So what’s so special about Iowa?

It’s not Ohio, for one thing, even though a surprising number of people don’t know the difference. And it’s really quite distinct from Idaho, out in the Rockies further west. It doesn’t even have a big-league sports team.

But thanks to its unique party caucuses for presidential candidates, the Hawkeye State is back making headlines, at least for now. It makes for a big diversion, now that the crops are in.

Here are some quick perspectives.

  1. Dubuque, the state’s oldest city, grew out of the arrival of Julian Dubuque in 1785, shortly after the Revolutionary War. He was a French-Canadian lead miner working the bluffs along the Mississippi River, and Iowa was still claimed by France.
  2. Cedar Rapids-based Quaker Oats is the world’s largest cereal company.
  3. Wright County has the highest percentage of grade-A topsoil in the nation.
  4. The St. Francis Xavier basilica in Dyersville is the only Roman Catholic basilica in the United States outside of a major metropolitan area. The pope is supposed to hold forth there whenever he’s in the area.
  5. In key social justice advances, married women received property rights in 1851. Women were allowed to become lawyers in 1869, making Arabella Mansfield the first female attorney in the U.S. “Separate but equal” schools were outlawed in 1868. Prohibitions against same-sex marriage were struck down in 2009, making Iowa the third state to allow gay marriage. On the other hand, the state was also a leader in prohibiting alcohol sales: bars were outlawed in 1851, followed by a strong prohibition law in 1855, and a constitutional amendment in 1882 made Iowa a “dry state.” According to one version, women wanted their men to stay sober. The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement was big in Iowa.
  6. West Branch native Herbert Hoover was the first U.S. president born west of the Mississippi River. His mother was a Quaker minister.
  7. Iowa State University is the nation’s oldest land-grant college.
  8. The device for creating sliced bread was invented by Iowan Otto Frederick Rohwedder in 1912. He wanted his bread to fit into the toaster more neatly.
  9. The state has the nation’s highest concentration of wind-powered turbines. The towers produce nearly 40 percent of the state’s electricity.
  10. There are more hogs than humans – 21.2 animals to a tad over three million people.


Ever been to Iowa? What can you add to the list?

How many seasons do you have?

I’ve already written of my sense of having eight seasons a year where I live, created by blending the four solar-seasons with the equinox- and solstice-based calendar seasons. (To wit: Solar spring begins around February 2, while the calendar season begins on the equinox six weeks later. Thus, the “six more weeks of winter” the groundhog gets blamed for. And so on.)

But we get a slew of other seasons, too. Here’s a sampling.

  1. Sports seasons. As in baseball season, football season, or basketball season. In professional sports, there’s a lot of overlap. Throw in skiing or hockey in my part of the world.
  2. Indian summer, technically after the first killing frost. It can greatly extend our short, six-week summer.
  3. Freezin’ season. Here in New England, that can run five months, from early November into April. One variation is heating season, which can start in early October and run into June, eight months.
  4. Mud season. Rural New Englanders who live along unpaved roads know this one well. When the ground thaws, their cars are soon thoroughly splattered with mud – and a trip on foot can do the same to their clothing.
  5. Black fly season. Follows mud season. The swarms of these tiny, nearly invisible ravenous insects are truly nasty, making mosquitos seem nearly benign.
  6. Waves of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Ours start with asparagus and end up with apples. In large parts of Maine, blueberries or potatoes are big markers.
  7. Fall foliage. Generally, the month of October. As the landscape goes Day-Glo, the highways, restaurants, and motels are crowded with tourists, all before we’re plunged into November and its dreary clock change into Eastern Standard Time.
  8. The so-called holiday season. Or, more accurately, shopping season. Nowadays, it starts with the Halloween buildup and runs through New Year’s Day.
  9. Allergies season. For some, it’s the whole year.
  10. Campaign season. In New Hampshire, the big one comes every four years. Like right now.


What would you add to the list? Hunting and fishing, perchance?


Ten big events in my life during the past year

  1. Completing my “final” book of fiction. The middle novella and end pieces are entirely new and quite a departure for me. The other two-thirds are major revisions of two novellas now linked by Jaya’s imagination. Look for The Secret Side of Jaya at Smashwords, available for preorder now.
  2. New wheels. I probably jinxed the old one by a Tendrils posting early in the year, but my Camry fell victim to rusting serious enough to keep it from passing state inspection. There were enough other problems to make me concede it was time to move on (and downsize) a bit before the odometer rolled over to 300k miles. Wound up with a three-year-old Chevy Sonic I call the Scooter.
  3. Recovering my swimming distance and time. I try to swim a half-mile every weekday, but one of my cardio meds kept taking a toll. Getting to a quarter-mile was an effort, and my speed was way down. But at the checkup on my one-year anniversary of the stent implant, my doc decided he could switch to something less potent. Hallelujah! I’m back to normal, or something like that. The nosebleeds and bruising have lessened, too.
  4. Downeast, Maine. We got away for an extended weekend in May and were astounded by the desolation and poverty of much of the easternmost corner of the United States. But we’re also enchanted by the natural awe and community and have been returning. Somehow, it reminds me of the Pacific Northwest, where I lived for four life-changing years. I’ll be posting a lot of photos in the coming year that reflect our discoveries. Hey, it’s still New England and far less well known than Boston. And, oh yes, we bid on a piece of property with an ocean view, though the sellers turned it down and still have it. Please stay tuned!
  5. Beekeeping. Yes, you’ve been reading about it.
  6. And the rabbits. This time, I took the lead in our pet situation. They’re evermore cute and entertaining.
  7. Backing off from the choir. I’m a charter member of an amazing community chorus in Greater Boston, but the weekly commute to rehearsals is getting too demanding. The trip to and from occupies a half of a day, for one thing, and keeps me up later than usual, for another, plus the mileage and tolls add up. When my carpooling buddy’s new job meant he could no longer fit our music-making into his schedule, the time for change had arrived. Still, I had an opportunity to sing behind Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame at an outdoor concert in September.  That said, I really do miss the group and our shared high. We’ll see what happens ahead.
  8. Shifting into “author” mode. With my books now in place, my focus should be shifted away from drafting and revising new work, which is essentially solo time, and into more presence in the literary world. At the beginning of summer, for example, I started reading and reviewing ebooks at Smashwords that touched, one way or another, on subjects in my novels. It’s been refreshing.
  9. Closing out my IRA and getting serious about downsizing. It’s not like there was a huge amount, but it had grown to the equivalent of two years’ salary at my maximum income. We realize the house (and barn) are really too much for two people to sustain, and some costly work is needed before we put it up for sale. After all, we’ve accumulated a lot over the years, especially in our two decades together. And we’ve taken on a lot to manage, sometimes too much, as I often feel about the garden, or at least its weeds. If we relocate to another house, it will have to be somewhat smaller and definitely more economic to heat and maintain. We realize something has to go sooner or later, so we’ve started. Unlike a diet, this brings us to stages of reflection, not always easy. Many of the items are infused with memories or dreams.
  10. Our younger daughter’s engagement. Saving the best for last, we finally get to call him “son” officially. Yay!


What’s been a highlight of your year?


Ten favorite gifts

Reflecting on gift-giving has me thinking of some great hits over the past few years.

Here are ten.

  1. The squirrel-proof bird feeder. We all enjoy watching the birds and their drama, but watching an unsuspecting squirrel be shut down is especially comical.
  2. Annual pass to the indoor swimming pool. It was a gentle nudge to get me exercising again and drew on one activity I had enjoyed as a child.
  3. Fire digital tablet. I have a lot to learn yet, but it’s been great for streaming music – radio stations whose FM signals don’t reach here, especially.
  4. External speaker for my computer. A big help with my daily Spanish lessons.
  5. Olympus digital camera. You see the improvement here at the blog.
  6. Wool socks and other clothing. Staying comfortably warm is a big deal where we live.
  7. Leather-covered journals from Venice. Souvenirs from a daughter’s two trips to Italy. I’ve saved those two volumes for special times in my own life.
  8. Books and recordings. Especially when they show that someone’s been listening to my rambling.
  9. Martini glasses from yard sales. Look, some of them are likely to get broken during the year, but they’re usually fun to use up till then – and knowing they didn’t cost an arm and a leg, I don’t feel bad in bidding that one farewell and moving on to another.
  10. Prime rib dinner. Homemade, with a chewy red wine. For us, it’s an annual splurge on my birthday.

What are favorites you’ve received?


Ten Boston area Christmas traditions

During its first 200 years, Boston Puritanically refused to acknowledge Christmas as a special day of the year. The legislature actually banned observances in 1659, and December 25 was a school day for long afterward. As many Yankees stalwartly and proudly noted in their journals, the 25th was simply “an ordinary day.” You could be fined for any outward show of holiday festivities, though there seems to be no evidence that actually happened. Still, nowhere in the Bible is the date set, and, frankly, the faithful did note that so many of its customs had blatantly pagan origins. Christmas in Massachusetts didn’t become a public holiday until 1856.

Slowly, though, things have changed, and Christmas in New England has become something of an ideal setting. And so, with its many fine live cultural performances, Boston is now considered a prime destination at this time of year, especially when snow heightens the effect.

Here are ten events to take in.

  1. Boston Pops. Launched by Arthur Fiedler in 1973, the orchestra’s holiday shows now get 45 performances in Symphony Hall in less than four weeks. It’s a joyous blend of Santa and sacred.
  2. Boston Ballet. While nearly every dance company in America does something with Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” – it is, after all, a prime source of income – the Boston Ballet company delivers one of the nation’s most sumptuous productions, with 34 performances at the Opera House beginning at the end of November.
  3. Handel and Haydn Society. The American premiere of Messiah was given by this organization in 1818, and over the years the piece has become an annual staple. Even though the work was intended as an Easter observance, it has universally shifted to Advent season. The H&H has evolved into a leading early music ensemble, but it’s by no means the only one in town. This highly acclaimed annual performances of the masterpiece has some sterling competition.
  4. Speaking of early music. Vocal groups like Boston Camerata and Blue Heron come up with holiday rarities. And the city is rife with fine choral ensembles digging into the musical archives to add to the listener’s discoveries.
  5. The Revels. Across the Charles River in Cambridge, the Boston Revels’ colorful Christmas production fills the Shakespearean Globe-inspired Sanders Theater at Harvard with 18 family-oriented performances. Founded in 1970, each year now features a special focus – this year, it’s Depression-era America, including blues and bluegrass; last year was Norway; the year before, Renaissance Venice. The celebratory event blends storytelling, acting, dancing, musical soloists, children’s and adult choruses that move as families across the set, plus traditional fare including singalongs, Morris dancers, sword dancers, a mummer’s play, and the intermission line dance that takes the audience from their seats into the marble lobby. It’s more of a secular solstice celebration, but when you’re dealing with folkways like this, Christmas is inescapable.
  6. Theater. It’s not all Charles Dickens, though there’s plenty of that around. The professional Huntington and American Repertory Theater companies, especially, can be counted on for original fare.
  7. Lessons and Carols. Beantown is an Episcopal stronghold, and Vaughan Williams’ setting of scripture and carols has earned its following. Could anywhere be more spectacular for this touch of Edwardian Yuletide than, say, Trinity Church on Copley Square or the Church of the Nativity just down the street?
  8. Boston Baroque. A more recent tradition is this orchestra’s two New Year’s concerts – one the evening of the 31st, the other on the following afternoon – both in Harvard’s Sanders Theater. A wonderful blend of formal and informal to welcome the annual transition.
  9. Pontine Theater. To the north, closer to where I live, a two-person team can be counted to put on an original show based on Victorian-era New England stories. They create and make their own sets, puppets, and costumes in addition to writing the script. It’s unique to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but still in the Boston orb.
  10. The Nubble Light. A bit further up the road, the iconic lighthouse at Cape Neddick in York, Maine, is outlined in strings of light. Since the lighthouse sits on a small island just offshore, it’s already widely photographed – one of the top two or three I see in published pictures. But this time of year, the effect from sunset on is breathtaking. At Long Sands around the corner, surfers in wetsuits are likely riding the waves. It’s hardly befitting the season, but I thought I’d mention it anyway … just in case you’re driving up.

And that’s before we getting to ice skating or hockey, for those looking for something more active.


Ten surefire gifts

Who are we trying to fool? Selecting the appropriate gift requires an uncanny understanding of the intended recipient, and even then and in the right hands, it’s highly risky.

The closest success in this field that I recall hearing involved a coworker who was at a unique point in his love life. He wound up buying three identical items at Victoria’s Secret. Need I explain? Things were quite different after Christmas.

And even then, not everyone would want to receive one of those wrapped intimacies.

So let’s think of ten factors to consider.

  1. Does the recipient already own this? Oops! How well do you know this person, anyway? Well enough to go through their shelves or closet?
  2. Or even want it? Not every woman likes getting flowers or chocolate. Not all that many guys do, either. As for kids?
  3. The dollar signs. Some people measure your affection by your willingness to shell out on a big gift. Others see it as trying to buy their love. Gift cards, by the way, often go unused. Retailers are not a charity. Don’t go overboard, OK?
  4. Is it a suitable surprise? One they might actually use? Your grandmother will likely be surprised by that box of golf balls but never set foot anywhere near a tee. Yard sales are full of these misfires, often still in their original wrappings.
  5. Does it say something about your relationship? Some of the best gifts are things you can enjoy together. Jigsaw puzzles, for example, can keep everyone going, especially during the holidays.
  6. Not everyone appreciates receiving a homemade present, but for others, it’s the ultimate. One friend’s woodworking skills are especially anticipated. Pie boxes, anyone?
  7. There’s something to be said for gifts that won’t take up space. Things you can eat or drink, for instance. Tickets to upcoming events. (In my part of the universe, few things would beat a pair of seats at a Red Sox-Yankees game.) Museum memberships or contributions to causes they support may also be welcome.
  8. Does it improve the quality of their life? My family has edged me upward in the digital world this way.
  9. Hobby gear. Think sports equipment, cooking gadgets, sewing supplies, arts and crafts, gardening, and so on.
  10. Dream fulfillment. Was there something they wanted as a child but never got?

What other considerations would you suggest?


Ten things I don’t like about December

  1. Too dark. It’s not just waking up and going to bed in the dark. Where I live, it also means going to work in the dark and coming home in the same. And that’s coming from someone who’s officially retired.
  2. Too cold. Where I live, we’re just not used to it yet.
  3. Too many shoppers. That means long lines at the cash register everywhere.
  4. And all that shopper traffic. Parking lots are full. Traffic lights are backed up.
  5. Everybody’s snarly. Can’t blame them. So am I.
  6. Santa Claus ditties. They’re coming out of ceilings everywhere. They have nothing to do with the birth of the Christ Child.
  7. Lying to innocent children. These presents don’t come from a fat man in a red suit, for starters. He doesn’t come down a chimney anywhere in the world. And telling them all this blarmy undermines their trust in anything else we tell them, especially about Jesus.
  8. Guilt, paralysis, and panic. For guys, especially, this hits hard about three days before the big event, when we still haven’t figured out what to get anyone.
  9. Everything else stops. Do I really need to explain this?
  10. It’s all about the Holiday Season. Or more accurately, holiday shopping. Let’s be honest and admit that what’s happening has very little to do with what should be happening.