Work Life Writing

A Place Built on Hope

First Day of Soil Blocking 2018 Photo Credit – Maja Black

As one makes one’s bed, so one finds it. ~ French Proverb ca. 1590

Today is my last day as a full-time employee at the home, farm and auto supply store. Reducing my schedule from five to two days a week should free time to work on other projects. At least that’s the hope.

We built a home in Big Grove and made it ours. I walked the lot lines before we broke ground and sat on the dirt high wall after the lower level was dug. We hooked up utilities, installed a door between the garage and residence, and moved in all on the same day in August 1993. No regrets.

Almost 25 years later our home needs updating and some maintenance. We’ve been spending our time living more than working here. Today’s transition will change that and I’m looking forward to it.

Fifty years ago I began working part time after high school at a department store. Despite how American business evolved since then, I made it across the finish line. I’m still here. We’re still here.

Now comes the downsizing, reducing and recycling — a frugality characterized by the fact we haven’t generated enough trash to set out our curb side receptacle in three weeks.

There will be industry as I’ve mentioned previously in these posts. However, one focal point is rebuilding stamina needed to work more hours each day. It’s not really retirement.

We never know what will happen to us. We make plans. We stay busy as best we are able. We contribute to a greater good if we can. We hope.

As I head through the door this morning I don’t know what today will bring. I’ll sleep tonight and wake up to a tomorrow that begins like so many others have.

Tonight I’ll sleep in a place built on hope.

Work Life Writing

A Stop En Route to the Finish

Work Locker

My supervisor at the home, farm and auto supply store unexpectedly called me to the office and offered a salary commensurate with the work I do.

“Commensurate with the work,” means closer to the average wages for the position as defined in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, which lists a job closely matching what I do.

He would convince me to either stay or continue working part time. I said I’d consider the offer and respond this week.

In every job I’ve held since leaving for military service, I’ve become a valued member of the team. In many cases, mostly when I worked for a large transportation and logistics company, I was replaced with two people after resigning. I understand the value of my work.

People have reasons for taking lowly paid work. This is especially true in my county, where there are numerous job opportunities for anyone willing to work. People take a low-wage job to generate income then move on to something better. We all have our reasons.

I took work at the home, farm and auto supply store and stayed because they offered a family health insurance plan to cover us until Medicare. Now that both of us are on Medicare, that reason was eclipsed by a desire to do other things. We have delayed gardening, talking, writing, reading, repairing and retooling our home for too long. That’s reason to retire March 16 while still young enough to accomplish some of that.

Opening the question whether to leave is also about security. Financial security partly, but physical health, being accepted in society, and the ability to live a life free from worry. The offer moved security to the front burner after simmering from the initial math of planning our retirement.

We are never completely secure. If a catastrophe happens in a life, people will invest everything they own to recover and return to a semblance of normal. Such normality is the endgame, especially in Iowa. Complete security does not appeal to people like me. I’m still a risk taker and know my limits.

I don’t know my answer and will mull it while soil-blocking at the farm. I did the math and the extra income would help pay down some of our debt. It is a bird in hand against the unknown of how could we generate extra funds in retirement. It would come with a cost I’m not sure is worth the price.

Today will be about figuring that out.

Home Life Kitchen Garden

Sixty Nine Days

Saturday Dinner

It’s sixty nine days until what I hope is my last day of work at the home, farm and auto supply store… and “full retirement.”

The paradigm upon which we based our life in Big Grove shifted. We settled here to be close to work, raise our daughter, and live happily ever after.

Our home is older (as are we), our daughter left Iowa after college, leaving us with the happily ever after. The latter has me stuck.

During bitter cold days, I spend most of my time in the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom, or at my writing table. This weekend I left the house once to get the mail. The tendency is to drift toward the last day of work, delaying everything until then. That’s not really an option with the community work I’ve undertaken and plans made. One foot in front of the other, onward I must go.

The ambient temperature warmed 46 degrees since yesterday morning. If I were a bear, I’d sense winter hibernation is almost over. Instead, this human is in between recovering from a week of physical labor and endeavoring to get busy with one of many projects. Today it’s not going as well as I’d like on either front.

I worked on a local version of dal, cooking the first recipe today. Using 1-1/4 cups lentils, three cups of vegetable broth, turmeric, cumin, hot red pepper, fresh garlic and vegetable oil, the first batch came out edible but not delicious. The idea is to replace the pre-cooked version I’ve been buying at the warehouse club with home made. The recipe creation process will take a while because each batch must be eaten: a person can only eat so much dal per week. After six or seven iterations, if I’m lucky, the finished dish might get to the delicious stage.

Last night I made dinner of corn-rice casserole, steamed peas and a mixture of roasted butternut squash and sweet potatoes. Saturdays have been my night to cook so Jacque has a meal ready when she gets off work. When Garrison Keillor was on A Prairie Home Companion, that provided background noise. Now the radio stays mostly off, or tuned to the classical music station. Another shift in the predictability of our lives.

All this is not to say I seek a rocking chair in which to sit until life departs this frame. Not at all. However, the combination of cold weather, bones, feet and back aching from physical work, and a restlessness about living happily ever after has me stymied.

Just as the cold snap is over, and there’s hope the recipe will eventually turn out well, I’ll get going. Sixty nine days out retirement seems unseen below the horizon. Much remains to be done and I feel myself waking and wondering what will be next.

I’d be good with happily ever after, but not ready to believe it’s possible.

Living in Society Writing

Five Easy Things to Improve Our Politics

Corner of Main at Market, Solon, Iowa

In a hopeful year, the U.S. Congress is back to work, on Jan. 8 the state legislature convenes the second half of the 87th Iowa General Assembly, and grassroots politics begins another cycle with the Feb. 5 annual Iowa caucuses.

Politics affects us all.

In a time when there is no time for us to get anything done, here are five easy things to improve our politics.

If you are free Feb. 5, attend your political party caucus, which begin at 7 p.m. Republicans and Democrats agree when to hold precinct caucuses and these meetings represent a chance to see what having an R or D next to your voter registration means.

Subscribe to elected officials’ newsletters. All of our federal and state representatives have a newsletter. If you don’t know who represents you, in the Solon area it’s currently U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack, State Senator Bob Dvorsky and State Representative Bobby Kaufmann.

Take time to learn about the gubernatorial candidates and vote in the June primary. Both major political parties have a primary election for governor.

Worry less about process and more about values. So many voters get tied in a knot about what governing bodies should and shouldn’t do before enacting laws or ordinances. The better question is what do our representatives stand for? Their values are clear in votes they have made.

Be civil when talking about politics with friends and neighbors. If you can’t, then change the topic to the weather. Most important is taking time to listen, followed by thinking before opening your mouth. It’s possible to hear people out with whom we disagree without discussions escalating into an argument.

Use these five ideas and I believe you will agree a better politics is possible.

~ Published in the Jan. 11, 2018 edition of the Solon Economist

Home Life

After a Holiday Weekend


Three-day weekends are rare at the home, farm and auto supply store. However, this year the retail store was closed Monday for the Christmas holiday.

I managed to get some things done. Mostly I slept, not understanding beforehand how much sleep I needed.

Three days was not enough time to catch up on sleep.

As I consider “full retirement” this spring, out of the box I’ll need two weeks to do nothing but catch up on sleep. Being bone weary makes it difficult to get things done and there is plenty I want to do after leaving full-time, lowly paid work. Getting rested equals getting started on a new life.

That’s not to say the weekend wasn’t festive. I made Christmas Eve dinner, baked shortbread cookies, and we spent time together and talked. We phoned and texted friends and family. We talked a lot.

Corn and Apples for Wildlife

Birds were not coming to the feeder so I changed bird seed. I dumped piles of apples and whole corn for wildlife and watched as crows came first to feast. I spent no money and didn’t leave the property a single time after arriving home on Friday.

I long to take retirement. We can’t afford to stop working. How to sustain our lives needs to be worked out by spring. Treading water, I wrote our budget with enough income to cover expenses for 12 months. I’ll use that time to determine how to make things work. If it’s possible, we’ll figure it out.

I’m enrolled in the federal retirement program and Jacque signed up for federal health benefits. We each carry a deck of insurance cards — Medicare, Medicare supplement and Medicare Part D. We hope not to need any of them. Without the federal retirement program we’d both have to work until we die.

I’m counting on being able to write during retirement. I spent Christmas morning writing an article for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. One never knows if writing will be accepted, but it’s free to the newspaper and I have a unique perspective. I like publishing in the Gazette because of it’s comparatively large circulation. Fingers crossed. I’ll write more going forward.

I’ve had my car on the trickle charger for 12 hours so it should start this morning. Thursday is my appointment at the auto clinic to have the charging system diagnosed. Hopefully it can be diagnosed and fixed — the same hope for every 20-year old vehicle. The alternative is the scrap heap. I won’t need transportation as much after retirement. I budgeted half the gasoline next year compared to this, hoping to use even less.

The time between Christmas and New Years is weird. Because of the paid birthday off work I’m at the home, farm and auto supply store only three days this week. What’s nice about this time is the ability to withdraw from society enough to get our bearings.

That will have to be good enough this year.

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.


Going Home – Book Reading


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.

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.


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.


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.

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.