Going to the dogs

NOBODY talks about ``dog days'' anymore. When I was a kid, dog days was a season to go through just like Thanksgiving and Christmas. At the arrival of July and August some ghoulish busybody would always mention the fact that ``we should take it easy because we were going into dog days!''

The very words had an ominous sound, and I remember having an uneasy feeling that I should be looking over my shoulder in case I was being attacked by some giant Hound of the Baskervilles crazy with the heat. The mystic words gave July and August, which might otherwise be just hot and boring, a macabre excitement. Even the heat waves shimmering up off the pavements issued a warning of unknown adventure.

But despite all the warnings, the neighborhood dogs didn't seem to care what month it was. They loafed around apparently unaware of their seasonal obligation for menace.

Yet it was still a few years before I discovered that dog days didn't have anything to do with dogs, per se. The term dog days, I discovered, comes from the fact that during July and August, Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, rises and sets with the sun. Sirius, being part of Canis Major, is called the ``dog star.'' The same thing works for Procyon, a bright star in Canis Minor.

So it seems there is no medieval hocus-pocus about dog days. It has all the magic of a vernal equinox or an eclipse of the sun. Discovering this was a sad disappointment, much like the first realization that there wasn't any Santa Claus. In fact it was doubly heartbreaking because it came about at the same time I found out that eating raw carrots didn't really enable me to see in the dark. It is too bad that as one grows older the world becomes more and more prosaic.

Dogs, people, and even cats act differently in a spell of hot weather. Maybe reaction to hot weather gave dog days an added significance. But if this is so, why not call them ``people days'' or ``cat days''?

Well, there are still a few things left such as ``Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors' delight.'' If some hard-nosed meteorologist pulls the plug on this one, I'll be ready to give up on mankind.

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