Lilies of Summer, May You Lift My Mood


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Lily in bloom today.

The flowers of summer arrived just in time. I noticed and photographed some lilies today in my gardens.

Now, I know that lilies have been blooming elsewhere in town already, and my own gardens tend to be a little behind, but somehow, on June 21, longest day of the year, it seemed like a good day for lilies to arrive.

Maybe they can lift my mood, a bit. It’s been a hard summer. Not that anything is wrong personally in my life, but I’ve grown increasingly distressed watching our democracy unravel. The border-child thing, which is not really over, was harsh and horrible, but it was just one more point of pain.

Bad ideas seems to be taking off all the time: Militarizing space. Fighting Canada and praising North Korea. Saying one thing one day and countermanding it the next. Claiming the media are the greatest enemies of the American people while also praising North Korean state TV for treating the ruthless dictator of that country well.

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OK, internet, what is this flower? The plant is thin and about 2-feet tall.

It’s not just the lunatic in the White House. Here in Iowa we have rain. And rain. Rain and more rain. We’ve gone from some dry, hot weeks to cool wet weather that almost feels more depressing. Who knows what will come next from Mother Nature or President Crazy.

Well, seasons and presidents change—shame on America and the electorate if there is not a blue wave this fall.

And in the meantime, at least there are lilies.

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And there is Milkweed.

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June is Busting Out in Peonies


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Peony in my front garden. I shot this image on May 28.

I grew up in various places in the United States—I was born in Tennessee, although I was so young when we moved from there that I don’t have any memories of that place. I have a few dim snatches of memory from Schenectady, New York, although we moved to California just before I turned 4.

From ages 4 to 8, we lived in several towns in California. I have numerous California memories, but honestly, they tend to be a rather confusing knot that doesn’t specify time or place all that well. My son lives in San Francisco, and I know I visited that place in the 1960s, but when I took a trip out there to see him, absolutely nothing at all looked familiar (my main memories of 1960s California were that we toured a Canadian destroyer which had steep stairs, seemed huge and was a dull grey; and a minor earthquake had occurred and some storefronts had broken glass. As an adult visiting the city by the bay I saw zero Canadian destroyers and no broken shop windows.)

My more organized narrative memory, which honestly is not all that great, really starts in Clinton, Iowa. For a short time, we lived in an old rented house on Third Avenue South, but then we moved to a house on Seventh Avenue South after, I think, about a year, which means we lived there from about 1967 to 1972.

In my mind, that house in Clinton is probably the one I think of as my boyhood home. I learned to mow grass and appreciate girls while I lived in that house (the two are unrelated). There was a huge hedge in back, and while I sort of liked it sometimes, I’ve never been tempted to plant a hedge in any of my houses. They get big and get out of control.

My father planted numerous trees while we lived on Seventh Avenue, and the tree-planting bug clearly took root in me. I am glad to say that I have three live redbud trees in Iowa in a place where the climate is pretty much the same as Clinton—we tried planting that kind of tree in Clinton and they always died. I don’t know why.

The house in Clinton had a large front porch with a porch swing (whose chain my sisters and I occasionally broke through rather rambunctious swinging). That porch served as lookout post, pirate ship and thunderstorm hangout. The house also had a lip on the wooden siding that the brave or foolhardy could use to travel all the way around the house, toes on the lip, fingers braced on the underside of the siding, sidling across a 10-foot chasm over a driveway cut into the basement.

It was in this house that my father grew a small garden that for some reason yielded plenty of tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers and other garden treats for a large family. My father’s ability to grow food for the family is something I have always envied—and never been able to emulate.

And there were a few flowers at the Clinton house. In the back by the alley, at a corner gap in the hedge, there was a big lilac bush, and its blooms always smelled sweet and heralded the coming of spring and the ending of another school year. I disliked school and learned to love lilacs.

On the east and west sides (the house faced north) of the back yard, beyond the hedge on the west (there was no hedge on the east) were lines of peony plants. And perhaps because they also heralded the end of tedium and boredom known as a term at Sacred Heart School, I have kept a lifelong appreciation for the peony.

And this year, June 1 is just past the peak of peony season in Iowa. These pretty flowers mean the transition away from spring to early summer—the prevalence of ants, the appearance of fireflies, the freedom from school (as a professor, my attitude towards school has grown a bit more positive, but I will also freely admit that my favorite months of the year still are any that start with J and don’t end in anuary).

Peonies! You fresh pom-poms of color. I plant more than I ever get to grow and bloom, but I do have some that bloom, and I like that. They are pretty and smell nice—they have a subtler fragrance than a lilac, you have to lean close to experience it, and it you do, be careful of the ants or bees when you sniff.

They are the flowers that announce the best time of the year is here in Iowa. Hip-hip hooray!

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May 29–Peony blooming at Mount Mercy University.

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Another May 29 image of peony on MMU campus.

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A Few Minutes After Grades Are In


And in the post-semester, I’ve-just-posted-grades posted point, I’ll admit, just for one self-indulgent minute, my mood about grades briefly matched a pop song from the 1980s:

I’m better now. Back to caring. Let another semester commence—in three months, or so.

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Honoring student editors


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Connor Mahan, Outstanding Journalism Student, Mount Mercy University, 2018. Also editor-in-chief of the Mount Mercy Times.

Honors Convocation was today at the university where I teach. And two students who served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper during their time at Mount Mercy graduated. It made me think about learning from students, as I wrote the speech honoring one of them as Student Journalist of the Year, while also mentioning the other. Several people told me they liked my remarks, so I present them here—text of my presentation at the MMU Honors Convocation:

Each year, it’s a bittersweet moment when you have to say goodbye to your graduating students. For me, as the journalism professor and faculty advisor to the Mount Mercy Times, I’m often saying farewell to students who have worked hard in their classes, and also put in countless hours to serve this university as editors of student media.

It’s both my joy and pain to have that experience twice this year. Two great editors-in-chief of the Mount Mercy Times are in the class of 2018.

Graduating nursing student Madison Coates led the newspaper in her sophomore year, and has continued writing for the paper. When something happened in the newsroom that she liked, Maddie’s response was to say “perrrfect,” with a drawn out R. Maddie, to me, you were darn near perrrfect to work with as a student and an editor.

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Maddie Coates, former Times editor-in-chief, won this year’s award from the nursing program. She receives it from nursing chair Dr. Mary Tarbox.

But today I’m here to honor the second editor-in-chief who is also graduating in the class of 2018.

As a transfer student from Kirkwood Community College, Connor Mahan began excelling early at MMU. In the fall of 2015, when our faculty series was about the legacy of the Vietnam War, Connor was one of five photographers and reporters from the Mount Mercy Times who covered the visit of the Moving Wall, a replica of the National Vietnam Memorial, to campus. During the wall’s visit, Connor made a poignant image of a young boy, holding his ears as he looked at the wall, seeking the name of a relative among the dead.

It wasn’t just any news image—Connor’s photograph was judged the best news photograph in an Iowa college news medium for the year 2015 by the Iowa College Media Association.

Anybody who has worked with Connor quickly recognizes his drive, intelligence and good humor. Life hasn’t given him all the advantages that chance doles out to others, and when he has to go somewhere to cover a story, the structure of his body dictates that it may take him a bit longer than others to get there. But that’s never held Connor back. He’s always willing to take on a new task, he is always pushing himself.

And when you compliment Connor on this hard work, his almost perrrfect answer is: “I do what I can.”

In 2016, the second potentially devastating flood in 8 years threatened Cedar Rapids, and the Mount Mercy Community joined the city in an emergency effort to erect barriers against the rising Cedar River. During that mostly successful, epic battle with rising water, Connor went to Ellis Park to cover the story. There, Connor made some news photographs of people from Mount Mercy who were filling sandbags. One of Connor’s images showed our own Father Tony Adawu handing a sandbag to an MMU student.

You probably can guess, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story. In 2017, the best news photograph in Iowa, as judged by the Iowa College Media Association, was that picture of Father Tony made by Connor Mahan. Furthermore, Connor co-wrote the Times’ news story about the flood. That story was judged by the I-C-M-A as the best news story that year.

Connor had done what he could.

In fall of 2017, the Mount Mercy Times faced a leadership crisis when the previous editor could not continue. In the paper’s hour of need, two students stepped in—one, Madelyn Orton, was a sophomore English major who served as Managing Editor.

And the new editor-in-chief, who stepped into the role because he could and because he wanted to serve the newspaper, was Connor Mahan.

I like to think that I teach some lessons to my students, but there is a flip side. One of the joys of being a professor is that I can try to live out what we say about becoming a lifelong learner. And I find that I often learn lessons from my students.

I learned something about faith and joy, the power of a positive attitude and the warmth of a perrrfect smile from Madison Coates.

And I learned that the main challenge of each day that I am blessed with is to take what I have, whatever that is, and simply to get on with it. I need to do the work I am able to do. And I think we all agree that the world would be a better place, and we would lead better lives, if we all could simply say, at the end of each day, the words of Connor Mahan: “I do what I can.”

It’s my sincere pleasure to recognized Connor Mahan as the Mount Mercy University 2018 Outstanding Student Journalist.

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Maddie with me after the ceremony.

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Mahder Habtemariam Serekberhan is also in the class of 2018–she was opinion editor of the student newspaper.

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Planting Trees on Arbor Day, 2018


eco clubWe were lucky it was a warm day. Earlier this month, we had several snowfalls in Cedar Rapids, and it seemed the ground would be pretty frosty.

But a tree planting event was scheduled for Arbor Day, today, and as luck would have it, the weather has changed. I know, Iowa, right?

Anyway, the MMU ECO Club coordinated the tree planting events, bringing 17 trees and a DNR expert to campus.

The original plans were to start at 8 a.m., but the club wisely changed that to a 10:30 a.m. start, assuming that the club and volunteers might get the trees into the ground by the planned lunch at 12:30 p.m.

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Zachary Ceresa, president of MMU Eco Club, getting ready for tree planting.

Indeed, the planting went quickly. There were probably 5 or more volunteers per tree, and although tree planting can be work, if you only have to plant one and four other people get turns at the shovel, it’s a fairly quick, fun process.

I’m a tree person. My tiny yard is virtually a forest due to all of the trees my wife and I have planted—I’m not even sure what the current tree census is at casa de Sheller, but it is quite a few.

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Rachael Murtaugh, Mount Mercy director of sustainability. She uses dandelions in all of her decorating.

And I have always enjoyed tree planting. It seems like an intuitively generous act, in a way, in that you’re trying to benefit the future—both your personal future and the future that goes on beyond you. Not all trees last that long, but many might—the group I was part of planted a sturdy 6-foot oak that, I hope, will be around for many years.

The Eco Club is interested because trees create a cascade of positive environmental impacts. I was interested in planting partly because it’s just soothing for the soul.

The day was beautiful and the volunteers plentiful. It was a fun way to mark the spring.

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DNR expert teaches us how to plant trees.

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It’s Hard to be Grumpy in London


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Daffodils blooming and Albert Memorial in background in Hyde Park, London, March 23, 2018.

Well, not if you’re a kid and you got up way too early, I suppose. And I guess my travel companions would argue that there were times Friday when I was a bit frayed at the edges, so maybe the title should be “it’s hard to stay grumpy in London.”

I like visiting large cities. The museums and shops of Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, Vancouver—I’ve been there and would willingly go back. New York City is prominent on my list of places I want to go, and if you’re planning a trip to D.C. any time, I would love to be with you.

In particular, I hope to get back to San Francisco.

But though I love all the cities on my continent, London seems like a special place. It’s so steeped in the world—more of an international crossroads than any American city. It bears the marks of its sometimes volatile, violent history. It seems a bit cleaner than many North American metros. Despite its vast size—London is a huge, sprawling city—it is also human in scale, with narrow walkways, bike paths and streets.

It’s a city of glittering, ugly new skyscrapers. But in other areas, the buildings are only 4 or 5 stories high—creating a crowded cityscape that is nonetheless more light and airy than many central urban areas.

We were lucky this year to spend spring break in England. Friday was our full day in London. We arrived Thursday and depart Saturday, and I am thrillingly awaiting my first visit to the British Museum today. Thursday was the Science Museum, an accidental stroll through Imperial College, Hyde Park and a pretentious museum in the Greenwich neighborhood that was actually a extensive advertisement for how self-consciously cool the real estate in the Greenwich Peninsula is.

The underground is loud and crowded and smells of oil and age, and I love it. As my wife and two granddaughters were on our own for the morning, my son-in-law had specified the route—take the Jubilee Line to Green Park, and switch there to the Victoria Line for the tube to South Kensington Station.

I was a little paranoid about riding the wrong way, but as Audrey pointed out, if that happens you just hop off the train and take one headed the other way.

The Science Museum, when we got there, was crowded and noisy. I spent my time chasing after grandchildren rather than strolling through the technology exhibits, which would have been my choice. Still, playing with grandchildren is a pleasant way to while away a morning, and it was a prelude to a glorious afternoon.

March in Iowa is a transition month, a mix of winter and spring that will bring 10 inches of snow today. While England saw a rare snowfall earlier in March, and the weather has been cool, it’s still very much spring here, with flowers in bloom and green grass, even if the trees have not yet woken from winter slumber. Friday afternoon was strolling in Hyde Park.

If I came here with just adults, I would be tempted to rent bicycles to see more of the park, but what I did experience on a pretty spring afternoon convinces me that one of the glories of Britain, besides the Beatles and Monty Python, is parks. Their playgrounds tend to be wood and metal and sturdy and old-fashioned, with swings and teeter totters and dangerous things that would not ever be built today in North America, where playgrounds are plastic and padded and safe and dull by comparison.

The day was also filled with food. We had lunch at a quick food shop that defies description. With its rice base and spices, I considered it Asian, but my son-in-law says it was a French fusion place. Whatever. It was filling and good and definitely not McDonalds.

And when we grew tired in the afternoon and had the early rush hour Underground journey back to our temporary apartment by the Thames, there was a stop for sticky toffee pudding. If you haven’t, perhaps the expense and time of a flight to London is worth your while to experience that dessert. I liked it, although, in full disclosure, I know from personal experience that my daughter and son-in-law can whip up an even tastier version of this treat.

The Brits don’t have a great reputation for culinary genius, but in my experience, eating in England features delightful dining. True, they invented beans on toast as a meal, but they also created fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding.

Well, God save the Queen and all of her subjects. I visited a pub in Norwich earlier this week and hoisted several pints. Cheers to England and to London, which right now is about my favorite city in all the world.

Of course, my opinion may be tainted. We’ve been hosted by my delightful oldest daughter and her family. There are two active, bouncy girls to play with and a baby boy to cuddle. That and Hyde Park—what more can one ask of a great city?

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Brief Memories of a ‘Lovely Man’


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I was biking through Noeldridge Park March 4, and noticed a few memorial trees that were decorated in memory of the departed they represent. Image from one of those memorial trees.

My wife pointed it out to me in the newspaper. There among the obituaries—Robert Keith McMaster. Bob McMaster has exited the planet, and we’re poorer for it. A long-time faculty member at Mount Mercy College, he had moved on from teaching philosophy by the time I obtained a teaching position at the college in 2001.

Bob was, by then, the director of faculty development. He checked on me during that first year of my teaching career, serving as an important mentor.

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Another decoration in a Noelridge memorial tree.

By the time I met him, the Parkinson ’s disease he lived with had advanced to the point where speech was not easy for him. It could be a challenge for him to be understood. But, he was a bright and funny man, and enjoyed contact with others. He always displayed genuine caring and concern for the faculty members he worked hard to aid.

In those days, Lundy was “the commons.” There was a pool table there, and at times a few of the old faculty members would gather on a Thursday or Friday to shoot some. McMaster was one of the leaders of that pool club, and invited me to be a part of it. He had an easy way of making someone new feel at home and part of “the gang.”

About 10 years ago, Bob retired from what had become Mount Mercy University. But in the years since, especially at parties for retiring faculty members, he’d be back, and it was always good to see him.

I have a sister who teaches at Kirkwood, but before that was an IT specialist at Mount Mercy when IT and the library were located in Lundy. When I posted a link to Bob McMaster’s obituary, she noted: “He was a really lovely man. What a loss.” Well said. The flag on campus flew at half staff in February after the tragic shooting in Florida, but it seems a fitting image for this post, too:

 

It’s sad to say goodbye, but I am glad I got to work with Bob McMaster, at least briefly near the end of his career. His passing does feel like a monumental event, like an era in Mount Mercy’s history is marked by his departure.

The world has shifted and the Atlases who carried it in the past are letting others pick up the burden. May we bear it well, but I don’t think many of us will bear it with as good a heart as Bob McMaster did.

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