Don’t ring out 2016 — torch it: Some New Year’s Eve rituals to transform despair into closure — and even hope

Calendar on Fire

(Credit: Getty/Salon)

I’ve been looking a lot lately at piñatas. It’s not because my daughters have a shared birthday in early January — they’re rapidly outgrowing paper plates and party hats festivities anyway. No, instead, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of having some friends over on December 31 to gather around an item emblazoned with year of our Lord 2016 on it — and taking turns beating it with a bat.

This year, as has been exhaustively chronicled already, has been for a great many of us one of personal disasters and global garbage fires. Now, as December comes to a close, clinking a flute of off-brand Asti spumante while confetti rains down on Ryan Seacrest seems a little insufficient. If I could send 2016 into space in a rocket, I would. If I could literally set it on fire, I would. So maybe I’ll just symbolically hit it really hard.

I know that the world will not, alas, magically reset as the new year dawns across the world. I know that quite the contrary, we are no doubt in for a humdinger of a 2017. Yet the human need for ceremony, for the marking of transition, is wired into us. As a 2013 feature in Psychology Today noted, “We do these things as a way to regain a sense of control and diminish negative feelings after our worlds have been shaken up.” And wow, has our world been shaken up.

Most of my friends are marking the end of the year more quietly and peacefully than I have in mind. My friend Amy, for instance, recently went to a Yalda party. As she explains, “It’s a Persian tradition where you get together on the solstice and read poetry throughout the night. I read this amazing poem, which made everyone happy and sad. And I made an internal decision/hope that the solstice could just be the end of 2016.” She adds, “Of course, being a Jew, I also worried that we are all wishing for the end of one terrible year just to enter a worse one, but … one ritual at a time, I guess.”

My former colleague Kaitlin has likewise already done a similar ceremony. “I participated in a solstice meditation led by a great meditation teacher,” she says. “At one point, we made offerings of the most satisfying moments of 2016 and of our greatest disappointments and failures in 2016. There’s something about revisiting the events of the year through ritual that really does evoke a sense of closure and the possibility of opening into a fresh new year.

My neighbor Shannon says that she’s welcoming in the new year by “lighting my altar, opening my windows and burning sage and some Palo Santo . . .  I’m smudging the entire house.” She adds, “I hope it truly shifts the heavy energy in my heart and soul.” Another neighbor, Karen, says, “I will stand in the silent woods and BREATHE. For a very long time. Boring, I know. But at this point it may help me tune out the static and set the tone for a new year.”

Others are choosing to take a step further back. Matt, a freelance producer, admits, “I’ve decided to give up on pretty much everything, just for the rest of the year. I’m going to stay in bed until January 2nd. No Christmas events, no New Year’s Eve parties, no carols at the local park. This isn’t a metaphorical give-up or an empty threat to throw in the towel. I’m embracing it. Family members are cross; my girlfriend is concerned; my friends and colleagues are offended at their declined invitations…. I feel so upset by the wave of anger and hatred sweeping through the world, and washing through our supposed shining Western democracies. I just feel like my heart can’t take it. My mind can work with the answers to those problems but my heart isn’t all that bright when it comes to these things. It just feels sadness right now. And it needs to give up, just for a week or so.” And a college pal says, “I find myself astoundingly close to fleeing the jurisdiction. As in, moving to Italy. In essence I’m saying to 2016 and the U.S. in general, ‘You’re just too much to deal with. I’m going somewhere I can be happy.’”

Others have more immediate, dramatic plans. A west coast colleague says, “One lovely benefit of living in the Pacific Northwest is that the relatively temperate weather enables people to have beach bonfires at designated municipal park destinations year-round. Some may want to create an environmentally friendly-ish effigy of the worst moment of the year, or person, and toss it on the flames with a flourish, perhaps balancing out the force by lighting candles off that same fire for those we’ve lost.”

But it’s Carter Turner, a Virginia religious studies professor, who wins my vote for most glorious New Year’s Eve plans. After what he describes as a “rotten year” that’s included sudden loss and grief, he too is looking forward to some cleansing flames. He explains, “My friend Dave has a tree burn on his farm every year after Christmas where his friends bring their Christmas trees and we torch them in the fire pit. His grandfather was governor of Virginia in the twenties and his uncle, five years old at the time, stuck a sparkler in the Christmas tree and everything went up in flames. The party is a great affair. This year’s celebration takes place on New Year’s Eve so I am going to celebrate this terrible year coming to an end. And since Trump may very well burn this country down, this year’s burn has special meaning.” Yet he also muses, “The governor’s mansion was rebuilt, so maybe the country can come back from Trump’s damage. The New Year is all about being hopeful, right?” I’m going to stay hopeful too. Right after I set a few things on fire.

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Which Americans are disposable? The lessons “Space Traders,” James Baldwin and the rise of Donald Trump

James Baldwin; Donald Trump

James Baldwin; Donald Trump (Credit: Getty/Jenkins/Chip Somodevilla/Photo montage by Salon)

How best to describe the interminable, exhausting year that was 2016? It was the year that stole away Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Maurice White, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Prince. 2016 saw tens of millions of Americans engage in a national tempter tantrum and nihilistic fit as they discarded America’s moral leadership in the world by electing an authoritarian leader and fascist as president.

2016 was the year of the big payback. The United States has meddled in the elections of other countries and overthrown democratically elected governments around the world. Russian President apparently Vladimir Putin did the same thing to America as he and his agents helped Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. 2016 was the past-as-present along the color line: In keeping with their historic origins as slave patrollers and enforcers of American apartheid, America’s police continue to harass, kill, and abuse black and brown people with (relative) impunity. There was resistance from groups such as Black Lives Matter and the stalwart members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who stood up against injustice, prejudice, racism, corruption and bigotry.

But in searching for the words to describe 2016 and what the American people can expect in 2017, First Lady Michelle Obama said it best when she recently told Oprah Winfrey that, “We feel the difference now. See, now, we are feeling what not having hope feels like …” In that moment, Michelle Obama demonstrated, once again, how she is a role model of class, dignity, intelligence, and black respectability. She and her husband are national treasures. Their leadership will be truly missed.

The ignorant buffoon Donald Trump is their direct and stark opposite.

He is an example of life imitating art, and of political absurdist theater as national policy. 2016 was Trump’s year: on Election Day the movie “Idiocracy” somehow combined with the white supremacist fantasies of “The Turner Diaries” and a bad political thriller written by Tom Clancy or Dan Brown to hoist him to power. People of conscience watched Trump’s ascendancy in disbelief. This could not be happening … except that it was. The counterfactual and “what if?” scenario about fascism coming to America was no longer the stuff of speculative fiction or pulp magazines and comic books.

If Donald Trump’s ascendance to power is (poorly written) fiction made real, it resonates in an eerie way with a little-appreciated short story from several decades ago.

The 1994 TV short film “Space Traders,” directed by Reginald Hudlin of “House Party” fame, was based on a story of the same name by the late Derrick Bell and aired as part of an anthology called “Cosmic Slop.” It explores what happens when extraterrestrials made “first contact” with the United States  — using a holographic projection of Ronald Reagan — and offer to solve all of the country’s economic and environment problems. As proof of their power, the aliens turn the Statue of Liberty into solid gold and clean the polluted air over Los Angeles and Denver. The extraterrestrials have a price for this service. All black Americans with skin darker than a brown paper bag must to be given to the aliens, for purposes unknown.

Will African-Americans become food, pets, subjects for experimentation? Perhaps they will be feasted, protected or worshiped? The extraterrestrials provide no answers. In an ultimate solution to the centuries-old “Negro Question,” a Republican president and his administration (aided by a black conservative) debate the merits of the offer and eventually decide that the American people should vote on the matter. Black Americans are a minority group. Consequently, they are outvoted by the majority. Of course, this outcome has the superficial veneer of being “fair,” because the outcome was “democratic.” The safety, security, and freedom of black Americans are treated as something illusory, debatable propositions instead of inalienable civil and human rights. “Space Traders” concludes with millions of black Americans — much like their ancestors who were loaded into the bowels of slave ships centuries before — being marched at gunpoint into the cargo holds of the alien vessels.

“Space Traders” is unapologetically direct. As with Kevin Willmott’s alternate-history mockumentary “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” the politics of “Space Traders” are transparent. The film’s allusions are even more so. This makes “Space Traders” brutally efficient — the film is a hammer and everything it hits is a nail — in highlighting how the social and political condition of black Americans (and to varying degrees, other minority groups) has historically been one of vulnerability, contingent citizenship, precariousness and what Cornel West has memorably described as “niggerization.”

In thinking about the power of “niggerization” around the world, one should also take account of James Baldwin’s refusal of the “white gaze,” of the way white supremacy tries to define the humanity of black people. This is how he explained it in the documentary “Take This Hammer”:

Now here in this country we’ve got something called a nigger. It doesn’t, in such terms, I beg you to remark, exist in any other country in the world. We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. … I know and have always known —  and really always, that is part of the agony — I’ve always known that I’m not a nigger. But if I am not the nigger, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? I am not the victim here. I know one thing from another. I know I was born, I’m going to suffer, and I’m going to die. The only way you get through life is to know the worst things about it. I know that a person is more important than anything else, anything else. I learned this because I’ve had to learn it. But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is necessary. Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I’m going to give you your problem back. You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.

These are the feelings and sentiments now being experienced by many tens of millions of black Americans and others (Muslims, Arabs, Hispanics and Latinos, gays and lesbians, women and other marginalized groups) because of the election of Donald Trump.

Why do they feel this way?

Donald Trump drew on violence, racism, authoritarianism and ethnocentrism to win the White House. He promised to have mass deportations of millions of people, slurred entire ethnic groups as rapists, murderers and terrorists, wants to allow police to further violate the constitutional rights (as well as safety and dignity) of blacks and Latinos in the interest of fighting crime, and is eager to take away women’s reproductive rights and reverse the hard-won civil rights of gays and lesbians. In supporting him, Donald Trump’s voters made a transactional decision in the voting booth. They chose to hurt their fellow citizens because of a belief that Trump would elevate them over other Americans as well as provide economic opportunities that were heretofore somehow denied to white people. Trump’s election has also been one more step in the extremely dangerous mainstreaming of overt white supremacy and white nationalism as merely an “alternative” point of view — instead of something that should be anathema to post-Civil Rights-era public discourse.

Looking toward the immediate future, it would be great to be able to say that 2017 will be better than the tumultuous and traumatic 2016. But sometimes the truth provides no comfort.

I have been rereading Studs Terkel and his amazing interviews with Americans during the Great Depression and World War II. I have also been reflecting on my conversations with my father, who lived during that era and fought in North Africa during the war. In both Terkel’s work and my father’s stories there was always a sense of hope and optimism, a sense that America would be OK and that our future was bright. With the election of Donald Trump, I, like many other Americans, no longer believe that such an outcome is assured.

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Princess Leia’s last victory: Carrie Fisher’s books become bestsellers after her death

Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford

FILE – In this July 10, 2015, file photo, Carrie Fisher, left, and Harrison Ford kiss at the Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” panel on day 2 of Comic-Con International in San Diego, Calif. Fisher, a daughter of Hollywood royalty who gained pop-culture fame as Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” and turned her struggles with addiction and mental illness into wickedly funny books, a hit film and a one-woman stage show, died Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File) (Credit: AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — There’s been a run on Carrie Fisher’s books since the “Star Wars” actress and humorist died on Tuesday.

Fisher’s book, “The Princess Diarist,” was on the top of Amazon’s list of best-selling books on Wednesday, just ahead of “Zero Sugar Diet.”

“Wishful Drinking” and “Postcards From the Edge” were also in Amazon’s top 10, with “Shockaholic” ranked as No. 57.

Five of the top 10 books on Amazon’s “Movers and Shakers” list, which measures titles that show the greatest upward movement in sales over a 24-hour period, were by Fisher. That list also included Courtney Carbone’s book, “I Am a Princess,” about Fisher’s Princess Leia character, at No. 11.

Fisher had been hospitalized since Friday, when paramedics responded to a report of a patient in distress at Los Angeles airport.

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Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” finds beauty in humble New Jersey setting


“Paterson” (Credit: Amazon Studios)

Jim Jarmusch’s new film, “Paterson,” depicts a week in the life of a bus driver-poet named Paterson (Adam Driver), who, naturally, lives and works in Paterson, New Jersey — a coincidence made more believable by considering that Adam Driver could’ve become a bus driver named Driver himself.

The film begins inside Paterson’s bedroom, the city shut out by closed blinds. At first glance, the home resembles a hip apartment in Brooklyn. His bedspread has a modern Crate and Barrel-esque design. His drapes, doors, and furniture are handcrafted by his girlfriend or are retro-chic. But that’s the interior; from outside, Paterson’s pallid brown home looks rather meager and suburban. The front yard is small and unkempt. The mailbox won’t stand up straight no matter how many times Paterson adjusts it.

Paterson’s home is ordinary and decidedly not beautiful. But when Paterson walks to work, and when he drives his route through the city, the home becomes part of a broader tapestry, one whose beauty resides in its imperfections — or, at least, one in which imperfections heighten beauty. Stores’ electric signs are out of order. There is garbage on the sidewalk. Payphones are busted. And the exterior of the bar that Paterson frequents every night for a single beer is made of ugly smooth yellow brick. And yet, from street to street, Paterson’s downtown is vibrant and the city is full of features that make it unique and wondrous. In particular, there is an ethereal waterfall in front of which Paterson eats lunch and writes poetry each day.  

To an outsider, the city of Paterson — really, the entire state of New Jersey — lacks the glamorous connotations of places like New Orleans or Memphis or Madrid, where previous Jarmusch films (“Down by Law,” “Mystery Train,” and “The Limits of Control,” respectively) have been set. Poverty and crime are high. But Jarmusch depicts Paterson with the same blend of romance and tedium as he does those other places (and, notably, with which he depicts Jersey City in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”). Beauty is found in the small, often bizarre details of everyday life (a preponderance of twins, a lovesick man in a bar, a matchbox’s elegant design) as well as in the diversity of the people and in the features that make the city unique, like the waterfall.     

The seed of the idea for the film came when Jarmusch went on a day trip to Paterson 20 some-odd years ago. “I was drawn there by William Carlos Williams, a doctor and a poet whose work I liked [who is from Paterson],” he told “Time.” “I went to the falls there, and I walked around and saw the industrial parts of it. It’s a fascinating place: It was like Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a new industrial city, based around the power from the waterfall, kind of an intended utopian city. And it’s incredibly varied in terms of its demographics, the variety of people there.”

Jarmusch was particularly taken with a metaphor at the beginning of William Carlos Williams’s poem, “Paterson”: a man is the town, and the town is the man. Here, Driver’s character is the town, and the town is Driver’s character. So, who is Driver’s character?

Paterson (who is just Paterson; Jarmusch doesn’t give him a last name) is a broad-shouldered, unassuming man; he is soft-spoken, hardworking and sentimental for a time before the bulk of our lives were spent online. He doesn’t own a cell phone because “The world worked fine before them.” His world is only filtered through one screen: his bus’s windshield. His nostalgic tendencies, though, are grounded in stoic authenticity rather than some sort of Brooklyn-esque hipster irony like that of Driver’s character in Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young.” Paterson is a modest and dedicated poet in a world that prefers capricious dreamers.

Jarmusch has a tendency (which is intentional) to turn away from what is obviously beautiful and popular, and to instead beautifully render what is rarely noticed and perhaps slightly ugly. He credits the cinematographer Robby Müller with teaching him, “Don’t look for the obvious, always keep your eyes open, keep thinking on your feet.” That’s his greatest feat with “Paterson”: He doesn’t glorify Paterson, New Jersey and its working class ethic, nor does he exploit its crime numbers; he portrays it as another city where the sublime is always lurking. You’ve just got to be looking

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Blinded by the light: Solar farms are expected to outpace natural gas in the U.S.

Community Solar Power

(Credit: AP)

This article originally appeared on Climate Central.

2016 is shaping up to be a milestone year for energy, and when the final accounting is done, one of the biggest winners is likely to be solar power.

For the first time, more electricity-generating capacity from solar power plants is expected to have been built in the U.S. than from natural gas and wind, U.S. Department of Energy data show.

Though the final tally won’t be in until March, enough new solar power plants were expected to be built in 2016 to total 9.5 gigawatts of solar power generating capacity, tripling the new solar capacity built in 2015. That’s enough to light up more than 1.8 million homes.

The solar farms built in 2016 were expected to exceed the 8 gigawatts of natural gas power generating capacity and the 6.8 gigawatts of wind power slated for construction this year. No new coal-fired power plants were planned in 2016.


“If 2016 planned additions pan out as operators initially expected for 2016, it would mark the first year that solar was the largest source of capacity,” said Tim Shear, an economist for the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Despite the growth, utility-scale solar power still represents a tiny fraction of the supply of electricity in the U.S. Though U.S. solar power generation was expected to have grown by 44 percent in 2016 and is expected to grow more than 30 percent in 2017, it will still provide around 1 percent of the nation’s electric power, according to EIA data.

Though solar remains a small player, its expected growth adds another milestone to a string of them in 2016:

In early December, the nation’s first offshore wind farm began operating — the first waterborne wind farm in North America. 2016 is likely to also mark the first full year when more electricity was generated in the U.S. using power plants that run on natural gas than those that run on coal.

Renewable electricity generation — including wind, solar, hydropower and other renewables — also grew rapidly in 2016. Every month this year, renewable power generation has exceeded the renewable electricity produced during the same month the year before.

Solar farms used by electric power companies accounted for 70 percent of total solar industry growth in the third quarter of 2016, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Solar growth in the third quarter brought the total nationwide solar capacity to 35.8 gigawatts, enough to power 6.5 million homes, SEIA said in a statement. California was expected to build the most new solar power plants in 2016, followed by North Carolina, Nevada, Texas and Georgia.

The year’s solar boom follows rapidly falling costs of solar panels and wind turbines and an extension of the federal 30 percent solar investment tax credit, which Congress renewed last year.


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8-year-old transgender boy asked to leave Cub Scout pack says he’s “way more angry than sad”

Boy Scouts Gays

In this Saturday, June 25, 2016 photo, Cub Scouts watch a race during the Second Annual World Championship Pinewood Derby in New York’s Times Square. (Credit: AP)

SECAUCUS, N.J. — The family of an 8-year-old New Jersey boy says he was kicked out of Cub Scouts because he is transgender, a move that could open a new front in the debate over discrimination in Scouting.

Joe Maldonado joined Pack 87 in Secaucus in October and was asked to leave about a month later, according to The Record.

“I’m way more angry than sad,” Joe said in a story published Tuesday. “My identity is a boy. If I was them, I would let every person in the world go in. It’s right to do.”

Joe was born a girl but has identified as male for more than a year. His mother, Kristie Maldonado, said Joe is accepted as a boy at school and that it was complaints from parents — not Joe’s fellow Scouts — that led to his ouster.

“Not one of the kids said, ‘You don’t belong here,’” Maldonado said.

The Boy Scouts of America endured years of controversy before ultimately lifting bans on gay Scouts and leaders in recent years. But spokeswoman Effie Delimarkos said in a statement the organization considers transgender children as a separate issue.

“No youth may be removed from any of our programs on the basis of his or her sexual orientation,” she said, but added: “Gender identity isn’t related to sexual orientation.”

She declined to directly address Joe’s situation or say if there’s a written policy on transgender participants. The statement said Cub Scout programs are for those identified as boys on their birth certificates.

The Boy Scouts of America is not known to have rejected any Scouts over gender identity before the Secaucus case, said Justin Wilson, the executive director of Scouts for Equality.

Wilson said he knows of at least two transgender boys who are Cub Scouts, one in a southern state that he did not name and the other in New York. He does not know of any instances where Scouts asked for a birth certificate as a condition of membership.

Maldonado said she was not aware that anyone had a problem with her son being a member of the pack, which is hosted by Immaculate Conception Church, until she received a phone call from the Northern New Jersey Council of Boy Scouts.

A spokesman for the Newark Roman Catholic Archdiocese said it had nothing to do with the Boy Scouts’ decision. He declined further comment.

Council executive Eric Chamberlin acknowledged calling Kristie Maldonado last month but declined further comment. He referred questions to the Scouts’ national office and said the issue involved “our membership standards.”

Earlier this year, the Boy Scouts told The Associated Press that it would admit transgender children to its coeducational programs, but not to programs that are for boys only, like the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.

The national Girl Scouts organization, which is not affiliated with the Boy Scouts, has accepted transgender members for years.

The Boy Scouts did not respond to questions about whether the group would accept a transgender girl whose birth certificate indicates she is male.

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