Box of Reality

Shoe box full of print photographs, March 21, 2023.

I found a passport I thought was lost in a box of photographs on Monday. It expired in 1983, issued by the American Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany. I put it in the drawer with the previously expired passport it replaced. One less thing nagging at me as a result of the discovery.

I was opening unlabeled bankers boxes to see what was inside. It makes no sense to stuff things in a box without a label, yet that’s where I find myself. Along with some transportation memorabilia, one box contained this shoe box full of photographs. The images covered the entire timeline of the book draft I had finished Sunday. I thought these photos were lost forever.

My habit of making photo albums (using selected images after developing and printing batches of photos) resulted in this collection. It contains remainders of rolls of film from several of those albums. The prints are all mixed up, with different sets of film stuck in the shoe box in what appeared to be random order. At a minimum, I must organize them the way I discussed a few days ago. This is a big and welcome find!

Next will be to organize and edit the images to create another layer of the book narrative. I also want to label them in groups, so I can more quickly find something for my writing. This will take longer than I want, yet it should improve the writing.

I looked through a few hundred photographs yesterday afternoon after chores. I have living memory of taking most of those shots, recognizing them and the place they were taken almost immediately. The harder part is determining what these moments of reality mean in the context of my septuagenarian life. I expect that will be a collaborative project. Already I sent a duplicate of a photo taken in 1981 to the subjects. There will be more of that type of sharing.

It seems best for the autobiography to have been drafted before looking at these photos. Tapping memory and public documents enabled a reasonably researched narrative. Now that I found more photos, we’ll see what else memory dredges up for inclusion in the book.

With Spring arriving yesterday afternoon, it will be challenging to make time for writing. Yard and garden work is also important. After sunrise, I will be drawn outdoors. All the same, how could writing about these memories not be meaningful? I can’t wait!

Living in Society

Read Prairie Progressive

I recommend reading The Prairie Progressive because there is nothing else like it for progressive readers.

The Prairie Progressive has roots in the Democratic Socialist movement in Iowa. The publication was called the Democratic Socialists of America Iowa Newsletter when first published in July 1985. It has been produced at least quarterly ever since. The most recent edition is hot off the union presses and can be found here.

In this issue is the writing of Clarity Guerra, Nate Willems, Kim Painter, Marty Ryan, Robin Kash, Laura Bergus and Carol Thompson. Who are these people? They are current and past elected officials, and local activists mostly in the Johnson-Linn County corridor with a distinctly progressive perspective.

Did I mention, the most recent edition is hot off the union presses and can be found here?

The revenue to sustain quarterly publication comes from paid subscriptions. It is affordable and available in the United States in hard copy for $15 per year. To subscribe, send your check to The Prairie Progressive, Box 1945, Iowa City, Iowa 52244. The Prairie Progressive is funded entirely by reader subscriptions, so your subscription matters.

Recently, editor Dave Leshtz decided to take the enterprise online. Our roots are in print, so we delay online publication long enough to allow our hard copy subscribers to have a first look. The website is here. In addition, the University of Iowa digitized and archived past issues here.

I hope readers of this blog will take a look at The Prairie Progressive.


Writing for Newspapers

Solon Economist – 2016

I will insert seven newspaper articles I wrote from 2014-2015 in my autobiography. The insertion will display that form of writing and indicate my thinking at the time. They record some memorable events which advance the book’s narrative. I winnowed the articles from the 100 I wrote and picked these:

  1. Van Allen school to be expanded — Feb. 6, 2014. My first article in a newspaper was coverage of the Iowa City School Board meeting for the North Liberty Leader. This story was about the aspects of the meeting that affected residents of North Liberty. The challenges of covering the school board are many. Before the meeting there is a packet to read. It often exceeds 500 pages. The meetings themselves can be quite long. Capturing an interview or two can be challenging as key figures depart the meeting as quickly as feasible. When I conversed with the district’s chief financial officer, the superintendent intervened to break up the conversation, thereby controlling messaging. With all this work, a freelancer won’t make money on this important coverage. That was a lesson learned.
  2. Connecting Solon with trail system — Sept. 11, 2014. Doug Lindner was owner/publisher of the Solon Economist and North Liberty Leader when I worked there, first as a proof reader, and then as a freelance writer. I appreciate his giving me a chance to freelance. This article in the Solon Economist covered a joint meeting between the Solon City Council and the Johnson County Board of Supervisors about our local trails. They found funding and acquired land for the trail to connect Solon with the Cedar Valley Trail in Linn County. This new trail has been in constant use since it was completed. We can hop on our bicycles and ride all the way to Waterloo if so motivated.
  3. UI to mark 50 years since name change — or not –Oct. 22, 2014. I had to leave the Solon Economist to pursue freelance opportunities with the Iowa City Press Citizen. This front page article was about the State University of Iowa, as named in the Iowa Constitution. Because of the official name, the Iowa City university was often confused with Iowa State University in Ames. On Oct. 22, 1964, the State Board of Regents gave permission to use “The University of Iowa” as its name. I enjoyed interviewing former university president Willard Boyd for this article.
  4. White House Kitchen Garden inspires Iowan — Dec. 5, 2014. Scott Koepke worked at New Pioneer Food Co-op when I interviewed him for the Iowa City Press Citizen about his October visit to the White House Kitchen Garden. His sister arranged the visit and Koepke brought ideas back to Johnson County to use in his work. “If the president can do it, so can we,” he said.
  5. Advocating for the environment — Feb. 18, 2015. I pitched this story to my editor at the Iowa City Press Citizen, Emily Nelson. She said yes. It was an opportunity to travel to Des Moines and interview many people I know in the environmental advocacy community, as well as elected officials. It was great fun, although a freelancer won’t make a dime on a story like this because of the work that goes into it.
  6. Farm crawl to highlight women — Sept. 23, 2015. This article was publicity for an upcoming Women, Land and Legacy Farm Crawl in Johnson County. The purpose of the farm crawl was to address a need for more networking opportunities in the region. I interviewed three farmers at their farms, two of them I met for the first time. Like most articles I wrote, this one was a money loser because of the high number of hours invested to cover the event adequately.
  7. Bill Northey tours Local Harvest CSA — Sept. 26, 2015. Bill Northey was Iowa secretary of agriculture when I interviewed him. By the time I wrote this article, I had worked at Local Harvest CSA for three seasons. I first heard from Northey, “About one out of four rows of soybeans in Iowa ends up going to China.” Iowa governor Terry Branstad had announced a number of soybean contracts with China earlier in the day and I got the local scoop.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to write for newspapers. My role as a freelancer existed because news organizations were being squeezed about overhead costs, including the salaries of permanent reporters. In a transitional newspaper publishing economy, I am proud of my 100 stories.


Editing Photographs

Photo of the author, 1973-74.

In stable Midwestern households, photographs accumulate. We don’t move as often in Iowa, and when we do, we know how to store photographic paper so it doesn’t get wet and humidity is suitable to preserve them. I’m speaking of printed photographs more than digital. Well into the post-millennium-bug digital era, we continue to have uses for printed images. We tape them to our computers, pin them on bulletin boards, use magnets to hang them on the refrigerator, and frame some to place on the bedroom dresser, piano, or whatnot. We know what a whatnot is in Iowa.

Our millennial child has fewer printed photos than we do. One challenge of aging is to assign meaning to countless photographs so we don’t just dump them on the next generation. That was true of my parents’ generation. When Mother died, Sister retained the family photographs. I made a project of digitizing the ones in which I was interested. I did that while Mother was still living. She was well-aware of approaching the end of life and we had many happy discussions. It is hard to know if that will be possible for our child and me.

Before I ditched all of my Yahoo products, I wrote an autobiography in photographs on Flickr in 2011. It was 16,000 words and 133 images with a page devoted to each image. It was widely viewed after I posted a link on social media. I will be drawing on that narrative in my current project.

What does one do with thousands of paper photographs and even more digital ones?

  • The first task is to find the images. Most people have a place where most photographs are stored. Those are easy. There are many more sources, I’ve found. Some are in ceramic dishes in the bedroom. Many are filed with written pages in file folders, and digital images remain on various computing devices around the house and need migrating to a common platform. Collecting them into one place can be a major challenge.
  • We must turn every page and look at them. Watch out for the rabbit holes of memories. At the same time, enjoy them while examining them.
  • Sorting can mean multiple things. For paper photos, made with exposed film, there are often mistakes where the image is intelligible. Discard those from the collection while looking at them. In the digital era, we tend to take multiple exposures of the same scene because the cost of doing so is negligible and we want a good shot. As long as you are there, delete the 19 worst of 20 exposures and keep only the best one or two.
  • Rededicate space for storage. Some will remain in frames or on the refrigerator and some will find a home in a cool, dry space or in the cloud.
  • Decide what you want to keep. For me, that means how many images of the cucumber patch are necessary? More than you might think, yet not that many. How many photos of geese flying over the lake? In a series of images from Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, keep only the ones that make a narrative point. If there were multiple visits, keep some from each distinct time period. At the beginning this seems intimidating, although having a process and sticking with it is helpful. Continuous improvement of the process makes things better as we go along.
  • Do every batch the same way the first time, and do it right. Define for yourself what that means.
  • Convert selected paper images to digital.
  • File photographs in an organized fashion by subject, theme, or date. It will make it easier to find something when a project calls for it.
  • Take time to enjoy them. Especially as we age, there are only so many times to look at old photographs. The reality is we may not return to them again. Make notes on the ones intended to pass along.

Mid-westerners can be lucky for the stability, financial security, and good health that is possible here. When one is getting a grip on seven or eight decades of Midwestern life, a thoughtful process — one that improves as we proceed — seems necessary. I would also acquire a whatnot.

Living in Society

Sunday Morning Rising

This table is full of seedlings. There are more on the heating pad.

I have a story about learning pronoun usage when I volunteered with the Elizabeth Warren campaign. Most family members have heard it, more than a couple times, and are getting tired of me repeating it. I probably need some new stories. That has been a key revelation of writing my autobiography. I won’t concern the reader with my well-worn story.

20-something me didn’t worry much about pronouns, or repeating stories. I felt a creative impulse that drove me to learn about our world, understand it, and then write about my understanding. In reading those 40-50 year old pages today, I found myself repeating things a lot.

A main concern I had in the 1970s was a lack of meeting and dating women. A typical journal entry went, “I am sore in need of a woman, this much is true.” That’s not all I thought about even if I repeated similar sentences in my journal. There was my writing and my job, both of which occupied most of my time and energy. Finding a mate, permanent or temporary, was never that high a priority. While there was a Crazy Sexy franchise prostitution outlet within walking distance of my quarters, I never used it. My needs weren’t that sore.

I viewed myself as a camera lens, trying to capture what was going on in broader society. Women I knew in Germany didn’t play much of a role in that.

In November 1977, I traveled by automobile to Strasbourg in the Alsace region of France with a couple I met through the Army. Strasbourg was a beautiful city with a cathedral containing many stained glass windows and dark alcoves for pensive moods. After making this trip, I decided, “I prefer to travel alone.” We tended to talk about what we already knew during the trip. It did not get me away from quotidian life enough to enable anything resembling pensive. My travel experience would likely have been worse if I had traveled with a mate.

I made a decision that if I was to learn about European culture, that needed to be my focus. I recall seeing Goya’s Los Caprichos at a museum in Darmstadt. I spent time with each of the images considering what they meant. A companion, especially an American companion, would tired of the length of time spent in the museum. No doubt we would hustle off to to the gallery cafeteria, partake in vending machine fare, and chat over coffee or wine. The people I knew weren’t that interested in the satire of a Spanish artist.

It is difficult for me to parse sexuality, gender presentation, femininity and masculinity, gender roles, and most certainly gender stereotypes. Let’s just say I prefer to stay behind the camera lens. However, if one is to engage in society in the 21st Century, staking out a territory among these things is important. It’s not just political organizers who want to know your pronouns.

Living in Society

What War Means

When I was in eighth grade at Holy Family Catholic School, we were required to keep a current events scrapbook. I still have mine. It has four sections: Vietnam, Nation and World, Local, and Misc. My grade on the project was an “A.”

I clipped this Associated Press photograph from the Times-Democrat, a precursor to the Quad-City Times. A soldier was shot, and in the image has just begun to fall. I thought of this image through the years because it reminds me of the reality of war. We need such a reminder.

The Vietnam War was ongoing during my high school years and prominent in society. That’s likely why one fourth of the scrapbook was clippings about the war. The idea we boys would all potentially face compulsory service weighed on those times.

Soon after my 18th birthday, Mother took me to the Selective Service office to register for the draft. Our 1966-1967 high school yearbook was “Dedicated to the struggle for peace in Vietnam, especially to those graduates who are or soon will be a part of that struggle.” Going to war seemed a real possibility that day.

While I was reluctant to get involved in anti-war protests, when four students were killed at Kent State, I participated in a demonstration at the Davenport Armory, carrying a mocked up coffin representing one of the dead. I also participated in a school strike, skipping our humanities class because there were more important things going on in the world. I gladly served detention for skipping class because I had done the right thing.

As a septuagenarian, we work to get rid of things that can’t be passed on. I’ll be keeping this clipping, my draft card, and memories from that time. The reality of war has become distant from us. It is sanitized by media and highly controlled public relations staff in the military.

It is important to remember what war means.


Impressions of the Divine

Midst the trafficking of our lives
   we seek mostly what we know...

What's special about that?
It's me, it's you, it's all new
      ... isn't it?

We seek paths we know,
   worn well by our boots, and
   stained by our feces;
Yet, isn't there something else
   in the jungle surrounding us?

A philosopher and theologian am I
   within this world of concrete and glass.

But then, I am, I AM!
   alive, human, and wanting nothing
   but satisfaction from this life...
   ... why is it so slow in coming?

Words are ink on paper,
   the embossing of a typewriter.
People say this is the nature of our lives:
   Impressions of the Divine on earthly matter...

It is just a path worn by the trafficking of our boots.

~ Fort Benning, Georgia, Sept. 29, 1976


On Retreat

I said a prayer,
then meditated.

Tea brewed with
Orange Pekoe teabags
is hot, dark, and ready.

While out for a walk,
I bought chewing gum
from a vending machine
near the main railway station.

I chewed gum all the way home.

Through the window,
children are playing.
I realize something
is bothering me.

I do not share the joy
of playing children.

Instead, I'm on retreat,

as ice cubes crack
with the heat of the tea,
before I sit at the typewriter.

~ Mainz, Germany, May 30, 1977


Something Is Missing

What is life?
But then who am I to ask?
I am a grown person, not married.
I mastered the art of survival.
I lead a good life,
or so they tell me.
Yet am I really living?
I am not sure.

The plans I make are hollow,
lacking companionship.
At least I am planning...
My mind is active,
yet something is missing.
Something is missing...

~ Mainz, Germany, Jan. 14, 1979

Paul VI has Passed

The Pontiff passed to the other side.
I saw him in the Vatican and smiled,
Grace and power of the Word flowing,
Energizing all of us in an audience.

The Vicar of Christ, they proclaimed!
Such a thought to modern man
In a world of skepticism and doubt,
The Vicar of Christ!

Today begins the ritual,
With closed doors and smoke from the tower.
People will look on and wonder,
What is the relevance of this?

I long ceased attempts
To understand the mystery
And now live in its light.
Would have it no other way.

The Pontiff passed to the other side.
Again I am smiling.
Grace and power of the Word flowing,
Energizing all of us in audience.

~ Mainz Germany, August 7, 1978