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?


Bottling Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple Cider Vinegar

LAKE MACBRIDE— The aroma of evaporating apple cider filled the pantry for months. Today it was time for the sampling and the apple cider vinegar came out delicious. A renewable ingredient for our kitchen was born today.

Unlike anything I have tasted before, with an initial taste of apple followed by the twang of the vinegar, I’ll look forward to using it in salad dressings— bottle-by-bottle. If there is enough, the golden liquid will also be used to make apple butter during the harvest season.

When we talk about local food, this is it. The mother of vinegar came from a neighbor who said it has been in their family for more than a hundred years. The apples came from the back yard. Renewing the recipe is easy— just add more fresh apple juice to what’s left in the container.

Sometimes things work out better than we had planned.

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.

Kitchen Garden

Watching and Waiting to Plant

Greenhouse FillingRURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— Three of us were working in the greenhouse this week, and the weather forecast was for more cold weather. The season is running late, late enough that when compared to recent years, it is difficult to distinguish it as a season rather than another series of random freaky weather days. Said one grower, “we can deal with drought with irrigation, but cold weather is something else.” There is always a different worry for a farmer.

A few early items, spinach and lettuce, are in the ground, but most of the action continues to be growth in the greenhouse, and hoop house. It is early in the season, getting on later.

029The ground thawed in our garden, but because of the rain, it is too wet to plant. When conditions ease, there will be a lot of work to get the soil prepared and planted. For now, we work inside and wait.

One can’t help but be excited about the abundance of new growth, even if we had a hand in planting the seeds and nurturing them in the artificial world of the greenhouse.


The Customer is Always Right — but they lie

Veggie Burger
Veggie Burger

LAKE MACBRIDE— A friend worked at a fast food restaurant and spoke about their policy of replacing food items that were wrong when the order was prepared. For example, if a person asked for a burger with no pickles, and pickles were found when the package was opened. The restaurant replaced such items without hesitation, and free of charge. After all, he said, “the customer is always right.” He added, “…but they lie.” Customers frequently abuse the well-known make it right policy to get extra food. He knew because of his experience of properly preparing an order, only to have the customer return with half-eaten food, wanting a replacement for reasons that can only be described as lame.

Complaints are up at large franchise fast food restaurants, and given the scale of some operators, it is no surprise. In order to run a global restaurant business, with thousands of outlets, a company has to focus on the service delivery process. There is plenty of room for deviation from corporate standard operating procedures.

A focus on process means well-defined procedures for everything. With high employee turnover, some believe if the service delivery process is bulletproof, any employee, with limited experience, can step in with minimal training, and make sandwiches that delivery corporate quality.

Customers learn to work such delivery systems to their advantage. My friend was just calling out what in other social circles is an accepted practice of getting what one can from society without ethical concerns.

It may be a bit scandalous to say, but often the customer is not right. It is one thing for a starving person to work the system to get an extra sandwich from a company that can afford to provide one. It is quite another to go through life expecting that what are exceptions should become rules for exploiting businesses for personal gain. Whatever is wrong with corporate businesses, there is something more fundamentally wrong with a culture that produces both employees that are rude and deceitful customers. It is tough to blame that on corporations.

As a business owner, it can be comforting to focus on process. It is abstract, and works toward efficiency, employee safety and improved margins. But not everyone owns a business, and that leaves those of us in the fray of daily restaurant operations to fend for ourselves.

Bad customer service and deceitful customers are two sides of the same problem. Some of us are loathe to complain about service, because of the time it takes  and the negativity it can introduce into daily life. The customer who lies about a sandwich order for personal gain is an example of what is worst in society. The idea that we are not in life together, but that it is each individual for him or herself, any semblance of a moral compass abandoned.

We are on our own in society, emphasis on our. There is a proper place for honesty in our relations with people. It is something we can and should work on everyday, even in ubiquitous settings like fast food restaurants.

Kitchen Garden

Wetlands are Wet

LAKE MACBRIDE— Water stood in low lying areas of the Atherton Wetland off the Ely blacktop this morning. Lingle Creek was up to its banks, and the ditch near 600 acres, the ATV park, had about a foot of standing water. The rain is doing its job.

I spent some time with a hoe shifting the flow of runoff in the ditch in front of our home. The fall grass planting did not take so there is a mess of exposed roots, and leaves embedded into the soil mix applied by the contractor. The home owners association is negotiating for a re-do, but I plan a self-do to get things done the way I want in a timely manner. The prerogative of retirees.

Today is my work day at the farm, so I won’t miss being in the garden here. When the soil is tillable, I plan to turn one plot over, apply corn gluten meal and plant radishes. The indoor seedlings are growing at a rapid pace, with significant leaf formation while I was working in the warehouse yesterday. Spring is definitely here, and we embrace it.

Home Life Kitchen Garden

Dreams of Marble and Granite

Bonnie Swearingen - Photo Credit: Jet Magazine
Bonnie Swearingen – Photo Credit: Jet Magazine

LAKE MACBRIDE— Right on schedule, thunder and lightning began to build around midnight as I crossed the lakes on Mehaffey Bridge Road. The county funded reconstruction of this road, and in a week or so, the direct route to the warehouse won’t be available until the roadwork is completed. The thunderstorm moved in after retiring to bed, and I followed the sound and light until I fell asleep.

I spent some time in the garden yesterday, although not much. The ground was too wet for planting radishes— the next outdoor vegetable. The lettuce and arugula have not sprouted yet, and I drove the fence posts into the mud-like soil, inspected the garlic, chives and oregano, and went back inside. The chives are big enough to split, which I will do when the soil dries.

Indoors, my basil, arugula and lettuce “bombs,” have sprouted, and the trays of seedlings need watering. The tomatoes are showing the third and fourth leaves, and soon will be sturdier than their current spindly presence. Planting my own tomato seedlings, and growing them to this stage is new ground, and it looks promising.

Either waking, or dreaming— maybe somewhere between— the Standard Oil Building in Chicago was on my mind this morning. I viewed it being constructed while in college, and worked there for the oil company. The bad decision to clad the exterior of the building with 43,000 slabs of Carrara marble was being rectified while I was there, replacing it with Mount Airy white granite. It was a big project, and ongoing for my entire tenure working for the then ninth largest corporation. The company easily afforded the $80 million price tag for the project.

Some say it was Mrs. John E. Swearingen, who wanted the marble. The spouse of Standard Oil of Indiana’s chief executive officer, Bonnie Swearingen, was active in the Chicago art culture, and was photographed with Mayor Daley, a host of celebrities and art patrons, such pictures appearing regularly in the Chicago papers. She likened her husband to Napoleon saying, “Napoleon isn’t really dead. He’s alive and well and disguised as my husband.”

One can’t blame her for the problems— the marble was too thin, the effects of acid rain were too harsh— but the building itself seemed a tribute to ego, hers and her husband’s. The marble slabs started falling off during construction.

Working with our hands frees a mind to wander, and mine is wandering down a lane that includes much of my past life. I don’t know if it is my life passing before my eyes during a steady march to the grave, or if memory is loosed, distracting me from present work, and saying something else. Exactly what, is not clear, except for the persistence of dreams about marble and granite.

Home Life Kitchen Garden

Rainy Monday

LAKE MACBRIDE— Rain fell against the bedroom window, framing the day for inside work. The forecast is for showers to end in an hour or so, with a chance of thunderstorms tonight. Today’s high temperature is expected to be 73 degrees. We need the rain, and welcome warm temperatures. Now that the ground thawed, moisture should soak into the topsoil for gardens, lawns, trees and field crops. I would have preferred to work outside this morning, but there is plenty to do inside. We’ll see how things go as the day progresses.

Yesterday, I made up more seedling trays. The CSA provided some used plastic trays which are now planted in yellow squash, cucumber and zucchini. They are situated near the south facing window in our bedroom, and there is not much room for more on the folding table.

To water the seedlings, I set up the lid of the recycling bin on a table in the garage and filled it halfway with water. I dunked the trays, one at a time, watering from the bottom. Each tray was warm to the touch as I carried it downstairs, evidence the south facing window was beneficial.

There is a significant investment of time in this year’s seedling experiment. Too, if the seedlings don’t sprout and mature properly, there will be the additional expense of purchasing from the farmers markets or grocery store. After cutting soil blocks at the CSA and seeing plants grow in the greenhouse, I gained confidence, and there is promise of success in most of the cells.

It has been 27 days since beginning my temp job at the warehouse. At the beginning, it wasn’t clear I could hack it, but that feeling has been overcome, and physical adjustments have been made and assimilated. With a start time of 3:30 p.m., the best hours of the day are mine to work on a multitude of projects at home. This inner focus, coupled with gardening, is what is needed most for the time being, while working toward a sustainable life on the Iowa prairie.

Work Life

From Middle to Working Class

Construction Site
Construction Site

LAKE MACBRIDE— Today’s usage of the phrase “middle class” is meaningless. It is a marker for a world dreamed up while writing talking points for political campaigns. A middle class so created, never existed. It was as if we took the broken theories promulgated during the rise of mass society, and switched things around so that economic means was the determinant of whether one was or was not in the middle class. With the one percent of wealthiest people at the top, and roughly 15 percent of people who live in poverty at the bottom, the 84 percent in between are now dubbed middle class.

In our cultural background is the idea that we were all created equal, and have innate talents, some more so than others, that could and should be developed so that by application of native skills we can rise and fall in society. The so-called American dream is centered around this notion.

To some extent, the story is re-enacted as occasionally a mail room clerk rises to become chief executive officer of a large corporation. Such instances of rise in a workplace are limited in number, increasingly so, as businesses consolidate, on a global scale, under fewer corporate CEOs. In this world, the society of business is better served by increasing the number of people available to become mail room clerks, at the lowest possible wages, than by creating opportunities to get out of the mail room. Such stories are important to keeping people in their place in the economic pecking order, and I suspect that is why they are so popular.

If “middle class” is a meaningless phrase, “working class” is not. The long story of immigration to North America includes countless people who traded work for passage across the Atlantic and a chance for freedom and prosperity. I am thinking of my own ancestors and their cohort, who arrived in the 17th century in what would become the state of Virginia. They came, not as landed gentry, but as working people, delaying start up of their own farms to work for someone else who needed labor, and to secure it would pay travel costs to secure indentured servitude. This story is also part of the American dream— that through individual efforts and sacrifice, a person could become a landowner, and thereby rise in society. There were likely more indentured servants that rose to become landowners than mail room clerks that became CEOs, but their story is told less often.

Indentured servitude doesn’t exist in the same way in the 21st century, but it serves as an example of how people will make deals with the capital class to get ahead. Such deals include working for a labor broker to earn less than a living wage, in some cases, less than minimum wage, so that business can have sufficient low-cost labor to meet its needs. Without a sufficient working class, the capital class would be out of business. Working class rights, not middle class rights, should be the focus of our political leaders. It’s not, at least that I can see.

If one sits in lunchrooms and listens to working class concerns, the conversations are not about the minimum wage, unions, or much at all to do with the relationship between labor and capital. The discussions are about personal relationships, health issues, post-traumatic stress disorder of veterans, and addiction to tobacco, crack and sugary drinks.

While being a member of the working class doesn’t provide a pension, or health insurance, or security of almost any form, it is how a large segment of Americans live. We ought to be hearing more about it from the corporate media, from politicians, and from each other. If we believe in the possibility of social progress, our focus should rightly be on the working class, as it is here that the American dream was born. Neglected, it is where the dream will die.