Math, Semantics and the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a minor math problem for event organizers that seems fairly straightforward and simple to solve. If you promote an annual happening, and it was canceled in 2020, then that year shouldn’t count when you add up how many times the event has occurred. When you announce in 2021 that the whatever annual Whatever Festival is coming up, it should be the same number that it was supposed to be in 2020.

I mean, that’s obvious, right? If I give you an apple every year for 14 years, and last year I didn’t give you one, then the apple I give you this year is the 15th apple, right? It’s not the 16th apple just because I wanted to give you one last year and couldn’t.

The math is fairly straightforward, and for the most part people are getting it right. Take for instance Duluth’s Bayfront Reggae and World Music Festival. The inaugural event was held in 2006. The 2020 event was to be the 15th annual, but it was canceled. Therefore, the promoter is referring to this year’s event as the 15th annual. And that is correct. The 2021 festival will be the 15th in the series.

But I’ve known for quite a while that keeping track of how many times an event has happened in the past isn’t always the top priority of the organizers, who let’s remember have an event to organize with all the tasks that go with it. On one hand, you’d think being willing to get involved in organizing everyone else’s fun might be a thing only math-obsessed nerds do, but that’s just not the case.

The first evidence I saw that some of the counting would get complicated was a Facebook post last summer about the Lakehead Harvest Show, a steam engine and antique tractor event held on a farm in rural Esko.

The 59th annual event was canceled in 2020 and the 2021 event was immediately given status as the 60th. Of course, the very first comment on that Facebook post was someone pointing out the apparent math blunder.

“Wouldn’t be the 60th next year,” the comment noted. “Would still be the 59th unless you open for even a few minutes this year.”

It only got more confusing after that, when the next commenter noted it “still will be 60 years since my Uncle Milt started it in 1961.”

Well, yeah, 2021 is 60 years after 1961, but if the first Lakehead Harvest Show was in 1961, and happened every year after that, then 2020 would have been the 60th, had it happened. The math is easy on this one because the final digit of the years and the event numbers correspond. The first one was in 1961, second in ’62, third in ’63, 10th in ’70, 20th in ’80 and so on to 60th in 2020. Since the event didn’t happen in 2020, then 2021 would indeed be the 60th, but then the assertion that 2020 was supposed to be the 59th would be incorrect.

Confused yet?

Part of the mental block here is dealing with the difference between an anniversary and the numbering of events. The second time you have an event, if it happens one year later, is the first anniversary of the inaugural event and the second annual instance. So, to draw that example out, the 10th annual instance of an event would be the ninth anniversary of the original event, not 10th.

Anniversaries, like birthdays and years of marriage, work differently than counting annual events because the count starts at zero instead of one. If you’re having your 10th wedding anniversary, you’ve been married for 10 years, but it would only be the ninth time you’ve celebrated an anniversary because 10 years ago you had a wedding, not an anniversary party. Similarly, the day of your birth was your zeroith birthday, not your first. You weren’t born one year old.

But there is no zeroith festival. The first one is the first in the series — the inaugural.

Anyway, back to the Lakehead Harvest Show. In line with last summer’s Facebook post, flyers for the 2021 show have “60th annual” printed across the top. I tracked down Lakehead Harvest Reunion Board President Ryan Hansen this week to find out how that math works out. He said the board actually had “about a 30-minute conversation on that.” I neglected to ask if anyone had a chalkboard or sheet of scratch paper to work out the arithmetic during the meeting.

“Technically the 59th show, but our 60th annual because of the years that we’ve been doing it,” Hansen tried to explain. “We went with the fact that it’s still the 60th annual year that we’re doing our thing, you know? So, that’s how we came about it. We’re still at 60 years. Just because we didn’t have a show last year … we’ve still been doing it for 60 years.”

So, while there wasn’t an event in 2020, there was an effort to organize one, and by that logic it could count, right?

“We had everything done for last year,” Hansen said. “We had all of our ads printed. We had all of our stuff done. And then we had to cancel it, so in some ways it did kind of happen, but it didn’t, you know? So this year we’re celebrating our 60 years … is maybe the best way to put it.”

But, again, if the first one happened in 1961, wasn’t 2020 supposed to be the 60th and then 2021 would be the 61st if we’re counting the canceled year? Hansen said the event was founded in 1961 and happened every year until COVID-19 spoiled the streak. But then he paused and thought deeper about it.

“I don’t know if the show actually happened in ’61,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent sure on that. When I took over this whole deal, a few years ago, we just kept adding the number every year that we’ve done it, you know? We had that discussion on whether we do it as our 59th this year, but like I said, ’61 to 2021 is 60 years.”

My call with Hansen was turning into an Abbott & Costello routine, so I decided I needed to look at a different event with a bit less history. One of the first pandemic cancelations in 2020 was the St. Fennessy 4K, organized by Grandma’s Marathon, a more recently established annual event.

The inaugural St. Fennessy, an untimed fun-run in Hermantown that raises money for the Young Athletes Foundation, was held in 2014. The sixth running was in 2019. It was canceled in 2020. The 2021 event was the seventh running of the race, but news releases and promotional materials from organizers consistently referred to it as the eighth annual.

I cornered Grandma’s Marathon Executive Director Shane Bauer, poised to trap him with my gotcha journalism, but he quickly pointed out the count really could go either way. Although the event was officially canceled, he said numerous people ran the race on their own, physically distancing from each other, in the spirit of tradition. So, on a technicality, embracing the grey area, the St. Fennessy 4k happened in 2020, even though it didn’t.

What about Grandma’s Marathon itself? Well, that one they got right for sure. The math is easy because although the in-person race was canceled there was a “virtual” marathon in 2020. So that was the 44th annual Grandma’s Marathon and the 2021 race will be the 45th annual. The situation was similar for the Homegrown Music Festival, which was held online in 2020 (22nd annual) and in 2021 (23rd annual).

Did the Lakehead Harvest Festival do anything to slip in on that kind of technicality?

“No,” Hansen said. “We talked about doing something just with club members … but that was when they were really, really cracking down on doing anything with COVID. And so we canceled that idea even.”

The Park Point Art Fair is an opposite example of the Homegrown Music Festival — it’s going two years without happening. The 2021 edition has already been canceled because the fair is typically held in June and needed to be organized months ago, during a time of uncertainty about what type of events could be held this summer. So, the math goes like this: 49th annual fair held in 2019, then two years of cancelations, and the 50th annual Park Point Art Fair is scheduled for 2022. That’s good math for a bunch of artists.

What about the Christmas City of the North Parade? Well, that one is unaffected by the pandemic because the event was carried out last year. It was different than usual in that crowds weren’t invited to gather on the street to watch it happen, but people marched and towed their display trailers in typical parade fashion for others to watch on television and the internet.

The reason I mention the Christmas City of the North Parade, however, is to illustrate that we don’t need a pandemic to screw up our math. At some point KBJR-TV, organizer of the annual holiday parade, lost count of how many times it has happened. The subject has been brought up on Perfect Duluth Day several times, but the disagreement originated in 2008 when Andrew Krueger researched the history of the parade for a Duluth News Tribune column. He determined that year’s parade was the 48th annual, though it was being promoted as the 50th annual.

Krueger found archival material promoting the 1975 parade as 15th annual and 1980 parade as 20th annual. That would make the 2021 parade the 61st annual. But KBJR promoted the 2020 parade as the 62nd annual and will likely refer to the 2021 parade as the 63rd annual.

Even Krueger’s math must have been off, though. He contended that 1961 is the first year physical evidence exists proving there was a parade. But something we know for certain is that the parade was canceled in 1963 due to the assignation of President John F. Kennedy. So if the inaugural parade was in 1961, the second annual was in ’62, it was canceled in ’63, and the third annual was in 1964, then 2008 would have been the 47th annual — not the 48th as Krueger contended and certainly not the 50th as KBJR contended.

Does your head hurt?

In 2009 Chris Rich, grandson of parade founder Bob Rich, wrote on PDD that he believes the first parade was in 1957. That would make the 2021 parade the 64th annual.

My best guess is that the inaugural parade might have been in 1960, with little fanfare. Then the second annual was in 1961, which attained enough attention to generate the mention in the newspaper that Krueger could find to affirm a parade that year. The third annual was in 1962, then ’63 was canceled. The fourth annual was in 1964, which then lines up with Krueger’s findings of promotional material for the 1975 parade as 15th annual and 1980 parade as 20th annual. It also lines up with video of the 1998 parade that refers to it as the 38th annual. That would make the 2021 parade the 61st annual.

So, if you believe PDD, this year’s parade will be the 61st annual. If you believe Krueger, then it might be the 60th or 61st, depending on if you count the canceled year in 1963, which you shouldn’t … because of math. But if you believe KBJR, then the 2021 parade will be the 63rd, as long as you don’t believe what KBJR consistently stated in the previous millennium, which was in line with PDD and Krueger. And if you trust Chris Rich’s memory it’s the 64th.

Simple, right?

How about an example of a COVID-canceled event that had already screwed up its count before the pandemic? Yeah, I got one of those. I’m a West Duluth guy, so it’s embarrassing to admit that Spirit Valley Days, the annual celebration in my native neighborhood, seems to be a mathematical mess.

The 2019 Spirit Valley Days was promoted as the “40th annual” and the website noted that “since 1979 Spirit Valley Days has been happening!” But if the first was in 1979 then the 40th would have been in 2018, not 2019, unless there had been a previous year when it didn’t happen.

And neither of those theories line up with promotional materials for Spirit Valley Days from the 1990s and early 2000s, which consistently suggest the first Spirit Valley Days would have been in 1977, making 2019 the 43rd annual and 2021 the 44th annual (because 2020 was canceled).

So, what have we learned from this lengthy exposé? Annual celebrations and math do not go together. Beer and cheese curds go together. Summer is upon us and events are happening again. Embrace it. Don’t be a math nerd like me; it will only bring you frustration.

1 Comment

Dave Sorensen

about 1 month ago

There are three kinds of people -- those who are good at math, and those who aren't.

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