Category Archives: Writing

The Artist

There was a Japanese emperor who hired an artist to paint a rooster for him. The emperor was a patient man, so when the painting was not immediately forthcoming, he was not very concerned. Even so, years went by. How difficult was it to paint a rooster? The artist was benefitting from the patronage of the emperor, living in the palace grounds, eating the food provided, yet he had not produced the painting. After twenty years the emperor’s patience was spent. He went himself to the artist’s rooms to inquire about his painting.

The artist was startled to be visited by the emperor, but he bowed deeply and invited the other man to have a seat. “Please wait here, and I will get your painting.” The artist retreated into his studio. The emperor could hear him, singing softly to himself, puttering around.

After many minutes the emperor could take it no more. He leapt to his feet, as well as a now aging man could, and filled the doorway of the studio with his presence. “Twenty years I’ve waited and still you make me wait! Why should I not execute you now?”

The artist did not react to the threat, but stepped from his easel and said, “I am almost done now. Do you like it?”

The emperor’s temper calmed as he saw before him the perfect rooster. In simple lines it showed the rooster turned to look over its shoulder at him, just as he’d hoped. But then the man noticed dozens, no hundreds of other paintings almost the same, lining every surface of the room. To his eye, they all looked perfect, too.

“Did you just paint the rooster on the easel?” the emperor asked.

“Yes, your Majesty.”

“If you have painted all these other roosters, why do I not have one yet? Why have I waited twenty years for something you could do long ago, something you could do in just a few minutes?”

“Oh, your Majesty, I could not,” said the artist. “It has taken me this long to learn how to paint the perfect rooster. None of those before were good enough to give you.”


Ogden Nash, 1902-1971

A friend celebrates her birthday today. (Happy birthday, mj!) When I looked at the calendar and noticed that, I remembered another birthday today, as well. One of America’s favorite poets, Frederic Ogden Nash, was born on August 19, 1902. His free-form style allowed made-up words and rhyming lines of varying lengths. The off-kilter style endeared him to readers delighted by the inherent humor.

His first book, The Cricket of Garador, was a children’s book published in 1925. His first poetry was published in the New Yorker magazine in 1930. He continued writing well into the 1960s, publishing more than 500 pieces of verse, as well as three screenplays and a Broadway hit play.

A prolific writer, he’s often remembered for humorous poems on animals. Here are three you might recognize:

The Cow
The cow is of bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other is milk.

The Fly
The Lord in His wisdom made the fly,
And then forgot to tell us why.

The Dog
The truth I do not stretch or shove
When I state that the dog is full of love.
I’ve also found, by actual test,
A wet dog is the lovingest.

These child-friendly verses, for many of us, were one of our first introductions to poetry. However, he also wrote for an adult audience, as evidenced by this reading of A Tale of the Thirteenth Floor. 

Nash had a writing voice all his own, with uneven rhythm and unconventional rhyme. The sophistication of his verse was revealed in his observations on his own life as well as society around him. Marriage and children, aging and illness, wealth and work, were all topics he took on. The poem “I Never Even Suggested It” considers the negotiations within a marriage to keep the peace.

A more humorous take on the relationship between men and women can be found in this:

Reflexions on Ice-Breaking
is dandy
But liquor
is quicker

His Take on Wealth in American Society Rings True Today

His views on wealth in society resonate within our current environment of increasing economic disparity. These pieces give you a taste of his observations:

Lines Indited with all the Depravity of Poverty
One way to be very happy is to be very rich
For then you can buy orchids by the quire and bacon by the flitch.
And yet at the same time People don’t mind if you only tip them a dime,
Because it’s very funny
But somehow if you’re rich enough you can get away with spending water like money
While if you’re not rich you can spend in one evening your salary for the year
And everybody will just stand around and jeer.
If you are rich you don’t have to think twice about buying a judge or a horse,
Or a lower instead of an upper, or a new suit, or a divorce,
And you never have to say When,
And you can sleep every morning until nine or ten,
All of which
Explains why I should like very, very much to be very, very rich.

Reflection on the Fallibility of Nemesis
He who is ridden by a conscience
Worries about a lot of nonscience;
He without benefit of scruples
His fun and income soon quadruples.

This excerpt from “Bankers Are Just Like Anybody Else Except Richer” may sound prescient:

This is a song to celebrate banks,
Because they are full of money and you go into them and all
you hear is clinks and clanks,
Or maybe a sound like the wind in the trees on the hills,
Which is the rustling of the thousand dollar bills.
Most bankers dwell in marble halls,
Which they get to dwell in because they encourage deposits
and discourage withdrawals,
And particularly because they all observe one rule which woe
betides the banker who fails to heed it,
Which is you must never lend any money to anybody unless
they don’t need it.

And even more pointed:

The Terrible People
People who have what they want are very fond of telling people who haven’t what they want that they really don’t want it,
And I wish I could afford to gather all such people into a gloomy castle on the Danube and hire half a dozen capable Draculas to haunt it.
I don’t mind their having a lot of money, and I don’t care how they employ it,
But I do think that they damn well ought to admit they enjoy it.
But no, they insist on being stealthy
About the pleasures of being wealthy,
And the possession of a handsome annuity
Makes them think that to say how hard it is to make both ends meet is their bounden duity.
You cannot conceive of an occasion
Which will find them without some suitable evasion.
Yes indeed, with arguments they are very fecund;
Their first point is that money isn’t everything, and that they have no money anyhow is their second.
Some people’s money is merited,
And other people’s is inherited,
But wherever it comes from,
They talk about it as if it were something you got pink gums from.
Perhaps indeed the possession of wealth is constantly distressing,
But I should be quite willing to assume every curse of wealth if I could at the same time assume every blessing.
The only incurable troubles of the rich are the troubles that money can’t cure,
Which is a kind of trouble that is even more troublesome if you are poor.
Certainly there are lots of things in life that money won’t buy, but it’s very funny —
Have you ever tried to buy them without money?

Other Notes on Nash

Nash made the city of Baltimore his home, and he was a tremendous fan of the Baltimore Colts. In 1968 he wrote a feature for Life Magazine on his beloved team. One of the poems in the feature memorialized a game forcing a play-off against the Green Bay Packers.

Is there a Baltimore fan alive
who’s forgotten Tom Matte in ’65?
The Colts by crippling injuries vexed,
Unitas first and Cuozzo next–
What would become of the pass attack?
Then Matte stepped in at quarterback.
He beat the Rams in a great display,
He did – and he damn near beat Green Bay.
Ask him today to plunge or block,
Tom’s the man who can roll or rock.
In Tokyo, they say karate
In Baltimore, they call it Matte.

When the first class stamp honoring the poet’s centennial was presented in 2002, the ceremony at his Baltimore home included members of the Colts team.

Ironically, I was reminded of him a while back when remarking in a comment about pelicans. Two different people responded with slightly different versions of this poem, which they attributed to Nash:

A wonderful bird is a pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week;
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

However, the attribution has been muddied over time. According to this article, Nash was not the author. In fact, it states that the poem was written around 1910 by Dixon Lanire Merritt, editor of Nashville’s paper The Tennessean.

Regardless, Ogden Nash is an American poet to celebrate. His views and writings on the twentieth century still resonate today, and his humor and style stand the test of time.

Do you have favorite poems or memories of Ogden Nash to share?

“I used to be real interesting…”

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 1.24.09 PMThe title is a status update I posted in Facebook a few days ago. Since you bothered to pop in to read (thank you, by the way!), perhaps you wonder what was so interesting about me before, or why I am not interesting anymore.

In truth, I’m just about as interesting in person as I ever was, but my online presence has changed. Facebook itself is part of that. Admit it, it is not a good venue for revealing interesting parts of oneself. Facebook asks the question, “What’s on your mind?” instead of “How are you?” But no one really wants to know either. Most people just don’t want to know what you really think, or how you really are. They’re more comfortable with funny video links, or songs, or shared inspirational posters.

Indeed, the most innocuous subjects or comments can create offense, so most people I know avoid even those. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. I’ve offended others with innocuous comments, myself! I’ve also seen bullying, threats, shaming, attempts to ruin reputations, petty fights… and I’ve seen all that between family members. So much for using Facebook as a forum to become closer. It certainly can work that way, but it does not always.

This kind of crap doesn’t really go away in my Facebook world, even though I’ve very deliberately kept my “friends” list very short. All it takes is someone looking to be offended who reads someone else’s thread, and off we go!

The easiest way to avoid that kind of drama is to stick with what people want: pictures of kitties and puppies and babies, recipes, links to videos, and the like. I censor myself more all the time. And in shifting in this direction, revealing less about how I think, I provide a very boring face to the Facebook world. I even bore myself.

In addition, over the last year or so, my focus for writing has shifted to Catbird Quilt Studio. My life is very simple, and I do spend much of my discretionary time on my quilts. This fact, also, may make me seem very narrow and dull.

In fact, however, I think about a lot of different things. I just don’t say much about most of it.

When Jim and I started this blog, it was to create a venue where we could talk about anything we wanted. We wanted no undue censorship, other than that we would provide through our own natural decency. The title of the blog is broad to include the broad range of subjects we study and think about. But recently neither of us has spent a lot of time focused on Our View.

Well, I have a few things to say. And though I won’t be the arbiter of whether I am, or just used to be, “interesting,” I look forward to expressing some parts of me that I’ve censored too much for too long.




by Melanie

An origin myth, republished in honor of our son. Today is his graduation day. He will receive his wings as a pilot for the United States Air Force.


Sky dominated my view, expansive and welcoming. Flyers found air space at varying levels, like planes directed by hidden air traffic controllers. Swooping low, barn swallows performed touch-and-go exercises. Higher, clouds of blackbirds undulated almost across the horizon. They signaled cooler weather coming, but it was not fall yet. For now, clear, indirect light silhouetted the birds against pale blue.

At ground level, thistles reached upward, tough and tall. Goldenrod, flowering heads brushed lengthwise, reminded me of ancient brooms, worn down from years sweeping the stone hearth. Queen Anne’s lace had curled into tight clusters, pregnant with seeds waiting to spill forth.

Pelicans were back, flying so high, wingtips reflecting the late afternoon sun. They looked like confetti drifting slowly in a circle, until they wheeled and changed direction, moving closer in view. For me, the pelicans’ appearance always seemed like a gift. Now, with such perfect timing, the pelicans must be a good omen.

I needed a good omen. The year was difficult in many ways, full of extremes, joy marred by illness and tragedy. The cancer and anorexia were merely death threats. The murders were unbearable and incomprehensible, tearing the fragile scrim, the illusion of safety.

I flew, too. As with the pelicans above me, it was easier to fly than walk, my body awkward and unbalanced on the ground. Like Icarus, I used my wings to escape. Unlike him, I flew low, skimming the rooftops and crowns of trees. The view from above, in motion, removed details I needed to ignore. Instead I could focus, just on moving forward, and then on landing safely.

The sun shifted and blackbirds and pelicans moved on. As the leaves curled and fell, as dew on the dried maize reflected morning light, death hovered around us. The sky became broader still, opening through stark bare branches.

Waiting, I still flew. Crows bossed during the day. In the evenings they settled, scores in stands of trees, chattering odd noises like rusty hinges.

I posed no threat to them, did not disturb them from their roosts, even while I prepared to make my own. Landing, nesting, I had flown past the sorrows of the summer, though they were visible to me when I turned.

Flying snow, flurrying, melting; the fall did not readily concede to death. The rising sun brightened the sky, warming the earth again. And on that day, I gave birth to a flyer.

Fledged now, he flies for us as well as himself. Soon he will fly like the pelicans, broad wingspan carrying him higher, beyond view. Leaving and returning, a good omen.

Sticks and Stones

can break my bones, but words will never harm me. It’s a useful rhyme to teach children to ignore verbal taunts. By denying the power of words to hurt us, we can tell others that their efforts are useless, and we stand strong against their attacks.

This comic from xkcd tells the real story. If you “hover” your mouse over the strip, you can see the truth: “words can make me think I deserved it.”

Words have power, and words have meaning. Whether written or spoken, why are words so essential to us? Words explain, they shine, they bind us together and tear us apart. They tell the stories of the ages, into the past and into the future.

Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning. ~ Maya Angelou

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. ~ Carl Sagan

As noted above by Angelou, meaning may be created by tone of voice. Consider, for example, the ways a person might state “John Boehner is a strong leader.” They may sound earnest; they may sound sarcastic. Their tone of voice lets us know their intent.

The specific platform of delivery can provide information for us, too. If we know a “news” item was published by the Onion, we expect it to be tongue in cheek, even if otherwise it is completely believable. Words have meaning. And yet, a word in isolation may have little power. Because words can have multiple meanings, and because humans use words imprecisely, context is everything.

Even when we are careful about which words we use, misunderstandings may arise. Consider a minor celebrity saying, “I picked up a fan this week.” What did she mean? Did she buy an appliance with rotating blades, or did she gain a new admirer? Much more is needed to understand her meaning.

Words we think of as similar in meaning, in reality may be substantially different. For example, “eager” is not the same as “anxious,” though many people will note they are anxious for some event about which they are happy, not nervous. Again, context is key.

Speaking of the difference between justice and revenge, Ron Nikkel says,

Whenever I speak of justice, even with judges and lawyers, I find it necessary to clarify that the meaning of justice is more than a forensic determination of guilt or innocence, that it is beyond crime and consequence, and that it is not simply fairness and equality and proper procedure. I am trying to become more careful with the words I use because the meanings of words like justice, love, hate, grace, honesty, truth, good, evil and morality are critically important in our world of contemporary tolerance. Words aren’t ours simply to fill a quiet space; or to cast aspersions and insinuate suspicion without sounding negative; or to build sentences and paragraphs that are dense and stupid but sound profound; or to say one thing while meaning quite another. Words are not “just words” unless they are used transparently with integrity, grace and meaning for the common good.

Context is provided by surrounding words and statements. But context also comes from the speaker and our relationship to him or her. “I love you” from a small child is a very different statement than “I love you” from a sweetheart or spouse. Racial epithets sometimes are accepted when used by a member of the race, as we often hear about “the n word.” That word is not acceptable from Paula Deen because the context is wrong.

Written media suffer in their ability to communicate tone, making contextual understanding harder. As my friend Alan B. Craig states in his book “Understanding Virtual Reality” (with William R. Sherman),

Arguably, the experience of reading the book belongs both to the writer-of-words and to the reader, making both coauthors of the experience.

Both the author and the reader contribute to the experience. The author cannot choose, in isolation, the reader’s experience.

Imagine writing something poking fun of a particular hobby, and assuming the reader would experience it as meant, with no harm intended. The reader’s sense of attachment and ownership about that hobby may color their response. Once I witnessed a reader’s explosive reaction when another blog commenter made fun of Harley Davidson riders. No one else of the dozens of readers registered the same kind of emotional reaction. The reader who did react was a Harley rider who’d had a life-changing crash. His emotional attachment was stronger than the writer could have imagined.

A similar co-authorship of experience happens when we choose to give someone the benefit of the doubt, based on prior contact. The same words that might hurt me from a prickly relative might be tolerated from a close friend. My friend Beth and I have been through a lot together. She knows the best and worst of me. When she has something to say, even when critical, I consider it carefully rather than reacting defensively.

Alternatively, if my experience with someone has been of frequent criticism or correction, I’ll be quick to assume that their expressions are critical or correcting. This is true even if the author believes what they are saying is in jest.

Our words are powerful. As Jodi Picoult has said

words are like nets – we hope they’ll cover what we mean, but we know they can’t possibly hold that much joy, or grief, or wonder.

We have a special responsibility to use words carefully in writing, because we are only one author of that experience. We should not assume our words alone are sufficient to define our meaning. Even if the interaction between reader and author is a one-time experience, we need to lead our readers carefully to our intent. If we have longer-term relationships with our readers, we need to consider what they get from us in the larger context. This way they can give us the benefit of the doubt when needed. That helps them as readers, as well as us as authors.

2013 Year in Review

It seemed so simple. All we wanted from 2013 was a better, easier year than the one before. 2012 was marked with stress arising from the election, extended family tensions, health concerns, and other matters. Surely 2013 would be better.

But the year began badly, marked by events we couldn’t have foreseen, with effects on us and others that continue.

We are strong. We go on. And even with such a rough start, we succeeded in our modest hopes. It was, in fact, a very good year.

Neither of us are especially nostalgic, eschewing all the year-end reviews that mark the end of December. This year, however, we write our own.

Though stunned from the beginning, we quickly turned focus to upcoming celebrations. Our son graduated in mid-May with his master’s in mechanical engineering. The next day he commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. And at the end of May, we helped move him to Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma, where he began his pilot training. Those stories are told here:
On becoming an officer
On moving to Vance Air Force Base

We also looked forward to travel, with plans to visit Glacier National Park and Canada’s Banff National Park in July. In the meantime, we enjoyed hiking with my sister and brother-in-law in Illinois’s Starved Rock State Park. Before and after our big trip to Glacier, there were other hiking expeditions in Oklahoma, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia. A few of those stories, with wonderful photos by Jim, are here:
Glacier National Park, part 1
Glacier National Park, part 2
Banff National Park, part 1
Banff National Park, part 2
Maquoketa Caves State Park
Backbone State Park
Hike Along the Cedar River
Shades State Park Again After 33 Years
Hocking Hills Winter Hike
Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

We write, and we teach. To create venues for those needs for expression, we began this blog, Our View from Iowa. Our interests are broad, and we use this to publish posts on politics, hunger, and other social issues, science, nature, and personal concerns. In addition, Jim created the JAR Blog as a site more focused on science topics. In July, I also launched Catbird Quilt Studio. With more than 300 posts between the three blogs, I guess you could say we’ve been very expressive!

Besides working on our own blogs, we helped update the website for our nearest food pantry, the North Liberty Community Pantry. Since early this year, I’ve also volunteered a couple hours a week at the pantry. They provide seasonal clothes for children, and I help take care to make sure area children have appropriate, stylish clothing to wear.

After countless hours volunteering for the election in 2012, Jim’s taken a breather this year. He even retired (for the last time!) in June. But he stays busy. His gardening in the summer filled our freezer with produce to enjoy throughout the year. And he plays electric blues guitar regularly, one more creative outlet for him.

This has been a year of creativity for me in my quilting. Most of my quilts for the year are shown in this gallery.

As the year comes to a close, we find our lives full and rich, blessed with family and friends, with much to do, and means to reach out into the world.

We look forward to 2014, not with any wish for “more” or “better.” Our lives are blessed with plenty, and with peace and happiness.

We wish you a year of peace and plenty in 2014, as well.

You can find me…

at Catbird Quilt Studio. I’m proud to announce my new blog devoted to quilting. While I’ll still write here and plan to republish some of the quilting posts here as well, most new quilting posts will originate there. I invite you to come on over and take a look!

This is the project I’ve been working on recently. It’s a medallion quilt, which I began early this year. Unlike almost every other project I ever do, it’s FOR ME! and has no deadline or urgency. So I’ve enjoyed taking my time and stretching out the process.

Just a taste. Come to Catbird Quilt Studio to see more!

See you there!


by Melanie in IA

He reaches for me, his hand thin and spotted. The skin is smooth but cool. I’ll need to trim his nails tomorrow. I pull the faded quilt up to his shoulders but he shrugs it back. Blue eyes, wet with age and grief, he cries for losing me.

The machines maintain their low hum. Pushed back against the wall, they are unobtrusive. Still I know they’re there, monitoring his heart, feeding him.

We did not want this, but we cannot seem to make it stop.

I stand and turn so he won’t see my own tears. Catching a glance at the mirror, I wonder who that is with white hair. Where did the girl go, with her long brown hair? The girl who fell in love so long ago … is she here, too?

What about the young man, dark beard and lean body? I miss him, though he lies quietly near me.


The day we met I was all of nineteen, captivated by those blue eyes, the straight white smile. Jim and I got acquainted quickly, falling in love faster than good sense dictated. We ate pizza and drank beer and necked in the garden next to the biology building, floral scents mingling with our own.

Swift summer days filled with each other, against each other. The heat was intense, recorded temperatures matching our desires. We watched the Perseids meteor shower and walked around the pond, camped in the state park, rolled hedge apples. We listened to Bob Seger and James Taylor and dreamed of being together every day, not just five days a week for another five weeks.

We married more than a year after meeting, in the small chapel of a large Protestant church. The ceremony and reception were small, planned and paid for by us, only family in attendance. The reception featured cake and punch and bored guests, eager to retreat. I’d hoped the two families would interact but they did not. The wedding photos, taken by Jim’s brother, each reliably cut off the top inch of the tallest person’s head. It was not the wedding of anyone’s dreams, but it served the purpose.

Still, things happen in a marriage that can change its course, for better or for worse. Things happen that a young woman can’t anticipate on her wedding day. Deaths and births, job changes, other people, all have an impact.


A small moan draws my attention back to him, where he dozes restlessly. I sit again, holding his hand, assuring him I will not leave. He quiets.


We’re unusually compatible, I tell people. Despite our age difference, despite the fact we weren’t an obvious couple, we have the important things in common. Our values are similar, our sense of humor is similar, we appreciate the same activities, the same aesthetics. He could always make me laugh. Together 64 years, almost all of it happy.

The hardest year was the year I made the quilt covering him now. “Quilt therapy,” I called it, a way to focus on something besides my own stew of emotion. I made it without a plan, not knowing what it would be. Like a marriage, perhaps, each layer built on the one before. I cut and stitched, trying to fit the pieces together.

The quilt is faded and worn now, like him, like my memories. I do remember how distant I felt that year, on a journey alone through dark and uncomfortable places. With an anxiety disorder that came from nowhere, it took over every part of my life. I was overwhelmed with questions I couldn’t answer, pieces I couldn’t fit together. The questions spun through my mind, like the chorus of a bad song played endlessly for months. What happened? Why did it happen? How could I fix it?

Self-doubt replaced self-confidence, as I questioned my judgment and behavior. Panic attacks left me doubled over, gasping and helpless. Obsessed with my own concerns, I withdrew from people who cared about me.

We’d always felt like one body, not two, as if an organ transplant between us would be perfectly accepted, no risk of rejection. That year was different. I could not mold myself to him, relax into the oneness we’d always enjoyed. Our pieces did not fit. Yet he had to hold me; I clung to him, begging him not to leave me. Though all of my focus was away from him, that was the year I needed him most.

He did not waver. Enfolding me day after day as I muffled my sobs against his chest, he reassured me, though I could not be reassured.


Again I want to beg him, don’t leave me. Again I cannot be reassured. Surely he will leave me, and soon.

Our son will arrive tomorrow, joining the rest of us. He looks so much like Jim, but with green eyes, not blue. And the beard. He never could talk Jim into shaving it, and Jim never could talk him into growing one.

The beard. I turn back to him, to this old man, and touch his beard. Petting the side of his face, I’m rewarded with a slight smile.

The machines continue to hum. We did not want this. Our son will arrive tomorrow. Maybe, just maybe, then it will stop.

Ruminations on personal writing

by Melanie in IA

You know how I write, partly to make sense of things? You know how I reveal a fair amount, but fairly quietly? Sometimes I don’t want to do that. Sometimes I want to be really forthright, loud, say it out loud. Sometimes I’m tired of censoring and being restrained and editing my words so someone unseen won’t take them wrong. Usually that unseen person either a) won’t read them at all or b) doesn’t matter at all. Why censor myself for them?

Why not just say exactly what I think, how I think it? Why not explain exactly what happened, about ANYTHING, and how I feel about it? Why not name names? Why not burn bridges? Why worry what anyone else thinks?

I wish I could go all out like that. I think I would be a better writer if I learned to be more bold. If I felt comfortable like that. But I don’t trust enough, ironically. Trust only goes so far.