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.

Living in Society

Being Sexagenarian

Pears forming.

People don’t use the word sexagenarian much. Because of lack of use one associates it with being a sexpot or something related to youth. Let’s face it. After turning sixty aging accelerates. Most of us are not as sexy as we may think, despite genetics, efforts, and vague intentions. It’s more like we are clinging to youth rather than embracing our experience.

My sixties have been about life after the big job. During my last year in transportation and logistics I was tracking to make more than $100,000 annually. Since then, it’s been about making do on a much lower income. I turned 60 more than two years after leaving my career and despite a couple of bumps, have been okay financially.

A person who said being sexagenarian is about getting ready to turn seventy would not be wrong. Septuagenarians and octogenarians have to make do with less. Practice makes perfect, or rather semi-perfect. Life is what you make it, they say. I’m spending more time doing what I want. 70 is coming right up and I haven’t thought about life as a septuagenarian. Having given up on youth, I suppose I’m clinging to middle age. I need to let go of that, too.

In graduate school we studied aging in America and part of aging is being a survivor. Since 2018, too many friends, mostly younger than me, have died. More than a dozen neighbors died during the last couple of years and only one of them from COVID-19. Should I survive, being a survivor is going to get worse. Planning to survive is part of being a sexagenarian.

The decision to retire at age 58 was sound. Had I continued, the kind of stress I experienced would most certainly have led to a premature death. After losing interest in my career, I luckily recognized it was time to go and did. As a result, I’m here to tell about it and using my sexagenarian years to prepare for and live a more varied retirement.

However, the word sexagenarian just sounds wrong. I’d rather have no part of it even though I’m close to outliving those years. Like with anything, we believe the best is yet to come, regardless of the weight of an aging frame. A sexagenarian knows better.

Living in Society


Tree bark on the state park trail, April 6, 2021.

For the first time since February 2020 I got a haircut at a professional shop. Despite two home haircuts during the coronavirus pandemic it was shaggy.

It felt good seeking a professional now that I’m fully vaccinated. The mask-wearing stylist asked me how I wanted it cut. As usual, I didn’t know. I suggested we look at the various sized combs that go with the electric clipper and she pulled four of them out of her drawer. We settled on number six.

My instructions were the same as always: tapered in back, a part on the left side, and cut it short in front so the outdoors wind doesn’t blow it into my eyes. We both wore masks during the session.

Getting my hair shorn was a welcome break from a year of contagion.

Living in Society

Polish-style Soup at Home

Seeded tray of garden vegetables.

As part of a new Saturday tradition, I made a pot of vegetable soup.

Mine is a variation of Krupnik, which is a thick Polish soup made from vegetable broth, containing potatoes and barley (kasza jęczmienna, archaically called krupy — hence the name). I modified the traditional recipe, eliminating meat, mushrooms and dairy, and adding dried lentils for protein. I also used up items in the freezer — shredded zucchini, leeks and green beans. It’s a thick, hearty soup that goes well with a slice of bread. It makes an easy dinner that can simmer on the stove all day, with leftovers. While Mother and Grandmother didn’t make the soup, they would likely recognize mine if they were still living.

On Friday we have an appointment to get the second of two doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. It’s a necessary step along the way toward returning to a semblance of normal. It will take 10-14 days after the second shot for our bodies to build immunity. After that, we’ll follow CDC guidelines to begin to engage in society again. It’s been a long road.

There is not much unique about this information. It reflects a shared experience not only in the small community where we live, but by fall, for most Americans. President Biden indicated last week vaccines will be available for all who want it. We’re hoping enough people get vaccinated to abate the pandemic this summer.

With our only child living many miles away, our Sundays are usually just the two of us. There are phone calls and occasional video conferences, yet the isolation is palpable. I’m not sure that will change once the coronavirus pandemic is over. We developed new habits and a new way of living that folds into the isolation. It is good preparation for aging.

I’m glad to be finished with dangerous work. My days of working in steel mills, packing houses, and manufacturing plants are behind me. I didn’t realize the risk of infections that came with retail work until retiring. I haven’t been sick since leaving the home, farm and auto supply store. Likewise I haven’t flown on an aircraft in a long while. Last week, I bought gasoline for one of the automobiles for the first time since December. The reduction in work and travel-related risk is positive. Yet I yearn to be with people.

When the coronavirus recedes I plan to seek some form of work. Because of our pensions and relative good health we are okay without it. I want to interact with people, in person. For now I’ll tend my garden and conserve resources… and make Polish soup on Saturdays.

Living in Society

Bittersweet March

First time crossing the bridge in 2021.

A year ago yesterday the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. It has been a weird year.

March is full of anniversaries: March 7, the governor activated the state emergency operations center for COVID-19; March 8, the state hygienic laboratory reported the first three Iowa cases of COVID-19; March 9, the governor signed the first Proclamation of Disaster Emergency Regarding COVID-19; March 24 was the first Iowa death attributed to COVID-19; and March 29, the president extended the federal stay-at-home order until April 30. That’s in addition to the historic anniversaries like the beginning of spring, our daughter’s birthday, and recurring tasks of the month to begin planting for the garden, return to farm work, and sweep sand from the road in front of our house to use next winter.

The good news is our families and the families of friends well-survived the pandemic, thus far. Now that production and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has ramped up, there is a chance for every adult in the U.S. to be vaccinated by the end of May. That would make Memorial Day something worth celebrating.

How has my life changed during the last 12 months? There are some obvious ways. I left work I had been doing for others. My last day at the home, farm and auto supply store was April 2, 2020, then I did not return to the orchard in autumn or to the farm in late winter this year. I haven’t eaten at a restaurant — either dine-in or take out — since my friend Dan and I had lunch at Los Agaves restaurant on March 13, 2020 — no bars or coffee shops either. I started checking the air pressure on the auto tires because we went weeks without using one or the other. I moved all the neighborhood meetings to telephone conference calls and participated in any other groups to which I belong via video conference ( I am not a fan of Skype and Zoom meetings). I perfected a recipe for home made pizza and read 66 books. I began riding my bicycle. One of the few things that didn’t change was work in the garden, although it benefited by my being at home more.

There were less obvious changes:

  • Using up the pantry and freezer.
  • Reduction in food variety.
  • Wearing holes in my socks.
  • Laundry once a month.
  • Taking naps.

In beginning my autobiography, I wrote a lot of words. The value of the project has been considering where I came from and who I have become, with an eye toward the future. It is a fit undertaking for quarantined times.

The emotion I feel after a year of restricted activities is of longing. I’d like to get back to in-person society and social events. We are heading that direction with the Biden-Harris administration. It can’t come soon enough.

I don’t know if a celebration is in order. These anniversaries are more like the terrorist bombing of Sept. 11, 2001. We don’t like them but feel obligated to mention them. And so, it goes, in Big Grove Township.

Living in Society

Tax Time

Sunrise, March 7, 2021.

We received a final tax document last week — an explanation of the coronavirus relief check sent on the last day of 2020. There is about a month to file taxes on time in the United States. I do ours and help our daughter with hers. It’s time to get to work on them.

The only time I had a problem with filed tax returns was when the accountant applied a tax credit incorrectly. We had to pay it back with a penalty. The following year, I decided to complete our returns myself. It was a good decision.

In other times I would post the YouTube video of the Beatles song Taxman from Revolver. The album was released Aug. 5, 1966, the summer before I started high school, in my second year of learning to play the guitar. I remember winning a copy of Revolver at a Freshman dance that year. I’m not sure it is an accurate memory. It was when I met my friend Joe, who would attend Georgetown after high school and then become a physician.

I had not worked a job that produced a W-2 form in 1966, and wouldn’t until 1968 when I earned $934 in taxable income working as a stock boy at the Turn-Style Department Store.

In the 21st Century gig economy I’m not sure how people contribute to Social Security and Medicare without employer deductions and taxes. The reason we are able to survive on our Social Security pensions is we contributed for most of our working lives and the benefit is based in part on how much one earned:

Social Security benefits are based on your lifetime earnings. Your actual earnings are adjusted or “indexed” to account for changes in average wages since the year the earnings were received. Then Social Security calculates your average indexed monthly earnings during the 35 years in which you earned the most. We apply a formula to these earnings and arrive at your basic benefit, or “primary insurance amount” (PIA). This is how much you would receive at your full retirement age—65 or older, depending on your date of birth.

Your Retirement Benefit: How It Is Figured, Social Security Administration, 2013.

In a gig economy the margins are often quite thin for gig workers. The idea of paying Social Security and Medicare taxes gets sanded off in the woodshed of economic survival. The government program worked for us and will — at least until 2034 when the trust fund is projected to begin losing value unless the Congress fixes it. However, it doesn’t work for individuals unless they pay in at a predictable pace. I haven’t read a study of the impact of the gig economy on Social Security and Medicare, but would.

In 1966 I wanted to learn: to play the guitar, do well in my studies, and get along with my cohort. The future was open ocean and my boat had been christened by grade school nuns as college bound. I can’t recall thinking about taxes during that time, not even once.

To participate in high school one required some cash. There were expenses, although not many. I had to give up my newspaper route after eighth grade, so I paid for dances, books, guitar strings, bus fares, and school activities with my savings and allowance. I was privileged to be able to live in Northwest Davenport where Father held a union job, I had access to funds, and the neighborhood was safe. Those were the best times, full of hope and opportunity. I thought to myself, maybe I could record an album like Revolver some day.

Whatever the combination of privilege, economic security, social stability, and a peaceful home created, I benefited from it. I continue to benefit. My life hasn’t turned out as expected, yet in 1966 my expectations had not been completely formed. I stay out of trouble today, in part because I realize I must pay income taxes. It is a baseline for participation in American society and I’m in.

Home Life

Pandemic Weekends

Snow melt heading to the lake on March 3, 2021.

In the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, weekends are less of a thing. Days go by. Without a calendar, one day can’t be distinguished from another. Even before the pandemic, when I worked full time, the idea of a Monday through Friday work week followed by a weekend was seldom reality.

Perhaps the best expression of weekend culture I experienced was in June 1977, while on temporary duty with the French Infantry Marines in Brittany. I arrived on a Friday and was whisked away to a small cafe where at once we began putting away cognac while introducing ourselves. After checking into lodging and changing clothes, there was an afternoon meet up at the officers’ club with more pastis than I can remember as officers kept buying rounds. This was followed by an evening dinner with Chinese-style food, champagne and wine at the home of a field grade officer.

Saturday morning was free time. I walked from my room to downtown Vannes where I observed women making lace near the sea as had been done for generations. Rejoining my host and a friend, we dined that evening at a restaurant serving oysters of Locmariaquer. Although I’d never eaten oysters, we ordered the signature, regional dish and chatted over the meal. After dinner we went to a dance with a live band and were out late.

I began Sunday with a run. It became a day of eating and drinking again with an afternoon meal at a private home, followed by a dinner of snacks from the ice box and pantry at my host’s apartment. By Monday I felt somewhat “poisoned in my veins” from all the food and drink of the weekend. Maybe one needs to drink alcohol for a weekend to exist. Given the popularity of beer with televised sports, I’m not wrong.

In retirement, even without the pandemic, the weekend is a bit challenging. Since we’re mostly at home and have no relatives living close, there’s little to distinguish it from the rest of the week. In a usual scenario the weekend is centered around meals with home made pizza Friday night, home made soup on Saturday, and Sunday night open as we prepare to begin the next week.

When young, attending church services was part of the weekend. I remember the change of Vatican II when we could attend Mass Saturday afternoon instead of Sunday. In some ways, attending church framed the weekend when I still lived at home. The churches near Big Grove don’t really fit. Instead of church, I read on Sunday afternoons and often take a nap.

Our daughter began streaming last year. She streams a crafting program Sunday afternoons in which I usually participate. With this, meals, and a life to live, we’ll eventually assemble some kind of weekend normalcy. The pandemic has been sobering to the detriment of how I remember the weekend. The good news is there is a chance to re-invent it for the better.

Like with anything we must make the most of what opportunities present themselves.


More Thawing

Indoor Seedlings Feb. 23, 2021

The gutters drained snow melt all day. High was in the mid-forties on Tuesday. We’ve been on restrictions for almost a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, it feels like something is going to bust loose as snow melts.

Feb. 22 the number of official U.S. deaths from COVID-19 passed the 500,000 death mark. For perspective, the Spanish Influenza killed an estimated 675,000 in the U.S. The population has more than tripled since 1918.

I’m scheduled for my first vaccine shot this weekend at the Methodist Church. The event was announced via email on Friday by the county senior center. Registration closed an hour later because there was so much demand.

Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed hope CDC would establish guidelines for people who get fully vaccinated. That would be nice, although Iowans are not good listeners to this type of guidance. Iowa has the lowest percentage of people fully vaccinated of any U.S. state. It’s also a month before we would get our second dose of vaccine. Perhaps CDC will tell us what post-COVID-19 society will look like by then.

A year of restrictions is a lot. Because of video conferencing people are more accessible than ever. While such human contact is sometimes welcome, it’s not the same as being together in person. I turn down more video calls than I accept. Once the novelty wore off, I went back to being myself only with less human interaction. That’s not really who I am, though, and I look forward to doing more in society than securing provisions to stay at home.

The melt continues. The ground above the septic tanks is already showing. It won’t be long before the snow is gone and the scent of spring is in the air. With so much snow remaining, it is hard work to slog through it to get to the composter. Maybe in a couple of days the snow will be gone completely. It’s time in more ways than one to move forward.

Home Life

Stir Crazy

View toward the compost bin, Feb. 18, 2021.

A year ago Governor Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation of disaster emergency regarding COVID-19. It’s still on. I had to get out of the house today to preserve my sanity.

I put on my army boots with buckled overshoes bought in Indiana, my Carhartt coat from the home, farm and auto supply store, the U.S. Army issued scarf I wore in the Fulda Gap, my Johnny’s Selected Seeds stocking hat, and ventured into the unbroken snow. I found deer tracks and followed them to the black composter. It was a cure for cabin fever.

A large animal lay down in the snow near an apple tree, leaving a mark in the snow. I walked all around the house and emptied two five-gallon buckets in the composter. The ambient temperature was really comfortable and bright sunlight felt good. I wasn’t outside long, enough to break the spell.

On days like this it is tough to concentrate. I finished seasoning the new cookware and stored the pieces. I washed dishes, and viewed our daughter’s on-line stream. While there was plenty of work, I didn’t feel like doing much of it. Cabin fever.

Of course, it’s now tomorrow. A chance to begin work anew. Also it’s Friday, whatever cultural resonance that might evoke in the post work-a-day world of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nontheless, Happy Friday y’all!

Living in Society

Long Winter

Newly plowed driveway, Feb. 16, 2021

I cleared the driveway of snow a dozen times this year, including yesterday. There has been snow cover for weeks and it is expected to continue. It’s the first real winter, the kind we had when I was a kid, in a long time.

The record-setting cold that has gripped the central U.S. has pushed snow cover across the 48 contiguous states to an all-time high in the 18-year database of the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center.

Snow covers about 73.2 percent of the U.S. to an average depth 6 inches (15 centimeters), according to the agency. A year ago 35.5% was covered to an average depth of 4.6 inches.

Bloomberg News, Brian K. Sullivan.

Restricted at home during the coronavirus pandemic, there are new things to explore. While tracing an internet order, I noticed the delivery vehicle had a satellite tracking device which updated location every 10 – 30 seconds. For a while, in between reading passages in a book, I followed the truck around our area on the map, noting where it stopped and the routing. The driver used roads I don’t normally think of using. There were a lot of stops. Anticipating arrival of the package, I opened the curtain and watched her truck pull up. Curiosity satisfied, I’m not going to spend a lot more time at this yet it’s something new to break the pattern of living at home with just the two of us. A different aspect of life in Big Grove.

I spoke to the local medical clinic to confirm my upcoming blood test and follow up appointment. They will provide the COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available. They didn’t know when that would be. If they have it by my appointment, I can get it then. That’s the second opportunity in our area once the vaccine supply chain starts flowing.

It appears the new president takes the pandemic seriously and we have a chance to return to normal. At a town hall meeting in Wisconsin last night, CNN reported this from President Biden.

President Joe Biden would only commit to a return to normal by next Christmas during a CNN town hall on Tuesday, saying he did not want to boost Americans’ hopes when he could not be certain of a still-early vaccine rollout.

The prediction of nearly another year in pandemic-dampened conditions was admittedly not optimistic. But Biden still said it was as good as he could offer with any level of confidence.

“As my mother would say, with the grace of God and the goodwill of the neighbors, that by next Christmas I think we’ll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today,” Biden said. “A year from now, I think that there’ll be significantly fewer people having to be socially distanced, having to wear a mask.”

He added: “I don’t want to over promise anything here.”

CNN Politics, Kevin Liptak.

And so, it goes.