Dating Myself

[Speaking of which, parts of this post may be “dated” because I began writing it about 3 years ago (in early 2019) and then set it aside awaiting further research, which I have never quite completed. So, now (early 2022) I will publish a slightly revised and updated version to reflect what I now know (and don’t know) about calendar math and related topics. Comments in italics — except the quotations — are things I have added to the original draft.]

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by the passage of time. Perhaps everyone is. I have many snippets of memory that involve time. I remember learning to tell time, for example, in Mrs. Heather’s nursery school (yes, in the days before digital clocks!). And then there was the day my father turned 40 — I was astounded that he was still able to walk; 40 just seemed incredibly old to me. As a teenager, I was a voracious reader of science fiction, and a fan of The Twilight Zone; in those fantasy worlds, time travel was a frequent theme.

It probably didn’t hurt that my grandmother Wilcox was an historian. I was enthralled by her tales of days long ago. She was such a good storyteller that I could picture being in the places she described. My favorites involved the Stockbridge Indians or her grandfather, who served as a surgeon in the Civil War. 

My sense of the span of time evolved for me early in life as a result of being immersed in these stories, as well as ones my mother would tell about her growing up. She told me about the trolley that used to run down our street [Park Street in Stockbridge], but was long gone by the time we lived there. She pointed out a place where the trolley line crossed the Housatonic in Glendale; the bridge stanchions are still there. In her youth (in the 1920s), she told me, for local transport there were more people using a horse-and-buggy than an automobile.

Although I fully understood that the Stockbridge Indians had been forced out of town long before the Civil War, and even longer before my mother was born, I couldn’t resist teasing her about her being old. Because she was old, to me. My parents were married for several years before I (their eldest) was born, because my father was away, serving in the Army Air Corps in Africa and Italy during WW II. I am among the first of the Baby Boomers, having been born nine months after that war ended. My parents were several years older than the parents of many of my classmates. Sometimes I would remind my mother of her ancient status by saying, in the presence of my siblings, “Mom, tell us again how it was when you were young, living among the Indians!”

Learning about the hours of the day, the points of the compass, and left from right, all seemed logical to me. But the calendar violated my sense of order. Why did the months have different numbers of days? And what was this leap-year thing? And why did not the calendar line up with the seasons? Why not begin the year on December 21, if that was the shortest day of the year? And why did Easter come on a different day each year?


People experience time as both linear and circular. On the one hand, it marches remorselessly from birth to death, a vector with fixed endpoints and a constant velocity. On the other hand, time is cyclical, with the wheel of the seasons endlessly spinning, and no clear end or beginning. Calendars are records of a culture’s attempt to weight and reconcile these different versions.

from Appendix D “Calendar Math” in 1491 by Charles C. Mann

Calendars of one sort or another have existed since time immemorial. In fact, one of their purposes was to memorialize time. Other functions of calendars had to do with religion or agriculture. Many ancient cultures evidenced a supreme grasp of mathematical and astronomical concepts. Such ideas were necessary to create accurate (and therefore useful) calendars. These same skills were needed to practice the art of navigation.

My friend John Robison has written an essay, Were the Timekeepers of the Ancient World Autistic? speculating on the role that certain autistic people might have played in ancient times in developing calendars and mathematics. John later wrote a related essay on navigation in the South Pacific.

While researching local history for my upcoming OLLI class, I came to realize the importance of dating. Not in the romantic sense, although that may be important, too. There are (at least) two different problems in establishing exactly when historical events took place.

(1) Transposing Dates from One Calendar System to Another

The most commonly-used calendar in today’s world is the Gregorian calendar, a reform introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. It was at first used only in Catholic jurisdictions, and then gradually adopted throughout the Western world. It was not until 1752 that the Gregorian calendar was adopted by the British Empire, including its 13 colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America that were to become the United States of America.

So, for a period of 170 years, including much of the early history of European involvement with the Americas, there were two different calendar systems in use by the colonizers. All of this can lead to great confusion when interpreting dates that were recorded during the overlap with the older (Julian) calendar system.

In addition, there were (and in some cases, still are) different calendar systems used throughout the world. In the Americas, the two systems that I know the most about are

  1. The Turtle Calendar
  2. The Mesoamerican (Mayan) calendar

More on these in a moment.

(2) How long ago did certain things occur? 

It can be very difficult to pinpoint dates that were not recorded with precision, or are part of an oral tradition, or are inferred from other dating methods. 

Astronomical Measures of Time


Originally the month was the interval between one new moon and the next…

The modern English word “month” is of Germanic origin, and was (in Old English) the same (or a closely similar word) that was used for “moon.” As I understand it, this equivalency is also true in many modern languages. In Old English, it was mōnath (month) or, mōna (moon) and in German it is Monat or Mond. In Dutch it is maand or maan; but the name of Henry Hudson’s ship was De Halve Maen, so the word must have evolved since then.

In Latin, there were two different words for moon (I’m not sure what distinguished one from the other): luna and mēnsis (the prefix mens- indicates measured, and the root of both words seems to mean measure). From luna comes the English words lunar and lunatic. From mēnsis comes the Latin mēnstruus (happening monthly), hence the English menstrual and related words.

In all of this, a monthly cycle was taken to be ~28 days. Actually, the moon rotates around the earth and on its own axis once every 27.322 days; known as the sidereal month, from the Latin sidus, “star” — but that rotation does not coincide with the phases of the moon, since our planet is also moving through space. As a result, by the time our moon completes a single rotation, although it has returned to its previous location relative to the stars, it is no longer in the same place relative to the sun. And since the new moon is observed when the sun is on the exact opposite side of the earth from the moon, new moons are ~29.53 days apart.

The interval between new moons is known as the synodic month, a word related to “synod” which is a meeting, or “getting together” and indicates the meeting of the sun and the moon in the same place relative to the earth. This is also called the lunar month.

Unfortunately for early time-keepers and calendar-makers, the sideral (solar) year does not correspond to an even number of lunar months. A new moon occurs ~12.37 times for every rotation of the earth around the sun.

In the interval since I drafted the above comments, I have begun to study the Western Abenaki dialect of the Algonkian language. I posted a query on Facebook, and received several helpful responses. One was a link to a lunar calculator, and another was a post about the Western Abenaki lunar calendar. (The Abenaki word for moon [kizos] — in the sense of month — is explained in that post.)

I’ve also added a link (above) to the Cherokee story of the Turtle Calendar. In that origin story is contained an explanation of the thirteen 28-day months of that calendar, with an extra day added in the summer to make it come out to a year of 365 days. But that would mean that, unlike the Abenaki calendar, the months would not be tied to the lunar synodic cycle. I’ve not yet investigated whether the Cherokee’s relatives, the Haudenosaunee, have a similar calendar.

I’m going to leave it at that. I’m still puzzled by (among other things) how the Abenaki calendar was adjusted to the solar year. I’m also not going to address the Mayan calendar, which was much more complex (and more accurate) than any other calendar I’ve come across. The appendix in 1491, mentioned above, has a good description, and my interest at the moment is more in the indigenous peoples of the Northeast.


In preparing for my next OLLI course on local (Northeast) indigenous culture I have written a short essay on reparations.

I will be able to devote only a short amount of time in one class (out of six) that will focus on the issue of racism: its origins in 15th century Europe, and its use in this country in the cause of indigenous eradication and erasure. My essay will provide background for any students who wish to learn more about this issue.

Here are the opening two paragraphs of my essay, with a link to the full document:

I am in favor, in principle, of reparations. What that means in practice, I’m not so sure. We, as a society, need to have that conversation. I am aware that I have benefited from my heritage, and that part of that benefit has come at the expense of disadvantaged people.

In a now-classic 2014 article1 in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an appeal for us to discuss reparations. Although his focus was on “black Americans” (i.e. African-Americans), I believe his arguments should be applied with equal force to all marginalized groups, such as Native Americans and disabled people. As an autistic person, I am particularly aware of how, for many generations, autistic people were locked away in institutions, ignored by the outside world, abused and neglected; left to die an early death. Echoes of this prejudice and misunderstanding live on in today’s world.2

1Coates (2014) The Case for Reparations


The Origins of Critical Race Theory

Until a few months ago, I had never heard of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Then, references to CRT started to appear frequently in the news. There were, for example, reports coming out of Florida and Texas that CRT has been banned from public schools.

As a result, I have been puzzling over the meaning of “Critical Race Theory” and why it has become such a hot-button issue. One write-up I found to be very helpful is an article by Jelani Cobb in the September 20, 2021 issue of The New Yorker. In the print version, the title of the article is “The Limits of Liberalism” with a subtitle of “How Derrick Bell’s pioneering work gave rise to critical race theory” — in the online version (linked above) the article is dated September 13, and its title is “The Man Behind Critical Race Theory” with a subtitle “As an attorney, Derrick Bell worked on many civil-rights cases, but his doubts about their impact launched a groundbreaking school of thought.

In a recent conversation, my friend Joan asked me, in the context of CRT, what is the meaning of the word “woke”? I would say, as an extension of the awareness of racism and social injustice, it would include the ideas that these features are systemic and have been intractable. Not just the province of individual citizens, in other words.

I wondered about my own wokeness, and how it was that I had been unaware of CRT until recently. So I did a little (very little!) research on the topic, which included searching the Washington Post website for references. Sure enough, when I searched for “critical race theory” I was given 405 entries, the earliest one dating back to April 26, 2011. The striking pattern that emerged, however, confirmed that very few (only 46, or about 11%) of those references were more than seven months old.And most of those earlier articles were about Bell or other legal scholars, about free speech in academia, or about sensitivity training for police or private company employees. It has been only in recent months that CRT has become the straw figure of the self-styled conservative movement.

I could cynically point out that the very thing that “conservatives” are trying to “conserve” are the very social structures that CRT criticizes as being racist and unjust.

My take on things is that, until recently, the discussion of CRT had been largely confined to academia, where it was debated mostly in law schools. It seems too arcane a topic to have been taught, as some conservatives claim, in the public school system. My understanding is that Bell’s premise was that racism is nearly impossible to overcome, since it is baked into our legal system (and other institutions).

I am more optimistic than was Derrick Bell, as described by Cobb. I see a cohort of young people growing up in a more tolerant world, ignoring racial stereotypes when choosing their friends. I have been called “colorblind” in this regard (it was not meant as a compliment) and I can identify with the young people I know who are disregarding traditional categorization.

This does not mean that racism is going away anytime soon.

Bell saw in the [Bakke] decision the beginning of a new phase of challenges. Diversity is not the same as redress, he argued; it could provide the appearance of equality while leaving the underlying machinery of inequality untouched. He criticized the decision as evidence that the Court valorized a kind of default color blindness, as opposed to an intentional awareness of race and of the need to address historical wrongs.

Color blindness comes in many flavors; ranging from one extreme exemplified by my earlier naiveté to the other end of that spectrum: a deliberate attempt at whitewashing. Color blindness, as the phrase is used in the quotation just given, implies a denial of racism (as opposed to simple unawareness of racism and its consequences). One recent example is the law passed in Texas (cited above) that bans the teaching of racism. It is hard to get to the point of addressing historical wrongs if you deny they ever were perpetuated. Which, I suppose, is exactly the point, and simply reinforces Bell’s pessimism that racism is so thoroughly built into our culture that it can never be eradicated. Unlike Bell, as I mentioned, I hold out hope.

Whitewash: Definition

The word “whitewash” has many meanings, which can be summarized as:

  • Literal: a liquid composition for whitening a surface; to apply calcium carbonate ground into fine powder, washed, and used especially as a pigment
  • Figurative: an act or instance of glossing over or of exonerating OR a defeat in a contest in which the loser fails to score
  • Recent usage as racist language: to alter (something) in a way that favors, features, or caters to white people

Until quite recently, despite a not uncommon misunderstanding, this word did not have any racist connotations. To whitewash a story was to cover up the truth (to “clean the dirt”).

Now, in some cases, the word is, unfortunately, used to perpetuate the racist mythology that the human race can be broken down into sub-races. Many (if not most) people think they can tell if a person is “white” or “colored” but these categories are completely subjective, and have no scientific basis.


Over the Hill: Definition

In my studies of the Western Abenaki dialect of the Algonkian language, I came across a memorable word that I can use to describe myself (and my cohort of poker players).


pronounced ~ pon-zee-DON-kee-wee

It means “over the hill” — and the “wi” ending identifies its use as an adverb.

Tôni alosaan?

Nd’elosa pôzidôkiwi.

Literally translated, this means “To where are you walking? I am walking over the hill” — but the root alosa is more generally taken to mean “going to” so a contemporary translation would be “Where are you going? I’m going over the hill.”

In my understanding of Algonkian culture, personal names are fluid. A name given to an individual at birth may have some significance relating to the circumstances of their arrival, or their family connections, or may, I suppose, be just a name. But, during the course of their lives, people could take on (or be given) different names, to reflect their achievements or their character traits.

This strikes me as being similar to the practice of awarding “Trail Names” to through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail (AT). Such hikers cover long stretches of the AT in a single season, some of them hiking the entire Trail from Georgia to Maine. Along the way, people encounter each other many times and develop friendships; which may lead to the affectionate nicknames known as Trail Names. [The word “nickname” btw comes from the Middle English “an eke name” meaning “an additional name”]

In the Colonial culture, our “real” names are fixed at birth (although they may later be changed by some legal procedure). People may use pseudonyms as long as they are not used for the purpose of deception or fraud. My father, for example, wrote poetry under the nom de plume Gray Fox, and his family called him “Sonny” to distinguish him from his father, since they shared the same name. As a young lad, I asked him, “Dad, why do they call you Sonny?” and he said, without hesitation, “Because I’m so bright!”

Also, when I was young, like most youngsters, I imagine, I asked my mother why she named me “Michael” — she told me she had named me after her favorite dog, a German Shepherd. I thought that was pretty cool; I had never heard of anyone being named after a dog — usually it was a favorite uncle or other family member (my youngest sibling was named Sarah because — besides it being a pretty name — there are so many Sarahs in my family tree).

One day, when I was probably around 11 years old, a friend was visiting, and asked me why I was named Michael. I told him what my mother had said, and she overheard my explanation. “Who told you that?” she wanted to know. “You did!” I asserted. “Well, that’s not true,” she told us, “I never had a dog named Michael!” So I asked, “Then why did you name me Michael?” and she responded, “Because I just liked the name.” Of course, so did lots of other people, and for many years Michael was the most popular boy’s name in this country. So much for my pride in being named for a dog.

Years later, after my mother had gone blind because of her diabetes, my brother gave me a photo album he had found among the things she would no longer be able to use. There were some pictures of me as a young child, and as I was flipping through the pages, I came upon a photo of a handsome German Shepherd in profile. Underneath the picture was written simply “Michael” — so now I knew that the earlier story was true, and my mother had somehow forgotten about her dog.

Despite the English practice of using nicknames, the early colonists seemed to be confused by the Native naming practices. Perhaps it was because the natives didn’t use family names, and individuals might have more than one name in concurrent use. Also, except for missionaries and teachers, colonists usually didn’t bother to learn the native language. So they had trouble understanding (and even pronouncing) the native names. To accommodate this ignorance, natives often added a Christian name to the beginning of theirs. [Some examples of the mixed names being used in the Colonial era are given in this piece about King Solomon (and others). As an aside, this past summer I helped with an excavation at the property shown on the map and evidence was found of a dwelling; possibly King Solomon’s longhouse.]

For most of the time I have been studying Abenaki, I have been the only Michael in the class. This moon (Skamonkas, Corn Maker Moon), there is another Michael, and I feel a need to have a distinctive moniker. I’ve decided that it would be suitable to call myself Missal Pôzidôkiwi. Abenaki orthography was heavily influenced by early efforts of French Jesuit missionaries to learn and record the language. There are many loan words that come from the French, such as adio. Abenaki did not have a word for goodbye (God be with ye) and the French adieu (“to God” — similar to adios in Spanish) was coopted. Missal probably comes from Michel, the French version of Michael.

Although I think pôzidôkiwi suits me, I reserve the right to take on other names in the future. One immodest moniker might be masalawigha = mark or write a lot; a prolific writer or artist.

“Over the hill” obviously has a literal meaning, and I’m sure that’s how it is used in Abenaki, but in English it has taken on a figurative meaning.

Definition of over-the-hill
1: past one’s prime
2: advanced in age

Synonyms & Antonyms for over-the-hill

aged, aging (or ageing), ancient, elderly, geriatric, long-lived, old, older, senescent, senior, unyoung

young, youthful

Interestingly, this phrase was first recorded in the year of my birth. Now that I am no longer youthful (although I still feel pretty spry), I can claim to be over the hill.

Ni ga, Missal Pôzidôkiwi nia


Woke: Definition

Woke was officially added into the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective in June 2017.

The dictionary defines it as “originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”.

The Urban Dictionary, which published its original definition two years prior to the official dictionary, defines it as “being woke means being aware… knowing what’s going on in the community (related to racism and social injustice)”.

In other words, it means to be awake to sensitive social issues, such as racism.

See the link above for an expanded definition and explanation provided by the Oxford English Dictionary.

There is also more information in the article cited as the source of this quotation.

The Association News

Here is a collection of historical trivia, collected as Volume XI Number 5 of The General Daniel Davidson Bidwell Memorial Association, dated October 1, 1935.

At the end of page 4 (of 4) in the images below there is an explanation of the Association. There is also a pdf version filed here.

I am a Bidwell, by way of my father’s mother, whose birth name was Grace Josephine Bidwell. I found this document, loose, inside a scrapbook compiled by (or more likely for) my (Grand) Aunt Belle, my grandmother’s sister, Isabella Jane Bidwell Weiss.

More on General Bidwell, including a link to a description of the Cedar Creek battle, can be found here:

Indigenous Resilience

In my studies of local indigenous culture, I have noticed a growing interest in this area among the general public. I’m not entirely sure how to explain this, but it’s a good thing, in my view. I think we are all aware that many vital systems are broken, and we search for new ways of thinking. Climate change and social injustice are high on the list of concerns.

It turns out that many of the “new” ways of thinking have actually been around for millennia. As I have struggled to comprehend a radically new (to me) way of viewing and processing the world, as a student of the Western Abenaki dialect of the Algonkian language, I have witnessed first-hand a resurgence of efforts to revitalize an ancient culture.

It turns out that this age-old culture never went away, despite the best efforts of the colonial oppressors to suppress it. The “Opening Remarks” of the Fall 2021 Sierra magazine contain a nice summary of the current relevance of indigenous culture in our country.

I was particularly struck by the quotation given at the end of the editorial:

They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.

High Points in New England

The New England Historical Society (NEHS) has provided a somewhat light-hearted survey of the highest points in each of the New England states.

The entry for Massachusetts, however, contains at least a couple of errors.

One has to do with Herman Melville:

The snow-covered mountain reminded Herman Melville of a great white sperm whale, which he named Moby Dick in his masterpiece.

The story of Moby Dick was based on an actual event known to Melville (as well as his own whaling experience). It is true that he could see Mount Greylock from his home in Pittsfield, where he wrote the book, and it may have even looked to him like a whale, but the mountain did not inspire the story.

Also, their timeline seems to me to be not quite right:

The mountain may have been named after an Indian chief, Gray Lock, who raided English settlements in Vermont and western Massachusetts during the last French and Indian war. Or it may have been named for the gray clouds that hover at its summit.

The mountain was almost certainly named after Gray Lock (or Grey Lock, or other spellings), which was the English nickname for a chieftain (war sachem)* who eluded capture for many years, and was suspected of hiding out on the mountain. Some say he is still there, waiting for the day when he can retake the land stolen from his people by the European colonists.

* Wawanolewat [Graylock, one who habitually loses the others, fools them]

Wawanolewat was the Abenaki name of the Missisquoi chief known as Chief Greylock in English. “Wawanolewat” does not actually mean “Greylock” in Abenaki– that may have been his father’s name, or it may have been a nickname of his. The actual meaning of “Wawanolewat” is “fools the enemy.”

Caveat: I have no formal training in history, so I am reporting here my own impressions from what I’ve read here and there. My understanding is the Greylock was active beginning in the time of King Philip’s War (1675-6) and continued his resistance long after that war ended. There was also a conflict called (along with other names) Grey Lock’s War (1724-6). The French and Indian War referred to in the quotation above took place in 1756-63, at which time Greylock would have had to have been over 100 years old. (Which would not be a problem if he is still alive!)

The Abenaki Indians were concerned with their own interests rather then those of the French. They were not mere pawns of the French, but allied themselves with the French because they viewed them as the lesser of two evils. They wanted to protect their way of life and prevent the English from encroaching on to their land.

There is a fairly detailed biography of Gray Lock to be found here:

GRAY LOCK (La Tête Blanche, The Whitehead, Wawenorrawot, Wewonorawed, Wawanolewat), an Indian chief at Missisquoi (near Swanton, Vt.); apparently fl. 1675-1740.

In any case, the list by the NEHS is a useful catalog; I’ve been to 4 of the 6, and have no plans to visit the other 2. I won’t go to Maine because (among other things) it is the site of the recent tragic death of my good friend Don MacGillis. And Rhode Island just doesn’t seem worth the trouble!

True Story: The Lazarus File

Here’s a rather offbeat entry. I happened to come across an old (June 2011) issue of The Atlantic, and this article caught my eye.

It is an intriguing tale of a 1986 murder case that gone “cold” in the LAPD, only to be revived after DNA evidence became a thing.

The piece is well-written, and reads like a detective story (which it was). As of the writing, 10 years ago, the case had not come to a conclusive ending, so my curiosity got the better of me, and I did the usual web search.

Here is the story of how it ended.