A little distance

More than a hundred years ago a French artist named Georges Seurat developed a technique of painting called “pointillism.” Pointillism is a style of painting in which the paint is not actually mixed on the canvas but is applied in small dots of different colors. A similar principle is used by television screens and digital photography. If you look closely at a tv screen or if you enlarge a digital photo enough you will see individual “pixels” or square of color. The picture at close scrutiny doesn’t look like much. You can’t really see the image. You see only individual dots of color.It is only when you back up and look at the whole image that the painting, television screen or digital image makes sense. From a distance the individual spots of paint can’t be distinguished and the viewer’s eye blends the colors together. Distance allows you to see what the artist or photographer intended.

One of the most impressive images of our modern age is the picture of the earth from space. Instead of the limited view of our planet visible from the spot we’re standing on, we see the whole from space. The earth has been called a big blue marble since we first got a glimpse of our home from space more than a half century ago. Some satellites have taken pictures of the earth over many years. This long term, time-lapse photography provides records of amazing changes in our planet. Satellite images can see changes in vegetation and annual snow cover. If we look at the earth from space, we see glaciers disappearing and polar ice caps shrinking. We can see the effects of nutrients running into streams and rivers. The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is quite obvious.

The discussion of global warming and climate change is a little like pointillism. If we look only at the weather in a very small area or for only one or two seasons, we really can’t see the picture. On the Northern Plains in some years we have gone from the coldest summer on record to the warmest winter. We have areas with too much rain and places a few miles away with too little. Many of us can remember colder winters and hotter summers, worse droughts and hundred year floods. It is hard to understand what is going on if we look at the picture too closely either in space or time. It is only when we back up and look at the earth as a whole, from a distance and over a longer period of time can we see what is happening.

It is not easy to see what the effects of our individual actions have on the world around us. If we throw away a single Styrofoam cup it doesn’t create too big an issue. Multiply that act by several million and it is a problem that will be around for a long time. Recycling a single aluminum can or newspaper seems like a small thing. Saving a few gallons of gasoline doesn’t keep a lot of greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. If millions of people make the same smalls gesture, however, the effect is significant.

It is important to not look at the picture too closely. From close up one can only see the individual little dots. Step back and look at the big picture.

© 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains


The prophet Micah and fishing

My friends and I were discussing the book of Micah in a recent Bible study. Micah was a Judean prophet of the 8th century BC. Micah warned of the destruction of Jerusalem and accused the leaders of deceit, thievery, and neglect of the poor. The well know verse, Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Our lesson included a discussion of how we advocate for the poor by seeking justice in our present time.

In 2013 a group of us went to Haiti. Haiti is on the west end of the island of Hispaniola, the landing-place of Christopher Columbus in 1492, Often the first statistic cited about the country is that it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That is true.

That trip and the two I have taken since, have changed how I understand the prophet Micah and the Bible’s teachings about wealth and our responsibility to the rest of God’s creation. Those trips also changed my first response when asked about Haiti and it’s people.

Coming home from a mission trip is complex. On one hand it is wonderful to be back with my family, to be able to sleep in my own bed, to cook in my own kitchen and to turn on the faucet and know it is safe to drink the water that comes out. It is easy to say, “I am so blessed. I have seen what poverty is and I am grateful for the many blessings I have.” Those are sincere and real feelings. It’s not long, however, until the daily struggles to pay bills, to get on top of my to-do list, and my consumer lifestyle take over and my gratitude disappears.

The other emotion which overwhelms many short-term mission participants is one of guilt that we have so much and our friends in “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” have so little. A sense of ineffectiveness and despair often overwhelms us as we can’t see how our meager efforts can make a difference.

Our recent Bible study challenged us and asked what we are doing to seek justice for the poor in our community, our nation and our world.

Often the proverb (origin unknown) “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” is used to advocate against simply giving the poor a handout and instead giving the “least of these” the skills they need to help themselves. While on the surface this seems like common sense, helping the poor is not this simple.

Feeding someone who is starving is sometimes the right thing to do. As the pastor of the church we work with in Haiti has said, “An empty stomach has no ears.” Sometimes our neighbors just need food, a blanket, and clean water to drink.

The second part of the proverb is simplistic and unintentionally condescending. It assumes the poor do not know how to fish. My experience is that the poor often know how to do many things. They know how to fish, to grow things on plots of ground we wouldn’t think of planting and to survive in places I could not, even with all my “superior” knowledge. The poor are not poor because they know nothing.

The proverb’s assumption that the poor don’t fish because they don’t know how ignores the reality that they may not have access to the tools needed to fish. Do they have a boat or a fishing pole, or a net? Are there actually fish to catch or has the sea’s bounty been over-fished by huge trawlers belonging to foreign corporations exploiting the sea’s resources to supply northerners’ grocery stores? Are there regulations which require licenses and fees for fishing? Is the shore accessible to small boats? Do the poor have fuel to cook the fish once caught? Eating fish alone will not sustain anyone. Do people have access to foods containing adequate vitamins and fats? Do they have clean water?

In order to help the poor we need to learn to be humble and to listen. What do our friends need? What do they want? What tools do they have and what are they missing? How are we standing in their way? Which of our country’s trade policies are like the unfair transactions Micah accused the powerful of Jerusalem of making with the poor and needy? How does our consumerism impact the lives of others in the world? Does the manufacture of the goods we buy provide fair living wages for those who make them? Are the foods we eat grown and harvested by people who themselves have enough to eat?

Do we need that new gadget, expensive pair of shoes, latest fashion? Are our discarded goods dumped on the shores of another country, overwhelming their ability to recycle and reuse them? Is giving away what we don’t need charity or a guilt-free method of disposal?

These are hard questions. I don’t believe that there are easy or painless ways to help the world’s poor. According to the prophet Micah and to the gospel that is the basis of Christian teaching, even if it is difficult, failing to advocate for those without enough is not an option.

A revolutionary tweet

At a North Dakota Farmers Union convention in the 1970s, a group of women submitted a resolution for support of the Equal Rights Amendment to the members. A heated, emotional discussion ended in the defeat of the resolution. Arguments against the proposed amendment to the US Constitution included the demise of the traditional American family, putting housewives at a disadvantage, opening up the possibility of drafting women into the military and loss of special workplace protections for women.

The next year, we submitted the same resolution, but instead of referring to the “Equal Rights Amendment” we used the text of the actual amendment:

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The resolution passed with no discussion and no dissenting votes.

Many opponents of “Obamacare” when asked if they approve of the provisions of the “Affordable Care Act” answer favorably in spite of the fact that they are the same thing. In the ongoing healthcare debate, socialized medicine and a single payer option is often demonized by senior citizens who fight any suggestion that Medicare be cut back.

Our discussion of issues is often governed by our emotions and the sound bites fed to us by one side or another. The emotional responses to the “Equal Rights Amendment” and “Obamacare” were different than the responses to the actual words and provisions.

On the Fourth of July, National Public Radio (NPR) followed its 29 year tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence aloud on Morning Edition. In addition to the reading, the staff published the entire Declaration in a series of posts to the NPR Twitter account. The response to these tweets was disturbing.

If NPR had just posted “Three cheers for the Declaration of Independence” no one would have objected. The response would have been an emotional and patriotic affirmation of all that is American. Instead, many did not recognize the words of one of our most valued documents and thought it was NPR advocating a revolution against our present government. Some thought the references to King George III were references to President Trump. Others accused NPR of tweeting liberal propaganda and having a “Hollywood elitist” agenda.

It is easy to understand how someone might have picked up in the middle of the lengthy series of tweets and missed the more familiar lines of the Declaration. It is obvious that many of those who accused NPR of posting from a “liberal bias” slept through American history class and did not recognize any part of the document. What is more disturbing is that so many people didn’t bother to do any critical thinking before responding. Why would NPR suggest that the government be overthrown? Part of their funding comes from that very government. What is the context of the tweets? Who is writing them? Is the language contemporary English?

A current trend in education strongly emphasizes the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The goal is to enable students to find good jobs in the modern world.  That is a commendable goal, but is an excessive STEM focus shortchanging other disciplines that can teach students how to think for themselves, to be creative and to make good decisions?  In many schools, funds are being cut for history, language, culture, philosophy, ethics, writing, art and music.  To be good workers and good citizens, we need more than just the technical skills for our jobs.  We need to be able to think critically, to make informed value judgments in our everyday work and in political questions.

How can we be good citizens if we don’t even recognize the words of the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution? Are we more likely to support politicians who say the right things, but then, once elected, enact legislation that ignores their campaign promises and harms the common good? Do we know how to check the accuracy of statements made by those we agree with as well as those we disagree with?

The Declaration of Independence is a revolutionary document. Maybe reading it in tweetable segments helps us realize what a courageous and radical thing we celebrate on the Fourth of July…unless of course you mistakenly think it is “liberal propaganda” because it comes from NPR.

© 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Roundup in the middle of the night

It had been a long day. I was really tired. I thought I would fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Unfortunately, my allergies hit me with full force and I was sneezing every thirty seconds. My eyes itched and my nose dripped. I had a hard time getting a full breath of air. To make matters worse, I searched through every pocket, drawer and bottle. I discovered that there wasn’t a single dosage of anti-histamine in my house. All I found was a bottle of decongestants in the medicine cabinet. I know from experience that even a small dosage of decongestants turns me into an insomniac, but I reasoned that breathing was necessary for sleep too. I swallowed the pills and sure enough, my drippy nose cleared up.

I crawled into bed and pulled up the quilt. I tossed and turned. I tried sleeping on one side and then the other. I turned the radio on to some quiet music. After a couple of hours of enviously listening to my husband sleeping soundly, I thought about waking him to tell him I couldn’t sleep. I reconsidered and tried a different spot in the bed. The cat sleeping on my feet got up and left the room.

At about 4:30 am, a single cow began bellowing. The windows were open and it sounded like she was right outside. The barn isn’t far from the house, but when the cows are where they are supposed to be, I can’t hear them quite that clearly. I thought maybe her calf wasn’t paying attention and was off with his calf buddies. I tried to ignore her. The cow continued complaining and seemed to becoming more agitated.

At this point it was with a sense of justification that I nudged Terry and said, “Why is that cow bellowing?” He sleepily muttered, “Well, it’s only one,” and almost immediately, the lone late night lament was joined by an entire chorus of mooing. We both got out of bed and pulled on our jeans. (I’ve found that herding cows in your nightgown is not a good idea.)

The big, bright flashlight’s batteries were just about dead. The only other lights we could find were a tiny pocket flashlight and a feeble camping lantern. Herding cows through the trees at night is treacherous even with good light, but we’ve learned to work with what we have. Experience has taught us that ignoring cows on the outside of the fence in the night can lead to a day-long search for them by morning.

The escapees from the fence, we discovered, were two cows and their calves noisily reconsidering their decision to leave the herd. They were standing outside the electric fence mooing while the rest of the herd stood jealously and loudly complaining on the inside.

The tangled remains of an old barbed wire fence and fallen branches of trees tried to trip me, scratching my legs through my jeans.  A fence wire, rebounding from the hoof of one of the cows as she climbed over it, snapped my left hand. My fingers hurt. The decongestants had worn off and my nose resumed dripping. My eyes itched. I wished I were back in bed, knowing I’d need to be getting up in a couple of hours. I was tired and grumpy. After a half hour of herding and a hike around the shelter belt, everyone was safely back where they belonged. I closed the gate behind the errant cows and stomped off toward the house.

Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by silence. There were no cow noises. The herd had murmured a greeting to the wayward group and all had gone to bed. No trucks rumbled down the highway a couple of miles away. No birds sang. No crickets or frogs chirped. The ducks and geese had ceased their noisy commentary on cows that don’t stay where they belong and had gone back in the barn. They tucked their heads under their wings for a few more winks. The wind had stopped blowing and all was still.

I stopped and looked up.

There above me was the Milky Way, the Big Dipper and the North Star. The sky glowed with the light of millions of galaxies, constellations, and solar systems. All around me and across the sky there were sparkling stars. Suddenly my frustrations seemed insignificant.

How often we stumble along, viewing our world with the illumination of a tiny flashlight. Our burdens seem huge when viewed in relation to the narrow field of vision allowed by our meager light. Standing in silence under the star-filled dome of a prairie night, I realized that the frustrations I had been experiencing were insignificant and just part of life. I felt peace.

Nothing changed but my perspective. My nose was still running and my eyes still itched. My fingers hurt. I was even more tired. I stood there in the starlight for a while, listening to the quiet.

I crawled into bed next to my already snoring spouse and fell asleep.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Beautiful for spacious skies

When I was a child, our parents would load my sisters and me into the back seat of our maroon, 1945 Hudson sedan and drive to Langdon to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. The fireworks displays in those days were a big deal, no little bursts of light from tiny bottle rockets. Huge fountains of phosphorescent color lit the night sky. The grand finale was usually a huge flag of sparkling red, white, and blue.

Independence Day sometimes meant family reunions, picnics, or one of our rare trips to a lake. We got a fresh supply of caps for our caps guns, and we would be allowed to light sparklers. From a child’s point of view, the Fourth of July was a big event.

I don’t get as excited about fireworks anymore. They don’t compare to the ones I remember. Cap guns and sparklers don’t appeal to the adult who will inevitably be called on for first aid. Parades and picnics aren’t as common, as long or as interesting as they once were.

Most nations have a holiday on which their citizens express their national pride. Canadians celebrate Canada Day. Mexicans celebrate their Independence Day in September. Norwegians celebrate the Syttende Mai to commemorate the signing of the Norwegian constitution. Every nation’s citizens celebrate their national pride.

If you polled Americans along any parade route in the US about why they are celebrating, the responses might include “the land of opportunity,” “freedom,” “liberty,” “equality.” We often call our country “the greatest” on earth. Images of the Liberty Bell, the flag, and the Statue of Liberty are synonymous with our pride.

Our country, in reality, is a country of contradictions.

On one hand we boast of our religious freedom, but religious discrimination continues. There are calls to restrict visits and immigration of people from predominantly Muslim countries. Violence is perpetrated against Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and others. We seem to want the freedom to practice religion unfettered…as long as it’s ours.

We proudly point to the examples of people who have risen from poverty to positions of power and wealth, but the economic disparity between the rich and the poor has increased beyond historic proportions.

We talk of equality, but white supremacist organizations are resurfacing and are once again in the news. Studies show that African Americans have poorer health care, worse education, higher rates of incarceration, and are much more likely to be profiled by law enforcement than white Americans. Native Americans, according to researchers on the subject, have the worst health care of anyone.

Many of us can quote the poetry engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Most of us are descendants of immigrants, yet we have not found a solution which makes our current immigration system more humane and fairer. Instead we debate building higher, longer walls to keep others out.

We pride ourselves on our high moral standards. We see ourselves as setting the standard for world citizenship. Yet, we continue to debate the legality of torture in spite of its proven ineffectiveness. We brag about being peace makers, but refuse to sign nuclear proliferation treaties and bans on the use of mines and cluster bombs. Our leaders propose adding to our military spending even though our budget for war is already twice that of any other nation.

Life is full of contradictions. We are patriotic, proud Americans, but we cynically call politicians “crooks”. We boast of our democratic system, but sneer at the work of government. A wise friend of mine, who was a political scientist, said that those elected to government will only be as moral and ethical as the people who elect them. He also reminded us that the absence of government is not freedom. It is anarchy.

Edward R. Murrow, one of the greatest journalists of the Twentieth Century, once said, “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.” Criticism is less dangerous than cynicism and complacency.

Democracy only works if citizens are actively involved. It takes hard work to make sure we live up to what we say our country stands for. It takes more than raising a flag on a flagpole and lighting fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains


I have never had a first class ticket on an airplane. I’m not a member of the elite flying club that has their own lounge in the airport. I’ve never had a valet park my car nor can I buy a luxury box seat at a ball game. I can’t afford even balcony tickets at a big name concert.

Once, a long time ago, however, I was asked to be a presenter for a large conference. I was the token rural “expert.” We met in a five star hotel in Hawaii. The other presenters were high priced lawyers. They were nice people. They were used to traveling in a different lane from where I spend my time. It was not unusual for the group of us to pull rank and pass to the front of the line at restaurants, in tourist venues and registration lines. Perhaps because this was a one-time experience for me, I found passing people patiently waiting their turn extremely uncomfortable. It didn’t bother my wealthy lawyer friends in the least. They felt they had earned a “first in line” status. I’m not sure how they had earned it. I think it unlikely that they actually worked harder or for more hours than most of the other people in the line. My fellow presenters, like most people who have achieved status, wealth and power, simply felt entitled to the front of the line, a bigger portion of the pie, a place in the fast lane.

We hear a lot of discussion about government spending on “entitlements.” The people accused of feeling entitled are, however, not wealthy lawyers, financial advisors, hedge fund managers, or corporate executive officers. The entitlements under discussion are those programs which benefit the poor, the disabled and the elderly. They include disability payments, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, heating assistance, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and food stamps (SNAP). The recipients of these programs are often described as drug addicted, lazy, stupid, greedy, and undeserving; people who are looking to live off the hard work of others. We resent those beneath us on the economic ladder who we think haven’t earned the help they are given.

The rich and powerful are not all greedy and self serving. Everyone can tell a story of someone who has given their wealth away to the benefit of others. On the other hand we probably know someone who uses assistance programs in spite of being able bodied yet unwilling to work. Studies again and again, however, show that the poor are more generous than are those who are much wealthier. The poor, in general, give away a higher percentage of what they have than do the rich. People driving BMWs are more likely to ignore pedestrians in the crosswalk and to feel like the rules do not apply to them. Research indicated that the majority of those receiving aid are not cheating the system and really do need help at least for a time.

John Steinbeck said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”  We think that someday we will be ushered to the head of the line.  We want to believe that the people responsible for our not getting there are those behind us in line, not those pulling up to the front and having someone else park their car. We would rather fantasize about someday being one of the privileged few than recognize that we really are part of the nation’s struggling masses. We are told if we work hard we too can be entitled to the perks of being rich and famous. Five individuals now control more of our country’s wealth than half of the rest of us. The wealthiest one percent of the world now has more wealth than the other 99 percent of us. Pew Trust research indicates that “Seventy percent of children raised in the bottom fifth of the income distribution will remain below the middle of the income ladder as adults.” According to Pew researchers, “This stickiness challenges the notion that the United States promotes equality of opportunity.” Most of us are more likely, at some point in our lives, to find ourselves in need of assistance than we are to become a member of the top one percent.

What does it mean to feel entitled? Is it an entitlement to expect not to have to live in poverty after a lifetime of working hard and paying your Social Security taxes? Is it feeling entitled to expect that you should have enough to eat no matter how little you get paid for your work? Is it a sense of entitlement to expect to be able to go to the doctor when you are sick without putting your family in inescapable debt? We been convinced that “entitlements” are those programs which care for the poor, children, the elderly, unemployed and disabled. We have bought the idea that it is the poor who are keeping us in our place near the end of the line. Those of us in the economic middle of the line are kept busy defending our position from those behind us.

We are so busy looking back us that we don’t notice those who have used wealth and power to by-pass the line altogether.
Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Was I going up the stairs or down?

Everyone has heard the jokes making fun of ourselves as we age and lose our ability to remember things. Most of us can think of times when we couldn’t remember whether we were going up the stairs or down. We have put things away for safekeeping only to forget where that safe place was.

Scientists at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, in Brooklyn, New York  found a drug that makes rats forget what they’ve learned. (One wonders why they don’t just let the rats get old and forget things on their own.) Researchers point to the positive potential of their discovery. If the drug affects human brains similarly, it could be used to treat addictive behaviors or, perhaps, to lessen the pain of traumatic experiences. The research might help neurologists understand why the brain erases memories on its own. It could lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Research into the causes and potential treatments for dementia always catches my attention. There is a history of Alzheimer’s disease in my family. I watched memory,  intellect, reason, personality and all normal functioning slowly disappear from several people I loved. Dementia kills people gradually. They vanish little by little, day by day. Having your parent or spouse look at you without recognition never ceases to hurt.

There also could be negative uses of these drug discoveries. Witnesses to crimes could be injected with the drug to erase what they remembered seeing.  Whistleblowers could be made to forget the illegal activities of their bosses. The drug could even be used to induce dementia. Why should we believe that this discovery will not be misused?

All scientific discoveries have the potential for good and for evil use.  The ability to split atoms has been used to generate nuclear energy, but also to build atomic bombs. Understanding how germs spread and multiply has led to cures for disease. The same knowledge is used to wage germ warfare. Rocket science carries us into space and propels cluster bombs here on earth.

The study of genetics has created the potential to predict, diagnose and treat many kinds of disease. Genetic analysis also could be used to exclude people from affordable health insurance because they carry potentially disease-causing genes.

Drug therapies can cure disease, ease pain, and extend life. Drugs also cause unintended side effects sometimes worse than the disease being treated. Painkillers can be addictive. Drugs can be overused and become ineffective.

Computers changed how we communicate. Information is available faster and to a larger audience. Research can be done anywhere, anytime and on any number of topics. Computers also can be used for identity fraud, to expose children to pornography and to spread misinformation, rumors and lies.

We can never anticipate all the consequences, positive or negative, of any scientific discovery or technological development. However, ethical discussions should take place before new discoveries are put into use. Some genies are very hard to put back in the bottle.

Perhaps researchers can find a drug to eliminate hate, greed, pride and lust for power.  I wonder what the downside of that would be?

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains