Living in Society

Retro Post: Le Weekend

Pastis. Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: Apologies to those who read this in 2016 or previous times I posted it. I continue to return to these paragraphs because the pandemic has driven me to seek ways to return to normalcy. One of them is by creating a weekend. It’s French!

A benefit of an American lifestyle is having the occasional weekend off.

Yet the weekend is more French than American – le weekend!

In June 1977, over two weekends, I was in France with the French military. Those days imprinted the meaning of “weekend” on me.

My guide for the exchange officer experience was an infantry marine platoon commander stationed at Vannes. The unit was on alert to deploy to Djibouti, which had recently declared its independence from France. If there was trouble in the transition, my unit would head there.

Upon arrival at the train station Friday afternoon, my escort took me straight to the officer’s club. I drank too many pastis before attending a reception in my honor. No one told me about the reception until several pastis had passed my lips. The non-commissioned officers lined up one aperitif after another in front of me with glee. Too drunk to be embarrassed, when someone mentioned the reception, I decided to leave the remaining drinks on the table, sober up, and listen and learn about the culture.

I practiced my French and mustered a dim comment about the Concorde, which was still new, at the reception. Because of the alcohol it was the best I could do. I’m not sure I made a positive impression.

In homes and apartments in which I lived, I did as French people did. Weekends continue to be French in Big Grove, although with much less alcohol and no drunkenness. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.

Living in Society

Retro Post – Christmas Morning

Christmas coffee mug.

(First posted on Dec. 25, 2007, during the first year I wrote a blog. Lightly edited because I couldn’t stand some of my previous usage).

The meaning of Christmas is derived from my remembrance of priests at Holy Family Catholic Church in Davenport genuflecting while reading John 1:14 “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us…”

There are many translations of this verse and the idea that an omniscient God would take human form remains a compelling idea. In order for our lives to have meaning, we should live them as Jesus did, through acts in human society.

If Jesus was the incarnate God, we are something less.

If the meaning of Christmas can be found in John 1:14, how should that affect us with our imperfections?

My Christmas story is about the coffee cup that we keep in our bins of Christmas decorations. It was a gift from my spouse and printed in the glaze are five reindeer around a typewriter consulting on a message. The reindeer at the keyboard has a red nose, and must be Rudolf. On the other side of the mug are misspelled the words “Merry Christmas,” presumably typed by Rudolf. At some point I chipped the cup and each year we discuss whether we should get rid of it because of the chip. I have always said no, although I should probably let go. The chipped cup with the animals trying to put a message into human language using human technology has become part of our Christmas tradition. Because it is so similar to the meaning of Christmas, I have trouble letting go of it. We have always ended up keeping the cup and I am using it now to hold the coffee I made this morning.

We humans can use some coffee on Christmas morning, and we need to put it in something.

Merry Christmas reader!

Living in Society

On a Clear Day You can See Forever

Closeup of Antoine LeClaire Monument
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
Retro Post from Jan. 11, 2012

It was another clear, warm day yesterday. When I ran the trash cart and recycling bin to the street this morning, the sky was clear, stars bright. The waning gibbous moon illuminated the house, driveway and yard with its silvery light, reminding me of how minuscule earthly troubles are in the scope of life in the universe.

Inside the trash cart were remnants of chicken wire from Monday’s garden work and a number of old pillows, one of which I brought back from Germany with me in 1979. No real trash as we did not generate enough this week to make a full bag.

The Iowa House of Representatives implemented new video webcast functionality at the beginning of the legislative session. I viewed Governor Branstad give his 17th condition of the state address to a joint session of the legislature. He focused on two things: economic growth and education reform. President of the Iowa Senate, Jack Kibbie, could be seen behind the governor applauding politely from time to time. Hopefully, the governor will find common ground with the legislature this year. As House Speaker Pro Tempore Jeff Kaufmann pointed out with regard to property tax reform, there are three versions, the governor’s, the House version and the Senate Democratic version. This three part division seems likely to follow everything the legislature does this year.

I drove to Runge Funeral Home in Davenport for visitation, memorial service, and interment of the mother of a long time friend. My mother came for the visitation and we sat in the parlor, waiting to speak to Dennis, whom we have both known for a long time. Mom drove separately and when she left the visitation, we went to nearby Mount Calvary Cemetery to visit the graves of family members. Many people from my childhood are buried there.

As one enters the cemetery, the road passes Antoine LeClaire’s grave. He was one of the founders of Davenport who interpreted the autobiography of Black Hawk. Our family is buried further back. This visit I noticed one of my grade school classmates is buried next to my father’s plot. My classmate died in 2010. We visited my father, my grandmother and my great grandparents. At least three of my grandmother’s sisters are buried in the cemetery. We visited Pauline and Margaret’s graves, which are near their parents.

Mom brought a holiday fruitcake for me which I transported in the passenger seat, a simple pleasure.

When Mom went home, I returned for the memorial service which was conducted by a Lutheran minister. The music was Anne Murray, “Can I have this Dance?” Willie Nelson and a Polka with bird chirps superimposed on it. We said the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer.

At the interment, Dennis invited me to his sister’s home for sandwiches and we sat at the dining room table talking about diverse issues. In our younger days, we discussed Bellow, Hegel, Nietzsche and Sartre. Now, we discuss oncology, magnetic resonance imagery, physicians, and a too long list of human diseases and ailments. We did manage to work Joan Didion, Richard Ford and Philip Roth into the conversation.

The drive west went quickly. I was too late for the veterans meeting in Coralville, so I went directly home, tired from the day and ready for a long sleep. In this morning’s silvery, predawn light, Orion sat on top of our house as I walked back to the garage. I stopped and pondered, knowing that my recognition of the constellation was transient, and that I was ready for another day.


Retro Post: Climate Change is Real

Photo taken by the author.

First published on Iowa City Patch on July 13, 2013.

Climate Change is Real

Last week was arguably the best summer weather we have had in many years. Temperatures were moderate and humidity low; some rain, but not too much; and glorious partly cloudy skies coupled with a light breeze. A bit of imitation vanilla extract on the nose, and even swarms of gnats couldn’t spoil the enjoyment.

Everyone I know who has a garden is having an abundant year of produce. Foragers can find plenty of black raspberries, and while the Iowa DNR sprayed the lily pads on Lake Macbride near Solon, one more toxic substance in the water won’t kill us — we hope.

Climate change is real. Any question that greenhouse gases are warming the planet, and are caused by human activity has fallen away to leave the more appropriate one, “what will we do about climate change?” The crazy weather we have been experiencing recedes from view on days like last week, while coal and natural gas power plants continue to dump CO2 pollution into the atmosphere like it was an open sewer to air-condition our homes. There are two issues: protecting what we hold dear from the effects of climate change, and doing something to address the causes of greenhouse gas emissions.

While addressing climate change is complicated, things we can do to help are not. Reduce energy use at home by turning off lights after leaving a room and unplug your computer and mobile phone chargers when they are not in use. Change how we think about transportation by consolidating errands. We should be doing these things anyway.

The point is not to radically change how we live, but to join the vast majority of Americans in acknowledging that climate change is real, and poses a tangible threat to how we live. Then take steps to personally do something about it. You will be glad you did.

Living in Society

Retro Post: When I Met Colin Powell

Colin Powell and Jin Roy Ryu at dedication of Korean War Memorial in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, June 1, 2010. Photo Credit: Cedar Rapids Gazette.

This post first ran on June 4, 2010. It was a relatively small gathering and I had a chance to shake Powell’s hand. Powell’s view of the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement was illustrative of his mainstream political and economic values. Powell died yesterday of complications from COVID-19 at age 84.

Colin Powell and Free Trade in Iowa

This week former Secretary of State Colin Powell came to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to dedicate a memorial to 507 Iowans who died during the Korean War. It is past time for such a memorial, and the event brought out Korean War Veterans, legionnaires, politicians and citizens of every stripe. While I was walking from the parking lot at Veteran’s Memorial Park to the seating area, an old van pulled up, windows open and Aaron Tippin’s song about eagles, the flag and “if that bothers you, well that’s too bad” booming into the air, shaking the pavement. A parking lot attendant in a military uniform told the driver, “Don’t turn that off.” It typified the gathering as predominantly working class, veteran and plain folks like us.

PMX Industries, Inc. was the host and funding source for the memorial. PMX is headquartered in Cedar Rapids and is an affiliate of the South Korea based Poongsan Corporation, whose tagline is, “Poongsan Corporation can, and will, contribute to human progress through our superior products.” PMX makes the copper and brass alloys that go into things we use every day, such as coinage, ammunition casings, electrical connectors and lock sets. Poongsan’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Jin Roy Ryu, was present for the dedication, posing for photos with dignitaries and assisting with the unveiling of the memorial. Chairman Ryu is politically well connected in the United States. He translated and published a Korean edition of Colin Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey. The author believes most in the audience had not heard of him. It also seems likely Ryu’s long standing relationship with Colin Powell brought him to Cedar Rapids for the ceremony.

Sid Morris, President of the Korean War Association Iowa Chapter, spoke and PMX President, S. G. Kim, gave a well written speech to mark the occasion. Many of us had come to hear Colin Powell speak.

In a world where cynicism is commonplace, when Powell advocated for ratification of the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), it was unsettling. It was unsettling partly because of the potential for additional off-shoring of jobs a free trade agreement with South Korea would represent. According to the Office of the U. S. Trade representative, the treaty is signed but not ratified, with the status, “the Obama Administration will seek to promptly and effectively address the issues surrounding the KORUS FTA, including concerns that have been expressed regarding automotive trade.” The author is not the first to be concerned about the treaty’s encouragement of off shoring jobs to South Korea.

More than this reaction, what was bothersome was the way this advocacy was raised in the context of recognition of our Korean War Veterans. Why does there have to be a political agenda behind everything? When I look at the people sitting next to the podium, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, S.G. Kim, Colin Powell and Chairman Ryu, I believe all of them to be decent people. At the same time, in an economy where increasing the number of jobs has proven to be difficult at best, why politicize this dedication to fallen soldiers?

Powell’s assertion was that Korean investments in the United States have created jobs, like the ones at PMX Industries. His reasoning is that presumably there would be more investment by Korean companies in the US with a Free Trade Agreement. No guarantees of that. There would also be a trickle down of jobs related to new access to South Korean markets by U.S. companies. With U.S. productivity on the skids, some of these sales could be serviced through increases in productivity more than through expansion. In any case, the benefits of a Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement cannot be easily reduced to something that would fit in an Aaron Tippin song.

I am thankful that PMX Industries donated the funds for the Korean War memorial. At the same time, the interconnectedness of local politics, jobs and foreign affairs, as represented by the relationship between Jin Roy Ryu, Colin Powell and the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, indicate again that the powerful influences at work in our lives have their own agenda. That agenda does not always fit the needs of working people.

Long after the applause at their private luncheon at the country club is forgotten, we’ll continue to be here, living our middle class lives in the post-Reagan era.

Living in Society

Retro Post – On Sept. 11, 2001

United Airlines Flight 175 hits World Trade Center south tower on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

First published at Blog for Iowa on Sept. 11, 2011.

I was scheduled to fly from Moline, Illinois to Philadelphia on Sept. 11, 2001. My flight was cancelled. I returned to the office, and with the other office employees watched the twin towers burning and then collapse on television. I neither understood what happened nor knew what to do. But I turned to a president, one I believed stole the 2000 election, and said that I would support him after this act of terrorism. We all did.

What I remember most from the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 was my trip to Philadelphia a few days later. The plane was almost empty. As I approached the Eastern Iowa Airport, the radio announcer said President Bush was also heading to Philadelphia on an unannounced trip. Air Force One was already parked at Philadelphia International Airport when I arrived and I drove past it in my rental car heading to Interstate 95. There were hundreds of law enforcement officials stationed along the presidential route.

As I headed North, I passed the presidential motorcade returning to the airport. It was 10:30 a.m. On the radio I discovered that the President was in town fulfilling a campaign promise to visit a women’s shelter. He couldn’t have been in Philadelphia three hours. I shook my head, disappointed that after all that had happened, we were back to politics.

As the hope of getting something done in Washington D.C. this year wanes, and our attention turns to “jobs,” the “Super Committee” and the 2012 Presidential election, we are approaching the tenth anniversary of the event that brought almost everyone in the country together. I am referring to Osama Bin Laden’s successful hijacking of four aircraft and the deaths, destruction and economic damage it brought. It did bring us together, if only for the briefest of moments. Whatever consensus may have existed then, devolved into political gridlock unlike any in living memory.

We know about the deaths that day, and the illnesses of workers at Ground Zero. What we don’t consider enough is the death, destruction and economic damage caused by the United States reaction to Sept. 11, 2001. Hugh Gusterson reports in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his collaborator Linda Bilmes estimate that, in funds already disbursed or committed, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have so far cost the American taxpayer… $3.2 trillion.” It is noteworthy that this amount includes $200 billion in interest incurred after the decision to pay for the war with deficit spending. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the United States will incur another $800 billion in interest charges on the war debt by 2020. The wars are costing a lot.

In this month’s issue of The Lancet, Vic Sidel and Barry Levy published an article titled, “Adverse health consequences of U.S. Government responses to the 2001 terrorist attacks.” The article reminds us of the fact that there were more than the dollar costs of these wars. According to the article, as of July 26, 2011 there were 1,568 US Military deaths in Afghanistan and 4,408 in Iraq. There have been tens of thousands of US casualties. Likewise there were many times this number of Afghan and Iraqi deaths. Estimates are that 655,000 Iraqis died in the first 40 months of the Iraq War. Millions of refugees in both countries are on the move as a result of the wars. The health care infrastructure in Iraq was damaged, much of it destroyed. Thousands of villages in Afghanistan and their environs have been destroyed. Of 222,620 US military personnel who returned between May, 2003, and April 2004, 42,506 (19%) reported mental health problems and 68,923 (31%) used mental health services over the first year after they returned home. The article continues, but I have made the point: the cost of our reaction to September 11 was in more than dollars.

As we honor the lives lost and damaged by the terrorist attacks, I hope that for a moment we can include those lost and damaged by our political decision to invade Iraq and to prosecute a war with Afghanistan that no one has been able to win after more than thirty years of fighting.

Once we understand the true cost of war, it seems too high a price.

Kitchen Garden

Retro Post: Pepper Flakes

Serrano Peppers

First published on Nov. 7, 2010 on my blog Big Grove Garden.

Pepper Flakes

There is a natural urge to use everything. It gets suppressed by the modern American culture of throwing things away. In our house we often don’t have trash to take to the curb each week, but almost always have recycling to go out. American frugality has been in remission, but expect a comeback.

While working in transportation, I received a gift of some dried peppers in small plastic bags. Two bags have been sitting in the pantry for a while. In addition, I grew a long, thin and red pepper in the garden a few seasons ago. Some of these were dried and stored. In the box store yesterday, in the Mexican food section there were four feet of dried peppers in many different kinds. They were cheap and I bought two bags of the most abundant types. When I got home, I combined all of them and ground about half into pepper flakes. The one jar this produced will last a very long time. When I grind the second batch, it will go into small jars for gifts.

The challenge of American society will be to balance abundance with frugality. Waste not, want not is how it goes. I am afraid that we have not been understanding what we have been wasting, and it’s time we did.

Living in Society

Afghanistan Forever

Paper cranes

~ I’ve been writing about Afghanistan for what seems like forever. Here are two posts, the first was written as the surge happened and our company participated in deployment of equipment to Afghanistan. The second reiterated how long the United States has been involved in Afghanistan. As the U.S. makes a hasty and long overdue exit, and the Taliban resumes control, one has to wonder about the human cost of U.S. engagement.

The War Machine Goes On
March 11, 2009

As I write this post, the military equipment moved from the depot to the coast continues its progress towards Afghanistan. There were hundreds of truckloads of vehicles and provisions moving out in a very large deployment over the past two weeks. We did not hear a lot about this in the mainstream media. If anything, this deployment would have gone on unnoticed, except for some of us in Big Grove.

For those of us who would rather see a world at peace combined with economic stability, we have been doubly disappointed. If the defense industry were to falter at this point, it would be another short circuit of an economy already on the fritz. The deployment to Afghanistan furthers the military spending, and while we agree that the influence of Osama Bin Laden and his followers should be neutralized, beyond that, it is difficult to see the importance of the Afghanistan-Pakistan issue.

So, as I drink morning coffee and turn down the heat to go into the office, I wonder how we can realize a sustainable peace in the world. With continued drought, famine, genocide and poverty, the global community is ripe for more conflict as populations move, oppressive regimes assert dominance and the United Stated assumes a larger role as “peace keeper” by these military deployments around the globe. In the words of John Lennon, “all we are saying is give peace a chance.”

An Iowan’s View of Afghanistan
December 11, 2009

When I hear people talking about the 8th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan I shake my head. We should be marking the 30th anniversary of our Afghanistan policy because we have been engaging in Afghanistan’s affairs since at least 1979, when the former Soviet Union invaded that country.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan combined with the ongoing Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran, and the United States view of the importance of Middle East oil, complicated the presidency of Jimmy Carter. In his memoir, Keeping Faith, former President Jimmy Carter wrote about the threat of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, “A successful takeover of Afghanistan would give the Soviets a deep penetration between Iran and Pakistan, and pose a threat to the rich oil fields of the Persian Gulf area and to the critical waterways through which so much of the world’s energy supplies had to pass.” There were also American interests. UNOCAL, a US company, was seeking to build an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan at that time. For President Carter these were vital US interests and he felt it critical to address the Soviet aggression. As many of us remember, Carter was in the middle of his campaign for a second term, and believed that campaigning actively was inappropriate. Among other things, he canceled his participation in a nationally televised debate in Des Moines, Iowa and initiated a US boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Many of us remember President Carter as beleaguered by the challenges of Iran and Afghanistan.

In the end, President Carter forswore direct military action and implemented economic sanctions. The most notable sanction to Iowans may be the grain embargo of the former Soviet Union. His administration also decided to prop up what he called “Afghan freedom fighters.” According to Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls in their book, Bleeding Afghanistan, the Afghan freedom fighters were “seven Islamist ‘Mujahideen’ or ‘jihadi’ groups based in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.” These groups received monetary, military and logistical support from the United States and Saudi Arabia through a third party intermediary. This indicates indirect military action on the part of the United States interests during the Soviet aggression. According to Kolhatkar and Ingalls, U.S. military aid may have gone to a group called Makhtab al Khadimat, “a group that recruited and trained Muslim volunteers from Egypt, Algeria and other countries to fight in the Afghan war.”

Makhtab al Khadimat was founded in 1984 by the Saudi heir to a construction firm, Osama bin Laden. From the perspective of today, this all sounds too familiar, except that eight years ago, the United States intervened in Afghanistan militarily to remove a problem that it may have helped engender.

I hope the blood and treasure that we have invested in our engagement in Afghanistan serves as another reason the United States must get to energy independence. Our sons and daughters are fighting and dying in a country where our interest in oil blinded us to the values of Islamic extremists. As we were supporting the Mujahideen, and saying we could work with the Taliban, we failed to hear other voices in Afghanistan that called for an end to the Soviet occupation, but not a return to Islamic fundamentalism.

According to Zoya, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), during a recent Iowa City appearance, little has changed since the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. The United States continues to support Islamic extremists in the Karzai government. To the extent Afghanistan is about United States interests in oil, it is one more manifestation of our addiction to hydrocarbon fuels. We need the will to cure our addiction to hydrocarbon fuel.

I empathize with my friends who call for demonstrations over President Obama’s escalation of the troop levels in Afghanistan. I have participated in these demonstrations. At the same time, I have to ask, where were they during the first escalation earlier this year? Where were they in 1979?

What I know is that President Obama, more than any president in my memory, appears to have put together the elements of a comprehensive plan to resolve the issues related to war and our addiction to hydrocarbon fuels. If Obama can extract us from three decades of engagement in Afghanistan, he will have truly done something for peace in that region and for the world. Iowans should support President Obama on Afghanistan. He is doing the dirty work that his predecessors, beginning with Jimmy Carter, left behind.

Kitchen Garden

Salad Days

Garden salad.

A retro post from April 21, 2012.

We can’t force language to mean what we want. There is a social aspect of words and meaning that is undeniable and inflexible in the day to day parlance of natives. While over time, meanings change, and old words gain new meanings, when we talk about our salad days, it has a certain meaning here in Big Grove.

Shakespeare said it in 1606 in “Anthony and Cleopatra,” “My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood…” The idiom came to mean a period of youthful inexperience or indiscretion. Around our house, it means the lettuce planted in early March is mature and over the next six weeks, we will have a lot of days of eating salad, our salad days.

If I were to commercialize our garden, lettuce would be important. At $3 per bag at the farmers market, the price is right to sell a lot of it. Too, there is a local restaurant market for fresh greens. What is not figured into the equation is the labor involved in picking and cleaning the greens, but with proper planting and marketing, a person could take in $60 to $100 per sales day from greens.

For now, we enjoy our salad days, knowing they won’t last long in the span of life. Last night the greens were topped with thinly sliced carrot and golden raisins. I found a bottle of store bought dressing in the refrigerator and used that. There are chives, sage, garlic and oregano in the garden, ready to be picked, chopped and added to the greens. There is almost always cheese to be crumbled on top. There are cans of kidney and garbanzo beans in the pantry. A host of variations on a theme as the salad days commence. My meaning, not Shakespeare’s.