Easter Darkness and Light

Easter 1946

Easter 1946

LAKE MACBRIDE— Easter was the biggest holiday after Christmas while I was growing up, although its importance diminished when I left home at age 18. This photo of my maternal grandmother’s parents— my great grandparents— typified the gatherings of an era that is gone.

Things are more casual today, and seldom do we gather on the lawn for a photo. If we did, our small family wouldn’t have many people in the image. A sign of the times and choices made when we were young.

Our next door neighbor gave birth to her third child on April 10 and yesterday she carried the baby in the yard while we talked about our shared lot line. The baby, swaddled in a blanket, didn’t make a sound. We walked the length of the line, discussing the easement and placement of gardens, hers and mine. The two younger children and her husband joined us. It was a pleasant moment in a life of neighboring.

The lettuce is not up in the garden. In fact the surface looks pretty dry. After the newspaper proof reading, I plan to spend the balance of the day preparing a bed for spring vegetables and working in the yard and garden. There is a lot to be done.

Lingering in the pre-dawn darkness, there is an hour to write, read and think before the rising sun of Easter morning.

Earth Week Celebration

Earth WeekEarth Week Celebration
Remarks delivered at Old Brick on April 19, 2014
Iowa City, Iowa

If you haven’t seen the buffalo at Yellowstone National Park, you should. One gets a sense of possibilities that existed on the plains as the herds wander and belch their way back and forth inside the park. There is space for them to seem vast, even if they are a fraction of what they once were. The herds will never return to the great plains, but to see the bison at Yellowstone made the trip for me.

If you are on the Internet at all, you have likely heard of the YouTube videos showing buffalo exiting Yellowstone. The assertion is that the giant caldera that makes the park unique is getting ready to erupt in a cataclysmic explosion that portends the end of life as we know it.  Scientists don’t agree. Yes, Yellowstone is a big volcano. Yes, it last erupted over 600,000 years ago. But no, a new eruption isn’t overdue because science doesn’t work like that, despite the activities of bison.

Here’s what does matter. The difference between natural pollution of the atmosphere caused by volcanoes and that caused by humans.

I want to discuss three more things: Mount Tambora, Mount Saint Helens, and nuclear famine.

On April 10, 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia produced the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The blast was so loud, it was heard 1,200 miles away in Sumatra. It is estimated that the eruption produced 38 cubic miles of volcanic debris.

While some 12,000 people were killed directly by the eruption, the larger death toll was from starvation and disease, as fallout from the eruption ruined local agricultural productivity, killing another 50,000 people or more.

What made matters worse was the dispersion of ash throughout the atmosphere. It darkened the sky and created climate anomalies including what we call volcanic winter. 1816 became known as the year without a summer because of weather. Crops and livestock died in much of the Northern Hemisphere, resulting in the worst famine in the 19th century.

While nowhere nearly as bad as Mount Tambora, the volcanic eruption on May 18, 1980 at Mount Saint Helens is fixed in memory for people living at the time. It was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.

If we compare them, Mount Saint Helens was much smaller than the Mount Tambora eruption. According to the index that measures these things, Mount Tambora was rated 7 while Mount Saint Helens was rated 5. We know about Mount Saint Helens because it is fixed in our memories. We should also remember Mount Tambora as it was more important.

That brings me to nuclear abolition. Recent research has indicated that two billion people may be at risk in a limited, regional nuclear weapons exchange by two of the world’s nuclear states. The reasons are similar to what caused the year without a summer. The firestorm after the exchange would create soot and ash in the atmosphere many times worse than the single year without a summer after Mount Tambora erupted. Simply put, it would be a disaster of unprecedented proportion. One that could happen or be prevented by humans.

The conclusion people should draw is there is no reason for nuclear weapons to exist and they should be abolished.

The next time people on the Internet worrying about the end of civilization as we know it based upon YouTube videos, I recommend you turn off the computer and focus on preventing disasters we can by abolishing nuclear weapons.

Money Smart Week Presentation

Money Smart WeekPrepared remarks for the Solon Public Library Money Smart Week presentation on April 19, 2014.

Thank you for coming to my talk titled “Alternate Living: Focus on Finance.”

This talk is partly about me, but it is really about you. I seek to present some of the ideas and financial tools I use to make a life, as an example of how to cope in a society that has changed dramatically since I grew up in the 1950s.

I hope to generate a discussion in the second part of the hour, that focuses on the idea that alternative living is not only possible, but is a necessary approach to life expectancies that stretch into our 80s and beyond thanks to adequate nutrition and good health that is endemic to our way of life in Iowa. I hope you find value in hearing my story.

My father worked at a meat packing plant in Davenport for $85 per week, and my mother worked at home. We had enough money to afford a home with a mortgage, food, clothing, parochial schools, transportation, health insurance and vacations on a household income of around $4,500 per year.

As we know, things have changed. In 2011, the estimated median household income in Solon was $61,394 or 14 times what my parents generated. Many people I meet believe that amount of income is not only needed, it may not be enough.

Something else has changed in 60 years, and what I am most concerned about is the value of work, the kind my mother did at home, and my father did at the plant, has been degraded and replaced with something else in our burgeoning consumer society. It has taken us away from the foundations upon which lives used to be built. Our lives must be about something besides consumption of stuff, and appreciating the value of work is a starting point.

My story is about getting back to a kind of living that is more diverse than holding one or two well paying jobs in a household and slaving away to save enough for retirement, whatever that is in the 21st century. One that enables us to earn a living wage, contribute to the broader society, and sustain our lives on the Iowa prairie.

I re-purposed my life in 2009 after 25 years in transportation and logistics. Our daughter graduated from college in 2007 with minimal debt, and my wife Jacque and I were in reasonably good financial shape. We had no chronic health conditions, and hopefully, a lot of years to live.

When I left CRST Logistics in Cedar Rapids, I was on track to earn a six figure salary, so with Jacque’s income from her part time job, we were doing better than average. I might have stayed on, and pursued the rewards of longevity, but there were vulnerabilities.

The Toyota Financial Services job seeker web site, says it in black and white: normal retirement age is 62, which is my current age. As I approached traditional retirement age, I didn’t know where I stood in the broader scheme of the company. I had contributed to the rapid and sustainable growth of CRST from a $60 million trucking company that thrived after the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated trucking, to a full transportation solutions company that earned more than $1 billion in revenues last year. I felt too young to slow down, but the company could hire three people for my salary, and when I left each position I held, they usually did. This is normal in large organizations, something we don’t hear much about. While I was treated fairly where I worked, there is no obligation for any company to keep employees until retirement. That’s just the way it is.

Another important aspect of my work was I felt ready for a change. While I helped build the company over 25 years, and had experienced its growth and the opportunities that go along with that, I felt stale. When our daughter graduated from college, I was not adjusting well to being an empty nester. This feeling increased as she chose to leave Iowa.

I felt ready for a change and on July 3, 2009, left the company for good. I was not ready to retire, even if I had a retirement cake and party when I left, and an unexpected call from the owner expressing his thanks for my 25 years of work.

If there are stages to life, which one am I in? My colleague at the Solon Economist, Milli Gilbaugh wrote about the trouble defining that stage past middle age, and before elderly, in a recent column.

I suppose it is nearly impossible to find a word for the stage of life I’m in; a word that seems accurate and inoffensive to everyone. As a matter of fact, I’ve had trouble knowing just what to call myself for some time.”

Ages seem to be rather neatly divided into 20-year segments, up until we reach 60 and are unceremoniously thrown into the ‘elderly’ cauldron, ready or not. The term ‘child’ generally includes everyone from birth through their teens. After that they are ‘adults’ for another 20 when they suddenly enter the category of “middle age” that will last until they turn 60. After that, we are apparently doomed forever to be ‘elderly’ which I think begins too soon and lasts too long.

What we need here is another 20 year category between ‘middle age’ and “elderly” that includes the years from sixty to eighty.

I couldn’t agree more. With good health, proper nutrition and financial sustainability, there is a lot of living to be done between 60 and 80.

Where I landed after a career in transportation was with a portfolio of activities, some paid and some not. I value all of the work I do and have to make choices on how I spend my time. My life is a systematic and thoughtful process of continuous evaluation and improvement.

My recent work has been general farm work, warehouse work, issue and candidate advocacy, public speaking, and writing. This is much different from my transportation career, which included experience in operations management, personnel recruitment, procurement and logistics. I have served on a number of non-profit boards, including the Johnson County Board of Health, and the Solon Senior Advocates, and am currently serving a four year term as one of three Big Grove Township Trustees. It keeps me busy, and there is a process to achieve financial sustainability over time, and that’s what I want to spend the balance of my time describing.

There are four financial tools I want to discuss, retirement, financial management, research and development, and investment.

Let me cross retirement off the list right away. What an outdated concept in an era when companies are shedding liabilities like pensions and health insurance like there is no tomorrow. Perhaps there is a role for retirement among people who perform physical labor for a career, as they may truly need to slow down and take it easy at age 62. But the idea that we save for a lifetime to enjoy a well financed retirement life, as we hear from financial planners of every stripe, is a joke. The reality is that people in the United States have one of the lowest household savings rates in the world, ranking 22nd among industrialized nations. We say we should be saving for retirement, but aren’t. A better process for aging is needed.

We all know life doesn’t stop, and neither do expenses. What I propose as a replacement for retirement is re-imaging what the years between ages 60 and 80 could be: a portfolio approach to financial sustainability. It begins with the idea that all work has value whether it is compensated or not.

If you look at my weekly activities, they include about 20 hours working as a shift supervisor at a warehouse, 10-15 hours working for the weekly newspaper, 3-5 hours working on a farm, 20 or more hours writing at home, and 5-8 hours volunteering with various organizations. The balance of my time is spent gardening, cooking, reading, doing chores and most importantly, networking.

I am constantly seeking new opportunities to earn income, but have little interest in going back to work that requires 60-70 hours a week of my time and excludes other opportunities. There is too much risk in that. Like large companies that have research and development operations, so too, we should be constantly in the hunt for interesting opportunities for engaging and useful work. When we find a new opportunity it needs to be evaluated and fit into time constraints. There is a process for that.

This is where financial management comes in. It is important to use a few tools that are common in business to evaluate and make improvements in our financial situation. Most important is periodic reporting and planning.

Each month I sit down and write a report of what happened. This is not a personal diary, but a tool to think about what happened, what is important, and what needs to change to sustain our lives. I share this with my spouse, so I have an audience and potential feedback.

The report begins with a general discussion about health and welfare. If we don’t have and maintain good health, getting along can be a challenge. It pays to formally think about it, put it into words and make needed changes on a regular basis.

The second section is a financial report that covers periodic income and expenses, and highlights things that were different about a particular month. It included a budget analysis, which helps identify problems before they happen.

I also keep track of certain activities, like events, meetings, business development activities, and others and record them in the third section. I refer to this often as memory sometimes fails me.

The final section is a balance sheet depicting assets and liabilities. This is a basic and fundamental tool to know where one stands financially and the library has some good resources on this.

My goal is to develop a stable analytical platform from which I can explore opportunities for part time work, temporary jobs and projects that will produce value. My current focus is to add more farm work.

Over time, the kinds of activities may change, but the biggest risk we may face is getting stuck in something that is neither sustainable nor good for us. Retirement is replaceable, and that can be a good thing, especially if we have a process for positive change.

Research and development is mostly about networking. I have found it is important to get out of the house and talk to real people about what is going on in society. There are more than enough volunteer opportunities, so most often, I seek to develop a particular interest when I network with people, that will hopefully point to income opportunities.

One of the key roles work with non-profits served after leaving my transportation career was to introduce me to a wide range of people n the community. There is value in friendship and working on a common purpose, and it is important to maintain engagement in some non-profit volunteer work as part of a sustainable portfolio.

Lastly, I want to discuss investment, and I don’t mean stocks and bonds. Financial resources are important, but I found the best investments have been in myself.

The key lesson I learned has been that many small investments of time and resources are better than staking a single claim on something big. The benefit is that if one source of income goes away, or an investment doesn’t make a return, it is not devastating to replace part of a financial system rather than a single high stake investment. This is what successful business people do, and why shouldn’t we operate the same way? We should.

This has been my personal story about choices I made for sustaining a sound financial life, and some of the tools I have used. Thank you for coming to listen and now let’s open the floor to questions.

Juke Box – This Train is Bound for Glory

To Amend In Iowa Get Moving

David Cobb at the Iowa City Public Library

David Cobb at the Iowa City Public Library

IOWA CITY— We can thank Move to Amend for the sentences “corporations are not people,” and “money is not free speech.” Now what?

David Cobb, one of the founders of the organization, didn’t have an answer at the Iowa City Public Library on April 17. He did say if we filled out a sheet the national organization will plug us in. Plus us into what?

“Our essence was the realization that even people who engage in civic engagement on issues, and there has been just amazing work that’s done,” he said. “But we haven’t, in my lifetime and maybe in a generation, seen the kind of social movements that are the earmarks of this country. The social movement that culminated in the American Revolution, actually the creation of this country, was in fact a social movement. So too was the abolitionist movement, and the women’s suffrage movement, and the trade union movement, and the civil rights movement.”

“You see there is something different between movement and issue organizing or issue activism,” Cobb concluded.

The brochure Cobb distributed on Thursday had great organizing information, with solid ideas: form a study group; organize a workshop or street theater event and invite a speaker from their organization; pass out brochures at public events; write a letter to the editor or op-ed in your local newspaper; propose a local resolution or ordinance; contact elected officials and ask them to take a public stand; or sign a petition. Here’s the rub, organizing does not a movement make.

Blog for Iowa has been writing about Citizens United, which led to creation of Move to Amend, for years. Readers are familiar with the idea of amending the Constitution to say 1). Only natural persons have Constitutional rights and 2). Money is not free speech. After almost four years of being in Iowa, Move to Amend has picked some low hanging fruit: resolutions passed by a handful of governing bodies, some organizing, and a couple of Democratic sponsors for legislation. However, the bicameral Iowa legislature is no closer to acting on amending the Constitution than they were before the Citizens United decision was handed down.

What Move to Amend needs is to become a movement, something Cobb knew this afternoon. It is a long distance from that.

It is ironic that an organization born out of a think tank and turned into a 501 (c) 3 is what Cobb’s narrative implied is not needed. If Iowans want to amend the constitution regarding corporate personhood and money as free speech, then we better get moving. Move to Amend is looking at a 30 year process to amend the Constitution, according to Cobb. The truth is we can’t wait.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Curiosity About Food

Washed Vegetables

Washed Vegetables

LAKE MACBRIDE— During the late 1990s I worked on a logistics project in Ochlocknee, Ga. for four months. I don’t remember much about the town, except it was a poor place, with a per capita income of $10,112. When I encountered locals outside the job site, the conversation was a mix of complaining, gossiping and harshness. The place and its people defined hard-scrabble.

The project was located at the largest employer in the area, which was and is involved in mining and processing minerals for a variety of consumer applications. No local ever complained to me about the mines. The rest of the economy was agricultural: peanuts, cotton and pecans. It was a common practice to let cattle roam without fences, and we frequently had to stop the car on Main Street to let them cross. I decided to stay in the nearby county seat at a motel with cable television— a needed escape after working 14 hour days.

TV Food Network, as it was known, occupied my non-working time, and I developed an insatiable curiosity about food and its preparation. Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Julia Child and others prepared food on screen, and I was captivated, watching episode after episode on Georgia weekends. Food is a common denominator for humanity, and I couldn’t get enough. My involvement in the local food movement today has its origins in the contrast between that uninviting place in South Georgia and my food escape.

There is a broader point to be made than one person’s transient addiction to a television network while away from home. It is that American food pursuits, and the economy around them, continue to be based partly upon curiosity.

I discovered a confection made of dark chocolate, quinoa, blueberries and agave syrup. Why would any informed person want that, given the problems?

Maybe blueberries could be cut some slack, but cocoa production is a fragile and labor intensive operation. The growing demand for cocoa products is leading to deforestation and its negative impact on the environment. Consumer demand for quinoa has elevated prices so that indigenous people in Peru, who used it as a staple food, now can’t afford it. Agave syrup has 50 percent more calories per tablespoon than refined sugar, and like sugar and corn syrup, is a highly processed food. According to WebMD, “the American Diabetes Association lists agave along with other sweeteners (table sugar, honey, brown sugar, molasses, fructose, maple sugar, and confectioner’s sugar) that should be limited in diabetic diets.”

The answer to the question is people like chocolate and are curious about food.

It seems clear that American curiosity about food and food preparation drives what we find in stores. It is a commonplace that corn syrup can be found in every aisle of a traditional mega mart, but it is the endless combinations of diverse ingredients that attract our attention then get us to buy.

By developing and marketing new things— quinoa mixed with chocolate or chicken, troll or pole and line caught tuna, gluten and GMO free products, and a host of others— purveyors of the consumer economy seek to engage us through the current sales cycle. I suspect we will stop buying at some point, returning to staple foods, or moving on to what the food marketers deem next.

In a free society, people should be able to do what they want with only minimal restrictions to protect the commons. In our consumer society, that is a joke. For a local food system to be sustainable beyond the initial curiosity of trying it out, something fundamental must change. It is a need— perceived or real— to change from the act of consuming to the act of production. That involves a lot of hard work, and I’m not sure it could be done in the current society.

If we are serious about sustainability and local food systems, we must get beyond curiosity, and distraction from the challenges of a turbulent world. We must get to the production of things that matter in our lives on the prairie.

Rain and Other News

Lunar Eclipse April 15, 2014

Lunar Eclipse April 15, 2014

LAKE MACBRIDE— Sunday and Monday rain was welcome and much needed. According to the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, 2.7 inches fell. The ground remains too wet for planting, and this morning, temperatures dipped below freezing— it’s 25 degrees presently and too cold for outdoors work. There was a large crew at the farm yesterday, so the soil blocking for the week got done without me. If the ground dries later in the week, there will be planting, but for now there is a schedule gap— also welcome and much needed.

The sound of cello on my smartphone alarm woke me at 1 a.m. to view the total lunar eclipse. Still in my bedclothes, I pulled up the blinds and the sky was as clear as it gets. The eclipse had just begun.

I pulled on my jeans and a shirt, donned my winter coat, and went outside to witness the proceedings. The houses were mostly dark and moonlight reflected off the surface of the lake. Only the sound from a distant I-380 could be heard. I was the only person outside in my neighborhood.  It was worth breaking deep sleep to watch as Earth dimmed the moon for a while.

There were spectacular images and a live stream available on the Internet, but I preferred my own view, filtered by the atmosphere and my aging retinas, captured on a handheld digital camera. Along with the light pollution from Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, the Milky Way could be seen. And so many stars.

Checking my email on the smartphone before heading back to bed, I found my state representative, Bobby Kaufmann, formally announced his campaign for re-election yesterday. That’s not really news, just a tick mark off a list of political events I am monitoring. The newspaper asked me to do interviews with the two candidates in the Democratic primary, and I accepted the assignment. The newspaper work gives me more reason to keep my views in this race to myself.

When I returned to bed, I slept a full five hours, and am ready for the day with the unexpected gift of a couple of hours to myself. A rarity in sustaining a life on the Iowa prairie.