This site contains a variety of short and longer poems, along with some essays and travel narratives. Some were written for a specific occasion or about a specific person or place. Others were intended to be more general and to have a longer shelf life. I hope an entry here or there may resonate with your experiences. Enjoy!
Networks and Hierarchies—Holding the Tension —by Jinny Batterson
I’ve long been intrigued by the relationship between networks and hierarchies. When I recently did an online search for “networks versus hierarchies,” I came up with lots of current articles in economic and business publications about the relationship between these two forms of human organization. Much of it seemed to me to provide little practical help in structuring a real group or team. For example, a 2018 posting on chiefexecutive.net related that:
“The network structure must come together organically, depending on the unique conditions of the organization, and not be over-engineered at the risk of simply creating a supplemental hierarchy.”
Several articles discussed the merits of Niall Ferguson’s book The Square and the Tower, partly a historical review of alternating periods when, he suggested, either networks or hierarchies prevailed as social constructs. Some questioned whether technological changes such as the internet now favor networked organization. Per a pundit at econlib.org, “However, it is a fallacy to insist that just because the Internet is peer-to-peer, human groups necessarily must array themselves in that fashion in order to be successful in the current technological setting.”
As something of an egalitarian and even more a contrarian, I’ve mostly chafed at the hierarchical human groups I’ve participated in, just as much when I was, at least titularly, “in charge” as when I was an “underling.”
In the now-outdated data processing world that I inhabited for much of my paid work life, the earliest data structures were isolated files, often with one field as a “key.” Later, related files were grouped into “hierarchical databases,” with “parent” and “child” segments grouped into multiple levels. In order to be able to access any given segment, it was important to know all the relationships among segments. “Child” segments typically could be accessed only through their chains of parentage. Imagine my relief when the first “relational” databases appeared, with the capacity to search “across” in addition to “up” or “down.” I no longer know the innards of the various data structures that make up our current cyber-world—perhaps underlying it all are certain hierarchies of keys, but access is so rapid that the casual observer remains unaware.
Usually a description in words is easier for me to follow than a diagram. However, once a generation ago at a summer institute I was drawn to sketch a chalk picture of a series of adjoining “pyramid” triangles, linked in such a way that they made a pie shape. Instead of power being concentrated at a “top,” it now occupied a “center.” Although it was possible to go from the outer part of one pyramid through the center to the outer part of a different one, it was often quicker and easier just to traverse part of the outside. This “pyramid of pyramids” looked very much like a spider’s web.
My suspicion, based both on a long-term relationship with a caring but somewhat hierarchically-oriented male partner and on shorter-term experiences in a variety of organizations, is that preferences for organizational style are somewhat gender-linked. The females of the human species tend somewhat toward networks; males are typically more comfortable with hierarchy. Both types of organization are needed—holding one or the other up as a model for all interactions does not work well. The problem is learning to creatively hold the tension between appropriate situations for each…
The One-and-a-Half Person Kitchen —by Jinny Batterson
Before we downsized to our current condo, we had a huge eat-in kitchen, complete with a slate floor, an island, and a dining area for six. When we entertained, there would sometimes be three or four people working in the kitchen at once—slicing, plating, baking, washing up, whatever. Our present kitchen facilities are much smaller, with a basic gas range, fridge, sink, small pantry closet, and limited counter space. Though the floor area is a bit wider than a galley kitchen, it’s not really expansive enough to hold two chefs at the same time.
Usually this is not a problem. Even before our downsizing, we’d divvied up family meal responsibilities—whoever cooked did not clean up, so we had an orderly succession, with just one person in the kitchen for each phase of a meal. At our current digs, we do very little in-home entertaining, so it’s unlikely that guests will disrupt this standard meal arrangement.
What has become an occasional problem is breakfast. My spouse and I have different dietary restrictions for our aging, somewhat crotchety bodies: I need to restrict salt; he needs to restrict carbs. If our sleep patterns diverge enough so only one of us is awake and breakfast-hungry at a time, all is well. When we both want to have breakfast at the same time, things can get a little complicated. Jim may reach into the refrigerator door for his morning beverage of choice—diet soda—at the same time I’m trying to extract a yoghurt container from an interior shelf. With some preplanning, we can share parts of the same menu: quinoa pancakes, basic omelets, yoghurt and fruit, or whole wheat toast.
It’s usually the little things that trip us up: who’s responsible for retrieving then heating the syrup (sugar-free from the pantry closet for him, maple from the fridge for me)? Who gets the butter or margarine? How about getting the flatware out of the drawer that’s just below the only counter space near the stove? To an outside observer, we might look like either a feuding couple or the most awkward dancers on the planet. We’ve improved a little over several years of breakfast improvisation, but not a whole lot. Lately, Jim has discovered a low-carb sugar substitute that goes wonderfully with a fresh grapefruit half, one of the lower-carb fruits on his “good list.” I’ve further complicated our breakfast dance by getting him a grapefruit sectioning knife, which he proudly uses, clogging up any available counter space. Ah, well. Whose turn is it to make lunch?
Old Years’ Resolutions —by Jinny Batterson
For many years, I’ve avoided making discrete New Years’ resolutions. I have a tendency to backslide. Eliminating harsh words, taking off five pounds, following an exercise plan—most years such resolutions would get broken by late January if not sooner. Instead, I’ve tried just setting general directions, somewhat more gently: I’ll bite my tongue a bit more often, eat a little less, exercise a tad more. I’m not sure if those around me even notice. Still, I reason, how can I expect to improve either myself or the world if I spend lots of my time blaming myself and/or making up excuses for broken promises?
Looking forward and setting goals are important, with New Year a frequent milestone for doing so. As I get older, occasionally looking backward seems appropriate, too. What has gone well in the year just ending? What has gone poorly?
This past year has been good for me. I realized a long-term goal of publishing a travel memoir. I enjoyed generally good health. My husband and I shared several adventurous and rewarding trips. Meanwhile, the world at large has caromed along with perhaps more disasters and more vitriol than in some years. Headlines and blogosphere trend negative.
On the personal front, I think I’ve done a fair job at maintaining a civil tone in interactions with relatives, friends, acquaintances and elected officials across the political spectrum. However, I did send a somewhat snippy letter about varying leadership styles to our congregation’s new minister; I used some harsh words in a couple of the postcards I mailed to our current national leader. Weight control? Not so good—after a December trip that included lots of holiday feasting, any implicit goals about weight loss have fallen short.
What about exercise? There I think I’ve shone. Partway through 2018, after an extended hiking trip in rural France upped my average step count well above 10,000 steps per day, I set a short-term personal goal: Could I keep my annual average above 12,000 daily? With just a few days to go, I’m tantalizingly close. Today the weather where I live has been pleasant, so getting in steps outdoors (roughly between four and five miles) was easy. Tomorrow and the next day are predicted to be rainy, making outdoor walks less appealing. New Year’s Eve may find me trudging on the treadmill at the gym, or pedaling the second-hand exercise bike at home, or even doing late-evening laps around our small condo as the TV counts down the final hours until midnight. If I’m able to meet this “old year’s resolution,” set not in January but in August, I’ll be pleased. The world at large may still be somewhat dicey, but I’m in better shape.
Concentrating too hard on “new year” milestones may cause us to miss chances for learnings and goals later in the year or later in life. Looking back through much earlier personal journals, I found a year-end thought from 1982, a year in which unrest in Poland and the continuing cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had been much in the news. The U.S. economy was in recession. Britain and Argentina had gone to war over the Falklands, a set of small islands in the South Atlantic. Nevertheless, I wrote then: “All in all, 1982 has not been a bad year. The world is still teetering on the brink of disaster, as usual, but there’s been a lot of love and beauty, too.”
May 2019 turn out to be a year in which many personal and broader issues move toward better resolutions, whether made early or later. Happy New Year!
Coping with the Cold —by Jinny Batterson
If we live in northern latitudes, by now we’ve likely experienced some chilly weather, even if the calendar does not yet officially signal “winter.” How to cope? Consider our animal natures, and choose a strategy:
1) Migrate (like wild geese)
2) Hibernate (like black bears)
3) Congregate (like emperor penguins)
This winter, I expect to employ all three strategies at different times—
heading to parts of Florida, becoming a human “snow bird” at a beach full of sun-seeking Northerners;
deciding a snow day is a good day to snuggle under as many blankets and quilts as I can pile onto the bed and there’s really no need to get up;
gathering with friends and festive libations for New Years (both Western and Eastern).
What’s your favorite winter coping style?
To Be a Public Servant —by Jinny Batterson
In the many memorial tributes to former President George H.W. Bush, one of the phrases most often used goes something like, “He exemplified a life of public service.” Though “Bush 41” generally downplayed his accomplishments, he served with distinction in the U.S. military during World War II, and as a young man later succeeded in a variety of academic settings, sports competitions and business enterprises. He was part of the American political landscape for over thirty years in both elective and appointive offices—member of Congress, special envoy to China, head of the CIA, Vice President, and President.
Perhaps as we pay George H.W. Bush deserved tribute after a long, distinguished life, we may take a minute to ponder the more general question of what makes a public servant. Does a particular office confer it? Is there a curriculum or course one can take to learn public service? Is it ingrained, a character trait one is born with?
My guess is that, like many aspects of life, being disposed toward public service is part nature, part nurture. The senior President Bush was born into privileged circumstances, but was also schooled to honor his responsibilities to the larger community. If we sometimes under-appreciated his efforts while President to create a “kinder, gentler America,” his intention to generate such a shift in emphasis was evident, and he used his office and the tools at his disposal to try to nurture public spiritedness.
Most of the public servants I have known have been neither holders of high political office nor members of the military. While not often in the public eye, not necessarily in physical danger, they’ve nonetheless been necessary to the flourishing of our lives. They’ve been data entry clerks, or customer service representatives, librarians, researchers, scientists, technicians, computer programmers—each fulfilling a task to improve the way the public sphere works.
Let’s honor President Bush’s legacy by paying him tribute, and also be renewing our commitment to public service and public servants at all levels. Some opportunities for public service are described on the website of the Points of Light Foundation—https://beone.pointsoflight.org/. Others abound in different areas of the internet. Find one, and become a public servant, whatever your other title(s) may be.
Who Did You Expect? —by Jinny Batterson
My life so far has been fortunate—no privation, little discrimination, generally good health, many chances for love and adventure. Much of the time, though not always, people I’ve met have lived up to (or beyond) my expectations. On those rare occasions when someone’s behavior has disappointed me, more cynical or world-weary friends have shrugged at what they regard as my naiveté.
“Of course so-and-so let you down,” they’ve announced. “What did you expect?”
Increasingly for me, the appropriate question is rather “Who (or, for the grammar police, “Whom”) did you expect?” As I mature (a work in progress), I become more aware of instances when I’ve pre-judged people and turned out to be fairly far off the mark.
The first occasion that stands out is my initial in-person meeting with the leader of our 1980 group tour to China. In those pre-internet days, I’d exchanged postal letters and paperwork with Ms. Baum and talked with her on the phone. Until we both arrived in San Francisco’s airport departure lounge for our trans-Pacific group flight to Hong Kong, I had not actually met this native New Yorker. I’d assumed from her accent and phone demeanor that she was of Jewish background. She seemed somewhat pushy and no-nonsense, ready to take on the world. I was surprised to see that she was African-American, not ethnically Jewish. She could be somewhat pushy and no-nonsense. Her prior experiences as both social worker and travel agent had prepared her well to take on whatever bureaucracy attempted to get in her way, regardless of ethnic origin or nationality. She turned out to be both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.
Earlier this fall, I signed up to work the polls in the 2018 mid-terms. After on-site training, I exchanged emails with the woman who’d be my site supervisor for early voting. Her written English was good, clear and simple. Her family name was a common one, her given name, ending in “a,” suggested to me she might be African-American, or maybe Hispanic-American. When we met, I could detect no skin coloring or hair texture to suggest ancestral links with Africa, no hint of foreign origin in her accent. She seemed at first a very “vanilla,” somewhat conservative American. During our work, she showed her passion for ensuring that anyone who wanted to vote was given maximum opportunities to do so. She’d sit patiently with someone lacking appropriate credentials, or with an address not yet entered into the electoral system database of rapidly growing Wake County. She knew the rules well. She could suggest pulling up an electronic copy of a utility bill on a portable phone. She might advise going home to retrieve a needed ID and then returning later in the day. In rare cases, she’d have the potential voter fill out a provisional ballot, explaining how and when to check whether their vote had been counted. The workforce she’d helped assemble to follow her lead was the most visibly diverse I’ve ever participated in. She was both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.
I’ve just spent Thanksgiving with parts of my extended family that I barely knew growing up in Maryland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Only once had I had a chance to visit these North Carolina farmer cousins from a rural area near Charlotte. What little I remember from that farm stay involves ponies tame enough so even I was persuaded to take a short ride. I got to see my grandmother’s sister-in-law make glorious biscuits using milk straight from the cows. The cousins closest to my age teased me good-naturedly about my lack of country skills.
After moving to North Carolina a decade ago, I became reacquainted with some of the cousins who’d left the farm to settle in Raleigh. They’d tell me enticing stories of an extended family Thanksgiving gathering at “the shed.” I pictured the locale in my mind: an expanse of gently rolling hills, empty except for a few horses or cows grazing in pastures. “The shed” would be a slightly cleaned-up farm outbuilding. Twenty or so aging cousins of Scots-Irish ancestry would assemble for our midday meal, then say interminable grace before we could eat. Someone would have cooked a turkey and brought it still warm to the feast. We’d eat plentifully, exchange pleasantries, carefully avoid politics, and then everyone would go home.
This year as we drove into the neighborhood nearest our destination, I had trouble reconciling my mental image with current reality. The surrounding area may once have been farmland, but the vicinity had long since become part of suburban Charlotte. A mid-rise apartment complex dominated the nearest street corner. The “shed ” had been expanded and modernized from an earlier role as storage space for some cousins’ plumbing business. It was now a comfortable, well-appointed venue with adjustable seating for up to a couple hundred people. Nearly that many cousins of all ages were in attendance, along with baby equipment, pet dogs and a few footballs.
We did have a short sung grace before the long, snaking buffet line formed. We did generally steer clear of contentious political topics. People caught up on family news since the previous get-together. One 20-something cousin had recently returned from an extended Peace Corps stint in South America; in the next generation up, a househusband described his four years of helping school their daughters while his family was on assignment in southern Europe. One attendee I didn’t get a chance to talk with directly had a skin tone and accent that implied ancestry or origin in India. The Reas still cherished their rural roots and pioneering ancestors, but the clan had gotten more diverse and widely traveled—both different from and similar to the “who’s” I’d expected.
The remaining holidays of late autumn and early winter are likely to have more extended family gatherings and chance meetings. May I remember not to pre-judge those I encounter, to be more careful not to let “who I expect” get in the way of meeting current reality with an open mind and heart.
China Memoir, Launched and Languishing —by Jinny Batterson
In May, 2018, I finished the initial self-publishing process for a memoir of my interest and experiences with mainland China, a book long in the making. Following conventional advice, I hosted a “launch party” for Where the Great Wall Ends at a small local Chinese restaurant, inviting lots of friends and acquaintances. Nearly twenty people showed up, including my primary editor and my book designer. Guests listened politely to my book introduction while munching egg rolls and sipping tea. Several attendees bought copies of the book. Seeing the book actually in print and having people actually purchase it was magical to me. Not quite like birthing a human child, but still a labor of love.
After this initial marketing effort, I pretty much left the book on its own, intermittently sending out a review or gift copy, hoping for a referral or two. Sales have dribbled in. I donated multiple copies to our local public library system. Some have gotten checked out. Recently I put up a very basic book version on Kindle, though my knowledge of Kindle formatting conventions is rudimentary. The preview on my non-Kindle laptop had lots of extraneous editing marks and some formatting glitches at the ends of several chapters, but the Kindle price is less than half that of the print version.
As this year’s holiday gift-giving season approaches, I’m sending out an appeal for additional readers and/or purchasers. The promise of untold wealth from royalty payments was not part of my motivation for writing the book, but I would like to reach a wider audience than what has materialized so far. Whatever our China experiences or political persuasions, I believe it’s important to make some efforts to understand this big, diverse country, including its long history and its natural environment. China occupies many of the same latitudes in the northern hemisphere as the United States; its land area is roughly the same size. Its culture, geography, and resources are quite different from those of the U.S. Of course my perspective is limited, but I’ve had nearly forty years of intermittent tourism, travel, and teaching in many parts of China to draw on as I crafted my narrative.
If you have a China-interested or China-background relative or friend, please consider Where the Great Wall Ends as a possible gift. If your monetary resources are limited, please consider checking out a copy from a Wake County, NC library branch, or, if living elsewhere, requesting a copy via interlibrary loan. Very best wishes for the upcoming holiday season, whatever your background or traditions, and many thanks for your interest.
III —by Jinny Batterson
A veteran of dramas both global and
intimate, he was sired by a socialist
who alternated families while shepherding
a mid-20th century experiment in cooperative living.
As soon as he could, he escaped to serve time
in the Navy. Afterwards reticent about his military
experiences, he let drop only something vague
about intelligence and early computers.
Out of the service, he worked for a time
as a banker, then shed most
trappings of conventional life and
headed to hippiedom’s heyday:
1960’s San Francisco..
He studied acting, acted for years as a catalyst
for companies and organizations wanting to make
better use of technology. Along the way, he jettisoned nearly
all of his name, becoming just III. His only personal
concession to technology: a telephone with a number that
spelled out “TANTRUM” plus a basic answering maching.
I knew him later in life, a graying pony-tailed
“jiggler” at our small annual conference,
noted for his deep-throated laugh, his facilitation skills,
a deep aversion to being photographed.
In multiple conference sessions, he coached us:
“Boundary is everything.”
He honored the boundaries of us non-smokers by
limiting his cigarette consumption to the outdoors.
He allowed just one physical likeness: a basic pen-and-ink
sketch a friend drew, strictly for promotional purposes.
Despite III’s pared-down lifestyle, he became a packrat
of conference clothing, saving all twenty-five garments from
his years of participation. After outliving his father by almost
a generation, he died of a stroke. I mourned,
first from afar, later at a Pacific beachside
service his partner organized, bringing along
hand-me-downs from III’s conference sweatshirt collection.
Our advance crew filled a fire pit on a chill misty afternoon.
Once the fire blazed hot, we wrote or sketched some
of our favorite III memories. Shivering in our sweatshirts,
we let the fire devour the papers, arcing their residue skyward.
We told III stories to the young, lamely imitated III’s signature guffaw.
Not until I returned from the beach
did I notice a small burn mark on this year’s
sweatshirt sleeve–the size and shape of a cigarette ember.
What We Pay Attention To Matters —by Jinny Batterson
Here in North Carolina, we have the option of voting early—this election cycle, nearly three weeks early. On the very first day of the eighteen days set aside for early voting in the county where I live, I cast my ballot. I’d earlier signed up to work as a non-partisan election official at one of the early voting sites in our county. Mostly because of this temporary job (and because I need to spend at least some of my time sleeping), I’ve been sheltered from widespread exposure to news events and negative campaign advertising. This has proved to be a real blessing.
Once I finish my early shift at about 2 in the afternoon, I come home, take a nap, take a walk, share an evening meal with my husband, then bed down early so I can repeat the cycle, starting at about 4:30 a.m. the following day. I’ve been vaguely aware of hateful tweets and sporadic violence, but mostly I’ve spent my after-dark hours sleeping and my before-dark hours either working or enjoying the autumn weather outdoors.
On the job, we’re forbidden to talk politics, a wise decision, I believe. Still, from some of the partial stories other workers have shared with me, I get the impression that we represent a pretty wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions. We have younger workers, some coping with student debt, others concerned about underemployment—mismatches between the skills they’ve trained for and the jobs they’ve found so far. We have middle aged workers who worry about aging parents and/or the fluctuations in their 401Ks in a volatile stock market.
We come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, from a petite ballot handler to a former basketball center. Some older “temps” are retirees like me; others still work part-time, sandwiching in scant time for personal lives amid hectic work schedules. One of my 60ish coworkers has a vocabulary that suggests he may not have had the same chances for formal education that I did. His line of patter can sometimes border on bigotry, yet he spent some of his off-hours last week comforting a colleague whose wife had a terminal illness.
Our range of voters also is wide—from the just-turned-18 to a frail elderly woman whose grandson wheeled her up the elevator and into the voting area to cast her ballot one more time. She was born in 1920, the year that women in the U.S. first obtained the right to vote in national elections. We see office workers on their lunch hours, professors eager to encourage their students to vote, students puzzled about voting procedures, custodians, construction workers, and others whose dress and demeanor defy easy labeling.
It would be unrealistic to believe that our democracy is in great shape. Being subjected to predictably inflammatory tweets, predictably bloody lead news stories, and predictably negative campaign advertising can be discouraging. Whatever the outcome of this current voting cycle, we will have lots of work to do to help heal some of the breaches in our social fabric, whether we are citizens or elected officials. Yet I’m encouraged by the civility of the voters and polling officials in the small corner of the electorate where I work. Many people DO show up to vote, over a million so far in North Carolina. They wait in line, sometimes chatting with each other. They’re glad to get their ballots and to make their opinions known. Perhaps if we pay more attention to what’s going well, we may be in a better position to help alleviate what’s not.