The Labor of Voting

The Labor of Voting —by Jinny Batterson 

During the past several months, my small townhouse complex mobilized like never before. In our previously sleepy suburban neighborhood, people circulated petitions, attended multiple zoning hearings, even overcame fears of public speaking to testify on our own behalf. We want to preserve as much as possible of the leafy canopy that has surrounded us since our 100 or so garden-style condominiums were built over the course of a five year period in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

We had an impact. Though the recommendation of the town’s zoning board is not final, we persuaded a slim majority that a new development adjacent to our condo community, as currently proposed, does not adequately preserve the balance of natural and built environments that is part of our town’s appeal. Further revisions are needed.

Next month, our town and nearby jurisdictions will hold municipal elections. Turnout for municipal and local elections nationwide is usually very low—only 10 to 20 percent of registered voters make the effort to show up—a much lower proportion that the over 75% of homeowners who signed our rezoning petition (though a little greater than the 7% of owners who actually spoke at the zoning hearing…)

National politics has gotten so polarized and nasty lately that many of us have been tempted to give up on voting. Why even bother to register and vote, especially in local elections? What difference will it make? Actually, local elections may be the most important of all, for lots of reasons:

1) Town councils/county governments have the final say on zoning, property taxes, local budgets

2) Politicians DO pay attention to where their election margins come from

3) Local elections are typically among the only remaining non-partisan elections (no party labels on the ballot)

4) A vote has even more impact when “less diluted” by other voters (but don’t let that deter you from encouraging others to vote)

5) If the person you support wins a council seat and later runs for higher office, you may have additional clout as one of his/her early supporters

Because of expected low turnout, some localities provide less publicity and fewer convenient options for voting in local elections—not as many hours or sites for voting early, stricter rules and not as much notice about voting absentee.

My read of our national history is that we have had a see-saw record when it pertains to the voting franchise. As an American woman, I gained the right to vote through efforts of generations of suffragists who came before me. I’m dismayed at what I perceive as current efforts to disenfranchise the most vulnerable members of our society—minorities, the young, the frail elderly, the disabled, the poor, the homeless. 

At least in my state, voting in political elections is not as convenient as registering a “like” to an online post, or signing an online petition. It takes some planning, time, and effort to request and return an absentee ballot, or to find your polling place, show up at an appropriate time, and cast your ballot. Compared to the instantaneous nature of some other parts of our lives, voting can be labor intensive. 

Still, voting is among the most precious labor rights we have, whether in a labor organizing effort, a presidential election, or a local one. So, this Labor Day, once you’ve cleaned the grease off the grill and put the remaining sweet tea in the refrigerator, please consider the importance of the labor of voting in this year’s elections. If you haven’t already, please go register to vote. Once the election process starts, please vote!   


Where the Great Wall Meets the Sea

Final Great Wall tower juts into the Bohai Gulf

Where the Great Wall Meets the Sea  —by Jinny Batterson

Earlier this summer, I had a chance to check off a minor item on my “bucket list,” finally visiting an eastern terminus of China’s Great Wall. I’d first seen a section of the wall near Beijing nearly forty years ago. Much later, I’d visited the wall’s western terminus near Jaiyuguan along a portion of the Silk Road in Gansu Province. Now I wanted to see where this 5,500 mile plus engineering marvel met the sea. One balmy, pleasantly breezy mid-June morning, I got my chance.

This Great Wall excursion was part of a much longer China trip, first reconnecting with old friends, then checking out areas of northeastern China that were new to me. Internet access in China had improved tremendously. My husband, our family’s computer nerd, was able to find enough English-language variants of Chinese travel apps to help craft an unaccompanied land tour in China’s northeast. We benefited from great advances in China’s transportation and public transit infrastructures, including high-speed rail service between most major cities. As a retiree, traveling with my retired husband, I could create an itinerary that was more flexible and slower paced than a package tour. My Mandarin skills had advanced to the point where I could carry on very basic conversations: asking directions, purchasing train tickets, ordering in restaurants, swapping basic biographical information with people in more remote areas who were curious about two “big nose” visitors.

For the Great Wall portion of our adventure, we booked several nights’ stay at a luxury hotel in the nearby city of Qinhuangdao, along China’s fashionable “gold coast.” When we arrived, the area was basking in an interval of June weather when the skies were clear and temperatures were comfortable.  Our second morning, after a sumptuous breakfast buffet featuring both Chinese and Western dishes, we ordered a taxi and headed the dozen or so miles toward the coast to visit where the wall jutted into the sea, at “Old Dragon’s Head” (Laolongtou) along the Bohai Gulf, in northern Hebei province.

Substantial parks surrounded several sections of restored wall. For centuries, walls had been built in this area in attempts to keep marauding northern tribes from attacking Chinese settlements further south. The seaside sections of the wall had been reinforced and greatly expanded during the 16th century, near the end of the Ming dynasty. Close to the wall’s descent to the sea, a few Ming dynasty stones had been left bare to show layers of the original wall’s structure. Along most other accessible portions of the wall, modern stones had been added during restoration efforts in the 1980’s and 1990’s to provide a more uniform surface.

We spent parts of two days exploring several portions of the wall, getting to and from town sometimes by taxi, at others by inexpensive public bus.  The area was blanketed with signs in Chinese, Russian, and English. A major toll road, the Jingshen Expressway, runs from Beijing over 400 miles northeast to the city of Shenyang via Tianjin, Qinhuangdao and Beidaihe, a summer hangout for senior Chinese officials. As we skirted parts of the expressway, we saw familiar green and brown highway signs, signaling exits (green)  and sights of interest (brown), the same color scheme used along many U.S. interstate highways. Tourist services were abundantly available, including a KFC where we shared a chicken nuggets lunch, surrounded by conversations in Mandarin, Italian, French, and Russian.

Looking right from the final seaside tower at Laolongtou, I could see a wide sandy beach. A little further in the other direction was a major modern container port.  I was impressed with the scope and strength of the wall itself, but flummoxed by the notion that the wall could keep out anyone out who desperately, passionately wanted to get past it—a simple small boat under cover of night might suffice. Actually, forces of China’s final imperial dynasty, the Qing, had come from north of the wall and marched south through it at a strategic pass after the Ming Dynasty disintegrated due to corruption and infighting.

If, among its other craziness, our current national administration persists in plans to build a wall along the U.S.’s border, American officials might benefit from a visit to Old Dragon’s Head as a cautionary reminder. 

Health Care: It’s Complicated (or Is It?)

Health Care: It’s Complicated (or Is It?)    —by Jinny Batterson

It is sometimes easy these days to grow disenchanted with the various attempts to improve the U.S.’s ailing health care system. As Congress grapples with ways to improve/replace the Affordable Care Act and to shore up existing government health care subsidy programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, let’s take a broader look at what we mean by health care.

A generation ago, a non-partisan grass roots political group I belong to, the League of Women Voters, studied the health care issue in order to make some informed recommendations at multiple levels of government. (A summary of the U.S. League’s position on health care is available at Some of the conditions we discovered during our initial study in the early 1990’s have changed, but other basic trends have remained, even accelerated. As a population, we Americans are getting older, fatter, and more likely to suffer from various addictions—drugs, alcohol, nicotine, sweeteners, fats.  Access to health care is skewed toward those who already have a disproportionate share of economic resources. 

We’ve all likely heard the various statistics—overall, health care costs for Americans account for nearly 18% of U.S. economic activity, compared to a global average of about 10%. Is it any wonder that many people’s health care insurance premiums are going up?

Part of the increase in medical costs comes from advances in medical practice and tools. If my grandmother suffered from arthritis, she had few options other than aspirin. My mother’s options were broader, but not nearly as broad as mine. Now it’s possible to have most joints replaced. Medicines and/or surgery are available to deal with many of the chronic illnesses that either killed or debilitated Americans in previous generations. Yet dissatisfaction with the state of our health and our health care continues. Some have more medical coverage than they need, while others have little or none. Medical providers are exhorted to improve “patient satisfaction,” yet some studies show no correlation at all between patient satisfaction and one important measure of medical efficacy—mortality.  So what are we to do? 

One non-traditional approach comes from “clown doctor” Patch Adams, his staff and colleagues at the “Gesundheit Institute.” I’d read Patch’s book Gesundheit when it first came out in 1993, and watched the 1998 movie partially based on it, but hadn’t really thought much recently about this approach to medicine. Patch and crew subscribe seriously to the notion that “laughter is the best medicine.”

This spring, as I was preparing to visit a young doctor friend in China, I emailed Ruby to see whether there was anything I could fit into my luggage that she’d like me to bring her from America. What she asked for were copies of some of Patch’s books. By jettisoning an extra shirt and pair of slacks, I fit in one copy each of Gesundheit and House Calls. Like any conscientious donor, I reread the first book and skimmed the second during trip preparations. Lots of what it said about healthy habits and healthy communities made sense to me.

As luck would have it, my visit with Ruby coincided with the opening of a newly built hospital in her home town. It also fell on the weekend when she’d arranged a monthly “clown doctoring” session at the hospital children’s ward. For several years previously, Ruby had spent extra time and effort to incorporate a clowning component into the medical practices at her hospital. She’d developed a corps of about twenty doctors, nurses, and volunteers. Prior to our ward visits, she spent over an hour preparing us, individually and as a group, for our interactions with each other and with patients. Ruby especially emphasized the importance of not invading the children’s or their families’ space without permission. Once our visits were over, she did a thorough debriefing. I don’t know if any measurement would have detected an impact on the health of these children and their families. I do know that among the children who wanted to interact with us, we got lots of smiles, some chuckles, and even a few outright guffaws.

My visit with Ruby and my reintroduction to Patch Adams’ work reminded me that health care is about more than preventing or curing active illness.  It is also about more than preventing death at all costs. Health involves caring for each other. It is vibrant. It includes the capacity to be silly and to laugh with each other, to make fun of ourselves and of some of life’s absurdities.  Put that way, it doesn’t seem all that complicated. 

A 49th State of Mind

A 49th State of Mind   —by Jinny Batterson

humpback whale diving after being part of a cooperative “bubble net” near Juneau, Alaska

Alaska is huge. Alaska’s human population is sparse, with overall densities of only about 1 1/3 people per square mile. (For comparison, if New York City had the same population density, it would have just over 400 people.)  Nearly half of Alaska’s roughly 700,000 folks live in or near its largest city, Anchorage.  In some years, according to wild game estimates, Alaska has more caribou than people.

Over 2/3 of the land area of Alaska is owned by the U.S. government. Its most famous park, Denali National Park, though not the state’s largest, still covers as much territory as the entire state of Vermont. Through both military and civilian jobs, the U.S. government is the largest employer in the state. The petroleum industry is also a major sector. Tourism provides a boost in the state’s more accessible regions, with the population of greater Anchorage roughly tripling during the summer tourist season. Alaska produces low-sulfur coal, precious metals, and seafood for export. Alaska has over 4 times as much ocean coastline as second-ranked Florida, and nearly twice as much shoreline as the Great Lakes state of Michigan.

To me, an Easterner with only occasional jaunts west of the Mississippi, Alaska was too much to get my head around. In my 2-week visit, it was impossible to take in the immensity of the place. Partly via packaged tour, partly courtesy of a former high school classmate, I did get to see a small portion of southern and central Alaska.

Arriving in Anchorage on a summer weekend, I went for a ramble through a downtown street fair. Most of the stalls sold food, crafts, or fabulous photographs of the local flora, fauna, and scenery. Near the end of one aisle was a t-shirt booth. Some shirts just showed superimposed maps to scale. Others included text: “Texas is so cute,” one shirt read. “If we split Alaska in half, Texas would become the 3rd largest state,” proclaimed another.

What most impressed me about Alaska, though, were not its huge swaths of empty acreage or its magnificent mountain vistas. What I was most drawn to were its waterways and sea life. My camera finger was not quite quick enough to capture the spectacle of eight adult humpback whales and one calf “bubble net fishing” along the Lynn Canal near Juneau, but the experience was magical. Bubble net fishing can be engaged in either by solitary humpbacks, or as a cooperative effort by temporary groups of up to 15 whales who’ve learned a more productive way to fish.

Research about whale feeding behavior continues, but based on studies so far, it seems that cooperative bubble net efforts are usually led by an older female. A bubble “net” can be cast starting up to 60 feet underwater. Multiple whales exhale while swimming in circles around a large school of fish, creating a cylinder of surface-bound bubbles.  The whales also emit a curtain of sound, audible to underwater sonic devices. Schools of herring and/or other small fish are confused and frightened by the bubbles and the whales’ vocalizations. Most remained trapped in an ever tightening net. Gradually the whales and fish move inward and upward, until all break the surface in a huge explosion of open-mouthed whales and silver-sided fish. Swarms of gulls swoop in to pick up the scraps. 

My prior images of Alaska were of rugged individuals—solitary survivors of harsh natural conditions, perhaps hoping to strike it rich during a gold rush, or braving winter blizzards to win a sled dog race. This is part of the Alaskan ethos. But it is not the whole. There are also the whales—once hunted to near-extinction, these huge mammals have benefited from whaling restrictions. They also have learned that it can sometimes be in their best interest to cooperate.     

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses

little girls in frilly dresses, Qingdao, China

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses    —by Jinny Batterson

Last fall, one of our favorite former students in China emailed us exciting news—she was about to get married.  A few weeks later, our former student, “Mona,”  sent a second message with an attachment: a picture of her and her new husband in their wedding clothes.  Mona looked fetching, much dressier than the Mona I was used to—she posed, seated on a high stool, in an elegant flower-print dress with a brimmed hat to match. Her husband, decked out in a casual summer suit, looked over her shoulder.

For much of June this year, I had a chance to travel in mainland China and to reconnect with some former students and colleagues. Especially wonderful was a chance to visit Mona, whose new husband had been a high school classmate I didn’t yet know. They’d chosen each other after a long, sometimes long-distance courtship. I got to spend a couple of days with them. While I was visiting, Mona explained the logistics of arranging her wedding pictures, an increasingly common part of Chinese wedding preparations:

Few people actually buy clothes for their wedding pictures or have pictures taken on the wedding day itself, she explained. Rather, they rent dressy attire from specialized businesses and pick out a place and time to have professional still pictures taken, sometimes adding a brief video. They usually choose a historic or natural beauty spot, on a weekend day when both partners are off work. Because Mona is short for a woman of her generation in China, preparations were somewhat complicated. One weekend, she and her groom-to-be visited a rental agency and picked out clothes they liked in close to the proper size. The following weekend, they went back to the agency to pick up the clothes, which had been altered slightly for better fit.  On still a third weekend, she and her fiancé dressed in their rented finery and met a hired wedding photographer at the agreed upon site and time. Scheduling was tight and did not make allowances for weather. The day Mona’s pictures were taken, it poured down rain. The search for a “perfect shot” took most of a very long day and left both photographer and subjects tired and bedraggled. It took a fourth week to get the rental clothes dried, cleaned, and returned to the rental agency.   

Not long after my visit with Mona and her new spouse, I ventured out on my own to parts of central and northern China where I’d never visited before. In the northern seaside town of Qingdao, I came across a cobblestone plaza more filled than usual with elaborately dressed Chinese.  Primed by Mona’s descriptions of her wedding picture adventures, I realized that what I was viewing were a whole series of wedding photo shoots. June is a prime wedding month in China, just as in the U.S.  I counted eighteen different couples having their wedding pictures taken. The weather was windy and blustery—gowns and photo accessories were hard to keep steady. A dozen of the brides were wearing western-style dresses in white, while others had flowing formals in red, considered a lucky color in China. For one set of pictures, an entire wedding party was assembled, including five or six young girls in frilly white dresses. 

Over the course of this China visit, I noticed more and more young girls dressed in frills and bows, and not always in wedding groups. I’d see them on public busses, on trains and subways, in public parks. All were with at least one parent or grandparent. Often, a parkland family group would be taking selfies, the grandparents somewhat subdued in both manner and dress, the dads fairly casual, the moms dressier, anchored with the latest shoe fashions, the daughters often in white or pastel lacy dresses not much less formal than bridal finery. I crossed my fingers that the attention these girls were getting was a sign that the traditional stigma of having a daughter in China was lessening. None of the girls I saw looked neglected or abused. Many were far from docile. Most seemed valued family members, confident without being arrogant.

A few times, I saw girls and young women in less frilly outfits—on one park walk, the mom and dad in front of me strolled along at a normal pace, while their two daughters in trainers, shorts and tank tops raced ahead running sprints. At another public square, I noticed a young woman in jeans and a t-shirt with an English-language slogan: “Women are the Future,” it proclaimed.

My re-entry into the U.S. was through our 49th state, Alaska, where few women are shrinking violets. I saw the kennels run by the family of Susan Butcher, who’d earlier won the  long-distance Iditerod sled dog race four times.  I got to meet her elder daughter, now actively involved in training new generations of sled dogs for new challenges. Perhaps China’s daughters, and America’s, will one day soon be ready to take their places in a rapidly changing world that needs and welcomes their skills.   


Summer!      —by Jinny Batterson

Our calendar and our weather sometimes seem out of sync these days. Spring-like days occur during what is officially labeled “winter.” Winter resurges sometimes during officially calendared “spring.” Inklings of summer can pop up at almost any time of year.  Regardless, to me there seems something slightly magical about the official start to summer—the summer solstice, which this year falls in the northern hemisphere on Wednesday, June 21. Where I now live in central North Carolina, the sunrise-to-sunset interval today is over 14 1/2 hours, with an additional several hours of pre-sunrise and post-sunset reflected light. 

When I was a child, summer included my longest vacation from school. School summer vacation overlapped with part of solar-calendar-designated summer, the period between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox around September 21.  Childhood summers were mostly carefree times then. They were times for going barefoot, toughening the soles of my feet so that after a few weeks I could show off for my friends by walking across all but the hottest, roughest surfaces without flinching. I could catch fireflies in jars and marvel at the way they blinked on and off. I found hideouts in the deepest glades of nearby woods and held picnics—sometimes with fake food and imaginary friends, at other times with filched cookies and Kool-aid plus real friends. Once, when I was invited to a friend’s country house for a sleepover, we took off our shoes and socks and spent part of an afternoon wading in a cool shallow stream, stirring up the bottom mud, then standing very still until the water cleared and small fish started nibbling at our toes. 

On hot, sultry August days, I could stretch out on a straw rug in front of a circulating floor fan in my grandmother’s slightly dimmed, cool living room and lose myself in a good book. At dusk, our family would gather on the front stoop, waiting for the ice cream truck to come down our street. I’d rush to be the first to reach the Good Humor man, holding out my dime for a creamsicle. Of course, there were challenges, too—I was very slow learning most outdoor skills, from riding a bicycle to swimming without panic in deeper water. In those days before chemical sunscreens, my fair skin would blister and peel if left exposed, so on beach excursions I was faced with the unpleasant choice of either covering up from head to foot or getting a painful sunburn. However, summer’s discomforts were vastly outweighed by the glories of its time-bending freedoms. 

Later, when as an adult I had a full-time job and was helping raise our children, summer vacations were never long enough. We’d still somehow manage to escape to our rustic cabin in the woods beside a Vermont lake for at least a couple of weeks. The cabin had running water, gravity fed from a tank up the hill. It had several wall-mounted kerosene lamps, a gas refrigerator and gas stove with an oven, but no phone and no electricity. If we timed our arrival right, we’d catch the height of wild blueberry season. Even us summer people knew of favorite, out-of-the-way spots where the bushes grew thick and the berries grew sweet. On other warm afternoons, I’d venture out onto the lake in an inflatable dinghy while the rest of the crew swam. One morning,  a wizened neighbor took me fishing. He helped me bait hooks, then gutted enough of our sunfish catch to make a good lunch. I don’t think we bothered with a clock at the cabin—times were fluid, punctuated by meals, excursions, and darkness.

Changes in technology and changes in society have greatly diminished the freedom I used to associate with summer. Lengthy stretches of free time are rare, either for our over-scheduled children, for working-age adults with little or no paid vacation, or even for many retirees who’ve succumbed to the blandishments of over-scheduled, over-priced organized tours and activities. Have we traded up to a supposedly richer existence, only to be impoverished by never having or taking time to laze, to just hang out, to enjoy our natural surroundings, to dream? 

I’m among a lucky few who who have the option to indulge in unscheduled time fairly often and who recognize its importance. As I post this, I’m partway through this year’s loosely timed adventures. If you do not have the same opportunities, please try to figure out a way to create a time window for yourself, however short, when no tasks or obligations intrude.  Take a short walk on an area greenway or trail; breathe a few deep, cleansing breaths of fresh air. Summer can become a magical time again, if we let it.        

Of Pegs and Holes, of Circles, Squares and Other Shapes

Of Pegs and Holes, of Circles, Squares and Other Shapes     —by Jinny Batterson

Geometry has never been my strong suit.  Shapes don’t register with me as intensely as words or colors or numbers or images. Formulas for calculating areas and proofs of geometric theorems quickly fade from my memory as soon as I’m no longer required to regurgitate them on tests. Still, I do notice squares and circles, which tend to dominate our man-made and natural landscapes, respectively. 

Since childhood, I’ve been intrigued by expressions about “square pegs in round holes.”  A real-life square/round anomaly from the U.S. space program was recreated in the film “Apollo 13.”  (  A potentially lethal problem developed with the space module’s air filtration system, and ground-based engineers had to quickly come up with a way to retrofit it by linking a square peg and a round hole. Though I lack the technical skills of the NASA engineers who helped bring Apollo 13 safely back to earth, my spacial imagination sometimes plays through various scenarios of adapting pegs and/or holes so there are ways to get the two together.

Squares fit into a more general category of “polygon,”  “a plane figure with at least three straight sides and angles, and typically five or more.”  So my rarely-satisfied-with-either-or-solutions brain starts adding more and more sides to an initial square, trying to imagine whether a very large number of sides can approximate a circle. As long as there are discrete angles, a requirement for a polygon, the fit is not perfect, but it comes closer and closer. 

My most vivid real-life experience of varying shapes came during a glorious summer of working at Expo 67, a world’s fair held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada from late April through late October of 1967. (A 50th anniversary retrospective of the fair and impressions of people who visited it in our youth will be held in Montreal this summer.) Although some exhibition halls were based on four-sided structures, others had many different shapes, among them the nearly spherical geodesic dome that housed the U.S. pavilion. It was designed by architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller, with a surface of interlocking triangles, hundreds of them. Fuller discovered that if a nearly spherical structure was created from triangles, it would have unparalleled strength. It could also “do more with less.” Such a sphere encloses the largest volume of interior space with the least amount of surface area, thus saving on materials and cost. Nearly 300,000 geodesic structures have been built worldwide, in widely varying locations and climates.

Nature rarely builds in squares. The only example that comes readily to mind is salt crystals, which usually require a microscope to validate their squareness. Certain rare rushes also seem to be endowed with square stems, but most of what we observe in the natural world tends to roundness.  While noodling around for roundness examples, I did an online search for “Why are tree trunks round?” (originally posed by the parent of a 4-year-old) and found this naturalist’s response:

“Living things adapt to the environment around them, or at least they do if they wish to go on being living things.

Trees tend to spend a lot of time outside and so they adapt to their surroundings.

A round or tubular shape allows them to resist the force of the wind better than the flat surface of a square or rectangle would.

Not only does its round shape help resist the wind, but it also is a very strong shape that helps support a lot of branches.

And it’s a matter of protection. With the exception of beavers and maybe woodpeckers or some bugs, it’s hard for most animals to get a good bite on a round shape. There aren’t any corners to get a start on.”  (…trees-round/82917948/)

So please, take an occasional break from your squarish computer or smart-phone screen and instead take a look at your surroundings, maybe even venture outside—it can help make you a better rounded human. 

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.     

Book Review: The Crane Dance by William R. Finger

Book Review: The Crane Dance: Taking Flight in Midlife, by William R. Finger

(JourneyCake Spirit: Raleigh, NC, 2016)   

The Crane Dance opens like a travel narrative, with only a few hints of the book’s main themes. The major portion of the text is bookended by sketches from the author’s two travels in India: the first a year-long assignment as a young Peace Corps volunteer in 1969-1970, the second a brief add-on to a 2003 business trip to revisit his former Peace Corps host family—a Moslem widow, her now-grown sons, plus her non-Moslem best friend. In between come thirty-plus years of Bill’s learning to be an adult, of coping with and eventually coming to embrace the particular temperament he has been endowed with, of gaining some peace about the places and times he’s lived through.

Bill Finger came of age at the height of U.S. involvement in Vietnam’s civil war. After his Peace Corps assignment, he requested and received conscientious objector status to avoid military service. Although the exemption was consistent with his evolving religious and ethical beliefs, it left a lingering sense of guilt at being spared the fate of other young men scarred or killed after being drafted into the military. Another source of guilt was having spent many of his early years as a white child in 1950’s Jackson, Mississippi, with its predominantly racist culture.

About the time of his 40th birthday, Bill begins to attend a men’s support group with other fathers of young children. The group becomes a lifeline when, a year later, he suddenly loses his job. Bill and his wife had promised each other to be hands-on, egalitarian parents, and adapted their work schedules over time so that both could be actively involved in nurturing their two children. This meant, among other things, that both accepted lower incomes in exchange for flexible schedules, so that the loss of either’s income would pose economic challenges. 

For the next dozen years or so, Bill cobbles together assignments and jobs to help support the family financially, while also working with men’s groups, with therapists, with anti-depressant medications, with church groups, and with meditation to first examine and later to cope with patterns of recurrent, low-grade depression. Bill has known vaguely since childhood that the uncle he is named after, an intellectually brilliant engineer, was institutionalized with severe depression for much of his adult life. As Bill journeys through less crippling depressive intervals, he learns that his mother suffered a severe bout of postpartum depression after the birth of her youngest child. Perhaps, he surmises, his condition has a partial genetic component.

Bill also experiments with dance therapy. At a celebration when he has progressed a good bit in understanding and coping with his depressive episodes, he and his family host a community initiation performance put on by eight men who’ve spent a semester together exploring movement as a form of artistic expression. Bill’s part in the ceremony includes the crane dance that gives the book its title. He moves his long, skinny arms—so useful in dunking a basketball or lobbing a tennis shot, but often awkward otherwise—as if in flight, celebrating his survival. He’s like the whooping crane, whose numbers plummeted to near-extinction, but then rebounded. “The crane survived,” Bill intones, “and so did I.” 

The book is well written. Parts of it are compelling. However, I found the lengthy descriptions of Bill’s various efforts toward acknowledging and gradually reframing his depressive tendencies, well, depressing. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been more rewarding for me to read a “standard” life journey book—hero starts out, hero encounters challenge, hero finds mentor, hero overcomes challenge, hero is celebrated by his peers—end of story. But perhaps Bill’s story is truer to reality. In our instant-everything culture, we may need reminders that not all problems have quick or evident solutions and that many of our efforts will not fully succeed. 

I came to know Bill after the period he describes in this mostly midlife memoir. What I know of his later life has not been without trauma and challenge. However, his earlier struggles seem to have imparted a hardiness and resilience I can sometimes envy. I’d recommend The Crane Dance to anyone at or past midlife, especially those who struggle with depression or live with someone who does. My only caveat—you may want to skim over an intermediate chapter or two.