Janus Day

Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings. He is also in charge of gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways and passages. It is a big job for which he gets much recognition, especially at this time of year.

He got a whole month named after him. January is far more important than National Bacon Day (many would differ with my assessment) or National Bicarbonate of Soda Day, both of which are being wildly celebrated as I write this story.

Janus is depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past.

Years can be remembered for different reasons – births, deaths, marriages, job changes or external events like elections, international episodes or even wars. Years can be forgotten if nothing especially good or bad happened, hence most years are.

Late December brings the sound of rawhide to the air as newspaper and magazine editors bullwhip their writers into churning out look back and prediction stories.

Today, I will take the bait and do one of each, but the look back is personal, and the prediction might be too broad to be measured for accuracy.

The trick to these stories is coming up with something nobody else is saying, lest your words descend into the muck of blah, blah, blah.

Looking backward, 2019 was a year of transition from writing only about politics, which had become “unfulfilling” to writing “less politics and more everything else,” which is off to a promising start. Much thanks for the nudge in the new direction to Mina Mitby, whose nudge began several years earlier.

“Unfulfilling” is a euphemism for “crashing bore.” My father reserved the word “crashing” only for the very worst sort of bore. The phrase persists because it deserves to.  Bores live on and the all-stars in the category are still the crashing ones.

Politics and politicians (don’t forget their handlers) dominate the crashing bore category, while at the same time doing much harm. Achieving excellence in both boring and harming is rarely achieved.

I began 2019 as LibertyPell (mostly not cracked) and ended as The Pundificator. There was much good in the old website’s name but the political connotation, especially thanks to the right-wing association with the otherwise perfectly good word “liberty” added too many rocks to my backpack.

It had an eight-year run and taught me a lot about politics and websitery. Thank you to the always wise and amusing Charlie Scribner for coming up with it.

The Pundificator was a self-deprecating mash up of pundit and pontificate that arose along the way. Rebranding seemed to widen the field of topics to think and write about. The goal, however, remains the same to be “mostly not cracked” though it might be best not to get too ambitious on that front.

The rebranding and web redesign took the better part of 2019. Without the guidance of Catherine Richards of 1338 Creative, Pamela Southerling, who fills many roles and has since 2006, Brian Richards (on-line-ista, mail champ maven and Catherine’s husband) and Matt Hodges, WordPress maestro, it would have taken far longer and achieved far less. I was able to stay in the conversations thanks to what I had learned from Armand Gilbert, the web designer for LibertyPell.

It was also the year in which I branched out from words on paper to podcasting with Frazer Rice, Michael Farr, David Greene and Bill Walton.

For me, 2019 was the year of the Pundificator.

Looking forward, I am going to nominate a phrase of the year for 2020 and perhaps for the entire third decade of the 21st-century, though I hope not.

The phrase that I expect to dominate in any number of fields is “attention getting.” Since much of the attention getting will be unhelpful to those whose attention is being gotten, perhaps the more pejorative “showing off” would serve as a proxy.

The biggest problem for attention junkies is other attention junkies. Each competitor in this crowded field has to ramp up his spotlight-grabbing efforts to surpass his adversaries. Few seem to have the judgment to determine when the stunts are too far over the top to change minds, especially in whatever direction is preferred.

The biggest problem for the suppliers of the attention that fuels the habits of the junkies is that attention getters have forgotten the words “make yourself useful.” More often than not, attention getters are trend followers seeking clicks by riding popularity waves rather than thought leaders sharing something insightful.

Unsurprisingly, attention getting will manifest itself in politics. There will be countless opportunities provided by the next steps in the impeachment process, the primaries, the nominations and finally the race to November. Most of it will be meaningless and useless but nearly all of it will be served up breathlessly. I am not optimistic.

Thought exercise: try to recognize attention-getting — showing off, even – by the political team you prefer. Ask yourself if it is it adding or detracting. Now try it again honestly, perhaps by asking how you’d react if the other team said or did the same thing.

Politicians and their handlers enjoy no monopoly on attention getting. In the unmediated world of self-promotion where everyone can be his own newspaper (blogs), radio station (podcasts), and TV station (YouTube), the world of attention getting (yes, guilty as charged) seems likely to annoy more than enlighten. Either way, I expect it to dominate 2020.

On Sunday, Frazer Rice and I recorded a podcast in which each of us made some predictions.

Here is one of them.

The things we don’t hear about or read about will be more important to overall global well-being than the things we do hear about and read about.

Much thanks to Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now) and Gregg Easterbrook (It’s Better Than it Looks) for that idea.

All best wishes for the year and the decade ahead.


7 Responses to “Janus Day”

Temple Grassi, December 31, 2019 at 7:47 am said:

Shortly after we opened Prince’s Court way back in 1997, I was playing in a tournament in Tuxedo. At one of the social events, a man came up, introduced himself, and told me that every politician in Washington should be required to play court tennis – they would learn respect, civility, manners, and a healthy desire to win. Before I could engage him further, he turned and walked away. I found out a couple of years later that he had died. Too bad- he had the ‘right idea’!


Richard Meyer, December 31, 2019 at 2:03 pm said:

I agree with Tempe, but I’d also require them to play rackets. That should weed out a goodly number.
Happy New Year to all!


Haven Pell, December 31, 2019 at 2:48 pm said:

Temple, a fine idea but a PR challenge in these PC times. Richard, though the initial goal was to teach them something, your idea of culling the herd has merit as well.


Jim Green, December 31, 2019 at 4:23 pm said:

Re DC pols: Perhaps court tennis or rackets would be appropriate for all pols, but current events demonstrate the only serious bit of competition in which they have engaged as a group is marathon dancing….they shoot horses don’t they?


Haven Pell, December 31, 2019 at 4:41 pm said:

I don’t miss writing less about them. Or thinking less about them.


Mac Norton, January 01, 2020 at 2:46 pm said:

On the topic of looking to the future and to the past: my younger daughter has been visiting over the holidays, and last night she hosted a New Year’s Eve dinner party at our house for some of her Washington friends, all in their thirties. The theme of the party was “The Roaring Twenties,” i.e., the 1920s, and I was commissioned to concoct a new cocktail, for the party and for the new decade of the 2020s. I came up with something based on two 1920s cocktails, the French 75 and the Hanky Panky, and I told them they would have to select a name for the drink from two possibilities. One was DEFPOTEC, which are the letters on the original Snellen eye chart line that corresponds to 20/20 vision — normal visual acuity, both clear and sharp. The second choice was the Ballyhoo, reflecting the drink’s inspiration from the 1920s, sometimes known as the Age of Ballyhoo. Ballyhoo is defined as flamboyant and exaggerated or sensational promotion or publicity, excited commotion, or a noisy attention-getting demonstration. They had to decide which name corresponded to their vision of the 2020s. They chose to be aspirational and went with DEFPOTEC. I’m not sure I would have.


Haven Pell, January 02, 2020 at 6:20 am said:

Mac, love the creativity. My favorite reference to “ballyhoo” is from Good Will Hunting, the scene with George Plimpton as therapist. Here is a link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftl_ckcpZgY 1 1/2 minutes.


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