Category Archives: Everyday Wonders

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses

little girls in frilly dresses, Qingdao, China

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses    —by Jinny Batterson

Last fall, one of our favorite former students in China emailed us exciting news—she was about to get married.  A few weeks later, our former student, “Mona,”  sent a second message with an attachment: a picture of her and her new husband in their wedding clothes.  Mona looked fetching, much dressier than the Mona I was used to—she posed, seated on a high stool, in an elegant flower-print dress with a brimmed hat to match. Her husband, decked out in a casual summer suit, looked over her shoulder.

For much of June this year, I had a chance to travel in mainland China and to reconnect with some former students and colleagues. Especially wonderful was a chance to visit Mona, whose new husband had been a high school classmate I didn’t yet know. They’d chosen each other after a long, sometimes long-distance courtship. I got to spend a couple of days with them. While I was visiting, Mona explained the logistics of arranging her wedding pictures, an increasingly common part of Chinese wedding preparations:

Few people actually buy clothes for their wedding pictures or have pictures taken on the wedding day itself, she explained. Rather, they rent dressy attire from specialized businesses and pick out a place and time to have professional still pictures taken, sometimes adding a brief video. They usually choose a historic or natural beauty spot, on a weekend day when both partners are off work. Because Mona is short for a woman of her generation in China, preparations were somewhat complicated. One weekend, she and her groom-to-be visited a rental agency and picked out clothes they liked in close to the proper size. The following weekend, they went back to the agency to pick up the clothes, which had been altered slightly for better fit.  On still a third weekend, she and her fiancé dressed in their rented finery and met a hired wedding photographer at the agreed upon site and time. Scheduling was tight and did not make allowances for weather. The day Mona’s pictures were taken, it poured down rain. The search for a “perfect shot” took most of a very long day and left both photographer and subjects tired and bedraggled. It took a fourth week to get the rental clothes dried, cleaned, and returned to the rental agency.   

Not long after my visit with Mona and her new spouse, I ventured out on my own to parts of central and northern China where I’d never visited before. In the northern seaside town of Qingdao, I came across a cobblestone plaza more filled than usual with elaborately dressed Chinese.  Primed by Mona’s descriptions of her wedding picture adventures, I realized that what I was viewing were a whole series of wedding photo shoots. June is a prime wedding month in China, just as in the U.S.  I counted eighteen different couples having their wedding pictures taken. The weather was windy and blustery—gowns and photo accessories were hard to keep steady. A dozen of the brides were wearing western-style dresses in white, while others had flowing formals in red, considered a lucky color in China. For one set of pictures, an entire wedding party was assembled, including five or six young girls in frilly white dresses. 

Over the course of this China visit, I noticed more and more young girls dressed in frills and bows, and not always in wedding groups. I’d see them on public busses, on trains and subways, in public parks. All were with at least one parent or grandparent. Often, a parkland family group would be taking selfies, the grandparents somewhat subdued in both manner and dress, the dads fairly casual, the moms dressier, anchored with the latest shoe fashions, the daughters often in white or pastel lacy dresses not much less formal than bridal finery. I crossed my fingers that the attention these girls were getting was a sign that the traditional stigma of having a daughter in China was lessening. None of the girls I saw looked neglected or abused. Many were far from docile. Most seemed valued family members, confident without being arrogant.

A few times, I saw girls and young women in less frilly outfits—on one park walk, the mom and dad in front of me strolled along at a normal pace, while their two daughters in trainers, shorts and tank tops raced ahead running sprints. At another public square, I noticed a young woman in jeans and a t-shirt with an English-language slogan: “Women are the Future,” it proclaimed.

My re-entry into the U.S. was through our 49th state, Alaska, where few women are shrinking violets. I saw the kennels run by the family of Susan Butcher, who’d earlier won the  long-distance Iditerod sled dog race four times.  I got to meet her elder daughter, now actively involved in training new generations of sled dogs for new challenges. Perhaps China’s daughters, and America’s, will one day soon be ready to take their places in a rapidly changing world that needs and welcomes their skills.   

Summer!

Summer!      —by Jinny Batterson

Our calendar and our weather sometimes seem out of sync these days. Spring-like days occur during what is officially labeled “winter.” Winter resurges sometimes during officially calendared “spring.” Inklings of summer can pop up at almost any time of year.  Regardless, to me there seems something slightly magical about the official start to summer—the summer solstice, which this year falls in the northern hemisphere on Wednesday, June 21. Where I now live in central North Carolina, the sunrise-to-sunset interval today is over 14 1/2 hours, with an additional several hours of pre-sunrise and post-sunset reflected light. 

When I was a child, summer included my longest vacation from school. School summer vacation overlapped with part of solar-calendar-designated summer, the period between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox around September 21.  Childhood summers were mostly carefree times then. They were times for going barefoot, toughening the soles of my feet so that after a few weeks I could show off for my friends by walking across all but the hottest, roughest surfaces without flinching. I could catch fireflies in jars and marvel at the way they blinked on and off. I found hideouts in the deepest glades of nearby woods and held picnics—sometimes with fake food and imaginary friends, at other times with filched cookies and Kool-aid plus real friends. Once, when I was invited to a friend’s country house for a sleepover, we took off our shoes and socks and spent part of an afternoon wading in a cool shallow stream, stirring up the bottom mud, then standing very still until the water cleared and small fish started nibbling at our toes. 

On hot, sultry August days, I could stretch out on a straw rug in front of a circulating floor fan in my grandmother’s slightly dimmed, cool living room and lose myself in a good book. At dusk, our family would gather on the front stoop, waiting for the ice cream truck to come down our street. I’d rush to be the first to reach the Good Humor man, holding out my dime for a creamsicle. Of course, there were challenges, too—I was very slow learning most outdoor skills, from riding a bicycle to swimming without panic in deeper water. In those days before chemical sunscreens, my fair skin would blister and peel if left exposed, so on beach excursions I was faced with the unpleasant choice of either covering up from head to foot or getting a painful sunburn. However, summer’s discomforts were vastly outweighed by the glories of its time-bending freedoms. 

Later, when as an adult I had a full-time job and was helping raise our children, summer vacations were never long enough. We’d still somehow manage to escape to our rustic cabin in the woods beside a Vermont lake for at least a couple of weeks. The cabin had running water, gravity fed from a tank up the hill. It had several wall-mounted kerosene lamps, a gas refrigerator and gas stove with an oven, but no phone and no electricity. If we timed our arrival right, we’d catch the height of wild blueberry season. Even us summer people knew of favorite, out-of-the-way spots where the bushes grew thick and the berries grew sweet. On other warm afternoons, I’d venture out onto the lake in an inflatable dinghy while the rest of the crew swam. One morning,  a wizened neighbor took me fishing. He helped me bait hooks, then gutted enough of our sunfish catch to make a good lunch. I don’t think we bothered with a clock at the cabin—times were fluid, punctuated by meals, excursions, and darkness.

Changes in technology and changes in society have greatly diminished the freedom I used to associate with summer. Lengthy stretches of free time are rare, either for our over-scheduled children, for working-age adults with little or no paid vacation, or even for many retirees who’ve succumbed to the blandishments of over-scheduled, over-priced organized tours and activities. Have we traded up to a supposedly richer existence, only to be impoverished by never having or taking time to laze, to just hang out, to enjoy our natural surroundings, to dream? 

I’m among a lucky few who who have the option to indulge in unscheduled time fairly often and who recognize its importance. As I post this, I’m partway through this year’s loosely timed adventures. If you do not have the same opportunities, please try to figure out a way to create a time window for yourself, however short, when no tasks or obligations intrude.  Take a short walk on an area greenway or trail; breathe a few deep, cleansing breaths of fresh air. Summer can become a magical time again, if we let it.        

Of Pegs and Holes, of Circles, Squares and Other Shapes

Of Pegs and Holes, of Circles, Squares and Other Shapes     —by Jinny Batterson

Geometry has never been my strong suit.  Shapes don’t register with me as intensely as words or colors or numbers or images. Formulas for calculating areas and proofs of geometric theorems quickly fade from my memory as soon as I’m no longer required to regurgitate them on tests. Still, I do notice squares and circles, which tend to dominate our man-made and natural landscapes, respectively. 

Since childhood, I’ve been intrigued by expressions about “square pegs in round holes.”  A real-life square/round anomaly from the U.S. space program was recreated in the film “Apollo 13.”  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2YZnTL596Q)  A potentially lethal problem developed with the space module’s air filtration system, and ground-based engineers had to quickly come up with a way to retrofit it by linking a square peg and a round hole. Though I lack the technical skills of the NASA engineers who helped bring Apollo 13 safely back to earth, my spacial imagination sometimes plays through various scenarios of adapting pegs and/or holes so there are ways to get the two together.

Squares fit into a more general category of “polygon,”  “a plane figure with at least three straight sides and angles, and typically five or more.”  So my rarely-satisfied-with-either-or-solutions brain starts adding more and more sides to an initial square, trying to imagine whether a very large number of sides can approximate a circle. As long as there are discrete angles, a requirement for a polygon, the fit is not perfect, but it comes closer and closer. 

My most vivid real-life experience of varying shapes came during a glorious summer of working at Expo 67, a world’s fair held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada from late April through late October of 1967. (A 50th anniversary retrospective of the fair and impressions of people who visited it in our youth will be held in Montreal this summer.) Although some exhibition halls were based on four-sided structures, others had many different shapes, among them the nearly spherical geodesic dome that housed the U.S. pavilion. It was designed by architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller, with a surface of interlocking triangles, hundreds of them. Fuller discovered that if a nearly spherical structure was created from triangles, it would have unparalleled strength. It could also “do more with less.” Such a sphere encloses the largest volume of interior space with the least amount of surface area, thus saving on materials and cost. Nearly 300,000 geodesic structures have been built worldwide, in widely varying locations and climates.

Nature rarely builds in squares. The only example that comes readily to mind is salt crystals, which usually require a microscope to validate their squareness. Certain rare rushes also seem to be endowed with square stems, but most of what we observe in the natural world tends to roundness.  While noodling around for roundness examples, I did an online search for “Why are tree trunks round?” (originally posed by the parent of a 4-year-old) and found this naturalist’s response:

“Living things adapt to the environment around them, or at least they do if they wish to go on being living things.

Trees tend to spend a lot of time outside and so they adapt to their surroundings.

A round or tubular shape allows them to resist the force of the wind better than the flat surface of a square or rectangle would.

Not only does its round shape help resist the wind, but it also is a very strong shape that helps support a lot of branches.

And it’s a matter of protection. With the exception of beavers and maybe woodpeckers or some bugs, it’s hard for most animals to get a good bite on a round shape. There aren’t any corners to get a start on.”  (www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/claythompson/…trees-round/82917948/)

So please, take an occasional break from your squarish computer or smart-phone screen and instead take a look at your surroundings, maybe even venture outside—it can help make you a better rounded human. 

Sensitive Segments

Sensitive Segments    —by Jinny Batterson

A long time ago, before I became totally technically obsolete, I worked for a number of years in what was then called data processing—now more often labeled “information technology.”  The media and the structure of the data I worked with changed over time. First there were punched card files, later storage on computer tapes, then multi-plattered disk drives, and, still later, all sorts of increasingly dense mass storage devices.  At first, each separate computer application had its own files, so there was a tremendous amount of duplication among the various files, with a high probability for errors and mismatches. Later, someone figured out that it would be possible to create a data hierarchy, with a top level “executive” or “parent” piece that controlled access to all the others. This reduced duplication and mismatch difficulties, but meant that to access any piece of data required understanding a rigid data structure, with its different levels and dependencies. 

During the final decade of my data processing work, I was introduced to what were then called “relational databases.” As the expense of computer hardware continued to decline and the speed of data retrieval continued to increase, any data hierarchy that might be lurking in the background was masked. Given a properly constituted database, it became possible for programmers to compose relatively simple inquiries into multiple data fields, no matter how they were positioned in the overall data structure. To me, this way of viewing data was much more intuitive than trying to remember whether “segment A” was a parent segment to “segment B,” or whether both were same-level children of “segment C” in some artificially constructed hierarchy. The catch, in the somewhat hierarchical organizations where I worked, was that some data was deemed off-limits or unnecessary for some members of the agency or firm. For example, the Personnel Department might need to access personal information that was considered either too sensitive or irrelevant for the Accounting Department or the Education Department, and vice versa. 

So some smart computer software guru introduced the concept of “sensitive segments” for data base access.  All the data was stored somewhere, but if you were in the Personnel Department, you could only retrieve data from those segments to which you were given access. If you were in Accounting or Education, you would be blind to those segments whose data was reserved exclusively for Personnel. They did not relate to your job description. From your perspective, they did not exist. 

In the glut of our current information environment, it may seem as though the concept of “sensitive segments” is obsolete. In theory, any of us can access most of the data stored online anywhere in the world via the “world wide web.” However, precisely because there is so much information available in electronic form, it becomes totally impossible for any single person or group to retrieve it all, let alone make any sort of sense of it. Therefore, the Googles and other search engines of our age have devised ingenious algorithms to bring us just those “sensitive segments” they believe will most interest and/or please us. Our search-engine-mediated levels of sensitivity have only increased.

Amid the cries of horror at the polarization and dysfunction of our political and social systems, relatively few point to this sensitization as a partial cause. Few stop to remember that any topical query will bring back the “most popular” web pages on that topic first. For example, if I do a Google search on the word “bias,” it brings back about 207 million results, one screenful at a time, with several dictionary definitions as the leading entries. Such a ranking system helps to make sense of lots of relatively simple topics, yet it also opens a way for more and more extreme distortions of the more complex aspects of reality. Unless I type in a specific web address, I are going to be shown just the information deemed by the search engine software as a “sensitive segment” first.

Each of us reaches adulthood having certain segment sensitivities, based on our genetic make-up, our upbringing, and our exposure to various life events.  Some of us, for example, are drawn to emphasize the role of individual initiative in fostering success; others are primed to stress the role of luck. Some feel entitled to a large share of the world’s material goods; others remark on patterns of systemic discrimination and oppression that deprive many of even a small share of such goods.

It is very difficult, a whole life’s work and then some, to unlearn layers of bias and discrimination we learned early in life. It’s crucial that we minimize the distortions fomented by our increasing dependence on Internet-mediated “sensitive segments.” We need the balance of maintaining and strengthening interactions with real people with real lives whose opinions and experiences may be quite different from our own.     

Book Review: The Crane Dance by William R. Finger

Book Review: The Crane Dance: Taking Flight in Midlife, by William R. Finger

(JourneyCake Spirit: Raleigh, NC, 2016)   

The Crane Dance opens like a travel narrative, with only a few hints of the book’s main themes. The major portion of the text is bookended by sketches from the author’s two travels in India: the first a year-long assignment as a young Peace Corps volunteer in 1969-1970, the second a brief add-on to a 2003 business trip to revisit his former Peace Corps host family—a Moslem widow, her now-grown sons, plus her non-Moslem best friend. In between come thirty-plus years of Bill’s learning to be an adult, of coping with and eventually coming to embrace the particular temperament he has been endowed with, of gaining some peace about the places and times he’s lived through.

Bill Finger came of age at the height of U.S. involvement in Vietnam’s civil war. After his Peace Corps assignment, he requested and received conscientious objector status to avoid military service. Although the exemption was consistent with his evolving religious and ethical beliefs, it left a lingering sense of guilt at being spared the fate of other young men scarred or killed after being drafted into the military. Another source of guilt was having spent many of his early years as a white child in 1950’s Jackson, Mississippi, with its predominantly racist culture.

About the time of his 40th birthday, Bill begins to attend a men’s support group with other fathers of young children. The group becomes a lifeline when, a year later, he suddenly loses his job. Bill and his wife had promised each other to be hands-on, egalitarian parents, and adapted their work schedules over time so that both could be actively involved in nurturing their two children. This meant, among other things, that both accepted lower incomes in exchange for flexible schedules, so that the loss of either’s income would pose economic challenges. 

For the next dozen years or so, Bill cobbles together assignments and jobs to help support the family financially, while also working with men’s groups, with therapists, with anti-depressant medications, with church groups, and with meditation to first examine and later to cope with patterns of recurrent, low-grade depression. Bill has known vaguely since childhood that the uncle he is named after, an intellectually brilliant engineer, was institutionalized with severe depression for much of his adult life. As Bill journeys through less crippling depressive intervals, he learns that his mother suffered a severe bout of postpartum depression after the birth of her youngest child. Perhaps, he surmises, his condition has a partial genetic component.

Bill also experiments with dance therapy. At a celebration when he has progressed a good bit in understanding and coping with his depressive episodes, he and his family host a community initiation performance put on by eight men who’ve spent a semester together exploring movement as a form of artistic expression. Bill’s part in the ceremony includes the crane dance that gives the book its title. He moves his long, skinny arms—so useful in dunking a basketball or lobbing a tennis shot, but often awkward otherwise—as if in flight, celebrating his survival. He’s like the whooping crane, whose numbers plummeted to near-extinction, but then rebounded. “The crane survived,” Bill intones, “and so did I.” 

The book is well written. Parts of it are compelling. However, I found the lengthy descriptions of Bill’s various efforts toward acknowledging and gradually reframing his depressive tendencies, well, depressing. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been more rewarding for me to read a “standard” life journey book—hero starts out, hero encounters challenge, hero finds mentor, hero overcomes challenge, hero is celebrated by his peers—end of story. But perhaps Bill’s story is truer to reality. In our instant-everything culture, we may need reminders that not all problems have quick or evident solutions and that many of our efforts will not fully succeed. 

I came to know Bill after the period he describes in this mostly midlife memoir. What I know of his later life has not been without trauma and challenge. However, his earlier struggles seem to have imparted a hardiness and resilience I can sometimes envy. I’d recommend The Crane Dance to anyone at or past midlife, especially those who struggle with depression or live with someone who does. My only caveat—you may want to skim over an intermediate chapter or two. 

Eighth Decade Beginning Inventory

Eighth Decade Beginning Inventory    —by Jinny Batterson

Eyes:  sometimes rheumy, not quite as sharp or quick to focus any more; still capable of seeing beauty around me.

Teeth: ditto about sharpness, not as firmly rooted as before; still capable of chewing the fat.

Ears:   prone to sunburn, hearing less acute; especially deaf to husband’s complaints or criticisms.

Nose: runnier, more often stuffy; still inquisitive. 

Gait:  slower, plodding, even, on uphills; still fond of exploring.

Lungs:  clear and easy most of the time; more sensitive to smoke, pollen, other stressors than before.

Heart:  ditto.

Sleep: easy to start, occasionally wakeful and restless toward morning, more memory of dreams; seems more natural to take naps.

Soul:  more aware of happy times, more grateful; still needs work toward being inclusive.

World: still full of controversy and conflict, still a little dangerous, sometimes tragic; still also full of adventures and joys waiting to happen.

Didace’s Garden

Didace’s Garden   —by Jinny Batterson

It’s a magical time of year here in central North Carolina. The trees have leaves of that vibrant green that’s unique to early spring, before they gradually darken and fade in the heat and dust of later seasons. Shrubs and flowers bloom in profusion, both in cultivated spaces and in parks and woodlands where they’ve either originated or escaped. Recently I spent a couple of hours “tidying up” parts of a traveling friend’s back yard. Mostly, I wanted an excuse to revel in the colors and blooms of the nearly solid wall of azaleas along one side of her property.   

As I raked and pruned, I remembered a different garden, a different season, a different part of the world. For a couple of years in the 1980’s, I had a temporary assignment in the small central African country of Burundi. Most weekdays, I worked in a rural development office in the country’s capital city of Bujumbura, participating in a project to strengthen and diversify a network of consumer/producer cooperatives throughout the country. Burundi then had a few business people and high government officials with great material wealth, a local and expatriate community of civil servants and shop owners who lived modestly, and over 90% of its populace who ground out a bare living as subsistence farmers. It is somewhat ironic that this Peace-Corps-like assignment was the only time in my life when I had human household help. Modern appliances were few; electricity was expensive and intermittent; having an employee to tend the yard was a godsend. My duplex neighbor and I shared a gardener/night watchman, Didace.

Any lasting impact I had in the country was more likely a result of my interactions with Didace than of any tasks I accomplished at the office. Though he had little formal education, Didace was proud of his skills as a small-hold farmer. While he scoffed at my feeble attempts to grow temperate-climate vegetables in the tropics, he faithfully dug small plots for me in September and January, at the beginnings of each of the country’s two rainy seasons. Later, he tracked down supports for the pea and bean vines that straggled upward. The income he got from maintaining foreigners’ gardens supplemented what he could grow on his farm to eat or sell, helping provide a better life for his family.

Before the first Christmas season of my assignment (which occurred during a lull between the shorter and longer of the two rainy seasons), I mentioned to Didace that I would be traveling to Greece to see family over the holiday. Was there anything I could bring back for him and his family as a small gift?  He thought for a while, then explained that what he’d really enjoy were some pictures of his family and his small farm. Didace had noticed the snapshots of family and travels that I kept on the room divider in our open-plan bungalow. Would I be willing to visit his home, take pictures with my (traditional) camera, then get the film developed on my trip and bring back several of the best photos?

We made plans for me to borrow a project vehicle one weekend in early December and to drive, then walk, to his family’s home in the hills above town. The paved road quickly became dirt, which gradually got more potholed and rutted. Didace met me at the intersection of the road and a person-wide path that led further into the hills. Once we arrived at his house, he pointed with pride to the tin roof he’d recently installed with a loan/advance on his monthly wages. He introduced me to his wife and two young sons, and then showed me around the small plots where they grew beans, corn, and cassava, a root vegetable whose tubers provided most of the carbohydrates of the Burundian diet. At one edge of the house was a small banana grove. A few chickens scratched in the dirt.

Then, in a small fenced area, I saw a flower garden. If memory serves, it had a mixture of gladiolas, dahlias, and other showy flowers I didn’t recognize. They were beautiful. I asked why his family chose to grow flowers on some of their limited acreage. Partly, he said, so they could sell the best blooms at the Bujumbura central market for additional income. But mainly, just because they were pretty. I wish I had made and kept copies of the pictures of Didace and his garden. Beauty knows no boundaries.            

Saint Pat, Bless His Heart…

Saint Pat, Bless His Heart…     —by Jinny Batterson

A set of reports from an ancestry DNA service recently confirmed that over half of my ancestors originated in Ireland, England, or some other part of the set of islands off the northern coast of France that its current rulers like to call the “British Isles.”  Just which parts of the islands, I cannot say with confidence, nor, apparently, can the DNA service (unless I want to spit into another tube, answer a lot of intrusive questions, and send a heftier fee). 

From what I know of the various branches of my family tree, a fair number of my ancestors were of “Scots-Irish Presbyterian” background—at some point before arriving in America, they had lived in northern Ireland, having migrated there from parts of Scotland in hopes of farming better land. At some time in the old country, also, they had deserted Roman Catholicism for Protestantism.

I follow a rather eclectic faith tradition, with a substantial modicum of “live and let live” in its theology. Yet once I ran into a situation in which my ancestors’ creed and country of origin seemed to be important. Many years ago, I was riding in a Jeep driven by an ebullient Irishman whose family name was similar to that of some of my forebears. We were on a weekend excursion to an isolated upland farming station in central Africa, along with several other international development workers. When Mr. Dudley found out that part of my ancestry was Scots-Irish Presbyterian, he commented on my lack of pedigree:

“Ach, your forefathers were renegades,” he lectured me. “They likely fought pitched battles with mine, who did their best to uphold the true faith.”  Lucky for me, he forgave my great-great-great-grands their transgressions and did not kick me out of the car.  Properly pedigreed or not, I usually sport at least a touch of green when March 17 comes around each year.

One year, when I was half a world from the U.S., teaching English at a school in a frontier outpost near  China’s northwestern border, I organized an evening English language program about the Saint Patrick’s Day holiday. It was difficult to get my students to believe that there was an island that stayed permanently green—the little bits of green in our desert oasis town required near-constant irrigation. However, there was a different link of sorts. In preparation for the program, I’d boned up on the history of Irish and Scots-Irish immigration to the United States, which began well before American independence, but peaked during the 1840’s and 1850’s. Over about a decade then, a famine in Ireland wiped out a million people and caused a million more to emigrate, reducing the island nation’s population by 20 to 25 percent. Most of my students had not been directly impacted by famines, but they generally knew stories of parents or grandparents who had, during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. So there was a tenuous bond with the plight of the Irish, even if few Chinese were accustomed to wearing green, greeting leprechauns, or drinking green beer.

Now that I live in the U.S. South, I’ve been surprised to learn that one of the major Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in our country takes place in Savannah, Georgia. Second only to the New York City parade, Savannah’s festivities are lubricated by “to go cups” and last for most of the day.  According to the travel website moon.com, some of my distant relatives may have had a hand in early Savannah festivities: “ …the first parade in Savannah was organized by Irish Protestants. Thirteen members of the local Hibernian Society—the country’s oldest Irish society—took part in a private procession to Independent Presbyterian Church in 1813.” 

In 21st century America, smaller celebrations occur throughout the South, the festivities overshadowed only by “March Madness.” This evening, during halftime of whatever NCAA basketball game we happen to be watching, let us pause and hoist a glass to Saint Pat, bless his heart. 

International Women’s Day Thoughts

International Women’s Day Thoughts  —by Jinny Batterson

March 8, 2017 will be celebrated in many countries as International Women’s Day, a holiday that gradually has taken hold since the early 20th century as a way to honor women’s economic and social contributions and to press for more equitable treatment of the “fairer sex.”  No one agency, country, or non-profit is a primary sponsor for International Women’s Day. Some companies have underwritten celebrations in various places, perhaps hoping to get their names associated with being good corporate citizens, perhaps welcoming this occasion to market their products more emphatically to women.    

The first time I had a chance to participate in an International Women’s Day celebration came a decade ago, when I was teaching English at a small agricultural college on the far northwestern fringes of China. That year the holiday fell on a Thursday, and our classes were shortened to allow for an afternoon of amateur intramural sports. According to the journal entry I made at the time, I participated in “water bottle bowling” and jump rope competitions, winning an extra liter of cooking oil and a ribbon for my efforts.

In 2014, I attended a North Carolina International Women’s Day gathering in a local church hall on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t remember a whole lot about the celebration—it was small and fairly informal. Among the participants were several older nuns and a different group of singing elders, the “Raging Grannies.” The grannies wore aprons and floppy garden hats and belted out political satire words set to traditional tunes. After a while, all of us went home.

International Women’s Day was first recognized by the United Nations in 1975, in conjunction with the first International Women’s Conference and a U.N. themed “Year of the Woman.”  That same year, though not on International Women’s Day, women in the Nordic country of Iceland decided to take a day off to illustrate how vital women were to the smooth functioning of Icelandic society, despite what was then a 40% pay gap. According to excerpts from the account given by the BBC in 2015, the October, 1975 “Women’s Day Off” was a turning point in the relationship between the sexes in Iceland:

“Instead of going to the office, doing housework or childcare they took to the streets in their thousands to rally for equal rights with men. (An estimated 90% of Icelandic women took part, including rural women.)

It is known in Iceland as the Women’s Day Off, and Vigdis Finnbogadottir (Iceland’s first woman Prime Minister, elected initially in 1980) sees it as a watershed moment.

‘What happened that day was the first step for women’s emancipation in Iceland,’ she says. ‘It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men.’

Banks, factories and some shops had to close, as did schools and nurseries – leaving many fathers with no choice but to take their children to work. There were reports of men arming themselves with sweets and colouring pencils to entertain the crowds of overexcited children in their workplaces. Sausages – easy to cook and popular with children – were in such demand the shops sold out.

It was a baptism of fire for some fathers, which may explain the other name the day has been given – the Long Friday.”

The pay gap in Iceland has not entirely disappeared, though it has shrunk to one of the smallest of any nation. In 2016, Icelandic women for a single day staged a smaller work stoppage as a protest of the enduring part of the wage gap—figuring that they were paid 14% less than men for equal work, many quit work at 2:38 p.m. rather than “work for free” for the rest of the day.   

So far, International Women’s Day has not caught on in a big way in the United States of America, where the gender wage gap hovers at about 20% nationwide, with considerable variation by state and a much larger gap for women of color. One of the initiatives favored by the current U.S. administration is support for childcare expenses, which typically helps families with working parents. So far, there is little detail about how such support would be administered or financed.  Considerable skepticism exists about whether that support would be structured to help improve the lives and earning capacity of those at the bottom of the wage scale.

In my family, women through the generations have carried at least their share of both nurturing and earnings responsibilities. If I do nothing else this International Women’s Day, I will pause for a moment to honor these foremothers who farmed, ran households, got educated, taught, provided vital family income, and invested for the future. Once they got the right to vote, they for darn sure did their best to make fulfillment and advancement easier for their daughters as well as for their sons.    

The Wrong Way to Make Mac and Cheese

The Wrong Way to Make Mac and Cheese   —by Jinny Batterson

Why is our town/county/state/nation/planet (choose all that apply) in such an uproar at the moment?  Isn’t there anything we can agree on any more? 

Some days, I wonder how we ever got to this point. Then I remember an incident that happened when I was maybe 12. Our family had recently moved from a smallish cottage into a brand-new large brick house in a nearby neighborhood of the same Maryland town. My parents, assisted by their parents, had scrimped and saved for over a decade to be able to afford our expanded quarters, which my dad’s small construction company helped build.

For me, the biggest contrast with our old digs was not the spacious bedroom that I no longer had to share with a younger sister and two younger brothers, but the abundance of playmates my age in the neighborhood, most of them girls. Not too long after we moved, one of the girls I didn’t know all that well invited me over to her house for dinner and a sleepover. What a treat! I hadn’t been to stay at a playmate’s house in forever. I checked with my mom for permission, then packed a small suitcase for the Friday evening adventure at Mary’s house.   

Most of the houses in our new neighborhood had been built on spacious grounds a couple of generations earlier as summer homes for Baltimore lawyers and their families, fleeing the heat and diseases of urban Augusts. Mary’s house was one of the more modest ones. By the time I walked the short distance to her place, it was starting to get dark. Mary’s artist mother had an appointment somewhere and had left supper in the oven for us, promising Mary she’d be home in an hour or two. This was a departure from the routine I was used to—my parents had not yet allowed us to spend evening time without their supervision or that of a babysitter.

After Mary gave me a quick tour of the house’s hallways and somewhat drafty rooms, we returned to the large kitchen. Mary’s mom had set a small table with placemats, plates and silverware, and had put down a thick potholder in the table’s center. Following her mom’s instructions, Mary picked up two more potholders, carefully took an unlidded casserole out of the oven, and put it in the center of the table. We started in on supper. Humph!  It was macaroni and cheese, but not at all what I was used to. I’m not sure whether my 12-year-old self had the tact to avoid criticizing the food to Mary, but I remember describing it to my mom in lurid detail once I got home the next day. The noodles on the top of the casserole had dried out in the oven, and even toward the bottom, this mac and cheese was not the soft, gooey mass I was used to eating at home. My mom was a basic cook. She’d managed to get nourishing, if somewhat bland, food on the table for us each evening promptly at 6, using a minimum of burners and pans. Who ever heard of cooking macaroni and cheese in an oven?

Mom was wiser than to contradict an obstinate, pubescent daughter directly. Instead, she asked, “How did it taste?”

After a little thought, I said, “Not bad, really. The noodles were kind of crunchy, but the cheese was tangier than the Velveeta we use at our house. I guess I could eat some again.”

Since then, I’ve been lucky to have had chances to sample many different kinds of pasta and cheese, and of other, more exotic combinations of carbohydrates and proteins. Not all of them have been to my liking, but I have at least learned that there are many valid ways of producing macaroni and cheese. Is it possible there are many valid ways to do other things as well?