Living in Society

Divided Government Comes Home

Morse Fence
Morse Fence

MORSE— State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann held a town hall meeting at the Morse Community Center, where 25 people gathered this afternoon to hear what is going on in Des Moines. He wanted to hear what we had to say, and some members of the audience had a lot of it. Kaufmann reported that local celebrity, Laurie Tulchin of the Newport Road clashes,  helped pay for the hall.

Johnson County Republican party chairwoman Deborah Thornton approached, after the formal part of the meeting, and asked me to sign a petition changing how we would be represented on the county board of supervisors. I don’t support the proposal and said so. She said, “that’s okay,” and moved on to others, after mentioning the Rand Paul event coming up in Coralville. It was an example of the new Republican diligence in what they may see as a Graham township opening to expand their base. Kaufmann won only 42 percent of the vote in Graham precinct during the 2012 general election. I know Graham precinct and believe her effort was futile. However, one had to appreciate her diligence and persistence.

I liked Bobby Kaufmann the first time we met, and still do. What is surprising is now that I have a Republican representative in the state house, I also like divided government. Even more than the so-called trifecta, when Democrats, under Chet Culver, controlled the governorship and both houses of the legislature. (Note: The three branches of government are executive, legislative and judicial. Legislators seem to forget the judiciary in their tripartite calculus).

In divided government people have to work together to conduct the state’s business, each holding the other party accountable. For a working stiff like me, that’s as good as it gets in government.

After the 2012 general election, I wrote in the Tipton Conservative,

“In the 85th Iowa General Assembly, House District 73 will be typical of Iowa, where our state representative and state senator, Democrat Bob Dvorsky, will be in the majority in their respective chambers. In order for anything to get accomplished, the senate and house must seek bipartisan common ground as a first step.

The mistake of past house Republicans has been to get some house Democrats to join in legislation, call it bipartisan, and lay blame in the other chamber when it was rejected. This went both ways.

Kaufmann has an opportunity to differentiate himself. If he rejects the stale blame game house Republicans have played with the Iowa Senate, and, as he promised during the campaign, works toward bipartisan solutions to get meaningful legislation passed and forwarded to the governor, then he will grow his base of support and help his re-election prospects.

However, if he plays the blame game, his prospects for re-election diminish.”

It is too early to tell how the session will play out, and for me, everyone is too chummy over in Des Moines. Today, Kaufmann demonstrated that whether or not he read my letter, he gets what I had to say and has been working toward getting something done in divided government. He repeatedly mentioned his relationship with Democrat Dave Jacoby of Coralville (and their seven lunches together this session). He gave Jacoby credit for helping craft bills that gained true bipartisan support when put to a vote. It is hard to legitimately complain about that.

As a citizen, I believe our legislature doesn’t need to do dumb things like prop up the nuclear power industry, support economic development deals like the one with Orascom, or turn away an expansion of Medicaid in some reasonable form. If I don’t agree with Kaufmann on some important issues, he is doing the work of representing the district. At the same time, my state senator is protecting me from Republican bad ideas.

Now that divided government has come home to roost, one finds it not very progressive, but better than expected.

Work Life

Saturday Morning after TGIF


LAKE MACBRIDE— There was a time when our life on the Iowa prairie resembled what now is referred to as the middle class. My mother worked at home and at the school cafeteria, and my father had a shift job at a meat packing plant, Monday through Friday. We kids went to school and church, played in the neighborhood, and from time to time, our maternal grandmother came over for Sunday dinner. We had little money, and didn’t need much. After Dad’s death I found one of his pay stubs in his basement workshop indicating $89 per week.

Dad was involved with our family, the union, politics and getting ahead. After work on Fridays he would head to Pete’s Midwest Tavern to socialize, and blow off some steam. On Saturday mornings he slept as late as he ever did, his wedding band and watch on the bedside table until he rose. As he struggled to get ahead, he took up golf as a means of socialization and networking, although he didn’t call it that. Eventually, Saturday morning sleep-ins were replaced with an early tee-time. It turned out he was good at playing golf, not quite a scratch golfer.

It’s been a lot of years since Dad passed on— it is difficult to tell, beyond the gene pool,  whether I am like him or not. He would likely disapprove of my current temp job as a shift worker, as he had better things in mind for me. He never said exactly what, but provided career advice, “don’t become a grease monkey— keep your hands clean.”

After a week of warehouse work, my workmates and I do thank God when Friday arrives. It is a bit lame that I don’t know if bars are open after midnight. Always, I have headed home, although someday my younger cohorts may invite me out after work. I would go if they did.

My hands swell from the manual labor I perform. I take off my wedding band and place it on the dresser near where the watch I haven’t worn since the 1990s rests, its battery dead. I sleep in on Saturday morning, and it’s okay to break from society and its conventions.

The way the phrase “middle class” is used today seems spurious. A marker for a political agenda, rather than a condition or status in society. Demographically, the term is meaningless because of the vast range of economic status of the group falling between the haves and the have nots— the have somethings.

I feel working class when sleeping in on Saturdays, tired from the preceding week of manual labor. Whatever one calls it, luxuriating in being who we are is important to maintaining our sanity in a turbulent world. Even if it only lasts for the brief time between sleeping and waking on Saturday mornings.

Home Life Kitchen Garden

Three Spring Lessons Learned

Arugula, Basil and Lettuce
Arugula, Basil and Lettuce

LAKE MACBRIDE— The sound of rain dripping in the downspout woke me. Opening the blinds revealed a queue of cars protecting school children from the rain at the bus stop. It is an overcast day, with rain we surely need. The school bus arrived, and I moved trays of seedlings outside to harden them. Better plants be hardened by the weather than children. Life will be hard enough as they finish grade school and begin to grow up.

Spring has been a time of lessons learned in Big Grove.

Cooperation with neighbors enabled me to borrow a rototiller and till the garden as well as it has ever been at no financial cost. That benefit, combined with working together in a common enterprise, is a reminder of our local culture, and the need to nurture it.

Seeking out people with experience in similar interests can provide benefits. Working together with them is even better. The inspiration to plant more seeds in trays this year was working with experienced growers at a local farm. Seeing the success others have can inform our own successes.

Adaptation to the sometimes crazy weather was the climate reality with which we lived. The cold, wet spring retarded progress in yard and garden work. Though delayed, the trees and plantings are now thriving. It is better to focus on what progress can be made than to complain about the weather, and other things beyond our control.

Life is what we make of it is the old saw. Quotes, proverbs and sayings aren’t worth much unless we put them into practical application by doing things with others. It takes time and effort. Sometimes it takes replacing bad habits accumulated over time with something better.

Perhaps the best lesson of this spring has been the reminder that we can’t stop living. If there is any hope for social progress, it is in working together with others toward a common good— a lesson that extends beyond spring.

Living in Society

On the Body Politic

Main Street
Main Street

LAKE MACBRIDE— Would that the body politic were a human, subject to purges and nostrums that would cure what ails it. Alas, there is no cure for the body politic or our role in it. On most days we accept politics for the diverse, desultory and sometimes malodorous reflection of society it is.

That is not to say politicians are smelly. The body politic is less about public office holders, and more about us. The politicians, elected officials and those who would be, are full of good intentions, and occasionally, will take a principled stand on an issue. But more than these visible manifestations of it, the body politic is all of us in our raucous cacophony and wide spectrum of interests. Part of the dynamic is being disengaged from politicians and politics, most of the time.

To lead a reasonably normal life, one must resist tendencies driven by political activists, and focus on a more general political life. I have a few things in mind.

Engaging in politics includes campaigns, but is mostly governance. The work of elected officials is to govern after being sworn in. Vigilance of their performance and participation in guiding their actions are important in the body politic. In Big Grove, we are represented by two Republicans and three Democrats between the Iowa General Assembly and in the U.S. Congress. Whatever we want to accomplish depends upon working with all of them. When a favored candidate loses an election, some activists turn immediately to working on the next campaign to supposedly replace the undesired elected official. This behavior misses the point of governance.

It is common knowledge that a U.S. Senator or Representative must constantly raise political contributions for the next campaign. For them, the campaign never ends when they have a targeted dollar amount to raise each day. An elected official’s life includes constituency work, public appearances, and maintenance of a public presence, in person and on the Internet. All of this is a form of campaign work. People might think anyone can run for office, get elected and serve, but the large number of lame candidates who have recently challenged the incumbent in our U.S. House district is testimony to the fact that not anyone can. If elected officials must be in continual campaign mode, most of us do not.

My experience during the last five election cycles is that people are interested in politics, but not that much, at least in public. The tendency is for people to change their voter registration from partisan to no preference, so much so that no preference registrations are the largest segment of voters in many districts. This reflects the practical desire to dissociate from the body politic, even if people take general elections seriously. Some register no preference for business reasons, some to hide their political beliefs from neighbors, and others to feign an objective stance when deciding for whom to vote. It is evidence of a curious dichotomy between abhorrence of things political, combined with sub rosa engagement.

Life is more diverse than seeking the next big political campaign. Rather than the body politic, we should think of political engagement as like shingles in society. Once one has had the pox, they are a carrier for life.

Work Life

Plasma Sales and Politics

LAKE MACBRIDE— The Cumulus radio station in Cedar Rapids was advertising how a person could earn up to $340 per month selling their plasma. It’s enough money that it was worth a look to see if plasma sales could fit into our bottom line. It sounds kind of grim, but people do it all the time.

Plasma is the pale, yellow liquid portion of blood that helps our bodies control bleeding and infection. When one donates plasma, our blood is removed and the plasma separated before blood is returned to our body. We generate more plasma within a couple of days so twice a week donations are usually possible.

Donating takes about an hour and plasma collection centers make it easy with a straight forward, step-by-step process. Importantly, they explain how payment is loaded on a debit card. It is literally using one’s body as an ATM.

Several self-employed and low-wage earners in my circle use plasma sales to supplement monthly income. Got a toothache? Better schedule some sessions at the plasma center to get dollars to pay the dentist. One suspects residents of our nearby college town use the cash for cigarettes, sugary drinks and beer, but in any case, plasma sales can be a reliable and steady source of income if one meets the requirements for donating.

The money could be put to good use. For example, it could be used for political donations. That way, when a political telemarketer called, I would know my approximate annual budget, and be able to say, “Yes. I’ll donate that $100, which will take me four plasma sessions.” Politics would literally be based on blood money then.

We could go a step further and say that all financial contributions to politicians had to originate in plasma sales. There would be a natural limit to how much a person could donate, and a restriction could be placed on corporations that said something like, corporations can make political contributions, but such contributions must be paid via the plasma of shareholders, imposing a natural limit to money spent by corporations during political campaigns. I bet corporations would exercise their free speech differently under such a rule.

If my modest proposal about political contributions through plasma sales seems a bit edgy, I am pretty sure it would work. Importantly, it would set a human limit on political contributions. Having skin in the game would take on a whole new meaning. Most Americans are asleep at the wheel of politics, and would not contribute, so there is little danger of a glut of plasma on the market.

If times get tough, I’ll re-visit adding a plasma sales income line to our household operating budget. For now, I’m just glad I don’t have to do it.

Environment Social Commentary

Pelicans and Cranes

Crane at Mehaffey Bridge
Crane at Mehaffey Bridge

LAKE MACBRIDE— The pelican migration is underway, and flocks of the white and black birds fly lazily— above our lakes and river— back and forth in a pattern I recognize, but can’t adequately describe. Pelicans appear here twice a year. I stopped during a trip to North Liberty to watch them fly near the construction site for Mehaffey Bridge.

I am leading a new life with my beater of a car. The radio has six preset buttons, of which four are set. I haven’t tested the cassette and CD players and listen mostly to a country station in Cedar Rapids owned by Cumulus Media. The music fits my new lifestyle, or seems to.

Country music on Cumulus gets me thinking. It is imbued with a certain familiar life, and while on a trip to work or to market, it is easy to suspend disbelief and listen. The songs are places where I don’t have to be me until Monday, people cope with loss as they drive your truck, and where “I found Jesus” rhymes with “I wrecked my first car. I tore it all to pieces.” Whether one likes the new country music or not, the snippets of reality are tangible, visceral the way manual labor is— stripping away the intellectual aspect of our lives. That may be the point of my predilection to hit number four on the presets most often— sometimes it is good to just stop thinking.

Consider the cranes. Man-made with engineering specifications that enable a reach four stories above the roadway to build the new bridge. They are built to fit the task, work from floating barges, and reach heights limited by design. Our lives today tend to be more like cranes than pelicans. Near these man-made lakes, we lean toward believing Bill McKibben, that we are at the end of nature. Except no one told the pelicans.

Beyond the fixed world of my used Subaru, with its country music tuner and enough life to keep me going for a while, are the flocks of pelicans, doing what pelicans do— part of which is inspiring us to believe there is more to life than what we find on main traveled roads needing an overhaul.

Home Life Kitchen Garden

Buttermilk Biscuits

Buttermilk Buscuits
Buttermilk Biscuits

Here is a new recipe for buttermilk biscuits. It produces a light biscuit with a crunchy exterior, and uses one-half pint of buttermilk, which is the smallest size sold in grocery stores.


2 cups flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
Scant teaspoon salt
4 tbs cold butter, grated
1 cup cold buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl, grating the butter directly into the dry ingredients using a box grater or equivalent. Using your fingertips, mix the butter into the flour. Don’t over-do it. Add buttermilk and make a dough, which will be sticky.

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and fold in half 8-10 times. This action causes the biscuits to be flaky and separate along the ghost of the fold after baking. Press the dough into a one inch thick slab. Cut with a 2-1/2 inch biscuit cutter and place on a baking sheet.

Bake until the biscuits rise and are lightly browned on top, about 14-15 minutes.

Home Life Kitchen Garden

Wisps of Morning Clouds

LAKE MACBRIDE— Wisps of clouds in the western sky are colored gray and pink, touched by white, against a blue sky. The leaves on the pin oak tree are falling, making way for this year’s growth. The lilac bushes, apple trees and every other plant in the yard are coming alive after winter dormancy. The driveway is damp with last night’s rain, and there is hope the garden will dry out enough to dig today. Not much hope, but some.

The temperature is forecast to peak at 55 degrees when I have to depart to cross the lakes to North Liberty around 3 p.m. In these windows of time— between now, and the next thing— we might make a life if we apply ourselves.

The cucumber, zucchini and yellow squash seeds I planted April 7 have germinated and are forming their initial two leaves. The tray of lettuce has grown, and the tomato seeds are still a bit spindly, but for the most part have four leaves, and should be ready to plant when the last frost is past. The experiment with seedlings is progressing acceptably.

After consulting with a farmer friend, I decided to wait to plant the turnip seeds in the ground, rather than start them in a tray. This year, I hope for a lot of turnip greens to make soup stock for summer and beyond.

I can  make a brush pile from the twigs and branches collected since last fall. That is, if the ground is too wet to dig. Take down the short chicken-wire fences where I started peas last year, and clear a spot for the burn. It is an hour’s work to be done mid-morning.

Under a clearing sky I’ll make a day of it— gardening and yard work— before crossing the lakes. This shore preferable to that, but both important to sustaining our life on the Iowa prairie.

Social Commentary

Seven Ages Revisited

LAKE MACBRIDE— One can like Shakespeare and dislike Erving Goffman, the sociologist who used a dramaturgical analysis to demonstrate a relationship between acts in our daily lives and the acting of actors in the theater. Goffman won awards and stuff, but knowing who he is and his seminal work, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” is like insider baseball in the 21st century.

With the proliferation of television, and its changing content over half a century— its lean toward programs with people acting out a reality— theater is often forgotten, except in schools and among devotees of the trade. Yet, Shakespeare endures, Goffman does not, the latter’s work being eclipsed by the popular notion that we “don’t need the drama.” In contemporary settings, drama is a thing, recognizable, and something eschewed, especially within the working class.

As much as I like it, “As You Like It,” where the seven ages of man speech is found, was not my favorite Shakespearean play. That honor is reserved for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Richard III,” or “The Merchant of Venice.” In any case, the seven ages may need an American revision to accommodate the post-industrial society. First, the setup,

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages…”

Goffman has not ruined this, but close.

“At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;”

No argument here, as being born and infancy represents our first age in society. In some American circles, people prefer a union nurse as a place for mewling and puking, but that number seems an infinitesimal compared to a global population of more than 7 billion people.

“And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.”

Check with a grade schooler and you will find most like school, like their teachers, and like going to school. I don’t understand why children are so willing to leave home for school, but in the Midwest, they are. Of course the satchel has been replaced by a back pack as the back pack makers association has seen to that via an advertising campaign targeting schoolers.

“And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.”

Such youthful expiration has become an extension of the age of the schooler. It may be the one place where drama comes into play, as a young lad will say or do almost anything, including being dramatic, to secure the heart (among other things) of his mistress. The male centric outlook of Shakespeare rubs the wrong way here, as acceptance of diverse sexual orientation has been becoming commonplace. Combine that with furnace-like sighing continuing beyond what seems reasonable through the dalliance of people who should know better for their age, and one can posit that the age of the lover is not clearly distinguishable from the age of the schooler, which goes on for much too long.

“Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.”

Soldier is the wrong metaphor for a 21st century age, as so few people serve as such. We hire our wars done by others, soldiers, mercenaries and contractors. We feed soldiers platitudes like “support the troops” and “honor their service,” as a further means of distancing ourselves from the horrors of war. Such distancing contributes to furtherance of a military complex that is already ubiquitous. There are seekers of “the bubble reputation,” and perhaps that is a better name for an age. The age of bubble seekers, where one spins a cocoon around a life fixed in gratification. A place where one can ask the question, what’s in it for me, with impunity.

“And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.”

The age of justice sounds so much like a time when people spend too much time viewing televised sporting events in a society abundant with sugary drinks and salted snacks. There is no justice here, except when people contract Type II diabetes and other diseases associated with the fat, sugar and salt they consume in excess. This age seems an extension of the bubble seeker age, only living life in the bubble we created, with some experience of what “works for me.”

“The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.”

The age of bubble seeker redux akin to where the baby boom generation is today.

“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Better known today as assisted living, followed by hospice. Society seems to be trending to replace the age of bubble seekers with the age of assisted living as early as possible, with 50-plus being the new age for admittance to some assisted living villages.

So there you have it. The seven ages of man reduced to five: infancy, schooler, bubble seeker, bubble seeker redux and assisted living. Ye gods, what have we become?

Work Life

On Manual Labor

LAKE MACBRIDE— A priest used to joke with me about doing manual labor. It was a pun comparing working with your hands to the common Spanish name Manuel. The context was work we were doing with undocumented immigrants, many of whom were from Mexico and countries further south. When one explains the pun, it loses something, and all that is left is hard work that someone has to do— and the living people make while doing it.

The kind of labor new immigrants perform, farm work, landscaping, roofing, housekeeping, restaurant work and others, is a basic component of society’s economic model, including in Eastern Iowa. From reading Peter Kwong’s book The New Chinatown, the propensity for immigrants, documented and non-documented, is to take any kind of paying work to pay for their passage, which sometimes included coyotes or snakeheads, and secure the possibility of American-style freedom. Some of my more cynical friends might say that America offers the freedom to work for less.

During my career as a manager, I performed little physical labor. Sure, we hauled groceries collected for the local food bank to the trucks, and after the 2008 flood hit Cedar Rapids, we helped employees muck out their homes, but the main work we did was office work. That I would now include manual labor in the mix of a sustainable life on the Iowa prairie is indicative of three things.

Manual labor jobs are available. In my case, from the conception of the job opportunity until hiring was less than a week. Once I began work, conversations with others revealed many job opportunities in a variety of settings. On some days it seems like every one of us is on the move from this job to a better job, and the manual work we perform is a compromise to bring in some cash now.

A certain level of fitness is required. Endurance, use of the extremities and normal musculoskeletal development are all important. My life has been blessed with good health, and relevant to manual labor, has been free of back injury. I can do the work.

When jobs pay below a living wage, the presumption, often unrealized by the worker, is that a broader social support network is needed to take care of the rest of life not covered by wages. Those that have such a social support network are more likely to get what they want out of working with their hands.

The sustainability model I described previously wouldn’t make sense unless there were some activities dotting the matrix. Manual work serves the need to prime the pump, enabling the model and allowing for entry into a progressive path to prosperity.

One comment. The literature on immigration and how people get started on a path toward the American dream is well documented by others with much better credentials than mine. What is different, and why I write about it here, is the transformational effect of having the experience, rather than living it vicariously, filtered by other writers and the media. This may be the only way to fully understand what manual labor means to economic progress. It may be the only way to sustain economic progress.