Going Home After Notre Dame

Kale Seedlings from the Greenhouse, Ready to Plant

I’m going home.

Yesterday’s fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, on Île de la Cité in Paris, brought that feeling from the darkness.

It is no longer my world.

When I visited Notre Dame I didn’t take photos. I brought a dozen rolls of Kodak film with me on a 12-week trip to Europe. They had been stolen in Calais. I reluctantly bought two to replace them and used them sparingly. Having studied Gothic architecture in art history class, I figured there were enough extant photographs to call up memories without any light I personally exposed to film. It turns out those memories, in light of the fire, remain prominent without external stimulation.

I remember standing below the large stained glass window, made in the 13th century, in awe of the accomplishment. In 1974 the cathedral wanted repairs and there was ongoing work being done. The flying buttresses looked fragile, the stone facings of the church well worn by pollution from acid rain and vehicle exhausts. I marveled that the stained glass survived two world wars and read the story of how they did. A religious service started and I left the cathedral.

News reports this morning say the stained glass window that made an impression on me 45 years ago was saved from the fire. The collapse of the roof and gutting by fire of the interior means any repairs will be costly. With the centuries-old struggle to keep the building up, it’s hard to see how a complete restoration would even be possible. In any case, the 13,000 trees cut to make the roof —an entire forest — can not be replaced after so many centuries.

We are used to landmarks being changed or disappearing. The World Trade Center in New York City and the Bamyan Buddhas in Afghanistan are two different types of examples in my lifetime. How uncaring people can be about preserving history. How fragile is what has been entrusted to us by the past.

When the world you’ve come to know changes, it is time to go home.

According to the Social Security Administration’s life expectancy calculator I can expect to live 17.4 more years. I’ll do my best to live a good life, however, the journey home has already begun.

Obituaries Writing

We’re Going Home — Donald Kaul

RAGBRAI 1973; Photo Credit – RAGBRAI

We knew Donald Kaul had prostate cancer and it spread to his bones. He’d been ill for a number of years but after this diagnosis, the prognosis was not good — we expected him to die this year and he did on July 22, just as the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, which he co-founded with John Karras, was getting started.

I’ve never ridden on RAGBRAI, but made a few long runs on the bicycle I bought after graduate school. I even made a century ride through the countryside near Iowa City and discovered what glycogen depletion is. Kaul played a role in Iowa’s bicycle culture. His influence was more than that.

After returning from the military I found a paucity of intellectually engaged people in my home town. Not that there weren’t like-minded men and women, just not very many of them. I began to follow Kaul more than I had.

My first paid work was delivering newspapers for the Des Moines Register while in grade school. That was around 1965 which was when Kaul began writing Over the Coffee full time. The Register didn’t sell many papers in Davenport and my paper route involved a lot of walking with very few deliveries. I recall one of my customers talking about Kaul when I collected — his column was somewhat controversial. I moved on to the Times-Democrat which sold a lot more papers. When I began high school in 1966 I had to give up my paper route. There was apparently a rule.

Despite this history, I was not an avid newspaper reader. I certainly didn’t read every column Kaul wrote. He was a placeholder for the idea that we could do better in life than work for a wage, hit the bars, sleep it off, and wake up to do it again. I wanted something else from my life in Davenport and Kaul created an option.

“Donald Kaul is at least five different columnists, which is a pretty spectacular bargain for his readers,” Vance Bourjaily wrote in the forward to How to Light a Water Heater and Other War Stories: A Random Collection of Essays.

Bourjaily famously moved from the East Coast to work at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lived in the country and named his place Red Bird Farm. He wrote about men and horses and going to the dentist: things that resonate if one lives around here. Bourjaily captured the essence of Kaul.

“It is one of the pleasures of following Kaul’s column in the Register most days, as most of Iowa does,” he wrote, “that one can never be sure which of the five columnists the paper boy will bring this morning.”

Since Bourjaily died in 2010, I won’t have to break the news “most of Iowa” didn’t have home deliveries of the Register, ever. Some of those who did detested Kaul’s columns, and cancelled their subscription over it. Nonetheless, I like to think the inflated picture Bourjaily drew of Kaul as representative of what I hoped would be… even if it wasn’t.

I keep copies of some of Kaul’s books close by. If I need a lift, or inspiration, I read one of his columns. He was part of the development of my pursuit of intellectual interests. He may have prevented me from staying on in my home town to become another shoppie. Thank God for Donald Kaul, although that’s pretty ironic given his atheism.

If only I could write so well.

Donald Kaul has gone home and we’ll miss him.

Home Life

Goodbye 2008

Poor Richard’s Restaurant, Colorado Springs

Driving through ranch and mining country along Interstate 76, large square bales of hay are stacked four high as a windbreak around feedlots. The harvest is in and irrigation rigs idle.

On the distant horizon are wind turbines, It’s difficult to see if their blades are turning. Empty coal trains are on the move and motor traffic was light. Cloud formations played against an azure sky coming into Colorado.

As we exited to the Denver bypass, an enormous flock of birds descended onto a surface of water. We too were intending to settle for the night in Colorado Springs.

After dinner at Poor Richard’s Restaurant, we checked in at The Antlers Hilton.

The Antlers was opened a couple of years after the founding of Colorado Springs in 1871, situated with a view of the mountains and close to downtown. It was and is a resort designed to be away from the rough and tumble of the mining community and daily life. There were not a lot of cars in the adjacent self-park garage, and the hotel staff has been personable and helpful. It has been quiet during our stay.

At the end of 2008, the patterns of our lives feel played out.

Getting through the year marks us as survivors, pragmatists, realists and as individuals pitted against a society that rebukes our endeavors to rise above the trivial and petty. There are powerful interests at work.

As individuals we can cope through focus on family and friends and by renewing our efforts to take actions that result in improvement of our life in society. Our hope is that after the family retreat, and we head back home through rural Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa, there will be a new opportunity to repair the society in which we have been participants for much longer than there have been retreats in the Colorado mountains.

From this mile high view, it does not look like we will miss many of the events of 2008. It was a year of reality staring us in the face, and was not always pretty.

Will we make something of the coming days, or will we resemble revelers at a ball, donning a mask to look through the rigid certainties of the maker’s design. We must work toward the former with all of our energy as we return home to the next work.

~ An earlier version first posted December 31, 2008.

Politics Social Commentary

We’re Going Home — Bob Dvorsky

State Senator Robert Dvorsky Photo Credit – Iowa Legislature

State Senator Bob Dvorsky’s decision to retire at the end of his current term hits close to home for a lot of reasons.

He represented our family since we returned to Iowa in 1993. During the time since then he became a key player in Democratic politics and in the Iowa Legislature.

He did a lot for Iowans when Democrats held the majority in the Iowa Senate. He also worked to get things done regardless of which political party was in control.

With Bob Dvorsky in office, politics became personal in a way it hadn’t been before.

I began corresponding with him on issues shortly after he was elected to the Iowa Senate. My last letter from him, a response about the no wake issue on Lake Macbride, was dated April 25, 1996. A few years later I became politically active again and saw him everywhere, eliminating the need to write.

During the decades I’ve known him, I can’t recall a single time Bob didn’t seek me out for a brief conversation, whether at the capitol, at a political event, or at my workplace. He knew the owners of the company where I spent most of my transportation career, and after my retirement we encountered each other at the warehouse club where I worked part time. He was always positive and encouraging.

I understand he’s turning 70 next year and has had a good, 32-year run. He’s going home like so many in our generation. Bob’s retirement is a mile marker on my own journey home.

When people say all politics is local, I think of Bob Dvorsky. He’s been a friend and mentor who represented my interests in the legislature. I wish him well in the second half of the 87th Iowa General Assembly and ever after.


Going Home – Book Reading


On several occasions, friends and family politely informed me I must downsize my book collection.

I resisted.

The specific enjoyment of working at a desk, surrounded by books, may not be everyone’s idea of idyllic, however, for me it is close to sublime. It’s who I am.

While pondering a work backlog in said enjoyably sublime, idyllic location, my mind began to wander. It arrived, somewhat predictably, on the question which book to read next? One thing led to another and finally to the context of the current series of posts about going home, my remaining time, and this analysis.

How many books can I read during the coming years?

Set aside what we all know about life — we could die tonight — and answering this question is useful to a bibliophile. Here goes:

I can read 50 pages a day if I keep at it. I don’t read books every day but expect to come close as I transition to full retirement next year. It’s an inexpensive way for a person with limited resources to stay engaged in society. Assume I read 50 pages, six days per week.

According to the Social Security Administration life expectancy table I can expect to live another 18.5 years. Assume I do. That would be 288,600 pages read. Sounds like a lot, yet it is a finite number.

How long is a book? Obviously they vary in length and some are more interesting than others and read faster. For purposes of analysis, I used the Harry Potter series (UK edition) as my guide to book length. The seven books in the series total 3,407 pages, averaging 486.7 per book. This is somewhat arbitrary but sounds about right. My reading potential is 592.97 books during the coming years. If I can do it, that would more than double the number of books I now read per year to 32.

There are issues with this hopeful analysis.

What if my eyesight fails? That’s possible and somewhat likely given the results of my infrequent visits to the optometrist. We’ve discussed macular degeneration, cataracts, optic nerve disorders like glaucoma, and the condition of my retinas. While my eye health is reasonably good, that could change. If it does, it could impact my ability to read. It could also restrict books read to large print editions or those available electronically where the font size can be enlarged. I don’t like thinking about it, but there it is: a bibliophile’s nightmare.

There is also a question of cognitive engagement. Will I be able to understand what I read for my life span? Will reading help resist neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease? Will the head trauma I experienced at age 3 manifest itself in my remaining years in the form of a neurocognitive disorder? Will I experience a stroke or head trauma that will impact cognitive function? While less worrisome than loss of eyesight, if I lose the ability to comprehend what I read I’ll just have to deal with it.

An air traffic controller can land only one plane at a time and so it is with reading books. The most important question was my first one: which book will I read next? Carefully considered answers are important at full retirement age.

My friends and family are right, I should downsize my collection of books. Partly because given the remaining time I can’t read but a small percentage of them. I must focus on those relevant to my current life. Downsizing is also important because I don’t want my paternal legacy to be passing on an unorganized mountain of stuff for our daughter to spend her time going through. That would be rude and not what I want to be as a father.

I’m going home next year and hope to continue reading books. There’s a lot to learn and experience inside their covers. Reading helps sustain our lives in a turbulent world.

Home Life Writing

Going Home – 2018

Raw Vegetables

I’m going home now that my applications to the U.S. federal retirement program are approved.

My first payment from Social Security is scheduled around Jan. 24, 2018. We both have health coverage through Medicare, a Medicare supplement policy, and a prescription drug plan effective Jan. 1. We’ll need the money and hope we don’t need the health insurance.

It’s not clear what “going home” means today, but for sure, I’ll be leaving employment at the home, farm and auto supply store in the first half of 2018 — likely late winter or spring.

I don’t write in public about family, but plan to nurture those relationships.

Compensated work is on the 2018 agenda, specifically farm work for the sixth season at Community Supported Agriculture projects and at the orchard. I’d work for wages after my retail experience but need to transition out of driving a lift truck and lifting 50-pound bags of feed in long shifts. If I took a new job for wages, the commute would have to be less, the pay more, and personal fulfillment high. I hope to get better as a gardener, transitioning to a more productive vegetable patch and more fruit trees.

Uncompensated work is on the agenda as well. Scores of household projects wait for time and resources. I expect to have the time and some of the resources in 2018. We built new in 1993 and that reduced our home maintenance expenses in the early years. Things now need attention and preparation for the next phase of our lives in Big Grove. I expect to reduce the number of things we possess, converting current warehouse space to better livability.

I’ll continue to be active in our local community, but less outside Big Grove and surrounding townships. The home owners association, sewer district and membership on the political party central committee will serve as primary volunteer activities. I’ll also seek volunteer opportunities in nearby Solon. For a broader perspective I belong to the Arms Control Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Climate Reality Project.

Importantly, writing is on the 2018 agenda. I’ve been planning an expanded autobiography and that will be the first major project. With it I hope to develop a process to research, write and re-write a 20,000-word piece for distribution, if not publication. If my health holds and the wolves of an increasingly coarse society are held in abeyance, there will be additional projects. My first six decades have been in preparation for this. I believe positive outcomes will result.

I’m going to home to the life we built for ourselves. We’re not from here, yet after 24 years we have deep roots in this imperfect soil. I’m ready to settle in and grow.

Social Commentary

We’re Going Home — Hamburg Inn No. 2

Hamburg InnWith yesterday’s announcement Hamburg Inn No. 2 is being sold by 68 year-old David Panther, another chapter in the long exodus of sixty-somethings from Iowa City’s public stage is closing.

With growth and a burgeoning new population, long time aspects of Iowa City iconography have changed and are changing. Old is giving way to new.

I more miss Hamburg Inn No. 1 on Iowa Avenue than any changes at No. 2 on Linn might bring. Arriving in Iowa City in 1970 to attend college, I had a notion I could experience every business and cultural institution in town and become a part of city social life. Hamburg Inn No. 1 was part of that. Like so many others, I left after graduation from the university, but remember fondly what the city was then.

My recent awareness of the exodus of sixty-somethings began with closure of Murphy Brookfield Books and the retirement of Riverside Theatre co-founders Ron Clark and Jodi Hovland. Hamburg Inn is another among many changes from what Iowa City grew up to be after the 1960s. Some businesses, like The Mill, made a successful transition. Others have not.

Why should we care? After all, change is the only constant in a transient city like Iowa City. It is made so by the University of Iowa: a primary driver of almost everything. It is partly nostalgia driven by personal memories and change in the world which increase in importance as we near the end of life’s span. There’s little reason to cling to the past instead of embracing the new. Opportunity also belongs mostly to the young, so some of us are going home.

I’ve never eaten a pie shake at Hamburg Inn, and until recently wasn’t aware they served such a dessert. It has been breakfast with our daughter or a friend that drew me there of late. The last political event I attended at the Hamburg Inn was with Chet Culver during his last campaign. Culver didn’t appear to have a clue how to get re-elected and the stop did little to enhance his chances.

Life will continue with the best intentions, which is what I’m reading in the news. The operation will continue at Hamburg Inn No. 2 and importantly, people will keep their jobs. I read Panther will be retained by the new owners for a year as a consultant. According to the Warren Buffett playbook for business acquisition retaining current managers is important to a smooth and profitable transition. I wish everyone well.

Details of the sale aren’t quite worked out, according to news reports. We should embrace the change and give the new owners a chance or two as they continue the effort in its new form. If new management focuses on the quality of food and customer service they should be alright. A different, and new chapter in the life of an aging Iowa City scene being reborn.

Social Commentary

One Less Used Bookstore

Formerly Murphy-Brookfield Books
Formerly Murphy-Brookfield Books

IOWA CITY— The number of used bookstores in the county is reduced by one. Murphy-Brookfield Books closed after 33 years in business, and its owners sold their historic stone building to the Haunted Bookshop. The deal is done and people and cats were in their new digs when I stopped by earlier this afternoon. Murphy-Brookfield Books went on-line.

I don’t like any of it… except maybe the cats.

I’ll start by saying that if I want to find something to read, there will be no problem. Our home library has enough reading material to last the rest of my life, and then some. Most of what I read is found here. Too, the public library provides on-line access to ebooks I can download to my phone for free if someone else doesn’t have them checked out. From time to time I browse the selection, and it is pretty good. If I can’t find what I want there, I go on-line and buy it from, eBay or one of the bookstores on the Internet. It isn’t for reading material that I frequent bookstores. I can get that at home.

Last year I stopped at the large chain bookseller at the mall. It had changed. It was as if they took everything I liked and removed or placed it out of sight. There was plenty of pulp fiction, and novels that looked like they all had been designed in the same advertising studio— similar titles, same sizes and an array of brilliant covers embossed with foil— lined up like so many treats in an old fashioned candy store. The caché of hanging out at a bookstore, reading and drinking coffee has faded. I’m no longer a fan of coffee bars and besides, who has time any more? I haven’t been back.

Browsing used books is like taking a vacation. I plan the trip for weeks, and upon arrival, one never knows what to expect. By chance, something catches the eye and comes off the table, down from the shelf, or out of a bin. If the price is right, the bound volume comes home.

Through Salvation Army stores, Goodwill and thrift stores, used book stores large and small, rummage and library sales, and estate auctions I have browsed since high school looking for something. In a box of discards I found a 19th Century edition of the collected works of James Fenimore Cooper— the pages turned yellow and brittle, too fragile to turn. At a thrift store in Sweetwater, Texas, for a dollar I bought an autographed copy of Iowan W. Edwards Deming’s “Out of the Crisis” while the rattlesnake roundup was going on. At the library used book sale I found Alexander Kern’s copy of Charles and Mary Beard’s “The Rise of American Civilization,” signed by Kern and dated Sept. 1932 inside the cover. That signature itself was a piece of local history. There is always something to connect to bits and pieces of my history or theirs.

So why don’t I like it? The people seem nice at the Haunted Bookshop. And after all, I was able to survive when the Epstein Brothers closed shop and their portable building was removed from Clinton Street. There is Prairie Lights on Dubuque Street. It was good enough for President Obama, so why not good enough for me?

I didn’t know Mark Brookfield at all… except that he was there most times I stopped by over three decades. I recognized him when I entered, and he was helpful without exception. Whether I was looking for something, or had a box of books to trade for store credit, each transaction went well. I was always happy when I left, and looked forward to the next visit. I doubt he knew me. Now he’s out of sight in the ether.

Maybe I just don’t like change— knowing another landmark off Market Street is gone. One less old haunt in a block where so much has happened in my life. Maybe it’s something else. The new place is packed with books, as if a massive shedding of the printed word was underway— more than just the university community ditching books before moving on. It may be something like that.

So one last time to consider the past, get used to the change, and then go on living with one less used bookstore in which to dig for memories. I won’t get over it. But maybe I will.