My Midwestern Family Home

405 S 15th Ave, MarshalltownIowa

I grew up in a modest 1,014 square foot 3 bedroom 1 bath house on 15th Avenue in Marshalltown, Iowa. It was a house built in 1955 from the ground up and bought with a down payment given to my folks by my mom’s mother. I think they paid $19,000 for it and it’s worth about $90,000 now. Can you imagine? It’s a home that could be in Madera right now.

The peonies on the right were planted by my mother and so was the juniper border. The only thing that’s missing is a big maple tree that was in the front yard. I think it blew down in a windstorm years after my mom went to the nursing home. Way after I left to see the world.

In hindsight it was a pretty small house for 5 people. Mom and dad, my sister and brother and me. My dad’s “man cave” was the garage. He spent a lot of time working on cars in the garage they built a few years after we moved in. I love that they built the garage separate from the house and not attached like they do most of the time now. I think it makes the home more inviting to not see the garage first thing.

As for the small size of the house we kids didn’t know anything else so we never had a thought how big or little it was. We spent most of our time playing outdoors anyway and in all sorts of weather. Mom only made us come in if there was a thunderstorm headed our way and snow was nothing to be concerned about. As a matter of fact the more snow the better! Snow forts were made out of a snow drift, there were snowball fights, and hundreds of snow men over a lifetime.

As a kid I thought the yard was giant. Plenty of room for annie-over and catching lightening bugs in the summer. Flying kites, hitting the baseball, having picnics in the back yard. When I visited later on the yard had shrunk by a considerable amount just like the first elementary school I went to. How does that happen? If you’re only 4 feet tall things look bigger, I guess.

Out beyond the back yard was Schultz’s farm with your typical two story farmhouse and animal pens and a big corn field. My dad was given permission to grow a half acre vegetable garden there. I also remember joyous Christmases and Thanksgivings, Easter and summer vacation. Those are all happy memories.

But it wasn’t always a happy house. As the years went on my mom and dad got to fighting more and more. Eventually they divorced and my mom stayed while my dad moved elsewhere. That’s the story of life. That’s the story of a house. Now every time I go into a house that I’m looking at for buyers or reviewing for a sale I think “If this house could talk what story would it tell me?”

The Little Red Volkswagen

When I was about 16 and had just learned to drive my dad found an old beat up Volkswagen Beetle that he rehabbed. I think he asked Roy Young to paint it and they picked an amazing red orange color. It was gorgeous! It was a convertible. I’m not a car aficionado but for that car I flipped out.

I remember when he taught me how to drive it. Of course, it was a stick shift “four on the floor”. I had learned on automatic so it was a challenge to operate the clutch and gas pedal in concert with each other. Let one out while the other is carefully pressed down in just the right amount at the right time. You had to get the feel of how exactly to let the clutch out so there was no awful lurching and subsequent engine quit. You also had to get the feel for shifting the gears. If you didn’t do it just right you got feedback right away! The most horrible grinding sound you ever heard like the motor was going to fall out! This was a great motivator to get it right quickly! Dad, usually impatient, was uncharacteristically patient with me in getting my skills down. He told me that I could drive it in 1st gear but slowly if I felt insecure and he also told me if I listened to the motor and let the RPMs drop that I didn’t even need to use the clutch. Pretty soon I mastered it and off we went!

The car was perfect for “Scooping the Loop” every Friday and Saturday nights in Marshalltown, Iowa. Top down. Girls waving and screaming. My friend Chris swiped canned Kadota figs from her candy striper hospital job and we lobbed them at unsuspecting victims. The Loop was from the front of the Times-Republican newspaper building to the bottom of Third Avenue just before the Iowa River. You drove east on Main past the courthouse and then turned left on 3rd avenue to go all the way to the end near the A&W Root Beer stand. Then you did the whole thing in reverse.

Sometimes on a hot and humid summer night we stopped at the Root Beer stand and ordered an ice-cold root beer that came in a frosty mug that was placed on an aluminum tray that hooked over the driver’s side door when the window was rolled down. Root beer doesn’t taste like that anymore. I think they had hot dogs and French fries but it’s the root beer I remember.

This was how the movie “American Graffiti” got it so right. There were the couples who went “steady” and there were the kids on the loose and looking for fun. There were the geeks and greasers and jocks. There were little sisters and brothers who we were supposed to be taking care of while Mom and Dad went out and left us in charge. There were the older boys from the farms and dinky towns. They were the coolest and we’d pull the car over and jump out and pile in their car. Sometimes we’d let those boys take us way out east of town to Twinkle Hill. Twinkle Hill was a bluff above the Iowa River and you could see the lights of town from there. We thought it was romantic. We’d park and make-out. Nothing else happened. We were too shy. Later I heard some people went “all the way” but that never happened to me. I was incredibly curious but not brave enough to let my guard down.

A Strange Occurrence

Once we had a slumber party at Maribeth’s house. I don’t know why they called it a slumber party because no one slept and everybody tried to stay awake. Until it was time to go back to her house we drove around town with the radio blasting. We started freaking out because every time we turned off the car and turned it on again the radio was playing “Chuggalug” by Roger Miller. This must have happened at least 5 or 6 times. When we got back to Maribeth’s home we ran up to her room and turned on the radio. Sure enough! Chuggalug was playing. We started screaming our heads off. It must be a conspiracy! Twilight Zone! Aliens!

Eventually I left home to go to college and the red Vee Dub stayed at my mom’s house. It was getting pretty worn out. The canvas roof leaked and every time it rained the floor would get an inch or two of water. That made the floor rust and soon there was a hole and you see the road going by as you looked down. I was completely absorbed in my college days and I forgot all about the red Vee Dub. I don’t even know what happened to it. It probably went to some wrecking yard where everything goes. Even us. Then all we have are memories but that’s OK because the memories are pretty good and it gives my mind peace to sit and remember.

This is what it looked like. Pretty sweet, huh!

In Floods

I think this is an extraordinary piece of thinking, bravery, and insight. I also think that it shows a way forward that many essays don’t. He doesn’t spell out specific things we can do. We’re smart enough to figure out what needs to be done. We just have to find the will to do it. Can we? Can you? Can I?


I live in a small town in Shropshire called Much Wenlock. I moved here in 2007. In the summer of that year it rained a lot. I mean, really, a lot. So much so that the town flooded. Weeks of steady rain had left the fields surrounding the town water-logged. The earth was sodden. So, when a sudden storm let go a heavy downpour, the land had no capacity left to absorb the moisture. Instead, the water poured off the fields and down into the town. You see, Much Wenlock, although it is 160 metres above sea level, sits in a bowl surrounded by arable land. It’s location in the landscape plus the geological composition of the land it sits within means that it is peculiarly prone to this type of flooding. So much so that it has been designated a Rapid Response Flood Catchment area at the highest level…

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Memories of a Childhood Outdoors – Fall

Fall in the Central Valley of California is not a season I look forward to except in one way. The weather finally calms down and stops being crazy hot. Other than that it’s not a pretty season. Here in the Valley everything is dry and crispy. The grasses are a crunchy brown. The grape vines and almond trees are coated with dust. The only place nice place for the eye to land is where the sprinklers have kept the lawns green and the gardens growing.

In the Midwest, however, things are different. In the Midwest Fall is my favorite season. Yes, it’s true that it’s time to go back to school and, yes, it’s true that I always dreaded that part. It even gave me a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Where did that come from? I’ll never know. It just started up at the first part of September and I don’t even know when it went away. It just went away on its own.

Everything else about the rest of the season was pure bliss to me. There was the welcome chill in the air and the dry breezes that replaced the oppressive humidity and heat of summer. The leaves on the trees would turn colors and then they’d fall. We kids would be crazy wild running through the leaves and throwing and kicking them every which way. Mom would be standing there with one hand on her hip and the other on the handle of the rake wondering what had she done to get these crazy children. When I walked down the sidewalk I made sure to step on each and every leaf so as to hear the satisfying crunch. I still do this now. I am old and it’s been a life long habit. It takes me back to when I was young and I didn’t have a care in the world.

The wind would blow out of the gray northern sky and the leaves of the dried corn in Schultz’s field behind our house would rustle like paper flowers in a vase. Out in the back yard we’d look up and great flocks of starlings flew over head. When they were right above us Dad would say “Clap your hands! Loud!” and I would clap my hands loud and the birds would, for some reason, spread out from the center and fly away from the noise. Dad said they flew like that because they thought it was a gun shot.

My dad loved hickory nuts. Actually my dad loved anything that was free. Child of the depression he was very good at spotting a good deal when he saw one. He got out his burlap bags and we’d all pile in the car to go to some farmer’s woods where the tall shagbark hickory trees stood. Some years the squirrels got them first and our pickings were slim. Dad said don’t bother with nuts that have a hole in them.  A hole meant that a worm that had chewed its way out of the shell and the nut meat would be ruined. In the winter my dad would sit and patiently crack the tough nuts and pick away at the interiors with a pick to get the meat out.

When I got older my dad would take my sister Toni and me to Polley’s farm north of town and we would all ride the barn horses out into the corn fields and then into the timber. My dad rode the horse with one hand on the reins and one hand propped on his hip western style. My sister and I tried to mimic him but we didn’t have the confidence to one-hand-it so we held the reins plow rein style and followed him out past the barn. Then we found little trails in the timber and rode all over until we came back to the edge of the corn field where the spoiled horses could see the barn. We let them loose while we clung to the horn for dear life and the horses ran back across the field. Poor horsemanship, I know. We didn’t know any better and besides we were young and loved the thrill of the running horse. Our legs were strong enough to grip and our balance was good enough so we never fell off. The horses ran in a straight line. There was nothing to impede them.  I can’t remember how we slowed down. Maybe the horse went from the dead run to the trot to the walk instead of slamming on the brakes. Years later we drove out there and I recognized the house and barn but the field looked completely different.

We walked to school at Norris for Kindergarten, first, second and third grades. It was only 3 blocks from our house.  As we got older we biked to Woodbury for 4th, 5th and 6th as long as the weather was good. Jamie, Cindy, Sally, Lindsay, and some other girls. I had a little wire basket attached to the handlebars of my Schwinn that I put my metal lunch box in. The Schwinn had great big fat tires. It must have been hard to pedal with its one gear and brakes that you engaged by pushing back on the pedal. The lunch box looked like a little house and my mom would put a hot dog in the thermos so I could have a hot sandwich with my soup at lunch time. This really embarrassed me for some reason. I really wanted shoe string potato chips that came in a can but I never got them.

When it rained we’d pile in our family cars one forward one backward so as to pack more kids in and then our mothers would car pool. There were no seat belts at that time and we always made it to school anyway. I don’t remember much about the moms except the backs of their heads. There was Dorothy Lund and, of course, my mom and Sally’s mom. Sally’s mom sometimes harped at us girls not to bite our fingernails. We’d hold on to the back of the seat and she could see if we were paying attention or not.

When we got old enough to go to Anson Junior High we could ride the bus. They let the bus company dedicate some of their buses to take the kids right to school. I had to walk to the corner bus stop and my mom was always late getting breakfast so she’d demand that I take a scrambled egg sandwich with me. I’d grouse and complain. “Mom! I’m going to be late for the bus!” She’d win and I would sullenly take the sandwich promising to eat it as I ran to the bus but I never did. As soon as I got out of sight of the house I’d throw it down the storm drain. Sometimes my friend Marjorie and I would walk all the way to Anson. Sometimes we’d walk in very cold weather. Our knees would be nearly frozen when we got there. We wore knee socks so our knees were bare. They were beet red when we got to school.

On the weekends we’d kind of turn into Huckleberry Finns and go walking around just to see what we could see or what trouble we could find. Walking up Elder Drive we would be out in the country in one block and there was the grain elevator and the railroad tracks and a dirt road that was called Beer Can Road for, guess what?, all the beer cans people threw out the windows into the ditches. We went just as far as we felt safe  and then we’d walk back again. Once we walked all the way to Sutherland Station power plant. Sutherland Station was a great big giant brick building that seemed like the castle in the Wizard of Oz.

All the corn fields were stubble and the weeds in the ditches were dried and dead. If we found a dried up milk weed pod we’d take it. Such amazing nature! Everything was losing color. Color only came back if it rained and then it was a monochromatic pallet of browns, red browns and ochre. Winter was coming and when that happened the sky would be the same grey as the ground and the only color came from the rare pine tree here and there.



Portraiture 101


I have always been good at drawing people. I started in high school drawing portraits of people’s children. But I wasn’t VERY good. I was just adequate. In art school I needed to refine my technique. I listened to my TA’s when they said don’t draw a “face”. Draw a “head”. Which means observe the volume of a head and all its parts: eyes, nose, cheeks, mouth, forehead and try to convey the volume and shape of those parts and do it on the 2 dimensional surface of the paper. Get down in the dust of the graphite, charcoal and pastel and don’t be afraid to mull it around to achieve your goal. A face can seem complicated but it’s not really when you look closely and see what it’s really made up of. Cubes, spheres, pyramids, and cones. These are shapes we can all draw with a degree of confidence. When you put them together and add technique a portrait turns out to be something that is within the power of anybody who chooses to create. Then you add practice and the next thing you know you’ve got something quite nice.

It was Good so I Didn’t Mind.

1970: The Year of George and Sarah’s Power Wagon

In the winter of 1970 I spent a lot of time at George and Sarah’s house in the country north of Iowa City. The house was unpainted on the outside and gutted on the inside. They had taken out walls and it made sense in the winter when the only heat was from the cook stove in the kitchen.  After a meal we would all gather in the living room and hang out until one by one we all fell asleep wherever we had been sitting. We were only 20 years old and we could sleep anywhere.

To get to George and Sarah’s house you had to drive down a dirt lane that was impassable in wet weather which was most of winter before it froze or in spring when it rained a lot. George found a truck somewhere that could handle the lane. It was a Dodge Power Wagon 4 wheel drive  with a winch on the front and it was impressive. It was so high up off the ground that you had to climb up into it by grabbing on to whatever handhold you could get. When the motor was in low gear it roared and then the whole truck went slipping and sliding in the deeply rutted mud until we got to the house. Four or five of us would scrunch in together on the seat and George drove and everyone else bounced. We thought we were so cool.

Dodge Power Wagon ready for action.

One guy, who we called Baseball, lived for part of the year in a makeshift pile of brush. No one knew why he was called Baseball but no one cared. He was kind of wild and we were either in awe of him or terrified. We heard stories about how he would find mushrooms in the woods and eat them to see what would happen. He never ate one that was bad enough to kill him or put him in the hospital and I don’t know if it was sheer luck or what. Eventually he moved to Hawaii with his wife Abby where Abby was picked up by some unknown person, raped and strangled. They left her in a sugar cane field and Baseball  moved back to the mainland.

From left: Dan, Will, dog, unknown, Baseball, Lynn, Chris and Gary

In the years before the Hawaii move, Chris and Dan lived in a church south of town. I think they got their inspiration from Alice’s Restaurant.  They had a huge billy goat that stunk to high heaven until a pack of  dogs came and killed it. Then they skinned the billy goat and put the hide on the fence. Nobody missed that goat but it was sad anyway. Inside the church my boyfriend and Dan and the rest of the rock band they were in used the big meeting hall to practice. Chris and Dan got married there, too. All we thought about was ourselves, who wanted to be with whom, eating organically and living off the land.

A picture of me taken at Dan and Chris’s wedding.

The church was a good example of why taking out walls was a good idea when all you had was cook stove heat. It was not practical to remove walls in the church so in the winter Chris and Dan shut the doors to the meeting hall and retreated into the kitchen and dining room area which had been the vestibule.  It was freezing in the meeting hall but in the kitchen it was lovely and warm. Outside a blizzard might howl but inside and snug under our quilts we watched as the orange glow of the fire in the stove played out on the walls late into the night.

I normally lived in a two story rooming house on Fairchild Street around the corner from Courier Hall. Courier Hall was a big brick dormitory on the University of Iowa campus. I lived there for a year and while there I had roommate named Debbie who was my complete opposite in personality. For example, her side of the dresser was a pile of detritus and my side was neatly organized. Almost bare. Debbie would go out and in the wee hours of the morning would climb up the fire escape conveniently located outside our window and bang on the window for me to let her in. These were the days of curfew for college age girls. One night she came back with blood dripping off her forehead. She claimed she had been struck by a police officer in a riot after a Vietnam war protest. Remember this was 1970 and stuff was going down everywhere. She claimed she was hit by a billy club but my guess was that she had tripped while running away. She was a great, big, fat liar and a really messed up person. I couldn’t stand living in the same room with her so at my earliest possible opportunity I moved into a room all by myself on the third floor.

However dorm life was really not my cup of tea so when I got a chance to move into the rooming house on Fairchild I jumped at the chance. I really wanted to be in charge of myself.  Randy was our landlord and not much older than any of us. He and his sister Diane had the only full apartment in the house. The rest of us had single rooms. Our kitchen was in the basement where the only shower and toilet was, too. The shower was behind some posts and there wasn’t much privacy. Usually no one was around but if they were they respected you and didn’t look. We ate mung bean stew we made ourselves and Essene bread we got from the Food Co-op. Once I made a great big pot and that’s all I ate for breakfast , lunch and dinner for a week. It was good so I didn’t mind.