Category Archives: travel

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.”

 

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.

Partial Truth

Partial Truth

I joyously affirm that I
Will tell the part of the truth
I can discern at this moment,
Not trusting solely
In my own instincts,
But drawing wisdom, too,
From my fellow humans
And other creatures, also,
As we strive to move closer
To the wholeness that nature
Reestablishes again and again
Now and forever.  

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.

The PRC at 70

The PRC at 70  —by Jinny Batterson

She’s an impressive dowager,
A real rags to riches story–
Rising from the ashes of
A brutal civil war,
After a century of quasi-colonial
Oppression, she turned inward
And recreated herself.

A few convulsions temporarily
Sidelined her progress,
But now she stands proud–
The world’s greatest factory floor,
Flooding our shelves with goods
We couldn’t have imagined
A scant generation ago.

Of course she suffers from arthritis—
Twinges in her toes.
At her other extremity,
A bowl shaped desert
That refuses to be reeducated.

No pigeons or kites flock or weave
Above the scrubbed multitudes
As tanks again roll down Chang An
Avenue. Onlookers wave
Well-choreographed flags.

May she be wise and gracious
In old age. May her poets
Sleep securely in well-thatched
Cottages. Happy Birthday!
People’s Republic. 
 

Children’s Crusades and Adult Enablers

Children’s Crusades and Adult Enablers  —by Jinny Batterson

Early in the 13th century, during the summer of 1212, a pilgrimage known as the “Childrens’ Crusade” headed for the Holy Land. Many details about the crusade are disputed. It seems likely that few, if any, of the participants reached Jerusalem or anywhere close. According to information in the lead paragraph of the relevant Wikipedia article: 

“The traditional narrative is likely conflated from some factual and mythical events which include the visions by a French boy and a German boy, an intention to peacefully convert Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity, bands of children marching to Italy, and children being sold into slavery. Many children were tricked by merchants and sailed over to what they thought were the holy lands but, in reality, were slave markets.” 

(reference the year 1212 to clarify your search at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children%27s_Crusade)

Estimates of the number of participants are in the tens of thousands. It’s not clear what roles adults at the time may have played in assisting the young crusaders.   

A more recent “childrens’ crusade” took place in Birmingham, Alabama during May, 1963, when over a thousand students trained in non-violent protest techniques left their schools and marched toward downtown Birmingham to protest Jim Crow laws and ongoing racial discrimination. Their actions and the vicious responses of Birmingham’s law enforcement officials “went viral” over 1960’s-era media, prompting outrage that helped prepare the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  

In the past year or so, we’ve seen the birth of two modern youth crusades: one concerning the U.S. epidemic of gun violence, the other spreading awareness of the need for concerted action in the face of the worsening global impacts of climate change.

After a mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2018, survivors and their families held a candlelight vigil. Several students then sat up for most of the night hatching a social media campaign to help reduce gun violence. Their efforts coalesced around the hashtag #NeverAgain, which has morphed into a national movement advocating for changes in gun laws to help reduce the American gun violence epidemic. In March, 2018, over a million people showed up at events nationwide during a “March for Our Lives.” Lobbying and activism continue. Though legislation at the national level remains stalled, since the Parkland shooting over twenty states and the District of Columbia have strengthened gun violence prevention measures: “red flag laws” to temporarily remove guns from the hands of individuals in crisis, enhanced background checks, waiting periods for gun purchases.  

In August, 2018, teenager Greta Thunberg began sitting outside the Swedish Parliament building holding a sign that said “Skolstrejk för climate” (“School strike for climate”). Over time, her actions drew attention and followers. On March 15, 2019, school strikes, urging adults to take responsibility and reduce climate change, took place in over 2,000 cities worldwide. An estimated 1.4 million pupils from around the world participated. On September 20, 2019, the school strike again went global, with an estimated 4 million children and adults participating in events just before the start of a U.N. Climate Summit in New York City.

In my youth, crusades centered around bringing an end to a war in Vietnam that caused huge human and environmental devastation. Controversy also surrounded the investigation into the actions of a sitting U.S. President who had attempted to “stack the deck” in the 1972 presidential election. Both issues were polarizing and sparked big protests. Afterwards, many of us got off the streets, took jobs, raised families, and left national and global issues mostly to those in positions of putative power. Yet we did not abandon our ideals or our activism, though its form may have changed. We passed on a sense of fairness, of respect for the planet, to our children and grandchildren. We continued to lobby our elected representatives on issues of concern. We changed our personal habits to be more responsible global citizens. 

Those of us who are elders now can take heart from examples of elders and adults who were not the visible images of youth crusades, but who nonetheless furthered efforts toward human rights and planetary citizenship. One elder I hold up is Juanita Abernathy, a civil rights pioneer. Along with other brave African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, Ms. Abernathy played a behind-the-scenes role in organizing and furthering a 1955-56 bus boycott to get respectful treatment for the black ridership that provided most of the profits to the then-segregated bus system. She used a typewriter and carbon copies to spread initial word about the boycott in a pre-internet age. As the boycott continued, she helped organize carpools and alternative transportation to get workers to their jobs and householders to needed shopping. For decades, she worked quietly to advance civil rights. She recently died at age 88.  Another (s)hero is Rachel Carson, who died much too soon—a little shy of her 57th birthday. She battled the pesticide establishment of her day along with metastatic cancer to produce her signature work, environmental blockbuster Silent Spring, published on this day in 1962.

Climate Change Hope

Climate Change Hope  —by Jinny Batterson

It’s been over a generation since I first became concerned that human activity might irreversibly change our planet’s climate. I’ve gradually been revising my lifestyle to reduce my input to the problem. Even now, though, if I pull up an online “carbon footprint” app to measure how many earths would be required to support all humanity in the style to which I’m currently accustomed, my number is a good bit over one. I can feel anxious sometimes.

Over my lifetime so far, I’ve had chances to visit many different world regions, and to notice adaptations in other cultures that help reduce waste and emissions without causing privation. So I continue to adapt, plus I do my best to encourage others to make lifestyle adjustments that are planet-friendly without feeling like deprivation. Some I talk with are enthusiastic; others either ignore me or offer a variety of negative responses, the most common being: 

—It’s not really a problem; see this snowball? (denial)

—It’s somebody else’s problem, I didn’t cause much of it so why should I have to fix it? (projection)

—If governments and corporations won’t fix it, what can one person do? (defeatism)

Like anyone with an opinion, I have what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” Once I’m convinced of a view, I tend to pay more attention to information that supports it and to ignore or discount contradictory information. My current view is that anyone who tries to persuade you that climate change is a simple phenomenon with a single solution has likely not done much research and/or has discounted lived experience.  Do Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and/or major increases in the number and severity of wildfires signal global warming? Does a severe winter signal the opposite? I doubt we can ever know for sure. Given the impossibility of certainty, I think it makes sense to err on the side of conserving as much of the planet’s existing climate and species as we can. I try to listen respectfully to those with different views, and to revise my opinions when reliable new information becomes available. Most of the time I’m a “glass half full” sort of person, so I try to pay attention to efforts toward reducing or adapting to climate impacts, to applaud them and, where practical, to follow suit.

London’s transportation mix, from what I saw of it on a recent visit, encouraged me. I was amazed at the number of riders of its extensive subway (“underground”) system, plus the volume of bicycle commuters and the widespread availability of dedicated bicycle lanes and monitored bicycle parking areas. Near the rental apartment complex where I was staying was a two-tiered parking lot, for bikes.  Each weekday morning, extensive stands of standardized rental bikes near the major intersections and bridges emptied out, refilling in the evening. During some of my pedestrian sightseeing, I noticed “ULEZ zone” signs posted on major thoroughfares. Via later research, I learned that this acronym is for “ultra-low emission zone,” an area covering much of central London where vehicle traffic is restricted. Only cars, trucks, and buses which meet stringent emissions standard are allowed. The zone was activated on April 8, 2019; drivers who violate it face hefty fines.

In other reading and internet exposure, I’ve come across additional worthwhile suggestions. Given my gender, I was drawn to the recommendation in the collection Drawdown, published in 2017, about the importance of educating and empowering women as a component in reducing or adapting to climate change impacts (ranking 6th best of the 100 partial solutions suggested). Recently, I came across the results of a 2019 study of the possible impact of a massive global tree-planting effort on climate. Thomas Crowther, a climate change ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, coauthored an examination of global land use and found enough suitable unused land so that a trillion trees could be planted, reforesting an area equivalent to the size of the U.S. and potentially reducing atmospheric carbon substantially. Another source of encouragement is a talk given by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian who now teaches at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas, about productive ways of talking about climate reality: “The most important thing we can do about climate change is talk about it,” posted on the TED website in December, 2018. Please let’s keep talking!    

Coming (Back) from Away

Coming (Back) from Away     —by Jinny Batterson

This year I spent much of the summer outside the U.S., on an extended trip to parts of England with my long-term husband Jim, a long-ago English literature student.  Our roughly six-week trip included several weeks of leisurely walks through parts of the English countryside, with a two-week interval mid-trip in a rented apartment in London.  When we arrived in London by train from the much smaller city of Bath, this financial and cultural global capital seemed noisy, diverse, crowded, especially at first. To exacerbate the situation, partway through our first week we experienced several days of the heat wave that had been broiling much of Europe. Gradually, we adapted. We learned to relish London’s many green spaces, to marvel at the tidal Thames just outside our apartment windows. We also went to shows, lots of shows.

Jim had scoured the internet to find a balance of venues and genres. We saw a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V in a replica of the Globe Theater. We attended a stand-up show at a small comedy club in the basement of a gay bar. We were part of an evening audience for Agatha Christie’s vintage whodunit, “The Mousetrap,” now in its 68th year. Our tickets to a reissued drama about midlife in New York City, “The Starry Messenger,” got upgraded so we were closer to the stage than our budget usually allowed. Its main character was never explicitly shown: the 1930’s building housing the Hayden Planetarium, about to be demolished in the late 1990’s when the play was set.

The performance I enjoyed most was a musical, “Come from Away,” also with a huge off-the-stage presence. Its dozen actors represented some of the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada and some of the temporary airline guests “come from ‘away’,” from off this isolated island at the eastern edge of Canada. For several days, Ganderites sheltered crew and passengers from “away” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Immediately after the attacks, U.S. air space was closed. Planes coming from Europe were diverted to Gander’s airport and sat on the tarmac there until onward flights to U.S. cities again became possible. Gander’s leaders and townspeople opened their public spaces and their homes to the refugees. They provided shelter, food, medicine, clothes, toilet facilities, and human caring, no one sure how long the visitors’ stays might last. Especially in our current political and media environment, I was grateful to be reminded of the goodness that can coexist with hatred and terror. That the performance was a musical added to my enjoyment. After a little while tuning my ear to the varying accents of British actors playing Newfies, U.S. pilots and passengers from different regions, plus passengers from many different countries, I gradually decoded the major characters’ speech patterns. From then on, the generally upbeat but not Pollyannaish plot and songs held my attention and my heart.       

Returned to the U.S., once over the worst of my post-trip jet lag, I researched the origins and performance history of “Come from Away.”  Created by married Canadian authors Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical had its genesis at a 2011 reunion gathering of some of the nearly 7,000 passengers who’d been temporarily stranded in Gander and the roughly 9,000 residents who’d provided exceptional hospitality under exceptionally trying circumstances. The show was first performed regionally in parts of Canada and the U.S. It  opened on Broadway in 2017, in London in 2019, and currently has a global touring company. (For a brief interview with authors and director, check https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0m5P-Ej5svA). I even found a recent clip from Trevor Noah’s “Daily Show”— a “street theater” performance by “Come from Away”’s Broadway cast during a mid-July 2019 partial NYC electric blackout.

Coming “back home” after England, I found it at first a little strange. Why did I not have to strain to understand people’s accents? At the same time, I was glad to have had the chance to spend time physically “away.” Not everyone has the luxury of overseas tourism, I realize. Yet whatever our physical circumstances, each morning, each one of us alive comes back on waking from the “away” of our sleeping selves. May we give thanks, then take maximum advantage of such grace-given returns.           

The Double Seventh Festival

The Double Seventh Festival (Qixi)    —by Jinny Batterson

The “Double Seventh” festival is celebrated in China on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month each year. Because the lunar calendar varies compared to the solar calendar used in most Western countries, the occurrence of the Double Seventh festival can come anywhere between late July and late August. In 2019, the festival falls on August 7. It has been called the Chinese “Valentine’s Day,” and is based on a famous legendary Chinese love tale:

Niu Lang (the Cowherd) was an orphan with a gift for nursing cattle back to health. After a god coaxed him into caring for cows in the heavens, Niu fell in love with the fairy Zhi Nu (the Weaver Girl) and the two started a family. However, the queen of heaven became jealous and caused a great river (the Milky Way) to come between them. The two were heartbroken. Their copious tears caused the queen to relent just a little—one day each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, the two were temporarily reunited.

The star Vega is often cited as representing the Weaver Girl, and the star Altair represents the Cowherd. On double seventh evening, Chinese in areas with clear skies can gaze up to see Vega and Altair shining in the Milky Way, with the star Deneb forming a symbolic bridge between them.

Similar celebrations are held throughout other countries in Asia, with variations of the legend told in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. 

In more urban areas of China, the Double Seventh festival has become less important, overshadowed by Valentine’s Day in February. In the countryside, celebrations are more likely to continue to exist, with young women exhibiting their skills in sewing and embroidery, and lovers exchanging gifts of flowers, chocolate, or decorative clothing.