This site contains a variety of short and longer poems, along with some essays and travel narratives. Most were written for a specific occasion or about a specific person or place. I hope some of the entries may resonate with your experiences. Enjoy!
Sensitive Segments —by Jinny Batterson
A long time ago, before I became totally technically obsolete, I worked for a number of years in what was then called data processing—now more often labeled “information technology.” The media and the structure of the data I worked with changed over time. First there were punched card files, later storage on computer tapes, then multi-plattered disk drives, and, still later, all sorts of increasingly dense mass storage devices. At first, each separate computer application had its own files, so there was a tremendous amount of duplication among the various files, with a high probability for errors and mismatches. Later, someone figured out that it would be possible to create a data hierarchy, with a top level “executive” or “parent” piece that controlled access to all the others. This reduced duplication and mismatch difficulties, but meant that to access any piece of data required understanding a rigid data structure, with its different levels and dependencies.
During the final decade of my data processing work, I was introduced to what were then called “relational databases.” As the expense of computer hardware continued to decline and the speed of data retrieval continued to increase, any data hierarchy that might be lurking in the background was masked. Given a properly constituted database, it became possible for programmers to compose relatively simple inquiries into multiple data fields, no matter how they were positioned in the overall data structure. To me, this way of viewing data was much more intuitive than trying to remember whether “segment A” was a parent segment to “segment B,” or whether both were same-level children of “segment C” in some artificially constructed hierarchy. The catch, in the somewhat hierarchical organizations where I worked, was that some data was deemed off-limits or unnecessary for some members of the agency or firm. For example, the Personnel Department might need to access personal information that was considered either too sensitive or irrelevant for the Accounting Department or the Education Department, and vice versa.
So some smart computer software guru introduced the concept of “sensitive segments” for data base access. All the data was stored somewhere, but if you were in the Personnel Department, you could only retrieve data from those segments to which you were given access. If you were in Accounting or Education, you would be blind to those segments whose data was reserved exclusively for Personnel. They did not relate to your job description. From your perspective, they did not exist.
In the glut of our current information environment, it may seem as though the concept of “sensitive segments” is obsolete. In theory, any of us can access most of the data stored online anywhere in the world via the “world wide web.” However, precisely because there is so much information available in electronic form, it becomes totally impossible for any single person or group to retrieve it all, let alone make any sort of sense of it. Therefore, the Googles and other search engines of our age have devised ingenious algorithms to bring us just those “sensitive segments” they believe will most interest and/or please us. Our search-engine-mediated levels of sensitivity have only increased.
Amid the cries of horror at the polarization and dysfunction of our political and social systems, relatively few point to this sensitization as a partial cause. Few stop to remember that any topical query will bring back the “most popular” web pages on that topic first. For example, if I do a Google search on the word “bias,” it brings back about 207 million results, one screenful at a time, with several dictionary definitions as the leading entries. Such a ranking system helps to make sense of lots of relatively simple topics, yet it also opens a way for more and more extreme distortions of the more complex aspects of reality. Unless I type in a specific web address, I are going to be shown just the information deemed by the search engine software as a “sensitive segment” first.
Each of us reaches adulthood having certain segment sensitivities, based on our genetic make-up, our upbringing, and our exposure to various life events. Some of us, for example, are drawn to emphasize the role of individual initiative in fostering success; others are primed to stress the role of luck. Some feel entitled to a large share of the world’s material goods; others remark on patterns of systemic discrimination and oppression that deprive many of even a small share of such goods.
It is very difficult, a whole life’s work and then some, to unlearn layers of bias and discrimination we learned early in life. It’s crucial that we minimize the distortions fomented by our increasing dependence on Internet-mediated “sensitive segments.” We need the balance of maintaining and strengthening interactions with real people with real lives whose opinions and experiences may be quite different from our own.
Book Review: The Crane Dance: Taking Flight in Midlife, by William R. Finger
(JourneyCake Spirit: Raleigh, NC, 2016)
The Crane Dance opens like a travel narrative, with only a few hints of the book’s main themes. The major portion of the text is bookended by sketches from the author’s two travels in India: the first a year-long assignment as a young Peace Corps volunteer in 1969-1970, the second a brief add-on to a 2003 business trip to revisit his former Peace Corps host family—a Moslem widow, her now-grown sons, plus her non-Moslem best friend. In between come thirty-plus years of Bill’s learning to be an adult, of coping with and eventually coming to embrace the particular temperament he has been endowed with, of gaining some peace about the places and times he’s lived through.
Bill Finger came of age at the height of U.S. involvement in Vietnam’s civil war. After his Peace Corps assignment, he requested and received conscientious objector status to avoid military service. Although the exemption was consistent with his evolving religious and ethical beliefs, it left a lingering sense of guilt at being spared the fate of other young men scarred or killed after being drafted into the military. Another source of guilt was having spent many of his early years as a white child in 1950’s Jackson, Mississippi, with its predominantly racist culture.
About the time of his 40th birthday, Bill begins to attend a men’s support group with other fathers of young children. The group becomes a lifeline when, a year later, he suddenly loses his job. Bill and his wife had promised each other to be hands-on, egalitarian parents, and adapted their work schedules over time so that both could be actively involved in nurturing their two children. This meant, among other things, that both accepted lower incomes in exchange for flexible schedules, so that the loss of either’s income would pose economic challenges.
For the next dozen years or so, Bill cobbles together assignments and jobs to help support the family financially, while also working with men’s groups, with therapists, with anti-depressant medications, with church groups, and with meditation to first examine and later to cope with patterns of recurrent, low-grade depression. Bill has known vaguely since childhood that the uncle he is named after, an intellectually brilliant engineer, was institutionalized with severe depression for much of his adult life. As Bill journeys through less crippling depressive intervals, he learns that his mother suffered a severe bout of postpartum depression after the birth of her youngest child. Perhaps, he surmises, his condition has a partial genetic component.
Bill also experiments with dance therapy. At a celebration when he has progressed a good bit in understanding and coping with his depressive episodes, he and his family host a community initiation performance put on by eight men who’ve spent a semester together exploring movement as a form of artistic expression. Bill’s part in the ceremony includes the crane dance that gives the book its title. He moves his long, skinny arms—so useful in dunking a basketball or lobbing a tennis shot, but often awkward otherwise—as if in flight, celebrating his survival. He’s like the whooping crane, whose numbers plummeted to near-extinction, but then rebounded. “The crane survived,” Bill intones, “and so did I.”
The book is well written. Parts of it are compelling. However, I found the lengthy descriptions of Bill’s various efforts toward acknowledging and gradually reframing his depressive tendencies, well, depressing. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been more rewarding for me to read a “standard” life journey book—hero starts out, hero encounters challenge, hero finds mentor, hero overcomes challenge, hero is celebrated by his peers—end of story. But perhaps Bill’s story is truer to reality. In our instant-everything culture, we may need reminders that not all problems have quick or evident solutions and that many of our efforts will not fully succeed.
I came to know Bill after the period he describes in this mostly midlife memoir. What I know of his later life has not been without trauma and challenge. However, his earlier struggles seem to have imparted a hardiness and resilience I can sometimes envy. I’d recommend The Crane Dance to anyone at or past midlife, especially those who struggle with depression or live with someone who does. My only caveat—you may want to skim over an intermediate chapter or two.
Eighth Decade Beginning Inventory —by Jinny Batterson
Eyes: sometimes rheumy, not quite as sharp or quick to focus any more; still capable of seeing beauty around me.
Teeth: ditto about sharpness, not as firmly rooted as before; still capable of chewing the fat.
Ears: prone to sunburn, hearing less acute; especially deaf to husband’s complaints or criticisms.
Nose: runnier, more often stuffy; still inquisitive.
Gait: slower, plodding, even, on uphills; still fond of exploring.
Lungs: clear and easy most of the time; more sensitive to smoke, pollen, other stressors than before.
Sleep: easy to start, occasionally wakeful and restless toward morning, more memory of dreams; seems more natural to take naps.
Soul: more aware of happy times, more grateful; still needs work toward being inclusive.
World: still full of controversy and conflict, still a little dangerous, sometimes tragic; still also full of adventures and joys waiting to happen.
Didace’s Garden —by Jinny Batterson
It’s a magical time of year here in central North Carolina. The trees have leaves of that vibrant green that’s unique to early spring, before they gradually darken and fade in the heat and dust of later seasons. Shrubs and flowers bloom in profusion, both in cultivated spaces and in parks and woodlands where they’ve either originated or escaped. Recently I spent a couple of hours “tidying up” parts of a traveling friend’s back yard. Mostly, I wanted an excuse to revel in the colors and blooms of the nearly solid wall of azaleas along one side of her property.
As I raked and pruned, I remembered a different garden, a different season, a different part of the world. For a couple of years in the 1980’s, I had a temporary assignment in the small central African country of Burundi. Most weekdays, I worked in a rural development office in the country’s capital city of Bujumbura, participating in a project to strengthen and diversify a network of consumer/producer cooperatives throughout the country. Burundi then had a few business people and high government officials with great material wealth, a local and expatriate community of civil servants and shop owners who lived modestly, and over 90% of its populace who ground out a bare living as subsistence farmers. It is somewhat ironic that this Peace-Corps-like assignment was the only time in my life when I had human household help. Modern appliances were few; electricity was expensive and intermittent; having an employee to tend the yard was a godsend. My duplex neighbor and I shared a gardener/night watchman, Didace.
Any lasting impact I had in the country was more likely a result of my interactions with Didace than of any tasks I accomplished at the office. Though he had little formal education, Didace was proud of his skills as a small-hold farmer. While he scoffed at my feeble attempts to grow temperate-climate vegetables in the tropics, he faithfully dug small plots for me in September and January, at the beginnings of each of the country’s two rainy seasons. Later, he tracked down supports for the pea and bean vines that straggled upward. The income he got from maintaining foreigners’ gardens supplemented what he could grow on his farm to eat or sell, helping provide a better life for his family.
Before the first Christmas season of my assignment (which occurred during a lull between the shorter and longer of the two rainy seasons), I mentioned to Didace that I would be traveling to Greece to see family over the holiday. Was there anything I could bring back for him and his family as a small gift? He thought for a while, then explained that what he’d really enjoy were some pictures of his family and his small farm. Didace had noticed the snapshots of family and travels that I kept on the room divider in our open-plan bungalow. Would I be willing to visit his home, take pictures with my (traditional) camera, then get the film developed on my trip and bring back several of the best photos?
We made plans for me to borrow a project vehicle one weekend in early December and to drive, then walk, to his family’s home in the hills above town. The paved road quickly became dirt, which gradually got more potholed and rutted. Didace met me at the intersection of the road and a person-wide path that led further into the hills. Once we arrived at his house, he pointed with pride to the tin roof he’d recently installed with a loan/advance on his monthly wages. He introduced me to his wife and two young sons, and then showed me around the small plots where they grew beans, corn, and cassava, a root vegetable whose tubers provided most of the carbohydrates of the Burundian diet. At one edge of the house was a small banana grove. A few chickens scratched in the dirt.
Then, in a small fenced area, I saw a flower garden. If memory serves, it had a mixture of gladiolas, dahlias, and other showy flowers I didn’t recognize. They were beautiful. I asked why his family chose to grow flowers on some of their limited acreage. Partly, he said, so they could sell the best blooms at the Bujumbura central market for additional income. But mainly, just because they were pretty. I wish I had made and kept copies of the pictures of Didace and his garden. Beauty knows no boundaries.
Factionalism, Fanaticism, and Mysticism —by Jinny Batterson
A number of years ago, I spent part of a weekend peace workshop in a session led by an older Sufi originally from Syria. Sufism is a mystical strain of Islam that sidesteps the often fractious distinctions between Sunni and Shia Moslems, instead emphasizing spiritual practices to get closer to the divine. This mystic, somewhat akin to a member of a Christian contemplative order, but also active in wider society, had been raised in the city of Aleppo. He’d received some of his early religious training there before emigrating to the U.S. He seemed to me calm, temperate, and wise in the ways of the world without being worldly.
He laid out for us a continuum of various kinds of peace work each of us could engage in, and warned us of the dangers of lapsing into either factionalism or fanaticism as we worked together. By his account, factionalism was most likely to arise among a group of people who agreed on the ends they sought, but disagreed about the means for achieving them. So, for example, a large group could favor creating living wages for low-wage workers. Within that overall group, one faction might propose engaging in civil disobedience, while another might prefer a social media campaign, still a third might opt to support political candidates who promised to raise the legal minimum wage, and a fourth might propose corporate tax abatement as a way to produce more higher-wage jobs. The extent to which the various factions could stay focussed on their common goal despite their widely differing approaches would impact their overall effectiveness.
In contrast, fanaticism, he taught us, was likely to blossom when there was agreement about means, but disagreement or lack of clarity about the ends to be achieved. Dictionary definitions of fanaticism mention uncritical enthusiasm, zeal, ardor, and a mindless adherence to a ruler or set of rules. Politics and religion are the realms most prone to fanaticism. Nearly all of us are susceptible, though few of us develop full-blown cases. Unfortunately, it takes only a few to do substantial damage—witness the recent example of Dylann Roof, who shot nine people dead at a Bible study session in Charleston, SC, or the earlier instance of Timothy McVeigh, who rammed an explosive-filled truck into a federal building in Oklahoma City, OK, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more. When fanatics join together in groups, their capacity for damage can multiply, as they reinforce each other. Fanatics may yearn for a vague, undifferentiated rosy future (or return to a rosier past) reachable if only “they” were not present—be they immigrants, blacks, Indians, Jews, gays and lesbians, or an unpopular president and his entourage. Fanatics accept promises of security and status in return for toeing a line laid out by some sect or governing authority. Strains of fanaticism are likely to resurface when people feel that their livelihoods or social standing are threatened.
At this point in U.S. and global politics, it can seem that we have incorporated some of the worst aspects of both factionalism and fanaticism into our civic processes and discourse. We seesaw between partisan gridlock and partisan whiplash, with different political factions often more interested in damaging their opponents or proving them wrong than in advancing the common good. Meanwhile, both traditional and social media have become inundated with inflamed and inflaming fanatical rhetoric, most based only loosely on fact, if at all.
In my mostly secular life, mysticism has rarely surfaced, but the few incidents I remember have left a strong impression: an extended group yoga meditation session in which our breaths briefly became one breath; a knowledge, without physical communication, that a childhood friend was dying in a distant city, prompting me to pray for his safe transition from this life to whatever comes next; a sense, when I was later hospitalized overnight with a potentially life-threatening condition, that the prayers and good wishes of friends and acquaintances were pulsing through me, providing needed healing and strength. These brief encounters with whatever we choose to label the transcendent have gifted me with the understanding that we are all somehow related, inextricably connected. Imperfect creatures that we are, we can overcome both factionalism and fanaticism. Ends and means are inevitably linked. Twentieth century activist and theologian Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed the challenge this way, in a sermon broadcast at Christmas 1967, a year just as fraught as the times we are living through now: “…in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and, ultimately, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”
Saint Pat, Bless His Heart… —by Jinny Batterson
A set of reports from an ancestry DNA service recently confirmed that over half of my ancestors originated in Ireland, England, or some other part of the set of islands off the northern coast of France that its current rulers like to call the “British Isles.” Just which parts of the islands, I cannot say with confidence, nor, apparently, can the DNA service (unless I want to spit into another tube, answer a lot of intrusive questions, and send a heftier fee).
From what I know of the various branches of my family tree, a fair number of my ancestors were of “Scots-Irish Presbyterian” background—at some point before arriving in America, they had lived in northern Ireland, having migrated there from parts of Scotland in hopes of farming better land. At some time in the old country, also, they had deserted Roman Catholicism for Protestantism.
I follow a rather eclectic faith tradition, with a substantial modicum of “live and let live” in its theology. Yet once I ran into a situation in which my ancestors’ creed and country of origin seemed to be important. Many years ago, I was riding in a Jeep driven by an ebullient Irishman whose family name was similar to that of some of my forebears. We were on a weekend excursion to an isolated upland farming station in central Africa, along with several other international development workers. When Mr. Dudley found out that part of my ancestry was Scots-Irish Presbyterian, he commented on my lack of pedigree:
“Ach, your forefathers were renegades,” he lectured me. “They likely fought pitched battles with mine, who did their best to uphold the true faith.” Lucky for me, he forgave my great-great-great-grands their transgressions and did not kick me out of the car. Properly pedigreed or not, I usually sport at least a touch of green when March 17 comes around each year.
One year, when I was half a world from the U.S., teaching English at a school in a frontier outpost near China’s northwestern border, I organized an evening English language program about the Saint Patrick’s Day holiday. It was difficult to get my students to believe that there was an island that stayed permanently green—the little bits of green in our desert oasis town required near-constant irrigation. However, there was a different link of sorts. In preparation for the program, I’d boned up on the history of Irish and Scots-Irish immigration to the United States, which began well before American independence, but peaked during the 1840’s and 1850’s. Over about a decade then, a famine in Ireland wiped out a million people and caused a million more to emigrate, reducing the island nation’s population by 20 to 25 percent. Most of my students had not been directly impacted by famines, but they generally knew stories of parents or grandparents who had, during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. So there was a tenuous bond with the plight of the Irish, even if few Chinese were accustomed to wearing green, greeting leprechauns, or drinking green beer.
Now that I live in the U.S. South, I’ve been surprised to learn that one of the major Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in our country takes place in Savannah, Georgia. Second only to the New York City parade, Savannah’s festivities are lubricated by “to go cups” and last for most of the day. According to the travel website moon.com, some of my distant relatives may have had a hand in early Savannah festivities: “ …the first parade in Savannah was organized by Irish Protestants. Thirteen members of the local Hibernian Society—the country’s oldest Irish society—took part in a private procession to Independent Presbyterian Church in 1813.”
In 21st century America, smaller celebrations occur throughout the South, the festivities overshadowed only by “March Madness.” This evening, during halftime of whatever NCAA basketball game we happen to be watching, let us pause and hoist a glass to Saint Pat, bless his heart.
International Women’s Day Thoughts —by Jinny Batterson
March 8, 2017 will be celebrated in many countries as International Women’s Day, a holiday that gradually has taken hold since the early 20th century as a way to honor women’s economic and social contributions and to press for more equitable treatment of the “fairer sex.” No one agency, country, or non-profit is a primary sponsor for International Women’s Day. Some companies have underwritten celebrations in various places, perhaps hoping to get their names associated with being good corporate citizens, perhaps welcoming this occasion to market their products more emphatically to women.
The first time I had a chance to participate in an International Women’s Day celebration came a decade ago, when I was teaching English at a small agricultural college on the far northwestern fringes of China. That year the holiday fell on a Thursday, and our classes were shortened to allow for an afternoon of amateur intramural sports. According to the journal entry I made at the time, I participated in “water bottle bowling” and jump rope competitions, winning an extra liter of cooking oil and a ribbon for my efforts.
In 2014, I attended a North Carolina International Women’s Day gathering in a local church hall on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t remember a whole lot about the celebration—it was small and fairly informal. Among the participants were several older nuns and a different group of singing elders, the “Raging Grannies.” The grannies wore aprons and floppy garden hats and belted out political satire words set to traditional tunes. After a while, all of us went home.
International Women’s Day was first recognized by the United Nations in 1975, in conjunction with the first International Women’s Conference and a U.N. themed “Year of the Woman.” That same year, though not on International Women’s Day, women in the Nordic country of Iceland decided to take a day off to illustrate how vital women were to the smooth functioning of Icelandic society, despite what was then a 40% pay gap. According to excerpts from the account given by the BBC in 2015, the October, 1975 “Women’s Day Off” was a turning point in the relationship between the sexes in Iceland:
“Instead of going to the office, doing housework or childcare they took to the streets in their thousands to rally for equal rights with men. (An estimated 90% of Icelandic women took part, including rural women.)
It is known in Iceland as the Women’s Day Off, and Vigdis Finnbogadottir (Iceland’s first woman Prime Minister, elected initially in 1980) sees it as a watershed moment.
‘What happened that day was the first step for women’s emancipation in Iceland,’ she says. ‘It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men.’
Banks, factories and some shops had to close, as did schools and nurseries – leaving many fathers with no choice but to take their children to work. There were reports of men arming themselves with sweets and colouring pencils to entertain the crowds of overexcited children in their workplaces. Sausages – easy to cook and popular with children – were in such demand the shops sold out.
It was a baptism of fire for some fathers, which may explain the other name the day has been given – the Long Friday.”
The pay gap in Iceland has not entirely disappeared, though it has shrunk to one of the smallest of any nation. In 2016, Icelandic women for a single day staged a smaller work stoppage as a protest of the enduring part of the wage gap—figuring that they were paid 14% less than men for equal work, many quit work at 2:38 p.m. rather than “work for free” for the rest of the day.
So far, International Women’s Day has not caught on in a big way in the United States of America, where the gender wage gap hovers at about 20% nationwide, with considerable variation by state and a much larger gap for women of color. One of the initiatives favored by the current U.S. administration is support for childcare expenses, which typically helps families with working parents. So far, there is little detail about how such support would be administered or financed. Considerable skepticism exists about whether that support would be structured to help improve the lives and earning capacity of those at the bottom of the wage scale.
In my family, women through the generations have carried at least their share of both nurturing and earnings responsibilities. If I do nothing else this International Women’s Day, I will pause for a moment to honor these foremothers who farmed, ran households, got educated, taught, provided vital family income, and invested for the future. Once they got the right to vote, they for darn sure did their best to make fulfillment and advancement easier for their daughters as well as for their sons.
The Wrong Way to Make Mac and Cheese —by Jinny Batterson
Why is our town/county/state/nation/planet (choose all that apply) in such an uproar at the moment? Isn’t there anything we can agree on any more?
Some days, I wonder how we ever got to this point. Then I remember an incident that happened when I was maybe 12. Our family had recently moved from a smallish cottage into a brand-new large brick house in a nearby neighborhood of the same Maryland town. My parents, assisted by their parents, had scrimped and saved for over a decade to be able to afford our expanded quarters, which my dad’s small construction company helped build.
For me, the biggest contrast with our old digs was not the spacious bedroom that I no longer had to share with a younger sister and two younger brothers, but the abundance of playmates my age in the neighborhood, most of them girls. Not too long after we moved, one of the girls I didn’t know all that well invited me over to her house for dinner and a sleepover. What a treat! I hadn’t been to stay at a playmate’s house in forever. I checked with my mom for permission, then packed a small suitcase for the Friday evening adventure at Mary’s house.
Most of the houses in our new neighborhood had been built on spacious grounds a couple of generations earlier as summer homes for Baltimore lawyers and their families, fleeing the heat and diseases of urban Augusts. Mary’s house was one of the more modest ones. By the time I walked the short distance to her place, it was starting to get dark. Mary’s artist mother had an appointment somewhere and had left supper in the oven for us, promising Mary she’d be home in an hour or two. This was a departure from the routine I was used to—my parents had not yet allowed us to spend evening time without their supervision or that of a babysitter.
After Mary gave me a quick tour of the house’s hallways and somewhat drafty rooms, we returned to the large kitchen. Mary’s mom had set a small table with placemats, plates and silverware, and had put down a thick potholder in the table’s center. Following her mom’s instructions, Mary picked up two more potholders, carefully took an unlidded casserole out of the oven, and put it in the center of the table. We started in on supper. Humph! It was macaroni and cheese, but not at all what I was used to. I’m not sure whether my 12-year-old self had the tact to avoid criticizing the food to Mary, but I remember describing it to my mom in lurid detail once I got home the next day. The noodles on the top of the casserole had dried out in the oven, and even toward the bottom, this mac and cheese was not the soft, gooey mass I was used to eating at home. My mom was a basic cook. She’d managed to get nourishing, if somewhat bland, food on the table for us each evening promptly at 6, using a minimum of burners and pans. Who ever heard of cooking macaroni and cheese in an oven?
Mom was wiser than to contradict an obstinate, pubescent daughter directly. Instead, she asked, “How did it taste?”
After a little thought, I said, “Not bad, really. The noodles were kind of crunchy, but the cheese was tangier than the Velveeta we use at our house. I guess I could eat some again.”
Since then, I’ve been lucky to have had chances to sample many different kinds of pasta and cheese, and of other, more exotic combinations of carbohydrates and proteins. Not all of them have been to my liking, but I have at least learned that there are many valid ways of producing macaroni and cheese. Is it possible there are many valid ways to do other things as well?
Eating Out in Twenty-Nine Palms, Honoring National Service
—by Jinny Batterson
During part of our most recent political transition, in late 2016, I spent several days in the desert interior of southern California, exploring the area around Joshua Tree National Park. From a small vacation rental home in the town of Twenty-Nine Palms, my husband and I could drive several miles uphill to a park entrance. We could explore the park’s trails, marvel at its unique geological formations, view the large members of the yucca family that gave the park its name, and experience the variety of its altitudes and desert landscapes. Toward the end of our stay, a heavy wind kicked up, making hiking less appealing, so we spent some time indoors, learning about the town. At the Chamber of Commerce, we watched a film about the town’s history and viewed displays and pamphlets. We learned that the town’s first growth spurt had come in the wake of World War I. Then, a sympathetic veteran physician specializing in lung ailments had begun to recommend the climate around Twenty-Nine Palms to fellow veterans suffering from mustard gas exposure or tuberculosis. The dry air and moderate altitude provided an ideal setting for recovery. Several hundred veterans filed homestead claims in the area.
We also learned that a large modern U.S. Marine base existed nearby, in the opposite direction from the park. Soldiers could be stationed there for periods ranging from a few months to several years, with over 50,000 military personnel receiving training the preceding year. We drove out to the base gate—the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center/Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command—but were unable to enter without an approved escort.
That evening, we ate in town at a small local restaurant that catered to a burgers-and-milkshakes clientele. When we first arrived, the restaurant’s central area was completely filled by a set of pushed-together tables where a dozen young people, five men and seven women, were chatting and ordering food. They looked fit and tired, primed to enjoy a simple evening meal. Several were wearing matching sweatshirts with the initials “NCCC” on the back. I guessed they might be members of some rock climbing club, since the park was a mecca for climbers. After a bit, my curiosity got the better of me and I walked over to one end of their table.
“What does ‘NCCC’ stand for?” I asked. “Are you a rock climbing group?”
“No ma’am,” responded one of the young men. “We’re a team from the National Civilian Community Corps. We’re on our way back to our base in Sacramento after an eight-week assignment helping repair homes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that were damaged by last summer’s floods.”
As my husband and I ordered our food and waited while it was prepared, half a dozen young men with short haircuts arrived and settled into two booths nearby. They were in civilian clothes, but I guessed they might be on leave from the marine base: several barber shops in town advertised “Marine haircuts,” and these fit the bill. The men talked quietly among themselves as they too ordered and waited for their suppers.
Both the Marines and NCCC volunteers I saw at dinner in Twenty-Nine Palms were training and practicing to meet whatever threats and emergencies might require a military response, civilian action, or some combination of the two. I was grateful for their service, as I remembered previous generations of Americans who had participated in larger numbers in either military or civilian service—the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930’s depression years, or the military draftees of the 1940’s World War II era and beyond. Surveying these young service men and women at supper in 2016, I also imagined what it might look like for similar service again to become a bigger part of our American society.
Various bills introduced in Congress since 2003 have attempted to create a framework for some sort of mandatory service component for young people, including a modest monetary stipend and educational funding assistance. Our nation’s physical and educational infrastructures are aging. Elements of our natural environment are threatened. The needs are great; the potential even greater. On this Presidents’ Day, let’s renew the value of public service as part of our heritage and responsibility as Americans. From the loftiest tasks to the most humble, each of us has something worthwhile to contribute. When a service ethic is lacking, we are all impoverished, and not just monetarily.
Hauling Rocks Uphill —by Jinny Batterson
My particular piedmont town has experienced dramatic population growth in the past half century—nearly a thirty-fold increase. However, the steepest slopes of our region, sculpted as it is with lots of hills and gullies, restrict or defy human building. These areas have often been allotted to park use, with bicycle and walking paths at their base: greenways. As a recent arrival, I’m not sure, walking our greenways between tract home developments, condos, and apartment complexes, what our landscape looked like when far fewer people lived here. One thing I’m fairly certain of, though: in times past, there were fewer jagged rocks lining our freshets and streams.
A large granite quarry sits at the north edge of town. Throughout the area, many recesses in our ravines are filled with angular mid-to-large-sized rocks trucked in from the quarry. Rocks line our bridge approaches and help terrace the steepest washes. These rocks aren’t nearly as scenic as naturally rounded river stones would be, but they help reduce erosion and serve to slow run-off when we have sudden downpours, which happens fairly often these days. Over time, some of the stones get covered with vegetation, leaves, or mosses, and blend better with their surroundings.
Geologists have elaborated a plate-tectonic theory of earth’s crust that goes a long way toward explaining our peaks and valleys—as tectonic plates collide, mountains are pushed up. Elevations shift. Former sea beds get elevated. Yet, over geological time, even the tallest mountains are worn down by erosion, their rocks dissolving into sand or soil or carried back still-formed into the seas.
Until I moved here, much of my context about hauling rocks came from an ancient Greek myth and its modern French retelling—the story of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a Corinthian king who, on multiple occasions, fooled the gods and cheated death. When he finally did die, as even tricksters must, the gods took their revenge by condemning him to an eternity of pushing a large rock uphill, only to have it roll back down again once he’d reached the top. French author Albert Camus wrote a widely quoted 1942 essay in which he claimed that much of modern life had exposed mankind to Sisyphean tragedy, but that embracing life’s challenges was a way to live fully, anyway: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
For the past year or so, I’ve been engaged physically in a small-scale rock hauling effort of my own, shoring up the pad surrounding our heat pump, trying to reduce erosion and run-off in our fairly steep yard by hand-carrying surplus rocks up from a nearby floodplain. My landscaping efforts are not perfect, but they seem to help a little. This past Christmas, I visited a small mountain resort town in California and stayed at a country inn whose previous owners had laboriously hauled lots and lots of rounded stones from nearby creek beds. They used the stones to craft a huge stone-and-masonry fireplace, plus a massive interior wall that was as beautiful as the fireplace was functional.
The present era seems to be a time when many of us also are engaged in figurative rock-hauling. Institutions of self-government that we long took for granted seem under stress, eroding, being carried downhill toward a totalitarian sea. It can seem daunting to write one more letter, attend one more demonstration, make one more phone call, have one more discussion across ideological lines, pray one more prayer. And yet this work is just as necessary as physical rock-hauling. Even when human societies get warped by fear and hatred, it’s still necessary to continue—we, too, must stay happy in the struggle toward the heights.