Categories
Home Life Living in Society Social Commentary Writing

2017 in Big Grove

Coffee Station

BIG GROVE TOWNSHIP — I found a quart jar of whole bean coffee in the pantry, ground a quarter cup, and made a pot with my French press — a bitter yet delicious treat while reflecting on the past year.

I will need a second pot.

2017 was a year of treading water in a sea of challenges.

National political culture mattered this year. The inauguration of Donald J. Trump as president set a sour tone as his conservative and sometimes unqualified picks filled out the judiciary. His cabinet ate away at the foundation of our Democracy the way termites invade the weakest point of a structure to consume and thereby weaken it. If Barack Obama’s 2008 election freed me from the constraints of a transportation career, the 45th president fouled the air of creativity with his every move — spoken and unspoken. It was a time when capital was valued more than labor, with no better expression of it than the tax bill signed into law on Friday. Repression of Democratic ideals could be found everywhere we live.

My response to the toxic environment was to engage. I re-joined the county party central committee, our home owners association, and the Macbride Sanitary Sewer District. I also wrote: seven letters to the Solon Economist, two columns published in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, 24 posts on Blog for Iowa, two on Bleeding Heartland and 159 posts here. I finished reading ten books this year, most of those in the first few months of the year. I followed the circus that has been Republican control of the federal and state government, and developed some new friends. Moral: when the nation goes sour, get involved locally.

My work at the home, farm and auto supply store has been a physical drain. I applied for and was approved to start Social Security benefits with the first check arriving in late January 2018. I’ll be transitioning out of low-wage work before Memorial Day.

Wild Woods Farm and Sundog Farm kept me busy spring weekends, and I worked the fall apple season at Wilson’s Orchard. There were bits and pieces of other income. By the end of the apple season, I was ready to rest from farm work. Our balance sheet was unchanged year over year.

My health has been okay. I got a crown and transitioned to a new dentist as Dr. Erusha retired. I avoided seeing a physician and am past due for a checkup. The physical work at the home, farm and auto supply store, and on the farms, has been tolerable. My plantar fasciitis remains present, but subdued going into 2018. I’m in reasonably good health for a soon to be 66 year old male.

On a positive note, Jacque and I marked the 35th anniversary of our wedding this month.

“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger,” German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said. I’m still here. We’re still here. We managed to sustain our lives in a turbulent year. That alone is hope for a better future.

Categories
Writing

Going Home – Book Reading

Books

On several occasions, friends and family politely informed me I must downsize my book collection.

I resisted.

The specific enjoyment of working at a desk, surrounded by books, may not be everyone’s idea of idyllic, however, for me it is close to sublime. It’s who I am.

While pondering a work backlog in said enjoyably sublime, idyllic location, my mind began to wander. It arrived, somewhat predictably, on the question which book to read next? One thing led to another and finally to the context of the current series of posts about going home, my remaining time, and this analysis.

How many books can I read during the coming years?

Set aside what we all know about life — we could die tonight — and answering this question is useful to a bibliophile. Here goes:

I can read 50 pages a day if I keep at it. I don’t read books every day but expect to come close as I transition to full retirement next year. It’s an inexpensive way for a person with limited resources to stay engaged in society. Assume I read 50 pages, six days per week.

According to the Social Security Administration life expectancy table I can expect to live another 18.5 years. Assume I do. That would be 288,600 pages read. Sounds like a lot, yet it is a finite number.

How long is a book? Obviously they vary in length and some are more interesting than others and read faster. For purposes of analysis, I used the Harry Potter series (UK edition) as my guide to book length. The seven books in the series total 3,407 pages, averaging 486.7 per book. This is somewhat arbitrary but sounds about right. My reading potential is 592.97 books during the coming years. If I can do it, that would more than double the number of books I now read per year to 32.

There are issues with this hopeful analysis.

What if my eyesight fails? That’s possible and somewhat likely given the results of my infrequent visits to the optometrist. We’ve discussed macular degeneration, cataracts, optic nerve disorders like glaucoma, and the condition of my retinas. While my eye health is reasonably good, that could change. If it does, it could impact my ability to read. It could also restrict books read to large print editions or those available electronically where the font size can be enlarged. I don’t like thinking about it, but there it is: a bibliophile’s nightmare.

There is also a question of cognitive engagement. Will I be able to understand what I read for my life span? Will reading help resist neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease? Will the head trauma I experienced at age 3 manifest itself in my remaining years in the form of a neurocognitive disorder? Will I experience a stroke or head trauma that will impact cognitive function? While less worrisome than loss of eyesight, if I lose the ability to comprehend what I read I’ll just have to deal with it.

An air traffic controller can land only one plane at a time and so it is with reading books. The most important question was my first one: which book will I read next? Carefully considered answers are important at full retirement age.

My friends and family are right, I should downsize my collection of books. Partly because given the remaining time I can’t read but a small percentage of them. I must focus on those relevant to my current life. Downsizing is also important because I don’t want my paternal legacy to be passing on an unorganized mountain of stuff for our daughter to spend her time going through. That would be rude and not what I want to be as a father.

I’m going home next year and hope to continue reading books. There’s a lot to learn and experience inside their covers. Reading helps sustain our lives in a turbulent world.

Categories
Home Life Writing

Going Home – 2018

Raw Vegetables

I’m going home now that my applications to the U.S. federal retirement program are approved.

My first payment from Social Security is scheduled around Jan. 24, 2018. We both have health coverage through Medicare, a Medicare supplement policy, and a prescription drug plan effective Jan. 1. We’ll need the money and hope we don’t need the health insurance.

It’s not clear what “going home” means today, but for sure, I’ll be leaving employment at the home, farm and auto supply store in the first half of 2018 — likely late winter or spring.

I don’t write in public about family, but plan to nurture those relationships.

Compensated work is on the 2018 agenda, specifically farm work for the sixth season at Community Supported Agriculture projects and at the orchard. I’d work for wages after my retail experience but need to transition out of driving a lift truck and lifting 50-pound bags of feed in long shifts. If I took a new job for wages, the commute would have to be less, the pay more, and personal fulfillment high. I hope to get better as a gardener, transitioning to a more productive vegetable patch and more fruit trees.

Uncompensated work is on the agenda as well. Scores of household projects wait for time and resources. I expect to have the time and some of the resources in 2018. We built new in 1993 and that reduced our home maintenance expenses in the early years. Things now need attention and preparation for the next phase of our lives in Big Grove. I expect to reduce the number of things we possess, converting current warehouse space to better livability.

I’ll continue to be active in our local community, but less outside Big Grove and surrounding townships. The home owners association, sewer district and membership on the political party central committee will serve as primary volunteer activities. I’ll also seek volunteer opportunities in nearby Solon. For a broader perspective I belong to the Arms Control Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Climate Reality Project.

Importantly, writing is on the 2018 agenda. I’ve been planning an expanded autobiography and that will be the first major project. With it I hope to develop a process to research, write and re-write a 20,000-word piece for distribution, if not publication. If my health holds and the wolves of an increasingly coarse society are held in abeyance, there will be additional projects. My first six decades have been in preparation for this. I believe positive outcomes will result.

I’m going to home to the life we built for ourselves. We’re not from here, yet after 24 years we have deep roots in this imperfect soil. I’m ready to settle in and grow.

Categories
Writing

Ten Years of Blogging

Writing Table

On Nov. 10, 2007 I launched a blog called Big Grove News, named after the rural township where I live.

I made three posts that day: a brief welcome announcement; a copy of a letter to the editor of the Solon Economist asserting the name of the Environmental Protection Agency should be changed to the Environmental Exploitation Agency under President George W. Bush, advocating for Democrats to caucus for John Edwards; and a remembrance of Norman Mailer who died that day.

Since then, under different names and platforms, my blogs traced my transition from a well-paid career in transportation through our daughter’s leaving Iowa after college, and my “retirement” at age 57. As readers know, I didn’t really retire nor ever will I. In the post-Reagan era working people get relief from a troubled world only when they head to the cemetery. Ten years later I’ve become a low-wage worker getting by well enough to support my writing.

I thank the many friends and editors who read my work, provided feedback, encouraged me, and helped improve my skills. My editors in the newspaper business — Lori Lindner, Jennifer Hemmingsen, Emily Nelson, Jeff Charis-Carlson and Doug Lindner — were invaluable to my craftsmanship. Trish Nelson’s editing since my first post at Blog for Iowa on Feb. 25, 2009 kept me focused on progressive issues. Her influence has been and is significant. When I think of who is reading me, she’s there.

I also thank John Deeth who noticed I had begun blogging that November. In the petri dish that was then Johnson County, Iowa that meant a lot. Laura Belin encouraged me to re-think my policy of taking posts off line. It was good advice and I’ve left them up ever since.

Influences

The fact of Barack Obama’s administration enabled my current desire and ability to write in public. Whatever flaws he had as president, his tenure created a political and social environment that encouraged me to let go the entanglement of a big job and venture out on my own. If the Republican had won in 2008 I’d likely still be working in transportation.

I live in a place with inherent stability. Townships were the first form of Iowa government and on clear nights I can close my eyes and see the removal of natives and destruction of prairie that led to today’s grid of land sections created by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Fence rows and gravel roads create the patchwork that today is Iowa seen from the sky. Whether the work of our forebears was good or bad, in 2007 it was a stable paradigm for rural life. The peaceful stability of living in Iowa enabled my writing.

The consumption of news, information, books and magazines combined with the explosion of social media after 2007 changed the way I read and write. The broad availability of information on the internet led me to pick a few areas and read deeply in them: foreign affairs, agriculture, slavery and the environment. My written pieces got shorter and more concise.

Creative influences

My earliest creative influences were William Shakespeare, Pablo Picasso, Pete Seeger, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Babe Ruth, Saul Bellow, Marlon Brando, Albert Einstein and John F. Kennedy.

Today’s influences are Al Gore, George Lakoff, Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, Jane Meyer and Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker, Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University, Ari Berman of Mother Jones, and the trio of Associated Press writers Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza. I also follow and read most of what Daryl Kimball and Joe Cirincione write about nuclear non-proliferation. Current influences include well-known writers Joan Didion, John Irving and Simon Winchester.

I don’t watch television. I don’t (or can’t stand to) listen to radio, especially National Public Radio. Vera Ellen is likely the best dancer ever. I consume YouTube videos, including recent views of interviews with William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Robin Williams and Robbie Robertson.  I don’t know or like much of current music but favor Sara Bareilles and Amadeus Electric Quartet. I still listen to the music of The Band, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Peter, Paul and Mary, Paul Simon, Bert Jansch and the Incredible String Band.

Writing about my influences is indicative of a desire to continue blogging. As I reach the Social Security Administration’s “full retirement age” next month I expect to continue blogging as I have but do more writing off line. Ten years of blogging has prepared me well in politics and I hope to have something meaningful to say during the 2018 and 2020 election campaigns.

We never know what tomorrow might bring, although most good writers have a pretty good idea.

Categories
Home Life Writing

Holiday Fun

Frosted Squash Plants

Hard frost and cooler temperatures make way for end of year holidays. Stress diminishes as plans for outdoor work become moot.

Diversity in the United States means holidays differ among social groups with each family developing a way of participating in a national culture.

Specific things have been on the agenda in our home. We discuss when to set up the Christmas holiday decorations, make and receive phone calls, cook a special meal, and pretty much stay within the boundary of our lot lines. It has been a quiet day for the last several years.

Some activities are particularly fun.

I mentioned the meal in yesterday’s post. What made it special was discussion about what to have combined with its simplicity. We made enough food for leftovers from recipes developed at home. The concession to consumer culture was an inexpensive bottle of Martinelli’s Sparkling Apple Cider. It was sweet and fizzy.

We don’t receive many seed catalogues in the mail yet I started online orders at Seed Savers Exchange and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The activity informs visualization of next year’s garden. There is a lot of thinking and planning to be done prior to entering payment information and hitting the order button on the web sites. There are discounts from both companies for ordering online this early.

I read a couple chapters of Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving. Books to read pile up on the filing cabinet near my writing desk. I finish most of the books I read each year between December and February. Reading is part of the holiday quiet time and sustains me through winter.

Napping is a lost art. Balance between falling asleep on the couch from exhaustion and intentionally resting is hard to achieve. After the day’s activities I slept straight through the night. I didn’t take a nap this Thanksgiving, but should have.

As a schooler we had at least a four-day Thanksgiving holiday. In the work force, I worked on Thanksgiving Day countless times, even the single time Mother made it out to Indiana for the holiday. That day I coordinated holiday meals for some of more than 600 drivers based at our trucking terminal and missed the main meal service at home.

Indiana was a tough place to live in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Reagan era was noted for downsizing or eliminating large industrial job sites like U.S. Steel. I can’t recall the number of conversations about what used to be in the steel business. There were many. Even lake-effect snow from Lake Michigan couldn’t deaden the angst people felt. Electing Bill Clinton president didn’t change what the radio stations described as the “steel mill culture.” There wasn’t much for which to give thanks in that economic and political environment.

Memories fade with time and Thanksgiving presents opportunities to re-tell the stories of our lives together. Such storytelling has been wide-ranging and keeps the past alive. A past to inform our future, or so we hope even if the teller doesn’t get details right.

If we work a little, Thanksgiving can be a time to have fun. That may be enough to sustain us.

Categories
Home Life Kitchen Garden Writing

Cooking is Inspiration

Pad Thai – Iowa Style

The folks I hang with in the local food system are focused on product.

Is the asparagus ready? What about the rhubarb? When should I plant peppers and tomatoes? How much should we put into a member share?

I’m interested in the answers, yet those aren’t my questions. My work in the local food system is to inform and supply culinary endeavors in our kitchen. Technique and creativity seem more important than the fungible commodity fresh produce is becoming. Objectifying and standardizing things, an American obsession, plays a role in the kitchen. At the same time inspiration, creativity and technique seem more important than consumable objects. That’s where I live.

My questions are different from farmer friends. What food can be sourced locally? How can I use an abundance of spring greens before they spoil? What seasoning tastes best with scrambled eggs? What is the best way to preserve food in the ice box? How many pints and quarts of tomatoes shall I can this year? How do I combine bits and pieces from the pantry with fresh food to make satisfying meals? At some point, questioning must yield to creativity.

There is something about Saturday afternoon in the kitchen. It’s partly immersion into the cooking process and partly reliving memories.  Saturday was a time to work in the yard and garage, then cook a meal while my spouse worked in town. I used to listen to Iowa Public Radio all day. Due to budget priorities, those programs are gone. Cooking time came with the beginning of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion which is gone too. I now draw life from the task at hand without musical accompaniment.

I made an Iowa version of pad thai last Saturday.

The dish has been in the works for a while. A couple of months ago I noticed the warehouse club sold USDA Certified Organic pad thai noodles for about $0.37 per serving. I bought a box on Friday.

With cabbage, onions and carrots from last season; a drawer and more of cooking greens from the farm; spring garlic from the garden; and bits and pieces stored in the ice box and pantry, the dish came together. The resulting meal was tasty, filling and seasonal — satisfying on multiple levels.

My kitchen experience made the dish as much as the ingredients.

I stock basic kitchen staples — high smoke point oil, salt, extra virgin olive oil, celery, onions, carrots and cabbage. Sources included retail merchants and local farms, however, the essence of cuisine is using what’s ubiquitous and on hand. It’s a fine distinction. Regardless of source, what’s in the pantry, ice box and garden now is what’s on hand. Creativity is in that moment.

Except for the noodles, no specific shopping was needed to prepare pad thai. Canned black beans and a jar of fermented black bean sauce were the only prepared foods used and I stock both in the pantry.

Spring Garlic

Inspiration for the meal occurred at the intersection of discovery of a small patch of spring garlic in the garden and the memories it aroused. I recall a paper sack of garlic cloves brought home from the library and planting them more than a decade ago. The scent was intoxicating. I harvested enough for a meal.

Where is the creativity? Thinly cutting vegetables, sorting ingredients by cooking time, and measuring seasonings can all be taught. With an eye toward plating, carrots can be cut on the bias, green leaves julienned and celery stalks cut thick. Pad thai noodles are to cook 5-6 minutes, according to the package, then immersed in an ice water bath to stop the cooking. These techniques are like loading a palette with paint.

Creativity begins once the noodles are on and the wok is heated to high temperature. There’s no going back.

Using a high smoke point oil, onions, carrots, celery, cabbage go into the wok first. It’s “stir fry,” not “occasionally stir” fry, so full attention is required at the stove. Season with salt. Once the timer for the noodles expires, strain and dump into the ice water bath. When the first round of vegetables is tender and add plate two (spring garlic, garlic chives, sliced bok choy stems, and julienned bok choy leaves, stirring constantly. Add the drained and washed black beans and a generous serving of cooking greens. Once the greens are wilted, add a couple of tablespoons of fermented black bean sauce. Strain and add the noodles last, garnishing with a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Toss gently until heated. Plate and serve with your favorite sweet chili sauce.

Cheap, prepared food is everywhere in the United States. It’s convenient. It reduces time in the kitchen. It is engineered to appeal to our senses. Most of us eat at a restaurant or get help from the industrial food supply chain from time to time. However, there is no substitute for inspired cooking.

It provides engagement seldom found elsewhere in life. It’s a source of satisfaction hard to replicate. It sustains us in a turbulent world. This kind of inspiration and creativity is needed more than ever.

Some ingredients for Iowa-style pad thai

Categories
Writing

Writing Through

Celery and Kale Seedlings

One third of the way into 2017 I’m like the horse that smells hay in the barn.

I can’t wait to finish the year, bed down for an evening, and get on to what’s next.

When writing about this final lap I felt a Social Security payment beginning next year would alleviate daily cash flow concerns, helped not a little by cancelling our health insurance through the home, farm and auto supply store and both of us going on Medicare. I won’t completely stop working outside home. Beginning next year, we could.

What’s next? Writing, I hope.

The most productive writing I did was between 2010 and 2015 when I was an editor at Blog for Iowa and wrote over 100 articles for the Solon Economist, North Liberty Leader  and Iowa City Press Citizen. I gained perspective about structure and clarity. I came to understand the 200-1,000 word post and what makes them interesting. Most importantly, I had great editors — five of them. When they found time to provide feedback, I learned from it. Practice combined with editing didn’t make me a perfect writer. It made me better.

I’m ready to take on different topics and longer writing projects as soon as we have enough income to take care of bills and pay down debt. Just eight more months to get there.

Reading goes with writing and I’m concerned about my ability to focus on longer narratives after a). having viewed so much television during my formative years, and b). bringing home our first personal computer in 1996. In a 2007 interview with Andrew O’Hagan for the Paris Review, Norman Mailer expressed my concerns.

“Now people grow up with television, which has an element within it that is absolutely inimical to serious reading, and that is the commercial,” Mailer said. “Any time you’re interested in a narrative, you know it’s going to be interrupted every seven to ten minutes, which will shatter any concentration. Kids watch television and lose all interest in sustained narrative.”

I have managed to be an avid reader, although internet habits have become more important than the formative influence of television. Beginning with access to the internet my reading habits changed. There is greater access to a diversity of articles and opinions on the internet. There is also a tendency to skip around from short article to short article. What’s concerning is the new and compulsive behavior of picking up a hand-held device and searching for the next story as if it were an addiction. The information gained through internet applications keeps me informed. However, when I decided to break away from political reading and try a novel, it was a disaster.

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks came highly recommended. It is a well-written narrative, engaging on several levels according to many readers. I had to re-start the book three times to retain essential points and make sense of the narrative. I’m still only a few pages into the book after previously reading the first fifty.

Part of my experience was witnessing Banks’ craftsmanship. Part of it was difficulty focusing on the narrative —not because of Banks’ style — but because my reading abilities have been tainted by the internet. I’m determined to read the book through to the end. I need better focus to dive in and do so. Whether I gain it remains to be seen.

Human resilience give me hope of becoming a better reader and writer. If I learned bad reading habits, they can be unlearned. In the meanwhile I’ll be writing through the final lap in a workingman’s race on this blog, hoping sweet oats and better reading and writing lay past the finish line.

Categories
Environment Home Life

Inside Chores and Climate Marches

Overflowing and Neglected Inbox

Rain began mid-morning and is expected to continue until sunset.

Let it rain.

It’s an opportunity to work on inside chores before spring planting.

I’ll tackle a long-neglected inbox and use produce in the ice box and freezer to make soup. There’s plenty to do in the jumble the garage has become since winter — moving the lawn tractor toward the door, organizing the planting tools and cleaning shovels, rakes and bins for the season. I’m antsy about getting the garden planted — I accept it won’t be this weekend.

A few friends are participating in the People’s Climate March today. CNN and the Washington Post covered the District of Columbia march. There are several marches in Iowa and elsewhere. The key challenge for participants and other climate activists is determining what to do in a society where the importance of action to mitigate the causes of climate change garners slight interest.

“Surveys show that only about one in five adults in the United States is alarmed about climate change,” Jill Hopke wrote in The Conversation. “This means that if climate activists want this march to have a lasting impact, they need to think carefully about how to reach beyond their base.”

Collard Seedlings in the Rain

The unanswered question is how shall people outside the activist community be recruited to take climate action and by whom?

There are no good answers and no reason for climate activists to lead the effort. However, we can’t give up if we value society’s future.

The main issue is the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The good news is there are renewable sources of energy for transportation, manufacturing and electricity. How will society make climate change action ubiquitous with a majority of the world population?

Mass demonstrations can play a role in an effort to raise awareness about climate change. So can articles written by journalists, scientists, bloggers and organizations. At a minimum we can each strive to live with as light an environmental footprint as possible. We can explain to our friends, family and neighbors. Everyone has the potential to do something.

Today’s cool weather and gentle rain is a reminder.

“Staying out of the cold and warm inside? So are we,” Richard Fischer of Bernard wrote this afternoon via email. “Due to the weather we’re moving the event over to Convivium Urban Farmstead and Coffee shop, 2811 Jackson St., Dubuque.”

We must consider our lives in the built environment and let it rain. Have faith in today’s potential and adjust, knowing as long as rain comes and sustains our gardens and farms we too will be sustained.

There is much we can do when it rains. We can act on climate before it’s too late.