Category Archives: Quandaries and Rants

Living Lives that Matter

Living Lives that Matter     —by Jinny Batterson

This morning I read a newspaper account of a set of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday that had involved violence. Clashes broke out between “Unite the Right” demonstrators opposing the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public Charlottesville city park and others who considered the demonstration to be racially tinged.

Nearly fifty years ago, I got married in a small chapel on the campus of a private university where Robert E. Lee had served as president from 1865 until his death in 1870. Both the chapel and a mainstream Protestant church near the campus wryly referred to as “Saint Bob’s” bear Lee’s name. For over thirty years of my work life, I made my home in a mixed race neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, a former capital of the Confederacy. All told, I’ve lived in the U.S. South for over three-fourths of my adult life so far.

Given this background, I have mixed feelings about monuments evoking the Confederacy. As a “white” person, especially in this region, I know that I have often enjoyed economic and social advantages not available to others who are not “white.”  I know that glorifying the “old South” leaves out the many cruelties and injustices that made that culture possible. Yet the military men and political leaders whose images are carved in stone were real people with mixed motives, living among a citizenry that was badly divided by prejudice and fear. We cannot erase that time or the fears that drove it by pulling down monuments. Perhaps we can put them in a broader context and learn from them. 

I’ve tried to live my life and raise my family in ways that reduce the impact of the artificial social construct of race on future generations. Despite my best efforts, I’ve not yet eliminated prejudice or misuse of power either from my own life or from wider society. Yesterday’s violence in Charlottesville saddens me, even as it also reminds me that the struggle to eliminate prejudice and power imbalances is never complete.

My hometown Sunday newspaper chose not to run the Charlottesville story as its news lead. Maybe by a happy coincidence, the cover story of Its syndicated weekend magazine featured the young adults of the British royal family and the charitable work they engage in, twenty years after the tragic death of their mother Diana, the “people’s princess.”  I hope to continue to promote the day when work such as theirs makes the news lead, while fracases like the one in Charlottesville occur less and less often.      

Sensitive Segments

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.     

White Privilege, the Capacity to Leave, and the World’s Changing Games

White Privilege, the Capacity to Leave, and the World’s Changing Games   

                                                       —by Jinny Batterson

As our nation veers closer and closer to fascism, I’m dismayed and unbalanced. How did we come to this point, I ask myself? How was I complicit? How can we as a society rebalance? 

As a “leading edge boomer white female,” I’ve followed a similar trajectory to that of many liberal-leaning members of my cohort: protesting the Vietnam war; attending Earth Days; joining various consciousness-raising groups; experimenting briefly with consciousness-altering substances; absorbing uplifting books, films and workshops about human possibilities; doing a Peace Corps stint in sub-Saharan Africa; later, in semi-retirement, doing shorter volunteer or low-paid assignments teaching English in rural China.

Where I may have diverged from classmates who moved to the suburbs, raised families, and enrolled their children in “superior” school systems, is that for over twenty years, I lived in America’s core cities. The neighborhoods where I settled were “marginal,” working class, multi-racial. At first, this was an economic necessity—my twenty-somethings were littered with lots of employment mis-steps and accidents. Rents and mortgage payments were lower in areas that had been written off by most of the real estate establishment. But I stayed. Partly this was a semi-conscious effort to atone for some slaveholding ancestors who conferred on me an undeserved inherited advantage. Later, it was partly to help prepare our children for a global society with no single dominant group. As I got to know my neighbors better, my staying got to be more and more about their kind and forgiving natures, and their partial immunity to the materialism I saw so much of elsewhere. I chose to be a visible “minority” presence. And there’s the rub.

The neighbors who surrounded me in inner city Baltimore or inner city Richmond had fewer options for leaving than I did. Legal discrimination, or, increasingly, lack of income or of inherited wealth, made it difficult or impossible for them to afford housing in “better” areas. When I lived in Burundi and visited with peasant families in Burundi and Rwanda, most had little chance for schooling beyond the most elementary levels, in crowded, under-equipped classrooms. Few could travel, either in their own countries or abroad. Their prospects for improving their lot in life were terribly limited. In high schools or agricultural colleges where I taught English in China, students were not likely to be able to use their skills—after graduation, most would work long hours at soul-destroying jobs in big cities. They might at best be able to show off for their parents or grandparents on holiday visits back home.

By contrast, I could take time away from Baltimore or Richmond to recharge at a summer cabin by a pristine lake in Vermont. When sub-Saharan Africa got too depressing, I could join my family on extended holiday in Europe. In China, I spent a winter break at a posh beach resort, a summer interval being escorted by a high-ranking official around the historic sights of Beijing.

The world I grew up in is changing at ever-increasing speed. Within the U.S., we are becoming more immigrant, more “non-white,” more interethnic than ever. Globally, we’ve expanded travel and communications by orders of magnitude. However, we’re also changing our earth’s atmosphere and oceans in ways that will make life less predictable and probably more difficult for all living creatures. Movie fantasies aside, precious few of us have the wealth and/or training to be able to leave the planet and survive. This changes the game, even for those of us with privilege.

The new game requires me and others with privileges conferred by birth, inheritance, skill and/or luck to practice “not leaving.” Of course, I will still need to protest injustices, to improve my environmental stewardship, to raise my awareness, to celebrate human possibilities. But I will need to do more. Even in situations that make me uncomfortable or defensive, I will need to remain fully present, and then to listen, deeply. I will need to practice staying, and staying, and staying. I can no longer afford not to.

Twitter Fodder

Twitter Fodder    —by Jinny Batterson

I don’t have a Twitter account, nor am I ever likely to. I’m too wordy to accept that much that’s worth saying can fit into just 140 characters.  So I was somewhat surprised the other morning when I awoke after a good night’s sleep to find a Twitter-length snippet pushing its way into my journal: 

If you play only zero-sum games, you’re likely to wind up a big fat zero.

Fewer than 100 characters, even including a couple of adjectives that could, if need be, be left out. Few big words, except maybe “zero-sum,” a shorthand way of explaining the attitude that for me to win, you have to lose an equal amount from a fixed total, with no room for sharing or “win-win” solutions. “Big fat zero” may be slightly old-fashioned, but familiar as a taunt to anyone who’s ever spent time on an elementary school playground.

 What did it mean for me to have such a short saying barging into my thoughts, and maybe even my writing?  After a bit, a memory surfaced. I was back at our public high school, in my favorite teacher’s French class. Mrs. Nash didn’t so much teach French as she taught life. One of her favorite tools was a series of aphorisms, or short sayings, attributed to historical French writers. The discussion I remember best centered around a pithy quote by philosopher Charles-Louis de Montesquieu, who lived in France starting in the late 17th century. He wrote a lot about the conditions and rights of man. He is credited with having said:

Every man has his price.

As Mrs. Nash guided the conversation, we fairly quickly broadened our definition of “price” to include things other than a monetary sum or material item. Suppose the price involved our being embarrassed or made very uncomfortable? What about sacrificing our health? Suppose the price meant having a loved one put in danger? What if it demanded that we give up cherished ideas or principles? Suppose the price pitted short-term gain against long-term survival?

We never resolved the issue. Later discussions, in Mrs. Nash’s class and elsewhere, were based on a cross-section of similar sayings, not all of them by French authors:

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?
People who know little are usually great talkers, while men who know much say little.
(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778) 

No society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.
Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.
(Adam Smith, 1723-1790) 

No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.
(Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797)         

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.
(John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873) 

It gradually dawned on me that these “aphorisms” were the “tweets” of their times, considerably wiser than the 72 characters that had descended on me, or, I’m guessing, much else that gets posted on Twitter these days. 

As many of our online civic discussions continue to deteriorate into name-calling and evermore selective choice of facts, I’m sometimes tempted to despair. But I know that despair never changes anything for the better.  So I take frequent breaks to slow down and collect my thoughts, grateful to have this luxury at the current stage of my life. Not all do. However, all of us have time to take a deep breath. We can all briefly turn off or tune out the many distractions of our increasingly distracted society.  We all can imagine a place and time when we felt safe and cared for.  From deep within this setting of safety and love comes an important insight, one so short that it could fit ten times in a standard tweet:  

Pay attention.

What’s New in Fake News: Choosing our Facts (2)

What’s New in Fake News: Choosing Our Facts (2)     —by Jinny Batterson

In an earlier blog post, written not long after last fall’s elections, I retold a surprise encounter with a Trump supporter while visiting family in California, the “left coast.” This veteran of stints in the Marines and the U.S. Coast Guard played down Trump’s divisive rhetoric. (“He’s just a brash New Yorker,” the man told me.) He was upset about Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private email server and, above all, concerned about illegal immigration. He quoted facts and figures, both historical and current, to bolster his anti-immigrant arguments. He claimed that 750,000 “illegals” made up 10% of the population of New York City, taking jobs and housing from more deserving legal residents. When I mentioned the proportion of our national food supply harvested by immigrant labor, he shunted my concerns aside—that was old news, he said. During World War II, there was a shortage of native-born farm workers, so immigrants were brought in to pick crops, but nearly all of them had been sent home during the Eisenhower administration. I did not have ready answers, but thought some of his statements were likely exaggerations.

Shortly after our conversation, I used a borrowed computer to look up figures via Google for “illegal immigration to New York City.” The closest match I could find was a Newsmax article from September, 2015 that appeared near the top of the retrieved list. It mentioned the 750,000 figure, but for New York State as a whole, in 2012, with an undocumented proportion of less than 4%.  Since the new year, I’ve repeated my “illegal immigration to New York City” query, and also done further Internet research on farm labor trends. As of January 19, 2017, the lead site from a Google search on New York City illegal immigration was a sponsored advertisement for an immigration lawyer. The second highest site came from Wikipedia, with a host of disclaimers at the beginning of the article, much of which was written in 2014. This article cites a 2005 estimate of 535,000 “illegal immigrants” in New York City, sourcing the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a lobbying group formed during the 1980’s to advocate for reductions in both legal and illegal immigration to the United States. 

Further research about immigrant farm labor trends produced the information that a “bracero” program (from the Spanish term for manual laborer) for Mexican temporary farm workers was in place from 1942 to 1964. The number of braceros peaked at 445,197 in 1956, during the Eisenhower administration. The program was replaced in 1965, as part of an overall reform of the immigration system, by a program of temporary “H-2A” visas for immigrant farm workers.  Recent estimates from multiple sources put the proportion of undocumented workers in the seasonal farm labor force at over a million—somewhere between 50 and 70% of 2.4 million temporary farm workers.  According to a Wikipedia article most recently updated on January 17, 2017, there were approximately 140,000 seasonal farm workers certified under the “H-2A” program in 2015. 

Most “news” articles these days have an explicit or implicit editorial slant. Each of us is enabled to “choose our facts,” about immigration or any other issue, from among a huge number of available sites, given the continuing explosion of information in Internet, television, radio, and print sources. It becomes more important than ever to attempt to develop a balanced perspective. As I continued struggling to expand my views after my encounter with the Coast Guard veteran, I found a brief online talk by Swedish journalist Andreas Ekstrom about bias in Google search results.  Two of the most important factors in Google rankings of the relevance of a query result, he explained, are: 1) similarity of search terms,  and 2) the number of accesses to a particular site. Relevance is monitored and recalculated frequently, so the same query done several weeks apart can produce widely differing results. For example, the 2015 Newsmax immigration article for New York that showed near the top of my results list in November, 2016, no longer made the first screen of results in January, 2017.

If we are to maintain a representative democracy, Americans of all political persuasions will need to become more diligent about how we access news. It may take some time in our hurried lives to distill actual information from the plethora of opinions  and “fake news” that so often masquerade as the real thing. It will be increasingly important to distinguish the trustworthiness of news sources; often, we’ll need to pay more attention to when an article was published and how recently it has been updated. Above all, we will need to continue to choose our “facts” carefully.      

Still Subtle and Various and Human

Still Subtle and Various and Human…    —by Jinny Batterson

The year 2016 has provided quite a roller coaster ride, especially in U.S. politics. Now that the year is nearly done, I’m trying to be more philosophical about this year’s largely negative political campaigns and their outcomes. While trying to avoid stereotyping anyone as a typical voter in any contest, I did pay attention to one exit polling result: the lopsided divide among those who said they favored change when casting their vote for president.

What gives me some hope for change is that recent conversations I’ve been having with family, friends and acquaintances of various political persuasions have been getting deeper without getting rancorous. My sample size is small. However, among those with whom I’ve gingerly broached the subject of American politics, what stands out are the variations in both motivations and reactions. I’ve not found consensus. Nevertheless, the opinions I’ve heard are more subtle and more nuanced than much of what I read and hear in the media, neither entirely elated nor entirely despairing, often including varying traces of spite, cynicism, skepticism, and indifference. 

Though in theory I’m now part of the older, wiser generation, I find myself wishing that my parents’ “greatest generation” were still around in large enough numbers to impart wisdom and to exert more influence on our media mix. The views of some live on in their writings. I like some of the lesser-known volumes authored by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose early life was sheltered and privileged, but who came to maturity as global politics darkened during the 1930’s. She and her aviator husband Charles Lindbergh had for several years sought solace and privacy in England after the kidnapping and murder of their eldest child in New Jersey in 1932. By 1939,  Anne was back in the U.S., tending a growing household while struggling with her husband’s strong isolationist opinions, viewing events in Europe with increasing alarm. Parts of her journals from the period were published much later, in 1980, as War Without and Within. I found the lead-in to her entry for September 2, 1939 especially compelling:

“The Germans are steaming ahead into Poland; all negotiations are off. Even the news becomes not diplomatic but military, not subtle and various and human but clear and cold and metallic.” 

Tomorrow we’ll start 2017 with a fair number of possible problems and threats on our horizons. We will also have various experiences, opinions, and expertise with which to cope with them. Some choices will seem stark; others may be difficult. Still, we will have the capacity to remember in coping with lots of our issues that we as Americans and as citizens of the world can be subtle and various and human, if we choose to do so.    

The Myth of Objectivity: Choosing our Facts

The Myth of Objectivity: Choosing Our Facts     —by Jinny Batterson

This fall’s election season left me both physically and emotionally exhausted. In October, as attack advertising on all sides escalated and early voting started, I finalized plans to visit extended family on the west coast shortly after the election was over. It seemed a good way to regain some longer term perspective—the two generations that come after me would help me regain balance.

Now that I’m in sunny California, we’ve mostly avoided talking politics. I’m sure we don’t agree on everything. Avoiding hasty words is an antidote for having to take them back later. The grandkids are cute, and generally uninterested in grown-up concerns.

However, I haven’t escaped political repartee entirely.  My first Sunday here, I was sitting under a shade tree, watching the kids play as the awards ceremony for our son’s final cross country race of the season droned on. A man also watching from nearby piped up with unsolicited advice: several of the kids were playing in a way that might result in injury, he said. A friend of his had had a dangerous fall and lost an eye. I thanked him, mentioned his concern to the kids, asking them to be a little more careful, and thought that would be the end of our interaction. No such luck. 

“What do you think about the results of the election?”  he inquired.

“I’m not too happy,” I responded. “I would have preferred that the other presidential candidate had won.” 

“How could anyone support someone who violated the first tenet of public service?” he jibed. “I was in the Coast Guard. If I had sent classified information over a private email server, I’d forever have been disqualified from further service, let alone from becoming Commander in Chief.” 

Not wanting to get further enmeshed in a discussion that didn’t seem likely to have any positive result, I tried for more neutral ground.

  “Neither candidate was all that appealing,” I ventured. “I didn’t like the way Mr. Trump repeatedly insulted all sorts of people.” 

“Most of that was just bluster,” he responded. “After all, Trump is a brash New Yorker. Still, he has valid points. For example, there are over 750,000 illegal immigrants in New York City alone. That makes more than 10% of the population. They’re taking up housing that should be available to those of us who were born here or came here legally.”

Succumbing to continuing a conversation that I was pretty sure would end badly, I responded, “In the part of the country where I live, immigrant labor harvests nearly all of the crops. We need those workers.”

“Ha!” he said. “There was a time, during World War II, when there was a shortage of local workers for harvesting because so many American men were serving overseas, so immigrants were allowed in. However, once the war was over, Eisenhower sent them all back where they came from.”    

‘Look,” I said, “it seems that you and I view very different parts of reality. I respect your perspective, but I can’t agree with it.”

“Lady,” he said, “you’re entitled to choose your opinions, but you cannot choose your facts.”  With that, he strode off, triumphant. 

Not one gifted in coming up with snappy responses, I later did a bit of further research. Estimates of illegal immigrants/undocumented workers in New York vary widely, with the high-end 750,000 figure most likely coming from an online 2015  post by conservative-leaning publisher Newsmax. Every article about immigration has an editorial slant, explicit or implied—emphasizing either the costs or the contributions of this section of the American population. Some sources stress the need to keep families together, the need for skilled workers, or the aging of the U.S.’s native-born population. Others emphasize the need to reserve jobs/housing/advancement opportunities for the native-born. During the presidential transition, immigration remains a hot-button issue. 

I don’t have a pat answer. I’m not hopeful that our national immigration policies will become either more sensible or more humane for the near-term future. However, I believe that there is a way toward consensus in our nation of immigrants.  As recently as 2013, the U.S. Senate managed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill,  S.744, with a substantial bi-partisan majority.  No comparable bill has so far passed the House of Representatives.

To further chances for reform, I believe we’ll need to listen to each other’s stories more deeply. We’ll need to broaden our array of “facts” beyond the mostly biased reporting we’re being subjected to on all sides.

To get a more general view, I turned to a different Internet site and searched for TED talks about “search engines.” I found the following brief talk by Swedish journalist Andreas Ekstrom—“The moral bias behind your search results.”  (http://www.ted.com/talks/andreas_ekstrom_the_moral_bias_behind_your_search_results/transcript?language=en)  

Ekstrom uses two examples of image search results that got temporarily distorted by massive bias: the first, a 2009 derogatory representation of Michelle Obama, was quickly removed by Google; the second, an equally derogatory 2011 representation of mass murderer Anders Breivik, was allowed to continue until it died out on its own. Ekstrom concludes: “And I (emphasize) this because I believe we’ve reached a point in time when it’s absolutely imperative … to remind (ourselves) that that wonderfully seductive idea of the unbiased, clean search result is, and is likely to remain, a myth.” 

Let’s choose our “facts” carefully.      

Practicing Gestational Politics

Practicing Gestational Politics   –by Jinny Batterson

Now that we have apparently elected
a prime verbal ejaculator
to be our putative leader,
it will not do to turn our
hurt and anger inward,
nor will it suffice to cry
out in rage and disgust.

What we must do
instead is to take a short respite,
then to return with renewed dedication
to building bridges across the chasms of race,
class, gender, urban/rural, national origin, affection
that this retrograde campaign has opened up.
We must nurture ourselves, along with
the next generations of humans
and of other creatures
on this lovely planet.

An Ounce of Prevention

An Ounce of Prevention   —by Jinny Batterson

A proverb that was often quoted to me during my teen years has come back to haunt me lately: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Parts of our state are still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Dozens of people have been killed in North Carolina in the flooding that followed the hurricane. Rivers are just starting to go down. Surplus waters pool and eventually flow toward the Atlantic. Several major rivers are still above flood stage, and there’s a possibility of more flood-related fatalities when receding waters uncover submerged vehicles. Some people have had to be evacuated twice, leaving their homes for hotels and other shelters that in turn became flooded. We’ve seen (when our electricity is working) television and Internet footage of tractor trailer trucks floating in several feet of water, of horses submerged up to the neck being led beside inflatable boats to reach higher ground. Major interstates crossing our region have been flooded out, causing lengthy disruptions in travel, or worse. I’m not suggesting that we can prevent hurricanes; I do want to suggest that we will need better preparations to reduce the impact of future storms.    

The October 2016 floods in the U.S. Southeast come on the heels of equally horrendous flooding in the area of Baton Rouge, Louisiana in August, when up to two feet of rainfall inundated the vicinity over the course of two days of a “thousand year flood.” By mid-October, clean-up crews had removed over a million and a half cubic yards of debris from the flooded area. That’s a lot of ounces.

Much of California has been impacted by five years of severe drought.

It’s getting harder to deny that our climate is changing. According to a 2014 report vetted by over 300 scientists, “Over the last 50 years, much of the U.S. has seen increases in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, heavy downpours, and in some regions, severe floods and droughts.” Just before the Hurricane Matthew floods, I  watched an interview with a spokesman for Conservation International, Dr. M. Sanjayan, who described a series of narrated short films about the relationship between nature and humanity. He played a two minute clip voiced by Julia Roberts, part of a series at NatureIsSpeaking.org. Over a backdrop of some of the earth’s natural wonders, Roberts intoned: “Some call me nature, others call me Mother Nature. I’ve been here for over four and a half billion years, 22,500 times longer than you. I don’t really need people, but people need me…”

Not all of us have as high a profile as the media stars in the Nature Is Speaking videos. Not all of us can persuasively argue for the public policy changes needed to slow, though not stop, many harmful effects of our changing climate. But each of us breathes and eats, sleeps and wakes, uses part of the earth’s resources. We can exercise our ounce of prevention. We can be more active in pursuing the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. We can vet our purchases for environmental impact and make wiser choices. We can act individually and/or join with neighbors to retrofit existing properties and communities to be more environmentally friendly, wherever we live. We can participate in litter pick-ups and stream clean-ups to reduce the amount of trash going into our oceans. We can become informed, and keep up with the latest climate and weather warnings.

Ms. Roberts ends her narration with a challenge and a question:  “How you choose to live each day, whether you regard or disregard me doesn’t really matter to me. One way or the other, your actions will determine your fate, not mine. I am nature. I will go on. I am prepared to evolve.  Are you?” 

Don’t Agonize, Organize!

Don’t Agonize, Organize…       —by Jinny Batterson

As this election season nears its final month (hallelujah!), I’m ramping up my non-partisan efforts to promote voter registration and to encourage voter participation. Given the negative slant of so much political advertising and media coverage, this can sometimes be an uphill job.

In our area, one of the non-profit groups that I volunteer for is a statewide research and voter advocacy group called Democracy North Carolina. Its offices are tiny and cramped, sandwiched between a new mid-rise apartment complex and the East Campus of Duke University, but its outreach is substantial. Whenever I’m at the office and cadge a snack between phone calls or stuffing envelopes, I come face to face with a large sign on the refrigerator door: “Don’t Agonize, Organize.”  It’s a needed reminder.

Over a generation ago, I was deeply involved in a different organization, Servas, this one aimed at “promoting world peace, one friendship at a time”  through a global network of individually interviewed and approved hosts and travelers. As a neophyte at dealing with the internal frictions that often arise among us folks with noble aims, as an American struggling to remain hopeful during the final years of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.,  I was approaching burnout. So I signed up for a short-term set of summer workshops, a “Peace Retreat” at a rural conference center in New York’s Hudson River Valley. I hoped that a few days away from midnight telephone calls and conflicting work, family, and volunteer responsibilities might give me a better perspective. I was blown away by the long-term dedication and commitment of the workshop presenters. 

Among the sessions I remember best was one given by a couple who’d turned their passion for long-distance running into a major fundraiser and consciousness raising event. For the 40th anniversary of the United Nations Children’s Fund (also known as UNICEF) in 1986, David Gershon and Gail Straub had helped create “The First Earth Run.”  According to current Internet information about this historic event,

“During the height of the Cold War, a torch of peace was passed around the world, mobilizing the participation of 25 million people in 62 countries and 45 heads of state. The event raised millions of dollars for UNICEF that was distributed to the neediest children in the world.” 

My sense of burnout receded in the face of such a huge, pre-Internet global organizing effort. 

Two aspects of the retrospective Straub and Gershon provided about their decade-long work to create and publicize the run struck me most forcefully: 1) at any given time, while most national organizing committees were on a fairly even keel, a few were wildly ecstatic, while a different few were deeply despondent;  2) the groups that were most generous, both proportionally and in absolute terms, tended to be those from economically struggling areas.   

So this year I try to stay on a relatively even keel, pulling back from both ecstasy and despondency. I remember the generosity of those with fewer material resources. I remind myself that the electoral process is not perfect, that none of the candidates are, either. I know, deeply, that each of us can strive to make a positive difference, one event, one voter at a time. Don’t agonize, organize!