Category Archives: News and Current Events

Earth Day Is a Sham

by Matt McKinnon

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I am very fond of the earth. I live here, and have now for almost five decades. It’s the only home I have ever known, and I plan on retiring here and someday giving back to the earth by, well, decomposing and becoming dirt.

Ashes to ashes and all that.

I also love to garden. I love the feel of dirt between my fingers: the rich, dark stardust that collected after the Big Bang and has nourished the origin and descent of our species, of all species, since the beginning of life.

In fact, my favorite part of gardening is not the planting, which is a close second. Or the harvesting, though I enjoy the fruits of my garden immeasurably. No, my favorite part is composting: Meticulously collecting all the bits and scraps from the kitchen as well as the garden to supply generous amounts of “greens” for nitrogen, shredding junk mail (and when I taught face-to-face, unclaimed papers) to add the proper amount of “browns” for carbon, assembling them all in my composter, and religiously turning and stirring to get the desired result of rich, black, humus.

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The good stuff.

(The sweet smell of a properly-proportioned compost pile is actually quite intoxicating.)

So my favorite part of gardening is not just sticking my hands in the earth, but making it.

I have always loved the earth, literally, for as long as I can remember. One of my first memories is getting home from church on Easter Sunday, brightly arrayed in my new pastel-colored Easter suit, and making a mad dash for the dirt, new plastic bulldozer in hand to play in my beloved earth.

I must have been maybe five years old.

And all through my childhood the place my friends and I played most regularly was a lower, barren part of my neighbor’s backyard that we endearingly called “down in the dirt.” As in: “I’ll be back later mom; we’re going down in the dirt.”

And when my wife was a teacher, I would happily assist her in making the annual “Earth Day Cake,” complete with crushed Oreos and gummy worms. Not too dissimilar from the mud pies I used to make in my own backyard.

So it is with much pain and anguish that I proclaim Earth Day to be a sham. A fraud. A ruse. Perpetrated by both well-meaning environmentalists (like myself) and corporate interests with ulterior motives.

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The problem, of course, is not the idea or intent: Celebrating the earth that sustains all that we are, as well as raising awareness of exactly what we humans are doing to our planet.

No, the problem is that Earth Day, far from being a rousing success, has actually been an abject failure.

Though this, of course, depends on how you look at it.

From a PR perspective (is there any other where public policy is concerned), Earth Day has been wildly successful. First proposed in 1969 by peace activist John McConnell to honor the earth as well as peace, and celebrated annually on April 22nd, Earth Day has grown from its initial celebration mostly in schools and colleges across the United States to become the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by some one billion people in over 192 countries.

But from a practical perspective, the movement has not had the desired effect of meaningfully arresting the manner in which we are still destroying the earth. Even more so than in 1970. Heck, it hasn’t even managed to convince most Americans that we are experiencing an ecological crisis.

Though perhaps it makes us feel better about it, at least one day a year.

And therein is the problem. Couched in terminology of honoring the earth, and even cleaning it up a bit, Earth Day domesticates what is arguably the greatest catastrophe to ever befall humanity: the impending collapse of an environment that is hospitable to human survival.

There have, of course, been other extinction events before—five in fact, with the largest being the “Great Dying” (or Permian-Triassic extinction event for all those biogeeks out there), some 252 million years ago, which resulted in the extinction of an estimated 90% of all species. The most famous, arguably, is the last major extinction, the Cretacious-Paleogene extinction event around 66 million years ago that resulted in the loss of 75% of all species, including everyone’s favorite—all those non-avian dinosaurs. This of course was followed by the rise of mammals (and birds) as the dominant land vertebrates. Which has ultimately led us to the precipice of a sixth extinction event.

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Many scientists (PBS reports 70% of all biologists) predict that we are now in the beginning of another extinction event, the first (and probably last) ever to be caused by humans. (The same humans, incidentally, who celebrate Earth Day every year.) The result of this current extinction may compete in magnitude with the Great Dying, resulting in the extinction of nearly 90% of all living species. And potentially in a much quicker manner than the previous five extinction events of the past.

Of course, the data is not conclusive and the consensus is not unanimous, as it rarely is in science, or anything else for that matter.

But what is clear is that, regardless of what the population believes about “climate change” or “global warming,” we humans have polluted and destroyed parts of the earth to the extent that they may never recover—at least not in terms of being able to support life as we know it. (And by that I mean human life as well as those things that support human life.)

More so than the recent coal ash spills in our own neighborhood or the release of toxic chemicals in West Virginia, the oceans are perhaps the best example of how much humans have destroyed and are continuing to destroy the earth’s environment.

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Floating islands of trash in the Pacific Gyre.

So let’s be clear in a manner that climate change or global warming cannot: the oceans are dying at an alarming rate. And by “dying” I don’t mean metaphorically. I mean literally. As in, studies suggest that all of the world’s corals may be extinct by the end of this century due to the acidification of the oceans caused mostly by the carbon dioxide emissions from human activity. And once the oceans die, well, human survival becomes more than a little tenuous.

And yet instead of debating what best to do about the great damage we have already caused to the earth, we are instead debating how to regulate fracking (if at all), whether to institute a “carbon tax,” and whether or not to build a pipeline from the oil sands in Canada to refineries in the United States. Rest assured: such debates are moot. For if we succeed in burning all of the oil available in those sands as well as the natural gas and coal we extract from the ground here in the US, then our fate is sealed. Along with that of anywhere upwards of 90% of the species who inhabit earth along with us.

6Oh, I almost forgot:

Have a Happy Earth Day.

 

The Hidden Cost of War

by Carrie Levesque

© Airborn Guy

A shadow of a soldier contemplating suicide (photo © Airborne Guy).

I haven’t been able to get the statistic out of my mind: 22 veterans a day commit suicide in the United States. How can such a number not rattle us all? How would we respond if 22 teachers a day were committing suicide? Or doctors? Or police officers?

I think we would want answers. We would talk about this daily in our communities. We would seek action. Do we? Are we?

Not including veterans.

…and that’s not including veterans.

At this rate, every four and a half months, veteran suicides exceed the death toll from 9/11, the event that triggered our two most recent wars. What will it take to get the same leave-no-stone-unturned, spare-no-expense commitment from our government to address this tragedy?

It’s important to clarify that the numbers on military suicides are not easy to interpret. With PTSD so much in the news due to the recent shootings, it’s easy to assume that most of these cases are those recently traumatized by their service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A soldier in Iraq.

A soldier in Iraq.

Yet according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (PDF), 69% of veterans who have committed suicide are over 50, and have presumably been out of the military for some time. According to the LA Times, “Many older veterans are killing themselves for the same reasons that other civilians in the same age group kill themselves: depression and other mental health problems coupled with difficult life circumstances.”

Nevertheless, other studies estimate that among younger veterans and active duty personnel (the other 31% in that VA study), the suicide rate is twice that of the civilian population. While it’s true that studies on this issue have many limitations, one thing they all agree upon is the high likelihood that suicide among young veterans and active personnel is underreported.

In addition, many young veteran fatalities that would not be included in this statistic involve those who survive combat only to perish through alcoholism, drug abuse and other self-destructive behavior. Between 2006 and 2011, young veterans in California “were twice as likely to be a victim of a fatal motor vehicle crash and a quarter more likely to suffer other deadly accidents,” a pattern also seen in a 1987 study of veterans who had served in Vietnam and again in the mid-1990s among Gulf War veterans (LATimes).

Whatever the age of these veterans, however recent or distant their service, these numbers are alarming. No one disputes that our nation has a serious problem. “An epidemic,” Senator John Walsh has called it.

Veteran Crisis Line poster (slightly outdated).

Veteran Crisis Line poster (slightly outdated).

So why do we tolerate this problem? My guess is, its invisibility. Most of us don’t see soldiers every day, like we see teachers, doctors, policemen; soldiers are out, isolated elsewhere, doing what they do. Deployed to faraway lands or secluded on bases, behind well-guarded fences. As veterans’ advocate Jeff Hensley explains in “The High Cost of Doing Nothing,” these victims “were men and women who stood watch while our nation went about its business, blissfully unaware of their sacrifice.”

If soldiers are invisible, their families are even more so. Beyond the drama of “Army Wives” is a world we civilians have little genuine understanding of. In large part, we have no understanding of this world and its suffering because it is so taboo for them to talk about it.

A soldier and his daughter.

A soldier and his daughter.

In my class Women, War and Terror, we discuss Carol Cohn’s theories about “the ways in which gender discourse intertwines with and permeates” our thinking about war. “The impact of gender discourse…is that some things get left out.”

“What is it that cannot be spoken?” Cohn asks. “First, any words that express an emotional awareness of the desperate human reality behind the sanitized abstractions of death and destruction.” When we talk about war, “Weapons’ effects may be spoken of only in the most clinical and abstract terms, leaving no room to imagine a seven-year-old boy with his flesh melting away from his bones or a toddler with her skin hanging down in strips…. Psychological effects—on the soldiers fighting the war or on the citizens injured, or fearing for their own safety…all of these are not to be talked about…. What gets left out, then, is the emotional, the concrete, the particular, the human bodies and their vulnerability, human lives and their subjectivity—all of which are marked as feminine in the binary dichotomies of gender discourse” (“Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War”).

Marines in Fallujah, Iraq (note the guarded postures and the body at their feet).

Marines in Fallujah, Iraq (note the guarded postures and the body at their feet).

Soldiers, regardless of their sex, more than any other group, have it ingrained in them to take their suffering silently, “like a man.” The same is expected of their families.

“Be strong. Don’t complain. Never worry or distract your warrior when he’s on deployment. Defend the home. Liz [Snell] doesn’t remember anyone telling her how a good military spouse behaves. It was just understood,” goes the story in CNN’s “The Uncounted,” a powerful, in-depth look at the issue of suicides among military family members. It’s worth reading every word.

Snell and her daughter in "The Uncounted"

Snell and her children in “The Uncounted”

We are currently preparing for a withdrawal from Afghanistan that may or may not materialize, and are somehow always on the lookout for more conflicts to get involved in to keep our military-industrial complex going. But there is no more urgent conflict for our military to take on than the one of its own making: reinforcing an inadequate and overwhelmed system for providing desperately needed services for our servicemen and women and their families.

Flight 370 and the Fear of Flying

by Doug McCarty

The search for Malaysia Flight 370.

The search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

I am a little scared. Why? Well, it so happens that my two dearest and closest relatives are flying almost simultaneously on long trips. My oldest daughter is flying to Portugal in early April, and my younger daughter flies to Orlando a few days later for her first Disney visit. And, why am I concerned, you may be thinking?

It has been in the news, in our faces, night and day, the fate of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. I am excited for my daughters, but I am, much like any other parent, worried over the trustworthiness of the system of flight into which I must place them. Now, I have made many long flights myself, have flown for many hours on large jets towards foreign destinations, yet I have never been at ease with these journeys. Nor have others—I only had to look around me to see my fellow passengers downing alcoholic beverage after alcoholic beverage to realize that my lack of comfort was shared by many. Not terribly reassuring. I recall looking out at the deep, dark Atlantic from my window seat on one flight, a thousand miles yet to go, and, I thought, “Don’t go down.”

And, what do I think when I conceive my children miles above open water flying? The same thoughts that I always had for myself during my flights to other countries, other experiences, cultures. There is that feeling, that innermost twisting, the unexplained feeling of dread, of loss. Certainly, those who had ties to the passengers and crew of Malaysian Flight 370 know it well, accompanied by that tragic knowledge of the irretrievable in the aftermath of what little we now know of the plane’s demise in or over the Indian Ocean.

My Girls.

My Girls.

In our contemporary culture, we demand so much information, promptly delivered. We require that moment of instant gratification, that sense of closure, fulfillment, a quick peace. My father (who is approaching 80) observed while I was writing this blog that, 30 years ago, when he was about my age, a plane could go down in the ocean, and we would not expect to find it. That is hardly true today, 3 weeks plus after Flight 370 vanished. The 24-hour news channels feed us non-stories about what may have occurred, much of it pure speculation. The rather silly theory of terrorism that made its frantic way through the news has largely been abandoned. Granted, terrorist links are still being investigated, chiefly by the U.S., which is focusing on two Iranian citizens who boarded the plane using stolen Austrian and Italian passports. Interpol, however, does not believe that either of the two Iranians were terrorists, a view shared by other countries investigating this possibility. At present, it seems most likely that the two planned to migrate to Europe. That early knee-jerk reaction is interesting, as it heaped fuel upon the speculative flame. Too often, we look for answers without considering the evidence we have before us, or even waiting for the evidence to arrive. As I write, I am watching a CNN discussion of the black box, pingers, sophisticated equipment on the way from the U.S. and China, and I get the sense of urgency as they talk about the 30-day battery life of the black box.

The Black Box.

A “Black Box” Flight Recorder.

I guess one of the problems is that the whole episode makes so little sense that it is almost impossible to contrive a reasonable explanation for whatever happened to Flight 370. There is that talk going on now of possible mechanical failure causing the pilots to speed up, maybe in an effort to get back to the airport, but that explains nothing about why the plane flew over land and back into the ocean. And, no communication is another issue. Why would a pilot in peril not communicate?

Thinking on how safe it is to fly versus to drive, I looked up a few statistics. It turns out that the odds of dying by car per mile are 1 in 100,000, by plane, 1.6 in 100,000,000,000. In other words, one is 625,000 more times likely to die in a car driven per mile than in a plane flown per mile. Now, that seems fairly reassuring news, but when taken into account how many car trips are taken each year (300 billion) versus flights, the numbers become less reassuring. The odds become, then, of dying by car one in 10,000,000, by plane, one in 720,000,000. So, that means one is only 72 times more likely to die by car than by airplane. One would wish a more comfortable margin. Of course, this data is from just one website, and there are many disparities between statistics. I did find one that says, “When we fly, we have a one one-hundred-thousandth of one percent chance of dying.” That is comforting to me, personally, although I know it is not to the families and friends of those lost on Flight 370.

Debris in the ocean.

Debris in the ocean.

At this point, debris and objects retrieved from the Indian Ocean have proved to be unrelated to the flight. There are dozens of ships and planes in the area from a multitude of countries. One wonders if these amassed forces will be sufficient to unravel the mystery surrounding this plane’s disappearance. The intensity and scale of the search is increasing hourly, and it has been said that, if this mystery has a solution, then the searchers will find it. I hope for the sake of those left behind that this is true.

Revisiting Richard III

by Doug McCarty

Garage Sale Books.

Garage Sale Books.

I remember when I was quite young, not quite eight years old, and I visited a neighborhood garage sale. I liked to read and was fairly precocious, so it was natural for me to be drawn to a box of old books in a corner, barely visible among all the various knickknacks and junk. Most of what was in the box was pretty uninteresting, the usual Reader’s Digest collections in hardback and the like. I did find something, though, that caught my eye—a tattered three-volume collection of Shakespeare’s works. I think I paid a dime for all three books.

Wm. Shakespeare

William Shakespeare.

Now, what is a seven-year-old going to do with Shakespeare? Not that much, at first. The collection sat in the bookshelves in my room until a got a little older. Once I started, however, I read the entire set, all the plays, all the poems. I may not have understood everything I was reading all that well, but I kept on and on.

Certain plays held my attention more than others, Richard III especially. Any of you who have read the play or seen one or more of the numerous film adaptions know well the historical description of this king as a deformed hunchback with a withered arm who had his nephews (the sons of his late brother Edward IV) murdered in the Tower of London and who seized the crown through nefarious means. This description bothered me from the beginning, although I could never put my finger on why. Shakespeare, of course, could hardly write about the late king in a positive light, given that in 1591, when the play was probably written, the Tudor line that overthrew and killed Richard was still in charge in England. It always seemed strange that such an enigmatic figure was written in such a way, particularly when this character was given some of the finest lines read from among all the plays.

Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III in 1955

Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III in 1955.

Years went by, and I reviewed the play from time to time, then very little after graduate school. In recent years, I discovered that there was a revival of interest in Richard, especially among those who wanted to reform the negative image created chiefly by Sir Thomas More and dramatized by Shakespeare. After a few moments of online research, I realized that I had been sleeping while new data and information on Richard was being uncovered. Unknown to me, there are several societies and research projects devoted to discovering the truth about Richard, who is, by the way, the current Queen of England’s 14th great-grand-uncle. There is a bunch of new stuff out there, but I will avoid boring anyone with all of it, even though it excites me.

Sir Ian McKellen as a historically-reimagined Richard III in 1995

Sir Ian McKellen as a historically-reimagined Richard III in 1995.

The most interesting thing I found out is that Richard III’s remains were discovered underneath a parking lot in 2012 after vanishing over five centuries ago, at the site of the medieval Greyfriars Church, where he was reputed to have been interred. The skeleton was identified, according to researchers, beyond a reasonable doubt as belonging to Richard.

This reasonably-positive identification was made through comparison of his mitochondrial DNA with that of two matrilineal descendants of Richard’s eldest sister, Anne of York. The spine showed considerable deformity consistent with scoliosis, which may have given Richard the appearance of having one shoulder higher than the other.

The Skeleton in the Grave.

The Skeleton in the Grave.

The skeleton sustained at least ten wounds demonstrative of battlefield injuries of Richard’s day, when he was killed by the forces of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, which was the end of the Wars of the Roses and is typically considered to mark the end of the Middle Ages in England. There are plenty of gruesome details and conjectures about the events leading up to his death, and I invite you to do a web search for yourself, if you are at all inclined.

Portrait of Richard III in National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Richard III

At this point, the team from the University of Leicester who participated in Richard III’s discovery, among other players, is planning to decode his genome, which has set off a flurry of controversy and protests, even involving Buckingham Palace.

Although history has been unkind to Richard, perhaps justly so in some instances, he was by many accounts an able and talented military commander, a king who reputedly enacted laws to protect the poor, and a noble who lived at the very least according to the principles of his time. He remains an enigma and perhaps always will, but that is what makes him so interesting, at least to me.

HousingFest 2014: February 22 in Charlotte

by Matt McKinnon

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Cold.

Colder than this.

It’s been cold this week in Peoria, where I currently reside.  Real cold.  Mind-numbing, face-hurting, frost-biting cold.  The high on Monday was 5 degrees Fahrenheit.  The low on Tuesday was 5 below.  And those were the actual temperatures.  The wind chills with the latest Arctic blast regularly approached 30 below.  The schools have yet to be closed for snow since we moved out here three years ago, but have now been closed three times due to cold temperatures.  Evidently, with wind chills so low, frostbite can occur within ten minutes or so.  And no one wants to be responsible for turning Peoria’s schoolchildren into a bunch of kidsicles.

I bring this up because it seems that these extremely low temperatures, along with Thanksgiving and Christmas, are the rare annual events that cause most folks to think about the homeless.  I mean, I almost froze to death running outside in my pajamas to set the garbage can back up—I can only imagine what folks who lack adequate housing have to put up with in these conditions.

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Homeless.

Last January, the U.S. Government reported that some 633,782 people in the United States were homeless (62,619 of whom are veterans).  The good news is that this number has decreased since 2007: down 6.8% among individuals, down 3.7% among families, down 13.1% among unsheltered homeless, and down 19.3% among the chronically homeless.

And it is this last group I want to focus on.

According to the U.S. Government, a “chronically homeless” person is defined as “an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.”  Data suggests that the chronically homeless only make up some 10% of all homeless people, but may account for as much as 50% of the services provided (though how best to interpret these numbers is debated).  What can be said with certainty is that chronic homelessness is a major problem with complex causes that needs to be addressed on a number of fronts.

cropped-logo-1Luckily, there are organizations like the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte, NC, attempting to do just that—offering food, shelter, treatment, and community to some five to six hundred area homeless people.  According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the best way to help those who are chronically homeless is a Housing First approach coupling permanent housing with supportive services (such as case management, mental health and substance abuse services, health care, and employment).

This makes sense: What a chronically homeless person needs most is a home, not just a temporary shelter.  They need the stability and security that permanent supportive housing provides—creating an environment in which other contributing issues (that exacerbate and cause of homelessness in the first place) can be addressed.

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This is precisely what the Urban Ministry Center’s HousingWorks program does: “(G)ive chronically homeless individuals what they need most—a safe, stable, affordable home—and then provide the wrap-around support to help them remain housed and regain lives of wellness and dignity.”

This philosophy of “Housing First” recognizes the complexity of chronic homelessness and seeks a solution based on the premise that housing is a fundamental right, regardless of a person’s mental health, physical condition, or addiction.  It’s a simple idea: get folks into housing first—provide a safe and secure home—and then work on whatever issues need attention in order to insure that the person remains in housing.

After all, their website asks: “Who among us could tackle sobriety while sleeping under a bridge?”

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Housing First has become a major movement in the United States in the search for solutions to the problem of chronic homelessness, as both National Public Radio and the Wall Street Journal have reported.  Indeed, the WSJ article reveals that, according to a Chicago-based study, providing permanent housing to the chronically homeless improves (and saves) lives as well as saving taxpayer money.

In Charlotte alone, the cost in temporary shelter, emergency room treatment, as well as hospital and jail stays is over $39,000.00 a year—for each chronically homeless person.  That’s a cost that the community pays. In other words, it comes mostly out of our tax dollars.  Compare that with the $13,983 annual cost that Charlotte’s HousingWorks program spends to provide both permanent housing and case management (including services like medical, mental health, and addiction treatment) for the same homeless individual.  Less money to be sure, but the real savings is in the improvement of people’s quality of life and the success in providing meaningful treatment that saves and changes lives.

It’s just this simple: “HousingWorks saves lives and saves our community money.

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The Blind Boys of Alabama.

To that end, the Urban Ministry Center is having a benefit concert to help end chronic homelessness in Charlotte—its first annual HousingFest.  On February 22nd, 2014 the Grammy award winning group The Blind Boys of Alabama and Grammy award winning singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale will be performing at the Neighborhood Theater in Charlotte, NC.  Tickets for this worthwhile event are only $25.00 and can be purchased through the Neighborhood Theater’s website.

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Jim Lauderdale.

If you’re in the Charlotte area, I urge you to support this important cause and enjoy some outstanding musical entertainment in the process. After all, homelessness is chronic issue, regardless of the time of year and the weather.

Here’s a chance to help do something about it.

Editor’s note: A big, hearty welcome to those of you who are following us since last week’s post went viral (over half a million hits)! Our contributors are the faculty and (occasionally) students and alumni of the BLS Program at UNCG, which is an online multidisciplinary program for nontraditional students. With people from so many different disciplines coming together to write about whatever inspires them, this blog is rather eclectic. I think Matt’s post this week makes it pretty clear that we’re not just a parenting blog, though we do have quite a few parents and they do write about the topic from time to time. We may have a post on co-sleeping for you in a couple of weeks.

Feel free to browse back through our back posts. I’ve been working on the tags (which are inconsistent at best); you can now click on an author’s name in the tags to see all that author’s posts. I just looked at the “parenting” tag and realized it needs a lot of work, so don’t rely on that one just now. Enjoy! -JP

Merry and Bright: The Spectacle of the Christmas Tree

By Marc Williams

“Spectacle” can be broadly defined as a visually striking display, event, or performance. Spectacle has long been associated with live performance, since costumes, scenery, lighting, dance, and other visual elements are frequently used to enhance the performance experience. In my BLS class, Eye Appeal, we focus on the spectacles that occur not only on stage but also in every day life. In my most recent blog entry, I wrote about the spectacle of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and its spectacular precursors, the cycle plays of medieval Europe–in this post I’ll focus on Christmas trees and other holiday displays.

2013-White-House-Christmas-Tree-e1386618998921The day after Thanksgiving, November 29, 2013, an 18.5-foot Douglas fir was delivered to the White House. Since 1966, the White House Christmas Tree has been provided annually by the National Christmas Tree Association. Since that time, the First Lady has been responsible for creating a theme for the tree each year, and its decoration and lighting has become an annual spectacle for those in the Washington, D.C. area—an interesting blend of politics, religion, and spectacle. There were indeed White House Christmas trees before 1966, but more on that later.

The delivery of the 2013 White House Christmas Tree

Evergreens have been associated with winter solstice for many centuries. In Ancient Egypt and later in Ancient Rome, for example, evergreens were brought into homes to celebrate the continuation or return of life following the winter. Some believe these pagan solstice traditions were adapted by early Christians and evolved into our modern Christmas tree. The earliest recorded Christmas trees were found in 16th century Germany and were typically decorated with apples. The apple decorations are associated with December 24, as the medieval Christian calendar celebrated Adam and Eve’s Day on that date. Christmas trees were introduced to the United States in the early 1800s and were sold commercially by the 1850s [source]. At the time, Christmas trees were a new “fad” in America and many people associated Christmas trees with the German settlers who introduced them.

Interestingly, the White House Christmas Tree has a controversial past. The first White House Christmas tree was displayed by President Franklin Pierce in 1853. In 1899, while Christmas trees had become more common in America, they were still considered by many to be a fad. A White House Christmas tree was by no means obligatory. That year, Chicago Tribune readers mounted a letter-writing campaign urging President McKinley to buck the Christmas tree trend for a variety of reasons—many letters focused on deforestation, with one writer calling Christmas trees “arboreal infanticide.” Other letter writers called Christmas trees “un-American,” since Christmas trees were still considered a German tradition by many. Given the Christmas tree’s pagan connections, some letter-writers viewed the White House tree as anti-Christian. Controversy surrounding the tree continues today, as some critics wonder if the White House Christmas Tree should focus on tradition rather than religion, or if the tree should exist at all.

rockefeller-center-xmas-tree

The Tree at Rockefeller Center

Perhaps the most iconic Christmas tree in the United States is found in New York City at Rockefeller Center. The tree is positioned just above the famous ice skating rink and immediately front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The Rockefeller Center tree has been a tradition for over eighty years and its lighting has become a major entertainment event. The 2013 tree is 76 feet tall, weighs twelve tons, features over 45,000 lights, and is topped with a nine-foot wide Swarovski star.

angels

Two rows of trumpeting angels are installed along the plaza, forming a lane that frames the tree beautifully when viewed from Fifth Avenue. The lighting ceremony has now become a televised event with celebrity hosts and performers; the 2013 lighting ceremony featured Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, the Radio City Rockettes, and many others.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

Here in Greensboro, residents of the Sunset Hills neighborhood create an unique annual holiday spectacle: a neighborhood-wide display of lighted “ball” decorations. This local tradition began with Jonathan Smith’s family, residents of Sunset Hills, about sixteen years ago. The balls are homemade, constructed from chicken wire shaped into spheres, then wrapped with a strand of Christmas lights. The balls hang from tree branches, some nearly thirty feet off the ground.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

The video below features the 2008 display and Smith discussing how the tradition started.

Lighted Christmas Balls In Greensboro, North Carolina

Have you seen any of these holiday spectacles in person? What role does spectacle play in your holiday celebrations?

Views From the Middle

by Wade Maki

Kearney-NEThis fall I had the privilege of speaking at a multi-day symposium on free market health care at the University of Nebraska Kearney. Kearney is a small college town in the middle of the Great Plains. Being from a small town in the upper Midwest there was a lot of familiarity such as the friendly people and predominance of pickup trucks. However, the experience of the Great Plains with its big sky and near lack of trees was a new experience. As my host joked, if you ever find yourself in a zombie apocalypse head to Kearney where you can see them coming for miles!

One of the most striking things flying into Kearney was just how much of the land is farmland. Corn is the crop, and with prices holding up the region didn’t experience the recession the way most of the country did. Everywhere I went there were brand new trucks reflective of how well things were doing. True to form, the humble Midwest farmers I met would only say “we’re doing O.K.” when they were clearly in good times.

corn-horizon

I met a great many students in my days at Kearney. Some attended the symposium, others were in classes that I visited, and a few I met when we had leftover food to share. For all my difficulty as an instructor keeping students attention I only needed to say “anyone want some free food” and suddenly I was the center of attention.

The symposium consisted of speakers and panels from diverse areas as hospital directors, lawyers, and a philosopher (yours truly). The audience consisted mostly of students many of whom were very concerned with the Affordable Care Act which is also known as “Obamacare” (which is true in that he does care).

One of the most powerful ideas expressed by the students was a sincere concern that they were being forced into paying for the health care of others. This of course isn’t new as it is the basis of social security, welfare, and medicare. However, I found their attitudes very familiar as I was a college student in 1993 when President Clinton was pushing his version of health care often called “Hillarycare” (which was true too since she did care). Hearing students complain about having to pay for others care was a mirror of my own feelings back in 1993.

ObamavilleThen as now students find themselves confronted with a conflict between two very Midwestern ideals: The “live and let live” independence and the “we’re all in it together” belief in community. These ideas are not unique to the Midwest but have particular attraction there because when your neighbor may be a mile or more away everyone gets used to having more freedom and responsibility for themselves which doesn’t lend itself to being forced into anything including a health insurance plan. At the same time there is a recognition of being in it together that we need to work together (be it to survive harsh weather, wild animals, drought, or the lack of anyone else to help when we need it).

While there are other factors in play and perhaps better ways to explain it, there is a real tension between two things most of us value in the health care law. The students do see themselves as part of a community that takes care of its members while also as a free individual that shouldn’t be forced to help anyone. We might boil this down to, “well if something bad happens to a neighbor I will choose to help out but don’t tell me I have to help!”

View of a park in Kearney with the town surrounded by cornfields nearby.

View of a park in Kearney with the town surrounded by cornfields nearby.

Perhaps the best way to see the health care issue is a conflict not of values but of methods. Students want access to affordable quality care but they are skeptical of legal requirements. There was recognition of the problems in the health care market (limited suppliers, no price information until after purchase, no quality comparison information, and no ability to say no when you need care). Each of these factors makes health care a different market than for example a smartphone (where you know the price, features, can compare phones, have different providers to choose from, and can go without a phone). Just as students saw the problems of the market they also saw perils of government (political decisions, dominance of special interests, collusion with big companies, the entrenchment of ineffective programs, and no ability for the individual to opt out).

All in all I learned a lot in my days interacting with students in Kearney. Perhaps most of all how much hasn’t changed. Students don’t like being told what to do, they do want to help others, and  most of all free food is awesome.

Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

by Carey Terhune, BLS Humanities student
introduced by Ann Millett-Gallant

The students in my BLS 346: “The Art of Life” class had an assignment to write a review of an art exhibition or a work of public art.  One of my students, Carey Terhune, wrote this strong review of the Willie Cole exhibition, which is on view at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum through December 15.  Carey is originally from Orange County, California and now lives in High Point, NC with her husband and 3 children.  She is currently a student in the BLS program and aspires to be a book or film critic and to write her own book one day.  When she is not doing school work or taking care of her kids, she enjoys writing, blogging, entertaining and cooking with her great friends, and traveling with her family.

Willie Cole, Man, Spirit, Mask

Man, Spirit, Mask (1999)

 Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

The artist Willie Cole is known for transforming ordinary objects into symbolic representations, with themes ranging from the African slave trade and West African tribal traditions to American urban life and personal identity. In his exhibition entitled “Complex Conversations: Willie Cole Sculptures and Wall Works,” Cole presents a collection of forty pieces from across his professional career, covering a range of artistic mediums, including three dimensional sculptures, drawings, embossing, and prints.  This collection in particular features found objects, such as old hairdryers, discarded high heeled shoes, and most prevalently, the steam iron, which pervades the majority of his work.  Cole exemplifies what Michael Kimmelman describes in his book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, as the kind of artist who celebrates the beauty in ordinary things. Kimmelman reminds us that, “it is the ability of more circumscribed artists to slow our systems, calm our minds, and show us reality as we have probably not considered it…” (214). Cole revitalizes and transforms the ordinary, and it is with these uniquely simple elements that he invites us to mine our way through this exhibition and experience the complexity of his work.

Having spent the majority of his life in Newark, New Jersey, as the eldest son in a primarily matriarchal family, Willie Cole’s work is anchored in his love of urban life, and respect for feminine power. He identifies himself as an “urban archaeologist,” (Joyner) creating his work from a global perspective, and representing the human experience.  It is obvious that Cole has a very personal connection with all of the pieces in this collection, which is apparent from the moment one enters the gallery at Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. The very first piece we encounter, Self Portrait, ca. 1979, is a simple pastel drawing on a brown paper bag just inside the main entrance to the gallery. Cole uses vibrant pastel colors to highlight his face as if reflecting the glow of inner-city lights at night. This image seems to be welcoming visitors to the exhibit, and introducing Cole as the artist.

Willie Cole, Shoe Bouquet

Shoe Bouquet (2009)

As we continue through the spacious gallery, painted white from floor to ceiling, we encounter one of Cole’s featured pieces, Shoe Bouquet, 2009, constructed out of wood, screws, metal, staples, and hundreds of worn-out, women’s, high-heeled shoes in a variety of colors. The leather and varying fabrics of the shoes are bent and curled into giant flowers seeming to create a four-foot-high bouquet. It is positioned in the center of the first segment of the gallery because it is truly meant to be experienced from all sides. Each flower reveals layers of dimension and texture, calling attention to the bottoms of most of the shoes, as if to salute the miles walked in them by hundreds of women. It’s as if he’s returning the shoes to their original beauty by transforming them into this symbolic gift to women.

Moving forward through the gallery we pass by some of his beautiful prints, drawings and photographs featuring images of West African tribal traditions infused with countless steam iron impressions.  To the left we encounter, Double Headed Gas Snake, 1997, a sculpture constructed of articulating sheet metal hoses with metal nozzles and rebar. It resembles a giant snake with two heads, which seem to be fighting one another. This is another reference to Cole’s urban upbringing, in that it addresses the issues of urban violence, and acknowledges its presence as an intricate part of the beauty of inner-city life.

Willie Cole, Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Progressing further we encounter Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4, 2007, a pale pink pigmented, cotton liner paper with embossing, cut by water stream. This piece at first seems somewhat dull and monochromatic compared with some of his more vibrant works, but as we move closer it becomes clearer that these large, snowflake-like paper cutouts are more symbolic of Cole’s artistic style. They are delicate, as if to appeal to women, featuring layered impressions of steam irons. And yet, they have a slightly dirty and torn appearance, fitting right in with the urban themes of the exhibition. An even closer look reveals details that connect it to Cole’s tribal themes as well, including dozens of tiny spears and overlapping steam iron cutouts that resemble tribal masks at the corners of each of the four pieces.

Cole continues this collaboration of themes in several other pieces throughout the exhibition. Examples include a tribal mask constructed out of dismantled antique hairdryers; an oversized antique ironing board that resembles a tribal shield, embellished with steam-iron-scorched markings; and a sculpture assembled using parts of an old bicycle that resembles an African mask dance figure.

Willie Cole, Wind Mask

Wind Mask (1991)

Nearing the end of the exhibition, on a large white wall shared with just one other piece, hangs Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999, a three-part image in which Cole utilizes photo etching, a silkscreen, and wood to artfully draw the viewer into his private world. In this piece we are able to see how Cole’s identity is interwoven with the elements and themes of his work.  This piece arranges a photo etching of the artist, a steam iron scorched impression, and a tribal mask print. They are displayed side by side, representing the man, the spirit, and the mask. All resemble one another in scale, size, shape, and color, and all seem to express the same stalwart gaze, but are different parts of the whole person, as an artist. With so many varying mediums represented in this collection, Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999 seems to merge these components into one powerful representation of the artist himself. We begin our exploration of this collection with the simple yet captivating greeting of his Self Portrait, ca.1979, and by the end we understand Willie Cole, and his bold and soulful exhibition, on a more personal level. This melding of artistic inspirations using commonplace items defines Cole’s work in this collection and throughout his career, reminding us that beauty and meaning can be found in the most ordinary objects, which are “accessible to us all, at almost any time, if we are just prepared to look for them” (Kimmelman, 214).

Works Cited

Joyner, Amy. “Found Object Sparks Theme in Artist Willie Cole’s Work.News and Record. Web. 5 October 2013.

Kimmelman, Michael. The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

Come On Out! It’s National Coming Out Day

by Joyce Clapp

Banners at Elliot University Center

Banners at Elliot University Center

I took this picture outside of the Elliot University Center last week, and posted it to my Facebook, along with the caption “I do so love working here”, and it’s true. I’m truly lucky in where I work, and I’m lucky that I can be out at UNCG.

UNCG is proud to celebrate LGBTQ History Month

“UNCG is proud to celebrate LGBTQ History Month”

I’m a professor in the Sociology department in addition to working with the BLS Program, and one thing that we social scientists talk about a lot is privilege. Being out carries privilege and is a privilege, even if we don’t always think of it that way. Being out requires supportive coworkers, family, friends, and communities. Being out involves hoping that you’re not at risk by virtue of being out. At risk can mean many things—being at risk physically or at risk for being fired (sexuality is not a nationally protected EEOC class, and is not protected in North Carolina). We worry about the risk of losing friends or family. We worry about being the target of bullying.

However, being out is also important, for those of us who live and work in places where it is safe to be so. Being out normalizes not being straight and having a non-standard gender presentation. The more we’re out, the more it’s safe to be out—until, hopefully, it will be safe for everyone. Until then, those of us who can be out should be out, and shouldn’t criticize those who can’t in the circumstances they’re in.

National Coming Out Day logo by Keith Haring (1988)

National Coming Out Day logo by Keith Haring (1988)

So, in honor of National Coming Out Day, I just want to say that my name is Joyce. I’m genderqueer, a masculine-leaning woman, or just a woman depending on the day and how I’m contrary I’m feeling that day. (“Why do I need to qualify as ‘masculine-leaning woman’?  Can’t ‘woman’ just look like this? Why do we have to attach adjectives to it?”) I’m sapiosexual, pansexual, or bisexual depending on the audience and how much explaining I feel like doing. I also teach sociology, read too many books when I have time, love to cook, and live with the cutest dog on the planet (who is very lucky that he is so cute).

UNCG is not perfect on these issues—no institution is. But UNCG is good. I feel so lucky to work in a place where I can post something like this on a school blog, or mention my sexuality in class (in context, of course—we were discussing minority and majority relations) and have it not be a big deal. I’m sure someone has thought something about it at one point or the other, but I have never had one person criticize my sexuality or gender presentation in going on seven years at UNCG, and that’s an amazing thing. Our society has changed so much in the last few years, and I would never have dreamed many years ago when I first came out, that I’d be able to live in the society we do and write something like this. Here’s to things continuing to get better, for all of us—no matter who we love or how.

So, happy GLBTQIA2 history month, and happy National Coming Out Day!

A few resources:

Link to UNCG Pride on Facebook

Link to UNCG Pride on Facebook

LGBTQ Community at the Office of Multicultural Affairs

UNCG Safe Zone

National Coming Out Day page at Human Rights Campaign

Shut Down

by Matt McKinnon

About a month and a half ago, I agreed—as part of my job—to write a contribution for the BLS blog, due by October 6th, and to be published shortly thereafter.  I agreed to this based on my understanding of what my job is, what it entails, the compensation I receive as a BLS instructor, and my belief that a community only works when its members participate in just that: a “communio” or sharing, from the Latin “union with.”  I made this agreement in good faith and free from constraint.  And, though some might argue this point, I made it being in sound mind and body.

But the situation has changed.

broken

(The first image would be here if I were not shut down.)

I am not happy with the present way in which the elected officials of the State for whom I work have conducted business regarding the educational system within which I work.  In short, I disapprove of the massive cuts to higher education that the North Carolina State Legislature has made over the past several years.

Never mind that these folks have been duly elected by a legal process and have conducted this business in a manner consistent with the Constitutions of both the State and the Nation.

Never mind that “legal” does not necessarily mean “fair.”

Never mind that there are regular procedures in place to check the manner in which they do this business—that there is constitutional recourse to persuade, recall, impeach, or merely vote them out of office at the next election.

Never mind that what they have done is now “law”—and has become “law” in a legal and constitutional manner.

Never mind all of this because…well, I just do not agree with them or their “law.”

(The second image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The second image would be here if I were not shut down.)

And while I adhere to the principle that writing a blog entry is part  of my job, and that I have a duty to myself, to my institution, and to my students to faithfully execute the duties of my job, I have another principle that outweighs all of these:

If I do not get what I want, then I shut down.

(The third image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The third image would be here if I were not shut down.)

At this point, I am not even sure what would make me not shut down.  Or stop shutting down.  Or start back up.

At this point, I am not even sure what I hope to get out of shutting down.  Other than the shut down itself.

But none of that matters.

Because I have shut down.

So, until further notice—until an agreement can be reached that satisfies the righteousness of my indignation at the manner in which duly-elected officials representing the State by whom I am employed have conducted business in a lawful and constitutional and regular manner—until then, there will be no blog contribution.

I will not fulfill this part of my job.  I have deemed it “non-essential.”

There will be no witticisms or anecdotes about me, my classes, my life, or my family.

There will be no funny or interesting or bizarre pictures to punctuate my points.

There will be no weblinks to follow for more information—at least none supplied by me.

There will be none of this.

Because I am shut down.

(The fourth image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The fourth image would be here if I were not shut down.)

Of course, by shutting down and writing about how I am shutting down, I am still, technically, fulfilling some of my responsibilities and thus doing my job.  Therefore, I will continue to be paid and will continue to accept and spend my paycheck.

After all, shutting down is hard work.