Autobiography in Real Time

The ditch in front of the house finally dried on June 7, 2021.

Sunday was literally a day of rest. After planting the next rounds of lettuce and spinach, and mulching tomatillos and the second round of radicchio, I drove the Lincoln Highway to Boone to pick up my spouse. When we arrived home, I took a long nap, then stayed up later than normal so I could sleep through the night until morning. The tactic seems to have worked. I feel well-rested this morning.

Last Monday I noticed the ditch in front of the house finally dried. Saturday I mowed it, raked up the clippings, and piled them near the garlic patch. Some years the ditch stays wet until July, yet this year I believe we are entering a drought, and will soon pass the “abnormally dry” stage and get right into it. Moisture management in the garden remains important during drought conditions, and mulch plays a role.

In March I slowed the pace of writing my autobiography. Partly, it was due to increased gardening activity. It was also due to a quandary about approaches. Over the last two months I worked through ideas and am going to shift what I’m doing.

The breaking point was the piece I wrote about my ancestors settling in Minnesota. You can read it here. I’m pretty happy with how this introduction turned out, and the research behind it. Because there is well documented writing about this specific community in Lincoln County, Minnesota, it was possible. The challenge is not all periods of my family history are like that.

My maternal grandmother was the third generation to live in Minnesota. When she moved to a Polish community in Illinois, without her first husband, and with her first two children, the man she married had more obscure origins. The U.S. Census record shows him living at home and working as a coal miner before they met. We know that history and later in life he worked as a coal mining demonstrator at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. He also suffered from coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. One of my main childhood memories was of him spending an inordinate amount of time in our bathroom coughing up phlegm from his diseased lungs. Black lung disease eventually contributed to his death and during the Carter administration Grandmother was awarded black lung disease benefits based on his case. I will tell this story, without other written records, yet it seems to miss the mark.

There is no avoiding writing the early parts of my autobiography from scratch, blending memories, photographs, and what documentation exists. Because I have written so much, beginning with my personal journal in 1974, the question, and sticking point, was how to handle that writing, which has been more or less continuous since then. An answer is emerging.

My stylistic lack of discipline over 50 years of writing drives 2021 me crazy. If I could go back in time and talk to the younger me I’d say, “Just tell the story.” It’s too late for that. The written record is what it is, with its changing bad writing habits.

At the same time, I always planned to use this writing in my autobiography. The epiphany while out in the garden this spring was I can tell parts of the story by using text written in real time. In other words, instead of re-writing my history the way I wrote the Minnesota piece, and using journals, newspaper articles, and blogs like a source document, I can assemble existing work in piecework fashion, the way a person makes a quilt. The form would be an autobiography written in real time, beginning after college graduation.

This morning I reached catharsis on approach. There will be four stylistic parts of the autobiography. The historical part like the Minnesota piece, recounting of first memories, a blended recounting of schooling beginning with Kindergarten until college graduation, and then everything after beginning with my written journal in 1974. I like the piecework approach this implies.

It’s only Monday, and something good has come from this week.

Kitchen Garden

Late Spring in a Kitchen Garden

Radicchio Leaves, June 11, 2021.

These late spring days of gardening are among the best of the year. Produce is coming in with variety and quantity, the ice box is filling faster than we can eat and preserve everything. It’s why we garden.

There was a time when I didn’t consider leafy green vegetables important in a garden-based meal. I hoped to grow spinach and lettuce, and maybe that’s it. That changed and now I have an entire plot devoted to different kinds of greens. Greens I used to compost now go into vegetable broth or main courses.

This year I successfully grew mustard, chard, kale, collards, turnips, kohlrabi, beets, arugula, lettuce and spinach for leafy greens. I am also experimenting with radicchio.

Radicchio is a bitter green. Based on my research it can be eaten at any stage of the plant. Ideally one gets good sized heads, and I may yet do so. I didn’t understand how big the plant grows, and thinned some to make room for a couple with heads. That produced an opportunity to try some things.

The first leaves I picked went into a fresh salad. Next, I separated and sorted the culled leaves and pickled the larger ones in a brine made with malt vinegar mixed with my own apple cider vinegar. The pickled leaves will be ready in seven days. Like with any pickle in this household, a little goes a long way. What else?

We have not eaten much arborio rice yet have a couple of bags on hand. I thought to use some of it in a radicchio risotto. I searched my main cookbook library and found radicchio recipes in Molto Italiano by Mario Batali, Fields of Greens: New Vegetarian Recipes from the Celebrated Greens Restaurant by Annie Somerville, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, Classic Italian Cooking for the Vegetarian Gourmet by Beverly Cox with Dale Whitesell, and Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmer’s Markets by Deborah Madison. There were a couple of recipes for risotto and other interesting options. What surprised me was how many cookbooks did not mention radicchio.

Next step is to read all these recipes, pick a risotto plus one other dish to try with the leaves depicted above. The next couple of days are already busy, yet I hope to work this in. Radicchio was comparatively easy to grow, although some refinement is needed in my future cultivation of the plant. I can likely start another crop for fall harvest.

With the garden in and weeded, I can work on other projects in the yard and house. Broccoli heads are beginning to form and cauliflower won’t be far behind. I monitor for predatory pests, as insect life in the garden is vibrant and hopeful. There are likely some cabbage eaters coming, maybe some squash beetles, Colorado potato beetles, and others. I’ll pick them off as I’ve always done without insecticides. My post-pandemic schedule enables me to keep watch over the garden.

I’m planning two main garden harvests per week. One Monday morning for the food bank, and another toward the end of the week for preservation and cooking. This year’s garden has been satisfying on many levels. So much so, I hung a sign on it.

Garden 2021

Why We Write

Radicchio in the garden, June 11, 2021.

This retro post is from July 16, 2012. If the Sisters of Mercy had any influence on me in the late 1960s, it was in the phrase “all for the honor and glory of God,” which, at one time, we were required to write on every school paper. In a world more connected than ever, reaching out beyond the veil of our own humanity with purpose seems as important as ever. It is not enough to believe that God is watching our every move. We must also live in society. I witnessed women making traditional lace in Morbihan. We have to get beyond the appearances of things, as comforting as they might be, as well as they might fit into a traditional world view. Hope you enjoy this recycled post.

We are isolated beings, wrapped in a veil of humanity, closer to God, or its divine essence than we realize. Such veil, metaphorical or not, is woven of delicate threads, like the lace of Morbihan, or silk from China. We could spend a lot of time marveling in its delicate needlework or shimmering surface. Yet we are compelled to reach out beyond the veil. A Cartesian view of life, if there is one.

Some say we should live our lives in the presence of God and perform all works for its honor and glory. The Sisters of Mercy taught us this and had us inscribe on each sheet of school work, words to the effect, “all for the honor and glory of God.” If God is reading this blog, my offerings may not be living up to divine standards.

Yet there is a compulsion to communicate, in manners crafted and on the fly. Verbally and in writing. In the silence of being, writing, especially in e-mail and on the internet, comes as a natural outlet for our need to express ourselves when other people are not around. It is difficult to accept that there is just God and me in the universe, and that I should be satisfied to live in the Presence of the Lord.

This weekend I had a conversation with a friend about everlasting life. We agreed that if the everlasting version is like the current one, the attraction is not enough to tithe and focus on the next life after this one. There is too much inequality, too much trouble today, to relish a state where our worldly problems are solved, the veil of life on earth torn and we visit with our deceased predecessors. It all seems an ill-designed nostrum for ailments that are not really ailments, but the stuff of our lives.

So we write, partly to clarify our thinking, and partly to satisfy our need to reach out to others and express the value of our lives, one life among the billions of people walking on the planet. Whether anyone reads or understands our writing is not the point, although we hope they do. The point is that if it is only me in the Divine Presence, then I am not yet convinced of the connection with the rest of humanity. Something I believe exists, and is more than a mere veil protecting me from the light of society.

Juke Box

Juke Box – Canned Goods

Greg Brown’s story about Iowa is one I’d like to believe.

Home Life Writing

Gravel Roads

Cedar Township

We rely on the county secondary roads department to keep farm-to-market routes in good shape. Each spring, gravel roads need grading and gravel application. While they are not well-traveled, people notice if they are in disrepair. Secondary Roads did a great job on those I use, like the one in the photograph taken after my shift at the farm.

My soil blocking at the CSA is winding down. Yesterday I started early because of mid day heat. I showered afterward and went to the wholesale warehouse to get provisions. That’s my work for the week so the next scheduled trip off property is not until Monday to deliver produce to the food pantry. That is, unless she calls ready to come home.

Having the house to myself is a little weird. I set up a music station on the dining room table. The three-in-one device plays radio, compact disks or audio cassette tapes. We keep things pretty quiet most of the time, so it is evidence of temporarily letting loose. Last night I played my Greg Brown CDs. Brown tells a story I’d like to believe about Iowa.

The menu I wrote for the both of us is out the window. There was leftover rice so I used it with other bits and pieces from the ice box to make a dish: leftover beans, kale, onions, bell pepper, and seasonings. That served as breakfast and dinner on Wednesday.

In addition to drinking a Coca-Cola on Tuesday, last night I drank the first beer since March 13, 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. I bought a case of Stella Artois at the wholesale warehouse and with temperatures in the upper 80s, I relished the first taste.

There is a big bowl of limes to be used up. I have something mixed with vodka in mind, although I am no mixologist or hard-liquor-drinker for that matter. For complicated reasons I am reluctant to open the bottle of Stolichnaya Russian Vodka purchased at the Me Too grocery store in Cedar Rapids around 1986. I hauled it out to Indiana and then brought it back to Iowa. The label says, “Imported from the USSR” and that’s half the story of its travel. Once I open it it’s a matter of time before it will be gone. I’ll probably hang on to the unopened bottle a while longer. In all this time, only about an ounce has evaporated through the sealed cap. I’m not keen on vodka consumption anyway.

Peas are ready to pick in the garden, so that’s first up when the sun rises. Some kind of stir fry will follow. There will also be soup today. Ambient temperatures are forecast for the 90s this afternoon, so garden work will be finished early, and most of the day will spent indoors.

It seems too hot for early June. The drought in Western states is horrific. The Colorado River basin is disastrously low on water and it seems doubtful rain will come in needed amounts. My worry is the drought is creeping eastward. I lived through the 2012 drought and worked outdoors in it. I don’t want to repeat that experience, yet may have to. Fingers crossed we get back to normal weather before long.


On the Lincoln Highway

Big Grove Precinct polling place at 9 a.m. on June 8, 2021.

Tuesday was the day to take Jacque to her sister’s home in Boone. We began by voting in the special election for county supervisor. Our candidate, Jon Green – Democrat, won with 66 percent of votes cast. Voting together is an excellent way to start the day. It’s not really a date, but the experience was better than an actual date. After almost 40 years of marriage that’s how we are evolving.

We drove past the Atherton Wetland, up through Ely to Highway 30, which was the first transcontinental road for automobiles, dedicated in 1913. There are historical markers along the way, although I’m not sure the current Highway 30 is the actual Lincoln Highway. In fact, I’m sure it is not in some stretches. I hadn’t been out west on 30 since my in-laws’ estate was settled in the late 1990s.

I used to appreciate the drive, and seeing the patchwork of farms that make up rural Iowa. Yesterday’s weather, mostly clear skies with cumulus clouds, was perfect for travel. My observations were different this time.

The first thing I noticed was how large the acreages had become. There were so few homes, silos and other structures on so much land. It’s reflective of the need for less people to farm in 2021. Grain storage capacity had increased considerably.

As before, the diversity of crops was limited. I noticed corn and beans, and hay bales in abundance. Due to the drought, it is a good time to harvest hay. There was likely oats mixed in the fields, but my eyes aren’t trained well enough to differentiate it.

Maybe they were there 20 years ago, but I noticed a number of concentrated animal feeding operation confinement buildings. In the vast landscape they don’t look like much, yet livestock produces six of ten of Iowa’s top agricultural commodities. I did not see one hog, cow, turkey or chicken during four hours on the road. They were all indoors.

If I once thought the scenery bucolic, I no long do. It is a landscape of extraction, well organized and with purpose. While a natural process produces commodities, it is hardly nature or anything close to it. The lack of diversity among crops and the biome is remarkable once one is acculturated to recognize it. The unseen disaster is the flow of agricultural chemicals, manure and topsoil runoff into Iowa’s watersheds. Farmers say they want good water quality and rely on rain to produce it for corn and beans. However, the industry also relies on disposing of their waste downstream at no cost or responsibility to them. The current landscape and the farm operations on it are unsustainable.

We stopped for a rest break at the Meskwaki Travel Plaza in Tama. They have clean restrooms, clean everything. The signs on the entryway read “masks recommended.” No one, including us, wore a mask. There were no mask monitors and we are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 so are not concerned about contracting the coronavirus. We had our vaccination records with us, but preferred not to show them because of the brouhaha about “vaccine passports.” No one questioned us.

I’ve not been inside the nearby Meskwaki Casino and have no desire to experience it. Later in the day I did buy a Powerball ticket so I’m not a gambling purist. “Loose slots” has little intrinsic appeal.

Noteworthy is the Meskwaki Organix Store inside the travel plaza. It is the first tribal-owned CBD dispensary located on tribal land in the state of Iowa. The Meskwaki Nation set their sights on developing a hemp economy in which they would control the product from seed to shelf. The store is intended to pursue retail markets and will also play a role in market research and product development for CBD. The store opened in November 2020. We didn’t stop there either.

Boone is the birthplace of Mamie Eisenhower. There is signage about her along the main street through downtown. After dropping Jacque, I bought gasoline at a Casey’s store. I went inside and bought a regular Coca-Cola. I don’t recall the last time I drank a Coke, and despite the labeling “original taste,” high fructose corn syrup was used as a sweetener. It was nothing like my memory of going to the corner grocer and buying a 10-ounce bottle of ice-cold Coke after delivering my newspaper route. In Iowa, we are all about appearances, less about substance. We should keep our memories about good times to ourselves.

I will return to Boone to bring her home. I won’t be buying another Coke. It was a mistake to get it, although one that can be quickly forgiven. We’re in Iowa. High fructose corn syrup is what we do.


Learning in the 21st Century

Box of Redbor kale picked June 7, 2021 for donation to the local food bank.

Most people believe learning is important. Yet “learning” is such an all-encompassing word its meaning get muddied. I’m not sure how much actual learning goes on in said people’s lives.

I hope to be a life-long learner and assume I will be. As a gardener, learning comes with the avocation so there is a process of getting better in producing vegetables, caring for the soil, and controlling harmful to humans inputs. As a writer, most of my time is spent editing words to determine what captures intended meaning, what sounds best, and figuring better ways to say more with less words. In December I reach another decennial milestone and enter septuagenarian status. In response, I’ve been considering what it means to be a learner in 21st Century society.

This post frames up a longer discussion of what learning means in the years ahead.

As young children we learn by nature and gain an understanding of how life works. Things like where food comes from, rules of behavior, when to expect a spanking, and from whom receiving a spanking is appropriate. As we age, we learn there are other options from what we learned as a toddler. It is possible to eat a healthy diet different from the culture in which we came up. Children can be raised without spanking. I find this kind of learning pretty dull because it is ubiquitous and necessary.

While there is significant learning once formal schooling begins, that too seems less interesting. I chose not to become a teacher early on, and that decision made the mechanics of pedagogy of fleeting interest. I had a long formal education, which includes Kindergarten through high school (1957-1970), college (1970-1974), a formal tour of Europe (1974) military service (1976-1979) and graduate school (1980-1981). While I had several paying jobs during these years, I considered everything part of my education. Learning is assumed during a formal education, it’s not the reference I am making in this post.

Learning occurs as a result of conscious intent. When I approached my friend Susan about working on her farm, in addition to financial compensation, I hoped to become a better gardener. As I planted the garden this year, I reflected on how much specific knowledge and technique I acquired since that initial engagement. My relationship with a community supported agriculture project made learning possible.

Over the summer I plan to set a new course for learning. Now that I retired from paying work, much of my time has been spent learning how to cope with my new status. Napping has been involved. That adjustment aside, I plan to review how I spend my time, what I have been working on, and what I should be working on. After doing that, I expect to embark on a new journey with learning at its core, one to carry me into my eighties.

I ran into one of my octogenarian friends at the food bank yesterday. She was the key organizer who started the food bank, found a permanent home for it, and continues to manage it. She is a living example of what it means to stay active in the community. My hope is I’ve learned enough to emulate her approach to living and learning. There are additional role models in life. Seeking them out will be part of the rest of my 2021.


Safe Food for a Healthy Tomorrow

Belgian Lettuce Harvest

The United Nations General Assembly declared June 7 World Food Safety Day. There is not much recognition of the event in the United States where there are programs to ensure safe food in the national production and distribution system.

Food safety is a shared responsibility between governments, producers and consumers. Everyone has a role to play from farm to table to ensure the food we consume is safe and healthy. Through the World Food Safety Day, WHO works to mainstream food safety in the public agenda and reduce the burden of foodborne diseases globally. Food safety is everyone’s business.

World Health Organization website.

In the United States, food safety is less of a problem until we get to large-scale agricultural operations. Even then, when there is an issue, such as the e.coli outbreak in lettuce from Arizona and California farms in 2018, news media and government are quick to take action to prevent spread of foodborne disease. Potentially bad lettuce was pulled from store shelves within hours of recognition of the outbreak.

I have little worry about the safety of food harvested from our garden or sourced locally. I learned enough about food safety to make sure meals cooked at home are safe. We have control of everything from garden to plate, making the risk of infection exceedingly small.

As vegetarians we have few worries about chicken, turkey, beef and pork. The world would be a better place if consumption of those proteins were reduced. As far as seafood is concerned, with imminent depletion of fisheries I don’t understand why anyone would eat any type of seafood. It would be good to give ocean life a rest so it can restore itself, if that’s still possible. The dairy industry is highly regulated in the United States. I use some dairy in our household and have had no issue with contamination or spoilage. I understand a large percentage of the population relies on fishing for subsistence, livestock as a main protein, and dairy products.

In an affluent country government has standards to ensure a safe food supply chain. Consumers are informed about the risks of foodborne disease. This may be why World Food Safety Day gets little attention here. Food safety should be the background hum in modern society, something we take for granted. For the most part, in the United States it is. That’s part of our American privilege.

Living in Society

Summer Reading – 2021

Summer Reading – 2021

My reading pace slows down in the summer. While I used to get summer started by re-reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the story has become so familiar I leave it on the shelf now. It’s close by in case I change my mind. I wrote about it here on the occasion of its copyright expiration in January. Here are nine books on my to-read list for Summer 2021.

Weather for Dummies by John D. Cox. I spend part of each day studying the weather forecast and living in the climate. I’ve become adept at interpreting available, free weather radar in terms of how the forecast might impact mundane tasks like mowing the lawn, walking or bicycling on the trail, and gardening. I need a more thorough understanding and Bill Gates recommended this book in his recent How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. Gates’ book made me mad in a couple of ways, yet I’m taking his recommendation about this book.

Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel. In case you missed it, I post about food and the food system quite often. I noted Mark Bittman referenced Patel’s book a couple of times in his recently published Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal. Since I already had purchased Patel’s book, I’m moving it into the top nine for this summer’s reading.

Devotions by Mary Oliver. A person needs poetry and there is so much from which to choose. I read Oliver’s American Primitive and liked it a lot, leading me to buy this collection of selected poems. I don’t think I can go wrong.

Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World by Simon Winchester. Winchester is among my favorite authors. Every chance I get to read for entertainment, I find one of his books and have not been disappointed. I particularly enjoyed The Alice Behind Wonderland but every one I read was memorable.

Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt. There has been much discussion about how terrible Andrew Jackson was toward native and enslaved people. It’s time I learned more than the brief study I gave him in graduate school.

World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey. Of the many cookbooks in my collection what I need most is development of our vegetarian cuisine. I like Jaffrey’s writing and expect to explore her world this summer to find inspiration for our kitchen garden.

Trouble in the Stars by Sarah Prineas. I found this young adult book by my political pal Sarah Prineas surprisingly engaging. There is something about the style of young adult fiction that keeps the story moving quickly along. There is more to this book than the primary narrative. Take a look!

Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself by Chloe Angyal. Halfway into this book, I find it engaging and a bit of a stretch of my interests. (The only other book I read on ballet was Gelsey Kirkland’s memoir Dancing on my Grave). I met Angyal at a book event featuring Sarah Smarsh and Connie Schultz soon after she moved to the Iowa City area. Angyal spent most of her time here writing this well-researched and informative book. It’s my current read and I look forward to finishing it this summer.

Birds in the Morning, Frogs at Night: Sharing Life Along the Road by Maureen McCue. When Maureen and I met on the Johnson County Board of Health we started a friendship that led to public advocacy on the gravest threats to society: the climate crisis, nuclear weapons, and public health risks of how utilities generate electricity. This is her story. I’ll be sure to write more once I finish it.

What books are you planning to read this summer? If you’d like to share, please leave a comment. Happy reading!

Kitchen Garden

A Spring Harvest

Garden produce displayed on my work bench on June 4, 2021.

The Dutch oven on the stove top is bubbling with today’s vegetable broth. This batch is different because I used kohlrabi greens, which I usually compost, along with turnip and beet greens. The color is rich. Air in the whole house is imbued with the aroma of mirepoix combined with fresh greens. It is elemental.

By tomorrow night, part of the broth will be used to make dinner.

On trash/recycling day I walk the receptacles to the road when I wake so I don’t forget them after sunrise. There was a cool breeze with low humidity as I did it this morning. It felt good after yesterday’s high temperature close to 90 degrees. According to a local meteorologist, the weekend will be exceedingly warm, without precipitation. It’s a time for humans to stay hydrated and to water the garden enough to keep plants growing in the heat. During yesterday afternoon’s walkabout it appeared pumpkins, cucumbers and squash planted have become established despite the heat. It was touch and go for a while.

When I write about the kitchen garden it blocks other topics. For the time being it’s okay. In 2022 I’m planning a course of renewal as a septuagenarian, there’s more I want to accomplish during my days. For now, the scent of vegetable broth and small successes in the garden will sustain me.