Monday, January 21, 2013

Happy Inauguration Day

Celebrated: In the United States, every four years since 1789

Greetings from Washington, DC, where President Barack Obama just took the oath of office for a second term as 44th President of the United States of America.

I've been reading a lot lately, for work and for pleasure, about the pervasively corrupting force of nationalism, and how nationalism can become a pretext and an excuse for the worst of human behavior. I have never been entirely comfortable with the idea of being proud to be an American, because my American identity is an accident of lucky parentage.

And yet today reminds us of why and how it is possible to be proud of being an American — because the American identity is not about bloodlines but about the joint, collective agreement that all humans are created equal, with basic rights that include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It's right there in our founding document, the Declaration of Independence: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

To be an American is to accept the obligations of that as well as the rights. The American Dream is not about having more but about doing better, in all the ways it is possible to do better: building not just prosperity, but knowledge and kindness and courage and strength. We aspire, and that aspiration is a great thing, even if we fail along the way. "We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect," the President said today.

We can learn and we can change, not only as individuals but as a nation. That is something to be proud of, as we celebrate the election of the mixed-race son of an immigrant, on the national holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Happy National Soup Month

Celebrated: In the United States, origins obscure

A broad consensus agrees that January is National Soup Month, but I can't find any information about who declared it so, or when. But of course January is National Soup Month; soup is what you want to eat in cold weather. A food website I won't embarrass notes that soup dates to prehistoric times, and again I say of course: soup was probably the first recipe of any kind.

What is there to say about soup? "Only the pure in heart can make a good soup," wrote Ludwig von Beethoven, and the Irish poet Brendan Behan once said that if it were raining soup, the Irish would go outside with forks. But any literary discussion of soup begins and ends with the late, beloved master Maurice Sendak.
In January it's so nice
While slipping on the sliding ice
To sip hot chicken soup with rice
Sipping once, sipping twice
Sipping chicken soup with rice
That link goes to a video of the Carole King song, which I almost embedded. But then I remembered my all-time favorite TV commercial of any kind, ever, which YouTube unfairly labels as "Creepy Alien Commercial." It just happens to be for Campbell's Soup, and I am delighted to have an excuse to post it here.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Happy National Apricot Day

Celebrated: In the United States, origins obscure

I admit I didn't spend much time this morning looking for the origins of National Apricot Day, but it seems to be another industry-backed commemoration. I'd like to ask someone why this day falls in January, when the growing season is summer; if I want to buy apricots today, they'll have to be dried.

If you find US-grown apricots in the supermarket, they almost certainly came from California. About 94% of the nation's apricots are grown in California, with most of the rest coming from Washington and Utah. They need a Mediterranean-style climate — long, dry summers and cool, wet winters — and did not thrive when English explorers brought them to the East coast in the 17th century.

They're one of the oldest cultivated fruits, so old that scientists aren't sure where they originated; I've seen claims for India, China and Armenia. Alexander gets credit for introducing them to Greece, but they're also mentioned in the Bible, and the "golden apple" that started the Trojan War might well have been an apricot. Today, most of the world's apricots are grown in Turkey, Iran and Uzbekistan.

Apricots are a stone fruit, of the genus Prunus, most closely related to plum. They're important to Chinese medicine, and medieval Europeans used dried apricots to treat constipation and induce labor (a plot point in The Duchess of Malfi). Their pits have measurable amounts of cyanide in them, though not enough to kill you unless you eat a lot of them. That cyanide is part of apricots' natural compound amygdalin, which some claim can be used to treat cancer; amygdalin is the basis of the drug Laetrile, banned by the USDA in 1977. The FDA calls Laetrile a "highly toxic product that has not shown any effect on treating cancer," and Steve McQueen died while on a Laetrile treatment program in Mexico.

This is not, of course, to say that apricots killed Steve McQueen.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Happy Kim Jong-Un's Birthday

Celebrated: In North Korea since 1983 or 1984, a national holiday for the first time last year

The North Korea state radio station reported that Kim Jong-Un was personally distributing two pounds of candy to every child in North Korea in celebration of his birthday — although it's not clear how old he is, or even that today is the actual date. Officially, he's 29 today. But January 8 is also Elvis' birthday, and wouldn't that be enough to make anyone claim it for their own?

At 29, Kim Jong-Un is the world's youngest head of state. The next youngest is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Dragon King of Bhutan, who rules over fewer than a million people and — as far as we know — has no access to nuclear weapons. North Korea, on the other hand, is a nation of 24.5 million, of whom approximately 9.5 million (39%) serve in the active or reserve military or some kind of paramilitary organization.

Serving in the military is the best way to get access to food. North Korea's Songun policy, or "Military First," gives members of the military priority when distributing any scarce resources. This policy was directly responsible for astronomical (though still obscure) child mortality rates during the great famine of 1994-98, when the World Health Organization estimated death rates at 93 for every 1,000 children. Even today, if Kim Jong-Un really did give kids candy, it might be the only food they get today; drought and flooding destroyed at least 13% of last year's grain harvest, driving speculation that the country faces another terrible famine. The U.N. reported last year that one in three North Korean children are already stunted by malnutrition.

North Korea is a human rights calamity that the international community can't do much about. It's been that way for 60 years, since the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 codified the border of North and South Korea and created the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between them. Under President Obama, the U.S. has reached out to North Korea to try to stop its nuclear program and feed its people, culminating in a "Leap Day" deal last February under which North Korea agreed to suspend parts of its nuclear program in exchange for massive amounts of food aid. That deal lasted less than a month; North Korea announced plans to launch a satellite in March, and by the end of the month, the US had suspended its aid programs.

It's human nature to accept one's environment as normal, whatever "normal" may be. Disturbing that equilibrium requires outside intervention of some kind; it's no coincidence, for example, that the Soviet Union fell within a couple of years of European MTV becoming available to viewers in then-Leningrad. (I'm not saying MTV led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the realization that the rest of the world didn't live in Soviet-style misery was a critical element in the collapse of the old regime.)

A large portion of the North Korean population, however, doesn't even have reliable access to electricity. What would it take to show them the possibility of a different way of life?

Monday, January 07, 2013

Happy Plough Monday

Celebrated: In medieval England, on the first Monday after Twelfth Night

Parts of England still celebrate Plough Monday, which marks the return of farmers to the fields after the 12 days of Christmas. It's always a Monday, following the traditional blessing of the ploughs on the first Sunday of the year. On this year's calendar, today is also Distaff Day, the female equivalent, although Distaff Day is simply the first day after Twelfth Night, and can fall on any day of the week. (Apparently, spindles required no special blessing for the year. And spinning wasn't something women spent all day doing; it was what women did during their theoretical spare time, whenever they might have 15 minutes to sit without something else in their hands.)

In any case, it's the day everybody goes back to work after the holidays. Can you feel it? I can, even from my seat on the living room couch. Normal service is resuming all over the world, New Year's resolutions are clicking into place (or not), and I'd guess it will be the heaviest e-mail traffic day of the year. It feels like 2013 starts in earnest today.

The effect goes double for me, because I've spent the last month not only celebrating the holidays but indulging my seasonal depression and my grief over Dizzy. That stops today. If you've been waiting to get something back from me, I apologize for the delay, thank you for your patience, and promise you'll see it in the next day or two.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Happy Feast of the Epiphany

Celebrated: in the Christian world since about the fourth century AD/CE

First, listen to T.S. Eliot read his own poem "The Journey of the Magi":

I've seen people complaining online about Christmas lights left up this week. I wish people would leave Christmas lights up even longer, but at a minimum, they ought to stay up until today.

On this day, twelve days after Christmas, Christians celebrate the visit of three Gentile wizards (the Magi, the Wise Men, certainly astrologers, possibly magicians) to the stable where Jesus was born. The twelve-day gap between Christmas and Epiphany is almost arbitrary, as indeed the calendar date of Christmas itself is. (This entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia refers to an early debate among church leaders over the actual time of year of Jesus' birth, which scholars pegged as May, not December.) The importance of Epiphany to Catholicism and the other Christian religions is that the announcement of the Messiah's arrival was not limited to Jews; a star in the sky, visible to all, drew these pagan priests to see the child whose birth would save humanity.

I find Epiphany one of the most moving of all Christian feasts, not only because it is all about gift-giving and generosity — the Almighty's generosity to humanity, the Wise Men's extravagant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh — but because of what it must have meant to Mary and Joseph, to have strangers show up and affirm their belief. The angel of the Lord appeared unto Mary, and her whole life after that must have been terrifying. She was young, she was pregnant in a way she didn't understand at all, and the man who had promised to marry her had every right to send her away. Joseph, operating on nothing but love and faith, had taken Mary and her unborn baby on an 80-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem so they could be registered together as a family. All that love, all that hope, all that faith overriding all that fear and shame and anger — and here come the exotically-garbed Wise Men to say, "We saw a star. We have come to worship the King of the Jews."

What profound relief Mary and Joseph must have felt, what wonder and joy, to have their faith confirmed in such an odd and unexpected way. Luke tells us only, "Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart."

Friday, January 04, 2013

Happy Burmese Independence Day

Celebrated: in Burma (also known as Myanmar) since 1948, when British colonial rule ended

President Barack Obama visited Burma last November, the first visit of its kind by a sitting U.S. President. (Warning: what follows is a gross oversimplification of a complicated political history that deserves further reading.) Between 1989 and 2011, the country was controlled by a military junta that changed the country's name to Myanmar (though the US and other western countries continued to call it Burma) and suppressed political dissent and ethnic minority rights movements. Before that, the country was controlled from 1962 to 1974 by a "revolutionary council" headed by General Ne Win, and from 1974 to 1988 by the Burma Socialist Programme Party, also headed by General Ne Win and his military cronies.

By 1988, Burma, a land of immense natural resources (among them oil, gas, timber, copper, and precious stones), had become one of the world's most desperately poor, oppressed nations. General Ne Win and his successors looted the country for personal gain; in 2011, Transparency International cited Myanmar as the world's third-most corrupt public sector, second only to North Korea and Somalia.

So why did the President go to Burma last year? Because things are — fingers and toes crossed — looking up. Two events permanently shook the government of Myanmar in the spring of 2008: a constitutional referendum, in April, and Cyclone Nargis in May, which killed more than 130,000 people. No one could deny that Burma's self-imposed isolation made that disaster worse than it needed to be; Burma's military leaders initially blocked offers of aid from the West, even denying visas to aid workers. General elections in 2010 were fraught with manipulation and deceit, but the military junta finally dissolved in 2011.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese opposition, was released from house arrest at the end of 2010, and took office last May as a member of the Burmese House of Representatives. President Obama met with both her and President Thein Sein, a retired general some call Burma's Gorbachev. The US has eased economic sanctions against Burma in place since 1997, and announced plans to appoint the first US ambassador to Burma since 1990.

We take democracy for granted in the United States, as much as it frustrates us, but it's not an easy system. The transition from any kind of absolute rule to democracy is daunting, because it requires a small number of people to give up what they have. Throughout human history, the traditional way of persuading people to do that has been violent revolution. Dead people can't own things. Dead people can't rule. The road toward peaceful democratic rule takes quantities of imagination and goodwill that don't come naturally to most of us, which is why we remember and honor the ones who show us how it's done.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Happy Fruitcake Toss Day

Celebrated: in the U.S. on January 3, at least since the mid-1990s (origins obscure)

Why so much hostility to fruitcake? I like it, and I'm not ashamed to say so. I thought about making my mother's recipe this year, but didn't get around to it, and no one else in my family did, either. It takes about six weeks to do it right, because after you bake the cake, you have to douse it in brandy and/or Grand Marnier and let it ferment for a while. You use high-quality fruit and none of those plasticized cubes, and it's great.

But I'm obviously in the minority, and some people feel pretty violent about this. Since 1995, the town of Manitou Springs, Colorado has held an annual Great Fruitcake Toss, similar to "pumpkin chunking" events held elsewhere in October. Contestants compete on distance, accuracy, and the ability to catch a fruitcake (weighing at least one pound) thrown by a mechanical device. (The rules specify, nothing gasoline-powered – safety first!)

Fruitcakes date back to Roman times, when they were a practical way to preserve and consume exotic fruits out of season. They represented wealth and abundance, and were traditionally used as wedding cakes. Their popularity peaked in England under Queen Victoria, who was especially fond of fruitcake and often served it at tea.

I'm always fascinated by fashions in food. How do foods come into style, and go out? Why don't we eat aspics anymore? (Other than the fact that they're gross, of course.) Will it ever be cool to like fruitcake again?

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Happy Braille Literacy Month

Celebrated: By and for the blind, although I'm not sure since when. National Braille Week is January 4-10.

Louis Braille (1809-1852) lost his vision before the age of five because of an injury-related infection that could probably be treated easily today. He learned to read using the HaĆ¼y system of raised letters, which substituted the sense of touch for the sense of vision. Braille took that idea one step further by adapting a military "night writing" system of dots and dashes into an alphabet based on a six-dot cell. The six dots can be combined in 63 possible ways, allowing for symbols for letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. Braille has evolved over the years to accommodate contractions and a kind of shorthand, with three "grades" available for beginning, intermediate and advanced readers.

Louis Braille published his system in 1839, while simultaneously working with the scientist Pierre Foucault on a typewriter-style machine that would emboss these dots on a page. The National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, where Braille had been educated and later served as a teacher, rejected Braille's system, and he died of tuberculosis in 1852. Although schools for the blind in other countries had started to teach braille before that, the system didn't fully capture the world's imagination until Foucault introduced his Braille typewriter at the Paris World's Fair in 1855.

Braille is a medium, not a language. My Grandma Lamb spent her career as a kindergarten teacher at the Lavelle School for the Blind, where she taught kids basic life skills — including the braille alphabet. Some of my earliest memories are of braille flashcards and record labels; at one point I could recognize the 26 alphabet letters myself, though I couldn't do it now.

For more than 150 years, braille has made the world more accessible for the blind, but its use has been declining. Some of that is the collateral damage of good intentions: mainstreaming blind kids into the school system has made their social lives easier, but has cut the most important source of braille education, specialized teachers. Better, cheaper audio technology has made more material available to blind students, though it carries obvious drawbacks: it requires electricity, and it usually requires headphones, which isolate kids even more than blindness already does.

Also, as the American Foundation for the Blind points out, "listening to a book is not the same as knowing how to read it." More than a third of legally blind students (21 and under) in the United States are classified as "non-readers." They don't have enough vision to read enhanced print, but they're not literate in braille, either. They rely on audio resources for their information. As someone facing my own vision challenges, I find that an unacceptable level of dependency on technology and the kindness of strangers. The AFB is pursuing federal legislation to make more literacy resources available to students, but you can also help with private donations to them and to Lighthouse International.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy New Year!

Celebrated: Worldwide since humans started to keep calendars, sometime before the 21st century BC

(Source: StoryPeople)

I have a feeling this is how my year's going to go, whether I want it to or not. That's okay. I'm overdue.

Last night I saw a passing reference to the fact that Christian Scientists don't celebrate New Year's Eve, which I hadn't realized but makes sense. Christian Science holds that all is is spirit, and that the material is only a manifestation of spirit (which is not the same as an illusion). So they don't acknowledge the passage of time, because spirit is eternal.

But I think — begging to differ with Mary Baker Eddy, who's not around to defend herself — that the passage of time might be the most important way we know we and the world around us have been created, and thus are different from the Creator. The passage of time is not only what makes us aware of our creation, but grateful for it, because we're not here for very long, even if we live to be 100.

I'd think more about that, but I need to choose a pair of "dress pajamas" for the annual New Year's brunch at Slates. Here's to 2013.