Browsed by
Tag: Iowa

Summer of 2015

Summer of 2015

My on-off personal project to sort out the colossal mess of online “stuff” is back in “on” mode. And with it, here’s some digital ephemera from the summer just gone. First up, the Flickr set of 260 pictures.

This was my third entire summer in the USA, this time stretching from early May to early August. Apart from being bookended by a few days in Chicago, pretty much all of this was spent in central, and rural, Iowa. As with previous summers, it was also an opportunity to celebrate my inner American in a place where that’s an okay thing to do.

And it was splendid. As is every long trip in, or around, the USA. Much good food was eaten, many walks undertaken – several hundred miles over the three months, but curiously no politicians were encountered.

Unlike four years ago, when I kept literally tripping over them here (“Oh, hi, erm, you must be Rick Santorum.” Cue long awkward silence.) I managed to not see any this time round. Partially this was due to timing; Rand Paul was in town shortly before I arrived, and Bernie Sanders, then Hillary Clinton, after I left. But partially this was also due to the weather; Mike Huckabee did an event (a “huddle”) in a pizza place about a mile from where I was, but as it was 95F AFTER SUNSET I was ugh no. A very hot walk to see a politician; nope. A very hot walk to have possibly a huddle with a sweaty politician with very dubious views; dear God nope.

So instead, I did the usual rural American things. This means the town 4th of July parade, complete with horses, a large man on a tractor, farmers on tractors, tractors leading tractors (the most rural American thing ever), BIG VEHICLES, old vehicles, bands on trailers, patriotism, progressive flags, more flags, chairs, kids on bikes, and so forth.

The hound remained unmoved.

And also the county fair, and I am drawn to rural American county fair, out of a potent mixture of curiosity, nostalgia and a feeling of belonging. There are school pupil displays and art shows which possibly make some urban liberals a little alarmed. A van sells deep fried confectionary; we tried the oreos, and they were nom. And then there was the pig auction, and the culture and people around it, which made me remember and yearn for the good parts of a life long ago lived past. It’s interesting, being – and quietly being proud of being – a liberal rural redneck at heart. And I’m still not entirely sure why I’m doing tech stuff and in a different world, now.

Oh, and trains. I ache for the sight of American trains and have done since primary school (future anecdote). Here’s waiting for one:

Therefore much of the summer was a quiet and rural summer, and I got on with work, and let events and drama and the like unfold elsewhere as I gradually removed myself from social media and networks and fighty-online-circles and the like. And got on with the simple pleasures of yardwork (mowing the American lawn, picking berries off a magic raspberry bush that forever produced fruit, removing corpses of dead wildlife) which, combined with the walking, led to losing ten pounds in weight. So, yay.

Also, hunting fireflies…

Which leads to the videos embedded into this post. No oscar-winning stuff. Here’s the last few seconds of the July 4th fireworks in smalltown Iowa; I didn’t bother trying to film the rest because, well, I was (mostly) either eating or enjoying the fireworks:

What else? Oh, eating – I’ve probably mentioned that already – so much eating, such as at familiar places, discovering the awesomeness that is the pork tenderloin, eating at a country inn, and the peanut butter milkshake. Oh, and Pizza Ranch (the best ranch)(hell yeah), and Marshalltown for Mexican food – and this was the best Mexican meal I have ever had, cream soda and barfood, produce at the farmers market, local brunch, daily specials, chinese-on-pizza, more brunch, root beer floats made by master baker, a ridiculous sandwich, a near-impulse-purchase of a lot of chicken, more Chinese, and so many more good things.

Also napping, because I am no longer young.

And watching Americans get genuinely excited – but without the nastiness, corruption, prejudice and violence of “supporting” the mens game in some other countries – as their team progressed and won at the association football thing. I could possibly get to like this particular form of the game. Maybe:

But most of all, those walks in rural Iowa. In the daytime, at dusk, under a big sky, past baseball, at sunset, and by mushroom circles, cornfields and buzzing fireflies.

Always, the fireflies.

That was a good summer.

Where liberty is, there is my country

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…

Summer of 2011

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:

Lavoch

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):

Butterburger

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:

Sushi

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:

Pastries of the night

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.

Sunset

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

:)

American Gothic reimagined

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.

House

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.

Grinnell College

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.

Flags

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:

Sushi

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.