Living in Society

Business as Usual

Cottage Reserve from Lake Macbride Beach

In a first for this blog I’m publishing a post by another author. I met Kim Painter during her election campaign for Johnson County Recorder in 1998. She continues to serve as recorder. I have the Painter yard sign I put up back then but don’t use it any longer because she has run unopposed for reelection. Readers may recall I frequently write about Big Grove Township. The Cottage Reserve, the subject of this article, is located in our township.This article first appeared in The Prairie Progressive in print edition. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Business as Usual by Kim Painter

Once in a great while, though you think you know what your job is and what it means, the earth of the greater wide world beyond will shift, sending you off-balance in a signal moment of realization. Suddenly the job is not what you thought, but rather all that and much more. For me, it’s happened a few times. Once, when same-sex marriage went from being a contentious back-room LGBT community issue to a national, front-burner fastball coming hard across the plate. Suddenly the media spotlight was intense, emotions ran high, and I was operating at a whole different level than on a day-to-day basis. Day-to-day kept coming to be sure, but so did this other social and civil rights issue with a life and velocity all its own.

It happened more recently when a gentleman wrote to me asking for some assistance with a research project. The man was F. Wendell Miller Professor of History at the University of Iowa, Colin Gordon. He wanted all our deed document images from 1900-1950. It was a new kind of request, for which there was no current template.

He explained that he hoped to get the digitized images into a file to run through optical character recognition (OCR) software. He and his class would then scan for phrases like “the Caucasian race” to locate what we now call ‘racially restrictive covenants.’ Back then, they were called business as usual. I was hooked on the idea, and proceeded to work with our software vendor and county IT staff to load the entire 50 years of deed documents into a file for him. It was a privilege to play a small role, and it is a marvel that today, all documents of this sort in Johnson County and Iowa City are online and mapped. The work is found here:

As I began this article I was struck to recall a third occupational epiphany, a personal one. Some 15 years ago, I was printing off some covenants and restrictions for a customer with questions about a potential property boundary dispute. The situation was unfolding out around Lake Macbride, at what is known as the Cottage Reserve. My eyes stopped on a page, widening considerably, as I slowly comprehended in full the following verbiage:

(6) The said Cottage Reserve area is hereby platted for the sole use and benefit of the Caucasian Race, and no lot or parcel of ground shall be sold, owned, used, or occupied by the people of any other race except when used in the capacity of servant or helper.

Please note the awful and purposeful use of the word “used,” as in “used in the capacity of servant or helper.” There’s no mistaking that meaning. People of color are able to occupy space on this property only if being used… by white people.

As if the above weren’t clear enough, consider the fast-following item (7). It prohibits the ‘keeping or maintaining of hogs, cattle, horses or sheep.’ So in near proximity to reserving the Reserve for the sole benefit and use of the Caucasian race, people of color are categorized alongside hogs, cattle, horses, or sheep.

Again, there is no mistaking the meaning. This is what we thought at the time. This is what we ordained and enforced in legal documents. It is a mark of racism’s insidiousness that such documents were so
often mundane in one paragraph — stipulating maximum heights of garages or number and kind of outbuildings, delineating collective
use of shared roads or wells—only to pivot in the very next to equating entire swaths of humanity to livestock, allowing their presence only if white owners were using them.

Often, when the topic of reparations is raised, one observes the heads of certain kinds of white people exploding, if quietly. People of that sort might seek enlightenment in these covenants and restrictions, which were stipulated in property transactions from the early 1900s until outlawed in 1948. They were of like kind across the nation.

Consider the financial implications of the sheer volume of parcels
restricted in this manner. Tote up the generational losses of wealth caused by the absence of just one home and its plot of land from one family. Have you ever borrowed against your home and land? Think of all those who help kids through college by doing that very thing, and how many people of color had no means to do so. How many lost educations, how much lost income, what final tally of all the wealth lost forever to families over time? It is breathtaking to contemplate. And it all starts on pieces of paper, the day-today documents that come through an office as people buy and sell homes and property. It is that simple, and that monumental. In way, it mirrors racism itself.

Living in Society

Lynching in Iowa?

Field Corn in the Fall

The burned body of Michael Williams of Grinnell was found in rural Kellogg on Wednesday. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation is treating the death as a homicide. A hate crime has not been ruled out. Williams was black in a city that is 92 percent white.

“As if taking his life was not bad enough,” Powell Mejias, the victim’s mother wrote. “On Sept. 16 the perpetrators of this crime moved his body to Jasper County, dumped him on the side of the road, then set his body on fire.”

News has been scant. The Perry News headline is “Lynching possible in death, burning of Grinnell man.” Here are a couple of links to news stories.

Link to Perry News.

Link to The Scarlet and Black.

This is Iowa in the time of Donald Trump. Black Lives Matter.

Kitchen Garden

Onions 2020

Onions Drying

2020 was the first big experiment in onion growing. Onions are basic to cooking and until this year I relied on others to produce onions for the kitchen. It was time to take a step forward and grow my own.

I learned a lot.

Planting from seed at home on Feb. 7, Talon and Red Burgundy onions, and Matador shallots, failed to germinate. Luckily I had split the shallot seeds between home and farm. The farm seeds germinated well. To resolve the home issue I bought some channel trays from the farm and have a heating pad in my shopping cart at the seed store. Before the snow flies I’ll buy a bag of the special soil mix used for starting seeds in channel trays.

On March 21, I planted white, yellow and red onion bulbs bought at the home, farm and auto supply store. I started half in soil mix in trays, and the rest were to be planted directly into the ground. Planting them in trays helped establish roots more quickly. They went into the ground on April 8 and grew well. They produced a number of decently sized onions, yet they had little storage value. At the time they matured I had onions left from last season so these were going bad before I was ready to use them. I might try them again next year, although since I retired from the retail job I don’t get over to that store very often.

On March 23, I planted both pelleted and non-pelleted White Lisbon bunching onions in my newly assembled home greenhouse. They germinated but the wind knocked them off the shelf and ruined them. I have a lot to learn about this style of portable greenhouse. The greenhouse was destroyed in the Aug. 10 derecho so there is an opportunity to do something different next year.

I ordered onion starts from Johnny’s Selected Seeds this year. In the past I used leftovers from the farm. This year I wanted to control which varieties were planted. Ailsa Craig, Red Wing and Patterson starts arrived just in time for planting in our area. On April 14 the whole onion patch was in.

Onion page from the garden journal.

When planting the onions I measured the width of my stirrup hoe and allowed space on either side to fit it between rows while weeding. In theory this was a good idea because it maximized space usage. Next year I’ll follow recommendations and plant rows further apart. It was difficult to fit the hoe in between rows once the plants matured. I planted starts closer together in the rows so I could harvest spring onions as they grew. This part of the process worked well.

Once the rows were planted I used the rest of the onion starts in four or five places, planting them close together to use as spring or green onions. This ensured every spot in the garden plots was used. We had a steady supply of green onions in the kitchen well into summer.

The three varieties purchased as starts produced reasonably well both as green onions and as mature bulbs. The amount harvested will last well into winter if they store as expected. That remains an open question as of this writing, although so far, so good.

The results of this experiment were a step along the way to better onion production. I bought some channel trays from the farm and next year will use a more controlled process to start from seed. I will likely combine home starts with starts from Johnny’s again. The home process for starting from seed needs proofing. Planting rows further apart should help the size of the final product.

The shallots grew well and plenty for kitchen use are in storage. Next year I’ll get shallot seeds and try again to start them from home. I assume the channel tray will foster proper germination and I can use my own starts next year.

With a year’s experimentation behind me, key challenges to address in the 2021 gardening year are:

  • Achieving proper, uniform germination.
  • Variety selection to enhance storage properties.
  • Allow some varieties to grow longer into the season and hopefully get larger.
  • Should onions started from bulbs play a role in the kitchen garden?
  • Replicate the relative success of the shallot crop.

Onions are a basic part of American cuisine and growing them well should be high on a gardener’s to-do list. Good progress was made in 2020, as evidenced by the crates of stored onions by the furnace. I’m already thinking about next year.

Living in Society

Work Ahead

Burn pile, Sept. 18, 2020.

On the driveway, under starlight, I remembered Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It will be a busy fall Saturday.

For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began with the governor’s March 9 proclamation there is a can and bottle drive at the high school. We don’t drink many beverages that come in cans yet I have six cases of glass bottles to recycle. I don’t know which charity gets the deposit refund although one person organizing the drive is a member of the school board.

While in town I plan to deliver seven sets of political yard signs. My supply of most signs is close to depleted. We are supposed to get more from the Biden-Harris campaign this month.

Yesterday we re-submitted requests for absentee ballots. A judge ruled our first requests, and those of thousands of others, were invalid because of a paperwork issue. Make no mistake. We will vote.

I expect politics to dominate our daily lives until the election results are known. The Commonwealth of Virginia began early voting on Friday. The line lasted for hours and is a harbinger of what’s to come. Turnout is expected to be higher than normal for a presidential election.

These are not normal times.


Trees Take a Hit

Apple blossoms on Sept. 17, 2020.

2020 is the year trees and shrubs planted in the mid-1990s took a hit.

While mowing for the first time after the Aug. 10 derecho I noticed an Earliblaze apple tree was in bloom. The branches with blooms had otherwise died.

The Red Delicious apple tree lost a major branch during the storm. It seems unlikely to survive, although I might be able to get a crop next year. The scar where the branch was is big. Sealing it from insect predators seems a temporary solution. I had the same experience with a Golden Delicious tree a few years ago. It’s already gone.

One of the lilac bushes suddenly lost all of its leaves. While mowing I noticed new leaves had begun to form. I presume it is next year’s leaves. It’s time to cut that bush out.

Our neighborhood continues to recover from the derecho. Chain saws run almost every day. Burn piles amass, piles of firewood lay everywhere. Although I cleaned up the fallen branches and trees this week, there is more work to be done and sadly it involves a chain saw rather than pruning shears.

Planting a tree is a long-term commitment. When we have a year like 2020 one questions the merit of decades of work when the derecho, combined with disease, mitigates that work so quickly and unexpectedly. I don’t measure my remaining time on this blue-green, turning brown sphere in decades any more. There is enough time to eat apples from new trees I planted this year.

The haze through which the sun shines originated in record-setting fires on the West Coast. The arctic also has a record number of fires. The arctic and antarctic glaciers are melting and don’t get enough snowfall to offset the loss. It is an increasingly hot planet. We are all impacted as the pollution spreads through the atmosphere.

Phase two of my tree work is taking care of many dead branches that cropped up since spring. There is time to work on it. The firewood pile is getting taller though, and isn’t finished growing yet.

Firewood pile Sept. 17, 2020
Kitchen Garden

Pasta Dinner

Late season Roma tomatoes and basil

Walking to the garden I searched a row of Roma tomatoes for ripe ones for dinner. There were a few so I picked them.

Nearby I had planted basil and picked some as it was beginning to go to flower.

I carried the produce in my t-shirt and made my way to the kitchen where I added garlic and onions from the garden for a simple pasta sauce.

With noodles made from semolina flour, and steamed green beans, it made dinner. We were the better for it.

Living in Society

Derecho Clean Up Persists

Turn around on the Lake Macbride State Park trail.

Tuesday morning I cut the fallen locust tree trunk into segments and stacked them along with other firewood produced after the derecho.

It will take several more shifts to cut and sort the remaining damaged tree branches. One of the oak trees needs removal once there is room for it to fall. After that I can get the garden ready for winter, beginning with garlic planting in a couple of weeks.

The call of politics dominates my awareness. I spend time each day improving our chances in the Nov. 3 election. I’ll be spending more time. The stakes in this election are too high to sit on the sidelines.

I’ve learned to take care of myself in times of stress. That’s something we all can and should be doing. As the sun rises it’s difficult to see what today will bring. We must be active agents, not only in our own lives but in our lives in society regardless what light shines on us.

Voting begins on Oct. 5, 19 days from now. One can feel the surge of Americans moving toward election day. Part of it we can’t influence. Part of it we can and that’s where I’ll spend my daily political time. I hope readers will join me by making sure close friends and relatives have a plan to vote.

Living in Society

Eroding Liberal Centers

Tomatillo casserole with potato, onion, tomatoes, garlic and basil.

Johnson County, Iowa, where I live, is distinctively Democratic. The Republican Iowa legislature doesn’t much care for our deviance from their plans.

In 2010 we were the only county in the state to vote for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Roxanne Conlin. In 2014, Johnson County stood alone in voting for Jack Hatch as governor. “We are the most Democratic county in the statewide races by a very consistent margin,” election official and long-time blogger John Deeth wrote.

Said margin doesn’t mean beans in the scope of statewide elections. If one subtracts Johnson County from statewide and presidential results since 2000 the political outcome and the winners would have remained the same.

Let’s be clear, my political precinct voted for Donald Trump by a substantial margin, as did several others. When I write Johnson County is liberal I’m referring to the urban centers comprised of Iowa City, Coralville, and to a lesser extent, North Liberty. Rural areas near Lone Tree, Tiffin and Solon are more like the rest of the state than the liberal metropolis.

Republicans have noticed and are taking aim.

The county would ban concentrated animal feeding operations if we could. There are votes on the board of supervisors to do so. Managing CAFOs was one of the first areas of the law where the legislature preempted local control, saying hog and cattle lots would be managed from Des Moines.

The Johnson County supervisors raised the county minimum wage. Not every municipality in the county went along with the change. Some other counties also raised the minimum wage. The state legislature preempted local control over minimum wage, nullifying Johnson County’s ordinance.

Protesters in Iowa City have long sought to shut down Interstate 80 as a way to stop business as usual and gain attention for their causes. I participated in one such interstate shutdown in 1971. Republicans increased the penalties for this infraction, although the Iowa Highway Patrol, which is responsible for the interstate, hasn’t been able to prevent protesters from attempting to close it. Protesters closing the interstate highway remains a sore spot for Republicans.

There was talk in the legislature of penalizing so-called “Sanctuary Cities.” I worked with a local group of faith and labor leaders to get the Iowa City Council to declare the county seat a Sanctuary City. They declined to do so because of the stigma attached to the appellation. That hasn’t stopped Republicans from calling our county a Sanctuary County, and our cities Sanctuary Cities.

Our county favors reasonable gun control. No one wants to take guns away from everyone. Most of us would ban the AR-15 and other assault and military-style weapons, and better control the way in which sellers at gun shows operate. The Iowa legislature, especially under House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, will have none of it.

The effect of constant Republican efforts to erode what makes Johnson County a liberal center is not without its effects. The reaction to Republican preemption in governance has been to make us more liberal. At the same time our liberal nature is isolating us within the state.

Republicans keep after us, including attacks on the keystone of our local economy, the University of Iowa. Through decreased funding, and installation by the board of regents of President J. Bruce Herrald, a man without substantial academic credentials, they erode what’s best about the university and as a byproduct, our economic life.

Iowa City is also hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The state would not allow a mask wearing mandate and the city and county implemented one anyway. I was in the county seat yesterday and the percentage of mask-wearing people was about 50 percent. Enforcement is close to zero. It’s no wonder there is uncontrolled spread of the virus in the county.

If the Trump administration ever finishes the U.S. Census count, there will be political redistricting for the 2022 election. Iowa expects to keep its four congressional seats. I expect Johnson County will gain at least one full time state legislator and we will elect a Democrat in that district.

It seems possible to regain control of the Iowa House of Representatives this election cycle and we are working toward that end. People say it’s possible to flip the Iowa Senate as well, but I doubt it. The Republican Party of Iowa is in full campaign mode, defending every seat where a Republican is running. Even former governor Terry Branstad is returning to the state to help with the campaign, announcing yesterday he is leaving his post as U.S. Ambassador to China. If anything, the political landscape will result in Democrats becoming even more concentrated geographically and Republicans harder to beat.

To some extent Johnson County Democrats painted a target on their back by pursuing liberal policies. That leads me to say while Republicans take aim at us liberals, I hope the rest of Iowa Democrats are using the diversion to gather strength and rebuild Iowa as a progressive state. We should be a progressive state and the only way we will return to our roots is by developing a statewide Democratic footprint. I’ve been around long enough to believe that’s possible.

Republican attacks on our county are irritating yet tolerable. They are not going to end soon and hopefully will provide cover for our Democratic friends and allies throughout the state. The Nov. 3 general election will be a bellwether to show us which way the state is going.


Introduction to a Memoir

Turn around, Ely, Iowa.

A high school classmate died on Sunday. In 2013 he sent a copy of a 54-page draft of his memoir for editing.

I didn’t offer much because his writing was good and it was his story, not mine. Our life experiences were different, tied together by four years we spent in high school together in a cohort of 262 students. If it weren’t for social media we would never have collaborated.

My life has been lived in the second half of the 20th Century and the first quarter of the 21st. I want to tell that story, although I’m not sure how badly.

I wrote many words about my life and part of the task of a memoir is pulling that writing together. It seems important, not urgent. I have a question: what have I done the story of which hasn’t been told by someone else? Not much when we think about it.

Today I see a memoir in two parts. One, a collection of past writing and historical analysis that tells the story chronologically. The second, an analysis of important life events from today’s perspective. Both parts will become big projects.

The first reason for a memoir is to record a history for our daughter. The second is to understand it myself. I doubt my life has much significance beyond family. Although I’ve done a lot, I’ve been a reflection of contemporary times rather than shaping them. I’ve been a regular guy trying to get along and that’s not too special in the broad scope of society.

For the time being I work on a couple of community projects and plan to address the memoir after the Nov. 3 election. A lot depends on the outcome of the election, including whether or not progress is made on a memoir. Here’s hoping for the best.

Living in Society

Rain Continues

Derecho Woodpile

From drought to rain the last week has been unrelenting.

The garden continues to produce and grass is growing again creating another task once the landscape dries.

Doesn’t look like drying will happen today.

I am helping the local political party distribute campaign yard signs. There are few parts of the county north of the interstate highway I don’t recognize. I’ve gotten requests from voters on some new streets yet when I look for them the same roads and streets are in memory to find them. I remember a lot of door knocking from past political campaigns.

I stopped to refuel my 1997 Subaru Outback. At the convenience store no one was wearing a mask. Not a single person. I couldn’t see through the window whether the cashiers were, although I hope so. Keeping my distance at the fuel pump I sanitized my hands once back in the driver’s seat. Risk avoidance is a key part of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. I resisted the temptation to go inside and buy a Powerball ticket.

It’s just as well it’s wet outside. I have an indoors project with a deadline and it’s easier to avoid distraction when it’s raining. I’m about to make my second French press of coffee for the day. It may not be the last. I’m digging into the history of our community. There’s a lot of food for thought and memory. It should keep me busy all day.