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Leaps and Gaps
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            Leap years are special, aren't they?  It has to be for those one in fifteen hundred or so folks who were born on February 29.  How cool is that?  Getting one year older every four years constitutes quite a gap, created by just one leap, eh?

            Most educated folk know that leap years were invented to make up the difference between the civil 365 day year and the solar year, which is the actual time it takes Earth to make one trip around the Sun.  The solar year runs about six hours beyond the completion of that 365th ordinary day; thus, every fourth year we add an extra day to February to "leap" our calendars to more closely match nature.

            You can trace leaping the calendar back thousands of years to folks who understood a whole lot more about math and astronomy than the average bear.  The ancient Egyptians immediately come to mind, as do the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas in our western hemisphere.  Chances are good that the Chinese probably had a handle on the solar year, too, given that their astronomers witnessed and recorded a supernova some 3,500 years ago.  In the 14th century - B.C. - the Chinese named the event occurring near the star Antares as "Tianshe."

            And so it is that for actually thousands of years, humans have been aware of celestial events, solar and calendar years, and of the abiding need to bridge seemingly mysterious gaps which occur in nature but which, with study, can eventually be explained.

            As might be expected, however, superstitions associated with leap years have surrounded the event, as many ancient cultures traditionally regarded it to be unlucky.  Leap years have been linked to bad harvests, barren marriages, tempestuous weather and ill-luck for monarchs.

            I noticed on the news Friday, which was "leap day" actually, that Britain's Prince Harry was ordered home from the front lines in Afghanistan, where he's been serving with his country's 8,000-member military force despite his blue blood lineage.  Seems the Taliban got word of where the Prince was stationed, and stepped up their suicide attacks in an effort to kill a member of the Royal Family.

            So it's probably a good thing, given the ill-luck for monarchs associated with leap years that Prince Harry is headed for home.

            Friday also constituted a different sort of gap, one spanning some 48 years.  The first Playboy Club opened in Chicago on "leap day" 1960.  I was just a kid back then, and remember how outraged mainstream America was at Hugh Hefner's idea of having women dressed as bunnies serving playboys.

            Of course, that was really only 12 leap years ago.  Hugh Hefner, an Army veteran of World War II, is still making headlines with his liaisons bridging gaps over time.  Who knows?  Maybe "Hef" is aging in leap years along with his Playboy Clubs.

            At any rate, mainstream America has turned 180 degrees from the initial reaction in 1960 toward Hefner's clubs.  His push for freedom of expression continues as he presents, annually, the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Awards.  Today publications and broadcasts featuring adult expression, termed pornography by many, are pretty much commonplace and available to everyone.

            Now, you may think I'm about to preach a sermon about  how Hefner's quest to build a kingdom by promoting hedonism, sexuality, promiscuity and so forth has led to the general demise of morals and the degradation of society in our land.

            Don't have to.  It's pretty obvious.

            I'm talking about leaps and gaps today, and the big news from the 90-mile-gap south of Florida is that Cuba's Fidel Castro has handed the car keys to another driver, his brother Raul.

            Now it may be a gap of only 90 miles, physically, but for those of us old enough to remember when Havana was the absolute shining jewel of the Caribbean Sea, and for all the displaced Cubans who fled to America with nothing more than the clothes on their backs to escape Castro's brand of Communism, Castro's resignation constitutes a leap spanning lifetimes.

            The presidential candidates were all asked last week for their thoughts on Fidel Castro's abdication. Most offered some feeble, politically correct statement, but Republican John McCain summed it up best as far as I'm concerned when he said, "Castro?  I hope he dies soon."

            Over the last 50 years I've known only two real-life Cuban refugees who got out at the last minute before Castro clamped down and started shooting folks who tried to leave. Through my association with them I've come to know that there are no more beautiful, caring, generous, hard-working and heart-broken people in the world than the Cuban nationals who had to flee.

            Pay attention. I'm not talking about the criminals from Cuban prisons, folks so bad even the iron-fisted communist control could not control, who Castro duped President Jimmy Carter to bring into Florida in the late 1970's. I'm talking about old-time Cubans who loved their island nation, and who hope to return one day to rebuild and restore it to its former beauty.

            Well, there's a problem. There's a guy in South America, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's left-wing President, who has become the rising star of anti-American sentiment in the Caribbean as Fidel Castro has aged. Recognizing the forthcoming void in the leadership for Latin American nations, Chavez has created a widening diplomacy gap between those countries and the U.S.

            Nonetheless, despite his anti-U.S. stance, Chavez has some redeeming qualities. Yes, you read that correctly. Go back and read it again if you are still flabbergasted.

            Chavez wrought a return to the barter system with Cuba, through which Cuba provides doctors and medical care for impoverished regions within Venezuela in return for low oil prices. Chavez, often at odds with countries in the Middle East over oil prices, has found a way to use his own oil as leverage.

            In another controversial move, in 2006 Chavez began providing oil at prices discounted 40 percent to four of the five boroughs of New York City, to provide heat for poor citizens. His offer was later extended to villages in Alaska and Maine, and in 2007 Chavez entered into a similar agreement with the mayor of London. And although his motives are questionable, the results of his policies have been, in some cases, staggeringly successful.

            Now, before you think this is some sort of public relations campaign for Chavez, let me remind you that I'm talking about gaps and leaps. This guy is no friend of ours, and I understand that. But listen to what I'm saying here.

            Cuba is about to reach a historical moment in time, when decisions about governmental reform, individual freedoms, economic policies and international diplomacy will radically change not only the island itself, but the way life in many Latin American countries unfold for generations to come.

            When I was a boy growing up in rural Georgia, doctors made house calls. That's right. If you were too sick to get to his office, the town doctor would show up at your house with his little black bag, and would treat you. And folks who could not pay the doctor would oftentimes drop by his office, or come up to the back porch of his house, and leave vegetables or a cord of firewood to repay him for his services.

            Yes, it was the barter system at work. No, I'm not talking medieval times - it was 12 leap years ago.

            So what I'm saying is that it might be a good thing, and a good time, for America to take a closer look at Chavez's agreement with Cuba and the other neighboring countries, and to advance ways that we can barter with folks who find themselves saddled with what economists term "an unfavorable GINI gap."

            The GINI gap, as you may know, is the economic gap which exists between a nation's richest and poorest citizens. According to Harvard University economics professor Greg Mankiw, the GINI for America appears to be a hefty 15-to-1, meaning our richest are 15 times richer than our poorest. But when Mankiw breaks it down into individual terms, he finds America's real-life GINI to be only an amazing, almost minimal, 2-to-1.

            If you find that hard to believe, for your edification take a short drive around our own neck of the woods and look at the high-end BMW, Mercedes, Volvo and Cadillac Escalades parked in front of tumbledown shacks. Then look at the published figures for skyrocketing foreclosures amongst the low-end economic spectrum in America, and maybe you'll start to understand.

            Around the world, the GINI representing greatest equality from rich to poor can be found among nations with homogenous populations - in other words, where there is little or no racial diversity.  Slovakia, Belarus, Hungary, Denmark and Japan make up the top five. Homogenous groups harbor common values and beliefs, and there is little dissension as there are no minority groups demanding the right to join the mainstream, economically, without having to bear their fair share of the financial burden.

            Anyone here want to trade their citizenship with any of those guys? What? No takers? I didn't think so.

            In this election year, when I see folks from every corner of the political map taking potshots at our current president, it would be good for everyone to think on these things and understand why it is - with all our diversity - America is still the greatest nation on earth. Liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Christians, atheists, the intelligent and the ignorant all enjoy a better life here than can be found in most other places on Earth.

            But make no mistake. There is a huge gap between America and the rest of the world. Chavez is no friend of ours, at this point in time. And just as Cuba faces a time of historic decision-making, so does America. The upcoming Presidential election, in this leap year, provides what this old boy believes to be the single most important decision this nation will have made in my lifetime.

At issue is whether America continues to try to protect freedom and to make small leaps of diplomatic progress here and there, to try to bring some semblance of order and stability to the world, and to try to protect the sanctity of human life in order to make this earthly existence a better one everywhere.

That's a pretty tall order. 

We'll know for sure how America's November decision brought about either a great leap forward, or created even bigger gaps...just next leap year.