Note Cards to a Future Self

Spotted Quarry, Pipestone National Monument, Pipestone, Minnesota.

During our lives together I wrote Mother often in cards and letters. Following is the text of notes sent to her. Upon reflection, I sent them to a future version of myself as well.

April 10, 1982
Iowa City
Dear Mom,

There are times when I feel like Picasso looks in this photograph. It is a slow process, but I am making my way as a writer. I often am not sure what I am doing, but I know I have chosen the right path. One of my projects is writing a regional cookbook for one person. I would like it if you could pick some of your standard menu meals and write them down for me. I can remember some, but not all. Too, I want that dessert dish recipe you prepared last time I was in town. More later, I’m in Springfield 23-25 April. Paul

May 14, 1982

Started the trip off with a bang by smashing into a 1982 Olds Cutlass in Dubuque. No injuries thank goodness, but I will have to spend the $200 deductible to get my truck fixed to drive at night. Other than that, I’m ready for this vacance. Paul

May 29, 1982
Iowa City

Thanks for the shirts. You always pick out good stuff for me. Please let me know if I need to come to Davenport because of Uncle Dick. I can never tell. I do plan to make a Sunday trip this month, which weekend that will be is unknown now. Maybe the 6th or 20th. Thanks again. Paul

Iowa City

Thanks for the pleasant holiday experience. As we walk boldly into 1985, let us keep discovery our goal, and our family in our hearts. While the burden of life slows us, let our hearts keep the warmth and light of our togetherness. Love always, Paul & Jacque

December 27, 1986
West Post Road

Thanks so much for making this Christmas special. Elizabeth, Jacque and I had a memorable time, and we especially enjoyed sharing Elizabeth’s first experiences with you. Know that we love you, and care about you. We look forward to seeing you again soon in 1987, as we are reminded of that first Christmas so long ago, and its continuity into our own brief moment of life. Love, always. Paul, Jacque & Elizabeth

March 13, 1988
Merrillville, Indiana

Rest assured that we will make the right choice here. The four years with CRST has been a valuable education. I sense, though, that it is time to move on. What will be the next step? I’m not sure yet. We’ll find out together. Paul, Jacque & Elizabeth

March 29, 1991
Merrillville, Indiana

Thanks for the great meals and hospitality. Sorry I forgot to bring my wood clamp, but I will on the next trip. Also for about 2 hours work, I can smooth out the walls in the bathroom, to prepare the surface for the coming wall paper.
We will try to get there sometime in April so we can help with the yard as well as the other chores.I would like to photograph some of the old photos that trip so take this as a warning that we are coming. Talk later, Paul, Jacque & Libby

July 10, 1991
Pipestone, Minnesota

Busy and tiring day around Lincoln County. I stopped by here to learn about native Americans. As your grandparents got married in Wilno, the Indians lost control of the quarry pictured. More when we see you. Paul

July 18, 1996
Big Grove Township

Finally hot, humid summer weather is here. I hope you are enjoying this Iowa summer as we are. The sweet corn will be ready soon. The green beans already in the freezer. Libby is rushing to finish her 4-H project which will be judged Saturday. Not much. Just summer in Iowa. Paul

Farming Local Food

Featuring the Poor Farm

Panel of regional farm mentors. L. to R. Dayna Burtness, Nettle Valley Farm; Zachary Couture, Luthern Services in Iowa Global Greens; Alfred Matiyabo, Moving 4Ward Farm; and Derek Roller, Echollective Farm on Feb. 20, 2020 in North Liberty, Iowa

“The Johnson County Historic Poor Farm provides a public space for connecting to the land and local history through inclusive community-led opportunities,” said Vanessa Fixmer-Oraiz, farm project manager. She spoke at last night’s Johnson County Food Policy Council public forum where the poor farm was a featured topic.

This was my first forum as a member of the council. I brought a five gallon beverage jug, lemonade, coffee condiments, and a 20-pound bag of ice. One attraction of the event was a catered meal from a local food-centered restaurant. Attendance we good at about 80 people. We ran out of lemonade.

Solid ideas were discussed, centering around how to help beginning farmers get access to land, capital and markets. A number of “eaters,” a.k.a. consumers, were present, leading to discussions about pricing, quality, and health issues related to food. There was no lack of discussion and much of it was captured on audio-video or written down.

The county poor farm is not a priority for me. Some of the same people who attended a similar local food forum eight years ago were present last night. It seemed little progress has been made in establishing a vibrant local food system. The challenges are many, the approaches individualistic. There are activities, such as farmers markets and public events held at farms. This forum was an example of a public, food-related event. Discussion is positive, yet what is lacking is something to tie them all together in a coherent system. I don’t believe the poor farm will be that string of twine.

In 2017, the Johnson County Supervisors decided to revitalize the poor farm as a “New Century Farm.” The 3-2 decision was depicted as contentious by the local newspaper. Then supervisors Rod Sullivan, Mike Carberry and Kurt Friese voted to adopt this plan. Lisa Green-Douglass and Janelle Rettig did not. Friese died in office and Carberry lost his re-election bid, yet county support for the site persists. The forum was an opportunity to discuss how the poor farm might fit into a fledgling, disjointed local food system.

What made the 2017 supervisor meeting “contentious” was the discussion of affordable housing at the poor farm. Affordable housing is a key county issue, although I’m not sure of the benefit of sticking a development off Melrose Avenue, which is distant from the city-center and amenities like grocery stores. The poor farm is currently on the Iowa City bus route, but that route is being considered for elimination. There are logistical challenges to be addressed if the poor farm will be used for housing for people besides those who work or farm there.

One of the forum panelists, Alfred Matiyabo, gained access to land via the poor farm and this seems an excellent use of the resource. Land access is a key need of beginning farmers. More of that, as well as development of the planned trails and facilities, could create another valued farm incubator, conservation, and recreation site within the county.

My sense is two and a half years after adoption of the plan for the poor farm the community conversation is just beginning. As long as the supervisors have the will to fund activities, the project should be encouraged and supported. However, we can’t let it distract us from the bigger issue of engendering a local food system that matters in terms of satisfied consumers, economically viable farmers, and ecologically improved farming practices. The Historic Poor Farm fits in to the system, but is just one aspect among many.

The best part of last night was networking with friends and people I hadn’t met. If this is what being a member of the food policy council leads to, I’m ready for more.

Juke Box

Juke Box – Crossroads

Cream: Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. This group came together and dissolved while I was in high school, before I knew it. Few bands were as good as this one was.

Taking a couple days to work on other projects, in the meanwhile…


Processing Old Letters


On a sunny winter day I found time to organize boxes of letters and cards to Mother by putting them in clear plastic sheet protectors and sorting them by date.

I wrote home the most while serving in the U.S. Army, with about 75 letters and cards over a four-year period. Along with my journal, a bankers box of files, and some photo albums, the period is well documented. It should lend help to efforts to consider and write about that period of my life.

In retrospect, when I was home for a day or weekend, away from Robert E. Lee Barracks in Mainz-Gonsenheim, I spent time alone writing at a table that was part of the furnishings of my bachelor officer’s quarters. This writing habit persists.

Non-military letters provide more interest. One from summer YMCA camp, a couple from my undergraduate years at the University of Iowa, a few from my 1974 trip to Europe, a couple more during graduate school, and a big batch from our married life beginning in 1982. The letters filled three binders.

It is possible to understand a life. My efforts at writing have a clear beginning in the need and want to write home during the time before build out of electronic communication systems. I recall my first journal, which was stolen at a youth hostel in Calais, France just after taking a hovercraft across the English Channel.

I made a decision to continue journaling while living in a one-room apartment on Mississippi Avenue in Davenport, before military service. That apartment was the first place I entertained Mother. The dinner dish I chose was tuna-noodle casserole, which she ate and said was good as only a mother could. That was in 1975.

As long as I am able I expect to continue to make coffee and settle at a writing table each morning for a couple of hours. These days I write emails, brief notes on cards, on social media, in a less frequently used journal, and on this blog. I don’t know how I came to this place. Yet it is part of who I will be in the 21st Century.

There are worse outcomes than that.


100 Years of Iowa Parks

Jerry Reisinger at the Solon United Methodist Church, Feb. 7, 2020

Dedicated in 1920 as Iowa’s first state park, Backbone State Park, is one of the most geographically unique locations in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The steep and narrow ridge of bedrock from the Maquoketa River forms the highest point in northeast Iowa — The Devil’s Backbone — giving the park its legendary name.

The park originally had three words in its name: Devil’s Back Bone, according to Jerry Reisinger who gave a presentation about the state parks on Feb. 7 at the United Methodist Church. That was a bit spooky so the “devil” part was dropped.

The centennial celebration is replete with organized fishing tourneys, bicycle touring, jogging, hiking, boating, bird watching and other events. While it’s a bit old school, taking a picnic luncheon to enjoy with family at a state park is a popular activity.

There is a traveling art exhibition called 20 artists 20 parks organized by DNR, the Iowa Arts Council and Iowa State University.

To mark the 100th anniversary of Backbone State Park’s dedication, a three-day festival is planned May 28-30 with all events open to the public.

Expansion of the state park system seems unlikely as farmers seek to increase acreage for crop production. The state parks made it to the centennial and that seems worth celebrating.

Farming Local Food

First Day at the Farm 2020

Hand tool.

The ten year old ran to the greenhouse to tell us, “There’s a lamb! I’m not kidding. She went to get the towel!”

The shepherdess left behind her power drill and rushed to the barn.

So began my eighth spring helping at Local Harvest CSA. More lambs dropped that evening and the goats are due soon. I’ve been around animals enough to recognize their pregnancy.

My job is to make soil blocks. I made enough for 3,120 seedlings. Once the seeds germinate and are established they will be transplanted in the high tunnel for a spring share of greens and lettuce. One of the farm partners was present planting flower seeds as well.

Yesterday had a couple of challenges. The hydrant outside the greenhouse was frozen so I carried water from another in buckets. The soil mix was frozen and required breaking up with a garden rake as I mixed it with water. Compared to previous February activities everything proceeded easily.

The seeding crew moved in and out of the greenhouse. There were a total of eight of us happy to be there and looking forward to spring.

Home Life

Saturday Errands

Turn-Style Department Store, Davenport, Iowa. Photo Credit – Davenport Iowa History Facebook Page

I yearn to live a normal life. I’m not the only one.

Raised in a community of a hundred thousand people, I found something new was always going on. I didn’t discover the half of it. My craving for discovery continued with our move to a rural community in 1993.

In the context of yearning and discovery I ran errands on Saturday.

I had a list. Citirizine from the pharmacy, organic celery from the supermarket, a cup of coffee from the coffee shop, writing supplies from the office supply store, furnace filters, canning jar lids, 4-ounce canning jars, and a big tub for soil mix from the home, farm and auto supply store… milk and eggs from the warehouse club so I wouldn’t have to shop there next Wednesday. I also got a much needed haircut before heading home across Coralville Lake.

Two things I had to do were pick up the keys to the meeting room for a Sunday political event, and post flyers about the Food Policy Council’s event next week on community bulletin boards in the grocery store, the library, the coffee shop, a restaurant, the home, farm and auto supply store, the gas station, and the pharmacy. These bulletin boards are ubiquitous, and are seen in the community. Not everyone has one but those who do know why they exist.

The trouble started at the food cooperative where my spouse has had an account since before we were married. They remodeled, and according to a cashier, “couldn’t find a place” for the community bulletin board which was now gone. Seriously? I get that the cooperative has changed since the days of bulgar wheat piled in burlap bags, ready for distribution. However, one hoped some sense of community would persist as the shelves filled with organic versions of processed food.

As long as I was there, I found the Tofurky brand Italian sausages I use when making red beans and rice.

Nearby I encountered “Beyond Burgers.” O.M.G. Two quarter pound “fresh” patties of the meat substitute cost $8.99. The ingredients? “pea protein isolate,” “methyl cellulose,” “bamboo cellulose,” and 19 others. I knew the product came from a lab, but Z.O.M.G. To make matters worse they were heavily packaged.

The packaging appeared to be foam and I looked it up. “Beyond Burger packaging is made up of almost five different types of substrates, including low density polyethylene, polypropylene, cardboard, paper, and wood products.” Not only is the packaging diversely made, how would a recycling company sort it if it even made it there?

Understood that a growing number of people don’t want to eat animals… but not like this.

I am mostly veg., that is, most of the time our diet is ovo-lacto-vegetarian. I’ll have the aforementioned Tofurky a couple of times a year to make a dish filled with memories of how I learned to cook. A staple in our household is Morningstar Farms soy-based burgers and recipe crumbles. At $1.25 each they are more affordable than Beyond Burger. They seem less processed, less engineered as well. We have fallen off the tofu bandwagon and carefully consider how we get our protein. The end game is I don’t see how highly engineered and processed food is an adequate replacement for beef cattle, hogs or chicken in our diet. Somewhere there is a middle ground and if red meat makes me feel queasy, I need to find something else to balance nutrition with a yearning for cooking the way Mom did. Beyond Burger is too special for that.

I don’t run errands that often any more. We get by on less. When I lived in Germany I had scant leisure time but when I was off duty I yearned to go shopping at the rail station, the post exchange, and across the Rhine River at the box stores in Wiesbaden. Today shopping trips like Saturday are a couple times a year thing. I wish it engendered less outrage. I don’t want to be that cranky old man of which one hears tell.

All the same, running errands is a way of engaging in society. I’m grateful for conversation with cashiers, sales associates and hairdressers because it breaks up the isolation of aging. I like getting away from society, yet have the same basic need to join with others… even if that means complaining about stuff that doesn’t make sense.

It’s all part of sustaining our lives in a turbulent world.


Into New Political Space

2012 OFA door hanger

Two new people, one man and one woman, decided to represent Big Grove Township on the county Democratic central committee. I’m thankful and moving on to new engagement in society beyond politics.

The presidential selection process this cycle was tainted by a bad finish. The caucus results reporting system failed. This weekend the Iowa Democratic Party is re-canvassing some of the caucus results twelve days after the event. It is a futile effort because we know the result. We had many great candidates and a few clinkers. The number of candidates continuing to March 3 Super Tuesday has been winnowed, and for the most part the best survived Iowa. There are really only four who seem viable: Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Today’s re-canvassing won’t change that.

Big Grove Township went Obama – Obama – Trump during the last three general election cycles. In the caucuses those years, we advanced Clinton, Edwards and Obama in 2008; Obama in 2012; and Clinton, O’Malley and Sanders in 2016. This year we advanced Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren with Klobuchar and Warren each having 39 people, Buttigieg 35, and Biden 29, with everyone getting a single delegate to the county convention. Sanders was not viable here, his support from 2016 was cut roughly in half.

The best comparison in presidential campaigns is between 2008 and 2020. Both years we had a significant field of candidates with an unpopular president. We came out of 2004 with a new understanding of how to run a campaign thanks to the ground-breaking work of Howard Dean and his campaign manager Joe Trippi. Dean wasn’t viable in our precinct caucus that year but the lessons stuck, particularly around fund raising, use of databases to target specific voters, and what they called open source campaigning — using the internet to expand a campaign’s voter base. Trippi wrote about his campaign innovations in his underappreciated book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything.

The campaign techniques pioneered by Trippi in 2003 and 2004 were consolidated, refined, and advanced by David Plouffe who managed Barack Obama’s successful campaign. In The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Win, Plouffe details the process which included integrating diverse databases to micro-target potential voters. He re-booted how traditional door knocking was done, changing from the knock every house process my father followed during the 1960 John F. Kennedy election to a specific and highly targeted list of potential voters. The results showed it worked in 2008, less so by Obama’s re-election campaign when locals were feeling some buyer’s remorse.

Beginning in 2016, with wide adoption of social media, campaigns changed again and produced an environment where media personality Donald J. Trump thrived. Hillary Clinton had a strong background in policy development and relationships with key figures in the Democratic Party. She also had a vast donor network from her family’s long history in American politics. It turned out those things didn’t matter as much, and in retrospect, she had those advantages in 2008 and Obama was able to catch up and pass her. Trump won the election in the electoral college, which is the win that mattered.

In 2020 campaigning changed again. I focused my work on assuming responsibility for running our caucus for the first time since my neighbor who was previously caucus chair moved out of the precinct. I canvassed fewer voters this cycle than I had since 2008 and 2016. The presence of a large field of candidates and my understanding of and maturity in the precinct led me to believe door knocking was not as important. The solid turnout at caucus validated my belief, or maybe confirmed my bias.

The lack of a clear winner in the Iowa caucus is evidence of a breakup of Democratic support. Campaigns bought access to the party voter database and those who used it mailed campaign literature, phoned me, or knocked on our door. Not only has the electorate been divided by repeated computer profile targeting such as I experienced, the campaign process supported more candidates being viable beyond the precinct than in previous cycles. This had two tangible effects: it made the Iowa caucuses less relevant by advancing five candidates, (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren) and it created division that needs mending for the electorate to join together long enough to support the nominee at the Democratic National Convention, at least through the general election.

As we turn toward November, what is the role for someone like me? I see these things:

  • I’m done with targeted voter lists. There is a bad assumption that there is not enough time to contact everyone, so the list of targets is reduced. We have to contact everyone we can about this election because winning it will not be based on party affiliation, but on person to person contact. We must change our thinking as some candidates already did this cycle.
  • If we elect a Democratic president, the work is only a third done. Democrats must retain control of the U.S. House of Representatives and flip the U.S. Senate to Democratic control. In Big Grove precinct this means getting people to participate in the process and turn out for the June 2 primary. I favor Rita Hart for congress in Iowa’s second district and the best of five Democratic U.S. Senate candidates. There will be more work to be done on this front.
  • As a writer I have a platform, and I will use it to promote Democratic and progressive causes. Here I mean Blog for Iowa which gets better traffic than this space.
  • I’ll volunteer with the county party, especially after the national convention when we expect to have a full slate of candidates.
  • I’ll donate what I can to favored candidates. It seems unlikely I’ll hit the federal maximums.

The election of two neighbors to the central committee is a positive development for me. It frees me to think differently about our future and to put politics on a lower shelf in the pantry. That may be the best outcome of the 2020 Iowa caucuses.

Local Food

Toward Local Food Policy

Farmers Market Food

To prepare for my first meeting as a member of the Johnson County Food Policy Council, I read council recommendations for the Uniform Development Ordinance. There were two things:

Ag-Exemption should be available for local farmers with less than 40 acres.

Agritourism enterprises need zoning regulations that allow for innovation and creativity on farms in the unincorporated areas of the county.

After what seemed like a never-ending series of public hearings, comments, and input gathering from multiple constituencies, the Board of Supervisors accommodated these recommendations in the UDO, if not in a way county farmers expected or fully appreciated.

A group dissatisfied with accommodation on the 40-acre rule sought relief from the legislature in the form of preemption of local control on the ag-exemption. This landed in the Iowa Farm Bureau’s lap where it remains for the time being. The first agritourism application was heard in Planning and Zoning Feb. 10. The idea of chip and sealing two miles of gravel road to improve access was predictable, but unexpected by the land owner. The same group introduced HSB650 for state preemption of local control regarding agritourism. That bill cleared subcommittee Feb. 12.

These things will work through the legislative process, but having made the recommendations, having the board of supervisors accommodate them as they saw fit, and now with bills being proposed in the legislature and agritourism applications working through county departments, what is next for the Food Policy Council? That is my question.

After one meeting I’m not sure. Answering that question will be part of what the remainder of my term, which ends in June, will be about. If we come up with good answers, I will apply for a full, four-year term. If not, I have a garden.

The recent example of Grinnell Heritage Farm, which withdrew from wholesale grocery store sales and from a community supported agriculture project, is instructive about the needs of local food producers. Farm operations are a balancing between producing enough to meet customer demand and finding customers who are willing to do business at levels that meet the realities of harvest, quantity, delivery, and seasonality. Andy Dunham of Grinnell Heritage Farm provided the following to Cindy Hadish who blogs at Homegrown Iowan:

The reason for scaling back is primarily due to the lack of any larger retail and wholesale outlets. We have tried for years to get into Hy-Vee stores with very limited success. When individual stores do buy, they usually only take $30-50 in product, which doesn’t even cover delivery costs in most circumstances. We have had more than one instance in which the store would buy a case of kale, put our name on the produce case, and then stock conventional kale out of California under our name. Whole Foods is still buying, but at lower prices than five years ago. New Pi is shrinking. Food hubs are folding or not scaling up fast enough. We were in the strange position of being able to grow more than the market seemed able to bear; a position that I would have laughed at as being impossible five years ago.

What policy should the 15-member Food Policy Council recommend and support this year?

We need to return to the reasons we even make policy. Maybe the council has been doing that already.

Our county’s local food system, including a robust network of local food producers, a food hub, farmers markets, and wholesale business with restaurants and grocery stores, is not well organized. Our policy doesn’t exist that I have been able to find. It is too similar to the de facto national policy, which according to Ricardo Salvador, director of food and environment for the Union of Concerned Scientists, goes something like this: “Exploit people and nature for agribusiness profit.” We are better than that now and need to improve.

Any policy recommended must serve the public interest. There are significant issues that could be addressed, including policies related to hunger, obesity and Type II diabetes, environmental degradation for food production, land stewardship, labor exploitation, fair compensation, and appropriate farm labor regulation. The council must learn from best practices of local operators and consider a broader source of input that includes public health, preventive medicine, dieticians, other communities with a local food system, and accommodation for residents who need it.

People hate government folk and volunteer councils like ours telling them what to do. A friend advised me to, “avoid colonialism.” Where I come from, that means “putting on airs of superiority.” I’ll do my best as we discover what the council wants to do.

~ The author is an appointed member of the Johnson County Food Policy Council. Opinions herein do not represent the council.

Politics Social Commentary

Stars and Stripes For a While

Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons

Defense Secretary Mark Esper wants to end federal funding for Stars and Stripes and re-purpose the $15.5 million to support the “Warfighter.”


When I worked for a logistics company we used the word “Warfighter.” It seemed a synonym for an ATM to me.

Esper’s reasoning is a joke because those funds represent 0.002 percent of the Defense Department budget. Elimination of federal funding represents about half of the news organization’s annual budget, according to Stars and Stripes.

One has to believe Stars and Stripes’ Congressionally mandated editorial independence from the Defense Department is the unspoken problem under the current commander in chief. Esper is a former Heritage Foundation chief of staff and Heritage is the lead agency in implementing movement conservatism in our government. It’s not hard to connect the dots.

I suggest defense money be diverted from development of new nuclear weapons we don’t need to maintain financial solvency of a newspaper first published during the Civil War. Stars and Stripes has been in continuous publication since World War II.

I ask politicians to audit the Pentagon as a first step toward fiscal accountability. I keep asking. If the president can gin up billions in defense budget excess to build the Mexican border wall, there is surely $15.5 million for an independent newspaper to be found in some boondoggle project.

Stars and Stripes was not a big deal to me when I served. We could buy it at the Post Exchange and received free copies only irregularly — mostly when we were on extended maneuvers in the Fulda Gap. If I wanted news, I listened to Armed Forces Radio, or walked down the hill from my quarters to the Mainz main railway station to buy France Soir, Le Monde, or the International Herald Tribune. Of those, only Le Monde survives in print edition today.

Esper’s military service occurred after mine and to be honest, I don’t know the role Stars and Stripes plays in military life today. Our military has access to the internet, and to some extent are able to access information like I can from my Iowa writing table. Our information infrastructure changes constantly, and Stars and Stripes should not be insulated from change.

If Stars and Stripes is a piece of nostalgia, I agree it should be tossed in the bin of history, something the proposed budget cut will ensure. The issue is the squelching of independent voices in our government. The relentless and systematic purging of differing opinions is a problem for us all.

We know the tune, but it is changing to Stars and Stripes Forever For a While under this administration.

~ A version of this post appeared in the Feb. 20, 2020 Solon Economist