Introduction to a Memoir

Turn around, Ely, Iowa.

A high school classmate died on Sunday. In 2013 he sent a copy of a 54-page draft of his memoir for editing.

I didn’t offer much because his writing was good and it was his story, not mine. Our life experiences were different, tied together by four years we spent in high school together in a cohort of 262 students. If it weren’t for social media we would never have collaborated.

My life has been lived in the second half of the 20th Century and the first quarter of the 21st. I want to tell that story, although I’m not sure how badly.

I wrote many words about my life and part of the task of a memoir is pulling that writing together. It seems important, not urgent. I have a question: what have I done the story of which hasn’t been told by someone else? Not much when we think about it.

Today I see a memoir in two parts. One, a collection of past writing and historical analysis that tells the story chronologically. The second, an analysis of important life events from today’s perspective. Both parts will become big projects.

The first reason for a memoir is to record a history for our daughter. The second is to understand it myself. I doubt my life has much significance beyond family. Although I’ve done a lot, I’ve been a reflection of contemporary times rather than shaping them. I’ve been a regular guy trying to get along and that’s not too special in the broad scope of society.

For the time being I work on a couple of community projects and plan to address the memoir after the Nov. 3 election. A lot depends on the outcome of the election, including whether or not progress is made on a memoir. Here’s hoping for the best.

Living in Society

Rain Continues

Derecho Woodpile

From drought to rain the last week has been unrelenting.

The garden continues to produce and grass is growing again creating another task once the landscape dries.

Doesn’t look like drying will happen today.

I am helping the local political party distribute campaign yard signs. There are few parts of the county north of the interstate highway I don’t recognize. I’ve gotten requests from voters on some new streets yet when I look for them the same roads and streets are in memory to find them. I remember a lot of door knocking from past political campaigns.

I stopped to refuel my 1997 Subaru Outback. At the convenience store no one was wearing a mask. Not a single person. I couldn’t see through the window whether the cashiers were, although I hope so. Keeping my distance at the fuel pump I sanitized my hands once back in the driver’s seat. Risk avoidance is a key part of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. I resisted the temptation to go inside and buy a Powerball ticket.

It’s just as well it’s wet outside. I have an indoors project with a deadline and it’s easier to avoid distraction when it’s raining. I’m about to make my second French press of coffee for the day. It may not be the last. I’m digging into the history of our community. There’s a lot of food for thought and memory. It should keep me busy all day.


Once Upon an Oracle

Oracle Open World 2006

(Editor’s Note: This article was first posted Sept. 25, 2011 on my blog Big Grove Garden. It is about missing mainstream culture in the late 1970s and captures some of my life while living in West Germany and epiphanies while visiting San Francisco where I jogged on Market Street in the middle of the night, saw DEVO and Sir Elton John perform at the Cow Palace, and stayed in Chinatown while there to attend Oracle Open World in 2006. It is  presented unedited.)

By the time I returned from a Cold War West Germany in 1979, I had missed a lot of the music, movies and other artifacts of popular culture of the late 1970s. Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, Blondie, Sex Pistols, the Cars, the Clash, The Ramones and DEVO, never heard of them. In movies, Blue Collar, Star Wars, The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs Kramer, Norma Rae, Taxi Driver, F.I.S.T., Saturday Night Fever, All the President’s Men, and Dog Day Afternoon were all beyond the ken as instead, we viewed repeated screenings of Patton in forests near the Fulda Gap, our projector powered by generators.

Most of us did not even own a television while we were stationed overseas, preferring to get together at the officer’s club or go hiking and rock climbing in the nearby Taunus mountains during rare times when, for a few hours, we could get away from being a soldier. My vacuum of experience in popular American culture is between the bookends of Jaws, which I saw with house mates when living in Davenport and Annie Hall which I saw in Amsterdam subtitled in Dutch while on leave from my post in Mainz just before returning to Iowa. In retrospect, missing these shared popular culture experiences was a formative influence. Even missing the start up of Saturday Night Live was important.

Instead of music and movies, I took in the stuff of life. The politics of being an occupying force leftover from World War II was real. One of my buddies went on missions to East Berlin where he talked with Soviet soldiers to see what they were up to. Mostly, it appears, they were drinking vodka and we never worried about the threat they may have posed to the West. One time we chipped in and he brought us hats made in East Germany. I still have mine in the closet, as it is very warm.

Our battalion had a severe drug problem. Almost every soldier had some connection to use of heroin or hashish. It was so prevalent, and our enforcement capability so limited, that we would bust someone caught in the act more to ruin their Friday night than send them to jail. Often soldiers caught using drugs in the military were sent to the Community Drug and Alcohol Counseling service. Turned out the counselor supplemented his military pay by selling heroin to his clients. Heroin purportedly coming from Afghanistan through East Germany. Looks like both sides of the Cold War had their problems with substance abuse.

By dealing with existential realities in the military, I was spared the evisceration of everything I knew from growing up in a union household. Popular culture reflected that. The late seventies were a prelude to Ronald Reagan’s supply side economics, and notably the PATCO firings that were a continuation of the assault on unions that began under Nixon. It would have been tough to witness all of that. While I missed the first run of DEVO, I did finally catch up with them.

I got a chance to attend Oracle’s Open World in 2006 while working at a logistics company. It was a time on the cusp of the explosion of hand-held devices and cloud computing we are in the middle of today. Gavin Clarke wrote about the event in The Register, whose tag line is, “Biting the hand that feeds IT.”

More than 40,000 delegates will flood downtown San Francisco’s hotels, restaurants, and transport system, drawn from the developer, customer, and partner ranks of the 21 companies Oracle bought since January 2005 plus those using Oracle’s own middleware and applications.

Keynotes from […] AMD’s Hector Ruiz, Cisco’s John Chambers, Hewlett-Packard’s Mark Hurd, and Sun Microsystems’ Jonathan Schwartz, plus Dell chairman Michael Dell, and Network Appliance president Tom Mendoza who will no doubt pay some kind of homily to the power of their relationships with Oracle on servers, virtualization, and software […]

Even the entertainment is big: […] it’s the rocket man himself Sir Elton John.

Somewhere on one of the numerous venues arranged by the conference organizers within San Francisco’s Cow Palace, along with Sir Elton John, a dozen bands, circus acts and contortionists, I saw the band DEVO perform for my first and only time. They played Secret Agent Man among others I did not recognize.  It made me glad I missed the 1970s culture of the De-evolution of American life that was tied so closely to corporations making things like Goodyear tires in DEVO’s home town of Akron.

I was still on Iowa time at my hotel in Chinatown near the Moscone Center. I went jogging on Market Street in the early morning, encountering an army of homeless people, socializing and sleeping in cardboard boxes and under blankets on the sidewalks. As I ran, I wondered how the popular culture of the 1970s became one more thing to be marketed and bought by consumers. In doing so, it bred a deep cynicism that penetrates our culture today. It also gave rise to today’s self purported “new revolutionaries” of the Taxed Enough Already party, who too have become one more thing to be marketed by the corporatists at Fox News and NBC Universal.

As the sweat built and I headed back to the hotel, missing the late 1970s popular culture did not seem so bad. It enabled me to hope that as a society we were better than this, and that life was about more than militarism, poverty, sex, drugs and rock and roll. For that I am grateful.

Living in Society

Is Rural Iowa Different?

Saint John Lutheran Church, Ely, Iowa.

A lot is being made about the differences between voters who live in rural parts of the state compared to those who live in our cities and urban areas.

It’s a false distinction. The same social, economic and political forces are at work no matter where one lives. None of it favors regular people like us.

Why does everything cost more? Why do we have to drive so far for health care? Why is our broadband inconsistent at best if we have it? Why can’t farmers sell milk for at least the cost of production? Why are there patents on seeds? Why does new farm equipment cost so much? Many questions, few answers.

Why do more than half of working people in predominantly rural counties work in another county? The answer to this is easy. Farming does not pay unless one is a big corporation. Someone in most farm families has to work outside the farm to make ends meet and such jobs are mostly urban.

When people say of politicians, “We need someone who understands the rural areas,” it is true. It is also code for something: hard work, poverty, a lack of economic justice, and a type of Christian religious faith. For the most part it is about being a Caucasian farmer.

Of recent writers, Sarah Smarsh came closest to capturing what being rural means in her book Heartland: Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. The book resonated so closely with how I grew up yet I lived in Iowa’s third largest city. There are differences between the urban county where I grew up and the rural county I know best (Cedar County). Those differences are not significant. Try telling that to someone who lives in a rural area and you’ll find self-righteousness and resentment.

I won’t resolve this false dichotomy. Just as Jack Kerouac’s more conventional first book, The Town and the City gave way to the “spontaneous prose” of On the Road, it is difficult to focus on it for long when so much more about society is engaging.

Suffice it the assertion of ruralness isn’t about being rural. It’s about having dignity, justice and equal treatment under the law. It’s about a return for the hard labor so many farmers invest as part of their lives. At some point labor should be rewarded for its sacrifices instead of return on equity going to the richest people and corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, John Deere, DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland.

Iowa’s well-developed road system is partly to blame for the rural-urban divide. Because of inexpensive gasoline it is easy to drive to a metropolis when shopping for food, building products, household goods and clothing. When there are no rural jobs, a commute of less than an hour might produce income far above what farm earnings can be. Americans, rural or urban, are at a distance from producing their own food, shelter and clothing. Let’s face it. Who wants to live like Old Order Amish? I’ve met enough young people trying to escape that life to say not many. Yet we still see horse drawn carriages using Iowa’s rural road systems.

Use of the rural trope drives me a bit crazy. Not crazy enough to call the suicide hotline, yet enough to be a catalyst. The thing about catalysts is they can get us to where we should be going faster, the way iron is a catalyst for making ammonia. If people who live in rural areas want to get ahead, they need to steel themselves against language that would divide them from the rest of us. That includes their own language. We are stronger together and fabricating a rural-urban divide is counterproductive. That is, if we want society to advance toward something positive.

~ A version of this post appeared in the Sept. 13, 2020 edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette.


Heat Wave

The derecho did not take all the pears.

A breeze blew off the lake as I walked the mail to the box on the road. It didn’t rain last night and we really needed it.

The garden is getting close to the end although I’d like to get more peppers, tomatoes and greens before the drought destroys it. I water daily, yet a good soaking rain would be better.

There is almost no chance of precipitation in the next 24 hours although the cold front moved in as forecast. The path of hurricane Laura, now a depression, turned east at Cairo then is following the Ohio River valley across West Virginia and Virginia to the Atlantic coast. We missed any rain from that system.

It will be a day to catch up on outside work.

A couple from the COVID ravaged metropolis around the county seat stopped by our house to deliver campaign materials. We all wore masks. I gave them garden tomatoes. Progress toward the Nov. 3 election continues.

Our county has a high COVID-19 infection rate, the highest in the state. Iowa leads the United States in infection, which leads the world. Our local epidemiologist said what we are seeing “is unchecked spread without a statewide prevention plan.” The governor reiterated yesterday, “I’ve been very clear on that.” There will be no statewide mask-wearing mandate and only selected restrictions based on criteria that targets certain counties. The state universities brought students back this week. It was an unmitigated disaster at all three of them.

Our family had a chance to catch up on video conference yesterday. We noted that Florida has given up its position as worst in the coronavirus pandemic to Iowa. Not really good news for any of us. The government’s handling of the pandemic has been bad at the state and federal levels. Florida’s economy relies on tourism which the pandemic hit squarely. Just as I refrain from visiting the county metropolis, people are avoiding trips to Florida for vacation. I don’t know how the tourism and entertainment industry finds it way out of the pandemic despite the fact smart people are working to figure it out.

Except for my daily exercise I don’t plan to leave the property today. What I’m hearing is the pandemic will continue until at least Easter and maybe longer. We have five homemade masks and should make more.


On Madison

919 Madison Street in 2011.

This house is the second place I remember living. When I talk about the 1950s this place was seminal. It was recently on the real estate market with a gallery of photos. It remains inside and out much like it was when we lived there.

My sister and brother were born at local hospitals while we lived here. I started kindergarten from here in 1957. When Father went hunting or fishing with his buddies he brought back game to process it on the back porch. I learned about television, family traditions, and had my first and only pet dog named Lassie. I kissed a girl for the first time in the backyard. It was her idea. Memories return, of doing things in every part of the yard and indoors. A few photographs of the time survived.

Our maternal grandmother lived with us for a while and her ex-husband, our grandfather, visited from time to time. He was a demonstrator at the coal mining exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. He had coal worker’s pneumoconiosis from working mines in Cherry, Illinois. When he visited he would spend long periods in the bathroom coughing up phlegm. When he died of black lung disease I recall being in LaSalle, Illinois for the funeral but staying at my aunt and uncle’s home while adults attended services. Much later, during the Carter administration, Grandmother received black lung benefits from the federal government.

Father set up a swing set for me in the basement. It collapsed, resulting in my being rushed to the hospital for 50 stitches to sew my forehead back together. There are vivid memories about being injured and the time spent in the hospital. People don’t notice the scar any more yet it seemed prominent for many years.

I remember being with neighbors, sometimes inside their homes. We developed a sense of neighborhood. Not far away there were two parks: Fejervary Park to the west and Lookout Park to the east. We sledded on snow in the former and rode inside cardboard boxes down the steep hill of the latter. Occasionally I went wandering down Madison toward downtown and my parents had to come find me and bring me home.

As I revisit these years there are more memories than expected. How to approach them for an autobiography is an open question, one I need to answer. Part of me doesn’t want to organize these memories.

There is something to learn about how this pre-consumer society impacted who I am today. In the iconography of my life, this place remains important and merits consideration.


August Dreams

August Dreamscape

We’re well into tomato season in the garden. Not to the point of hurling them at passersby, yet close.

Amish Paste, German Pink, Mortgage Lifter, Black Krim, Speckled Roman, Granadero, Boxcar Willie, Abe Lincoln, Martha Washington and other tomato varieties sound exotic. Each is vying for best of crop and a repeat planting next year.

The hard work of the garden is finished. With temperatures in the 90s, we stay indoors and dream most of each day.

I’ve taken to looking at the sky. It is a reminder of how small humans are, how Earth is a single ecosystem. I could look at clouds all day, at least until a nagging human condition urges me to do something else.

Most of us will get through the coronavirus pandemic. What then? We’ll need August dreams to find out.


Pandemic Pivot

Moon at Dawn, Aug. 7, 2020

Iowa has been slow in containing the coronavirus pandemic.

Last night the president said during a press conference the virus will just go away. The Iowa Governor released an “Open Letter to Iowans on COVID-19” earlier in the afternoon, in which she said, “But normal during a pandemic isn’t the same normal as before. COVID-19 is still a reality, and circumstances still demand we do everything within our control to contain and manage it.”

While Kim Reynolds’ response to the pandemic fell short of expectations she’s at least pretending to be a leader. There is plenty about which to criticize her, yet her response is better than that COVID-19 is going to magically disappear.

After declaration of an emergency on March 9, an unwanted retirement on April 28, and Thursday’s approval of a face covering regulation by the county board of supervisors, it seems like the pandemic is only just beginning.

We Americans have been bad at preventing mass infections and deaths related to the coronavirus. This trait of our national character ranks right up there with yeoman farmer, chattel slavery, indentured servitude, genocide of the natives, and exploitation of the environment. It weighs heavy on the scale of justice when we consider the many good things our country does.

Like many, after an initial reaction to the coronavirus I’m reinventing myself for the future and that includes how I write in this space.

Old categories no longer seem relevant. I use the word “category” both as an organizer on this blog, but more generally in life. The top ten categories with the number of posts in parentheses tells a story:

Politics (435)
Local Food (311)
Garden (299)
Home Life (277)
Writing (276)
Environment (247)
Worklife (166)
Social Commentary (149)
Cooking (129)
Farming (83)

Even these ten seem like too many as I pivot through the pandemic.

I created the current blog in December 2008. With tens of millions of bloggers, I felt support for the WordPress platform would be better than Blogger which I began using in November 2007. I didn’t think much about how to organize the writing.

After my July 2009 retirement from transportation and logistics I settled into the pattern that resulted in this categorical breakdown. The adjustment now is to distill these categories. Here is my thinking: I find four categories of life worth living.

I define myself as a writer so the first category is Writing. That includes posts about writing like this one, but also excerpts from other writing I’m working on, including autobiographical work.

My posts about cooking, gardening, farming and local food have been popular. Using an integrated approach, I created a new category to be used going forward: Kitchen Garden. This category is designed to discuss every aspect of putting meals on our home table.

When I post about a political event few others are, it gets a lot of views. Politics is much broader than election and government, and includes most aspects of our lives. For the time being I will use the broader category Life in Society. Some of the previous categories will continue to exist but won’t be used.

Finally, my work with others includes mitigating the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons, climate change and conflicts in the form of war and social injustice. This specialized work merits its own category: Sustainability.

Who knew the pivot point of the coronavirus pandemic would be toward fewer categories? I’m sure it is the first of many adjustments we’ll make going forward.


Back to Work

Chia Fen Preserve

It took the cable guy about 15 minutes to get us back on the internet nine days after another cable guy unknowingly cut the cable to our house.

The cable business does not use scientific protocols while conducting operations, apparently.

The technician tested the service from the main line and it was okay. The underground cable to the house was not. The tracked cable laying machine nicked the wire to our house and that of a neighbor. He dropped new cables for both of us and yet another cable guy will return in a week or so to bury it. No excuses now for not working.

No profound revelations from me nor did I experience any epiphanies while using my mobile device to get on line for nine days. It has been a backup plan and it worked better than going completely dark.

I wrote more in my paper journal and a couple of letters and cards. I was also able to write and submit an op-ed piece on the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on June 6 for the Cedar Rapids Gazette (Read it here tomorrow). It’s not often the newspaper contacts me for an op-ed so I figured out a way.

I read more poetry (check out my Reading List), worked in the garden, and bicycled. On Sunday I crashed the bicycle. A few abrasions resulted and sore shoulders. My ego suffered the most damage. I got back in the saddle Monday and reduced my speed from 18 to 12 miles per hour on those downhill slopes on the gravel trail. Now that I’ve had a crash I can stop worrying about having one.

There is a job in fixing the inefficiencies of business. My previous work in transportation and logistics was exactly that. All the same I have little interest in helping the cable guys do their work more efficiently. I’m just glad we have service again and ready to move on to what’s next.

Home Life Living in Society Social Commentary

Denial, The Coronavirus Is Your Friend

View from the kitchen window

When the U.S. Congress passed the CARES Act there was an unspoken assumption the coronavirus pandemic would be of short duration and gone by now.

Based on this, the Republican president and Republican Iowa governor pushed to “reopen the economy.” As they did we discovered Iowa and the nation were still on the upward slope of a curve of COVID-19 cases. As of Sunday, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported the seven-day average number of COVID-19 cases in Linn County was the highest since the governor declared the emergency on March 9.

Epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci made the situation clear in an interview with the publication MarketWatch. “We are still in a pretty big first wave (of the pandemic),” he said.

Cedar Rapids-based manufacturer Gary Ficken got a CARES Act small business loan to keep his athletic apparel business afloat, according to the Washington Post. He used the money to hire staff back early in the pandemic only to lay them off again when there was no demand for his products.“It ended up being a bridge to nowhere,” Ficken said.

As some of the benefits of the CARES Act expire, the Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate doesn’t know what they want to do. “Half the Republicans are going to vote no to any phase four package,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on Sunday. “That’s just a fact.” Senate Democrats don’t have to negotiate with Republicans who are a firm no on any new relief bill, so we may as well stick to our guns.

Already the White House floated the idea of a short term extension of some parts of the original CARES Act. In the meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, the main Republican negotiator, is discussing changing the $600 per week federal subsidy of unemployment benefits in the CARES Act to a new formula of 70 percent of earnings. Again, half the Republicans won’t vote for whatever bill he writes. Late Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the Republican proposal as “pathetic,” saying “it isn’t serious.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it “totally inadequate.”

It is hard to say with certainty what the federal government should do in the form of relief for the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The U.S. House passed a stimulus bill in May with which the Senate has done nothing. What needs to happen, and fast, is to stop denying we are in a pandemic. Denial is the coronavirus’ best friend.

If you are already past denial, here’s an informative podcast of In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt. Special guest epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, who helped eradicate smallpox and is hard at work on coronavirus, grades our performance on a scientific, sociological, and political basis. He doesn’t mince words about political leadership or the CDC. “There is a special place in hell for some of the people who are lying about how dangerous this disease is,” Brilliant said in the podcast.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa