Photographs for Writing

Summer sailboats on Lake Macbride

Thursday was a day to organize photographs.

I copied the remaining digital photographs from a storage drive to my desktop and began reviewing and labeling dozens of envelopes of printed photographs. It was all in a day’s work on my autobiography.

The rise of popular photography in the 20th Century is endlessly fascinating, partly because my family participated in it. Changing technology and how it influenced our picture taking informs its increasing democratization. In a time of ubiquitous mobile cameras and the internet it is difficult to determine a consistent meaning of a single image. Changing technology and our adoption of it enables a narrative about our lives that is the focus of writers like me.

A large majority of printed images I handled survived without damage. So far there was only one photo album where prints on opposing pages stuck to each other and ruined them. There were a lot of photographs of other prints made to get them into my collection. That process had mixed results. When I was working on a big project, with hundreds of prints, I scanned multiple prints on one image with the idea of editing them down to individual images later. It sped up the intake process, but I’m not sure of its efficacy as I haven’t gotten to editing most of them.

Whatever I have on hand I will use. Photo sessions over the years, regardless of subject, tell a story of their own. Some of those sessions are compelling, begging further explanation. Some are not. Until I know what’s available it’s impossible to settle on which ones to use.

Photographic prints don’t always have a timestamp on them. Writing is partly about determining when things happened and how they fit a broader narrative. For example, our first family vacation was to Orlando, Florida where we stayed in a motel and visited Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. We took photographs with cameras and developed the film. It was the 25th anniversary of the Walt Disney World opening as the prints reminded me. While there was no timestamp on the prints, I could easily determine they were taken the summer of 1997 during Disney’s 15-month celebration of the occasion. The most difficult prints to date were taken after we moved back to Iowa in 1993 before we adopted digital cameras. There is an evolving discipline to dating prints and I’m getting better at it.

I’ve been successful at meeting my daily writing plan yet there will soon be a bottleneck caused by too many artifacts, previous writing, photographs, and stories to review. I get daily rushes done yet editing lags behind. On the plus side, I’m figuring out a new way to write and that’s part of the project. Consistent, daily work on varied aspects of the project is making a difference. The coronavirus pandemic created an environment for this.


Writing Space

Writing space in 2000.

Writing 20 years ago meant something different than it does today.

I worked a full-time, demanding job in Eldridge, Iowa which meant a 67-mile, one-way commute on days I worked in the office. I managed dedicated fleet operations in Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, New York, Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee, and consulted on other projects in Georgia, Texas and Iowa. I traveled a lot.

Our daughter was in high school along with everything that meant. I participated in her activities as best I could and felt successful to a degree. I missed a lot of her events because of my travel.

The writing I did was mostly related to work, journaling at home, email, and a few separate pieces. I’m re-discovering my writing from that period because of the current project. While I wrote an increasing number of emails, kept a journal, and wrote a lot of business correspondence, it was not the kind of writing I wanted to do.

We bought our first home computer in April 1996 and four years later each of the three of us had a personal computer. The one in this photograph (behind the Oxford English Dictionary) was from a company called Computer Renaissance in Iowa City, where they built the CPU. We used Compuserve as our internet service provider and I had an email address through them.

By 1999 I ran a telephone line with a dual jack to our daughter’s bedroom so she could have access to the internet for her used computer and an extension phone. I sent her this email.

I figured out that you would probably check your e-mail when you got home from school. I hope you are enjoying having the computer located in your room. Once the monitor gets fixed (it is in Minnesota) then you will really be set up. Remember that for now, we do not plan to get a printer, so copy to disk and we will print on one of the other printers.

Please use the computer wisely. So often, people get bored with life and become cyber worms. It is ok to use the computer for learning and fun, but remember that you have a life outside the computer. When I first got involved with a home computer, I found myself very busy with looking at stuff and installing hardware and software. I did not do as much as I would have liked with the actual software. Don’ let this happen to you.

Anyway, have a great evening, and hopefully if you are looking at this, you have your homework done.

Love, Dad

Personal email, Feb. 2, 1999

When we moved to Big Grove Township we did not have enough money to finish the lower level of the split foyer house. I set up my desk in the unfinished space on moving-in day and moved it around a couple of times through the years. We still haven’t finished the lower level. My writing space has been more like a campsite than an actual room. Even today, when I have walls around me, it retains a temporary quality.

In 2000, everything was connected by wire. I ran a new phone line downstairs and the printer and scanner were connected directly to the CPU. It was on this device I printed countless briefs filed in the Bush v. Gore U.S. Supreme Court case after the 2000 election. When this photograph was taken I had not re-activated in politics. That would happen after Sept. 11, 2001. After that I would use this space for political work as well.

Compared to today, the CPU I used was primitive. Ten years after Microsoft introduced Windows 3.0 I was still using MS-DOS for certain functions on this machine. It was what I learned while working at Amoco Oil Company. I remember the conversion to 3.0 during the period 1989 to 1991 as Amoco was an early adopter. If I was a computer geek, it was only because I wanted to understand how software worked, and how I could use it in my life. In retrospect, the computer work took time away from writing. It wasn’t until I started a blog in 2007 that I would figure how to best write using a computer.

As the breeze blew through the open windows I felt at home in this writing space. An unfinished house, a busy career, and a teenage daughter left little time to use it. Our daughter took the photograph, catching me surprised while I focused on some now unknown computer project. That space served for a while.


Editor’s Desk #1

Workbench cleared for seeding onions.

The value of having a good editor is something every writer knows. When one is self-published, isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a novice at book-length writing, a meet up with an editor is inevitable.


My process this year began simply: produce 1,000 words daily, five days per calendar week, and edit on Saturday. It sounded simple and doable when I began. I hadn’t expected the writing process would be a flight into imagination with no net and a flimsy tether. Maybe the editor’s job is to rein that in, put a fence around it, and get it to grow the way sheep do. There is a case to be made to turn edited rushes (results of a daily writing session after my first edit) immediately over to an editor. What decent editor would take such work without compensation?

Just because I work without income doesn’t mean an editor should. I would argue that free editors must be viewed with skepticism. Why are they doing the work, and for free? By the nature of quarantine writing, meet up with a professional editor will be delayed.

Writing the daily 1,000 is like mining coal: the writer follows the seam where it goes. As a result, common themes are found in different daily rushes. There is bad writing that must be improved. Part of the editing process is to hang thematic segments together on a time line and create a consistent, readable narrative. It takes more time than I allowed as I spent parts of last Saturday and Sunday working on rushes. I’m far from done editing and feel an urge to write more rushes.

The autobiography writer’s imagination isn’t linear or sequential. One session leads to new things, not all of them related to each other. In some cases I spent the rest of the day considering events and people once forgotten. In others I discovered new information after writing the initial rushes. The first challenge is to remember what happened and get those things written down regardless of order.

Looking at photographs and reading historical accounts informs a steady yet irregular emergence of what happened. For example, I’m working on a section called Piety Hill, which is the last place Mother said she was born at home. I remember her different accounts over the years and am not sure whether Piety Hill was her final answer, or the original and only one. I settled when writing her obituary, “Born at home on July 28, 1929, near LaSalle, Ill.” An editor might accept that as my siblings did before publication. This evaluation of stories of a single event told by different people is something Clifford Geertz wrote about. While there are multiple stories about a single event, the writer has to decide whether to present them all or to keep them simple and singular as I did with Mother’s obituary.

While thematic issues like education, work, family and travel may hang well on a timeline, the timeline is not the narrative. Too, I can’t imaging writing a sequential work with each paragraph’s content isolated from others. That’s not how we live and to construct such a thing would be a monstrosity and eminently unreadable.

For example, one of the stories I tell repeatedly is about a gathering at Mother’s sister’s home on Gooding Street in LaSalle the night Marilyn Monroe committed suicide. We children were sleeping in the living room when Father came in the room and announced the news. It seemed unusual for him to do that at the time, giving the event increased importance to our family.

The date is fixed, Aug. 4, 1962, and that anchors my narrative in popular culture. Maybe the reason I retell the story is its relationship to popular culture as something more important than what we kids were doing. The role of the autobiography writer is to de-emphasize broader cultural images and focus on the single life. My habit, and it’s a bad one, is to get out the same well worn narrative sawhorses and retell them. An editor could point out those segments and ask, “Do you really want to say that?” I need to recognize it on my own.

Because this is pandemic writing I don’t see getting an editor until I get enough written to call it a first draft, hopefully a year from now. For the time being I need a better rush editing process because even two days a week will not be enough time. That may change as I evolve into the work and gain experience with long-form writing. This week I also must return to last week’s themes and fill out detail. As I continue to unbox the archives this process will be constantly present.

One positive note is the rush editing process has helped me consider the broader themes and narrative. The end result is likely to benefit. For now, suffice it that I recognize the need for an editor. Until I get more of the first draft written, that editor will be me.


Second Saturday

Experimenting with traditional pancakes using rice flour and butternut squash.

2021 has been rough out of the gates. The coronavirus pandemic is raging, armed insurrectionists occupied the U.S. Capitol for a few hours on Jan. 6, and as a society we are as divided as ever. Happy flippin’ New Year!

The combination of cold weather, snow cover, and the virus have kept me mostly indoors. No more trips to town unless it is for provisioning or medical appointments. In the last three weeks I made one trip to the wholesale club, and that’s it for leaving the house.

I go to the driveway and breathe fresh air a few times a day. I don’t want to risk turning an ankle walking on the trail or in the yard.

It’s just as well because I’m using the time before gardening season to get a solid start on my book. 8,882 words this week with a stack of edits waiting for later today. The process is a bit sketchy as it’s the first time I began the project with a long-term writing schedule. Some days writing is based on artifact(s) or previous text, some days mining memory. The main roadblock is so much of my archival material is unorganized and stored throughout the house.

Yesterday I used a photo album from the early 1960s. Taking time to observe each photo, letting memory work, one thing led to another and my daily word goal was met easily. We’ll see how the edits go yet I believe idea production was good. It’s pretty easy pickings because I’m at the beginning of the project.

Another thing is there is so much material. I’ve been a pack rat about keeping artifacts, and there will be inadequate interest to make this book as comprehensive as it could be. I’m undecided about photographs. Picking a dozen or so would take a lot of distillation and they would represent more than their content. A benefit of going through the writing process is the archives will get organized. Presumably the quantity will be reduced.

On the second Saturday of 2021 the local environment seems quiet. It is a good day to stay indoors and work on projects. With the coronavirus everywhere, it’s a safe thing to do.

Living in Society

First Library Card

First Library Card, November 1959.

The public library has been important in my life. It began in 1959 at the American Foursquare the first year we moved there. I was in the second grade. The bookmobile made weekly rounds near us, at first to the church parking lot, later to the drug store parking lot at Five Points. I became a regular customer.

Entering from the back, we browsed the stacks, usually Mother and me joined by my sister when she got older. Before there was the Bookmobile I relied on books and magazines Mother gave me for reading.

There were biographies of the Ringling Brothers, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, the Wright Brothers and others which expanded my world. The first thing I checked upon arrival was whether there were any new ones in the series. We enjoyed Dr. Seuss books when they were available, which wasn’t always. All the kids who frequented the Bookmobile liked Dr. Seuss so when they were returned they immediately went back out.

When ready to check out, we made our way to the front, where the driver sat in the same seat he used to drive the Bookmobile. He voice-recorded the check outs into a microphone then we left. It wasn’t my last library experience.

The idea the city had a library, and the economics of one organization buying books that could be shared, was part of understanding cooperation and fair play. It was a lesson learned early in my life, part of getting along in the city.

Today our community of about 6,000 has a great public library. We gave money, built it, and then donated the finished building to the city. The irony is I rarely check out a book there. My main use of the library is to socialize. I check the new book shelves from time to time, use the meeting rooms, donate books, and attend the Friends of the Library used book sale. During the coronavirus pandemic I donated some new puzzles for kids to check out. With the pandemic most library activity ceased. Maybe the library will open again this year or next. I hope so.

I still have memories of the Bookmobile and my blue, hand-typed library card. That sustains me for now.

Social Commentary

What We Are Not

1940s War Diary, anonymous author.

I came across a war diary from the 1940s. While not sure how it came to be mine, it likely came from a box of odds and ends at an estate auction or from the used book section of a thrift shop. The first entry, tells a story of an Iowan at the time of U.S. entry into World War II:

I’m not much of a writer and don’t suppose I even will be but this isn’t supposed to be a great work of literature but rather a common down to earth story of a common down to earth boy.

Undoubtedly you know him. He is any of those numerous boys who left the farms, villages or cities — the fresh smelling earth of the farms or the clamoring errands of the city — to take up for you and me, the battle of survival between right and wrong.

The boy joined the Army.

Discarded 1940s Iowa Journal, Author unknown

The views reflected in these paragraphs were commonly held.

A single life was the story of broad society. There was a need to record that story in writing. Individual will was suppressed in favor of a greater good. People had an innate ability to understand each other. Right and wrong were easily definable and commonly held views. The relativism that infected our society a couple of decades later is absent and makes the journal entry stand out.

When people speak with gauzy reverence of the generation of men and women who fought World War II, I get a bit nauseous. I knew men and women who participated in the war effort and if you asked them, they wouldn’t want special treatment. Most of them hardly talked about the sacrifices they made or about the war. None of them paraded around in uniforms afterward. If they kept their service uniforms, they were packed away and seldom, if ever, mentioned. Many women worked in domestic defense plants and wore no uniforms. They are often forgotten.

What struck me about this journal entry was its clarity. One notices where the author fit into society. There were shared beliefs and those beliefs were positive and affirming. 21st Century society has no such clarity. It may no longer be possible.

It took a lot to decipher the script yet I think I accurately captured it. I would never write the sentence, “Undoubtedly you know him,” about myself. We’ve become a society where no one seems to know anyone outside a small clique of friends, relatives and co-workers. The idea there are common goals? Just look at U.S. reaction to the coronavirus pandemic to see the absence of a common response. We no longer are common, down to earth people and that’s one source of today’s social problems.

What we are not may define who we should be.


Resolved in 2021

Winter wonderland, Jan. 3, 2021.

During the coronavirus pandemic I resolved to make something of the raw material of life, a week at a time, going forward. Not a New Year’s resolution, subject to artificial pressure and expected failure — a structured, new life.

After decades of working jobs, the school years — mine and our daughter’s, political election cycles, and growing seasons, those patterns were blown apart by the pandemic. This year it’s time to put everything back together in a way that creates something familiar yet new.

The endless, unstructured days have been wearing and wearying. My daily routine, with its check list of recurring tasks and framing to accomplish something, is fine. For the first ten months of the pandemic I thought it would soon be over. Today I know it won’t.

I won’t dwell on this long, but American reaction to the virus has been pitiful. While other nations knew and followed protocols needed to stop spread of the coronavirus, our society is not so educated or disciplined. As a result, as of today, more than 20.6 million people contracted COVID-19 and more than 351,000 deaths were attributed to it. The projections are for multiple hundred thousands of additional deaths from COVID-19 before the pandemic is declared over.

Vaccines have been created and approved in record time. That’s good. Our government has done little to organize a distribution network. Last week, vaccine producers reported warehouses full of vaccine that had not entered the distribution pipeline. They were waiting for direction. Not only are Americans pitiful, so is our federal government in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not that hard. Develop a plan to get the vaccine into people’s arms.

Set all the crazy aside, though. If we can’t get our individual house in order, there is little hope of surviving the pandemic, let alone helping family, friends and neighbors who need it.

I want a week back. You know, one with weekends where we do special stuff. Leading up to it would be hard, diligent work for useful purpose. The kind after which we could take it easy for a while… over a weekend. Most of my working life I didn’t have that, so why now? Because it’s possible, and with the pandemic, needed for structure.

I built a weekly schedule to write the first draft of my autobiography by the end of 2021 as a first priority. There are Monday through Friday writing shifts that produce 1,000 words each. On Saturday, that same time of day will be devoted to editing the week’s rushes. Once I’m done with editing, I’ll take the rest of Saturday and all day Sunday off from writing. Sounds simple. It’s made possible thanks to FDR (Social Security) and LBJ (Medicare).

Writing these blog posts is quick. I haven’t counted how many I’ve written but more than 3,000. An autobiography grounded in history will take longer to produce the same number of words. I don’t know how daily writing will be organized, and the research materials are definitely not easily accessible. Figuring all this out is a process and by the end of it, when the first draft is in hand, artifacts will be well organized, I predict. By setting a daily word count goal there is a measure of success.

There is other work to schedule in my work week, not the least of which is working on household projects, gardening, cooking, and eventually returning to social activity and advocacy. All that can wait for the end of winter while I focus on being a writer. I’m resolved some good will come from this project. The end result is made easier to accomplish by having a realistic plan.


Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1917. Public Domain Photograph

The copyright of The Great Gatsby expired yesterday and a flurry of news articles spammed the channels. If Gatsby is the great American novel, like the country, it is far from perfect.

It remains a good book to read at the onset of summer, as I did for many years. It takes a certain experience of what summer meant in Midwestern culture to appreciate the book. That culture of my youth faded years ago. I no longer read the book annually although I keep a copy where I can find it.

What impressed me most about F. Scott Fitzgerald was seeing an 8 by 10 photograph of him at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas during a reunion with fellow Army officers. Organizers of the event were attending the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. The future author of The Great Gatsby was stationed at Leavenworth and the photo commemorated his stay. As we know, Fitzgerald was not a good soldier. He worried he would die in the world war without publishing anything. He later regretted not serving in combat. Such worries being part of what characterized his short life.

Upon reflection, it occurred to me Fitzgerald was not much different in his humanity. While I haven’t the drive or interest in being published he did, the army is a great equalizer and created a bond with him that was no abstraction.

I know The Great Gatsby well. Now that it’s in the public domain others are latching onto it, to revise or rewrite it. As someone suggested, there may be a Muppet version of the novel. The truth I increasingly face is whatever summer meant 50 years ago doesn’t exist any longer. There is no going back. This renders Fitzgerald’s fiction less relevant than it once may have been.

That people write about this copyright expiration with so many words is a sign that nothing like Fitzgerald exists in contemporary fiction. Writers are more like Gatsby himself not realizing what was important about the book is rooted in a time now gone. There is no green light at the end of the dock toward which to reach. It’s just us in the dark, craving something more than the commerce of society, yet not knowing what that might be.

I think I’ll read The Great Gatsby again this year and consider how to soldier on. Maybe I’ll learn something this time.

Living in Society

Looking Ahead

We had a snow storm in Iowa overnight Tuesday. Jacque and I spent yesterday morning clearing the driveway and steps of 11 inches that accumulated so we could get the car out if there were an emergency. Not that we were planning to go anywhere for a while.

She took this photo outside when we finished.

Thank you to the thousands of visitors to this site during the past year. I appreciate your views, likes, comments and follows more than you know.

Good things will come in 2021, of that, I’m certain. A politician said we are stronger together. Another said we should dream big and fight hard. Both represent good advice I plan to follow in the coming years.

Happy New Year! May there be peace on Earth, our only home.

Social Commentary

2020 In Review

Lake Macbride

There was life before the pandemic, then there is now. Everything got scrambled, some things literally during the Aug. 10 derecho. Yet the biggest event, the one that brought the most change, has been adjusting to the coronavirus pandemic.

It is a pandemic. A next door neighbor got the virus. So did one across the street. It’s hard to do a census of contagion because people don’t talk about the coronavirus. When people are sickened, they stay isolated at home or are taken away from the community to hospitals where they either recover or die, for the most part alone. It remains out of sight and mind.

While working outside I often forgot and approached a neighbor without a mask even though I had one in my pocket and knew better. We don’t know everyone who is infected and may never know in advance who will be affected next.

A former mayor who lived near us died from complications of COVID-19. The minister who officiated at our wedding did too. My cousin Don died of it Christmas eve. Other friends and relatives got the virus and recovered. It is everywhere. We have worked hard and smart to avoid getting infected and so far our efforts paid off. We never know, though.

Here’s a short list of what happened after the Iowa governor signed a proclamation of disaster emergency regarding COVID-19 on March 9:

  • Last restaurant meal on March 13.
  • Moved the sewer district and home owners association monthly meetings to conference call because of the pandemic.
  • Final shift at the home, farm and auto supply store on April 2 because of the pandemic.
  • Interviewed by Andrew Keshner of MarketWatch for an article about the impact of the pandemic on gardening, April 16.
  • Eliminated in-person political meetings beginning April 23 because of the pandemic.
  • Had three COVID-19 screenings, all negative.
  • Left the Johnson County Food Policy Council at the end of my term.
  • Began bicycling for exercise June 27.
  • Began donating garden extras to the local food rescue organization on July 23
  • Published a guest opinion in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Aug. 9
  • Derecho, Aug. 10.
  • Started a website for The Prairie Progressive.
  • Informed the chief apple officer I would not return to the orchard for the apple season because of the pandemic.
  • Got haircuts at home because of the pandemic.
  • Observed the Jupiter – Saturn conjunction.

I did a lot of the cooking, trying to integrate the kitchen with the garden. That’s a work in progress. It was a good year for gardening, with a variety of crops, plenty of rain, and a productive, abundant harvest.

I read 56 books. More of the books were poetry this year.

I wrote more emails, made more phone calls, and stayed active on my socials. I craved human interaction that used to be taken for granted as a natural part of life. I began writing letters on paper and sending them via U.S. Postal Service. Some wrote back.

I had more interaction with people I’ve known for years, including my sister who joined me at home a long time ago. There was processing and grieving to do for Mother. I also grieved for friends and for people I’d come to know, but didn’t realize how much they would be missed when they died.

It was a good year for doing what was important. The coronavirus was a constant companion reminding us of what that is.

Like many, I didn’t expect 2020 but took it as it unfolded. It looks like I’ll make it another year. Regardless of the ongoing pandemic, may we all make 2021 a Happy New Year.