The Boll Weevil

Boll Weevil Monument

In the town square of Enterprise Alabama there’s a monument, a tribute that’s one of a kind—The world’s only statue erected to honor an agricultural pest. The story is straightforward: Local farmers’ cotton crops were being devastated by a little bug the size of a pencil eraser. The Boll Weevil, (Anthonomus grandis), was chewing up the delicate bolls, threatening to erase the sole source of income, the very livelihood and survival of those farmers, and of a vast portion of the U.S. economy.

Watching their way of life vanishing, destroyed by an insect that was barely visible, those farmers did something more enlightened than one might think. They saw the boll weevil for the wake-up call it was, the messenger bringing a long overdo but critical warning: Those farmers were chained to one crop, and when that crop was destroyed, they would be too. Did they despair? Did they wring their hands, or plant more cotton? Did they pray to the god of tilling and turning to intervene and banish the nasty pest sent to ravage their fields? What did they do?

(Anthonomus grandis)

They planted peanuts! Before long the message had spread across the American South: King Cotton, the one crop that had brought so much prosperity—and so much misery and division, depending on how similar the color of ones skin was to the color of that cotton—that dependence was about to destroy them!

Within a generation cotton had serious competition from peanuts, and corn, and flax, and numerous other crops. The Boll Weevil had been a herald of change, and people recognized it with a statue.


You know where this is going. I’m not fully prepared at this moment to suggest a statue in the town commons to the new coronavirus. Nonetheless, the potential that invisible bug has to reorder our lives is already apparent. Like the boll weevil, the virus is quite literally destroying whatever social framework and common order we once referred to as ‘normal.’

Those southern farmers once went about their lives. They ordered their seeds prior to each planting season, prepared the soil, cleared vast new acreage, drilled those seeds into the loamy dirt of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina. They turned their enslaved human beings into those fields to tend and nurture the crop. Then the boll weevil feasted; the cotton failed; those farmers looked beyond the wreckage, and changed their methods. So can we.

If we reap the opportunities the virus presents, we’ll be able to discern its origins, and repair the breach that allowed it access; to use the knowledge we’ve gained in crafting a vaccine, and turn that new weapon of understanding to other illnesses such as HIV, SARS, TB, or looming pathogens we’re told await us. We can use the current infestation to improve our health infrastructure, and to address the inequities it has revealed. We can see the way our current methodologies of agriculture and nutrition leave us exposed to viruses yet to be identified and named. We can understand that our current practices in those fields are harmful to the earth, and that many of them are simply unsustainable.

The statue to the Boll Weevil in Enterprise Alabama has been vandalized numerous times. Often enough that authorities have moved the original monument into a nearby train station/museum, where security cameras focus on it 24/7. There will be vandals. History is replete with them, and it’s been stained by the damage they’ve done, the burden those rapacious rogues have delivered on all of us. That’s the subject of a whole new post, especially in light of recent events in the U.S. Capitol, speaking of vandals.

So I close with a suggestion: Let’s be ready to thank the microscopic but mighty coronavirus for breaking open a door of ignorance. While it’s critical that we defeat this virus, it may be more important to learn from it. Thanks for reading.

20/20 Vision

It’s over. We made it. Well, most of us made it. Here’s to those who didn’t: Hail and farewell fine friends, it was good to know you. Sorry you’re no longer with us. The year that just passed into history was replete with loss. Future archivists will note the surge of headstones chiseled with the now ominous numeration.

But 20/20 was full of unprecedented opportunity as well. It would be a disservice to those to whom we bid adieu not to discern whatever lessons 20/20 offered. Like turning from 9/11 in disinterest, or ignoring the dead at Pearl Harbor. This discernment is a must.

The analogy is too easy to make, but I’ll make it anyway. Year 20/20 sharpened our sights, our foresight, our hindsight, and our insight, if we allowed it to. If 20/20 didn’t demand your focus and discernment and attention and introspection, then you were either oblivious to the world as it truly, awfully, gloriously is, or you were happily ensconced on Planet Clueless. If 20/20 delivered you to the eye chart of our collective existence, and sat you down, and forced responses from you, then here’s what I believe you may have seen as the sequential image enhancing lenses flickered past.

I’ll not mention the plagues that bedeviled us overtly in 2020. There’s no use in pricking that achy scab. It will heal; we know that. Indeed, that understanding, that lens, is perhaps the central vision we’ll take from the eye chart we’re presently viewing: We do endure; crises come…and crises go. We go on. Always. This lens is important.

Another lens clicks over, and it shows clearly that, however much we speak of ‘normal,’ and however much we wish to return there, we now see that normal wasn’t working. And it will not, ever again. With that lens in focus, let’s be unafraid to look more closely at what a new normal could—must—look like:

Bravo to those scientists and epidemiologists and vaccinologists who’ve given us at least the promise of emerging from this miasma. And to those on the front lines in health care, bravissimo! This new normal, in deference to, and in payment to them, would be our collective transition to their old normal, the vision they’ve seen for a very long time. We may take dubious comfort in ‘the virus came out of nowhere,’ or ‘no one saw it coming.’ But that’s a fallacy. It’s a convenient lie among ourselves. Those people noted above saw it coming. They sang, and danced, and posted, and wrote, and paraded about exactly what it would be, and do, and look like…and we ignored them. So here must be our new normal: We must focus on what experts and scientists put in front of us, whether their view is comforting or harsh; whether soothing or disturbing. It cannot matter. We must see their view, and assimilate it. Because here’s the thing. They’re still warning us. They’re telling us it will happen again. It will. We’ve not seen the last of it.

Thus another lens clicks into place. How much time, and energy, and resources, and money, and attention did the world exhaust in 20/20? It defies calculation. Yet for all the distancing, and masking, and hand sanitizing, and new protocols to defeat the scourge, with all the resources spent on its eradication, where is the intense, laser-focused time and energy toward preventing the next virus? Are we preoccupied with it? No. Are we prepared for it? No. Do most of us even acknowledge that SARS-Cov-3 could well be waiting in the wings as this is written? No. It could arrive tomorrow, a mutation, or an entirely new virus and we’d be exposed yet again. Thus the new normal I propose: No need to identify the source of the current virus; we already know whence it came: It came through our frantic and reckless intrusion into a world where we don’t belong, our transgression of a natural boundary between territories. The virus is simply proof that such crowding is not without consequence. In a sense, comforting or not, the system worked.

To whit: Human trespassing in animal habitats, and the ingestion of the flesh of those animals by humans has shown itself to be the awful, devastating, world-changing risk we’ve been repeatedly warned about. Once again, ‘the virus came out of nowhere,’ or ‘no one saw it coming’ do not work. Despite our collective, powerful, food industry-driven wish to continue ingesting animal protein, it is beyond harmful, into irrational. Until humans make the conscious decision to shift to a plant based diet, viruses will haunt us, and punish us, and kill us, and disrupt our lives. Again. We can look away, complain that this particular lens is faulty, or clouded, or angled poorly. But here’s the fundamental truth: Those scientists and epidemiologists noted above are well aware of the source of these viruses, but confronted with our voracious carnal appetites, and the monumental lobbying power of special food interests, they’re powerless to prevent their spread.

So another lens clicks into place: Unless and until we look without flinching at the source of our information, and the powerful and monied manipulators of it, our view will be purposely clouded, craftily skewed by the vast riches associated with and empowered by that manipulation. We’ve seen the recent deselection of one virus, and its human manifestation. He will be gone January 20th. But the hidden viruses in our political system, those duly elected people beholden to corporate interests instead of constituents must be identified and removed as well. The year past has allowed a rare kind of clear vision of that plague to emerge. It’s been too easy to see the open scandal, the venal self-enrichment, and the shameful nepotism that has perhaps existed forever. Has there ever been a better, more propitious time in our history to expose the rot and rubble in our system of governance and refresh that system so it serves us all? I don’t believe so. We have a vaccine for that despicable plague. The Vote. Let’s inject it, and begin to heal.

It would be easy to view 20/20 through a judgmental, a sour, a harshly disparaging lens. It robbed us of much wealth—financial and otherwise. It took away those we loved, and that which we can never replace. It pushed us toward mistrust, and fear, and an unstable dizzying existence we don’t like very much.

But 20/20 opened our eyes as well. Here’s hoping 2021 does not deliver normal. Here’s hoping a new vision can emerge, and that the lens it provides fills our new glasses with hope and joy and a better world.

Happy New Year to all. And stop eating animals.

A Conversation for the Ages

The first two words of Mary Oliver’s poem are ‘tell me.’ Everyone has a story, and everyone harbors a secret desire for others to ask us to tell it. At present we have the honor of listening to Mariah’s mom Rosie, as she tells us her stories of life at age 90. We’re recording her voice, asking her about every aspect of her one wild and precious life, its ups and downs, its ins and outs. This conversation for the ages is exactly the kind of project I wish I’d had with my own parents. It’s gratifying, interesting, amusing, happy and sad by turns. And it feels so good to see Rosie light up as the narrative flows, and recollections come to her. As shy as she is, she’s happy we asked.

Rosie is a bit reluctant to tell us her tales; she’s not one to volunteer much. But once we get her started, she rambles on and on about life on the farm, her eight siblings, mom and dad, school, holiday events, and every aspect of her life in rural Iowa. Some of her anecdotes are insightful and funny.

Here’s a sample: When she first learned to drive, she was motoring along with her dad, doing the best she could as a rookie driver. Her father said “you’re weaving around, driving like Joe Digney!” It turns out Joe was the town drunk. Rosie smiled at the memory, then she embellished it a bit, to put it in the best light, as she always does: “Everybody liked Joe Digney.”

I wish I’d asked my parents to tell me their story. They’re both gone now. It’s too late. I have fond memories of them, scattered bits and pieces of things they touched, photographs of them, and their DNA of course, which I assume is where I got my sensitive nature, my impulse to go straight at life heart-first, the admixture that prods me to such regrets as this. It came from them. But what treasure trove of knowledge did I miss?

My Parents in 1946

The two love crazed kids above had quite a story to tell. Shortly after this black & white picture was taken their wild and precious lives took off in technicolor, as they did their part in making the baby boomer generation anomalous, helping to fill maternity wards to the rafters. I never once asked them to ‘tell me’ about it.

My mother was Irish in every sense of the word. Mary Martha Barrett had a heart as big as the Donegal sky, and she wore it in plain sight. Mom took in strays. She always placed an extra dinner plate, just in case. She cried at card tricks. My father, the outwardly stoic Englishman tried to hide his warm and fuzzy side, but his compassion and caring poked through anyway, allowing his warm and gentle soul to show, and to override his stiff-upper-lipped British side. I never asked about their lives, darn it, and I wish I had.

This much I do know: They produced ten kids in the span of 19 years. I’m number two of that brood. Irish-Catholic family tradition assigned me, number two son, the role of family priest. I became the family writer and archivist instead. But it didn’t occur to me to write the story directly in front of me, the tale my parents had to tell: Their mid-war meeting; their courtship in the summer of ’42; their marriage and settling in time, as unsettled as it must have been surrounding themselves with diapers and bottles and baby-bills. I simply never asked. It wasn’t until my dad was dying in 2006 that it occurred to me to archive his story. By then he was much too feeble, too fragile, and quite deaf, so our conversation for the ages never happened.

Thus, our conversation with Rosie

This is what drives us to record and archive Rosie’s story. Every night over dinner we listen to Rosie tell her life tale of 90 + years. We choose questions from a list we’ve put together, itemizing such things as early farm life, her eight siblings, chores, holiday events, good times and bad times, the Depression, the War, her courtship with Mariah’s dad and their marriage, her own six kids, and the loss of the last one. We’re asking Rosie to tell us about her one wild and precious life. ‘Tell me’, we say. And she does.

So, coming soon, we’re going to compile many of Rosie’s stories in book form, and offer them around to family and anyone else interested, with her approval, of course. If there’s an elder, a father, or mother, or grandparent or just an older friend you’d like to memorialize, rest assured they’re likely more than happy to share their saga with you. Try it. Just say ‘Tell me…’

Thanks for reading.

The Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery

The Black Angel

The legend of Iowa City Oakland Cemetery’s Black Angel is complicated. Like many stories passed down through the ages about her, especially through oral history, the Black Angel’s tale has twists and turns and all the rabbit trail features of our current incredulous modern messaging. When I first arrived in Iowa City back in 1983, it wasn’t long before I heard of the Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery, and the many often conflicting narratives that surrounded this peculiar and riveting monument.

The Black Angel site has brought so many hoary and shiver-producing tales it’s hard to sort them out. The statue is eerily beautiful in its own way, its patina blackened by time and the elements. Of course its position in a cemetery lends automatic cachet to its value as a chill maker. The fact that there isn’t a lot to actually do in Iowa City Iowa adds to the generation of these tales as well. Here are a few of the myths, tall tales, beliefs, superstitions, and prohibitions surrounding the Black Angel.

  • Don’t touch or kiss the angel, or you’ll die instantly. Unless you happen to be a virgin. (More on this below.)
  • Pregnant women must avoid the angel, and never stand in the shadow of her wings, or you will lose your child.
  • The Black Angel is haunted.
  • She is cursed.
  • She weeps on the date that Mrs. Feldevert’s son Eddie Dolezal died.
  • Teresa Feldevert’s many sins caused the angel to turn black.
  • On the night of Teresa’s funeral the angel was struck by lightning, turning her black.
  • A preacher’s son is secretly buried beneath the angel.

The story of The Black Angel is indeed murky. Most of the myths surrounding her were hastily conjured and are easily dismissed. Her black patina, for example, is easily explained. The statue was cast in bronze by Chicago sculptor Mario Korbel, and even before she went up in Oakland Cemetery in 1931, the bronze had oxidized, and turned dark, due to the elements and oxidation.

The Black Angel’s presence caused an immediate controversy, and a lawsuit. Mrs. Feldevert, who had commissioned the monument, didn’t like it, especially its dark and ominous coloration, and she refused to pay the sculptor. She saw the oxidation of the bronze, and wanted the metal to stay the color it was, as a shining tribute to her dead son. The sculptor, Mario Korbel, knew the metal would discolor with time, and he tried to convince his client that a shiny colored tombstone wouldn’t make sense. The sculptor sued Mrs. Feldevert to get his payment. Korbel won his lawsuit, Mrs. Feldevert paid him for his work, and the angel was posted in Oakland Cemetery in 1913.

The Black Angel presides over the tomb of a family named Feldevert. Teresa, the matriarch, was born in the Czech Republic in 1836. She was a practicing physician & midwife who immigrated to Iowa City in the late nineteenth century. Her son Eduard ‘Eddie’ Dolezal died of meningitis at 18 years old in 1891, and was buried in Oakland Cemetery. Below is a picture of Eddie’s gravestone, the sculpture of a tree limb lopped off five feet above the ground, symbolizing a life cut short.

Eddie Dolezal: 1873-1891

Today the Black Angel serves as a kind of gathering spot, reference point to the rest of the cemetery, and initiation place for U of Iowa college students and other groups looking for ways to memorialize one event or another, either a fraternity hazing, a wedding, a divorce, or a funeral. Here are a few more local legends associated with Iowa City’s Black Angel:

  • No U of I female is considered a real coed until she’s been kissed near the Black Angel.
  • If she’s kissed in the light of a full moon, she’ll die within six months.
  • Further, if the girl is a virgin when she’s kissed, the statue will revert to its original bronze color within six months. (Note: She’s still dark)
  • Touching the angel at midnight on Hallowe’en means death within six years.
  • Teresa Feldevert lacked the money to have her own death date inscribed in the angel’s base. (This legend is true. The base reads as follows: Nicholas Feldevert 1825-1911, Teresa Feldevert 1836- ) She died in 1924.

The site of the Black Angel has been used for the occasional seance, several wedding receptions, Hallowe’en parties, and numerous New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Base of Eddie Dolezal’s grave

The hatchet buried in rock, with its broken shaft, symbolizes Eddie Dolezal’s curtailed life. The rounded pail lower right is said to contain the ashes of his father, though, like many stories emanating from the Black Angel site, that has never been proven—or laid to rest, so to speak.

Tokens & Artifacts

Above, at the angel’s feet the day we took these photos were several coins and other artifacts. These things are left there often, tokens asking for the Black Angel’s intercession for whatever need or desire the depositor feels.

The Family Feldevertova

The Black Angel statue is eight and a half feet tall, nine feet across, and weighs nearly two tons with the base. The tree stump tombstone next to it is Eddie Dolezal’s final resting place. His grave was once several feet away, but was moved in 1913 at the request his mother, to put Eddie closer to the family tomb.

Because we seem to be immersed in death narratives these days, with the novel coronavirus lurking behind every doorway, and every un-masked face, it’s a good time to reflect on a few realities: None of us gets out of this alive; everyone will have a legacy, good or bad; no one can control the when—where—why—how of their demise; and finally, there are likely to be rumors and superstitions about us and the way we lived our lives, stories that will persist long after we’re gone. So…

Those tales will twist and turn and lapse into myth, provided someone keeps giving them ink or oxygen. So perhaps the Black Angel’s durable lesson to us is simply to live the most transparent, consistently positive lives we can, so that narrative gets passed along to our precedents.

Coming up soon: Rosie: A Life Well Lived. This is a legacy project we’ve undertaken with Mariah’s mother Rosie. It’s a conversation for the ages, our effort to write Rosie’s life story, a narrative covering her 90 years on the planet. Every evening at dinner we have this conversation with her following a proscribed checklist of questions and topics. We record what she says, and then transcribe the story for future inclusion in a book. The project allows Rosie to share her (amazing) story with us and future generations, and it reveals a part of her we knew existed, but never had the honor to hear about. Next blog will contain excerpts from this conversation for the ages. Thanks for reading, comments welcome.

A Moon-Shot Moment

My friends, we’ve been through a tough time. We’ve lost loved ones and treasured icons. We’ve watched the numbers of COVID fatalities climb with no end in sight, seen millions lose jobs, health care, homes, and businesses or experienced those things ourselves. More than 200,000 of our fellows are dead just in this country from a virus that could have been contained but wasn’t. Americans have witnessed the most shocking scandals among public servants in our 245-year history, including countless illegalities perpetrated by a president who shows utter contempt for the rule of law and our sacred institutions. Most of us will be happy to see 2020 in the rearview mirror.

But there is good news: This is a potential moon-shot moment. One week from tomorrow, 11/3/2020, we have an opportunity to begin rebuilding our country in a way that will make our kids and grandkids proud, changes that will create an America that works for all, and that benefits everyone. The steps I’m about to propose truly are achievable, if we work toward them together, and if we vote for candidates that share our progressive values. We Americans did put men on the moon once, after all.

First an apology: Anyone who’s read my blog is aware of my disdain for a certain individual who I hope will be defeated at the ballot box very soon. I’ve made no secret of my belief that he’s a danger to us all. After 30 years in uniform defending America I feel I had a right to speak harshly and with vigor against someone I see as one of those ‘enemies foreign and domestic’ I swore a solemn oath to fight against. Nevertheless, I apologize for my often acidic commentary about him. It was not about you my friends, family, or acquaintances; it was about him, our modern ‘Master of the House’ from Les Miserables:

‘Master of the house, doling out the charm
Ready with a handshake and an open palm…’

No, my contempt for this carnival barker comes from my emotional and heartfelt despair at witnessing the depths of negativity and prejudice the last four years has revealed, depravity elicited by the man I mention, but refuse to name. His tan is fake, and his tie is longer than his attention span, if that helps.

But I’m grateful to him as well. Why? For all his faults and shortcomings, and they are manifold, he mirrors what needs to be fixed in our society: The corrosive greed that lies just under the surface; our impulse to disparage one another, made simpler by social media; the ease with which we massage the truth, or simply lie to one another; our national tendency to bully other countries that disagree with us; our worship of profit over humanity, ignorance over scholarship, monetary gain over the sacred earth; our misguided view that compassion equals weakness, that military might equals greatness and right; that science and fact are not to be trusted; that those aspiring to inform us are instead the enemy. Our deeply embedded and socially corrosive assumption that caucasian equals correct.            

Perhaps our biggest debt of gratitude to this fake tanned man is for his revelations that our electoral and governing institutions are much weaker and more malleable than we once thought, that those sacred governing posts are indeed vulnerable to the whims and wiles of a would be dictator. These revelations are cause for alarm, but also gratitude, I believe. These times must be seized for the chance they offer to mend those systemic weaknesses, and to make our system stronger and better. And ironclad.

Thus my vision of an America we can once again be proud of. In no particular order, here’s an incomplete list of items to get us to the moon, and possibly back again.

  • A new economic model that demands sustainability over depletion, preservation over extraction; that values loyalty to employees over slavish devotion to shareholders; that provides a dignified living wage to all; that rewards innovation and wealth creation over hoarding and wealth accumulation; that sees current ratios of executive compensation Vs worker pay as obscene.
  • A society in which corporations pay for the externalities of their products, instead of passing those costs along to consumers, and damaging the environment in the process.
  • A society that uses renewable energy, leaves fossil fuels in the ground, and realizes many more jobs and a healthier, cleaner earth because of it.
  • A society that strives toward equitable financial treatment for all; that sees current wealth disparity as a recipe for national crisis; that dismantles longstanding zero sum practices in favor of those that recognize and valorize abundance.
  • A true health care system instead of a disease-care, medicine for profit model; the collective understanding that health care is a right for all, not a privilege for those who can afford it; that focuses on disease prevention instead of acute, immediate, expensive care and treatment; a system that abandons the reductionist model of medical care to embrace the holistic, humanitarian model.
  • A society in which homelessness, especially among children and veterans, is abhorrent; a society that sees hunger among its citizens as shameful; that shares its abundance, and knows the value of ‘enough’; a community that cares for the most vulnerable, and takes civic pride in doing so. A society in which the wealthy embrace the responsibility that accompanies their elevated position.
  • A society where men show their sons what compassion and affection mean by kissing them, hugging them, telling them they love them, and advocating for them fiercely, especially when those sons practice affections and courtesies themselves. A society in which boys learn that girls are equally precious human beings, and deserve every respect. A society where men teach their sons these things by their open, caring, gentle, considerate treatment of women. A society free of bullies.
  • A society that rewards its teachers lavishly, understanding that education is a crucial undertaking; that provides venues, materials, resources, time and training so everyone may achieve their aspired level in life.
  • A society in which women are heard and heeded, and in which they’re free to exercise full agency in their lives and with their bodies; in which all mechanisms used to silence women are forever discredited. A society that finally passes the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • A society in which citizens are free to live, and worship, and shop, and teach, and learn, and play without fear of gun violence.
  • A society that provides whatever measures are needed for mental health care and suicide prevention.
  • A society where ‘pro-life’ means what it says: that we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the lonely & imprisoned, avoid wars, stop killing animals for food; that finally understands there is no ‘planet B’, that unless we focus on climate change, and reverse greenhouse gas emissions, there’ll be no more life to be pro about. A society that realizes it’s not the earth in danger; it is human life and future generations that are in peril.
  • A society in which differences are celebrated, not punished; where ‘gay marriage’ is simply ‘marriage;’ where trans and other non-binary citizens live openly and safely.
  • A society that supports our troops fully and without question by sending them into harm’s way only as a last resort, and only when a direct threat to our country exists. A society that all of us support by serving, either in the military or in another role, and in which no one is exempt because of background, bone spurs, or bank account. A society in which taxes benefit schools, social programs, infrastructure, and soft power more than the military industrial complex and its endless fetish for new and more destructive weaponry.
  • A community that ends the need for abortion by providing birth control, sex education, accurate reproductive information, and access to health care and family planning for all; that underscores this commitment by recognizing every woman’s agency over her own body.
  • A society that refuses to accept one fatality from gun violence, much less 30,000 per year; that relegates assault weapons only to the military and peace officers where they rightly belong; that agrees on sensible, sane, enforceable gun legislation, registration, background checks, and adequate training for gun purchasers. A society that demands as much oversight for gun acquisition as for a driver’s permit.
  • A society in which candidates for office are elected by the number of citizen votes they receive, not on an electoral system that’s a relic of the 18th century, an obsolete system that’s hobbled our national elections ever since. A society that demands full disclosure of financial and tax records of every candidate as a condition of selection.
  • A society that doesn’t tolerate the influence of money in our legislative process; where corporate campaign contributions are limited and transparent; with publicly funded elections, and time-limited campaigning; where voting is mandatory, easy, transparent, fair, and efficient. A society that considers voter suppression criminal, with harsh legal penalties.
  • A society in which black families can send their children away each morning, fully expecting them to return safely each night; in which the police act as servants to all, not oppressors to any; in which Black Lives Matter becomes an unneeded, sad, and tragic marker of a distant past; in which taking a knee becomes, once again, a sign of reverence and devotion, instead of a cry for recognition that some of us cannot breathe.
  • A society in which the police are revered for the difficult job they do, in which these forces police their own ranks to weed out bigotry, corruption, and malfeasance.
  • A society in which public protest is understood as the right and the obligation it is, not portrayed as an inconvenience to those comfortably ensconced.
  • A society that worships at the altar of truth.
  • A society that adheres to the principles and tenets we claim*.

The best way to facilitate the above is, of course, through our votes. Here’s hoping the upcoming election sees a historic, monumental turnout at the polls, enough votes that the outcome cannot be doubted, or dismissed. I believe there are no non-voters; that we vote at the polls, or we vote by staying home. In either case, we make a choice. Thank you for reading, and please vote. The stakes are very high.

*The asterisk above refers to my personal belief that those ‘tenets’ we claim, the collective agreement that drives American society, namely our rugged and often damaging individualism, while an important descriptor of our national character, is at the same time part of the problem that’s brought us to this painful nexus in our history. Put simply, we consider ourselves a bunch of rugged, individualistic cowboys/cowgirls. The harsh limitations this national creed produces are manifest now in our response to the coronavirus, arguably the biggest crisis we’ve faced in our history.

An example: Recently I read a quote in response to requests for aid for the virus: “It’s not a job for government,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said. Whaaa? Yes, he really did say that. My question is, who’s job is it? The you’re on your own mentality explains a lot about why the U.S. has 230,000 (and counting) of citizens dead, many of whom should not be. In my next post I’ll scribble a bit about why I disagree so strongly with Governor Burgum, why I believe an alteration to our cowboy perspective is necessary, and another bullet list of solutions. Thank you again. Now VOTE!


Admit it: You talk to yourself, too. I’m not the only person on the planet who walks around chatting merrily when no one else is within earshot. Not the only guy sharing thoughts aloud with myself, solving ridiculously complex problems, having a long conversation with the lunatic in my attic, the squishy cortical computer housed inside my skull. Not a bad metaphor, when you think about it. We all need someone to talk to, and that nutcase inside our head case seems to start jabbering away at the drop of a ball cap anyway, which happens a lot. So what do we do? That’s right, we start answering. Out loud. Admit it.

Not a thing wrong with it. In this so called modern age we all need someone to talk to, someone who actually listens. Who better than the crazy aunt upstairs who seems to understand us best? And who responds right away! It’s one reason social media (which aren’t all that social in my opinion), why FaceBook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and TikTok and the rest are so damnably successful: They give us a chance to talk to others, to transfer the craziness inside our heads into halfway coherent words, and then sploosh them out into the universe! All this while offering the illusion that others are actually listening! Much better to swap stories with the one person in the universe who really gets you, and where you’re coming from.

So instead of being stuck blabbering to the one person we trust almost all the time–ourselves–except perhaps when we’re avoiding a recent gaffe, such as not replacing the damn toilet paper roll again, or buying off-brand yogurt instead of Yoplait, her favorite, we can chatter all day long in contented soliloquy, solving the world’s most complex and challenging issues, and cheering ourselves up for how clever we are.

Feel a bit self conscious while talking to yourself? Yeah, me too. Picture this: Sunday morning early, wife still abed, world outside reasonably silent, dog sprawled at your feet, and you’re chatting away about the latest idiocy by you know who, or the incredible deal you made yesterday swapping your old drill press for the neighbor’s chain saw, or the snarky musing that spills from your mouth about what you’d do to that dumb as a bag of hair son of a buck Ted Nugent given half a chance…when the wife’s voice comes at you from the kitchen. “Who are you talking to?”

It is to chill at that moment, is it not? “Just thinking out loud, dear. Didn’t realize you were up.” No need for embarrassment, really. She does it, too. We all engage in soliloquy. We do it to make sense of the crazy, twisted, and getting twisteder world we inhabit just now. That torrent of thoughts and emotions and problems and solutions cascades through our brain pans, forcing our mouth muscles to engage. We launch into asides and self-comforting orations automatically.

Indeed, the most famous soliloquy in the English Language came about because a young Danish prince reached a mental boiling point over the remarriage of his conniving, regicidal uncle to his seeming accomplice mum. He didn’t internalize his crisis of conscience, at least not in act 3, no. He talked to himself! “To be or not to be, that is the question,” Hamlet said, aloud, in a his famous aside. “Whether it be nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.” Nobler ‘in the mind,‘ Prince Hamlet said. But he spoke the words aloud. Hey, if Shakespeare can talk to himself, I say the rest of us can bloody well indulge.

Besides, if you’re chattering along, a soliloquy spilling from your cheeks like a Shakespearean sonnet, in concert with your crazy uncle upstairs, enjoy it! If the two of you are well on the way to solving the riddle of the next travel destination, or debating if there’s intelligent life on the third planet from the sun, or whether or not you got taken by your neighbor since the damn chain saw needs a whole new blade and they’re a hundred bucks, and while so engaged in soliloquy the neighbor himself stares at you from the nearby driveway, fuggetaboutit! He does it, too! Earlier that day, I’d wager, he was muttering to himself about what a chump you are!

Here’s a bit of comfort. It’s commonplace these days to see people walking around with BlueTooth buds in their ears, chittering away to themselves. Do you know there’s someone on the other end of that conversation? You do not. Do you trust that there is? Yes, you do. We used to think talking to oneself was a sign that the porch light was on, but no one was home. That the speaker was off her meds, or likely lived out of a grocery cart parked under a bridge. We’d look the other way, avoid eye contact, hoping the loony person meandered on, left us alone, and didn’t collar us to share their evidence. “I have evidence!”

Nowadays we think nothing of people muttering away, shaking their heads at some mystery voice (whether or not there’s evidence to be shared), enjoying a good laugh at whatever voice they’re hearing. Look for the earbuds, the modern if miniature hiding place so many of us retreat into.

So when the urge to soliloquize comes along, get the buds out, pop them in your ear canal, hide in your cocoon, and chat away, I say. Just pretend you’re deep in conversation with your broker, or your travel agent, or your kid’s school principal. Or maybe some crazy uncle who’s locked up in the attic, screaming to get out. Everyone does it. Thanks for reading.

Iowa Autumn, and Other Stuff


Hay? Straw?

As a city kid, I couldn’t tell the difference between hay and straw. I used the terms interchangeably. Until I moved to Iowa, when I was (gently) informed that hay is in fact an animal feed crop, and straw is residue, the leavings of that feed crop. So it’s possible, it seems, to obtain straw from hay, but not vice-versa. Good to know. I’m sure the cattle appreciate (and know) the difference.

Here’s a fun farm-ish fact: Had I been a soldier in the civil war, educated to the minimal degree, as most front-line troops were back then, I’d have been taught to march properly to the cadence of ‘hayfoot, strawfoot!, hayfoot, strawfoot!’ Attaching a sprig of each to a soldier’s right and left boot was instrumental in teaching him to march properly. True story. You can look it up.

Only in Iowa

So I backed the car out of the garage, and turned onto our public street, only to be stopped and delayed by a farmer filling a transport truck with his newly combined (that’s Kom-Bined) soybeans. And holding up traffic all the while. Which traffic waited, without complaint or irritation or use of the vehicle’s horn. Not that soybeans are grown with any dedication or frequency in heavily paved New York City, or Chicago, or LA, but try picturing this in Midtown, or on Wacker Drive, or on Rodeo just outside the Gucci emporium. Heavens! As I waited for the fellow’s soybeans to load, I seem to recall that my blood pressure remained reasonably steady, or perhaps even lowered a bit, and my smile muscle actually twitched. It was all very Grant Wood-ish.

Speaking of Screen Savers

Since leaving Medellin Colombia, and moving to Iowa City, one of the biggest changes we’ve noticed, aside from all the spoken English we hear, is the absence of ambient light at night. For the first time in years we see gazillions of stars, the moon is a real presence, and there is the occasional satellite silently crossing the black void. The air is a bit cleaner here than in Medellin as well, albeit a tad crisper. This will be our first cold winter experience in five years, but no one ever quite forgets Iowa City in January. It’s cold with a capital C. About that brass monkey…

Happy Birds Live Here

Is the birdhouse really smiling? I believe it is. This tiny if derelict avian habitation is proof that not everything broken must be repaired. That’s a comfort to us older citizens who often simply wish to be left alone with our well earned brokenness. Flying home to our patched up, sagging selves can be a cheerful if somewhat somber experience. I’m guessing the birds who inhabit this cheery if whopper-jawed little house don’t give a tit’s patoot about how it sags, it’s still their home-tweet-home.

Yes, Hay…Not Straw.

Iowans are not without a sense of whimsy. This ‘Toots-Hay Roll’ was at a farm products store we visited while searching for the perfect pumpkin. The hay (not straw) bales are organized in such a way that kiddos are encouraged to scamper around atop them.

This is actually similar to our experience in Colombia, in a way. Not the hay bales, of course, but the yawning disregard for liability and attorney involvement were one of the precious nińos to fall and hurt themselves. If that happened, no lawsuit would follow, just like in Colombia. A tumble would require a touch of TLC for the bruised up Iowa tyke, and then, avoiding litigation, back atop the bale they’d go.

I’m not sure who ‘Toots’ is, but I’d guess he/she approves.

Feeding the Chickens

The grandkids were masked up; the chickens were not. Which seems unfair, since the virus originated in poultry. The damned chickens should have to mask up, and social distance, (which they clearly are not, chickens being awfully plucking stupid, like certain supporters of…I won’t say his name). Chickens don’t bother sanitizing their ugly claws, and they’re constantly attuned to Fox News in order to feel safer, if more ignorant. Chickens live in squalor. They clabber over one another like a bunch of drunken rugby players, or beered up Delta Phi boys. Like certain people I’ve recently unfriended, chickens will happily eat whatever glop is tossed onto the ground for them. And we have to get tested before we’re allowed aboard The Beast at Six Flags? Does that seem fair to you? Me neither.

Looking for The Great Pumpkin

So another city kid question: If pumpkin seeds are all the same size and consistency, and weight etc., and if they require the same amount of whatever pumpkin seeds require, such nurturance as water/soil/sunlight/moonlight/attention/candles and Yanni music/you name it, then why do bigger pumpkins cost more than smaller ones? It’s pretty obvious I’ll never make it as a farmer, but still… Next you’ll tell me birds don’t come from bird seed.

Hear the Corn?

I’ve heard from several native born Iowans that living in Ottumwa, or Cedar Rapids, or Oskaloosa, or Keokuk*, or in any other cozy Iowa burg you can indeed, on a still, windless Iowa night hear the corn grow. Perhaps in my younger days, before the high decibel gods of aviation relieved me of my auditory capacities I may have heard it myself. No more. My days (and nights) of listening to plants stretching their leafy limbs in the fecund fields of Iowa or any other grain-infested state are over. I’ll take the Iowans’ word for it. If there’s a YouTube video demonstrating this curious nocturnal, agri-auditory condition I’m not aware of it.

*’Keokuk’ is the name of a Sauk indian chief. It means (roughly) ‘watchful fox’. It’s also one of those place names that signal ones tribal membership, or lack of it. It would appear to be pronounced ‘Kee-Oh-Kuck’. It is not. To native Iowans it’s pronounced ‘Kow-Kuck.’ Guess how I figured that out. Hey, I couldn’t tell hay from straw, remember?

**Keokuk (Kow-Kuck) Iowa is the boyhood home of aviation pioneer, Hollywood film producer, and all around weirdo inventor and stupidly rich guy Howard Hughes. Among the many things I credit to Mr. Hughes are the infamous, single-flight-ever Spruce Goose aircraft, also being a charter starter of TWA, Trans World Airlines, and of course his status as a benefactor of the proceeds of mens’ drooling over Jane Russell’s bodacious boobs.

But there’s also this: Howard Hughes was obsessed with hand washing and personal sanitation long before the rest of us caught on to this socially beneficial, and anti-viral practice. While the rest of us men were, I presume, preoccupied with Ms Russell’s frontal assets, Hughes was scrubbing his mitts, while sweating over his monetary assets. So a big shout-out to Iowa raised Howard Hughes today.

Even a city kid knows this: These are cows!

Thanks for reading. More later. VOTE!!!

Signs, signs, everywhere signs… Why I Love Iowa City.

For readers of a certain age, the headline (from the song ‘Signs’ by The Five Man Electrical Band), will take you back to 1971. Those lyrics will also rent space in your head all day, I’m guessing. You’re welcome.

This post is simply about Iowa City Iowa, and the reason I love this progressive little burg so much. Iowa City is a tiny blue spot in a sea (an ocean? An expanse? Which is bigger? I dunno.) a sea of red these days, which is why I love living here. The signs posted around town reinforce my attraction to it. In this little village of 70,000 hardy, left-leaning souls, I found my tribe, and that’s always a serendipitous occasion.

Years ago, when I lived in Iowa City the first time, I was invited to write a monthly column for the local newspaper, The Iowa City Press Citizen. In one of my pieces for the paper I discussed the leftie bent, and the politically correct default of folks living here, noting that even the newspaper’s initials were PC. In these parlous times, especially now with the political and coronaviral churn we’re witnessing, the signs and postings are proliferating. Everyone, it seems, regardless of stripe, sensibility, or preference, feels the need to announce their opinions. As I drove around taking these photographs recently, I noticed pretty quickly that many of the signs were hand made, and posted pretty much all over.

This sign speaks for itself, and also its owner’s/creator’s spot on the left-right continuum. On a ball cap the inscription would be MAS&S, I suppose. And the hat would be green. And recyclable. And union made. And knowing Iowa City as I do, the sign itself would have gone through a stringent vetting process for content, and size, and neighborhood acceptance, and environmental impact. And the paint would have to be child safe and eco friendly.

In Iowa City, wearing a mask really is a political statement. But then, in Iowa City choosing a parking spot, buying cat food, or choosing a brand of Kombucha is a political statement, so… One would think that the hyper-sensitive posture of Iowa Citians would become tiresome. The reason it appeals to me is that I’ve seen the alternative. I’ve seen what happens when consideration for others, and blindness to differences, and insensitivity to needs and desires and cultural considerations are dismissed and relegated to lower status. None of the seeming obsequiousness and PC culture here bothers me; what bothers me is the assumption of privilege for white, male, heterosexual, christian, wealthy people who own a boat. That offends me. I should mention that in my cruise around Iowa City I saw exactly one sign promoting he who shall not be named and his lap-dog Veep. That sign was planted close to the house. It was manufactured, likely in China, not hand made. It was ensconced among other right-leaning candidates’ signs. And in Iowa City, as further proof of my attachment to this accepting town, the sign was unmolested, however much I fantasized skipping the curb and crushing it with my car. Oh, the photo on the right above? That’s U of Iowa mascot Herkie the Hawk, en mask, of course.

Being hopelessly caucasian, I can’t speak for my black & brown neighbors, but from what I gather, Iowa City is a wonderfully accepting, diverse, anti-racist place where folks from around the world (literally, thanks to the University of Iowa) can thrive and feel wanted. As far as I can tell our black friends & neighbors can even leave their homes, drive their cars, sleep in their beds, and allow their children outside to play, and not expect mayhem or murder. Radical concept, I know.

Yard signs pop up like tulips in springtime, especially now. I included the gun safety sign because I see a lot of them here, and also because, this being Iowa, the well-armed center of heartland America gun culture, attaching these tiny stickers to ones vehicle is truly a political act here. I suspect these tiny black and white stickers are rarely spotted in, say, Ottumwa, or Spencer, or Waterloo.

Not much question about this leftie’s position!

Another reason I love Iowa City is that it’s a highly literate, well educated, amazingly urbane place in a sea of corn and soybeans. Home to the best writer’s school in the world, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, many well known and widely read authors have inhabited Iowa City. Authors such as Marvin Bell, Clark Blaise, TC Boyle, John Irving, Raymond Carver, Sandra Cisneros, Rita Dove, Andre Dubus, Gail Godwin, Jorie Graham, WP Kinsella, Flannery O’Connor, Ann Patchett, Jane Smiley, Mark Strand, and numerous others have studied and perfected their craft here. It would not be unusual to bump into Marilynne Robinson, or Chris Offutt, or Kent Haruf at Prairie Lights, the best bookstore in the known universe. (Even though Mr. Haruf is deceased, sad but true.)

Go Cubs!

I had to include this, yet another reason I love living in Iowa City. Here I’m surrounded by Cubs fans. There’s a smattering of Cardinals and White Sox fans, of course, and the odd Minnesota Twins insignia here and there, but the Cubbies and their Fly The W signs are dominant.

In closing, a picture that says it all this political season. There are a number of these signs posted around Iowa City. My fellow IC dwellers are not without a sense of humor.

Thanks for reading. Stay safe, mask up, and please, please, please VOTE! Thanks for reading.

Devonian Dreams

Devonian Fossil Gorge, Coralville Iowa

The picture above may look like a weedy, rock-strewn expanse that resembles a waste area laid bare and useless. But the interesting thing about this picture is that in June of 1993 the ground was several feet higher than pictured here, the soil and rock 17 feet thicker. Three months later, in September of ’93, it looked like it does here. The tan colored wall in the background is the spillway of central Iowa’s Coralville Dam, a retention dam built in 1958 by the Army Corps of Engineers to hold back the Coralville Reservoir, and to provide water to several cities below.

Today the pictured expanse of rock and grass is the Devonian Fossil Gorge, a veritable classroom for geologists, paleontologists, and also for those of us enduring a pandemic that looms as a potential natural catastrophe that threatens human life on earth.

The Devonian period stretched between 416 to 358 million years ago. It was named for Devon England, where rocks from that particular paleozoic era were first discovered and studied. Devonian rocks and fossils, and my afternoon at the gorge, are what brought me to write this mid-pandemic blog post. (I hope it’s mid-pandemic, we’ll see.)

Iowa’s monsoon summer of ’93 brought far more water into the Coralville Reservoir than the dam could contain. In late Spring, the spillway overflowed for the first time in the dam’s operational history. The water’s overflow rate at times exceeded 24,000 cubic feet per second. That’s 1.5 million pounds of water every second, and the deluge lasted for nearly a month. In its raging rush, the water scoured away seventeen feet of ground and rock below the spillway, opening the Devonian fossil bed buried beneath, exposing its diorama of ancient life after 358 million years.

The flood of ’93 removed 17 feet of earth & rock

When the ’93 flooding subsided, the fossil bed showed an ancient beach 350 million years after high tide. It was a snapshot of geologic history, a slice of ground embedded there fully 60 million years before dinosaurs roamed the earth. The flood of ’93 opened it to human view for the first time. It showed what scientists had long believed, that much of Iowa was once underwater, a tropical zone populated by trilobites, crinoids, and various other prehistoric sea beasties. It also proved the theory that Iowa was once situated below the earth’s equator. It would have been much warmer at that point, I can attest.

Iowa would be (roughly) at the ‘N’ in Laurentia

Iowa was once a tropical seascape

Pictured above, crinoid, brachiopod, and coral fossils are evidence of Iowa’s once warm, marine past. The buried Devonian treasure trove may have been the only good news from the great flood of ’93, but it was indeed a gift, in many ways. Geologists and paleontologists from the University of Iowa, and from several other schools, saw the exposed Devonian fossil bed as a research and pedagogical bonanza.

Favocites and corals

Long stem of a crinoid, ancient sea algae

So here’s my takeaway, and the reason behind this post. The coronavirus pandemic may not, at first glance, appear to be connected in any way with Devonian fossils, or tectonic movement, or ancient sea beasties that popped up near Devon England. But standing atop actual remains of actual creatures that actually lived, and breathed, and ate, and pooped, and reproduced 80 million years before the dinosaurs can engender a bit of reflection. These fossilized critters had little control over their environment…and neither do we. The difference is we do have some control, but we often ignore it, or use it badly.

As I took these pictures, I imagined the rainy summer of 1993. The flooding, the property damage, and the destruction caused by all that water and no place to put it was truly astonishing. The deluge was ascribed to so called 100 year flooding, the 50 inches of rain that fell on Iowa between April and August. But a portion of it was attributed to the Corps of Engineers’ creation of levees and dams, including the one in Coralville, humankind’s attempts to tame various rivers and bend them to our will and needs.

Likewise, the coronavirus has shown us what can and does happen when our interactions with nature ignore the fragile balance between us and the environment. I suspect that humankind will last another few Millenia, at most, probably less if Trump wins. Then, in that latter day far, far away, like the crinoids and brachiopods underneath my shoes as I walked the fossil gorge, we, too, will vanish, swept away by a powerful event likely of our own making. Maybe I’ve got too much time on my hands due to the pandemic, but that’s what I conjured at the fossil gorge, mankind’s fragility, and our hubristic nonchalance as extinction stares us down, and we stare back, dumbfounded, one could say fossilized in our lethargy to act.

It’s an amusing mind game picturing whatever sentient creatures follow us eons hence. This future being will no doubt sport a massive brain, with a highly evolved sense of sight, and hearing, and taste, and touch. This hyper-evolved creature will be much more aware, more intelligent, better able to project outcomes and perils, much more insightful in tending to its surroundings, a kind of Post-Anthropocene Jane Goodall, in other words.

I imagine ‘Jane’ poring over a weedy patch of ground, scanning fossils of humanoid bones from 100,000 years before, way back in 2020. She recognizes (from cranially stored texts and images) the items she sees: Remains of a so called ‘roadway’ complete with skid marks, the imprint of a discarded Domino’s pizza box, a fossilized iPhone 347, the carcass of an ancient laptop, (with error 404 intact), a well preserved Smart Car, a damaged but readable WalMart sign, an oddly granitized, tiny circular button that reads ‘MAGA’. ‘Maybe that’s what wiped them out,’ she muses.

‘Jane’ is aware of the pandemics that once ravaged humankind during the Anthropocene, various viral epidemics that, it’s alleged, wiped out the human race. She shakes her head, wondering what dangers her own species is overlooking? What peril in Jane’s natural environment must be treated with more dignity, more respect, she wonders? What barrier are we breaching, she thinks, that may eventually sweep us away to fossil beds and ancient texts? What elements in our surroundings have we lost touch with, and which may come to bite us in the tenderest of spots?

Here’s hoping Jane’s society is smarter than ours, and that by the time she posts her own blog a millenium hence, the creatures who replace us are more self aware, better caretakers of the earth, gentler with their resources and each other. Here’s hoping they understand—in their bones—that, just like us, they’re not separate from the fossils at their feet, but connected in ways no flood or virus can erase. Good luck, Jane. Here’s hoping. Thanks for reading. Comments welcome.