After the Tempest



(Written Aug. 11, 2020, after the afternoon storm.) I would start this blog post with some pithy Shakespeare quote, but I don’t know Shakespeare well enough to quote the bard sans Google, and right now I’m pretty isolated.

Not only is the power out, but the cell phone network is apparently overloaded. I can’t Google, can’t phone anybody, can’t watch any TV—which all is OK, as long as, knock on wood, there is no medical emergency. I am just hoping the power comes back on in time to save all of the food in the fridge.

A storm of unusual ferocity blew through Iowa today. A bit after noon, the sky grew dark, our phones (they were working back then) jangled with alerts and the tornado sirens sounded. My wife and I moved our base of operations from the dining room and office where we were working (she in the office, me in the dining room) to the basement.

It was oddly still and dark. And then it was still dark, but not still. Rain started and quickly came down in horizontal sheets. We heard a big crash and then another. Safety demanded that we stay away from windows, but we couldn’t help it, we peered out of our small basement windows at a dim and grey view of wind, leaves, branches. It was amazing how little could be seen—the world disappeared into a howling shroud.

Sound—fury and thunder. The street light across the street first was on in the midday dim, then invisible and later snapped and fallen. The branches of the large ash by the street waiving as if they were saying goodbye, and they were as the tree became uprooted, falling on our vehicles and blocking our driveway.

Power lines down on C Avenue Aug. 10.

And it went on and on. I don’t know how long the storm lasted—probably not all that long in the scheme of things, but surely more than 30 minutes. It was impressive how it kept blowing and blowing. We got texts from one daughter, asking if we were OK, and we were, and then the cell phones began to get spotty.

After the big blow, rain sprinkles lingered and there were some thunder booms. We saw brave or foolish neighbors moving about and inspecting the damage. The man who lives to our east has a hole in his roof, courtesy of an ancient, tall maple tree from our backyard that had attempted to play Santa Claus but could not fit down his chimney, so it squashed it and entered the house in a more crude manner.

We were lucky. We are physically unharmed. The many sirens that sounded in our neighborhood, fire trucks racing about, were not for us.

We did get some damage. Our vehicles are a bit dented, but probably serviceable, although it will be days before we can go anywhere—a giant fallen ash tree lies across the driveway.

We saw pieces of siding strewn in the yard. I have not seen any large hole in our house, but it had to come from somewhere—possibly Vinton. There was a wading pool in the backyard that is simply gone—if you hear reports of a blue flying saucer, it may not be aliens but rather a child’s plaything. Big chunks of the back fence have fallen. Our huge old maple will be a lost cause, and possibly at least one of our giant oaks. Our tulip tree, which bloomed for the first time this year, may have also bloomed for the last time—a big part came down and we’ll have to assess if what remains can be left in the ground.

But we are fine. In the next few days, we will discover new systems—who do you call for huge downed trees that you’re too old to move? At least the ash in front belongs to the city of Cedar Rapids, so I don’t have to worry about that one.

Cleanup? It will start soon. The sky is cloudy, but the rain is gone. I’m being lazy, post storm, depending on the battery of a laptop to be able to write this.

These birds were acting very confused after ash tree uprooted in front. I think they lost their home. Reminders that we are lucky.

And I feel gratitude. 2020 is such a year. A global pandemic. A dysfunctional, divided Congress. A manifestly incompetent president. Black Lives Matter, yet there is looting in Chicago.

Katydid on sunroom screen, another displaced refugee of storm. These usually hang out high in tree canopies.

In the scheme of things, this is one more hassle that I didn’t need, but little more than that, for me. Still, it hit this city pretty hard. I don’t know the road ahead for cleanup, but on the scale of 2020, this is a sideshow.

We’re OK. I hope you are, too. After the storm, we fumbled around for batteries and got a radio working. Many local stations seem to be off the air—gone with the wind. We’re listening to NPR, and it reported the storm as an Ames and Des Moines event. Marshalltown got hit, with seems horribly unfair as they are still picking up from last year’s tornado. Later, they updated the news with reports from Cedar Rapids, and it seems the storm was indeed a big one. A curfew has been declared.

It just doesn’t seem fair to be hit with one more thing this year. But fairness isn’t what nature is all about. It just is. And so are we, we just are and we are also intact, and for that, God and universe, thank you.

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A Love Poem to Cone Flowers


Don’t get too excited. I have tried my hand a poetry in the past. I like poets and poetry, but it’s not my kind of writing, so at best this is a prose poem.

In my gardens, I have planted some of the most aggressive plants which are placed willy-nilly. I do try now and then to make plans, in gardens and in other aspects of this mortal existence, but life is what happens while you’re making other plans. (Echo of John Lennon not entirely by accident, but a bit willy-nilly).

Planning, in what goes in dirt or what happens outside of earth, is not one of my strengths. Still, my haphazard approach to what lives in the ground provides some solace in these troubled times. Milkweed has finally, after years of failed attempts, taken root at various places on my property, and I have seen some pretty butterflies this past month as a result.

Native Iowa tiger lilies threaten to choke out everything else, but in July when they burst forth in orange glory, who cares?

Cone flowers can spread like, well, weeds. But on this August 1, as I look back on a problematic and troubled July of 2020, I’ve been most pleased with the cone flowers in my gardens. So many different pollinators are found there—little black or green bees, pretty monarch butterflies, giant yellow or black swallowtails.

Yes, I know school is coming. Work demands attention. A pandemic rages. Our politics are broken in a serious election year.

But we all need to step away from the news now and then. And this July in the gardens was a glorious month.

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Goodbye to Many Years of Whimsical Art


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Seaside image from bathroom wall. Art by Amanda Moscou.

When she was in her final years of high school, my oldest child started drawing entertaining figures. We moved just before her junior year of high school, and she decorated our house, sometimes in hidden ways, with entertaining cartoons. Our old deck, replaced several years ago, had one of her figures drawn in the wood, with the caption “Theresa did it.” Theresa was one of her younger sisters—and her art was distinctive. Nobody in the family believed that Theresa did it.

Anyway, my wife, when she was ready to repaint the hallways bathroom one summer not long after we moved into the house, asked Amanda, the oldest daughter, if she would decorate the wall with some figures. In a band all the way around the small room, about 1/3 of the way up the wall and about 18 inches high, Amanda drew a fanciful beach scene. There were pirates, snack kiosks, sand castles, swimmers, mermaids. In one corner of the room, she drew a figure that looked a lot like her father, being attacked by a shark.

The images were whimsical, fun and entertaining to look at. Even the one of me being pursued by a predator.

Through several repaints of the room, my wife was able to keep that strip intact, although the pictures were becoming worn. But part of a wall had to be removed this summer for pipe repairs, and we decided to wallpaper it once we had patched the wall.

So the bathroom art, after more than 15 years,  has been covered. I did make many images of the walls, however, and prepared this video.

Amanda, I hope you don’t mind that I’m displaying your art. It was grand to have it all those years, and this way it’s partly preserved. Thanks for those images.

 

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Results May Take Years


Trowel.

Trowel ready for digging. Used it a lot this spring.

The planting in my gardens this spring has been like most springs—a bit spontaneous, not well planned. When I see a plant I like, I tend to buy it and bury it and hope for the best, which I’m sure is not the most effective gardening strategy.

Sometimes, although I try to pay attention to each plant’s needs, results are poor. The year before last I planted some new peonies—I like the peonies that I have, but they’re all pink and I want some variety. The plants came up last spring, but did not bloom—and I figured, oh well, next year. This spring? Oh well, they’re back, they’re bare and I can only hope for some peony variety in 2021.

Don’t get me started on the dreaded iris. I’ve interred many an iris bulb in what must be the ancient iris burial grounds of my gardens. The iris bulbs decompose and become fertilizer for sterile peonies, I suppose. I had a small cluster of Siberian irises that I liked and hoped would spread. They were pretty, but instead of growing and spreading, they acted like any passing fad or craze. They were hot one year, faded the next, and now, AWOL. The only irises I have are ones shared by my sister—Cate, what is your iris secret? What hex did you put upon these plants that makes that one cluster of them grow vigorously? Can you exorcise the iris demons from my gardens?

I also have many “flowering” trees that never flower. I had a dogwood tree down by the fence that grew weakly for year and after year for more than a decade, barely holding on, but not dying. One year a few years ago, it bloomed and I thought “good.” But last year the tree was mostly dead and bare of flowers. It was totally dead this year. Now it’s just a stump. I still have a dogwood tree because I planted another—but the new tree is young and has not bloomed.

I have two catalpa trees, which have showy, white June flowers—in the rest of the universe. Mine seem fine, but must be monk trees who take their vow of celibacy seriously.

My apple trees, unlike crab apples, which bloom profusely, remain stubbornly shy.

And then there is the tulip tree. It is approaching it’s second decade of life and is huge. It’s not the largest tree in the backyard yet, but is shooting up and is among the tallest. This spring was the first in which it actually had any flowers.

Tulip tree flower.

Flower high up in tulip tree. It blooms!

Two, to be exact. Well, that’s two more than none. Knock on wood, may the curse of the dogwood not be upon you. Don’t fade and die from the energy expenditure of producing a few flowers.

The linden tree by the sandbox is getting big. It’s a pleasant shade tree, that one of these years should have sweet smelling spring flowers. But not yet.

Still, I carry on. Sometimes gardening just teaches patience. Peonies will bloom in their own time. I’m grateful for even two tulip tree flowers, and the trees will try to reproduce when they are ready, not when I’m ready.

And last week I found a four-leaf clover in my yard. It’s been the theme of this summer—me finding those. I’ve also found several at parks. Maybe I’m looking down too much.

Four-leaf clover.

What I saw in the yard last week. I must have overlooked it before.

I have some annual vines showing—moon flowers and morning glories. I’ve long tried planting these, with little results. But I found a four-leaf clover, if it brings luck maybe 2020 will bring some of those blooms.

And milkweed is spreading and growing vigorously.

A swallowtail butterfly likes the new rhododendron we planted this year. Three hollyhock plants are looking healthy in front—I had hollyhocks in the past, but in recent years they had become members of the iris club and boycotted my gardens.

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In life in general, this is a very yard year. We thought the pandemic was bad enough, but our politics and government are so broken that all kinds of other issues are piling on. Still, the plants in the gardens carry on, living life at their own pace, deciding for themselves when to bloom. The spontaneous gardener looks on and gets some pleasure out of the results.

In the birch tree in front, young robins demand to be fed. An angry cardinal squawks at me from near its “secret” nest deep in the trumpet vine, and tries to lead me away.

I comply, and follow. May your nest in that blooming vine yield a good hatching. It’s too well hidden for me to see if you’re raising young there, but maybe that’s a good sign.

Gardening teaches patience and appreciation for what I have, which I would rather emphasize than regrets for plans or plants that don’t bear fruit.

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Class of 2020: Good Luck on your Yellow Brick Road


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Sr. Catherine McAuley statute on Rohde Family Plaza in uniform of 2020.

In 1982, the year I graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree, I didn’t have a job lined up. I had interviewed that spring with a small weekly newspaper in Minnesota, and although I was a finalist for the editor’s job there, I didn’t get it.

Which probably was a blessing. I was engaged to a nursing student from the same college (Marycrest College in Davenport, Iowa) that I was graduating from, and my future  and current wife, Audrey, was not impressed by the 16-bed country hospital in Nowhere, Minnesota. She wanted a bigger hospital to get more experience as she started her healthcare career.

But there was a deep national recession going on. Unemployment that year reached levels never seen since the Great Depression. This was before the farm crisis of the mid 1980s, but economic times in the Midwest were not good, and it did not feel like a great year to be launched into the cruel real world—engaged, unemployed, uncertain of my future.

For me, the scary picture turned around quickly. My wife had a job offer from the University of Missouri-Columbia Hospital, and I made an embarrassing attempt to talk myself into a job at the “Columbia Tribune,” where an editor looked down at me and told me he just hired from the giant journalism factory at the local state university.

But, 20 miles away was the small town of Boonville, Missouri, where the “Boonville Daily News” was looking for a sports editor. My part-time job during my senior year in college was as a sports correspondent for the “Quad City Times,” so I had plenty of clips about sports, an activity I had assiduously avoided my entire life. And I got that job, and Audrey started her career at the UMCH and later we both earned graduate degrees from that nearby university.

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Looking up from Grotto towards Warde Hall this odd spring–but spring nonetheless.

Class of 2020: This year makes 1982 look mild and tame. The “greatest unemployment rate since the Great Depression” was over 10 percent, but nowhere near the unprecedented economic meltdown we’re experiencing now under COVID-19. There was a Republican president in office in 1982, a Hollywood star many people thought ill-suited for the job—but little did we know the scale of showbiz incompetence our political leadership could descend to during the pandemic of 2020.

In 1982, I at least got to attend my own college graduation on the grassy central campus of Marycrest. You’ll be watching yours from MMU via YouTube.

So, it is difficult to be graduating from college in 2020. But it’s still your day, your life is still ahead of you, and nobody knows the next twists and turns fate has in store for you.

The world is full of challenges, but it always was and always will be. This pandemic is a tragedy that is still unfolding, but it will unfold. It will get better. Of course, in the short term it could get worse before it gets better, but life isn’t only lived in the short term.

As a university professor, honestly, I am bored every year by the commencement ceremony where my part is to put on a ridiculous outfit and sit there as a set piece in a rather formal, repetitive ritual. To amuse myself, and because I think it is a bit of service to Mount Mercy, I shoot and post images of graduation events.

And this year, I miss it. I would give a lot to sit there and be bored during your graduation, just for the joy of gathering to celebrate you. There is a lot that I miss this weekend—the reception after the Honors Convocation when you often get to meet your brightest students’ families, the energy in the gym as new nurses-to-be get their pins, the morning Mass on the day of commencement when singing and flowers bring seniors and their families to joyous tears, seeing the creative ways students decorate their hats before the commencement ceremony, the hugs and goodbyes after commencement that you hope are only temporary.

 

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I miss it all. It saddens me that we can’t be together on this commencement day and this weekend.

But still you commence. The next phase of your life is unfolding.

I wish you the best. And I want you to remember that Dorothy didn’t know how she would get to the Emerald City when she put her first foot on the Yellow Brick Road. You’re deep in a virus-caused evil enchanted forest, and it’s hard to know when you will see the light of day again.

Yet, there will be light. I hope it’s not too far ahead. And I hope that like me, even if you feel inadequate on the day of your commencement, that this day leads to better future days. May it become the start of an educated life well lived.

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The Backyard Revolution is Underway


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April 30–One of my apple trees has buds. First time in a decade.

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April 30–Second magnolia tree in bloom.

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May 1–Pin oak by house has new leaves. All maples in the yard have leaves now, and oaks are starting to wake up.

Last year, it was clover.

This year, it’s going to be violets and dandelions.

At the start of this May, spring in Iowa is entering it’s final, peony and lilac, phase. The early flowers are gone, the grass is green and needs mowing, the fruit trees are bursting into bloom and even the big trees are showing fuzzy signs of swelling greed buds that means everything is coming awake and alive.

In the time of COVID-19, I’m glad to see these signs of life. And something has awoken the revolution, too. Maybe it’s that life just seems too short or that grass is too hard to grow and too boring.

But my wife and I have plans. A plot is afoot. We want our backyard to burst forth in blooms.

Last year, we planted clover. Much of it is coming back, and I look forward to a carpet of flowers later this year. My wife has noticed some wild violets in the yard, and declared her love for them. She checked Amazon, and sure enough, one can order seeds. So she did. And we will sow them among the clover in the yard.

She has also declared an abiding affection for that prettiest and most controversial of perennial plants—the dandelion. So I plan to leave that saw-toothed spreader unmolested in my backyard, and why not? Grass doesn’t really grow there, dandelions may as well.

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I would say it’s all for the bees, and it partly is. But mostly it’s for the people. We are too old for the boring carpet look of a poisonous, uniform bed of grass.

Sure, we plant grass seed each year in bare spots, and I’m not saying we won’t again. But I do like the clover. And I agree about the violets and even the dandelions.

Bring on the revolution.

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The Great Outdoors Lets Us Be Together Alone


Life in the time of the Pandemic:

Mary Vermilion wrote a great blog post about how this time is full of conflicting, but understandable, emotional states. Mourning for the normalcy that is suddenly gone. Gladness that we can find a way. Happy to do my part, but sad that this silent killer is stalking our lives.

But it is also tiring to be so constantly torn between emotional poles.

And that’s when I escape outside. Sometimes, while caring for a young grandson, that means a nice hike in a mostly-deserted park (my wife an I have almost made a sport of trying to plot where the most pleasant walks will be with the least people, and we’ve been pretty good at it). Most often, it means a bicycle ride, which I’ve written about on my bike blog.

It’s odd to be “sheltering in place” but to still have access to the great outdoors. There is still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, but we’re fairly confident that avoiding proximity to other humans is the main way to foil this mindless killer. So, I wash my hands, and wear a bandana (mostly for others’ protection) on bicycle rides.

Spring has turned Iowa green. On the Mount Mercy campus, pear trees by the library are bursting with flowers. The campus is ahead of my yard—magnolias, lilac, peonies, crab apples and bluebells are ready to bloom and each day act like they may burst. But not quite yet.

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Grass that we planted in mid-March is finally starting to show. Smaller trees have young new leaves, but the big older ones are still not out of their winter slumber.

And I take it all in. It is a wonderful world. Although even in that joyful thought there is sorrow. It’s also a world of COVID-19, crazy presidents, protesters who falsely equate social distancing public health rules with tyranny and civil rights. Presidents and people can be idiots.

But flowers are still there. The sweet, fresh sights of an Iowa spring—may we tune into the small joys of this sorrowful seasons and carry on. I guess I seek the quiet beauty of nature to remind myself of the you, that the universe is wonderful and doesn’t revolve around me, and to keep hope alive.

I suppose it’s another form of privilege to live in a place where there is some space and I can get outdoors. If you live in such a place, please enjoy the beauty of spring with me—at a distance. If you are in a place where proximity won’t allow it, I am sorry for that reality.

May we get, through sane action, to a new reality that will allows us to be together again.

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And the Snow is Gone by Lunchtime


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Iowa in April: We’ve had a few dustings of snow this week, but last night Mother Nature got a bit more serious.

Several inches of wet snow fell overnight. It’s hard to say how much, because the weather is finally warming up a bit, and the snow was accumulating on grass and tree branches, but melting elsewhere.

As I write this, I’m enjoying a sandwich for lunch and looking out on a world where the sun is starting to shine and most of the snow is already gone.

I don’t know if this is the final snow, but on April 17, it’s possible. In the next few days, we’ll see what damage the killing freezes of the week did—but probably not much. Plants that emerge early in the spring in this climate are usually able to take some chilling.

Anyway, I am one of those crazy Midwestern souls who can’t bring myself to hate snow. I tire of it, at times, and am not fond of any travel on slick roads—but snow is humbling, and pretty.

And this snow will pass quickly. May our adverse conditions prove transient, too!

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Students Have Some Things to Say


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Image is a link to the “Mount Mercy Times” blog page.

I think this blog by MMU Times students is starting to take off. Check it our, I hope that you will like it.

The most recent post is by a student sharing ideas for students with mental health issues, such as he has.

The first post on the site was a nice slice of life (pun based on a bread theme) from a student at home.

timesflagI advise this newspaper staff and am proud of what they are doing here. The staff has struggled with how to keep student media relevant for a university whose campus is largely shut down, and this is one creative response. Student life continues, even if that life is spread out to the homes students came from.

And I might have written about this topic on my media blog, but Facebook consistently blocks any links to that blog, and, of course, is too busy to explain to any content creators why their content is blocked. I’ve “objected,” several weeks ago, but the Facebook pointless censorship remains in place. I hope this paragraph with the “forbidden link” doesn’t make that pattern spread to this blog!

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Iowa Spring Enters Phase 2


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Thursday morning–the first tulip blooms.

Green!

March in Iowa is usually a spring month, but one that can have lots of winter—and in some years, winter lingers well into that month.

This year was a cool, but mild March. Both snow and rain fell, but we tended to rain with no persistent snow pack. All month, signs of impending spring were around, with flowers poking up out of the thawing grounds, and, a bit over halfway through the month, early flowers bursting forth.

Now it is April, and although snow would still not be abnormal, spring is taking hold. They are small and not terribly numerous yet, but on a warm afternoon you notice that there are insects again in the world—gnats on a bike trail or tiny spring bees darting among the squill.

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Small bee on flower.

We have entered phase 2 of Iowa spring. In my garden, April 2 is the day that the first hyacinth, daffodil and tulip all bloomed. Most tulips are not even showing buds yet, and some in front have been eaten by rabbits, but the early ones are in bloom. Many more daffodil buds, but just one flower today.

The trees are bare, but many are showing swelling buds. The magnolia has not yet bloomed, but its buds are cracking. Lilac bushes are staring to have the “bunch of grapes” look of flower buds. Crab apples are pushing out their first early spring leaves, which have not really unfurled yet.

I am pleased to see lots of clover in the muddy back yard that features only limited grass. I had almost no clover there last year and planted a bunch. I hope this summer features a blooming lawn. All around, the brown world has shifted, as yards are starting to show that the grass is waking up.

And in this season of isolation, enjoying signs of new life is especially important. Nature carries on, so will we!

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