Living in Society

What’s In A Week?

Onions drying in the greenhouse.

Once life is separated from the work week everything changes. It’s not that we become unhinged. Days just resemble each other without differentiation.

As denizens of the United States, if we seek continued participation, we need something to tell days apart. The worklife week served as we had one. For me, it fell apart during the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting retirement from paid work.

I developed a morning routine which begins around 3 a.m. and continues until it is done. It is my time to learn about the world and my role in it. I like the routine because, for the most part, I own this time of day, every day. After that things can get muddled.

I want to have a weekend… a Monday and Friday. I need a hump day. I want them to mean something. What I find is without a job, the days blend into each other. Increasingly, I accept it.

I don’t know what to do about it. I feel a need to do something. Today’s Monday. Maybe I’ll start there.

Kitchen Garden

With a Bitten Tongue

Cherry tomatoes from the garden.

Like most everyone I’ve bitten my tongue. I also scalded it with hot food and beverages. It healed, at least I think it has. As I prepare food from our kitchen garden, some days I don’t notice the taste, partly due to damaged taste buds.

The first cherry tomatoes are such a burst of flavor one must notice. Some days I swoon with how good a dish prepared in our kitchen tastes, even one I make often. Days when taste is dormant are sad ones–distracted with life, eating becomes a simple necessity, a chore.

“Today, food has taken on value, which goes beyond the simple act of eating,” Massimo Bottura, who operates a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, Italy said on a BBC program called The Future of Food. “I was born with the will to be contemporary. When you are truly contemporary, your mind is constantly projected toward the future. There is always more future in my future.”

What does that mean in an Iowa kitchen garden?

I mastered enough techniques to convert raw food into meals. Few ingredients have me consulting with cook books about how to prepare or serve them. For example, a few days ago I harvested a dozen bell peppers and knew to parboil them to make stuffed peppers. I knew how to prepare the dish with rice, onion, celery, tomato, garlic and other ingredients on hand. Hard to say where I learned the technique yet it is part of culinary me. There are many techniques resting behind the door of consciousness. It gives me confidence in the kitchen, enough confidence to put meals on the table each day without consulting recipes. Does it go beyond a single meal into the future? That is more tricky.

I make soup often and attribute it to my Polish heritage. I can consistently produce a certain flavor profile. In the past I made big batches of soup and water-bath canned the extra. No more. I focus on flavor in smaller amounts done over and over through the gardening season. My typical soup starts with mirepoix: celery, onion and carrot. From there, I add what is available, including pearled barley, lentils, turnips and potatoes if I have them. Yesterday I added radicchio leaves, cabbage, kale, grated zucchini, and part of a jar of canned whole tomatoes. Salt and bay leaves seasoned the soup. Because the crop is coming in, I added diced broccoli stems. It simmered all day and by supper time was a meal. While this is not specifically a Polish soup, my heritage influenced the preparation. It suited my palate.

It is a struggle to get beyond the meal currently being prepared. After a trip to the garden, and a tour of the refrigerator and pantry, I get ideas about what to prepare each day. As the gardening season proceeds there are more choices. I’ve found the more our cuisine is driven by ingredient availability and freshness, the better the meal. That’s not surprising, although not particularly noteworthy. I enjoy cooking, and eating home-prepared meals more than restaurant fare. I’m nowhere near the level of Bottura. We get by in our kitchen.

I don’t know if my palate is truly damaged, and live with what I have. When a dish comes out really well I enjoy eating it. Much of the time I’m distracted from living and eating by outside concerns. My best plan for the future of food is to grow great ingredients and pay attention to the preparation. With practice I’ll get better and occasionally I will touch the sublime. That’s what a home cook can hope.

Living in Society

Needed Rain Fell

Fresh from the garden cauliflower.

A gentle rain fell through the night and continues this morning. We need rain to assuage the drought. When it rains, garden-watering is more thorough and much appreciated. A benefit was not having to water the garden by hand last night.

In unexpected ways my trip to Florida was life changing. The driving was uneventful and easy. It was easier for me because our daughter led our convoy and all I had to concern myself about was fuel and keeping the rental truck between the highway lines. We spaced overnight breaks so we weren’t exhausted when we arrived each night. We splurged on food, using delivery services like Door Dash, Grub Hub and Uber Eats. We took care of ourselves. Like a vacation, the time was golden even though we didn’t do anything special besides be together.

I hadn’t visited her in Florida since 2013. I missed visiting at a place she lived for five years, the only residence of hers I hadn’t seen. The seven day trip was the most time we spent together in a long time. What’s changed is now that she’s closer–a mere day trip away–we can make plans that the 1,290-mile distance between us made impossible.

Something else changed.

There is a renewed urgency to get things done, to focus on what’s most important. I want to cross things off my to-do list. During the first part of the coronavirus pandemic I seldom looked at or maintained a to-do list. The trip changed all that.

I don’t know how this will turn out yet I’m hopeful. Hopeful we can spend more time together. Hopeful to find more meaning in quotidian affairs. Hopeful to get things done that are worth doing. I didn’t expect that, but it’s welcome.

It was drizzling rain when I went to the garden. I picked three head of broccoli, a head of cauliflower, four bell peppers, a cucumber, a zucchini and a handful of cherry tomatoes. Every day is like that. Rain is important to a healthy, abundant garden. The future is a slate wiped clean by the trip from Florida. For now, we have enough rain.

Living in Society

First Full Moon of Summer

Full moon setting, June 24, 2021.

The garden did not need watering last night. This morning, after sunrise, the ground was still wet. Thunderstorms and rain are forecast all day, so it looks good for the garden getting plenty of moisture. We need rain.

Wednesday was a punk day of running existential errands. I’m preparing for a special project that will have me mostly off the internet for a while. We need that from time to time.

While I’m gone, I leave you with this image of the full moon setting behind the trees. I don’t know what it means but I could look at the moon for hours. The picture is no substitute, yet with it, maybe we’ll get by.

See you on the flip side.


Trail Walking

Algae on Lake Macbride

Nutrients in the Lake Macbride watershed created an environment where algae thrive. Blue-green algae covers much of the lake surface in the photo. The public beach a few miles to the west has been closed this season because of the presence of e.coli bacteria. There are likely patches of cyanobacteria where there is so much blue-green algae. During my morning walkabout every pond of water along the trail had algae covering most of the water surface. It didn’t used to be this way.

In Iowa there is discussion about whether the nutrients come from home application of fertilizer or from farm fields where chemical fertilizers are applied along with drainage tile which pushes them toward the Gulf of Mexico. It is a ridiculous discussion. Of course modern farming created this problem. Farmers depend on free contamination of downstream water systems to make margin on their investment in crops.

Despite reminders of civilization, I enjoy trail walking. Foremost, it is needed exercise. Even though one can hear automotive engines in traffic not far away, there is a relative quiet on the trail. On a Monday morning there were not a lot of other people out. Add cooler ambient temperatures and a partly cloudy sky, a trail walk serves as a suitable getaway from what ails a person. It also makes opportunities for photos like this:

Trail walking in Big Grove Township, June 21, 2021.

Home Life

Making Space

Second food bank donation: Winterbor kale and garlic scapes.

After ending her relationship with a large entertainment company in Florida last November, our daughter decided to move to the Midwest to pursue creative endeavors. Her new apartment rental agreement starts July 1. We plan to make some storage space in our home for extra possessions in case she needs it. Logistics and storage is part of what a parent offers an adult child.

We’ll see if storage space is actually needed. I looked at her new apartment online at a real estate marketplace company website. It appears she will have plenty of room as she is moving from a situation where she rents a single room in a house shared with others to a three-room apartment. She is planning the move and we are standing by to help as we are asked.

The storage space here can likely be created by discarding packing material accumulated over the years. Once finished with that, I’ll consolidate building materials in one spot and use the platform of the loft bed I built for her in college for any new storage items. Prepping the space is likely a one-shift job.

Since we married, we lived in five different places, including the current home since August 1993. The idea of us moving seems like too much work. Our home has become our main financial investment and the majority of our net worth. We are lucky to have a home we own outright. Even if financial conditions get dire, we’ll try to retain ownership.

After years of accumulation — from settling estates, from auctions and tag sales, from failing to dispose of outdated clothing, appliances and the like — we are filling it up. That needs to change as we prepare the home for our aging. For the time being, we can still make more space.

Home Life Writing

Gravel Roads

Cedar Township

We rely on the county secondary roads department to keep farm-to-market routes in good shape. Each spring, gravel roads need grading and gravel application. While they are not well-traveled, people notice if they are in disrepair. Secondary Roads did a great job on those I use, like the one in the photograph taken after my shift at the farm.

My soil blocking at the CSA is winding down. Yesterday I started early because of mid day heat. I showered afterward and went to the wholesale warehouse to get provisions. That’s my work for the week so the next scheduled trip off property is not until Monday to deliver produce to the food pantry. That is, unless she calls ready to come home.

Having the house to myself is a little weird. I set up a music station on the dining room table. The three-in-one device plays radio, compact disks or audio cassette tapes. We keep things pretty quiet most of the time, so it is evidence of temporarily letting loose. Last night I played my Greg Brown CDs. Brown tells a story I’d like to believe about Iowa.

The menu I wrote for the both of us is out the window. There was leftover rice so I used it with other bits and pieces from the ice box to make a dish: leftover beans, kale, onions, bell pepper, and seasonings. That served as breakfast and dinner on Wednesday.

In addition to drinking a Coca-Cola on Tuesday, last night I drank the first beer since March 13, 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. I bought a case of Stella Artois at the wholesale warehouse and with temperatures in the upper 80s, I relished the first taste.

There is a big bowl of limes to be used up. I have something mixed with vodka in mind, although I am no mixologist or hard-liquor-drinker for that matter. For complicated reasons I am reluctant to open the bottle of Stolichnaya Russian Vodka purchased at the Me Too grocery store in Cedar Rapids around 1986. I hauled it out to Indiana and then brought it back to Iowa. The label says, “Imported from the USSR” and that’s half the story of its travel. Once I open it it’s a matter of time before it will be gone. I’ll probably hang on to the unopened bottle a while longer. In all this time, only about an ounce has evaporated through the sealed cap. I’m not keen on vodka consumption anyway.

Peas are ready to pick in the garden, so that’s first up when the sun rises. Some kind of stir fry will follow. There will also be soup today. Ambient temperatures are forecast for the 90s this afternoon, so garden work will be finished early, and most of the day will spent indoors.

It seems too hot for early June. The drought in Western states is horrific. The Colorado River basin is disastrously low on water and it seems doubtful rain will come in needed amounts. My worry is the drought is creeping eastward. I lived through the 2012 drought and worked outdoors in it. I don’t want to repeat that experience, yet may have to. Fingers crossed we get back to normal weather before long.

Living in Society

What Else Are Iowa Democrats Doing?

Sage in bloom at the farm, June 1, 2021.

Associated Press ran a story on June 1, dateline Keokuk, Iowa, “Past the point of no return?” Iowa Dems hopes fading. It was a bit of a downer based on interviews with prominent Eastern Iowa Democrats bemoaning changes in the electorate that resulted in what we now know was a Republican rout in the 2020 general election.

The article featured the Second Congressional District race, which Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks won by six votes. Even this week some Democrats grumble, “count all the votes.” The race is over and candidate Rita Hart has not announced a rematch in 2022. The contest should never have been that close.

Johnson County, where I live, may be a liberal bastion in the state, yet that has little relevance to statewide elections. Even my precinct, in Iowa’s most liberal county, felt the sting of across the board Republican wins. My neighbors chose Donald Trump as president, Joni Ernst as U.S. Senator, Mariannette Miller-Meeks as U.S. Representative, Bobby Kaufmann as State Representative and Phil Hemingway for County Supervisor. Had there been two more Republicans in the race for county supervisor, they would likely have won here too.

So yeah, we Democrats are licking our wounds. We believed the results of the 2020 election would be much better than they turned out. What we didn’t expect was Secretary of State Paul Pate’s decision to mail an absentee ballot request to all registered voters because of the coronavirus pandemic would net so many Republican votes. The trope that increased voter turnout helps Democrats turned out not to apply.

What else are Democrats doing? Life goes on. We’re re-grouping.

Like most everyone in the electorate, we have lives that take precedence over politics. In my community that means continuing work with neighbors that never stops for elections. Unless I look at the county voting records, I don’t know if many of my neighbors are Democratic, Republican or something else. We felt the coronavirus pandemic here. One neighbor died of the virus and at least half a dozen got COVID-19. The condolence card I sent to the widow was no different based on party affiliation. As more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, thanks to the Biden administration’s work on vaccines, we’ll exit the pandemic and take up many of the things we used to do in early 2020. A lot of my neighbors are presidential election voters, so politics is not a constant priority.

Most of my political friends are wondering which Democrats will run for office in 2022. The governor and U.S. Senate races are at the top of the ticket, and there are plenty of public sources for information about which Democrats may be running for what. Rank and file Democrats are keeping our powder dry until we know who will run to replace Governor Reynolds, Senator Grassley and Representative Miller-Meeks. There is only so much to do before there is a candidate.

We are all watching the national political scene because it impacts Iowa politics as much as anything. The expectation here is now that a grand jury has been convened in New York, Donald Trump will be brought up on criminal charges. I read an article about how he could run for president from prison. There’s no telling anything to true Trump believers.

As far as the national Democrats go, they struggle to get their voice heard amidst the noise of FOX News, talk radio, social media and, increasingly, at large employers who have disclosed their politics. According to these right-wing outlets, Democrats can do no good. I mean, God help us if the Vice President of the United States posts on Twitter, “Enjoy the long weekend.” The flippin’ sky must be falling to hear their side of it. Information about the good Democrats have done during the Biden administration — and there has been a lot of good — is being actively suppressed. Active Democrats I know are trying to understand what the administration is doing and find ways to inject that into the negativity so prominent in daily life.

To answer the AP article question, no, Democrats are not past the point of no return. We are living our lives, keeping our powder dry, and preparing for the next opportunity to mount a campaign to win in 2022. In a way, that’s what Democrats always do. We don’t expect to take guidance from the media or Republicans.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Living in Society

Beginning a Summer

Plot #7 drying on May 28, 2021.

167.7 million Americans have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. That’s 50.5 percent of the total population, according to this morning’s Washington Post. Society is loosening a bit, although when I went shopping last week, most people were wearing face masks in the store.

My sister-in-law came for a visit on Friday, the first time the two sisters spent time together, in person, since the pandemic began. A return to doing certain things has a trajectory of its own. People feel comfortable being together without a significant risk of dying or getting sick. COVID-19 may be lurking in the background, but being vaccinated, we feel okay forgetting about it for a while.

This summer will be a time of re-making how our small family lives. The Memorial Day weekend traditionally, unofficially, kicks off summer, so this post is some thoughts about what is next.

During the coronavirus pandemic we paid off our debt and improved retained earnings on our balance sheet by 12 percent. The pension structure we planned, with Social Security and Medicare at its core, will serve us well for the next 10-13 years. If the Congress does not address the projected shortfall after 2034, our pensions could be reduced. Developing a plan to deal with this possibility is in the mix of priorities, yet not high on the list.

I have little desire to be a wage earner again. I do seek some supplemental income aligned with my interests. No hurry here as we are getting along for the time being.

We’ve been blessed with reasonably good health. Improved diet and daily exercise are both important. So are regular visits to the doctor.

The pandemic changed our transportation needs. Our 1997 and 2002 automobiles need upgrading to a single, newer one with appropriate range to meet our lifestyle. The move will likely be to an electric vehicle, a new one. The question of hauling stuff like bales of straw, garden supplies and home improvement materials remains to be addressed.

This blog changed into something else during the pandemic. I welcome whatever changes are needed to make it relevant going forward. My morning habits have become ingrained. It’s hard to imagine starting each day differently from the way developed during the last 15 months.

Big projects. It became clear that I can work on only one big project at a time, whether it is right-sizing number of possessions, writing, gardening, preparing the house for our aging, or whatever. An air traffic controller can land only one plane at a time and so it is for us. This brings clarity and focus.

Finally, having an active, healthy mind is important. Some things we can’t control, yet a life of engagement in society can maximize use of our critical thinking capabilities… as long as we don’t begin tuning into FOX News. Reading the newspaper and linked articles on Twitter is part of this. Engaging in politics, social justice, and the climate crisis is another. It goes without saying that being supportive of our small family is also important to mental health.

There’s a clear path to finishing the initial garden planting today. My garden work is one of the few things that hasn’t changed because of the pandemic. Let’s hope that remains so going forward.

Home Life

Summer of 1996

Summer wildflowers.

During Wednesday’s walkabout there was frost on the ground. It was clearly the last frost of spring. It’s time to plant warm crops in the ground and get ready for summer. Here we go!

Some parts of our lives stand out more than others. For me, the summer of 1996 was one of them.

At the transportation and logistics company, after taking every assignment offered — some I liked and others I did not — I was transferred back to operations as weekend manager. My schedule was Friday through Monday with three days off. I supervised everything that went on for a growing firm operating across North America.

Our daughter was coming into her own, finishing fifth grade that year. The new job enabled me to spend more time with her and I did.

We didn’t go far from home. Mostly we went to the nearby state park. Sometimes we bicycled to town and had breakfast or lunch at a restaurant. Other times we drove to the beach and went swimming. We picked wild black raspberries along the trail. It was a great summer at the core of my memories from when she lived at home. We get only so many times like that.

As I prepare for a long day in the garden I’m heartened by memories of life with family. I think often about the summer of 1996. The present is much different. The state park trail is ravaged today compared to then. Derecho damage remains, and development continues to encroach on the natural beauty that once was here. Our patch of wild black raspberries is gone in favor of a junction for the natural gas company. Sad, yet changing times, I guess.

There was a time I enjoyed being in the country with its neat, rectangular farm fields, sunshine, and long vistas. No more. Farm operations result in contaminated water, which in turn closed the beach when we swam that summer. The beach has been closed the last few years. Likewise, the scent of livestock wafts over our house from time to time. Not often, but enough to remind us there are 24.8 million hogs in Iowa, or about eight per human. The popular phrase to describe what Iowa has become is “a low education, low wage, extraction economy state.” There is no longer anything bucolic about being in the country.

There is no going back to the summer of 1996, except in memory. Just as the Mill Creek sawmill cut up the original stands of forest to create today’s rural landscape, life has irrevocably changed. We have a choice: linger in memory or continue forward. Both have a role to play. As annual seedlings wait in the greenhouse for sunrise, human nature doesn’t give us much choice. We are compelled to start anew.

May we do so cognizant of what was lost, what we have, and what we may lose through neglect. My wish for today is to make new memories as good as those of the summer of 1996. It may be difficult, yet the possibilities are endless, at least that’s what we are told.