The Third Phase of Fall


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C Avenue, rising sun reflected in pond surrounded by snowy lawn–Dec. 9, 2018, 8 a.m. or so.

Like many Iowa seasons, to me, autumn falls into three parts.

There is the sequel to high summer, the final phase of the hot time of year, the September phase one of fall. In the evening there is a cool tinge to the air, but still the sounds of crickets as the day is still powerful enough to keep the freeze at bay.

Spiders are suddenly huge and everywhere.

But the plants know winter is coming—growth in all woody things is over and every plant that aspires to come back after the long sleep is hunkering down. There are still late flowers—mums and others—but the sex season in the plant world is mostly over. Dwarf bushes are starting to turn shades, and sumac, some of which were already crimson in high summer, are in full fall color.

Then the equinox passes and the night is starting to gain on the day. Lows dip into the 30s, and the first, tentative frosts arrive as the season turns to fall, phase two. Many trees begin to show colors and shed leaves. The night sounds begin to quiet, and the daytime insects are big and sluggish—unless they are in the sweat bee family, in which case they are pushy and obnoxious.

A few trees stubbornly remain green in this phase even as most others take on their sleep season look.

Then, sometime at the end of October or in early November, the hammer comes down. I always think the first definite frost is not really “it,” because a surprising number of hoppers and beetles and spiders can still be seen crawling around post-frost—they managed to hide in the night and appear in afternoon sunshine.

But when you get beyond mere frost to a genuine freeze, and for several nights in a row the temperature dips well below the ice point—well, it’s different.

This week, we had a dusting of snow. Lows dipped not just to freezing, but to the upper teens. Some leaves still cling to trees, but those leaves look dead and spent. The bare tree season is upon us. We’re not quite into early winter brown, but the shape of the world around us is suddenly there for us to see, as the green canopy that shrouded the hillside all spring and summer is gone.

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Around 4:30, I arrive home, looking west at clouds now visible, where tree foliage would have obscured the view. Bare trees on Nov. 9, 2018.

I am not usually bothered by the first snow, even if it this year it seems a bit early. I miss the greens and flowers of summer, and it will be a relief in five months when some of the bulbs I buried before the hard freeze become early spring flowers, but the gardens need the winter break. It’s one reason our summers are so full of plant life—we get the cleansing of winter to clear out harmful, plant-eating insects.

So, phase three of fall is here. The snow this morning was not exactly a pretty white blanket yet, there wasn’t enough to hide the green stubble of lawns, but the bit of snow is a sign that the gardens are now in slumber phase, I won’t need to smell like lemon pie for months to avoid blood-suckers, and the cool morning air feels fresh, if a bit brisk.

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The Party of Joe


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Yard signs seems on morning of Oct. 30 during my bike ride to work. Contrasting ideas at work here.

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The day before Halloween was both exhilarating and scary—a bit like Halloween, in a way. On Halloween, kids walk around in costumes to beg for treats. My wife and I dressed in business casual attire and went downtown hoping to get for some rhetorical hope.

I think we got it.

The news was that Joe Biden was coming to town. The former vice president was here for a campaign rally to boost Fred Hubbell, running for Iowa Governor, and Abby Finkenauer, running for Congress.

We had signed up online, as we were urged to do, but that didn’t seem to matter. When we got downtown, it took some time to find a parking spot, so as a mild, cool drizzle halfheartedly tried to start, we trudged a few blocks to wait in a line that stretched for over a block from the entrance to the Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium on Mays Island.

The night was damp and cool, but not cold and wet. We sometimes put up umbrellas, but then folded them (a trick our President seems not have learned) because it just was not worth it.

We ended up in line with a couple of other college professors, our colleague at Mount Mercy Dr. Joy Ochs, and her science-teaching spouse at Kirkwood Community College, Dr. Fred Ochs.

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The long line that leads to Joe.

The wait wasn’t all that long, and we had some pleasant chats as we worked our way to the door. At one point, a Planned Parenthood volunteer handed me a sign. I didn’t really want to hold a sign, and regretted my knee-jerk reaction to take it.

We got close. I could see Fred Hubbell chatting just a few people in front of us, and got my camera out—and like a Halloween apparition, suddenly he was gone. Still, there was a state House candidate, Eric Gjerde, next to us, so I snapped his image.

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House candidate I will be voting for.

And then we were in the lobby. A uniformed guard was by the door. “You can’t take that in,” he said of my sign, and confiscated it, much to my relief. And then we were in the auditorium. I was surprised at how lax security was—if there was a metal detector, I didn’t detect it.

And we were crowded together. Honestly, we were not squeezed all that much, and the space was large, so it was not uncomfortable, but I was glad I had decided by good camera would be too bulky to hold. At times, moving to take an image with a phone or little camera was challenging enough.

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The crowd inside, and Dr. Joy Ochs.

After a half hour or so, warmup acts began. A state party official spoke. A man in a wheelchair who has appeared in videos supporting Fred Hubbell spoke. A pause. Then, a high school girl doing a fine job with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Next, Sen. Rita Hart, Democrat running for Lieutenant Governor, spoke. I was quite impressed—I had not heard her before. I kind of wish she was running for the top job, but maybe if Fred is elected, that’s the next step.

Next came Fred. He’s a good guy, gave a nice speech, which the crowd enthusiastically received, but to be honest, he’s not the best speaker in politics today. No matter, we liked Fred, and it showed.

And Fred introduced Abby. Rep. Finkenauer maybe sticks to her familiar message a bit too much, at least to my ears, but she is great to hear. She was excited, it showed, and the crowd loved her.

And she got to introduce Joe.

Joe, Joe, Joe. What a great guy. What a nice man. He spoke like warm honey, his distinct voice booming out and becoming animated. He got emotional at times, choking up when he spoke of how Iowans supported him as his son was battling cancer. He compared his early life to Abby’s.

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Joe!

And he took President Trump to task for irresponsible, incendiary rhetoric. It was nice that he himself was never insulting to any Republican, other than noting the President’s excessive language. Even then, his criticism was of what the man says, not of the man.

Unlike Trump, Biden can take a stand without belittling or insulting anybody.

“This is an election for the soul of American,” Biden said. Granted, that’s a pretty typical political line, but I feel that it’s true this time.

We can’t afford to be the ignorant, coarse country represented by the Donald.

I am feeling some trepidation going into the final week of the fall campaign. To me, the core of Trump’s support has been rock solid, despite or because of the ridiculous, hateful things he says. Trump has successfully painted media as “fake news,” and not because it is, but because it’s an easy excuse for the lazy of mind to hunker down in narrow ideological silos.

Well, Biden didn’t cure me, but he helped a lot. I feel a bit better now. I was in a crowd of like-minded souls, and it felt good.

I don’t know if a blue wave is coming, although I hope so. Trumpism is a national disgrace, the modern American nightmare. I hope my country wakes up and tosses off the yoke of xenophobia and nationalism.

I’m not sure it will. But it sure felt good to hear Joe, a nice counter balance to the latest bombastic tweets from the Twit-in-Chief.

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The True Cost of A Shirt


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Dr. Kate O’Neill holds up a shirt and asks an audience to guess its cost.

How much does a t-shirt really cost?

According to Dr. Kate O’Neill, associate professor of strategic leadership, too often we answer that question with the price of the shirt. She held up a shirt that she said retails for $9.97 at The Gap.

human-nature-logo_0But, in shipping, environmental disposal, carbon footprint—that shirt is an economic reality beyond its price. I’m not sure of the analysis that led to the figure, but O’Neill pegged the real cost of the shirt at 70 cents above its purchase price.

And that doesn’t sound like much, but we live in the a country of more than 300 million souls and each of us owns multiple t-shirts. The hidden cost of just one shirt for each of us amount to a $210 million hidden tax on society—the costs of land-filling the shirt, for example, are borne by all of us and not the maker nor consumer of the shirt.

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Dr. O’Neill speaks.

That was one illustration of the nature of the sustainability problem in economics O’Neill outlined in her talk “Global Social and Economic Sustainability: Supporting Environmental Practices” Oct. 22.

She spokes as part of the Mount Mercy University Fall Faculty Series “Sustainability: Human/Nature & the Future of the Earth.”

It’s an important series of talks that continues Nov. 1 when Rachael Murtaugh, director of sustainability and stewardship, speaks on “Iowa Lands and Water.”

I suspect part of O’Neill said may foreshadow the final presentation in the series Nov. 19, when Dr. Tracey Tunwall speaks on “Addressing Consumarism: The Life-Cycle of Stuff.”

One point O’Neill made, that I suspect Tunwall may come back to, is the idea of a “circular” economy that mimics nature. After all, nature doesn’t really have any waste products—what one biological entity leaves behind always becomes raw material for another biological entity. Nothing is wasted.

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Rachael Murtaugh, the next speaker in the series, listens to the talk.

That’s the true sustainability model O’Neill pointed to. And it was interesting to hear of an industrial community in, I think, Denmark that comes close to that ideal—with numerous manufacturers each utilizing the waste from some other facility.

It was an interesting night. As I left, I turned on my lights and enjoyed an almost full moon lighting the streets as I pedaled home. And I was thinking circular thoughts as the wheels went round and round.

More of my images on Facebook. Some members of the audience listening:

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Can the Earth Run a Marathon?


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Me speaking at Mount Mercy University Oct. 11 on “Hot Story: How the Media Struggles to Cover Climate Change.” Photo by Audrey Sheller.

Earlier in October, I presented a lecture during the Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy University.

It was about how the media struggle to cover climate change, and it was an odd week to do the presentation because the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just released a report that made headlines—stating, in effect, that the severe impacts of climate change are closer than we thought.

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For most of us, we don’t need to combat climate change to save the Earth for future generations. Even at age 60, it’s likely I’m in the generation that will experience rising seas, droughts, storms and other Mother Nature induced “fun.”

Anyway, even if the nations of the Earth agree on the urgency of the problem and work hard to reduce carbon emissions, there will still be plenty of human-caused climate change with it attendant problems.

I used a line from a tweet by 538, the Nate Silver site: “So This Is It. We’re All Going to Die.” That dire tweet was on a link to a blog entry that wasn’t quite that dark—it basically stated that it’s possible to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, but the number analyst and poll wonks at 538 think it’s unlikely that we will do that.

We don’t want the short-term pain for the long-term gain. We’ll take the short-term easy path, and deal with the tragedies of the future in the future. Considering how we’re dealing with the tragedies of today today, I’m thinking this is a bad idea.

In my presentation, I think there were two humans noted whose names ought to be more recognized:

In 1896, Swedish chemist and physicist Svante Arrheius wrote a paper that earned him the Nobel Prize. He proposed that human burning of fossil fuels would release carbon dioxide that would eventually cause the Earth to warm. That’s right, global warming has only been a valid scientific concept for 122 years—no wonder so many still doubt.

In 1988, James Edward Hansen, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, testified before a Senate committee. He was brave to speak out on the topic—and in the ensuring years, the NASA funding for the institute became more of an issue as Republican administrations made it a deliberate strategy to deny global warming and question the science.

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Swedish chemist and physicist Svante Arrheius.

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James Edward Hansen, who was head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. His 1988 Senate testimony established global warning as a bit news story.

I noted lots of reasons why journalists struggle to cover this story—it’s a slow, big trend that doesn’t’ cause daily headlines, and daily headlines are what the media tune into. If a person is great at math and science, journalism may not be their first choice for a major. And even when journalists do cover global warming, there is an increasing anti-science cultural thread that can dominate our political debate.

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Side on why it’s such a hard news story to cover well.

Think of President Trump and his boneheaded response to the IPCC report: Scientists have a “political agenda” and he would have to see who “drew” the report. Well, saving Earth is a political point of view, I suppose, and science is political—but scientific consensus is built over time with careful, rational observation. Clearly President Trump’s head for science is a lot like his head for counting inaugural crowds—largely imaginary.

Here is a link to a playist I used of songs that made me think of my topic. And here is a link to some more images from my presentation on a Facebook gallery.

So, in effect, the IPCC reports, it makes headlines for a day, and now we’re off worried about migrants in Central America who honestly pose almost no threat to our welfare rather than thinking about how we could save our own butts and the butts of our children and grandchildren from the very real catastrophe of human-caused climate change.

My children and grandchildren’s butts may not be their best features, but they are still worth saving. As Sam Gamgee said in Lord of the Rings, “there’s still some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” In full disclosure, I didn’t bother to Google that quote, so it’s a loose paraphrase, but I still agree with the point.

So, is there hope?

Sure.

Think of what your life was like when your baby was 4-weeks old. I’m sure they were a bundle of joy, but you were a bundle of jangled nerves, living on 4 hours or less of sleep at night, praying that junior would please, please, please just stop crying and take a friggin’ nap.

And yet, you survived and fought through. And it changed. It got better. President Trump and I agree on one thing, climate change is not a constant. Of course, I put some faith in science, and personally I don’t see the huge conflict between science and God, but that’s another post. And I believe we need to act, and need to elect politicians who will act.

Maybe we will. Sometimes, people surprise you in a good way.

On Sunday, I went to Des Moines Iowa with my wife and two young grandsons. Their mother was busy becoming something I don’t think anybody in my family had done up to this point—she is a marathoner. She ran 26.2 miles (she says her favorite sign she saw along the way said “26.2, because 26.3 would be ridiculous”).

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She did it? Could I? Probably not, but it’s nice to see what’s possible.

Wow. I was watching people cross the finish line hours after they had started, and I couldn’t help but feel an odd sense of how cool that would be.

Run more than 26 miles? I’m 60, I am overweight and have arthritis in my knees. I gave up running years ago, and bike for my exercise because it’s easier on the joints. But, is it possible? Could I?

I doubt it and I’m not making any commitment here. But I also wouldn’t say it’s impossible. Lots of things are possible.

Well, congratulations, daughter. You may not have thought of yourself that way, but I think of the smile you had on your face as you crossed that finish line, and I am not only unbearably proud as your father, but also inspired and filled with another reaction.

There is hope. It’s possible work for a long, long time on a future goal that involves pain today. That’s what she had to do. I doubt I could do it, but I am happy that running a marathon seems like something a human can accomplish.

Maybe the species can save the Earth from the species. I hope so. Let’s lace up our sustainability sneakers and start training.

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Inspirational Words for a Football Team


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Colorado author aaron abeyto speaks Sept. 27, 2018 to a packed Flatherty Community Room at MMU.

I enjoyed all of the snippets of writing read by author aaron abeyta Sept. 27 at Mount Mercy University.

An English professor at Adams State University in Colorado—and mayor of a small town, abeyta was also recently the local high school football coach. In that letter, he offered this working definition of being perfect:

“You are perfect because your imperfections have not derailed you,” he said.

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Student notes.

abeyta’s writing ranged from Satan in a bar fight to a calculus problem written as a love poem. As he changed genres and topics, abeyta’s voice would change and his pace would quicken or slow.

He said it’s because he is a conduit for poetry, and reads each poem in the voice of the person who inspired it.

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Explaining cover.

One of my favorites was a people about clichés—loaded, of course, with clichés.

Flaherty Community Room at Mount Mercy was packed for this event. The lighting was pretty dim, but I think I managed to get some images anyway. It was a great evening, and enlightening with many insights provided by the mayor of

abeyta, between readings, reflected a bit on the nature of writing. He noted that he usually revises a lot, and that writing involves being able to deal with rejection without getting discouraged.

“Poems are work, folks,” he observed. So are other forms of writing, a point I think this small-town Colorado mayor would probably agree with.

NOTE: In correcting this post the next day, I deliberately did not capitalize the author’s name. No disrespect intended–in many uses, it seems he prefers it not capitalized, which is why I decided to go with that unusual usage.

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Student listening.

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Living in Harmony, Recognizing Dignity


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Dr. Bryan Cross, assistant professor of religious studies at Mount Mercy University, speaks Sept. 18, 2018.

At the end of a sometimes discouraging presentation that had multiple examples of the damage humans have done to the Earth and ways in which people take advantage of each other, Dr. Bryan Cross, assistant professor of religious studies, offered a brighter view.

“If we think it’s too late, it will definitely be too late,” he said. “You have to do what you can. And I still have hope.”

Cross, a professor at Mount Mercy University, spoke during the Fall Faculty Series called “Sustanability: Human/Nature and the Future of the Earth.” His Sept. 18 forum, the second in the series, also happened during Mercy Week at MMU, when the university celebrates its Sisters of Mercy heritage—and the week this year is dedicated to concern for the Earth. The presentation was called “Pope Francis’ Laudato Sí: Harmony with the Natural Order and the Dignity of Creatures.”

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Shadow of Dr. Bryan Cross.

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Dr. Bryan Cross explains a slide.

The presentation, using ideas from a book written by Pope Francis, began with some religious perspective on why it’s important to care for our planet. Partly, it’s recognition that nature has intrinsic value. And it’s also showing respect to other humans, too, including those who will come after us.

“I am my future generation’s keeper,” Cross said. Exploitation of other humans, viewing them only as utility, is part of the mindset that allows exploitation of other living things and the Earth itself—so the antidote is a recognition of dignity of others—other people, but other parts and pieces of this reality, too.

About 60 people attended, which is a pretty good turnout. The audience seemed caught up in the presentation, and there was lots of good discussion at the end. I thought I spoke a bit too much—a bad habit I tend to have—but it was still an enjoyable evening, if a little discomforting, too.

And I also felt that it set the bar pretty high for me. I speak next in the series, on Oct. 11 I will give a presentation called: “Hot Story: How the Media Struggles to Cover Climate Change.” Hope to see you there!

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How to Turn 60


Audrey and I pause for a selfie before riding the Sac and Fox Trail.

My 60th birthday won’t come again, but tomorrow will the only day after my 60th birthday, and that day won’t return, either.

But if I were to be stuck, “Groundhog Day” style, in a 24-hour period that would repeat—well, today might not be my best choice, but it would be a decent choice. Today was a pretty good day.

It began with me fixing a special breakfast for myself—I made plain oatmeal, added some butter, salt, pepper, two over-easy eggs and cheddar cheese. It was a tasty way to begin my birthday.

We’ve had rain recently in Iowa, a pattern expected to return tomorrow, but today was cool in the morning and very pretty in the afternoon. I have been driving to work most of the week, but today I put on the special bicycle shoes and rode my road bike. A day at work is always a better day if I get there and return on two wheels.

And for lunch, my wife took me to Taste of India—probably the best restaurant in Cedar Rapids for a birthday lunch, if you like Indian food. I do.

After afternoon work, I got home about 4:30, and noticed a flat of mums on the front stoop. My wife had already gotten me two Rose of Sharon bushes for my birthday earlier this week, and I will plant those this weekend. Mums are one of her favorite flowers, but I enjoy that splash of fall color, too—and I love to plant pretty things. I think of it as an investment in hope, the future and the wonderfulness of this planet we find ourselves inhabiting. Planting always boosts my mood, so seeing the flower flat was another reason to smile today.

And the house smelled divine when I got home. Someone had baked an apple crisp for me.

Before we watched “Thor: Ragnarok,” a DVD someone got for me on this special day, I attached the bike rack to the van and loaded our mountain bikes on it. My wife had suggested that, if the weather was right, we might enjoy a bicycle ride on my birthday—if I agreed. I did, and I suggested we got to the Sac and Fox, a trail I have been on several times this year, but have not shared with her before today.

And the bike ride on the trail was delightful, featuring perfect late afternoon golden light, and clouds enough to keep us from warming up. We had ridden maybe 5 of the 7 miles on our way to the south end of the trail, and I had noted to Audrey that, although it had been a very pretty ride (the Sac and Fox is the prettiest bike trail in Cedar Rapids), I was surprised there had been no deer. I had encountered deer on my summer pre-RAGBRAI rides on this trail.

And almost immediately, on cue, there, up ahead—a group of maybe seven deer, adults and fawns, loitering on the trail. They moved north off the trail as we approached, but stayed nearby in the woods, so I paused and photographed them.

Two of the deer.

Yes, the ride went well. And we felt we had earned our post-ride supper of apple crisp with ice cream (that’s all we had—but honestly, after a Taste of India buffet, how much could we have possibly eaten?).

My birthday season hasn’t really ended yet. The weekend after Labor Day, we’ll probably host a family brunch with kids and grandkids, and that will be fun. And probably there will be cake.

I don’t know that I would recommend 60 all that much. My body is aging, and showing its wear and tear in various ways. I’m still battling a stubborn ear infection, and getting to learn what my father’s life was like as his hearing faded away. My arthritic knees and hips dictate a certain slowness to my gait, when they don’t inflict pain. My family has a weight-loss challenging going, and I truly am trying, but at the start of your seventh decade on this planet, trust me, weight does not melt away. Well, I suppose apple crisp suppers (or savory egg and oatmeal breakfasts followed by spicy buffet food) don’t help, either.

But, whatever. I’ll do what I can and also try to enjoy myself. I’m 60. The little things don’t matter any more. And today I had a very good day—thanks, mostly, to my wife. Shout out to my delayed twin, my four years to the day younger sister, who still lingers in the midst of her sixth decade.

Sis, 60 is coming, knock on wood. And when it gets here for you, I hope its arrival is at least as nice as it was for me.

We ride off into the sunset.

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