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Column: February contains some surprises

The smallest in the family, but unique among its siblings for much more than size. 

And the only shape-shifter, changeling and magician, which every now and then becomes larger, and then, presto! — well, a year later — returns to its small but distinct stature.

February, with its 28 days, once every four years adds on a day to make 29, the “leap year.” The website MathIsFun explains that “Leap Year [is] any year that can be exactly divided by 4 (such as 2016, 2020, 2024, etc.), except if it can be exactly divided by 100, then it isn’t (such as 2100, 2200, etc.), except if it can be exactly divided by 400, then it is (such as 2000, 2400).” 

Got it? MathIsFunWhenYou’reDrunk.

Some call February a cheat and unfair, since rent and mortgages must be paid, when other months add two or three days extra for the same price of a roof over your head. 

It seems that when the world was young (which, with February logic, we call ancient) and the Roman calendar was on the drawing board, some sages came up with a calendar of 10 months, running from March to December. Seems January and February were not even worth a thought since there was no harvesting of anything in those 60 or so days, so it was kick-back time, pass the grapes, where’s the vino and who cares what the date is?

But the adults in the room belted their togas and decided this had to be sorted out. They aligned the calendar to the lunar year, which took no breaks. Numa Pompilius (you remember him), the head Roman adult, added January and February, making each 28 days, but then changed this because some conspiracy theorist said that these numbers were unlucky. 

Fake science! Finally January was given 31 days and February remained at 28 days, superstition be dammed. 

February contains surprises. It has, dead center in its progression toward March, a day institutionalizing love, which might be a good or bad thing. Good, of course, because it’s, uh, like, love. Bad, because it makes one of the most powerful, mysterious and rewarding emotional states shake hands with those who are over-amped to sell you something.

As has been stated before in this space, Feb. 14 is the feast of St. Valentine, and one story goes that Val believed in love so fervently that he fearlessly married Christian couples in ancient Rome when doing so was a capital offense. He was arrested, but spared a dinner engagement with some lions when Emperor Claudius II took a liking to him. Still an ambassador of love, Valentine tried to convert the emperor, which didn’t go down too well. The emperor had Valentine beaten with clubs, stoned and then publicly beheaded. 

Ambassador, yes, but also one of the most notable in a long line of fools for love, which, if you keep your head, is an admirable thing to be.

I once had an assignment to do a magazine story in February in a corner of northern Europe. I’d been in that part of the world in deep winter, and the words February attached to Belfast made me shiver just at the thought. I pictured cold rain, the kind that falls softly, but not soft enough to keep it from soaking through clothes on its way toward bones. Or the horizontal class of rain, driven by gales, when folks will say, “The weather’s outdoing itself.”

I spoke to a friend before leaving, already in complaining mode, and she said, “Oh, February can be beautiful. You just have to watch for it.”

She’s right, of course. There are dazzling days amid gray stretches, where every object in the landscape catches part of the light, and a view of a field has trees standing out as if a painter had balanced a canvas.

There’s beauty, if you watch for it, in short days of soft sun and polished steel mornings, when dawn doesn’t make a series of dramatic gestures but slowly seeps in from the night. It’s easy to understand then that the month is named after the Latin word februum, or purification.

More surprises within the shortest month become apparent on Shelter Island, when privacy and silence seem like friends, and a solitary stroll through town on a cold day, or in bare woods gleaming with fog, reminds you of an old Northeastern truth: The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.