Note Cards to a Future Self

Spotted Quarry, Pipestone National Monument, Pipestone, Minnesota.

During our lives together I wrote Mother often in cards and letters. Following is the text of notes sent to her. Upon reflection, I sent them to a future version of myself as well.

April 10, 1982
Iowa City
Dear Mom,

There are times when I feel like Picasso looks in this photograph. It is a slow process, but I am making my way as a writer. I often am not sure what I am doing, but I know I have chosen the right path. One of my projects is writing a regional cookbook for one person. I would like it if you could pick some of your standard menu meals and write them down for me. I can remember some, but not all. Too, I want that dessert dish recipe you prepared last time I was in town. More later, I’m in Springfield 23-25 April. Paul

May 14, 1982

Started the trip off with a bang by smashing into a 1982 Olds Cutlass in Dubuque. No injuries thank goodness, but I will have to spend the $200 deductible to get my truck fixed to drive at night. Other than that, I’m ready for this vacance. Paul

May 29, 1982
Iowa City

Thanks for the shirts. You always pick out good stuff for me. Please let me know if I need to come to Davenport because of Uncle Dick. I can never tell. I do plan to make a Sunday trip this month, which weekend that will be is unknown now. Maybe the 6th or 20th. Thanks again. Paul

Iowa City

Thanks for the pleasant holiday experience. As we walk boldly into 1985, let us keep discovery our goal, and our family in our hearts. While the burden of life slows us, let our hearts keep the warmth and light of our togetherness. Love always, Paul & Jacque

December 27, 1986
West Post Road

Thanks so much for making this Christmas special. Elizabeth, Jacque and I had a memorable time, and we especially enjoyed sharing Elizabeth’s first experiences with you. Know that we love you, and care about you. We look forward to seeing you again soon in 1987, as we are reminded of that first Christmas so long ago, and its continuity into our own brief moment of life. Love, always. Paul, Jacque & Elizabeth

March 13, 1988
Merrillville, Indiana

Rest assured that we will make the right choice here. The four years with CRST has been a valuable education. I sense, though, that it is time to move on. What will be the next step? I’m not sure yet. We’ll find out together. Paul, Jacque & Elizabeth

March 29, 1991
Merrillville, Indiana

Thanks for the great meals and hospitality. Sorry I forgot to bring my wood clamp, but I will on the next trip. Also for about 2 hours work, I can smooth out the walls in the bathroom, to prepare the surface for the coming wall paper.
We will try to get there sometime in April so we can help with the yard as well as the other chores.I would like to photograph some of the old photos that trip so take this as a warning that we are coming. Talk later, Paul, Jacque & Libby

July 10, 1991
Pipestone, Minnesota

Busy and tiring day around Lincoln County. I stopped by here to learn about native Americans. As your grandparents got married in Wilno, the Indians lost control of the quarry pictured. More when we see you. Paul

July 18, 1996
Big Grove Township

Finally hot, humid summer weather is here. I hope you are enjoying this Iowa summer as we are. The sweet corn will be ready soon. The green beans already in the freezer. Libby is rushing to finish her 4-H project which will be judged Saturday. Not much. Just summer in Iowa. Paul


Processing Old Letters


On a sunny winter day I found time to organize boxes of letters and cards to Mother by putting them in clear plastic sheet protectors and sorting them by date.

I wrote home the most while serving in the U.S. Army, with about 75 letters and cards over a four-year period. Along with my journal, a bankers box of files, and some photo albums, the period is well documented. It should lend help to efforts to consider and write about that period of my life.

In retrospect, when I was home for a day or weekend, away from Robert E. Lee Barracks in Mainz-Gonsenheim, I spent time alone writing at a table that was part of the furnishings of my bachelor officer’s quarters. This writing habit persists.

Non-military letters provide more interest. One from summer YMCA camp, a couple from my undergraduate years at the University of Iowa, a few from my 1974 trip to Europe, a couple more during graduate school, and a big batch from our married life beginning in 1982. The letters filled three binders.

It is possible to understand a life. My efforts at writing have a clear beginning in the need and want to write home during the time before build out of electronic communication systems. I recall my first journal, which was stolen at a youth hostel in Calais, France just after taking a hovercraft across the English Channel.

I made a decision to continue journaling while living in a one-room apartment on Mississippi Avenue in Davenport, before military service. That apartment was the first place I entertained Mother. The dinner dish I chose was tuna-noodle casserole, which she ate and said was good as only a mother could. That was in 1975.

As long as I am able I expect to continue to make coffee and settle at a writing table each morning for a couple of hours. These days I write emails, brief notes on cards, on social media, in a less frequently used journal, and on this blog. I don’t know how I came to this place. Yet it is part of who I will be in the 21st Century.

There are worse outcomes than that.

Home Life

Saturday Errands

Turn-Style Department Store, Davenport, Iowa. Photo Credit – Davenport Iowa History Facebook Page

I yearn to live a normal life. I’m not the only one.

Raised in a community of a hundred thousand people, I found something new was always going on. I didn’t discover the half of it. My craving for discovery continued with our move to a rural community in 1993.

In the context of yearning and discovery I ran errands on Saturday.

I had a list. Citirizine from the pharmacy, organic celery from the supermarket, a cup of coffee from the coffee shop, writing supplies from the office supply store, furnace filters, canning jar lids, 4-ounce canning jars, and a big tub for soil mix from the home, farm and auto supply store… milk and eggs from the warehouse club so I wouldn’t have to shop there next Wednesday. I also got a much needed haircut before heading home across Coralville Lake.

Two things I had to do were pick up the keys to the meeting room for a Sunday political event, and post flyers about the Food Policy Council’s event next week on community bulletin boards in the grocery store, the library, the coffee shop, a restaurant, the home, farm and auto supply store, the gas station, and the pharmacy. These bulletin boards are ubiquitous, and are seen in the community. Not everyone has one but those who do know why they exist.

The trouble started at the food cooperative where my spouse has had an account since before we were married. They remodeled, and according to a cashier, “couldn’t find a place” for the community bulletin board which was now gone. Seriously? I get that the cooperative has changed since the days of bulgar wheat piled in burlap bags, ready for distribution. However, one hoped some sense of community would persist as the shelves filled with organic versions of processed food.

As long as I was there, I found the Tofurky brand Italian sausages I use when making red beans and rice.

Nearby I encountered “Beyond Burgers.” O.M.G. Two quarter pound “fresh” patties of the meat substitute cost $8.99. The ingredients? “pea protein isolate,” “methyl cellulose,” “bamboo cellulose,” and 19 others. I knew the product came from a lab, but Z.O.M.G. To make matters worse they were heavily packaged.

The packaging appeared to be foam and I looked it up. “Beyond Burger packaging is made up of almost five different types of substrates, including low density polyethylene, polypropylene, cardboard, paper, and wood products.” Not only is the packaging diversely made, how would a recycling company sort it if it even made it there?

Understood that a growing number of people don’t want to eat animals… but not like this.

I am mostly veg., that is, most of the time our diet is ovo-lacto-vegetarian. I’ll have the aforementioned Tofurky a couple of times a year to make a dish filled with memories of how I learned to cook. A staple in our household is Morningstar Farms soy-based burgers and recipe crumbles. At $1.25 each they are more affordable than Beyond Burger. They seem less processed, less engineered as well. We have fallen off the tofu bandwagon and carefully consider how we get our protein. The end game is I don’t see how highly engineered and processed food is an adequate replacement for beef cattle, hogs or chicken in our diet. Somewhere there is a middle ground and if red meat makes me feel queasy, I need to find something else to balance nutrition with a yearning for cooking the way Mom did. Beyond Burger is too special for that.

I don’t run errands that often any more. We get by on less. When I lived in Germany I had scant leisure time but when I was off duty I yearned to go shopping at the rail station, the post exchange, and across the Rhine River at the box stores in Wiesbaden. Today shopping trips like Saturday are a couple times a year thing. I wish it engendered less outrage. I don’t want to be that cranky old man of which one hears tell.

All the same, running errands is a way of engaging in society. I’m grateful for conversation with cashiers, sales associates and hairdressers because it breaks up the isolation of aging. I like getting away from society, yet have the same basic need to join with others… even if that means complaining about stuff that doesn’t make sense.

It’s all part of sustaining our lives in a turbulent world.


Winter Lament

Onions and shallots

January and February are usually months to read books. I’m working on my fourth but it seems like I’m running behind.

Political work has taken a bite out of my time.

Ambient temperatures have been warm. Absent a cold spell of temperatures below zero, I’m planning to prune our fruit trees this coming cycle of days off. As I lean into retirement I work two days at the home, farm and auto supply store with five days in a row to do what I please. The days are filled with activity.

Sunday I’m scheduled to soil block at the farm, the first time this winter. I bought a small soil blocking tool for home use and planted onions and shallots. It’s the first time doing it at home and what the future holds as I wean myself from greenhouse use over the next few seasons.

Our ice box is getting down to carrots, turnips, bread, dairy and pickles. There are mostly jars of things. Light permeates the glass shelving, revealing what’s in the bottom drawer. Growing season is a couple of months away.

Our cooking is from the pantry and freezer. We have storage onions and potatoes and lots of garlic. Apples from our trees and the orchard have been gone a few weeks. There are plenty of canned goods. We have enough to last us until spring arrives, supplemented by weekly trips to the warehouse club and grocery store.

Winter in Iowa has changed. It’s weird. It’s not consistent from year to year. I try to adapt and still find the new experience a bit sucky. Are you winter or not? No response.

As I finish this post, a prelude to getting ready for work, I feel ready: ready for what’s next, ready for something different, ready to move on. In this winter morning I’m ready to emerge from my book-lined writing space and ascend to the kitchen, and all that happens there, midst a winter lament.


Note from Ravenna

In 1974, when I arrived in London, I had a short list of European places to visit.

Most of my list was the result of an art history class taken the fall semester of 1973 in the then new art museum of the University of Iowa. The art collection was removed during the 2008 flood and never came back to that building.

I wasn’t a good art student, and elected a pass-fail grade versus A – F. My teacher was disappointed when he discovered my choice. I passed the elective course.

Despite my chary engagement as an undergraduate student, there I was in London beginning a 1970s version of the Grand Tour. It was a rite of passage to elevate myself from the blood, slop, bacteria, and gore of two college summers working in a slaughterhouse. It was the same plant in which Father died in an accident. I had rejected the post-college job the company recruiter offered me that spring. It was time to break loose from my local moorings. Once I got to Europe it became clear there were hoards of young people doing the same thing.

A wad of American Express travelers checks was tucked inside the baby blue bag Grandmother made for me, about $2,000. The money came from selling the band equipment and the Volkswagen micro bus used to haul it around. It turned out to be enough cash for the trip.

On the list were the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy. Our art history teacher marveled at them and inspired enough enthusiasm to pique my interest. It was that way for many of the places I visited. It was also an easy side trip enroute to Vienna, Austria where a student I met in Stratford at a performance of Twelfth Night had invited me to stay.

Ravenna was significant for more than mosaics. On the train rides from Barcelona to Rome, along the Mediterranean coast, I met several Italians. They insisted I learn to speak Italian if I would visit Italy. I studied French in college and had reasonable fluency. Learning another Romance language wouldn’t be too hard, I thought. I searched a book store in Genoa for an English-Italian phrase book and found none. I settled for a French-Italian phrase book which served. By the time I got to Ravenna I was able to check into the hostel, order meals, and converse on a limited level without speaking English a single time.

I was concerned about funding the rest of my European trip while in Ravenna and sent the pictured note to Mother. She came through with an American Express travelers check which was waiting for me when I arrived in Amsterdam. It turned out I didn’t need the cash. I don’t recall whether I gave it back to Mom when I returned to Iowa. She kept the note.

No regrets about spending most of the money I had in 1974 on a trip to Europe. A return to the continent seems unlikely today. At least I escaped the slaughterhouse. That will have to be enough.

Local Food

Food Policy Council

On Thursday, Jan. 23, the Johnson County Supervisors appointed me to fill a vacancy on the Food Policy Council.

There were eight applications for the position according to county records. Supervisor Janelle Rettig  made the motion to approve, with Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass seconding. All five supervisors voted for my appointment.

I accepted and look forward to my first meeting. Now my part of our work begins.

The Food Policy Council was established in 2012. The county website explains its purpose:

The purpose of the Council is to improve dialogue and discussion and provide necessary advice on food and agriculture issues to the county, municipalities, community boards, local agencies, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and other interested groups. The Council will address food system issues in the county, including the development of the Council’s Governing Principles and strategic goals, data-gathering, research projects, and policies to address food system issues.

On my Aug. 30, 2019 application I listed my reason for applying, “Have long been interested in this voluntary position and there is an opening. I have time and interest sufficient to serve. I have financial resources to be able to do so.” That seems pretty boring, a comment others have made about some of my posts here.

The contributions I hope to make by serving on the council include, “I am particularly interested in learning about and taking action to meet hunger needs in the county. I am also interested in the relationship between food, Type 2 diabetes and poverty.” We’ll see where the work takes us.

What I’ve learned on the county board of health, as a township trustee, and as an officer of our home owners association is listening is the key skill required to get anything done. I approach this new project with an open mind and a bias toward doing the most good for the largest number of people. As soon as the caucuses are done I plan to dig in.

Work Life Writing

Two-Day Work Week

Soft shell taco, Spanish Rice, and refried beans. Midwestern staples.

Yesterday was my Monday and today is my Friday at the home, farm and auto supply store.

A two-day work week suits me.

I’m ready to call it quits from an operational standpoint. Spring is coming with its multitude of outdoors work. The two days could readily be used for more productive endeavors. It’s the paycheck that keeps me there. There is always a use for the income.

The Iowa precinct caucuses are Monday, which leaves four days to prepare for my role as temporary chair. I’m pretty well along but little else will get done in the run up to Feb. 3. After that I can focus on pruning fruit trees, getting our income taxes prepared, spring gardening, and everything else that has been delayed by winter.

Spring isn’t here, but it won’t be long.


Filling the Gaps

Wise County Virginia Civil War Group

The boxes of letters written to Mother over 55 years fill gaps in my life’s story. Things I didn’t remember came to life as I began to read them.

I hadn’t thought there was a record of some parts of my life. Now I see a lot was shared with her, more than expected.

The work of opening more than 200 letters is a big task. Reading and considering them will occupy time. Reflecting on what I said will be the crux of an autobiographical work, especially in the period from 1965 until 1974 when I began to keep a journal. When I was in Europe I wrote home a lot.

What about the period between my birth in 1951 and seventh grade when we started at the new school in our Catholic parish, after that first letter from camp?

I remember things from an early age, including visits to my maternal grandmother when she lived on Fillmore Street. Mother took enough photographs to provide a meaningful chapter or two of those early times.

Likewise, there are enough census records and genealogy snippets of public documents to piece together the earliest times. There are a few photographs from those early days, including one of Aunt Stella in her coffin and one of Granny Reed. I remember an explanation of those pictures, although I’m not sure who gave it. The photographic record of my maternal ancestors is equally thin. There is the photograph of Maciej Nadolski on a fishing trip to South Dakota, and that’s pretty much it. However, there is plenty between census records, public documents and snippets of memory to create a narrative of my forebears. There are also legions of shirt tail relatives living in both Minnesota and Virginia if I want to visit.

A question: To what extent do I write about a broader society and how it influenced me? I don’t have a good answer yet.

A case can be made for letting life’s artifacts tell the story. The census records show my grandfather worked as a coal miner, and there is oral narrative of how he started a retail business to compete with the company store. It didn’t work out, and eventually he was convicted as a draft dodger during World War II. He served prison time during which his children were split and went to live with relatives. My uncle explained the charges were a result of a “misunderstanding.” Do I need to broaden the story of mid-20th Century Appalachian economies, resistance to the draft during World War II, and dig deeper into the public record of those times? Do I just need to clarify and tell what I know? Telling what I know is straightforward. Awareness of what I do know and what I can yet learn is a separate issue.

People also have things that are personal and private. My default position is to let those lay. The end result of these efforts will be to create a narrative suitable for a broader audience, something interesting enough to read. Importantly, it will be something our daughter can read to know her own history without reviewing the thousands of documents and artifacts sitting in boxes and albums around our house.

That Mother kept my letters is remarkable. Reading and digesting them will be a welcome experience. I look forward to gaining insight into who I was then and how today’s version came to be. The number of gaps in the narrative has been significantly reduced by this find.


More Letters Home

Camp Letter

Our daughter and I drove to my home town on Sunday to visit my sister. The conversation ranged across many topics and toward the end of the visit she asked if I wanted to take the second of two shoe boxes containing letters I wrote home.

Of course I did.

I wrote a lot of letters home and to friends before email became a widely adapted replacement.

The earliest letter I found was written while attending YMCA camp as a grader. There was at least one more camp letter, followed by a couple while I was in high school, more in college, and in every stage of life afterward. There were some recent holiday cards and letters.

We logged on to the internet from a home computer for the first time on April 21, 1996. As soon as Mom got an America On-Line account we began communicating via email. She had already been using email in her work at the Corps of Engineers, just as I had been using email when I worked at for the oil company from 1989 to 1991. Over the years I saved as many personal emails as I could and there are a few between me and her from the late 1990s. The last email I sent her was dated March 7, 2014. It was about putting a photo on her Facebook account.

While it seems unlikely the others to whom I sent letters will return a similar archive, I have their letters and what is turning into a substantial trove of documents, partly written by me and partly by Mom and my friends about what my life was about. Combined with my hand-written journals beginning in 1974, and 14 years of this blog, I should be well prepared to relearn who I was and what I became.

The question becomes how shall I organize everything? There are no good answers as new documents are discovered and processed.

Artifacts like the camp letter pictured above lead me down a path of memory I had forgotten. It’s about canoeing on the Mississippi River, about campfires, and summer free swims, and having fun away from home and telling my parents all about it in a letter. Now that they are both gone the memories are welcome.

Letter writing, then email, journal writing, blogging, and now texting has become a part of who I am. I believe I’ve become the better for it.

Social Commentary Writing

Media’s Theft From The Commons

Iowa City Press Citizen Jan. 23, 2019

“Right-wing media have been laying the groundwork for Trump’s acquittal for half a century,” Nicole Hemmer wrote in the New York Times. “These tactics (i.e. minimize Trump’s transgressions and paint a picture of non-stop Democratic scandals) are not inventions of the Trump era. They are part of a decades-long strategy by the right to secure political power — a strategy originating in conservative media.”

For a student of history the story is not only about conservative mass media beginning in the mid-20th Century. It goes further back.

It’s been a few decades since I finished graduate school yet I remember we studied nineteenth century newspapers from the Old West in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the like. They were mainly gossip sheets in which people could and did say just about anything. Whatever was needed to engage locals and sell advertising, whether it was true or not. It is a part of human nature to want to hear gossip and the outrageous things that may or may not be going on in a community.

What’s different now is corporations have exploited this aspect of human nature to generate revenue. They’ve been successful at doing so. In a way, right wing media is yet another corporate theft from the commons.

One can’t make the argument that media has ever been without bias. Journalists, editors, and even historians have their implicit point of view which may or may not serve the truth or other human needs. I’m thinking here of the work of Howard Zinn, David Hackett Fischer, Clifford Geertz and others.

Joan Didion described it as well as anyone, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” What we hadn’t planned for was the malicious intent of people who would come to dominate news and information sources, and the role that would play in the stories we tell ourselves.

The first sign of trouble should have been when our favorite news personalities began to earn millions of dollars annually for what should have been a public service. That Sean Hannity earns $40 million per year is all one needs to know about FOX News. Even Walter Cronkite earned close to a million.

My media behavior toward this impeachment effort is similar to during the Nixon and Clinton proceedings. I tune it out. One exception though. While I’m still in bed, before I turn the light on, I pick up my phone and read Heather Cox Richardson’s daily letter. It’s about all that I can take. Is she biased? Of course. But my tolerance for the biases of Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard where she was educated is a bit higher. Plus she feeds my confirmation bias.