Living in Society

Forward from the Pandemic

U.S. National Guard troops bivouacked at the U.S. Capitol. Photo credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP.

The global census of deaths from COVID-19 passed 2 million this year. The pandemic seems far from over.

For comparison, the number of deaths from the 1918 influenza pandemic was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. deaths from COVID-19 will surpass 400,000 during the next few days.

These numbers indicate the United States is behind the rest of the world in addressing the coronavirus pandemic. If one has been following our politics, this comes as no surprise. Perhaps the greatest liability the current president will leave on Jan. 20 is his bungling of the federal response to the pandemic. One hopes President-elect Biden lives up to his campaign slogan to “Build Back Better.” He announced his plan to address the pandemic and hopefully the Congress will pass and fund it.

I wrote a friend asking me to get involved with a project this morning, “There are many projects begging for attention. As the knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade told Jones, ‘You must choose, but choose wisely.’ I am in the balance between picking the right work and not waiting too long to get started.” My bottom line is I must keep my powder dry until I know when it will be safe to leave the house, when I can get the COVID-19 vaccine, and where my limited time can do the most good. I’d like to take on additional projects, yet I wait.

The government designated parts of Washington, D.C. a green zone during the run up to the inauguration, another legacy of shame for the current president. The good news for Biden is it can only get better from here. So we hope.


Photographs for Writing

Summer sailboats on Lake Macbride

Thursday was a day to organize photographs.

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.


Editor’s Desk #1

Workbench cleared for seeding onions.

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.


Second Saturday

Experimenting with traditional pancakes using rice flour and butternut squash.

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.


Resolved in 2021

Winter wonderland, Jan. 3, 2021.

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.

Social Commentary

2020 In Review

Lake Macbride

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.


Epistemological Crisis

Frozen lake, Dec. 21, 2020.

It’s no secret there is an epistemological crisis undermining the authority of knowledge. It may be the most significant problem to grow out of the Reagan administration. That the discussion of creationism versus evolution returned during the 1980s was only the beginning.

There is a difference between justified belief (a.k.a. facts) and opinion and it is epistemological. That is, “relating to the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion,” according to At issue is that solutions to other pressing problems rely on the ability of Americans to separate opinion from facts, something we as a society have become less able to do. Al Gore recently summarized our current situation as follows:

And though the pandemic fills our field of vision at the moment, it is only the most urgent of the multiple crises facing the country and planet, including 40 years of economic stagnation for middle-income families; hyper-inequality of incomes and wealth, with high levels of poverty; horrific structural racism; toxic partisanship; the impending collapse of nuclear arms control agreements; an epistemological crisis undermining the authority of knowledge; recklessly unprincipled behavior by social media companies; and, most dangerous of all, the climate crisis.

Al Gore, New York Times, Dec. 12, 2020

Unless we can agree there are facts, and how to distinguish them from opinions, we may have reached the end of the long, good run that was the American republic.

During the time since Reagan, moneyed interests gained hegemony in our government and society. Thom Hartmann put it this way in his forthcoming book The Hidden History of American Oligarchy: Reclaiming Our Democracy from the Ruling Class:

Billionaire oligarchs want to own our republic, and they’re nearly there thanks to legislation and Supreme Court decisions that they have essentially bought. They put Trump and his political allies into office and support a vast network of think tanks, publications, and social media that every day push our nation closer and closer to police-state tyranny.

Thom Hartmann, The Hidden History of American Oligarchy: Reclaiming Our Democracy from the Ruling Class, to be released February 2021.

It is particularly distressing American oligarchs used the cover of the coronavirus pandemic to increase their grip on the nation and extract taxpayer money intended to alleviate the fiscal crisis it caused. In normal times this would be unthinkable. These are not normal times.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act which deregulated use of the public air waves. Regulations put in place in the 1920s through the 1940s were largely repealed. The result has been to consolidate most media under half a dozen corporations which now control the message. Perhaps Sinclair Broadcast Group is the worst in that they distribute editorial pieces from the corporation for inclusion during on-air broadcasts. All of the media corporations play a role in the deterioration of knowledge.

In 1987 President Ronald Reagan directed the FCC to cease enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine. In 2011 the Obama administration removed it from the FCC rules completely. Broadcasters no longer had an obligation to present balanced or fact-based information. The significance to the epistemological crisis these actions brought is hard to overstate.

What do we do about it? For those of us on small, private blogs it is easy: have a basis in fact if we run a story, focus on inquiry and understanding. As Tom Nichols pointed out in his book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, “None of us is a Da Vinci, painting the Mona Lisa in the morning and designing helicopters at night. That’s as it should be. No, the bigger problem is that we’re proud of not knowing things.”

With their 40-year head start, it will be challenging to overtake the oligarch puppet masters who bought much of our government. Hartmann has a dozen ideas to get us started. Gore and Nichols have more. The bottom line is the truth matters, scientific methods matter, and while religious belief plays a role in human culture there is a difference between things we take on faith and those that can be verified through scientific methods.

At the Oct. 22 presidential debate, Joe Biden said, “We’re going to choose science over fiction.” It’s a starting point on a long journey, one which we all should join.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa.


Happy Holidays 2020

Christmas Coffee

Today is our wedding anniversary, which annually marks the beginning of a period of reflection from now until January. With the coronavirus pandemic, it will last longer than it has.

While the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Iowa this week, it could be a while before I get vaccinated, and even longer before 70 percent of the U.S. population is, which experts say is needed to declare the pandemic over. The pandemic dominated much of what I wrote this year.

Mine has been a life lived in forward gear, without much reflection on the immediate past. Focused on the future, I endeavored to avoid the rear view mirror. That is, until this year when work on an autobiography began in earnest. I’m finding out who I was. It is not much different from who I am today.

The pandemic had me reading more books this year, 50 so far. The Reading List tab on the menu takes viewers to a list of what I recently read beginning with the most recent. The five best books I read this year were:

  • Wildland Sentinel by Erika Billerbeck.
  • Dreamland: The True Tale of America‚Äôs Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones.
  • The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin.
  • American Primitive by Mary Oliver.
  • Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton.

I appreciate visitors to this site, especially those who return often. I follow WordPress statistics and observe the most popular posts are those that offer something different. Politics, my autobiographical work, and the story about the black man found burning in rural Iowa got the most views this year. I wrote Autobiography in 1,000 Words in 2013 and it continues to get more views than any new post every year. I write often about cooking and gardening, my kitchen garden, yet that work does not garner as many views. I plan to continue posting next year.

Thanks for reading. After 46 straight days of posting I plan to take a break. If something big happens in my world, I’ll return to post about it. Otherwise, I hope to see you again in 2021.

Best wishes for happy holidays with hope for a better 2021.


Pearl Harbor Day 2020

North of the trail. Dec. 5, 2020.

On Dec. 7 I remember our neighbor Bill who continued to witness about the bombing of Pearl Harbor until his death in 1994. Those were days before we recognized something called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rest in Peace, Bill.

A neighbor died of COVID-19 over the weekend. The neighborhood’s rate of infection by the coronavirus has me questioning the wisdom of exercising on the state park trail. On one hand, I understand how the virus is transmitted and have taken to wearing a face mask on the trail. On the other, it’s an exposure I simply don’t need as the pandemic peaks in Iowa. What I know for certain is I will go crazy if I don’t get outside over the remainder of fall and through winter.

I made a couple of work shifts of discovery while I was indoors. While I plan to write my autobiography in 2021, I’m also not in a hurry to proceed because there is so much material. Going through it takes time and if I seek to capture a life accurately, it is time well spent.

I’ll be spending this week getting a grip on the scope of the project. I’m not comfortable I understand what’s available to me yet. I’ll be doing that and determining how to exercise as the coronavirus pandemic yields a record number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Be well.


Frozen Lake

Lake Macbride, Dec. 3, 2020.

Yesterday the lake was frozen around the edges. There was plenty of open water where waterfowl — geese mostly — swam and fished. The weather was good for walking with not too much wind. Soon the ground will freeze and the cold will end work in farm fields.

As we bend toward winter there is much to consider… and plan… as we enter the second pandemic year. I’m on a brief hiatus from writing and will return with regular posts soon. Be well.