Rainy Writer’s Day

Book Shelf
Garden Book Shelf

LAKE MACBRIDE— Intermittent rain fell throughout yesterday. Fallen leaves were dampened, and for a while, runoff flowed in the ditch. Apples clung to the tree, waiting another day to be picked.

We needed rain, but then we didn’t as crops stood in the field drying before harvest. It was a writer’s day, one for gathering material. Today will be the crafting of stories—a rarified trip into the imagination to produce more tangible results.

There are two hard parts about writing.

The first is finding meaningful venues. My process began with keeping a journal, writing letters to the editor, and commenting on a local radio station. When I look back at this work from the 1970s, it was raw, and rough, and in many cases, stylistically challenged. But there were venues, and I made something of them.

My first article outside public forums was written after a trip to Belgium and published in the newsletter of the Center for Belgian Culture of Western Illinois. I published a series of three articles after a vacation while serving in the U.S. Army in Europe, the first appearing on Nov. 27, 1977. A friend who was editor patiently waited as I drafted, typed and mailed the copy from my apartment near the Mainz railway station. As busy as I was in a mechanized infantry battalion, it is a wonder these articles were even produced.

My current work appears here, on Blog for Iowa, and in three newspapers for whom I am a part time correspondent. The newest freelance job, for the Iowa City Press Citizen, was added to the mix yesterday. 2014 has been a year of learning the peculiar requirements of writing for a newspaper, and doing it. By year’s end, I will have written about 50 newspaper articles. Between journal writing, blogging and newspaper writing there are venues enough to find meaningful expression, at least for now.

The second hard part about writing is staying focused. Sitting at the work station and crafting words and phrases on the computer screen or on paper. This takes discipline, and a willingness to avoid distraction. Some days it goes well, and others less so.

By design, today will be a day of writing. There are four articles in the works, and with a full slate of part time jobs to pay bills, it has to be. The rain left last night, and the chance of precipitation is zero throughout today. There will be a temptation to head outside to pick apples and peppers, or to work in the garage on a dozen projects, but it must be resisted. Even now I procrastinate—the writer’s natural inclination.

Yet when inspiration comes from a mysterious source, the words flow, almost automatically. It is those times we treasure as we write. Yet they don’t come without discipline and work.

To get to today took work, and some persistence. When I began writing four decades ago, I didn’t know how it would turn out. Now that I am here I can see the sacrifices that were necessary in the form of an unconventional approach to paying the bills, and a willingness to make sacrifices to see the world and gain understanding of part of it.

Was it worth it? I’m still here to tell the tale.

Work Life Writing

Life Minus Television

You Bet Your Life
You Bet Your Life

LAKE MACBRIDE— It has been a while, more than a year, since the television has been turned on with any regularity. I fired up the tubes to view President Obama’s address to the nation on the campaign in Syria, and occasionally we follow extreme weather, but mostly the set rests darkly in the corner, collecting dust.

That’s not to say we disconnected. We cut back the service to basic cable to save a few budget dollars, and maintained what we had for the bundling with Internet service. With the recent demise of my laptop, and acquisition of a desktop to replace it, I have less screen time generally. The computer has become a work station in a life with many of them— a post-television life of screen time.

Early on, I realized the boon to productivity that was word processing software. It’s hard to believe how much time was spent typing and re-typing a finished paper or article on my Smith Corona and Olympia machines. I kept the typewriters for sentimental reasons, and don’t know if I could find a new ribbon should I want to use them again. While we lived in Indiana, I bought a word processing machine and produced some documents that survive, including a journal— electronic word processing was a miracle.

On April 21, 1996 we bought an Acer home computer and logged on to the Internet at home for the first time. Making the decision to add the $25 monthly subscription to an already tight budget was a big deal. There’s no going back now, and communications services is a big chunk of our monthly budget, one I would like to cut back on.

Now there’s the hand-held mobile device with an Internet connection and many applications. It is used mostly to check email and news, and every once in a while, I make a phone call. Owning this machine has made a laptop less relevant, and communications with people who matter easier.

With the conversion of the industrial economy to one based more on services, the most important element, one that changed everything, has been constant human contact. At the warehouse, I interact with hundreds of people each day when working a regular shift. At the orchard, on a busy Saturday I will greet 500 people or more. It is this human contact we crave, despite how it drains energy from our day.

When we lived on Madison Street, before I entered first grade, I longed to stay up and watch “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx on television. My parents would not allow it for reasons that have become obscure in the river of time. Partly they felt I should be in bed by 9 p.m. when the show aired, but there was more.

As I moved through the grades and left home, television viewing was always a second tier activity, one for after a day’s work was done, whether it be school work or a shift at a job. When I lived in Germany I bought a television late during my tour of duty, and got rid of it after a few months. There is no going back to television now. I’d rather spend my time with people, and see the diverse human experience for myself.


Book Review – The Home Place

The Home Place by Carrie La Seur
The Home Place by Carrie La Seur Photo credit: Harper Collins

Why do we read fiction? To find books like The Home Place by Carrie La Seur.

For most of us the exigencies of an engaged life leave us drained of energy, with diminished capacity to cope with complexities. Working multiple part time jobs, facing economic realities and people problems far scarier than any fiction, each day can leave us worn and used— more than we thought was possible. A good novel can be both welcome respite and escape from all of that, which is what I found in The Home Place.

I don’t know La Seur hardly at all.

We worked briefly together, along with many others, on an advocacy campaign to stop three coal fired power plants from being built in Iowa. We stopped two out of three.

I offered to volunteer for her Plains Justice, but the person who interviewed me never called back.

My experiences of Montana are quite different from those depicted in the book. If fiction is to be successful, it must be true to the author’s own experience rather than worrying much about others. The book seems deep in that.

What matters more is La Seur did not get the memo from authors like Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote and others that there was a new journalism that blended fiction and non-fiction. I’m glad she didn’t, or if she did, that she rejected the notion to present a novel more traditionally.

For what we need is twofold— an escape from the quotidian struggle for existence in a turbulent world, and ability to reach catharsis. The Home Place provided both.

The book seems well written and engaging. La Seur’s personality resonates throughout the pages, and she seems an active participant in the narrative. Whether that is good or bad is for others to consider. For me, I needed a break, and The Home Place provided that.

Home Life

Days Full of Life

Kitchen Work Station
Kitchen Work Station

LAKE MACBRIDE— As I pulled out of the parking garage at the warehouse, my mobile phone rang. It was the orchard calling to say the family event was cancelled due to the rain storm so I wouldn’t be working. Unhesitatingly, I redirected the car, considering what to do with newly found time.

The first option was to attend the fundraiser for my state senator. He and his wife had visited the warehouse to gather provisions for the event. I had asked for the address to send a check since I would be working. Having given my regrets, I headed home.

A few weeks ago the newspaper published a story about a cupcake baker who set up shop on the road to the warehouse. Years ago, a trucking firm sold their large terminal on a corner lot to a developer, and a commercial strip mall has been expanding there for a number of years. The cupcake purveyor located in some of the new space.

There were young children with parents at the counter and tables. The din was so much I could barely hear the person at the counter ask if it was my first visit. It was. She explained the offerings, and I picked tiramisu and vegan which I expected from proofreading the newspaper article. The cupcake had a very thick layer of butter cream frosting— too much really. A return seems unlikely, but I wish the company well. They aren’t going for the cranky writer crowd anyway.

What I needed was sleep. Upon arriving home, I headed to the bedroom for what was to be a nap. I woke three hours later, having slept soundly.

Fruit flies showed up for the first time this season flying above the kitchen compost bucket. They have been a long time coming, beginning to appear only a couple of weeks ago in the enclosed garden compost bin. Whatever the delay, they weren’t missed. I need to empty the bucket daily.

 After making a snack, I returned to bed and slept through until I could sleep no more. I awoke realizing there is life to be lived, and had better get to it.

Work Life

Labor Day 2014

Working the Garden
Working the Garden

LAKE MACBRIDE— Labor Day means a work day in Big Grove, and that’s fine with me.

Today began by finishing and filing two articles for the newspaper. After a session of garden work, and making juice from some apples I picked two days ago, I’ll work a shift at the orchard. Then, the CSA share will be ready for pickup, as they are working today as well. The new vegetables will need processing, so there will be a lot more to do before sleep comes again.

During my transportation career I made a point to go into the office on Labor Day. I felt that was my job, and a day to get caught up on work the exigencies of managing a multimillion dollar operation blocked out. Any more, it is a day to do work that in another life would just be called living.

This summer pushed the envelope of how much formal work can be crammed into a schedule. As many as eight paid jobs needed doing, and still they didn’t generate enough income to get past regular bills, a few emergency expenses, and paying down a small amount of debt. While it has been a struggle, worklife is also about framing.

I reject the class frame. Neither am I middle class nor working class, although if I were, the latter seems more appropriate. We’re not serfs either. Those frames belong to others. I look at myself as a writer in an Iowa City the City of Literature sort of way. Here’s what I mean.

What I do more now than ever is spend time writing. Everything else supports that work. A small bit of my income comes from writing, but alone, it is not sustainable. So I sign on to do specific part time or temporary work for pay. The few hours each morning at my desk it supports are what matters most.

Fame or notoriety will escape me most likely. The challenge these days is to find meaningful venues for my writing. For Labor Day, though, I just plan to work.


Friday In Iowa – Writing In Public

Throes of Creation by Leonid_Pasternak
Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

“I’ve been reading the paper lately,” said Kevin Samek to the Solon City Council on Aug. 6 during the citizens speak agenda item. “I’m a little concerned about the north sewer trunk.”

Samek had been reading my newspaper articles about the council and this long-standing community issue.

He went on to express his concerns about the way council was handling finances regarding the sewer line, and on a second topic said that public safety could be improved on Main Street by lowering the speed limit.

Council addressed his concerns by lowering the speed limit on Main Street from 25 to 20 miles per hour, and by unsuccessfully attempting to reach agreement with a developer over the sewer line at their Aug. 20 meeting. Samek filed to run for city council shortly afterward.

Two things about this story explain why some of us write in public.

Samek read my newspaper articles, and then did something about it, first by speaking to council, and then by deciding to run for public office. Informing and activating people to take action is what public writing is about. Whether we write for a newspaper, a blog, in social media, or appear on television or radio, the purpose is similar. We attempt to say something meaningful to readers and urge them to action.

The second important part of this story is that someone was there to witness the work of the city council and report on it. Often I am the only person seated in the gallery at council meetings and if I don’t write about them, it is doubtful anyone outside government would. Being there and having a point of view is important to restoring our Democracy. Writing publicly about what we witness is equally so. This is true not only for our government, but for much else in society.

As my summer job with Blog for Iowa ends, I urge readers to get involved with community life and take progressive action. We each have a unique perspective that is needed. There is a world out there and not enough people witnessing its reality and sharing it in public. Or, as Saul Bellow said more artfully, “there’s the most extraordinary, unheard-of poetry buried in America, but none of the conventional means known to culture can even begin to extract it.”

My hope is that people read what I wrote this summer and were moved to do something about issues that are important to them. As the political season turns to the fall campaign thanks for reading my summer posts. My advice is to never give up.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa


Drawing from a Spring

Lake Macbride
Lake Macbride

LAKE MACBRIDE— Possessed of a large frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, I spend way to much time intellectualizing life instead of living it. This is not new, nor is it peculiar to me. It’s the human condition— a blessing and a curse. Memory is particularly important for a writer in that if one can’t conceptualize, writing would be impossible. Readers are important too, but that is another story.

The challenge of daily writing is to develop a story balanced between enough research and not too much. That research is in experiences new and old. For now, the source of ideas flows like a spring in an Appalachian hollow, providing a way of life for those who can tap it. One hopes the spring never runs dry.

My experience with Appalachian springs is personal. During a visit to the home place in Virginia shortly after our marriage, we visited family friends who lived a certain way in a hollow with a spring. The income they had was from watching my uncle’s four cows and tobacco fields while he was away working for an airline. The grounds and cow keepers had a government draw from a disability, which was being set aside to eventually buy farming equipment. Money was not a primary concern, although if they had it, they would spend it. So it is in Big Grove.

One might call the author a hoarder. Guilty as charged. I’m a hoarder of books and artifacts collected in diverse experiences around the U.S., Canada and parts of old Europe. The ideas about them reside within me, and that’s the true and deep reservoir of experience for writing. Often, it is research enough.

Occasionally one has to reach out for inspiration, and that’s where I land as summer ends and the fall harvest approaches. The persistent question, what’s next?

I’ve worked to create a process that sustains us over the near term, and now it’s time to produce something longer than a 500 word blog post with the process. Exactly what is an open question for the next month or so.

With consideration and review, contemplation and decision, a path forward will be mapped— toward new experiences and broader exposure of my writing.

It’s time to draw again from the spring.


Allure on the Prairie

Canned Goods
Canned Goods

LAKE MACBRIDE— The allure of imagination is a writer’s arena. It can be a saving grace, enabling us to survive in a world gone mad. It can be a distraction from existential realities that beckon for attention. It is a blessing and a curse, perhaps the result of our too large brain combined with the relative security of life on the American plains. Perhaps it is simply a way to live.

Writers seek allure more than imagination, at least this one does. That moment when an idea rises on the horizon. A shiny object, not unlike a fashion photograph— each element prepared meticulously for our viewing, the scent of perfume imagined despite the reality of a two dimensional image on a screen. Allure is the well from which a writer dips a ladle and drinks.

Norman Mailer described the writer’s process:

You go in each morning, and there’s a blank page. Maybe it takes five minutes, maybe it takes an hour. Sooner or later you start writing, and then the words begin to flow. Where does that come from? You can’t pinpoint it. You always wonder, “Will it all stop tomorrow?” In that sense it’s spooky. In other words, you’re relying on a phenomenon that’s not necessarily dependable.

There is no shortage of things to occupy our attention. A recent story on the cable television business reported there are 10 million households in the U.S. that have an Internet connection, but no cable television. It’s enough people for Home Box Office to perceive a market and develop a direct sales, Internet delivered, bundle of subscription programs. Radio, then television, and now the Internet, have served to suppress imagination’s allure. Programming fills our attention capacity as we plug in to our favorite diversion. For a writer, this is a low level poison trickling into our veins, suppressing creativity. Allure vanishes leaving us feeling empty and used, yet craving more.

“No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams. Would that it were so. His 20th Century produced a consumer culture in which people collected things without ideas. Certain die cast toys, boxes of pasta, tools, and my addiction— books and reading material. The result of someone’s ideas tangible and in our hands. Maybe Williams was warning us.

As we age, we become aware of our physical limitations and imagine more. Aging bodies become temples of memory to be filled by righteous and earthy memories. As our bones stiffen writers strive to avoid calcification of ideas. It takes work. We are not always successful.

“Memory believes before knowing remembers,” wrote William Faulkner. As we age, the hard drive of memory falls into disuse. We repeat old jeremiads in society, trying to get along. We can forget the allure of the imagination.

When a writer loses the ability to be drawn to the allure, one is no longer a writer. A scribbler maybe, a blogger definitely, a writer only in external artifacts and behavior.

We may be driven to package our awareness, like a gardener spending weeks in the kitchen canning and freezing produce for a winter of use. The jars on a shelf serve a purpose, the least of which is nourishment. They become another distraction from the allure of a life of imagination.

Kitchen Garden Writing

Summer Thunderstorm

Red Crust Pizza
Red Crust Pizza

LAKE MACBRIDE— Rain was brewing when I went outside early this morning. One could sense it in the warm, electrified air. It came and poured two inches in the garden cart left outside to get washed out. The storm winked the power a couple of times, although not long enough to stop my work on a newspaper article. In all, it was a decent, if unneeded rain.

Temperatures in June averaged 70.3° or 0.6°above normal, while precipitation totaled 9.94 inches or 4.92 inches above normal, according to state climatologist Harry Hillaker. This ranks as the 55th warmest and third wettest June among 141 years of records. The only calendar months with greater statewide precipitation averages were July 1993 (10.50”), June 2010 (10.39) and June 1947 (10.33). The rainfall isn’t done for today.

I’m taking a break between two news articles due this weekend. Cleansing the writer’s palate with new words in a different frame. The first story is filed, and the second will be before going to the orchard to confirm my work during the apple season that starts today.

It is an unusual Saturday off from the warehouse. I cancelled outdoor work because of the forecast for more rain, so besides at-home work on the newspaper and two other gigs, the day is mine. My spouse is working this afternoon, so I’ll have the house to myself much of the day.

Yesterday I was invited to luncheon at the CSA. As a part time worker, I get included in special events and attend when my schedule permits. Eleven farm workers dined on pizza, coleslaw, steamed broccoli, zucchini cake and watermelon. Only a few ingredients came from off the farm. I opined that the watermelon was from Florida, but was guessing.

The pizza dough was turned red by adding beet puree. Topped with a tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, sliced beets, onions, sliced hard-cooked eggs and basil, not only was it delicious, it was beautiful. The rest of the meal was standard, in-season local food fare, simply prepared.

I am working on a piece about Alice Waters and asked each farm worker individually if they knew who she was. Six of eleven (55 percent) did not recognize the name. On a farm where the major effort is organic, locally grown ingredients, and using them to create a specific type of cuisine, I was surprised more people had not heard of her. Waters is not as well known as some foodies might think.

A discussion of breaking vegetarianism led us down a weird conversational path. Someone said so many vegans and vegetarians break their eating habits with bacon. Most everyone at the table had some type of hog slaughtering experience, so for about 20 minutes that became our conversation.

When people live close to the means of production, the conversation seems reasonable. We covered home slaughtering of a market animal that died unexpectedly the day before shipping, working in a slaughter house, visits to confinement hog operations, a story about consumption of male hog gonads, chitterlings, lard rendering, using bacon grease in cooking, and many more topics. A porcine version of Moby Dick, if you will, told by people who know their subject.

I’m willing to bet fewer people would eat bacon if they knew where it came from.

Yesterday I transplanted celery and snipped off the leaves from the extra seedlings. It was the best tasting celery ever. We’ll see how much it produces. This morning’s rain should help.

Environment Writing

Dreaming of Zakuski

Storm Damaged Tree
Storm Damaged Tree

LAKE MACBRIDE— In a perfect world, friends would come over and we’d share vodka, zakuski and conversation for an evening.

Even though we have a bottle of Stolichnaya Vodka purchased in the 1980s in the basement (an inch or so has evaporated), and the fixings for a dozen or more little plates in the refrigerator and pantry, getting intoxicated by sweet, sour and savory hors d’oeuvres following shots of vodka is not going to happen.

Yet I imagine—damn you frontal lobe, your machinations and your dreams.

But there it is. In chilled small shot glasses, a dose of vodka followed by a homemade multigrain cracker spread with pesto.

An interlude of conversation while the next course is prepared.

A shot of vodka, and a small plate of beets and daikon radishes pickled with jalapeno peppers. More conversation.

A shot of vodka, and a tiny ceramic cup with rhubarb crisp. More conversation and a slight buzzing sensation.

A shot of vodka. A mixture of Kalamata olives, pickled chard stems and capers, served on small plates from the thrift store. And so it would go.

Except it’s not going to happen. The toll of vodka would be too much, though the conversation and releasing of inhibitions tempting. Who in today’s consumer society pays a visit to chat with zakuski? If our doorbell rings at all, it is a canvasser, not friends seeking to share tales of our lives on the Iowa prairie.

The world outside is of fallen trees and washed out ditches from last night’s extreme weather, part of a bleak day with multi-colored sky.

At a political event in town last night, about a fourth of the attendees cancelled due to the weather.

Trees were down all around the lake. Mill Creek rose up out of its banks.

“Our giant old walnut tree came down in the storm taking my farm’s main power line with it as well as my yard light pole,” came the report from our CSA. “The amazing thing is we still have power but until REC gets out here to shut off the power we have live wires on our driveway and the tree is blocking our road. Given the size of the tree I suspect it will take us several days to get the driveway cleared.”

Two trays of seedlings for the garden blew over, leaving work to salvage them this morning—the least of problems in a storm-wrecked world.

One dreams of zakuski, and lives in the material world with its fallen trees, blocked roads and disruptions, seldom stopping for the human possibilities dreams create.

It’s time to spread the pesto on plain toast and get on with the day.