582 much of Europe had turned Protestant, and those countries chose to ignore a new calendar for decades, sticking with the Julian model. For those decades, most people were doubledating documents, using both calendars.

By 1650 the confusion of double-dating had become so bad that the British Parliament took the situation in hand for Great Britain and its colonies. (That included us.) A series of 1752 calendar adjustments finished up with the day after 1752’s Sept. 2 being declared Sept. 14.

Our George Washington, a Virginian and British subject, was caught straddle-legged by the change. He was born on Feb. 11, 1731; but after 1752, he had been born on Feb. 22. Now, did that add a dozen days to his life or subtract them? Don’t ask me; such questions make my head hurt. But the answer is, of course, neither. Assigning years arbitrary numbers doesn’t change their nature. Time is time, whatever clock face you tack on it.

And so anyone worrying about the dire significance of 2012 had better ease off. Even if we ignore all the calendar jiggling over the centuries, best evidence these days says that Anno Domini was 4 BC. Too late, then, to worry about 2012; that was four years ago. And so much for all the sound and fury about Y2K — remember that? That time we were sweating over a calamity that hadn’t happened four years earlier.

Well, if you’re driving through Cooperstown and see that benighted jogger, please stop your car. Get out and trip him, stamp out his cigarette,  and set him straight on what year of his life this is.

And tell him that the days of our lives, however we number them, are precious gifts. They’re only lent to us, and they’re not ours to throw away.

Then get quickly back into your car before he’s on his feet again.

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