Swiss Valley

Today I went to my annual fire line safety refresher course at Swiss Valley Park in Dubuque County. The county conservation board’s headquarters are in a nice new building shaped like a dairy barn.

A dairy barn-like building overlooks a creek crossed by a wooden pedestrian bridge suspended from steel cables.
A dairy barn-like building overlooks a creek crossed by a wooden pedestrian bridge suspended from steel cables.

In addition to the nice classroom space, the park has some pretty trails. The park is in a narrow valley, named by Swiss immigrants who were reminded of their homeland. Now, I don’t think I’d ever mistake Iowa for Switzerland, but northeast Iowa is pretty hilly.

Leafless trees arch from snow-covered banks over a creek.
Leafless trees arch from snow-covered banks over a creek.

The Academy, please

I missed the Academy Awards. As usual, the best actor award was given to someone doing an impression of someone else. I can’t believe Rich Little hasn’t been honored yet. And as usual I haven’t seen hardly any of the nominated films. “Slum Dog Millionaire” has been at the top of my “must see” list for a while, but I just don’t go to the theater much anymore.

Chimps in the news

I’ve been a little perplexed over the uproar about the recent New York Post cartoon. The cartoon depicts two police officers and a chimpanzee they had just shot, who they identify as the author of the economic stimulus bill.

The outrage was predictable but I didn’t get why the police officers in the cartoon killed a chimpanzee. It turns out police in Stamford, Connecticut indeed shot a chimpanzee earlier this week, though for other reasons than passing bad legislation.

Context may not be everything, but it is nothing to outrageaholics.


For the first time since I exited one of their planes on the inflatable slide we boarded Allegiant Air and headed for a holiday weekend in Sarasota. My uncle has a new place there and I’ve been anxious to see it. He’s been slowly expunging the last owner’s old lady decor and, with the exception of the bathrooms and a couple of atrocious ceiling fans, he’s almost done.

A high-rise hotel, sailboat, and bridge under the blue and yellow dusk sky.
A high-rise hotel, sailboat, and bridge under the blue and yellow dusk sky.

When I was a kid people spoke of Sarasota as a kind of paradise. It is indeed very nice, but is also a big and sprawling city of the Sun Belt variety, where the rich are walling off their ever-growing share of creation. Sarasota’s broad, congested main roads have sidewalks, though outside of the downtown almost nobody uses them. In fact, as in many American cities designed around the automobile, drivers–usually the old coots who inhabit such places in Florida–looked agog at us pedestrians, as if to wonder why anyone would go anywhere without their asses smashed into a Mercury Grand Marquis.

This weekend’s weather was the pleasant February kind I remember from the Gulf Coast: sunny and dry and a little breezy; nice enough but not exactly beach weather. That didn’t keep us in, though. Downtown Sarasota has a big farmer’s market on Saturdays. We bought fresh produce that Dave turned into nightly salads which we ate with our meals. And therein lies the great attraction of south Florida: you can buy fresh local produce and you can grill outdoors in February.

Illuminated purple jets of fountain water and dolphin sculptures in silhouette against the dusky sky.
Illuminated purple jets of fountain water and dolphin sculptures in silhouette against the dusky sky.

Sarasota Harbor is a nice place to walk in the evening. We gawked at expensive boats and the poster-perfect dusk. Out on Siesta Key, we saw drummers and hippie dancers congregate on the big public beach. They drew a big crowd and it was hard to see them, but since it’s more of a listening activity Lore and I walked down the beach where we could hear them half a mile away.

Blurry photo of two men carrying paintings along a street.
Blurry photo of two men carrying paintings along a street.

We strolled around St. Armand’s Circle on Lido Key, a place so super-ritzy that it almost justifies Bolshevism. As my uncle was looking for some artwork to hang on his new walls, we looked in some of the art galleries. The art galleries in St. Armand’s Circle sell mostly overpriced trash, but we found one with a reasonable assortment of nice-looking wall art. Nevertheless, my uncle got the owner to knock nine bucks off a pair of framed prints. The exasperated art dealer asked him, “What do you do for a living? You must be an attorney or something.” “No,” my uncle said. “I teach third grade.”

A woman looks into a spotting scope on a boardwalk.
A woman looks into a spotting scope on a boardwalk.

Myakka River State Park. The park has a boardwalk over part of the marsh, cleverly named the “Birdwalk”. And for a windy day in the dry season it sure was busy with both birds and folks. Alligators basked. Turkey vultures and eagles glided far overhead while a flock of white pelican circled even higher aloft. The park is well out of town but I can see it soon becoming an island of natural Florida if people don’t stop paving over its environs.

When we got back to Iowa, Lore and I paused just before leaving the airport, sighed, and then stepped out into the winter cold.

Strong openings

Ever since I was in high school, my English teachers have stressed the importance of strong opening sentences. I have been trying not to start every blog entry with phrases like “Today I went to…” but it’s easy to backslide when I’m only writing for a few minutes a day.

Here’s a survey of first sentences from the feature articles of this month’s National Geographic Magazine.

The journey of young Charles Darwin aboard His Majesty’s Ship Beagle, during the years 1831-36, is one of the best known and most neatly mythologized episodes in the history of science.

Just two weeks before he died, Charles Darwin wrote a short paper about a tiny clam found clamped to the leg of a water beetle in a pond in the English Midlands.

A frigid November day pressed against the windows of a shabby apartment building in the Chinese city of Yanji, ten miles from the North Korean border.

In the winter of 2005 Nelso Quispe, new from Peru to North AMerica, was hired to herd Sheep in Wyoming’s Red Desert.

Palermo’s ariport is named Falcone-Borsellino.

Mount Washington rises rumpled and soft above the New Hamphire forests, beyond the brick towns, the old mills ,and the cold cities, but not really too far way from anything.

Of course, National Geographic get their pick of writers (the writer of the article about Sicilian mummies is, incidentally, a food critic). I like the second example best since it begs the question, “Why?” and urged me to read on. A close second is the last example. It sets an immediate scene for what follows in the article.


Iowa is having a bout of “extremely mild” temperatures today: a good, sunny, day to go to Kalona. We bought some squeaky cheese curds at the cheese factory (Lore didn’t want to try them at first, now she loves them). We stopped at Stringtown Grocery for some cheap dry goods like parsley flakes and cocoa. The grocery is an Amish store that buys dry goods in bulk, packages them, then sells them for cheap. A small plastic tub of “low sodium chicken broth powder” is labeled just that, with the weight and price; no ingredients or expiration dates. It’s refreshing to buy food free of excessive advertising and packaging mark-ups. I have no idea where they get or what’s in it, though.

I am investigating the art of quilt making for work. Kalona, as it happens, calls itself “the quilt capital of Iowa”, so we stopped at a quilting store downtown and asked a couple of questions. I sort of understand now how quilts are constructed.

A windmill, water tower, barn, and frame house in a collection of old buildings.The Kalona Historical Village has a small collection of Amish and “English” (as the Amish call the non-Amish) quilts. Amish quilts differ by their use of black with dark colors. Somewhat more impressive are its collections of antique spool cabinets (“largest in the USA”) and minerals, on display from a local family of collectors. The quilt galleries have some nice displays but don’t illuminate visitors on the art and craft, or history, of quilt making.

Kalona a nice little place. There’s always something different to do there. Here are some photos:

Assassination Vacation

Knowing how bored I get in hotel rooms, I brought with me to Ames plenty to read. And since I was there a whole extra day waiting around I finished “Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell. I read her latest book last week and liked it enough to try another.

“Assassination Vacation” is much more substantial and better written than “The Wordy Shipmates”. It’s about Vowell’s pilgrimages to the historic sites and places associated with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. She enjoys stuff that even I find boring at times, like statues, graves, and historic markers. For example,
I don’t like statues of historical figures, which to me are a form of idol worship that comes straight out the reptilian parts of our brains. I prefer more indirect devices like buildings, artifacts, and landscapes.

Vowell doesn’t share my contempt for statues (or ostentatious tombs) but she’s a good interpreter–something I strive to be, with mixed results. She sees what these things tell us besides the obvious. Describing a museum display of the bullet that killed Lincoln along with fragments of his skull, she writes:

These well-labeled, well-lit artifacts also suggest the existence of: the autopsy surgeon, the file clerk who catalogued and stowed them, the curator who decided to put them on display, the carpenter who built the display case, etc. Even though I am currently the only pilgrim paying my respects to the relics in this out of the way museum, it suddenly feels pretty crowded in here, what with all the people who made this exhibit possible–from John Wilkes Booth on down to the intern who probably typed the labels–breathing down my neck. I can’t make up my mind which step in the process is weirder, the murder or this display, unless the weirdest step of all is taking a fourteen-dollar cab ride to look at the display about the murder.

Since Vowell visits a lot of National Park areas in her travels, the book includes lots of park rangers. While investigating the case of a conspirator imprisoned at Fort Jefferson, she writes at length about my friend and former co-worker Mike Ryan, an authority on masonry forts whose great enthusiasm for that subject always seems at war with his reserved demeanor. Capturing such verifiable characteristics in writing is pretty impressive.

Marooned in Ames

I was headhunting in Ames this week at Iowa State University’s Ag Career Day. Usually when I go to these things its just for PR but this time we are really hiring. It’s like speed dating: most of the students are there between classes trying to hit up as many employers as they can.

I am not an experienced recruiter or even a good one. Recruiting for government jobs has the extra challenge of explaining bureaucratic subtleties and the finicky application process. Even with simpler hiring regime for students, I worry I’ll miss something and they’ll never be considered. When I could, I listened to what some of the other recruiters were saying. Maybe I should just stop worrying and say something peppy like, “You wear a Smokey Bear hat and get paid in sunsets.”

After the career fair ended I was ready to roll, but my van wasn’t. Describing government job applications is easy compared to getting a government vehicle towed. Of course I couldn’t just call AAA. I had to call GSA, the government agency that leases cars to other government agencies. Their automated menu rolled me over to their contractor’s automated menu, which promptly bounced me back to GSA. The second time through the menu, I executed a Rubik’s cube-like maneuver and managed to talk to a man who gave me yet another number for roadside assistance.

The tow truck couldn’t clear the ceiling of the parking deck, so we had to push the van down. The exit on this particular garage was a spiral ramp adjacent to the parking lanes so I could see the tow truck driver coasting our van in descending circles like a vulture. The other tow truck guy and I followed behind on foot. Of course the van had to stop at the gate so I could pay, so we had to push it again to clear the exit lane. The people behind us were so patient.

Anyway, I got the van to the dealership just before they closed and got myself back to the hotel where I checked in for an extra night. I’m not sure which is worse: the stress of getting a car towed in a strange town or the boredom from waiting for it to be fixed. The dealership had to order the part so my boss drove two and half hours to pick me up yesterday and bring me back to work. The van is still in Ames; we’ll have to get it on Monday.

Sign of winter

It’s been a little warmer out so we’ve been trying to walk more. The snow is melting but is also re-freezing on the sidewalks, so walks take longer than normal. We keep passing a “For Sale” sign by a house down the street; next to it is a handwritten “Divorce Must Sell” sign that seems more bitter than desperate.

Handwritten sign reading Divorce Must Sell next to a printed For Sale yard sign.
Handwritten sign reading Divorce Must Sell next to a printed For Sale yard sign.