Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
Wake me when it's over
When the great sun has turned his face away,
The earth goes down into a vale of grief,
And fasts, and weeps, and shrouds herself in sables,
Leaving her wedding-garlands to decay --
Then leaps in spring to his returning kisses."
This first month of the Gregorian calendar is a time for reflection, self-flagellation and cynicism. It is the nadir of the solar year and the emotional equivalent of the basement level in the underground parking lot of life. January is named after a feckless Roman god named Janus -- the god of all passages. Literally translated, he is the god of doors and gates. We essentially named the first month of the year after a guy who stands with a clipboard and velvet rope deciding which of us gets to go through into the new year. As jobs go on Mt. Olympus, being an immortal doorman was not the best assignment. You could be responsible for oceans like Neptune or the underworld like Hades -- where there were very good parties and no supervision. Personally, I admire the lesser known gods like Lecheros who was the god of Greek fitness instructors.
Yet, I identify with Janus. I imagine him as some overweight, smart ass who sat at the back of Zeus' lectures and passed notes to Eros in hopes that she might agree to go out on a date with him. There were no mirrors in Janus' house and a garden filled with roaming laughing hyenas. He thought he was funny. Who knows, perhaps after her 10th consecutive rejection (Eros was dating the war-like Mercury because he had biceps and a fast car), Janus made a flip remark about Zeus looking a little "prosperous" in his tunic. "Has our divine father violated the laws of moderation or is has he sat on Gaul by mistake?"
The next thing he knows, Janus is handing out hand towels in the Mt. Olympus bathroom. After a millennia of squeezing soap into the hands of Hades and Apollo, Janus is immortalized as the Father of January responsible for the first 31 days of the year. In the Northern hemisphere, this assignment is clearly a punishment. South of the equator, it is a pretty good gig -- especially Jan. 1 in Rio.
A northern longitude January is not a time to be a mammal. As warm-blooded, propagating, card-carrying primates, we were designed to be dormant creatures in winter. It is our genetic predisposition to gorge on fatty, high-carbohydrate foods, eat take-out, and then root around for warm, dark places to hibernate. Some mammals choose to hibernate symbolically eschewing social engagements and hiding out under generous oversized winter clothing. Others retreat into mahogany cocoons of work.
It is a fact that our brain chemistry changes with the lack of winter light. We become irritable and restless. Sleep eludes us. Our dopamine and serotonin receptors begin to flicker. Our brains become a rolling brown-out of highs and lows as we grow desperate for a 12-hour day of sun and the green grass of spring.
The first month of the year can be an endless squall line of Alberta clipper storm systems surging down from the Great Lakes that pull in moisture from the South -- producing snow and myriad reasons to be lethargic. Lethargy and self-pity are two overly criticized attributes that can help even the most selfless among us turn into an effective whiner and complainer. Janus intended to have this effect on us. If he had to guard all doors and public bathrooms, no one was going to be very happy in his month.
He decided January would be a time for remorse, resolutions and a mounting physical and emotional pressure to change -- preferably into a Greek god of war with a pimped-out V12 car. It would be up to us as mere mortals to float above our weaknesses, fueled by the hot air and methane of good intentions, poor digestion and self-loathing.
A few brave souls seek to defy the laws of hibernation and embrace January. They firmly rest their hands on their hips, throw their heads back and offer the God Janus their most indignant pirate laugh. These mockers of the Janus own an entire super hero wardrobe of spandex, Gortex, okaytex, Under Armour, and polypro clothing. They have snow shoes, ice axes, crampons, cross-country skis, snow skis, ice fishing shacks, snow sleds, snow mobiles and snow saws for building igloos. These hardy souls secretly want to hit a patch of black ice, skid into a ditch and use all their survival training until they are rescued and offered an opportunity to be featured on "I Shouldn't Be Alive." These winter-lovers are perpetually happy. While you are scrawling "I hate winter" on the frosted mirror of your bathroom that never heats up, these psychotic winter sprites are outdoors shoveling snow or preparing for a Polar Bear plunge in Long Island Sound.
The Saxons referred to January as "Wulf-monath," the month of the wolf. Others considered it "the month of ice." It is acknowledged in the U.S. as national "Thank You" month as in "thank you sir may I have another." I am sure we now have a "Thank You" czar, although no one can actually locate him to officially thank him for these 31 days of night.
The month has a bad track record in history. Instead of hibernating and laying low, mankind feels the need to betray its instincts and crawl out of hibernation. The need to get a head start on the Gregorian calendar has caused many well-intentioned world leaders and brain surgeons to move across a denuded landscape of poor choices to influence the trajectory of a new year.
In 1644, Brit Guy Fawkes was convicted of attempting to blow up Parliament. It seems dissatisfaction with a two-party system and government waste traces its roots well beyond the 112th Congress. Brits celebrate Fawkes birthday to this day but they have chosen November. The Brits adopted Guy Fawkes Day as they are war-like people and never pass up burning something in effigy. They also got cheated out of Thanksgiving and felt they needed some kind of mini-break as there were no bank holidays left before Christmas.
Fast forward to January 1862, when the first income tax was proposed of 3 percent on incomes above $600 increasing up to 5 percent for incomes up to $10,000. I mean, really. As if fighting the Civil War was not enough, you tax us as we die in battle.
In 1874, New York City annexed the Bronx. Enough said.
In 1899, the U.S. liberated Cuba from Spain, presumably to gain access to some better public beaches. However, they failed to outlaw people wearing berets on the boardwalk which was our undoing.
Leaping ahead to 1945, January was the month where France was admitted to the United Nations as an antacid to offset the heartburn of growing American hegemony. France actually nominated Russia the following month but could not convince people that if allowed to join the UN, the Russians would bathe more and only invade countries with names that ended in a vowel.
In 1946, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced he was not a god. He was actually a pauper named Ichiro Kawasaki who had agreed to switch places with the real emperor who was determined to abdicate his royal role to open a sushi bar in Soho.
In 1950, Ho Chi Minh began a campaign to rid the French from Indochina. Earlier in the month, President Eisenhower, suffering from a prostate infection, is misunderstood during a meeting with the coalition French president, Georges Bidault. As Bidault presses Eisenhower to renege on our commitments to Ho Chi Minh (who fought side by side with us against the Japanese) and support reintroducing French colonialism back into Vietnam, Eisenhower confides to an aide that he must go "wee." Bidualt is overcome with gratitude assuming the American president has just consented, saying "oui." The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1959, Fidel Castro leads Cuban revolutionaries to victory over Fulgencio Batista and closes all public beaches and mafia owned casinos. The Kennedy family fumes over unreimbursed hotel deposits and vows revenge.
In 1978, The Sex Pistols performed their last concert at Winterland in San Francisco. History as we know it, essentially ended on that January when nihilistic Sid Vicious hung up his angry guitar. A year later he was dead of an overdose.
January has its high points with the Rose Parade in Pasadena (isn't California in the Southern hemisphere?) We do have football playoffs, the return of the pro bowling tour and the reconvening of Congress. Fortunately February does arrive faithfully with perfumed promises of Valentines and better days ahead.
Personally, I think we should be allowed to sleep the entire month of January. The world would perhaps be better off if we could deploy the Vonnegut "night canopies," hibernate and wait until longer days restore our sanity and replenish the chemicals that fire our neurotransmitters. A little dopamine and a little less dopiness could make all the difference.
Hold my calls. I'm going to go lie down.