Living in Society

Skipping an Annual Shopping Tradition


There is not a lot of money to spend on frills at the end of each month. I wrote about this before and while we hope to pay off our outstanding consumer loan this year, an unexpected expense could complicate things. Like many people we live on the edge between financial survival and ruin.

There are broader implications than our single household.

Last year, 48 percent of household expenses were programmed. That means property taxes, water, electricity, sewer, refuse hauling, road maintenance, insurance, telephone, cable T.V., car loan payment, and broadband. There is no escaping these expenses.

Sixteen percent of expenses were food, sundries, gasoline and cash expenses. One can economize here, but all of these categories are necessary. Our food expense is lower because we regularly use produce from the garden.

The balance of our expenses (36 percent) was what I call household operating expenses. This includes clothing, household repair parts, auto repairs, health co-pays, writing expenses, gardening, donations, and anything unexpected that pops up during the year. Sometimes things break and an outside contractor is needed to make furnace, electrical or other repairs. Contractors are not cheap.

I used to go shopping when the Super Bowl was televised. It was a tradition. I’d wait until the neighborhood got quiet, start the car, and drive to the mall to walk deserted passages and browse. It was my personal equivalent of Black Friday. I’m not sure how much I spent on such shopping trips, but not much. The message was more how anti-sports I became after seeing the Iowa Hawkeyes play with coach Ray Nagle back in the day. Sports was and is a waste of time in our household, unless someone we know personally is playing.

With no money left at the end of each month, and we had to take out a loan to pay for some unexpected expenses. Shopping out of tradition doesn’t make sense with a personal loan. It is better not to buy anything extra other than what we need to get by.

I compare this with the post-war boom during the 1950s when large companies banked on a consumer society. The population boomed and people were buying new homes and equipping them with modern appliances and furnishings. The car culture took off. Today, with so much of our expenses programmed and necessary, combined with replacement items, this has to be taking sales away from merchants who once relied upon them. We bought a used car last year, and will buy a major appliance or two this year, but such purchases can’t be driving the economy, at least not in the same way. Cars and appliances are made better to last longer these days and that has to hurt replacement sales.

We are going through the house to purge stuff we don’t need. So much of what we cared about for years, isn’t anything our child wants. We have the room to store old things, although there is nothing wrong with some empty space. I keep thinking I could need, use, or repurpose. I need to let go. It is hard to get a purge started, and we are not ready to call the waste management company to arrange for a dumpster. However; that day is coming.

The Super Bowl will continue to be a non-event here. We’ll make the usual meals, yet we won’t do any shopping outside our normal stocking levels to prepare. I’ll skip a traditional shopping trip that shouldn’t have been a tradition at all. I’ll be better for that.


Listening to the Wind

Derecho Woodpile

I work a lot on winter days. Some readers may want to put air quotes around that word. What I mean is cleaning the house, washing dishes, preparing meals, doing laundry, and snow removal. I began to plant seeds in trays to grow seedlings for the garden. In winter, any type of physical activity is welcome and most of it must be done to maintain a household. As a septuagenarian in reasonably good health, I need breaks from time-to-time to sustain activity throughout the whole day. When I do rest, it is in the form of a nap or to sit quietly for a few minutes in my living room chair.

While resting, I listen to the wind.

Since we moved here there have been three major wind events. The first two were what we called “straight line” winds that damaged the house and some of the trees. The last major event was the 2020 derecho. Before these events, I paid little attention to the wind. Now it is more engaging than television, radio, or looking at the screen on my handheld mobile device. It creates a form of solitary alertness well cognizant of the consequences of strong wind.

Listening to the wind doesn’t seem like much. At a certain age it evokes memories that transform the present into something else: a sense of fear, experience, or knowledge about the hazards of living in a turbulent world. Listening to the wind is more than about resting.

When I’m at my writing table I can’t hear the wind or anything else that goes on outdoors. Well, I can hear the predawn fusillade of shotguns during hunting season. It is a quiet environment by design. If I have the space heater on, I can only hear the fan. It is the type of environment suited to concentrating on memory and the imagination. It is the setting for reading and writing.

I’ve been reading Grandmother’s letters from when I was in the military. When she wrote them, she was not much older than I am today. She had at least four heart attacks while I was gone, and fell on the street twice. She was often tired, she wrote, especially during her recovery from hospitalization or the falls. She would stop working and lay on the bed or sit in her living room. Sometimes all she got done was to prepare meals and make her bed. It’s was not unlike how I am today.

The sound of the wind takes me back to the past. While wind may be a present danger, I worry less about it because of my experiences. I know for what to listen in the wind. I become thankful for my health and presence of mind. The wind inspires me to get back to work and improve how I live.

Some days we just need to shut off the noise, take a rest, and listen to the wind.

Home Life

Friday No. 5

Rainbow. Photo by the author.

It’s the fifth Friday of 2023 and winter is here… not for long, though. The forecast through Feb. 14 is mostly for highs in the forties. While this above freezing forecast sets back my winter fruit tree pruning, I will adapt. Adaptation is what it’s about in the newest era of the climate crisis.

For the first time in nine days I ventured out of the house, off property. The trip to the wholesale club, including drive time, took 90 minutes. At this rate, the fixed cost of the car loan is about $50 per trip. If that usage continues, this vehicle will last a long time. To put it into perspective, every time I leave the house, it is expensive.

Needing a new car was an unwelcome surprise. The drive train and body of the 2002 Subaru Outback would have continued for a long time. The problem came in when repair parts for critical systems were not available because they quit making them. Since we didn’t have $20,000 sitting in the bank, we took out an auto loan and that will be paid back over five years. The car will last that long, but the car payment blocks out other spending. Welcome to the world of being a pensioner.

Spending more time at home is revealing how much upkeep owning a home involves. While we bought the best appliances we could afford, they are wearing out, in some cases after more than thirty years of use. The next challenge is how to pay about $1,200 apiece to replace the four appliances next in queue. Basically, we’ll charge them on a credit card, then pay off the balance with whatever is left of our pensions at the end of the month.

Fridays have become my indoor seeding day. Last Friday I planted stevia to grow indoors (Stevia is zone 9). Today is kale seeding in a tray of 50 blocks. The main crop kale is a combination of Winterbor and Redbor. These varieties grow easily, are tasty, and freeze well. I will also plant Scarlet, White Russian, and Dazzling Blue. The tray will be 15 each of Winterbor and Redbor, six White Russian, six Dazzling Blue, and eight Scarlet. Depending upon germination rates, this should produce enough kale to last through the season and in the freezer until spring 2024.

When spending a lot of time at home, we crave order. I’ve tried to frame a weekly order, yet it is not going well. We don’t have “weeks” in retirement when each day blends into the next. Fridays are the most settled pattern because the regular week is over and we’re heading into the weekend.

Our mind works to create structure. I end up framing a week, however imperfectly. I feel a residual cultural need to say, “Thank goodness it’s Friday.” I resist, and attempt to go my own way. There is a song about that.

Kitchen Garden

No Cookbook for Us

Primary cookbooks on Jan. 20, 2023.

During the coronavirus pandemic I began cooking most of the dinners in our home. There were challenges, yet after leaving paid outside work on April 28, 2020, I adapted. My repertory is not huge, yet with a substantial kitchen garden, there are always good ingredients on hand for meals.

Regular readers may recall my recent posts about cookbooks. To what extent do we rely on other people’s recipes and techniques? Once one gets practice, not much.

I posted on Facebook about baking bread:

I’m getting off store-bought bread, maybe permanently: baking my own. It’s been a thing to practice and develop a recipe I like. I found mixing the water, yeast and sugar in a separate container to let them proof, then pouring it into a bowl on top of the flour and salt produced bread with a nice crumb. Am working on oven temperature, yet I start it on 400 degrees for ten minutes or so, then lower to 375 degrees to finish.

What are your tips for bread-making?

Paul Deaton Facebook page, Jan. 19, 2023.

In a day I got 26 comments in which people shared how they make bread. There were ingredients, and recipes, and much personal information about process. Importantly, I learned how bread fits into my friends’ lives. These kinds of posts are the best part of being on Facebook.

Part of my interest in bread making is the process of waking up, washing my hands, and having the dough rising in the oven by 3:30 – 4 a.m. I enjoy kneading dough very much, so I wouldn’t consider a bread machine or other process that did not include kneading. Instead of personal grooming, or putting on makeup to be ready for my day, I knead dough as a way of waking up into a world where much work is required. Bread making is part of a process of crafting a livable life going forward. When I’m finished re-inventing my bread making I won’t need a cookbook very often, if at all.

I cooked meals with my maternal grandmother many times. She never once used a cookbook. From a young age, she worked as a cook in private homes, and in restaurants. She also cooked for her five children, and when she had one, her husband. She learned how to incorporate a kitchen garden into her menus, and later, ingredients available at the Walgreens within walking distance of her apartment. That’s something I aspire to.

Grandmother made lemon chicken for me when I returned from military service on leave. The kitchen in her one-room apartment was minimal and she used an electric frying pan rather than a stove. I enjoyed talking with her as she prepared our meal. These meals are among my fondest memories.

After supper, I asked her to write down the recipe for lemon chicken so I could prepare it. The funny part was she forgot to include lemon as an ingredient on the written recipe. No cookbook for her.

You can’t take it with you, so my cookbook collection will be reduced in number to a few to pass on to our progeny. I donated more than 200 to the local library book sale and to Goodwill. I have a couple hundred more to deal with. At some point this cookbook collecting got away from me.

I hope to get to the point where I can say, “No cookbook for me.”

Kitchen Garden

Straying from Recipes

Go-to Summer Meal – Sliced tomato, toasted whole grain bread, basil pesto , salt and pepper.

We make about two dozen regular meals based on what is available from a well-stocked pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. In season, we adjust meals to include fresh vegetables from the garden. Cooking has become ingredient-driven in our kitchen garden. If we have an ingredient on hand, it is likely to go into a meal. That is different from the way Mother put food on the table when I lived at her home.

I do seek new recipes. If one comes along requiring a special ingredient we don’t stock, it is usually discarded as I move on to one that fits into our food universe. Seldom do we adopt new recipes without modification to accommodate our outlook about cooking process and vegetarian cuisine. Our meals are pretty basic and that is a good thing.

For example, I don’t follow a recipe for making bread. Water, all purpose flour, yeast, sugar, and salt can make a decent loaf. I start by measuring hot water from the tap into a bowl. I measure a teaspoon or so of dried active yeast and a scant teaspoon of sugar, whisk, and let sit for the yeast to activate. Then I add the flour with a pinch of salt, and knead it into a ball for the first rising. After it doubles in size, I turn it out on the counter and knead a few minutes. I form it into a loaf and put the bread pan into a warm oven for the second rising. Once doubled in size, I take the pans out, turn the heat to 375 degrees, and bake for 30-35 minutes. The result is almost always good.

There isn’t a bread recipe, yet maybe there is. The picture I have of myself while making bread is of interaction with ingredients rather than following a recipe.

Beginning after World War II, changes in the availability of processed food and the rise of community cookbooks reflected a new era of home cooking. Review some of the recipes in these cookbooks and find reference to gelatin, shortening, instant pudding, boxed cake mixes, sweetened condensed milk, and other processed foods. Ingredient measurements for a recipe assumed a certain sized bag of frozen vegetables or can of beans before a time of larger purchases from wholesale clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club. In part, this is due to the rise of larger grocery stores with diverse supply chains. In part, it is due to a growing population influenced by television advertising and national brands. As we are coming to recognize, it is part of a movement toward consolidation of the food production industry into a small number of large, integrated companies. We had 15.5 ounce cans of beans because that is what the manufacturer made and was available at the local grocer. It is easier to use canned beans than preparing dried beans, so we did. Having read dozens of community cookbooks, I found recipes in them were often quite similar to one another.

The advent of short-form video about cooking may be influencing how we cook. I viewed hundreds of cooking videos on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. What I found is while some of the ingredients changed, common threads run through a majority of them. The substance of food preparation was similar and came from a relatively small list of ingredients. Additionally, a video presentation was not a “recipe” but more the idea of a recipe. I wrote about this in September. I believe our cuisine is poorer for dealing with ideas rather than the taste and economics of actual dishes on our plates.

There is a dynamic between a new recipe, our habitual cuisine and our pantry. Because of my experience as a cook, I am more likely to take the idea of a recipe and use it to make a meal than I am to use a recipe as a starting point for grocery shopping and process control. Making three meals a day is not that complicated, nor does it take a large variety of recipes.

It is normal to adjust recipes. A well-known recipe is for Toll House cookies printed on the Nestle brand of semi-sweet chocolate chips. When I made this recipe, I added a tablespoon of flour to the cookie dough to produce a firmer cookie. Cooks everywhere make such minor adjustments to recipes.

The key transformation as a cook is to stray from recipes completely. To become like that bread-making cook I described and visualize what the dish will look like using techniques needed to create the dish. They say we shouldn’t stray too far from the reservation. Straying from recipes may be the best way to cook.

Living in Society

Budget Time


Each year I put together a budget. When I say “budget,” I mean “expense budget.” Sometimes I follow it, other times not so much. I’ve been unwilling to accept the constraints of living on a pension, so when unexpected things happened — furnace repair, yard tractor repair, or auto replacement — our debt increased each month beginning in April. We’ve been unable to pay it off from cash flow. It’s time for a reckoning.

In the budget spreadsheet I compare income against projected expenses. There is not a lot left at the end of the year.

Paying the car loan and addressing some long-standing home maintenance issues are part of it. There will be unexpected expenses again this year combined with a project list to accomplish. Any income beyond our pensions can readily find a home. Our current income is spent on basic living.

What to do?

We need more income for things beyond basic living.

Some parts of a budget are not complicated. If we take the time to step back and examine what we are doing, the answer seems obvious. Now that the need has been identified, how do we meet it?

This is the part of budgeting at which most people never arrive.


Holiday Retreat – Day 5

Animal Tracks

A light snow-cover greeted me on the final day of this personal retreat. It will take about 15 minutes to clear the driveway, which I will do once snowfall slows later this morning. It should be a good day.

I made the planned Christmas dinner with the exception of the chick pea snacks. I decided there was enough food without them, and in any case, they would better serve any New Year’s Eve celebration. There are leftovers for today and tomorrow.

It has been challenging to shed obligations of our Big Grove life long enough to gain some perspective. I did the best I could, and yesterday went well. While I would like to live only for my writing and creativity, that seems a bit romantic (like Coleridge, Shelley and Keats) for someone with deep American roots. It is especially true when confronted with the existential worry about whether the village well will continue to work, the furnace plant will operate as designed, the snow plow crew will arrive as scheduled, and major appliances will continue to work until we are ready to replace them. Everything held over the holiday.

The coronavirus pandemic has not relented. People I know are administering home tests, with some contracting the virus. It is no badge of honor to have had COVID. On the contrary, we tend to look down on someone who got it, the way we look down on someone who got cancer. Having had COVID gives us pause when the science about masking and vaccines is so clear. The basic starting point is answering the question, “What did you do wrong?” It seems very accusative. As far as I know, I have not contracted COVID, although it is ubiquitous and I likely will.

Today will be organizing for a return to work as normal. I have a good idea of what must come next in my autobiography. I’m writing a budget for 2023. I crave outdoors activity and if the weather relents, I’ll get some today. Now that holiday feasting is done, I must design a menu that will support health. It will be a busy day.

Thanks for following my journey this holiday season.


Holiday Retreat – Day 4

Snow Tracks

Wind blew snow into drifts across the driveway. I spent 20 minutes removing them with the snow blower so the surface would be flat and ready to collect the coming snowstorm tonight. That is the extent of outside work for today.

It continues to be quiet in the neighborhood. The president said it as well as anyone:

There is a certain stillness at the center of the Christmas story: a silent night when all the world goes quiet. And all the clamor, everything that divides us, fades away in the stillness of a winter’s evening. I wish you that peace this Christmas Eve.

President Joe Biden official Twitter account on Dec. 24, 2022.

One memory of Christmas is walking to Midnight Mass at the Catholic Church where my parents wed and I was baptized and confirmed. I remember that one night, everything was still while large flakes of snow fell to cover the sidewalk. I felt an urgent purpose as I made my way to the North entrance of the church.

Midnight Mass was one of the most attended events in the liturgical calendar. Even Father, who was not particularly religious, attended that night.

Last night I wrote a menu for my solitary dinner tonight.

On first glance, it looks like quite a feast. It looks fancier than it is when one writes it up that way. Basically, I’m using up leftover rice and getting some pickles, applesauce and other canned goods used up. The meal should be satisfying, with leftovers for tomorrow and beyond.

The plan for today is to relax and take it easy. There are some phone calls planned and that’s about it. A day to rest before tonight’s storm.


Holiday Retreat – Day 3

Snowy Scene on the lake shore trail.

Christmas Eve changed into a quiet time. It has always been that — for as long as I can remember — yet it seems quieter today than it has been. I heard the wind howling in the neighborhood, rattling our windows while I was reading. This cold snap is beginning to break with wind speed slowing overnight and warmer ambient temperatures forecast, beginning today.

Yesterday the garage got colder than I wanted. I scraped snow and ice from the rubber seal on the door and piled rags where the door met the concrete to keep wind out. In the afternoon, I warmed the garage with a space heater until it got closer to freezing. I turned the space heater off when I went to bed and this morning the temperature had stabilized at 30 degrees.

I phoned my sister on Friday. Part of our discussion was Mother’s cooking. I don’t remember much of the food we ate at home while I was in K-12 schools. I made a list of main dishes: meatloaf, liver and onions, roast beef, baked ham, tacos, vegetable beef soup, salmon patties, and hamburgers and hot dogs came to mind. Mother would make red-eye gravy for Father because of his rural, Southern roots. It was usually all for him, so we kids didn’t get any. We ordered takeout pizza from time to time from the Chicken Delight restaurant on Locust Street. I have some of Mother’s recipes yet don’t prepare them after my conversion to being mostly vegetarian.

I have forgotten how to make bread. In my second attempt during this retreat, it was good tasting, yet didn’t have the crumb I wanted. After posting a photo on Facebook someone commented, “Eat your failures, no evidence. We will not speak of this again.” I do need to eat some of the bread, and then I want to do it again until I produce a decent loaf. I also baked a batch of 12 almond cookies for Christmas Day (unless I eat them sooner). They are simple and good.

Yesterday the U.S. Congress sent an omnibus spending bill to the president for his signature. They funded the government until Sept. 30, 2023, the end of the fiscal year. Democrats didn’t have the votes to address the debt ceiling, so that remains an open question. The bill signals the end of Biden’s successful years with the 117th Congress. With Republicans holding a slim majority in the U.S. House after the midterm elections, we expect to see big successes slow down. If it is like the Obama administration was after the 2010 conservative tsunami, very little will get done. I hope I’m wrong, yet I’ve been paying attention.

I considered the letter to the editor and opinion pieces I submitted to newspapers. I don’t know what future there is in that for me. I became proficient in making a single point and sticking with it in tight, brief sentences. We could call what I did “issue advocacy” where I had a position on an issue and argued my point. Part of the problem with our society is everyone has issues and will argue their point in public spaces while no one is listening to each other. We have to get beyond issues politics. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Thing is, some opinions are plain wrong.

Today is another day of home cooking and reflection. I plan to have some sort of snack tray with pickles, crudites, and prepared snacks. Dinner will be chili with cornbread, which is a home-grown Christmas Eve tradition. If I can figure out the television schedule, I might turn it on and watch a full program or movie. That may be more cultivated than I’m feeling this morning.


Holiday Retreat – Day 2


On day two of my five-day retreat I feel the first day was a success.

Dinner was tacos using leftover filling with some added hot sauce. I made the sauce using older hot pepper sauces and salsas in the refrigerator and pantry. I also found a jar of “hot vinegar” to add. The pot simmered all day until it reduced in volume by a third. Next I strained out the larger solids and blended them into a paste to store and use separately. The main hot sauce has excellent flavor and displaces any need to buy commercial products well into gardening season. Thumbs way up!

I made a loaf of bread yesterday and it turned out dense. I added too many extras like bulgur wheat, oat bran, and mystery flour, and the yeast wouldn’t rise. I started over this morning with straight all purpose flour and the King Arthur Flour basic recipe. We’ll see how this goes, fingers crossed. If I’m successful, I’ll have a better starting point for using up all the flour-like things in our pantry.

A modest investment in an electric snow blower proved to be wise. I’m of an age where I shouldn’t be out shoveling snow in extreme cold. The electric snow blower is easy and fast. There hasn’t been a lot of snow during this blizzard so I blew the driveway only once. Limited snow is forecast today yet the wind will be continuous, creating drifts. I may go outdoors to shovel the front steps when ambient temperatures get to one degree around 3 p.m. We’ll see.

Organizing was important on day one. I checked the website for used book donations at the public library, and they are pickier than they have been. They recommend books published within the last ten years. Whoever wrote that standard doesn’t understand books. I divided the current culled books into two piles, one for the library used book sale and one to be donated to Goodwill which doesn’t have any criteria on their website. Another hundred books will go out the door once the blizzard relents.

The dining room table is cleared so I brought up my files on medical stuff. They accumulated over the years and I plan to go through them before my spouse returns. Getting that done during these days would be nice.

Overnight we dropped to minus ten degrees. I set the thermostat on 60 and got out the third wool blanket for the bed. My nose was a little cold yet every thing else stayed warm.

I called a friend and we talked about an hour. We have been working on politics together for a long time. I reflected on my favorite political events. Here is a short list of memories revisited:

  • Stuffing envelopes for the 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson campaign in Davenport.
  • George McGovern rally at Old Capitol in Iowa City before the 1972 general election.
  • Standing for Ted Kennedy during the 1980 presidential caucus in Davenport.
  • Crossing a street in Des Moines when a van load of apparent preachers, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whizzed by in 1984.
  • Taking our child into the polling booth with me to vote for Bill Clinton.
  • Our family attending the 2004 Iowa caucus and standing for John Kerry.
  • Meeting Barack Obama at the Tom Harkin 2006 Steak Fry near Indianola.
  • Dave Loebsack’s 2006 campaign.
  • Being precinct secretary at the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
  • Seemingly endless Hillary Clinton events in 2016, including getting a selfie with her.
  • Elizabeth Warren event in Tipton, Iowa in April 2020.
  • Leading the 2020 precinct caucus and the ensuing reporting snafu..

All these memories are important. I expect to work each of them and more into my autobiography. In addition to politics, there are multiple thematic subjects to include and I haven’t decided how to approach them. This retreat is providing some ideas.

Today is about holiday baking. Bread, an applesauce cake, and at least one batch of cookies are in the works. I donned a stocking cap from the merch store of the Twitch stream I follow and am styling multiple layers this morning. It appears the worst of this blizzard’s cold weather is behind us. The new process of working in the kitchen before arriving at my workspace continues to deliver results. By 10 a.m., I got a lot done.