Where Today’s Road Might Take Us

I walk with confidence.
Hand outstretched,
I greet you.
Let us shake hands
And speak,
For who knows
Where today's road might take us?

I came with purpose.
Mind intent,
I know why I came.
Let us bargain
And deal,
For who knows
Where today's road might take us?

~ Mainz, Germany, March 18, 1979

Writing Through Winter

Today’s office music, Feb. 27, 2023.

Writing daily may not be good for us. When I write for days in a row, I find myself withdrawn into the world of my book. Everything with which I engage in real life — every person , document, artifact, memory — becomes viewed through the project lens. It can be hard to differentiate reality from the version of it I seek to narrate. It has made it difficult to get along some days.

If I read a book, I am thinking about how the author’s approach could be used or avoided in mine. If I read a memoir, my page-by-page reaction is about how good or bad each choice by the author may be. The same thing happens with a work of art or piece of music. It is a deep immersion filter necessary to the creative process.

Writing can be addictive. When writing and re-writing a passage, there can be a dopamine surge in our brains. I feel a release once a passage gets edited and I can stand up and stretch. It is difficult to tell where habits end and addiction begins.

Most days, I get ideas. If my desktop is booted, I go to the manuscript and work the idea into the narrative. If my CPU is turned off, I jot a note in my mobile device to come back to it. It seems improper to live like this. Alternatively, it one hella way to live.

Perhaps if I could see the book’s endpoint it would be easier to cope. I am beginning to yearn for the next project. Spring is coming and the garden will take more time, breaking the daily writing cycle. That could be good or bad. The trouble is, when I’m writing daily for long shifts, it is hard to break away from it. Living a normal life is made more difficult by addiction to writing.

Until I finish the first draft I’ll continue withdrawing into my book’s world. It should make the writing better. Hopefully people will recognize me when I emerge on the other side.


Mixing In Around Town

Paul Engle. Photo Credit – Wikipedia

One election cycle I volunteered on the arrangements committee for the Democratic County Convention. The chairperson passed around a sign-up sheet. When it came to me, I noticed the previous signature was Iris DeMent. I looked to my right and the diminutive singer-songwriter was there, paying attention to the agenda. That’s how things work in Iowa City: the famous among us appear frequently, without apparent structure. I resisted going fan girl over DeMent because she obviously came to help organize the convention. I then turned my attention to the speaker as well

One day I was walking east on Jefferson Street near the Pentacrest. Coming toward me on the sidewalk was an older gent in an overcoat. Once he got closer, I saw it was James A. Van Allen, who discovered the radiation belts that bear his name. He must have come from work at the physics and astronomy department housed in what today is called Van Allen Hall. It was just another day in the county seat.

When I had classes in the English Philosophy Building, chances were I’d run into an author. I saw William Styron there. I believe John Irving as well. One of my undergraduate teachers was David Morrell, who wrote the book First Blood. He was proud of the novel then and had sold the film rights. He officed in EPB as a faculty member for sixteen years.

I ran into Donald Justice once at the UPS Store. He was shipping some books to his new home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He didn’t want to carry them on the airplane. I didn’t know him, but he was instantly recognizable because of who he was.

When Louise Nevelson donated the sculpture Voyage to the University of Iowa, I stopped by the Lindquist Center to have a look soon after it was installed. The artist happened to be there inspecting the sculpture in its new space. She approved.

Political figures passed through Iowa City when the state held first in the nation precinct caucuses from 1972 until 2020. Politicians could be found at the grocer, the hardware store, or at just about any public space. It was hard to avoid them. When John Edwards was running for president, he stayed at the hotel on the pedestrian mall and roamed the area, speaking with locals. He’d been cheating on his wife at the time, and the hotel room might have been intolerable with such a thing hanging over him during his presidential campaign.

Soon after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law, President Barack Obama gave a speech at the Field House. His motorcade then made an unannounced stop at Prairie Lights Bookstore. The visit gained him a lot of publicity. It was another day in the life of Iowa City.

There were countless arranged events, but that’s par for the course at a state university. I met Hal Holbrook, Tillie Olsen, and others too numerous to count. Vance Bourjaily, Paul Engle, Christopher Merrill, and others connected with the Writers Workshop were a constant presence. Perhaps my favorite event was hearing Saul Bellow read from Something to Remember Me By in Macbride Hall.

 James Laughlin, the founding publisher of New Directions, and publisher of William Carlos Williams, held an event at the Lindquist Center. He recalled one of his last meetings with Williams’ spouse, Flossie, before she died.

I never felt too special by these associations. It was more that I was cognizant of living in a society where famous people did too. In Iowa City, there aren’t that many places to be, so we encountered each other.

This is the Iowa City I came to know as I began graduate school in 1979.

~ Excerpt from a work in progress


Book Review: Doggerel

How does an artist survive and thrive in a highly competitive creative environment? Produce a book like Doggerel by Martha Paulos. More than thirty years after publication, it seems fresh and holds interest.

The linocuts in this book are compelling and well-executed. The poems written by their respective (famous) authors add to the linocuts. Nothing about this book is a hagiography of dogs and that seems to be the point. The book is funny, and based in a society the reader can understand. Who hasn’t been chased by a dog while riding a bicycle?

Linocuts take more time to produce than other media. Paulos’ high level of technical craftsmanship made it worth our time to appreciate her art.

Recommended for people working toward a career in creative endeavors. Also for anyone interested in linocuts. If a person collects dog stuff, they should get a copy for Doggerel’s uniqueness.


Last Month of Winter

It was a two-cup video conference.

Despite recent rain, snow remains piled around the yard. It felt like spring for a few days, yet it’s clear another month remains in winter. I’m okay with that. We need a hard freeze to kill off bugs and stop the sap flow in our fruit trees for the best pruning. I’m getting a lot done just by staying indoors most of the week.

I went to the home, farm and auto supply store to buy collard seeds. They were out. The cashier caught me up on gossip at my former employer. Two of my managers had tested positive on a newly implemented random drug test program and were fired. The store was busy for a Thursday morning. I bought some okra, tomatillo, scallop squash, and leek seeds.

I asked a farmer friend if they had extra collard seeds, and they do. I’ll pick them up over the weekend, maybe today.

My seedlings are taking shape. Plenty of kale (four varieties), broccoli, and cabbage (two varieties) started. It took forever, but my first stevia seeds finally sprouted this morning. Those are Zone 9, but we plan to keep them inside the house. My second wave of onions sprouted fine and are growing. Should be ready to plant them in April.

The concept of my greens patch is to have a lot of Winterbor and Redbor kale with a mixture of other greens like chard, tatsoi, pac choi, and others. If I had a dozen collard seeds, I’d hope for 5-6 seedlings. Main uses will be cornbread and collards from fresh, stir fry, and an ingredient in canned vegetable broth, and soup. If I had an abundance, I’d give the popular surplus away. I’ll de-stem and freeze whole leaves for winter. It is great fun to smash the plastic bag of frozen leaves to smithereens with my fist just before adding them to soup.

Regular readers may notice the poetry I posted. I appreciate the views. These are poems found in my files from the 1970s when I wrote more poetry. I’ve been lightly editing before posting them here. There are way more bad poems than good in what I’m finding. I also found poetry I wrote in high school My teacher used copious amounts of red ink to critique them. There was not much usable in that batch from 1967.

Posting poetry has given me relief from writing this blog. The number of views has been good, so the endeavor has been worthwhile. I’ll keep it up until I run out of old poems.

During the last month, I added more than 26,000 words to my autobiography. The processing of old documents and files is becoming established. By the time the first draft is finished, I should surpass 200,000 words. I’m more than halfway there. 200k is too long for this book, so I’ll have to edit. I’m won’t get carried away with editing until I go through the remaining boxes of artifacts. I have been constantly finding important memories. Going through the process helps me understand more about myself and how I grew up and lived. I’m satisfied with the progress, although presently awash in memories.

Time to get after today’s work. Another round of seeding, a trip to the eye glasses store and more work on our shared project list. Best wishes for a relaxing and productive weekend!


Bix Festival

Jazz flows across the Mississippi.

A polite and encouraging announcer presents:
   a businessman from Davenport,
   a chiropractor with
   his brother from Sacramento,
   a lawyer from Moline,
   a Catholic priest from Argentina,
   and a band leader from Orlando.

They will play jazz.
"The way it is supposed to be played," he said.
"The way Bix would have liked it."

I wander the levee toward the roller dam
   where water churns.

A collector, steeped in passion,
   and at home,
   makes piles of Beiderbecke 78s...

He might say,
to the gathered musicians, 
"These songs sound mighty good,"
yet prefer the dust and scratches
of his collected disks.

Water churns through the dam.

I consider when there was no jazz to remember,
   before the grid of streets and buildings,
   and return to a native place.

In a heartbeat of clarity and intuition I see...
   famous forebears surveying the plats...
   and wonder what happened 
   to Black Hawk's bones.

While jazz flows across the river.

~ Undated from some summer in the 1970s

Red Sky at Dusk

Red Sky at Dusk

A redness fills the room
   where I spent hours practicing guitar.

It is the setting sun
   refracting its rays.

Securing my thermal blanket,
   I rest in bed.

With or without a red presence,
   I'll close my eyes and ears,
      leaving me with memories...

To dream... of musical notes infused with red sunsets.

~ Undated from the mid-1970s

Untitled: To Paul

This morning you bumped
your own dresser.
Knocking a pack of Certs,
wintergreen flavor,
onto the floor.

One cert flew loose and
landed in your mouth.

Then you awoke
and I had
a fresh mint taste in my mouth.

I had another.

~ Iowa City, 1973-1974.

Writing Desk #1

Writing desk purchased in November 1979 in my apartment at Five Points, Davenport.

At this desk I made some of the most consequential decisions of my life. I had just returned from three years living in Mainz, Germany, and rented this one-bedroom apartment at Five Points in Davenport. By the time this photo was taken in December, I knew I could not stay in my home town.

It’s not that I disliked Davenport. I was insulated from seeing how average the city was by a family that welcomed me and tried to do their best by me. As I returned after a long absence, There was little vitality running through the city. I didn’t fit in.

When I sat at the desk and wrote, I felt like a writer.

The early part of my post-high school intellectual development centered around Saul Bellow. “I want,” he wrote and I agreed. At Five Points I became enamored of Joan Didion. I bought The White Album from The Book of the Month Club. After it arrived, I went to the public library and checked out everything Didion had written. I read three of her early books in two weeks about when this film was exposed. I couldn’t get enough of her.

“Didion speaks with a voice, the voice of a person sitting in a sunlit room at a typewriter,” I wrote in my journal. “Her paragraphs seem well-written, her vocabulary is enriched with new words. I particularly like her image of the end of the 1960s. The spread of word of the Tate murders across the valley.”

Didion’s thoughts seemed to evolve before my eyes on the page.

She was from a military family. Her father was an Army finance officer and the family often moved. I found commonality in this experience. “She touches on something it has taken the four years in the military for me to realize,” I wrote in 1980. “It is a feeling more than anything else, but I suspect that it may be something peculiar to the military environment.” I saw how her experiences in a military family influenced her writing and in turn how my service would influence me.

During the following years, I sought out every book Joan Didion wrote and began reading them soon after publication.

I continue to think of Joan Didion while I’m writing.

In every place I lived, I had a desk on which to write. What makes this one different is it rests a few feet from the writing space I established after inheriting my father-in-law’s library table.

At university I struggled to find a path. I was on a trajectory supercharged by the death of Father in 1969. Didion’s writing was something I could look to and see myself. Being successful as a writer wasn’t meant to be my career. Yet Didion gave me hope in dark times.

I needed that at Five Points as the 1970s ended and I began to call myself a writer.


Listening is Important

Woman Writing Letter

The first funnel of the Iowa legislature is March 3, so it’s time to look at what our representatives Dawn Driscoll (SD46) and Brad Sherman (HD91) have been up to.

No doubt they won the 2022 midterm election, despite failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s warning about election integrity during a recent trip to Iowa. They won fair and square.

If I don’t agree with them in many cases, they each have explained some of their votes in their newsletters. Reading them helps me understand their point of view. I won’t convert from being a Democrat to Republican, yet listening to legislators with whom I disagree is important. It’s a way to improve civility that has been lacking in our politics.

Republicans hold legislative majorities, and the governor is pushing for major changes. Because proposed changes are substantial, it is difficult to get a grip on the reorganization of state government and education. Legislators should take time to consider the bills in public forums.

My hope for the rest of session is that Republicans listen to Democrats when they have something important to say, pay attention to details of what they propose, and do right by all Iowans. These are reasonable things to ask.

~ First published by the Marengo Pioneer Republican on Feb. 14, 2023.