Living at the Bottom of a Hill

Living at the Bottom of a Hill    —by Jinny Batterson

When we first purchased our most recent home, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to its topography.  Mostly I noticed that it was within easy walking distance of the home where one of our grown children then lived. Another plus to our downsize-for-retirement condo was that it was only about 10 minutes’ drive from our regional airport—a boon for visiting further-off family and friends. It sat on a small lot on one of two adjacent loops of privately maintained road near a major interstate in the central North Carolina piedmont. 

I soon warmed to the flexibility and freedom that living in a condo afforded: exterior maintenance, including most lawn care and landscaping, was handled by our homeowners’ association for a small monthly fee. Because our unit’s previous owners had been handy do-it-yourselfers, initially we had little indoor maintenance, either. For the first couple of years we owned the place, we spent as much time away from it traveling as we did “at home,” finding it in good shape whenever we returned.   

It was not until my first year of living in the condo full-time that I discovered a few downsides to our new living quarters. Along with the maintenance provided by the condo association came a good many rules and restrictions, some of which I learned about only after violating them. Then there was the smallness of the yard—rather than the previous acre-plus I’d had to garden in, the area of land that went with our unit was tiny: a small sliver in front and another small sliver with a northern exposure in back between an overhanging deck and a common area of woodland. The worst, though, was storm drainage.

front walk in hard rain

The four-unit building where we had one of the middle units sat near the bottom of a rather steep hill. Whenever we had what my mom would have called a “gully washer,” puddles formed along our front walk. Water seeped through our unfinished basement, whose back area of concrete slab was about ten feet lower than its roughly graded dirt-floored front. Rainwater from buildings further up the slopes came rushing down, washing away sod and lawn, silting in our minuscule back yard, causing deepening gashes in the landscape, piling up gravel and debris against bases of trees in the woodland commons, accelerating disease and decay. 

front yard washing away

Walking or driving in other areas of our hilly town, I took note of large scale efforts to deal with this “bottom of the hill” effect: retaining walls twenty or more feet high, stream buffers of woodland and brush, gravel or paved greenways along creeks, truckloads and truckloads of rocks and pebbles dumped along steep slopes and into low-lying areas, retention ponds of many sizes and shapes.

I became a late-life-learner about the rudiments of smaller-scale erosion control—appropriate landscape plants, rain gardens, check dams, terracing, mulch, mulch, and more mulch. Within the confines of our HOA’s covenants, sometimes to the annoyance of my neighbors, I’ve tried to find ways to reduce storm run-off and redirect it into less destructive channels. Progress is slow and intermittent. My guess is that there will never be a permanent solution, and that as the climate continues to change, the challenges of living near the bottoms of hills will become more severe.

Still, I’ve decided, there’s no better landscape in which to live. Flat areas can be just as damaged by prolonged rain events as hills. (Remember 2016’s Hurricane Matthew in eastern North Carolina or 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Houston?) Living on the crests of hills or mountains poses other challenges—water supplies do not arrive uphill unaided; lightning favors ridge tops. So I’ll keep working at stewarding this little plot that is mine for a time. By and by, the gullies may wash less destructively.             

Why I’m Glad Our Granddaughter is a Girl Scout

Why I’m Glad Our Granddaughter is a Girl Scout    —by Jinny Batterson

I recently spent a week of after-Christmas visit with parts of the next generations of our family on the U.S. West Coast. As visiting grandma, I got to attend some of the children’s after school activities, including a meeting of our granddaughter’s “Daisies and Brownies” troop. Before the meeting, I was curious about how this branch of Girl Scouting had evolved in the generations since I started Brownies in the 1950’s. At first, lacking everyday exposure to younger children, I found this recent meeting’s hubbub a little daunting, though it’s likely that little girls are no more or less squirmy and giggly than my friends and I were so many years ago. For starters, girls now can become “Daisies” a year or two younger than the Brownie program I entered in second grade.  Still, I recognized parts of the program: an opening circle and a check-in when each girl could relate any important events or concerns, lots of singing, lots of running around, a craft activity, time outdoors, a pledge to honor oneself and others, a short-term service project, plus an introduction to this year’s annual cookie sales campaign for the scouts, parents, and grandparents present.

Since the meeting, I’ve ruminated a bit about why I’m glad our granddaughter is in Girl Scouting. Some American girls recently gained admission to Boy Scout troops. The “#metoo” social media movement has gained wide publicity for its attempts to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and sexual harassment (something the Girl Scouts have been doing with less fanfare for decades). Why continue to be a Girl Scout in these changing times?

Based on my previous exposure and my brief reconnection through my granddaughter, these are several aspects that still seem important to me:

—revolving skills-based leadership within a basic structure. No one person has all the skills needed for the many different situations life will throw at us. In Scouting, some will excel at crafts, while others can organize; some are adept song leaders; some have sports skills; some are tech-savvy; still others are gifted at laying campfires. In the troop where I was a member, one girl, Cheryl, was somewhat less athletic than most, not good at crafts, a reluctant camper, quiet and shy. The rest of us knew, though, that she was very important to our troop. She had a family asset missing to the rest of us: her mom worked at a large nearby military base. At cookie sales time, it was Cheryl’s turn to be a star. Though the rest of us were a little jealous as she loaded the family station wagon full of cartons of cookies for distribution, we knew her work was vital to reaching our sales goals each year.

—an international focus in addition to the local, state, and national civic engagement of each Girl Scout. For me, this was best exemplified by the first international Scouting center, a chalet in the Swiss Alps that opened in 1932. Many Scouts know the “Chalet song” with its aspirational closing: “And this its dedication shall never fail nor be undone, each race, each creed, each nation beneath its roof are one.”  The Chalet is now the oldest of five operating international centers, including a recently organized rotating event space among Girl Scouts in Africa. 

—An affirmation of the worth of each individual, along with the importance of working together toward common goals. Like Cheryl in our troop long ago, some Scouts will have less readily visible skills, but Girl Scouting teaches that each of us has an important role to play. No one is inconsequential. When we get overly invested in a “great leader” model, it can be all too easy to forget this basic truth.   

  About this time last year, I was a local participant in one of many “Women’s Marches” that occurred globally on the third weekend of January. At this year’s anniversary weekend, I’ll have to track hometown activities from afar. Yet after having observed our granddaughter’s Girl Scout troop, I’m heartened that, if and when we forget to value all the world’s citizens, she and others like her will continue to show up to remind us:  all of us matter, including women and girls.   

Chinese Lantern Festival, An American Version

Chinese Lantern Festival, An American Version  –by Jinny Batterson

Lantern Festival Lion

Happy (Western) New Year!  As global cultures mingle more often, more of us Americans of all backgrounds are getting exposure to holidays and calendars celebrated elsewhere.  For the past three years, a traveling exhibit of lighted silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter, a little earlier than the period of “Chinese New Year,” which typically occurs in late January or early February and includes a lantern festival on its final day.

Lantern Festival Dragon

Yesterday I braved colder than normal temperatures to see this year’s display at a local outdoor amphitheater that otherwise would be shuttered for the season. This year’s North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival was bigger and better than ever, its signature lake-surface dragon periodically spouting water rather than fire into the frigid air.  Weather had diminished last night’s crowds somewhat, but not the enthusiasm of those who braved the elements, sometimes fortified with spiked hot chocolate or coffee. Most of the twenty-five major complexes of lights had placards describing them in both English and Chinese. 

“Lantern festival” in China is an old celebration, thought to have originated almost two thousand years ago, celebrated at the first new moon of the lunar new year, the final day of the two-week Chinese Spring Festival celebration.  According to legend, a leading Chinese deity, the Jade Emperor, was angry with villagers for killing a crane, one of his favorite birds. He planned to send down fire to destroy the village, but the villagers, warned by the emperor’s daughter, hung red lanterns around their houses, set off firecrackers, and lit bonfires in the streets, tricking the emperor into thinking the village was already on fire and thus saving the village. Ever since, in towns and villages throughout China, people parade with lanterns on the evening of  Lantern Festival.  If you have a chance to see the North Carolina version, please wear plenty of layers, and prepare to revel in winter light.   

The Light is Starting to Come Back

The Light is Starting to Come Back   —by Jinny Batterson

So far, 2017 has not been my favorite year. I’ve been fortunate to have had generally good health, good friends, good weather, and adequate finances, but I cannot say the same about the wider world. Hunger and disease have decimated our most vulnerable human populations, while many other species suffer from man-made changes over which they have little control. Our American political culture has mostly continued to turn away from civility and dialogue toward further name-calling, dissension, and gridlock. Economic disparity grows unchecked. It remains to be seen whether a recently enacted U.S. tax reform plan will provide relief for those less well off. Catastrophic storms and weather events have become more common and more deadly. Globally, tensions in multiple regions have produced lethal violence.

So as a somewhat bleak December drew toward its close amid tidings of discomfort and malcontent, I marked the times of sunrise and sunset on December 21, the winter solstice, more carefully than usual: where I live, our nourishing star made its grand entry that day at about 7:22 a.m., and exited around 5:05 p.m.  On Christmas Eve, the sun rose at about 7:23, and set near 5:07 p.m. The shape of our days changes as the sun returns—it takes a while after the solstice before sunrise starts to get earlier. The first inkling of longer days comes in later sunsets. Detailed charts show a December 24th day length a scant eight seconds longer than at its minimum, but the rate of increase accelerates day by day until around the spring equinox in late March, when each day is over two minutes longer than the day before.

Our civic culture, if it is to recover, will not right itself immediately. Underlying diseases of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and all our other “isms” will not diminish or disappear without ongoing effort. Needed changes will require shifts in both personal attitudes and public policy. Still, just as the physical light is strengthening, I see a few first glimmers that our civic light level may also be on the rise. Participation rates in recent state, municipal, and special elections have increased. Women and other minorities who’ve previously suffered in silence are finding the courage to speak out about abusive behavior. Charitable giving has bumped up. Like the lengthening of days, societal changes often start at the “bottom” or sunset, rather than at the “top” or sunrise. A warm smile to a neighbor, a small kindness to a stranger, an hour or two spent volunteering at a homeless shelter, are not as likely to be highly publicized as our current chief executive’s sneers and slurs. They are just as important, or more so, to our society’s health.

At the beginning of 2017, I participated in our local edition of the global women’s march. Rather than spout vitriol about the 2016 election outcome, I tried to look forward. I crafted a sign to help inspire others, and also to remind myself of what I found most important, a three-pronged plan for action:
–adapt to climate change
–support voting rights
–practice kindness
In smaller letters at the bottom of the sign, I added a postscript: “Make Trump irrelevant.” 

I’m not sure what follow-ups will occur in 2018 to the shifts begun this year. I have to believe that the light is starting to come back.

Waiting for the Sunday Paper Carrier

Waiting for the Sunday Paper Carrier   —by Jinny Batterson

One of the things I notice as I continue to age are some cultural habits I picked up in an earlier, slower, more personalized time, habits less practiced in our increasingly rushed and electronically mediated society. This season makes me especially aware of the ongoing shifts. I still address postal holiday cards, prowl store aisles searching for an appropriate gift for a “secret Santa giftee,” and prepare small cash “bonus” envelopes for the public and private service providers who help make my life more comfortable throughout the year:

—the landscaping crew that cuts my lawn and maintains the shrubbery near our condo;

—the mail carrier who lugs sacks full of promotional brochures, catalogs and magazines, along with the occasional piece of personal correspondence, to our neighborhood mail station;

—the recycling crew that regularly picks up our cast-off bottles, cans, and papers;

—the newspaper delivery person who throws our Sunday paper, well-protected inside plastic sleeves against cold and damp, onto my front stoop each week.   

One of the aspects of retirement I relish most is the increased flexibility in my schedule. If I want to stay in my jammies until 10, on most days I can. If I prefer to avoid driving during rush hour, I can usually adapt my errands so they are done on off-peak days and at off-peak hours. Sometimes I can even take the local transit bus and not drive at all! 

Scheduling flexibility is a special gift at the holidays. Being at home so I can flag down a member of the lawn crew a couple of weeks before Christmas and hand him a holiday envelope gives nearly as much satisfaction to me as to the lawn crew members. It’s a little harder to catch the recyclers, slightly less regular in their schedule, but I can typically hear their truck coming with enough advance notice to run out and give them their card.  Catching the mail carrier on his/her rounds is harder still, since mail delivery times are pretty variable, especially at this time of year. Also, our mailbox station is out of immediate sight of our condo. However, by putting the holiday bonus envelope at the far back of my mail slot, I can be fairly confident the mail carrier will pick it up before depositing the following day’s mail.

That leaves only the newspaper deliverer.  Only rarely am I aware of the arrival of the Sunday paper—if I happen to be up using the bathroom in the predawn hours, or sometimes if the newspaper catches a corner of our front steps with a louder-than-usual thunk.  So last weekend I wasn’t sure how early I would need to set a wake-up alarm in order to catch the delivery van on its rounds. I guessed that 5 a.m. would be early enough.    

Turns out, I had about an hour to spare, which I spent watching early morning news (on this particular day somewhat less shrill than prime time, a blessing!) and reading part of a library book. I hope our deliverer has good plans for the small tip I was able to provide; I got a lot of satisfaction from actually meeting her, and thanking her for another year of reliable service.  Seeing her smile made my holiday happier.  Then, due to my happily retired state, I ended my early morning vigil by going back inside, casting a quick glance at the comics and the headlines, taking off my robe and slippers, and putting me and my jammies back to bed. 

The Twenty-Acre Wood

The Twenty-Acre Wood    —by Jinny Batterson

Town with an aging population—not unusual
For one of the “boomburgs” that began ringing
Older cities in the latter twentieth century.
Its housing stock shows signs of wear, too.
The supply of previous farmland and woodland
Available for new development dwindles. What to do?

Infill is the latest mantra. Clean up that brownfield
And put a mid-rise apartment building on it.
The natural buffers around some streams and lakes
Can surely support a hotel complex to boost revenue.

Our condo development is one of those showing
Its age. We’ve known for a while that the
Twenty-acre wood just across the adjacent commuter
Artery would some day disappear. The latest plan:
A senior living community–how apt.

I’ve recently taken to walking around and through the wood,
While it’s still there. Before the latest zoning change, an owner’s
Representative took a group of us to see a “champion tree”
Near the woods’ heart: a white oak.

The 36-inch diameter champ, broad at its base, later split
Into a trio of still-stately trunks branching skyward.
Curious, I checked online for the maximum lifespan
Of a white oak–over five hundred years.

The owner rep had relocated to North Carolina for a new assignment
With the development company that had long employed him.
A diversified outfit, it purchased the acreage years ago, back when
Land was more readily available. He hadn’t walked the property before.

“The surveyors tied a yellow ribbon around the champion
Tree,” he said. “Otherwise I never would have found it.”
Although town zoning makes special note of champion trees,
It’s possible to get permission to replace one with younger plantings.

Turns out, the land has likely not been a wood
All that long. Aside from the champion oak, which
May at some time have shaded an early farmhouse,
Most of the trees are younger–pines, gums, a few
Hickories, sassafras and maples.
.

Area residents have used the undulating terrain
As a convenient dumping ground for unwanted
Yard debris. One dying oak, smaller than the champ,
Has planks nailed to its trunk, a basic treehouse
Nestled into a crook about a dozen feet up.

Earlier, the town installed a culvert at a low point in the
Woodland, to divert run-off into a nearby containment pond.
Its rock-lined approach has sprouted a pine, now thirty feet high.
The spindly tree strains for light, drinks in the available moisture.

Upland, there’s a surprising amount of briar-free space between trees.
Here and there a cache of beer bottles, a discarded car seat,
A rusted old lawn chair, bald tires, an excavation that perhaps
Once was a more extensive dumping ground.

Lest my aging flower child self get overly sentimental,
Moodily humming “Big Yellow Taxi” as I wander, I remember the
Resilience of woodlands. Untended, farmsteads or meadows
Take only a human generation or so to return to young forest.

Once the seniors housed in the new complex have died,
And the development has fallen into disarray along with them,
The woods will take back over, planned or unplanned.

Quilted Dreams

Quilted Dreams    —by Jinny Batterson

There’ve been times, since I outgrew visions of sugarplums,
When I’ve dreaded the coming of winter. Short days, short tempers, cold,
Damp, sniffles, indoor confinement. Winter’s had little to recommend it.

This year’s cold weather was late arriving. Days shortened, but it was
Nearly Thanksgiving before there was frost on the pumpkins. Our schedules
Got disrupted: when to test the furnace, bring houseplants indoors?

Finally, the evening arrived when a blanket was insufficient warmth.
The quilt could be brought out from the linen closet, shaken vigorously,
Then inserted between a fresh sheet and the all-season bedspread.

As my life has grown less hectic, I’ve come to relish the longer
Darkness of late autumn: a chance to sip cocoa before snuggling down
Early, perhaps to drift into episodes of remembered dreams.

I cannot guarantee that the quilt is the cause, but cold weather
Seems to bring more comforting visions: brilliant landscapes visited
Earlier in person or in imagination, peopled with friends and warm welcomes. 

Often I visit cities new to me, revel in explorations and travel that
Can be more pleasant in dreams than in reality–no crowded
Rail cars, no plugged toilets, no mewling youngsters in the seat behind.

The details no longer matter as much. It’s the comfort that counts.
Even when my mind and body are saddest, my waking
Anxieties will sometimes give way to quilted dreams.

Veterans of Domestic Elections

Veterans of Domestic Elections    —by Jinny Batterson

Last Tuesday, I got up before 5 a.m., put on multiple layers of clothes, grabbed a hurried breakfast, packed water and snacks, then headed for a nearby precinct where I was assigned to work during this year’s municipal elections. This year was the third year I’ve served as a non-partisan precinct officer during early voting and/or on election days, after receiving initial training and participating in annual refresher courses.

A touchstone of our training is to do everything in our power to allow a prospective voter to cast a ballot. As our political process has become more divisive and hyper-partisan, this can be complicated. Successive gerrymanders and court challenges have sometimes moved voters from one jurisdiction to another, even when they have not physically changed address. Economic downturns and regional disparities have caused other voters to relocate, often without the will or the resources to become aware of issues, candidates, or election dates and procedures in their new locales. Identification requirements have changed frequently and can be confusing, even to precinct workers. Some prospective voters are homeless, making address verification especially difficult.

Luckily for me, the precinct where I worked in this year’s election was relatively stable. Interest in the election was high, with contested races for town mayor and several town council seats. During the nearly thirteen hours from the time our doors opened for voting until the final voter revved his car into the parking lot and panted his way through the precinct entrance a minute before closing, we were rarely idle. Seven of us combined our efforts to perform needed precinct tasks: we verified names and addresses, authorized voting for those properly registered, handed out ballots, answered questions, redirected those who’d showed up at the wrong precinct, gently dissuaded those who’d showed up on the wrong date, provided advice and provisional ballots for those whose voting status was in question, thanked citizens for voting and gave them “I voted” stickers, checked and cross-checked voting tallies to make sure our manual and automated counts stayed reconciled.

A few days after the election came Veterans’ Day. Originally established as a holiday to commemorate the armistice that ended the “war to end all wars” on November 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. and later expanded to include all U.S. veterans, we’ve sometimes degraded the day’s significance. Rather than a reflection on the tragedies and sacrifices of war, we’ve sometimes substituted a jingoistic, commercial-laden extravaganza of pious political sloganeering and holiday sales. The original meaning of Veterans’ Day came home to me more clearly the following day, a Sunday, when our religious congregation honored the living veterans in our community of worshipers and seekers. Some in this varied lot of men and women, ranging from oldsters to those barely out of their teens, had endured hardships and dangers much more severe than the uncomfortable chairs and brief days’ spells of disrupted eating I’d experienced. Yet their sacrifices were partly in service to the work I’d recently participated in. The values we hold dear—fairness, humility, compassion, inclusion—have been fought for at the ballot box as courageously as on any battlefield.

One of our oldest and largest veterans’ rights organizations, Veterans of Foreign Wars, states its mission as honoring veterans’ service, plus making sure veterans get the full benefits they deserve. To ensure this, the group lobbies as an organization, but much of its strength comes from members’ capacity and willingness to vote.

Helping preserve our values and our democracy requires free and fair elections in which as many of us as possible participate. My election-assistance services are episodic and short-lived, but important nevertheless. I’m glad to be among the veterans of domestic elections.

Mr. Whirligig

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, NC

Mister Whirligig     —by Jinny Batterson

Recently, on my way to a weekend conference along North Carolina’s coast, I made a slight detour to stop in the former tobacco auction center of Wilson, North Carolina.  It was my third visit to this once-thriving, then derelict bastion of the tobacco industry, struggling to be reborn in a post-industrial, post-tobacco-auction age. 

Brick mansions with Greek-revival columns testify to Wilson’s former wealth. Vacant warehouses and storefronts bear witness to its doldrums. The town is about fifty miles east of Raleigh, at the far edge of commuting distance, but near major interstates. Its status as the county seat of a county by the same name brings some enduring activity—court cases, law offices, merchants of bail bonds. Population has stabilized at about 50,000 people, by far the largest town in this county named for a childless military man whose 1840’s exploits in a war with Mexico were ended by a fatal bout of yellow fever.

    What I came to see was a new park near the center of Wilson’s downtown: the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. Mr. Simpson, who died in 2013 at the age of 94, had for much of his life made fanciful sculptures out of scrap metal and pieces left over from the heavy equipment repair business that he ran from a small shop a few miles out of Wilson. After he closed his repair business, he turned his attention more fully to the sculptures he began to call windmills. Although his efforts sometimes drew the derision of his neighbors, Simpson continued to fashion larger and larger windmills with more and more moving parts, installing many of them around a small lake on his family’s property.

I first became aware of them when an acquaintance with ties to Wilson led a small group of us to view Simpson’s pond and the windmills planted along its edges. Mr. Simpson, then in his late 80’s, was working in his open-air shop at the far side of the pond. We saw him in profile at a distance, but an abundance of no trespassing signs made it clear that he did not welcome casual visitors.

Over time, Simpson’s “whirligigs” became a local, then regional tourist attraction. His variety of folk art drew the attention of art collectors and museums. A Whirligig graces the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Others have been purchased by museums and private collectors in many parts of the U.S.

Before Mr. Simpson died, local movers and shakers approached him about making his sculptures into an outdoor exhibition. According to Simpson’s obituary in the New York Times, Simpson relished the thought that some of his artworks would be preserved. He helped consult on the beginnings of removal and refurbishment of the pieces that eventually became the park. Vollis Simpson died before the park became a reality. Vagaries of weather, funding, and politics delayed the park’s opening for several years. The 2017 autumn day when I got to visit was gloriously clear and crisp, with just enough breeze to set most of the whirligigs to whirling.  Though I’d missed the park’s grand opening by a day, the vision I got of Mr. Simpson’s legacy brightened my outlook. It also lit up the faces of other visitors of all ages who viewed the park in person or via modern internet links.

It’s much too easy these days to get caught up in the political crises and name-calling of the moment. I like to think that Vollis Simpson’s spirit would be gratified at the way his creations beckon us toward less bluster and more whimsy. Thank you, Mr. Whirligig!    

About Squat Toilets…

About Squat Toilets…       —by Jinny Batterson

The first time I remember encountering a squat toilet was in rural Europe, during an early 1970’s trip with my husband. We were taking a deferred honeymoon about a year into our marriage. To prolong our travels given limited funds, we had chosen budget-conscious transportation and lodging. I don’t recall our location, but remember that I was bicycling along a minor road in beautiful but very open countryside when I felt the need to pee. For a good while, there didn’t seem to be anywhere I could discretely relieve myself. Finally, I came upon a small roadside shack, a bit like the outhouses I’d gotten used to on some earlier American camping trips. If nothing else, I thought, I could at least duck behind this shack to get out of sight of the road. Curious, though, I at first tried the door to this single-story roofed wooden enclosure that was maybe four feet to a side. It opened easily, with an inside latch so I could close it behind me. A slatted opening high up along one wall let in enough light so that once my eyes adjusted, I could see outlines of two shoe prints painted onto a graveled floor. In between them was a dark hole.  I was grateful for the privacy, if not quite sure how to assume an appropriate position. My experimental posture worked well enough so I soon emerged with lighter heart and lighter bladder, ready to pedal onward.       

Most of the squat toilets I’ve encountered since then have been in Hong Kong or mainland China, starting with a 1980 tourist trip. Over time, I came to realize that average Chinese were more likely to use squat than sit toilets. Almost immediately, I realized that my leg and back muscles were not accustomed to squatting for long periods; they were especially unaccustomed to getting up unassisted from a squatting position. In subsequent travels and stays in China, I got exposed to a wide variety of squat facilities. Except in the most impoverished rural areas, squat toilets came with individual stalls, sometimes in single-person outhouse-like buildings, at other times in larger restrooms with multiple stalls.

In most apartments, schools, restaurants, and shopping areas, squat toilet stalls had tile floors, with the toilet area raised about eight to twelve inches above the base of the floor. In the middle of the raised area was a saucer-sized hole or bowl. Within easy reach to one side there was often, though not always, a toilet paper roll or dispenser. (Carrying a small packet of tissues can be useful in a variety of ways in overseas travel.) Also along one side of the enclosure was a receptacle for gently used toilet paper, so less refuse went down the toilet hole, avoiding potential clogs.

Over time, more and more facilities came with flush buttons or pedals. Where there was not a mechanized flush, a water-bearing attendant made regular rounds to ensure that facilities stayed clean. On trains, squat toilets were metal, with foot pads to either side of a bowl-shaped receptacle that also flushed. When I most recently took Chinese trains earlier in 2017, most squat facilities had a grab bar at about waist height, enhancing stability as train cars swayed back and forth, and making it easier to get back up. Still, no matter how much I try to stay flexible, some aspects of using a Chinese squat toilet remain difficult for this Westerner with aging leg muscles unaccustomed to lengthy squats.

On a recent walk on one of the less-used trails in the area of the U.S. where I now live, I was reminded of some of my Chinese adventures. Early on a sunny autumn morning, I met up with a group for one of our weekly rambles. When everyone had gathered and it was time to set out, the restrooms at the trailhead were still locked up tight. Even though I’d made sure to use the bathroom at home to pee just before I left, my morning coffee began demanding further release as we followed the path into the woods. I scanned the area for a possible side trail with a port-a-potty, or even an offshoot that might lead to a street-side set of shops not too far off the trail. No luck. After a while, I spied a thicket that could provide enough cover for a privacy stop. As the rest of the group went further ahead, I contemplated the wisdom of learning to squat.