so……

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!

Dental Office Wisdom

Dental Office Wisdom   —by Jinny Batterson

The realization that I’m aging gets brought home to me each time a medical professional who formerly helped take care of me retires (or, worse, dies). By now I’ve been through at least four primary care doctors and an equal number of specialists and dentists. As a cranky older patient, I balk some at new technology, increasing intrusions on my privacy, seemingly endless medical history and insurance forms, frequent changes in practices and practitioners. 

The office where I’m most vulnerable is the dentist’s—registering a complaint is nearly impossible when one’s mouth is filled with dental instruments. As a child, I dreaded going to get my teeth checked—I nearly always had one or more cavities that needed filling. The sound of a dentist’s drill remains one of my least favorite sounds. My dread diminished as I grew up. By the time I left home for college, all of my teeth were healthy and/or filled.

In young adulthood, I encountered my favorite dentist while living in Richmond, Virginia starting in the early 1970’s. I used to get twice-yearly checkups at his home office. I found his practice by walking past it. Because for our first few years in Richmond, my husband and I shared a single vehicle and my automotive access was skimpy and sporadic, I did my best to find ways to limit my needs for private transportation. We lived on a bus line that serviced the downtown office where I worked. That helped. There was a small grocery store near enough to walk to, a couple of restaurants and a custom butcher shop within a three block radius.

One day as I was lugging bags back home from the grocery, I noticed a small metal sign at the edge of the sidewalk: “Alec Epstein, DDS.” The sign hung above a short set of steps leading to a two-story brick house that looked much like the other houses in our older mixed neighborhood of individual homes, small shops, and two or three story apartment buildings and offices.

It had been a while since my previous dental check-up. Such a convenient location beckoned. Later I checked it out. Walking in, I met Dr. Epstein directly—no receptionist, a rather bare waiting room. Just visible through an archway was an examination room with a single dentist’s chair. I set up a tentative appointment for the following week on a day when I knew my supervisor would be on vacation and my workload would be lighter than usual.

Over the years that I went to Dr. Epstein, he never had a hygienist or an assistant. He kept records by hand in manila folders. After my first appointment, he always had my up-to-date chart at the ready when I came in. He’d greet me by name and usher me into the examination room, giving me time to settle into the worn leather dental chair while he reviewed my recent dental history.

“Any problems?” he’d ask before he began looking into my mouth.

Once in a while I’d need a replacement filling or a new one. If anything really complicated was required, he’d refer me to the dental school at the nearby Medical College of Virginia. His fees were amazingly reasonable. On one wall beside the dental chair he’d hung a framed certificate of his dental school diploma from 1940.

In front of the dentist’s chair, high up on the wall to be visible to a patient tipped back during an exam, he’d put photocopies of two cartoons. One showed a pate nearly as shiny as his own, with the caption “God only made a few perfect heads. The rest he put hair on.”

The other, well before the days of the internet or “The Simpsons” TV show, pictured a rough-looking kid of ten or so, spiky hair sticking up in all directions. “I know I’m somebody,” this proto-Bart snarled, “‘cause God don’t make no junk.”

It’s been over thirty years since I last saw Dr. Epstein. According to the obituary I was able to find via internet, he continued seeing some patients until he was past 90, and was only “fully retired” for about six months before heart disease claimed him. He was widely respected in the community for his skill and his service.

Now that we have an internet and instagram and all sorts of ways of spreading words and images at light speed, the “no junk” cartoon has become hackneyed, but I think its message remains important. From time to time, all of us, from spiky-haired kids to amazingly accomplished former First Lady Michelle Obama, have doubts about whether or not we’re good enough. All of us need the reminder from Dr. Epstein’s office wall: “I know I’m somebody, ‘cause God don’t make no junk.”   

International Women’s Day 2019

International Women’s Day 2019  —by Jinny Batterson

Today marks the 2019 celebration of International Women’s Day. Below (with some assists from Google’s translation function) are greetings in most of the languages I’ve been exposed to over the years: 

Happy International Women’s Day to all! 

Feliz Día Internacional de la Mujer!

Bonne journée internationale de la femme!

Glücklicher internationaler Frauentag!

С Международным женским днем!

Furaha Siku ya Wanawake ya Kimataifa!

国际妇女节快乐

For a longer treatment of why we celebrate and what the day means to me, please check out a blog post from two years ago:  https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2017/03/07/international-womens-day-thoughts/ 

Best wishes for a fruitful and meaningful day, wherever and however you spend it. 

Wedding Dress Trees: Of Bradford Pears (and Gnarled Old Oaks)

Wedding Dress Trees: Of Bradford Pears (and Gnarled Old Oaks)    —by Jinny Batterson

A Bradford pear in bloom

Yesterday was a dreary day, made more dreary for me because it contained a memorial service for an elderly former congregation-mate.  We’d had a wetter than usual winter. It seemed the rain would never go away.  Precipitation since the first of December was running about 40% above average.  A late-winter jaunt that my husband and I had recently taken to cities further south had been largely unsuccessful at getting away from the wet. A few sunny days, but mostly just more rain. 

After the memorial service, I drove back toward our condo. The weather alternately showered, drizzled and misted, continuing its uninviting pattern. The white roadside blooms of our area’s Bradford pears and their naturalized cousins temporarily brightened the landscape. A few of the trees reminded me of inverted wedding dresses—puffy, full, virginally white.

I knew a little about this species of tree. Near my former home in Richmond, Virginia, rows of them had been planted as street trees during the 1970’s or 80’s. There, they’d provided ethereal beauty for a couple of weeks each spring. When young, the trees were a welcome addition to the landscape. However, as they aged, they produced mostly headaches. Few lived past twenty, not very old for a tree. Their brittle wood had a tendency to split any time there was a wind stronger than a gentle breeze. During thunderstorm season, city maintenance trucks performed branch clearing chores so regularly they might as well have parked for the summer along the pear-lined street.

Curious for more information about the history of both our departed elder and the Bradford pear, I clicked a few online keys.

According to the obituary that I belatedly read, “Old Jim Quinn,” a long-term member of the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, had served in the military in post-war Europe, but otherwise spent nearly all his 87-plus-year life in North Carolina. He’d married Sonnya, his “Super Chick,” in 1955. During the 1970’s, he’d served two terms on the Raleigh City Council. Later, he and Sonnya became regulars at civil rights marches and demonstrations. Along the way Jim had sired and helped raise several children, designed buildings, helped promote affordable housing before it became a buzzword, and served in numerous other civic capacities. He was known far and wide for his barbecue skills. By the time I knew him slightly, he was gray and a little stooped, if still quick with a smile and a witty remark. 

According to a somewhat critical article (https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/life/2016/03/21/curse-bradford-pear/82070210/), the Bradford pear was introduced as a landscape tree by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1964, imported from its native China and presumed to be sterile. Before long, it was an urban landscape fixture in cities throughout the Southeast. As the first trees aged, problems with their brittle wood became more apparent. Later, problems with cross-pollination with other pear varieties showed up, along with the invasive nature of some hybrid offspring. By now, most towns have stopped planting new Bradford pear cultivars. Some jurisdictions and homeowners have even begun active attempts to rein in Bradford pears and the offspring that can form dense thorny hedges and crowd out native flowering trees.

Bradford pear blossoms

Raleigh, long-time home to Jim Quinn, bills itself as the “city of oaks.” There’s a gnarled old specimen behind our condo, not unlike the gnarled older version of Jim I used to see at church. If Sonnya once in a while looks at her long-ago wedding dress or passes it on to a granddaughter or great-niece for reuse, she must constantly miss the gnarled old oak her life mate grew to become. Here’s to you, Old Jim Quinn.    

Hal Crowther’s Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers and Old School Ties

Hal Crowther’s Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers and Old School Ties
–by Jinny Batterson

When, about a decade ago, I entered semi-retirement and moved from Richmond, Virginia to central North Carolina, I vowed to do better than in my preceding move (from rural Vermont to urban Virginia) at initially learning about my new locale. The Old North State might not be all that different from the Old Dominion, but I decided to make a more proactive effort to learn about it. It seems to me that our loosely-rooted culture loses something by our tenuous connections to various places we never quite call “home.”  What had made North Carolina the way it was, I wondered?  What might it become in the future? In a larger context, what was the gist of this mysterious, often self-contradictory region called “the South” where I’d lived most of my adult life? 

Works I found helpful early on were Rob Christensen’s The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, and William S. Powell’s North Carolina: A History. More recently, as an acknowledged import, I was pleased to find a copy of Hal Crowther’s 2018 collection Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers: A Gallery of Memorable Southerners. During the 1990’s, I’d read some of Crowther’s hard-hitting editorial commentary in Richmond’s alternative weekly. He currently lambasts our foibles and praises our better angels from a home base in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Freedom Fighters adapts and expands on earlier sketches to profile 19 movers and shakers of Southern culture, starting with Texas journalist/writer Molly Ivins and finishing with North Carolina blind guitarist Doc Watson. Most of those profiled were born during the first half of the twentieth century and lived into the first decade of the twenty-first. Some were born outside the South but concentrated their activities in the region, others were raised southern and later moved elsewhere. Given the time span of Crowther’s profiles, it’s not surprising that the majority were white men. At least seven of the freedom fighters and/or hell raisers spent their most active years in North Carolina.

Among the journalists, musicians, artists, politicians and activists that Crowther spirits off the page and into our consciousness are two former Crowther acquaintances from his undergraduate days at Williams College, a liberal arts college in western Massachusetts that was all male when he attended in the 1960’s. Kirk Varnedoe, a Savannah-bred member of the class of 1967, became an expert on painting and sculpture and was for over a decade chief curator at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. James R. “Jesse” Winchester, Jr., bred in northern Mississippi and member of the class of 1966, spent most of his adult life in Canada after leaving the U.S. rather than participate in the military during U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Granted amnesty in 1977, he eventually moved back to the U.S. south in 2002. Though he never became as famous as some song-writing contemporaries, his songs have been covered by artists including Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, the Everly Brothers, and Emmylou Harris.

Just after the entry for Jesse Winchester was a paean to one of the four women profiled—Anne McCarty Braden, someone I had read briefly about in a decades-old alumnae magazine from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now co-educational Randolph College). Anne was profiled at length in the 2003 biography Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South (https://www.kentuckypress.com/live/title_detail.php?titleid=1592#.XGxXpJNKhdg). An English major in the class of 1945, Anne later became a civil rights activist of long standing in Louisville, Kentucky. In the spring of 1954, Anne and her husband Carl purchased a house in a Louisville suburb as stand-ins for a black family who would not have been considered as buyers in the heavily segregated housing market of the times. For their efforts, the Bradens received death threats. Carl was tried for “sedition” and spent months in jail before his conviction was overturned. For most of her adult life, this “embarrassing woman” was vilified and/or ignored by the establishment of her time and place. After Carl’s death when Anne was 50, she continued for three more decades tirelessly advocating for civil and human rights. The Randolph College web entries for notable alums fail to mention Anne, but I hope that a little of her fearlessness and dedication to advancing human dignity will rub off on those of us who’ve come after her at the school.         

This Year’s February 14

This Year’s February 14     —by Jinny Batterson

This morning the sun rose here earlier than the day before;
The poinsettias a neighbor gave me to nursemaid
After the Christmas holidays droop a bit, but still
Lavish red and pink accents on our late-winter
Condo. My husband sneaks a colorful set of earrings
Onto my place at the breakfast table. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Only this year we add a differently sanguine tradition:
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Remembrance Day.
Last year, this morning in Florida started out routine,
Even joyous, until lives were shattered by gunfire.
Does it matter whether the gunman was mentally ill?
Does it matter that he had access to a military-style weapon,
Designed and sold for no other purpose than killing humans?

At 10:17 a.m., schools and workplaces will observe a moment
Of silence, remembering slain students Alyssa, Martin, Nicholas,
Jaime, Luke, Cara, Gina, Joaquin, Alaina, Meadow,
Helena, Alex, Carmen and Peter. We’ll ponder whether
Any of us have the bravery or protective instincts of staff
Members Chris, Aaron, or Scott. We’ll continue to mourn, to
Question what we can do to reduce the chances that
Future holidays will also come to hold dual meanings.
Thoughts, prayers, silent vigils help. They’re not enough.

Additional steps are required. To honor their memories,  go a little
Beyond: Send a pointed Valentine message to your legislator.
Follow up with emails, maybe even visits. Make a donation.
Register and vote. Talk with those of different views.
Find the unique, universal core deep within you,
Then share it. Some holidays exist for us to reclaim.

 

      

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street   —by Jinny Batterson   

corner of Walnut and Walker            

The first time I remember participating in an autumn ritual of gathering black walnuts (juglans nigra), I was maybe ten or eleven years old. My dad, a small-scale residential building contractor in Maryland’s burgeoning suburbs, would notice, as he traveled from one building site to another, where there were black walnut trees growing along the sides of still-rural roads. He’d make mental notes of the most likely candidates for a bountiful fall harvest. Then, one crisp Sunday afternoon in October or early November, he’d load Mom, me, and my younger brothers and sister, along with some buckets or bushel baskets, into the family station wagon. He’d drive us all to that year’s designated walnut gathering site.

We kids learned to be careful picking up the nuts. If the outer hulls were the least bit bruised, they could ooze a sticky sap onto our hands, turning them walnut brown. Once we’d either filled our buckets/baskets or run out of easily accessible nuts, we’d all pile back into the station wagon and return home.

The next challenge was to find a good way to remove the nuts’ outer hulls, then to keep the partially processed nuts secure from local squirrels until it was time to finish the nut cracking process. Dad tried various mesh screens, or running over the walnuts with the car, or storing the unhulled nuts loose in a shed in the back yard while their outer hulls dried, then husking them like corn. No solution was perfect, but by Christmas we typically had enough partially hulled nuts left to shell out a supply of nutmeats for flavoring cakes and Christmas cookies. Black walnuts’ inner shells are hard. It took a lot of effort with a hammer and a nut pick to get the meats from their shells. We nearly always missed a few choice morsels that were just too difficult to pry out. The flavor of black walnuts in carrot cake or oatmeal-raisin cookies, though, was worth the extra work.        

For a lot of years after I left Maryland, I lived where black walnut trees were scarce. Then one autumn as I was wandering in a suburban park near the central North Carolina condo where I now live, I spied a black walnut tree with nuts on the ground around it. A brief errand back to the condo to get a bucket and some gloves equipped me for suburban foraging. That year’s crop was bountiful enough for both me and the squirrels. My after-harvest squirrel protection measures worked well. The resulting carrot cake was wonderful. For several years afterward, I found enough nuts in this park along aptly named Walnut Street to share with the squirrels and still have my carrot cake.   

Walnut trees, it turns out, do not thrive in deep shade. They need a certain amount of sunlight to achieve their maximum potential, hence their prevalence along roadway edges, in open areas, or in abandoned fields. They are a tree that “does not play well with others”—they produce a substance, jugione, that inhibits the growth of other trees and shrubs in their vicinity. However, their nuts and their wood are both valuable. They also appear on several top-ten lists of temperate region trees which absorb the most CO2, helping mitigate climate change. 

“tree protection area” near major new construction project

This year, the suburban park tree of my past harvests is inaccessible—stretching skyward behind fencing near a new library/parking complex. Though it stands in a “tree protection zone,” I’m not sure if it will survive the construction disruption. Habitat loss is not the only challenge for black walnuts. In the U.S. west, a fungal pest has been decimating walnut groves there. The disease has recently been discovered in Tennessee. If it spreads widely, walnuts may eventually suffer the sorts of die-offs that previously wiped out elms and chestnuts.

We need our trees, especially our mature specimens. Please send thoughts, prayers, and good tree karma to North Carolina’s remaining black walnut trees. While you’re at it, please pay attention to other instances of environmental neglect with potentially awful consequences for us proud, stubborn humans. A recent short clip, “Gone in a Generation”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/gone-in-a-generation/?utm_term=.7d70420d76b8, tells the story rather starkly.    

Experiments in Car-Less Living

Experiments in Car-less Living    —by Jinny Batterson

My body periodically tells me it’s no longer young or limber—creaky knees, back twinges, huffing up hills, diminished stamina, hearing difficulties, memory lapses.

The biggest problem is my eyes. Most of my life I’ve been nearsighted, my vision corrected with either glasses or contact lenses. Unfortunately, my aging orbs have recently developed both glaucoma (probably an inherited trait) and cataracts. The glaucoma, caught early, has done minimal harm, with further damage slowed or stopped by medication. The cataracts will sooner or later require corrective surgery. In the meantime, my night vision is declining. I try to avoid driving after dark. For those evening events I really don’t want to miss, I do my best to catch rides.

Last weekend I traveled out of town to my previous hometown of Richmond, VA. During this midwinter solo getaway, I’d visit with former classmates and friends, touch base with my financial advisor, attend a couple of public events. The trip could be a more extended experiment in getting along without a car. I’d made a provisional plan:

1) Get my accommodating husband to drive me and my luggage to the train station, then take the Friday morning train north from Raleigh, NC.

2) Get a former college suite mate to pick me up at the Richmond station and shepherd me around to that day’s activities, then drop me at the suburban hotel I’d booked near my other weekend events.

3) Line up two other friends who lived near the hotel to be my companion/chauffeur, one each for the two other weekend days, with my “Sunday driver” depositing me back at the Richmond train station in time for the mid-afternoon southbound train.

4) Phone hubby and have him pick me and my luggage back up in Raleigh.

The start of the plan worked well—hubby complained only slightly about getting up early enough to drive me to the train station; the train, though slightly late, was very comfortable; my classmate met me promptly at the Richmond station; we shared a leisurely restaurant lunch nearby and began catching up on our respective lives. She then drove me to my Friday afternoon appointment downtown. I wasn’t sure how long it would last. My friend assured me she’d be available for further ferrying duties—just phone her once I was done. After she deposited me at the appropriate high-rise office building, she drove off westward to share babysitting chores with her husband, spending some quality time with their most recent grand baby.

The meeting was briefer than I’d expected, so I decided to experiment with the new high-speed bus that ran from the downtown area west to a shopping center near where my friend and her husband were babysitting. That way, I figured, I’d save her from coping with downtown traffic plus have my own little adventure with public transportation.

The infrastructure of the new bus line was impressive: a dedicated bus lane, ramps to raised bus stops imbedded in the median of a major east-west street, automated ticket kiosks. The first kiosk I came to was out of order. I asked a woman waiting for the next bus where I could get a ticket headed west.

“Maybe the machine at the next stop is working,” she told me, “but it’s quite a ways.”   

Turns out one of the design changes for the new line increased the distance between stops. I walked about half a mile, got a ticket, then waited fifteen minutes for the next bus. Overall, the five mile trek to the shopping center took me more than an hour. Not a huge problem for me. Potentially hard on someone with a tighter schedule and/or mobility problems.

After my “Friday chauffeur” had picked me up at the shopping center, we’d caught up more over coffee, and she’d deposited me at my hotel, I got a plaintive phone call from Saturday’s ride. She’d broken a bone. She was in pain, with her arm in a sling. She was temporarily in no shape to drive.

Due to my friend’s injury, my Saturday logistics would be more complicated. Luckily, I’d installed an app on my phone for one of the ride-sharing services that’s recently sprung up in some American cities. An exploratory check for potential rides turned up multiple possibilities. My scaled back Saturday itinerary could be satisfied using a combination of public bus, walking, and Lyft. On Saturday morning, the hotel front desk directed me to a nearby bus stop; my first errand was just over a mile away along the bus line; a return walk to the hotel was doable, though there were gaps in the sidewalk on a busy street. In the afternoon, Lyft rides to and from my event were less expensive than I’d feared. I found a supper restaurant an easy walk from the hotel. My Sunday ride was healthy and punctual. Needing her chauffeuring was a good excuse to catch up. Hubby picked me and my luggage up with minimal griping.   

My aging eyes have got me thinking about our society’s over-dependence on private automobiles. If I’d previously listened to the frustrations of car-less friends and acquaintances with a mixture of pity and amusement, my turn for similar frustrations might arrive sooner than expected. I’m still lucky—I can afford and access alternatives. People with limited economic means can rarely afford a car, for-fee ride-sharing, or extensive public transit. In rural areas, suitable transit isn’t often available. This morning I awoke to a cold snap that had made outdoor temperatures so frigid that in some northern areas, schools and offices were closed, and even the U.S. postal service had temporarily halted deliveries.

An aging population, income disparities, geographic sprawl,  and climate change will severely stress a society accustomed to hopping in the car for every errand and need. Public transportation in the area where I live is spotty, but I’m going to learn more about riding the bus (https://gotriangle.org/how-ride-bus), using ride sharing services, and occasionally engaging a customized pick-up service our town provides. What are your options? 

MLK, Jr. Reweaving the Dreams

MLK, Jr.: Reweaving the Dreams   —by Jinny Batterson

While he was alive, I knew little about him.
The mainstream press in Baltimore barely mentioned
This Negro preacher who’d helped marshal a yearlong bus
Boycott and in the mid-1960’s won a Nobel Peace Prize.
There were rumors he might be a Communist.

I was in high school, with other concerns—
Who could I get to take me to the prom?
Would my SAT scores help me get into a good college?
Would my parents take away my driving privileges
After an accident that I at least partially caused?

By the time I got to college, his star was waning,
Eclipsed by rising black militancy and a war in Southeast Asia
That dragged on and on. His tactics and pronouncements were
Less influential, less obviously successful in northern cities than in
Earlier Southern-based campaigns. Non-violence and preaching peace
Didn’t appear to work against big-city political machines and war contractors.

At first it seemed his dreams had come unraveled when his life ended.
As riots broke out in many American cities following his assassination,
I sat distracted in a secluded dating parlor on a small college campus,
My boyfriend’s bent-kneed proposal and diamond ring a pale foreground
To a muted television backdrop of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.,
Two bookends of my youth, engulfed in flames, sirens, and riot police. 

By the time his birthday was declared a national holiday
In November, 1983, I was attempting to learn and implement
Parts of his dream in rural central Africa. My efforts met with
Little success in a country whose few rich and many poor lived in vastly
Different worlds, with a minuscule middle partly made up of expatriates
Like me. I had lots of time to read the contents of a USAID library.

Martin Luther King, Jr., I learned, was a middle child, born just before
The Great Depression. His family lived in a relatively prosperous black enclave
In segregated Atlanta. During his early studies, he drifted, but partway through
High school he was inspired toward the ministry. He went north and completed
An impressive formal education, earning a doctorate by age twenty-five.

The parts we now recite in school start in Montgomery, Alabama,
Where he was nominated, as a young, little-known preacher, to give voice to the
Aspirations of people who had for too long been shunted to the back of the bus.
After the successful conclusion of the bus boycott, sixty civil rights leaders met
In Atlanta, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and elected
MLK as its first president.  Then came sit-ins, Freedom Summer, Albany,
Birmingham, Selma, Chicago, a Poor People’s Campaign, a sniper’s bullet.

Those of us who call ourselves progressives winced at subsequent American
Foreign and domestic policy, wrote letters, attended rallies and marches,
Wondered what else we might do to stop, or at least reduce, the madness.
For a while, we thought we had found an answer in another young,
Eloquent brown-skinned man. Twice we elected him national president,
Allowing complacency to creep into our ongoing efforts.

Our current national administration is more nightmare than dream.
It wants us to forget that our deepest dreams are inclusive rather
Than exclusionary, spiritual as well as material. MLK knew this.
He tried to tell us, over and over again, but we rarely listened.

We know MLK had flaws—infidelity, sometimes neglecting his family,
Carrying too much of the movement’s burden by himself.
We do not need another plaster saint, of whatever skin hue,
But Coretta was right to insist that we honor MLK with a holiday.
Though not free from sin or error, he was also a prophet
Who recalled us to our best selves. May we remember
His efforts as we redouble ours, reweaving stronger dreams.

Networks and Hierarchies–Holding the Tension

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…       

Pandas Playing Mahjongg–Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival

Pandas Playing Mahjongg, Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival 

                                                        —by Jinny Batterson

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Panda Land 2019

For the past several years, a traveling exhibit of LED-lit silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter. Last year on the night I attended the festival, the air was bitingly cold. Crowds were sparse. This year, on a clear weekend evening a good bit warmer than typical for early January, I ate an early supper, then put on a hoodie, drove to the festival site, parked in a free adjacent lot, and walked to the box office to get a ticket. I arrived a little after the festival’s 6 p.m. opening—once the sky was dark enough to provide a good backdrop for the thousands of lanterns and fanciful lit shapes.

I’d assumed that by arriving early, I’d “beat the crowds” and minimize my wait time to purchase tickets (cheaper at the gate than by internet) and then gain entry to the exhibit space. The wait wasn’t too long—maybe twenty minutes in all–but it turned out I’d arrived at the height of that evening’s viewing hours for multi-generational families. Rather than come later in the evening, they were enjoying the spectacle before youngsters’ bedtimes, at the same time taking advantage of reduced or free entry for young children.

The star of the show, a huge brightly lit dragon, again stretched along the shallows of Symphony Lake for a couple hundred feet. It was even larger and more intricate than last year’s dragon.  A few of the other exhibits were similar to what I’d seen previously, but arranged differently and with different emphasis.  New features had been added, too, including a set of large lantern “drums” near the entrance, with a real drum that kids could pound on to make the lights glow brighter.

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Drums

My favorite set of lanterns was “panda land.” I’d previously spent time in China in the region where pandas are native. This exhibit featured stylized panda figures in human poses—riding a bicycle or, my absolute top pick, playing the Chinese tiled game of mahjongg, a sort of cross between dominoes and the card game spades.  Periodically, performers on the festival stage did acrobatics or Chinese dances—I watched briefly, then went back to the pandas. This year’s lantern festival is nearly over. The weather for remaining evenings is predicted to be less pleasant than the evening I went.

If you live locally, I’d encourage you to go if you can. Too often these days our airwaves are full of insults, ricocheting threats, and fear mongering. Against this background, an outdoor stroll alongside others speaking many languages, all of us watching the whimsical uses we can make of our technologies when we’re not busy fussing with each other, is, dare I say it, priceless.