Wednesday, January 28, 2009

my life sometimes borders on the frantically busy, what with teaching too many hours, and having kids at home and lots of pressure, my wife writing a book and all, and things happening left and right. so when i actually get to drive somewhere, i turn on a miriam makeba cd that i got for christmas, all of her best, it seems, and it lifts me, no matter how often i've heard it. and, we got a snow day, not just one (today) but another tomorrow, it seems, really they're ice days, the town is glazed over, and everyone's afraid to go anywhere. we were out of milk today and at about noon i decided to go for some, but got about 100 feet before i realized our own street, unplowed, would be the worst part of the trip, and any uphill would be completely out of the question. a pure ice/snow mixture spun under my tires as i tried to get to the main road which would be better plowed and salted.

when i drive around i try my best to contain myself, stay in the speed limit, look at something i've seen maybe a million times, and not get bored. today, it was all covered with ice and snow, which was different, and it was still coming down in the form of sleet, making visibility out the window even less. the town was relatively empty, everyone staying home & following the radio's orders, don't go out unless necessary. you gotta have milk though, i thought, and plowed on. it reminded me of a time i was living in iowa, out toward wellman, and had a friend near kalona who lived a bit wilder life than i did, she was pregnant, and when a blizzard came she'd get friends to bring stuff out and stay a few days. but on one particular blizzard she was alone and out of milk, and i agreed to take her to get some, but we couldn't take the hill right near her house, had to go around, on a long windy road that curved through amish country by a house with a pink porch. it was right near this house that my volkswagen went into a skid on the icy snow, and headed straight toward a horse and buggy that was coming right toward us with an amish family in it. the brakes of course were useless; we were on ice. finally at the last second, i steered away, and the car slammed into a snowbank maybe seven feet high; white snow now surrounded all four windows, but we were all miraculously ok; it was a very soft landing. the amish family was ok too, just a bit shaken, but there was no way to call for a tow, since nobody had phones for miles.

why am i thinking of this now? don't know, though at my window, the sleet continues; the neighborhood is white; we're not going anywhere. today, i came home with the milk; my own street was again the worst, almost left my car on it; but, i was home, basically, i'd made it; i could walk the milk home if i had to. the whole thing is a kind of forced, contained, family vacation; snow white and cold, no traffic, just us, hanging around the house, playing football in the snow or even baseball, sliding in the slippery ice. our pants were wet, and, caught unprepared, we had no hot cocoa. i'd forgotten; at the store i could have bought anything, but was in kind of a hurry to get home.

they say front-wheel drive is supposed to deal with this stuff better, but when i got back to my own street i noticed that it wasn't helping, i was spinning my wheels a lot, yet i could go backwards ok, maybe because reverse is a lower gear. similarly, later in the afternoon, i was sitting in my chair, and the mail truck came by; he was maybe the only other car that had braved the street in the entire day. but he was going backwards. apparently he'd reached the same conclusion; reverse was easier, and at least it worked. didn't see a snowplow or another car all day.

i have tons of work, not only homework, but frantic catching up on the usual semester, two classes, busy schedule, etc. etc. but instead, i set it all down, and sat a lot, drank a lot of coffee, and watched the sleet. kahwuleza, i sang to myself, which is zulu for "run and hide," maybe, or something, i'm not sure. i'm grateful, really, for the soft landing, a house that is maybe very cold and drafty in its unfinished barnlike upstairs, but downstairs, windows, couch, cats tearing around with a bit of cabin fever, kids who are all, of course, out of school and a little bored. you can't make a snowman; it's pretty much ice. no, we won't have hot cocoa until we go out again, and that won't be right away. not much music, either, except what's left in my head, even now late at night, though i will say this: sleet makes a steady little pitter-patter, which, like tires on crunchy ice-snow, is a sound entirely unique to the season, you only hear it once in a while. if you hear those sounds, you can turn off the music; like sounds of ice falling on ice, or wind chimes. it's hard to hear when you're yelling at the kids for tearing each other's hair out. but maybe, that's when you need to hear it the most.

Friday, January 23, 2009

midwinter here, so a cold spell followed a very cold spell, though these terms are relative, and of course we're in southern illinois, so actually we're just talking windshield-scraping weather, and put-your-hands-in-your-pocket-when-you-walk weather. it actually snowed once, which made me feel better, and feel that any spring we got from now on was ok, since we'd actually had something resembling winter. at work, two hard classes and a very full schedule, very little time to breathe or do pop art or the stuff i like; one is a writing class so there goes writing for a while. but in one, some lab people that i've known for years came out on tuesday and said, obama's about to take the presidency, you've got to see this, so we did. we didn't even have to move to watch the wide-screen television, and the inauguration speech, which i thought was excellent, brought a tear to my eye. and equally inspirational was the music- yitzhak perlman and yoyo ma- playing in the cold. it reminded me of two things; one, that the last television i'd watched, really, was 9/11, though there were some exceptions, and, the only inauguration i'd ever seen was nixon's, back in 1972.

it was also a mid-january, and mid-january in dc is kind of like here- not extreme, but still pretty cold with a bite in it, and a humid, windy kind of cold. i was a protester, bussed down from boston by the sds or some such student organization- and i was against the war, thought nixon was corrupt, kind of like blago, and couldn't figure out why everyone had voted for him anyway. and on top of it, it was a cheap trip to dc which i had never seen. they had pulled school buses all around in a wide circle to protect the actual inauguration and keep people like us away. we had our march out on k street or one of those letters and i remember very little about it, except i remember wondering if it would be bad to be seen and photographed at the head of the line, if it would ruin my career or anything. maybe i should go for incognito, hide a little ways back in the crowd. in the end i kind of forgot about it; i hadn't slept for many hours, due to talking to a young woman stranger on the bus, and pretty soon it caught up with me, and, on the bus back, i pretty much fell right asleep.

the memory of that is sharp, partly because of the similarity of the weather, but also, because there were a million people at obama's, and everyone was allowed in, and it seemed like my own country, nothing to protest. unbelievably enough, all the right things were happening, people even voted for the right guy, no stolen election, no break-ins at the hotel, no slimy campaign manipulations, it was all hope and a new day, and a million people watching. my students didn't have much to say, but agreed that it was indeed history, nothing wrong with setting aside a class and just watching it. but they felt that if anyone had anything to say, it probably should be me, since i was both the teacher and the one american in the room. yet i was dumbfounded; couldn't say a word. i was humbled by history being made in front of me.

back in reality, the day-to-day grind caught up with me, piles of papers, students with lots of issues yet no time to deal with it, and, finally, chinese new year party at a time when i actually could have gotten something done. but, again- it's the new year, time to step back, pause a little, contemplate the year of the ox, for what it's worth, and sure enough, the weather cleared up a little, got a little warmer, gave a hint of spring. spring has sprung, the grass is riz, i began to sing, and noticed that my own familiar religious establishment, a somewhat ramshackle old building waiting to be torn down, was full & crowded with cesl students and chinese food, a serving line, a festive spirit. again, i had no time to linger, had kids to pick up, places to go.

on facebook, a son has started a game of world conquest, a kind of glorified risk, so i've got armies in yakutsk, kamchatka, etc., unless someone has come along in my absence and wiped them out. in addition getting in touch with lots of old friends, people who by their very presence remind me of old times, other parts of my life. another humbling experience, i must say, as it's incredible, living in small-town illinois as i do, yet at the same time connected virtually at will with so many of the people from my past. reach right back, to 1972 and beyond; take some of those memories, those cold days in dc, really my only days in dc- and say, well, someday i'm going to do that town right. and it's not going to be a world-conquest type of thing, i think bush already showed how well that works. it's not going to be adversarial, or nuclear, or aggressive march through the horn of africa. someday i'm just going to look around again and say, this is my country, and i'm proud of it, and it's a good time to be coming home.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

i saw an odd thing on campus the other day as i was walking along the back side of faner where i often take pictures, trying to catch the shapes & colors of trees against the dull angular gray concrete of the building. my favorite sculpture is back there, a metal frame with a triangular base, coming up to form a kind of pyramid-shaped rack, bound together delicately by welded metal. from this frame hangs heavy rocks in metal baskets that are similarly welded together, delicately, so that the heavy rocks are suspended in space but kind of gradually moving up the pyramid. the sculpture was called "eternal marriage vs. 'til death do us part," and was by a sculptor long forgotten, long ago. to me the rocks were clearly a very heavy burden, carried by an infinitely light and delicate frame, the soul, pointing up toward infinity, but it wasn't clear to me whether the burden would be marriage, or life itself, or perhaps both; what did he/she mean?

well, i got to this sculpture, and it had been vandalized, knocked over; it had been thrown off of its ledge, about three feet high, onto the ground where its rocks were strewn about and the frame, damaged but probably repairable. unfortunately i was unable to pick it up and put it back on its ledge without help. nor did i report it, though i probably should have; it's kind of tucked away, hidden behind some huge evergreens, and could go weeks before anyone even sees it. which brings up the question: who got back there to vandalize it in the first place?

the small town has been scandalized and upset by a number of crimes recently; in one, a bank not five blocks from my house was robbed at gunpoint by two guys on a motorcycle who then sped west, out of town, on the cycle(?)...I don't know the details. In another, somebody broke a window of a class i now teach in every day; we sit there with jagged glass ends distracting me as i teach; this was to haul off some computers. but it didn't occur to me that the vandalizing of the sculpture could have been related to that: maybe the rock that broke the window was taken from the eternal marriage statue?

i've become a keen observer of shapes in space; this is partly a result of carrying a camera around, and imagining how pop-art could distort, saturate, sharpen or contrast any given image. a recent incident with a photo storage going bonkers reminded me of the temporal nature of all art, and all images, but basically, this is a physical world; its colors, shapes, life forms and images compete for our attention and arrange themselves so that we feel calm, balanced and attentive, or jagged, edgy, aggravated. i would hate to see a sculpture hauled away, banished, because of its possible role in a terrible crime. but worse yet; i cringe at the irony: i notice a statue, value it, photograph it, make pop art out of it and wonder about its title- then, it's destroyed, its rocks used to smash my own window? fortunately, i was transferred out of that room on friday, and back up to the lab, home of the infamous fan, a small ally in a concrete-block, technology-nightmare kind of place. it doesn't matter though. in reality even life itself is temporary, fragile, delicate, easily misinterpreted. the cold snap is over, but we didn't seem to have any snow; the winter oozes in the doorways and places where the building can't stop it. and it's even worse at home; our upper story, uninsulated, draws heat out of the rest of the house, giving us uneasy, drafty peace as we eat breakfast. but spring is coming; the sun is shining again, giving a clarity and color to everything, maybe to help me with a sense of perspective, before i take the camera out again.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

i was allergic to newspaper ink, i think, so i reeled a little when i'd open a sealed package of fifty fresh newspapers at 5:30 in the morning; they were right off the truck, and it was a corner of our neighborhood in suburban pittsburgh pennsylvania, mt. lebanon near the castle shannon edge of it. i got the route on dec. 27 of maybe the year i turned twelve; the route took me through our neighborhood, down by a retirement home at the bottom of a hill, and over into a little enclave of resort houses in a kind of hideaway neighborhood; one of these had fresh vine-grown grapes on the porch. though the newsprint had a strong, distinctive odor, there were lots of other things going on at 5:30; morning dew, flowers, deer, and birds; all kinds of things were already awake, and just a little surprised to see me. i learned how to fold up the pittsburgh post-gazette so it would throw better, way up onto porches and the like, but occasionally i'd miss and would have to crawl through bushes or into high grasses where i'd get wet or dirty. generally it was me and the wildlife; nobody else was up except a few dogs that would bark until their owners told them to shut up and went back to sleep.

when i first got the papers, i'd count them, and put them in a bag that went over my shoulder. then i'd open one up way into the middle to see if the indians won; they rarely did. actually pittsburgh was big on the pirates, so i usually knew whether the pirates won too, but i cared more about the indians. knowing that, i'd slip into a kind of dream state, but nature really ruled my walk; there were deer, other little animals, thousands of birds, and a huge range of kinds of weather, from rain to snow. once i saw a silhouette of a man's head and shoulders and stopped dead, shocked; who could it be- that would stand still, absolutely still? it turned out to be that snow had landed on a stone and decorative lantern in such a way that its shadow fooled me, even woke me up with a start, yet it was just fresh snow, pure water, which soaked me to the bone. i was up long before anybody could shovel, but they would begin to come out around the time i quit and came home; lots of people were stirring by 7:00, when i got home and took my shower. on weekend evenings i would go out collecting and get 42 cents from each household for each week; this was difficult, but at the retirement home they'd give me a lump sum and that would make my job easier. people would occasionally throw in 8 extra cents as a tip. one christmas i got a set of hand-carved chess pieces as a christmas present also; i still have them. in the end i bought a cello with the money i made; i still have the cello.

but, as i said, nature truly ruled the whole experience. in the darkness i'd hear crickets, locusts or birds and get used to them; as the sun came up it would become more intense. my walk was a kid's shuffle, a little uneven from the weight, much lighter after i finished the retirement home. once, my brother, who had another route nearby in a different valley, was out at camp or something and i had to do two paper routes for a couple of weeks; this meant i got up at 5, maybe, and walked a little faster. but as i came back up from the valley i noticed that the sky was full of shooting stars. not twenty but hundreds, maybe thousands, all over the sky. i stopped and looked up; they didn't let up, or go away, they increased. i looked around, but there was no one to share the experience; the night was silent except for me and the crickets, as usual. the stars flooded the sky; i considered lying down to take it all in, but decided against it because i was on a clock. after the sun came up i went home and told everyone about it, but nobody else had seen it; it was gone by dawn. when i went to pay my bill on the weekend, one other kid knew what i was talking about. it was called a meteor shower; they'd seen them every once in a while, and i should have brought my camera. the meteor shower was like the experience itself: it receded into light, and silence, and my memory, as it reaches back over the years. one night, when the sky was completely, totally full, and alive with the moving light of the stars, but, it was a transitory thing; it was gone, not only the next day, but even the next hour, as i finished my route, went home, and peeled off the newsprint-smelling bag, and clothes, to take a shower and start another day.

Monday, January 12, 2009

it's back to work for me, and i'm slowly letting go of various unfulfilled goals over break, now over. spend time with kids was number one on my list; i barely got past it. in the old days of watching young ones, I used to sew a quilt; there is a quilt I've been working on for about thirty years. and, i still have it; i'm strongly considering bringing it back.

two things i'll say about lots of childcare: first, i eat too much for about the first month of it. i'm around the kitchen all the time, and there's a lot of stress, and i can't stand being hungry. so i tend to gain weight. how do these people go on starvation diets, then hang around a stressful place without eating? i can't imagine.

second, you do get better at this stuff. it reminds me of the fact that, most of the time, i'm trying to bring up kids on a running-on-empty kind of exhaustion, which is ongoing. it's nice to bring them up on something else, even if only for a week. the weeks before and after christmas don't count, because there's too much else going on, and i'm still exhausted.

success: jigsaw puzzle, other puzzles. books from the library. playing dots in the doctor's office. tetris. castle park, picnics.

now it's back to work. sewing patches on jeans, at the end of break, i was watching kids, occasionally pricking myself accidentally as you do when you're not concentrating enough. talk about multi-tasking; i wish i could at least double-task a little better. i'd get more done. but, work is about getting stuff done. break is about, taking something you usually do when exhausted, and finally doing it when not exhausted.

except that, on some level, i'm still exhausted; and now, i'm back to work.

more later, i promise. i have a story in me, and maybe you'll see it in a few days. also working a bit on chat & its culture; would like to prepare at work, maybe clean out a few stacks of undone stuff. here's some stuff i'd like to do or look into:

1. in the old days, the telephone was considered a huge innovation. the world would end, some said. now, with the trib, p-d, and southern all bankrupt or almost, it seems we'll lose our newspapers. could be trouble- or is it?
2. in the old days, when i googled my name, i got only me and a couple of other guys scattered around the country. but now they've put a bunch of google books up, some especially about the 1600's when my namesake ancestor was around. who was he? what was he like? i'd like to know.
3. the world sits around while gaza burns. are we that used to it? somebody should act for
4. bicycles need repaired; i promised my son room in the garage, for when he brings the drum set back...
5. would like to plant fruit trees and a garden...dream on...

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

in the break, at the height of indolence, i have tons to do, & can't force myself to do any of it. though i did take my son to the doctor; it took all day; he was ok, just had to be checked, and mostly got out of school, learned how to play "dots" and perfected tic-tac-toe strategy in an doctor's office where you had to wait the usual 40-50 minutes and they didn't even apologize for burning your time. at the end the doctor just stood there, as if he was waiting for me to lay into him for his approach, but i didn't. he gave me a few minutes to say my piece, but i didn't; we just left, drove home, across southern illinois, and back to school for him. it's very cold here, but i went for a walk anyway, later tonight when the boys were in bed; this time down to the fam-vid movie place, where we had to return a couple. a long walk, put a sting in my ears, but upon my return, more indolence, laying around, basically fishing through facebook, finding old friends & reading what they're up to.

now this is an incredibly fascinating time-sink, wending one's way through friends and friends of friends, former students, former colleagues, friends from way back who know other friends from way back, friends who moved far away, or who just got married, who may or may not remember me. fishing through friends of friends is but one of the addictive activities one can indulge in, though. there's also chatting with whoever of one's friends & family might happen to be online, or the "live feed"-or, in my case, just figuring out how i can find my own wall, which i buried at one point because people were putting things i didn't like on it, and i was letting it go for months at a time. now it's gone; people put stuff on it, but i can't see it, and i can't get it back; it's buried beneath the "live feed" and newly posted whatever. now that it's break, i'll read whatever people put there, maybe twice a day, as i'm picking up the computer a lot, the kids turn on a movie & i get a minute, i tune in to the "live feed," see some of my old friends, from way back, right at the edge of my fingertips. but i'm all quo, no status; mostly i just read.

my photos at the photo-storage reappeared finally, and, in a roundabout way, an explanation from the company that it was all just technical, not bankruptcy or market-crash. the one blog that did comment on it a little became a focal point for lots of other people's comments; people were searching worldwide for answers. three days is not much, in the big picture; in the world of server-transfer, technical glitch, it was probably nothing; in my world of on-break, pop-art-sharpen junkie, though, it was three months, three years at least of "live feed" ghost-window picture-vanish panic. I saw the dead rectangles, a whole pop-art-blog full of them, every time i went anywhere online; it was like the dead tree forest in iowa, or a ghost town of color memories, and it paralyzed me. the temporal nature of the cyberworld, is what it is, and it's scary. "it could happen to blogger too," someone said, and they're right- where's my backup? don't have one. and the web archive doesn't go this far, out into conversation-land, there's really nobody to save it but me. and why would anyone? it's just me blabbing for the most part, though i do roll out a story once in a while. nothing my loved ones haven't heard at least a dozen times.

a friend writes and asks my opinion about the nature of the soul when it is between lives, when it is not in the body. how should i know? i have a superstition against even discussing it. i know there's an answer, yet, it's kind of like looking at those blank white rectangles with the little x marked in them- no, you can't have the image, it's not available to you. one of these days, they'll change the server on you, and then what? but, through fb, found out about another old friend, a woman in kansas, she lived just down a kansas-flat, plain road from a hospital, yet still had her fifth baby at home; it was better. babies are all grown now, just like mine, who, there in kansas, had the great flood of '93, the yom kippur flood of pittsburg kansas, descend on his birthday, cancelling his party, leaving people stranded all over town. she, the mother, died, as it turns out, in a car accident in tennessee about a year ago, but, the spirit lives on, i can say that. out there, i used to walk to missouri occasionally; it was only three or four miles; the train would wail a ways over, and there was nothing out there to block the sound. at the missouri line i'd see an old fireworks sign, if it was summer, or just a welcome to missouri sign, but i'd turn around and come back; three miles was enough. you don't want to spend too much time on those lines between north and south, union and confederate, if you can avoid it, or you'll forget who you are, which side you started out on. you'll forget whether it really matters. they still talk here about times when cousins fought cousins, brothers against brothers, in the great war, everyone took sides, but mostly folks just tried to stay alive, live through a few very cold winters. up in the plains of northwest iowa there was a tiny town called gaza (gay-za, they pronounced it)- now why did i have to mention that? only because, we haven't had a whole lot of wars in these parts, since the big one, and that's good, but we shouldn't forget the way people keep having them- war begets war, and that begets more war, and it just keeps on going. was there a reason? did self-determination have anything to do with it?

i indulge, in my break- a whole day, with very little to show for it, except a game of dots. it's actually approaching the true christmas, the twelfth day, the old believer's christmas, and i'm determined to hold out until the last minute; take a true break this year, and maybe crack a few divs and tables (web-walnuts), but then, mostly, just organize my stuff like i would do a jigsaw puzzle, which is another thing i'm indulging in. stuff that feels good on the fingers, and lets the mind rest. as an old believer, i would be opposed to all change in religious doctrine- the change that made the orthodox church, let alone the change that then made the catholic one, and then, the one after that that made all the protestant ones. let alone, the ones after that. but i would also say, and this has nothing to do with old believers- no, if there's a purgatory, or a place between lives, i know nothing of it. i know what happens between st. louis and kansas city, but that's different. why would the soul be any different, if it had a body or not? does actually having a body, tend to make us take this idea of war, a little more seriously? force us to take one side or the other? as i go through southern illinois, through the bleak gray landscape, the lowland marshes pushing down on history, i point out to my son, if i can, notable historical spots. but you have to be careful; people drive too fast on the main roads. on the back roads, there's even more history, but you have to be careful there too. i'm keeping this body & soul together, as long as i can, & do it for the kids, who still have a ways to go in this world. i've got to let go of it- the wars, the stress, the traffic, & religions i know nothing of, and just rest. it's a small window of rest; the holiday coming is known as the feast of the epiphany, and, if i get a minute, i'll look it up. feasts are good. they give me something to do with my hands.

Monday, January 05, 2009

those following the bibliography (entries in italics) might be interested in the big picture, which is indexed here; i surely have enough now to fill a book, but realize that there are so many gaps, so much to fill in. it's partly a question, of course, of how much one really needs to say, but, i'm finding that just going over this past, even in my mind before i write, is very useful in its own ways. it's been quite a journey.

at home now, using various computers and going back and forth, i occasionally run into my own pictures, those that i'd stored at the picture site and assumed were lost. is it a cache-ghost, come to haunt me? does the cache happen to store, whatever, and give me images of the recent past, or, does the photo-hosting service keep trying out new servers, thus giving me instantaneous, though not lasting, images, which i myself had entrusted them with at one point? don't know. i think, maybe, it's not coming back. and that, the mess i face, which i find difficult, too hard to deal with (like the huge pile at the office)- well, it's break, and one can only do what one can; by the time evening rolls around, i'm pretty tired. but i have noticed: there are quite a few of those pictures around, on one desktop or another; i think that, in the process of restoring, i'll find plenty to work with. and that process will start very soon, i hope.

as unspeakable tragedy unfolds in gaza, all i can say is, war is not the answer; i turn away, again in frustration, that the world never seems to learn. i hereby bury my head in my photo-service mess, hoping to skip over the google news headlines as i pass through into my online ruins. i practice escapism, the desire to not try to apply reason, or analysis, or war-mongering on either side, to a situation that is clearly already too terrible. instead, in tiredness, i give up, go to bed, & hope that, in the morning, perhaps i can write more of my own story.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

my home flooded (spring of '85, i think), i needed a place to stay, and my friends in north liberty offered their land; this was where i had gotten the stepvan in the first place. my good friend s.c. lived with his parents on this land; they had an old volkswagen graveyard but mostly a woods, an open pasture, a house where the parents lived and a set of vans, trailers, and other abodes where s.c. himself lived when he wasn't traveling around. it was no problem for him to reinstate that stepvan on his land, and install me there; his parents, who were sweet, and whom i'll always remember very fondly, made a simple request: that i behave properly as long as i lived there. it wasn't as if they wanted me to simply behave properly while i was on their property; it was more that, as part of their community, their family, etc., i should refrain from alcohol, drugs, etc. being in graduate school and all, i was busy, and not of the partying type, so i agreed. but i didn't reckon with my own spirit; i ultimately found it impossible to live up to my own conscience. i wasn't good with authority, even when the authority was my own expectation, or my own restraint. they never said a word to me, never any reproach. but i had trouble living with myself, when i couldn't keep my own word.

thus i started looking for another place, and this time landed in a small farmhouse not too far from solon iowa; another friend, s.h., already lived there, and welcomed me, made a room for me. a farmer who lived nearby owned the land; it was about six or seven miles from iowa city, northeast; the gravel road was unnamed, but was one of those where everyone drove about 80, and occasionally came upon huge monstrous farm implements taking up 9/10 of the road, staring down from way up there, in a small glass window, a friendly, unassuming neighbor. the gravel roads were treacherous all year round, especially in winter, but one could go off in a ditch just about any time, the biggest danger being not being noticed, for hours, or even days, as people whizzed by not especially watching.

the drive into town from this farmhouse was especially beautiful, past dvorak's farm, a number of old farmhouses including another that i lived in once, occupied by another friend p.s.; dingleberry quarry road on which there was a beautiful swimming hole; and many and sundry other beautiful sights. the corn on the rolling hills looked different every day, and i'd watch it with amazement; it was also incredible to me that this was known as highway 1; it had no tourists, yet was in all its changes one of the prettiest roads i ever had encountered.

finishing graduate school slowly, i kept up work at the university as long as i could, but finally took a job in cedar rapids, working at a social agency that ran a house for vietnamese refugees. these were young kids, 14 to about 17, or age unknown, who, because of their family's being on the side of the usa during the war, had become refugees; had had a tormented trip through the years; were basically still looking for any remnant of their family that they could find; and, were not entirely comfortable with life in the northern winters. they were quite resourceful; one made a slingshot once, shot a sparrow, killed and ate it; others went fishing over the rapids the city was named for, without, of course, the cultural concept of "fishing license"...that's where i came in. it was an esl job; i worked with the schools; i learned a bit of vietnamese, enough to see where they had problems, and i helped with their schoolwork, and keeping them on track. they were good students, conscientious, but weak in english; i was busy. like most teenagers, they tended to stay up, every night. often, they were playing cards.

the drive to work and back now took me through a different patch of country, and i noted the way the smell of the city (corn syrupy) moved with the wind, over the swath of land southeast of the city where i was always driving. eventually i was to move to cedar rapids, to spare the commute and work a while, but that was short-lived, as i got married and moved to korea in june of 1986, as soon as my fiance, who i now refer to as my first wife, graduated. in cedar rapids i lived in 7th avenue i believe, but i can't remember exactly; i could perhaps find the place if i could return. but a flood this last year (2008) has pretty much cleared the deck on the whole center of the city; the house itself could be gone. it wasn't much.

i liked the city; after living in countryside on all sides of iowa city for many years, and in the tiniest of towns, c-r was truly more of a city, more even than iowa city, and quite different, culturally. at the same time i tried to integrate my refugee teens into american culture, i found myself having some culture bumps; for example, in c-r one doesn't walk on the "don't walk" signs.

in some ways, i was very eager to enact my plan, which was to use my degree to teach english in various places around the globe, starting with korea. my first wife, before getting married, was all in favor of travel, and agreed to go along to korea, the first stop. in many ways i was entirely sick of iowa, all the various small towns, the lack of opportunity, the limits. but i'd miss my daughter, who was now eight, and whom i'd kept every weekend, her entire life. no matter where i was, solon, north liberty, c-r, lisbon, mt. vernon, west branch, or in a van by the river, i'd come, get her, take her home for the weekend, read books or go places, eat lucky charms, whatever. i couldn't take her with me, but also, hanging around, seeing her every week, i couldn't really bring her up either; i had no say in what she did or how, and this was hard on me, especially as she got older. no matter how i put it, it doesn't sound right; but, i had to do it. the time came closer, and we began to prepare her for the inevitability.

i leave out the personal stuff also; i'll only say that, from this point for the next ten years or so, decisions were mutual; though it had been my plan, to go abroad, to get out of iowa for a while, to have this career, it now became our plan, to go abroad and to embark on a life together. i'd skipped a year after graduating from college (82-83); then skipped another after getting my MA (85-86), not to mention the six i'd skipped before i was able to actually get back to college (74-80); now, after all these years, it was time to be responsible, work & pay of student loans. but this would happen abroad; i was traveling too. a good arrangement, if i could pull it off; i was excited. i left my car with s.c., let go of old homesteading tools, such as a wood stove, chain saw, and sundry other things, prepared to get married, and got visas and plane tickets for korea.
no pool these days, so i've been walking, usually down through the ornament valley, past houses still lit up for the holidays. fortunately it's warm out, mild enough so that, when my hands get cold, i can shove them deep in my pants pocket and it'll be enough. coming back out to the west side, orion is king of the patch of open sky over sunset park, off to the southwest, where there aren't many houses, no lights to disrupt the view of the stars.

so tonight i headed off southwest, toward the open country, or to be specific, out tower, over to chautauqua, out rowan road to the university farms and thunderstorm road, out by what they called the tree improvement lands, but we called the dog improvement lands. it's open country, lots of lakes and fields and an old civil-war graveyard, but these days there's a huge deer fence there and it's pretty clear they don't want strangers just tromping around. the fence is maybe ten feet high; i imagine even deer don't mess with it. there wasn't a car on the road, for even about an hour, though there were a few on chautauqua; there are really only a half dozen people who live on rowan and thunderstorm put together, and i didn't see any of them. so it didn't matter, just being on the road itself was like being way out in the country, isolated, quiet, just me and orion, and a few million other stars, twenty times what you'd see in town, even though there were low-lying clouds; it was wet down at ground level.

it cleared my mind a little; made it possible to write. a lot of stress these days, even though it's break; my picture storage has disappeared (see a couple of posts down, esp. the comments); we rearrange the house; the little boys, not in school, taking full advantage. it pressures me, basically, that with break almost over, i've done so precious little of what i'd wanted, and now it'll be another year. but what, exactly, did i want? to sleep in once or twice, that was high on my list. a little blogging, yes, check. let the boys clamber all over me once in a while, do a jigsaw puzzle, check. the wind comes roaring from the south, all those warm wet clouds, stormy stuff, making me unsteady on my feet as i walk, barely keeping my feet on the road. it blows the time right out from under my feet, i guess, it's 2009, the kids are about grown up, we print pictures that will make people say so. we'll print them, that is, if we can get the tenuous chain of camera-to-laptop-to-photo-software-to jumpdrive-to printer cycle...if so, look for some pictures, in the mail, or somewhere. if not, know that cyberspace may be a few images richer...sharpen! life must go on.
there was a time that i lived "in a van down by the river," as they say, and maybe they got that saying from me, i don't know. one night when i heard the expression on saturday-night-live or some such program, i was dumbfounded, but the expression captured the tenuous nature of the life of a vagrant such as myself, and the way one might live at the mercy of the elements and the engineers up at the dam.

the river in question was the iowa river; i was returning to iowa city to go to graduate school, but was coming to town with a suitcase full of hard feelings toward the tenant-landlord situation, as well as the knowledge that i'd be living on a graduate stipend, and, what was worse really, was that having borrowed some money to go to college, i was really unwilling to borrow much more on graduate school, just on the general principle that i felt up to my neck in loans. now in the modern world this doesn't make much sense, and they didn't want to hear this up at my department, but basically, when a guy said there was a shack down by the river, and i could have it for fifty bucks a month, which is what most spits of undeveloped land in the country went for, and i might have to put a trailer on it or something to have running water or whatever, i took it. i noticed that the shack was on stilts- about five-foot high legs- and was not secure in its windows or roof- though it offered some shelter, was made of solid wood, and was not too full of junk. i hauled a step-van and a trailer down there, put them in an el-shape around its front door, and began to work to fix it up.

the trailer was really a camper that one might put on an ordinary one-ton truck; it had a small refrigerator, and a small propane stove for heating, a loft where one would sleep, basically above the cab; a kitchen table with nice windows and seating for several. in the step-van i stored stuff, books, tools, etc., though i planned on fixing it up first and making it bigger, more secure, and more useful. the shack i found a little overwhelming; i wasn't quite prepared for major construction, which it would need to secure the roof first, then windows, etc. i took a long-term view and started graduate school.

but here's where my plans went awry. graduate school was an 11-hour-a-day thing, and while camping out was a nice balance to the rigors of it, it left me no time to really even make the place livable. lots of times i came back exhausted and just slept in the camper, my biggest problem being washing dishes with water i'd hauled in, or figuring out how to manage a bath. i hadn't really budgeted the energy it took to live such a lifestyle; i wasn't quite prepared. i felt like i'd beat the system, sure: camping out, hearing the crickets at night, seeing the stars as i came out of my glade toward town, or walking around back in the woods by the banks of the iowa, where a friend of mine once caught a huge catfish, and nailed its head to the tree where he skinned it on the spot.

the cat, by the way, had a rough time of it down there, since it was a kind of spoiled thing, and, though most cats like wild rivers and fields of wild things to chase, this particular riverbank had some traps, and the cat, lulabelle, got caught in one, and had to wait a day or so for me to come find her and free her. my young daughter by this time considered every weekend with me to be like camping anyway, and was quite used to not taking showers, or getting a little muddy, over the course of a weekend, and in return having campfires, lots of lucky charms, and a few extra blankets on a cold night.

but it was the spring i was truly not prepared for. the water did in fact shoot its banks; my entire lane was under water, making it impossible for me to even get the last half mile up to my house, without a boat. i was flooded out; even though both the trailer and the stepvan were well above the water line, i couldn't reach anything, couldn't use it, for a couple of weeks. how could i not have forseen this? the neighbors, who were also low, but on the road, seemed to be inconvenienced, but not as badly as I was. the engineers at the dam were doing what they had to, i was told; they had let quite a bit of water over the dam, but only what the area could handle, they thought.

graduate school didn't let up; it got worse, and i now had to write papers, study for exams, etc., without really a place to live. soon enough, i found one. but, i'll never forget that little lane, going into the soft maples by the river: some days, it was so muddy, i wasn't sure i could make it out, without bending my axle. or, the gurgling river would be the loudest thing i'd hear, since the traffic on what turned into dubuque street would slow to almost nothing in the middle of the night. i wasn't far from that little bridge across the river, but it was very low land, probably still undeveloped. and the super-flood of 2008 i'm sure wiped out even more; hopefully there's not much of a trace left of the blunders i made down there. i'm reasonably sure that we got the stepvan and the trailer out of there as soon as we could. but there were other things that i left down there that i wish i could have avoided. and that was just a normal year; flood wasn't much worse than usual, that year.

in becoming a country homesteader, you collect tools, wisdom, skills, ability in short to go out of town and stay there, not for a couple of days but for weeks or months. i was just across the river from town, but had none of the above, and got run out of my own home for the month of march. fortunately i wasn't headed in the direction of homesteader; if there was one lesson i learned, that was it. by the time i left that patch of woods, i was pretty much ready to try something different.

Friday, January 02, 2009

my free photo storage facility, large, well-known, appears to have dropped from the face of the earth; i can't get my pop art, or dozens of personal pictures i had stored there. another round of images vanished off into cyberspace; will it be forever? it's been almost twenty hours now and some frazzled customers are beginning to suspect that it just folded or something. i ignored the last warning, when it closed down for maybe five hours to get a new server. did i back up my photos? no. time for a more effective self-preservation strategy.