Besides Baby Monarchs, Another Milkweed Bonus


Under tree in back garden–got several plants from Indian Creek Nature Center Monarch adoption event this month, here is one of the plants

The main reason to plant milkweed, of course, is to aid the monarch butterfly. Habitat loss and the increasing scarcity of the plants that this pretty flyer depends on have left this creature vulnerable, so I plant milkweed.

And, although I have not seen a chrysalis in nature this summer yet (I see one in my kitchen from a caterpillar we adopted at a local nature center), I have seen butterflies and caterpillars this summer, so I’m hoping my plantings are helping.

Busy day on cone flowers in my back garden–swallowtail and monarch butterflies.

Beyond the helping hand to an insect species not even aware of my existence, there are other benefits, too. “Milkweed” refers to several plants, each with its own features. The swamp milkweed is a tall flower with pretty clusters of deep pink buds and flowers. The butterfly flower is a shorter, medium-height perennial with pretty orange blooms. Both have flowers that attract a variety of pollinators—bees and butterflies—so are both attractive on their own, and nice for the company that they keep.

And so, in recent years in summer plantings, I have slowly added to the number of both of those types of milkweed.

Bee on butterfly flower.
Swamp milkweed starting to bloom in back garden.
Butterfly flower in front garden in bloom, with visitor.
Among the blooms on a swamp milkweed plant in back garden–monarch caterpillar.

But I do have a special affection for their larger cousin, the “common” milkweed plant—a big-leafed, tall and interesting flower with unique blooms.

It produces clusters of pretty pink blossoms in a festive pompom. I’ve had the stuff growing for several years, and note that it is hard to get started but once growing, it quickly spreads via root. But it has taken a couple of years for my newly established common milkweed stands to bloom, and this is the first summer where I’ve been able to enjoy these blossoms in my own garden.

I have seen these flowers a lot in the past, of course—as a biker, I frequently encounter milkweed and have admired it’s blooms in ditches and prairie clusters before.

One reason I like this plant is that the plant itself is interesting—its big leaves and tall stalks are distinctive. It’s a great plant to have in fall, when it browns and its seed husks form—it’s the tall dandelion fluff plant of an Iowa autumn.

July 20–Drinker on bloom of common milkweed in front garden.

It is a plant to be a little careful with, in your garden. Its milky sap, or so I’ve read, is potentially irritating, particularly to eyes. I’ve never suffered any ill effects and I’ve handled milkweed a lot, although I try to be careful when I remove leaves to feed an indoor caterpillar. I try not to touch the sap, I remember not to rub my eyes and I do wash my hands afterwards.

This year, in the first stand of milkweed I managed to establish in my front garden, I noticed an unexpected bonus. As I said, this is the first summer common milkweed has bloomed in my own gardens, and I did not know before that it has an uncommonly pleasant smell.

Because its scent is subtle, and I’ve been in big outdoor places when I’ve encountered the blooms in the wild, I had never caught the scent before. Common milkweed flowers make a sweet, pleasant fragrance. I am not sure how to describe it—our language does not have a great smell vocabulary. It’s a soft smell, like a rose, rather than a “heavy” scent like lilac or crab apple. It’s not strongly perfumy, but you think flowers when you catch it. It’s sweet, and unlike the showy, aggressive plant it comes from, it sneaks up on you.

If you manage to get some common milkweed going in your own gardens, your nose may be in for a pleasant surprise! All the more reason to continue planting this attractive, native flower.

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Enjoying 5 Summer Bad-Ass Garden Flowers


Cone flower in July.

What are your favorite summer flowers? I like many of them. A sunflower unexpectedly has popped up, from seeds a grandson brought over and that we halfheartedly planted. Morning glories are growing like wildfire, and although they have not yet bloomed, I think this will be the year that they do.

Well, both of those are annuals, which can be cute, but I tend to favor perennial flowers. And some of them can be, well, a bit aggressive. I can respect that, the tough, take-no-prisoners, I-own-this-ground bad ass attitudes of certain perennials, which you plant at your own risk, because you will spend years battling the spread of these spreaders.

Still, I planted them, I like them and I’m happy to see them this summer. What are the bad-ass perennial stars of my July gardens?

Here they are five of them, in no particular order:

Tiger lily glows in summer sun.

Tiger lilies. I think day lilies in general have an odd name—I know that the name refers to the idea that each flower lasts only a day or so, but each day lily plant has many bulbs, and this class of flowers, in general, blooms for a fairly extended season. Of all the day lilies, the most vigorous in my corner of Iowa isn’t any fancy hybrid or version of something common to buy in a store like “stella de oro,” but the common Iowa ditch lily. Although some Asian lilies share the same name, in Iowa these aggressive day lilies are known as tiger lilies. And they are tigers. You have to be ruthless with them and cut some out now and then because the will conquer your garden, but with their tall, pretty orange flaming flowers, they are still worth planting.

Bees on cone flower.

Cone flowers. I don’t have any of the more subtle yellow native Iowa ones, and hope to add those, too. These are purple cone flowers. I have tried planting various other styles and colors, and purple seems to rule. The large flowers become prickly seed heads that I tend to leave because I like them in winter—but they are full of seeds and they spread like crazy. Like tiger lilies, cone flowers, when established, spread quickly on their own. But they are pretty, attract lots of pollinators and are tough plants that can handle dry Iowa summer.

Swallowtail butterfly seen on common milkweed (seen while on bike ride, not in my garden).

Common milkweed. I have planted butterfly flowers and swamp milkweed, and I like them both, which are arguably both prettier than common milkweed. Common milkweed, however, is something special. It not only produces copious seeds, but spreads underground via roots, something the other milkweed varieties don’t do. In my experience, common milkweed is the hardest to get going—it doesn’t germinate easily, you have to plant in it fall so the seeds can overwinter, and it only grows where it really likes the environment. But if starts to grow, it doesn’t stop. It is aggressive and hardy and easy to admire.

Hosta in bloom.

Hostas. A plant related to day lilies, but way more fond of shade, these plants tend to be grown more for foliage than flowers, although I do like their pretty little flowers, too. I know many gardeners get miserable fighting the spread of these flowers, but I like them. They do burn up and fade if it their spot gets too sunny, but are kings of the shade. And, personally, I have planted a lot of these, and although they can take over a garden, I just let them and enjoy.

Buds on trumpet vine.

Trumpet Vine. Most aggressive of all of these plants which all try to spread, plant this climbing vine only if you’re ready to engage in battle with it in future years. Via both root and seed, this native plant is ready to take control. I planted one vine a few years ago in the east end of my garden, and I am constantly having to pull these vines as they try to spread beyond where I want them. But it’s a pretty flowers and if you don’t mind the future fight, I say go ahead and plant it. Just realize that if one survives, it will be dozens in a few years, and in other areas of the garden, you’ll be constantly cutting back and pulling this pretty, but bad-ass aggressive, native flower.

In my gardens, July is the month where most of these are in bloom. Common milkweed has already bloomed, but is putting out buds for future blooms. Many hostas have already bloomed and faded, but there are some still going strong. Mid-summer is Tiger Lily season, and these tall, proud, sassy Iowa flowers are going full throttle right now. My trumpet vine is a little late—with a new fence project, the original monster vine was cut way back, but it sprouted new growth (of course) and that growth is covered with flower buds (of course), and it won’t be long until the trumpets are blaring in their orange beauty in my summer gardens.

There you have it, five of the meanest, sassiest, nastiest summers flowers that I love and plant and am enjoying in my Iowa gardens. What are your favorite July flowers?

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Seeing Past Seeds and Future Flowers


Flag Day was this month and the Fourth of July is coming. Yay, America. I hope your democracy, in a bit of danger these days, manages to survive.
June 2021—People are living their normal lives as if the pandemic was history. It’s not. Delta is on the rise, cases are starting to increase in Iowa, the number vaccinated has stalled—all the good scientific work that went into quickly creating the tools that could end the spread of this disease are in a deadly race with a mindless virus that constantly changes as it replicates—and we silly humans are serving up too many petri dishes for the virus to reformat itself in. I thought aobut writing another “how I survived the pandemic” post in which I explore how I have not survived the pandemic yet. I decided not to. Yet, the pandemic is on my mind. I recently flew to Massachusetts. I have a son who moved to Des Moines in June, and I was going there to help him drive the family car back to Iowa—as well as to escort the family dog. One minor bright note: The Wolf Dog apparently can be picky which his human relationships, and he in particular is typically not wild about men who are strangers. Nonetheless, the dog and I somehow hit it off right away. We are both overweight lazy creatures with arthritis, so maybe there was an old bro kinship going on. Most likely, I was not as alien as other men—my son is half me, and he is the dog’s best male friend and was very comfortable around me, something the dog may have sensed. Whatever. It was a good trip, with long conversations. I don’t know if I converted my youngest son into a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan, but I tried. The trip was interesting, partly due to the very mixed masking picture. I’ll concede that I’ve started sometime shopping without a mask—I am fully vaccinated and the CDC says it’s OK. But a part of me wonders. The more urban an area is, the more masks you see. The rural parts of New York and Ohio we passed through are as if there never was a pandemic. Oddly, Indiana was more masked—hardly a deeply democratic stronghold. Maybe Hoosiers hold on to this life with a bit more caution.
Hollyhock at my youngest son’s new house in Des Moines.
Another Des Moines flower, I like the tri-color effect.
Anyway, for now I will move on. Maybe things will get better. In the meantime, what did June bring in the gardens? Summers flowers, summer heat and summer rains, in an unexpected order. The month began with weeks of dry, hot weather. Iowa is partly in a drought, and we felt it in the first half of June.
Cedar Lake on a warm June day in 2021. Update…used my own random posted images from June. In previous post, this was correctly identified as Prairie Park Fishery.
The second half of June was dramatically different. Rains suddenly appeared—June is usually the wettest month in Iowa, and the dry weeks were disconcerting. Honestly, even with some flash floods in the area in the past week, we’re still on the dry side for the month overall, and parts of the breadbasket of the world are still a bit arid.
Rainbow, second half of June, pretty and good to see. I’ll take the rain, please.
But the gardens have, for the most part, been pretty happy. The morning glories on the back arbors are going crazy—and I may finally see some blooms from this annual that I plant every year and never see results from. There were several flowers that bloomed this year that took more than one year to get to that point. In particularly, various kinds of milkweed are spreading—and the common milkweed in front of the house bloomed for the first time this year.
Monarch drinking form milkweed that bloomed for the first time this year.
The new trees all seem to be doing well. I trimmed some of the old ones and staked up several that were leaning due to the dercho. We’ll see how it goes. All in all, I’m happy with the flowers of summer. Not so happy with the odd weather this summer, which seems a sign of things to come as this globe warms up.
Young hawk on front lawn of Mount Mercy University, new life in June.
But lets savor, on this first day of July, that at least Iowa provided a lot of beauty in June. Past plantings from previous years are looking good in 2021. New trees are growing to replace the storm losses. There is plenty to be concerned about—Delta and global warming and an ex-president who can’t handle the truth—but there are signs, of hope, too. Maybe that’s the best of June.

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With Sudden Hot Summer, Baby Cat Arrives


Prairie Park Fishery seen on a hike this week–summer is suddenly here. Today there weren’t any clouds. A dry week, little rain in the 10-day forecast.

We’re on the edge of a drought here in eastern Iowa, with hot days and little chance of rain in the forecast. June is normally the wettest month here, and so far, it’s looking pretty dry.

And hot. It got to the 90s today, and despite the lack of rain, was also humid—ah, the Iowa summer one-two punch, hot days where the wet air feels used, like it was just exhaled by an angry hippo.

Well, we’re merely dry, at this point. Maybe the summer pattern will shift and some of that humidity that makes the days so miserable will form clouds and rain and wet the arid ground.

The gardening news is good, at least. Two trees look like they are busy dying from indirect derecho damage—a willow and a ginkgo tree badly chewed by deer this winter and don’t appear to have made it. But the three new trees supplied by the county are all doing well—one oak faded for a time, but after watering has come back and looks good.

And we have some new irises blooming, which I am happy to see.

New iris in front.

Lots of weeds in the back garden—I’ve been busy with family things and have not adequately weeded. With the giant maple gone, what was mostly a shady garden is now filled with sunshine, and perhaps all the wild seeds are taking advantage.

Still, there is a lot to like in the outdoors. Clover planted last year has come on strong. New clover planted this spring is also looking good, but not blooming yet. It appears our yard is more clover than grass friendly, as the backyard, in particular, has never looked so lush and green.

I was a bit taken aback this spring, because many plants came on strong, which is nice, but not milkweed. So, I asked Mr. Google, and the internet reminded me that milkweed is notoriously late, one of the last perennials to emerge. By the last part of May, what had been AWOL was suddenly showing itself—and once milkweed started, it suddenly came on strong. I don’t think I lost any of the butterfly flower varieties, the swamp milkweed in the side garden suddenly began to push past the lilies that are crowding it, and common milkweed is uncommonly aggressive.

Common Iowa milkweed spreads by root underground—my brother-in-law said it migrated in his gardens, and it certainly has spread a bit in my gardens this year.

And today, I felt some sense of fulfillment. My wife and I bought 4 perennial plants Friday, and I put them in—a shasta daisy because we have some on one side of the birch tree in front, and I’m trying to balance that garden a bit, two new butterfly flowers to add by the mailbox (I plant some milkweed every year), and an iris—with the back garden being sunnier, I am trying some there.

Planting is nice, but that’s not what felt so fulfilling.

I noticed it, and pointed it out to a 5-year-old grandson, whose reaction was just right. He had to run into the house and shout for grandma to come and see it!

A baby monarch, there on a leaf of a milkweed plant. I have not seen lots of butterflies yet this summer, but clearly they are around.

On milkweed in front garden, baby seen today, June 5, 2021.

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Trio from Class of 2021 Face Unknown


Shadows on Mount Mercy Campus, March 1, 2021. It seems a long time ago today on a damp, warm late summer May day. Time marches on.

May 16 was graduation day at Mount Mercy University. It’s part of the normal rhythm of university life—students, we hope, will move beyond their college experience and live a fulfilling post-graduation life.

It doesn’t always work that way—there are too many variables in personality, skills, luck, connections—but life never comes with certain guarantees. Yet, over the years I’ve seen MMU graduates do amazing things. I hope that the lessons students learn on The Hill prove useful to them. And college isn’t just about jobs or career—it’s a step to being an educated person, a better citizen, a more complete human.

As a professor, I’m neither the success guru nor the happiness fairy—and frankly, I have lived long enough and seen enough to believe that even if success is earned, it’s also capricious and sometimes elusive to the deserving and easy for the wrong people. We can gird our loins and dress for battle—make plans and prepare for the future—and yes, success does usually come to those who work hard for it. But as they say, in battle it’s not the bullet with your name on it you fear the most—it’s the one that says “to whom it may concern.”

Both good and bad fortune await—unforeseen circumstances, unexpected calls early on a random Tuesday morning, partings and losses or unexpected windfalls.

In this life, it does make sense to gain what knowledge and skills you can, to discern a path and to work diligently along that road to the destination you want. Yet it’s also true that the uprooting of a long-planted tree is only a derecho away. None can see all fates, least of all their own.

I think the wisdom of the wizard is useful to invoke. In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” when Frodo says that he wishes that Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance, Gandalf replies: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. … Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Sure, I think success awaits most of those who work for it, and I hope all of our graduates have learned that lesson. But even the very wise cannot see all ends.

Anyway, while I am not an oracle and cannot foretell what lies ahead, there are three women in the class of 2021 that I worked with over time, who I will especially miss, and, I hope, will achieve great things. Not coincidentally, all three were active on the campus newspaper at Mount Mercy University, so they’ve heard countless hours of Joe as DJ playing Tom Petty or Taylor Swift or Tessa Violet, and yet they came back for more. They have dived into life in the deep end, and positioned themselves with loads of good karma, which is likely, knock on wood, to come back to them in many ways.

Let me briefly ruminate on the dynamic trio of Courtney Hoffman, Veronica Jons and Caroline Groesbeck.

Caroline Groesbeck during a newspaper meeting in the Times office in 2019.

Caroline left the newspaper staff in her final year, as she took on a full-time writing gig in the marketing office of the university. She finished her final year as a full-time professional employee and simultaneously as a student—in a pandemic year, no less.

Thus, I haven’t had the chance to be in contact with her as much in the past year but she is intelligent, funny and a good writer—a powerful combination that I hope will launch her into the kind of adult life she wants.

Veronica Jons in Times office in pre-COVID19 days.

Veronica was the head student editor of the Mount Mercy Times for two years in a row—a long haul for what is usually a one-year gig.

She is an iconoclastic straight-shooter. With Veronica, you’ll usually find out what she thinks—and the world needs sharp-elbowed intellects who have the courage to state what they believe. That’s Veronica.

Courtney Hoffman in the Times office. Listening to yet another Tessa Violet song?

Then there is Courtney. An only child, Courtney felt, to be honest, a little like a lost Sheller daughter. Maybe that’s because she took an early class from my wife as a freshman, and as a result, our conversations sometimes took on a familial air. Courtney most tolerated my musical tastes—her parents apparently educated her in classics like Tom Petty, so the sounds of the newsroom weren’t alien to her ears.

Do all three have bright futures? Yes, I say. 99 percent guaranteed.

It’s Tessa doing a cover rather than one of her own–but a song sung by Tessa for the class of 2021.

I guess this pandemic year still has me feeling like life’s path can be mysterious. Yet in my heart, I believe these three women will all do great things. They are poised to launch their post-college journey. I guess in Caroline’s case, she’s sort of leapfrogged into year two of her post-college journey one orbit of the nearest star sooner than is usual. Veronica has talked of law school. Courtney is trying to find a copy-editing role somewhere.

Good luck to them, although the way they work, they can subsist on a bit less luck than average—luck is partly, I’ll concede, a symptom of energy, attitude and persistence.

Courtney, Veronica and Caroline aren’t alone. There are Josh and Dennis and others leaving The Hill whom I will miss and whose future successes I anticipate.

Getting the ideal first job that you covet is nice, but honestly, knowing that the wise don’t see all ends and doing your best to both play and enjoy playing the unexpected hand that life will deal you is a key to any journey.

Congratulations class of 2021. You made it. It always feels a bit like the end of one life and the start of another, but I think in this year there is an even huger sense of relief in crossing that finish line.

The pandemic isn’t over yet, our hurting democracy is going to require attention and care if it is to be preserved, our polluted planet is undergoing an extinction event that must be reversed before we become the big dinos—it’s an uncertain and unsettled time. Success awaits many of you. Others will have a harder road. My hope is that most of you find the former experience rather than the later—but I hope the love of your fellow Mustangs will follow you and encourage you and help you deal with whatever twist, turns, bumps or viruses that may lie ahead.

God bless you and keep you. If your road is hard, so be it, go with hope and treat each day as a challenge you can meet—because the journey is the point. If, as I hope happens to most of you, the journey proves more fruitful because you win life’s lottery, be generous and share and don’t gloat.

“For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Annie Barkalow and Jada Veasey, who will lead the MMU Times in 2021-2022. The journey continues.

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On the Edge of Peonies and Clover


Watering fresh grass and clover in front yard. Buds on peony bushes by mailbox.

The veggies are in. My youngest daughter purchased a house last year, and in exchange for our help, is allowing Audrey and me to use part of her garden. We’ve (mostly Audrey) planted onions, radishes, peas, watermelon, pumpkins, rhubarb and tomatoes. Near a trellis, green bean seeds are in the soil; we are hoping to see them to climb.

It’s pretty ambitious for flower gardeners who have been chronically unable to feed ourselves from the growth of our own gardens. Almost a decade ago, we planted two apple trees. How many pies have we enjoyed from the sweet fruit of our own trees? Crickets.

We had rhubarb growing in back when we moved in, but it was fading as the shade in that area deepened. I moved the rhubarb to save it, and I have been buying rhubarb at farmers markets ever since.

So, we’ll see. The daughter’s yard is much sunnier than the Mirkwood dimness of my own yard, and maybe that difference will make a difference. This first year of farming is an experiment, and we’ll find out if anything comes of it.

In the meantime, there is some good news from Mirkwood. In front, in the city parking where the ash trees are now history, a nice stand of mixed clover and grass is starting to come up from seed we planted this spring. We planted the same mix in back, too, and honestly I don’t think the yard in back has ever looked so nice in the spring. I just wish Mother Nature would do some of the watering—a dry year would be fun for no gardener.

Dandelion fluff in front garden. Does this count as growing food?

The yard was getting a bit shaggy, and we were having some (vaccinated, at least the adults) family over for Mother’s Day, so I mowed. I felt a bit guilty doing it—clover planted last year had sent up a few flower buds, which I mowed off. I hope to see some clover flowers this year. It will make the yard more beautiful and interesting and dangerous—sort of like Galadriel. Not sure why my mind is bouncing from spring in Iowa to Middle Earth but it is.

Early peonies have bloomed in front and are budding in back. When the traditional ones flower, we will have a few new peony blooms this spring—some of the new plants put in last year have their first buds. Tulips and daffodils are still in bloom, but getting past their prime. Crab apples have mostly bloomed and gone. Red buds are in full flower but getting past their best. The dwarf lilacs that bloom later than the standard ones are just coming on.

The warmer, greener (rain willing) prelude of summer phase of spring is arriving. It’s a great time to be gardener in Iowa. On Mothers Day I gave my wife roses—on a bush that is now in the ground.

I hope your spring gardens are growing well, and may all of us attempting to also grow some food see some positive results. It is the season of hope in the gardens. And the time when the biggest trees are shaking off their winter slumber and shade is arriving—although Mirkwood, post-derecho, will be filled with more light this year.

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Memories of Mad Scientists and Martians


Don’t try these experiments at home …

When did the experiments begin and why?

And how did they go so terribly wrong?

It’s knowledge lost in the mist of time. Also lost in the mist of my vague imagination, which hasn’t always been all that good at filling in details.

Anyway, at one time Dr. Huckalalee was a scientist in California, doing some sort of experimental work. He coveted more knowledge and power than was safe for a human to handle, and eventually attempted to gain super powers by altering his body, which morphed into the form of a T-Rex.

Dr. Huckalalee, I presume.

When I was a boy in California (we moved there very shortly before my 4th birthday and moved to Iowa just before my 8th birthday), my sisters and I would play imaginative games. One was called “The Haunted House Hotel,” which involved the garage being a haunted mansion that unfortunate travelers would stop at, only to have some horrible fate befall them.

I am not the best with memory anyway, and I was very young, and I don’t recall the other family of kids who played the standard characters in that drama. But I do know that a character of my own invention, who had a separate story outside the game, would appear as a side character at the hotel.

Dr. Huckalalee, the mad scientist, lived in a castle in some vague “over there” location, where he imprisoned his enemies in the dungeon and carried on with his plans for world domination. For some reason, possibly related to the nature of his evil experiments, his castle glowed with an eerie light, visible for miles.

My family occasionally would go on “Sunday drives,” a pastime of the 1960s, or go on little outings to the zoo or, once, to Disneyland—and if we were on the highway at night, any spooky looking light on the horizon would, to me, be the distant glow of Huckalalee’s castle.

I don’t recall much more of the Huckalalee story, although I do recall a dispute with my sisters over the nature of the villain. I maintained that Huckalalee had been a good scientist who turned bad, while several of my sisters informed me that, in a fictional universe, no character could start out good and become bad. They all began either good or bad and stayed that way.

Profile of a mad scientist

Dr. Huckalalee’s saga wasn’t the only fictional universe my California boyhood included. There were also the Boobelizers. Boobelizers were Martians who invaded Earth and naturally ended up in violent conflict with humans. Fortunately, like a Star Wars Death Star, Boobelizers had a fatal flaw—they were each equipped with a “presser-button,” and if one were fighting a Boobelizer and pressed the Boobelizer’s presser-button, the Martian invader would immediately disassemble. Come to think of it, Boobelizers existed at least a decade prior to Star Wars. Should I sue George Lucas?

Both Huckalalee and Boobelizers were partly related to the toys I spent my time playing with. We had several sets of plastic dinosaur figures, so a Dr. Huckalalee action figure was readily available. I also played a fair amount with wooden blocks, and Boobelizers existed on our planet as slightly unstable stacks of blocks that would fall down if a block—or presser button—were pushed. I think the whole point of making Booblelizers as tall and shaky as possible was the satisfaction of using the presser-button. One of my sisters even wrote a Boobelizer song to the tune of “Stars and Stripes Forever”:

“Be kind to your presser-button friend,

For the Boobelizer may be somebody’s mother

He lives on a planet called Mars

Where the Weather is Dry and Cold”

Part of a Boobelizer after the presser-button has been pressed. Oh, the horror!

I was reminded of Dr. Huckalalee when one of my daughters circulated to a family group an image of her 5-year-old son, pretending to be a mad scientist. He had a sidekick that was a dragon toy, and I replied to her image on WhatsApp to ask if it were Huckalalee—but it turns out my children didn’t know about Dr. Huckalalee. One son and one daughter asked on WhatsApp who or what “Huckalee” was, and I had to gently and fatherly guide them.

It’s Huckalalee, pronounced Huck-AH-Lay-Lee, and don’t forget the middle “lay” or the mad doctor would toss you into his dungeon.

The next generation of dangerous science.

The whole exchange must have put my children into a nostalgic mood, because they started trading messages about the songs that I would sing to them, either when bathing them or when we camped in the backyard. They were usually songs form the 1960s, with an oldie from the 1950s included for spice, plus at least one song from my teen years in the 1970s.

They weren’t necessarily my favorite songs—but basically represented songs of such simple tune and memorable lyrics that I could repeat them. It was a pattern I think I got from my own dad, who sang us some tunes of the 1930s and 1940s, with a few older songs included. I still vaguely recall “Little Lambs Eat Ivy,” and “Three Little Fishies,” although I’m not clear those are the real song titles.

Anyway, one of my kids created a Spotify playlist of “dad songs,” although it was slightly inaccurate because it contained some versions of those songs that weren’t the ones I had running through my mind. It has The Clash, a band I liked, singing “I Fought the Law,” which they did release in 1977—but it was a cover of a 1966 song by the Bobby Fuller Four, and the one ingrained in my brain was the original from 1966.

Anyway, here are the actual “dad” versions of some of the “dad” songs my children recalled:

“I Fought the Law” by the Bobby Fuller Four:

“Love Potion Number Nine” by the Searchers:

“Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town” by Kenny Rogers:

“The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton:

“Kentucky Rain” by Elvis Presley:

“Poke Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White:

“MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris:

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot:

There were other songs that I inflicted on my kids—“Erie Canal” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” for example. Even “Bicycle Built for Two,” which I think was one that was embedded in my neurons by my dad.

It’s funny how some songs get stuck in your head, some of them becoming so familiar that, over time, you ingrain them into your own children’s heads, too. It’s almost eerie. Maybe the result of some bad science—an experiment gone wrong.

Paging Dr. Huckalalee …

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Surviving the Pandemic Part 3: The Mad Scramble for Needles


Me last week, 8 days ago. I got my first shot.

COVID-19—here we are in 2021, and maybe, just maybe, you’re losing your grip.

Sadly, that’s not a sure thing. While companies are scrambling to sell shots and rich countries like the United States are buying and distributing vaccines, it’s important to note several unpleasant realities.

For one, no vaccine is 100 percent. Any large-scale vaccination will cause bad reactions in a minority of people, and no vaccine provides total safety. And we don’t yet know if COVID-19 shots prevent the spread so much as they protect the person getting them from the most negative impacts of the disease that this bat virus causes.

No, I’m not an anti-vaxer. Getting shot is one thing you can do that provides you the best protection available—and that is a positive good you can do for your community. Even if the jury is out on vaccinated person’s spreading the disease, it’s pretty clear that a vaccinated population is way more protected as a group than an un-vaccinated population.

So high on my list of ways I’m planning to survive the pandemic was that I needed a shot. Along with billions of others.

And I live in a place where vaccines are available, but there is no rational distribution system. I’ve read all kind of tips stories in the paper on how to find a shot once you’re eligible. I’ve been seeing friends on Facebook begging for tips. The stories involve bookmarking multiple site, getting up early to hit refresh often, and then being lucky. It’s a high-stakes slot machine that fortunately doesn’t ask for any money to play, but where death is also one of the jackpots.

My wife got an early shot, but that’s because she’s a nursing professor who had signed up to help give shots at a local free health clinic.

And I was left on the sidelines, playing internet slot machine as time allowed (it did not allow much) as I waited, hoping to get lucky.

Suddenly, I did. I didn’t have classes last week, and in the back of my mind was the thought that a vaccine would be really neat to get on this week—start building my immunity before students returned from all over, bringing viruses back to campus like the worst spring break souvenirs.

Over the weekend before break, I saw an announcement that a local hospital would open a few appointments on Monday. I logged on to the computer before noon on Monday, the appointed H hour. And the hospital web site posted an update—appointments coming around 3.

So, I checked again, and sure enough, mid-afternoon, some appointments suddenly popped up. They were for the week after break, but I didn’t’ care, I picked one and filled in the blanks, only to arrive at the end to find that it had evaporated—a mirage. Somewhere in pandemic paradise, another Iowan had quicker fingers. So, I tried again. And again. And again. And again. My wife, already shot, was trying on my behalf. We lost count, but somewhere in the double digits, the well of appointments suddenly ran dry.

Back to cyberstalking HyVee Drug Store and following an appointment tracking account on Twitter. Playing online COVID shot roulette and feeling like a loser.

My wife went to work at the clinic and, while there, called me to suggest that I try to call for an appointment. I did.

The way the system there works, you call them between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. and give them your information. They will call you when they set a shot appointment. It was another baited hook in the luck lake of trying to get a vaccine.

I wasn’t optimistic. But the next day my phone rang, and it wasn’t Social Security trying to reach me with a robo voice (it hasn’t worked yet, Social Security) nor a call to ask if I was the owner of “the vehicle” or “the computer.” I own both, robo caller, but I won’t talk to you. Magically, I actually answered my phone, and even more magically, the sweet caller had an appointment for me.

It would be on Tuesday after break, which meant rearranging a meeting—but hey, I was ready to do anything to get a poke in the arm.

When my wife left the house Thursday to go volunteer, I was feeling OK. Buried under break work that I had neglected all week, but OK. And my phone rang once again. This time my wife’s name popped up, so I wasn’t going to ignore that call.

“Are you home?” she asked. “Can you get down here in 20 minutes?”

Because if the answer was “yes,” the clinic had a spare shot that I could be given.

Hell yes.

So, unexpectedly, I ended up winning the COVID-19 crapshoot. And it left me with a massively mixed set of feelings. Joyous. Grateful. Seething with white hot anger. I deeply resented the posts from friends begging for help. No, I didn’t resent the friends—I don’t blame them at all. But what a crazy, awful, haphazard, irrational, unfair and odd system we have.

I was in a tier to get my shot, so I didn’t’ cheat, but somehow it felt like I budged in line. And yet I didn’t budge because there is no line, no rational scheduling system, nothing simple, nothing consistent that works for the bulk of the people. Getting the shot depends on both some tech savvy that shouldn’t be a criterion at all, simple luck and having a spouse in healthcare.

Well, hooray. Hallelujah. Bah. Humbug.

We have reached more than 100 million shots in old Joe’s first 100 days and mine was one of the 100 million. I’m not out of the woods yet—I’ve only had one of two shots, which means I’m still vulnerable, although honestly not as exposed to risk as I was before March 18 (my COVID-19 born again shot date). I’m still waiting for the call that says they have set my second shot, which should come in mid-April.

It got me to thinking what this experience, this pandemic, has added up to and not added up to. There are all kinds of lessons here, many of which I’m afraid many of us are resistant to.

For one thing, as a country, the United States was awful. You can blame Trump if you want to, and I blame him, too. Our national leadership was idiodic, which is largely why Donald is fuming and fussing in Florida and finally was forced to exit the White House.

Yet it’s fair to ask, why Trump? Where did orange Mussolini come from, why is he still so popular and why are so many still willing to follow the Trump-o-verse lead in downplaying the pandemic, resisting mask wearing and expressing vaccine reluctance? Lesson one is that we can’t expect to overcome poor leadership in times of trial, and even in a deeply red state, blue voters cannot afford to be complacent. The ongoing battle against COVID denial, like the dude, abides.

Another lesson is how fragile the constraints of civility are. The “China Virus?” The “Kung Flu?” How do we so quickly reach for crass, racist and evil terms that help create violence that solves nothing and helps no one? The great sin of racism is that it discounts the value of humans who don’t deserve to be discounted—our species is not all that old nor even all that diverse and race is a cultural construct, anyway. Both morally and biologically there is only one kind of person on this planet. And if there were a subspecies of hominid still with us, why would we think Neanderthals or whatever wouldn’t also deserve respect and human rights?

As people, we are way too tribal. The pandemic revealed us for what we are, and the picture is not all that pretty.

This thing is not over. Even if I don’t get sick before my second shot kicks in, this virus lurks everywhere and is constantly changing. One round of vaccination can knock it down but won’t knock it out—and none of us are safe anywhere until shots are widespread everywhere. This global pandemic won’t be terminated unless the pool of infected individuals is reduced on a planetary basis.

I suffer, I think, a bit of survivor’s guilt even if I have not yet survived. I’m feeling more and more that the odds are in my favor, but I don’t know that they should be. What about all those people who can’t play cyber COVID roulette, or who don’t have family who can call when the clinic they volunteer at has one spare shot? What about all those Canadians, Mexicans, Tanzanians, etc., who also deserve shots?

What about all those flat-Earth anti vaxers whose insanity threatens the herd immunity of our species?

And what about all of us? Hank Green posted what I thought was an important commentary. Assuming the trends go well and we may be getting to the other side—how will we emerge? What will we say to each other when the shots of March die down and the COVID-War concludes?

Somehow, a song from Buffy the Vampire Slayers seems relevant.

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Our Year of Living Dangerously


March 6–A bird takes flight in my backyard. Spring was warming up then.

In Iowa, March is for sure the transition month, and this one feels like the ups and downs provide actual and emotional roller coasters.

There is the literal whiplash that Mother Nature dealt us. The month in Iowa started with a deep, persistent snow pack, but in the first week, dry and relatively warm weather settled in, and the memory of winter slowly melted away as the first flowers emerged—blooming snowdrops, crocus. Plus, daffodils started to knife through the cool, softening soil. Some have formed buds as tulips are also showing early leaves.

But in Iowa, March is not a month that’s usually all spring. In some recent years, this month was basically a winter one, February II, and we’re blessed that in 2021 it has not been that way. Still, on the ides of March, winter has reasserted itself, with a sleety, icy snow again burying the land.

March 13–two days ago, clusters of flowers in back garden.
March 15–The same cluster of flowers today. Beware the ides!

The good news is that the return of winter will not last. We’re going to see some cool, cloudy weather ahead, but I don’t think the thin layer of white that coated our early flowers will last long.

In the larger world, I think we’re experiencing a similar sense of whiplash. It’s the anniversary of the pandemic. Spring break has arrived again. Last year, with the help of my oldest son, I fixed a St. Patrick’s Day feast during spring break in San Francisco—what a strange trip that was. We got to hold a baby grandson, but the tour of San Francisco was increasingly odd as everything shut down. We ate a meal in a restaurant days before they all were closed by COVID-19. We decided to cut the trip short as we were not certain along transportation would be available—March of 2020 had a weird, end-of-the-world feeling to it.

And the feeling wasn’t misplaced. For too many, this year became the end of the world. Death stalked the land. The novel virus that had jumped species and was infecting humans for the first time wasn’t just the flu, but something far more deadly and sinister.

Now, here we are, one orbit of the nearby star later. The pre-pandemic world is gone. According to figures from the WHO, close to 2.6 million souls are missing from the planet due to this coronavirus in that year. A disproportionately high number of those—about 530,000—are from the United States. There have been 120 million confirmed cases worldwide, with around 29 million of those in the land of the brave.

And also the land of stupid. The bitter truth is that the United States, a shining beacon of hope for much of its history, spent much of the past year showing the dark side of democracy—what happens when the will of the people is somehow distilled into a raving orange cloud of crazy.

That delusion is still with us. Our tangerine fascist farcical failure of a president is out of office but will not admit it—he still claims he won in a landslide, and his minions still keep faith with that dangerous fantasy.

I hope our democracy proves durable. We did, in the end, pick the other guy, but my state still voted for COVID denial, and is still run by the science-denying GOP—Gross Old Pinheads.

And I’m ashamed, red in the face that this state remains deeply red after a year of epic failure.

For some reason I cannot wrap my brain around, half a million deaths aren’t enough to suggest to too many people that maybe listening to science would have been a good idea. Yikes.

And yet. It is a new year. My wife has been vaccinated. Today, a hospital in my town briefly opened appointments for a tier that includes me. It set off a frustrating cyber scramble—pick an appointment, scramble to fill in the blanks, get to the end, find out the appointment has been taken; repeat. About a dozen times in 20 minutes until all the slots are gone.

Thus, no shot yet, for Joe. Still, I am eligible for one and will play cyber tag until I get one—what a crazy system although a system that will eventually lead to a vaccine, knock on wood, I hope before the virus finally catches me. Another sign of hope is that the number of poked arms overall keeps going up—the more people in general who are vaccinated, the slower this virus spreads, as long as Republican governors don’t prematurely end reasonable precautions. Say what?

So, in this suddenly cold, wintery day I will do my best to try to look in the bright side. Things are changing. May we evolve some intelligence before the virus evolves ways to circumvent our vaccines.

I can’t foresee the future, and right now I distrust the proposition that as a species we are capable of concerted, cooperative effort in the face of a common enemy—but perhaps we are.

The experiment continues. Results for the past year are poor. I hope we display some capacity to learn from that.

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The Stump Spring Will Bring Sunny Flowers


Tall Stump in backyard on March 2–remains of a giant maple.

The losses from the derecho storm last August aren’t all tallied yet. A crew has recently been passing through the stream bed behind our house, cutting down damaged trees in that public wooded area.

As I wrote about before on this blog, the city has removed a large ash tree in the parking in front of our house. It was one of two that were there—the other had been uprooted in the tempest.

This week, a crew we hired came to remove a giant maple from our backyard.

Half of that tree came down in the derecho storm. We knew the rest would have to be removed—too much of the main trunk had been severed, the remaining tree would not be, long-term, safe to leave standing.

Feb 27–Daffodils on bare ground between melting patches of snow–first signs of spring in back garden.

It was a bit weird, leaving for work Tuesday morning. I moved the car from the driveway and parked it up the street to get it out of the way, and I noticed several trucks with ladders parking in the neighborhood. I’m sure they were the tree crew, but I had removed my bicycle from the garage before they set up—I had class at 9 a.m. and needed to work in my office for a while before that.

The old, tall maple tree was there in the morning, and it was gone by the afternoon. It appears to have been the oldest tree in the yard, larger than the two ashes that the city removed. I’m not sure on that point—we have three huge oaks, too, and maples grow faster, so it’s possible the oaks may be older, if not larger, than the maple.

It was among the old guard of the yard, and half of those elder trees are now gone. In the yard, there is a tall stump, about 4 feet high. We decided not to have it ground—the big stump will remain as a feature of the yard. We may have a bench carved out of it or leave it as a table where we place some planters. We’re not sure yet.

When I got home Tuesday, the spring sap and sawdust made it too hard for me to clearly see the tree’s rings, but rain is going to fall next week—once nature cleans this stump off, I’ll try to count the years that this proud maple had stood.

My house was built in the 1960s. Was this tree planted then or was it standing when the house went up? I wonder.

For some reason, the loss of this maple tree didn’t hit me as hard as the cutting of the ash tree in front, despite the maple being older and larger and maples in general being cooler trees than ashes are. I think my emotions at trees coming down had been a bit spent already. And we still have three huge oaks, and a medium size maple of the same species of the tree that was removed (I think it could even be from a seed of the older tree because it’s a volunteer that had been too close to the house that I replanted some years ago).

Feb. 27–rode to campus to work for a while, it was a relatively warm, sunny Saturday afternoon. On snow between a dorm and the library, a lady bug was actually out patrolling, walking slowly across the melting snow.

And now my wife and I are making planting plans. The flower garden by the sun-room was always only medium sunny—it thus has some shade-tolerant flowers. We tried to plant nothing that needs full sunshine—but now the main shade is gone, we may try some more sun-friendly flowers this year.

What, I’m not sure, but I’m sure we will. And some young trees, a nearby catalpa, a ginkgo and a dogwood, now have additional grow room.

So here comes stump spring. A replanting spring. It will be decades before the city’s tree canopy looks anything like it did.

And I am so ready to dig and plant—new flowers, new trees. Sign me up. Winter is slowly turning to spring, daffodils are poking through the thawing dirt, the remaining snow is looking tired and dirty and my mind is turning to spring and summer gardens.

First week of March, flowers starting to come up in garden at Mount Mercy University.

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