Channelling Talent

Fresh radishes.

It has never been easy for creative people to channel their talents, let alone make a living from their work product. My reaction to this fact of society was to get a job that pays a salary or wages and create on the side. I don’t know of any other way to finance creativity over the span of a single life.

When I was younger — from high school until finishing military service — I felt I could be anything I wanted to be. Hoo boy! To be that kid again! I bought some time when I returned to Iowa after military service by getting my Masters Degree in May 1981. I then faced the reality of how few jobs existed that provided an inherent ability to create. I worked for the University for a while, got married, and began what would turn into a 25-year stint in transportation and logistics. I created on the side, yet was often too tired after work and on weekends to get anything creative accomplished. There was creative output, but not as much as I wanted.

I tried a lot of creative media when I was young: ceramics, drawing, watercolors, performing music, and writing. Of these, writing is the one that stuck with me. I started a journal after undergraduate commencement, and have continued to write in it until today. Except for the volume stolen from me in Calais, France after crossing the English Channel, I have them all. I sought to get published in the local newspapers by writing letters to the editor beginning in 1974. I continue to write them. Beginning in 2007, I published online blog posts which have accumulated into a substantial body of work. I began with the Google Blogspot platform, then switched to WordPress. I have printed copies of all of these posts in 20 volumes. After trying things in my youth, I ended up using writing as my creative outlet.

Among my favorite writers is William Carlos Williams who made a living as a pediatrician while writing some of the most imaginative verse and prose I’ve read. I could never be like him yet he is a role model for the way he isolated himself from his day job to participate in literary culture of his time. His is a lesson every person seeking an outlet for creative endeavor should seek and likely emulate. While there is no single “literary culture” today, it is important to seek a group of like-minded writers with whom to share ideas and collaborate. For Williams, the literary culture of New York City was near his home in Paterson, New Jersey. One might think I would have something similar by living about ten miles from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, but that hasn’t proven to be the case.

I recently wrote about living on Gilbert Court in Iowa City during my senior year as an undergraduate. It was a significant exposure to a group of poets, prose writers, artists and book publishers who made their own literary movement called “Actualism.” Darrell Gray even wrote about the movement in his book Essays and Dissolutions published in 1977. By that year, I was long gone from Gilbert Court, living in Germany after joining the U.S. Army. We didn’t consider ourselves to be “Actualists” when I was there. Gray and others were working through the idea. Actualism had become more prominent during the years after my graduation.

The realities of needing a job to pay bills has been present since undergraduate school. Since we married, I have been able to carve out a space to get away from daily life to be creative. I have a talent for something, and have done my best to maintain a quality of life that will support my writing as a separate endeavor. Now that I retired and have predictable pension income there is more opportunity to write. Thing is, all that writing since 1974 means something as well.

If I don’t have a firm idea of what I should be doing with my writing and creative endeavor, there is a sense I have a talent for something. For now, the major project of my autobiography takes a lot of creative energy. Between that, this blog, and letters to the editors of newspapers, I find a way to channel my talents. If each person’s journey is different, it is something to recognize where one is going.


Writer’s Week #7

Playing with a Frisbee on Gilbert Court in Iowa City.

It isn’t clear when it began yet I’ve reached a stopping point in writing my autobiography. I had intended to breeze through my undergraduate education at the University of Iowa — touching key points only — so I could focus on my trip to Europe, military experience, and the time leading up to our wedding and the birth of our only child. I’m inside those years in Iowa City pretty deep and the dive has only begun.

As I wrote about my early and K-12 years in Davenport, it was easier to paint with a broad brush. The narrative I sought to reduce to paper had been forming for a long time, comprised of specific memories and a small set of people, places and things. I had never thought of my years from birth to high school graduation in a structured manner before. I’m learning about those times in a way I hadn’t considered. It was easy to avoid complexities as moving away from home, and what I became at university, gained more narrative importance. I have had to stop and take stock. That’s where I remain for the time being, likely for the rest of summer.

My last year of university was transformational and I’m just beginning to understand how much so.

Senior year, when I lived in a shared home on Gilbert Court, was the time when Oscar Mayer & Company offered me a job as a plant foreman. I appreciate the offer. They didn’t have to make it. Yet when they funded most of my education in the form of a grant from the Mayer family after the death of my father at the Davenport plant, it seemed appropriate. I recall the first summer I worked at the meat packing plant. One of the millwrights I was helping offered to take me to see the elevator which collapsed and killed Father. I had no interest in reliving that history then, or on a daily basis while working there. I declined the offer.

I had not developed any strong relationships with women by the time 1974 arrived. It seemed unlikely I would be ready to do so for a while. During summer gatherings with male high school classmates, they were often ready for sexual action. I was not and those nights we departed company so they could pursue their desires. I developed relationships with women at university, yet wanted to be friends. I couldn’t bear the possibility of a romantic breakup forcing us to separate. Lack of a “girlfriend” was a background tension I dealt with by living a full life in other ways.

The most important transformation may be coming to terms with the desire to be creative. After graduation I spent years considering what that meant. A group of poets and artists gathered at our house from time to time. Some are better known than others yet it was David Morice, Darrel Gray, Alan and Cinda Kornblum, Jim Mulac, and others who stopped by. I was enamored of Actualists, perhaps. In any case, I learned from them that a conventional approach to poetry, fiction writing and book making wasn’t necessary for success. I didn’t know any of them well, yet hanging with them in the living room helped me grow creatively.

I was taking art and art history classes to complete my degree in English. I dabbled in ceramics, tie dye, music, photography and other media. I realized there was no clear path to success as an artist, let alone the multi-media creator I vaguely wanted to become. I gave up a conventional career in the meat packing plant, in favor of a speculative future. It was unlike what I expected in high school and held a sketchy future at best. The desire to pursue this idea drove much of what I did throughout the rest of my life yet especially the following eight years.

The autobiography will be better for all this new understanding. Yet I have to get back at it. Currently, there is much work to get the garden planted. Once that’s done perhaps the muse will visit again.

Living in Society

We Hold These Truths

Edge of Lake Macbride, April 17, 2022.

I had the second discussion of what to do about missing tooth #14 at a recent, routine dental appointment. The same dentist who extracted it answered my questions. I don’t plan to get an implant or a bridge to cover the gap. I’ll be gap-toothed, I guess.

I recounted my experience working as an admissions clerk at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry where what seemed like a lot of patients complained of dental implants gone wrong. Doc said cultural aspects of getting and living with an implant were as important as proper use of the technology. In other words, many implant patients are part of their own problem.

This conversation is basic to being an American. There is the idea of something and the actuality of that same thing. The idea of a dental implant and the loading and living with one are culturally separate. Increasingly, Americans seem more focused on ideas, to the extent the social context in which ideas are found is one of neglect, misinformation and bad habits. Hence failed dental implants and other things.

On several occasions people said to me of their decaying teeth, “I’m going to yank them all and get plates.” One hoped such yanking was done by an oral surgeon rather than in the tool shed or kitchen with common household pliers. There were a share of folks who took the tool shed approach to relieving tooth pain. It created more business for our clinic to remove broken roots their pliers couldn’t reach.

The distinction between ideas and their social context is applicable to things besides dentistry. For example, we know we should moderate simple carbohydrates in our diet to prevent onset of weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. There is a science to this. At the same time it is easy to prepare a simple spaghetti aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil) at home when pinched for dinner. It’s cheap and tastes good if properly prepared. It can seem convenient to order take-out pasta or pizza from a restaurant via GrubHub or Uber Eats without regard for portion size. Moderation is in remission in American society.

What makes American society frustrating is we live in the actuality of ideas developed and promulgated by others. Some of the ideas coming out of media figureheads and politicians are outrageous. What people do based on such ideas affects us all.

We feel little ownership of ideas prominent in our lives. Our country is based on ideas in a certain world view. When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, the first seven words of the second paragraph spoke to their world view, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” There were truths and it was possible to know them and verify them: they were self-evident. If most founders believed there was a God, the new nation was not founded in religion. Quite the opposite. Following the philosophy of John Locke, human understanding considered the natural world, rendering any relationship with God unknowable and unverified. What was true was evident in the natural world and could be observed if one had the will and mental acuity. We’ve entered a realm where any idea can be viewed with suspicion regardless of its inherent, observable truth.

As I told my dentist, the missing tooth is not depriving me of nutrition. Its position is far enough back so I don’t appear to be a gap-toothed fool when I smile. A missing tooth is not what I wanted. The truth is I can go on living in the American experiment.

Kitchen Garden

Blustery Day in the County

Waiting for better weather to install the boat docks on the lake.

Some parts of the county reported wind gusts of 60 miles per hour yesterday. The National Weather Service counted eight tornadoes in Iowa. The wind lifted my greenhouse from its base and rolled it along behind my neighbor’s home. The main outdoors work was dealing with the wind.

Wind is expected to die down today. After my conference call I should be able to work in the garden. I plan to continue deconstructing a plot for peas and greens. I’ll transplant tomato seedlings from the channel tray where they germinated to soil blocks. This is Good Friday, the traditional day to plant potatoes. The potato seeds are cut, seasoned and ready to go into the ground. Four packets of seeds arrived from the seed company which need to get planted in blocks and placed on the heating pad to germinate. It will be a busy day.

In addition to dealing with wind, I had my annual diabetes screening with my ophthalmologist. The good news is there is no evidence of diabetes in images of my retina. Cataracts are progressing toward needing surgery in five or more years. For now I can see clearly and if I use the new eyeglasses prescription things will be in focus. He dilated my pupils and I was disorientated most of the day. Not wanting to drive home immediately after dilation, I went to a nearby retail store and walked around until my eyesight recovered enough to drive. I brought home a load of mostly organic fruit and vegetables.

I’m reading The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann. I had not known much about either of its main subjects, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. This is a good time to take up this study because how civilization interacts with the environment is a key modern consideration. The book outlines two main approaches. I lean toward Vogt’s “carrying capacity” approach, with some caution. While Borlaug won a Nobel Prize for his work with plant genetics, hybrid seeds and industrial-scale agriculture are part of our current environmental problems.

I’d like to get back to normal yet I don’t know what that means any longer. Spring, while blustery, has sprung.


Writer’s Week #6

Potato containers ready to re-plant.

Sunday’s high winds, with gusts up to 45 miles per hour, did their job. The wet soil turned over on Saturday has dried enough to till. Today’s list includes plant a row of early vegetables to be protected by row cover, dig a spot for the tubs in the photo, and continue the deconstruction of last year’s garden plots with an eye toward planting more early vegetables. Garlic is up. I chose the plot for tomatoes. Much planning remains.

I’d like to move the seedlings back into the greenhouse. The forecast later in the week is for ambient temperatures to fall below freezing again. I’ll think about that as I’m tilling the first row. I’m scheduling a five-hour shift, planning to use it all.

The main news since my last writing post is the 1950 U.S. Census was released. In it I found new information and as a result, need to re-write the chapter about Davenport in 1951. This is a positive development. The census provided the first specific evidence of family members living in Rock Island, something I’ve known, but with little detail. I found my Uncle Gene also lived there, separate from his father, working at a dairy where he “helps with milk.” He was seventeen years old. The census also clarified the status of the home to which I was brought from the hospital after being born. My grandmother was head of household with the three children from her second husband living with her. There is a lot to track down and the new census release makes it easier than it was. It also confirmed some things I knew with another, definitive source.

I scanned the 313 pages of double spaced manuscript. Boy, there is a lot more writing, editing, and proof reading to do! Some things seem solid. The outline I created this year will continue to serve as a coat rack upon which to hang things I write or discover. That will be followed by a re-write using the new information. The work I did before the coronavirus pandemic does not fit neatly into the new outline structure and needs a major re-write. Likewise there is much to accomplish to write through the period of time before I kept a journal, got married, and started working in transportation. Depending on my choices, there could be two volumes. The first through the birth of our daughter, the second covering everything else through the coronavirus pandemic. Reducing it down, last winter was a period of progress.

The unavoidable task ahead is going through all of my past writing and paper archives to distill something usable. Thus far, the writing has been fun adventures of me sitting in front of a computer screen making up the story. Once I tackle the physical record, writing will be real work. I’m looking forward to writing the whole thing so it may be time to put it in low gear and start climbing that hill.

Right now, all I can think about is getting to my shift in the garden.

Home Life

Unexpected Spring Break

Red beans and rice, Midwestern-style.

Home alone, I made a spicy dish for dinner: red beans and rice. There is no recipe, yet it was everything to which decades of kitchen and garden work led me. Supper was life, as good as it gets. The process of anticipation, planning, and pulling items from the freezer, ice box and pantry culminated in deliciousness. The meal was why we pay attention to flavor rather than the names of dishes or ingredients.

I didn’t know I needed spring break, yet here we are. The combination of my spouse helping her sister move to a new home, 45 mile per hour winds and cold temperatures for two days, and a form of isolated winter exhaustion led me here. Break will continue until I see my doctor later this week. I already have my blood test results and the key numbers improved from six months ago. I noted Earth Hour last night and feel rested and ready to get into the garden and yard. The winds subsided overnight.

Saturday I spent five hours participating in the county Democratic convention via Zoom. I don’t like virtual events, yet they are efficient. I’d rather be talking to political friends and acquaintances in person. The upside of a virtual convention is when it is over, there is no need to use an automobile to get home. A couple of notes.

1984 was my first Johnson County Democratic convention. Most people were nice, although I was frustrated with the process. The county convention revisited decisions made at the precinct caucuses and walked away from what voters said they wanted in favor of special interests. That burned me on politics for a while. Since then we spent six years in Indiana. When we returned to Iowa, I was not active in politics for ten years, until 2004. The virtual event was reasonably organized, yet kinda sucked. What’s a person to do? An old Polish proverb applies, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

Age is not treating some of my long-term cohorts well, at least from the images presented on Zoom. There are a number of new people, likely more than half. I’d rather step back from organized politics. I volunteered to be a delegate to the district and state conventions to make sure enough people were available to fill 74 slots. The district convention is at a nearby high school across the lakes. When it was time to ratify the slate, all slots weren’t filled. People don’t seem that engaged in politics this year, even if they should be. That may be bias created by the virtual format, yet I’m seeing the same thing in every segment of local culture.

There were ten platform amendments submitted at the convention. The platform is irrelevant, mostly because Democratic candidates for office don’t support every plank, even if they acknowledge a platform exists. Why does the county party spend time on it? The answer, I guess, is it is a way of life for party members who want a shared experience in articulating their beliefs. As a writer, I get plenty of that from elsewhere. As long as we keep the platform’s irrelevance to formal policy in mind, and don’t expect candidates to fully support it, let platformers platform.

I’m preparing to write about my senior year in college when I lived in a small house on Gilbert Court in Iowa City. Artist Pat Dooley rented it from a local businessman and managed the many residents who came and went during that six month period. It was a small, decrepit three-bedroom structure built on a stone foundation. According to Google maps, it has now been demolished.

Dooley was part of a group of writers and artists loosely referred to as “Actualists.” He did the cover art for The Actualist Anthology edited by Morty Sklar and Darrell Gray. Gray overnighted with us for a brief period before leaving Iowa for California. Many Actualists visited our house at Dooley’s invitation, where we socialized in the common room. Alan and Cinda Kornblum, Jim Mulac, Dave Morice, Sheila Heldenbrand, John Sjoberg and Steve Toth stopped by more than once, as best I can recall.

By 1974, I finished required coursework for a major in English and needed to fill out the total number of required hours. My coursework during that final undergraduate semester included French conversation, separate classes in ancient and modern art, Harry Oster’s American Folk Literature, and early modern philosophy. I hadn’t prepared for a career during university, although the Oscar Mayer Company, for whom I worked two summers, called to offer me a job as a foreman in the Davenport meat packing plant. I declined.

There are a couple of additional days before I must get to work in earnest. Spring break, while unexpected, is not over.

Social Commentary

It is Spring

Portable greenhouse, 2022.

On walkabout, garlic poked through the mulch. It is spring.

I assembled the portable greenhouse yesterday afternoon. The extra space and light will make a difference, another step toward planting the garden.

A big batch of vegetable soup simmered on the stove most of the day. We ate it for dinner and filled five quart jars. Three of them are to take as my spouse returns to her sister’s to finish packing.

My daily routine is disrupted by spring. That’s good. Like grass greening in the lawn, it is a sign of renewal. Without it, sustainability is elusive.

Opening statements at Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee were yesterday. It was as if I wandered into a retirement home occupied by committee members. My conclusion, after listening to most of them? We need younger senators. Thankfully, in Iowa we have three suitable candidates to replace Senator Chuck Grassley during the November election.

War in Ukraine continues. The Ukrainian government refused to surrender even though most of Mariupol has been bombed to ruins. The Russian war machine will rapidly wear down, yet not before more destruction. Somehow Ukrainian farmers will get a crop in the ground this spring.

This week, António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, pointed out what most should know: we are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe. The upshot is there is time to act on climate, although not for long.

Living in Society

Boone Work Day

Cars parked behind the garage.

The detached garage near the alley was damaged when a tall pine tree broke in half during December’s straight-line winds. It wasn’t a tornado, yet might as well have been. The top part of the tree crushed the garage roof and created multiple openings for rain to fall through. Things got wet. It was packing time for my sister-in-law’s move this week.

Boone is a red flag city. There is a bustling main street with an abundance of shops and restaurants. They don’t wear face masks any longer in Boone. I didn’t see a mask other than ours during the entire visit. They vote Republican in Boone. Donald Trump won the 2020 election with 56 percent of the county’s votes. One building on the main street has a larger than life mural of him painted in red and black. Many locals do not view it as the monstrosity it is.

Boone was established in 1865 and the following year the Chicago and North Western built a railway station. The Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad survives as a tourist attraction, echoing the cultural heritage. Railroad tracks cross the main street in two places. Most locals know to drive around the crossings when a train stops. I learned how to do that during our visit.

The trip meant two days of physical work for me, organizing the garage for the movers, carrying things up from the basement, and packing the book shelves. While I did my work on Sunday, my spouse and her sister packed up the house. I needed the break from a deep winter feeling created by staying home and mostly indoors the last several months. I feel weary, yet refreshed.

We stayed overnight Saturday at one of the four motels in Boone. It was rated 3.2 stars out of five. When we returned home, the garden seedlings looked good. I watered them and they should survive. It’s time to set up the greenhouse and move them outdoors.

The physicality of preparing for a move can be handled. The emotional part is something else. Every item has to be dealt with, including projects started and not finished, photographs and artifacts from a long life, and consequences of decisions made to acquire things for home use. It didn’t take long to fill the dumpster. Add the trauma of valued artifacts damaged by rain and it can become an emotional roller coaster. We can feel upset by failures, although I found there were more positives than negatives to experience. There is hope for a future for everyone involved.

After two days of work, we didn’t finish, yet that’s the time we had. We made good progress and the work can be finished before the movers arrive.

Sometimes we need a work day away from home. It is a retreat from daily patterns that helps renew us. A work day before moving can be tiring in a good way. There is hope for a better future no matter the status of one’s life.

Home Life

Leftover Rice

Lake ice is melting.

When I make stir fry for dinner there is enough rice to produce leftovers. There are plenty of things to do with leftover rice, yet the most common in our kitchen is making another dish to serve on top of it. This week it was black beans cooked with onion, celery, garlic, tomato and bell pepper. Both meals were satisfying.

During walkabout, the edge of the lake was beginning to melt. The geese in the photo will soon be swimming instead of walking on the ice. Spring officially arrives on Sunday yet for practical purposes, it is already here.

The challenge during this transition is to take my exercise outdoors and work in the garage, yard and garden for part of the day while temperatures are above 50 degrees. While doing so, I hope to preserve the time spent writing and reading in early morning. I have a better process this year, so I am hopeful.

Yesterday, I attempted to change the headlight on the auto and gave up before I broke the clip that holds it in place. I called my mechanic and scheduled it in the shop on Friday. Maybe their expertise will get the job done. For the time being, I don’t drive after dark, and there are fog lights, so it’s not an issue if I do.

This transitional time is the most difficult of the year. There has been so much work delayed because of cold weather. Like with leftover rice, there are plenty of uses for the new found outdoors time. Here’s hoping I can get to work and preserve what I spent all winter developing indoors.


Writer’s Week #5

Atlases opened to Ukraine.

Every time I read the name of a new city in Ukraine, I look it up on a map. When considering the vast expanses of farm fields depicted in atlases, I wonder how Ukrainian farmers will get a crop in this spring. I also wonder about the number of war crimes the west will tolerate before doing something more substantial to stop Russian aggression. The invasion began on Feb. 24, although it is being framed as part of a war that began in 2014.

U.S. interest in Ukraine has to do with so many of its citizens being Caucasian. Also, I got to know a group of Ukrainians who were guest workers at the orchard. Many locals have Ukrainian connections. The easy access social media provides to the war (especially via Twitter) makes it real. I was barely aware of other modern genocides, like in Darfur, Rwanda, Myanmar, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, East Timor, and others. With social bias about white folks, the Ukraine conflict is getting plenty of media attention in the U.S. People here are engaged.

Following the Russia-Ukraine war takes more than a little bandwidth.

All the same, I passed 70,000 words in new writing this year. The main change over last year is the process I developed (and have written about) is working. There is much to consider in a single human life, yet time to experience it only once. As I use a chronological framing to work through the story, I’m surprised at how much I remember and how vivid those memories are.

This week I wrote about my time at the University of Iowa. A valuable resource has been the online archives of The Daily Iowan going back to 1868. I also have letters I wrote and letters written to me, my main school papers, as well as some artifacts from the period. All of these resources aid memory in production of writing that is personally meaningful.

I participated in the May 11, 1972 anti-war demonstrations to protest the Nixon administration’s mining of Haiphong Harbor in Vietnam. The tendency is to accept well published stories about what happened, suppressing our personal experience. I believe writing the story I did provides an alternative. Here’s a sample:

Newspapers reported about 1,000 demonstrators by the time they got to Dubuque Street. Some 60 patrolmen with night sticks and helmets stood side-by-side across Dubuque Street at the Park Road intersection near City Park. They deployed smoke into the approaching line of students in front of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house.

At this point the newspaper narratives diverged. The Davenport Times-Democrat published a headline, “Patrolmen Block Sit-in Attempt.” However, a contingent of protesters returned south on Dubuque to Brown Street and we walked through neighborhoods, then into dense brush to gain access to Interstate-80. At least one person was treated for cuts from barbwire fencing as we found the way to the Interstate through a thickly wooded area. I was among the protesters clearing a path in the brush for others.

We reached Interstate 80, stopped traffic, and set a fire in the eastbound lane. As we did, a bus with Highway patrolmen arrived on the overhead crossing of Prairie Du Chien Road. They climbed down the embankment and formed a line across the eastbound lane. They charged toward us to break up the crowd and extinguish the fire.

From a draft of an autobiography in progress.

If we are not the main character in our own life’s story, then when are we? The new process helps me get a narrative down on paper. Once it is written, editing begins. By the time it is finished, the writing should be quite readable, I hope.

I’m having second thoughts about putting everything in this autobiography. There is too much previous writing I want to include. I see a second volume that is a collection of previous writing, with a section for each type of writing, including letters, poetry, newspaper articles, blog posts, journals and stories. Gleaning the best of this means reading it all. I’d better stick to my knitting and finish the chronological narrative first.

There is also a question of what to do with the images I have on hand. Part of me wants to close the interpretation of images by describing what is in them rather than publishing the image itself. That seems a useful technique. There are so many images there is likely another book with images with extended captions in them. I posted such a work on my Flickr account and it became one of the most widely read posts I made. I took it down when I exited the Yahoo platforms. There is a third book in images and the decision is whether to create it as a bound book, or to make a series of photo albums. It’s an open question.

It has been another good week of writing.