Living in Society

Forward from the Pandemic

U.S. National Guard troops bivouacked at the U.S. Capitol. Photo credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP.

The global census of deaths from COVID-19 passed 2 million this year. The pandemic seems far from over.

For comparison, the number of deaths from the 1918 influenza pandemic was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. deaths from COVID-19 will surpass 400,000 during the next few days.

These numbers indicate the United States is behind the rest of the world in addressing the coronavirus pandemic. If one has been following our politics, this comes as no surprise. Perhaps the greatest liability the current president will leave on Jan. 20 is his bungling of the federal response to the pandemic. One hopes President-elect Biden lives up to his campaign slogan to “Build Back Better.” He announced his plan to address the pandemic and hopefully the Congress will pass and fund it.

I wrote a friend asking me to get involved with a project this morning, “There are many projects begging for attention. As the knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade told Jones, ‘You must choose, but choose wisely.’ I am in the balance between picking the right work and not waiting too long to get started.” My bottom line is I must keep my powder dry until I know when it will be safe to leave the house, when I can get the COVID-19 vaccine, and where my limited time can do the most good. I’d like to take on additional projects, yet I wait.

The government designated parts of Washington, D.C. a green zone during the run up to the inauguration, another legacy of shame for the current president. The good news for Biden is it can only get better from here. So we hope.


Photographs for Writing

Summer sailboats on Lake Macbride

Thursday was a day to organize photographs.

I copied the remaining digital photographs from a storage drive to my desktop and began reviewing and labeling dozens of envelopes of printed photographs. It was all in a day’s work on my autobiography.

The rise of popular photography in the 20th Century is endlessly fascinating, partly because my family participated in it. Changing technology and how it influenced our picture taking informs its increasing democratization. In a time of ubiquitous mobile cameras and the internet it is difficult to determine a consistent meaning of a single image. Changing technology and our adoption of it enables a narrative about our lives that is the focus of writers like me.

A large majority of printed images I handled survived without damage. So far there was only one photo album where prints on opposing pages stuck to each other and ruined them. There were a lot of photographs of other prints made to get them into my collection. That process had mixed results. When I was working on a big project, with hundreds of prints, I scanned multiple prints on one image with the idea of editing them down to individual images later. It sped up the intake process, but I’m not sure of its efficacy as I haven’t gotten to editing most of them.

Whatever I have on hand I will use. Photo sessions over the years, regardless of subject, tell a story of their own. Some of those sessions are compelling, begging further explanation. Some are not. Until I know what’s available it’s impossible to settle on which ones to use.

Photographic prints don’t always have a timestamp on them. Writing is partly about determining when things happened and how they fit a broader narrative. For example, our first family vacation was to Orlando, Florida where we stayed in a motel and visited Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. We took photographs with cameras and developed the film. It was the 25th anniversary of the Walt Disney World opening as the prints reminded me. While there was no timestamp on the prints, I could easily determine they were taken the summer of 1997 during Disney’s 15-month celebration of the occasion. The most difficult prints to date were taken after we moved back to Iowa in 1993 before we adopted digital cameras. There is an evolving discipline to dating prints and I’m getting better at it.

I’ve been successful at meeting my daily writing plan yet there will soon be a bottleneck caused by too many artifacts, previous writing, photographs, and stories to review. I get daily rushes done yet editing lags behind. On the plus side, I’m figuring out a new way to write and that’s part of the project. Consistent, daily work on varied aspects of the project is making a difference. The coronavirus pandemic created an environment for this.

Living in Society

January 13, 2021

Cedar Rapids Gazette, Jan. 14, 2021.

President Donald Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday on a 232-197 vote. He could have gone gracefully after losing the election, but chose not to.

I listened to much of the so-called debate on the article of impeachment and affirmed most politicians don’t really know how to debate or give a speech other than one that promotes confirmation bias.

The future for our country is uncertain, Washington D.C. is going on lock down for the inauguration, National Guard soldiers are on bivouac inside the capitol, and citizens are being discouraged from attending the inauguration ceremony in person. This is not normal.

America is still here after the president’s actions leading up to Jan. 6. We will remain once Trump’s term ends on Jan. 20. Anyone familiar with American history knows we are not perfect. We strive to get better, to form a more perfect union as Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address. On the morning after the impeachment we have a long distance to go.


Writing Space

Writing space in 2000.

Writing 20 years ago meant something different than it does today.

I worked a full-time, demanding job in Eldridge, Iowa which meant a 67-mile, one-way commute on days I worked in the office. I managed dedicated fleet operations in Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, New York, Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee, and consulted on other projects in Georgia, Texas and Iowa. I traveled a lot.

Our daughter was in high school along with everything that meant. I participated in her activities as best I could and felt successful to a degree. I missed a lot of her events because of my travel.

The writing I did was mostly related to work, journaling at home, email, and a few separate pieces. I’m re-discovering my writing from that period because of the current project. While I wrote an increasing number of emails, kept a journal, and wrote a lot of business correspondence, it was not the kind of writing I wanted to do.

We bought our first home computer in April 1996 and four years later each of the three of us had a personal computer. The one in this photograph (behind the Oxford English Dictionary) was from a company called Computer Renaissance in Iowa City, where they built the CPU. We used Compuserve as our internet service provider and I had an email address through them.

By 1999 I ran a telephone line with a dual jack to our daughter’s bedroom so she could have access to the internet for her used computer and an extension phone. I sent her this email.

I figured out that you would probably check your e-mail when you got home from school. I hope you are enjoying having the computer located in your room. Once the monitor gets fixed (it is in Minnesota) then you will really be set up. Remember that for now, we do not plan to get a printer, so copy to disk and we will print on one of the other printers.

Please use the computer wisely. So often, people get bored with life and become cyber worms. It is ok to use the computer for learning and fun, but remember that you have a life outside the computer. When I first got involved with a home computer, I found myself very busy with looking at stuff and installing hardware and software. I did not do as much as I would have liked with the actual software. Don’ let this happen to you.

Anyway, have a great evening, and hopefully if you are looking at this, you have your homework done.

Love, Dad

Personal email, Feb. 2, 1999

When we moved to Big Grove Township we did not have enough money to finish the lower level of the split foyer house. I set up my desk in the unfinished space on moving-in day and moved it around a couple of times through the years. We still haven’t finished the lower level. My writing space has been more like a campsite than an actual room. Even today, when I have walls around me, it retains a temporary quality.

In 2000, everything was connected by wire. I ran a new phone line downstairs and the printer and scanner were connected directly to the CPU. It was on this device I printed countless briefs filed in the Bush v. Gore U.S. Supreme Court case after the 2000 election. When this photograph was taken I had not re-activated in politics. That would happen after Sept. 11, 2001. After that I would use this space for political work as well.

Compared to today, the CPU I used was primitive. Ten years after Microsoft introduced Windows 3.0 I was still using MS-DOS for certain functions on this machine. It was what I learned while working at Amoco Oil Company. I remember the conversion to 3.0 during the period 1989 to 1991 as Amoco was an early adopter. If I was a computer geek, it was only because I wanted to understand how software worked, and how I could use it in my life. In retrospect, the computer work took time away from writing. It wasn’t until I started a blog in 2007 that I would figure how to best write using a computer.

As the breeze blew through the open windows I felt at home in this writing space. An unfinished house, a busy career, and a teenage daughter left little time to use it. Our daughter took the photograph, catching me surprised while I focused on some now unknown computer project. That space served for a while.

Living in Society

Waning Days

Obama’s Last Campaign Rally, Des Moines, Iowa, Nov. 5, 2012

Yesterday afternoon President Trump and Vice President Pence met and decided they would work together for the rest of the administration.

That meeting is similar to one held on Aug. 7, 1974, between President Richard Nixon, U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, U.S. House Minority Leader John Rhodes, and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott. The three Congressmen made it clear to Nixon he faced all-but-certain impeachment, conviction and removal from office in connection with the Watergate scandal. Nixon announced his resignation the next evening.

What the Trump-Pence meeting means is neither a resignation from Trump nor his removal by the process outlined in the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by Pence and the cabinet will be forthcoming. The U.S. House of Representatives has enough co-sponsors of the Article of Impeachment to impeach the president. A vote is expected tomorrow.

Last news was the U.S. House would pass the article of impeachment and immediately transmit it to the U.S. Senate which is scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 19. U.S. Senator Chuck Shumer is seeking a path in the Senate rules to call the Senators back to Washington earlier for an impeachment trail. It is unknown if Trump will be removed from office before the scheduled inauguration of Joe Biden.

Yesterday 14 busloads of National Guard troops arrived in Washington. The FBI indicated armed protests are expected in Washington and in all 50 state capitols on or around the date of the inauguration. The Department of Defense said they will review troops deployed to the Biden inauguration to ensure they don’t have sympathies to domestic terrorists. President Trump declared a state of emergency in Washington, D.C. yesterday, citing the “emergency conditions” surrounding President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. The president-elect continues to plan the inauguration ceremony outdoors. Biden is not afraid.

It was clear from the day of Trump’s inauguration his presidency was going to be bad. We didn’t know how bad. On the cusp of a second impeachment by the U.S. House, the president may end his term at a low point. The sad news is there are nine days left and what happens is anyone’s guess. It could get worse. We must accept the bad news of the Trump-Pence meeting last night and hope for the best from our political leaders.

News accounts of time-lines of Jan. 6 events at the capitol are being developed and published. Each hour we learn a little bit more. Those of us removed from the capitol follow the news closely, partly because it is so bad, partly because we hope for an end to the corruption, sedition and incompetence followed by a new, positive beginning.

As Trump prepares to make his exit there is a lot to learn. A book has already been written about what needs to be done to shore up the presidency after the Trump years. There is discussion of whether the White House family quarters will be safe, sanitary and secure immediately after noon on January 20, 2021. Perhaps the new president should stay somewhere else until a detox of the building can be done. There is much uncertainty today as the incompetence of President Trump is revealed, and the hopeful, positive plans of President-elect Biden move forward in tandem.

In the waning days of the Trump administration we are saddened it turned out worse than we foresaw on Jan. 20, 2017. There is little consolation other than that our country endured the indignity of this administration. Despite the breach of the capitol building six days ago our democracy was unflinching and resilient. After Trump, who knows for how long?


Editor’s Desk #1

Workbench cleared for seeding onions.

The value of having a good editor is something every writer knows. When one is self-published, isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a novice at book-length writing, a meet up with an editor is inevitable.


My process this year began simply: produce 1,000 words daily, five days per calendar week, and edit on Saturday. It sounded simple and doable when I began. I hadn’t expected the writing process would be a flight into imagination with no net and a flimsy tether. Maybe the editor’s job is to rein that in, put a fence around it, and get it to grow the way sheep do. There is a case to be made to turn edited rushes (results of a daily writing session after my first edit) immediately over to an editor. What decent editor would take such work without compensation?

Just because I work without income doesn’t mean an editor should. I would argue that free editors must be viewed with skepticism. Why are they doing the work, and for free? By the nature of quarantine writing, meet up with a professional editor will be delayed.

Writing the daily 1,000 is like mining coal: the writer follows the seam where it goes. As a result, common themes are found in different daily rushes. There is bad writing that must be improved. Part of the editing process is to hang thematic segments together on a time line and create a consistent, readable narrative. It takes more time than I allowed as I spent parts of last Saturday and Sunday working on rushes. I’m far from done editing and feel an urge to write more rushes.

The autobiography writer’s imagination isn’t linear or sequential. One session leads to new things, not all of them related to each other. In some cases I spent the rest of the day considering events and people once forgotten. In others I discovered new information after writing the initial rushes. The first challenge is to remember what happened and get those things written down regardless of order.

Looking at photographs and reading historical accounts informs a steady yet irregular emergence of what happened. For example, I’m working on a section called Piety Hill, which is the last place Mother said she was born at home. I remember her different accounts over the years and am not sure whether Piety Hill was her final answer, or the original and only one. I settled when writing her obituary, “Born at home on July 28, 1929, near LaSalle, Ill.” An editor might accept that as my siblings did before publication. This evaluation of stories of a single event told by different people is something Clifford Geertz wrote about. While there are multiple stories about a single event, the writer has to decide whether to present them all or to keep them simple and singular as I did with Mother’s obituary.

While thematic issues like education, work, family and travel may hang well on a timeline, the timeline is not the narrative. Too, I can’t imaging writing a sequential work with each paragraph’s content isolated from others. That’s not how we live and to construct such a thing would be a monstrosity and eminently unreadable.

For example, one of the stories I tell repeatedly is about a gathering at Mother’s sister’s home on Gooding Street in LaSalle the night Marilyn Monroe committed suicide. We children were sleeping in the living room when Father came in the room and announced the news. It seemed unusual for him to do that at the time, giving the event increased importance to our family.

The date is fixed, Aug. 4, 1962, and that anchors my narrative in popular culture. Maybe the reason I retell the story is its relationship to popular culture as something more important than what we kids were doing. The role of the autobiography writer is to de-emphasize broader cultural images and focus on the single life. My habit, and it’s a bad one, is to get out the same well worn narrative sawhorses and retell them. An editor could point out those segments and ask, “Do you really want to say that?” I need to recognize it on my own.

Because this is pandemic writing I don’t see getting an editor until I get enough written to call it a first draft, hopefully a year from now. For the time being I need a better rush editing process because even two days a week will not be enough time. That may change as I evolve into the work and gain experience with long-form writing. This week I also must return to last week’s themes and fill out detail. As I continue to unbox the archives this process will be constantly present.

One positive note is the rush editing process has helped me consider the broader themes and narrative. The end result is likely to benefit. For now, suffice it that I recognize the need for an editor. Until I get more of the first draft written, that editor will be me.

Kitchen Garden

Garden Supplies

Winter 2021

This Sunday is a good day to take stock and prepare work space for the garden. It’s time to plant seeds indoors.

I placed the fifth order from my garden suppliers and despite the snow covered ground feel ready. The investment in seeds and equipment was $600 so far. Because of the derecho I will be investing in some new fence posts and fencing. It would be very American to post copies of my order forms, although I’ll save readers the trouble. Details left unsaid are often more interesting.

It’s been a month since I had exercised outdoors. I miss the daily gardening, walks, jogging, and bicycle trips. Today’s garden planning session should provide hope for spring. If we have a cold spell I’ll prune fruit trees, although that’s not enough to call it exercise.

I’m undecided whether to return to the farm this year. Mainly because of the coronavirus pandemic, but also because each year our household needs less of the vegetables for which I bartered my labor. Need to re-read the discussion thread and make a decision soon.

For breakfast I made oatmeal: a cup of water, tablespoon of dried cranberries, teaspoon of sugar, dash of salt, and a third cup of steel cut oats. Portion-wise this sates my early morning appetite. The combination of flavors is just right. If I got fancy I would add a dash of cinnamon, allspice and cloves. Not feeling that fancy today.


Second Saturday

Experimenting with traditional pancakes using rice flour and butternut squash.

2021 has been rough out of the gates. The coronavirus pandemic is raging, armed insurrectionists occupied the U.S. Capitol for a few hours on Jan. 6, and as a society we are as divided as ever. Happy flippin’ New Year!

The combination of cold weather, snow cover, and the virus have kept me mostly indoors. No more trips to town unless it is for provisioning or medical appointments. In the last three weeks I made one trip to the wholesale club, and that’s it for leaving the house.

I go to the driveway and breathe fresh air a few times a day. I don’t want to risk turning an ankle walking on the trail or in the yard.

It’s just as well because I’m using the time before gardening season to get a solid start on my book. 8,882 words this week with a stack of edits waiting for later today. The process is a bit sketchy as it’s the first time I began the project with a long-term writing schedule. Some days writing is based on artifact(s) or previous text, some days mining memory. The main roadblock is so much of my archival material is unorganized and stored throughout the house.

Yesterday I used a photo album from the early 1960s. Taking time to observe each photo, letting memory work, one thing led to another and my daily word goal was met easily. We’ll see how the edits go yet I believe idea production was good. It’s pretty easy pickings because I’m at the beginning of the project.

Another thing is there is so much material. I’ve been a pack rat about keeping artifacts, and there will be inadequate interest to make this book as comprehensive as it could be. I’m undecided about photographs. Picking a dozen or so would take a lot of distillation and they would represent more than their content. A benefit of going through the writing process is the archives will get organized. Presumably the quantity will be reduced.

On the second Saturday of 2021 the local environment seems quiet. It is a good day to stay indoors and work on projects. With the coronavirus everywhere, it’s a safe thing to do.

Juke Box

Juke Box – Gas Station Women

Here’s one by Phil Ochs.

“Fill ‘er up with love please won’t you mister? Just the Hi-Test is what I used to say. But that was before I lost my baby. I’ll have a dollar’s worth of regular today.”

Happy Friday!

Living in Society

January 6, 2021

Occupying U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

There haven’t been days like Jan. 6, 2021 in my life. Ever.

It’s been clear for a while, certainly since Georgia was called for Joe Biden, who won the 2020 presidential election. President Trump refused to recognize his loss. Yesterday during a speech in Washington he said he would never concede.

Trump urging a gathering of well-dressed cosplayers to storm the capitol building was too much. Trump has been too much since his inaugural address. While I need to process it, one thing is clear: two more weeks of Trump would be too much and he should resign. If he won’t, the Congress should remove him.

While growing up, ours was a Democratic family. We were accepted in the community even though Iowa was and still is a Republican state. It likely helped that three of the four presidents in my life by 1968 were Democrats: Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. It also helped that Father belonged to the meat cutters union.

Dwight Eisenhower was Republican yet he was also supreme commander of Allied forces in Western Europe during World War II. A number of World War II veterans lived in our community and spoke often about the war. We could relate to Eisenhower. Some of his initiatives, like creating the Interstate Highway system, benefited us directly. Our political life was good and a part of the culture that occupied a small space in each day. Eisenhower would not be elected to anything by today’s Republican party.

As years went by that all changed and political discourse gained hegemony in our lives. It began with Nixon who was forced to resign the presidency because he was a crook. We knew he was a liar after his televised explanation of the war in Cambodia. We didn’t like having a liar and crook as president. The shooting incident at Kent State in 1970 pushed me and others over the edge. I still have the clipping of us demonstrating at the Iowa National Guard Armory in Davenport.

Then there was Reagan who opened the door for dramatic change in our politics. What doesn’t get talked about enough is his ceasing enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine. It led to the rise of right wing talk radio and FOX News, both of which had a deleterious effect on our politics. If Reagan did some good things on nuclear disarmament and for the environment, the downside was much worse. The Reagan Revolution began dismantling the government. Every Republican president after Reagan — George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Donald Trump — chipped away at government. Republicans would say the changes were needed. Democrats would say we can do better.

At 1:30 a.m. today I joined 160,000 others in viewing a live stream of the U.S. House of Representatives proceedings regarding acceptance of the certified results of the presidential and vice presidential election. We all should have been sleeping. It was hard to look away even though the speeches were mostly pure drivel. It should be so simple: voters registered and voted, state officials counted the votes and certified them, and certifications were sent to the U.S. Congress to be counted. It should have happened during daylight and but for the cosplay it would have.

I’m tired of middle of the night politics. When issues are important, like last night, I stay awake and listen or watch. If I know the legislators I text or email with them while debate is ongoing. How could I sleep? I’m usually a wreck the next day.

If politics takes more of our time, it’s because old assumptions are no longer valid and so much is at stake. People like me planned our lives based on assumptions about government. Republicans have changed everything and would change it more given the opportunity.

We have to get to a politics of daylight where everyone is respected, can participate, and have a say. Except in matters of war we don’t need to debate at night. Jan. 6, 2021 serves as a reminder we can’t follow the path of Reagan, the Bushes and Trump any longer. We must find a new way together. I’m willing to do my part.