Picking on the poor

For many years we had an old gray horse named “Wonder”. She was sweet and lovable. She lived to herd cows. As she got older, a pleasure ride meant a constant struggle to keep her moving away from the barn. She plodded along and acted like the old horse she was. Yet, if there were cows to herd, her manner dropped ten years, and she would work for hours.

Horses are interesting animals. Some horses are the leaders. Some of them kick and bite to get the rest to fall in line. Others lead quietly, but firmly. Some of the quiet leaders have a designated sergeant who does the actual biting and kicking, taking subtle cues from the leader. Some horses are on the very bottom of the pecking order. They eat last. They drink last. The boss horses often pick on them.

Wonder was the “least of these” of our horse herd. She was always the one to be nipped and kicked. She ate last. She drank last. And after the lead horse and the “sergeant” horse had taken their drinks, sometimes the sergeant would even tip the water buckets over, making sure Wonder went without.

Chickens, too, have a pecking order. The smallest, weakest hen often  gets her feathers pulled out by her higher-ranking sisters.   Among cows, the daughters of “boss” cows inherit their position in the herd.

Is it tempting for us to behave in the same way?

We look up to those who have wealth and power. We assign privilege to wealthy people, even to those who inherited it from their parents and grandparents. We have an ongoing debate about the disparity of wealth in our society and whether the rich deserve what they have, and whether the poor, using the same logic, deserve their place in line. The current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, recently said he believes people who stay poor have “the wrong mindset”.  Facebook posts accuse poor people of being drug addicted, tattooed, smoking, alcoholic cheats, who get expensive manicures, the latest cell phones and generally abuse the welfare system. The comments sections for articles about the plight of the poor often are filled with anger and hate.  The commenters seem to be those who live close to poverty themselves or are perhaps those who of average means but still hope to be wealthy and privileged someday. Yet, we all know someone who has lost everything due to ill health, mental illness, divorce, death of a spouse, natural disasters, disability or age. Statistics show that the majority of us live one or two paychecks from poverty.

Undernourished mothers are more likely to have babies with low birth weight. Children who do not have enough to eat do poorly in school and are more likely to miss school. They are sick more often. They are, paradoxically, at greater risk of obesity. Their poor education, illnesses and lack of physical fitness cost our country’s economy in the long run. Some 6.4 million older Americans live at or below the federal poverty level. Poor nutrition among the elderly leads to loss of independence, increased hospital costs, and long-term institutionalization.

The President’s latest budget proposals cut the safety-net programs  for the poorest of us, but increase military spending and cut taxes for the wealthiest taxpayers.

We are not chickens, cows or horses. We do not need to move up in line by picking on the most vulnerable among us.

Let our Senators and Representatives know that we expect a budget that protects the safety net for the poor.

If you want to know more about how politics and legislation affect the poor and what you can do to help, see the Bread for the World web site at www.bread.org.

The parable of new paint

It all started when I hung a different painting in the downstairs bathroom. It was a lovely Korean landscape that I inherited from my mother-in-law’s house. The picture is an original oil painting of green fields and blue skies. I really like the piece of art, but it made it clear that the colors in the bathroom needed to change. It was time anyway, the walls needed some fresh paint.

The local hardware store had a paint sale. It was such a great sale that I decided to buy paint, not only for the downstairs bathroom, but for the living room and sun room as well. Those rooms open into each other and into the kitchen. The kitchen was repainted a while ago and the other two rooms really cried out for their turn to be spruced up.

In spite of the nice weather for gardening, I had somehow not managed to get to the painting until just a couple of weeks ago. First I painted window trim, doorways and baseboards. Windows really have a lot of pieces and angles and usually need more than one coat of paint. That took a while.

Of course, if one is going to paint walls and ceilings, one must move all the furniture, take down all the artwork and photos, pull all the nails, fill the holes and cover the floors.  I moved all the furniture from the sun room to the living room. I vacuumed all the spider webs from the corners. I taped off things I didn’t want painted. The actual painting didn’t take long. It would have taken less time, except   I got green paint on the part that was supposed to be off white and then I got off white on the parts that were supposed to be green. How is it that a drop of paint from your brush can always find the two square inches of floor missed by the drop cloth? What were we thinking when we put such rough texturing on the ceiling?

I had paint in my hair, on my clothes, on my face and arms.

As I was putting the furniture back after pulling off all the masking tape and scrubbing the floor, I realized there was a little dusting and vacuuming required. If one has gone to all the trouble to paint and clean, why put everything back in the same place. I rearranged the furniture.

When that was done, I started over in the living room which also houses Terry’s huge, heavy antique roll top desk. Not only is the desk heavy, it is stacked with papers and books along with his computer. The two of us managed to move it 10 inches away from the wall before we started thinking about how hard it was going to be to move it back. We carried out over-filled file drawers, the file cabinet and a few boxes of odds and ends. Again, sand the window frame, prime, paint. Tape the edges, cover the floor and paint the edges. Paint. Repaint. Clean up drips. Remove tape. Move furniture. Clean the floor.  Rearrange the furniture. I’m not even going to talk about the number of times I’ve cleaned the brushes and rollers.

It all looks lovely, fresh and new, except now the age of the paint on the staircase is really noticeable. The door trim in the utility room needs to be repainted. A couple of windows need to be replaced. The front door needs painting. The upstairs bathroom needs the walls scrubbed at the very least. New towels, shower curtain and rugs would be nice.

This is all because of a new piece of art and a great paint sale.

Painting could be a metaphor for many things. Fresh paint brings with it a whole slew of unintended consequences. How often we change one thing and our action precipitates an avalanche of other changes. Sometimes those consequences are good and sometimes not. Painting caused us some marital stress because I made my husband clean off his desk. No doubt something of importance will have been thrown in the process, but other things have been found and we have uncluttered a little at the same time.

Sometimes our actions, though well-intentioned, have unintended negative impacts on others. Just as many laws are written in an attempt to solve a problem or protect the interests of our society’s most vulnerable, often those rules may make life difficult for someone else. We need to ask, “And then what?” and listen for the answers.

My mother warned about the consequences of telling lies. A little green paint on the white wall causes one to paint that spot over. If one isn’t careful repainting, a little white gets on the green which requires another clean up. One lie usually requires another to cover it which creates a new problem which needs hiding. It is much easier to plan ahead and avoid the mistake or the lie in the first place.

I will have to leave the staircase and the bathrooms for another day. I need to wait for the next paint sale. The garden is calling and the grass needs mowing.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Sentinel cats

Coal miners, until the 20th Century, kept canaries near them in mines to provide early warning of toxic gasses in the work place. Canaries, apparently, are especially susceptible to things like carbon monoxide and die before the concentrations become high enough to kill human miners. Scientists still use what are called “sentinel species” to foresee environmental hazards or epidemic illnesses.

Last week the “New York Times” published an article about the rise in hyperthyroidism in house cats. Apparently, the rate of our feline companions who succumb to an overactive thyroid has taken a steep statistical climb. Over 10 percent of kitties age 10 and older are diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, making it the most common endocrine disorder of pet cats. Researchers in Sweden and the US for the last 10 years have been studying the connection between cats and flame retardant chemicals, many of which are known endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Those cats with the highest levels of flame retardant chemicals in their blood are also cats who suffer from thyroid disease.

Beginning in the 1970’s many products in our homes were required to be treated with chemicals to make them burn less quickly. Mattresses, sofa, plastics, electronics, children’s sleepwear, all were required to be treated with chemical flame retardants. As more people have been exposed to these chemicals in our environment, the negative effects of exposure to them became apparent. Many of the treatments have been banned from use. Some have been replaced with chemicals just as hazardous as the ones replaced. Most homes still have treated sofas, mattresses and plastics. The dust  created as these foams and fabrics break down covers our floors and floats in the air. These compounds do not break down readily and are considered “persistent” pollutants in the environment. Cats and children crawl on the floor, put their paws and fingers in their mouths and ingest higher levels of these compounds than adult humans.

Besides thyroid disease, this class of chemicals is associated with development of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, altered hormone levels, reduced sperm concentrations, obesity, cancer and endocrine disruption. The risk associated with the use of any chemical must be weighed with the benefits. Many fire fighter organizations are now speaking out against the use of fire retardants, citing the low effectiveness and the toxic fumes given off when treated objects burn.

Science tells us that these chemicals slow the rate of burning of textiles, plastics and building materials. It is business and regulators who told us they were safe to use and would save lives in case of fire. The technology of impregnating even our kids pajamas and stuffed animals created a new kind of risk.

There are many examples of the imprudent use of technology to solve a problem only to create new and possible more long lasting problems. Remember PCB’s, DDT, diethylstilbesterol, BPA’s, thalidomide, lead paints? Sometimes the application of technology gets ahead of the science. Or perhaps what is sometimes labeled“science” is research designed to prove the safety of a new technology before implementation and commercialization.

Science and technology are not the same thing.

Good science does not advocate for a product. The word “science” means knowledge, not profit. Good science is always open to disproving the latest theories. Good science is open and transparent and places no value on the results of research. Good science encourages peer review and replication of research. Technology is the application of science, it is not science. In too many cases, such as in the use of flame retardant technology, all of the unintended consequences of the application have not been considered before the application is commercialized.

Losing two of my old feline pets to overactive thyroids and diabetes is one thing. The possibility that a generation of children may have been exposed to the same risk factors from conception to adulthood, is frightening.

Miners listened to hear if the canary was still singing. We should be paying attention to the health of our cats.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Squash and bees

I am still enjoying my last summer’s bumper crop of squash. Hubbards, spaghetti,and buttercups are still regular parts our menu. I have found wonderful new recipes for squash soup, stuffed squash, squash pie, squash gratin. I have invented my own recipes and borrowed from recipes for pumpkins. I gave away boxes and baskets full of the fruits and still I have some in storage.

Squash’s big leaves and rampant vines are amazing. In just a couple of short summer months, the little two leaved plants that I start in my greenhouse grow into a mass of prickly vines and leaves. The big yellow flowers are filled with bees and ants and all sorts of friendly bugs. I have picked some of the male blossoms for stuffing. I checked each one to be sure I wasn’t in danger of deep frying a bumble bee along with the cheese and breading.

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Honey bees love wildflowers that bloom after the clover and canola is finished.   Photo © Copyright 2016 Janet Jacobson

I love squash and I also love bees. An abundance of squash is dependent on those honey bees, bumble bees and other pollinating insects. Without them, I would have to crawl around in my prickly squash vines every morning, moving pollen from the male blossoms to the female ones. Pollinating by human hands is a time-consuming job. Squash blossoms only last a day or so and the opportunity for fertilization is short.

Bees provide similar services to many crops including fruits, nuts, canola, alfalfa, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash. Without bees and other insects, we would have a very limited diet.

I have raised bees and enjoy watching them. I love the big fat bumble bees that I find squeezed into the throat of squash flowers, busily filling their leg pouches with pollen and drinking the nectar.

I have watched the news about bees with interest. Scientists continue to search for the cause of what is called “Colony Collapse Disorder.” A few years ago a researcher from Montana reported that almost all of the hives experiencing die-off of their bees were infected with both a virus and a fungus. Other researchers pointed out that it is possible that insecticide exposure in non-lethal doses may cause the bees to be susceptible to the viral and fungal diseases. Even the EPA has raised questions about the adequacy of research provided them on some commonly used seed treatments’ toxicity to bees. Of course the companies which produce the possibly guilty chemicals are quick to point out that there is no proof that their chemicals are responsible. Others just as quickly asserted that the Montana scientist who pointed the finger at the virus and fungus and away from insecticides had a substantial research grant funded by chemical companies.

Most recently, a widespread study of bumble bees indicated that there is a significant decline in the populations of many kinds of fat, yellow striped bees. Some varieties which were common not too long ago, have seen drastic population declines in recent years. Disease and loss of habitat and genetic diversity are suggested as the cause. In early 2017, the rusty patched bumblebee was placed on the Endangered Species List, the first bee to be listed, because of a dramatic population decline over the past 20 years. Since the late 1990s, the population of the species has plummeted 87%.

All of these stories are cause for concern. They point to our lack of understanding of how our environment works. We clean up our yards and field edges, removing cover for bumble bee nests. We eliminate flowering weeds which provide food for native and domestic bees. Our war on dandelions removes an early and important source of food for pollinators. We use chemicals to fix one problem and while our solution seems to work for a while, we often create new problems. Protecting crops with insecticides has become an essential part of food production. It is possible that the same chemicals that keep crops from being eaten up by pests may be contributing to the loss of pollinators.  Those losses may result in even greater crop losses.

It continues to become more and more obvious that our lawns, our crops, our squash vines and bees are all connected. We ourselves are not separate from the environment around us. We are part of it.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Water and bottles

The farm where I have spent most of my life has one of the best wells in the neighborhood. My grandfather dug the well more than 80 years ago and we have only maintained it. It is deep and cold and supplies us with a plentiful supply of soft, good tasting water.

Unlike our well, much of the ground water on the Northern Plains is of borderline palatability. As a result we have spent millions of dollars to develop city and rural water systems. Thanks to our rural water systems, farm families who one had to haul water for drinking because their own wells were too brackish to make decent coffee, now can simply turn on the tap. While water from our taps, regardless of the source, is not free, compared to the cost of other things we depend on, it is a bargain.

Not all water consumed in this country is a bargain. It is estimated that bottled water can cost consumers thousands of times more than tap water. Americans are estimated to have drunk nearly nine billion gallons of bottled water last year. We buy more bottled water than milk or beer. Worldwide water in bottles is a nearly $90 billion business.

So what is it about bottled water that make it more enticing than milk and beer?

The water itself is not so different than what comes out of your tap. In fact, as much as 25 percent of bottled water in the U.S. is just that–water from the tap. Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coke’s Dasani are both filtered and purified water from municipal water sources. Testing requirements for bottled water from all sources is no where near as stringent as for tap water.

Bottled water is, in most cases, a purely manufactured market. The demand for water in a convenient, small disposable container is totally one created by the beverage industry. It is a marketing masterpiece. Bottled water has resulted in the disappearance of public water fountains in many places and has replaced the water cooler in staff lounges.

While drinking water is a good thing for people’s health, the cost of bottled water goes beyond the cost of purchasing it.

It is estimated that making the millions of plastic bottles consumes approximately 17 million barrels of oil annually. According to the Pacific Institute, that’s enough oil to run a million cars for a year. Additional energy is used to manufacture the bottles, purify and bottle the water and to truck it around the country. The disposal of the used bottles adds even more energy to the equation. Even though the plastic in the bottles is recyclable, only ten percent of all water bottles are recycled. The rest end up in landfills where they will stay for perhaps a thousand years.

Water companies are attempting to deal with the environmental affects of their product by making the bottles thinner and using plant based plastics. Thinner bottles use less oil and plant based plastics supposedly biodegrade more quickly. That is assuming they are not buried deep in a pile of garbage out of the sun and the air.

The plastic in the bottles is also not good for you. Even the water bottlers do not recommend that you reuse their bottles. A 2009 study by Harvard University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that drinking water from plastic bottles made with the toxic chemical bisphenol A (BPA) to harden the plastic increases levels of the chemical in our bodies by 70 percent. Other studies have showed that the chemical may disrupt the hormonal system, potentially leading to reproductive defects as well as brain damage, cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes. The manufacture of these plastics also release toxins into the atmosphere and burning them is even worse.

While the negative health effects of drinking out of plastic bottles may be exaggerated, it is a totally unnecessary risk. We do not need bottled water except possibly when traveling in a country with inadequate public water systems. There may be individuals who have extreme chemical sensitivity who might require pure distilled water. Most bottled water would not meet their needs either.

Save yourself some money. Save some oil. Save some garbage. Buy a reusable stainless steel bottle, a BPA-free plastic water bottle, reuse a glass bottle or a thermos and turn on the tap. If you don’t like the taste of the tap water, run it through a filter.

Dreaming of Haiti

Plage Cyvadier, HaitiI have not quite touched down from my most recent trip to Haiti. Since my return, my dreams have pulled me back to the tiny island country in the Caribbean. My dreams are filled with the joyful voices of children singing “Hosanna” in preparation for Palm Sunday worship, water running from a well and bread being baked.

In January of 2013 I made my first trip to Haiti with my husband and five others from our congregation. My first impressions were of the chaos of four million people living in a city designed for 400,000, smells of fish, garbage and charcoal,and the sight of hunger and desperate poverty.

My view of Haiti has changed. This was my third trip to the country and to the village of Pasquette near Jacmel on the island”s south shore. I no longer see only the poverty, the smells or the chaos. The air is still filled with the smell of charcoal fires. The chaos and cacophony of horn honking, bumper to bumper traffic still is the same. The majority of Haitians remain the poorest of the poor in this hemisphere. Those things, however, are not all I see.

In 2013 we helped build the “Blue Roof”, a simple pole structure with a blue steel roof to shelter the congregation of Redemption Lutheran Church. The place where we built the shelter was an empty field of acacia stumps and rocks just off the steep dirt road climbing up the hill from the main highway. Since then, another, larger church/community building has been built with money from the Lutheran Disaster Response. The mission group from Eden Prairie with whom we collaborate, has dug a well 240 feet through the limestone rock to bring the community clean water. Clean water is a luxury in a country where more than half of the residents do not have such access.

Most recently we have, with the hands and ingenuity of our Haitian brothers and sisters, nearly completed a bakery which will provide fresh bread to the community, jobs and income to help send children to school.

I experienced the joy of eating the first samples of bread with our friends as it came hot out of the new ovens. There are new buildings cropping up all around the Blue Roof. There is a garden in the space between the bakery and the church. Even though last fall’s hurricane battered and broke many of the young trees, they are growing and a couple of the mango and banana trees are bearing fruit. The bush next to the porch of the church which was a single twig last time I was there has grown to be eight feet tall and is covered with bright red blossoms. The children seem healthier and more of them are attending school.

I no longer see only Haiti’s poor. I see Vierge, Marlene, Julian, Kevans, Makenson, Carmelite, Janiece and Pastor Holand. I see my friends. They are graceful both in body and spirit, joyful, and hope-filled. They work hard and survive in spite of their hardships. I see my friends, people who are more like me than they are different from me. They love their children, their old ones and they love God. Their faith is strong. They are generous with each other and with us who have so much.

I don’t have any romantic notions about a life of poverty. My friends’ lives are hard. It is hard work to carry a five gallon pail of water on your head. It is hard work to wash clothes on a rock in the river. It is hard to squat next to a charcoal fire on the ground to cook your evening supper. It is hard to tell your hungry child that there will be only one meal today. My friends, in spite of the hardness of their lives, still manage to laugh, sing and shout “Hosanna.”

There are no easy solutions to the world’s poverty. Poverty, however, does not exist because of scarcity. Poverty exists in spite of creation’s abundance. Poverty is a political problem. It is a social problem, a religious problem and a personal problem.

If we truly want to end poverty, we must be willing to think about how our daily decisions affect the lives of others. Are the products we buy made with labor paid less than it costs to live for a day? Does the making of the products we use cause pollution of someone else’s water, soil and air? Do we use more than our share of the earth’s resources? How can we live more intentionally and more simply?

How can we share our wealth in a way that gives others respect and a voice in how those resources are used? Do we ask them what they need and want or do we tell them what is good for them? Are we willing to share our abundance or are we afraid we will not have enough?

Are we willing to advocate for others within political systems? The problems of the poor in our own country and around the world are often the result of political decisions made on our behalf. The agricultural subsidies which aid us, have sometimes had negative effects on the farmers of Haiti. When we call our congressmen to advocate for a farm program provision do we consider how other farmers will be affected? Do we think about how subsidies for farmers in this country makes exported rice, for example, so cheap that  Haitian rice farmers are forced out of business? Do we consider how sending free peanuts as aid to the hungry in Haiti impacts peanut farmers in Haiti?

In my dreams, my friends have enough and so do I.

Taking the easy route

Writing this column is easy. I don’t mean that I don’t work at it. I do. I read for hours every day. I seek information about all kinds of topics from many sources. I try to understand all points of view. It is not possible to agree with everyone, but trying to see the world from others’ points of view helps one understand one’s own beliefs. I write and rewrite and rewrite again. I study writing itself in an attempt be a better writer.

Putting my opinions on the pages of a local paper is harder than writing for a publication read by people who don’t know me. There is no anonymity in writing for the Cavalier County Republican. Many readers have known me since I was a child. Some knew my parents. It is possible, although unlikely, that someone might even remember my grandparents. Those who read my column are the people I meet in the grocery store or sit next to in church on Sunday morning. They are my friends, my neighbors and people with whom I regularly do business. I was not raised to call attention to myself or to think myself better than others. Publishing what I think about what happens in the world often makes me feel exposed and vulnerable.

Still writing this is easy. It isn’t hard to look around and find problems. There are hungry people looking for help. Unemployment in most of the country is still high in spite of improvements in the job market. One in five children live in poverty. Disasters strike around the world with increasing frequency. War and poverty continue to make people flee their homes. Finding something about which to opine is not a problem. Pointing out the shortcomings of our political system and government is always easy.

Opinion pages don’t require solutions to the problems that face us. Writing an opinion is easy. Finding and explaining solutions are much harder work. Proposing the answer to problems requires not only understanding the problem, but being able to envision something different. Solutions also require us to anticipate the unexpected. What are the unintended consequences to our proposed change? Solutions require asking, “Then what?” and asking it over and over again. Solutions require more than a superficial understanding of an issue. How do systems work? How will changing one part affect everything else? What seems simple on the surface often is far more complex when you scrape away the obvious.

Simply making a proposal for doing something new doesn’t accomplish much. Answers to problems need to be implemented. This is the really hard work. There are always obstacles and barriers to change. Fixing one thing often creates a new problem somewhere else. A friend of mine once summed up our reaction to how we view a problem and it’s solutions. He said, “It all depends on whose ox is being gored.” Our reaction depends on how our own well-being and position will be affected. The problem you know is often less frightening than the solution you don’t understand. Almost easier than writing about problems is the tendency to avoid the uncomfortable by avoiding change, to decide there is no affordable solution and to hold to the status quo or even to move backwards.

Solutions require taking risks, stepping outside of the confines of where we are comfortable. There will always be a critic somewhere writing an opinion column who will point out the plan’s failures. Sometimes those critics are right. Trying something new may fail. Failure is a risk innovators are not afraid to take. There will always be something that is missed along the way. Mistakes will be made in calculations and implementation will be carried out by flawed human beings. There will inevitably be people who liked things the way they were and who will fight tooth and nail to keep the things they hold dear regardless of the cost. Doing nothing also has a cost.

Opinions without action are meaningless. They’re easy to write and much harder to turn into a plan. Even trickier is actually making change happen. I admire the leaders around us who put themselves in the line of fire from opinion columnists. I admire those who find solutions and then take the risks needed to implement them.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains