Walking on the Lake Macbride Trail Jan. 14, 2020.

I ordered a printed version of this blog through the end of last year. It’s the first step in changing the appearance.

The WordPress theme I use is free and serviceable. Maybe I’ve gotten used to it. I like the posts on the left and links on the right with a link to the about and reading list pages in the header. Clean and simple so readers can focus on the text. I want to change the photograph of the apple blossoms though.

Because of reduced personal cash flow I had gotten behind in making a paper archive. With a reasonable retirement income and a small amount from Mother’s estate I could get caught up. When the archive volumes arrive there will be about ten inches of blog books comprised of a few thousand pages on my shelf next to my hand-written journals.

I began blogging in 2007 after our daughter graduated from college. I didn’t understand it when I began but this writing would eventually take the place of journaling. Personal information is scrubbed off and each post was better proofed and edited than my hand-written diaries. It is a modern day instance of an English diary like those of Samuel Pepys who we studied in high school English class.

Blogging is among the most important things I do each day. My readership has grown, although for a long time I didn’t think I would find an audience. Everywhere I go in public I encounter people who are readers, indicating a reality of sorts. It is a gratifying feeling.

For the last ten years blogging has been a way to work through aspects of my life. Some things, like yesterday’s review of Thom Hartmann’s book, are specific and set in time. What is better has been the major topics about which I wrote in multiple posts, including the role of low-wage workers, challenges of a local food system, and trying to understand our national and local politics. Blogging is a formal way of writing that can yield a personal conclusion about life in society.

When we moved near the lake in 1993 I set up my desk about 20 feet from where my writing table is now. The desk is still there, although it is piled with stuff: old printers, boxes of documents and books, loose items — potential jetsam from a life weighed down by old artifacts. As my autobiographical work proceeds, the process includes going through every box and bag to re-purpose, recycle or discard everything I can bear to part with… after relevant stories have been extracted. I expect it to take a couple of years.

Other writers don’t keep a blog with so many posts as can be found here. To each their own. Blogging is a way to write that became primary. A place of my own where readers can stop by when something attracts their eye. It is a form of self-expression over which the author has uniform and almost complete control. Trying to make it worthwhile for readers creates an incentive to write better. Writing better has been my endgame.

I note from the clock on my computer it’s time to head upstairs, fix breakfast and get ready for a shift at the home, farm and auto supply store. During winter I want and need to get out of the house and into society. At the same time I’m tempted to call off work and persist in this bloggery through the day into nightfall. I won’t do that. I’m too much the product of an education in the 1950s and 1960s where I have a responsibility to social commitments. Still, I linger on a few more minutes in the glow of my desk lamp camped out on what remains of the Iowa prairie.

I have a sense today will be a good day. I can’t wait to find out.


Letters Home

Woman Writing Letter

Among the things I received from my late mother’s estate was a box of letters I wrote her.

A lot of my letters were from the period 1976 until 1979 when I was stationed in a mechanized infantry division in Mainz, Germany.

I read them last night. The topics were pretty mundane.

12 Nov 78
APO New York 09185


Just a short note to let you know that I completed French Commando School without serious injury and in good spirits. In case you didn’t get my last letter I arrive in Moline 20 Dec 78 at about 8:30 p.m. on Ozark flight #873 from Chicago. I hope to be going to France again in the time before I return to Davenport. I will visit Normandy Beach and a number of the famous cathedrals. Til then keep the faith, drop me a line to let me know how things are going on the home front.

Love, Paul

I wrote her as much as she wrote me. I kept all of her letters and someday I’ll be ready to read those too.

As I followed the vein of letters over the last 24 hours I found a series written by my maternal grandmother while I was in Europe. They were mostly responses to mine, although what I wrote her did not survive. She was very good about writing me, and explained her health issues in great detail. She wrote often about my cousin Linda who was stationed in Spain at the same time I was in Germany. While Grandma was being treated for a heart attack her physician had a heart attack so she had to get a new doctor, she wrote. I like to think her writing letters to me helped her understand her condition. I know writing has that effect on me.

There was a flurry of letters from friends during the investigation to secure me a top secret clearance. I warned people the feds were coming and most of them wrote back after their interview. I got the clearance, although the information I was able to access was pretty dull. Just because it’s top secret doesn’t mean it’s that interesting. I remember their letters more than the secret stuff.

We are out of the age of many hand-written letters. With “forever stamps” I don’t even know how much posting a first class letter costs. Email is quicker, cheaper, and we get to save a copy if we choose.

Phone calls are also inexpensive. In Germany I did not have a telephone until my appointment as battalion adjutant. More people had to reach me after hours. If the balloon went up (meaning the Soviets crossed the border), we would be rounded up from the compound where Americans lived by knocking on doors.

How to use this archival material is an open question. I’m still trying to figure out what I have, what warrants writing about, and what fits in a 100,000-word autobiography. Some of the memories have me returning letters to the box to save for another time.

Whatever the outcome of this autobiography, the writing of it will be the thing. Part of the journey of life. A way to escape from the pressing society around me that doesn’t know when to relent.

Local Food Writing

Local Food System Fragment

Winter lettuce salad.

When I left a 25-year career in transportation and logistics, food occupied part of my attention. Over the years my blood pressure and cholesterol levels had increased, and when I left transportation they quickly returned to normal, mostly by eating more regular food as opposed to restaurant food.

When we moved back to Iowa in 1993, growing a large garden was part of what I wanted to do with the land. We couldn’t afford an acreage, but managed to find 0.62 of an acre not far from the trail around the north shore of Lake Macbride.

I was ready to produce some of our own food, more than we had in Indiana, but not really ready to embrace local food as anything other than a kitchen garden.

The local food movement was a growing group of individual operators struggling to make a living and an impact in a turbulent world. It remains a nascent system directly tied to our consumer culture, dependent upon disposable income and open mindedness in meeting humankind’s most basic need.

I spent seven years working and living in our local food culture and can say food we consume is not all local and needn’t be. At the same time there are benefits of a local food system beyond living within the season, better taste, and knowing the farmer who produced what we eat.

In our home fall canning leads to a pantry full of soup, tomatoes, hot peppers, sauerkraut, vinegar, apple sauce, pickles and sundry items from the garden and farm. The freezer gets filled with bell peppers, kale, sweet corn, apples, broccoli, blueberries and raspberries. It is food – as local as it gets – driven by what is fresh, abundant and on hand.

Along with home processed goods our pantry has bits and pieces from all over the globe, with each serving a purpose in our culinary lives. Combining ingredients and recipes in a personalized cuisine is where the local food movement lives or dies.

More people seek processed or precooked food because of a perception there is too little time for cooking. If adding kale to a smoothie seems easy, making a stir fry using it is less so. Contemporary consumers want a quick and easy path to making meals and snacks, and don’t have the patience it requires to add many new recipes to their repertoire. Cuisine as an expression of local culture has been tossed out the window by many.

Having worked in the food system, whether at home, on a farm, or in a retail store, has been an important part of my life since retiring in 2009. I found it is a way of life to grow food for direct consumption or sales. It also became clear the local food system is a jumble, even if farmers and consumers want it to be more organized.

One operator runs a community supported agriculture project where members pay in the spring, then share in the luck of the farm, good or bad. Another sells chits to be used to buy farm goods at a local outlet framed as a “store.” Another grows specific crops to sell to restaurants, absorbing any financial risk. All of this and more leads us to a point where an onion isn’t only an onion anymore. In the end it’s not about the onion but the culture.

If someone could organize a local food system, they might make a living. That would miss the point. Local food systems are intended to cut out the middlemen in the food supply chain. At the same time, faced with a need for scalability and the tick tock of the growing season, operators might use the help of an intermediary for marketing and sales.

While some of the trail blazers of a sustainable, local food movement are well known – Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, Fred Kirschenmann, and others – a sense of coherence or agreement on basic terms seems missing among local producers. It is as if operators would rather work inside the bubble of what works for them personally as long as the farm to market system seems to work generally. In a way that is not much different from how corn, soybean, egg and livestock producers view their operations.

Where we go from here is uncertain, although I have some ideas about that based on my experience in our food system.


Book of Mormon

Wise County Virginia Civil War Group

I’ve been using the free, on line service FamilySearch to research parts of my family history. It is funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

I call it, in a respectful way, the Book of Mormon.

My reference library has a copy of the actual Book of Mormon, replete with a photo of the prophet Joseph Smith from whose translations it was made in 1830. I’ve already opened FamilySearch many more times than the worn copy of the religious text.

Stories about early gatherings of my paternal ancestors include one about the funeral for “Aunt Stella.” I have a photograph of Stella in her coffin with someone identified as “Granny Reed” nearby. Stella was my grandfather’s sister. Oral history is no one knew anything about Granny Reed except that’s what they called her. According to FamilySearch, in the 1920 U.S. Census she is listed living in the household of my great grandfather as his mother-in-law, with an estimated birth year of 1864. Her complete name was Josephine Reed. It has bothered me we didn’t know more. Now thanks to the Mormons there is a better narrative of who she was.

When I write “better narrative” I mean the story is and continues to be a human creation. While there are “facts” to support it, there are vagaries in the U.S. Census data and oral tradition that went unrecorded. The temptation is to take a fact like a U.S. Census entry and make more of it than it actually is. As I wrote this post I found myself rewriting that paragraph time and again to refine my understanding of who was Granny Reed. I’m not sure how much more this discovery changes things.

I love the name Josephine and had we known about it when our daughter was born, it may have been entered into the pool of family names from which we selected hers. Granny Reed was our daughter’s great, great, great grandmother. It’s a fun fact yet not that relevant to our daily lives.

Somewhere in box-storage is a trove of genealogy documents collected from a man named Howard Deaton during a trip to Saint Louis. His focus was on our surname, Some of his work is relevant to our line and some isn’t. Robert Caro advises us to turn every page when researching biography. I don’t know I will have time to go through documents I have, let alone the entire Book of Mormon.

These are decisions one makes in compressing the story of a life into a hundred thousand words. If anything, the challenges of crafting a story come into high relief. What I’m writing will by its nature be a story built today with a perspective of right now. I don’t see how any biography or historical work can be anything else. There is a politics of history, a minefield of historian’s fallacies. There is also a poetry of history. What we hope to do is create a narrative grounded in something real that transcends the lived life upon which it was based.

At age 68 there is an urgency to get something down, edited and finished.


A Sense of Place on Christmas Eve

Life without internet, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 1986-1987

It’s been a quiet day in Big Grove where ambient temperatures were in the 50s and remaining snow melted.

I spent most of the day organizing material for a longer piece.

The idea is to organize documents and artifacts, dating from before I was born until the present, that are currently stored in a hodgepodge manner, using three-ring binders. Having lived a stable life, such documents survive. Once organized, I’ll write and pin a timeline to a bulletin board where I can hang stories, maybe twenty of them. It sounds straight forward, but the documents and artifacts are spread everywhere in the house. I relish the work.

A sense of place will help organize the stories once written. In presenting family history, I see a couple of narratives first.

The first place will be Lincoln County, Minnesota where my maternal great, great grandparents settled in the 19th Century. I visited there only once yet while there I collected a thick sheaf of documents, artifacts and experience.

I’ll write our history coming up in Southwestern Virginia. A published family history mentions the first presence of our ancestors in mid to late 17th century. I made three or four trips to the home place, including some as a child. I have a banker’s box of documents I collected from a man in Saint Louis who spent his retirement researching the Deaton lineage. I’m not sure how much of that is relevant but it needs review. If needed I’ll make a trip back to Virginia to research important missing pieces.

The culture of Northwest Davenport played an important role in my K-12 years. I will focus on the time immediately after my parents wed until I left grade school. It was a time when the Irish and German immigrant culture was in transition to something else, although we wouldn’t see what it would become until the time Mother moved to live with my sister toward the end of her life.

In addition to family history, I expect a brief remembrance of the late 1960s and early 1970s in Davenport and Iowa City.

There will be a story about the three years I lived in Mainz, Germany while in the U.S. Army. More than anything after schooling, military service helped me learn to live on my own and exposed me to a variety of people and experiences.

I’ll tackle my transportation career and our nascent family life in two places, in Iowa City after getting my masters degree and meeting Jacque, and in Merrillville, Indiana where we lived for six years.

Other places that seem important at this writing are Colorado Springs, Thomasville, Georgia, Orlando, Florida, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Chicago, and our more than 25 years here in Big Grove.

There will be stories focusing less on a sense of place and on a broader, subject-specific narrative. It seems easiest to begin writing by understanding the collected artifacts and memories, by crafting a narrative about the place where they were significant.

I’m a long way from getting stuff organized. For now, it’s time to gather and finish making our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of chili and cornbread.


A Sense of Self

Big Grove on Google Maps

My history begins with today’s vantage: looking backward in time from an unfinished writing space in our Big Grove Township home. Such perspective helps our story makes more sense than it did while living it.

I understand all of my writing — countless emails, letters, social media posts, and blog posts — is derived from experience residing in memory. Sometimes it is unique, sometimes not.

I look, as if in a deer stand along a familiar pathway, hoping to encounter a subject, without its being aware. Armed with my senses, and hope I will find uniqueness in quotidian moments, I endeavor to capture such fleeting essence.

In that light I write this autobiography.

It is unthinkable that we are here only to consume, grow and die. There is a greater purpose, and in writing, I hope to reveal it to those close to me, to any reader who finds these words, and importantly, to myself. I find purpose in every piece I write, just as in more practical work like planting a seed, driving a lift truck, making the bed, or speaking in public.

There is a necessary organizational component to writing a longer piece. We shouldn’t be consumed with organization. Like an underground coal miner we need a framework of timbers, buckets, picks and shovels, water pumps, labor, and air circulation to do the work. We also need freedom to follow the seam where it leads.

Sometimes a remembrance stands alone as a solitary and specific instance of creation. Yet most memories are part of a social context. Understanding social context can make the narrative ours with broader applicability.

My autobiography is not as much about me, as it is about the people places and processes of which I have been a part. My task is not to chronicle events and ideas that were my experience. It is to tell a story of a life beginning in the present. It will include characters, locations, processes and events. Writing is a way to learn how to do that. Autobiography seeks ways we are unique grounded in shared experiences. If it is that, a finished work is more likely to have relevancy.

Writing autobiography is an American thing. I studied at university under Albert E. Stone who edited J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer. We Americans, especially in this century, often seem completely self-absorbed. There is a native impulse to write or tell a single, brief narrative of our life when more accurately it is a combination of essential, defining moments and multiple, broader narratives. At the root of autobiography, we must answer the question Crèvecoeur did, “What then, is the American, this new man?”

I will follow an outline. It is important to note the perspective of the present necessitates blending memory and experience into a life story. Likewise, the process of writing is an interrogatory, the answers to which must come through structured thought and research. I seek to gain understanding of which I am not now possessed.

I have a pile of subject cards on my writing table. I envision a story board, with segments centered around organizing principles, such as the locale, ideas, processes, and characters that have helped define me. Just as artists create self-portraits, this autobiography would also be one in a series of them.

There is something about the idea of artistic creation. While process is important, imagination is too. As I endeavor to capture fleeting moments of insight about our lives in society I eschew automatic writing and everything that means. From my perch near the lake I hope to take flight from time to time and bring back essential materials to make an engaging story. Whatever I write will be my story, crafted by two working hands and centered on a vision of understanding I discovered early on.

Fingers crossed the narratives have broader appeal.


Wedding Announcement

Wedding Announcement in the Daily Times, May 23, 1951.

When researching our lives, official publications like my parents’ wedding announcement in the May 23, 1951 Daily Times are never completely accurate.

William used the Polish spelling of his last name, Dziabas, rather than the anglicized version, Jabus, Grandmother did. Why was he in Chicago and Mae in Davenport? Despite Mother writing about it in a partial memoir, we’ll never fully know.

The article omits Father’s step mother, who lived in Rock Island well into my lifetime. I corresponded with her by mail but we never met. She said her marriage to Grandfather was a “business arrangement” in a letter. The business was named the Deaton Diner and she kept his name until she died, burying Grandfather and two subsequent husbands in a row near her eventual grave. She was known by the sexton at the cemetery but not a significant part of my life.

Despite the partial picture official announcements present, they detail biographical information that might otherwise be lost.  Mother talked about graduating from Davenport High School and working for the phone company until her 90th birthday this year. The clipping is evidence. Our family visited Leon High School during a trip to Florida before Father died. I visited his alma mater while working in South Georgia for a logistics company. Father was a welder at George Evans Company according to the story. He seldom talked about his military service although an omitted fact — he was born in Virginia — was a primary influence when I was growing up.

As members of society we publish official notices to mark rites of passage. When I found this clipping by chance on the internet, it made my day. Official notices provide an opportunity to sand off the rough spots in our lives as we pass through milestones. As a biographer one has to ask whether to present the narrative as-is, or to embellish it with additional facts derived from experience outside its context. My answer is to present the artifact with sparing interpretation.

While presenting artifacts, I’m also weaving a narrative, something derived from both artifacts and experiences. The artifact never really stands alone. It becomes part of a narrative reduced to writing or told orally time and again until it becomes part of our world. Where such narratives will go remains uncertain. They have a basis in clippings like this wedding announcement.


One Chance to Remember


(Editor’s Note: I’m working on a longer, autobiographical piece this winter. From time to time I’ll post findings from our family archives. The following was dated Dec. 11, 2010).

If I get this one chance to remember my maternal grandmother, what would I say?

That she was part of our family since my earliest remembrances.

That she encouraged me as her aunt had not encouraged her, that horrible instance when playing the piano would never be possible.

That she worked as a seamstress into her 80s and worked hard in what we would call menial positions.

That she reaped the benefits of the social programs of FDR and because of them, was able to live on her own until finally she had to go to the Kahl home, a place she had worked earlier in her life, to be tended by the Catholic charities for whom she had also worked.

That she had suggestions for how to life my life, but they were neither mandates, nor things I would not do willingly.

That she had become a part of my life, incorporated into my being like mixing pancake batter.

That she would come to adore her great granddaughter and be the first to offer her a piece of meat at a family meal.

That she would be sorely missed when she died while we lived in the Calumet.


Cavorting with the Crew

Stage Crew Reunion, Coal Valley, Ill. Oct. 19, 2019

Over the weekend ten former members of our high school stage crew gathered for a reunion at a private home in Coal Valley, Ill.

I made apple crisp from backyard apples, picked up some sweet cider and a host gift of dessert apples at the orchard, and drove into the Mississippi valley.

It’s been decades since conversing with some of my friends. I didn’t know what to expect. The investment of time and energy yielded a positive return.

Spending time with a specific cohort is a little weird from the get-go. Most of my days are now spent either at home, or with a diverse group of peers whose ages range from teenager to octogenarian. All of us at the reunion had birth dates within a small range. I was the oldest.

In four cases attendees resembled other siblings closer to my age. Once I got through the kinship embarrassment we moved on to more positive topics. The afternoon into evening was a series of individual and group conversations set in different parts of the property, culminating in a potluck dinner and photo. There were a couple of takeaways.

As I drove through the Illinois side of the Mississippi toward the reunion I noticed high water from flooding. Some parts of Rock Island County have been flooded for more than 100 days according to one reunion attendee. On Sept. 27, Michelle O’Neil of National Public Radio reported the administration granted Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s request for a federal disaster declaration there. River flooding has been particularly bad in the county this year.

While our conversations were not “political” the way Facebook, Twitter and other social media are, we covered a number of politicians, including Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, and Governor Steve Bullock and Senator Jon Tester from Montana. I was pleased to hear Mike Matson won his Oct. 8 Davenport mayoral primary. The Elizabeth Warren bumper sticker on my vehicle went unmentioned and despite the fact most present live in Iowa, there was no discussion of the February 2020 Iowa caucuses.

A group gathered near the smoker where our host was preparing hot dogs and beans for the potluck. The conversation turned to answering the question “which types of medicine are you or have you taken?” It was a very long conversation, complicated by various maladies and medical conditions of group members. Taking only a lose-dose aspirin and a B-12 vitamin, by the end of the conversation I felt I had escaped something.

As we settled inside for dinner, the soundtrack was music that included drummer Ginger Baker who died Oct. 6. Four of us played together in a band during the early 1970s. Our set list included songs by Cream’s Eric Clapton.

The reunion was a reminder of the mostly male environment in which we attended high school. Only two female spouses were present, our host and another who came so the host wouldn’t be the only female in an otherwise male group. Until senior year our high school segregated men and women in different parts of the building. By being on stage crew and in my case, in chorus, we did see some of the women in our high school. As I went on to military service after college, the mostly male upbringing continued.

Our society doesn’t include many stage crew reunions. A lot of folks don’t attend more inclusive high school reunions. If our host Mike hadn’t been motivated to get the crew together this one wouldn’t have happened either. I’m glad it did.


Growing a Story for the Long Haul

Bowl of Earliblaze Apples

Monday afternoons my spouse and I devote time to organizing the household, reducing clutter, and cleaning.

It’s a long-term project we do together. We schedule it on the calendar. Sometimes it means working together on a household issue. Sometimes it means moving boxes and furniture. It definitely means cleaning. Yesterday I spent an hour shredding personal papers. There’s is a lot to do.

We each have reasons for the project. Mine is to eliminate belongings accumulated in 67 years so when I’m gone those left don’t have to deal with them. In particular, I don’t want our daughter to have to spend weeks doing work I should have done. I also want a more comfortable place to live.

The project conflicts with my desire to produce new work. Yet a few hours a week won’t kill me as I slow down into retirement. As the work gets organized, there is a lot to like about it. Now or never is the time to consider all this stuff.

1995 Apple Tree Planting Record

Among recent findings was the planting record for our grove of fruit trees. Planted on April 22, 1995, I began with six varieties of trees, which over the years has been reduced to three: one Red Delicious and two Earliblaze apple trees.

Yesterday I ordered two new apple trees: one Zestar! and one Crimson Crisp. I’ll take out one of the Earliblaze trees and increase the distance between plantings. The idea is to get a succession of ripening fruit — the same thing I originally intended. The new ripening order will be Zestar!, Earliblaze, Crimson Crisp, then Red Delicious. I plan to plant one or two Gold Rush Trees, but the nursery is sold out this year. Gold Rush is a late apple that stores exceptionally well. Planting trees is a longer term commitment than a couple of seasons so I don’t mind waiting until 2021 for those.

I know more about apples today than I did when we moved to Big Grove. That’s mostly due to working at a local orchard during apple season. It changed how we view them dramatically, introducing new flavors and varieties. Whatever apples we have in our home orchard, we’ll supplement them with other local fruit. I probably think about apples more than most people.

If I were to tell my story, the seven seasons of working on farms and at the orchard would be part of it. Not only is the work a source of food, it is about culture and learning. It is about integrating our kitchen with an ecology of food that includes fewer items from the grocery store and more I grow or have a hand in growing.

Producing a crop of apples is a sign of something. To begin with, it is a long-term commitment to growing. The rest is about how the trees are cultivated and apples are used. If all I did was make hard cider with them, that would be something. I want more from life than that. I’m in it for the long haul.