Home Life Writing

News Fasting

Homemade crackers.

At noon yesterday I decided to take a 15-hour break from reading news.

I got work done in the house, including making the crackers in this photo.

I slept through the night and feel ready to go. There is pent up demand to get outside in the garden, conditions are favorable, it’s all systems go.

Part of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is managing time while social distancing. When the weather keeps us indoors for a couple of days we don’t want to go crazy. The news makes me crazy. Now that I recognize that, it’s possible to do something about it.

Once the sun comes up, it’s out to the garden I go.

Garden Writing

Postcard From the 20th Century

Postmarked 1908

The coronavirus changed and is changing how we live, temporarily and permanently.

Today we don’t understand what is on the other side of the pandemic nor when that will be. I’ve been working to figure it out.

Ambient temperatures were chilly all day yesterday with a strong, consistent breeze. The ground was too wet to dig in the garden. It was a sunny and picture book spring day. Even though there is a lot to do outside, Monday wasn’t a day to do it.

In the garage I planted a third flat of spinach for the garden:

Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach, Ferry-Morse, 45 days.

As if to show the economy was still operating, the United States Postal Service delivered my Practical Farmers of Iowa Spring Issue, a Land’s End catalogue, and a box of onion starts just when I need to plant them. I know what politicians mean when they say “open up the economy,” yet ask how does one re-start something that never shut down?

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced yesterday personal stimulus payments had begun to be issued in waves with 80 million of them to be sent by Wednesday. The government knows how to spend our money, that’s for sure. If our household receives what we hear in the news that would be equivalent to three months take-home pay at the home, farm and auto supply store. (While I was typing the stimulus hit our bank account).

I ran an expense analysis of our household budget while dodging the windy work outside. With or without the stimulus payment we would be able to pay regular living expenses for the rest of the year without sacrificing our lifestyle. The coronavirus has me asking whether I should even return to my part time job.

In Iowa we don’t know the spread of COVID-19. We aren’t doing much testing. We have little visibility into what the governor or the Iowa Department of Public Health are doing. Yesterday Katarina Sostaric, state government reporter for Iowa Public Radio posted on Twitter:

Iowa’s #COVID19 testing is still limited and actual case numbers are likely much higher than those reported by the state. Today Gov. Reynolds said, “We’ve been in substantial spread for quite some time…you should just assume it’s in your community no matter where you live.”

Based on Reynolds’ statement I’m not comfortable returning to work after my unpaid leave of absence which ends May 5. The terms of the program are if I seek additional time off, I will have to resign. If I want to return to work after that, I have to reapply. If I do resign the chances of me re-applying are pretty slight. There’s ample time to consider this. Resigning is how I’m leaning today.

What would I do if I quit? Go on living.

Since the coronavirus, combined with Republican efforts to kill the postal service, have them on the brink, I will buy some postage and send a few post cards. Not sure that will save them, but it’s something. Every bit helps.

Garden Writing

Spring Rain and Memory


A gentle rain fell after noon in Big Grove Township. Forecast to be a quarter of an inch, it continued into nightfall, slow and gentle. It was the kind of spring rain we need and have come to expect.

Neighbors worked in our yards in the morning: trimming trees, collecting brush, gardening and mowing. Children were supervised by parents and the sound of their laughter penetrated the neighborhood. With the coronavirus pandemic we checked in with each other, chatted some, maintained our distance, then returned focus to the work at hand.

After planting I picked up and cleaned garden fencing from where I laid it to prepare the garden plots. Rolled bundles are piled near the Bur Oak trees until needed. For now, nothing is growing above ground that wildlife will eat.

I seeded the last of the early crops in the ground before the rain started:

Chantenay Red Cored carrots, Ferry-Morse, 70 days.
Danvers #126 carrots, Ferry-Morse, 75 days.

The portable greenhouse is filling so I consolidated seedlings to make room for what I’ll bring back from the farm today. I gave a tray of broccoli and kale to a neighbor for their garden. Later I’ll post an offer of free seedlings for neighbors on our social media group. Kale is not as popular as I’d like and not everyone gardens.

Inside, I made luncheon of a cheese sandwich with a single slice of bread, spooned out some pickles, and turned to what would be the afternoon’s work.

I have two archival-style boxes of postcards containing hundreds collected from all over, maybe a couple thousand in all. Some were sent to me. Some purchased while traveling in the United States, Canada and Europe. Some bought at auctions for a dollar or two bid per bundle. When I visited second hand stores, if they had a postcard section I browsed for good ones. Post cards are an inexpensive collectible.

At some point I segregated those with more personal meaning from the boxes and put them in trunks with other memorabilia from those periods of my early life. Our parents used to take us to Weed Park in Muscatine, driving along Highway 61 from Davenport in our 1959 Ford. I have a photograph of Dad, my brother, my sister and me standing near the car with the Mississippi River in the background. I put the postcards of Weed Park in the trunk from the time before Father died.

I went through both boxes and looked at every card during a single, four-hour shift.

What strikes me about those hours is the nature of memory. Not only do I have memories evoked by artifacts, I have the sense of being in those places literally.

For example, today is the 75th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death in Warm Springs, Georgia. In June 1976 four of us left Fort Benning, Georgia where we were taking infantry officer training and drove the 45 miles to visit. We saw the chair where FDR died and I bought a postcard from the gift shop.

I found the postcard in one of the boxes last night. It had the date and names of the other three soldiers who went with me written on the back. I saw myself in that room again, just like it was in the present. What is that experience? I had to look it up.

After consolidation, long-term memories are stored throughout the brain as groups of neurons that are primed to fire together in the same pattern that created the original experience, and each component of a memory is stored in the brain area that initiated it (e.g. groups of neurons in the visual cortex store a sight, neurons in the amygdala store the associated emotion, etc). Indeed, it seems that they may even be encoded redundantly, several times, in various parts of the cortex, so that, if one engram (or memory trace) is wiped out, there are duplicates, or alternative pathways, elsewhere, through which the memory may still be retrieved.

Therefore, contrary to the popular notion, memories are not stored in our brains like books on library shelves but must be actively reconstructed from elements scattered throughout various areas of the brain by the encoding process. Memory storage is, therefore, an ongoing process of reclassification resulting from continuous changes in our neural pathways, and parallel processing of information in our brains.

Shorter version: the postcard caused a group of neurons which physically comprised the memory to recreate it in real time.

This is particularly important when writing a memoir. Perhaps the hardest part of my work has been to resist the influence of today’s life on memories retained. Historians refer to this as presentism, or an “uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.” It is important to learn how to live from memories and experiences we’ve had. In our search for meaning today, it’s important to refrain from assigning arbitrary values to our past. We have to let the memories exist and pay attention to what they are.

In the 50 years since Father died I frequently revisited the memory of the night men from the meat-packing plant arrived at our home to console Mother while we waited in our parents’ bedroom for news. I suppose the worst parts of those days after his death are blocked, or whatever psychological term represents that. I don’t want to put a name to that blocking process because while other memories physically exist in my brain, over the years I’ve adopted a view, or perspective about what that memory is. While that may provide comfort, when writing autobiography we have to work at retrieving that contemporaneous experience. It must be what it is. That distinction between the memory told and the actual memory is at the core of what I’m about in my writing.

When I woke last night to use the bathroom I thought about what I would write this morning. The shift of postcards prompted something… a lot of somethings. It’s not that complicated. In the rush of viewing memories prompted by a thousand or more artifacts, in a single sitting, we must get a grip on the quantity and manage it. In the end, though, do we need to do that?

Is it better to live in a hurricane of memories and hope for survival? It is better to confront the wind than hide from it. That is my only conclusion today, except for the notion I must post a photo of our Bluebells for complicated reasons.

Home Life Social Commentary

Cold and Windy Spring Day

Portable Greenhouse

Tuesday was the last time I started the automobiles.

I plan a drive in each of them later today to make sure the batteries don’t drain. With gasoline selling for $1.259 per gallon I’ll don a protective mask and gloves and fill the one I missed while out to buy groceries.

It’s a maintenance mode of living as we wait out the coronavirus pandemic.

Strong gusts of wind had me bring the greenhouse seedlings into the garage yesterday afternoon. If it did blow over, I didn’t want to lose the work done since February. It’s still standing this morning.

Overnight ambient temperature dropped below freezing, so when I return the plants to their shelves after sunrise I’m going to run a space heater out to warm them. The forecast is ambient temperatures around 50 degrees after noon. The sun should take over warming by then.

The death count in Iowa due to COVID-19 was 29 yesterday. It’s not as bad as in New York where they are digging mass graves, running out of morgue space, and recruiting mortuary workers and out of state funeral directors to help with the volume of work as bodies pile up. Projections in Iowa are there will be plenty of mortuary workers to handle the expected 565 COVID-19 deaths projected by Aug. 4.

The pandemic is real and people who own and operate small businesses are getting antsy. Under normal circumstances a small business owner is eligible for unemployment payments only if they pay in for themselves or their employees. Most sole proprietorship operators don’t.

There is discussion in the national media about stimulus bill funding for small business owner payrolls to make sure they make it to the other side of the pandemic. People I know in this situation, who have applied for unemployment to Iowa Workforce Development, had their claims denied. There is a lack of information about how this provision of the stimulus will work, or whether it even exists. Bottom line is the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been too little, too late.

With non-essential business shut down three weeks ago, small business operators are having trouble making ends meet without their regular cash flow. Some are considering returning to work to resolve the stress. It’s easy to say that’s not a good idea during a period of contagion, but our household is financially stable and as such, mine is a perspective of privilege.

As retired workers, our family relies on our Social Security pensions. Politicians floated the idea of increasing Social Security payments temporarily this week. That doesn’t seem necessary. The main thing about Social Security should be to ensure that the trust fund is solvent now and beyond 2034 when if nothing is done it will begin to run out of money. That’s a worry for another day in light of the pandemic.

After Tuesday’s trip to the wholesale club we are provisioned so we can make it through the end of the pandemic. According to current projections the peak is expected to be April 27 although it will take some time past that date for the CDC or Iowa Department of Public Health to give us an all-clear.

For now, I’m focused on planting the garden. If the pandemic continues into summer, we’ll need the produce.


Planting Cool Weather Crops

Container planting onion bulbs for spring onions.

On a mild, clear Sunday I planted cool weather crops.

Arugula and lettuce planted in the ground March 2 are coming along. I tasted a tiny arugula leaf to confirm what it was. Mmmm. It won’t be long before I can make a pasta dish using fresh arugula with bow tie pasta.

In spurts of action with deliberate steps — a process developed as I slow down in the garden — I planted beets and turnips to fill out a patch near the early arugula and lettuce, and filled four containers with two varieties of potatoes, one with radishes and another with three types of onions from the home, farm and auto supply store to be harvested as spring onions. I filled out the onion container with basil seeds. It felt like I made progress.

I mulched the leaves remaining in the front yard, cleared off the plot which grew kale and cherry tomatoes last year, and removed the wire containers from the plot near the in ground containers. There’s more work to do as long as the rain holds off. I planted in soil:


Red Norland, ten weeks.
Kennebec, ten weeks.


Three varieties of bulb onions, three to four weeks for spring onions.


Purple Top White Globe, Ferry-Morse, 55 days.
Purple Top While Globe (certified organic), Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 50 days.


Sweet Italian Basil, Ferry-Morse, 70 days.


Red Meat, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 50 days.
French Breakfast, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 21 days.
Icicle Short Top, Ferry-Morse, 28 days.
Champion, Ferry-Morse, 28 days.


Zeppo Hybrid Round Red, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 50 days.

I removed the automobiles from the garage as I have each spring while planting the garden. I noticed my inventory of powered equipment increased. With a gas-powered trimmer, an electric tiller, two lawn mowers, and an electric and a gas-powered chain saw, it feels like I’m ready. The electric tiller is a concession to age, yet I admit it does a great job of preparing the soil for planting.

Sunday was gardening, as good as it gets. A fit thing to occupy ourselves as we maintain a distance from people because of the coronavirus.

Garden Writing

Clearing the Garden

First Brush Pile Fire of 2020 Gardening Season

It took five and a half hours to plant two apple trees on Saturday.

I need to move the support stakes as I put them too close to the trunk. Hopefully they will be easy to remove as they have been in the ground less than 24 hours.

I planted bare root trees that arrived Friday from Cummins Nursery, Ithaca, New York:

Zestar! on G.210 root stock.
Crimson Crisp (Co-op 39) on G.202 root stock.

Here’s hoping for apples in a couple of years.

I burned the first brush pile on the to be planted kale plot. It was a clean burn. After sunrise I will spade and till the plot. I also want to plant potatoes in containers and sow peas, beets, carrots, radishes and turnips. If there is time, transplant the first batch of spinach seedlings. There is a lot on the gardening agenda as spring has arrived.

How should I use the time after waking until sunrise, not just today, but going forward? I’m not sure. Other than to continue doing what I am, it is difficult to envision changes from routine as much as they may be needed. I’m too unsettled to contemplate change.

People say it is normal to experience anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic. Knowing I’m normal is not reassuring and has made for restless nights.

The remedy will be to get lost in the work of putting in the garden. If I work longer shifts, maybe I’ll be tired enough at day’s end to sleep through the night. I’m a little sore from yesterday’s work as my spring conditioning regime in the garden begins. Engagement in a project has worked to relieve tension in the past.

It doesn’t help that I’m reading Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s new book exploring why capitalism is proving fatal for the working class with an uptick in mortality rates among white middle-aged Americans from what the authors call “deaths of despair.” There have been enough alcohol, opiod and suicide deaths in this group to reverse the 20th century trend of longer life expectancy. Other wealthy countries continue to see an increase in life expectancy in the new century. Americans do not. I’m looking forward to reading Case and Deaton’s analysis.

All this is not to say I find despair in daily life, I don’t. However, change is on the horizon. Unlike with the sunrise coming in an hour, it’s hard to know what to expect. I affirm today will be a gardener’s day with everything that means. That should be enough to move past the coronavirus engendered anxiety into something more meaningful.

I’m doing the best I can.


Pandemic Gardening

Working at home during the pandemic.

After the first cases of COVID-19 were reported by the State Hygienic Lab on March 8 it took a while to understand the scope of the coronavirus.

The next day, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation of disaster emergency. Two days after that the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic.

The president set a 15-day federal stay at home order which has since been extended until the end of April. Tens of thousands of Americans could die from the virus. We’re all hoping the number is much less.

In Iowa six people died of COVID-19 as of this morning’s update on the Iowa coronavirus website. 183 people have confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our county and the six adjacent ones, or 43 percent of the Iowa total. While we don’t know precisely how the virus spread, it seems obvious reliance on a small number of employers (Collins Aerospace, University of Iowa, multiple food processors) resulted in local commutes that enabled it. During a press conference yesterday the governor noted, “the end is not in sight.”

Jacque hasn’t left the house since March 8, so I am the one with the most risk of contacting the virus. I studied how it is transmitted and have been careful to maintain social distancing and keep clean hands. When I’m out in public I avoid touching my face. Whenever I interacted with people I first ensured they made adequate precautions, then cleaned up when I arrived home.

At the home, farm and auto supply store the company cleans the store multiple times a day, although they don’t go to the extent the grocery store does in wiping down the conveyor belt at the cashier after each customer. According to an article in this morning’s Cedar Rapids Gazette, retail workers are most at risk because a. we are open for business, and b. a quarter of retail workers are age 55 and older and at more risk of contracting COVID-19.

Shopping trips? I don’t like shopping anyway so trips have been limited to the wholesale club, the grocery store, the gas station and to picking up soil mix to start and transplant seedlings at home. Because the cars are mostly parked we don’t use much gasoline. Each business I visited had a regimen to prevent spreading the coronavirus.

Outside I hear the laughter of children. I keep my distance. Occupied with writing, gardening and home life, the isolation from others is welcome even if the cause of it is not. I believe society will survive the pandemic. I also believe we will be changed by it. At least for a while, until we forget, and go on living as we have been for multiple millennia.

Social Commentary Writing

Coping in a Pandemic

Onion Starts

We each need something to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

The linked video by Dr. David Price of Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York helped me and it might help you. Click here to view the 57 minute video.

It is a recording of a video conference call in which Dr. Price explains what is COVID-19 and how to protect ourselves while living as reasonable a life as may be possible as we keep our distance from each other. It relieved stress about living away from friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. It explained how we should interact with a small group of family members who live with us. It is presented in a way that is persuasive and practical. Unlike so much of the hyperbole, misstatements, and falsehoods I read and hear elsewhere, Dr. Price is believable when we need that as much as isolation from the virus.

I yearn to get out of the house and trips to the garden and yard are not satisfying enough. Armed with knowledge, I plan to go to work at the home, farm and auto supply store in a couple of hours. I’m not afraid any more. I’m not being foolish. I’ll be keeping my distance from co-workers and customers and washing my hands a lot, trying not to touch my face. Absent a general call to stay in place, either at the federal or state level, we must go on living as best we can.

Social distancing would be more tolerable if the ambient temperature would warm up by about ten degrees. Getting my hands in the soil and doing much needed yard work would take my mind off the coronavirus and self-imposed isolation.

As a writer, I’m used to working in isolation. It gives me strength and an ability to distance myself from social media and unwanted contact with others. I find a chance to think clearly about my life with others and how it will be lived. There cannot be enough of this time.

As the number of cases of COVID-19 rises in the United States we don’t know how the infection will escalate. In New York, the number of cases is doubling about every three days. In Iowa, we have limited testing availability for the coronavirus, so what numbers we have don’t tell the whole story. The first person died of COVID-19 in Iowa yesterday. While tragic, I’m not sure what it means in the context of everything else going on.

My remedy was to view Dr. Price’s video, and use the information in it to go on living. We’re doing the best we can.

Social Commentary Writing

A Post Consumer Life Worth Living

Arugula and lettuce planted March 2, 2020.

When I say post-consumer, I mean the one percent of richest people in the world have extracted what they can of what we have.

Something’s now got to give.

Yes, I’ll buy at the grocery store, gas station and drug stores, but a budget like ours can’t afford much extra. If shoes and clothing wear out, I’ll buy some on sale. Maybe some books, or a cup of coffee at a restaurant or shop will be bought, but little else that is unnecessary for daily living.

No longer do I just get into my car and drive in wanderlust.

We hope to avoid potentially big and unexpected expenses associated with an accident, automobile malfunction, health concern or home or family emergency. In a capitalistic society, all of those unexpected expenses are good for someone, as they generate revenue for them and unwanted expense for us. The bottom line is that we won’t be generating much for the consumer society overlords to rejoice about.

That said, to go on living in our current lifestyle, bills must be paid, and I’ll maintain paying work to support all of our creditors and suppliers. We seek to live without incurring additional debt, having to sell our home, or spend all of our life savings. We have our pensions yet if something big happened — an expense of thousands of dollars — how would we pay for it? Our pensions cover basic expenses and some debt retirement yet there is little extra at the end of each month.

I wrote the following in 2013 when confronted with the gap between my first retirement in 2009, before our pensions kicked in.

There are plenty of jobs in the area that pay below $10 per hour. The trouble is they don’t pay enough to meet our financial requirements, even if I were to work a few of them.

Year-to-date, wages accounted for 14.3 percent of income. Consulting income was another 5 percent. Adding these two amounts to consulting accounts receivable, the total is roughly 30 percent of required 2014 income. If I were to return to warehouse work at $9.25 per hour, that would generate 60 percent of required income. Low wage jobs can be a trap to get further in debt, especially if they do not provide benefits.

A portfolio that includes some lowly paid work is acceptable, but there has to be something else, a significant part of it, that pays more.

The best part of 2013 has been working in the local food system. The pay was low, but the relationships fostered by participating were meaningful. Working in the local food system offers the prospect of something more than dollars.

The job as proof reader was in my sweet spot, relevant to my writing. Same goes for my brief stint as editor of Blog for Iowa last summer. All were lowly paid work that I want to be doing.

What Didn’t Work

The warehouse work did not work because of the physical toll it extracted. Too, taking loans and withdrawing from savings, were steps in the wrong direction. Stopping the outflow of savings will be a high priority for 2014. We’ve tapped our current home equity loan ceiling, and what is left is credit cards.

How to Get There

At its simplest, based on a six-day work week, I need to generate between $94 and $125 each work day to pay our bills. To make progress, by paying down loans, we need more.

We survived the gap that year and until Social Security payments began in 2018. The coronavirus pandemic and social change it is bringing will cause an adjustment. I see these things happening.

While weather continues with adequate rainfall and favorable temperatures, growing more of our own food will be part of the solution. When we chose to live here we picked a lot with 0.62 acres: enough for a large garden. Likewise, my relationships with farmers helps secure food items we don’t or can’t grow.

Maintaining health through exercise, eating well, and regular medical, dental and eye examinations is foundational.

During the pandemic I find myself talking people through challenges. Not that I am an expert, but there is a vacuum of concern about others that pulls me in. Whether it is family or friends, it is important to stay connected now and once the pandemic has run its course.

Focus on one financial thing. Right now it is paying down debt with any extra money. Major appliance purchases (stove and dishwasher) will wait, as will replacing our current vehicles to secure reliable transportation for our last decades of driving an automobile.

If we do pay down debt, there are possibilities. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.

Most important in all this is having a life worth living and working toward that end. With that I’m prepared as can be to sustain our lives in a turbulent world.

Social Commentary

What Drudgery This Mortal Coil?

Dried chilies ready for grinding.

The coronavirus pandemic is changing us. Changes are just beginning. We’re not ready, change is likely permanent, and there’s no going back.

Attempts at social distancing push us to stay home and make constructive use of time. I don’t like what I see in this new awareness.

I’m not talking about our home with a fair share of boomer-style clutter. We seem to be at a point where the richest one percent of the population has extracted as much as they can from the rest of us. We are entering a post-consumer society in which assumptions about the past are out the window.

We’ve been inoculated and gained immunity to everything unrelated to meeting basic needs: the president’s lies and obfuscation, the GOP U.S. Senate lining the pockets of big business, the climate crisis, nuclear annihilation, foreign affairs, you name it. It will take all we have to survive and make ends meet. Other concerns? They are not ours as we hunker down to defend against the coming social apocalypse.

I discussed our tax return with a professional who characterized us as a “low-income household.” I did not know. Translated: anything we paid in federal and state taxes through payroll will be refunded. The tax refunds will go to paying debt incurred during lean times, a quotidian use of the money to be sure. Nothing will be left for the one percent.

So it begins – our life in the post-consumer society. We’d best embrace it. If we can there is hope we can do better than merely survive. If we can’t, what drudgery will be this mortal coil?