When do we leap and when do we not?

Published 10:48 am Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Column: Tales From Exit 22

Leaping lizards!

Due to the vagaries of the Gregorian calendar, most years that are divisible by four are leap years. In leap years, February has 29 days instead of 28. That’s what mathematicians call “one more.” Adding an extra day to the calendar every four years compensates for 365 days being shorter than a solar year by 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. That’s why solar calendars never caught on. Years that are divisible by 100 are not leap years, unless they are also divisible by 400. The year 2000 was a leap year, but 1900 wasn’t. That seems frightfully unfair, but the calendar was designed to keep the vernal equinox on or close to March 21, so that the date of Easter remains correct with respect to the vernal equinox. Coincidentally, my Uncle Vern drove an Equinox. We called it the Vernal Equinox.

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Because leap years are perceived as unusual events that disturb the orderly progression of time, certain superstitions are attached to them. Like the one claiming that leap years are excellent for important endeavors and business ventures. Leap years, according to folklore, are the only years when women could propose marriage to men. This is termed The Ladies’ Privilege. Some believed that the man had to accept the proposal or give money to the scorned woman.

This is similar to Sadie Hawkins Day, named for a character in Al Capp’s cartoon strip Li’l Abner. Sadie’s father (Hekzebiah Hawkins), a prominent citizen of Dogpatch, worried that his 35-year old daughter, reputed to be “the homeliest gal in the hills,” might never marry. He held a footrace in her name in which women chased the bachelors of Dogpatch with matrimony being the consequence for any man caught.

Many Dogpatch men married fast women. Some schools hold a Sadie Hawkins dance where the girls are expected to ask boys to be their dates. Sadie Hawkins Day is often celebrated in November, because it was during that month when it first appeared in the funny papers. Zsa Zsa Gabor claimed to have proposed to each of her nine husbands, but I doubt she was able to confine all that proposing to Sadie Hawkins Days or even to leap years.

Feb. 29 is perceived as a day that doesn’t belong on the calendar, thus the ordinary rules of conduct don’t apply. We had a 29th of February this year. February is one of the 12 most interesting months of the year. It’s when the groundhog sees its shadow and decides to shed a little weight by Valentine’s Day. It begins chucking wood, a weight loss program that has been around longer than Jenny Craig. If the woodchuck doesn’t see its shadow, it looks for its lost contact lenses.

My wife has already asked me to marry her, so what does an old married guy do when given an extra day other than to wish the day had been added in June instead of February? I believe in carpe diem. Seize the carp. I could have gone to Best Buy and watched TV on all the countless screens there. The problem is that they seldom show anything worth watching there.

Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” but Shakespeare didn’t see the multitude of TV screens at Best Buy. I could have tried to open a consumer product packaged in plastic, but that’s a two-day job.

I spent a slice of the 29th talking with friends who had recently lost loved ones. Grandma contended that people die in threes. I can’t verify that, but we do seem to succumb in bunches.

Folks important to me are dying. Many were ancient when I first knew them in my childhood. They didn’t seem so old at death. I had narrowed the years between us somehow. Life is like driving down a gravel road — one of the washboard variety. You bounce, you rattle, you hit potholes, but you keep going. Knowing good people makes the ride smoother. Encouragers who kept the discouraging words at a minimum gave us the gift of knowing them.

Wakes and funerals are reminders of what is important. They promote memories. I listen to mourners as if their voices are hard to hear. I hope that the deceased individuals heard, while alive, all the nice things said about them after their deaths.

Telling people how much they mean to me is a fine way to spend the 29th of February.

It’s a good way to spend every day.


Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.