I decided not to return to the home, farm and auto supply store after my voluntary COVID-19 leave of absence.
Whatever the cultural resonance of the word “retirement,” I’ll take my leave from the workforce without fanfare, without the customary sheet cake, and fade into the background of our life in Big Grove Township.
It’s been a good run. Whatever uncertainty lies ahead, I’m fortified by decades of experience in business and in living — the latter making the difference.
More than anything, our Social Security pensions make retirement possible. I made my first contribution to Social Security in 1968, thinking retirement was in the distant future. All along the way, in every job I held, I paid in. I paid in on my last paycheck on March 17. Of all the government programs that exist, Social Security, and its methodology of enabling even the lowest paid worker to save for retirement has been there. I hope it endures not only for my lifetime but for every American into a future as distant from today as is the teenage boy I was when I started.
A gentle rain fell after noon in Big Grove Township. Forecast to be a quarter of an inch, it continued into nightfall, slow and gentle. It was the kind of spring rain we need and have come to expect.
Neighbors worked in our yards in the morning: trimming trees, collecting brush, gardening and mowing. Children were supervised by parents and the sound of their laughter penetrated the neighborhood. With the coronavirus pandemic we checked in with each other, chatted some, maintained our distance, then returned focus to the work at hand.
After planting I picked up and cleaned garden fencing from where I laid it to prepare the garden plots. Rolled bundles are piled near the Bur Oak trees until needed. For now, nothing is growing above ground that wildlife will eat.
I seeded the last of the early crops in the ground before the rain started:
The portable greenhouse is filling so I consolidated seedlings to make room for what I’ll bring back from the farm today. I gave a tray of broccoli and kale to a neighbor for their garden. Later I’ll post an offer of free seedlings for neighbors on our social media group. Kale is not as popular as I’d like and not everyone gardens.
Inside, I made luncheon of a cheese sandwich with a single slice of bread, spooned out some pickles, and turned to what would be the afternoon’s work.
I have two archival-style boxes of postcards containing hundreds collected from all over, maybe a couple thousand in all. Some were sent to me. Some purchased while traveling in the United States, Canada and Europe. Some bought at auctions for a dollar or two bid per bundle. When I visited second hand stores, if they had a postcard section I browsed for good ones. Post cards are an inexpensive collectible.
At some point I segregated those with more personal meaning from the boxes and put them in trunks with other memorabilia from those periods of my early life. Our parents used to take us to Weed Park in Muscatine, driving along Highway 61 from Davenport in our 1959 Ford. I have a photograph of Dad, my brother, my sister and me standing near the car with the Mississippi River in the background. I put the postcards of Weed Park in the trunk from the time before Father died.
I went through both boxes and looked at every card during a single, four-hour shift.
What strikes me about those hours is the nature of memory. Not only do I have memories evoked by artifacts, I have the sense of being in those places literally.
For example, today is the 75th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death in Warm Springs, Georgia. In June 1976 four of us left Fort Benning, Georgia where we were taking infantry officer training and drove the 45 miles to visit. We saw the chair where FDR died and I bought a postcard from the gift shop.
I found the postcard in one of the boxes last night. It had the date and names of the other three soldiers who went with me written on the back. I saw myself in that room again, just like it was in the present. What is that experience? I had to look it up.
After consolidation, long-term memories are stored throughout the brain as groups of neurons that are primed to fire together in the same pattern that created the original experience, and each component of a memory is stored in the brain area that initiated it (e.g. groups of neurons in the visual cortex store a sight, neurons in the amygdala store the associated emotion, etc). Indeed, it seems that they may even be encoded redundantly, several times, in various parts of the cortex, so that, if one engram (or memory trace) is wiped out, there are duplicates, or alternative pathways, elsewhere, through which the memory may still be retrieved.
Therefore, contrary to the popular notion, memories are not stored in our brains like books on library shelves but must be actively reconstructed from elements scattered throughout various areas of the brain by the encoding process. Memory storage is, therefore, an ongoing process of reclassification resulting from continuous changes in our neural pathways, and parallel processing of information in our brains.
Shorter version: the postcard caused a group of neurons which physically comprised the memory to recreate it in real time.
This is particularly important when writing a memoir. Perhaps the hardest part of my work has been to resist the influence of today’s life on memories retained. Historians refer to this as presentism, or an “uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.” It is important to learn how to live from memories and experiences we’ve had. In our search for meaning today, it’s important to refrain from assigning arbitrary values to our past. We have to let the memories exist and pay attention to what they are.
In the 50 years since Father died I frequently revisited the memory of the night men from the meat-packing plant arrived at our home to console Mother while we waited in our parents’ bedroom for news. I suppose the worst parts of those days after his death are blocked, or whatever psychological term represents that. I don’t want to put a name to that blocking process because while other memories physically exist in my brain, over the years I’ve adopted a view, or perspective about what that memory is. While that may provide comfort, when writing autobiography we have to work at retrieving that contemporaneous experience. It must be what it is. That distinction between the memory told and the actual memory is at the core of what I’m about in my writing.
When I woke last night to use the bathroom I thought about what I would write this morning. The shift of postcards prompted something… a lot of somethings. It’s not that complicated. In the rush of viewing memories prompted by a thousand or more artifacts, in a single sitting, we must get a grip on the quantity and manage it. In the end, though, do we need to do that?
Is it better to live in a hurricane of memories and hope for survival? It is better to confront the wind than hide from it. That is my only conclusion today, except for the notion I must post a photo of our Bluebells for complicated reasons.
When I say post-consumer, I mean the one percent of richest people in the world have extracted what they can of what we have.
Something’s now got to give.
Yes, I’ll buy at the grocery store, gas station and drug stores, but a budget like ours can’t afford much extra. If shoes and clothing wear out, I’ll buy some on sale. Maybe some books, or a cup of coffee at a restaurant or shop will be bought, but little else that is unnecessary for daily living.
No longer do I just get into my car and drive in wanderlust.
We hope to avoid potentially big and unexpected expenses associated with an accident, automobile malfunction, health concern or home or family emergency. In a capitalistic society, all of those unexpected expenses are good for someone, as they generate revenue for them and unwanted expense for us. The bottom line is that we won’t be generating much for the consumer society overlords to rejoice about.
That said, to go on living in our current lifestyle, bills must be paid, and I’ll maintain paying work to support all of our creditors and suppliers. We seek to live without incurring additional debt, having to sell our home, or spend all of our life savings. We have our pensions yet if something big happened — an expense of thousands of dollars — how would we pay for it? Our pensions cover basic expenses and some debt retirement yet there is little extra at the end of each month.
I wrote the following in 2013 when confronted with the gap between my first retirement in 2009, before our pensions kicked in.
There are plenty of jobs in the area that pay below $10 per hour. The trouble is they don’t pay enough to meet our financial requirements, even if I were to work a few of them.
Year-to-date, wages accounted for 14.3 percent of income. Consulting income was another 5 percent. Adding these two amounts to consulting accounts receivable, the total is roughly 30 percent of required 2014 income. If I were to return to warehouse work at $9.25 per hour, that would generate 60 percent of required income. Low wage jobs can be a trap to get further in debt, especially if they do not provide benefits.
A portfolio that includes some lowly paid work is acceptable, but there has to be something else, a significant part of it, that pays more.
The best part of 2013 has been working in the local food system. The pay was low, but the relationships fostered by participating were meaningful. Working in the local food system offers the prospect of something more than dollars.
The job as proof reader was in my sweet spot, relevant to my writing. Same goes for my brief stint as editor of Blog for Iowa last summer. All were lowly paid work that I want to be doing.
What Didn’t Work
The warehouse work did not work because of the physical toll it extracted. Too, taking loans and withdrawing from savings, were steps in the wrong direction. Stopping the outflow of savings will be a high priority for 2014. We’ve tapped our current home equity loan ceiling, and what is left is credit cards.
How to Get There
At its simplest, based on a six-day work week, I need to generate between $94 and $125 each work day to pay our bills. To make progress, by paying down loans, we need more.
We survived the gap that year and until Social Security payments began in 2018. The coronavirus pandemic and social change it is bringing will cause an adjustment. I see these things happening.
While weather continues with adequate rainfall and favorable temperatures, growing more of our own food will be part of the solution. When we chose to live here we picked a lot with 0.62 acres: enough for a large garden. Likewise, my relationships with farmers helps secure food items we don’t or can’t grow.
Maintaining health through exercise, eating well, and regular medical, dental and eye examinations is foundational.
During the pandemic I find myself talking people through challenges. Not that I am an expert, but there is a vacuum of concern about others that pulls me in. Whether it is family or friends, it is important to stay connected now and once the pandemic has run its course.
Focus on one financial thing. Right now it is paying down debt with any extra money. Major appliance purchases (stove and dishwasher) will wait, as will replacing our current vehicles to secure reliable transportation for our last decades of driving an automobile.
If we do pay down debt, there are possibilities. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.
Most important in all this is having a life worth living and working toward that end. With that I’m prepared as can be to sustain our lives in a turbulent world.
Remarks delivered on a community panel
“Citizen Involvement in Local Government.”
Community Leadership Program
City Hall, Coralville, Iowa.
December 9, 2011
I believe a person makes a choice in life, to be part of society and influence what the future will be, or to be a citizen centered on making our way in a challenging world, protecting what we have, and nurturing the advantages of living in the United States. While not mutually exclusive, each can be a lifetime of hard work.
In 2004, after helping manage our rural public water and wastewater systems for almost ten years, I sought additional engagement in society and applied to the county supervisors for appointment to the board of health. Without reservation, and in every respect, my service on the board was good for me personally and I hope it contributed to society.
So what did we do? Besides the regular board meetings, there were other commitments. I tried to consider our life in society from a public health perspective, and work toward doing things that made sense while complying with a host of rules and regulations.
The board of health has oversight of the public health department and the meetings could easily be filled with tasks required by government such as approving the department budget, writing policy and other administrative work. We did do a lot of that while I was on the board.
But there were other things not written in the black and white of legal code. We made a decision about an indigent suspected of having tuberculosis, trying to respect his rights as a citizen, while protecting the public from a contagious disease. When the health department closed a restaurant near where I live, I listened when the owner called me at home and explained the financial strain our action created and the injustice he felt. During an in service day, I found myself responding to an outbreak of norovirus and spent the better part of a day speaking to parents about what their children had for lunch the previous day. All of this work was engaging.
It is hard to list any disadvantages about being on the board of health. When we sign up, there is an understanding that there will be both good and bad things along the way. In a way, it was all good.
I found three things particularly rewarding while I served on the board of health. First, there was the self-fulfilling feeling that I was giving something tangible back to our community. Second, the board provided a vehicle to study and present information about issues that impacted people’s lives. For example, I spoke about arsenic contamination in county water and about the Silurian aquifer. What was best was getting to know people in the community in a way I couldn’t have predicted. A sense of engagement in society was a significant benefit, one that keeps giving and for which I will always be grateful.
The 2012 general election marked the end of a personal era.
Working on campaigns drained our financial reserves and we would need income to meet our obligations going forward.
The following winter was a time of reflection and adjustment.
2013 began a work period where writing occupied more of my time. That, combined with low wage work, became a way to get along. We never made enough money as I worked those jobs. They bridged the time between leaving my career and beginning Medicare at age 65 and Social Security at age 66. What made our survival possible was a foundation created by my 25 years in transportation combined with Jacque’s income from the public library. It was tough going during the transition but we made it.
Our move to Big Grove Township was predicated on a few things: we needed a place to live, my job in Cedar Rapids, being centrally located near other job opportunities, schools for our daughter, two working automobiles, and being a distance from the office. Over time, and by 2013, those things changed, raising new questions:
Do we want to move to town?
What kind of work will be next for us?
Is there a way we can work without a commute?
Is this home right for us as we age?
Will we be able to afford living here?
We decided the best approach was to stabilize our lives here and we did. Working at home was difficult but straight forward. I wrote about it in a Dec. 29, 2012 journal entry:
Part of work is forcing myself to come into my work area and sit. The kind of discipline that Norman Mailer wrote about. Not being distracted, or leaving the work area. Just working to the detriment of all other activities.
It is not always easy to do this, but do it I must, and for more than an hour at a time.
I felt an urge to go to town. It is similar to the urge I felt when living in Mainz. That often led me to shopping or walking into the downtown area. I resisted it today, even though it was complicated by the new $50 bill my mother sent — itching to be spent. It was a major accomplishment to resist the urge to go “elsewhere.”
The low wage work I pursued was readily available in the area. My criteria was to work for a company with a professional payroll department where I could count on wages being paid accurately and in a timely manner. I didn’t give much thought to the physical requirements of the jobs, although they mostly required standing on concrete or other hard-surfaced floors. I worked as a temporary laborer, as a product demonstrator, and in 2015 wound up at the home, farm and auto supply store which offered full time work, health insurance and a reasonable work load. I also worked as a proof reader and freelance correspondent for local newspapers.
Most significant among these jobs was a chance to work with people much different from those during my transportation career. If I didn’t bring home much money, I met many new people.
Weathering the last seven years was the kind of accomplishment few people point out as a highlight of life. We did what was needed to survive. Now that it’s over there are other things to do, including the “good stuff” in the diagram from my journal. We now have a chance to figure out what that means.
My ancestors first landed in North America in what today are the states of Virginia and Minnesota. I don’t know of any other connections but those two states.
My Virginia origins have obscure beginnings in the 17th Century. My Minnesota origins are tied to specific immigration from Poland in the 19th Century after the Civil War. I know a lot about these lines, but not as much as I may think.
Genealogy has been faddish for me. For a while a rush of interest. Then research halts and things sit for months or years. I enjoy discovering new artifacts, like the recent discovery of my parents’ wedding announcement in the newspaper. Such joy is insufficient to turn me into a consistent miner of artifacts and information. It’s been a hodge-podge endeavor from the get-go.
I hope to sustain an effort with the current memoir project. That means getting organized, developing a writing plan and sticking with it.
It is hard to determine a timeline, but necessary. Equally difficult will be choosing which parts to write about and in which order. I need to be in a place where the outline is finished and broken down into 1,000-word bites for drafting. I don’t know how long it will take to draft, edit and proof 170,000 words. Longer than expected, for sure.
The general rule is to write 1,000 words per day. By write, I mean draft because editing will take multiple amounts of the time drafting will. I expect as many as a dozen revisions, probably more. Likewise proof reading is important and time consuming. One has to get outside the narrative to a place where the literal words on the page mean nothing except for their correct spelling, grammar and elimination of redundancy and extra words. These things take time.
A couple of hours can produce 1,000 draft words with this type of work. That assumes a proper outline and work plan that puts the research into a semblance of order. It’s possible to do that.
So five steps: organize documents and artifacts, prepare an outline, create a first draft, edit and revise the draft, and proof read.
This spring is shaping up to be busy with the part time job at the home, farm and auto supply store, gardening, farm work, political work, community work, and the Food Policy Council. Somehow the memoir project needs to find a space. (I always forget to mention family. Why is that?)
I plan to continue writing this blog most days, but need to add a period of daily time to organize for writing the memoir. The photo above is a first attempt to get something on paper. There will be revisions as work continues to sustain this project.
While Super Tuesday elections and caucuses happened I was working on an outline for my nascent memoir. It’s one of many drafts.
As readers may have noticed, I’m posting almost every day on this blog. What’s lacking is getting a grip around my personal history so I can finish a longer autobiographical piece. With the recently discovered trove of letters I wrote to Mom, a lot of pieces from college until moving back to Iowa in 1993 are coming together.
I’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever know, so whatever I produce should have application beyond family and friends. I plan to tell the story as best I can once determining what it is.
That last part is important. I’m not used to telling my story other than recounting brief incidents in a long life. More thought about what my story is will be in order.
Some decisions have been made.
As far as length goes, 70,000 to 100,000 words. I have a 25,000 word fragment from a few years ago, and that will be edited down to fit the new narrative. There are many fragments in my files.
There will be two parts. The first part will be a chronological story that sets my life in a context of family, education, and public events. I don’t know the breaking point but it will likely be one of three: Father’s sudden death in 1969, enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1975, or finishing graduate school in 1981. I’ll write about all of those. Depending on the narrative, emphasis will vary.
John Irving is the model for what I want to do in this book as a writer. I plan to begin with the last sentence of the book and write toward that end. In coming weeks I plan to work on that last sentence.
Material for research seem abundant. Mother and her mother took a significant number of photos during my earliest years. There are enough to help remember what happened and when I gained awareness of a world outside myself. Likewise the internet is a resource for old clippings, genealogy, photographs and maps to fill in some of the gaps. Much of this early section of the book will be based on memory, which while fading, remains strong in many areas.
School life was important although aside from some of my undergraduate work there are not a lot of remaining written documents or artifacts. There aren’t many photos either. The focus here will include the few documents that survived coupled with memory. I attended five different schools in K-12 and each will have a place in the narrative. I’m most sensitive to the closeness I felt to grade school friends and how that changed when the nuns split some of us off in a separate class because they felt we were “college-bound.”
After undergraduate school I began writing journals and there is a continuous written and photographic record beginning 1974-1975 until the present. At that point the narrative will turn to what I’ve already written for source material. There is a lot of it.
The second part of the memoir is up in the air. The idea of the first part is setting a context for actions in the second part. A key event in Part II was my return to Davenport after military service and the brief time I lived near “Five Points,” the intersection of Division Street, West Locust Street, and Hickory Grove Road. I plan to write in detail about those months from November 1979 until summer 1980. It is a good fulcrum on which the pivot the narrative.
Part II will be more thematic, centered around family, work, travel, politics and intellectual progress while writing. How did I become a person who spends a couple of hours writing before beginning each day? While I disliked President George W. Bush immensely, I liked the format of his presidential memoir “Decision Points.” Perhaps something like that, but as I said, it’s up in the air right now.
There is an impetus to write this memoir now and while not close to final, yesterday’s work on an outline moved the enterprise forward.
Last night and this morning I read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. It has been some time since I last turned those pages, and with the facsimile first edition I have, I felt like the years had turned back.
It is a good book today and I think a large part of my own status is derived from or related to the past readings of this book. I can’t help but say amen to every line.
For what I perceive in Whitman is that life comes only by the individual’s bringing life to otherwise lifeless things. This is what I am about. Nice job Walt.
13 August 1981
First entry after beginning work. This is about right. Two weeks before I get started writing in my journal again. I guess I’m starting to get to where I can do other things besides work a job. I’m beginning to settle in. There’s a ways to go yet.
18 August 1981
The writers I read on writing say that the best time to write is in the morning when I first wake up. That’s not the way it will be. My writing will take place after a day of work in a job with lots of people contact, in a busy part of town, in close contact with a lot of other people, while I am engaged in a myriad of activities. I think all of this is the way it should be, a return to John Donne, perhaps, but a proper state of affairs. For we are always engaged in the world with others. We must be.
It’s time to look to the future. The first step is the publishing and distribution of Institutional Writings. I pick the books up tomorrow after work and will begin writing the passages for the receivers. As I approach thirty years, I make my commitment to life. To people. I consciously leave the past in the recesses of me memory to chart a course over unmarked territory. But I am not a pioneer, in a sense, I cannot be,for I join in my every action with all those who preceeded me. With the rest of humanity. In the most familiar terms, by those who share my culture. But these too are words that belong to the past. Here I go.
During our lives together I wrote Mother often in cards and letters. Following is the text of notes sent to her. Upon reflection, I sent them to a future version of myself as well.
April 10, 1982
There are times when I feel like Picasso looks in this photograph. It is a slow process, but I am making my way as a writer. I often am not sure what I am doing, but I know I have chosen the right path. One of my projects is writing a regional cookbook for one person. I would like it if you could pick some of your standard menu meals and write them down for me. I can remember some, but not all. Too, I want that dessert dish recipe you prepared last time I was in town. More later, I’m in Springfield 23-25 April. Paul
May 14, 1982
Started the trip off with a bang by smashing into a 1982 Olds Cutlass in Dubuque. No injuries thank goodness, but I will have to spend the $200 deductible to get my truck fixed to drive at night. Other than that, I’m ready for this vacance. Paul
May 29, 1982
Thanks for the shirts. You always pick out good stuff for me. Please let me know if I need to come to Davenport because of Uncle Dick. I can never tell. I do plan to make a Sunday trip this month, which weekend that will be is unknown now. Maybe the 6th or 20th. Thanks again. Paul
Thanks for the pleasant holiday experience. As we walk boldly into 1985, let us keep discovery our goal, and our family in our hearts. While the burden of life slows us, let our hearts keep the warmth and light of our togetherness. Love always, Paul & Jacque
December 27, 1986
West Post Road
Thanks so much for making this Christmas special. Elizabeth, Jacque and I had a memorable time, and we especially enjoyed sharing Elizabeth’s first experiences with you. Know that we love you, and care about you. We look forward to seeing you again soon in 1987, as we are reminded of that first Christmas so long ago, and its continuity into our own brief moment of life. Love, always. Paul, Jacque & Elizabeth
March 13, 1988
Rest assured that we will make the right choice here. The four years with CRST has been a valuable education. I sense, though, that it is time to move on. What will be the next step? I’m not sure yet. We’ll find out together. Paul, Jacque & Elizabeth
March 29, 1991
Thanks for the great meals and hospitality. Sorry I forgot to bring my wood clamp, but I will on the next trip. Also for about 2 hours work, I can smooth out the walls in the bathroom, to prepare the surface for the coming wall paper.
We will try to get there sometime in April so we can help with the yard as well as the other chores.I would like to photograph some of the old photos that trip so take this as a warning that we are coming. Talk later, Paul, Jacque & Libby
July 10, 1991
Busy and tiring day around Lincoln County. I stopped by here to learn about native Americans. As your grandparents got married in Wilno, the Indians lost control of the quarry pictured. More when we see you. Paul
July 18, 1996
Big Grove Township
Finally hot, humid summer weather is here. I hope you are enjoying this Iowa summer as we are. The sweet corn will be ready soon. The green beans already in the freezer. Libby is rushing to finish her 4-H project which will be judged Saturday. Not much. Just summer in Iowa. Paul
On a sunny winter day I found time to organize boxes of letters and cards to Mother by putting them in clear plastic sheet protectors and sorting them by date.
I wrote home the most while serving in the U.S. Army, with about 75 letters and cards over a four-year period. Along with my journal, a bankers box of files, and some photo albums, the period is well documented. It should lend help to efforts to consider and write about that period of my life.
In retrospect, when I was home for a day or weekend, away from Robert E. Lee Barracks in Mainz-Gonsenheim, I spent time alone writing at a table that was part of the furnishings of my bachelor officer’s quarters. This writing habit persists.
Non-military letters provide more interest. One from summer YMCA camp, a couple from my undergraduate years at the University of Iowa, a few from my 1974 trip to Europe, a couple more during graduate school, and a big batch from our married life beginning in 1982. The letters filled three binders.
It is possible to understand a life. My efforts at writing have a clear beginning in the need and want to write home during the time before build out of electronic communication systems. I recall my first journal, which was stolen at a youth hostel in Calais, France just after taking a hovercraft across the English Channel.
I made a decision to continue journaling while living in a one-room apartment on Mississippi Avenue in Davenport, before military service. That apartment was the first place I entertained Mother. The dinner dish I chose was tuna-noodle casserole, which she ate and said was good as only a mother could. That was in 1975.
As long as I am able I expect to continue to make coffee and settle at a writing table each morning for a couple of hours. These days I write emails, brief notes on cards, on social media, in a less frequently used journal, and on this blog. I don’t know how I came to this place. Yet it is part of who I will be in the 21st Century.