More Letters Home

Camp Letter

Our daughter and I drove to my home town on Sunday to visit my sister. The conversation ranged across many topics and toward the end of the visit she asked if I wanted to take the second of two shoe boxes containing letters I wrote home.

Of course I did.

I wrote a lot of letters home and to friends before email became a widely adapted replacement.

The earliest letter I found was written while attending YMCA camp as a grader. There was at least one more camp letter, followed by a couple while I was in high school, more in college, and in every stage of life afterward. There were some recent holiday cards and letters.

We logged on to the internet from a home computer for the first time on April 21, 1996. As soon as Mom got an America On-Line account we began communicating via email. She had already been using email in her work at the Corps of Engineers, just as I had been using email when I worked at for the oil company from 1989 to 1991. Over the years I saved as many personal emails as I could and there are a few between me and her from the late 1990s. The last email I sent her was dated March 7, 2014. It was about putting a photo on her Facebook account.

While it seems unlikely the others to whom I sent letters will return a similar archive, I have their letters and what is turning into a substantial trove of documents, partly written by me and partly by Mom and my friends about what my life was about. Combined with my hand-written journals beginning in 1974, and 14 years of this blog, I should be well prepared to relearn who I was and what I became.

The question becomes how shall I organize everything? There are no good answers as new documents are discovered and processed.

Artifacts like the camp letter pictured above lead me down a path of memory I had forgotten. It’s about canoeing on the Mississippi River, about campfires, and summer free swims, and having fun away from home and telling my parents all about it in a letter. Now that they are both gone the memories are welcome.

Letter writing, then email, journal writing, blogging, and now texting has become a part of who I am. I believe I’ve become the better for it.

Social Commentary Writing

Media’s Theft From The Commons

Iowa City Press Citizen Jan. 23, 2019

“Right-wing media have been laying the groundwork for Trump’s acquittal for half a century,” Nicole Hemmer wrote in the New York Times. “These tactics (i.e. minimize Trump’s transgressions and paint a picture of non-stop Democratic scandals) are not inventions of the Trump era. They are part of a decades-long strategy by the right to secure political power — a strategy originating in conservative media.”

For a student of history the story is not only about conservative mass media beginning in the mid-20th Century. It goes further back.

It’s been a few decades since I finished graduate school yet I remember we studied nineteenth century newspapers from the Old West in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the like. They were mainly gossip sheets in which people could and did say just about anything. Whatever was needed to engage locals and sell advertising, whether it was true or not. It is a part of human nature to want to hear gossip and the outrageous things that may or may not be going on in a community.

What’s different now is corporations have exploited this aspect of human nature to generate revenue. They’ve been successful at doing so. In a way, right wing media is yet another corporate theft from the commons.

One can’t make the argument that media has ever been without bias. Journalists, editors, and even historians have their implicit point of view which may or may not serve the truth or other human needs. I’m thinking here of the work of Howard Zinn, David Hackett Fischer, Clifford Geertz and others.

Joan Didion described it as well as anyone, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” What we hadn’t planned for was the malicious intent of people who would come to dominate news and information sources, and the role that would play in the stories we tell ourselves.

The first sign of trouble should have been when our favorite news personalities began to earn millions of dollars annually for what should have been a public service. That Sean Hannity earns $40 million per year is all one needs to know about FOX News. Even Walter Cronkite earned close to a million.

My media behavior toward this impeachment effort is similar to during the Nixon and Clinton proceedings. I tune it out. One exception though. While I’m still in bed, before I turn the light on, I pick up my phone and read Heather Cox Richardson’s daily letter. It’s about all that I can take. Is she biased? Of course. But my tolerance for the biases of Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard where she was educated is a bit higher. Plus she feeds my confirmation bias.


Journey Home

14 Years of Blogging

Today I simplified the appearance of this blog and renamed it Journey Home. Isn’t that where we are always going?

The archives are printed and on the shelf — 14 years worth. I look forward to many more years of posting here although I hesitate to be specific because at a certain age, one never knows.

Thanks for reading.


Energy Matters

Snow-covered Driveway

Friday I ran errands before the winter storm hit. Errands means filling the automobile fuel tank with gasoline, buying a lottery ticket, and driving south on Highway One to the grocery store in the county seat to purchase organic celery, frozen lima beans and sundry other items not available locally.

The storm hit between noon and 1 p.m. depositing a fluffy, four-inch covering of snow on everything.

It wasn’t a blizzard as one could easily see into the distance through the small, falling snowflakes. The wind wasn’t blizzard-bad. It gave me a chance to try out the electric snow blower I bought at the home, farm and auto supply store on Dec. 12., a concession to aging.

Our rural electric cooperative buys electricity from CIPCO (Central Iowa Power Cooperative). Their electricity generation fuel mix is coal, nuclear, hydro, landfill gas, wind, solar, natural gas, and oil energy resources, according to their website. They haven’t updated the breakdown by fuel source since 2016 which showed 38.3 percent coal, 33.7 percent nuclear, 27.0 percent wind, solar, hydro and landfill gas, and 0.5 percent natural gas. I could say we have a nuclear powered snow blower… or not depending on how I feel on any given day. Yesterday I was thankful I didn’t have to shovel as the work went quickly.

We need energy to fuel a modern lifestyle and there is not a lot of control outside our personal habits. We use electric appliances and there is no reason to change back to natural gas, the most recent alternative. Our home heating is a forced air, natural gas central furnace supplemented by an electric blanket in one bedroom and a space heater in my writing room. We have no fireplace and burning wood isn’t a sustainable option. We use an on-demand, natural gas water heater which has served us well. I learned about on-demand water heaters while visiting a friend in Vienna, Austria in 1974.

We got rid of incandescent light bulbs long ago and do our best to turn off lights when not using a space. I occasionally forget the light is on in my writing room and leave it on overnight. We consolidate trips to major cities in our vehicles, combining work days with shopping and other errands. We spent an average of $3.65 per day for electricity and natural gas in 2019 and $2.55 per day on gasoline to operate my car. When we upgrade my 1997 Subaru there will be an opportunity to change to electric or get a more fuel efficient vehicle. Same for the other car in the house, a 2002 Subaru. As we age I can see owning only one automobile.

I still use gasoline to power yard equipment including our mowers and trimmer. I tried a Black and Decker electric trimmer but it wouldn’t hold a charge long enough to finish the whole yard, even with two batteries. When it broke after years of service I got a Stihl trimmer with my discount at the home, farm and auto supply store. I didn’t use a gallon of gasoline for the trimmer in 2019. I don’t like mowing the lawn unless it is to collect grass clippings to use as mulch. In 2019 I filled up my 5-gallon gas can twice: once at the beginning of the season and once in July. It’s still half-full. I expect to purchase a gasoline-powered rototiller for the garden. Like with the snow blower it is a concession to aging.

A snow day is a chance to bunker in and get caught up on desk work. I wish I could report I had. Instead I read, watched snow fall, and wondered about our collective future in an environment where the weather event was unremarkable, but its late arrival this winter is an unmistakable sign about our warming climate. I need to get to work today, as do we all.

Work Life Writing

Frozen Iowa

Seed Organizer

Reducing speed, I turned on the flashers to descend the ice-packed road leading to the Coralville Lake. One car was already in the ditch.

Frozen rain covered everything Wednesday morning. The city where I was bound cancelled bus service for “safety reasons.” I’m from here and knew how to make it safely into work on time.

I spent part of my shift at the home, farm and auto supply store loading pallets of granulated salt on flatbed trucks and trailers for contractors that extract a living from the frozen landscape. These guys, and they were all men, don’t work for big companies or government. As one secured his load with well-used straps he asked me how many pallets we had left. I told him and expected him back if he needed more.

The margin is thin on salt sales. Even so, with customer traffic light because of the weather, the store would take any sales we could get.

Some special projects fell into my lap. Tonight I’m scheduled to interview one of Iowa’s U.S. Senate candidates for Blog for Iowa, and next week I do a phone interview with Thom Hartmann whose last two books I reviewed. I had no intention of spending my time this way but the opportunities presented and I took them. In addition, our daughter is making a rare trip home the last weekend of the month.

The new year is bringing too much stuff to do. Part of me welcomes it, and part struggles to keep up. It is great to feel alive and engaged in this frozen Iowa.



Walking on the Lake Macbride Trail Jan. 14, 2020.

I ordered a printed version of this blog through the end of last year. It’s the first step in changing the appearance.

The WordPress theme I use is free and serviceable. Maybe I’ve gotten used to it. I like the posts on the left and links on the right with a link to the about and reading list pages in the header. Clean and simple so readers can focus on the text. I want to change the photograph of the apple blossoms though.

Because of reduced personal cash flow I had gotten behind in making a paper archive. With a reasonable retirement income and a small amount from Mother’s estate I could get caught up. When the archive volumes arrive there will be about ten inches of blog books comprised of a few thousand pages on my shelf next to my hand-written journals.

I began blogging in 2007 after our daughter graduated from college. I didn’t understand it when I began but this writing would eventually take the place of journaling. Personal information is scrubbed off and each post was better proofed and edited than my hand-written diaries. It is a modern day instance of an English diary like those of Samuel Pepys who we studied in high school English class.

Blogging is among the most important things I do each day. My readership has grown, although for a long time I didn’t think I would find an audience. Everywhere I go in public I encounter people who are readers, indicating a reality of sorts. It is a gratifying feeling.

For the last ten years blogging has been a way to work through aspects of my life. Some things, like yesterday’s review of Thom Hartmann’s book, are specific and set in time. What is better has been the major topics about which I wrote in multiple posts, including the role of low-wage workers, challenges of a local food system, and trying to understand our national and local politics. Blogging is a formal way of writing that can yield a personal conclusion about life in society.

When we moved near the lake in 1993 I set up my desk about 20 feet from where my writing table is now. The desk is still there, although it is piled with stuff: old printers, boxes of documents and books, loose items — potential jetsam from a life weighed down by old artifacts. As my autobiographical work proceeds, the process includes going through every box and bag to re-purpose, recycle or discard everything I can bear to part with… after relevant stories have been extracted. I expect it to take a couple of years.

Other writers don’t keep a blog with so many posts as can be found here. To each their own. Blogging is a way to write that became primary. A place of my own where readers can stop by when something attracts their eye. It is a form of self-expression over which the author has uniform and almost complete control. Trying to make it worthwhile for readers creates an incentive to write better. Writing better has been my endgame.

I note from the clock on my computer it’s time to head upstairs, fix breakfast and get ready for a shift at the home, farm and auto supply store. During winter I want and need to get out of the house and into society. At the same time I’m tempted to call off work and persist in this bloggery through the day into nightfall. I won’t do that. I’m too much the product of an education in the 1950s and 1960s where I have a responsibility to social commitments. Still, I linger on a few more minutes in the glow of my desk lamp camped out on what remains of the Iowa prairie.

I have a sense today will be a good day. I can’t wait to find out.

Politics Writing

Grass Roots or Participatory Democracy?

Prairie Grasses in Late Summer

It is a commonplace that effective organizations, especially political ones, should be “grass roots” driven. It is so commonplace the words are virtually meaningless.

Let’s think about this. What drove the election of the current president was a strong movement fed by the fertilizer of unlimited free speech in the form of dark money from a billionaire-led network. It was a grass roots movement supporting a demagogue. It yielded a predictable result, one we’d convinced ourselves wasn’t possible.

The basic validity of the movement to elect President Trump is hard to question. People are free to support political candidates and elect them to high positions including as president. The underlying efficacy of such movements is mitigated by deception and lies told to further its intent. Despite the number of presidential lies and false statements, people persist in their support of the president and the right wing propaganda machine provides many handles for voters to hold fast to the Trump train.

People mistake a participatory democracy as being grass roots driven. It isn’t necessarily. As Thom Hartmann points out in his book The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole Your Vote — And How to Get it Back, about six percent of eligible voters nominated Trump as the Republican candidate, eight percent nominated Hillary Clinton as the Democratic one. Hartmann’s message is more people should participate in elections.

Grass roots movements are important. Whether they can make needed changes in our governance is an open question. In our current right wing media-dark money-oligarchical society participatory democracy and being grass roots driven aren’t the same thing.

Our recent school board election is an example of a grass roots movement with more positive results. We had six candidates and the community joined together to vet them and pick two to serve. Our collective actions during the run up to the election made a change in the board’s composition. We elected a woman to serve with four other men. She has deep roots among families in the district and the electorate believed the board would be better for her service.

Does characterization of support for a political candidate as “grass roots” make a difference? Probably not. It becomes one more meme in a media environment of too many memes and not enough thinking. I get that tallgrass prairie plants have deep roots. If we hadn’t decimated the ecosystem in which they thrived it might be a more appropriate metaphor. Just like native prairies of Iowa meant something a hundred years ago, grass roots politics are rooted in an era of progressive politics no longer relevant in today’s ubiquitous right wing media and dark money environment.

Instead of coming up with descriptors, politically active people should encourage more people to participate in elections. What we know with some certainty is if everyone votes, common sense solutions to our problems are likely to prevail. Participatory democracy is the way to go.


Letters Home

Woman Writing Letter

Among the things I received from my late mother’s estate was a box of letters I wrote her.

A lot of my letters were from the period 1976 until 1979 when I was stationed in a mechanized infantry division in Mainz, Germany.

I read them last night. The topics were pretty mundane.

12 Nov 78
APO New York 09185


Just a short note to let you know that I completed French Commando School without serious injury and in good spirits. In case you didn’t get my last letter I arrive in Moline 20 Dec 78 at about 8:30 p.m. on Ozark flight #873 from Chicago. I hope to be going to France again in the time before I return to Davenport. I will visit Normandy Beach and a number of the famous cathedrals. Til then keep the faith, drop me a line to let me know how things are going on the home front.

Love, Paul

I wrote her as much as she wrote me. I kept all of her letters and someday I’ll be ready to read those too.

As I followed the vein of letters over the last 24 hours I found a series written by my maternal grandmother while I was in Europe. They were mostly responses to mine, although what I wrote her did not survive. She was very good about writing me, and explained her health issues in great detail. She wrote often about my cousin Linda who was stationed in Spain at the same time I was in Germany. While Grandma was being treated for a heart attack her physician had a heart attack so she had to get a new doctor, she wrote. I like to think her writing letters to me helped her understand her condition. I know writing has that effect on me.

There was a flurry of letters from friends during the investigation to secure me a top secret clearance. I warned people the feds were coming and most of them wrote back after their interview. I got the clearance, although the information I was able to access was pretty dull. Just because it’s top secret doesn’t mean it’s that interesting. I remember their letters more than the secret stuff.

We are out of the age of many hand-written letters. With “forever stamps” I don’t even know how much posting a first class letter costs. Email is quicker, cheaper, and we get to save a copy if we choose.

Phone calls are also inexpensive. In Germany I did not have a telephone until my appointment as battalion adjutant. More people had to reach me after hours. If the balloon went up (meaning the Soviets crossed the border), we would be rounded up from the compound where Americans lived by knocking on doors.

How to use this archival material is an open question. I’m still trying to figure out what I have, what warrants writing about, and what fits in a 100,000-word autobiography. Some of the memories have me returning letters to the box to save for another time.

Whatever the outcome of this autobiography, the writing of it will be the thing. Part of the journey of life. A way to escape from the pressing society around me that doesn’t know when to relent.

Politics Writing

Freezing Rain

Freezing Rain Jan. 11, 2020

It’s been tense the first days of 2020 as Iowa voters prepare for the upcoming election cycle.

I’m temporary chair of our precinct caucus and there is a lot to pull together before Feb. 3, including finding a new location after one was cancelled last week. There are 23 days left until the caucus yet that’s just the beginning of what is expected to be an absorbing political year.

Politics will dominate social discourse if we let it. The U.S. Senate trial of the president, the remainder of the current session of the U.S. Supreme Court, the June primary elections, the Democratic National Convention, and then the November general election will make the time pass quickly. In the middle of that, our country’s foreign policy appears non-existent, creating tension in the Middle East, South Asia, and with China and Russia. It is the second session of the 88th Iowa General Assembly where Republicans hold majorities in both chambers of the legislature. They convene on Monday and are expected to further their conservative agenda. That’s only politics. I haven’t forgotten about climate change.

I also have a life with a to-do list filled with many items that are not optional. If 2020 has been tense at the beginning, it will continue to be so throughout the year.

That’s not to say we should all freak out!

The tips of long evergreen boughs touched the ground near the lane leading to the highway. Because of immeasurable leaf surface, they collected more weight in freezing rain than they could handle. Some broke from the trunks of trees and were scattered along the lane.

It’s expected to warm above freezing again so the count toward fruit tree dormancy will have to be reset before pruning. Maybe by the end of this rapidly filling month.

Meanwhile, snow has begun to fall.

Local Food Writing

Local Food System Fragment

Winter lettuce salad.

When I left a 25-year career in transportation and logistics, food occupied part of my attention. Over the years my blood pressure and cholesterol levels had increased, and when I left transportation they quickly returned to normal, mostly by eating more regular food as opposed to restaurant food.

When we moved back to Iowa in 1993, growing a large garden was part of what I wanted to do with the land. We couldn’t afford an acreage, but managed to find 0.62 of an acre not far from the trail around the north shore of Lake Macbride.

I was ready to produce some of our own food, more than we had in Indiana, but not really ready to embrace local food as anything other than a kitchen garden.

The local food movement was a growing group of individual operators struggling to make a living and an impact in a turbulent world. It remains a nascent system directly tied to our consumer culture, dependent upon disposable income and open mindedness in meeting humankind’s most basic need.

I spent seven years working and living in our local food culture and can say food we consume is not all local and needn’t be. At the same time there are benefits of a local food system beyond living within the season, better taste, and knowing the farmer who produced what we eat.

In our home fall canning leads to a pantry full of soup, tomatoes, hot peppers, sauerkraut, vinegar, apple sauce, pickles and sundry items from the garden and farm. The freezer gets filled with bell peppers, kale, sweet corn, apples, broccoli, blueberries and raspberries. It is food – as local as it gets – driven by what is fresh, abundant and on hand.

Along with home processed goods our pantry has bits and pieces from all over the globe, with each serving a purpose in our culinary lives. Combining ingredients and recipes in a personalized cuisine is where the local food movement lives or dies.

More people seek processed or precooked food because of a perception there is too little time for cooking. If adding kale to a smoothie seems easy, making a stir fry using it is less so. Contemporary consumers want a quick and easy path to making meals and snacks, and don’t have the patience it requires to add many new recipes to their repertoire. Cuisine as an expression of local culture has been tossed out the window by many.

Having worked in the food system, whether at home, on a farm, or in a retail store, has been an important part of my life since retiring in 2009. I found it is a way of life to grow food for direct consumption or sales. It also became clear the local food system is a jumble, even if farmers and consumers want it to be more organized.

One operator runs a community supported agriculture project where members pay in the spring, then share in the luck of the farm, good or bad. Another sells chits to be used to buy farm goods at a local outlet framed as a “store.” Another grows specific crops to sell to restaurants, absorbing any financial risk. All of this and more leads us to a point where an onion isn’t only an onion anymore. In the end it’s not about the onion but the culture.

If someone could organize a local food system, they might make a living. That would miss the point. Local food systems are intended to cut out the middlemen in the food supply chain. At the same time, faced with a need for scalability and the tick tock of the growing season, operators might use the help of an intermediary for marketing and sales.

While some of the trail blazers of a sustainable, local food movement are well known – Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, Fred Kirschenmann, and others – a sense of coherence or agreement on basic terms seems missing among local producers. It is as if operators would rather work inside the bubble of what works for them personally as long as the farm to market system seems to work generally. In a way that is not much different from how corn, soybean, egg and livestock producers view their operations.

Where we go from here is uncertain, although I have some ideas about that based on my experience in our food system.