Shoeless Joe

Somehow, my wife has gotten away for years without having watched Field of Dreams. Likewise, I’ve lived in Iowa City twice that long and had never read W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, the book Field of Dreams is based on. The book is set in Iowa, specifically in Johnson County near Iowa City. Kinsella is an alumnus of the University of Iowa’s renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

We remedied all that last week. Of the movie my wife commented, “Kevin Costner is not a very good actor and that was not a very good movie.” I agreed that it seemed better when I was a kid, that it’s too sentimental, that you need a deep cultural understanding of baseball to like it, and that Kevin Costner is not a very good actor.

I hadn’t seen Field of Dreams in a long time, but I took the opportunity to compare it to the book. The main character, Ray Kinsella, has a creepy intensity and obsessiveness that didn’t come out on the screen— he’s eccentric but not disarming and likable like Costner. Otherwise the story follows pretty closely. A lot of the dialogue is right off the page, though the book has many more characters.

I guess all that’s left is to go up to Dyersville and see the Field of Dreams movie site; a tourist trap that dies a little bit with every year the movie recedes into our collective memory. We can take our time: they just got a tax break from the state so they’ll be around for a little while.

The quinquennial pilgrimage

I last went to the Iowa State Fair five years ago. Once might be enough but I thought my wife should experience it. The state fair has a lot of educational value for me since I can learn about where my food comes from, but it’s also a sort of pilgrimage of Americana. Among other curiosities and amusements, we saw the Butter Cow (which I didn’t see last time) and made off with some swag from the Iowa Egg Council.

Speaking of butter, you can buy it fried from one of the food vendors, along with fried Oreos and Twinkies. Which in fact is one of the things I think is great about this country: you are free to eat a fried stick of battered butter. There’s nothing wrong with eating that way every once in a while (and once a year is way more than enough). Unfortunately, many in attendance looked like they were practicing all year for eating at the State Fair.

At any rate, I didn’t eat the fried butter for lunch but rather a more conventional corn dog. It’s hard for me to eat fried stick food at a fair without hearing my uncle’s disembodied voice in my head: “Don’t walk around eating your food. You’ll look like a scavone.” I don’t know what a scavone is, or even if I’m spelling it right. It’s one of those unwritten antique Sicilian or Calabrese dialect slang words, the meaning of which would be obscure except for its context. Presumably, a scavone is like a slob.

A man about to chomp on a corn dog at the state fair.
A scavone

We missed by two days the Nuremberg-like rally led by Hank Williams, Jr. (as noted in DailyDisgust). Free to eat fried butter, free to be an idiot. God bless America!


Driving around Iowa City on a weekend evening is a good way to see the “stoonts” in action. A young man and his voluptuous blonde girlfriend approached an intersection. The male, full of piss and vinegar in the manner of youth, sprinted across the street to beat the oncoming cars, leaving his more sensible female companion stranded alone on the opposite corner.

Run toward the boobies, young man, not away from them!

Puppy love

You may know that gay marriage is legal here in Iowa. You may also know that some would like to reverse that legality. Some of those folks protested in the state capitol this week. Their leader, Bob Vander Plaats, said during the rally:

If we want marriage equality, let’s just stop for a second. Why stop at same-sex marriage? Why not have polygamy? Why not have a dad marry his son or marry his daughter? If we’re going to have marriage equality, let’s open this puppy up

Emphasis added. According to the Iowa Public Radio story, Vander Plaats insisted that the protest wasn’t about hate. Of course it wasn’t. It was about opening a puppy.


A female gymnast on a balance beam as her coach and teammates watch.
One of the LSU gymnasts performs on the balance beam.

We went to the university women’s gymnastics team’s final home meet against LSU. It was an hour and a half of muscular young women covered in chalk and sparkly leotards doing things with their bodies that would snap my tendons and bones. It was a little hard to follow at first, since there were two events going on at once: vault and uneven bars, and then balance beam and floor exercise. There are also a lot of non-gymnasts down in the competition area: coaches, managers, officials, and other persons whose purposes were unclear. I never realized it before but someone has to move the mats around during the gymnasts’ routines. I estimated a few hundred people, including lots of little girls, were in attendance at the arena. Somehow we ended up in the section with all of LSU’s fans.

I practiced using my camera to take videos. I’ll post some of the better maneuvers after I come up with a smoother way of editing and publishing them here.

George Washington

Since I’ve seen Charles Willson Peale’s 1776 portrait of George Washington a million times in books, I wanted see it in person. We hustled up to Cedar Rapids because Its exhibition at the Museum of Art ends next weekend. Cedar Rapids, as is usual on a winter Sunday afternoon, was deserted and so was the museum, so we had George to ourselves for a little while. The iconic nature of this portrait is largely due its subject, but I’m willing to give Peale more credit for that now that I’ve seen it up close. If I looked him in the eyes, I could sense Washington’s legendary presence and the brass buttons appeared to practically pop off his blue uniform coat.

A man poses in front of a famous portrait of George Washington.
Washington meets history geek

The portrait was in a big room by itself with some interpretive panels about Washington, Peale, John Hancock (who commissioned the portrait perhaps to flatter the general and ensure Boston and Hancock’s wealth stayed out of British hands), and—since this is Cedar Rapids—Grant Wood, who included themes from the Revolution in several of his paintings and illustrations.

Republican precinct caucus

The Johnson County Republicans’ website proclaimed the somewhat un-Republican exhortation, “Rock out with your caucus out!” I can’t imagine a Michelle Bachmann supporter writing something like that. It read more like an overzealous college-aged Ron Paul supporter.

The caucus-goers in my precinct were less brash than that: a good spread of ages but otherwise the usual well-behaved Iowa crowd. Nobody was visibly armed or foaming at the mouth or turning red with anti-everything rage. There were 200 or so folks in attendance. Like me, a number of people there had caucused with the Democrats in the past and changed registration to participate in the competitive Republican vote this year.

The Republicans caucus a little differently from the Democrats. They have no preference groups or 15 percent viability threshold and the precincts do not elect delegates. Representatives of the candidates are each allowed a short speech before a simple write-in vote which the precinct officers tally and report to the party. Mitt Romney won in my precinct and Paul came in second. My preference tied for last, as usual. I stayed for some other business of approving nominations for the Central Committee before I left.

Voters wait seated and standing in a school cafeteria.
Waiting for the tally

I probably won’t vote Republican in November. I gave John McCain a fair shake in 2008, but they’ve gotten far too extreme for me to even consider them. Problem is, I won’t vote for the dishrag-like leadership of Barack Obama either. Hope and change indeed.

The sensitive state

So there’s a big kerfuffle here in Iowa about an article in The Atlantic. In it author Stephen Bloom, a professor at the University of Iowa, offers a pretty warty portrait of the state. “Talk of Iowa” on Iowa Public Radio had a lengthy discussion today about the controversy. Among the article’s more noxious excerpts:

[T]oday, Keokuk, is a depressed, crime-infested slum town. Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they’re some of the skuzziest cities I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying something.

For what it’s worth, Keokuk is pretty a depressing city, precisely because it’s so pretty and sad at the same time. But wait, there’s more:

Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated [sic]) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”

Plus my favorite:

Almost every Iowa house has a mudroom, so you don’t track mud or pig shit into the kitchen or living room, even though the aroma of pig shit is absolutely venerated in Iowa: It’s known to one and all here as “the smell of money.”

Which are all pretty harsh, but after reading the whole article I found it a little more thoughtful than, say, an angry blog rant. I think the point, and maybe his snooty, condescending, college professor tone obscured this, is not to romanticize the rural Heartland as a vast prairie of bucolic serenity.

The great amounts of umbrage taken surprises me. It shows an un-Iowan kind of insecurity. I suspect that, even though Bloom is a 20-year resident of Iowa and is intimately familiar with the state, some Iowans are worried that he is maleducating The Atlantic‘s readership in the outer forty-nine. Iowans should be used to setting straight us fools by now.

Capital City

A large, domed limestone courthouse building.
Polk County Courthouse

We were in Des Moines a couple of weeks ago and had some time to wander around downtown. Sometimes I think Des Moines is what the writers of The Simpsons had in mind when they created Capital City. After five years in Iowa City I feel like hick looking up at the tall Whatever-It’s-Called Building. The streets were weirdly deserted for lunchtime on a Monday. Perhaps many had left early for Thanksgiving, but the streets were really empty. Then I remembered the downtown Skywalk, the system of enclosed overhead walkways that connect buildings in some of the bigger cold-weather cities. We went up and, sure enough, there were the city’s pedestrians.

Deserted city streets around a downtown corporate campus are crossed with covered skywalks.
The deserted streets and skywalks of the Nationwide campus.

Our infrequent trips to Des Moines are always good for a pound of sliced bologna, plus olive paste, homemade pasta, and Italian sausages from Graziano’s. For some reason, deli-sliced Boar’s Head bologna is absent from Iowa City (as are proper delis for that matter).

Giant figure of a crouching man composed of painted steel letters.
I am Nomade. I am perfect.

We also walked down to the newly installed Pappajohn Sculpture Park which has about twenty large outdoor sculptures. Some were good, some were not, some looked like bowel movements. Our favorite was Nomade by Jaume Plensa, a huge crouching figure composed of metal letters which you can walk into.

Colorful downtown office buildings and skyscrapers.
See? Des Moines is all right.

The rain

The blue-green and black in the sky would have been pretty if it wasn’t a storm front. As I was driving downtown to run errands the rain came down hard. Through the gray sheets of rain I could see that the protesters’ tents in College Green Park had multiplied since the weekend, but no people were out. I’ve seen it rain harder before but I’ve never seen so much water on the street. Even after two months of dry weather, if the ground can’t absorb the water faster than it comes down, it will simply run off. Water that should have been in a creek or a marsh somewhere was simply flowing across the pavement, turning the roads into shallow rivers. The workers at the food co-op were installing flood gates on the doors. And even though it was in the sheltered first level of the parking garage, farmers market was washed clear of shoppers for sure. I had my pick of bell peppers.

Iowa City, occupied and otherwise

Fine camping and exploring

Yellow-petaled flowers with large brown corollas backlit by the sun.
Ox-eyes on the fishing trail

We went camping at Yellow River State Forest in northeastern Iowa’s river bluff country. There was hardly anyone there when we arrived Friday afternoon, except for the camouflage-clad fishermen squatting in our reserved campsite. I don’t blame them; it was a nice shady spot under some big maple trees to set up camp on a hot afternoon. The nearby fishing trail led down to a sunny, florid opening on Big Paint Creek. We expected more weekend arrivals but they never came. We almost had the campground to ourselves.

Northeastern Iowa is hillier, rockier, and more heavily forested than the rest of the state. Lore loved the change in scenery. “This is so different from Iowa!” she exclaimed. “This is Iowa,” I said.

Carved wood scene from the Passion titled Jesus Meets Women.
Jesus Meets Women in Saint Boniface Church

We stopped in New Vienna on the way north. Lore noticed it as a “point of interest” on the map. There’s a big (for a little town in Iowa) basilica, Saint Boniface Catholic Church. More impressive than its limestone exterior was its interior with ornate woodwork and stained-glass windows. The carved-wood scenes of The Passion decorating the walls had amusingly succinct titles like “Jesus Meets Women” and “Jesus Gets Nailed”.

Shiny round saw blade in a sawmill.
Saw blade in the state forest sawmill

Near the campground was the park headquarters and sawmill. The state runs an active forestry program at Yellow River and apparently has its own sawmill. It was after hours and the sawyers were off-duty but there was a big round saw blade and some logs waiting to be sawed up into lumber on Monday.

A car and tent in a park campsite.
Our campsite

Lore and I were both annoyed that this was our first camping trip in two years (since our honeymoon in Hawaii). We’re out of practice so it took us a while to get ready, even though camping with the car means we can just throw stuff in the trunk and not worry about packing. We still forgot a couple of things, like instant oatmeal for a hot breakfast. Despite the early sun shining on our picnic table, Saturday started out a little brisk—the kind of chilly morning I associate with back-to-school time.

The sun shines through a spider web across a forest trail.
We found a spider web across the forest trail

We spent our day on a leisurely 6.5 mile hike in the hills and along Paint Creek. Forest trails can be lacking in nice views but they force you to look at the smaller stuff like spiderwebs, mushrooms, and frogs. Like the campground, the trails were pleasant and well-maintained. The state forest has a few backcountry campsites that we checked out for future reference. We broke for a snack near an old metal fire tower which we weren’t allowed to climb. Many of the trails are well-used equestrian trails that are not too messy except for right near the equestrian campgrounds, which were much busier than ours.

Two riders hitching their horses to a post in a forest campground.
Riders hitching their horses to a post in the equestrian campground

The day wasn’t all bluebirds and trail mix: I got caught in some stinging nettles. Not being a frequenter of forest trails, I am not very familiar with them (John showed them to me once in New Jersey). I had the good sense to back out when I realized what I was into so I didn’t get stung too bad but, man, they were painful.

A young green frog sticks its head out of muddy water.
One of the frogs we found in a puddle on the trail

The skies clouded up after we got back to the campsite and the biting gnats came out swinging. I wonder where they were on Friday night. One bugger gave me a welt about 50 times its own size. It was still quiet though; so quiet I hated to do anything like go to the toilet or cook a meal.

A courthouse and water tower on a hill overlook a small town main street.
Bridge Street in Elkader

We’re both out of hiking shape, so even Saturday’s moderate hike wore us out. Since we don’t have a yard at home, we took our time cleaning and drying the tent Sunday morning and, after a brief stops in the picturesque towns of McGregor and Elkader, we made it home for showers and naps.

I posted a full gallery of photos on August 28.

Around river bluff country