Category Archives: Quandaries and Rants

What DJT Learned in Kindergarten

What DJT Learned in Kindergarten (with deepest apologies to Robert Fulghum, whose original essay, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” can be found at this link: https://cpco.on.ca/files/9214/0182/6527/NeedToKnow.pdf)

Covet everything.
Play dirty.
Call people names,
but get supporters to hit them for you.
Forget where you got anything not rightfully yours.
Get others to do your dirty work,
then say you don’t know them if they get caught.
Take as much as you can possibly get away with.
Never, NEVER apologize. It’s weak.
Wash those pretty little hands,
just not in public during a covid-19 pandemic.

Live as indolently as you can–
Complain loudly when world events interrupt
Your golfing vacations or big rallies.

Before you give another command occasion
Speech at a military academy,
Practice walking down ramps.

Don’t trust anyone, and don’t let anyone
Get close to you–they might not be loyal enough.
Remember that your life is all mapped out:
Just one continuous advance to ever greater heights.
Don’t ever wonder what it all might mean.

Plants and animals are boring. There’s nothing
We can learn from them. If they die, it’s
Because they weren’t forceful enough.
Be like your friend Vlad–rig a vote to
Give yourself a lifetime appointment,
Then make sure that that life is eternal.

Forget about Dick or Jane or LOOK.
Paying close attention to anything or
Anyone besides yourself might be distracting.

RULE (just not over your own excesses).

Complicity

Complicity    —by Jinny Batterson

Never once have I used the “n” word.
I’ve supported worthy causes,
Occasionally even put my personal
Safety at risk. I’m not like those bigots
Who can’t seem to understand
That, deep down, we are all one.

Yet I live where sirens are rare, where
Police are rarely present or summoned.
The officer who came last Sunday to
Investigate the fawn lying prone
On our sidewalk was friendly,
Bemused, not overbearing.
No verbal threats. No tasers.
No weapons drawn.

The economic system that nurtured me
Valued brain over brawn, and
Whiteness over everything else.
It diminished the dignity of manual
Work, replaced those with fewest
Connections with robots, or with
Off-shore call centers, while
A privileged few profited, assuming
They merited special consideration.

“Who you knew” became nearly
As important as what, and
Everyone cheated, if only a little.
Getting ahead became a mantra,
Though it was never clear what
Exactly we were getting ahead of.

This house of cards is collapsing.
Will I be buried under it, or
Will I help find a way to make explicit a
Rebuilt society that shelters and
Protects a multifarious polyglot of
Worthies, whatever our skin color,
Skills or connections?

The Flowers Have Not (Yet) Gone

The Flowers Have Not (Yet) Gone   —by Jinny Batterson

It’s been a rough week to be an American. The death toll in the United States from the covid-19 pandemic crossed the 100,000 mark, while multiple U.S. cities experienced repeated, sometimes violent demonstrations in the wake of Monday’s death of yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  

Our economy has sputtered to a halt. Partly as a result of virus-related lockdowns, nearly a quarter of the U.S. labor force is unemployed. Our president sporadically spreads hatred and gibberish through his favored media platform, becoming so blatant in his misrepresentations and lies that Twitter has recently put “fact check” warnings on some of his posts.  

As various U.S. states attempt to restart their economies in the midst of a highly contagious novel corona virus with no known treatment or vaccine, cases have started to spike again in multiple hot spots. No one seems to know a good solution to the multiple crises besetting us.  

I sometimes get a “deja vu” feeling about our current problems and unrest, as someone who in 1968 was a young adult with much idealism and little experience. Then, an escalating and increasingly stalemated war in Vietnam was killing a disproportionate number of young black American men. Most American men between the ages of 19 and 26 (though less so the wealthiest or best connected) were susceptible to being conscripted into the military. In early April, Martin Luther King, Jr., an outstanding proponent of non-violent civil disobedience and a leader in the fight for legal equality for African-Americans, had been assassinated by a sniper while helping organize a peaceful protest for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. In the wake of his death, over a hundred American cities had erupted in protests that often turned violent and destructive.  

Conditions in many U.S. cities in 1968 were unequal, with housing projects and decaying urban neighborhoods receiving little in the way of substantive government assistance, while billions were being spent to advance presumed U.S. political interests overseas. Other government programs either intentionally or collaterally favored “white flight” to the suburbs, which were largely off limits to non-whites. Sound vaguely familiar?

Many collegians of the 1960’s had become enamored of a folk song revival, one of its signature songs being “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”  penned by Pete Seeger in 1955. Joe Hickerson had later added more verses, turning the song into a circular questioning of the premise of warfare. The folk/rock trio of Peter, Paul and Mary popularized the expanded version, which remains a touchstone for many of us who lived through that era. (You can view their 25th anniversary rendering of the song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgXNVA9ngx8.) 

In 2020, I’m somewhat creaky in the knees and a bit too virus-averse to participate in large gatherings, so I admire from a distance the courage and forbearance of many of the protesters (and many of the police officers who work to deescalate tensions, both short-term and longer-term). Meanwhile, I continue to send emails and postal letters to elected officials at all levels. I support voter registration and voting rights initiatives. I sew and give away protective face masks. I tend gardens. I plant flowers. I want to remind myself and others that the flowers have not yet gone. 

lilies and black-eyed susans near our central NC condo

Flowers near our central NC condo

Efficiency and Resilience–Mutually Exclusive?

Efficiency and Resilience—Mutually Exclusive?  —by Jinny Batterson

The stay-at-home phase of the covid-19 pandemic has given me more time to wonder about human futures, along with ready access to the internet and a husband who’s keen to curate podcasts and videos he thinks I would benefit from hearing and seeing.  Last week, he sat me down to watch an hour-long talk and Q&A featuring Dan Ariely, a working-from-home internationally acclaimed psychology professor at nearby Duke University. Ariely contrasted our tendencies toward efficiency and resilience. (https://today.duke.edu/2020/04/using-social-science-aid-fight-against-covid-19).  In a shorter interview printed in an India-based magazine, Ariely explained: 

 “This virus demonstrated that we are ill-prepared for a catastrophe … hospitals are equipped to deal with the standard inflow and outflow. Almost all normal hospitals don’t have extra capacity. Our economic systems are basically designed to work efficiently, as efficiently as possible. But they are not designed for a day of emergency. Very few governments would say let’s put money aside for a rainy day. There are very few companies that do it.” (https://openthemagazine.com/features/pandemic-related-behavioural-changes-wont-last-long-dan-ariely/) 

The notion that we humans too often opt for efficiency over resilience, emphasizing short term gain rather than long term viability, has been around nearly as long as humans have thought and written. It gains traction during times of chaos or rapid change. Books exploring two variations of this idea came out when I was a young adult beginning a career in the rapidly expanding, then relatively new field of computer-mediated commercial data processing. One was Alvin Toffler’s 1970 treatise Future Shock, which theorized that the increasingly rapid pace of change was disorienting to humans being required to adapt on many levels in a short time period. The other, The Limits to Growth, was a 1972 volume co-authored by Donella Meadows, an outgrowth of an early computer modeling exercise to study interlocking factors that might limit the future viability of human societies on planet earth: population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation. 

My attempts to sidestep the shock and stay within the limits have so far been partially successful: I’ve been able to create a wide network of family, friends, and colleagues who’ve helped buffer the impact of multiple life changes by sharing support and humor; partly out of choice and partly through necessity, I’ve been more limited than many in reproduction, food habits, resource use, material output, and pollution generation.  However, these earlier habits have not helped much to inform my response to the novel corona virus. So I wondered, what might Toffler and Meadows have to say about our current dilemmas?  

Both Toffler and Meadows have died. Both left change-studying institutions as parts of their legacy. Toffler Associates (https://www.tofflerassociates.com) presents itself as a “future focused strategic advisory firm.”  Meadows co-founded a predecessor to the non-profit Academy for Systems Change (https://www.academyforchange.org), whose mission is “to advance the field of awareness-based systemic change in order to accelerate ecological, social, and economic well-being,” a tall order in these uncertain times. I’d encourage those of you with time and internet access to explore Ariely’s insights, along with both these groups’ online presence. 

In the Academy’s archives is an article written by Meadows in the late 1990’s, still somewhat applicable: “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” (http://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/) In her article, Meadows argues that many of the interventions we espouse to “fix”  a system are either immaterial or counterproductive. Midway through her exposition of twelve increasingly influential leverage points are “negative feedback loops”: 

“Nature evolves them and humans invent them as controls to keep important system states within safe bounds. A thermostat loop is the classic example. Its purpose is to keep the system state called ‘room temperature’ fairly constant at a desired level. … A complex system usually has numerous negative feedback loops it can bring into play, so it can self-correct. … One of the big mistakes we make is to strip away these ‘emergency’ response mechanisms because they aren’t often used and they appear to be costly.”   

Part of our flat-footedness in responding to a novel corona virus has been the creakiness or absence of emergency human health response mechanisms on a global scale. It’s my hope that we may muddle through this crisis without catastrophic human damage, but with enough impact to prod us toward becoming more resilient, both in our personal choices and in our institutions.

The “Club of Rome,” which underwrote the study on which The Limits to Growth is based, still exists. It still provides cautions about its perceptions of humans’ misappropriations of global resources. But its pronouncements are not entirely doomsday. It continues to embrace, too, the hopefulness of Limits’ conclusion: 

The book contains a message of hope, as well: Man can create a society in which he can live indefinitely on earth if he imposes limits on himself and his production of material goods to achieve a state of global equilibrium with population and production in carefully selected balance.

Shoelaces and Scrunchies

Shoelaces and Scrunchies   —by Jinny Batterson

Our local newspaper recently
Inserted an unusual item, tucked away on a
Back page away from distressing headlines:
A printed sewing pattern with instructions.
The pattern seems simple enough,
A productive use of some stay-at-home time.

I find an unused cloth shower curtain,
Some leftover curtain lining fabric,
Retrieve an aged sewing machine from a closet.
My first step-by-step effort takes hours
And hours. The four ties take the longest:
Eighteen inch lengths double folded to just a third
Of an inch wide, then stitched and restitched
Into each corner of a smallish rectangle.
There must be an easier way.

Our local craft outlet is temporarily closed,
So I troll the aisles of the nearest big box store:
Aha! shoelaces, right width, nearly right length, still in
Ample supply. I choose a half dozen packages, careful
To leave some for other impromptu seamstresses.

The laces increase my output substantially.
Soon I have a completed stock for family, close neighbors.
After my initial supply has run out, a younger neighbor requests
More. “Got any new shoelaces?” I ask her.
Instead, she supplies scrunchies–those circular hair ties worn
By Olympic gymnasts and high school cheerleaders.
More elastic and less cumbersome than shoelaces.

A few more completed each day, overstitched into
Half moon shapes. When I go to get a leaking tire
Checked, a helpful technician takes one.
“Nice,” he tells me. “It doesn’t steam up my glasses,
And the fabric pattern looks a little like camo.” 

We all are doing our best to camouflage
The impact of a tiny virus that has upended so
Many of our prospects.

 

Earth Has Its Day

Earth Has Its Day   —by Jinny Batterson

Had this been a “normal” year, there would have been big crowds today commemorating the 50th annual Earth Day. There would have been lots of in-person speeches. There would have been live exhibits from corporations and non-profits with a mixture of important initiatives and “greenwashing,” spotlighting small impacts for mainly public relations value. There would have been more exhortations to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” 

This is not a normal year. A small pathogen whose exact origin is still unclear began spreading a respiratory ailment among the global human population in late 2019. As of today, covid-19 had caused nearly 2.5 million known infections and nearly 170,000 deaths. Much of the globe’s human population is on “lockdown.” Public gatherings are few. 

In parts of the world, other variations in nature are wreaking havoc in different ways: a plague of locusts in east Africa is destroying food crops, threatening the food supply of tens of millions; forest fires in Ukraine near the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant have recently caused the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to have the worst air pollution of any place in the world; widespread bush fires during Australia’s 2019-2020 summer have blackened millions of acres and killed roughly a billion animals, endangering such unique species as kangaroos and koalas and putting Australia’s agricultural sector at risk; Greenland and Antarctica have ice sheets that are melting at increasing rates. 

Perhaps earth is reminding us, in increasingly urgent terms, that we are not the masters of the planet, but its guests and its (temporary) stewards. 

For much of my adult life, I’ve accumulated a clipping file of quotations and short pieces of prose that seem meaningful to me. During a personal or societal crisis, I reread them for wisdom. A while ago, I came across the World War II era diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, War Without and Within, edited and first published long after that war was over, in 1980. Anne and her husband, aviator Charles Lindbergh, had spent part of the 1930’s living in Europe to regain some privacy after the highly publicized U.S. kidnapping and murder of their first child.  A pacifist often identified with her isolationist husband, Anne was deeply affected by the 1939 onset of war in Europe and the entry of the U.S. into a globalized conflict in late 1941. A diary entry from Easter Monday during the spring of 1942 expresses both sorrow and hope: 

“Today is the real Easter morning. Yesterday was overcast and chilly. This morning is still, warm, newly awakened. One walks out into it like a flower just opened. …
When I was young, I always felt a morning like this meant a promise of something wonderful … love in someone’s heart far away from me, or the success of some venture of my own. I thought–quite literally–it was a sign from heaven. The person who was ill would get well. … Or maybe something wonderful was happening for the world–some new spirit blooming. … the morning was a ‘sign.’
I still believe it is a ‘sign,’ but not for anything good happening to me or the world, anything specific. The love is not blooming in someone’s heart. The ventures fail. The one who is sick, dies, and the one who is lost is never found. Hate and cruelty and evil are still rampant, war goes on.
And yet it is a sign. It is a sign that in spite of these things beauty still exists and goes on side by side with horror. That there is love and goodness and beauty and spirit in the world–always. This is only one of the times when it is clothed in flesh–in the flesh of a spring morning.”

Amid the global concern about the covid-19 pandemic and the seemingly unending series of recriminations about whose “fault” the pandemic is, there have been occasional notes of clearer air in unexpected places, of a resurgence of birdsong alongside nearly empty highways. 

This morning where I live dawned crisp, cool, bright, with almost jewel-like clarity. May it be a sign. Happy Earth Day!   

Power, Shared

Power, Shared   —by Jinny Batterson

It’s been an unsettled week for those with putative power. While various autocrats and autocrat wannabes strutted before stadium crowds, riots broke out elsewhere in the capital city of India. In the U.S., Democratic Presidential hopefuls stood behind podiums and yelled at each other. Despite posturing by those who want us to believe in their power or leadership potential, for the moment evidence points to a microscopic organism known as “Covid19,” or just “the corona virus” as the most powerful living entity on earth.

Since an initial outbreak began in central China a couple of months ago, the virus and the serious illness it can cause has spread to every continent except Antarctica, with the biggest outbreaks outside China in Italy and Iran. Over two thousand have died, with over 80,000 sickened enough to require hospitalization. Entire regions have been on lockdown, global commerce has been dented, stock markets have plunged. 

U.S. media attention has also focussed on former media mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was convicted in New York of rape and sexual assault. He’s facing a prospective prison sentence of at least five years, as pundits weigh the significance of his conviction for other victims of sexual assault. Future Weinstein appeals and trials loom. 

Meantime, this year’s Black History Month is drawing to a close. It seems likely that our current national powers that be will do their best to ignore it. Meanwhile, here in North Carolina, early voting for next Tuesday’s March 3 primary election will end along with February on Saturday, “leap day.”  

In American politics, it is a recurring mantra that the power of the ballot is supreme. Struggles to gain and exercise voting rights have ebbed and flowed throughout our history. History reminds us that the oppressed will continue to use both overt and covert means to subvert the systems oppressing them and to gain access to power. History teaches that no solitary or absolute power can last forever.

A bit before the current corona virus outbreak, news outlets in early 2020 covered U.S. and European approval of a vaccine against the ebola virus, which had caused a major epidemic in western Africa in 2014. An article traced the international cooperation and lucky connections that capped generations of work by scientists and public health workers across three continents and at least a generation to create and distribute the vaccine (https://www.statnews.com/2020/01/07/inside-story-scientists-produced-world-first-ebola-vaccine/). Many of those involved in the project gained little in fortune or fame, but simply believed in what was to them a worthwhile cause. They helped produce another tool for the public health response to any current or future ebola outbreak.  

So, when we bother to pay attention, recent weeks may also remind us of the immense shared power of a voluntary, uncoerced “yes.”  

     

American Democracy: Listening to Two Georges

American Democracy: Listening to Two Georges   —by Jinny Batterson

Back before most holidays were on Mondays, we celebrated George Washington’s birthday each year on February 22. Though the fable about young Georgie chopping down the cherry tree and then owning up to his misdeed is likely more legend than truth, it is quite true that our first national President could easily have been re-elected in 1796 and chose not to run for another term. Instead, Washington sent a letter to Congress expressing his sense of the young country, thanking his colleagues for the opportunity to serve, looking forward to his retirement, and warning the new republic of some of the pitfalls it might face going forward. He cautioned against the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation’s domestic affairs. 

For the past century and a half, nearly every year around the time of Washington’s birthday, a U.S. Senator has been assigned to read Washington’s entire farewell letter and then to inscribe his or her name and brief remarks into a leather bound book maintained by the Secretary of the Senate (https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.htm). I haven’t yet found a record of which Senator will have the honor of doing the 2020 reading.  

As this year’s election cycle heats up, I am often outraged by the depths of corruption in the current U.S. national administration. Rather than “draining the swamp,” this administration has done its utmost to fill said swamp with sleazier, bigger alligators. Factionalism seems the order of the day. Both documented instances and rumors of foreign interference in our electoral process abound. Our current chief executive rarely confers with advisors and bridles at any criticism. He relishes vilifying opponents. He fires or forces resignations of long-term military and civil servants seemingly at will. He believes that only his views and desires matter, a sort of universal pass—“you have to let me, because I’m the star.” 

It’s likely to take a great deal of work by a lot of us, combined with a small modicum of luck, to reorient our national politics, whose slide into sectionalism, factionalism, and interference by foreign powers has tainted both political parties for a good while. Within my voting adulthood since 1968, we’ve had one Presidential resignation, two Presidential impeachments, plus several other national scandals. During the same period, we’ve had major changes in our media landscapes, our manufacturing processes, our economy, our demographics, our communications and transportation technologies, and the state of the global economy. Nevertheless, President Washington’s concerns are still relevant. 

A more recent former President had a bit of trouble correctly quoting an earlier proverb, but got the gist of it across. In 2002, George W. Bush admonished a Tennessee audience with a paraphrase of the aphorism: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”  It’s high time we listened to both Georges.   

To Our Macho Valentines

To Our Macho Valentines 

Dearest Valentines,

We need to talk. 

When a disturbed young man sprays death on twenty first-graders with an assault rifle, when an aging oligarch bases a political campaign on insult, intrigue, and innuendo, when an ex-student defames Valentine’s Day by gun-murdering former schoolmates, when inconclusive wars kill thousands, displace millions, cost trillions, drag on and on,
we are overdue for some serious readjustments.

Our over-reliance on competition, violence, vengeance and
warfare needs to be scaled way back.

Ages ago, marauding bands with the best available clubs and spears made sense. Settlements were sparse, beasts huge, weather harsh. Outward threats were plentiful.
Now billions of us live in cities, where we vainly pretend to manicure and
manage nature, ignoring our dependence. Most threats are manmade, but our fears and habits of protections have yet to catch up with our
changed circumstances.

Human violence has thrust out everywhere: world wars, holocausts, genocides, civil wars, mass rapes, terrorism, alongside more intimate horrors.
We may mouth misleading terms–“collateral damage”–but it doesn’t help.
Our knowledge of the desolation we inflict on each other still sticks in our throats. 

So for a few moments,
drop your swagger,
your snigger, your armor,
your weapons.
Come join our quiet circle.
Don’t bring us presents–
no flowers, no chocolates,
no well-intentioned but futile
promises to keep us safe.

Just sit. Breathe.
No words, no gestures.
Open your senses.
Experience life’s 
interweavings.

Soon we’ll finish.
Then you can go back to media sports.
But first we’ll say our piece plainly:
though we may have admired your youthful feats
of physical or mental prowess, we won’t stop loving you
when injury, illness, or old age waylays you. 

Actually, when you’re not too loud, we love you best of all when you
lie snoring peacefully beside us, just as human and vulnerable as we are,.

With deepest affection,  

Your Partners

While We Were Away

While We Were Away    —by Jinny Batterson

While we were away, heartened by or hiding from
The tropical sun, walking the sandy beaches at dawn
Or swimming in warm waters midmorning,
While we were away, the early daffodils began
Blooming, but the tulips lured by a mild January
Got chomped to the base by browsing deer.

While we were away, the birdbath I’d emptied
To avoid having it cracked by winter ice
Was instead picked up and overturned by
March-like winds, though the bird feeders
Continued their cooler weather work of
Helping prospective parents bulk up for spring.

While we were away, a new-to-humans virus spread from
An initial center at the Chinese city of Wuhan
To most regions of the globe, engendering worry,
Research, and sales of face masks and hand sanitizer,
While the U.S. legislature continued its descent into more
And more abstruse angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate.

While we were away, the British government,
Having at length realized it no longer ruled the world,
Completed another step in its bid to ignore that world,
To hoard what remained of its material wealth,
Announcing to erstwhile partners that it had chosen
Instead to take its marbles and go home. 

While we were away, we played old and new games,
Each winning some, losing others. We purchased
Travel mementos from some of the tropical peoples who’d
Made both British and American empires possible.
Returning either tanned or more freckled,
We’ve brought back some adjusted mental context
That may prove useful while we are at home.