Oct. 4, 2008 – COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — After hiking among red rock formations, our daughter and I went to a grocery store and bought vegetables for stir fry dinner — firm tofu, celery, carrots, red bell pepper, snow peas, broccoli florets, yellow onion, and garlic. Upon return to her shared apartment we prepared it the way our household has been doing since before she was born.
At 6 p.m. we tuned the kitchen radio to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and made dessert. Listening to the program on Saturday afternoon, while working in the kitchen, had been a thing since the early 1980s. It was comforting regardless of what happened each week.
On June 13, 1987 I turned on a tape recorder to capture the final episode of A Prairie Home Companion — supposedly. Our daughter was two years old and wanted to spend time with me. Once the recorder was set, she and I went walking around our neighborhood in Cedar Rapids. When we returned the program had run over its allotted time and the tape ran out. I caught a re-broadcast on Sunday and re-recorded it. As we now know, Keillor didn’t retire. He came back and lasted the second time until 2016. He gave our Saturdays a predictable, calming feeling.
We took ten Colorado peaches from the ice box, peeled and sliced them in the only large bowl available. There was no granulated sugar in the pantry so we macerated them in brown sugar, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. We arranged them in a glass pie dish and dotted them with butter. Next we cleaned out the bowl and mixed dry ingredients: flour, more brown sugar, salt, butter, rolled oats and a dash of water. I built the top high, knowing it would cook down.
During a yearlong internship in Florida, I bought her toaster oven which I now set to convection at 350 degrees. It doesn’t take long for a toaster oven to preheat. I put the shelf on the bottom rack, set the timer for 25 minutes, and monitored the peach crisp through the glass as it cooked.
She was sewing at the kitchen table, the radio was playing, and I was cleaning up while the crisp baked. We hoped dessert would satisfy, yet whatever its sweetness, it was unmatched by the scene: a father and daughter re-enacting the lives of our grandmothers on a fall Colorado night.
~ Adopted from a post on Big Grove News, Oct. 4, 2008
Last night we looked at an old picture of the building that is now Smitty’s Bar and Grill in Solon. In sepia tones, seven teams of horses and wagon are lined up in front of the building on the dirt street.
We can make out the lettering on the windows of the shop: Cerny Bros Grocery, Cerny Bros Hardware and Cerny Bros Feed. While the roads have been paved for many years, much of downtown and the surrounding area resonates of the area’s origins in history before automobiles.
Big Grove Township was established before Iowa Statehood, and the first sawmill was built here in 1839 by Anthony Sells on Mill Creek. There is a subdivision named Mill Creek today and throughout the area, people refer to early settlers or builders of the homes instead of the people who now live in and own them. The names Cerny, Beuter, Andrews and Brown persist, as does the more recent name of Don Kasparek upon whose former farm our home is situated.
It is important to know the history of the area where we settle and I try to spend some time each year understanding Big Grove history. There is a lot there, and there is much to learn. What dominates is the culture we bring with us to this area where all trees indigenous to the Northwest once existed in abundance.
The oak, walnut, hickory, ash, elm and cottonwood that once thrived among numerous pure springs were gone when we bought our lot here. There were grasses and a lone mulberry tree that appeared to have been started from a bird dropping on the re-bar marker placed by Kasparek’s surveyor. The ground had a high clay content which suggested that Don had removed the topsoil before subdividing the plats. When he died a few years ago, I recognized him in our association newsletter and we speak of him from time to time in the neighborhood.
Yet, like Popeye the sailor, “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” and can’t help but believe who I am is little of the history of this area, and more of the culture I brought with me. That culture is rooted in coal mining, factory workers, farming, home making and the rural culture of Virginia, Minnesota and north central Illinois. Our history as a family goes back on both sides to the Revolutionary War and my line to Virginia goes a hundred years prior to the revolution. That my ancestor Thomas Jefferson Addington is a common ancestor to the Salyer girls of the Salyer-Lee Chapter 1417 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy stands in contrast to the story of Maciej Nadolski working in coal mines in Allegheny, Pennsylvania after the Civil War and then buying land from the railroad in Minnesota.
What of my father’s birth in Glamorgan, Virginia, named after Glamorgan, Wales? And what of the suppression of Polish Culture by the Russians after 1865 that led to a massive migration of Poles to North America? And what of the failure of farming culture that led the Nadolski family to move from Ivanhoe, Minnesota to Argyle near the Canadian border, and then to the Cherry, Illinois mining community? Safe to say, we don’t often speak of these things here in Big Grove.
The weekend is a time for exploring the ice box, freezer and pantry for ingredients to make soup. It’s almost always a hearty, satisfying meal. Last night I made flatbread using a blend of half wheat flour and half rice flour. It was a nice and easy accompaniment that made the meal. I don’t use a recipe because yeast bread making is about the feel of the dough once warm water, yeast, and a pinch of salt and sugar are mixed. The rice flour gave the crumb a different and toothsome texture. During the pandemic we’re cooking at home and trying new things.
My Saturday editing session was mostly about the book’s outline. I decided I needed one. After 12 writing shifts this month, I found the automatic writing method of getting memories down on paper will neither be sustainable nor as productive as needed. My commitment to the project is stronger than ever. What else am I going to do in a pandemic with snow covering the ground? An evolving approach to writing is a positive development.
Much of my writer’s life has been writing an autobiography. It is how I processed the vast input into our lives. Crafting a narrative, by its nature, involves a refraction of life experiences yet I don’t envision myself as a fiction writer. Developing characters and dialogue is not in my wheelhouse. I’d rather select what I observe from memory and intuit from life. My writing is a construct, although closely based in actual experiences.
There are five main tools for writing this book. It goes without saying a desktop computer with word processing software is the primary medium. I’ve been using a computer since the 1980s. The hard drive is backed up continuously to an external drive. I also use a written journal as a way to write about process. The nature of handwriting requires more thought before getting an idea down on paper. When considering process, thinking before writing is a must. The outline resides on the cloud with a downloaded copy of each revision filed on my desktop. I have a stack of three by five index cards with topics or events written on them. They are arranged in chronological order and rubber-banded together by decade. Finally there are the numerous books along with boxes and binders of artifacts. This physical record is more organized than it was a couple of weeks ago yet there is a long way to go toward making it usable.
I feel better about the new outline. The main story is a single narrative beginning with my birthday and continuing to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. It will be a small fraction of the book.
I begin by setting context with three historical pieces about Lincoln County, Minnesota, LaSalle County, Illinois, and Wise County, Virginia, from where my grandparents and parents came. Sections about our family life begin with historical narratives about our residences in Iowa City, Linn County, Iowa, Lake County, Indiana and Big Grove Township in Iowa. Following the narrative of my life, thematic sections about broader experiences in work, sustainable living, politics, writing and education are planned.
This will be my only autobiography so there will be appendices to publish a small selection of photographs and writing that includes poetry, blog posts, opinion pieces, my resumes, newspaper writing, journals and other published writing. Because there are literally thousands of such documents, understanding the scope will be a key research challenge. The benefit of the outline is it provides a structure upon which to hang artifacts as I discover them.
I ordered more apples from the orchard yesterday. In a concession to the pandemic I paid a fee to have them delivered to a cooler set outside the garage door. We had only two left in the ice box. Now that the orchard decided to remain open year-round, I could go on line, pick from a limited selection of remaining fresh fruit, and have them delivered within an hour. The frugal part of me resisted doing this, but it’s great to have a full apple drawer in the ice box again.
I copied the remaining digital photographs from a storage drive to my desktop and began reviewing and labeling dozens of envelopes of printed photographs. It was all in a day’s work on my autobiography.
The rise of popular photography in the 20th Century is endlessly fascinating, partly because my family participated in it. Changing technology and how it influenced our picture taking informs its increasing democratization. In a time of ubiquitous mobile cameras and the internet it is difficult to determine a consistent meaning of a single image. Changing technology and our adoption of it enables a narrative about our lives that is the focus of writers like me.
A large majority of printed images I handled survived without damage. So far there was only one photo album where prints on opposing pages stuck to each other and ruined them. There were a lot of photographs of other prints made to get them into my collection. That process had mixed results. When I was working on a big project, with hundreds of prints, I scanned multiple prints on one image with the idea of editing them down to individual images later. It sped up the intake process, but I’m not sure of its efficacy as I haven’t gotten to editing most of them.
Whatever I have on hand I will use. Photo sessions over the years, regardless of subject, tell a story of their own. Some of those sessions are compelling, begging further explanation. Some are not. Until I know what’s available it’s impossible to settle on which ones to use.
Photographic prints don’t always have a timestamp on them. Writing is partly about determining when things happened and how they fit a broader narrative. For example, our first family vacation was to Orlando, Florida where we stayed in a motel and visited Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. We took photographs with cameras and developed the film. It was the 25th anniversary of the Walt Disney World opening as the prints reminded me. While there was no timestamp on the prints, I could easily determine they were taken the summer of 1997 during Disney’s 15-month celebration of the occasion. The most difficult prints to date were taken after we moved back to Iowa in 1993 before we adopted digital cameras. There is an evolving discipline to dating prints and I’m getting better at it.
I’ve been successful at meeting my daily writing plan yet there will soon be a bottleneck caused by too many artifacts, previous writing, photographs, and stories to review. I get daily rushes done yet editing lags behind. On the plus side, I’m figuring out a new way to write and that’s part of the project. Consistent, daily work on varied aspects of the project is making a difference. The coronavirus pandemic created an environment for this.
Writing 20 years ago meant something different than it does today.
I worked a full-time, demanding job in Eldridge, Iowa which meant a 67-mile, one-way commute on days I worked in the office. I managed dedicated fleet operations in Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, New York, Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee, and consulted on other projects in Georgia, Texas and Iowa. I traveled a lot.
Our daughter was in high school along with everything that meant. I participated in her activities as best I could and felt successful to a degree. I missed a lot of her events because of my travel.
The writing I did was mostly related to work, journaling at home, email, and a few separate pieces. I’m re-discovering my writing from that period because of the current project. While I wrote an increasing number of emails, kept a journal, and wrote a lot of business correspondence, it was not the kind of writing I wanted to do.
We bought our first home computer in April 1996 and four years later each of the three of us had a personal computer. The one in this photograph (behind the Oxford English Dictionary) was from a company called Computer Renaissance in Iowa City, where they built the CPU. We used Compuserve as our internet service provider and I had an email address through them.
By 1999 I ran a telephone line with a dual jack to our daughter’s bedroom so she could have access to the internet for her used computer and an extension phone. I sent her this email.
I figured out that you would probably check your e-mail when you got home from school. I hope you are enjoying having the computer located in your room. Once the monitor gets fixed (it is in Minnesota) then you will really be set up. Remember that for now, we do not plan to get a printer, so copy to disk and we will print on one of the other printers.
Please use the computer wisely. So often, people get bored with life and become cyber worms. It is ok to use the computer for learning and fun, but remember that you have a life outside the computer. When I first got involved with a home computer, I found myself very busy with looking at stuff and installing hardware and software. I did not do as much as I would have liked with the actual software. Don’ let this happen to you.
Anyway, have a great evening, and hopefully if you are looking at this, you have your homework done.
Personal email, Feb. 2, 1999
When we moved to Big Grove Township we did not have enough money to finish the lower level of the split foyer house. I set up my desk in the unfinished space on moving-in day and moved it around a couple of times through the years. We still haven’t finished the lower level. My writing space has been more like a campsite than an actual room. Even today, when I have walls around me, it retains a temporary quality.
In 2000, everything was connected by wire. I ran a new phone line downstairs and the printer and scanner were connected directly to the CPU. It was on this device I printed countless briefs filed in the Bush v. Gore U.S. Supreme Court case after the 2000 election. When this photograph was taken I had not re-activated in politics. That would happen after Sept. 11, 2001. After that I would use this space for political work as well.
Compared to today, the CPU I used was primitive. Ten years after Microsoft introduced Windows 3.0 I was still using MS-DOS for certain functions on this machine. It was what I learned while working at Amoco Oil Company. I remember the conversion to 3.0 during the period 1989 to 1991 as Amoco was an early adopter. If I was a computer geek, it was only because I wanted to understand how software worked, and how I could use it in my life. In retrospect, the computer work took time away from writing. It wasn’t until I started a blog in 2007 that I would figure how to best write using a computer.
As the breeze blew through the open windows I felt at home in this writing space. An unfinished house, a busy career, and a teenage daughter left little time to use it. Our daughter took the photograph, catching me surprised while I focused on some now unknown computer project. That space served for a while.
The value of having a good editor is something every writer knows. When one is self-published, isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a novice at book-length writing, a meet up with an editor is inevitable.
My process this year began simply: produce 1,000 words daily, five days per calendar week, and edit on Saturday. It sounded simple and doable when I began. I hadn’t expected the writing process would be a flight into imagination with no net and a flimsy tether. Maybe the editor’s job is to rein that in, put a fence around it, and get it to grow the way sheep do. There is a case to be made to turn edited rushes (results of a daily writing session after my first edit) immediately over to an editor. What decent editor would take such work without compensation?
Just because I work without income doesn’t mean an editor should. I would argue that free editors must be viewed with skepticism. Why are they doing the work, and for free? By the nature of quarantine writing, meet up with a professional editor will be delayed.
Writing the daily 1,000 is like mining coal: the writer follows the seam where it goes. As a result, common themes are found in different daily rushes. There is bad writing that must be improved. Part of the editing process is to hang thematic segments together on a time line and create a consistent, readable narrative. It takes more time than I allowed as I spent parts of last Saturday and Sunday working on rushes. I’m far from done editing and feel an urge to write more rushes.
The autobiography writer’s imagination isn’t linear or sequential. One session leads to new things, not all of them related to each other. In some cases I spent the rest of the day considering events and people once forgotten. In others I discovered new information after writing the initial rushes. The first challenge is to remember what happened and get those things written down regardless of order.
Looking at photographs and reading historical accounts informs a steady yet irregular emergence of what happened. For example, I’m working on a section called Piety Hill, which is the last place Mother said she was born at home. I remember her different accounts over the years and am not sure whether Piety Hill was her final answer, or the original and only one. I settled when writing her obituary, “Born at home on July 28, 1929, near LaSalle, Ill.” An editor might accept that as my siblings did before publication. This evaluation of stories of a single event told by different people is something Clifford Geertz wrote about. While there are multiple stories about a single event, the writer has to decide whether to present them all or to keep them simple and singular as I did with Mother’s obituary.
While thematic issues like education, work, family and travel may hang well on a timeline, the timeline is not the narrative. Too, I can’t imaging writing a sequential work with each paragraph’s content isolated from others. That’s not how we live and to construct such a thing would be a monstrosity and eminently unreadable.
For example, one of the stories I tell repeatedly is about a gathering at Mother’s sister’s home on Gooding Street in LaSalle the night Marilyn Monroe committed suicide. We children were sleeping in the living room when Father came in the room and announced the news. It seemed unusual for him to do that at the time, giving the event increased importance to our family.
The date is fixed, Aug. 4, 1962, and that anchors my narrative in popular culture. Maybe the reason I retell the story is its relationship to popular culture as something more important than what we kids were doing. The role of the autobiography writer is to de-emphasize broader cultural images and focus on the single life. My habit, and it’s a bad one, is to get out the same well worn narrative sawhorses and retell them. An editor could point out those segments and ask, “Do you really want to say that?” I need to recognize it on my own.
Because this is pandemic writing I don’t see getting an editor until I get enough written to call it a first draft, hopefully a year from now. For the time being I need a better rush editing process because even two days a week will not be enough time. That may change as I evolve into the work and gain experience with long-form writing. This week I also must return to last week’s themes and fill out detail. As I continue to unbox the archives this process will be constantly present.
One positive note is the rush editing process has helped me consider the broader themes and narrative. The end result is likely to benefit. For now, suffice it that I recognize the need for an editor. Until I get more of the first draft written, that editor will be me.
2021 has been rough out of the gates. The coronavirus pandemic is raging, armed insurrectionists occupied the U.S. Capitol for a few hours on Jan. 6, and as a society we are as divided as ever. Happy flippin’ New Year!
The combination of cold weather, snow cover, and the virus have kept me mostly indoors. No more trips to town unless it is for provisioning or medical appointments. In the last three weeks I made one trip to the wholesale club, and that’s it for leaving the house.
I go to the driveway and breathe fresh air a few times a day. I don’t want to risk turning an ankle walking on the trail or in the yard.
It’s just as well because I’m using the time before gardening season to get a solid start on my book. 8,882 words this week with a stack of edits waiting for later today. The process is a bit sketchy as it’s the first time I began the project with a long-term writing schedule. Some days writing is based on artifact(s) or previous text, some days mining memory. The main roadblock is so much of my archival material is unorganized and stored throughout the house.
Yesterday I used a photo album from the early 1960s. Taking time to observe each photo, letting memory work, one thing led to another and my daily word goal was met easily. We’ll see how the edits go yet I believe idea production was good. It’s pretty easy pickings because I’m at the beginning of the project.
Another thing is there is so much material. I’ve been a pack rat about keeping artifacts, and there will be inadequate interest to make this book as comprehensive as it could be. I’m undecided about photographs. Picking a dozen or so would take a lot of distillation and they would represent more than their content. A benefit of going through the writing process is the archives will get organized. Presumably the quantity will be reduced.
On the second Saturday of 2021 the local environment seems quiet. It is a good day to stay indoors and work on projects. With the coronavirus everywhere, it’s a safe thing to do.
The public library has been important in my life. It began in 1959 at the American Foursquare the first year we moved there. I was in the second grade. The bookmobile made weekly rounds near us, at first to the church parking lot, later to the drug store parking lot at Five Points. I became a regular customer.
Entering from the back, we browsed the stacks, usually Mother and me joined by my sister when she got older. Before there was the Bookmobile I relied on books and magazines Mother gave me for reading.
There were biographies of the Ringling Brothers, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, the Wright Brothers and others which expanded my world. The first thing I checked upon arrival was whether there were any new ones in the series. We enjoyed Dr. Seuss books when they were available, which wasn’t always. All the kids who frequented the Bookmobile liked Dr. Seuss so when they were returned they immediately went back out.
When ready to check out, we made our way to the front, where the driver sat in the same seat he used to drive the Bookmobile. He voice-recorded the check outs into a microphone then we left. It wasn’t my last library experience.
The idea the city had a library, and the economics of one organization buying books that could be shared, was part of understanding cooperation and fair play. It was a lesson learned early in my life, part of getting along in the city.
Today our community of about 6,000 has a great public library. We gave money, built it, and then donated the finished building to the city. The irony is I rarely check out a book there. My main use of the library is to socialize. I check the new book shelves from time to time, use the meeting rooms, donate books, and attend the Friends of the Library used book sale. During the coronavirus pandemic I donated some new puzzles for kids to check out. With the pandemic most library activity ceased. Maybe the library will open again this year or next. I hope so.
I still have memories of the Bookmobile and my blue, hand-typed library card. That sustains me for now.
During the coronavirus pandemic I resolved to make something of the raw material of life, a week at a time, going forward. Not a New Year’s resolution, subject to artificial pressure and expected failure — a structured, new life.
After decades of working jobs, the school years — mine and our daughter’s, political election cycles, and growing seasons, those patterns were blown apart by the pandemic. This year it’s time to put everything back together in a way that creates something familiar yet new.
The endless, unstructured days have been wearing and wearying. My daily routine, with its check list of recurring tasks and framing to accomplish something, is fine. For the first ten months of the pandemic I thought it would soon be over. Today I know it won’t.
I won’t dwell on this long, but American reaction to the virus has been pitiful. While other nations knew and followed protocols needed to stop spread of the coronavirus, our society is not so educated or disciplined. As a result, as of today, more than 20.6 million people contracted COVID-19 and more than 351,000 deaths were attributed to it. The projections are for multiple hundred thousands of additional deaths from COVID-19 before the pandemic is declared over.
Vaccines have been created and approved in record time. That’s good. Our government has done little to organize a distribution network. Last week, vaccine producers reported warehouses full of vaccine that had not entered the distribution pipeline. They were waiting for direction. Not only are Americans pitiful, so is our federal government in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not that hard. Develop a plan to get the vaccine into people’s arms.
Set all the crazy aside, though. If we can’t get our individual house in order, there is little hope of surviving the pandemic, let alone helping family, friends and neighbors who need it.
I want a week back. You know, one with weekends where we do special stuff. Leading up to it would be hard, diligent work for useful purpose. The kind after which we could take it easy for a while… over a weekend. Most of my working life I didn’t have that, so why now? Because it’s possible, and with the pandemic, needed for structure.
I built a weekly schedule to write the first draft of my autobiography by the end of 2021 as a first priority. There are Monday through Friday writing shifts that produce 1,000 words each. On Saturday, that same time of day will be devoted to editing the week’s rushes. Once I’m done with editing, I’ll take the rest of Saturday and all day Sunday off from writing. Sounds simple. It’s made possible thanks to FDR (Social Security) and LBJ (Medicare).
Writing these blog posts is quick. I haven’t counted how many I’ve written but more than 3,000. An autobiography grounded in history will take longer to produce the same number of words. I don’t know how daily writing will be organized, and the research materials are definitely not easily accessible. Figuring all this out is a process and by the end of it, when the first draft is in hand, artifacts will be well organized, I predict. By setting a daily word count goal there is a measure of success.
There is other work to schedule in my work week, not the least of which is working on household projects, gardening, cooking, and eventually returning to social activity and advocacy. All that can wait for the end of winter while I focus on being a writer. I’m resolved some good will come from this project. The end result is made easier to accomplish by having a realistic plan.
There was life before the pandemic, then there is now. Everything got scrambled, some things literally during the Aug. 10 derecho. Yet the biggest event, the one that brought the most change, has been adjusting to the coronavirus pandemic.
It is a pandemic. A next door neighbor got the virus. So did one across the street. It’s hard to do a census of contagion because people don’t talk about the coronavirus. When people are sickened, they stay isolated at home or are taken away from the community to hospitals where they either recover or die, for the most part alone. It remains out of sight and mind.
While working outside I often forgot and approached a neighbor without a mask even though I had one in my pocket and knew better. We don’t know everyone who is infected and may never know in advance who will be affected next.
A former mayor who lived near us died from complications of COVID-19. The minister who officiated at our wedding did too. My cousin Don died of it Christmas eve. Other friends and relatives got the virus and recovered. It is everywhere. We have worked hard and smart to avoid getting infected and so far our efforts paid off. We never know, though.
Here’s a short list of what happened after the Iowa governor signed a proclamation of disaster emergency regarding COVID-19 on March 9:
Last restaurant meal on March 13.
Moved the sewer district and home owners association monthly meetings to conference call because of the pandemic.
Final shift at the home, farm and auto supply store on April 2 because of the pandemic.
Interviewed by Andrew Keshner of MarketWatch for an article about the impact of the pandemic on gardening, April 16.
Eliminated in-person political meetings beginning April 23 because of the pandemic.
Had three COVID-19 screenings, all negative.
Left the Johnson County Food Policy Council at the end of my term.
Began bicycling for exercise June 27.
Began donating garden extras to the local food rescue organization on July 23
Published a guest opinion in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Aug. 9
Derecho, Aug. 10.
Started a website for The Prairie Progressive.
Informed the chief apple officer I would not return to the orchard for the apple season because of the pandemic.
Got haircuts at home because of the pandemic.
Observed the Jupiter – Saturn conjunction.
I did a lot of the cooking, trying to integrate the kitchen with the garden. That’s a work in progress. It was a good year for gardening, with a variety of crops, plenty of rain, and a productive, abundant harvest.
I read 56 books. More of the books were poetry this year.
I wrote more emails, made more phone calls, and stayed active on my socials. I craved human interaction that used to be taken for granted as a natural part of life. I began writing letters on paper and sending them via U.S. Postal Service. Some wrote back.
I had more interaction with people I’ve known for years, including my sister who joined me at home a long time ago. There was processing and grieving to do for Mother. I also grieved for friends and for people I’d come to know, but didn’t realize how much they would be missed when they died.
It was a good year for doing what was important. The coronavirus was a constant companion reminding us of what that is.
Like many, I didn’t expect 2020 but took it as it unfolded. It looks like I’ll make it another year. Regardless of the ongoing pandemic, may we all make 2021 a Happy New Year.