Writing in the long form
February 25th, 2012 by John

Rick Santorum is fascinating

At which point, British liberal friends say “Who?” and my American liberal friends say “OMG why John, why, we thought you were one of us?”

Because he’s a Conservative American politician and he’s doing between okay and well in the quest to become the Republican presidential candidate this year, despite having hardly any infrastructure or team or funding compared to Mitt Romney. And I’ve met and chatted with him. And, think I get why he’s doing well.

Also. I like going to meetings where people of a different political persuasion speak. “Know thy enemy to defeat him”, perhaps. Or perhaps it’s because an event where everyone agrees with everyone else gets plain boring. Challenge is good, brings debate. Agreement in a like-minded echo chamber brings … sleep?

I’m a European socialist and liberal in the Scandinavian sense – though with some libertarian leanings, especially on defense – who believes in equality. I agree with Rick on not tying a currency to the gold standard; but on just about every other political issue he’s spoken about, it’s disagreement time. Often extreme disagreement. His views are about as opposite to mine as it is possible to get. On contraception, the separation of church and state, taxation, federal medical care, on … just about everything, I can’t agree with him and probably never will, even if he softened his position.

But here’s the odd thing. There’s a part of me that perhaps oddly admires his political journey this last half year, and there’s also a situation where I’d vote for him. Before my liberal friends stop reading and collectively delete me from all social media “friend” or “follow” lists, hear me out.

I met Rick last August in Grinnell, Iowa. It was months before the state GOP caucus, and before the Ames Straw Poll, a somewhat poisoned chalice where the winner gets a brief moment of fame in the media, and then quickly burns out. Michelle Bachmann won that, then plummeted in the GOP polls and quit the race not that long afterwards.

At the time, Rick was on less than 1% in the polling. In the TV debates, he’d be the one right on the side, not getting any questions as the interviewer focused on whoever was the Republican flavor of the month / week / day. His campaign had pretty much no money. However, his style of campaigning involved going from small town to small town, speaking at every small hall and library around. He spent many days “on the ground”, and eventually went to every one of Iowa’s counties. And, unlike Bachmann who also visited every county, but in just a few days and with extremely brief stops in each, Rick took several hours out at each stop to give his speech and answer – in surprising detail and length – questions put to him.

Rick Santorum

He turned up at Grinnell (the only other Republican candidate who went there was Tim Pawlenty) and I wandered along to the event, expecting there to be a crowd of dozens, maybe a hundred or more people crammed into the room at the public library. Um, there wasn’t – I got there a little early and was the first one. I chatted to his organiser, an enthusiastic and pleasant Iowa student of politics. And a few other people, and Rick turned up. Shook his hand, chatted briefly and awkwardly, I think mostly about Iowa cuisine on which he’d become an expert of late. He picked up on my European-ess, and commented on it.

The room sort of filled a bit, but the attendees peaked at less than twenty, to be outnumbered by the media and Rick’s family at one point. Rick’s style of speaking was to give a long monologue, with no notes, on his campaign, his beliefs, on Obama, on the state of America, on how Europe had gone very wrong (he glanced over at me a few times while saying that; I smiled back) and how America should not go that way.

And his policies, which are now widely known, not just nationally across America, but internationally. I started, then stopped live-tweeting the event, as DMs from British followers were sceptical about whether these were honest tweets (yes) or made up. I’ve never heard rhetoric at an event like it. (Thinks) actually … not true. When living in the Outer Hebrides for half a decade, at funerals and other obligatory community services, the minister would sometimes veer off into fire and brimstone rhetoric. There’s not much as surreal as being at a funeral and the minister informing everyone that they will burn in hell.

And that’s not far off Rick’s message. Which is also that the best status for a woman is barefoot and pregnant, contraception is wrong, anything apart from a heterosexual relationship is wrong, Europeans are lazy which is why their economies are wrecked, Iran should be attacked, and that wealth inequality is a good and necessary thing.

But it was the reaction of the audience that was the most interesting. The older the member of the audience, the more vocal they spoke in favor of, and to, Rick. One lady who must have been 80, if not a lot older, had a mini-rant about the evils of “socialistic Obama policies”. Seniors nodded and muttered agreement when Rick argued for “Obamacare” to be repealed, as I sat there and thought “Hang on; aren’t you some of the main beneficiaries of medicare and medicaid? Especially you there, in the front row, in your federal funded electric wheelchair?”


Rick spoke for over an hour. Then he took questions; any questions, and didn’t duck any. His minder / driver pointedly looked at his watch. Then it finished. One lady who’d been sitting at the back said to him:

“I don’t agree with what you said, but I appreciate you coming to our town and putting your case and beliefs forward.”

Her companion agreed with her. And that’s part of why Rick is popular, and picking up votes, with many people.

  1. He puts the effort in, and goes to the places which other candidates think are “not worth it”. Locals appreciate this.
  2. When he’s there, he doesn’t do a five minute script then gets back onto a plane, but talks and answers questions at length. The other candidates don’t, apart from Ron Paul sometimes.
  3. He’s vocally honest about what he believes in. To the extent that his campaign is unusual. Pick an issue; any issue. Do you honestly know how Mitt Romney will act on this issue if/when he becomes president? No. Mitt tailors his response to the audience and situation. Whereas Rick has probably come out with an unambiguous policy on the issue, even if it is one which most Americans will not agree with.

Those three things add up to the “Protestant Work Ethic” and basic honesty of opinion that appeals to a lot of Americans. Especially in places such as rural Iowa. That’s from Republican voters I’ve chatted to there, and it’s obviously getting him a lot of votes.

It’s also his honesty of opinion – combined with that opinion being extreme on issues such as sexuality – that has made Rick such a controversial person. If you don’t know why, Google Santorum. When you’ve recoiled from this, find out why it came about. This is also why many in the US media are enjoying this, seeing how frequently they can use the phrase “Santorum surge” to summarise his current polling popularity, as well as fronting other innuendo such as this article title. And we thought the Brits were best at smut?

But seriously, it is a bizarre situation, when a candidate says things hostile to a woman’s ability to choose contraception, or even what to do in the most extreme of situations…

…but many women still want to vote for him to be president. This clip from the Daily Show is a good analysis of his frank approach.

So I admire him for his (bizarrely politically suicidal) honesty and his work rate. But at the same time, I am appalled by his policies. After his event, I took a cookie offered by his daughter and went back into the library proper to borrow his book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. I managed to get a quarter of the way through it before realising … I just could not read any more. Too much, in a bad way; if Rick became president, it would be bad for America, especially for anyone who wasn’t a rich white male, and bad the world. I wouldn’t like to be a woman, relying on health care and in a low paid job, in Rick’s America.

So there’s a situation where I’d vote for Rick?! I do not believe he will be the Republican candidate for several reasons. The main one being that he is unelectable in the presidential election proper, as independents and lots of other demographics will vote to keep him out. The GOP hierarchy know that Mitt Romney is far more electable against Obama, and will ensure that Mitt is the candidate, no matter what. I’m expecting Mitt to take Michigan and Arizona – the latter by a wide margin – this tuesday, and most of the primaries on Super Tuesday. It’s inconceivable that the wider Republican Party and Conservative coalition will let any other situation occur.

Also, because of his strategy Rick has done well in the caucuses but badly in the primaries. Unfortunately, the contorted nature of the process means that those caucus wins will not translate to many conference delegates (most may go to Ron Paul) and it’s quite possible that come the Republican Party convention in August, Santorum will have “won” many more states than Paul but have fewer delegates (think of them as bargaining chips). There are other reasons, but I’m sticking with my prediction that Mitt Romney will be the Republican Party candidate, and will win the presidency in November 2012. Even though I don’t want that to happen.

So if I was an eligible voter, and if I was in a state with a caucus or an open primary (where you don’t have to be a registered Republican to vote), I would vote for Rick. Not because I want him to win. But because every vote against Romney, and especially every state he loses, destabilizes him a little bit. And Romney, and the supporting SuperPACs, have to pour more of their finite money into the Republican race, leaving them with less to fight Obama in the autumn. Unfair tactics? No. It’s legal, and both parties push the legality of what they can do as far as they can.

But to reassure my liberal chums, if any have not given up in disgust and are still reading this, come the presidential election proper, no matter what there would only be one vote for me (if I could vote):

Obama 2012 Rally—New York City, June 23rd, 2011

I still believe in hope. And a Barack Obama, used to the mechanisms of presidency and free from compromising to get re-elected, could have a much more progressive second term than his first.

If he wins in November…

November 6th, 2011 by John

One year to the 2012 US presidential election

It’s exactly a year to the day till the next election for POTUS (President Of The United States). On November 6th 2012, millions of people will vote for who they want to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as a load of other politicians at national and local levels.

The presidential race, in particular, is exciting and interesting – in some ways because of the whole ridiculousness of the thing. Campaigns last for a significant part of the four years. Millions (no, billions) of dollars are thrown into slagging off the other side. Debates turn into high drama (or low farce). The media gorge on the whole thing like an obese man at a Vegas hotel all-you-can-eat buffet, hyping it up out of self-interest.

And the TV adverts, when a politician wants to get elected in the USA, are … welljustbeyond belief. And easy to parody.

It’s bizarre watching the whole thing from afar – and from close up. Real close up, like attending town hall meetings and little gatherings to hear Republican candidates such as Santorum speak (interesting and alarming in possibly equal measure). Or traveling round the USA during and after a US presidential election (pictures on this post from that trip) and talking to people, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists and the like. It’s interesting, exciting, worrying, scary – but never dull.

As for who will win the presidency in 2012; who knows. Everyone is a pundit, and the betting markets currently have Obama as a 50/50 chance to be reelected. The political junkies at the New York Times have recently undertaken a detailed analysis which also leans towards GOP.

I’m not a journalist, or a politician, or even an America. Instead, an obsessive follower of all things American political. My selection for some time has been a Republican ticket of Romney and Rubio. That’s not the same as who I want to win; that would be Obama against any of the GOP candidates. My own personal politics are a little more complex, being roughly two parts democrat, one part socialist (in the Scandinavian sense) and one part libertarian (in the “let’s stop occupying other countries and spending $1.5 trillion dollars a year doing so” military sense).

Obama '08

First, why Romney? It’s become apparent for months now that the Republican candidate race is a sham, with a lot of heavy media manipulation of varying degrees of subtlety. Various GOP presidential wannabees had their day in the sunshine of high figures in the polls, then been found wanting either in debates, on the road, in commitment, or ethic. Bachmann, Perry and Cain being the latest three. Gingrich is too divisive a figure, Santorum too conservative, and Huntsman too liberal, for many Republican tastes.

While all this has been happening, Romney has stayed above the fray with his amused, sometimes a bit smug, smile. He’s not so much running for the candidacy as coasting towards it, while the other candidates briefly flourish, then flounder. He’s not too liberal, not too conservative, speaks and debates well (or not as badly as many of the other Republican candidates), and has no problem in changing or reversing his position to suit whichever group of votes he needs. He also “looks” like a president, in the Reaganesque mould, and has so obviously modelled his demeanor on the 80 to 88 president. Many Americans revere Reagan, a phenomena that often baffles non-Americans.

And why Rubio? He brings the Florida political machine more into the Republican court, and Romney needs the large block of electoral college votes from that state; if Florida stays Democrat, it become significantly more difficult for Romney to become president. Rubio is also young, photogenic, a Tea Party favorite, with one eye on being president in the future. And he arguably brings the Latino demographic slightly more into the equation, which helps keep states such as Arizona in the red column.

Though I’m a little less sure of Rubio as VP pick than Romney to win the presidential candidacy. Susana Martinez could well get the nod, especially if Romney is confident of taking Florida anyway. Her state political machinery may help deliver New Mexico to Romney, as well as (like Rubio) a higher percentage of the Latino demograph, and possibly some votes for people who want to see a female president. Though this approach didn’t greatly help McCain in 2008, or Mondale in 1984. But, she appears to have weathered the scrutiny about recent ancestors moving to the US better than Rubio has.

Obama wins

Why am I leaning towards a Romney/Rubio win? In their favor, they have:

  • The ability of three years of Obama’s performance as president to attack; which also means that, unlike in 2008, Obama cannot blame economic issues solely on the past eight years of a Republican presidency.
  • A giant political and media machine behind them, which is more finely-tuned after the last three years.
  • The sometimes-support of the Tea Party movement.
  • An experienced candidate in Romney, who’s run for the GOP presidential position before. He’s undergone the scrutiny, and knows the ropes of running a campaign to be the Republican candidate. And it’s not uncommon to become the candidate after multiple attempts.
  • The electoral college system moves towards the Republicans by a net gain of six votes for the 2012 election. In addition, the crucial state of Florida gets an increase in voting power.
  • Unemployment and economy figures that are not getting better – though with a year to go, this may change for the better (but this needs to start soon).
  • Petrol – okay, gasoline – prices. Once they get above $4 a gallon, it starts to look bad for the incumbent president. If they manage to get above $5, or anywhere close, that’s probably game over for Obama. Americans love their freedom to drive, and see it as a base liberty. Make it too expensive, and someone’s gonna pay.
  • Those voters who got carried away in 2008 and voted (some for the first time) for Obama, with unrealistic expectations of what he would or could do. This time, they aren’t voting, or voting for the Republican candidate.
  • This time around, the Republicans are unlikely to pick someone as the vice-presidential candidate who manages to divide the electorate to such an extent that many floating voters, independents and even Republicans vote for Obama.
  • The age-old liberal problem of liberals living in liberal places, speaking to other liberals and watching liberal TV programmes aimed solely at liberals.

This last one is especially annoying. Book after book on US politics discusses this, how most liberals will not leave their liberal comfort zone to talk, debate, lobby. Which right-wingers and conservatives often have no problem in doing. Liberals gonna vote liberal; conservatives gonna vote conservative; he or she who grabs the rest, wins. If you’re a liberal and you don’t want 4 or 8 years under President Romney, don’t spend all your time listening to NPR, watching the Daily Show and chatting to liberal friends; go out of the echo chamber comfort zone and talk to a few undecided voters. And that’s actually talk, not lecture to them from afar; that just winds them up and doesn’t work.

In Obama’s favor, he has:

  • The natural advantage of incumbency, with the machinery of the White House, presidential press conferences et al at his disposal.
  • A record of taking out specific enemies, such as Osama Bin Laden, which the Bush administration failed to do in two terms.
  • Been a better president than many cynics, or people who thought that the world would cave in, thought he would be.
  • Not flip-flopped on as many issues as Romney has. Come to think of it, hardly any modern US politician has flip-flopped as much as Romney.

Then there’s a few things that could throw the race:

  • A black swan event. It could be an act of terrorism (possibly home-grown; in the cycle of Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma et al, this is arguably overdue). Or something economic, such as a sudden collapse of the Euro (though that’s slightly predictable), or military, such as China invading and taking control of Taiwan. Or something darker, perhaps. Something that will overshadow everything else, and make the response of the president crucial. Why do I have a gut feeling that, with a year to go, a black swan event is likely, even inevitable?

More t-shirts

  • A marked economic recovery. The unemployment rate starts to fall. And keeps falling, showing a trend downwards. If that happens, unlikely though it feels, Obama can run on a “We’re going in the right direction: why risk it?” platform.
  • A key endorsement. In 2008, the moment I realised that Obama would probably win happened in a hotel in Monterey. Breakfast, and the dining room is full of people who you’d think would be prime Republican voters. The news on the TV cuts to Colin Powell speaking, endorsing Obama. Many people stop eating, listen to him, nod. That was the big turning point, when the possibility of Obama winning suddenly looked real. And he could well do with that kind of endorsement, from a nationally respected figure, again. And you can bet anything that both the Democrats and the Republicans are frantically trying to court Colin, behind the scenes, for next October.

But the biggest factor is possibly the one that’s happening, state by state, now – the eligibility to vote becoming gradually harder, disproportionately affecting Democrat voters. It’s been going on for a while now; the Guardian have an okay piece on this, as does the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post; Politico has an excellent piece on this too.

The fact is, not thousands but millions of people who were eligible to vote in 2008, cannot vote without some kind of ID enhancement (not always easy to get) in 2012. And, surprise surprise, a disproportionate number of those people are naturally Democrat leaning. Expect this to be a major story over the next year, and especially on and after election day.

At first glance, Obama won by a landslide in 2008, with 365 electoral college votes to 173. But that’s the way the system works, with the margins in some of the states that have lots of EC votes being small. And this is Obama’s big problem; the five states that he won with the smallest percentage margins – Virginia (6.3%), Ohio (4.58%), Florida (2.81%), Indiana (1.03%), North Carolina (0.33%) – all have sizeable electoral college votes. Move just those five into the Republican column and that huge EC vote majority is wiped out. Blocking likely Democrat supporters from voting, in any significant number, would help with this.


The Democrat strategy? Heck, if they were insane enough to hire me to run their campaign, it would be:

  • Go negative on Romney. He’s going to go negative on Obama, and nice guys in a tough battle lose. I give you Carter vs Reagan, George H. Bush vs Clinton. Romney has also flip-flopped on just about every issue possible. Tell the electorate this, over and over. And even though Romney is relatively clean compared to the other Republican candidates, he has still provided lots of material that he can be attacked with. Use it.
  • Fight dirty. The Republicans will fight dirty. It will win them votes. This “be dignified in defeat” ethos is bull. You’re defeated, and the other guy/gal is running the show.
  • Focus resources on those key five states that the Republicans want. Yes, keep fighting in other Democrat states, but to be honest if you lose Pennsylvanian (Dem: 10.31%) and Minnesota (Dem: 10.24%) then the White House is lost in a landslide anyway.
  • Also, put significant resources in campaigning in four states in particular which didn’t have large Republican majorities in 2008, namely Missouri (0.13%), Georgia (5.2%), Arizona (8.48%) and North Carolina (8.98%). In 2008, those were worth 44 electoral college votes, and Arizona in particular looks vulnerable to a Democrat win (there’s a whole essay on why this is possible).
  • Find a way to counter the simplistic “Millionaires are job creators, so cut their taxes and they will create jobs” mantra that the right are using. It doesn’t even stand up to the briefest of analysis, but when it’s pummeled into the electorate relentlessly for years before the election, some – possibly many – will take it as fact and believe it.
  • Point out, in ways which the key voting demographics will grasp, that the stimulus did create jobs, and without it the unemployment rates would be worse.
  • Related to that last point, another stimulus. This time, focus on the education system (especially the schools) and the infrastructure, especially the roads and broadband. Ram it home why education and infrastructure are essential, providing the basis of a functioning economy. No infrastructure or education, no economy.
  • A battle that, somehow, the Democrats are already losing. News reports of Republican rallies filled with wheelchair and scooter enabled enthusiastic senior voters have aired regularly. Point out to those who rely on Medicare and Medicaid that if the other guy wins, then their health benefits may be cut.
  • At the state level, throw everything to fight restrictions on voting. At the grass roots level, make sure every potential Democrat voter is aware of what’s going on, and help them attain legal voting status, especially if they have unwittingly lost it. Build a more politically savvy ACORN for 2012. Without it, the election is probably lost for Obama, no matter what else he does. Win the argument but lose the vote.

Anyway, that’s my three part prediction with exactly a year to go:

  1. The Republicans to choose Romney as their candidate.
  2. Romney to probably choose Marco Rubio as his running mate.
  3. Romney to beat Obama narrowly for the presidency. Then again, I was pessimistic about Obama’s victory margin prospects three years ago.

And a fourth prediction:

  1. Civil unrest in some urban places on November 6th 2012 when many people find out they are now unable to vote.

The silver lining on the cloud for Democrats? There’s two. Not all of the states will swing heavily Republican, and many states will go red by small margins, making them key for the 2016 contest. And there may be surprises; Texas, with its huge electoral college vote, should stay red but quite possibly with a smaller margin in 2012 than 2008 (contrary to liberal opinion, not everyone in Texas likes the local ex-president).

But the larger silver lining? Romney will probably be a terrible president. In good economic times, he would be moderately okay. In bad times; as ineffectual as GH Bush. When large demographics of his (eligible) voters – people in trailer parks, in factories, on medicare and medicaid, discover they are worse off during his time, he’ll be a one-termer. If the Democrats can find a good enough candidate over the four years after 2012. And, approaching the end of 2011, it’s starting to look like Hillary will run in 2016, which would be excellent.

So the race for the 2016 US presidency probably starts a year from tomorrow…

October 24th, 2011 by John

Where liberty is, there is my country

You know an image affects you when you keep returning to look at it “one more time”. And wandering around on Flickr, there’s one image I keep returning to. The photographer has given permission for it to be used here; you can find it yourself on Flickr, or click on the image for the larger version:

Chatting to the photographer, and looking around her Flickr pictures, reveals some connections. Maryann is a school librarian in the midwest, currently “teaching my students how to find material in the library and how to use the online catalog”. The picture was taken in Iowa, while she was cycling RAGBRAI. That’s an annual cross-state biking event that stops overnight in Grinnell, which (from my non-cyclist, resident, perspective) results in lots of temporary new food options.

The picture is pure Iowa, a US state to be enjoyed for the wide open prairie outside. It’s filled, as Iowa seems to be, with sky and corn – tall corn. A barn emerges from the corn, the symbol of western European-immigrant rural settlement, work, and living off the land. Outside the barn, the unmistakably potent identity marker of the country, the stars and stripes, an emblem I’ve been obsessed with since touching the earliest surviving incarnation of it in the village church before being old enough to speak. Christened John after JFK, and with a thousand cultural references and influences permeating every aspect of living for the last 43 years, America feels like its run through my veins since birth. A complex picture of why I “feel” more American than British/English is starting to come clear.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the cooler founding fathers. He advocated tolerance for all churches, freed “his” slaves and became an abolitionist. He was interested in, well, just about everything, but specialised in science, diplomacy and nationality. Benjamin formed the first public lending library in America through his book donation, and was the first US postmaster general, helping to form the first national communication infrastructure. Benjamin was pretty much the Tim Berners-Lee of the age, 200 years before the Internet.

The phrase “Where liberty is, there is my country” is interesting, liberty being an ever-debated principle that underpins the USA, from Lincoln’s “Conceived in liberty” Gettysburg address and before, through to the current 2012 presidential race. The concept weaves its way through many of the books I’ve been reading these last three year on American politics, society, history and rural culture, as well as what’s being said when listening to American politicians, Democrat and Republican, speak. It’s a strange country, when the European immigrant history and national formation is so very recent but is still so argued over. A quarter of that time has been spent travelling through, and living, there; three years ago today was spent on an Amtrak train heading up the west coast towards Seattle, as part of a 7,000 loop around the western half of the country.

When Becky and myself buy our first place together (hopefully something like this), this picture, large and framed, will be going on the wall. It’s good to see, a reminder of the personally important things in life. (Looks again) yeah; time to do some more writing and work my way back to the place that feels like home…

September 1st, 2011 by John

Summer of 2011

Trip number 11 to the USA, where I’ve stayed for about 18 months in total over the years. And, the best summer ever … some pictures are on Flickr and a few are on this summary.

Best food. The Lavoch pizza from the Quarter Barrel, in Oxford, Ohio:


Miles travelled by road. 3,000+.

Best pie. Lemon pie from the West Side Grill, Grinnell, Iowa:

Lemon pie

Calories probably eaten. I did estimate this, and the figure is horrifically high. Not really surprising.

Most out-of-place thing seen. This well-used stack of publications, for sale in a garage sale (I didn’t buy, purchasing a small bookcase from the owner instead):

Garage sale WTF?

Most nom “fast” food. The butterburger at Culver’s (I can’t go back to inferior burgers, now):


States visited. Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, Wisconsin, in addition to passing through Illinois and New Jersey.

Most aesthetically pleasing food. The sushi at Grinnell College, Iowa:


Geocaches found. 26.

Most fun. Either major league baseball, or going to the American Gothic house:

American Gothic

Best bargain. A box of 36 books of my choice for one dollar in the Grinnell public library sale.

Best ice cream. Candyshack, Grinnell, Iowa:

Ice cream sodas

Biggest Wow moment. An evening of walking past, and through, groups of fireflies in Indiana.

Most surreal moment. Discussing food with Rick Santorum, a Republican party presidential candidate with whom I disagree on everything.

Most American moment (1/2). Standing next to, and exploring, a previous Air Force One:

Got me a new set of wheels

Most American moment (2/2). Travelling down the Ohio river on a paddle steamer, passing the home of the Reds as they were playing:

Cincinnati Reds

Worst thing about this summer. The relentless, all-bar-two-days, heat.

Best thing about this summer

Coffee days

A few other posts:

August 25th, 2011 by John

Pastries of the night

There’s a bakery and shop here in Grinnell which, as bakeries do, bakes stuff in the night and the early hours. Breads, cookies, cakes, pastries and all manner of things. It’s small, but rather good, and we’ve bought stuff from there several times before.


This bakery is a little different in that if you go round the back from 2am onwards, and the owner is in there baking, he’ll sell you stuff that’s hot, or warm, out of the oven. Students (old enough to drink) especially take advantage of this, as the bakery is on the way back to campus from several of the bars. So I gave it a try tonight.

Grinnell isn’t the busiest of places in the middle of the day. In fact there’s only one stretch of one road where you sometimes have to wait to cross, and that during the rush hour. Downtown, which is a thriving four block business area, is quiet in the daytime – and deserted at night:

Downtown, 2am

2am rolled around, and the shop front of the bakery was unlit. Went round the back and bingo; the baker was happily rolling dough. He remembered me from six weeks ago; he was the first Grinnell person I’d met and spoken to, which was cool. And he had various racks of pastries and cakes ready, some of them warm and therefore recently out of the oven.

Purchases were made, and pleasantries exchanged. And if Becky looks inside the kitchen breadbin before she leaves for work in four and a half hours, she’ll find her present of:

Fresh out the bakery


August 25th, 2011 by John

American Gothic reimagined

American Gothic 2011 Unrated Edition

And as the summer draws to a close, we continued our trips around the awesome state of Iowa. First impressions were of several thousand square miles of corn and precious little else, but perceptions are deceptive. There’s a lot in Iowa, if you look for it; more on this in future posts.

The best thing we’ve done here so far? Visited the house that Grant Wood painted in the iconic, and much parodied, American Gothic. The original painting…

American Gothic

…hangs in Chicago, but the actual house is in the town of Eldon, in the south of Iowa. Eldon has … not very much else, publicising the house in some way or other in two signs out of three around the place. From the main roads, follow the signs down various back streets, until the house comes into view.

Things we noticed when we turned up:

  • The house is surprisingly small
  • The visitor center nearby is several time larger
  • It doesn’t get visited much; just a few other people there, on a Saturday, when we were.


The house itself is lived in, rented out to someone who occasionally makes and sells pies. No tours inside, and signs to respect privacy, but you can get pretty close up to it.

The visitor center has a heap of exhibitions and a lot of contextual history about the house. But, best of all, they have friendly staff and a bunch of clothes you can put on to dress up like the folk (actually the painters dentist and sister) in the picture. Right down to the pitchfork, and the rather strong 1930s glasses.

So it was on with the clothes, and outside with our respective cameras.

Dressing up

And here’s the end result. The Systems Librarian of Grinnell College on the left, and me with the pitchfork, looking dour. Or hardworking. Or paternal. Or stern. Or, keeping a fixed frown as people of that era did, being dissuaded from smiling for primitive photography due to the long exposure time.

American Gothic

The visitor center, and having your picture taken, are free; donations welcome. More on their website. Eldon itself is 80 miles away from Grinnell. Enjoy.

August 18th, 2011 by John

Grinnell College

My other half started at the local college working in the library a few weeks ago. This has given me a good opportunity, or excuse, to wander around the campus (especially the library), and also to come along to various events where partners of staff are invited. These invariably involve food, increasing my suspicion that American academics and librarians bond over cuisine, whereas British ones bond over gin.

Grinnell College is a bit unusual. In British terms, it’s an undergraduate university, with staff also undertaking research. It has a very small number of students – around 1,600 – who can major in over 20 arts subjects. As Grinnell is a “liberal arts” college, with the liberal aspect taking on a sort of socio-political hue. As am figuring out, “liberal” in the US doesn’t quite mean the same as “liberal” in Britain. The chemistry department displays a map of the USA showing where 889 graduates over the decades are from. Most of these are from relatively liberal cities such as San Francisco, Denver (a lot), Minneapolis and New York. Hardly any are from the entire south east quarter of the country, arguably the most un-liberal part, despite states such as Florida and Texas having large populations.

Or, as one dean put it, “Grinnell is a liberal college surrounded by a distinctly un-liberal state”.

Student lounge

It’s also apparently one of the most “hipster” colleges in America.

The campus sits near the centre of the town, which itself has a population of less than 10,000. So, the college has a large bearing on the town. It’s quite a modern campus, with most of the buildings, new or (by American standards) old being aesthetically pleasing. And also, for 1,600 students, rather large. The swimming pool, for example, would not be out of place as the primary pool of many cities.

And it’s a pretty campus. Lots of lawns, trees, shrubs and flowers. It’s very quiet; the nearby town is in almost permanent slumber mode, and highway 6 is the only road you sometimes need to wait to cross. Interstate 80 is several miles to the south, thankfully far enough away not to be heard. So it’s mainly the song of birds and the murmer of small clumps of slowly moving undergraduates (it’s still hot here) that can be heard in a mid-August wander. And occasionally a freight train rumbling through, as the tracks separate the main campus from the halls of residence.

Campus grounds

The college is also perhaps best described as “quietly rich”. The college has an endowment fund of 1.26 billion US dollars. Yes, that’s billion, not million. Which averages out at $787K, or 492K pounds sterling, per undergraduate. Huh – why so much for such a small college? There’s several reasons, one being that the college invested in an alumni start-up company … called Intel. Another that the endowment fund has been managed over the last century by some seriously smart financial people, such as Warren Buffet, the billionaire who recently argued that he doesn’t pay tax at a high enough rate. And another reason the college has a large endowment fund is that it is apparently frugal, or careful, in how it is spent. Overall, this means that there isn’t the “we’re in financial trouble with no visible solution” feeling, or informal staff topic of conversation, that permeates some other universities. Though frugal, money is spent here; the biology labs have, even to the non-biologist eye, some seriously expensive kit in them

As an interesting side-point on the subject of big finance, it turns out that the chairman of Standard and Poor, who recently downgraded America’s credit rating, was an English major at Grinnell.


What are the people like? Relaxed, pretty much. But not lazy. The students I’ve spoken to, and eavesdropped in on, are quiet, polite, friendly … and above all, smart. I’ve heard casual but seriously intelligent conversations about Camus and Sartre, molecular biology and quantum physics, and economic models that completely lost me. By students, rather scarily less than half my age. Many of the students are from overseas; the NYT has an interesting article on the applications the college receives from China in particular.

It’s also pleasant to observe some individualism. A few months ago, at a university in southern Ohio, the conformity was striking and to be honest a little creepy. One lunchtime I walked through the basement of the library, part of which is a busy cafe. Very nearly every student looked identical (fake tan, long straight blonde hair, high-cut black sports shorts), had an identical MacBook, on which they had open Wikipedia (the irony of being in a library, yes…). If there was a college in The Truman Show, that would have been it. Here in Grinnell [has short wander around the library to collect data] yes, the students look and dress differently to each other, own a mixture of tech, and their screens show a smorgasbord of content and online services.

Old entrance

I’ve also encountered staff here. One of the pleasant surprises is that there isn’t much of a demarcation between the layers of staff when it comes to college events. I’ve found myself on several occasions already sitting next to deans, professors and heads of department, which is pleasant. For me anyway (they probably end up wondering why the chubby tall guy with the English accent is obsessed with American politics). There’s an absence of “status” in conversations with senior staff which is both weird and refreshing, and were it not for the introductions or the name badges, most of the time it wouldn’t be apparent that this is the top tier of academic staff. America does have a class system, though with different meanings attached to concepts such as “middle class”, it seems less rigid or defined as it is here in the US, and maybe this permeates through to how people are in academia. Or, it could be that liberal arts colleges such as Grinnell attract staff who, like their students, are quietly friendly. Whichever or whatever, I’ve always been made welcome here and have lost count of the number of college people who have said “Welcome to Iowa”.

Oh, one other thing. This place sure knows how to do catering. I’ve eaten better, in terms of quality and variety of food, at various social events at Grinnell College than any UK university I’ve been in. One example of many is the sushi platter at a recent “new faculty and partners” event:


That’s the first impressions of the college, but these may change as the students start and the campus becomes busier. The college library, which I’m typing this in now (nice Mac workstations) has some unexpectedly interesting things in it; will write about those next week.

August 16th, 2011 by John

An American trip: October and November 2008

During October and November of 2008, I took a month-long trip around the US of A. The main mode of transport was Amtrak train, and the trip tied in neatly with two conferences I was speaking at – one of which was in Chicago on the day Barack Obama was elected (and one heck of an evening that was). I did a lot of writing on that trip, thinking it was just a few people in the Outer Hebrides and a few friends and colleagues who were reading it – and not realising until recently that others were too, for various reasons. I’m relieved now I didn’t delete the words.

Since demolishing my blog and, essentially, restarting all of my online presence as new as I can, the diaries have gotten messed up, but they should be restored here as a set of 32 postings.

Don’t know which post was the “best”, but a few folk have said the Surviving New Orleans posting is their choice because of the tweeted engagement story in it. Mine is the Texas one, where I seem to have just lost inhibitions and fears and just … wrote.

Oct 18th – Los Angeles and Santa Monica

Oct 20th – Pictures, not words

Oct 21st – Sleepless in Monterey

Oct 23rd – Monterey aquarium

Pier from the sidewalk

Oct 25th – First overnight trip on Amtrak

Oct 25th – Breakfast in Seattle

Oct 26th – An afternoon in the mountains

Oct 26th – New York deli breakfast in Seattle

Oct 27th – Montana at dawn

Oct 28th – Whitefish, Montana

Oct 29th – Sign of the times

Samantha at Tucson station

Oct 29th – Election, American style

Oct 30th – Do bears…?

Oct 30th – Is black the new ginger?

Oct 30th – Election day events in Chicago

Nov 1st – Whitefish to Chicago by Amtrak

Nov 1st – GLLS2008 food

Nov 2nd – American time, British time, Obama time

Nov 4th – Chicago on election day


Nov 4th – Outside, it’s America

Nov 5th – “Oh, you look so beautiful, tonight…”

Nov 5th – The morning after

Nov 6th – In America, academics knit

Nov 7th – Goodbye Chicago

Nov 8th – Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee

Nov 8th – Memphis, and the ride to New Orleans

Nov 10th – New Orleans (1)

He won

Nov 10th – New Orleans (2)

Nov 12th – Surviving New Orleans

Nov 13th – Texas: a thousand miles of bugger-all

Nov 13th – The American Dream

Nov 16th – Trip summary

There’s also a set of pictures on Flickr, some of which are embedded in the postings anyway.

February 25th, 2011 by John

Blue Highways

My favourite non-fiction book. And the answer to the “What one possession would you take with you if your house was on fire?” question. The author is also the person, if I could pick one, I want to be.

I’ve been fascinated, obsessed, delirious, about America since I could speak and read, possibly before. My earliest memory was of watching man – an American – land on the moon, being too young to understand the excitement of a packed room of people watching a tiny, flickering television.

rural road

Every influence, from Coca Cola bottles to West Side Story, the speeches of JFK (who my parents named me after), the Stars and Stripes and the Star Spangled Banner, the movies of the Coen brothers and the journalism of the Washington Post, Seinfeld and The Wire, the optimism and a thousand influences in between, flow through me. That growing realisation that I’m an American, born in the wrong country.

I’ve had a few adventures, briefly, in America. But the adventure, the journey – and it is always the journey, not the destination – that William Least Heat-Moon describes in this book, is over four hundred pages of often transcendental observation and reflection, of America and the author, the writer, within America.

In Blue Highways, William found his life changing drastically in his late thirties, his ties gone, and took the opportunity to make a move, setting off with the bare minimum and copies of Leaves of Grass and Black Elk Speaks. He stuck to the back roads, the two lane tracks, and the small towns, people who’d never been interviewed, traveled, seen beyond their horizon but were content. Several thousand miles of traveling, and he repeatedly finds places and people he didn’t know existed; but perhaps more importantly he “learnt what he didn’t know he needed to know”.

Life as a back road in Iowa

The journey. It’s always about the journey. And there’s possibly no better place, physically and spiritually, to undertake the journey than America.

It’s a beautiful book I’ve read many times, and it smells and feels like a well-read and loved book.

Lines from a Navajo wind chant which close the book, and reminds of why we write:

Then he was told:
Remember what you have seen,
because everything forgotten,
returns to the circling winds.

January 20th, 2011 by John

Believing in America

Is it possible to watch something online and be simultaneously very happy and very jealous? Yes; today I was. Watching some of this webcam footage live, which the White House has put in the public domain.

White House

Watching the news it can be difficult at times to believe in the USA as a civilised and progressive country and society. The politics, as portrayed through television news, appear entrenched, angry, volatile and dangerous. Incidents, such as the recent shootings in Tucson, distress. News reports fill with individuals and crowds, commentators, angry, seemingly on the edge of violence. And it makes you think; here in the UK, especially in the current political and economic climate, there is a lot of anger and bitterness; see, for example, the recent protests over student debt.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

But, we don’t violently attack politicians, or their families, or other high profile people here. We just … don’t. “That kind of thing happens in America, not here in Britain” is the standard view, especially of the older generations. So a viewer of the traditional news and media could reasonably assume that the USA is a country ‘divided’, with millions of people hating a group of millions of other people. Well, maybe not. TV news show the incidents, the controversy, the marches, and angry people angrily waving signs of varying degrees of literacy. Is it really like that, nationally? If you make a large and random selection of the public meet one of the most high profile people on one ‘side’ of the political ‘divide’, how many would get angry, or not be civil, or would generally be unpleasant.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

How about … none?

Today was the second anniversary of the inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. As an unexpected surprise, Michelle Obama and their dog, Bo, waited in the Blue Room of the White House to meet members of the public who were doing the tour. Cue lots of surprised Americans being suddenly met by Michelle saying “Hi!” or “Welcome to my house!”

Even better, this was all piped live through the White House website, so people online could watch what happened and how members of the public reacted. The White House set this up neatly, with one webcam focused on Obama and Bo, and the other on the entrance to the room at the point where visitors realise they’re about to meet the first lady.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

Considering that a significant portion of the population vote, or voted Republican, and with the Tea Party, the libertarians, and the aforementioned angry and divisive nature of the politics that we see, frequently, on the news, it was a relief and good to see that no-one refused to shake hands with Michelle (apart from the kid who was terrified of dogs and ran away from Bo), or was rude or dismissive to her.

And this wasn’t staged; watching this for quite a while, it was good to see people repeatedly shocked, then surprised, then delighted that they got to meet the first lady. How awesome is that?

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

And Michelle was actually … hugging … random members of the public(!) Seriously. Male, female, black, white, old and young. Physical contact? Here in Britain, politicians shake hands politely, kiss babies for the media on campaign trails, and that’s about it; it’s all very … restrained and repressed. You don’t … hug politicians and they don’t hug you. Royalty are even more distant; lightly put your hand on the Queen, even if you are prime minister of another country, and face the wrath of the media. All part, perhaps, of the class structure and the doffing of one’s hat or cap to your social and economic superiors?

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

But there, in America, the wife of the president of the United States is hugging random members of public. Some of whom appear to be in mild shock at this, while others, especially the schoolkids, jump up and down a bit. They will remember that day for the rest of their lives, when a visit to the White House turned into something unexpectedly else.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

And watching Michelle meet hundreds of Americans (and tourists from other countries) today, all of whom were polite and friendly, is one of the many reasons I still believe in America. Despite what the traditional media try and repeatedly tell me otherwise. Most, nearly all, Americans – and I have met thousands over the decades, so this isn’t a random guess – when you meet them, are decent, friendly people who just want to get on in life.

And that, alone, is reason enough to believe in America.