Postcards from Iowa #6

Text on the postcard: Stratford, Ontario, Canada The Festival Theatre viewed from across the Avon River is one of three theatres offering an excellent selection of theatrical performances during the Stratford Festival (May to November). Photo Credit: Robert B. Hicks

When our daughter was in middle school we began taking family vacations. They persisted through the summer between junior and senior year in high school.

It began with a week-long trip to Orlando, Florida where we stayed in a motel and made day trips to theme parks, including Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World. It was our first air travel together. For me, vacationing was participation in a great American adventure. It had one foot standing on consumerism and the other on a job that consumed much of my life. While we had only a brief sampling of what Orlando has to offer that first year, it was a positive experience. We made summer vacations annual.

Next was a trip to Colorado where we visited friends and did some mountain sight seeing. We drove among the 14,000-foot peaks and spent the rest of the time visiting people. After that, it was trips to Stratford, Ontario for the Stratford Festival of plays, and everything around them. I don’t recall how many plays we saw but our daughter insisted on meeting the actors to get the program autographed after each one. Vacations in Stratford became something else.

I didn’t realize it then, yet it became clear later, vacations were a crucible for making a life from the raw materials of society. They transitioned us through releasing our child to college and then to the greater challenges of living a creative life. Upon reflection, there are not many creative communities like the one in Stratford. We were fortunate to have had those trips.

It’s hard to say whether we will return to Stratford as a family, or take any kind of vacation. We will always have those summers to remember.

Living in Society

Living with Digital Images

Stones viewed through water.

Among things that have become harder to manage in the digital age are images. It is easy to take photographs with my Samsung mobile device today. Because it’s so easy, and has been for a while, the quantity of images on file is huge.

Every photograph is not important. Most are geared toward editing and posting on line in one of my social platforms, including WordPress. It is unclear what I should keep longer term. The cheap availability of storage suggests there is no need to sort through and delete some of them. While that may be the default process, I want change as I transfer files to my new CPU.

In August I captured 186 images, which is a typical monthly amount. Most of them are photos of garden produce, cooking, books, artwork, and things that happened or places I went. The best solution to reducing the quantity of files is to delete originals after cropping them for posting. Another is decide on the story a series is to tell. For example, I have 12 images related to donating my 1997 Subaru to Iowa Public Radio. They could be reduced to four. The best time to do this is immediately after I download them from my mobile device.

As I transfer thousands of images I plan to go through them all. To get this done I put an item on my daily outline, “work on file transfer.” I don’t know how long it will take yet I’ll work until it is done, a bit each day.

I don’t know the provenance of many of my photos, especially those with political subjects. In 2006-2008 I was getting used to a digital camera as my main image capturing technology. I felt little restraint about downloading photos by others when my own at a specific event were sub-par. I work harder to give credit today, but some of the older digital images are fond, and I have little idea who made them. I try to avoid using them outside my computer.

A main use of the files is in story telling. Before I deleted my Flickr account it was a great platform for story telling. The problem is how to translate those types of online stories into something more meaningful inside our home. When Yahoo had the problem with personal information security, I killed all the related accounts and downloaded the text from the stories on Flickr. It’s not the same.

Photos are a significant part of my autobiographical research. While ten years later I don’t care what I had for dinner on a given Sunday, those photos play a role in daily life, one that should be explored and developed for the story. A few will go into the final book yet the rest are best stored by editing, printing them out, and placing in an album. That’s as big a project as working through the transfer. The file transfer project will, in part, be designed to set up an album-making project for later.

There is no denying quality varied a lot over the more than 50 years I’ve been taking photographs. Sometimes a blurry image is all one has and it must be used for the album or story to make a point. I hope the formats .bmp, .jpg, .jpeg, .tiff, .png, and .tif persist yet there are no guarantees. The main issue going forward is there are a limited number of commercial outlets to print photos. We are tied to whatever those technologies are. It is too expensive to make our own prints on a home printer, except for on special occasions.

As I approach my seventieth birthday I think more about not leaving a large task of image sorting behind when I die. I may want to keep a couple of photos of tomatoes I grew, yet I don’t need a thousand. Likewise, if I can’t remember the name of a person in a photo, there is little reason to keep it. The recycling bin is already getting full.

I’ll be better off by giving this project some measure of thoughtful approach. Now that I’ve started, I hope to persevere until the work is done. The best part will be in actually completing the transfer so I can devote this time to something new. Wish me luck!


Postcards From Iowa #5

Reverse side: Personal note postmarked Oklahoma City, July, 8, 1908.

Social media hasn’t helped us stay in touch with friends and acquaintances.

In 2010 I searched for members of my high school class and asked them to join a Facebook group started for our fortieth class reunion. Many joined, but the group is now pretty inactive. Mostly we fell out.

It takes work to maintain a relationship and with all the stuff we have to do just to keep up with society it doesn’t happen. We drift except for those closest to us. I’m coming to a place where that seems okay.

What we yearn for is doing new, interesting, or exciting things. It doesn’t matter if it is with people we’ve known for decades or with those we just met. The arc of our lives isn’t a fixed trajectory. Just because we walked to school with the same group of people during the 1960s, that doesn’t mean the bond was permanent. If I encounter such childhood friends — these days mostly at funerals — we reminisce a bit in the moment and that’s that. We’ve built new lives that diverged from our beginnings.

I favor writing letters to friends and family. Not too much, though. There is an unspoken obligation to write one back and I don’t want to hang that on people I care about. Yet I write a letter from time to time.

This postcard reminded me there are a few people with whom I’d like to re-establish contact. Not that many, though. I have to ask why we fell out in the first place. Sometimes we’ll never know.



On the state park trail.

I spent a fair amount of Tuesday revisiting the outline of my autobiography. It quickly came into perspective. There will be multiple sections with each drawing on different parts of my life story.

After the dedication and introduction I currently see the following parts.

Part I: Background

It will begin with four historical pieces about Lincoln County, Minnesota; the area around LaSalle, Illinois; Wise County, Virginia; and Davenport, Iowa in 1951. I spent the most time last winter drafting these sections. They each need more work.

Part II: Main Narrative

Next will be a high level narrative of my life from birth until the present. In it I’ll cover the main stories on a time line, from my perspective. I’ll leave out personal information of people who are still living.

This part is subdivided into sections: 1. From earliest memories, moving to Madison Street, school, and my eleven-year residence at the American Foursquare in Northwest Davenport. 2. Begins with college, a trip to Europe in 1974, military service, moving to Iowa City, graduate school, and then marriage. 3. I begin what would become a career in transportation and logistics in 1984. I follow my career from the move to Cedar Rapids; to Merrillville, Indiana; and then back to Big Grove Township where we now live. 4. Next comes our daughter finishing grade and high school, going to college, and then moving from Iowa. 5. Finally, there is empty nest life, community engagement, my first retirement from transportation and logistics, continuing work until the coronavirus pandemic, and the post-work life in which I now find myself. The idea of these sections is to lay out the bare bones of how I spent my life. To research and get the story down.

Part III: Collected Writing

The last part of the autobiography will be a collection of my writing from letters to the editor beginning in 1974, and including resumes, poetry, published writing, journal writing, newspaper writing, and blog writing. The focus will be to reduce the quantity of written work to inform the narrative presented in the second section.

The clarity that came from spending time away from writing as I worked on the garden was a welcome surprise. The outline is not finished. A few days work remains and I’m ready to do it. After that it’s back to writing.


Toward Season’s End

Thistle near the state park trail.

Just like that! Temperatures are cooler. It has been in the mid-fifties overnight, with a daily high in the seventies. The shift toward season’s end is happening. Ready or not, here it comes.

This winter I’m again planning to devote significant time to my autobiography. I wrote good pages last winter and would like to move the narrative along. If I learned anything it’s that the task is monumental. Without organization, I’ll never finish.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’m upgrading my computer CPU to a new one. As I do so, I’ve been going through countless files to see what is relevant to an autobiography. I printed a few things out. The more I look, the more files I find that can be permanently deleted. A person only has so much time to spend with old things that depart from the narrative that is to be preserved. Best to purge it now and get it done.

I resisted going through all the physical objects last winter. The boxes, albums, photographs, files, books, clothing and trunks are everywhere and need to be gleaned for relevant artifacts. Maybe I’ll spend time on that this year. If I do, the idea is to organize things chronologically instead of thematically. That mean busting up boxes and folders I once thought went together. As I extract and refine what I’ll use, there will be no going back. I’m okay with that. As I proceed with computer files I’m finding my organizational process was more a hodge-podge than orderly.

I stopped work on the autobiography mid February as my attention turned to the garden. If I repeat the cycle, I should be able to get a solid five or six months work done. The document on which I’d first like to make progress is called the “book tree.” It’s an outline of how I currently see the narrative progressing. There is a month or more work improving it. In the end it will make writing the narrative easier. Last winter I got addicted to word count. I need to let go of that for the moment and focus on what will be the story. That’s honest, journeyman work to which I look forward.

There are still things to do in the yard and garden. With the hot, humid weather I delayed until there is no more delaying. The grass is turning green and needs mowing. Before I do that I have to clear what became a weed patch upon which to place the clippings. I also have to pick a plot to plant garlic in four or five weeks. By the way, the garlic came in really good this year.

I don’t know how long the autobiography will take. What I expect is it will make life easier for whoever takes charge of my stuff when I’m gone, if for no other reason than that there will be less of it. I cling to the present life yet realize I need to let go. Upgrading my CPU is as good a metaphor as any for that.

Living in Society

Labor Day 2021

Labor Day weekend work: preserving Guajillo chilies.

For the second year in a row I’m not employed on Labor Day. The kinds of events marking the day are not the same as they were.

An announcement on the Iowa Labor News website read, “Most of the Union sponsored Labor Day events around Iowa have been cancelled, for safety reasons.”

“Safety reasons” refers to the coronavirus pandemic, which is not over, which has no end in sight. “The virus is here to stay,” Governor Kim Reynolds said at a Sept. 2 news conference. “Which means we have to find a way to live with it in a responsible, balanced and sustainable way.” There is no going back to the way things were before the coronavirus came along on Labor Day or on any day.

It’s been 48 years since I carried a union card at a meat packing plant. Since then, private business restructured to minimize its exposure to a unionized workforce. I’m not sure what Labor Day represents any longer. It sure isn’t about unions even if they are the groups most likely to plan events during better times.

Locally grown Honeycrisp apples.

This weekend the orchard began its Honeycrisp apple season, the university had a Saturday home football game, and there is a Labor Day Vendors Market in nearby Mount Vernon. It’s not much considering how many people work for a living. This year’s Labor Day Mayor’s Bike Ride in Cedar Rapids has been cancelled due to the pandemic. Suffice it Monday is a holiday and the weekend can be a time to take it easy.

Labor Day weekend is the “unofficial end of summer.” That’s going to have to do. Since I returned from a trip to Florida at the beginning of July the weather has been exceedingly hot and humid. Sunday morning’s ambient temperature was 59 degrees, reminding us of autumn’s approach. Sumac along the state park trail has begun to change color. There are signs of the end of summer all around.

In February I bought a new CPU to replace the one I’ve been using since 2013. This Labor Day weekend I hope to get it up and running, with files transferred. I face the same issue as in the past: what files do I want to keep? Ready or not, change has come and it’s time to decide. Like with the Labor Day holiday I must act like there is no going back. What is hard is deciding whether that means keeping old behavior or developing new. For now, I plan to work at home on Labor Day.

Living in Society Writing

Postcards from Iowa #4

Text on the postcard: THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH is coming your way! To find out when, and much, much more, visit www ringling com MAY ALL YOUR DAYS BE CIRCUS DAYS!

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was a mainstay of my youth. Each year they came to Davenport, usually at the levee of the Mississippi River, to put on the Greatest Show on Earth.

A biography of the Ringling Brothers was one of the first books I checked out from the bookmobile after getting my library card. It was interesting four of the Ringling brothers were born in McGregor, Iowa. They inspired us to put on our own show in the backyard of the American Foursquare my parents bought in 1959.

The circus influenced my decision to be part of the high school stage crew where I could participate in putting on shows.

The days of circuses are ending and Ringling Brothers folded the tents for the last time on May 21, 2017. It was a really big deal when the circus came to town… until they no longer did.

Kitchen Garden

Retro Post: Pepper Flakes

Serrano Peppers

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

Pepper Flakes

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

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

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

Living in Society Writing

Postcards From Iowa #3

Text on the postcard: “Student, c. 1960. Photographer Unidentified.”

When young our capacity seems limitless. When I got my first library card in 1959 I believed I could read every book on the Bookmobile that stopped each week in our neighborhood. I looked forward to returning books I read and getting new ones. Outside of school, it was a highlight of the week.

Mother got me a subscription to My Weekly Ready, the arrival of which was another highlight. I bought a few children’s books at the local drug store. Keeping up with reading was easy with the energy of youth.

When I lived in Iowa City in my twenties, I started a project to read every book in the public library. It tested my limits. I started at the beginning of the Dewey Decimal system and didn’t make it out of the philosophy section.

I didn’t hear about the Horatio Alger story until I was in college, but that could have been my story, lifting myself up with diligence, honesty and altruism as I read and read and read, waiting for some happy circumstance to present itself and bring me the good things of life. We now know what I was feeling was the privilege of being white and middle class.

I look back to those days, with their libraries full of reading material, and consider my devotion to the act of reading. It was a solitary life and I was mostly okay with that.

What I didn’t realize, that would have helped me if I did, was to get anything significant done in society it takes a context that includes others. I was ready for a life of rugged individualism, in which through my own hard work I could pull myself up by my bootstraps and experience success. I didn’t understand how divisive that could be, pitting my own efforts against others to ensure personal success above all else. Live and learn.

Today I have piles of books I want to read just like the schoolboy on this postcard. However, my intent is different than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. I seek insight to take collective action on things like the climate crisis and more. I provide for my basic existence — food, shelter, clothing, transportation and healthcare — yet that serves only as a platform to do other things with a network of people.

Some days I wish to be that boy sitting next to a stack of books while reading. If I were, there would be things to tell him.

Living in Society

Buying Time

Rouge Vif D’Etampes Pumpkin.

On Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 I temporarily deactivated my Twitter and Instagram accounts. Instagram reported I was averaging an hour a day on the site. Twitter was likely two or three times that amount. There are plenty of other things on which to use this time.

As I approach my seventieth birthday I’ve been taking stock and focusing energy on things that matter. While I enjoy social media, a person has to set priorities. The energy formerly used on those platforms can now be devoted to writing and other forms of creative endeavor.

At some point, temporary deactivation will become permanent.

The change was almost immediate. I slept through the night. My blood pressure dropped overnight to within range. I felt like reading a book again. I feel like doing things instead of occupying time with computer screens. Change was unexpected, yet welcome.

I received a phone call from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources yesterday, informing me a recent special test they performed on our public water system indicated a high level of manganese, well above acceptable limits. I spent part of yesterday and will spend much of today determining what we should do to return the amount of manganese in our drinking water to safe levels. For the time being we issued a health advisory, which, this morning we will hand deliver to the 80 or so households that use our system. I went to town and bought ten gallons of bottled drinking water to use in the kitchen while we work through the process. It’s not how I was planning to spend my time.

In the county seat there is a controversy about an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) light tactical vehicle procured by the county sheriff from military surplus. Some call it militarization of the police and object to it being in the table of organization and equipment of the sheriff’s office. The sheriff, who inherited the MRAP from his predecessor, said he’s keeping it and it’s non-negotiable. Like many public debates, this one is off the rails. Critics have evaded the basic question of whether or not the sheriff has authority to operate such a vehicle in the county. There should likely be better guidelines on how to use the MRAP, but neither do we want to tie the hands of the sheriff who needs to be fluid when responding to a crime. The whole debate is a distraction from improving interaction between the sheriff’s office and citizens of the county.

Not sure what I’ll do with the new found time. Maybe I’ll take a nap and rest for what’s next.