Social Commentary Writing

Coping in a Pandemic

Onion Starts

We each need something to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

The linked video by Dr. David Price of Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York helped me and it might help you. Click here to view the 57 minute video.

It is a recording of a video conference call in which Dr. Price explains what is COVID-19 and how to protect ourselves while living as reasonable a life as may be possible as we keep our distance from each other. It relieved stress about living away from friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. It explained how we should interact with a small group of family members who live with us. It is presented in a way that is persuasive and practical. Unlike so much of the hyperbole, misstatements, and falsehoods I read and hear elsewhere, Dr. Price is believable when we need that as much as isolation from the virus.

I yearn to get out of the house and trips to the garden and yard are not satisfying enough. Armed with knowledge, I plan to go to work at the home, farm and auto supply store in a couple of hours. I’m not afraid any more. I’m not being foolish. I’ll be keeping my distance from co-workers and customers and washing my hands a lot, trying not to touch my face. Absent a general call to stay in place, either at the federal or state level, we must go on living as best we can.

Social distancing would be more tolerable if the ambient temperature would warm up by about ten degrees. Getting my hands in the soil and doing much needed yard work would take my mind off the coronavirus and self-imposed isolation.

As a writer, I’m used to working in isolation. It gives me strength and an ability to distance myself from social media and unwanted contact with others. I find a chance to think clearly about my life with others and how it will be lived. There cannot be enough of this time.

As the number of cases of COVID-19 rises in the United States we don’t know how the infection will escalate. In New York, the number of cases is doubling about every three days. In Iowa, we have limited testing availability for the coronavirus, so what numbers we have don’t tell the whole story. The first person died of COVID-19 in Iowa yesterday. While tragic, I’m not sure what it means in the context of everything else going on.

My remedy was to view Dr. Price’s video, and use the information in it to go on living. We’re doing the best we can.

Social Commentary Writing

A Post Consumer Life Worth Living

Arugula and lettuce planted March 2, 2020.

When I say post-consumer, I mean the one percent of richest people in the world have extracted what they can of what we have.

Something’s now got to give.

Yes, I’ll buy at the grocery store, gas station and drug stores, but a budget like ours can’t afford much extra. If shoes and clothing wear out, I’ll buy some on sale. Maybe some books, or a cup of coffee at a restaurant or shop will be bought, but little else that is unnecessary for daily living.

No longer do I just get into my car and drive in wanderlust.

We hope to avoid potentially big and unexpected expenses associated with an accident, automobile malfunction, health concern or home or family emergency. In a capitalistic society, all of those unexpected expenses are good for someone, as they generate revenue for them and unwanted expense for us. The bottom line is that we won’t be generating much for the consumer society overlords to rejoice about.

That said, to go on living in our current lifestyle, bills must be paid, and I’ll maintain paying work to support all of our creditors and suppliers. We seek to live without incurring additional debt, having to sell our home, or spend all of our life savings. We have our pensions yet if something big happened — an expense of thousands of dollars — how would we pay for it? Our pensions cover basic expenses and some debt retirement yet there is little extra at the end of each month.

I wrote the following in 2013 when confronted with the gap between my first retirement in 2009, before our pensions kicked in.

There are plenty of jobs in the area that pay below $10 per hour. The trouble is they don’t pay enough to meet our financial requirements, even if I were to work a few of them.

Year-to-date, wages accounted for 14.3 percent of income. Consulting income was another 5 percent. Adding these two amounts to consulting accounts receivable, the total is roughly 30 percent of required 2014 income. If I were to return to warehouse work at $9.25 per hour, that would generate 60 percent of required income. Low wage jobs can be a trap to get further in debt, especially if they do not provide benefits.

A portfolio that includes some lowly paid work is acceptable, but there has to be something else, a significant part of it, that pays more.

The best part of 2013 has been working in the local food system. The pay was low, but the relationships fostered by participating were meaningful. Working in the local food system offers the prospect of something more than dollars.

The job as proof reader was in my sweet spot, relevant to my writing. Same goes for my brief stint as editor of Blog for Iowa last summer. All were lowly paid work that I want to be doing.

What Didn’t Work

The warehouse work did not work because of the physical toll it extracted. Too, taking loans and withdrawing from savings, were steps in the wrong direction. Stopping the outflow of savings will be a high priority for 2014. We’ve tapped our current home equity loan ceiling, and what is left is credit cards.

How to Get There

At its simplest, based on a six-day work week, I need to generate between $94 and $125 each work day to pay our bills. To make progress, by paying down loans, we need more.

We survived the gap that year and until Social Security payments began in 2018. The coronavirus pandemic and social change it is bringing will cause an adjustment. I see these things happening.

While weather continues with adequate rainfall and favorable temperatures, growing more of our own food will be part of the solution. When we chose to live here we picked a lot with 0.62 acres: enough for a large garden. Likewise, my relationships with farmers helps secure food items we don’t or can’t grow.

Maintaining health through exercise, eating well, and regular medical, dental and eye examinations is foundational.

During the pandemic I find myself talking people through challenges. Not that I am an expert, but there is a vacuum of concern about others that pulls me in. Whether it is family or friends, it is important to stay connected now and once the pandemic has run its course.

Focus on one financial thing. Right now it is paying down debt with any extra money. Major appliance purchases (stove and dishwasher) will wait, as will replacing our current vehicles to secure reliable transportation for our last decades of driving an automobile.

If we do pay down debt, there are possibilities. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.

Most important in all this is having a life worth living and working toward that end. With that I’m prepared as can be to sustain our lives in a turbulent world.

Social Commentary

What Drudgery This Mortal Coil?

Dried chilies ready for grinding.

The coronavirus pandemic is changing us. Changes are just beginning. We’re not ready, change is likely permanent, and there’s no going back.

Attempts at social distancing push us to stay home and make constructive use of time. I don’t like what I see in this new awareness.

I’m not talking about our home with a fair share of boomer-style clutter. We seem to be at a point where the richest one percent of the population has extracted as much as they can from the rest of us. We are entering a post-consumer society in which assumptions about the past are out the window.

We’ve been inoculated and gained immunity to everything unrelated to meeting basic needs: the president’s lies and obfuscation, the GOP U.S. Senate lining the pockets of big business, the climate crisis, nuclear annihilation, foreign affairs, you name it. It will take all we have to survive and make ends meet. Other concerns? They are not ours as we hunker down to defend against the coming social apocalypse.

I discussed our tax return with a professional who characterized us as a “low-income household.” I did not know. Translated: anything we paid in federal and state taxes through payroll will be refunded. The tax refunds will go to paying debt incurred during lean times, a quotidian use of the money to be sure. Nothing will be left for the one percent.

So it begins – our life in the post-consumer society. We’d best embrace it. If we can there is hope we can do better than merely survive. If we can’t, what drudgery will be this mortal coil?

Social Commentary Writing

Being on the Board of Health

Onion Sets

Remarks delivered on a community panel
“Citizen Involvement in Local Government.”
Community Leadership Program
City Hall, Coralville, Iowa.
December 9, 2011

I believe a person makes a choice in life, to be part of society and influence what the future will be, or to be a citizen centered on making our way in a challenging world, protecting what we have, and nurturing the advantages of living in the United States. While not mutually exclusive, each can be a lifetime of hard work.

In 2004, after helping manage our rural public water and wastewater systems for almost ten years, I sought additional engagement in society and applied to the county supervisors for appointment to the board of health. Without reservation, and in every respect, my service on the board was good for me personally and I hope it contributed to society.

So what did we do? Besides the regular board meetings, there were other commitments. I tried to consider our life in society from a public health perspective, and work toward doing things that made sense while complying with a host of rules and regulations.

The board of health has oversight of the public health department and the meetings could easily be filled with tasks required by government such as approving the department budget, writing policy and other administrative work. We did do a lot of that while I was on the board.

But there were other things not written in the black and white of legal code. We made a decision about an indigent suspected of having tuberculosis, trying to respect his rights as a citizen, while protecting the public from a contagious disease. When the health department closed a restaurant near where I live, I listened when the owner called me at home and explained the financial strain our action created and the injustice he felt. During an in service day, I found myself responding to an outbreak of norovirus and spent the better part of a day speaking to parents about what their children had for lunch the previous day. All of this work was engaging.

It is hard to list any disadvantages about being on the board of health. When we sign up, there is an understanding that there will be both good and bad things along the way. In a way, it was all good.

I found three things particularly rewarding while I served on the board of health. First, there was the self-fulfilling feeling that I was giving something tangible back to our community. Second, the board provided a vehicle to study and present information about issues that impacted people’s lives. For example, I spoke about arsenic contamination in county water and about the Silurian aquifer. What was best was getting to know people in the community in a way I couldn’t have predicted. A sense of engagement in society was a significant benefit, one that keeps giving and for which I will always be grateful.

Thank you for attending today.

Social Commentary

Food Hoarders All

Morning Kale Harvest, June 2015

Because of the coronavirus, people are stocking up on food and sundries in case they are quarantined. Local retail business is up compared to last year. The wholesale club has been rationing specific items.

The retail outlet where I work twice a week has a large table in the employee break room where we pass the time talking, looking at our mobile devices or yesterday’s newspaper, and eating snacks and lunches. The consensus among this group of employed yet low-wage workers was we could survive a month or more of quarantine without stocking up. It’s how we do.

When my uncle died, Mother found a large number of one-pound boxes of dried pasta in his pantry. A person is in the store, it’s cheap, so why not pick up a package? Years of accumulation like that reflects a certain type of affluence. For those of us with a stable home life the amounts build up. A person has to work at it to use up the pantry and freezer. It’s a form of food security.

If we were quarantined and had no access to new food, the first thing to go would be dairy products. Fresh milk and eggs would be most missed, although cheese and butter would not make it a month. This discussion is hypothetical since there is an ability to receive home-delivery of most grocery items in our community. My next door neighbor owns the grocery store in town so I’m not worried about running out of food if quarantined.

We have plenty of fresh onions, canned tomatoes, dried basil and olive oil to make it through a month of pasta dishes. There is plenty of applesauce and pickles. We have enough apple butter to last more than a year. Kale? there is plenty in the freezer along with other frozen vegetables from the garden.

We’d test how far ten pounds of flour goes. We’d see if the yeast in the ice box is still active. If the yeast isn’t active, there would be biscuits and corn bread made with baking powder as leavening. There would be a big batch of soup made from celery, carrots, onions and potatoes. We have five cases of prepared beans, a large bag of garbanzo beans, and plenty of rice. The freezer has frozen raspberries, aronia berries and blueberries. We’d find out what we have.

As indicated above, this is theoretical as the community would support us on quarantine. As we settle into a weekend spent mostly at home we have no worries about food security. Sustaining our lives on the Iowa prairie is what we do.


2012 and New Beginnings

Journal Entry, Jan. 8, 2013.

The 2012 general election marked the end of a personal era.

Working on campaigns drained our financial reserves and we would need income to meet our obligations going forward.

The following winter was a time of reflection and adjustment.

2013 began a work period where writing occupied more of my time. That, combined with low wage work, became a way to get along. We never made enough money as I worked those jobs. They bridged the time between leaving my career and beginning Medicare at age 65 and Social Security at age 66. What made our survival possible was a foundation created by my 25 years in transportation combined with Jacque’s income from the public library. It was tough going during the transition but we made it.

Our move to Big Grove Township was predicated on a few things: we needed a place to live, my job in Cedar Rapids, being centrally located near other job opportunities, schools for our daughter, two working automobiles, and being a distance from the office. Over time, and by 2013, those things changed, raising new questions:

  • Do we want to move to town?
  • What kind of work will be next for us?
  • Is there a way we can work without a commute?
  • Is this home right for us as we age?
  • Will we be able to afford living here?

We decided the best approach was to stabilize our lives here and we did. Working at home was difficult but straight forward. I wrote about it in a Dec. 29, 2012 journal entry:

Part of work is forcing myself to come into my work area and sit. The kind of discipline that Norman Mailer wrote about. Not being distracted, or leaving the work area. Just working to the detriment of all other activities.

It is not always easy to do this, but do it I must, and for more than an hour at a time.

I felt an urge to go to town. It is similar to the urge I felt when living in Mainz. That often led me to shopping or walking into the downtown area. I resisted it today, even though it was complicated by the new $50 bill my mother sent — itching to be spent. It was a major accomplishment to resist the urge to go “elsewhere.”

The low wage work I pursued was readily available in the area. My criteria was to work for a company with a professional payroll department where I could count on wages being paid accurately and in a timely manner. I didn’t give much thought to the physical requirements of the jobs, although they mostly required standing on concrete or other hard-surfaced floors. I worked as a temporary laborer, as a product demonstrator, and in 2015 wound up at the home, farm and auto supply store which offered full time work, health insurance and a reasonable work load. I also worked as a proof reader and freelance correspondent for local newspapers.

Most significant among these jobs was a chance to work with people much different from those during my transportation career. If I didn’t bring home much money, I met many new people.

Weathering the last seven years was the kind of accomplishment few people point out as a highlight of life. We did what was needed to survive. Now that it’s over there are other things to do, including the “good stuff” in the diagram from my journal. We now have a chance to figure out what that means.


The Work of Writing

Draft Autobiography Outline

My ancestors first landed in North America in what today are the states of Virginia and Minnesota. I don’t know of any other connections but those two states.

My Virginia origins have obscure beginnings in the 17th Century. My Minnesota origins are tied to specific immigration from Poland in the 19th Century after the Civil War. I know a lot about these lines, but not as much as I may think.

Genealogy has been faddish for me. For a while a rush of interest. Then research halts and things sit for months or years. I enjoy discovering new artifacts, like the recent discovery of my parents’ wedding announcement in the newspaper. Such joy is insufficient to turn me into a consistent miner of artifacts and information. It’s been a hodge-podge endeavor from the get-go.

I hope to sustain an effort with the current memoir project. That means getting organized, developing a writing plan and sticking with it.

It is hard to determine a timeline, but necessary. Equally difficult will be choosing which parts to write about and in which order. I need to be in a place where the outline is finished and broken down into 1,000-word bites for drafting. I don’t know how long it will take to draft, edit and proof 170,000 words. Longer than expected, for sure.

The general rule is to write 1,000 words per day. By write, I mean draft because editing will take multiple amounts of the time drafting will. I expect as many as a dozen revisions, probably more. Likewise proof reading is important and time consuming. One has to get outside the narrative to a place where the literal words on the page mean nothing except for their correct spelling, grammar and elimination of redundancy and extra words. These things take time.

A couple of hours can produce 1,000 draft words with this type of work. That assumes a proper outline and work plan that puts the research into a semblance of order. It’s possible to do that.

So five steps: organize documents and artifacts, prepare an outline, create a first draft, edit and revise the draft, and proof read.

This spring is shaping up to be busy with the part time job at the home, farm and auto supply store, gardening, farm work, political work, community work, and the Food Policy Council. Somehow the memoir project needs to find a space. (I always forget to mention family. Why is that?)

I plan to continue writing this blog most days, but need to add a period of daily time to organize for writing the memoir. The photo above is a first attempt to get something on paper. There will be revisions as work continues to sustain this project.


Place to Hang a Narrative

Draft Memoir Outline, March 3, 2020

While Super Tuesday elections and caucuses happened I was working on an outline for my nascent memoir. It’s one of many drafts.

As readers may have noticed, I’m posting almost every day on this blog. What’s lacking is getting a grip around my personal history so I can finish a longer autobiographical piece. With the recently discovered trove of letters I wrote to Mom, a lot of pieces from college until moving back to Iowa in 1993 are coming together.

I’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever know, so whatever I produce should have application beyond family and friends. I plan to tell the story as best I can once determining what it is.

That last part is important. I’m not used to telling my story other than recounting brief incidents in a long life. More thought about what my story is will be in order.

Some decisions have been made.

As far as length goes, 70,000 to 100,000 words. I have a 25,000 word fragment from a few years ago, and that will be edited down to fit the new narrative. There are many fragments in my files.

There will be two parts. The first part will be a chronological story that sets my life in a context of family, education, and public events. I don’t know the breaking point but it will likely be one of three: Father’s sudden death in 1969, enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1975, or finishing graduate school in 1981. I’ll write about all of those. Depending on the narrative, emphasis will vary.

John Irving is the model for what I want to do in this book as a writer. I plan to begin with the last sentence of the book and write toward that end. In coming weeks I plan to work on that last sentence.

Material for research seem abundant. Mother and her mother took a significant number of photos during my earliest years. There are enough to help remember what happened and when I gained awareness of a world outside myself. Likewise the internet is a resource for old clippings, genealogy, photographs and maps to fill in some of the gaps. Much of this early section of the book will be based on memory, which while fading, remains strong in many areas.

School life was important although aside from some of my undergraduate work there are not a lot of remaining written documents or artifacts. There aren’t many photos either. The focus here will include the few documents that survived coupled with memory. I attended five different schools in K-12 and each will have a place in the narrative. I’m most sensitive to the closeness I felt to grade school friends and how that changed when the nuns split some of us off in a separate class because they felt we were “college-bound.”

After undergraduate school I began writing journals and there is a continuous written and photographic record beginning 1974-1975 until the present. At that point the narrative will turn to what I’ve already written for source material. There is a lot of it.

The second part of the memoir is up in the air. The idea of the first part is setting a context for actions in the second part. A key event in Part II was my return to Davenport after military service and the brief time I lived near “Five Points,” the intersection of Division Street, West Locust Street, and Hickory Grove Road. I plan to write in detail about those months from November 1979 until summer 1980. It is a good fulcrum on which the pivot the narrative.

Part II will be more thematic, centered around family, work, travel, politics and intellectual progress while writing. How did I become a person who spends a couple of hours writing before beginning each day? While I disliked President George W. Bush immensely, I liked the format of his presidential memoir “Decision Points.” Perhaps something like that, but as I said, it’s up in the air right now.

There is an impetus to write this memoir now and while not close to final, yesterday’s work on an outline moved the enterprise forward.

Environment Social Commentary Writing

Spring Is Late, But Coming

Garden in Winter

The driver delivering pallets of yard and landscaping stone, peat moss, and dirt said his spring deliveries are running about two weeks behind last year.

We just finished our annual inventory at the home, farm and auto supply store and are ready for incoming freight of garden supplies, utility trailers, wheelbarrows, fertilizer, three-point farm equipment, and the like. I unloaded a pallet of 50-pound bags of seed potatoes. The greenhouse will be installed in the parking lot next week. Spring seemed late to our suppliers but it’s almost here.

It’s more like we didn’t have a winter.

In a retail warehouse we notice the seasonality of commerce. Shelves fill with mowers, trimmers, blowers, chain saws and tillers. We received two tall pallets of box fans. Large ceramic pots were shipped in crates from Mexico. We have a delightful collection of ceramic and metal rooster art. This entire post could be a repetition of inbound inventory processed during my two days per week part time job. I have something else in mind.

The intersection of commerce, private lives, spirituality and society is where we spend most of our lives. In time, if we are lucky and talented, we create a process of living that ensures our survival. In Eastern Iowa it is pretty straightforward how one secures food, shelter and clothing: seek training and then work as a skilled professional, an entrepreneur, or for someone else. There is no guarantee of success but most people in my circle make it, including those who are forced to live in their cars because they are poor, or who sleep on someone’s couch for a while due to physical abuse at home. We live a privileged life despite the real problems people have.

There is a sense our process of living, for lack of a better description, is built by us, for us, and there is separation from what others do. That’s okay. If we have more in common than we believe, the articulation of a life can be a conscious effort with variations in the use of materials from a mass society. We make something of our selves. Such a process may seem individualistic, bordering on taking care of “me only,” but it is intertwined with the fate of the society which provides context.

I may subscribe to the local newspaper, but so do a thousand other people, our subscriptions and advertising giving life to the enterprise. In a few brilliant moments I find my life has not been consciously nurtured, nor has it been self made. It has been a collaborative undertaking in a social network from which I emerged and in which I remain rooted… kind of like the newspaper.

I read an article about the high cost of prescription drugs. The Congress is working to lower the cost of such medicine, yet to date their work has been an utter failure. People are skipping medically necessary prescriptions because of the cost, Megan Leonhardt of CNBC reported. There is another side to this issue.

Over the years I’ve had several conversations with physicians, and now my nurse practitioner, about taking prescription medicine. Just like finding a good auto mechanic or a reliable technician to work on my yard tractor, it is part of a process for living. Every time a medical practitioner suggested a prescription — either to control cholesterol or prevent Type II diabetes — I pushed back.

I have been able to address each diagnosis through behavioral changes coupled with regular visits to the clinic. These physiological conditions may persist, and at some point I may have to accede to medication. Last year I took a small step and began taking a low-dose aspirin in addition to my daily vitamin B-12 tablet. We’ll see how things go during my follow up appointment later this year. My point is when we focus on the failure of our government to properly regulate the pharmaceutical industry we neglect focus on a process for living. Having a process for living is more important than what our government does or doesn’t do.

I feel life in society all around me. Maybe that is a Cartesian outlook, one rooted in my earliest memories of reading at home before breakfast, after being an altar boy for Catholic Mass at the convent. Despite whatever separation I feel in intellectual outlook our future is inseparable from its context. The fate of our society is complexly intertwined. To separate a single strand of it in the form of an individual life, from the broader organism, would be to our mutual detriment.

I don’t understand how we will manage the many challenges we face — environmental degradation, climate change, economic inequality, the threat of conflict, and diminished natural resources. I do know that without a process for living that recognizes the web of life that engendered us, that brought us to this moment, we may not be up to the challenge. Humanity’s well-being will predictably decline. I’m not ready to say it is inevitable. I don’t believe it is.

Yet so much depends on the observations of truck drivers who pay attention to the variability in our lives — and together try to make them better.


Journal Entries After Grad School

Wild Woods Farm Barn Door

28 July 1981
Iowa City

Last night and this morning I read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. It has been some time since I last turned those pages, and with the facsimile first edition I have, I felt like the years had turned back.

It is a good book today and I think a large part of my own status is derived from or related to the past readings of this book. I can’t help but say amen to every line.

For what I perceive in Whitman is that life comes only by the individual’s bringing life to otherwise lifeless things. This is what I am about. Nice job Walt.

13 August 1981
Iowa City

First entry after beginning work. This is about right. Two weeks before I get started writing in my journal again. I guess I’m starting to get to where I can do other things besides work a job. I’m beginning to settle in. There’s a ways to go yet.

18 August 1981
Iowa City

The writers I read on writing say that the best time to write is in the morning when I first wake up. That’s not the way it will be. My writing will take place after a day of work in a job with lots of people contact, in a busy part of town, in close contact with a lot of other people, while I am engaged in a myriad of activities. I think all of this is the way it should be, a return to John Donne, perhaps, but a proper state of affairs. For we are always engaged in the world with others. We must be.

It’s time to look to the future. The first step is the publishing and distribution of Institutional Writings. I pick the books up tomorrow after work and will begin writing the passages for the receivers. As I approach thirty years, I make my commitment to life. To people. I consciously leave the past in the recesses of me memory to chart a course over unmarked territory. But I am not a pioneer, in a sense, I cannot be,for I join in my every action with all those who preceeded me. With the rest of humanity. In the most familiar terms, by those who share my culture. But these too are words that belong to the past. Here I go.