January 31 – Happy Birthday, Jackie Robinson

Posted on January 31, 2014

Jackie Robinson is one of the most famous baseball players in history.

For one thing, he was really good. In ten seasons, he played in six World Series, and he contributed to the Dodgers' 1955 World Championship. He was selected six years in a row to play on the All Stars, and he got the first MLB Rookie of the Year Award and a National League Most Valuable Player Award. He was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame.

Another reason Robinson is so famous is because he broke the “color barrier.” Before Robinson signed on with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the National League had no black players; black baseball players were consigned to the “Negro leagues.”

And Jackie Robinson lived in the town I grew up in, Pasadena, California, from age one until he he went away to college at UCLA. He attended the same high school as my sister (but years and years before she did, of course), and he attended the same junior college as my parents!

Of course Robinson faced racism and discrimination. I always assumed he was one of those guys who let all that stuff roll off his back – I thought that was maybe why he was the one chosen to break the color barrier – but in fact, Robinson was assertive in the face of racism. As a young man, he had a few run-ins with police officers; for example, Robinson once spoke up for a black friend who was being detained by police for no apparent reason. Robinson's questioning of the officers resulted in him being arrested and getting a two-year suspended sentence. Later, while Robinson was in the U.S. Army during World War II, he boarded a military-commissioned bus line that was supposed to be integrated. The bus driver, though, asked Robinson to sit in the back. Robinson refused, and the bus driver had military police take him into custody. Robinson told the investigating duty officer that the questions he and his assistant were asking were racist, and eventually Robinson had to face court martial hearings for “insubordination during questioning.” It's a good thing that he was found innocent by a panel of nine officers (who were all white, by the way), but the hearings alone were enough to derail his military career.

Pro Ball

I didn't know that Robinson first tried pro ball in football. When World War II interrupted his football career before it hardly began, he ended up going into baseball. He played in the Negro leagues but wanted to play in the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, the first tryout he attended, for the Boston Red Sox, was a farce; instead of having an actual chance at a spot on the team, the tryout was designed to humiliate Robinson and the other black players who tried out.

Branch Rickey from the Brooklyn Dodgers chose Robinson (even though he wasn't the best player in the Negro leagues) to join his club and break the color barrier. But Rickey asked Robinson to face the racial slurs and hate speech that would surely be hurled at him without “rising to the bait,” without fighting back. Rickey asked Robinson to turn the other cheek.

Once Robinson made that commitment, he became a part of the Dodgers' farm club, the Royals, and soon, in 1947, he was called up to the Big Leagues. Of course, there were a lot of problems. Hotel owners and Parks and Public Property directors stood in the way of integrated games. Some Dodger players hinted that they would rather sit out than to play with a black man. Some players on opposing teams complained about having to play with him, or even threatened to go on strike. Some of the ballplayers and managers called Robinson racial epithets.

And I'm sure you've heard or figured out that some baseball fans yelled all sorts of ugly words at Robinson. He also received hateful hate mail like these anonymous, cowardly notes.

But there was also a lot of positive attention, too. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher said that he didn't care if a player was yellow or black or striped like a zebra; if he said that player was in the game, he was in the game. Many white players and newspaper reporters thought that integrating baseball was great. Robinson's teammate Pee Wee Reese said, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” And Reese showed physical support by putting his arm around Robinson when people were yelling racial slurs at him.

I was surprised to read that a 1947 poll (taken the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier) picked Robinson as #2 most popular man in the United States, behind only Bing Crosby.

And of course since then his awards and recognition, his legacy and legend, have only grown!

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January 30 – Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution

Posted on January 30, 2014

Today we honor Fred Korematsu for saying “No.”

These horse stalls were used
for temporary internment.
Of U.S. citizens.
Who had broken no laws.
The United States did a horrifying thing in the wake of the also-horrifying Pearl Harbor attack. Because the U.S. was attacked by Japan, and was then at war with Japan, it rounded up more than 110,000 Japanese Americans – most of them U.S. citizens, many of them people who had never even been to Japan – just in case they were disloyal or Japanese spies. People lost their homes, their businesses, many of their possessions. They were imprisoned in “War Relocation Camps,” more commonly referred to as internment camps.

Eventually, American presidents and governmental commissions decided that the internment was wrong. Eventually, it was decided that the denial of U.S. citizens of their property and their rights was done on the basis of "race prejudice” and “war hysteria” – and internment survivors and their heirs were awarded more than $1.6 billion in reparations.

So let's get back to Fred Korematsu. He was born here in he U.S., in Oakland, California, on this date in 1919. When Pearl Harbor was attacked and war broke out between the U.S. and Japan, Korematsu was rejected by the U.S. Navy because he had stomach ulcers. So he became a welder so he could help with the defense effort by working in a shipyard.

One day he found that he was fired because he was “a Jap,” and therefore couldn't be trusted. Korematsu got another job, but was fired a week later when the owner of the company realized that somebody had hired “a Jap.”

Shortly after losing all employment, the order came that all people “of Japanese descent” report to Assembly Centers so that they could be organized and sent away to camps. Korematsu took the extreme action of having plastic surgery on his eyelids in the hopes of looking like a white man, changing his name, and NOT complying with the order.

But someone recognized him as being Japanese, and Korematsu found himself arrested. The ACLU approached Korematsu and asked if he would stand trial as a test of the legality of the Japanese American internment, and Korematsu agreed. He lost in court, appealed the decision, lost again, and spent most of the war in prison and in an internment camp in Utah. Many people, including many Japanese American people, disdained Korematsu for his opposition to the government. Some of the Japanese Americans had cooperated in hopes that they were proving their loyalty to the U.S. in so doing – and they found Korematsu's opposition threatening to those hopes. So Fred Korematsu felt as alone surrounded by other wronged Japanese Americans as he did in prison.

When the war and the internment were over, Korematsu continued to oppose the very real discrimination against Japanese Americans. And he widened his scope and began to speak out against all racism.

Vindicated at last!

Finally, in 1983, Fred Korematsu's conviction was overturned in court after he gave a stirring and powerful speech as his ending statement. Some people in the courtroom likened that speech to Martin Luther King's famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1998 President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S. He also was awarded several other more local honors, including being Grand Marshal of a parade and having an elementary school and a street named after him.

In 2001, after the tragic attack we call 9/11, Korematsu spoke out against U.S. governmental actions against people of Middle Eastern descent. He warned that what happened to his people should never happen to anyone again, and he warned against acting against a race or religion or ethnicity because of fear.

Until his death in 2005, at age 86, Korematsu continued to work on civil rights, serving on the Constitution Project, speaking out, and writing amicus briefs for court cases.

On September 23, 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that designates today as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.

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January 29 – National Curmudgeons Day

Posted on January 29, 2014

I find it hard to believe that people want to celebrate grumpiness—but, let's face it, sometimes we all feel a bit down. And maybe being cranky is common for many in the month of January, what with the days being so short and dark and all.

Instead of celebrating grumpiness, per se, I'd like to celebrate the words we use to talk about the feeling. 

The best of all, of course, are curmudgeon and curmudgeonly and curmudgeonliness!

Here are some more words I like. You might be a curmudgeon if you are often...


and of course, the second best word in the bunch:


Aren't those some super great words?

Here are some ways to enjoy curmudgeons today:

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January 28 – Up Helly Aa

Posted on January 28, 2014

It's a Scottish festival!

It's a fire festival!

It's a Viking festival!

Up Helly Aa, reputed to be the largest fire festival in Europe, is held every year in Shetland, in Scotland. Like so many other customs having to do with fire and light, it is a connected to winter's short days and long nights, but Up Helly Aa is a celebration of the end of this dark yule season. Young men used to drag barrels of burning tar through the town (and, boy, does that sound fun!), and when “tar barreling” was outlawed, people held torch processions.

Nowadays people work all year designing and creating fabulous outfits, deciding on characters they will play, and rehearsing acts to perform. On the actual day, a large sign called “the Bill” is erected in the town square. It has the news about what is going to be happening—along with a lot of jokes and satire. The Guizer Jarl and his Jarl Squad march through town, followed by a galley, which is a long, low boat. Every once in a while the guizers visit a hospital, school, or museum.

At night the famous torchlit procession consists of almost 1,000 guizers carrying torches, following the galley. Many more thousands line the route and cheer at the guizers. The thrill at the end of the route is that the galley is sent to “Valhalla” (in Norse mythology, Valhalla is the hall in which souls of soldiers who were killed in battle were received by the god Odin). And just how do you send a boat to a mythological place? You burn it, of course!

After that, the guizers go to twelve halls in turn, and in each one they perform their acts and dance routines. There is tea and coffee, soup and sandwiches available, plus of course plenty of deserts. Dancing and laughter and merriment continue all night until 8:00 a.m. tomorrow morning (which is a holiday so people can get some sleep!).

There is even a Junior Up Helly Aa – with squads wearing costumes, a torchlit procession, and a galley to burn – for kids!

Find out more here

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Anniversary of first ski tow in the U.S.

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January 27 – Soldag in Norway

Posted on January 27, 2014

In some places in northern Norway, the sun hasn't come up for weeks! Today, perhaps, it shone again on a village somewhere for the first time since the beginning of December. And in that village, today will be declared a “Soldag”!

Soldag means “Sun Day.” Never mind that it's Monday! Declaring a Sun Day is like declaring a Snow Day—school is cancelled for the day, many people skip work, and people enjoy the natural beauty of—in this case—sunshine!

All through late January and early February, the sun is making its first appearance in weeks, and people are celebrating its comeback. Aside from taking a day off of school and work, a masked ball is held at night. A “prince of the sun” is chosen to preside over the ball, and when the sun comes up, everyone removes their masks and light fireworks!

(Those of us who live in often-sunny places are always waiting and waiting for the dark in order to shoot off fireworks, so it seems funny to light fireworks when the sun comes up. But it's a celebration!

The Arctic Circle

Did you know that any land that lies between the Arctic Circle and the pole has this sort of perpetual night in the winter and perpetual day in the summer? This is because of the tilt of the Earth as it orbits around the sun.

In the Northern Hemisphere's wintertime, the entire hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, so the days get shorter and shorter until the shortest day of the year, December 21 or 22. Places that lie north of the Arctic Circle have shorter and shorter days until the sun disappears altogether for days or weeks or maybe even months!

As I mentioned, the flip side of having no sun at all for weeks is having 24 hours of sun in the summer. These polar regions are often called “land of the midnight sun” because for days or weeks the sun never sets!

To learn more, check out the diagrams here or the video here

Sometimes the Norwegian skies are lit,
not by the sun, but by the aurora borealis.
  • In some places, there is some light even during the “Polar Night,” when the sun never rises, because the sun is just below the horizon. It's a kind of twilight day! But in other places, farther north, it stays much darker. In those places, the moon can become a very, very bright light in the sky! Check out this great compilation of time-lapse photography during the almost-four-month-long night at Ny-Alesund, an island that is ruled by Norway. 

  • This video has a lot of misspellings and other errors—I suspect that whoever made it isn't a native English-language speaker. But it shows a more twilight sort of Polar Night, as well as the midnight sun. 

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 Thomas Crapper Day 

Vietnam Peace Day 

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January 26 – Happy Birthday, Mary Mapes Dodge

Posted on January 26, 2014

Just a few days ago I talked about the enthusiasm Dutch people have for skating and speed skating.  Today I want to talk about an author that first introduced me and other Americans to that enthusiasm. Mary Mapes Dodge wrote the book Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, and it became an instant best-seller, a prize winner, and a children's literature classic. It has been continuously in print ever since it was first published in 1865.

Hans Brinker was set in Holland (or the Netherlands). But Mary Mapes Dodge, who was born in New York City on this date in 1831, had never been to Holland when she wrote it. How did she manage to write such a successful book set in a place she'd never been?

For one thing, Dodge did a lot of research. She read large volumes about Dutch history and customs, and she talked a lot about life in Holland with her Dutch neighbors in the U.S.

For another thing, the book was instantly popular in America. And most Americans didn't know nearly as much about the Netherlands, even, as Dodge, so she could slip up here and there. And slip up she did! She botched a lot of the Dutch names and words she used in her novel. (If you're interested, check out this list of her mistakes.) 

And of course, Hans Brinker IS a novel. That means it's fiction. Dodge made up stuff, of course, just like any novel writer!

One part of Hans Brinker that is very familiar to many people is a story about a little Dutch boy holding back the sea and saving his country by putting his finger into a hole in a dike. Versions of this story were in print in English-language publications from 1850 to 1863. Dodge included a version in her book, a story written about an anonymous hero and read in a classroom in England. In her novel, one of Dodge's characters tells everyone that the story is true, and that all the children in Holland know the tale.

A statue in the Netherlands
of a Dutch boy who is an
American fiction and folk hero.
However, of course the tale is not true. More surprising to many is that the tale is not commonly known to the Dutch—certainly not back in the 1800s. It is the novel Hans Brinker that popularized the story of the boy and the dike; since then others have written poems, stories, and even full-fledged children's books about the heroic boy. Many people remember incorrectly that it was Hans Brinker who was supposed to have saved his country by sticking his finger in a dike. Tourists in the Netherlands have asked so often to see the dike where this event happened (even though it never happened), that now there are at least three statues of the boy and the dike!

So, thanks to Dodge, a bit of American folklore is now acknowledged in the Netherlands as if it were Dutch, and many people seem to think that a fictional event (supposedly done by a nameless hero) really happened, and that it was done by a completely-separate-but-also-fictional character!

(If you are interested in actual Dutch folklore, check out this English-language website.) 

By the way...

Did you know that a Google image search of “Hans Brinker” will come up with a LOT of very strange-but-funny ads for the Hans Brinker Budget Hostel in Amsterdam? It's supposed to be a world's worst hotel, with filthy rooms and a broken elevator. And...it's all too true. Yet the sarcastic advertisements have worked – people from all over the world hasten to rent out the rooms!

A lot of the ads read,
"It can't get any worse.
But we'll do our best."

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Lotus 1-2-3 Day

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