Category Archives: Everyday Wonders

How Have We Come So Far on Earth? (50th)

Were we ever that young?

How Have We Come So Far on Earth?  (50th)   —by Jinny Batterson

(Many years ago, we started the custom of a poem on our wedding anniversary. The poetry hasn’t improved all that much; the marriage has somehow endured…)

In retrospect, so much can seem inevitable:
The ungainly bag of holly and pine boughs,
The welcoming seat at the front of the bus,
The
glib blond guy with the Paul Bunyan
Glasses frames. The letter to “Jennifer”
Wit
h the correct postal address at my dorm.

The college-based courtship. That magic
Summer in Montreal. The horses across
The fence our first dew-drenched dawn
Alon
g the road east toward the Gaspé.
Our newlyweds’ apartment near Hopkins,
The night we watched the progress
Of 
pedestrians first dodging, then
Accepting the thunderstorm’s drenching.

Trying to make the Nearings’ rural dream our
Own, though rank novices in needed skills.
Buying
a lakeside cabin at a divorce-sale
Price. Uprooting to northern Virginia and
A
hellish teaching term. Stitching ourselves
Back together while riding Fred the red pickup
Along
the mighty Mississippi to New Orleans.

Two children born of love and post-Watergate
Fervor. 
 The friendly Richmond neighbors who
Salved the silly white liberals aiming to
Dismantle racism double-handedly.
The
Servas adventures, both as hosts and
As travelers. The travails of drug-infested inner
City
living. The trophy house and garden.
The long-term live-ins: Chinese, then Japanese.

The mid-life lump, the reconfiguring of later priorities:
Less career focus, more service, more travel.
China
tourism, China teaching, China by plane, by bus,
By rail, by camel, by motorcycle, by bamboo raft.
Wondering
at scenery, food, sometimes strange
Similarities with America. The sooner-than-expected
Grandchild. Relocating to
North Carolina just
In time for its next slide into regressive politics.
The
Wenchuan earthquake, beginnings of recovery.

Reaching our milestone three score and ten with
Most body parts still functional, grieving for those who’ve
Already
departed the planet. Scant chance we’ll have
Another fifty years, but determination to treasure the
Highs
and lows of the together times that remain.

Happy anniversary to the accidental/inevitable
Love of my life.   Love, Jinny

Dental Office Wisdom

Dental Office Wisdom   —by Jinny Batterson

The realization that I’m aging gets brought home to me each time a medical professional who formerly helped take care of me retires (or, worse, dies). By now I’ve been through at least four primary care doctors and an equal number of specialists and dentists. As a cranky older patient, I balk some at new technology, increasing intrusions on my privacy, seemingly endless medical history and insurance forms, frequent changes in practices and practitioners. 

The office where I’m most vulnerable is the dentist’s—registering a complaint is nearly impossible when one’s mouth is filled with dental instruments. As a child, I dreaded going to get my teeth checked—I nearly always had one or more cavities that needed filling. The sound of a dentist’s drill remains one of my least favorite sounds. My dread diminished as I grew up. By the time I left home for college, all of my teeth were healthy and/or filled.

In young adulthood, I encountered my favorite dentist while living in Richmond, Virginia starting in the early 1970’s. I used to get twice-yearly checkups at his home office. I found his practice by walking past it. Because for our first few years in Richmond, my husband and I shared a single vehicle and my automotive access was skimpy and sporadic, I did my best to find ways to limit my needs for private transportation. We lived on a bus line that serviced the downtown office where I worked. That helped. There was a small grocery store near enough to walk to, a couple of restaurants and a custom butcher shop within a three block radius.

One day as I was lugging bags back home from the grocery, I noticed a small metal sign at the edge of the sidewalk: “Alec Epstein, DDS.” The sign hung above a short set of steps leading to a two-story brick house that looked much like the other houses in our older mixed neighborhood of individual homes, small shops, and two or three story apartment buildings and offices.

It had been a while since my previous dental check-up. Such a convenient location beckoned. Later I checked it out. Walking in, I met Dr. Epstein directly—no receptionist, a rather bare waiting room. Just visible through an archway was an examination room with a single dentist’s chair. I set up a tentative appointment for the following week on a day when I knew my supervisor would be on vacation and my workload would be lighter than usual.

Over the years that I went to Dr. Epstein, he never had a hygienist or an assistant. He kept records by hand in manila folders. After my first appointment, he always had my up-to-date chart at the ready when I came in. He’d greet me by name and usher me into the examination room, giving me time to settle into the worn leather dental chair while he reviewed my recent dental history.

“Any problems?” he’d ask before he began looking into my mouth.

Once in a while I’d need a replacement filling or a new one. If anything really complicated was required, he’d refer me to the dental school at the nearby Medical College of Virginia. His fees were amazingly reasonable. On one wall beside the dental chair he’d hung a framed certificate of his dental school diploma from 1940.

In front of the dentist’s chair, high up on the wall to be visible to a patient tipped back during an exam, he’d put photocopies of two cartoons. One showed a pate nearly as shiny as his own, with the caption “God only made a few perfect heads. The rest he put hair on.”

The other, well before the days of the internet or “The Simpsons” TV show, pictured a rough-looking kid of ten or so, spiky hair sticking up in all directions. “I know I’m somebody,” this proto-Bart snarled, “‘cause God don’t make no junk.”

It’s been over thirty years since I last saw Dr. Epstein. According to the obituary I was able to find via internet, he continued seeing some patients until he was past 90, and was only “fully retired” for about six months before heart disease claimed him. He was widely respected in the community for his skill and his service.

Now that we have an internet and instagram and all sorts of ways of spreading words and images at light speed, the “no junk” cartoon has become hackneyed, but I think its message remains important. From time to time, all of us, from spiky-haired kids to amazingly accomplished former First Lady Michelle Obama, have doubts about whether or not we’re good enough. All of us need the reminder from Dr. Epstein’s office wall: “I know I’m somebody, ‘cause God don’t make no junk.”   

Wedding Dress Trees: Of Bradford Pears (and Gnarled Old Oaks)

Wedding Dress Trees: Of Bradford Pears (and Gnarled Old Oaks)    —by Jinny Batterson

A Bradford pear in bloom

Yesterday was a dreary day, made more dreary for me because it contained a memorial service for an elderly former congregation-mate.  We’d had a wetter than usual winter. It seemed the rain would never go away.  Precipitation since the first of December was running about 40% above average.  A late-winter jaunt that my husband and I had recently taken to cities further south had been largely unsuccessful at getting away from the wet. A few sunny days, but mostly just more rain. 

After the memorial service, I drove back toward our condo. The weather alternately showered, drizzled and misted, continuing its uninviting pattern. The white roadside blooms of our area’s Bradford pears and their naturalized cousins temporarily brightened the landscape. A few of the trees reminded me of inverted wedding dresses—puffy, full, virginally white.

I knew a little about this species of tree. Near my former home in Richmond, Virginia, rows of them had been planted as street trees during the 1970’s or 80’s. There, they’d provided ethereal beauty for a couple of weeks each spring. When young, the trees were a welcome addition to the landscape. However, as they aged, they produced mostly headaches. Few lived past twenty, not very old for a tree. Their brittle wood had a tendency to split any time there was a wind stronger than a gentle breeze. During thunderstorm season, city maintenance trucks performed branch clearing chores so regularly they might as well have parked for the summer along the pear-lined street.

Curious for more information about the history of both our departed elder and the Bradford pear, I clicked a few online keys.

According to the obituary that I belatedly read, “Old Jim Quinn,” a long-term member of the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, had served in the military in post-war Europe, but otherwise spent nearly all his 87-plus-year life in North Carolina. He’d married Sonnya, his “Super Chick,” in 1955. During the 1970’s, he’d served two terms on the Raleigh City Council. Later, he and Sonnya became regulars at civil rights marches and demonstrations. Along the way Jim had sired and helped raise several children, designed buildings, helped promote affordable housing before it became a buzzword, and served in numerous other civic capacities. He was known far and wide for his barbecue skills. By the time I knew him slightly, he was gray and a little stooped, if still quick with a smile and a witty remark. 

According to a somewhat critical article (https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/life/2016/03/21/curse-bradford-pear/82070210/), the Bradford pear was introduced as a landscape tree by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1964, imported from its native China and presumed to be sterile. Before long, it was an urban landscape fixture in cities throughout the Southeast. As the first trees aged, problems with their brittle wood became more apparent. Later, problems with cross-pollination with other pear varieties showed up, along with the invasive nature of some hybrid offspring. By now, most towns have stopped planting new Bradford pear cultivars. Some jurisdictions and homeowners have even begun active attempts to rein in Bradford pears and the offspring that can form dense thorny hedges and crowd out native flowering trees.

Bradford pear blossoms

Raleigh, long-time home to Jim Quinn, bills itself as the “city of oaks.” There’s a gnarled old specimen behind our condo, not unlike the gnarled older version of Jim I used to see at church. If Sonnya once in a while looks at her long-ago wedding dress or passes it on to a granddaughter or great-niece for reuse, she must constantly miss the gnarled old oak her life mate grew to become. Here’s to you, Old Jim Quinn.    

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street   —by Jinny Batterson   

corner of Walnut and Walker            

The first time I remember participating in an autumn ritual of gathering black walnuts (juglans nigra), I was maybe ten or eleven years old. My dad, a small-scale residential building contractor in Maryland’s burgeoning suburbs, would notice, as he traveled from one building site to another, where there were black walnut trees growing along the sides of still-rural roads. He’d make mental notes of the most likely candidates for a bountiful fall harvest. Then, one crisp Sunday afternoon in October or early November, he’d load Mom, me, and my younger brothers and sister, along with some buckets or bushel baskets, into the family station wagon. He’d drive us all to that year’s designated walnut gathering site.

We kids learned to be careful picking up the nuts. If the outer hulls were the least bit bruised, they could ooze a sticky sap onto our hands, turning them walnut brown. Once we’d either filled our buckets/baskets or run out of easily accessible nuts, we’d all pile back into the station wagon and return home.

The next challenge was to find a good way to remove the nuts’ outer hulls, then to keep the partially processed nuts secure from local squirrels until it was time to finish the nut cracking process. Dad tried various mesh screens, or running over the walnuts with the car, or storing the unhulled nuts loose in a shed in the back yard while their outer hulls dried, then husking them like corn. No solution was perfect, but by Christmas we typically had enough partially hulled nuts left to shell out a supply of nutmeats for flavoring cakes and Christmas cookies. Black walnuts’ inner shells are hard. It took a lot of effort with a hammer and a nut pick to get the meats from their shells. We nearly always missed a few choice morsels that were just too difficult to pry out. The flavor of black walnuts in carrot cake or oatmeal-raisin cookies, though, was worth the extra work.        

For a lot of years after I left Maryland, I lived where black walnut trees were scarce. Then one autumn as I was wandering in a suburban park near the central North Carolina condo where I now live, I spied a black walnut tree with nuts on the ground around it. A brief errand back to the condo to get a bucket and some gloves equipped me for suburban foraging. That year’s crop was bountiful enough for both me and the squirrels. My after-harvest squirrel protection measures worked well. The resulting carrot cake was wonderful. For several years afterward, I found enough nuts in this park along aptly named Walnut Street to share with the squirrels and still have my carrot cake.   

Walnut trees, it turns out, do not thrive in deep shade. They need a certain amount of sunlight to achieve their maximum potential, hence their prevalence along roadway edges, in open areas, or in abandoned fields. They are a tree that “does not play well with others”—they produce a substance, jugione, that inhibits the growth of other trees and shrubs in their vicinity. However, their nuts and their wood are both valuable. They also appear on several top-ten lists of temperate region trees which absorb the most CO2, helping mitigate climate change. 

“tree protection area” near major new construction project

This year, the suburban park tree of my past harvests is inaccessible—stretching skyward behind fencing near a new library/parking complex. Though it stands in a “tree protection zone,” I’m not sure if it will survive the construction disruption. Habitat loss is not the only challenge for black walnuts. In the U.S. west, a fungal pest has been decimating walnut groves there. The disease has recently been discovered in Tennessee. If it spreads widely, walnuts may eventually suffer the sorts of die-offs that previously wiped out elms and chestnuts.

We need our trees, especially our mature specimens. Please send thoughts, prayers, and good tree karma to North Carolina’s remaining black walnut trees. While you’re at it, please pay attention to other instances of environmental neglect with potentially awful consequences for us proud, stubborn humans. A recent short clip, “Gone in a Generation”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/gone-in-a-generation/?utm_term=.7d70420d76b8, tells the story rather starkly.    

Experiments in Car-Less Living

Experiments in Car-less Living    —by Jinny Batterson

My body periodically tells me it’s no longer young or limber—creaky knees, back twinges, huffing up hills, diminished stamina, hearing difficulties, memory lapses.

The biggest problem is my eyes. Most of my life I’ve been nearsighted, my vision corrected with either glasses or contact lenses. Unfortunately, my aging orbs have recently developed both glaucoma (probably an inherited trait) and cataracts. The glaucoma, caught early, has done minimal harm, with further damage slowed or stopped by medication. The cataracts will sooner or later require corrective surgery. In the meantime, my night vision is declining. I try to avoid driving after dark. For those evening events I really don’t want to miss, I do my best to catch rides.

Last weekend I traveled out of town to my previous hometown of Richmond, VA. During this midwinter solo getaway, I’d visit with former classmates and friends, touch base with my financial advisor, attend a couple of public events. The trip could be a more extended experiment in getting along without a car. I’d made a provisional plan:

1) Get my accommodating husband to drive me and my luggage to the train station, then take the Friday morning train north from Raleigh, NC.

2) Get a former college suite mate to pick me up at the Richmond station and shepherd me around to that day’s activities, then drop me at the suburban hotel I’d booked near my other weekend events.

3) Line up two other friends who lived near the hotel to be my companion/chauffeur, one each for the two other weekend days, with my “Sunday driver” depositing me back at the Richmond train station in time for the mid-afternoon southbound train.

4) Phone hubby and have him pick me and my luggage back up in Raleigh.

The start of the plan worked well—hubby complained only slightly about getting up early enough to drive me to the train station; the train, though slightly late, was very comfortable; my classmate met me promptly at the Richmond station; we shared a leisurely restaurant lunch nearby and began catching up on our respective lives. She then drove me to my Friday afternoon appointment downtown. I wasn’t sure how long it would last. My friend assured me she’d be available for further ferrying duties—just phone her once I was done. After she deposited me at the appropriate high-rise office building, she drove off westward to share babysitting chores with her husband, spending some quality time with their most recent grand baby.

The meeting was briefer than I’d expected, so I decided to experiment with the new high-speed bus that ran from the downtown area west to a shopping center near where my friend and her husband were babysitting. That way, I figured, I’d save her from coping with downtown traffic plus have my own little adventure with public transportation.

The infrastructure of the new bus line was impressive: a dedicated bus lane, ramps to raised bus stops imbedded in the median of a major east-west street, automated ticket kiosks. The first kiosk I came to was out of order. I asked a woman waiting for the next bus where I could get a ticket headed west.

“Maybe the machine at the next stop is working,” she told me, “but it’s quite a ways.”   

Turns out one of the design changes for the new line increased the distance between stops. I walked about half a mile, got a ticket, then waited fifteen minutes for the next bus. Overall, the five mile trek to the shopping center took me more than an hour. Not a huge problem for me. Potentially hard on someone with a tighter schedule and/or mobility problems.

After my “Friday chauffeur” had picked me up at the shopping center, we’d caught up more over coffee, and she’d deposited me at my hotel, I got a plaintive phone call from Saturday’s ride. She’d broken a bone. She was in pain, with her arm in a sling. She was temporarily in no shape to drive.

Due to my friend’s injury, my Saturday logistics would be more complicated. Luckily, I’d installed an app on my phone for one of the ride-sharing services that’s recently sprung up in some American cities. An exploratory check for potential rides turned up multiple possibilities. My scaled back Saturday itinerary could be satisfied using a combination of public bus, walking, and Lyft. On Saturday morning, the hotel front desk directed me to a nearby bus stop; my first errand was just over a mile away along the bus line; a return walk to the hotel was doable, though there were gaps in the sidewalk on a busy street. In the afternoon, Lyft rides to and from my event were less expensive than I’d feared. I found a supper restaurant an easy walk from the hotel. My Sunday ride was healthy and punctual. Needing her chauffeuring was a good excuse to catch up. Hubby picked me and my luggage up with minimal griping.   

My aging eyes have got me thinking about our society’s over-dependence on private automobiles. If I’d previously listened to the frustrations of car-less friends and acquaintances with a mixture of pity and amusement, my turn for similar frustrations might arrive sooner than expected. I’m still lucky—I can afford and access alternatives. People with limited economic means can rarely afford a car, for-fee ride-sharing, or extensive public transit. In rural areas, suitable transit isn’t often available. This morning I awoke to a cold snap that had made outdoor temperatures so frigid that in some northern areas, schools and offices were closed, and even the U.S. postal service had temporarily halted deliveries.

An aging population, income disparities, geographic sprawl,  and climate change will severely stress a society accustomed to hopping in the car for every errand and need. Public transportation in the area where I live is spotty, but I’m going to learn more about riding the bus (https://gotriangle.org/how-ride-bus), using ride sharing services, and occasionally engaging a customized pick-up service our town provides. What are your options? 

Networks and Hierarchies–Holding the Tension

Networks and Hierarchies—Holding the Tension    —by Jinny Batterson

I’ve long been intrigued by the relationship between networks and hierarchies. When I recently did an online search for “networks versus hierarchies,” I came up with lots of current articles in economic and business publications about the relationship between these two forms of human organization. Much of it seemed to me to provide little practical help in structuring a real group or team. For example, a 2018 posting on chiefexecutive.net related that: 

“The network structure must come together organically, depending on the unique conditions of the organization, and not be over-engineered at the risk of simply creating a supplemental hierarchy.” 

Several articles discussed the merits of Niall Ferguson’s book The Square and the Tower, partly a historical review of alternating periods when, he suggested, either networks or hierarchies prevailed as social constructs. Some questioned whether technological changes such as the internet now favor networked organization. Per a pundit at econlib.org, However, it is a fallacy to insist that just because the Internet is peer-to-peer, human groups necessarily must array themselves in that fashion in order to be successful in the current technological setting.” 

As something of an egalitarian and even more a contrarian, I’ve mostly chafed at the hierarchical human groups I’ve participated in, just as much when I was, at least titularly, “in charge” as when I was an “underling.”

In the now-outdated data processing world that I inhabited for much of my paid work life, the earliest data structures were isolated files, often with one field as a “key.” Later, related files were grouped into “hierarchical databases,” with “parent” and “child” segments grouped into multiple levels. In order to be able to access any given segment, it was important to know all the relationships among segments. “Child” segments typically could be accessed only through their chains of parentage. Imagine my relief when the first “relational” databases appeared, with the capacity to search “across” in addition to “up” or “down.” I no longer know the innards of the various data structures that make up our current cyber-world—perhaps underlying it all are certain hierarchies of keys, but access is so rapid that the casual observer remains unaware. 

Usually a description in words is easier for me to follow than a diagram. However, once a generation ago at a summer institute I was drawn to sketch a chalk picture of a series of adjoining “pyramid” triangles, linked in such a way that they made a pie shape. Instead of power being concentrated at a “top,” it now occupied a “center.” Although it was possible to go from the outer part of one pyramid through the center to the outer part of a different one, it was often quicker and easier just to traverse part of the outside. This “pyramid of pyramids” looked very much like a spider’s web.   

My suspicion, based both on a long-term relationship with a caring but somewhat hierarchically-oriented male partner and on shorter-term experiences in a variety of organizations, is that preferences for organizational style are somewhat gender-linked. The females of the human species tend somewhat toward networks; males are typically more comfortable with hierarchy. Both types of organization are needed—holding one or the other up as a model for all interactions does not work well. The problem is learning to creatively hold the tension between appropriate situations for each…       

The One-and-a-Half Person Kitchen

The One-and-a-Half Person Kitchen    —by Jinny Batterson

Before we downsized to our current condo, we had a huge eat-in kitchen, complete with a slate floor, an island, and a dining area for six. When we entertained, there would sometimes be three or four people working in the kitchen at once—slicing, plating, baking, washing up, whatever.  Our present kitchen facilities are much smaller, with a basic gas range, fridge, sink, small pantry closet, and limited counter space. Though the floor area is a bit wider than a galley kitchen, it’s not really expansive enough to hold two chefs at the same time.

Usually this is not a problem. Even before our downsizing, we’d divvied up family meal responsibilities—whoever cooked did not clean up, so we had an orderly succession, with just one person in the kitchen for each phase of a meal. At our current digs, we do very little in-home entertaining, so it’s unlikely that guests will disrupt this standard meal arrangement.

What has become an occasional problem is breakfast. My spouse and I have different dietary restrictions for our aging, somewhat crotchety bodies:  I need to restrict salt; he needs to restrict carbs. If our sleep patterns diverge enough so only one of us is awake and breakfast-hungry at a time, all is well. When we both want to have breakfast at the same time, things can get a little complicated. Jim may reach into the refrigerator door for his morning beverage of choice—diet soda—at the same time I’m trying to extract a yoghurt container from an interior shelf. With some preplanning, we can share parts of the same menu: quinoa pancakes, basic omelets, yoghurt and fruit, or whole wheat toast.

It’s usually the little things that trip us up: who’s responsible for retrieving then heating the syrup (sugar-free from the pantry closet for him, maple from the fridge for me)? Who gets the butter or margarine? How about getting the flatware out of the drawer that’s just below the only counter space near the stove?  To an outside observer, we might look like either a feuding couple or the most awkward dancers on the planet. We’ve improved a little over several years of breakfast improvisation, but not a whole lot.  Lately, Jim has discovered a low-carb sugar substitute that goes wonderfully with a fresh grapefruit half, one of the lower-carb fruits on his “good list.” I’ve further complicated our breakfast dance by getting him a grapefruit sectioning knife, which he proudly uses, clogging up any available counter space.  Ah, well.  Whose turn is it to make lunch?                

Coping with the Cold

Coping with the Cold   —by Jinny Batterson

If we live in northern latitudes, by now we’ve likely experienced some chilly weather, even if the calendar does not yet officially signal “winter.”  How to cope?  Consider our animal natures, and choose a strategy: 

1) Migrate  (like wild geese) 

2) Hibernate  (like black bears)

3) Congregate (like emperor penguins)

This winter, I expect to employ all three strategies at different times—

heading to parts of Florida, becoming a human “snow bird” at a beach full of sun-seeking Northerners; 

deciding a snow day is a good day to snuggle under as many blankets and quilts as I can pile onto the bed and there’s really no need to get up;

gathering with friends and festive libations for New Years (both Western and Eastern).   

What’s your favorite winter coping style? 

  

Who Did You Expect?

Who Did You Expect?     —by Jinny Batterson

My life so far has been fortunate—no privation, little discrimination, generally good health, many chances for love and adventure.  Much of the time, though not always, people I’ve met have lived up to (or beyond) my expectations. On those rare occasions when someone’s behavior has disappointed me, more cynical or world-weary friends have shrugged at what they regard as my naiveté. 

“Of course so-and-so let you down,” they’ve announced. “What did you expect?”  

Increasingly for me,  the appropriate question is rather “Who (or, for the grammar police, “Whom”) did you expect?”  As I mature (a work in progress), I become more aware of instances when I’ve pre-judged people and turned out to be fairly far off the mark.

The first occasion that stands out is my initial in-person meeting with the leader of our 1980 group tour to China. In those pre-internet days, I’d exchanged postal letters and paperwork with Ms. Baum and talked with her on the phone. Until we both arrived in San Francisco’s airport departure lounge for our trans-Pacific group flight to Hong Kong, I had not actually met this native New Yorker. I’d assumed from her accent and phone demeanor that she was of Jewish background. She seemed somewhat pushy and no-nonsense, ready to take on the world. I was surprised to see that she was African-American, not ethnically Jewish. She could be somewhat pushy and no-nonsense. Her prior experiences as both social worker and travel agent had prepared her well to take on whatever bureaucracy attempted to get in her way, regardless of ethnic origin or nationality. She turned out to be both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.

Earlier this fall, I signed up to work the polls in the 2018 mid-terms. After on-site training, I exchanged emails with the woman who’d be my site supervisor for early voting. Her written English was good, clear and simple. Her family name was a common one, her given name, ending in “a,” suggested to me she might be African-American, or maybe Hispanic-American. When we met, I could detect no skin coloring or hair texture to suggest ancestral links with Africa, no hint of foreign origin in her accent. She seemed at first a very “vanilla,” somewhat conservative American. During our work, she showed her passion for ensuring that anyone who wanted to vote was given maximum opportunities to do so. She’d sit patiently with someone lacking appropriate credentials, or with an address not yet entered into the electoral system database of rapidly growing Wake County. She knew the rules well. She could suggest pulling up an electronic copy of a utility bill on a portable phone. She might advise going home to retrieve a needed ID and then returning later in the day. In rare cases, she’d have the potential voter fill out a provisional ballot, explaining how and when to check whether their vote had been counted. The workforce she’d helped assemble to follow her lead was the most visibly diverse I’ve ever participated in. She was both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.    

I’ve just spent Thanksgiving with parts of my extended family that I barely knew growing up in Maryland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Only once had I had a chance to visit these North Carolina farmer cousins from a rural area near Charlotte. What little I remember from that farm stay involves ponies tame enough so even I was persuaded to take a short ride. I got to see my grandmother’s sister-in-law make glorious biscuits using milk straight from the cows. The cousins closest to my age teased me good-naturedly about my lack of country skills.

After moving to North Carolina a decade ago, I became reacquainted with some of the cousins who’d left the farm to settle in Raleigh. They’d tell me enticing stories of an extended family Thanksgiving gathering at “the shed.” I pictured the locale in my mind: an expanse of gently rolling hills, empty except for a few horses or cows grazing in pastures. “The shed” would be a slightly cleaned-up farm outbuilding. Twenty or so aging cousins of Scots-Irish ancestry would assemble for our midday meal, then say interminable grace before we could eat. Someone would have cooked a turkey and brought it still warm to the feast. We’d eat plentifully, exchange pleasantries, carefully avoid politics, and then everyone would go home.

This year as we drove into the neighborhood nearest our destination, I had trouble reconciling my mental image with current reality. The surrounding area may once have been farmland, but the vicinity had long since become part of suburban Charlotte. A mid-rise apartment complex dominated the nearest street corner. The “shed ” had been expanded and modernized from an earlier role as storage space for some cousins’ plumbing business. It was now a comfortable, well-appointed venue with adjustable seating for up to a couple hundred people. Nearly that many cousins of all ages were in attendance, along with baby equipment, pet dogs and a few footballs.

We did have a short sung grace before the long, snaking buffet line formed. We did generally steer clear of contentious political topics. People caught up on family news since the previous get-together. One 20-something cousin had recently returned from an extended Peace Corps stint in South America; in the next generation up, a househusband described his four years of helping school their daughters while his family was on assignment in southern Europe. One attendee I didn’t get a chance to talk with directly had a skin tone and accent that implied ancestry or origin in India. The Reas still cherished their rural roots and pioneering ancestors, but the clan had gotten more diverse and widely traveled—both different from and similar to the “who’s” I’d expected.

The remaining holidays of late autumn and early winter are likely to have more extended family gatherings and chance meetings. May I remember not to pre-judge those I encounter, to be more careful not to let “who I expect” get in the way of meeting current reality with an open mind and heart. 

Rea Thanksgiving at “the shed”

Mushrooming

Mushrooming   —by Jinny Batterson    

For the past several weeks, the weather near our central North Carolina condo has been steamy, with frequent afternoon and overnight thunderstorms. In many places, the ground has stayed damp. This year’s drenchings have brought out an abundant crop of late-summer mushrooms. Woodlands and fields are full of gilled mushrooms, sponge-bottomed mushrooms, veined mushrooms–the most evident types. Some are deadly poisonous, most are either distasteful or likely to cause digestive distress, a few are edible and choice. Lots of years of looking at and for mushrooms have given me a very basic knowledge plus the confidence to harvest one or two species that are distinctive enough and delicious enough to be worth gathering to eat. 

What many of us fail to realize is that what we call mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of plants whose network of nutrition-gathering mycelium can stretch underground for miles. The largest known single organism on earth, it turns out, is a honey mushroom in Oregon discovered during the 1990’s with a mycelium encompassing 2,384 acres, or about four square miles.

Whenever we humans get too taken with our own supposed dominance and power, it’s prudent to remember that mushrooms and their fungal ancestors have been around for way longer than us. They’ve survived many of the climactic cataclysms that occurred before mammalian life even existed. By weight, mushrooms and their mycelium are at least an order of  magnitude greater than the combined girth of all seven-plus billion of us humans.   

  Whenever we are tempted to get hung up on the variations of sexual relations among human adults, we might ponder the reproductive behavior of mushrooms, as described in this entry from the Cornell Mushroom blog (https://blog.mycology.cornell.edu/2010/06/02/a-fungus-walks-into-a-singles-bar/):

“ Among fungi, any individual can donate or receive genetic material–so you can already see we need to let go of the concept of gender. Let’s talk instead in terms of what mycologists call mating types. A fungus simply needs to find a mate of a different mating type. Of the fungi you might be familiar with, hmm, most species have only two mating types (they’re bipolar), and some have four or more possible mating types (they’re tetrapolar). Any particular individual of a species is just one mating type, of course. Most molds have two; many mushrooms and bracket fungi have four or more. A few fungi, like the unassuming split gill, Schizophyllum commune, have more than ten thousand!”

My first recollection of mushrooms came from the Lewis Carroll story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As my parents read to me, I marveled at illustrations of statuesque gilled mushrooms. My parents cautioned me against imitating Alice: “Don’t ever eat a toadstool,” they insisted.

Later, once our family got a television and started watching the evening news, I sometimes saw images of “mushroom clouds”—the kind formed by explosions of the nuclear bombs then being tested above-ground. A history series featured photos and brief videos of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II, creating mushroom-shaped clouds miles above their point of impact. My parents told me to be afraid of mushroom clouds, too, but were somewhat at a loss about how to respond. My dad constructed a bomb shelter that might or might not have provided sufficient protection in the area near Washington D.C. where we then lived; my mom discussed with her women’s group whether the milk delivered to our doorstep had dangerous levels of strontium-90, a calcium-like carcinogenic isotope whose presence in milk became elevated during peak nuclear testing years.   

Given our current climate, in which both environmental and governmental problems can  on some days seem to be mushrooming out of control, paying a bit more attention to real mushrooms can be reassuring. These humble living things have adapted to climates that were previously supposed incapable of supporting life; they can spring up when least expected; their underground support networks are everywhere.