Complicated A.A. Milne

A. A. Milne plaque, Greville Estate, Mortimer Place, Kilburn, NW6, London – via Wikimedia

I saw that this past week (January 18) was the birthday of A.A. Milne, most famously the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. The Pooh books have been favorites of mine since childhood and have had a revival in my life since the appearance of grandchildren.

Milne was a complicated person famous for simply-written stories. His own life was more complex. Like many famous men I have admired, he was, unfortunately, a poor father.

He was born in London in 1882. H.G. Wells was once his schoolteacher. Alan Alexander Milne went to Trinity College on a mathematics scholarship, but he preferred the less practical path of writing. At that stage, he was writing light verses and plays.

He considered himself a lifelong pacifist. But he enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and worked in the Royal Corps of Signals in WWI.

He was also solidly an atheist. He said that “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief — call it what you will — than any book ever written. It has emptied more churches than all the counter-attractions of cinema, motor bicycles, and golf courses.”

He wrote for the British humor magazine Punch. He played cricket on a team with Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan).

Pooh wasn’t his first publication. He had written several plays – Mr. Pim Passes By and Toad of Toad Hall.

While on holiday with his son, Christopher Robin, he started to write some verses about Christopher’s stuffed animals. The main character was a teddy bear his son called “Edward the Bear.”

The verses grew into stories set in the Hundred Acre Wood, which was his version of the Ashdawn Forest where they went on holidays. Winnie-the-Pooh was first featured in a Christmas story, “The Wrong Side of Bees,” published in the London Evening News in December of 1925. Fans of Pooh will recognize which chapter in the book that story became.

In six years, Winnie-the-Pooh was a million-dollar business.

Milne wasn’t happy that the “bear of very little brain” overshadowed any other writing he did, particularly if he tried to be more serious. Doyle and Barrie could identify with that writer’s trap.

Christopher Robin was also not a fan of Pooh as he grew older. He blamed the characters for making his father famous and distant from him. It took most of his life to reconcile his relationship with the character and fame. He never really reconciled with his parents. (More on that here.)

Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928) are now considered classics of children’s literature though still read by adults. (Though Amazon lists 13 Pooh books.)

Elsewhere I have written that Pooh’s world is philosophically a good personification of wu wei and pu.  I’m sure Milne had no idea about this or intended it. Wu wei is a Taoist concept of “effortless doing” your work and life.

The homophone of pu is also Taoist and the Chinese word that means “unworked wood” or “simple.” Philosophically, this is a metaphor for the natural state of humanity. This “beginner’s mind” is open to, but unburdened by, experience.

That’s Pooh bear.

Check the Doomsday Clock


The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was created by scientists who saw an immediate need for a public reckoning in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  These scientists anticipated that the atom bomb would be “only the first of many dangerous presents from the Pandora’s Box of modern science.” They now see multiple threats: climate change, cyber-attacks, and the misuse of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

They also created the Doomsday Clock as a symbol of these threats. I check it out when a new year is beginning. Founded in 1945 by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock two years later, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet.

The Doomsday Clock is many things all at once: It’s a metaphor, it’s a logo, it’s a brand, and it’s one of the most recognizable symbols in the past 100 years. It has permeated not only the media landscape but also culture itself. The Doomsday Clock appears in novels by Stephen King and Piers Anthony, songs by The Who and the Clash, and comic books and graphic novels like Watchmen and Stormwatch.

They haven’t posted the 2023 version yet, but in 2022 we were “At doom’s doorstep: It is 100 seconds to midnight.”

“Leaders around the world must immediately commit themselves to renewed cooperation in the many ways and venues available for reducing existential risk. Citizens of the world can and should organize to demand that their leaders do so—and quickly. The doorstep of doom is no place to loiter.”

It has held at 100 seconds for the past three years, which I suppose could be considered to be a few ticks of optimism since in 2018 and 2019 it was at 120 seconds to a midnight apocalypse.

What do you think it will be for the start of 2023 – closer to midnight, the same or moved back a bit?

Last year’s announcement video.

The Word(s) of the Year

What is the word of the year for 2022? It depends on who you ask.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary people decided on gaslighting (n.): “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage.”

How do they decide? In this case, the word, in this “age of misinformation,” had a 1,740% increase in lookups of the word this year. It’s not a new word. The term actually comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light. The 1944 movie version, Gaslight made it more widely used. In that story, a husband manipulates his wife to make her think she’s actually losing her sense of reality so he can commit her to a mental institution and steal her inheritance.

Cambridge Dictionary chose homer (n.): “an informal American English term for a home run in baseball.” Doesn’t everyone know what a homer/home run is already? So why did they see more than 65,000 searches for homer on May 5. Was it Aaron Judge of the NY Yankees going for the season record? No. That was the day it was the answer to that day’s Wordle. Ninety-five percent of the searches were outside North America. Aha! I guess speakers of British English probably weren’t thrilled to see the answer be American slang.

Speaking of which, the word Wordle itself crowned the top spot as Google’s most searched term globally and in the US in 2022.

A strange nominee comes from the Oxford Languages that picked goblin mode (n.): “a type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typical in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.”

It is a term I have never heard used. It first appeared on Twitter in 2009 but really spiked in February. They say that it comes from our post-lockdown world where the term captures “the prevailing mood of individuals who rejected the idea of returning to ‘normal life… People are embracing their inner goblin, and voters choosing ‘goblin mode’ as the Word of the Year tells us the concept is likely here to stay.”

I’m not so sure about goblin ode having legs. There were lots of other possibilities for the 2022 word, including oligarch, Omicron, codify, LGBTQIA, sentient, loamy, raid, Queen Consort, truth-telling, spicy cough, bachelor’s handbag, Barbiecore, bossware, brigading, clapter, e-change, gigafire, hidden homeless, nepo baby, orthosomnia, pirate trail, prebunking, quiet quitting, skin hunger, and yassify.

What is your word of the year for 2022?

Rings in the Ice

Ice rings formed in a frozen puddle.

During my morning walk, I was taking a photograph of some ice formed from a puddle and noted the concentric rings. I know I’ve seen this before but today I wondered why they were there.

When I was home, I went online to find an explanation. As with too many things, a clear explanation was not found.

A seemingly scientific explanation is that the lines are a product of change in flow created by the prior ice sheets formed. This was describing rings found around obstacles such as rocks in a river. My example was just a puddle, but I read on. The surface current creates viscous friction, slightly melting the outer areas of the prior sheets in the process, making a ring line where the currents are going around the obstacles.

There was no flow in my puddle. No big rocks. So why rings?

There are not only ice rings but also ice discs, ice circles, ice pans, ice pancakes or ice crepes. All are a natural phenomenon that occurs in slow-moving water in cold climates.

Ice rings in a river

No clear explanation for my ice-ringed puddle but I do like the image it formed. It reminds me of a topographic map.

The way a topographic map shows elevation looks like the ice rings – the river rocks are like hills and mountains.

Xmas

Though Christmas is a Christian holiday (holy day), there is so much secular Christmas that surrounds us from mid-Novemer until the New Year that the religious aspects are often lost.

Did you know that there is no mention of December 25th anywhere in the Bible? There is no mention of when Jesus was born at all.

There was much debate amongst early Christians and it wasn’t until the fourth century AD in the Roman Empire that Jesus’ birthday was celebrated on December 25th. The most popular theory as to why this date was settled upon is that it was borrowed from pagan traditions that already occurred on that day.

Because of those pagan festival roots, Christmas was not accepted by the religious quickly. It might surprise you to know that from 1659 to 1681, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Boston.

Image: Pixy.org CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Many of the popular Christmas traditions today found their roots in Saturnalia. Saturnalia was the pagan Roman winter solstice festival and honoring of the god Saturn. Branches from evergreen trees were used during winter solstice as a reminder of the green plants that would grow in spring when the Sun gods grew stronger. These evergreen branches became the foundation of the Christmas tree, so it has no religious connection to Jesus. Germans are thought to be the first to bring “Christmas trees” into their homes during the holidays and decorate them with cookies and lights.

Other purely secular aspects connected to this time include:

St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop living in the fourth century A.D., gave away most of his inherited wealth to the needy and became the protector of children. (Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch or Sinter Klaas.) He evolved into Santa Claus – although the modern image of Santa owes a lot to advertising, such as those by Coca-Cola.

The idea that Santa Claus delivers presents comes from Holland’s celebration of St. Nicholas’ feast day. Children would leave shoes out the night before and, in the morning, would find little gifts that St. Nicholas would leave them. I emphasize “little” gifts.

The image of Santa flying in a sleigh seems to have started in 1819. It was the creation of author Washington Irving – the same author who created the Headless Horseman.

Santa’s Rudolph the reindeer was conceived by the department store Montgomery Ward as a marketing idea to get kids to buy holiday coloring books. They didn’t give him a red nose because that was a sign of chronic alcoholism and the company didn’t want that association. A poem introduced us to the other eight reindeer. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Duner and Blixem became Donner and Blitzen, the names coming from German words for thunder and lightning.

“Jingle Bells” was originally written to be a Thanksgiving song. Nothing Christmas about it. It is just about sleighing with the first days of the snow season.

My mother got angry when people abbreviated Christmas as Xmas because she said they were “taking Christ out of Christmas.” I didn’t learn until a college religion course that the “X” comes from the Greek letter “chi” which happens to be the first letter of the Greek word for Christ (Χριστός), and Greek was the original language of the New Testament. The word was simply created as an abbreviation and was first used in the mid-1500s. I told my mother that, but she never believed me or changed her mind about it.

To me, Xmas has come to represent everything about this day that has nothing to do with the religious meaning of the holiday. All the gifts, wrapping paper, commercials, movies, and decorations all over stores and towns tend to depress me. I don’t object to all of the secular aspects of this season. If it means you donate food and money to charities, help those less fortunate, and act nicer to people around you, I am all for it.

Solstice Gods, Goddesses and Monsters

In researching the winter solstice, I found a number of good and bad characters that are associated with this time.

In the way that the solstice can be seen as the beginning of longer days and shorter nights, there are optimistic figures that include Tonantzin in Mexico, Cailleach Bheru in Scotland, Horus in Egypt and Spider Grandmother by the Hopi.

Horus

Mythological gods and goddesses associated with the winter solstice, also have optimistic stories of the Earth’s regeneration or rebirth. The goddess, Beaivi is associated with health and fertility. In Scandanavia, it was believed that she flew across the night sky in a structure made of reindeer bones to bring back the plants that the reindeer needed to eat. Reindeer were so important to them that she was worshipped during this time of year.

In Italian folklore, La Befana is a goddess who rides around the world on her broom during the solstice, leaving candies and gifts to well-behaved children. Placing a rag doll in her likeness by the front door or window entices her into the home.

But not all the myths have benevolent characters. In Finnish mythology, Louhi, the “witch goddess of the North,” kidnapped the Sun and Moon and held them captive inside a mountain, causing the darkness of winter. She was considered to be more wicked than other benevolent goddesses.

The Yupik peoples of Alaska and the Russian Far East tell the story of the Kogukhpak, subterranean monsters with bulbous bodies and frog-like legs who could only be killed by the Sun. On the winter solstice, the Kogukhpak emerged to hunt. When the people had found mammoth carcasses on the Arctic tundra, they were said to be the corpses of the Kogukhpak who stayed out too long and died when the Sun returned.

Similarly, the Kallikantzaros in Greek mythology could only be killed by sunlight, so they emerged during the solstice to wreak havoc. They were angry, hairy, gnome-like creatures who lived underground. They wanted to cut down the tree of life.

kallikantzaros – by Spencer Alexander McDaniel.