Category Archives: travel

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? 

Pandas Playing Mahjongg–Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival

Pandas Playing Mahjongg, Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival 

                                                        —by Jinny Batterson

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Panda Land 2019

For the past several years, a traveling exhibit of LED-lit silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter. Last year on the night I attended the festival, the air was bitingly cold. Crowds were sparse. This year, on a clear weekend evening a good bit warmer than typical for early January, I ate an early supper, then put on a hoodie, drove to the festival site, parked in a free adjacent lot, and walked to the box office to get a ticket. I arrived a little after the festival’s 6 p.m. opening—once the sky was dark enough to provide a good backdrop for the thousands of lanterns and fanciful lit shapes.

I’d assumed that by arriving early, I’d “beat the crowds” and minimize my wait time to purchase tickets (cheaper at the gate than by internet) and then gain entry to the exhibit space. The wait wasn’t too long—maybe twenty minutes in all–but it turned out I’d arrived at the height of that evening’s viewing hours for multi-generational families. Rather than come later in the evening, they were enjoying the spectacle before youngsters’ bedtimes, at the same time taking advantage of reduced or free entry for young children.

The star of the show, a huge brightly lit dragon, again stretched along the shallows of Symphony Lake for a couple hundred feet. It was even larger and more intricate than last year’s dragon.  A few of the other exhibits were similar to what I’d seen previously, but arranged differently and with different emphasis.  New features had been added, too, including a set of large lantern “drums” near the entrance, with a real drum that kids could pound on to make the lights glow brighter.

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Drums

My favorite set of lanterns was “panda land.” I’d previously spent time in China in the region where pandas are native. This exhibit featured stylized panda figures in human poses—riding a bicycle or, my absolute top pick, playing the Chinese tiled game of mahjongg, a sort of cross between dominoes and the card game spades.  Periodically, performers on the festival stage did acrobatics or Chinese dances—I watched briefly, then went back to the pandas. This year’s lantern festival is nearly over. The weather for remaining evenings is predicted to be less pleasant than the evening I went.

If you live locally, I’d encourage you to go if you can. Too often these days our airwaves are full of insults, ricocheting threats, and fear mongering. Against this background, an outdoor stroll alongside others speaking many languages, all of us watching the whimsical uses we can make of our technologies when we’re not busy fussing with each other, is, dare I say it, priceless.     

Old Years’ Resolutions

Old Years’ Resolutions    —by Jinny Batterson

For many years, I’ve avoided making discrete New Years’ resolutions. I have a tendency to backslide. Eliminating harsh words, taking off five pounds, following an exercise plan—most years such resolutions would get broken by late January if not sooner.  Instead, I’ve tried just setting general directions, somewhat more gently: I’ll bite my tongue a bit more often, eat a little less, exercise a tad more. I’m not sure if those around me even notice. Still, I reason, how can I expect to improve either myself or the world if I spend lots of my time blaming myself and/or making up excuses for broken promises?

Looking forward and setting goals are important, with New Year a frequent milestone for doing so. As I get older, occasionally looking backward seems appropriate, too.  What has gone well in the year just ending? What has gone poorly?

This past year has been good for me. I realized a long-term goal of publishing a travel memoir. I enjoyed generally good health. My husband and I shared several adventurous and rewarding trips. Meanwhile, the world at large has caromed along with perhaps more disasters and more vitriol than in some years. Headlines and blogosphere trend negative.

On the personal front, I think I’ve done a fair job at maintaining a civil tone in interactions with relatives, friends, acquaintances and elected officials across the political spectrum. However, I did send a somewhat snippy letter about varying leadership styles to our congregation’s new minister; I used some harsh words in a couple of the postcards I mailed to our current national leader. Weight control? Not so good—after a December trip that included lots of holiday feasting, any implicit goals about weight loss have fallen short.

What about exercise? There I think I’ve shone. Partway through 2018, after an extended hiking trip in rural France upped my average step count well above 10,000 steps per day, I set a short-term personal goal: Could I keep my annual average above 12,000 daily?  With just a few days to go, I’m tantalizingly close. Today the weather where I live has been pleasant, so getting in steps outdoors (roughly between four and five miles) was easy. Tomorrow and the next day are predicted to be rainy, making outdoor walks less appealing. New Year’s Eve may find me trudging on the treadmill at the gym, or pedaling the second-hand exercise bike at home, or even doing late-evening laps around our small condo as the TV counts down the final hours until midnight. If I’m able to meet this “old year’s resolution,” set not in January but in August, I’ll be pleased. The world at large may still be somewhat dicey, but I’m in better shape.   

Concentrating too hard on “new year” milestones may cause us to miss chances for learnings and goals later in the year or later in life. Looking back through much earlier personal journals, I found a year-end thought from 1982, a year in which unrest in Poland and the continuing cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had been much in the news. The U.S. economy was in recession. Britain and Argentina had gone to war over the Falklands, a set of small islands in the South Atlantic. Nevertheless, I wrote then:  “All in all, 1982 has not been a bad year. The world is still teetering on the brink of disaster, as usual, but there’s been a lot of love and beauty, too.”   

May 2019 turn out to be a year in which many personal and broader issues move toward better resolutions, whether made early or later. Happy New Year! 

   

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”

China Memoir–Launched and Languishing

China Memoir, Launched and Languishing   —by Jinny Batterson

Memoir front cover

In May, 2018, I finished the initial self-publishing process for a memoir of my interest and experiences with mainland China, a book long in the making. Following conventional advice, I hosted a “launch party” for Where the Great Wall Ends at a small local Chinese restaurant, inviting lots of friends and acquaintances. Nearly twenty people showed up, including my primary editor and my book designer. Guests listened politely to my book introduction while munching egg rolls and sipping tea. Several attendees bought copies of the book. Seeing the book actually in print and having people actually purchase it was magical to me. Not quite like birthing a human child, but still a labor of love.

After this initial marketing effort, I pretty much left the book on its own, intermittently sending out a review or gift copy, hoping for a referral or two. Sales have dribbled in. I donated multiple copies to our local public library system. Some have gotten checked out. Recently I put up a very basic book version on Kindle, though my knowledge of Kindle formatting conventions is rudimentary. The preview on my non-Kindle laptop had lots of extraneous editing marks and some formatting glitches at the ends of several chapters, but the Kindle price is less than half that of the print version.    

As this year’s holiday gift-giving season approaches, I’m sending out an appeal for additional readers and/or purchasers. The promise of untold wealth from royalty payments was not part of my motivation for writing the book, but I would like to reach a wider audience than what has materialized so far. Whatever our China experiences or political persuasions, I believe it’s important to make some efforts to understand this big, diverse country, including its long history and its natural environment. China occupies many of the same latitudes in the northern hemisphere as the United States; its land area is roughly the same size. Its culture, geography, and resources are quite different from those of the U.S. Of course my perspective is limited, but I’ve had nearly forty years of intermittent tourism, travel, and teaching in many parts of China to draw on as I crafted my narrative. 

If you have a China-interested or China-background relative or friend, please consider Where the Great Wall Ends as a possible gift. If your monetary resources are limited, please consider checking out a copy from a Wake County, NC library branch, or, if living elsewhere, requesting a copy via interlibrary loan.  Very best wishes for the upcoming holiday season, whatever your background or traditions, and many thanks for your interest.   

Softening Hearts, Hardening Infrastructure, Widening Perspectives

Softening Hearts, Hardening Infrastructure, Widening Perspectives

                                            —by Jinny Batterson

It’s been a rough couple of months here in North Carolina: two hurricanes (Florence, then Michael), a polarized government, widespread agricultural losses, increasing poverty, damaged schools and infrastructure. 

Yet there’s been heartening news as well. Many established charities such as the American Red Cross have sent disaster recovery teams to the worst impacted areas. Local citizens in areas less damaged by the storms have created both short-term and long-term relief efforts. A neighbor who specializes in local fundraising set up a Sunday-afternoon event at a nearby shopping center and raised over $10,000 in cash plus thousands of dollars worth of non-perishable food and household goods for hurricane relief. Because of the extent of the damage, both in the Carolinas and elsewhere, it will take continued efforts by private donors, non-profits, government agencies, and financial institutions to help promote recovery.  The natural environment will never be the same; repairs, rebuilding, and/or relocation of homes and businesses will take months if not years. 

After hurricane Florence decimated the coastal Carolinas, major roads and interstates were flooded and impassable for over a week, making cities such as Wilmington, North Carolina effectively islands.  Residents who’d evacuated were asked not even to try to return home as soon as the first few roads were reopened—what limited road travel was possible needed to be reserved for emergency and supply crews.  Now that the immediate crises are over, people are starting to grapple with longer-term problems: should rebuilding be limited in areas that seem more and more prone to drastic weather?  Should building codes be changed? How do we adapt our infrastructure to be more resilient? Do we need to pursue alternatives to a predominately road-based transportation network?

Simple solutions seem elusive and likely counterproductive. Perhaps we need to rethink some of the implicit assumptions we’ve made about how the world works.  Rather than considering ourselves outside nature, it may be time to widen our perspectives and acknowledge that we humans are just one piece in a complex, evolving whole.  Among the groups that have challenged some of my existing perceptions are:

Transition networks (https://transitionnetwork.org/), a set of local-global initiatives to work toward more resilient local economies in the face of escalating global challenges

Bioneers (https://bioneers.org/), harnessing scientific knowledge toward solving human problems

Biomimicry 3.8 (https://biomimicry.net/), which looks at other life forms (some with over 3.8 billion years of experience on earth) for innovative ways to re-engineer human-made systems

What partial solutions have you discovered?  What “small/local” actions are you taking to make our future more livable?  Please share some of your thoughts. 

Is Anyone Really Stealing American Jobs?

Is Anyone Really Stealing American Jobs?  —by Jinny Batterson

Recently, a friend forwarded to me an email of guidelines for “buying USA,” comparing some everyday items, from greeting cards to toothpaste, that are marketed in the U.S. but now often made in other countries. I have no objection to buying more of the goods I use from hardworking Americans, but I do object to the thinly veiled inference that workers in China (or Mexico, or some other lower-wage country) are stealing American jobs. Wording of the message forwarded to me matches one posted by a real estate developer from near Charlotte, NC in March, 2016, as that year’s election cycle was heating up (see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ace-hardware-made-usa-very-encouraging-david-e-johnson-pe). My initial reaction to the message: Oh, rats! Here we go again, blaming job losses on low-wage workers in other parts of the world, when those workers actually play only a small part in American job losses. This mid-term election cycle, I’m concerned that both recycled and more recent posts and tweets are trying to persuade American voters that a broad trade war with China will help save American jobs. 

Over the past forty years, I’ve been able to spend a fair amount of time visiting with workers in China. They don’t want to steal anyone’s job. They are just trying to improve their lives, like workers everywhere. In the 1940’s,1950’s and 1960’s, many Americans left grinding rural poverty for better manufacturing jobs in cities. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, many Chinese also left the countryside in search of better paying urban jobs. By now, Chinese wages have risen. The Chinese government is starting to tighten regulations to rein in the pollution that significantly shortens Chinese lives. Some jobs are leaving China for other countries with lower wages and/or laxer environmental rules.

After I sent a semi-coherent reply to my friend, I let a later draft sit. I needed more time to simmer down and reflect. I realized that I’m very lucky.  So far, my retirement income is comfortable. I do not have to pinch pennies. I can afford to be selective in my buying habits. As much as possible, I patronize local sources. When we lived in Vermont, I made a special effort to buy cheese from our area farmers’ co-op; in Virginia, I bought a lot of local apples; here in North Carolina, I shop the local farmers’ markets; I eat ribs and barbecue at local restaurants. For less-localized items, I check labels along with prices to see where a product originated and how it was produced. Even if they’re somewhat more expensive,  I will sometimes buy U.S.-made goods to help support American workers. At holidays or when buying specialty items, I often purchase “fair trade” products so that some of my coffee, chocolate, and gift purchases will help support those with the lowest wages. Overall, I try to be an informed, careful, caring consumer.

Despite all sorts of “buy from nearby” campaigns, and despite what we may want to believe about fair and unfair trade, for at least a generation the biggest cause of job losses worldwide has been the quickening pace of replacing human workers using automation. According to a Financial Times article published just after Mr. Trump’s election (https://www.ft.com/content/dec677c0-b7e6-11e6-ba85-95d1533d9a62, December 2, 2016), about 85% of U.S. manufacturing job losses between 2000 and 2010 were due to automation rather than to moving jobs overseas. The same article compared the average hourly wage for a human American welder ($25) with the operating cost to have a robot do the same work ($8). If you include the installation and maintenance costs for the robot, the gap narrows slightly. However, the cost difference is likely to continue growing. 

Some trade agreements can damage the interests of workers and/or put at risk the natural environment that supports human life as we know it. Global trade has rarely been without its distortions and inequities. (For example, ask almost any Chinese about the British practice during the 19th century of exporting opium raised in the British colony of India into China to offset the costs of British imports of tea and porcelain, or consider the trans-Atlantic slave trade.) Negotiating worthwhile trade deals can be both time-consuming and extremely difficult—blogs or tweets alone don’t cut it. 

One of my grandfathers lost his job in 1930 when the company he was working for at the time replaced their human bookkeepers with calculating machines as a cost-cutting measure. On President Herbert Hoover’s final full day in office, March 3, 1933, he signed the “Buy America Act” that had recently passed the U.S. Congress. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was not solved.

Americans suffering from job losses need assistance and encouragement rather than attempts to divert the problem onto others. Automation, used wisely, can help improve lives; used foolishly, it can devastate human workers, even entire communities. Global competition, used wisely and fairly, can help spur innovation and growth. Used foolishly, it can pit groups that have many common interests against each other.

Blaming will not solve anything. Please let’s take time together to consider the deeper issues. 

The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited

The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited   —by Jinny Batterson

During my childhood, my most formally religious aunt used to give me books of Bible stories, adapted for children. One of the most difficult stories for me was Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It concerned death, not totally unknown even to small-town American children in the 1950’s, plus a kind of cosmic reckoning:

In a gated estate there lived a rich man, who (revised standard translation, part of Luke’s gospel, chapter 16) “was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”  Outside the rich man’s gate was a poor, diseased man named Lazarus, “who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.”  Sharing was apparently not part of the rich man’s ethos, so Lazarus languished in distress.

After a time, both Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus was carried by angels to heaven, “Abraham’s bosom,” a welcome change. The rich man, by contrast, went to Hades, a realm of fire and brimstone, just near enough to heaven so the rich man could see Lazarus there, hanging out with Abraham in comfort. The rich man cried out: “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” Nothing doing, Abraham explained. The rich man had had his chance at comfort while alive. Now the chasm between his current locale and Lazarus was deep and impenetrable, allowing for no crossovers.

During the 1990’s, I was briefly exposed to a widening gap in perspectives between rich and not-so-rich. I had a short-term subcontract with a major accounting firm at their downtown office. At the time, I was living in an inner city neighborhood that suffered the side-effects of a worsening epidemic of crack cocaine: robberies, arrests, lengthy prison sentences, even murders. It was a scary time. Occasionally I went out to lunch with my accounting firm colleagues. Once, I asked my supervisor whether the city’s worsening poverty and crime bothered him.

“I don’t have to notice poverty or crime,” he responded. “After work, I ride the elevator down to the guarded basement garage to retrieve my car. Then I drive out the expressway to my home in a gated community in the suburbs. No poor people interact with me at all. It’s not my problem.”  For most of the years since that encounter, I’ve lived in relative comfort, while trying with mixed success to learn and practice the discipline of sharing.

Though some quote an incident near the end of Jesus’ ministry as a justification for ignoring those in poverty, saying, without the surrounding context, “you always have the poor with you,” the vast majority of Jesus’ sayings and actions support the view that caring for “the least of these” is a sacred duty. 

The year 2018 so far has been filled with more than a little fire and brimstone—volcanic eruptions on Hawaii’s big island, huge wildfires in much of the U.S. West. In the part of the country where I live, the major problem has been floods. So far, they have yet to approach Biblical proportions, but the aftermath of Hurricane Florience in eastern North Carolina has been severe enough so that our current equivalent of Noah’s Ark has deployed, in the form of government rescue boats and the “Cajun navy,” a set of volunteers with small boats who previously plied their crafts in last year’s major flooding in Houston, Texas.  Florence drenched already struggling regions with over two feet of rain. Among the hardest hit were the region’s poor. Relieved to have been spared the worst of the storm, I watched media coverage of a flooded housing project where building maintenance had long been ignored or postponed. Videos showed some of the problems: peeling paint, exposed pipes, stained ceilings. Residents complained of asbestos-laced insulation. The electricity had gone out, and no one knew when it might be restored.

Beyond temporary aid, what could be done to help?  Should we as a society put more emphasis on affordable housing, less on high-end real estate? Would rebuilding and/or relocating require higher taxes? Could we somehow craft a renewed ethic of sharing? 

As I struggled to make sense of our society, seemingly rather badly out of kilter, I went out for a walk. The days were getting shorter. It occurred to me that our earth was in the period around an equinox—one of two occasions each year when the sun’s rays hit our tilted planet directly over the equator. Around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, all creatures everywhere on earth experience days and nights of roughly equal length.

Instead of a chasm between wealth and poverty that gets harder and harder to cross, maybe we need something approaching a human “equinox.” Maybe we can head toward a narrower “wealth gap,” with adequate basic provisions for all living beings. Getting to a more equitable distribution and use of earth’s resources will take skill, political will, and good character. It IS possible, though. Nature creates equinoxes twice each year. Can we learn from her before flood, fire and brimstone get worse?  Happy fall, y’all!