I had a baseball game on the television while Lore was studying.

“I like the commercials that play during sports games,” she commented.

“That’s interesting,” I replied, “because those commercials are not made for you.”

“I know but they are always about being strong, being a hero,” she said. “I like the voices.”

TV for free!

In between reruns of All in the Family and Diff’rent Strokes last night was the most stunning advertisement I’ve seen in a long time. It was more like a short infomercial, about two minutes long, selling… television antennas. Except the company called it “Clear TV” and they were pitching it as free, high-definition alternative to cable or satellite. No shit, you can watch high-definition broadcast television for free! This is sort of like selling watches by saying “No need for a battery, just wind it up!” While I admire the pluck with which this company was trying to resuscitate the dying television antenna business, I would be suspicious of any enterprise that had such a low opinion of its customers’ intellect.

From O to Zinn

I’m about halfway through “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn but at breakfast this morning I set it aside in favor of the back of the Cheerios box. It turns out that General Mills put its high-minded marketing strategies of promoting child literacy and cardiac health on hiatus in favor of “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3-D” merchandising. Instead of a bilingual children’s book inside, this box offered a cheap plastic pen in the shape of begoggled pod-racing eight year-old Anakin Skywalker. It was right on top, too. I didn’t have to open the liner bag or dig through puffed O’s of oat dust or do anything to get to it. I felt like I was acting out a little skit about degenerate corporate commercialism right there at my breakfast table while Howard Zinn peered at me smugly from the cover of his book.

Big breasts and market research

On my Facebook home page, there are these ads asking me to rate pictures of beautiful women with enormous breasts. This begs a few questions. First, do all guys get these ads? I didn’t put anything in my profile indicating my breast size preferences.

Second, if all the women in the pictures are gorgeous and stacked, aren’t they likely to receive more or less the same ratings? I can’t imagine what insights could be gleaned after thousands of ratings of “four and a half out of five stars.”

Third, for which sinister commercial purposes could this information be used? Maybe it’s an inverted form of social engineering: instead of trying to figure out and then sell me what I’m mostly likely to buy, the advertisers believe I will buy anything if it is offered by a chick whose cup size is perfectly calibrated to my tastes. I imagine myself sitting and clicking in a ta-ta induced stupor, buying whatever a luscious pair of gravity-defying melons command me to buy.

There must be a lesson here, but a babe with a sweater-stretching rack is blocking my view of it.


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:

Things NEVER to say to Italian-American co-workers

“Did you see ‘The Sopranos’ last night?”

Italian-Americans NEVER watch movies or television shows about Italian gangsters, no matter how well written or compentently directed. Especially avoid praising “The Godfather” and “The Godfather: Part II”. It is okay to discuss “The Godfather: Part III” as it is generally considered a lame movie.

“Hey, are you EYE-talian?”

Italian-Americans learn from birth to roll up the windows and drive as fast as possible when in parts of the country where people say EYE-talian. Also, be sensitive to Italy’s dialectically and culturally diverse regions. A Sicilian does not want to be confused with a Calabrese or a Neopolitan. Don’t you ignorant crackers know anything?

“I’m behind on my rent. Would you please garrote my landlord?”

No self-respecting Italian-American, even a sociopathic one, would seriously consider such an up-front and direct request. The appropriate etiquette is to arrange a meeting in a dark alley, bring a bag of money, and ask euphemistically “if you could make my little problem disappear.” Also, garrotting is a technique preferred by the Japanese yakuza, a sophistication to which no Italian-American could ever aspire to achieve.

“I love The Olive Garden.”

Italian-Americans have been known to gnaw off their own arms rather than eat at The Olive Garden. In general, Italian-Americans eat only foods that have been cooked by a toothless old matriarch who rarely leaves the kitchen and speaks pidgin English. The large Italian-American families depicted in Olive Garden advertisements are usually played by non-union Albanians.


Today is the last day (Day 7) of RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Thousands of people do this ever year, making it Iowa’s biggest event.

After work on Thursday I rode up to nearby North Liberty, where Day 6 was to begin, to meet a friend who had been riding all week. I actually packed my camping gear onto the back of my bicycle so I could pitch a tent and be ready to leave early yesterday morning. Iowa soil is great for planting corn and other crop, but it’s ideal for tent stakes.

So yesterday, I woke up at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m. to pack up my tent again and put it on a truck where it would meet me in Tipton, the next overnight stop. I was underway by 5:30 a.m. for a 65 mile bicycle ride.

Pretty cool right? A mile out of North Liberty I busted a spoke. If it were on “Prairie Home Companion”, it would sound like: pedal, pedal, pedal, ka-chunk, “What the…”. Thinking erroneously that this was not a big deal, I tucked it in between another spoke and the hub and, since I couldn’t hear it flailing around as I cycled, forgot about it.

Turns out it didn’t cause me any problems, but after hearing some horror stories about broken spokes, I got it fixed in Tipton.

Two girl scouts announce a sale of their fresh baked goods.I rode 12 miles before I ate breakfast in Solon, the first stop. When RAGBRAI passes through a town it’s a pretty big deal, and probably a bigger deal as the towns get smaller. Local organizations raise money by selling food and other cyclists, plus there are all sorts of vendors (including repair tents) along the route.

Two recycling bins, each with a portrait of Obama or McCain, tally the Vote with Your Bottle poll.The small communities route the cyclists right through their main streets, making it congested enough so you have to walk through. They make sure you get a good look at their town. Iowans’ political savvy and humor carried over from the caucuses in Lisbon, where we were invited to “Vote with Your Bottle” by tossing our recyclables into a bin marked either Obama or McCain. Lisbon advertised a sauerkraut festival (“Show us your cabbages!” read one sign) for next month.

All of the towns I visited yesterday are within a half-hour drive of where I live, but I’ve rarely if ever visted them. Mount Vernon, for example, where I took a long break about a third of the way along the route is a cute little college town. I’ve driven through it before but never really visited.
Two of the towns in Linn County I had never even heard of: Martelle and Morley. In Martelle, a farm auctioneer in a booth greeted us over a loudspeaker and announced directions to parking and toilets.

A red antique Farmall tractor on display in front of large metal building.While Martelle and Morley are both small, Morley is by far the smallest. The streets are gravel. There wasn’t much sign of commercial activity except for the grain elevator. However, it had a massive public edifice the size of an airplane hangar, the Morley Community Building, where we could use the toilets and buy snacks. I didn’t go in but I heard there was a gym in there. A man out in front filled our water bottles for free. Now that I think about it I should have asked him more about the building.

I was a little surprised by the amount of complaining I heard from the riders. As we were leaving Morley I heard someone say–in the presence of one of the young locals directing traffic– that “this town sucks”. I wonder what the hell kind of town they were expecting to find every ten miles in Iowa. I give Morley a thumbs up.

A woman in a red shirt greets cyclist to Mechanicsville.This was all before lunch. I got to Mechanicsville–fifty miles into the day–by about one o’clock. I took another long break and had a good lunch at North Cedar Elementary School, where they were serving baked potatoes and watermelons in the cafeteria. The lunch tables were so small that I laughed when I sat down.

By now I was getting a little tired and sore. The weather really helped me out though, it was cool and cloudy with almost no wind. Had it been either hotter or with strong headwinds I would have had a rougher time. My butt was pretty swollen though in tolerable condition, but my knee was hurting. I have bad knees and they act up at the worst times.

I had to pee a lot. This goes with drinking a lot of water like you are supposed to, but it’s not comfortable to feel like peeing half the day. Corn grows really tall in Iowa, as I’m sure you know, and cornfields make perfect pit stops because you can literally disappear into them. But they are also on private property and they are our food supply, so I have some misgivings about people peeing in them. Despite my best efforts, I did stop to pee in a cornfield between Mechanicsville and Tipton, at fifteen miles the longest leg of the route. Sorry. Wash your corn before you eat it.

I rolled into Tipton at four o’clock. I treated myself to some ice cream as a reward for completing 65 miles, my new personal high. Bill pointed out that I can claim a “metric century”, a century being the term cyclists use for 100-mile rides. We pitched tents and ate food, then I got my spoke fixed at a repair tent. The showers closed before I could get to them, so I felt like a disgusting oily mess this morning when I woke up.

I had the option of riding another 50 or so miles to LeClere on the Mississippi River today but I decided to ride the 26 miles back home instead to give my knee an earlier rest. Otherwise I feel pretty good. In fact I was really jazzed after I got home this morning. I had ridden 100 miles since 6:00 p.m. on Thursday. My knee feels better now (this may be the ibuprofen talking) and though I’m tired and sore I’m not debilitated. I could have done the rest of the ride to LeClere. Next year I’ll do some more.


More snow. Six inches or more. It was that quiet snow that absorbs all sound. Susan and I shoveled her driveway and sidewalks during the game, but I watched my NFL minimum this evening. The New England Patriots became the greatest team to ever choke in the last minute and half.

The ads… there was a dancing fat guy with jumper cables clipped to his nipples. Whatever he was selling, I won’t drink it. Somebody needs to go back to advertising junior college.

Anyway, thank you Giants for restoring balance to The Force. The way is paved for the Yankees to beat down the Red Sox. And speaking of which: pitchers and catchers on February 14!

Des Moines

Susan and I took a day trip to Des Moines, which aside from our day at the State Fair in August, was my first real trip to the state capital. We started off by visiting a sandwich shop on the edge of town that boasted “Guinea Grinders”, a Midwestern term for Italian sandwiches. The proprietress asked why I was photographing her shop and I explained that I had seen the sign advertising Guinea Grinders. After talking to her, I found she knew it was an offensive term for Italians, but that it was Midwestern term for a sandwich that dated back to the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair. The sandwich was pretty good: a spicy ground Italian sausage and beef parmigiana hero.

We had time to visit the State Capitol, a beautiful building built in 1873. We didn’t take a tour but were able to explore quite a bit on our own, and visited the two legislative chambers. On the tour we might have been able to see the governor’s office and the law library. I took lots of photos of the capitol before we headed off to our afternoon show.

After the show we searched in vain for the Italian meats shop that made the sausages for the Guinea Grinder, had some coffee and hit the road. We weren’t hungry enough to eat dinner in Des Moines, but we stopped in Grinnell so I could show Susan the Cafe Pheonix, which Ava and I discovered during our Iowa food odyssey. The place is very nice–in an big old house a block from downtown–and serves great food with local ingredients. We took some delicious baklava and chestnut bread home with us.

What a nice day.

A close shave?

Every October Gillette advertises its razors during the baseball playoffs. And every year they promote a new model with an extra blade in it. They’re up to five per razor. When I’m an old man will Gillette razors have forty blades in them? Will each additional blade shave my beard that much closer?

The Gillette corporation is breaking the law of diminishing returns. There should be an economics police.

On Thai food and Lawrence Welk

Tonight I brought home Thai food. Yellow curry something, medium spicy.

I’m enjoying a little ultra-right wing entertainment this evening. Mississippi Public Broadcasting airs reruns of “The Lawrence Welk Show” every week. It’s also supercorny, but I enjoy listing to the music.

The show was on for something like forty years. It’s impossible to tell from the audience how old the broadcast is. They all look like Wallace supporters. A better bet is to look at the performers’ haircuts. I’m guessing tonight’s broadcast is from the late sixties or early seventies. They probably thought they were pretty hot when they got those haircuts.

Some observations:

Once I was watching a broadcast from the fifties. The camera scanned the all-white-bread audience as they danced; if the camera hadn’t been moving you’d be unable to discern that the people were. In the same broadcast, Welk went out of his way to welcome and praise a young black tap dancer. I wonder how well that went down back then.

Welk also admonished protesters during a July Fourth broadcast from the sixties. Among his usually patriotic jingo, he said something like, “the world doesn’t owe you a living.” I think he was reacting to the urban race riots.

The reruns have these short segments spliced into the broadcast featuring former performers who keep us viewers posted on what they’ve been doing since 1962 or whenever and what their family and descendants are up to. Like I give a flying fuck. I can’t stand them. They’re so goddamned Beaver Cleaverish. They never say, “My name was published on the Megan’s Law website and my daughter is the least successful crack-whore in Milwaukee.”

In spite of this, the performances are pretty good. You know those campy Old Navy ads? That’s what the show is like, but without the crass insincerity of commercial marketing.

Gallup, New Mexico

Two mitten-shaped buttes in the snowfall; the snowfall obscures the usually magnificent view, but gives the valley a ghostly look.
The Mittens in the snow
A slowish day. This morning I visited Monument Valley, a tribal park. The weather was bad again this morning, foggy and snowy. The guides would only start a tour with two visitors, and it took a while to scare up a second person. Finally, after and hour or so of waiting, a British couple and their baby decided to join me. Our driver, Joe, despite his insistence that I stick around, was a little uncertain about the road conditions. He abandoned his tour van for his own four-wheel drive truck. He tipped forward the passenger seat and gestured for the British family to get in back. They peered in, and seeing it was not equipped with seat belts, asked to return to the tour van.

Before we got too far down the road, Joe got out to look over the conditions, and we watched some trucks tow out a couple of similar vans. Hmm. Anyway, we went into the valley.

The snow gives the red sandstone desertscape a different look than the familiar movie scenes.
John Ford Point
You’ve seen Monument Valley a zillion times on television and in the movies. John Ford used to film there all the time, and the nearby trading post preserves John Wayne’s favorite room. In fact, there is an overlook called Ford’s point. Lots of truck commercials are filmed there, too.

But this morning the visibility was pretty bad, and the snow was the first substantial fall after a six year drought. I was looking at the valley in a different way than I had expected: not entirely what I hoped for, but still a rare occurence. I don’t have the photos back yet, but I suspect the monuments will look like sandstone ghosts in the haze.

Joe tried to hustle me in the morning, but turned out to be a pretty good guide. I asked him a lot about Navajo life, the economy, the culture, the architecture of the hogans, the history, etc. I wondered if he would use any of those asanine Hollywood-style Indianisms like, “The coyote is my friend and the wind speaks to me.” He didn’t– he was pretty frank and sincere– but he explained how he used to go to different churches when he was looking for things to do and people to meet (he especially liked roller-skating). “But this is my church,” he said gesturing to landscape around us.

Can’t go wrong with Monument Valley as your church, I thought.

We only travelled about ninety minutes. The Brits were anxious to get back to Moab. It was a short, but stunning little jaunt, and I still had half a day. So, off to Navajo National Monument to look at ruins for the second half.

Green junipers and pinon pines along a snow-covered trail.
Sandal Trail in the snow
This place was pretty high up and it was still snowing. The ruins were accessible only with a guide and the guide had set off around the time the Brits and I were watching Joe clean out his rusty old truck. The ranger said a volunteer guide would be available again on Thursday (next time this happens to you write your damned congressman and tell them to fund these places properly- ed.). With a few hours of daylight to kill, I drove through the bulk of the Navajo reservation and through the Hopi reservation within it (finding the museum there closed), and so went all the way to Gallup for the night.

By the way, there is a Navajo rush hour, if you can believe it; from about five to six o’clock in the evening there are a lot of people on the two-lane highways. They must travel very far to work.

Opinion of Gallup: This is the ugliest city I have ever seen. “Historic Route 66” runs along the dismal downtown. It has lots of neon and tourist-Western schmaltz and seedy motels. The people here can’t drive for shit (one lady, with about ten feet of space on her starboard side, was having trouble negotiating around my car on her port). I thought there’d be something to do here at night. There isn’t, but I found a crunchy-looking cafe for dinner. The live band (some guy) played a couple of guitar tunes, then disappeared. Can’t complain, the Lonely Planet book warned me.