Feeding Birds Below Zero


Unlit Christmas light on front porch, with snow, on cold Dec. 26 morning.

Bitter cold settled in the day after Christmas, 2017.

The temperature was below zero Fahrenheit. A bit of a breeze was blowing, and the weather app on my phone said the resulting wind chill was around 16 below. Despite the sunshine, it’s a cold winter morning.

Such weather is not completely terrible news—a cold snap should help germinate milkweed seeds, for example. And warm weather pests will be reduced in number.

The bird feeders were mostly empty, and I presumed the neighborhood avian dinosaurs probably wanted some calories, so I donned my boots, hat, gloves and coat and headed out.

It was indeed cold, but not as uncomfortable as I expected. While low temperatures make for an impressive wind chill factor, the air was thankfully not moving much—and zero degree air is still nose breathable. Dress for it and don’t stay out too long, and you’re OK.

The hardest part was undoing my anti-squirrel wires on the feeders with gloves on. I normally do this bare handed, but not today. The awkwardness was worth it for the anti-cold protection.

I poured seeds into two feeders and opened a new suet cake, then put the feeders back up and put the wires in place. Then I hid by a playhouse for a few minutes to see if any birds were ready for their snack.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There is a particular woodpecker who shows up often, and he was first to arrive. He’s fairly brave, visiting the feeder when I’m 15 yards away or so. I snapped a few images. Another bird arrived, a small grey one who usually grabs and goes. He (or she, not sure with this kind of bird) came and went quickly, as usual.

I only shot images for a few minutes. It was time to go inside and warm up—and look out at the feeders from behind window panes for the rest of the day.


Leave a comment

Filed under Garden, Weather

And as a Bonus, Snow Started Falling


Christmas cookies, baked by Katy, decorated by adults in a contest judged by daughter and son-in-laws who could not be there. I am sad to say that “Red Dwarf,” my thick, red star, did not win.

Merry Christmas, 2017—there are still some presents wrapped in the living room, so after Mass this morning, I’ll get to find out what my wife bought for me. For her, there will be less mystery because she was with me when I selected most of her gifts, and by “I” I mean “she.”

Still, we are going inexpensive this year with only a few low-key gifts, deliberately. We purchased a second vehicle this fall, and are counting the Dodge Dart as our main mutual Christmas gift. And there is one box that she doesn’t know the contents of—containing nothing of expense or of consequence, other than I wanted her to have at least some small surprises.

I hope you and yours are enjoying family and friends this holy holiday season, and whether you celebrate the birth of the Christ child, the secular gift-giving winter (or summer) school break or neither, I wish for you the joy of loving human connection this season of kin.

Although there are some presents still present in my house, our main Christmas celebration fell on Christmas Eve. Our oldest son and his wife were able to fly out from San Francisco for a week, and most of our local clan gathered—daughters from Dubuque, Marion, Monticello; and a son from Ames.

The house was full of noise and chaos on Christmas Eve, with the sounds of a few Christmas songs played on the piano by my oldest son mixed with jazz improvisations, especially when grandchildren decided to join in. Play was constant and boisterous. One son-in-law and grandson had to skip the party due to illness, which somehow seems true to family tradition, but it was good to have a full, loud house at this time of year.


At the piano.

The youngest grandson didn’t get his nap in, and it did show by the end of the day, but that’s just life.

We had a full Thanksgiving-style Christmas dinner, with turkey and most of the trimmings (we skip the cranberries and other fancy salads, and had been snacking all day on Christmas cookies, so pie wasn’t in the picture, but otherwise it’s the full TG deal, cooked almost exclusively by my wife). After stuffing ourselves with stuffed turkey, it was time for the big gift opening, which involved a few presents for adults, but mostly the grandchildren’s gifts.


Chaos of gift opening. Scooter, used as chair, is headed my way so grandson can sit on it and chat.

Several gifts were immediate hits. Two grandsons loved the remote-control spider that their grandmother found for them. A scooter for a 2-year-old from an aunt and uncle was mostly a pushed platform that performed as an impromptu moveable chair, but it was very much in use. A doctor kit led the daughters of a mother who is in the final stages of studying to be a nurse to become a medical team treating an ailing patient (said mom). Treating her included laying on her stomach and poking her face with various toy plastic medical instruments, and I’m happy to report she survived treatment, although it looked a bit dicey for a while.

The gathering was slightly delayed. For one thing, again true to Christmas tradition, we were missing a few items and there was a last-minute shopping trip. For another, Mother Nature made morning travel a bit hazardous with her own gift to us.

A White Christmas! We are in a mild drought in this part of Iowa, and true to form winter so far has been mostly dry, with just a few flurries here and there. The best chance of snow in the forecast was Friday, and while there were flakes in the air that day, it amounted to no accumulation on the ground.

But Christmas Eve started with genuine white stuff. Not a lot, maybe three-fourths of an inch, but enough to make it officially white out. As the snow ended mid day, it turned cold and will be bitterly cold today, Christmas Day, but only in a weather sense. Inside, we’ll look out on a pretty white world and think of a coming new year, of an ancient birth and its meaning, and of family—it will be pretty warm.

All in all, thanks Mother Nature. And Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to us all and to you all. God bless us every one.

Eve Snow

Leave a comment

Filed under Food, Grandchildren, holidays

Sisters are Doing it for Themselves



MMU President Laurie Hamen speaks about Sister Shari Sutherland Dec. 12, 2017, in atrium of Busse Library.

When you think of a Catholic nun, what picture comes to your mind? A “penguin outfit” and a strict disciplinarian like from “Blues Brothers?” Or is it something cute but out of place in the modern world like a sister from “Sister Act?”

aa01We had a reception today at Mount Mercy for a complex, intelligent woman who has left her mark on the university. Sister Shari Sutherland is retiring at the end of the year as VP of mission and ministry.

MMU President Laurie Hamen told a little story about Sr. Shari. The then newly minted leader of MMU was to travel with her to Omaha to be presented to a Sisters of Mercy leadership group, and thus got in a car with Sister Shari on a cold winter morning. As they started off, however, they saw someone dressed in scrubs out in the cold. Sister Shari directed Laurie to stop the car and asked, “Where are you going, friend?”

The stranger was headed to HyVee, but didn’t have any money. Sister Shari gave them some of her own, and someone got a ride to the grocery store before a new university president and nun left town.

Of course, when you think of the story, your heart is warmed by the goodness it displays. Then again, it’s also a story of quick decision making, taking risks, facing life with courage and swift action. How typical of a Sister.

I recently read an article that, sadly, as I wrote this I could not find again. But it was a reflection of how the Christian view of Mary, mother of Jesus, is sometimes flawed because we seem to think of her as meek and passive. But in the Gospel, when an angel comes to tell Mary she’ll have a baby, she doesn’t just say, “sure,” she first asks some pointed questions. And when she says “OK, God, we’ll do this,” she says it on her own, without consulting anybody. Sort of like a Sister.

Sisters are doing it for themselves. I’m not sure why Sister Shari’s retirement made me think of Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox, but it did. And while I didn’t find the most recent article on Mary that I was thinking of, I did appreciate this similar essay by Father James Martin in Slate.

Sister Shari was an encouraging presence at MMU and also a force to be reckoned with. She has spunk, intelligence, humor and backbone. I felt honored that I rang with her when there was a bell choir and occasionally was blessed by her during Mercy Week ceremonies. She was an early supporter of the idea of a Fall Faculty Series, and one of the hidden movers and shakers that helped that effort take off.


Photo from event celebrating Sister Shari’s 50th anniversary in Sisters of Mercy.

There was another theme at the retirement reception, too. It doesn’t end here. The mission of the Sisters of Mercy is carried on by those of us who attempt to understand the spirit of Mercy, and who work and teach at a Mercy University.

Sister Shari, you were part of the gas in the tank at MMU. Your smile and grace and humor and strength will be sorely missed. On the other hand, if the baton gets passed, the next runner must run. The university, like the dude, abides. And the best way to honor you Sister Shari, I suppose, is to keep the faith, light the fire, work the mission, teach the students and carry on.

Before that, however, let me pause and say thanks for the help you gave me and all of us at MMU in ways big and small.

And, also, a song that makes me think of both Mary and of you, Sister Shari:


Leave a comment

Filed under Mount Mercy

Finished with Fall Planting


Pretty fall oak leaf seen in my backyard during bulb planting this October.

If all goes well, there will be new Crocus, tulips, Daffodils and Iris in my gardens and yard come spring. I think I actually finished the bulb planting around the end of October or so, and followed that up with some additional seed planting.

My RAGBRAI Team Joe pals, in honor of my missing the final two days of the ride this year with some health issues, had saved me some Milkweed seed balls from the ride. I had also retrieved a seed balls few at the Indian Creek Nature Center during a fall event there.

Besides the clay balls loaded with Milkweed seeds, my wife had also collected some seeds directly from plants growing in the ditch outside our son’s apartment building when we visited him during fall break.

I planted the clay balls in late October when the bulbs when in the ground (Milkweed is sewn on the surface—“planting” clay seed balls meant just placing the balls on the soil surface). On Nov. 5, I separated the seeds from the fluff and proceeded with planting. The balls has already been placed either in gardens or at the edge of woods along Dry Creek behind our house. The seeds went in the same areas—gardens and wood’s edge.

I have high hopes for most of the bulbs. Come spring, crocus will be poking up in the yard, while Tulips and Daffodils will appear in gardens. Iris? I plant them pretty much every year and have very limited luck. Not sure why, but it’s just the way the garden grows. Still, here’s hoping for some new Iris next year.

And the Milkweed? I try to plant some every fall. I do have a few “butterfly flower” plants I put in last year that came back this year, so my gardens aren’t totally free of Monarch butterfly habitat, but I want to do more to aid those majestic insects. Maybe, with some luck, some of these Milkweed seeds will push up next spring. We’ll see!

Leave a comment

Filed under Garden, Weather

Wanting Something to Rot in the Ground


Danny Mishek, president of SelfEco.

I saw a cool product today. and I wish it was readily available each spring.

Danny Mishek, president of SelfEco, a company in Stillwater, Minnesota, gave the annual Barbara A. Knapp lecture at Mount Mercy University. In his speech, he told about how his company makes two product lines: plastic eating utensils and plastic plant pots. The hook is that both product lines are produced mostly from corn stalks and roots—they are plant-based, biodegradable plastics.

And the pots, which rot away in the ground, also have fertilizer embedded into their structure.


SelfEco seed-starting pots. Danny Mishek gave them to me. Now I have to figure out what seeds I want to start next year ….

I want them. I want all the plants I buy for my garden next spring to come in them. May the idea grow and spread. Mishek said 4.2 billion garden pots are sold annually, with only 2 percent recycled. His pots don’t need to be either tossed or recycled—you simply plant the plant, which feasts on the fertilizer at its roots as the pot decomposes.

“If something is going into a landfill, it’s a missed opportunity,” Mishek said.

He showed pictures of forks, plates and champagne flutes his company also produces, with the idea that these are again put in a compost pile rather than tossed or recycled.

It was, to me, a pretty inspiring speech. Of course, as a gardener, the idea of not having to de-pot my flowers immediately appealed to me, but Mishek’s company is doing something important that can help solve a big environmental problem.

I enjoyed the presentation, even if it included a rather famously debunked quote that is often attributed to Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you WIN!”

I’m not sure what made me google for a source, but those words just didn’t sound like Gandhi, to me. In fact, they did not come from him. PolitiFact and Snopes.com have both dealt with the quote—PolitiFact checked into it when Donald Trump tweeted that quote during the campaign last year.


Dr. Tracy Tunwall, fauclty chair, introduces the speaker.

As usual, you can’t trust a Trump tweet. Then again, Polifact notes that both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton referenced the same words and falsely attributed them to Gahndi. And, although not really from Gandhi at all, the words reflect a nice thought that did fit the speech well.

Anyway, that’s all an aside. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Mishek speak, and thought he peppered his remarks with good advice for students. For instance, he noted to students that they would all be judged—it’s inevitable. That should motivate you to do good things so that “they will judge you for being awesome.”

He also noted that making choices is a key in life. “You only have so much energy. You can’t put 25 hours into a day,” he said.

Nice words. You can’t put 25 hours into a day. Probably, as it nears midnight, that means it’s time for me to go to bed. I won’t try to put more hours into this day. But after the speech, when I thanked Mr. Mishak for his interesting words, he gave me a sample package of pots.

I may not put more hours into a day—but I’m looking forward next spring for finding reasons to put these pots in the ground!

Leave a comment

Filed under Flowers, Garden, Mount Mercy, Science

The Earth Has A Tickle in its Throat


Dr. Drew Dellinger, poet and prose writer, speaks at Mount Mercy Oct. 26, 2017, as part of the Fall Faculty Series and Visiting Writer program.

The message of writer Dr. Drew Dellinger is relevant and important: We live on a fragile small rock moving through space, and maybe we should learn to act like it.

That is, we are of the Earth, rooted in the planet where we reside, formed from the same old stars were our carbon and other trace elements were compressed from hydrogen, made of that universal dust and lava and DNA—in short, as he said, “things aren’t even ‘things.’” That is, our temporary existence on this planet is rooted in the sacredness and magic that science helps us discern in life and objects all around us.


2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

And Earth is not happy. These are not good times for her carbon-based life forms which are all related to each other and all interconnected—not good because one of those life forms seems determined to deny its connection to the whole, and to behave in ways that threaten the habitability of our common home.

About 40 people attended Dellinger’s talk this evening at Mount Mercy University. During the speech, called “Planetize the Movement: Ecology, Justice, Cosmology, and Democracy,” Dellinger emphasized research he has done into Martin Luther King—according to Dellinger, King’s was an early voice talking about the connection between ecology and social justice.

Repeatedly, Dellinger said, King used language like: “All I’m saying is that all life is interconnected.” That unity between social justice and concern for the planet is what Dellinger said needs to be urgent now.

At the end of his speech, he read one of his poems. His voice caught for a minute—as he noted, people are not separate from the Earth, but of it, and in this case, Earth had a bit of a tickle in one of its throats. After a drink, a small living sliver of Earth continued.

“It’s 3:23 in the morning and I’m awake because my great-great-grandchildren won’t let me sleep. My great-great-grandchildren ask me in dreams … what did you do while the Earth was unravelling?”

“What did you do once you knew?”

Those sound like important words to ponder.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

#RadicalModeratesUnite! Protest 101

Dr. Taylor Houston

Dr. Taylor Houston, assistant professor of sociology at Mount Mercy University.

I’m not sure I’m cut out for this protest business. Sure, I marched for science. I am also the proud brother of sisters, many of who sport “those” pink hats. And yet, I don’t want to divide the world into “us” and “them.” That may be a necessary step, however, if I aspire to run a successful “movement” to enact social change.

And I do. I’m so concerned about the doughnut shape of our current politics—about the hollowing out of the middle and our migration into like-minded, competing, hostile camps farther on the left and right that I want to close the cap, bridge the divide, put the hole back in the doughnut.

I want a middle, darn it. I don’t want to act so surprised that former President Bush has some intelligent things to say. I don’t want to associate with folks who find the Obamas—surely one of the strongest, healthiest, most traditional and respectable nuclear families to inhabit the White House since, I don’t know, ever—so objectionable on a personal level that only invective can describe them.

I want to be able to respect a President, Democrat or Republican. The present President has exempted himself from that instinct, by the way, due to gross incompetence, rampant narcissism, corrosive ignorance and pervasive use of racist dog whistles—I can only respect a Republican who wants to serve America and serve as president to all of her citizens. If the last nine months have taught us anything, it’s that, left or right, GOP or Democrats, we should acknowledge that the crazy old man who temporary resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not that President. He needs the apprentice treatment—to be told “you’re fired”—ASAP.


2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

Yeah, I know, I’m deviating from my core message. Trump bashing is not helpful while I am trying to say “up the middle!” I say it because there will be a U.S beyond the Trump era, and I do want an America where there is a hint of compromise and competence among our political elites.

#Makepoliticsworkagain. #ItsnotthenewsthatsfakeDon.

Anyway, Dr. Taylor Houston, assistant professor of sociology, gave an interesting talk tonight at Mount Mercy University Oct. 24 as part of our 2017 Fall Faculty Series. His speech was called: “Protest 101: How to be an Effective Activist.”

He noted early that he wasn’t really going to give any complete recipe, but rather some sociological perspective on what makes movement successful, and some advice for would-be activists. I can’t fault the content of what he said—he seemed to base his remarks clearly on good social science—but some aspects of his talk were disconcerting.

For example, to have a successful social change movement, it’s very helpful early on to define an enemy, so you can court cohesion among “your” allies by having a “them” to attack.


Bah, humbug. I wish it weren’t so—more divisiveness seems to be just what we don’t need—but as a communication tactic, I have to concede the advice is completely valid.

Other points Dr. Houston made included:

  • Watch for your WUNC. “The strength of a movement is determined by its WUNC,” Houston noted. That is, a movement needs to have Worthiness (from the point of view of the people who support it), Unity, Numbers and Commitment. Those interplay in interesting ways, he noted. For example, “numbers” doesn’t have to be a majority—the TEA Party movement has successfully reshaped the Republican Party with relatively small numbers, but enough commitment and key strength in primary races to make its mark. WUNC. Get some. A lot, actually.
  • Start local. If you want media attention, you’re more likely to get it from local journalists. If you want to influence conditions in Cedar Rapids, Mayor Ron Corbett is a much easier to influence than President Tangerine Hair Nightmare (sorry, slipping again. Mr. Drumpf does that to me).
  • protest2

    Man at the speech handed me this. An invite! I’m invited to protest!

    Send an invite. The most important step to get fellow travelers to sign on to your movement is to do something and ask others who are like minded to join in. “People who care the most are the most likely to get involved,” Houston noted. “Those mostly likely to be involved are those who have been asked.”

Houston had much more to say—about framing a message, for example. About how starting a movement is a lot easier than actually accomplishing a goal—and we seem to excel at making noise but fall short at knowing what to do next.

So, what movements do I want to start? As I noted, I’m ready for some radical compromisers. For people who are willing to “make it work.”

And, secondly, I still want to start the Pollinator Garden Movement at MMU.

Join me, friends. Let’s try to talk and find common ground. And let’s also grab our rakes and plant some Milkweed seeds!


Went for a bike ride around Cedar Lake before tonight’s speech. And saw this. Milkweed! We need more of it. So say “us.” Not “them.” Darn them, anyhow.

OK, as I said, I don’t see this protest thing as coming naturally to me. Still, I found Dr. Houston’s talk fascinating, especially when he complimented the crowd for filling Betty Cherry on “the start of winter.”

Oh, you poor southern sociologist, from the Texas city of your family name. Winter is coming.

Leave a comment

Filed under Garden, Journalism, Mount Mercy, Weather