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

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

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.


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