On the Edge of Peonies and Clover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Environment, Flowers, Food, Garden, Weather

Memories of Mad Scientists and Martians

Don’t try these experiments at home …

When did the experiments begin and why?

And how did they go so terribly wrong?

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

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

Dr. Huckalalee, I presume.

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

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

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

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

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

Profile of a mad scientist

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

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

“Be kind to your presser-button friend,

For the Boobelizer may be somebody’s mother

He lives on a planet called Mars

Where the Weather is Dry and Cold”

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

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

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

The next generation of dangerous science.

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

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

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

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

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

“Love Potion Number Nine” by the Searchers:

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

“The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton:

“Kentucky Rain” by Elvis Presley:

“Poke Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White:

“MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris:

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

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

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

Paging Dr. Huckalalee …

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Surviving the Pandemic Part 3: The Mad Scramble for Needles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell yes.

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

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

Well, hooray. Hallelujah. Bah. Humbug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our Year of Living Dangerously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Environment, Flowers, Freedom, Garden, History, Memories, politics, Science, Weather

The Stump Spring Will Bring Sunny Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Flowers, Garden, Weather

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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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