Veterans for Peace

Memorial Day 2013

Oak Tree and Flag at the Cemetery
Oak Tree and Flag

BIG GROVE TOWNSHIP— In May 2011 I wrote a post on Blog for Iowa that represents my thoughts about Memorial Day. This morning’s rainy forecast brought no new ideas on the topic, so read it there if you have an interest. It’s my best offering regarding our war dead, whose lives we remember today.

The American Legion ceremony is at nine o’clock. The flags at Oakland Cemetery have been flying in anticipation since Saturday. Each flagpole bears a plaque with the name of a deceased local veteran. For the first time, as a trustee of the cemetery on Memorial Day, I feel I should attend. At our recent board meeting there was discussion about the landscaping service preparing the grounds, although these things seem to take care of themselves in rural Iowa once the contract is let. Yesterday the cemetery looked ready for the expected crowd from the highway.

As years pass, the unchanging order of service and empty language have eroded my interest in the local legion’s ceremony. It is more for the friends and relatives of the World War II and Korean Conflict generation, who show up each year in diminishing numbers. Aging veterans take it easy in a row of chairs along the course of service flags while speakers utter hackneyed pabulum for those gathered. The ceremony has become a reflection of the distance society has put between the visceral reality of war and the ersatz patriotism of 21st century American society. We honor our war dead, but should we honor the living who enable our government to prosecute war? Perhaps my expectations are greater than rural Iowa can deliver upon.

Before we get wrapped up in the flag and “honor their service,” as is the commonplace, it is important to recall that war deaths are no abstraction. The living may decorate the graves of our war dead, but come tomorrow, some part of our lives must be devoted to waging peace. Otherwise those that died while defending our freedom will have died in vain.

Local Food

Firefighter Breakfast

Rain-soaked Seedlings
Rain-soaked Seedlings

SOLON— The umbrella snapped open as I exited the car on Main Street, heading toward the fire station and the 50th Annual Firefighter Breakfast. It was a steady rain and the breakfast traffic was light at 6:30 a.m. Despite the fact that eggs, sausage, ham, pancakes and beverages are not my usual breakfast fare, I like attending, being part of the community we have come to call home.

Firefighters tend to be on the bossy side. Given their work, they have to be. For example, I declined a raffle ticket and instead suggested a donation, laying some money on the table. The attendant responded, “here, take a ticket and fill it out inside.” How could I refuse? The hard sell is on the fried eggs, prepared in a pool of enigmatic oil. The cook asked three times if I didn’t want a fried egg with my scrambled. Resisting was hard, but I remained a firm no thank you. Coffee was served in a commemorative ceramic mug which diners could take home if they wished. Mine is in the dishwasher now.

During election years, the breakfast is awash with politicians. Since this is an off year, the only elected official (besides myself) was one of the town council members who was serving pancakes. There was a local businessman making the rounds, talking to people he knew. Otherwise folks were focused on the food and polite conversation. The tables began to fill up by the time I left.

As one of the Big Grove Township Trustees, I am responsible to help manage the fire station budget along with other townships served by the department. The fire station seems to get most of what the captain says they need. Our board only meets when we have to, which is mainly to approve the budget for the fire station and cemeteries, and to attend the quarterly fire station meetings with all of the townships.

Today’s fundraiser is like mad money for the department, which means buying equipment they could use, but for which they don’t have a budget. There are likely enough tax revenues to get the firefighters everything they need without the fundraiser, but the annual breakfast has become a popular community event.

Today’s rain is a hopeful sign that last year’s drought has finished. The annual firefighters breakfast is the unofficial kickoff of summer, and a fun event. It is worth stopping by on a rainy day.

Cooking Home Life

Starting Over with Soup

Spring Soup
Spring Soup

LAKE MACBRIDE— One is ready to take on the world after a bowl of home made soup. In between projects, several things at home are de derigueur. Going through the refrigerator and pantry finding ingredients to make soup is one of them. A fresh start to new beginnings using preserved and aging vegetables.

A job, project or activity can distract us from our home life. Home becomes a camp— a place to return from doing other things. Making soup can be a way to clean up loose ends and refocus our energies for what is next. It is a re-centering on home life.

Making soup is also being frugal— picking from items reaching the end of their shelf life and using them for a warm meal. It is a reversal of consumerism and can be celebratory and reassuring. Most often, the results are delicious, especially when served with a slice of home baked bread.

Still tired from my last day of warehouse work, I made vegetable soup today. There was no recipe, but learned behaviors came into play. This post is intended to share some of the learning.

Put a half cup of water in the bottom of a Dutch oven and bring to a boil on high heat. Medium dice or slice a large onion, three or four small carrots and a couple of stalks of celery and add to the pot. Season with salt and pepper and a couple of bay leaves. This provides the basic flavor profile. (In our house, we add pepper when the meal is served so each person can get as much as they want).

Next, add fresh ingredients on hand. Today, it was potatoes starting to develop eyes, part of a zucchini, and baby Bok Choy leaves beginning to yellow. Peel and dice three or four potatoes, fine dice the stems of Bok Choy and add them to the pot. Grate the zucchini with a box grater and reserve along with 20 or so Bok Choy leaves. If there were other fresh vegetables on hand, I would use them. Note that soup is about using things up, not buying specific items especially for the dish.

In the freezer is my soup project. Throughout the year I collect the cut bottoms of asparagus stalks, broccoli stems, beet greens, spinach and a host of other odds and ends of garden vegetables to use in soup. It is how gardeners deal with their irregular and surplus produce. From the freezer I added bits of broccoli stalk, some finely sliced asparagus, and chopped greens of an undetermined nature (beet greens I think) to the pot.

Add a quart of home made stock if you have it and cover the vegetables with water. Bring to a boil on high heat and reduce to a steady simmer. Simmer until the vegetables are cooked through, add the zucchini and Bok Choy leaves and stir until the Bok Choy is wilted. Re-season and it is ready to serve, a fit luncheon for contemplating the future on a rainy afternoon.

Work Life

Exiting the Land of Awesome

Paving the Road
Paving the Road

LAKE MACBRIDE— During the last two months my work performance with a temp agency was described as awesome more times than can be counted. It was a bit startling insofar as the word “awesome” was not a regular part of the vocabulary of managing people during my 25 year career in transportation. The tendency of managers and supervisors was to take people down a peg rather than lift them up. Yet in 2013, awesome I came and awesome I exited the temp job, with repeated entreaties to return if my situation changed. Things may change, so the door was left open.

The reason for the awesomeness was good work habits drilled into us by the nuns and clergy in elementary school. They taught us there was a way to behave in society and, separate from religious life, respect and diligence were expected and freely given outside the enclave of a Catholic grammar school. It was a matter of exercising our free will.

When agreeing to work for the temp agency, I showed up on time, made an effort to understand and comply with the work rules, and didn’t cause any trouble. This very basic outlook toward work is apparently lacking in the majority of people who find their way to temp jobs— hence, I was awesome.

While tempted to linger on, I would have gone broke keeping the temp job. What was attractive about it was no one knew or had heard of me before I walked in the door. It was a clean slate where employees were judged on the quality of work, with clearly defined processes and measurements. The conversations I had with colleagues were genuine and fulfilling. It was a form of acceptance that was severely lacking in other experiences.

The temp job provided valued insight into a world of labor and management in contemporary Iowa. After exiting the land of awesome, there is freedom to write more in public about outsourcing, labor and management based on my experiences. As understanding and recovery from the manual labor comes, I will.

Home Life

Summer Reading 2013

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

LAKE MACBRIDE— The Friends of the Solon Public Library decided to do away with the Memorial Day Weekend used book sale. The decision leaves a gap in my usual habits for summer, and adjusting to change as best as is possible, I picked these books for 2013 summer reading.

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is a marker that summer has begun and I read it every year. I plan to clear a spot under the locust trees in the garden and read it there this time. I have an old Persian rug  to lay on the grass, and a folding chair. I would prefer an Adirondack chair, but haven’t built one to my specifications— yet.

“How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis. Revisiting Riis reminds me of the lives of immigrants in New York, and how the 1880s resonates with today.

“Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” by Michael Pollan. His latest work, and I try to keep up with Pollan, even if I feel he is a bit too special.

“Murder as a Fine Art” by David Morrell. Morrell has been promoting this period piece on his Facebook page for a while. I took a modern fiction class from him during my undergraduate work at the University of Iowa.

“Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future” by Dorie Clark. I met Clark at a Democracy for America training session in Cedar Rapids a few years back, and have been following her burgeoning career.

“Revenue Matters: Tax the Rich and Restore Democracy to Save the Nation” by Berkley Bedell. Bedell sent me a copy of this book when it came out, and I owe him a report on it.

“Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran for Peace reports from Iraq” by Mike Ferner. I met Mike in Dubuque with my peace and justice work, and have delayed reading his 2006 book for too long.

“Doing Time for Peace: Resistance, Family and Community” edited by Rosalie G. Riegle. I met peace activist Brian Terrell in Iowa City and he has an article in this book. He is being released from prison again today. My interest is in the role of civil disobedience in creating social change. I am skeptical of the way it is currently being used, with celebrity arrests, and a small group of people who seek arrests the way gunfighters in the late nineteenth century notched the handle of their pistol. I hope to learn something.


On Senate Adjournment and Health Care

Dome IA State CapitolBIG GROVE TOWNSHIP— In her remarks before adjournment sine die of the first session of the 85th Iowa General Assembly, Senate President Pam Jochum made a statement that included the following, “the biggest challenge of this session was how to help Iowans who, despite working every day, still cannot afford health insurance.”

The Iowa Senate addressed the issue in Senate File 446, the health and human services budget, which was 60+ pages and reported from the conference committee late yesterday. Some house members wanted to read the bill before voting, and were concerned that there would be time. It was difficult determining the status of things in the wee hours of this morning, but the house adjourned until 9 a.m. this morning, giving legislators time to pull an all-nighter and read the bill.

At the warehouse where I work with some of the same people Senator Jochum referred to in her statement, there is neither a health care plan provided, nor is there adequate pay to enable workers to buy a health insurance policy. This forces employees to seek medical care in their social networks and on the open market, and is at the core of the problem SF 446 seeks to address. Like it or not, business interests drive dependence on programs like Medicaid.

It is unclear by how many layers temp jobs like mine get outsourced: at least two or three. The job is organizationally far removed from the parent company that ultimately buys our labor. American business, in its global footprint, bankruptcy declarations and restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and increased outsourcing, successfully stripped away the part of employee compensation related to providing health care, while improving productivity and decreasing the cost of labor.

For a single person, buying private health insurance can cost $350 per month or more. For a family of two, a monthly premium can be more than $800. Do the math. At an hourly wage of $9.25, with limited overtime, and no paid holidays, disability insurance or sick leave, a person can expect to earn just short of $18,000 per year, taking home about $15,000. There is no room in the budget for health insurance.

Why do people take jobs like mine? Regardless of the social commentary about living wages, minimum wages, prevailing wages, and general working conditions, the money is green at outsourced jobs, and people need it to help get by. There appears to be no shortage of people willing to work slightly above minimum wage, without benefits.

My co-workers have no time to worry about getting sick, or about how to pay for health care. The presumption is any illness will get treatment in one’s social network, with a visit to a clinic, emergency room or doctor’s office being the last resort. Whatever the Iowa government does with the Senate’s health and human services budget, it will be a band aid on a problem that wants a better solution— one that lies more in the global business community and with workers than with government.

We’ll see the Iowa house reaction to the senate bill today. Presumably the conference committee had support for the bill before reporting it out of committee. Here’s hoping the legislative band-aid does some good if and when it is signed into law.


Passenger Rail and Eminent Domain Get Married

Iowa State Capitol
Iowa Capitol

LAKE MACBRIDE— What will it take for the Iowa House to get a bill considered on the floor of the Iowa Senate? Representatives Dave Jacoby and Bobby Kaufmann are hoping that pairing a Senate Democratic priority— funding passenger rail in order to be eligible to receive a substantial grant from the Federal Railroad Administration to upgrade railroad tracks to handle 79 mile per hour traffic— with House File 219— an act relating to eminent domain authority prompted by a controversy in Clarke County— will do the trick.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann has invested considerable political capital in the eminent domain issue. A March 11 story in the Muscatine Journal provides some background information, including the fact that HF 219 passed the Iowa House 93-6. According to Kaufmann, he recruited Rep. Dave Jacoby to co-sponsor the eminent domain bill, asked Jacoby to help write the language, and has spoken publicly about his positive relationship with the popular Coralville Democrat. Eminent domain is one of Kaufmann’s signature issues this session, and he has a lot riding on the outcome, personally and politically. The text of their joint press release is below.

To outsiders, it is unclear what is the secret sauce for getting Republican house bills like HF 219 to an up or down vote in the senate.  What is clear is the process is complicated. Democrats can appreciate the complexity, and for the most part, the results of the Senate’s actions. In any event, how this bipartisan collaboration plays out will be something to follow in the closing days of the first session of the 85th Iowa General Assembly.

Kaufmann-Jacoby Joint Press Release May 21, 2013
Kaufmann and Jacoby offer a compromise to the Senate

Rep. Dave Jacoby (D-Coralville) and Rep. Bobby Kaufmann (R-Wilton) have offered an agreement on two key issues that have garnered a lot of interest in the last several legislative sessions.  “The eminent domain language passed the Iowa House four times this session, each time with over 90 votes,” said Kaufmann.  “There has also been much bipartisan support in the Senate, but it has not been brought up for a vote.”  The legislation ensures that land cannot be condemned for recreational purposes by skirting the 2006 law.  A controversy in Clarke County has been an impetus for the bill.

The passenger rail proposal which includes matching federal funding for an initial run between the Quad Cities and Iowa City (with possible expansion to Des Moines) has met with significant resistance.  The $5.5 million dollars would be a part of the state match.  “Passenger rail is an important initiative for my district, and our local Chambers of Commerce.  This compromise reflects the continuing spirit of all legislative districts being heard and I believe gives both issues new life and a new pathway into becoming law,” said Rep. Jacoby.

As the 2013 session winds to an end, proposals like this could very well be the lynch pin to adjourning.

Nuclear Abolition

Vilsack’s Energy Policy Legacy

Nuclear Power? - No Thanks
Nuclear Power? – No Thanks

LAKE MACBRIDE— Does Tom Vilsack’s 2007 consulting agreement with MidAmerican Energy matter any more? It does, but not in the way conservative pundits characterized it, as a form of political corruption, after President Obama appointed Vilsack to his current job as secretary of agriculture.

The case can be made that beginning in 2003, then governor Tom Vilsack was a driver in governmental policy that created a regulatory environment for Iowa’s growth in renewable energy. Particularly in wind powered electricity generation. MidAmerican Energy was a key partner with Iowa government in developing wind farms in Carroll and Crawford Counties, and in other parts of the state. Most people agree, wind energy, along with ethanol production and biofuels development, have been good for Iowa. Vilsack should be given credit for his policy contributions to the development of Iowa’s renewable energy capacity.

At the same time, Vilsack was promoting all forms of electricity generation in Iowa, so the state could become a net exporter of the commodity. His advocacy for coal, natural gas and nuclear power generation is often forgotten, and resulted in a favorable regulatory environment for utilities to consider, and in some cases, build new coal and natural gas fired power plants. The release of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere by these new plants contributes to warming the planet and the liability of its climatic consequences. Tom Vilsack gets some of the blame.

Vilsack’s consulting relationship with MidAmerican Energy was said to help the company develop renewable energy sources, but it would be naive to believe the conversations he had with his client did not include coal, natural gas, nuclear and other sources of energy, especially since Vilsack made an issue of them as governor.

Why would Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy pursue the legislative changes required in Iowa to make an investment in nuclear power more palatable to Wall Street investors? It is because Tom Vilsack started the conversation. His Oct. 12, 2006 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is evidence of this. Vilsack said,

“In the last seven and a half years we’ve had six new power plants built, some of them state-of-the-art coal and natural gas facilities. We have embraced renewable energy and have now become the number one state in the country for wind energy per capita. And we, of course, have expanded dramatically our interest in ethanol and soy diesel, to the point where the state of Iowa is now the number one producer of each.

And we’ve been able to do this by working with the private marketplace and private sector in partnership. We changed regulations to provide greater stability for our utility companies so that they make the billions of dollars of investment to build new plants.”

If we consider HF 561, an act relating to the permitting, licensing, construction, and operation of nuclear generation facilities, from Iowa’s 84th General Assembly, the legislature attempted to do exactly what Vilsack said in 2006 was the intent, to provide a regulatory environment to attract investment money in new nuclear power plants. From the CFR speech,

We should take a look at the long-term impact of nuclear. […] we ought to be looking at ways in which either the risk (of nuclear waste) can be matched with opportunities that folks are looking for, or that we can create a compensation system that makes it easier for people to assume and accept that risk.

Vilsack sought to open a door that was closed for decades with regard to new nuclear power and its radioactive waste. He started the conversation. When the people of Iowa saw how the conversation would develop, that the high risks of nuclear power would be borne by rate payers so that Wall Street would invest, they saw through MidAmerican’s ploy and rejected the changes proposed by the legislature.

By then, Tom Vilsack was in Washington, but his energy legacy lived on back in Iowa.

Social Commentary

Grammar School No. 6

South Door
South Door

DAVENPORT— That the building at 1420 W. 16th St. was used as a Catholic grammar school, and housed a convent on the top floor, was air-brushed from the article in the Quad City Times reporting the building’s conversion to a senior living facility. One supposes the secular developers would have freaked if it were mentioned.

Its public history as Jackson School or Public School No. 6 was news from the article to me, although one never thinks to ask the history of a building as a grader. We were caught up in the existential reality of learning to read, operating a paper route, waiting turns to swing on the swing set, playing marbles, softball, red rover and four square in the playground, and figuring out how society worked. When I was last there, the building was abandoned— replete with broken windows in my former second grade classroom.

Grade School
Grade School

It was here I took piano lessons, plagiarized the encyclopedia for a report on Johannes Brahms, experienced Kennedy’s assassination, heard Charlotte’s Web read by the fourth grade teacher, lost my Baltimore Catechism, served Mass in the convent, sang songs from the play “The Sound of Music,” learned the Palmer method of handwriting, and spent some of the best days of my life with people I would come to know well. I finished sixth grade in the building, before moving to the new school on Marquette Street. It was the best of times. Times before society started chipping away at native instincts.

The conversion to senior living space is okay with me, although there is an unseemly side to the government money, without which the project would not likely move forward. The neighborhood has declined, and this island of new among the worn down homes seems out of place. Not my problem, I guess. The proposed rent is much higher than our budget would allow for an apartment.

J.P. Morgan Chase Bank N.A., the Renaissance Companies, and Baxter Construction Company will likely make out on the government backed deal. Private companies often know how to negotiate their profits, something government these days does not. At least the construction company is based in Iowa, keeping some of the money in-state.

Regardless of the building’s use going forward, it will always be a source of memories for me. Memories to be revisited from time to time as life brings me back to the old neighborhood.


On the Road and In the Garden

Lettuce Transplanted
Lettuce Transplanted

LAKE MACBRIDE— Swiss chard, collard greens and kale have sprouted in the seed trays as the garden fills up with my plantings, and weeds. Spring has everything growing. After pulling weeds for a couple of hours, all we will need is mild temperatures, some rain, and then more weeding.

It is uncertain the transplanted lettuce seedlings will survive. After 24 hours in the ground some look a bit wilted. Will see how watering and the night air does them. The backup plan is to use the other half of the tray for replacements if needed.

The broadcast lettuce and arugula did very well, and will soon be ready for harvest. Broadcast seems the way to go for kitchen garden lettuce. A few snips and there would be salad for two or four without worrying about nicely formed heads. The epiphany about lettuce growing was working at the CSA and planting individual lettuce seeds in soil blocks. It takes time, but the results can be worth it if transplanting can work here as it does for others. There is really no reason it can’t— it takes practice.

Deaton Grave Marker
Deaton Grave Marker

I attended a funeral today. Mass was held in the church where my parents were married and where I was baptized and received First Communion. Mass was held for my father there in 1969, although he was not Catholic. Today, someone shared a memory of Dad’s funeral from when she was singing in the eighth grade choir. It was a special moment, possible only in special places in our lives.

A generation is passing to the other side, and recently, there have been plenty of funerals to attend. Parents of my cohorts, especially the World War II generation, have been leaving us for a while— their numbers among the living are dwindling. Each event has been a reunion, and a moving forward. We miss them, but know there is new life to be lived.

I stopped at the cemetery where my father and many relatives are buried. Birds left their excrement all over Dad’s marker. After pulling dandelions from around it, I regretted leaving the grass clippers on the work bench.  Next trip over, I’ll bring clippers, a gallon of water and rags to tidy the grave— to feel like I contributed something. That memorial day is approaching escaped me and what the hell. The birds own the cemetery most of the time.

An accident on Interstate 80 had traffic backed up for miles, making the trip home tedious and desultory. As we crawled toward the scene of the accident, a wreck of a car was being winched onto a flatbed. There was a magnetic sign on the side that said “caution: student driver.” They use those signs for a reason.

By the time I returned to Big Grove, the idea of proof reading the newspaper was out. After watering the garden, I walked over to a neighbor with a gift box of seedlings for their garden. Her two little children were with her in the yard, learning about the world. Is it possible to see things a they do, at least for a while? Answering that question is the stuff of dreams.