Living in Society

I’m for Mike Franken

The Democratic primary election is June 7 and I’m supporting retired three-star admiral Michael Franken for Iowa’s next U.S. Senator.

To learn more about Mike Franken, his experience, and what he stands for, visit his website here.


Writer’s Week #7

Playing with a Frisbee on Gilbert Court in Iowa City.

It isn’t clear when it began yet I’ve reached a stopping point in writing my autobiography. I had intended to breeze through my undergraduate education at the University of Iowa — touching key points only — so I could focus on my trip to Europe, military experience, and the time leading up to our wedding and the birth of our only child. I’m inside those years in Iowa City pretty deep and the dive has only begun.

As I wrote about my early and K-12 years in Davenport, it was easier to paint with a broad brush. The narrative I sought to reduce to paper had been forming for a long time, comprised of specific memories and a small set of people, places and things. I had never thought of my years from birth to high school graduation in a structured manner before. I’m learning about those times in a way I hadn’t considered. It was easy to avoid complexities as moving away from home, and what I became at university, gained more narrative importance. I have had to stop and take stock. That’s where I remain for the time being, likely for the rest of summer.

My last year of university was transformational and I’m just beginning to understand how much so.

Senior year, when I lived in a shared home on Gilbert Court, was the time when Oscar Mayer & Company offered me a job as a plant foreman. I appreciate the offer. They didn’t have to make it. Yet when they funded most of my education in the form of a grant from the Mayer family after the death of my father at the Davenport plant, it seemed appropriate. I recall the first summer I worked at the meat packing plant. One of the millwrights I was helping offered to take me to see the elevator which collapsed and killed Father. I had no interest in reliving that history then, or on a daily basis while working there. I declined the offer.

I had not developed any strong relationships with women by the time 1974 arrived. It seemed unlikely I would be ready to do so for a while. During summer gatherings with male high school classmates, they were often ready for sexual action. I was not and those nights we departed company so they could pursue their desires. I developed relationships with women at university, yet wanted to be friends. I couldn’t bear the possibility of a romantic breakup forcing us to separate. Lack of a “girlfriend” was a background tension I dealt with by living a full life in other ways.

The most important transformation may be coming to terms with the desire to be creative. After graduation I spent years considering what that meant. A group of poets and artists gathered at our house from time to time. Some are better known than others yet it was David Morice, Darrel Gray, Alan and Cinda Kornblum, Jim Mulac, and others who stopped by. I was enamored of Actualists, perhaps. In any case, I learned from them that a conventional approach to poetry, fiction writing and book making wasn’t necessary for success. I didn’t know any of them well, yet hanging with them in the living room helped me grow creatively.

I was taking art and art history classes to complete my degree in English. I dabbled in ceramics, tie dye, music, photography and other media. I realized there was no clear path to success as an artist, let alone the multi-media creator I vaguely wanted to become. I gave up a conventional career in the meat packing plant, in favor of a speculative future. It was unlike what I expected in high school and held a sketchy future at best. The desire to pursue this idea drove much of what I did throughout the rest of my life yet especially the following eight years.

The autobiography will be better for all this new understanding. Yet I have to get back at it. Currently, there is much work to get the garden planted. Once that’s done perhaps the muse will visit again.

Living in Society

Slowing Down

Apple blossoms.

Sandy is the spark plug of our community, especially when it comes to services for senior citizens, yet more than that. We met Saturday morning at a political event at the public library. A primary election is coming up on June 7 and there is stuff to discuss.

I asked Sandy about donating garden produce to the food bank again this year. She said the food bank would welcome the contributions and local donations were an important part of providing fresh food to people who need it. “I’m trying to slow down,” she said, explaining that some younger people were now taking donations on Mondays. Sandy turned 87 last September so there is nothing to say about her slowing down, other than she earned it. No one can replace what she has done for the community. We are grateful for any time with her.

For dinner I pulled something from the freezer and noticed the item was not hard, as it should be. The thermometer registered 50 degrees, precipitating “oh noes!” I spent an hour emptying everything into five-gallon buckets for composting. A lot of work went into preserving the food. Such is life: eventually our efforts become compost.

The two apple trees planted in 2020 are in bloom. That means a few apples, we hope. When one plants trees it is hard to avoid a long-term perspective. If there are apples, we’ll enjoy them.

Living in Society

Corn Planting and a Haboob

Iowa haboob on May 12, 2022. Photo Credit – KCCI – TV8

I tapped the brakes as we drove home from Des Moines on Monday, May 9. A farmer was discing a field and wind blew large clouds of dust from behind him across Interstate 80. It obscured the view, rendering driving unsafe.

Losing valuable topsoil might be cause for concern, except that corn and soybeans are grown mostly by application of commercial fertilizer and insecticides to ground with hybrid seeds. Tilling the ground where seeds, fertilizer, water and bugs meet, to create a suitable growing medium, matters more than actual topsoil in Iowa. High winds blowing topsoil away doesn’t seem to matter much to today’s Iowa farmers.

A network of farming hums in pre-dawn hours this time of year. Beginning well before sunrise, farmers call each other from kitchens and barns to discuss and decide what they will do that day. If they prize their individualism and freedom, they also speak and act more or less uniformly about crop decisions. There is a fixed ideology of modern agriculture involving corn, soybeans, hogs and cattle. Long delayed this year, this week’s decision was to get corn in the ground.

On Wednesday, May 11, Eleanor Hildebrandt posted an article, “Iowa’s prime corn yields likely gone.”

At the beginning of the second week of May, Iowa farmers were two weeks behind the average planting schedule to the past five years. It was the slowest planting pace in nearly a decade. Only 14 percent of seed corn was in the ground on Sunday, as April weather made it particularly difficult to plant potentially successful seedlings. Research on corn yield from Iowa State University shows the most successful corn crops are planted before middle May.

Iowa’s prime corn yields likely gone by Eleanor Hildebrandt, May 11, 2022

Experts don’t believe the 2022 corn crop will break any records.

It has been a windy week. While no news source is discussing the relationship between the 2022 corn planting season and a somewhat unique weather phenomenon called a haboob, it seems clear that hundreds of farmers plowing, discing, and planting corn loosened thousands of acres of topsoil. When combined with high winds, topsoil blew away in gigantic clouds like those in the image above.

When weather outlets began using the word “haboob,” I immediately thought of Desert One and the failed 1980 attempt during the Carter administration to rescue 52 American hostages from the Iranian embassy. The helicopters unexpectedly encountered haboobs in the desert, which disrupted their flight plans toward Desert One, a staging area. The Atlantic tells the story of the haboobs during the operation here.

Photo Credit – National Weather Service.

The other image that came to mind after reading “haboob,” was of Farm Security Agency photographs of Kansas dust storms in 1935. These storms were attributable to the sod busters who broke up the prairie and farmed the land to exhaustion after the Homestead Act of 1862. These iconic images are a part of our history.

The disconnect of yesterday’s haboob from the large scale farming that made it possible is a sad statement about the nature of our news media and its influence over how we view our lives. Television viewers and radio listeners marvel at the use of a “different” and “peculiar” word to describe the weather phenomenon rather than discuss the causes of this loss of topsoil. At some point the loss of topsoil will matter more than it seemingly does. Yet we have dumbed down the way we take in information, and seem prepared to swallow anything as long as it doesn’t upset the equilibrium of how we currently understand the world.

Don’t get me started on education, though. On Thursday, May 12, there was a League of Women Voters candidate forum in Tiffin where four of six Republican Iowa House District 91 primary candidates spoke about education. This is from the Iowa City Press Citizen.

Education and what is taught in schools to children quickly became one of the main topics of the night as candidates were asked by audience members about the teaching of critical race theory and gender and sexual orientation in schools. Most of the candidates argued against teaching both, often making transphobic remarks in addition to their answers.

GOP District 91 debate includes education, conspiracy theories by George Shillcock, Iowa City Press Citizen, May 14, 2022.

Maybe my expectations are too high for Iowa.

Kitchen Garden

It’s Spring By The Calendar

Garden on May 11, 2022.

With intense heat, humidity, and heat advisories, my shifts in the garden have been shorter this year. When I get dizzy, it’s time to head into the house and cool down. There is progress, nonetheless.

All the trays of seedlings under the grow light found their way to the greenhouse on Wednesday. I will need to start more lettuce, yet it can wait. The main crops — broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, squash and beans — need to get in the ground as soon as my four-hour shifts allow.

The calendar says we have five weeks of spring left, but I don’t know about that. Technically, it is spring, yet weather-wise, summer has arrived.

Kitchen Garden

Sunday Afternoon Walk

Pac Choi.

Around 1 p.m. I finished in the garden and took a walk on the state park trail. The wind had picked up. While there was plenty of remaining work in the garden, onions were in and other plots tended, I was ready to break the tension from wondering how I would fit everything in the ground this year.

The trail held little traffic: a couple of joggers and a group of young adults out sight-seeing. Spring has arrived with greys and brown of winter yielding to green, yellow and purple. There has been human activity in the park, due mostly to cleanup of the 2020 derecho and the recent prairie burn. The margins between the trail and housing developments get thinner each year. The breeze helped me forget.

Mostly I felt the rush of air on my face as I walked my prescribed route. Strong wind is a blessing and a curse. Yesterday it was a stress-reliever.

Under the row cover everything looked good. I inspected and weeded, then picked some Pac Choi for a stir fry this week, and enough lettuce and spinach to make a small salad. Dinner was the salad with organic rotini and sauce leftover from Friday’s pizza-making. I’m ready for my spouse to return home.

As I read the news after dinner, a longing for better times arrived. When I graduated high school it felt like the strictures of society were loosening. There was hope for better days for our country and our lives in it. No more. Republicans never liked the changes of the 1960s and ’70s. Since Ronald Reagan was elected president they have been rolling back the liberties we gained. The repression pushes down on everything.

They say longing and loss brings people together yet I don’t know about that today. Yesterday I wrote a friend, “I think things changed dramatically during the pandemic. Not only did we break all our good habits, I don’t see enthusiasm for just about anything in real life. People simply want to get by in their own world and leave the politics and pandemic out of it.” What good is it to bring together yet another isolated small group when the tide of conservatism threatens everything we have come to know?

I used the garden hose for the first time this season. It is old. I need to get a new one. The mended joints came loose while it was in storage. They leaked as it filled with water pressure. The nozzle is kaput as well. This morning I’ll take wrenches and a screwdriver to repair the joints again. There are a couple of old nozzles in the garage to use if needed. I don’t like them as well yet one of them will serve. Despite the leaks, the garden got watered and will until I replace the hose. That is, if I do.

So it goes on a spring day in Big Grove Township.

Kitchen Garden

Shift of Onion Planting

Pizza toppings: Kalamata olives, spring onions and red bell pepper.

On Saturday I spent seven hours planting onions. The names of onion varieties are delightful: Walla Walla, Red Carpet, Ailsa Craig and Rossa di Milano were started from seed.

I emptied the wagon and hooked it to the lawn tractor to haul heavy things. I used to carry the 100-foot water hose, tiller and everything else out there, yet I don’t want to risk being injured. This is a concession to age. The new system reduced the number of trips back to the house.

I filled the small cooler we received as a wedding gift with iced water and a couple of canned beverages. When I got thirsty, a drink was nearby. Hydration is important when working in the sun, as are frequent rest breaks.

This may be the last year for seeding my own onions. Onion starts from the seed supplier have done better than home-seeded ones. It is the final results that matter. I planted three long rows of Patterson onion starts, figuring this would be the mainstay for long-term storage. The variety did well last year so we’ll see how they do.

When I finished for the day, I showered and made a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner. I didn’t feel like cooking. I sliced some store-bought radishes in half and had them as a side dish. Garden radishes should be ready soon. I fell asleep in the reading chair shortly after sitting down. Knowing my condition, I set the alarm to wake me in time to view the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate debate. The primary election is June 7.

My spouse has been at her sister’s home since Earth Day and I’m ready for her to return. Today’s forecast is clear with more wind than yesterday. I should finish the onions and till at least one more plot. Gardening season seemed like it would never arrive, yet it has.

Living in Society

Fences in Washington

Enchiladas just out of the oven.

I heard this morning security officials have begun to install non-scalable fencing around the U.S. Supreme Court. Lines are being drawn as the future of Supreme Court decisions with three Trump appointees on the bench clarifies. I agree with my Blog for Iowa colleague, Trish Nelson, who wrote today, We Are Going Back.

In this tumultuous time I’m reading C. Bradley Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It. The founders were concerned with a tyranny of the majority. These days it is the tyranny of a minority of voters that gives us pause.

Nothing about the coming changes is new. On Aug. 17, 2016 I wrote:

What makes August part of the summer of weird normal is the lack of political talk about almost anything but the Republican nominee for president. It is normal that a lot of voters activate during presidential election years. What is weird is a combination of things including regular people cozying up to Donald Trump; people who would bleed Democratic if cut saying they won’t vote for Hillary Clinton no matter what; and controversial issues, including climate change, abortion, school funding, incarceration rates, water quality and government spending, being sidelined to watch the national political show.

Journey Home, Aug. 17, 2016.

With Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett on the high court, there seems no limit to what fundamental parts of our lives in common can be rolled back. Key issues that matter in millions of American lives are no longer being sidelined. The whole thing seems likely to be dismantled. It is unsettling.

The undoing of modern society began with Citizens United v. FEC and Shelby County v. Holder. The court is expected to be supercharged to toss aside decades of precedent and decisions to get us to a form of the society The Federalist Society, who recommended Trump’s justices, envisions for us. Instead of being governed by “We the people,” the few have taken over the joystick of power in society.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether our grievances are sufficient cause to revolt against our government. We can either vote Republicans out of office or do something else. My sense is we are not at the “something else” phase yet.

Changes at the Supreme Court took place in front of our eyes. The rejection of Hillary Clinton by some Democrats marked the onset of what we are seeing today, even if the roots of it lay further back. There are no quick or easy fixes. Posting such grievances I have on this blog or in social media does little to effect the change we need to stop the bleeding of our rights and privileges. We need to stop the bleeding.

We also need to rise up, although it’s not clear what that means in 2022. It is time to figure it out. Let’s hope the fence around the Supreme Court is temporary.

Kitchen Garden

Inch by Inch, Row by Row

Onion Plot, May 2, 2022.

It is always upsetting to spade the garden in spring. When I do, it disturbs a world that became stable since the last growing season. One year I found a burrow of rabbits. This year it was a mouse maze under a section of ground cover. As a human gardener I have no choice but to remove the pests. That’s not to mention the microbial empire disrupted by the turn of a shovel. While the spaded garden may resemble a mass-murder scene from the perspective of earthworms and bacteria, in the long term, the garden is better for it. Better for humans, anyway.

I’ve been reading about the Declaration of Independence. Property and the ability to acquire, own, and do what one wants with it as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others was an unspoken aspect of the founding document. Here is the declaration of rights from the second paragraph. Note there is no mention of property.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Declaration of Independence, National Archives.

There were slave holders among the founders. They realized including enslaved humans as part of “all men” who had self-evident rights would have dire consequences for the new republic. In chattel slavery’s peculiar institution, enslaved humans were property without rights. Slave-holding founders were mixed in their views toward slavery, yet the new country assumed slavery would continue to exist after 1776. What may be speculation today, yet seems equally self-evident, is the founders set in motion a process that would lead President Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves. This process of emancipation continues to today. Despite Chief Justice John Robert’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, that racial disparity is not as bad as it was when the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965, and preclearance of changes to voting laws identified by geography no longer applied, the need for racial justice continues.

My plots of garden are more fertile than most of the farmland surrounding us. If I’ve taken to applying composted chicken and turkey manure as fertilizer, my gardening practices are nothing like the chemical-based, Borlaugian agriculture practiced by so many of my neighbors. Any life destroyed by planting the soil in a garden will be renewed and the soil made more healthy.

Despite delays, there will be a garden this year. Already the turnips, peas and beets are germinating in the ground. Inch by inch, row by row. I’m going to make this garden grow. Now if the rain will let up for a few days.

Kitchen Garden

Sunday Cooking in Place

We Are The Revolution by Massimo Bottura.

My spouse remains at her sister’s home, helping her move, unpack and settle in. Sunday in Big Grove the weather was sub-optimal for gardening. With temperatures in the 40s and 50s, intermittent rain, and ground too wet to work, I stayed busy indoors all morning. It was in the afternoon things changed.

The greenhouse is filled with seedlings and once the weather breaks there is a lot to get planted. For now I wait for better conditions. That’s where I found myself, as we find ourselves so often, longing for something that isn’t. It can get the best of us on wistful Sunday afternoons alone.

I moped for a while, then reheated a container of leftover creamed vegetables and chick peas for lunch. At some point I sat in the living room and picked up my mobile device to watch videos. I started with President Biden’s speech at the White House Correspondents dinner Saturday night. Next, I watched Trevor Noah’s remarks there. There was some humor tinged with remorse at what our politics have become.

Around 2 p.m. I went to my writing place and turned everything off, including my desktop. In a roundabout way, I got back to videos.

I watched Iowa Press where the guest was State Auditor Rob Sand. Being auditor isn’t a flashy job, yet Sand has made something of his position. What he didn’t do was let O. Kay Henderson trap him into the conventional news narrative about the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Here’s the transcript:

Henderson: Your party, the Iowa Democratic Party, is going to have to make a case to the Democratic National Committee that Iowa’s Caucuses should remain first. What case would you make?

Sand: That experience matters in doing this. I talked to a reporter who has been a national reporter for a long time during the caucuses last time and I remember he has traveled all over the country. And he’s like, you know what, you guys actually are, you’re really good at this. I mean, I go to New Hampshire a lot and they’ve got experience with it too, but the quality of the questions that are asked of the person who wants to be the next leader of the free world in the state of Iowa are just head and shoulders above any other state.

Henderson: But that’s not the issue. The issue is participation. The caucuses prevent people from participating because of the mode of the voting and also it has got this weird caucus math.

Sand: Yeah. We can continue to make reforms. I think that’s fine. We can make the changes. But Iowa culturally has that attentive population that is good I think at asking those questions and filling that role and I think it would be a mistake for us to not be going first.

Iowa Press, April 29, 2022.

I appreciate Sand sticking to his talking point on the caucuses, even If I disagree Iowa should be first.

The afternoon waned. The main work of the day finished, I picked up my mobile device again and watched a couple of Massimo Bottura’s homemade videos from the pandemic. “This is not Master Class cooking,” he said. “It is home cooking.”

Then I came upon the video linked above, in which Bottura talks about the relationship between art and food. “My kitchen is not a book of recipes, a list of ingredients, or a demonstration of techniques,” he said. “But a way of understanding my terrain.” That gets to the heart of what I am trying to accomplish in my kitchen garden. It was unsettling.

I’d been planning to make pizza for a few days and after 3 p.m. I began making the dough. It begins with a scant cup of hot water taken from the tap. I put my finger in it to make sure it is not hot enough to kill the active dry yeast. I pour it in a bowl and add a teaspoon of yeast, a teaspoon of sugar, a dash of salt and a tablespoon of all purpose flour and mix it together. I add flour, knead it into a ball and put it in an oiled, covered bowl to rise in an oven at the lowest possible setting. It takes about an hour.

Pizza sauce is different each time I make it. My current go-to is a 15 ounce can of Kirkland organic tomato sauce. It is seasoned, yet I add. Sunday the mixture was a teaspoon each of granulated garlic, onion powder, home-grown oregano, and basil. It was a rich, dark red color. About half was reserved for pasta later in the week.

When the dough had risen, I punched it down and kneaded again. I put the ball on a piece of parchment paper laid across the wooden paddle and formed the dough. I learned if the edges remain mostly untouched they will bake to be thick. I’ve been enjoying that the last several pies.

Toppings are a “what’s in the refrigerator moment.” It was capers, spring onions and part of a fresh red bell pepper. Toppings are almost never the same and depend on what’s available. Pizzas are the best once basil comes in from the garden.

I topped it with mozzarella cheese and slid it into the 500 degree oven on the ceramic floor tiles I placed on the bottom shelf. Eight minutes later, dinner was ready.

I don’t know if what I wrote is a recipe. It wasn’t intended to be. Engagement in food preparation was a way of dealing with one solitary afternoon. It’s the same way writing about it from our quiet house this morning is. There are days when we yearn to be with people and others we crave solitude. While we are never truly separate from society, gaining introspection for a while helps us function better in the broader world. Naming what this is is not necessary. It’s expressing a dominion over something that doesn’t need it. Call it what you will, but I’ll use the phrase “cooking in place.” It made the best of what could have been a lonesome afternoon.