Happy Juhannus

Celebrate Juhannus 2018
Midsummer celebration, design from finncamp.org

I spent summers as a kid at a place called the Finn Camp in the woods of suburban Detroit. The summer program was swim lessons in the morning, drama rehearsals in the afternoon, saunas on the weekends, and a lot of tag played on and underneath the docks of the lake. At the end of each school year, I lived in great anticipation for the start of all this in mid June, after the solstice party called Juhannus.

Solstice celebrations, which happen between June 19 and 21, are curiously named “Midsummer” events. In the U.S., summer is tightly linked to the school year, and most children’s seasonal school year ends near the beginning of June. So, why isn’t it the Begin Summer celebration?

The summer solstice occurs when the earth’s tilt is at maximum toward the sun in your hemisphere. In the north, we’re as close to the sun as we’re going to get during the year on that day. Daylight will be the longest–maybe you’ve felt the sky lightening earlier in the morning as you get your coffee or seen the sun peeking through the kitchen window long after dinner. After tomorrow, the daylight hours will start getting shorter again. In that sense, you could say that we’re at the “mid” point; the year is all downhill from here.

The Happy 23.44° Tilt

Thank goodness for the tilt, though! Imagine a different planet. The sun rises and sets, but always traces the same arc across the sky. Trees are always green; they don’t lose their leaves and sprout new ones, at least not once a year. No getting warmer or colder. All cold climates would stay that way and probably not harbor humans; hot climates would be perpetual deserts. Humans would live in a very narrow band of latitudes, mostly tropical, fending off insects that don’t ever leave. Even if we survived, our brains would have evolved very differently. What kind of culture would exist with no seasons at all? It would be a lot harder to track changes, harder to tell one year from another. No winter or summer? Something in humanity would rebel at the idea at so little change.

One theory is that the Earth collided with a Mars-sized object in the early solar system which knocked off our Moon and gave Earth its 23.44 degree tilt.  Much obliged, Twin Mars! Half the fun of Christmas is making merry in spite of the cold. Most of the joy in summer is feeling that it will be warm days to come, even if it is the top of the annual roller coaster. The good is sweeter when it comes after some bad.

Trading the Sun with the Animals

About 10,000 years ago, our human ancestors survived by adapting to the changing climate that the seasons brought. They hunkered down and bundled up through winter’s cold and tried to fend off starvation through the late spring, for they were hungriest just before summer. Summer meant the deer returned and the fruit ripened, so it was no wonder they hailed the seasons, especially the beginning of summer. In an excellent book I am currently reading about those early humans, titled Shaman, the tribe celebrates the sound of river ice breaking because it means they will soon eat. One elder tells the story of how seasons were created:

Raven said, we should steal summer from the summer people
Summer is on the other side of the sky
We only have to break through the sky…
So wolverine brought back part of summer to the animal side,
And broke the bag open and all the summer things came out…
So now when the animals have summer,
The people have winter.
–Kim Stanley Robinson, Shaman

It’s not much of a stretch to know that ice melting meant full bellies soon. The shamans could put notches on a stick. Even with primitive accounting, they would notice that the same number of days passed from one year to the next. A few more centuries pass, you raise a few megaliths, put ’em in the circle like a big clock, and when the sun hits the zenith in the sky, everyone can come over to your Stonehenge to celebrate.

Stonehenge solstice
Stonehenge summer solstice 2016, photo at Independent.co.uk

When Exactly Was John Born?

The pre-Christian Europeans celebrated with feasting, special dances, special foods, and lots of rituals. As happened with many pagan festivals, the early Catholic leaders cleverly co-opted the holiday by linking it to a saint. My friend John Q. Wikipedia tells me that the Bible book of Luke mentions that John the Baptist was born roughly six months before Jesus. Thus, the midsummer holidays became the Feast of St. John–Juhannus–Sankthans–Jaanipaev–San Giovanni–Fete de Saint Jean. (The Germans, more practical, just called it Sommersonnenwende which literally means reversal of the sun.)

Now, what month Jesus was actually born in is a bit debatable since, among other reasons, if shepherds were abiding in their flocks by night, it was probably spring lambing season and not December. That would instead put John’s birthday somewhere in September–the equinox? early fall? late middle harvest? not quite lauds? cocktail hour? Who knows? Let’s keep it in June and have a summer party.

As the Council of Nuremberg said, in 1653:

Where experience herefore have shown, that after the old heathen use, on John’s day in every year, in the country, as well in towns as villages, money and wood have been gathered by young folk, and there upon the so-called sonnenwendt or zimmet fire kindled, and thereat winebibbing, dancing about the said fire, leaping over the same, with burning of sundry herbs and flowers, and setting of brands from the said fire in the fields, and in many other ways all manner of superstitious work carried on — Therefore the Hon. Council of Nürnberg town neither can nor ought to forbear to do away with all such unbecoming superstition, paganism, and peril of fire on this coming day of St. John.–Wikipedia

I mean, who wants to pass up a chance for some good winebibbing?

Bones Fire

As the Council of Nuremberg pointed out, a big part of the summer celebration is the bonfire at the end of the feast. At the Finn Camp, the bonfire, which is called the kokko, was (still is) built in a clearing near the lake. the fire was as large as a small house–much bigger than any campfire I’ve ever seen since. I remember in the mid 1970s when they finally had safety regulations (or insurance requirements?) that brought the nearby Wixom Fire Department to stand at the ready. That became extra fun for us kids to climb on the fire truck and talk to the big burly guys in the funny hats. Usually, they surreptitiously sipped a beer with the rest of the adults. There would be music, a lot of jokes, laughing, a little light dancing, but nothing particularly organized. No fire leaping that I can remember.

One reference claims that “bonfire” refers to a good–bon–fire, but I prefer the Wikipedia quote:

…Men waken at even, and maken three manner of fires: one is clean bones and no wood, and is called a bonfire; another is of clean wood and no bones, and is called a wakefire, for men sitteth and wake by it; the third is made of bones and wood, and is called St John’s Fire..

In our American melting pot culture, we downplay the religious holidays (although we do have them), yet we like our summer sunset barbecues, with music and dancing on the grass. Lucky for us, those fellows in Philadelphia all those years ago signed the Declaration of Independence in July.  We call it a patriotic holiday, but it’s really an excuse for a good summer party, especially when the highlight is the fire in the sky.

I went looking at pictures of the Finn Camp Juhannus from recent years, and the pictures look pretty much the same every year, and exactly as I remember it from decades ago. Seasonal celebrations are like that.

Midsummer bonfire
Juhannus bonfire, celebration of midsummer. Photo from finncamp.org

Or, as young Loon says in Robinson’s book:

Same jokes every year, same everything; and that was very, very satisfying.
–Kim Stanley Robinson, Shaman

Clean Winning at the Triple Crown

Justify wins Belmont
Justify winning the Belmont, photo from Foxnews

In the 143 years that the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes have been run, only 13 horses have won all three (9%). Fifty-two horses have won only two of the races; 23 failed the third race. The Belmont is the longest, so a horse that likes the front–like Justify–would have to hold the lead forever after already becoming The Target. Thus, I found myself teary-eyed watching Justify complete the Triple Crown even though we had only just been introduced.

Winning is hard enough when everyone tries equally, but even harder when everyone tries specifically to beat you.

The Lengths That They Must Go

I still remember that other chestnut thoroughbred from 1973. Everyone should watch that Belmont race (thanks, Youtube!). Secretariat was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, although I didn’t know it then. What sticks out is his surge along the back stretch, “Big Red” on his way to winning by 31 lengths. TV cameras couldn’t zoom out as they do now, so as the horse pulls away, the camera has to pan farther and farther right to see the rest of the field.

Secretariat wins the 1973 Belmont
Secretariat winning the Belmont, captured by photographer Bob Coglianese

Triple Crown winners come in spurts. Seven horses won from 1930-45, though a quarter century passed before Secretariat broke the drought. Two more winners followed him in the 1970s, Affirmed and Seattle Slew. Just as viewers started to yawn, another 37-year gap occurred until American Pharoah won in 2015.

Affirmed beating Alydar at Belmong
Alydar losing to Affirmed for the 3rd race of the Triple Crown, AP photo from ThoroughbredRacing.com

Losing by a Nose, Three Times

Affirmed’s feat in 1978 was different from Secretariat’s. All three of Affirmed’s races were close; he beat the same horse, Alydar, three times. At the Belmont,  Alydar almost passed him, and the write-up here described it as one of the closest in history.  Hard to be Affirmed, three times the target–how much harder to be Alydar, just nosed out all three times?  A worthy competitor makes the champion’s achievement almost as remarkable as 31 lengths.


Justify’s lineage includes Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and War Admiral–all Triple Crown winners. Like that other red horse, Justify favors the lead, the worst position for winning any kind of race, since the front-runner can not see the chasers. Justify’s jockey Mike Smith, the oldest to win a Triple Crown, had as much work to keep Justify in front as those who tried to catch him from behind.

Justify wins Kentucky Derby
Justify winning 2018 Kentucky Derby in rain and mud, photo by Wooley

The 2018 Belmont was also a well-contested race, not a runaway by Justify. Gronkowski moved up from a terrible start to almost pull even; there were  huzzahs in our house for the white-cap in second.

Justify after winning Belmont
Justify, winner at the 2018 Belmont over come-from-last-place Bronkowski, still shot from NBCSports

All three races in 2018 were drizzly, with the Derby the wettest in years. Yet Justify’s prowess is seen in the pictures.

He’s the only horse and rider not spattered with mud, a clear, clean winner.



Basketball as Epic

Golden State Warriors artwork battling NBA
NBA Battle from 2018 exhibit Dubz Against the World, drawn by Pzhouart.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
The Odyssey, opening, Fagles translation

The Trojan war lasted nine years, not counting pre-war skirmishes, trade negotiations at Grecian Menelaus’ palace, or the kidnap of Menelaus’ wife Helen by the Trojan prince Paris. The Trojans and the Greeks had a long history. Epic hero Odysseus wandered among the magic isles of the Mediterranean for ten years. Still older Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh spanned decades while the Indian classic epic Mahabharata lasted for generations. So it may seem impudent to talk of a four-year basketball rivalry in the same terms. Yet many parallels lie between sporting events today and the stories of old, and a contest that now covers an unprecedented four meetings could be described in the language of the epic. Continue reading “Basketball as Epic”

A Little Bit Broken

 Author’s Note: Occasionally, readers have wondered whether I might shorten my entries. You have been heard! Starting today, I will alternate my longer essays–roughly every other week–with “Micro” blogs strictly limited to 500 words or less (not counting this author’s note, of course). Usually, I don’t have time to be brief, but today I will make the time. Look for #Micro.

You can’t be a little bit pregnant or a little bit one-legged. However, you can be a little bit tipsy and your things can be a bit worse for wear. Things which become a little bit broken force a choice. Repair or Replace?

Broken china cabinet
Broken window in china cabinet? Repair! Open carefully every single time forever. Photo by kajmeister.

You have to try to repair large pieces of furniture, like china cabinets or desks, when the cracks are small. There is always a little piece of plastic which breaks, rendering all unserviceable.

Curse you, cheap plastic! A tiny drop of Super Glue–correctly applied and cured overnight–may save the day.

My spouse has been on a Not! kick lately, as in Repair, Not Replace! She gallantly spent the three-day weekend swapping out a rubber gasket on the bottom of a leaky toilet. The only plumber interested pushed for an upgraded model ($350). Instead, a $20 trip to Home Depot, an hour viewing EZ Plumbing Hacks, two messy forays underneath the tank, and hey presto! toilet repaired! She looks great in sparkly five-inch heels, too! Continue reading “A Little Bit Broken”

Mare Nostrum IV: Gibraltar–Everyone Wants a Piece of the Rock

…The concept of two pillars, one in the North and another in the South, in those times, would be recognised by all sailors as a religious prohibition, a warning that only the approved might pass between them. The Pillar on the right, sailing out of the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic, Westwards, would be Gibraltar, a grey limestone monolith two miles long and 1380 feet high …The Pillar on the left, on the North African coast would be a lower mountain about 400 feet high, known as Septa… [covered in bushes which] flower yellow in January through to April, presenting the impression of the fiery pillar.
–William Serfaty, The Pillars of the Phoenicians

Macaque at Gibraltar
Straits of Gibraltar, photo by Kallmaker.

Mons Calpe. Pillar of Hercules (Ἡράκλειαι Στῆλαι). Jabar Tariq. What the Neanderthals called it is unknown. The Barbary Macaques–The Rock Apes–don’t tell us their name for it either. Nowadays, most humans call it Gibraltar.

Because of an advertising campaign, Gibraltar has long been associated with safety and security. Getting a “piece of the rock” is connected to insurance which yearns for a boring, uneventful existence. However, assumptions which link Gibraltar and peace are flawed at heart. The Rock has reflected 2.6 square miles of arguments and disputed ownership for much of its human history, especially during the last five centuries. Continue reading “Mare Nostrum IV: Gibraltar–Everyone Wants a Piece of the Rock”