Box of Reality

Shoe box full of print photographs, March 21, 2023.

I found a passport I thought was lost in a box of photographs on Monday. It expired in 1983, issued by the American Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany. I put it in the drawer with the previously expired passport it replaced. One less thing nagging at me as a result of the discovery.

I was opening unlabeled bankers boxes to see what was inside. It makes no sense to stuff things in a box without a label, yet that’s where I find myself. Along with some transportation memorabilia, one box contained this shoe box full of photographs. The images covered the entire timeline of the book draft I had finished Sunday. I thought these photos were lost forever.

My habit of making photo albums (using selected images after developing and printing batches of photos) resulted in this collection. It contains remainders of rolls of film from several of those albums. The prints are all mixed up, with different sets of film stuck in the shoe box in what appeared to be random order. At a minimum, I must organize them the way I discussed a few days ago. This is a big and welcome find!

Next will be to organize and edit the images to create another layer of the book narrative. I also want to label them in groups, so I can more quickly find something for my writing. This will take longer than I want, yet it should improve the writing.

I looked through a few hundred photographs yesterday afternoon after chores. I have living memory of taking most of those shots, recognizing them and the place they were taken almost immediately. The harder part is determining what these moments of reality mean in the context of my septuagenarian life. I expect that will be a collaborative project. Already I sent a duplicate of a photo taken in 1981 to the subjects. There will be more of that type of sharing.

It seems best for the autobiography to have been drafted before looking at these photos. Tapping memory and public documents enabled a reasonably researched narrative. Now that I found more photos, we’ll see what else memory dredges up for inclusion in the book.

With Spring arriving yesterday afternoon, it will be challenging to make time for writing. Yard and garden work is also important. After sunrise, I will be drawn outdoors. All the same, how could writing about these memories not be meaningful? I can’t wait!


Writing for Newspapers

Solon Economist – 2016

I will insert seven newspaper articles I wrote from 2014-2015 in my autobiography. The insertion will display that form of writing and indicate my thinking at the time. They record some memorable events which advance the book’s narrative. I winnowed the articles from the 100 I wrote and picked these:

  1. Van Allen school to be expanded — Feb. 6, 2014. My first article in a newspaper was coverage of the Iowa City School Board meeting for the North Liberty Leader. This story was about the aspects of the meeting that affected residents of North Liberty. The challenges of covering the school board are many. Before the meeting there is a packet to read. It often exceeds 500 pages. The meetings themselves can be quite long. Capturing an interview or two can be challenging as key figures depart the meeting as quickly as feasible. When I conversed with the district’s chief financial officer, the superintendent intervened to break up the conversation, thereby controlling messaging. With all this work, a freelancer won’t make money on this important coverage. That was a lesson learned.
  2. Connecting Solon with trail system — Sept. 11, 2014. Doug Lindner was owner/publisher of the Solon Economist and North Liberty Leader when I worked there, first as a proof reader, and then as a freelance writer. I appreciate his giving me a chance to freelance. This article in the Solon Economist covered a joint meeting between the Solon City Council and the Johnson County Board of Supervisors about our local trails. They found funding and acquired land for the trail to connect Solon with the Cedar Valley Trail in Linn County. This new trail has been in constant use since it was completed. We can hop on our bicycles and ride all the way to Waterloo if so motivated.
  3. UI to mark 50 years since name change — or not –Oct. 22, 2014. I had to leave the Solon Economist to pursue freelance opportunities with the Iowa City Press Citizen. This front page article was about the State University of Iowa, as named in the Iowa Constitution. Because of the official name, the Iowa City university was often confused with Iowa State University in Ames. On Oct. 22, 1964, the State Board of Regents gave permission to use “The University of Iowa” as its name. I enjoyed interviewing former university president Willard Boyd for this article.
  4. White House Kitchen Garden inspires Iowan — Dec. 5, 2014. Scott Koepke worked at New Pioneer Food Co-op when I interviewed him for the Iowa City Press Citizen about his October visit to the White House Kitchen Garden. His sister arranged the visit and Koepke brought ideas back to Johnson County to use in his work. “If the president can do it, so can we,” he said.
  5. Advocating for the environment — Feb. 18, 2015. I pitched this story to my editor at the Iowa City Press Citizen, Emily Nelson. She said yes. It was an opportunity to travel to Des Moines and interview many people I know in the environmental advocacy community, as well as elected officials. It was great fun, although a freelancer won’t make a dime on a story like this because of the work that goes into it.
  6. Farm crawl to highlight women — Sept. 23, 2015. This article was publicity for an upcoming Women, Land and Legacy Farm Crawl in Johnson County. The purpose of the farm crawl was to address a need for more networking opportunities in the region. I interviewed three farmers at their farms, two of them I met for the first time. Like most articles I wrote, this one was a money loser because of the high number of hours invested to cover the event adequately.
  7. Bill Northey tours Local Harvest CSA — Sept. 26, 2015. Bill Northey was Iowa secretary of agriculture when I interviewed him. By the time I wrote this article, I had worked at Local Harvest CSA for three seasons. I first heard from Northey, “About one out of four rows of soybeans in Iowa ends up going to China.” Iowa governor Terry Branstad had announced a number of soybean contracts with China earlier in the day and I got the local scoop.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to write for newspapers. My role as a freelancer existed because news organizations were being squeezed about overhead costs, including the salaries of permanent reporters. In a transitional newspaper publishing economy, I am proud of my 100 stories.


Editing Photographs

Photo of the author, 1973-74.

In stable Midwestern households, photographs accumulate. We don’t move as often in Iowa, and when we do, we know how to store photographic paper so it doesn’t get wet and humidity is suitable to preserve them. I’m speaking of printed photographs more than digital. Well into the post-millennium-bug digital era, we continue to have uses for printed images. We tape them to our computers, pin them on bulletin boards, use magnets to hang them on the refrigerator, and frame some to place on the bedroom dresser, piano, or whatnot. We know what a whatnot is in Iowa.

Our millennial child has fewer printed photos than we do. One challenge of aging is to assign meaning to countless photographs so we don’t just dump them on the next generation. That was true of my parents’ generation. When Mother died, Sister retained the family photographs. I made a project of digitizing the ones in which I was interested. I did that while Mother was still living. She was well-aware of approaching the end of life and we had many happy discussions. It is hard to know if that will be possible for our child and me.

Before I ditched all of my Yahoo products, I wrote an autobiography in photographs on Flickr in 2011. It was 16,000 words and 133 images with a page devoted to each image. It was widely viewed after I posted a link on social media. I will be drawing on that narrative in my current project.

What does one do with thousands of paper photographs and even more digital ones?

  • The first task is to find the images. Most people have a place where most photographs are stored. Those are easy. There are many more sources, I’ve found. Some are in ceramic dishes in the bedroom. Many are filed with written pages in file folders, and digital images remain on various computing devices around the house and need migrating to a common platform. Collecting them into one place can be a major challenge.
  • We must turn every page and look at them. Watch out for the rabbit holes of memories. At the same time, enjoy them while examining them.
  • Sorting can mean multiple things. For paper photos, made with exposed film, there are often mistakes where the image is intelligible. Discard those from the collection while looking at them. In the digital era, we tend to take multiple exposures of the same scene because the cost of doing so is negligible and we want a good shot. As long as you are there, delete the 19 worst of 20 exposures and keep only the best one or two.
  • Rededicate space for storage. Some will remain in frames or on the refrigerator and some will find a home in a cool, dry space or in the cloud.
  • Decide what you want to keep. For me, that means how many images of the cucumber patch are necessary? More than you might think, yet not that many. How many photos of geese flying over the lake? In a series of images from Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, keep only the ones that make a narrative point. If there were multiple visits, keep some from each distinct time period. At the beginning this seems intimidating, although having a process and sticking with it is helpful. Continuous improvement of the process makes things better as we go along.
  • Do every batch the same way the first time, and do it right. Define for yourself what that means.
  • Convert selected paper images to digital.
  • File photographs in an organized fashion by subject, theme, or date. It will make it easier to find something when a project calls for it.
  • Take time to enjoy them. Especially as we age, there are only so many times to look at old photographs. The reality is we may not return to them again. Make notes on the ones intended to pass along.

Mid-westerners can be lucky for the stability, financial security, and good health that is possible here. When one is getting a grip on seven or eight decades of Midwestern life, a thoughtful process — one that improves as we proceed — seems necessary. I would also acquire a whatnot.


Impressions of the Divine

Midst the trafficking of our lives
   we seek mostly what we know...

What's special about that?
It's me, it's you, it's all new
      ... isn't it?

We seek paths we know,
   worn well by our boots, and
   stained by our feces;
Yet, isn't there something else
   in the jungle surrounding us?

A philosopher and theologian am I
   within this world of concrete and glass.

But then, I am, I AM!
   alive, human, and wanting nothing
   but satisfaction from this life...
   ... why is it so slow in coming?

Words are ink on paper,
   the embossing of a typewriter.
People say this is the nature of our lives:
   Impressions of the Divine on earthly matter...

It is just a path worn by the trafficking of our boots.

~ Fort Benning, Georgia, Sept. 29, 1976


On Retreat

I said a prayer,
then meditated.

Tea brewed with
Orange Pekoe teabags
is hot, dark, and ready.

While out for a walk,
I bought chewing gum
from a vending machine
near the main railway station.

I chewed gum all the way home.

Through the window,
children are playing.
I realize something
is bothering me.

I do not share the joy
of playing children.

Instead, I'm on retreat,

as ice cubes crack
with the heat of the tea,
before I sit at the typewriter.

~ Mainz, Germany, May 30, 1977


Something Is Missing

What is life?
But then who am I to ask?
I am a grown person, not married.
I mastered the art of survival.
I lead a good life,
or so they tell me.
Yet am I really living?
I am not sure.

The plans I make are hollow,
lacking companionship.
At least I am planning...
My mind is active,
yet something is missing.
Something is missing...

~ Mainz, Germany, Jan. 14, 1979

Paul VI has Passed

The Pontiff passed to the other side.
I saw him in the Vatican and smiled,
Grace and power of the Word flowing,
Energizing all of us in an audience.

The Vicar of Christ, they proclaimed!
Such a thought to modern man
In a world of skepticism and doubt,
The Vicar of Christ!

Today begins the ritual,
With closed doors and smoke from the tower.
People will look on and wonder,
What is the relevance of this?

I long ceased attempts
To understand the mystery
And now live in its light.
Would have it no other way.

The Pontiff passed to the other side.
Again I am smiling.
Grace and power of the Word flowing,
Energizing all of us in audience.

~ Mainz Germany, August 7, 1978

Where Today’s Road Might Take Us

I walk with confidence.
Hand outstretched,
I greet you.
Let us shake hands
And speak,
For who knows
Where today's road might take us?

I came with purpose.
Mind intent,
I know why I came.
Let us bargain
And deal,
For who knows
Where today's road might take us?

~ Mainz, Germany, March 18, 1979

Writing Through Winter

Today’s office music, Feb. 27, 2023.

Writing daily may not be good for us. When I write for days in a row, I find myself withdrawn into the world of my book. Everything with which I engage in real life — every person , document, artifact, memory — becomes viewed through the project lens. It can be hard to differentiate reality from the version of it I seek to narrate. It has made it difficult to get along some days.

If I read a book, I am thinking about how the author’s approach could be used or avoided in mine. If I read a memoir, my page-by-page reaction is about how good or bad each choice by the author may be. The same thing happens with a work of art or piece of music. It is a deep immersion filter necessary to the creative process.

Writing can be addictive. When writing and re-writing a passage, there can be a dopamine surge in our brains. I feel a release once a passage gets edited and I can stand up and stretch. It is difficult to tell where habits end and addiction begins.

Most days, I get ideas. If my desktop is booted, I go to the manuscript and work the idea into the narrative. If my CPU is turned off, I jot a note in my mobile device to come back to it. It seems improper to live like this. Alternatively, it one hella way to live.

Perhaps if I could see the book’s endpoint it would be easier to cope. I am beginning to yearn for the next project. Spring is coming and the garden will take more time, breaking the daily writing cycle. That could be good or bad. The trouble is, when I’m writing daily for long shifts, it is hard to break away from it. Living a normal life is made more difficult by addiction to writing.

Until I finish the first draft I’ll continue withdrawing into my book’s world. It should make the writing better. Hopefully people will recognize me when I emerge on the other side.


Mixing In Around Town

Paul Engle. Photo Credit – Wikipedia

One election cycle I volunteered on the arrangements committee for the Democratic County Convention. The chairperson passed around a sign-up sheet. When it came to me, I noticed the previous signature was Iris DeMent. I looked to my right and the diminutive singer-songwriter was there, paying attention to the agenda. That’s how things work in Iowa City: the famous among us appear frequently, without apparent structure. I resisted going fan girl over DeMent because she obviously came to help organize the convention. I then turned my attention to the speaker as well

One day I was walking east on Jefferson Street near the Pentacrest. Coming toward me on the sidewalk was an older gent in an overcoat. Once he got closer, I saw it was James A. Van Allen, who discovered the radiation belts that bear his name. He must have come from work at the physics and astronomy department housed in what today is called Van Allen Hall. It was just another day in the county seat.

When I had classes in the English Philosophy Building, chances were I’d run into an author. I saw William Styron there. I believe John Irving as well. One of my undergraduate teachers was David Morrell, who wrote the book First Blood. He was proud of the novel then and had sold the film rights. He officed in EPB as a faculty member for sixteen years.

I ran into Donald Justice once at the UPS Store. He was shipping some books to his new home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He didn’t want to carry them on the airplane. I didn’t know him, but he was instantly recognizable because of who he was.

When Louise Nevelson donated the sculpture Voyage to the University of Iowa, I stopped by the Lindquist Center to have a look soon after it was installed. The artist happened to be there inspecting the sculpture in its new space. She approved.

Political figures passed through Iowa City when the state held first in the nation precinct caucuses from 1972 until 2020. Politicians could be found at the grocer, the hardware store, or at just about any public space. It was hard to avoid them. When John Edwards was running for president, he stayed at the hotel on the pedestrian mall and roamed the area, speaking with locals. He’d been cheating on his wife at the time, and the hotel room might have been intolerable with such a thing hanging over him during his presidential campaign.

Soon after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law, President Barack Obama gave a speech at the Field House. His motorcade then made an unannounced stop at Prairie Lights Bookstore. The visit gained him a lot of publicity. It was another day in the life of Iowa City.

There were countless arranged events, but that’s par for the course at a state university. I met Hal Holbrook, Tillie Olsen, and others too numerous to count. Vance Bourjaily, Paul Engle, Christopher Merrill, and others connected with the Writers Workshop were a constant presence. Perhaps my favorite event was hearing Saul Bellow read from Something to Remember Me By in Macbride Hall.

 James Laughlin, the founding publisher of New Directions, and publisher of William Carlos Williams, held an event at the Lindquist Center. He recalled one of his last meetings with Williams’ spouse, Flossie, before she died.

I never felt too special by these associations. It was more that I was cognizant of living in a society where famous people did too. In Iowa City, there aren’t that many places to be, so we encountered each other.

This is the Iowa City I came to know as I began graduate school in 1979.

~ Excerpt from a work in progress