Home Life

Saturday Errands

Turn-Style Department Store, Davenport, Iowa. Photo Credit – Davenport Iowa History Facebook Page

I yearn to live a normal life. I’m not the only one.

Raised in a community of a hundred thousand people, I found something new was always going on. I didn’t discover the half of it. My craving for discovery continued with our move to a rural community in 1993.

In the context of yearning and discovery I ran errands on Saturday.

I had a list. Citirizine from the pharmacy, organic celery from the supermarket, a cup of coffee from the coffee shop, writing supplies from the office supply store, furnace filters, canning jar lids, 4-ounce canning jars, and a big tub for soil mix from the home, farm and auto supply store… milk and eggs from the warehouse club so I wouldn’t have to shop there next Wednesday. I also got a much needed haircut before heading home across Coralville Lake.

Two things I had to do were pick up the keys to the meeting room for a Sunday political event, and post flyers about the Food Policy Council’s event next week on community bulletin boards in the grocery store, the library, the coffee shop, a restaurant, the home, farm and auto supply store, the gas station, and the pharmacy. These bulletin boards are ubiquitous, and are seen in the community. Not everyone has one but those who do know why they exist.

The trouble started at the food cooperative where my spouse has had an account since before we were married. They remodeled, and according to a cashier, “couldn’t find a place” for the community bulletin board which was now gone. Seriously? I get that the cooperative has changed since the days of bulgar wheat piled in burlap bags, ready for distribution. However, one hoped some sense of community would persist as the shelves filled with organic versions of processed food.

As long as I was there, I found the Tofurky brand Italian sausages I use when making red beans and rice.

Nearby I encountered “Beyond Burgers.” O.M.G. Two quarter pound “fresh” patties of the meat substitute cost $8.99. The ingredients? “pea protein isolate,” “methyl cellulose,” “bamboo cellulose,” and 19 others. I knew the product came from a lab, but Z.O.M.G. To make matters worse they were heavily packaged.

The packaging appeared to be foam and I looked it up. “Beyond Burger packaging is made up of almost five different types of substrates, including low density polyethylene, polypropylene, cardboard, paper, and wood products.” Not only is the packaging diversely made, how would a recycling company sort it if it even made it there?

Understood that a growing number of people don’t want to eat animals… but not like this.

I am mostly veg., that is, most of the time our diet is ovo-lacto-vegetarian. I’ll have the aforementioned Tofurky a couple of times a year to make a dish filled with memories of how I learned to cook. A staple in our household is Morningstar Farms soy-based burgers and recipe crumbles. At $1.25 each they are more affordable than Beyond Burger. They seem less processed, less engineered as well. We have fallen off the tofu bandwagon and carefully consider how we get our protein. The end game is I don’t see how highly engineered and processed food is an adequate replacement for beef cattle, hogs or chicken in our diet. Somewhere there is a middle ground and if red meat makes me feel queasy, I need to find something else to balance nutrition with a yearning for cooking the way Mom did. Beyond Burger is too special for that.

I don’t run errands that often any more. We get by on less. When I lived in Germany I had scant leisure time but when I was off duty I yearned to go shopping at the rail station, the post exchange, and across the Rhine River at the box stores in Wiesbaden. Today shopping trips like Saturday are a couple times a year thing. I wish it engendered less outrage. I don’t want to be that cranky old man of which one hears tell.

All the same, running errands is a way of engaging in society. I’m grateful for conversation with cashiers, sales associates and hairdressers because it breaks up the isolation of aging. I like getting away from society, yet have the same basic need to join with others… even if that means complaining about stuff that doesn’t make sense.

It’s all part of sustaining our lives in a turbulent world.

Home Life Politics Writing

Pivot From the Caucus

Palmer House Stable, Solon, Iowa, Feb. 8, 2020.

While the Iowa caucus news cycle lingers, I am already gone.

After a Saturday of political engagement — an interview with Michael Franken of Sioux City who is running for the Democratic nomination as U.S. Senator from Iowa, and a town hall meeting with my state representative Bobby Kaufmann — Michael Wines of the New York Times contacted me about my experience at the Big Grove precinct caucus. I told him the story… which is metastasizing.

The narrative is repeated so much I might resurrect a circus like Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey to take it on the road. As locals know, circuses are an Iowa thing and four of the Ringling brothers were born in McGregor, Iowa. What more fitting outcome for the caucuses?

Nontheless I am pivoting away from politics. I’m in a position to do so because of great caucus turnout. I’m confident our four delegates to the county convention will show up. Two volunteers stepped up to participate as precinct representatives on the county central committee. Despite lingering interest in what we did, the news cycle will eventually move on. It’s time for me to go.

I unsubscribed from the county party weekly newsletter, thanking the public relations chair, and saying, “I have less need to stay abreast of what party insiders are doing.” There is life beyond politics.

Toward what will I pivot? Will a divot of politics follow?

Our big family news is on Feb. 5 we made the last payment on our daughter’s student loan. Including loan interest, our contributions, and her work study and scholarship, the cost of her four-year education was about $140,000. In the box of letters I sent Mom during college, I wrote my monthly bill at the University of Iowa was $50. Add in the scholarship I had and my college expense was about $6,800 for four years.

My freedom from politics will be used to become a better citizen. Monday I start a brief term on the county Food Policy Council. If that proves to be engaging, I’ll volunteer for a full, four-year term. I’m writing more for Blog for Iowa, have written up one interview, two more are done, and there may be more. I hope to have a better garden this year. I invested in an electric tiller, bought some rolls of mulching, and began planting onions on Friday. There are plenty more projects in the works. There are also the farm jobs, which have been reduced from three to two this season.

A group of us were sitting around a table in the break room at the home, farm and auto supply store on Wednesday. The discussion was about retirement as a couple of us have retired but continue to work because of the social engagement a job involves. Our store manager was there and he told me, “If I were you, I’d retire as soon as possible.” Depending on how the next couple of months go, I may take his advice and help on one of the federal election campaigns.

For now, I’m on to what’s next while sustaining ourselves in a repressive national political environment. Life will be better, at least I hope so.

Home Life

Winter Flight

Winter snowfall Jan. 24, 2020

While I’m typing our daughter is driving to the airport where she will board an aircraft for a rare visit home. The flight is on-time despite Iowa’s winter weather.

Except to attend Mother’s funeral, she hasn’t been home since April 2016. We are looking forward to seeing her as phone calls, text messages and email are not enough.

I cleared the driveway to allow ingress and egress. If she wasn’t coming I may have left the snowfall for another day. Once she’s home, I’m not sure if anyone will leave the house for a while.

We are thankful for the Federal Aviation Administration and the work of the pilots and crew of the airline and airports. Thankful for safety on this winter flight.


Energy Matters

Snow-covered Driveway

Friday I ran errands before the winter storm hit. Errands means filling the automobile fuel tank with gasoline, buying a lottery ticket, and driving south on Highway One to the grocery store in the county seat to purchase organic celery, frozen lima beans and sundry other items not available locally.

The storm hit between noon and 1 p.m. depositing a fluffy, four-inch covering of snow on everything.

It wasn’t a blizzard as one could easily see into the distance through the small, falling snowflakes. The wind wasn’t blizzard-bad. It gave me a chance to try out the electric snow blower I bought at the home, farm and auto supply store on Dec. 12., a concession to aging.

Our rural electric cooperative buys electricity from CIPCO (Central Iowa Power Cooperative). Their electricity generation fuel mix is coal, nuclear, hydro, landfill gas, wind, solar, natural gas, and oil energy resources, according to their website. They haven’t updated the breakdown by fuel source since 2016 which showed 38.3 percent coal, 33.7 percent nuclear, 27.0 percent wind, solar, hydro and landfill gas, and 0.5 percent natural gas. I could say we have a nuclear powered snow blower… or not depending on how I feel on any given day. Yesterday I was thankful I didn’t have to shovel as the work went quickly.

We need energy to fuel a modern lifestyle and there is not a lot of control outside our personal habits. We use electric appliances and there is no reason to change back to natural gas, the most recent alternative. Our home heating is a forced air, natural gas central furnace supplemented by an electric blanket in one bedroom and a space heater in my writing room. We have no fireplace and burning wood isn’t a sustainable option. We use an on-demand, natural gas water heater which has served us well. I learned about on-demand water heaters while visiting a friend in Vienna, Austria in 1974.

We got rid of incandescent light bulbs long ago and do our best to turn off lights when not using a space. I occasionally forget the light is on in my writing room and leave it on overnight. We consolidate trips to major cities in our vehicles, combining work days with shopping and other errands. We spent an average of $3.65 per day for electricity and natural gas in 2019 and $2.55 per day on gasoline to operate my car. When we upgrade my 1997 Subaru there will be an opportunity to change to electric or get a more fuel efficient vehicle. Same for the other car in the house, a 2002 Subaru. As we age I can see owning only one automobile.

I still use gasoline to power yard equipment including our mowers and trimmer. I tried a Black and Decker electric trimmer but it wouldn’t hold a charge long enough to finish the whole yard, even with two batteries. When it broke after years of service I got a Stihl trimmer with my discount at the home, farm and auto supply store. I didn’t use a gallon of gasoline for the trimmer in 2019. I don’t like mowing the lawn unless it is to collect grass clippings to use as mulch. In 2019 I filled up my 5-gallon gas can twice: once at the beginning of the season and once in July. It’s still half-full. I expect to purchase a gasoline-powered rototiller for the garden. Like with the snow blower it is a concession to aging.

A snow day is a chance to bunker in and get caught up on desk work. I wish I could report I had. Instead I read, watched snow fall, and wondered about our collective future in an environment where the weather event was unremarkable, but its late arrival this winter is an unmistakable sign about our warming climate. I need to get to work today, as do we all.

Home Life Writing

Last Days of 2019

Front Moving East at Sunrise on Dec. 29, 2019

Snow flurried outside the dining room window for a while. I thought we might return to normal winter weather. The thought passed and snow stopped without accumulation.

We need a good streak of very cold days to prune the fruit trees. Last year it was difficult to find such a streak yet I’m hopeful this year. I’m not going to wait for ideal conditions. I’ll take what we get in our evolving climate.

This year’s reckoning with the past and planning for the future is taking more time and effort. It’s not because I did more. The process has been more organized and thoughtful than in recent years. I’m conscious of my age and weighing carefully which projects and activities will get my attention. At the end of it I want a definite plan with time lines. It’s a better process.

While our personal lives went okay in 2019, our participation in broader society was like the wafting odors from nearby feedlots. It was hard to stay separate from the international shit storm.

As Julian Borger pointed out in The Guardian, 2019 was the year U.S. foreign policy fell apart. “Donald Trump’s approach to the world is little more than a tangle of personal interests, narcissism and Twitter outbursts,” he wrote. That’s no way to run a country, even if a majority seeks to isolate American interests from the rest of global society. We can do better than this.

Steven Piersanti wrote on, “Under the bankrupter-in-chief, the national debt is skyrocketing while economic growth is lagging.” Trump is running the country just like he ran his failed businesses, according to Piersanti. “The country’s economic resources are being wasted and our economic health is endangered.”

“The next 12 months will determine whether the world is capable of controlling nuclear proliferation, arresting runaway climate change, and restoring faith in the United Nations,” Stewart Patrick wrote at World Politics Review. Those things matter to everyone and positive outcomes on any of them are dubious without American leadership. President Trump, ditcher of nuclear arms control agreements, critic of the need to address climate change, and bad-mouther of the United Nations does not appear to have an appetite or the capacity to lead at home or abroad. The prospects are bleak on these fronts and more until government changes hands.

It comes back to personal planning for next year. What amount of time will I devote to addressing these problems? The overarching motivation is to remove our current federal elected representatives from office and replace them with people who understand the importance of foreign policy.

At the same time, I can’t let politics be a single thing that absorbs all my time. Regardless of the Republican shit storm, we each need balance in our lives.

It’s taking a little longer to plan this year but the premise of it comes back to my tag line. How shall we best sustain our lives in a turbulent world?

A toast to 2019, an aspirin and vitamin for 2020, and off we go into an uncertain future with the potential for great things.

Home Life

Holiday Gift Cards

Christmas Coffee

Our family holiday season begins with our Dec. 18 wedding anniversary and continues until New Year’s Day. Two weeks of slowing down, eating more traditional food, reading, reviewing the past, writing, and planning.

2019 was a difficult year. It was a pivotal year. It was a year of coming to terms. There were gift cards.

The first gift card came from the home, farm and auto supply store in the amount of $125. Receiving a gift card in lieu of a salary bonus is a leftover from when the family that founded the retail chain was more involved. The founder’s son continues to make rounds of the stores and knows me by name. He sent a personal birthday card with some bad information about how long I’d been employed. It’s the thought that matters. They also provide a paid holiday on our birthday which in my case falls during this end of year period. I made it to age 68!

The second gift card was re-purposed by my spouse. She spent the $100 gift on herself, but didn’t use the card. She gave it to me and I considered it a welcome birthday present since it was the only one.

Where does one spend this kind of gifted money? At grocery, hardware and other retail stores mostly.

Major purchases included some premium bay leaves ($8.99), a fifth of Jack Daniels No. 7 ($27.55), a Craftsman screwdriver set ($29.67), a 24-bottle case of Stella Artois ($26.63) and a set of storage bins for garden seeds ($29.67). I also got a bottle each of low-dose aspirin and B-12 at the pharmacy, jars of organic seasonings clearanced at the home, farm and auto supply store, some Boetje’s mustard (a local specialty that used to be made in Rock Island, Ill.), a package of roasted chestnuts for New Year’s Eve, and a new Craftsman box cutter to place near the recycling bin. We’re lucky to be able to afford these luxuries.

We received a screwdriver set from the best man at our wedding. Some of them had gone missing over 37 years. It was a purchase of hope as in I hope to spend more time organizing the workspace in the garage and shedding some of the duplicated and unnecessary tools accumulated at dozens of household and farm auctions. Something just feels good about having new tools. They match the ones we got as a wedding present exactly.

The price of the whisky was shocking as I hadn’t bought any for more than a decade. A recent newspaper survey showed Iowans prefer cheaper varieties like Black Velvet Whisky and Hawkeye Vodka. I don’t drink spirits very often and the gift cards were the reason I even considered getting a bottle, it’s like free money and Jack Daniels is a personal holiday tradition. Besides, the local small batch spirits were too expensive at $50 for a fifth.

I bought the beer at the wholesale club, another luxury. My favorite is Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, which my father preferred. PBR is not available there. The plan is to drink a bottle when we have pizza or chili for dinner while reminiscing about my several trips to Belgium. The case should last into spring. At that time my memories will likely be worn out and I’ll get a case of something else to ice down in a cooler for after yard work. Had it not been for the gift cards I would likely have gone without beer at home until summer.

The bins for seeds were an impulse purchase. I examined them and found there was enough space in each drawer for the packets to lay flat. It will go a long way to clean up the workspace where I sort seeds for my weekly planting sessions at the greenhouse. Now the bins need to be labeled so I know what’s in them. More work to do this holiday season.

No one got rich off my shopping spree. I feel better for the fun of unexpected shopping. Whatever anxiety I had about whether the gift cards would work was offset by the adventure in spending them. It was just enough of our consumer society to recall what it is and sate my desire to shop. That done, I can better consider what 2020 will bring.

Home Life

Into Winter

Iowa Winter

After I returned from a shift at the home, farm and auto supply store I scrubbed and cut up potatoes to roast for dinner. Roasted potatoes, a burger patty and frozen peas made a dinner — comfort food as winter approaches.

The Thanksgiving leftovers are gone, our pantry and ice box are full. There was no need to grocery shop after my shift comme d’habitude.

In eight weeks it will be time to start onions, leeks, and shallots inside, then begin soil blocking at the farm a week or two later. For now there’s indoors work of reading, writing, cooking and cleaning.

A neighbor put out bird feeders to attract birds, then expressed concern that cats were hanging around, chasing the birds away and prompting her dogs to bark at them. I wrote a response.

This is an interesting topic. Although I don’t have any solution to the issue of dogs barking at wandering cats, by putting out bird seed, like I have, a person attracts a variety of animals to the yard, which includes not only birds but mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, deer, and maybe others.

Because of our proximity to the state park, we see almost every species native to Iowa here.

The bird feeder also brings predators of small animals, including cats, but also hawks, owls, and foxes. Then there are the scavengers like possums, turkey vultures and crows.

My point is when we decide to place a bird feeder out we are creating an ecosystem, especially if we fill feeders year-around. If members have pets, they should be kept on a leash or indoors, that’s long been our policy. However, there is a bigger ecosystem that will continue, even in the event pets can be controlled.

On that note, we head into winter.


Quiet Holiday

One Cup Portions of Cooked Pumpkin in the Freezer

Thanksgiving was a quiet day at our house. Neighbors were off with their parents, and the two of us prepared a simple meal of holiday fare.

We made some of our favorite dishes — home made baked beans and wild rice. Both of these have complicated recipes so they are relegated to days that can be devoted to cooking.

I worked the phone in the morning, but after that, could be found in the kitchen. I left the house one time — to empty the compost bucket.

The meal was a success, although the baked bean recipe requires some tweaking. I wrote it in my red book of recurring recipes with a note for next time.

The surprise was that seeing the pie pumpkin on the counter I decided to cook it, even though it wasn’t on the menu. I made a loaf of pumpkin bread and roasted the seeds. I made two cups of cooked pumpkin into one-cup balls and froze them for later. I served sliced pumpkin bread with home made apple butter on top at the meal.

Today I return to the home, farm and auto supply store where it is the eight-hour Black Friday sale. I have to be there when the doors open at 6 a.m. I also work on Saturday and there are plenty of uses for the extra money. For now, it’s my main source of socialization outside of home.

I placed a couple of on line orders this week. One for the bulk of my garden seeds for 2020 and another for a sweatshirt a size smaller than I have been wearing. I’ve maintained the 14 percent weight loss created by my anti-diabetes regimen and the current size is too bulky. We’ll see how that goes.

Our daughter had a twelve hour shift working for the mouse yesterday. At a thousand miles away it’s too far away and too busy there for a visit. Thanksgiving was the two of us sustaining a life in a turbulent world.

Home Life

Thanksgiving 2019

Tree Decorating Contest the the Solon Public Library

Happy Thanksgiving readers!

Thanksgiving week continues to be a special time. There is a certain something in the air. As a writer I should do a better job describing that. Doing so would reduce what’s special to mundane. Let’s not go there.

We all need time to recharge after this long year. The days find me planning next year’s garden, determining how to improve our community in the months ahead, and budgeting. Those are markers along the way that don’t get to what’s special this week.

It seems unlikely we will decorate our home for year-end holidays. We’re in the middle of down-sizing, organizing, and re-arranging for coming years. Translation: stuff is pulled out everywhere. The library in town displayed the results of a competition to decorate Christmas trees. We took it in last night and gained a bit of holiday spirit without the work it would have caused us at home. That will have to do.

Thanksgiving is a quiet time for us. With our daughter a thousand miles away and all four of our parents deceased, there is little reason to get too carried away. We will celebrate with a special meal that includes home made baked beans, wild rice, baked sweet potatoes, a relish tray, sweet apple cider from the orchard and an apple crisp made with backyard apples. It will be good, filling and with some calculated adjustments and portion control, nutritionally balanced.

According to the American Farm Bureau, the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people is $48.91 this year. Ours would feed the same number at a fraction of the cost, due to no meat products on the table and producing and sourcing items from our garden or from the local food projects where I work. When most food is produced close to home, eating well is not expensive.

There’s more to the special feeling of Thanksgiving than food. Describing it escapes me. I’m better off not knowing what it is and basking in the glow of its exceptional character. At least for this year.

Home Life

Under the Weather

Mom with her family about 1957.

On a bleak, drizzly Sunday morning I visited our parents’ grave with my sister. Cemetery workers had piled sod on top of Mom’s grave with a carve-out for the foot stone designed to look like Father’s. We are waiting for delivery.

I was glad to visit before winter.

We met our brother at an Italian restaurant in the dying mall. We all had salads with iced water to drink, a sign of dietary requirements of the times. The food was good in a way Italian restaurants can be. The conversation started on Democratic politics. We don’t agree on who should be the next presidential nominee so we moved on to the topic of our family history.

Of our parents’ generation, aunts in Florida and Virginia are the only ones remaining. Sister contacts them every so often. I heard from both in the last five years via email or snail mail. Last time I visited my aunt in Virginia was in 1983. I haven’t seen the one in Florida for longer than that. Word is the family kept Cox Hollow when my great aunt died, and we didn’t discuss who owns the home place in the Appalachian hills where one branch of the family is buried. None of us have seen the family cemetery where ancestors who fought for both the Union and the Confederacy are buried. The stories we share as siblings are common ones, although each time we retell them some new nuance emerges. The luncheon was okay.

Suffering a cold for the last two weeks, I continued to make a life. I also cancelled a lot of plans.

Tonight I’m scheduled to attend a house party for the U.S. Senate candidate Michael Franken in Marion. We’ll see how I feel after work. The local Elizabeth Warren organizer arranged a Democratic debate watch party in town, which because it is so close, I also plan to attend. The debate starts at 8 p.m. local time and that is pretty late to be out for me. Organizing for the caucus doesn’t happen on its own and I hope to recover from my illness soon to help the effort.

The ambient temperature warmed and we are getting respite from wintry weather. We are in a dank, in-between time of hoping for relief from what ails us, and from the emotional burdens life presents. Thankfully today is another day to live.