Category Archives: holidays

Year of the Phoenix?

Year of the Phoenix?   —by Jinny Batterson

During the shortest days of the year for the past several years, an exhibit of lighted figures has come to our town—a multi-acre display of LED-illumined silk lanterns produced in the Chinese city of Zigong, in Sichuan province. Zigong’s artisans have long crafted lanterns for Chinese festivals. In recent decades they’ve gained global fame for their beautiful handiwork. Increasing numbers of U.S. cities are using winter-dormant park spaces to mount both static and interactive displays. 

Our town’s display centerpiece is near the shore of a multi-acre lake: until this year a magnificent dragon (shown in a previous post—https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2018/01/03/chinese-lantern-festival-an-american-version/).  When I attended this year’s event just before (western) New Year, I wondered, as I wandered down a slope decorated with shapes of real and mythical animals, if the dragon had taken its accustomed place. No dragon, not this year. Instead, an equally impressive floating display of a mythical phoenix, complete with pulsing lights going from head to tail.  

The night I saw the display, the weather was fairly mild for late December. Attendees from multiple cultural traditions mingled and oohed and aahed at the depiction of the fabulous bird. A little research about legends of the phoenix show the magic bird as a staple in the mythology of multiple civilizations, including Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese: 

“In Asia the phoenix reigns over all the birds, and is the symbol of the Chinese Empress and feminine grace, as well as the sun and the south. The sighting of the phoenix is a good sign that a wise leader has ascended to the throne and a new era has begun. It was representative of Chinese virtues: goodness, duty, propriety, kindness and reliability. Palaces and temples are guarded by ceramic protective beasts, all led by the phoenix.” ( https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ancient-symbolism-magical-phoenix-002020; accessed 2020/03/27) 

When our town’s lantern display was packed up for return to Zigong in mid-January, it was nearly time for Chinese New Year (or “Spring Festival,” celebrated in 2020 starting on January 25). The upcoming Chinese year would start another cycle of the 12-animal Chinese zodiac, which includes the dragon, along with eleven other real-life animals (in sequence: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig). So far, the phoenix has not become part of the Chinese zodiac, though the mythic bird is often considered the feminine counterpart to the masculine dragon. 

Now that covid-19 has become a global pandemic, I’ve been asked, like more and more people all over the world, to self-isolate at home to reduce the speed of the virus’s spread, allowing health care systems time to adapt by “flattening the curve” of new infections. If I’m a bit bored, it’s a small price to pay for a larger social good. The next generation in our family includes two members of hospital medical staffs, and their safety is a big concern.  

This enforced time at home gives me license to engage in reveries about the mythical bird. Many legends of the phoenix depict it as an extremely long-lived creature who senses approaching death, builds her own funeral pyre, and then dies in fiery majesty. Shortly afterwards, the next generation of phoenix rises from the ashes.  

What might the symbol of the phoenix mean as 2020 begins with a global pandemic—the death of an overly competitive ethos and the dawning of an age of more thorough global cooperation? a rethinking of our interlocking systems of education, health care, corrections, and social welfare? a reining in of our preoccupation with material wealth? renewed reverence for the natural world that supports us all? 

Let’s hope that 2020 will turn out to be a year of the phoenix.   

Phoenix lantern at NC Chinese Lantern Festival

The Bus Seat Rule

The Bus Seat Rule  –by Jinny Batterson

(for Mr. McNeill on St. Patrick’s Day)

My long-ago high school chemistry teacher
Was an irascible Irishman, equally
Passionate for his subject and his students.
Not having chosen chemistry as a career,
I’ve forgotten much of the content he taught,
But I remember one teaching tool:
The bus seat rule.

As you watched a bus fill up with strangers,
He’d explain (or an atom with electrons),
You’d notice that, while any empty seats remained,
Each new passenger would gravitate to one.
Not until the last empty seat was taken
Would people begin to pair up.

Another lengthy telephone conference call.
Much time and attention devoted to
Seemingly trivial matters as other folks
Concerned themselves instead with global pandemics.

We reformers and activists can too often
Follow the bus seat rule–
Each staking out our solo seat
For saving the world.

It could be discouraging, unless we have faith
That more people are boarding the bus
Than are getting off, unless we can also imagine,
Even in trying times, a bus  brimming with
Reform-minded high schoolers,
Returning from the world’s ultimate field trip,
At the exact instant when the mood shifts
From levity to “We Shall Overcome.”

 

American Democracy: Listening to Two Georges

American Democracy: Listening to Two Georges   —by Jinny Batterson

Back before most holidays were on Mondays, we celebrated George Washington’s birthday each year on February 22. Though the fable about young Georgie chopping down the cherry tree and then owning up to his misdeed is likely more legend than truth, it is quite true that our first national President could easily have been re-elected in 1796 and chose not to run for another term. Instead, Washington sent a letter to Congress expressing his sense of the young country, thanking his colleagues for the opportunity to serve, looking forward to his retirement, and warning the new republic of some of the pitfalls it might face going forward. He cautioned against the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation’s domestic affairs. 

For the past century and a half, nearly every year around the time of Washington’s birthday, a U.S. Senator has been assigned to read Washington’s entire farewell letter and then to inscribe his or her name and brief remarks into a leather bound book maintained by the Secretary of the Senate (https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.htm). I haven’t yet found a record of which Senator will have the honor of doing the 2020 reading.  

As this year’s election cycle heats up, I am often outraged by the depths of corruption in the current U.S. national administration. Rather than “draining the swamp,” this administration has done its utmost to fill said swamp with sleazier, bigger alligators. Factionalism seems the order of the day. Both documented instances and rumors of foreign interference in our electoral process abound. Our current chief executive rarely confers with advisors and bridles at any criticism. He relishes vilifying opponents. He fires or forces resignations of long-term military and civil servants seemingly at will. He believes that only his views and desires matter, a sort of universal pass—“you have to let me, because I’m the star.” 

It’s likely to take a great deal of work by a lot of us, combined with a small modicum of luck, to reorient our national politics, whose slide into sectionalism, factionalism, and interference by foreign powers has tainted both political parties for a good while. Within my voting adulthood since 1968, we’ve had one Presidential resignation, two Presidential impeachments, plus several other national scandals. During the same period, we’ve had major changes in our media landscapes, our manufacturing processes, our economy, our demographics, our communications and transportation technologies, and the state of the global economy. Nevertheless, President Washington’s concerns are still relevant. 

A more recent former President had a bit of trouble correctly quoting an earlier proverb, but got the gist of it across. In 2002, George W. Bush admonished a Tennessee audience with a paraphrase of the aphorism: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”  It’s high time we listened to both Georges.   

While We Were Away

While We Were Away    —by Jinny Batterson

While we were away, heartened by or hiding from
The tropical sun, walking the sandy beaches at dawn
Or swimming in warm waters midmorning,
While we were away, the early daffodils began
Blooming, but the tulips lured by a mild January
Got chomped to the base by browsing deer.

While we were away, the birdbath I’d emptied
To avoid having it cracked by winter ice
Was instead picked up and overturned by
March-like winds, though the bird feeders
Continued their cooler weather work of
Helping prospective parents bulk up for spring.

While we were away, a new-to-humans virus spread from
An initial center at the Chinese city of Wuhan
To most regions of the globe, engendering worry,
Research, and sales of face masks and hand sanitizer,
While the U.S. legislature continued its descent into more
And more abstruse angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate.

While we were away, the British government,
Having at length realized it no longer ruled the world,
Completed another step in its bid to ignore that world,
To hoard what remained of its material wealth,
Announcing to erstwhile partners that it had chosen
Instead to take its marbles and go home. 

While we were away, we played old and new games,
Each winning some, losing others. We purchased
Travel mementos from some of the tropical peoples who’d
Made both British and American empires possible.
Returning either tanned or more freckled,
We’ve brought back some adjusted mental context
That may prove useful while we are at home.

Virtual Reality, Deepfakes, 1000 Hours Outside…

Virtual Reality, Deepfakes, 1000 Hours Outside…   —by Jinny Batterson

As a boomer, I notice that my faculties are slowly declining. Also, habits younger folks now have are different from the ones I grew up with. Back in the 1950’s, parents and other adults fretted that we children and teens might turn into zombies from drinking too much unhealthy milk (contaminated by radiation from atmospheric nuclear tests) and watching too much television. Most nuclear testing has by now gone underground. The media landscape has evolved considerably. 

Now we have virtual reality. According to a recent article in Forbes Magazine (https://www.forbes.com/sites/solrogers/2019/06/21/2019-the-year-virtual-reality-gets-real/#3338ad6e6ba9), this technology is rapidly gaining adherents: “Worldwide, VR market volume is expected to reach 98.4 million sales by 2023, generating an installed base of 168 million units with a worldwide population penetration of 2%. Growth is forecast across all regions and countries, with China leading the way.”  Will all of us eventually be festooned with virtual reality headsets that enable us to sense ourselves anywhere, anytime we want?  

A somewhat different concern is the use of artificial intelligence capabilities to produce digitally altered “deepfakes,” seemingly genuine online videos of fictitious scenarios.  Bloomberg News recently raised an alarm:  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-06/how-deepfakes-make-disinformation-more-real-than-ever-quicktake. (It may be relevant to note, in this political season, that Bloomberg’s chair, Michael Bloomberg, is a U.S. presidential candidate.) The same day, Facebook announced that it planned to ban deepfakes from its platforms, though without a lot of detail about how it intended to accomplish this. 

My reaction to the ongoing media onslaught has been to avoid too much media exposure. A generally mild January has aided my effort, kicked off by a “First Day Hike” in a nearby state park. Such hikes started a number of years ago, and last year enticed over 55,000 individuals to take January 1 hikes in parks in all 50 states (https://www.stateparks.org/initiatives-special-programs/first-day-hikes/ ).  

The family walking behind me as I hiked were carrying on a lively conversation about a program for their school-age children called “1000 hours outside.”  Started among home schooling parents, the program is an attempt to counteract the tremendous number of hours most youngsters spend in “screen time.” According to the effort’s website blog (https://1000hoursoutside.com/index.html/), “1,000 hours outside, though daunting, is doable over the course of a calendar year… If kids can consume media through screens 1200 hours a year on average then the time is there and at least some of it can and should be shifted towards a more productive and healthy outcome.”

My childhood eons ago was not as scheduled as that of current-day youngsters, but my recollections are that we spent most of our non-school, non-chore time outside, and had to be called indoors to supper, sometimes protesting vehemently. 

As a former computer professional, I’ve spent many hours of “screen time.” I’ve also benefited from advances in transportation technology to travel widely to natural areas around the globe. Through thousands of hours outdoors in many different weathers and climates, I’ve developed a perspective shared by many farmers, fishers, and foresters: We humans are a small part of creation. 

Though we’ve developed technologies with hugely destructive potential, we’d have a much harder time surviving without the rest of nature than the rest of nature would have surviving without the human race. No advances in virtual reality or deepfakes can change that.

Some 2020 Foresight

Some 2020 Foresight  —by Jinny Batterson

As we near the end of a year, the end of a decade, our media are full of predictions for coming periods. Most of these predictions will prove either fully or partially wrong. As an aging boomer female with an incomplete grasp of current culture, climate, and politics, attempts I make to foresee the future are even more prone to error. So I have a fallback position—descending probabilities. I’m old enough to remember when weather forecasts were given as “absolutes”: “It will rain tomorrow.”  Those of us with weather-dependent tasks or assets could get thoroughly disgruntled if predicted rain failed to materialize. 

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point, weather forecasters changed the way they presented their predictions. Instead of saying it would definitely rain, they provided probabilities. Especially during summer months when rain came mainly from thunderstorms that could leave one side of a street or road soaked, the other bone dry, such probabilities were a big improvement. We might still be upset if it didn’t rain on our vegetable garden or corn crop, but we were less likely to blame the predictor who gave us a 40% chance of getting rain, thus a 60% chance of our not getting any. We might make more adjustments to cope with a possible dry spell.  

At my stage of life, I’m having to learn to cope with the increasing frequency of deaths of contemporaries. As 2019 ends, I’ve just experienced the freak accidental death of a close age-mate friend, while another completes her journey down the path of a terminal illness. So, my first, top-probability prediction: 

During 2020, some of us will die (100%). 

Another certainty: 

Those who stay alive all year will be a year older at 2020’s end. 

Then it gets dicier. So here’s a set of best guesses: 

    •     Disagreements among elected U.S. officials will continue: 99%
    • The 2020 U.S. census will occur: 95%
    •     The 2020 U.S. elections will occur: 95%
    •     Women will participate in higher numbers in elections globally: 85%
    •     Results of some elections will be disputed: 80%
    •     Globally, human populations will continue to grow: 75%
    •     Globally, populations of non-human species will continue to decline: 75%
    •     Disastrous global weather events will increase in frequency and severity: 70%
    •     The human impact of wars and civil disturbances will decline globally: 30%
    •     Earth will be destroyed by an asteroid: 10%
    •     Young people will decide their elders know best: 5%

Happy New Year, all!  

Playing for a Tie

Playing for a Tie…   —by Jinny Batterson

Most of the formal games I play are board games. Competitive athletics were pretty much out of the question for this lifelong klutz. Growing up, my brothers, sister and I got lots of gift games at Christmas to carry us through the cold weather months—classics like Monopoly, Clue, Stratego, plus other “big hits” of the time that haven’t aged as well. Once we got a little older, we were given word games like Scrabble. As my vocabulary grew, I got to be a pretty good Scrabble player in my first language, English. In high school, I played a few casual games in French, but English tile values for letters like “q” and “z” were inappropriate and we never got a French-based set, so the Scrabble fad in French club quickly died out. 

In my twenties, I started playing two-person Scrabble games with my husband, the super-competitor. It rarely mattered if I got better letters. He was much better at word placement, racking up double words and triple letters all over the place. Eventually, he’d beaten me so consistently that I decided I didn’t want to play him any more. Much later, we arranged a truce of sorts—we would still play each other, just not keep score. 

Several years ago, a mutual friend introduced us to the word game Quiddler, which can be played more quickly than Scrabble and requires less space, using playing card sized letters rather than tiles and a board. Hubby still beats me the majority of the time, but not by the lopsided proportions he used to tally up in Scrabble. I occasionally have a long enough winning streak so I’m willing to keep trying. We’ve adapted the original rules slightly: we play eight rounds per game, starting with a hand of four cards each, adding one card with each successive hand. The close games are more fun than the really lopsided ones—a hand with no vowels or no consonants, especially in a later round, can put you behind so far it’s almost impossible to catch up. 

Winning is fun, losing less so, but the contests I cherish most are the rarest—about once in a hundred games, we wind up with a tie score. Jim doesn’t get as much satisfaction as I do from the ties, but he humors me. 

On a whim, I decided to see if I could get an internet read on what popular physical sports allow tie games. I found the resulting gem via Wikipedia: 

“Ties or draws are possible in some, but not all, sports and games. Such an outcome, sometimes referred to as deadlock, can (also) occur in politics, business, and wherever there are different factions regarding an issue.”

“Tie” and “draw” appeal to me a great deal more than “deadlock,” which sounds unduly negative. All of us will eventually wind up dead. All of us at some point experienced birth.  While we’re in between, we’ll likely experience some wonderfully positive times (weddings, children’s births, signature achievements, reunions with long-absent friends). Other times may make us wish temporarily for death: serious illnesses or accidents, natural disasters, financial reversals, tragedies for loved ones, divorces.  

In these fraught times, when so much of our media environment can seem intent on making our circumstances feel even more fraught, I want to put in a plug for ties. If we live in the northern hemisphere, we’re approaching the winter solstice, the time of year when daylight is minimal and dark is “winning.” Starting on December 22, though, our 24-hour day/dark cycle will tend again toward balance, toward a “tie” at the equinox. Nature provides two such ties per year. 

Ties have a different connotation than deadlocks; ties can be enjoyable, special.  Let’s learn or relearn how to savor them.   

 

 

Poinsettia Day

Poinsettia Day    —by Jinny Batterson

December 12 has been proclaimed “Poinsettia Day” in the United States. The designation honors a plant brought to the U.S. by  Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829). Poinsett’s love of botany persisted while he trained as a physician. His career mostly went a different direction. While serving in Mexico, Poinsett continued to maintain hothouses on his Greenville, South Carolina plantations. In about 1828, he sent some poinsettias back from Mexico to be propagated. He later gave cuttings to John Bartram of Philadelphia, who introduced the plant to other nurserymen. Over time, the poinsettia in many variations has become a top selling Christmas plant,  with about 33 million poinsettias sold each year. 

Our 2019 experiments with “forcing” the two poinsettias given us by a neighbor after last year’s holidays were not entirely successful. Although the plants survived two successive transplantings—from pot to ground once frost was finished in spring, from ground back to pot before autumn’s first frost—they didn’t produce the same beautiful red bracts as store-bought plants.  I’m not sorry we tried. Even though our “home growns” were spindly and mostly stayed green, we learned from our efforts. Any plants we carry over until next year will be treated with an enhanced regimen, though likely not quite as standardized as hothouse plants. This year, as a side benefit, the exercise of taking the plants from basement to light and back twice a day has helped keep off some of this year’s holiday flab. 

Below are pictures of the two types of poinsettias gracing our hearth this holiday season. May light and life grace your home as well!  

full store-bought poinsettias, leggy home-grown from last year

A Small White Button

A Small White Button  —by Jinny Batterson

A year or so ago, someone at an anti-racism workshop gave me a small white button: BLACK LIVES MATTER, it said in black typeface on a white background, with a small circle of red edging around the whole button. Maybe an inch across, it’s not an “in your face” kind of button, although the lettering is not what you’d typically wear to a Rotary meeting. For much of the time since the workshop, the button has sat on my bedside table. When I look at it morning or evening, it reminds me of commitments I’ve made to work harder to reduce my own and American society’s racist tendencies. Most of the time the button just sits there while I go about my business elsewhere.

As a white person in Trump-era America, I can too easily let myself be cowed by mentally replaying images of gatherings like the angry mob of white supremacists that invaded Charlottesville during the summer of 2017. I can be timid, hesitant, even cowardly. “Will I put myself in jeopardy by publicly wearing a button for a cause many may misunderstand or disagree with?”   

What is the Black Lives Matter movement, anyway? Some black friends plus a bit of remedial internet sleuthing reconfirmed that the Black Lives Matter movement was started by three black women in 2013 after the shooter who killed unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin was acquitted of all charges. Trayvon Martin’s death was just one in a long series of deaths and injuries of unarmed blacks at the hands of police or armed civilians. It followed, too, a longstanding pattern of racially or gender motivated shootings, profiling, discrimination, arrests, and jail terms for those perceived as “other.” Someone needed to protest, to promote a more just approach. The women went on social media, where much BLM activism is still promoted. It’s also where much disinformation about the group gets spread. Not all black activists agree with some of BLM’s tactics; many of all races do not understand its inclusive emphasis.  

About the time of the Trayvon Martin shooting, a white librarian friend in rural South Carolina told me she’d learned to avoid any hint of condescension or derision with white colleagues and acquaintances in her economically challenged part of the Low Country. “Of course it doesn’t help to call someone a cracker or a redneck,”  she chided. “If someone talked to you that way, wouldn’t it just make your neck go redder?”  Her remarks echo when I try to remind myself of the humanity of the angry white men who converged on Charlottesville. Some of the men may have resented the continuing winnowing out of traditional middle class jobs due to outsourcing and automation. Some may have been facing financial challenges. Many may have been taught a distorted version of maleness. Trying to identify with what motivated them, I realize that when I feel insecure, I can be tempted to blame “others.” Skin color remains one of the most visible ways to “other” someone.  

Lately I’ve started wearing my small white button occasionally, rather than leaving it in solitary confinement at home. Over time, I’m adjusting when and where I put it on—showing it off to my progressive friends is not especially useful, I’ve concluded. At the other extreme, pushing it into the notice of hard-core BLM opponents is unlikely to change any minds or hearts.  

Mostly I put it on while running the everyday errands that are part of a retiree’s life this holiday season—banking, eating out, shopping, buying stamps, sending packages. Black lives DO matter. That they matter does not make my life matter any less. Once in a while, a black postal worker, a fast food restaurant worker, a lunch companion or a store clerk will smile after noticing my button. It affirms their dignity at the same time it reminds both of us of our common humanity. 

Wisely wearing my small white button is a very small risk. Experiencing the smiles it sometimes calls forth is a reward for which I’m thankful. 

Selective Memory and Finishing the Work We are In

Selective Memory and Finishing the Work We Are In  —by Jinny Batterson

I can remember parts of events that happened when I was much younger. On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was a Maryland high school student. I remember hearing our school principal start an announcement over the school intercom that day at an unusual time for announcements. I remember coming down the stairwell between the two floors of our building along with many other students changing classes. 

I don’t remember whether the announcement I heard while going downstairs was the first—that President Kennedy had been shot—or the second—that he had shortly afterward been pronounced dead at a Dallas hospital. I don’t remember whether school that day was dismissed early or whether school was canceled the following Monday for his funeral. I don’t remember much about that year’s Thanksgiving the following Thursday. 

Earlier in 1963, there had been a tense standoff between the nuclear-armed U.S.A. under Kennedy’s leadership, and the nuclear-armed U.S.S.R. under Nikita Khrushchev about the positioning of nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, then led by Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro. I don’t remember whether my dad built a nuclear fallout shelter in our front yard before or after Kennedy was shot.  

Parts of our education when I was a student involved memorizing famous poems and speeches. I can recite most of a short Abraham Lincoln speech from a century earlier, first spoken in November, 1863 at a dedication ceremony for a military cemetery at the site of one of the U.S. Civil War’s deadliest battles:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are …testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.…The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. …It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

In the tragic days after Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, his Gettysburg speech was nearly forgotten. Later, the contents of the speech took on more importance. When the current Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 1922, the Gettysburg Address was inscribed on one of the monument’s inside walls.  

We are now experiencing another test of the viability of our democratic institutions. Each of us brings different memories to an ongoing impeachment inquiry. Witnesses and questioners interpret incidents differently, partly based on their training and point of view. Our current President ran for office touting the belief that our nation could return to a time when the U.S. was preeminent in global affairs. As an astute businessman, he could “fix things.” Some seem to think his position grants him nearly unlimited license to promote his own interests. Attempts to remove him from office are “character assassination.” Others less charitable to the President point out that our political system is based on checks and balances designed to restrict any one person or political entity from rigging the system to his own benefit, from “fixing things.” 

Absent from the immediate debates and questioning are considerations of the impacts of global over-dependence on fossil fuels to human and planetary health. Scientists tell us that both the United States of America and the rest of the world’s nations have only a decade or so to drastically curb our output of the climate-warming gasses produced by burning fossil fuels if we are to maintain a planet capable of supporting human life as we know it.

On another wall of the Lincoln Memorial is his second inaugural, delivered in March, 1865, just over a month before his assassination. We might be wise to remember its conclusion:  

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 

Regardless of the outcome of our immediate political crises, climate change requires all of us to strive on, using whatever tools of intellect, wealth, compassion, and ingenuity are at our disposal, to finish the work we are in.