Bye to a Tiny Bird’s Home and a Dino’s Throne

Feb. 18–After I arrive home, looking out my front window. The remains of an ash, plus the pile of branches (cross the street0 left by the crew that took it down.

What does a tree mean?

In a city that has lost so much of its tree canopy due to a devastating storm last August, that might be an odd question. And although the sight of a branchless trunk where once a mighty ash stood does startle me and leave me a bit melancholy, it was not a blow that was unexpected, and I am OK with the men wielding the axes (well, they probably used power tools, the “axe” here is symbolic) because they were doing the right thing.

I liked the two large ash trees that adorned the parking area between our sidewalk and the street for the 20 years we have lived here in Cedar Rapids. They were nice. Last August, the angry derecho winds uprooted one, but the second remained, planted on the line between my neighbor’s yard and mine, there between the ends of our driveways.

I’m a tree person, and I appreciate the beauty of an ash, although, to be honest, they also seem a bit bland. Give me an oak or walnut or tulip poplar—trees with character and grit and personality. Ashes—meh. Pretty. Not much else.

But, on the other hand, there was something about that remaining ash that had survived the winds of August. This particular ash tree was special to me.

A few years ago, I looked up to see a tiny hummingbird flitting about in that tree, and I wondered what it was doing in a tree that did not have any food for it. I grabbed my Nikon with a long lens on it and I made the bird’s image.

And when I looked at the image on my computer, the secret was revealed.

Too small for me to see well with my naked eye, there was a teensy nest in the crook of a branch way up there. A hummingbird’s nest. The hummingbird was hanging around its house on a fine summer day, as many of us do.

More recently, my wife and I were leaving the house for a summer stroll, when something caught our eye in the branches of that same ash. At first it looked like a small bit of trash, maybe a little paper bag that had blown there.

It was neither trash nor bag. It was a bat. Some people freak out about bats, but some people hate snakes, too, and I’m not some people. I like both bats and snakes and I thought it was just cool to see that night flyer resting in what was, for it, early dawn even as my wife and I were enjoying the cool of early night.

A hummingbird’s house, a bat’s resting spot, a perch for a cardinal who liked, now and then, to yell at the pale pink guy moving way down there in the dirt, a ridiculous hairless ape parading about on two legs without even any wings, not understanding that up here in the canopy is a proud scarlet theropod dinosaur alpha male, ancient and angry, distant cousin of the T-Rex and still with that regal ethos, staring down at an ugly mammalian upstart in disgust and chittering a critique of the universe.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to see cardinals. I just don’t consider them, as some do, as the souls of past love ones. Their beady black eyes seem to betray a bleaker worldview.

A view that was sometimes had from up there in this ash tree. This particular ash tree meant something.

Feb. 20–the remains of the ash.

I’m glad the city is taking it down—as a doomed tree, it needed to go before it got sicker and more pieces fell off of it. Yet I can still consider the pleasant memories that tree gave to me and thus regret its necessary departure.

Fortunately, even with many of the trees gone in my yard from the angry winds of August, many more still remain. The ash came down in winter, which is a blessing because hummingbirds aren’t nesting here now. Should that tiny migrant return and poke around at all, it will find many other trees on my property that it’s welcome to construct its tiny house on. The cardinals are still hanging around, and the testosterone-infected red one is still fixing me with its proud, judgmental royal gaze. Even the bats have lots of places left to hang like piece of windblown trash.

So goodbye, ash. I enjoyed your foliage and shade for the final two decades of your long life, and I regret that it ended.

Something will be planted in your place, although it will take years for it to grow into a hummingbird’s home. But let us plant trees for the next generation of hapless, wingless apes, and move on and hope.

In Texas, a winter storm has brought havoc. The violence of a warmed climate still tears at us in many ways—what a year that this has been, not just a new virus, but in January of last year there were fires in Australia and more recently in California. There was a derecho here in summer, and now a winter snowpack across most of this nation into the South where they aren’t used to it.

In the scheme of things, one ash, which was doomed, is a small loss.

Yet a loss nonetheless, and one worth noting.

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Assessing Spring as Arctic Air Looms

Sunset on the Cedar River, seen on a bike ride in January.

I know New Year’s was a month ago—today is the second day of February, but spring began so quickly I haven’t written much about the change.

Winter term bled into spring with no break, and I’ve been feeling a bit breathless with the pace of a sudden new term when I’m teaching, I think , 6 classes.

And I know it’s not looking like spring outside. In fact, next week we’re in for some day s of arctic chill—the high Sunday is forecast to be below zero. But the spring semester has started, and one thing that gives me hope is that the actual spring is not that far away. February is a cold month, but getting lighter and we’re sort of in the second half of winter now.

A plant catalog arrived this week. I’m not sure what I will plant this year, but I’m already teaching the term that starts in snow and ends in green. It’s cold and will get colder, but March and April and May are coming.

Geese fly in a sunset winter sky. From the same bike ride.

There is a lot of bad in the world.Our politics are still divided and dysfunctional. A deadly virus that some don’t believe in still stalks the land and steals lives. It remains to be seen whether the new variants or the vaccines will win this battle.

But, it’s nice to think of spring and warmer weather. We were told last year that warm weather would make things better like magic. It didn’t and it won’t, but things are changing.

May this February go down as the month where we started to turn the corner. By the time spring really is here and settles in, may the brighter sunshine be a sign of brighter times which all of us hope will be coming.

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Brendan’s Bernie Image Becomes Whimsical Gift to Cyberverse

Inauguration Day Jan. 20 either pissed you off or lifted your heart. We are a divided country and no doubt were divided in our emotions.

Well, I already wrote about the ceremony on my media blog. During it, a photographer for Agence France-Presse, Brendan Smialowski, made an image of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders sitting, legs crossed, wearing a coat and comfy mittens.

Because of social distancing, the old man who is so popular on the left was all alone—easy to isolate. And the mittens and crossed legs and intense look on his face proved irresistible. Photoshop made it easy to isolate the man, and google images made it easy to find new places to put him.

A photojournalist is reporting reality, so I’m sure it was a bit weird for that news photographers to see Bernie’s image take off. Here is a story about the image and the photographer.

But it was all in fun. These weren’t deep fakes. Nobody thought Bernie was in the Big Lebowski or at the recording of Sgt. Peppers. Most of the memes expressed the lighter side of the internet. I’m sure there are dark and nasty uses of the image, but the ones I’ve seen bring me a quick smile.

I found some of these memes on Facebook. Others I got from a website called ebaumsworld. I made and narrated a video of 20 of my favorites—the audio cuts off quickly, but I hope you enjoy them alone with me:

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2021! Welcome! Pardon Our Mess

Tate Cummins Park, Cedar Rapids. Watching geese at sunset during a late December bike ride.

What will I take away from 2020? It’s almost over. It’s been a hell of a ride, and it leaves me decidedly mixed in my feelings about myself and fellow humans.

On the one hand, science. Faced with a novel virus, one that has never infected our species before, scientists banded together and dropped other important work and focused. Although it existed in 2019, it was in 2020 that most of us first heard of the new coronavirus, and that thorny crown upended our lives like few events ever have—but here we are, a few shorth months later, and the decade-long process of developing vaccines for a newly identified viral infection has taken place at warp speed. There is something to be said for big brains and opposable thumbs.

On the other hand, what a mega storm of bullshit, delusion and dysfunction. Our Dear Leader repeated nonsense, alternated between pretending to lead and ignoring the crisis, and urged us to ingest bleach. As science learned more abut how this virus spreads, guidelines changed, and we were urged to socially distance, wear masks and flatten the curve. Did we hairless apes use the rational bits of our grey matter and rise above it, or did we spiral down in endless disagreements and selfish refusal to do simple things to protect each other? At years end, the curve ain’t flat, and half of our political infrastructure is wasting time in la la land refusing to see reality. 2020 was a case study in leadership—in New Zealand. Here in ’merica, we looked like Homo erectus was a mistake. My state voted for Trump. Because stupid.

Well, that’s the macro picture. What about the year in the life of Joe? 2020 was the year I struggled to learn a little Hungarian, a quest I have not given up. Our final trip was in March to San Francisco to see a new grandchild—a trip cut short as the country sort of entered an ineffective, patchy lock down. I learned to zoom and to grab a face mask on they way out the door. Just this month another grandchild entered the planet, and I don’t know when I’ll get to hold them—but I’ll stay away until it is safe for us both.

A lot didn’t happen in 2020. I traveled far less than I had planned, and watched YouTube reaction channels way more than I should have.

I missed the company of family, although WhatsApp video calls and a zoom Christmas party helped a bit.

No RAGBRAI, although one of my sisters and I did ride a local faux RAGBRAI. Fewer restaurant meals, but my waist has expanded and the usual resolution to take off those extra pounds devolved to a struggle to not gain 20 if I could only gain 10.

This was the year I made my first visit to an ER for myself (been there before to take others, but never had to be taken there myself before). Do not slice a tendon on your dominant hand’s index finger trying to open a can of beans, my friends. It makes typing your year-end blog post needlessly slow.

Number-one New Years vow? Try to survive until 2022—which is likely to happen, but if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that nothing is certain and you never know when a bat bug or derecho storm may quickly alter your agenda.

Sunset on Cedar River, same December bike ride.

All in all, I feel both lucky and guilty for feeling lucky at years end. Several family members experienced this new virus first hand, but so far, knock on wood, the family is intact. Well, good, but I can’t wrap my brain around the scope of loss that this virus has caused, and the pandemic is not over yet.

If you have lost a loved one in 2020, my heart goes out to you. If your job ended due to this pandemic, or you face loss of housing or struggle for food—well, I hope we, the larger, social we and smaller, local we, can help out and keep each other afloat. This pandemic will pass but that does not eliminate the pain while it rages.

And if we were smarter, this flood of tragedy would have been so much less of a tsunami. The virus is brainless and uncaring. Why, in 2020, were so many of us?

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Filed under Grandchildren, History, politics, Science

Father Tony Can Toss a Sandbag

January 2017, Father Tony Adawu speaks at a Martin Luther King Day event.

We have had good luck with chaplains at Mount Mercy University. A few years ago, it was Father Dustin Vu, who charmed students and faculty alike with his wisdom and humor.

After Father Vu moved on, we have had Father Tony Adawu, but not for much longer. He is headed back to Ghana, the country he is from, at the end of this month.

I’ll remember several things about Father Tony. I suppose he could be Father Adawu or Dr. Father Tony Adawu, because he has a terminal degree and teaches, too, but he was never that formal, and he will always be Father Tony to me. His sermons were thoughtful and thought provoking. When he saw me on campus, he was always generous with a smile and personal greeting. His laughter was never far away, and he seemed to appreciate my jokes, which are not very sophisticated and tend to puns.

And I will also recall how often I saw him at work. Not just as a priest, but pitching in, lending a hand at labor.

In 2016, Connor Mahan, a student editor at the “Mount Mercy Times,” was covering fall flooding in the city. Father Tony was working with a group of MMU volunteers (the flooding was serious enough that we missed some days of classes) at a city sandbagging station at Ellis Park. My wife and I were there, too, so I saw Connor making an image as Father Tony passed a sandbag to a student.

Father Tony featured on front page of MMU Times, a student paper I advise.

As is true of the best news images, this was not planned nor posed. Connor was recording what he as a photojournalist was witnessing.

And the MMU Times featured that image large on page one. That year, that front page was recognized as the best front page among Iowa college newspapers in the annual Iowa College Media Association contest. The news story that Conner co-wrote, along with Brooke Woolley, editor in chief, was the best news story of the year.

And the best news photo of the year in Iowa college papers according to ICMA? It showed Father Tony, passing that sandbag.

Two years later, under the leadership of Rachael Murtaugh, a rain garden was being planted beside our oldest campus building, Warde Hall. Students and faculty showed up to dig out the spot and put in plants. My department was well represented. English professors Dr. Joy Ochs and Dr. Joseph Hendryx, and me, were among the diggers.

Drs. Joe Hendryx and Tony Adawu, doing doctor stuff–helping plant a rain garden in June, 2018.

So was Father Tony, never shy about pitching in and helping out.

I think the Hill will miss you, Father Tony. I know I will. Whatever needs doing in Ghana, they are taking back a pair of helping hands.

From MMU web site, official image of Father Tony Adawu.

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Filed under Flowers, Garden, Journalism, Memories, Mount Mercy

The Low Light of Late Fall

Woodpecker at feeder.

It was cold today in Iowa—although not so cold that I could not ride my bicycle to work this morning. We’re post-Thanksgiving, waiting for the pandemic surge that feels like its coming—but this is not a COVID-19 post.

Lowe Park in low light.

I’ve started filling my birdfeeders, and have taken a few dinosaur images. And I’ve been enjoying the late afternoon light of late fall. We had some decent warm days during Thanksgiving break, and I’ve been enjoying the quiet beauty of the small sights of fall in Iowa.

Seed pods on shore of Cedar Lake.

In particular, I shot some images of the MMU campus and of at Cedar Lake on Saturday, the final nice warm day. I left home about 2:30 p.m., so it was 3 when I got to campus, and the sun was already low.

Dried seeds by Grotto of Sorrows at MMU.

The dried grasses by the Grotto of Sorrows and the magnolia buds by Warde Hall practically glowed when backlit by the sun. We’re starting the dark month of the year, which is not my favorite, but at least the golden hour of light is so early it’s easy to enjoy.

Magnolia buds near Warde Hall.

And I’m ready for Christmas lights and snow. It’s December tomorrow. Time for a little winter in this part of the world.

Grotto at MMU in afternoon light Saturday.

The low December light is a reminder that Christmas is on it’s way! Here are my favorite musical twins to help us with the holiday mood:


Filed under Environment, Flowers, Garden, Mount Mercy, Weather

15 Images of Gratitude

Clover I found this week in my yard. I know it’s not reality, but it’s still nice to see a sign of good luck in the world this year.

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
Meister Eckhart

In truth, I am no theologian, and I don’t know the philosophical context or full meaning of Meister Eckhart’s oft quoted statement—but I do like the idea of gratitude being central to a well-lived life. Regardless of your conception of the creator of the universe, or even if you believe the universe just is and requires no creator, it still can be an awesome place.

Even in a year like 2020. The old curse “may you live in interesting times” sure seems true this year. Still, in this week of an odd, social-distance Thanksgiving, I’ll be thinking of family and friends and longing for the time when we once again can gather and feast together as we should.

And so I combed through my recent Facebook galleries (the most accessible, most comprehensive collection of my photography) intending to pick maybe 10 or so of the images of things that spark the most gratitude in me in this interesting year.

I kind of failed. I only went back a few months, to June or so. And yet, instead of 10, I had selected 15 images, and I decided my gratitude project was getting out of hand and needed to end.

Well, that’s a bright note in dark times. Even in 2020, there’s too much to be thankful for to express it all. So here, in random other, are 15 images of 9 things I am grateful for:

November family birthday celebration.

1) Family. That’s not a shocker, I suppose, but one of the first images I picked was from my wife’s birthday in November, of a grandson picking a game he wanted to play with her. Because he spends part-time with us, this particular grandson counts as a member of our immediate household, and we’ve seen a lot of him. That’s nice, but its is also a sometimes sad reminder of the many family members we had planned to spend more time with this year and could not. For Christmas last year, we gave grandchildren coupons that they could cash in for trips with their grandparents—we imagined taking one family of children to Madison to see the zoo and parks there, another maybe to somewhere in Missouri or Minnesota. It was to be a summer of family adventures—but those plans were dashed by the reality of COVID-19. I deeply miss spending more time with my kids and grandkids—yet I understand the need for us to stay apart now to protect each other, and I remain hopeful that those 2020 coupons will be renewed in 2021. And even if miss them and see them too much via video call rather than in person, I still love and cherish my family. Miss you all. May we all meet in the post-pandemic world, coming, we all hope, soon. In the meantime, thanks for being such a key part of my life.

Sign of the times. Some don’t comply well–but most do. And to all you masked Mustangs, thanks.

2) People who care. I have created lots of angry and frustrated social media posts about those who won’t follow science or health guidelines, and how the dark times are made darker by ignorance. Let me turn that around. While I had to remind a few, most students in most of my classes this fall wore their masks and attempted to sanitize. Most of my colleagues at work had few complaints about the new procedures we have to deal with—if anything, many of us wanted to go farther to protect each other. Even if there are too many who are taking chances when they ought not, my family has healthcare workers and teachers in it who are fighting the good fight every day, caring for the sick, teaching students that they want to hug but can only see in pixels. Even as the reality of the 2020 disease sucks, I still want to say “thanks” to the many who don’t complain, who do listen to science and who are doing the best they can.

Student and university president at September (outdoor and distanced) event.

3) Students and administrators at Mount Mercy University. You both can sometimes drive me bonkers, but, for the most part, you and I are fighting the same fight with the same goals. We may differ on the best route there, but MMU is a place that is attempting to transform lives for the better, and that’s a noble purpose largely shared by the people I attempt to teach and those who keep the place organized and running. Thank you.

Two of the other Joes who teach with this Joe at MMU.

4) Faculty at Mount Mercy University. Again, we’re a group of bright, idiosyncratic people who see the world from different views through the lenses of different academic disciplines, but we are also all doing the good work primarily for love of the work itself. And that deserves thanks, too.

Lyz Lenz (above, speaking at RBG memorial) and Maddie Orton (below) listening to one of her heroes speak about another one of her heroes. Maddie was at the memorial, and like me, was pleased to hear Lenz, who is always worth listening to, speak.

5) Strong, opinionated women. I was not pleased when Lyz Lenz parted ways with the Gazette. But she is still speaking out on social media and in her newsletter. I don’t always agree with her, but I find her worth listening to. I am also pleased that Maddie Orton, a recent student of mine, has started a new blog that looks like it may be a bit sassy. Sassy women—stay you. The world needs your sass, and I’m grateful you’re around.

On a bridge during fake RAGBRAI ride with my sister and bike buddy Cate.

6) My bicycles and my bike buddies. I rode “fake RAGBRAI” with my younger sister this year. I took my oldest granddaughter for her first tandem bike ride this summer—and when we get a chance at more together time, I hope we use that bike more. My wife sometimes accompanies a grandchild and me on a ride. I probably enjoy biking most because it’s a solitary activity and I’m an introverted loner—but it’s very pleasant to meet Cate or neighbor Mike and ride along with others. Even if each of our journeys is unique, sharing a part of the road of life is pleasant. And for that I say thanks.

Flag seen on Veterans Day, 2020.
You can steal our signs, and Iowa might vote for Trump, but Joe won and that pleases this Joe.

7) My country. True, we’re deeply divided, and the American democratic experiment is experiencing severe bumps. But we tossed the rascal out this year, and I remain hopeful that we the people can again find more common ground. There is a need for more mutual respect, and I am not wise enough to know how to bind the nation’s wounds. Still, even as it wobbles, America is a grand experiment that is worth continuing. Its history is human history, full of narratives good and bad—but I am glad to be a small part of its glorious, tragic and, I hope, ascendant story. For the good ol’ U.S. of A., and a shared heritage of desiring the common good for all of our people, I say thanks.

Above and below, just two of the many pretty fliers seen this year.
Bee on cone flower.
Early in October, snow!

8) The beauty of nature. Of course, the man who has a bit of reputation for delaying progress on family outings because he’s off somewhere shooting another damn image of some damn bug or flower would feel that way. I don’t live in the most gorgeous spot in the world, but I still live in a place of quiet beauty, of changing seasons, of shifting blooms of many flowers, of birds and bees and scents and sights that are worth seeing and enjoying and being grateful for.

A few days before Thanksgiving, the Christmas cactus in my basement is blooming.

9) The coming holidays. Yeah, they will feel different and odd in 2020—what doesn’t? As a Christian myself, I am not caught up in the whole “Christ is the reason for the season” movement for lots of reasons—for one thing, most of our “Christian” celebrations, including Christmas, are based on older celebrations that predated Jesus. For another, we don’t know from The Bible when Jesus was born anyway—even Christians don’t universally agree that Dec. 25 is the right date. And while I love Christmas as a religious holiday, I recognize Easter is way more religiously important. And I enjoy the secular aspects of the season, too. Halloween, followed by Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas—I love the three traditions of the fall and early winter that tap into the ancient need to feast at harvest, celebrate family and look forward to a new beginnings as light again returns in more abundance to the darkened northern hemisphere. I don’t mind that other traditions find reasons to celebrate this season, too, and have their own names for special days. Plus, resenting that someone who does not share my theology is somehow not entitled to enjoy eggnog in their own way just seems small-minded and closed off to me. So, sure, keep Christ in Christmas. But if an agnostic or atheist or Jewish friend of mine wants to co-op Christmas for their own celebration of family love and friendship—well, that just feels like God’s plan, too, to me. So ho-ho-ho and Happy Holidays! And for all the permutations, derivations and variations of these many year-punctuating celebrations, I just say, thanks.

So that’s 15 images and 9 items. They don’t quite match up in number, but I’m fine with that. I liked writing this list. It felt good to count my blessings and express appreciation to God for them. I may not understand completely why thanks is a sufficient prayer, but it feels good.

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Filed under Flowers, Grandchildren, holidays

I’ll Have a Zoom Christmas Without You

Christmas cookies from 2018, 27 years before 2020. Twenty-four of those years have been since March.

The holidays are all about family. My sisters and I most often get together, along with nieces, nephews and their children, around Christmas.

Probably not this year.

In the past, we’ve hosted as many of our kids and their kids as we can for Thanksgiving Day. Plans aren’t firm yet, but it doesn’t seem to be the time for such a gathering this year.

A vaccine is on its way, but we have not been, nor will we be, vaccinated for months yet. Even when it is available, how it’s distributed, and how willing people will be to receive it, remains to be seen.

We went into rather ineffective lockdown in spring. Iowa’s governor never mandated masks. We opened up too quickly, insisted on schools being open, and ran an election campaign that featured the vice president and president visiting this state for dangerous COVID-19-friendly unmasked rallies. Odd how it was a week after the horrible campaign that Iowa’s governor finally said maybe crowded gatherings are not a good idea. As if they were a good idea a few weeks ago.

And today, the news that more than 100 Secret Service officers are either sick or in quarantine. Thanks, Trump. Thanks, MAGA meanies. Our newly elected GOP congressional representative is missing the freshman meetings due to a positive COVID-19 infection. Gee, GOP, is there any connection to how you behaved a few weeks ago and sickness today?

Remember October? Trump was telling us that COVID would not dominate our news the day after election day?

I guess that’s about as reliable as any promise this thrice-married loser has ever made.

Halloween felt very weird to me this year. We usually put some jack-o-lanterns on the porch and hand out candy. We didn’t in 2020; our lights were off—but you could look out in the evening dim and see the usual trick or treaters traveling about in clumps. They often wore masks, but not the kind that cover nose and mouth with cloth—and their adult attendants and the people handing out treats from houses were mostly unmasked.

We’re two weeks later, now. And COVID-19 is flooding our hospitals and surging everywhere in the U.S of A.

There is no not hot spot. The nation is burning, and soon there may not be enough hospital beds or unexhausted doctors and nurses to care for the sick and dying. The harsh winter that experts had warned us about is upon us.

And President Trump today said he won’t have another lockdown while he is president. Great, help cause the spread, lose the election, and then refuse to act because the “cure can’t be worse than the disease.” Our mounting COVID-19 death toll tells the opposite tale—the lack of response seems much worse than the lockdown. A lockdown is a serious thing, an economy freezing chill. It’s not to be done lightly. But it seems to me that the temporary chill is better than the ongoing dumpster fire we’re facing now. Remember “flatten the curve?” It’s flat now, but straight up.

So, fam, maybe a zoom Christmas? It’s not what I want, what any of us want, but nobody should aspire to be the one who dies just weeks away from when shots start being felt around the world.

Hang tough, friends and family. Winter is coming. COVID Christmas. Thanks, 2020.

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When Men Wreck Their Endangered Bodies

Carol Tyx speaks Nov. 5 at Mount Mercy University, her first live appearance to read from her book, published this year. She has done other readings, but via video conferencing. Most of her audience was online.

Poet Carol Tyx, who retired last year and is now a professor emeritus at Mount Mercy Univeristy, came back to campus Nov. 5, 2020 as a visiting writer. She has written a book of poems called “Remaking Achilles.”

It’s a grim story, but one I’m glad that she has told. It takes place at the Angola State Prison, the largest state prison in the U.S.A, in Louisiana. In 1951, 31 white inmates at the prison (where the African-American prisoners outnumbered them) slashed their own Achilles tendons so that they would be unable to walk. Achilles is also the name of an imagined Black inmate who is a character in Carol’s book.

Carol Tyx speaks at Mount Mercy University.

The prison used its inmates as labor on an 18,000-acre plantation, a modern-day form of slavery. The men didn’t want to be able to walk so that they could not be forced to work in the fields. And the slashers caused such a stir that a public investigation led to reforms.

As Tyx notes, those reforms weren’t the end to troubles at the prison—but she said she wanted to explore the story of men who literally put their bodies in danger in the hopes of avoiding cruel treatment and perhaps gaining more of a chance of surviving prison. They were cutting their own bodies to try to save them.

The poems are presented in a chronological order, and many voices are heard: “Ain’t got what it takes for the long line today, four miles out, four miles back.” Prisoners, a nurse who sacrificed her job to testify to an investigating committee, a sheriff—they are heard in this collection.

Student in Flaherty Community Room listens to Carol Tyx.
More of my images from the event.

It was great to hear Carol read her words and describe the reasons for the poems.

My wife, a nursing professor at MMU, decided to accompany me to the poetry reading, and I think she was glad she did. The nurse’s story was a pivotal one, and when the talk was over, I purchased a copy of the book for her.

I’ll read it too. Probably not in one uninterrupted slog—I don’t always read a lot of poetry at once—but the taste of this book was enough to make me hungry for more.

Mary Vermillion, MMU English professor, displays Carol Tyx’s book.
Mary Vermillion commented on Facebook that this is the first image of her masked.

It’s a ghastly story, but one that Carol has given voice to—or many voices to. As she noted, left untold, the story would fade away.

Carol was introduced by Mary Vermillion, English professor at Mount Mercy. Both have helped run a book club, where students from MMU can discuss books with inmates at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, not too far away.

Anyway, I think any writer does a service if they can take a reader somewhere new, help them see the world, a bit, through others’ eyes. I think that is what Carol has done here, and I look forward to seeing the world through different eyes when I read her poems. Mary has written more about the book:

Mount Mercy video of the presentation.

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Surviving the Pandemic Part 2: Dark Thoughts on a Walk with Fam

Oak leaf seen today on a cool afternoon walk. Turning colors, but looking a bit ragged. I also feel a bit ragged this odd fall.

I’m an introvert, so I don’t think social isolation has hit me as hard as it hits others. But still, losing RAGBRAI, not being able to just drop into a bookstore, having to plan meals as takeout or at home, losing the cafeteria at work as a place I sometimes ate, far fewer and smaller family gatherings—well, these are all fairly minor inconveniences, but they grate on the nerves after months.

We’re sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Cold weather is coming. Despite what our delusional Dear Leader president says, Iowa is spiking again. People are growing sick and some number of them are dying, while many others carry a novel virus in their bodies whose long-term effects we still don’t know.

The other shoe? Some family members had apparent COVID-19 cases already, although testing has been so poor overall that we don’t know for sure. It was, in our family at least, a very nasty disease that one would not experience should one have any choice in the matter. The Iowa clan has, so far, knock on wood, whisper a prayer, remained healthy. May we continue that trend, yet that other shoe dangles.

I don’t trust Trump. But if Dr. Tony says a coronavirus vaccine is safe, sign me up and poke my arm ASAP. I’m so ready for this pandemic to pause and them be over.

But it ain’t over yet. We are not turning the corner to the end, despite what fluffly-haired despot wanna-bes say. We’re not even turning the corner from the beginning as we consistently fail to cope and new waves and spikes keep cropping up. “Turning the corner” feels like we’re just stuck in a rut, going through the same paths of denial, and I’m getting very tired of the noise of stupid ringing out loudly in the land.

In a recent campaign stop, Donald Trump said he may never come back to Iowa again should the state vote against him. There you have it, Iowans. You know what to do. He’s such a man of his word I’m sure he meant it.

Despite months of living with COVID-19 and dying from it, our country, the great U.S. of A, continues to do an inconsistent and spotty job of applying what we should know about this dangerous respiratory disease.

If you catch it, you’ll probably survive. Heck, you might not even know it. But it’s a crap shoot, and it’s not the flu. The deaths total 210,000 and counting. Apparently we are headed to doubling that before our planet again turns its northern hemisphere to the nearest star and the warmth of spring takes hold and releases us from breathing each other’s respiratory droplets in enclosed spaces.

It’s a damn shame, and it’s also shameful. Because we know a lot more now about this animal virus that is making its home in our species. We know mostly how it spreads and mostly how to stop it, but we lack the leadership and personal good sense to use our knowledge.

If we had an anti-virus shutdown—it would not have to go on and on. The virus and its dormancy period does not work that way. The problem is that our shutdowns have been hodge-podge, a patchwork of impotence because some states, like mine, have governors who would rather follow Trump than truth.

Did China create the virus in a lab? Do I give a flying bat’s patootie at this point?

Because that line of thinking has flaws aplenty. The “blame China” crowd easily morphs into the “blame Chinese” thinking, and I’m fed up with good ole American racism. If you ask does systemic racism exist, one wonders what universe you’ve been in all your life. This old white man sees it and hates it, and it’s a blot on your stunted soul if you don’t also.

I’m not burdened with guilt due to my white privilege because I didn’t craft the system but I do live in the system and I benefit from it, and I should be able to see it and treat those who have to swim upstream against currents I never feel with a bit more empathy.

And back to the “did they create it” issue. It certainly started in a particular Chinese city that had some biolabs in it that were studying viruses. A lab project gone bad or simply sloppy control measures certainly seem like they aren’t beyond the possible. And I don’t trust the Chinese government to be all truthy on this point.

Yet, if I were an evil Chinese despot intent on destroying the West and getting filthy rich by selling cloth masks, I don’t think I would pick a Chinese city to release the virus in. And we keep blaming China for not controlling the spread in one breath, and then (if we are Tangerine Mussolini) congratulating ourselves for the Chinese travel ban.

As if that action beat the virus. When it got here, and on our East Coast it came via Europe, it was up to us to control it. We could have.

And we did not.

So, would I like to know how it all started? Sure. But most of all, I am way more interested in what we do now to get control of this mostly preventable disease.

So, listen up. Wear the damn mask. Over your nose, too, you blowhole idiots. Wash your hands and monitor your health. Avoid indoor crowds as much as possible. As a country, organize and emphasize effective disease tracking and tracing—we’re still pretty bad at even understanding where this virus is.

No, mask rules don’t infringe on your freedoms, doofus. A mask allows you to not endanger others and gets us closer to a day when this virus is rare and controlled. Masks are what might make us free again, if we weren’t so resistant to learning that lesson

Because the virus can be beaten. It pretty much only lives in people and their breath, in our land. Yes, it can get on a surface, but not for all that long.

Yeah, shunning each other is tiring. I miss church, but don’t feel comfortable returning there yet. I miss casual, unplanned dinners at Mexican restaurants. I miss movie popcorn. I miss seeing student’s faces and learning their names early each semester.

But this country is missing way over 200,000 souls with more death on the way. That’s what is attacking our precious freedoms. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness come after “life” for a reason. A respiratory disease—and its terrible, deadly consequence—still stalks the land.

Forget blaming China. Want to know who to blame? Us. We elected an idiot, and some of us seem so ill-informed that we will would rather listen to his drivel than to science. We’re living in the nightmare that we thusly created.

We’ve found the traitor. She’s not Chinese. He’s a MAGA American, unmasked, proud, patriotic and stupid as shit.

This Earth is a pretty planet, but a risky one, too. Living in it requires us to pay some attention. At least, even as flowers are drying up, some fading marigolds still looked pretty on my afternoon walk.

I took an afternoon fall walk today with a very small group of immediate family members—no violating of social distance guidelines. The trees are getting naked, the air is crisp, and the sky features mixed clouds and blue. A beautiful day and a reminder of the beauty of this Earth. Yet, there is snow in the forecast over the next two days, and I’m going to spend way too much time with others in the enclosed inside soon, surviving, I hope, another Midwestern winter.

Winter is coming. By now, we could have beaten the virus to the margins, but we didn’t. That is a thought that causes me both white hot anger and chills.

Will I survive? It is extremely likely. As I noted in a post months ago, the odds are with me even if I unfortunately do get sick. Yet I can’t help but feel that deep ignorance and leadership incompetence are terrible reasons for me to have to gamble with my life. It’s a bet I’d rather not make.

Stay healthy, my friends. Sooner or later, the virus will be dealt with.

It won’t go away, because it’s part of our environment from now on, but we’re learning better ways to cope with it and control it. Will we apply those better ways?

The experiment we’re running so far this year is not yet yielding hopeful results. Can’t blame China for that.

A young grandson launches dreams into the air on the walk. May this 4-year-old stay healthy, may his mother and grandparents and all in their generations do the same. May you, dear reader, also stay healthy. May our sick country also recover soon–first getting back its sanity because it seems to have lost its marbles.

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