Living in Society

Simple Fare in an Iowa Life

Dinner on April 6, 2022: Casserole with eggs, onions, celery, garlic, Parmesan, thyme and leftover rice, served with peas and carrots.

On Wednesday I loaded the automobile with obsolete and not working electronics to recycle at the county landfill. Three televisions, a wall-mount telephone, a non-working videocassette player, a laptop computer, and miscellaneous small items fell into bins there after I paid a $66 fee. There were also two computer towers, one of which was the one my spouse bought in 1996 when we dialed up the internet for the first time as a family. The other was a locally made machine built in the last millennium. I scrubbed the hard drives clean before recycling them.

Last week I took three big bags of clothing to Goodwill. One was scraps for recycling. The other two could be tagged and resold. I didn’t ask for a receipt. It felt good to be rid of some of the detritus of a modern life in Iowa. There will be more purging of unused stuff from our home this year.

Temperatures returned to near freezing so I have to bring seedlings indoors again. I don’t know what’s up with the lingering cold, rain and snow making it impossible to get into the garden. My onion starts are to arrive next week and I haven’t turned a spade in the garden yet. I find other things to do yet there is a certain stress lingering in the background because of the delayed season.

My impression of the political scene after candidates filed to get on the ballot is Democrats are teed up to take a shellacking in November. We have good people running for office yet there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for politics. Likewise, a certain laziness permeates recent events in which I participated. I’m not seeing any fire in the belly to win an election among regular Democrats like me. Republicans in control of the state legislature and governor’s office are driving the narrative and making their points. They are highly motivated to tear down the long-standing culture of the state and replace it with something I don’t recognize. Democrats have been forced to play defense.

At a Zoom political event last night, I changed my political donation strategy while listening to Christina Bohannan and Elle Wyant speak. I budgeted $100 per month in donations and switched them around to candidates I believe will have the best prospects of being elected in November. In the big races, U.S. House, U.S. Senate and governor my $100 per month split three or four ways will be of negligible impact. Even my state senator’s race will be a big money campaign. The only political fund raising phone calls I received this cycle were from Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn, U.S. Senate candidate Michael Franken, and county attorney candidate Rachel Zimmermann Smith. Even with the small number of requests, my $100 per month doesn’t go far. I’ll revisit the strategy after the June 7 primary.

I’ve been keeping the thermostat at 58 degrees while my spouse is away helping her sister. This morning I donned three layers to retain body heat. I have also been making non-vegan vegetarian dishes while she is away. It’s not fancy food, just simple fare in an Iowa life.

Living in Society

Christmas Eve – 2021

Earthrise by Bill Anders, Dec. 24, 1968

Best wishes to readers for end of year holidays.

In our house, it is Christmas Eve, although there is a string of notable days running from mid-December through January. I enjoy those Christmas seasons when I can stay home without pressure from work or other social obligations. During the coronavirus pandemic, it makes sense to avoid exposure to others, although the isolation is only partly mitigated by modern communications technology.

Leaving home can be a traumatic experience. When I left home in 1970 to attend university I didn’t understand there would be no permanent return to my home town. When our child left Iowa in 2007 there was also a lack of understanding of how the change would affect us. We do the best we can during holidays, whether child or parent. The veil of our illusions wears thin at the end of the year.

On Christmas Eve my tradition is to review this photo taken by Bill Anders during Apollo 8. It changed my life, and those of many others, to see Earth suspended in space, alone and vulnerable. Some say it sparked the environmental movement. The problem is the environmental movement and society more generally have been doing a poor job of mitigating the worse effects of the climate crisis. The coming week before New Year’s Day is projected to be the warmest December week in recorded history for North America. It is a cause for concern for us all.

For Christmas Eve dinner there will be cornbread and chili, followed by settling in to a long night. We did not decorate the house for the holiday and haven’t the last few years. If we have guests during a future holiday season I expect we will get the boxes out from under the stairway, reminisce about the decorations and how we came to have them, and put them up. Not this year, though.

It is a time for letting go the frustrations and tensions 2021 created within and among us. The year began with an attempt to overturn the results of the November 2020 U.S. presidential election. It is ending with a robust economic recovery that could only have happened with the leadership of President Biden and his administration. It was a year of the yinyang of being American.

As we prepare for a winter, delayed by a warming planet, it’s time to consider the future and actually do things to bring peace on Earth. That we will is my Christmas Eve wish.

However you celebrate year’s end, I wish you health and happiness as we prepare to enter the new year.


We’re Going Home – Joan Didion

Joan Didion in 2008. Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons.

When I write my best I think of Joan Didion. She died of Parkinson’s Disease on Dec. 23, 2021 in Manhattan at age 87.

I will continue to think of her while I’m writing.

The reason her writing has such influence is she has been in and on my mind since high school. I thought, if I could write like Didion it would be the pinnacle. I won’t ever be as good as she was at her worst.

I was thrilled when I found South and West: From a Notebook and Let Me Tell You What I Mean this year. I wolfed them down, starved for what she brings to writing. While she studied Hemingway and Conrad, she did not write like them. She had her own lean, assertive simplicity to make her points. I was enraptured.

I didn’t understand California after a half dozen trips there. While Didion’s stories are her unique, single perspective, they are believable and seem probable. They informed my understanding that California was more than what we witnessed through media combined with ocean, desert, farmland, and what seemed like an unlimited number of highways. She exposed a side of it I wouldn’t have known. There is value in that.

In college I struggled to find a path. I was on a trajectory supercharged by the death of Father in 1969. Didion’s writing was something I could look to and see myself. Although being a successful writer wasn’t meant to be my career, Didion gave me hope in dark times.

We’ve known the end was coming for a while. Now that she passed there are no surprises, just a feeling of desolation, restlessness and sensibility characteristic of her work.

Her writing will persist, as will memories of her frail frame on talk shows as she headed home.


Did Kurt Vonnegut Drink at The Mill?

The Mill on Burlington Street, Iowa City, Iowa. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Someone posted a notice on social media that a demolition permit was issued to tear down the building where The Mill operated. They had been in business since 1962. I’ve forgotten more than I remember about The Mill. Time for demolition? So it goes, Kurt Vonnegut may have said. He wrote Slaughterhouse-Five after he moved to Iowa City in 1965.

Who knows if Vonnegut drank at The Mill during his two-year stay in the future UNESCO City of Literature? We do know he was fond of Donnelly’s. There were only so many bars within walking distance of his home at 800 North Van Buren. Given random associations between Vonnegut’s two years in Iowa City and a finite set of bars, it seems likely he did.

So it goes.

What I recall of The Mill is spending time with friends in graduate school. I listened to Joe Pratt, who dragged his new wife with him to Iowa from California for the American Studies Program. He played Stan Rogers songs on Open Mike nights at The Mill. Our writers for Blog for Iowa met up there for beverages and food. When I was more active in the Johnson County Democrats there were events at The Mill, or we’d just go to hang out after an event finished elsewhere downtown. It was a serviceable bar, which by the 2000s showed its age.

The Iowa City I knew upon arrival in 1970 is long gone. One more non-historical landmark demolished is no big deal. It would be best if the corporation razing the property built another high rise. More people of means could live near the city center. I don’t know what residents might do with their automobiles yet that never seems to be an issue. Downtown should be built up while there is interest among wealthy people and contractors to do so.

To me the death knell for downtown Iowa City was when Things, Things, Things closed. The department store came out of the turbulent 1960s and found commercial success into the 21st Century. It was administratively dissolved by the Iowa Secretary of State on Aug. 9, 2012 for failure to file a biennial report.

So it goes.


Holiday Notes

Sunset from our front steps, Dec. 19, 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic continues during a second holiday season. I had hoped to be done writing about that by now. The omicron variant of the virus informed me, “No, you are not done.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease specialist, said yesterday on CNN, “Unfortunately, I think that (record numbers of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are) going to happen. We are going to see a significant stress in some regions of the country on the hospital system, particularly in those areas where you have a low level of vaccination.”

We had already cancelled a Christmas trip to be with our child and their close friends, because of increased incidence of COVID-19. Today I’m making a list for a trip to the grocery store to provision up with fresh vegetables so I don’t have to leave the property until the new year. I seek to minimize our exposure to the new, highly contagious variant of the coronavirus.

“It is going to be a tough few weeks, months, as we get deeper into the winter,” Fauci said.

Merry f*cking Christmas, y’all.

The Christmas Holidays in my childhood home were mostly a product of my maternal grandmother’s imagination. She was born and grew up on a remote farm in rural Minnesota. At a young age, she moved to Minneapolis where she worked as a servant. She and a man got together (and presumably married) and had two children. Her plain, difficult life was punctuated by the special occasions of weddings, baptisms, first communions, and religious holidays, especially Easter, yet Christmas too.

Part of her Christmas holiday culture was creating a tableau of the nativity, with a manger and ceramic figurines she molded, glazed and fired herself. My inheritance from her includes this sort of creating something from the dross of daily life, something in which we could participate and enjoy. She recognized the fleeting moments of those special days and the work that went into making them. Without her, the Christmas holiday would have been much different.

End of year holidays have been secularized. Instead of making tableaux from home made things as a celebration of religious culture, we insert figurines that came down from grandmother in what has become a hollowed out, personalized family tradition. These are essentially habits repeated for lack of something better to be doing. Am I cynical? No, not really. When we put out decorations, we enjoy the time remembering where special artifacts originated. With the decline in participation in formal religion, people now craft their own end of year holiday occasions which may or may not include such traditions.

Americans’ membership in houses of worship continues to decline, dropping below 50 percent for the first time in 2020, according to the Gallup organization’s eight-decade polling trend. That year, 47 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50 percent in 2018 and 70 percent in 1999.

In our household a number of special occasions mark the end of the calendar year. First is our wedding anniversary on Dec. 18, followed by the winter solstice, this year on Dec. 21. Christmas Eve is a time to make chili and cornbread, and on Christmas Day we make a special meal. If others are in the house, we may exchange gifts. My birthday follows on Dec. 28 which leads into New Year’s Eve. Dec. 31 involves a weak effort to stay up until midnight to ring it in. I usually have a drink. New Year’s Day is another special meal and by then all the leftovers from Christmas have been eaten. This year I plan to start a new tradition of starting onion seeds indoors on New Year’s Day.

As I age, there is a sense of loneliness and sadness as I survive more people I knew with each passing year. Coping with aging is increasingly present during the holidays. There are holiday phone calls, video chats, texts and emails. If we weren’t in the worst of the pandemic, I could engage with a local organization to help others. Such communication helps us cope.

Staying busy also helps. Garden planning is a natural undertaking for the holidays. I placed my first three seed orders and will work on another. In addition, I began a project in the garage to organize everything. Yesterday I discovered a drawer that was crammed full of telephone wire and connectors brought back from my father-in-law’s home in the late 1990s. He owned and operated a rural telephone company and I don’t recognize half of the tools and supplies. Land line telephones are in decline, so a lot of it will be sold at a yard sale or pitched. There is also plenty of reading and writing to be done to cope with loneliness.

The end of year holidays are much different from what I recall from childhood. I no longer believe there is a Santa Claus, even though I remember seeing him and the reindeer flying in the sky when I was in first grade. As we discover the new, electronic globe in which we find ourselves, there will be other changes. I predict end of year celebrations will continue. I expect to note the annual rites for many years to come.

Kitchen Garden Sustainability

Going Home — Local Food

Garden April 20, 2020

Like most people, I want a decent meal when it is time to eat. In 2012, I launched a major study of the local food scene and was not disappointed in the results coming into and out of our kitchen. By working at a number of farms, growing and expanding our home garden, and participating in legislative advocacy, I learned so much about where food originates and conditions which engender growth of a variety of fruit and vegetables.

The impact of local food systems on our home life reached its peak in development of the kitchen garden idea. Now that the work is finished, I have less interest in writing regularly about food. It is an assumed part of a background against which I pursue other interests. I’ve learned what it means to know the face of the farmer. I maintain an interest in doing so. I just won’t write about it as often. Mainly, others are doing a better job of writing about our food system.

Food is basic to a life. It is not the most important thing. I am glad for the work I did, yet I feel it is finished. It is time to concentrate on more important aspects of life. It is time to keep a focus on life closer to home.

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.


The Journey Home

Trail walking at Lake Macbride State Park on Oct. 25, 2021.

By the end of the year I will be seventy years old. More than anything, I’m glad to have lived this long. The plan is to go on living.

My work life ended last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. I would like a new source of income to supplement our pensions, yet there is only slight financial pressure to locate one. I am not ready to return to retail or any public-facing job as I’m not convinced it would be good for me. Each day without work outside home seems a little weird. I’m trying to adjust to a new path. It isn’t going well.

There is no bucket list because I did most of what I intended going through my days. The list of things I want to accomplish isn’t long: organize and write an autobiography; maintain good health and a decent quality of life. I need to be here for those who depend upon me.

How childcare was handled during my life helped me become who I am. Mother stayed home with us while Father worked at the meat packing plant. She was there for most of the important moments of my life. I don’t know how they made it on less than $100 per week yet we had a good quality of life even after Dad died and as I left home for college. When our daughter was born, I earned enough for my spouse to provide full time childcare while I worked outside home. It freed me for jobs that demanded time and energy. I was able to travel much of the country and see things of which I had no idea. My life would have been different had these childcare arrangements not existed. Now my concern is who will care for me as I become infirm.

Having taken a course on aging in America in graduate school, I feel ready for what is ahead. Coping with sadness and loss is here. So is dealing with physical limitations. I can sense the isolation and loneliness coming. With turbulence in society there is concern for our physical security. Most of all, changes in the environment, in our neighborhood, and in myself will require attention I hadn’t anticipated. For the time being I feel hope these changes can be adequately addressed.

Today it feels comfortable to get in the car and go on a couple hundred mile trip. That won’t always be the case and I’m ready to let go of driving when the time comes. For the moment, our 2002 Subaru won’t last another five years so it will need to be replaced. I did a study of how much we can afford to spend on big purchases over the next ten years based on our income. It is not as much as I would have liked. Fingers crossed, it will be enough.

What I’ll do with my remaining time is unknown. The framework is two stages: the next ten years, and those afterward. If I maintain my health and avoid common diseases (cardio-respiratory, cancer, diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and depression) the septuagenarian years will be a time of getting bigger projects done: writing, home repair and refurbishing, and gardening. After age eighty, should I live so long, the pace of things is expected to slow down. Both my mother and maternal grandmother were mentally alert and active until age 90 so I’m hopeful.

Time goes so fast!

I walk on the trail as often as I can. It is exercise. It is a chance to reflect on my life. It is an opportunity to consider the future. Mostly, though, it is walking. As long as I’m doing it I feel I’ll live forever, even if I know differently. It is always a journey home.

Home Life

Clearing Work Space

Temporary work surface for sorting stuff.

Since we became a one-car family in August the extra garage space filled the way water seeks its own level. Garden stuff, tools and equipment were scattered in every available space. I spent a couple of hours cleaning up and organizing on Saturday. It was a mess, and now is less so.

When I began having larger garlic harvests I cut two by fours to make temporary sawhorses for a drying rack. “Temporary” because I didn’t nail them together so they could be disassembled and easily stored once the garlic cured. In my large panel storage rack I had the remnant of the four foot by eight foot by three quarter inch plywood left from making the platform for our daughter’s loft bed in college. I spread four two by fours across the span of sawhorses and put the plywood on top, finished side up. It made a sturdy table.

I used this surface to clean up the stairway where many cups, COVID-19 test kits, picture frames, and other detritus of living were camped. I also cleared the other sawhorse table near my writing table of its contents. Now I have two transitional surfaces to go through stuff. Three if I can clear the folding table I brought with me from Germany.

In a home, space tends to get used. While approaching septuagenarian status the goal is to clear that space and dispose of old printers and computers, countless electrical cords, and everything not needed for living out the rest of my days. I don’t need one hundred coffee cups. To live a life less on a life expectancy of 15.4 more years (figured using the Social Security online calculator) and more on being here now. That means stop talking about getting rid of stuff and actually do it. No more delays!

Once space was cleared, my daily task list quickly filled with activities related to the disposition of things. I’m a bit excited about the prospect of owning less. We also have plans for new space created. That is, plans other than filling it with more stuff.

Living in Society

What’s In A Week?

Onions drying in the greenhouse.

Once life is separated from the work week everything changes. It’s not that we become unhinged. Days just resemble each other without differentiation.

As denizens of the United States, if we seek continued participation, we need something to tell days apart. The worklife week served as we had one. For me, it fell apart during the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting retirement from paid work.

I developed a morning routine which begins around 3 a.m. and continues until it is done. It is my time to learn about the world and my role in it. I like the routine because, for the most part, I own this time of day, every day. After that things can get muddled.

I want to have a weekend… a Monday and Friday. I need a hump day. I want them to mean something. What I find is without a job, the days blend into each other. Increasingly, I accept it.

I don’t know what to do about it. I feel a need to do something. Today’s Monday. Maybe I’ll start there.