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Prof FLOTUS

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Jill Biden, first full-time employed US First Lady

by Sajitha Premathunga

There’s a lot of pressure on FLOTUS, specially since she has to live up to a 231-year tradition and measure up to the legacies of former First Ladies, the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and Michelle Obama. This might not prove to be difficult for a first lady with four degrees; Bachelor of Arts, in English, from the University of Delaware in 1975; Master of Education from West Chester State College in 1981; Master of Arts in English from Villanova University, in 1987 and doctoral degree in education from the University of Delaware in 2007.

Breaking tradition, Jill will be doing double duty as FLOTUS and college English professor, after Joe Biden is sworn in, while also being actively involved in education policy. According to first-lady historian, professor at Ohio University, Katherine Jellison, quoted in USA Today, no previous FLOTUS has been ‘allowed’ to be like most modern American women, with both a work life and a family life. This is not the first time she had broken tradition, Jill was the first person to hold a non-political, non-legal, outside-the-Beltway job while serving as the second lady. She taught at Northern Virginia Community College during her husband’s tenure as vice president for Obama. She famously asked her Secret Service security detail to dress like students and carry laptops in order to blend in.

In fact, she delivered her national convention speech while standing in the empty classroom where she taught English at Delaware’s Brandywine High School in the early 1990s. Her illustrious teaching career, in which she taught at a community college, at a public high school and even at a psychiatric hospital for adolescents, is evidence enough for her versatility as an educator. She also served on the education taskforce for the Biden campaign and helped develop policy proposals. “Teaching is not what I do. It’s who I am,” she is supposed to have tweeted once.

Although Joe Biden had been a US senator for almost four decades and spent two terms as vice president to Barack Obama, Jill had kept a relatively low profile. Although, she made fast friends with Michelle Obama. In fact, Michelle Obama, in a statement to USA Today, has given Jill her personal recommendation saying, “She is going to be a terrific First Lady.”

 

Philanthropist

 

Jill worked on the Joining Forces military families project together with Michelle Obama. The programme involved helping military veterans and their families gain access to education and employment resources as well as health and wellness services. Jill was also involved with the nonprofit organization Delaware Boots on the Ground, which helped families whose members have been deployed. Her passion for advocating military families may have been inspired by her exposure as a military family member. Her father, Donald Carl Jacobs, was a US Navy signalman during World War II and Beau was a Major in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps with a year-long stint in Iraq.

Because Jill is an educator, most observe that Education would take top priority in the country’s agenda, along with military families and cancer awareness advocacy, since Joe Biden’s son from his first marriage, Beau, a former attorney general of Delaware and a rising Democratic party member died of brain cancer in 2015 and both Jill Biden’s parents died of cancer. After four of her friends were also diagnosed with breast cancer, she started the Biden Breast Health Initiative in Delaware in 1993, which educated over 10,000 high school girls on the importance of early detection. The Biden Cancer Initiative is an organization that brings together cancer researchers, health care providers, and patients to develop clinical trials, detection, care, and treatment plans. The Bidens are also Honorary Co-Chairs for the Global Race for the Cure in Washington, D.C. The Biden Foundation, co-chaired by the couple is a non-profit that champions causes such as support for military families, advancement in community colleges and support for LGBTQ equality.

In other philanthropic work, Jill has played an active but under the radar, role in advocating of girls’ and women’s rights and welfare in Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone and also focused on women’s educational opportunities in a tour of Asia that took her to Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

In addition to being an educator and a ‘military mom’, Jill is also a published author. She wrote the children’s book ‘Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops’, based on her granddaughter, Natalie’s experience of her father, Beau’s deployment in Iraq. Her ‘Joey: The Story of Joe Biden’, about her husband’s formative years, that laid the groundwork for his political career, is peppered with interesting anecdotes about Joe’s childhood. Older readers will find quite interesting Jill’s 2019 memoir, ‘Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself’. She also co-founded the Book Buddies program.

Jill is known for her empathy, often keeping in touch with people dealing with personal loss or those undergoing chemo, she had met on the campaign trail. According to White House experts she has demonstrated qualities that would allow her to achieve what’s assumed to be the first lady’s number one goal: humanizing her husband and promoting his agenda.

White House experts opine that she would make a smooth transition, aided by the many years of experience. Their 40-plus years of marriage has exposed her to US politics as no FLOTUS before her. Eight years plus the president-elect’s 36 years in the US Senate, makes her uniquely qualified to handle the job of FLOTUS, says Kate Andersen Brower, author of books about the White House, including ‘First Women’, about modern first ladies, quoted in USA Today. Jill was instrumental in Biden’s race for presidency. “What Jill is best at helping me do is figure out who the people around me would be most compatible with me,” said Bidden in their CBS Sunday Morning profile.

 

How they met their mother

 

Born Jill Tracy Jacobs on June 3, 1951 in the state of New Jersey, Jill was the oldest of five sisters and grew up in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. It is interesting to know that she is not all American, as far as her, Sicilian paternal grandparents are concerned. She is a good sport, literally. Jill Biden is an infamous prankster with a penchant for running. Her daily exercise regime includes a five mile run five days a week, along with weight training for good measure, according to Runner’s World in 2010. Jill finished the 1998 Marine Corps Marathon and has done several half-marathons and 10-mile races, according to Women’s Health magazine.

The Bidens have been married since 1977. As the story goes that Jill had been in the process of getting a divorce from her highschool sweetheart, when she met Joe in 1975. According to reports, Jill used to do a bit of local modeling and Joe, nine years her senior and widowed at the time with two young sons, had seen a picture of her in an advert, of all places, on a bus shelter and became smitten. “…I had been dating guys in jeans and clogs and T-shirts, he came to the door and he had a sport coat and loafers,” she told Vogue about their first meet. “When we came home…he shook my hand good night…I went upstairs and called my mother at 1:00 a.m. and said, ‘Mom, I finally met a gentleman.’”

He was a senator at the time and she was still in college. It was Joe’s sons, Beau and Hunter, at the ages of 7 and 6, respectively, who urged him to marry Jill. It took five proposals from Joe for Jill to accept him.

Joe Biden’s first marriage to Neilia Hunter ended in tragedy, when Neilia and Naomi ‘Amy’ Biden, their one-year-old child, were killed in a car crash in 1972, only days after Joe Biden was first elected to the US Senate. Their two sons, Hunter and Beau, were also seriously injured. The couple had daughter Ashley in 1981 and raised the children in Wilmington, Delaware. As a senator, Joe famously commuted to and from Washington to Wilmington daily so he could spend time with Jill and the children. “She gave me back my life,” Biden said in his 2007 memoir ‘Promises to Keep’. “She made me start to think my family might be whole again.”

She helped put the broken Biden family together, after the death of Joe Biden’s first wife and daughter, when she raised Beau and Hunter as her own. But can she help Biden put together a country broken with racial and political division. “How do you make a broken family whole?” she asked. “The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding, and with small acts of kindness. With bravery. With unwavering faith,” she said in one of her campaign videos.



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Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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