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My family has an old saying. It is on the darker side of adages, however over the years I have found it to be disconcertingly true. “You become what you hate.” It is a dark truth which operates within the parameters of classical tragedy. Like an oracle’s haunting words, a monster’s riddle, or an evil god’s curse, it is a difficult (or maybe impossible) to escape from this paradoxical trap.
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I was thinking about this troubling concept because of “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” which has been in today’s news because some sponsors dropped out when “Shakespeare In the Park” performed the play with the Roman depot and senators dressed in the garb of contemporary American politicians. Of course, the play is not about how you should go out and kill tyrants (unlike some state seals, Virginia) instead it shows that when the Republic’s defenders abandoned their rules and morals in order to defend their system from a strongman, they ultimately wound up destroying what they were trying to protect. I am unsurprised that people jumped in to condemn something based on its appearance without thinking about what it really meant. People are fools and don’t read! Except…I haven’t read Julius Caesar myself.
Hate has twisted me into an obscurantist…see how fast the curse takes hold!

Anyway. For 8 years we all watched the tea party and the American right work themselves into a froth of hatred over how President Obama was destroying democracy and diminishing America’s standing in the world. They claimed he spent all of his time golfing and was an agent of foreign powers. They said he undemocratically jammed his health plan down our throats without even really knowing what it would accomplish. They said he was a liar, and a fool and a tyrant. Now those same people control the executive and legislative branches of government and just look at what they are doing with their power!

Lately it has become progressively harder to talk about our elected leaders without frothing at the mouth. What is going to happen the next swing of the pendulum? My mild-mannered friends are transmogrifying into harpies sharpening their poisoned talons. If this keeps up, we are not going to get Joe Biden, or Bernie Sanders…we will end up with Pol Pot.
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But I jumped to the national level too fast in this essay. This is a family saying and it is meant to be applied liberally to the user. I remember when I first moved to New York, my father and alluded to morphing into what you hate, so I cleverly said “Well, I will hate the rich.”

He stopped in his tracks and very seriously said “You don’t hate wealthy you hate the twisted avarice which blinds the greedy to everything but wealth. You hate the conceit and arrogance with which the powerful are inclined to treat the world. If you continue in such a vein you will not be rich…but you will become grasping and mean and angry.” Way to ruin the joke, Dad. Except…
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Years later I was in a business. It gradually became evident that my business partner was an alcoholic who was twisted by greed and rage. (Don’t judge. It was so exciting at the beginning and I got to design beautiful toys…and for a while we sold millions of dollars worth of them…until I asked where all the money was going). After our feud ripped the company apart, I denounced this untrustworthy, drunk, venial lout every day over a dozen beers and a lot of uncivil talk until I noticed myself in a swirling mirror: red-faced, bibulous, and angry about that stupid company and the wealth that should have been mine! mine! mine!

So what is the solution? I suppose the Dali Lama, Yoda, or Saint Veronica would advise us not to hate, but, if you have been watching the news and you have a limbic system, you will recognize that this solution works best for rich monks, alien puppets, and long-dead saints. Instead we must keep thinking! It is easy to become what you hate which is why the Middle East is filled with blood feuds, walled ghettos, military police, and mass graves. Be aware of it. Stay mindful of how you are being manipulated, not just by politicians and the media, but by your own heart and mind. We don’t all need to follow the fringes off into their world of despicable vitriol. Put away your puglias and your sharpened tongues. The mind is sharper than such base implements. We need to think about how to reform the system within the parameters left us by our great founders. We need to take the best, brightest, uncorrupted ideas from both sides and build them into an edifice for everyone. Above all, we need to be honest. Not just about how this era is changing those despicable people on the other side* into hateful strangers but how it is doing the same to us.
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Happy leap day!  Every time one comes around it makes me cast my mind back to where I was on past leap days—grinding through elementary school; about to graduate high school; about to graduate college; working without meaning at a parasitic bank, and so on.  Four years is a convenient marker in human life and there is something memorable about the end of winter as life takes a breath before flinging itself into spring.  However, if you keep leaping back over the century and millennia, eventually the leap years run out.

Prior to Julius Caesar, the Roman calendar was 355 days long.  Following such a calendar for any length of time caused the months to drift out of alignment with the seasons, so the ancient Romans sporadically included a leap month named Mercedonius, or Intercalaris.  Mercedonius, when it happened, was 27 days long and followed February.

February was named for the Latin word februum, which means “purification.”  Romans did not like even numbers (they regarded odd numbers as lucky).  February was the one month of the Roman year with an even number of days and so the Romans thought of the winter month as a time of purification and cleansing.  The Romans did not care for cold dark February, so they made it shorter than all other months—28 days.  Whenever Mercedonius was declared, February became shorter still—shrinking down to 23 days (at least this is probably what happened—contemporary classicists are still arguing about the precise mechanism of the ancient Roman calendar).

The pontifex maximus, the highest Priest of ancient Rome, was responsible for deciding when to insert Mercedonius into the calendar.  Throughout most of the history of Rome this worked well, however it broke down badly at least two times.  During the second Punic War, Roman society was so badly damaged by Hannibal’s invasion that the Romans lost track of Mercedonius and literally did not know what time it was.  After the battle was won, order was restored with the reforms of the Lex Acilia in 191 BC (the nature of which are unknown—but which seem to have solved everything).

"Excuse me, but do you perhaps know today's date?"

The second breakdown occurred during the years of confusion leading up to Julius Caesar’s ascendancy as dictator for life.  The pontifex maximus was inevitably a powerful citizen who was deeply involved in Roman politics.  He could interfere with the length of time other elected officials served by shortening or lengthening the year.  As civil war enveloped Rome, the calendar became a political tool and Romans again lost track of what day it was.  The confusion was only solved when Caesar took supreme office and proclaimed himself pontifex maximus.  He reformed the addled calendar into the Julian calendar, which abolished Mercedonius, the haphazard leap month, forever.

The "Tusculum bust" of Julius Caesar, possibly the only survivng portrait from Caesar's lifetime

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