Iowa Caucus Day 2016: Resource Guide

Marcia and I moved to Iowa a little over four years ago, at the peak of 2012’s caucus season. Within a month of our arrival, Marcia was interviewed and quoted in an internationally-syndicated Reuters article, after we attended a candidate rally on a whim. So we learned first hand that it’s easy to have your say in public when you live in a small state with a vast media enterprise descending upon you.

Marcia’s quote in the Reuters interview was thoughtful and balanced, but that’s not the norm, frankly, especially in hotly contested races like those unfolding now. A lot of the quotes coming out of Iowa lack balance as voters and campaign flacks attempt to sway others to their cause, and many other quotes coming out of Iowa lack thought because politics is primarily a gut sport in many areas of the State, like football, or deer hunting. Reaction and reflex matter more than deliberation and discourse, especially under the media’s unrelenting kleig lights — which many thoughtful voters are repelled by, even as they draw the most reactive voters into their beams.

By the time I left Iowa, I reached the conclusion that the caucuses are bad for America. That being said, were I still in the State, I would be participating tonight, because I consider voting to be a civic responsibility of all citizens, regardless of how I feel about the process. Marcia (who still works out of Iowa and has maintained residency there) and Katelin (who lives and works there full time) are planning to caucus tonight, so I hope they enjoy the evening and I look forward to hearing about it from them. The media army in Des Moines is largely based in the same building where Katelin works, so she’s getting to really see it all up close and personal. That’s an experience, if nothing else.

I wrote a lot about Iowa while I was there, with many of my pieces being tongue-in-cheek explorations into some of the State’s unique cultural habits and history. One of those articles — Iowa Geography: An Introduction — has recently gotten a bit of renewed online traction after Molly Ball of The Atlantic re-tweeted it a couple of time for her followers.

So in a spirit of helpfulness to those of you who may be either wondering a bit about, or wandering about a bit, of Iowa today, here are a few other articles that may help you get what’s going on, and why:

Iowa History 101

Why Iowa First?

Danny Allamakee’s Iowanfero (Cliff Notes Version)

Best Iowa Films

Universal Iowa Recipe

Des Moinsk, Iowaberia

Iowa Ranking Roundup

Popular Iowa Cocktails

Popular Iowa Wines

Great Iowa Novels

Great Iowa Music

The Iowa Decathlon

Low Cackalacky

I spent most of this week in Savannah, Georgia with my mother, doing a little exploratory house-hunting work for places that might be good for vacations, retirement, or getaway destinations for various members of our tribe. Of course, while we were there, we had to make the pilgrimage across the Savannah River into the Low Country of South Carolina from whence our people spring. As good Southerners, this means we spent most of our time in cemeteries, because that’s how we roll. Here are some highlights.

We visited my Dad, first, at Beaufort National Cemetery, and left him some sunflowers, Spanish moss, Oyster shells and chiggers to help him ward off the ground moles that were his bane in any Low Country yard for which he was responsible.

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Dad always appreciated the importance of “location, location, location” when it came to real estate, so he got a nice corner lot in Beaufort National Cemetery to make sure that no undesirable neighbors moved in around him.

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Dad’s immediate neighbor is “Harris,” who served and died in the Civil War as a member of the United States Colored Troops — freed slaves who fought for the Union in South Carolina. We do not know Harris’ first name (or if he had one), as noted in an article I wrote some years ago about my research to identify him. But he’s good company, and we pay our respects when we visit.

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We stopped in Lobeco for some boiled peanuts on our way out to our family cemetery at Stoney Creek. They’re always better when you buy them from roadside stands like this one.

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Stoney Creek Cemetery is a bit off the beaten path, tucked back in the woods behind a former rice paddy.

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You have to walk slow and be careful in the cemetery, lest you step on fire ants or snakes. Or fire ants and snakes. They’re pretty much ubiquitous.

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My grandparents got a nice corner lot, too, though one of their shade trees has seen better days.

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William Ferguson Colcock was a member of the United States Congress, among many other notable accomplishments. He was my great great great grandfather, and married to Emmeline Huguenin, for whom my niece is named.

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The oldest clearly legible tombstone at Stoney Creek belongs to Thomas Heyward Sr. His nephew, Thomas Heyward Jr., was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

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From Stoney Creek, we headed up to Yemassee, home of the region’s sole Amtrak train station — and (more importantly) Hughes’ Grocery, which hangs on and hangs on and hangs on, though I doubt that anybody has actually purchased anything there in a decade or so.

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This is the road between Pocotaligo and McPhersonville. When my sister and I were young, we found it inexplicably terrifying, and spent most trips on it cowering in the back seat with eyes closed. It’s still a bit spooky, all these years on.

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Stoney Creek Presbyterian Church in McPhersonville. Our family’s land and home were just beyond the woods behind it.

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Next stop, Ridgeland, where my Mom spent her middle and high school years, and where I spent my early years when my Dad was abroad in the Marine Corps. My grandmother, aunt and mother worked at the Plantation Restaurant in Ridgeland at various times over the years. It has seen better days, alas.

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The KB seemed like a space-aged grocery store when it was built in the 1960s, the fantastic future of produce shopping. Not so much in 2015.

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This link shows a photo of my grandfather and great uncle building the house in Ridgeland where my Mom’s side of the family lived from 1955 until around 1980. Sixty years after its construction, shall we also say that it has seen better days? I provide three photos below to give you the full panoramic experience of what it was like for us to drive by it this week, jaws agape. I have to say that these shots are really worth clicking and enlarging to properly explore the majesty of the compound these folks have established in our former home. In addition to the obvious hot tub, Bunny truck, flatbed trailer and scooter in the sandy front yard, I can find two grills, a treadmill, two dogs, three tires, seven bikes, and all sorts of other wonders. Plus, I love the way that the window air conditioning unit has been installed through the living room wall by knocking out a few cinder blocks. And the dolls, teddy bears and gifts hanging from eaves and trees? Priceless! This is Low Country living at its finest, for sure!

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On a slightly less weird note, we also drove by the little bungalow nearby where my Mom and I lived for a bit. We called it “The Green House,” and it seemed to have aged a bit more gracefully. Even if it’s not green anymore.

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The next day, we drove inland a bit for a nice visit to Aiken, South Carolina, then stopped by the historic hamlet of Gillisonville on our way back to Savannah. We went to visit my step-grandfather Joe where he rests at Gillisonville Baptist Church, but he was not home.

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The Gillisonville cemetery has a lot of historic graves, like Stoney Creek, but as we walked around it, we also noted that its newer residents seemed to have a more whimsical approach to marking their remains than their staid counterparts down the coast. Here’s but one example of the types of unusual things we saw engraved on stones in Gillisonville Baptist; I think it is supposed to be a dog, though it could also be the Demon Azmahobeth. Hard to tell.

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After a couple of nice days in the Low Country, Mom and I flew back to our homes in Chicago and Charlotte. It’s always good to check in on the spaces that define us, and where we feel our strongest senses of place. Even if they look like outtakes from a documentary on hoarding, or include spectral chihuahuas.

A Modest Proposal: Halve the Full Grassley

Iowa has an absurd number of counties for its size and population — and I say this as a person who has visited all 99 of them by car, completing what political candidates here know as a “Full Grassley”.

Iowa is the 26th largest State in the country by land area, and the 30th largest State in the country by population. Our 99 counties, however, rank us ninth in the United States in number of county and county equivalents — and we would actually be eighth if Virginia didn’t uniquely count its 38 independent cities as county-equivalent governmental entities.IowaCounty

Iowa also has fewer counties defined by natural boundaries (rivers, coastlines, mountain ranges, etc.) than any other State, giving us the greatest percentage of “box counties” — formed only by surveyors’ lines — in the Nation. And we don’t even follow our own law when it comes to tiny counties: the Iowa State Constitution says no county should be smaller than 432 square miles, but ten counties are below that threshold today.

The super-abundance of neat little map boxes puts Iowa in the Nation’s bottom 20% in both average county land area and average county population. This needless plethora of counties then feeds into the “Full Grassley” phenomena, where it is viewed as a brag-worthy achievement of note to visit all 99 Iowa counties in a single year or campaign, per our senior citizen senior Senator’s loudly-proclaimed proclivity.

But really now: is that how we want our elected officials (and our visiting Presidential candidates) spending their time and money? And do we really need to financially support 100 county seats (Lee County has two) with all of the attendant layers of bureaucracy and all of the physical infrastructure associated with our profligate love of mid-level governmental institutions?

I respectfully and emphatically vote “No!”

I would rather see our citizens supported by meaningful regional governance, rather than antiquated political structures. I also find it mildly insulting that a “check off the county box” approach passes as proof that our State’s residents are being equitably seen and heard.

So consolidation makes obvious sense, but how to go about reducing Iowa’s over-abundance of counties? With apologies to Mister Swift, I offer the following modest proposal.

First, it would not make sense to eradicate county administrations that are already effectively serving sizable population centers, since that would be needlessly reinventing the wheel and/or throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

As it turns out, when you rank Iowa counties by population, there is a significant natural gap between number 10 (Dallas County) and number 11 (Clinton County), with all of the top ten counties having over 60,000 citizens — a good functional benchmark for a State with about 3,000,000 people, based on national county averages. I would, therefore, keep the following ten counties intact, based on their current populations:

  1. Polk County
  2. Linn County
  3. Scott County
  4. Black Hawk County
  5. Johnson County
  6. Woodbury County
  7. Dubuque County
  8. Pottawattamie County
  9. Story County
  10. Dallas County

Next, there are also some existing counties that should remain intact because they are “double wides” (e.g. they break the usual grid pattern), because they have already done their part historically to eliminate county glut, or because they are uniquely formed by geography or culture. I would keep the following counties intact under these special provisions:

  1. Kossuth County (largest in State geographically today, and incorporated former Bancroft and Crocker Counties historically)
  2. Pottawattamie County (second largest in State geographically today, already preserved due to population)
  3. Plymouth County (third largest in State geographically today)
  4. Clayton County (fourth largest in State geographically today)
  5. Sioux County (fifth largest in State geographically today)
  6. Webster County (incorporated former Risley and Yell Counties historically)
  7. Muscatine County (incorporated Cook County historically, and geographically unique)
  8. Lee County (geographically and culturally unique former “Half Breed Tract”)

So there are 17 counties that would remain as they exist today under this model: ten for population plus eight for geography, with one (Pottawattamie) on both lists. Subtract those from the current 99 and that leaves 82 counties that should be consolidated, most sensibly by doubling up the “box counties” in grids across the State.

Mills County, meet your new partner: Fremont County. Montgomery County, say hello to Page County. Please decide which of your current county seats will represent you both, and develop a plan to eliminate overlaps in your respective administrations. And so on and so on, back and forth across the State.

Take these resulting 41 new “double wide” counties, add the 17 that remain from the current map, and you’ve got a manageable 58 Iowa Counties — very commensurate with Iowa’s standing as a middle of the pack State, size-wise and people-wise.

Senator Grassley would still have enough counties to visit to keep him out of trouble every year, and we could nearly halve county infrastructure and bureaucracy expenses. In a world of high speed road travel, cell phones, and the internet, it seems inconceivable that citizens would experience any loss of service, and municipal spaces formerly dedicated to housing county governments could be reallocated to meet real community needs: education, healthcare, libraries, whatever the region’s residents needed.

What do you think? I would love to see someone with better map skills than me take a crack at demonstrating how to best double up those 82 box counties, so if you think like I do, how about getting out your colored pencils and sharing what a new and improved Iowa County Map can and should look like in the 21st Century and beyond?

Young Professionals’ Bill of Rights

As you no doubt recall from Iowa History 101, Governor Torbent Bronistodd signed a proclamation in 1863 that formally re-designated Iowa’s indentured servants as “young professionals” (YPs).

Six years later, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, and 1.3 million insurance executives relocated to Iowa by 1870 — drawn here, in large part, by Iowa’s vast pool of emancipated YPs who were willing to sit in cubicles doing grueling actuarial work all day, while their corporate overlords hogged all the gourmet cupcakes and good Scotch at their companies’ canteens.yppix

Fast forward a century and a half, when Des Moines routinely rates as one of America’s best cities for Young Professionals. This widely-touted distinction leads ever-growing flocks of fresh-faced college graduates to migrate to Central Iowa, where they nest communally in a networked hive of lofts near Des Moines’ city center, happily buzzing and bumbling about their daily business downtown.

But are things really all that grand in Yupville DSM? Or are the “Old Professionals” continuing to line their personal coffers on the sweat equity of YPs as they’ve always done, without fairly sharing the corporate spoils with those who truly deserve them the most? And if those treacherous old people are still abusing their idealistic professional heirs, then who will notice and respond, given the lack of organized representation for Des Moines’ disenfranchised young MBAs, disempowered Writers Institute alums, dispossessed Social Media gurus, and otherwise disassociated office and information workers?

A mysterious vigilante group calling itself “Young Professionals Correction” has apparently risen to the challenge, recently staging a series of Tweet-friendly flash mob protests in a variety of art spaces, boutique doughnut shops, and life coaching centers hidden deep within the uncharted bowels of the ever-expanding YP Ghetto downtown. Young Professionals Correction organizers have also drafted a “Young Professionals’ Bill of Rights” which has been widely distributed downtown through an appropriated network of empty Juice display stands.

I salute the brave urban guerrillas spearheading Young Professionals Correction, and in a spirit of solidarity, we reprint their “Young Professionals’ Bill of Rights” below — having nabbed a copy after wandering into an isolated branch of the Skywalk while trying to avoid eye contact with a busker.

YOUNG PROFESSIONALS’ BILL OF RIGHTS

Because we prize our liberties, Young Professionals Correction demands that the following rights be maintained for all the hard working college graduates in Iowa between the ages of 25 and 35, upon whose broad shoulders, trim waists, and shapely calves rests Iowa’s future:

1. By virtue of having bachelors’ degrees, Young Professionals must always be hired at an “Assistant Vice President” level or higher.

2. All bars and restaurants in Iowa must offer unique signature cocktails that reflect their special characters and feature top shelf liquors; Young Professionals must receive one such cocktail free with each visit, upon presentation of a pre-printed voucher.

3. Every fundraising gala must have a Young Professional ticket price of no more than 25% of the price that the old people pay, so we can properly support important causes by drinking signature cocktails and being photographed by Juice.

4. Young Professionals’ names have great civic value, so when we agree to let charities list us on their planning committees, that is sufficient justification for us to count such service on our “Young Professional of the Year” resumes, whether we contribute further or not.

5. Juice must print enough color society pages in each issue to guarantee that every active Young Professional in Central Iowa can be featured in at least one group shot per month; failure to appear in at least one Juice photo per month is justification for shunning by peers.

6. Young Professionals can still get social credit for serving Templeton Rye-based drinks until all existing stock is depleted, since we hoarded it at great personal cost while it was still considered cool and collectable.

7. After two months residency in Iowa, all Young Professionals are entitled to found a nonprofit of their own choosing in any field (charitable or otherwise), and to receive whatever State and City funding is required for them to hire themselves as founding Executive Directors; failure to found a nonprofit after two years residency in Iowa is justification for shunning by peers.

8. All bars and restaurants in Iowa must offer trivia nights at least once per month, and old people must be segregated from the Young Professionals who participate, since their knowledge of olden times before the Internet gives them unfair advantage; failure to form or join a trivia team with a clever name involving an alcoholic beverage or sexual position is justification for shunning by peers.

9. Being a “Young Professional of the Year” finalist or winner is a great, lasting, fully professional honor that will be recognized and valued for the rest of our lives by everybody around us, giving us automatic preferential treatment in job searches, ticket lines, restaurant reservations, and other similar situations; this honor will never, ever, ever be compared to being a prom queen or catching a winning touchdown in high school.

10. Young Professionals reserve the right to act grown up and professional when we feel like it, and to act young and stupid when we don’t; lapses in the latter regard will be forgiven until our 35th birthdays or until we’re no longer cute, whichever comes first.

2016 Iowa State Fair Improvements

The State Fair is the largest gathering of human beings in Iowa each year (though we’re still out-numbered seven to one by the hogs), and it truly is one of those “you have to see it to believe it” types of experiences. That being said, you can always make a good thing better, so The State Fair Trust will be rolling out the following improvements to make the 2016 edition the biggest and the bestest and the Iowa-est-est edition ever:

  • Open Carry Night: first 10,000 admissions packing visible heat receive commemorative shoulder holsters, available in either Hawkeye or Cyclone colors.
  • Caucus Candidate Octagon Death Matches will be staged in the new Joni Ernst Castratorium.
  • Pole dancing is officially qualified for its own “Varied Industry” booth.
  • An animatronic Terry Branstad will greet visitors at the Iowa Craft Beer Tent.
  • The Sheep Barn will be replaced with the Rhino Barn.
  • The Des Moines Register’s Tattoo Pavilion will provide free tramp stamps with each validated Fairgrounds parking ticket; no henna here, but real, permanent ink!
  • Cannibal Corpse and Insane Clown Posse will headline at the Grandstand for East Side Night.
  • All food booths will offer cheese-wrapped, bacon-filled, batter-dipped, deep-fried Cavatelli de Burgo. On a stick.
  • There will be Big Boar rides at the Kid’s Activity Center.
  • A Lion’s Den Adult Entertainment Pavilion will be located adjacent to the Campgrounds.
  • The Sky Glider has been turned into a thrill ride by increasing its speed ten-fold and requiring running mounts and dismounts.
  • The Butter Cow has been replaced with an anatomically correct Butter Bull.
East Side Night in the Grandstand.

East Side Night in the Grandstand.

Violent Childrens’ Games

You know what I remember most about being a kid? I remember that we were all hard. Not hard as in mean, or in cheap, but hard as in tough. And it wasn’t work or school or chores or church or sports that made us that way. Nope, we got most of our hardness on the playground, when the grownups weren’t looking. Or when they were smoking and chitchatting, and just wanting us to leave them alone, anyway.

For example: all the boys in my town played this game called “Smear the Queer” for hours every day after our school. (Yeah, I know the name was bad and you couldn’t call it that today, but that’s what we called it then, and that’s what I’m telling you about now). Anyway, we would all gather in a field — big kids, little ones, fat kids and skinny ones, some tough girls sometimes, too — and someone would just toss a ball in the air and then the game was on! Whoever ended up catching it would run and dodge and weave to escape from the others, until someone caught them, and then they got jumped on and all beat up by everyone else. Then they threw the ball up in the air and it started again. That was it. That was the game.

If we weren’t playing Smear the Queer, then we were playing “King of the Mountain,” where the only rule was to get on top of whatever pile of dirt you had handy, and stay there. No other rules than that. We were playing King of the Mountain one time, and this kid was on top and another kid hit him in the face with a stick and broke both his front teeth. He got them fixed, but they were always a different color than his other teeth. It was a reminder of how serious a game of King of the Mountain could be, and to this day, when he looks at those different color teeth, I know he thinks “That was the day I became a man!” Well, an eight-year old man, anyway.

Another fun game we liked was called “Chicken Fighting,” where two kids would square off at opposite ends of any pole or branch or monkey bar they could find at the right height and advance hand over hand until meeting in the middle. Then they would kick each other until one would let go and fall to the ground. The higher the bar or branch, the worse the cost of losing, and the harder you hung on and kicked. If you got hurt, you didn’t run crying home to tell your Mom to call a lawyer to sue the other kid’s parents, you just sucked it up it and walked it off, and you never let anybody see you cry. That was hard. We were tough.

Kids today though? They’re not tough. They just wiggle a little plastic do-jobber around in front of a television screen and eat potato chips and call that “playing.” That’s not playing! Playing involves noise, and dirt, and sweat, and sometimes blood. Playing is everything you can’t do inside, and it’s the main reason you want to be outside in the first place.

Our moms understood that point, and they had stories they wanted to watch on the television, so most days after school, we just got tossed out of the house with nothing more than a cracked old plastic football that we found at the dump, and that was all we needed to get some real exercise, with fresh air and everything. We would use our imaginations and get tougher and tougher each day by having crab apple fights with slingshots, or sword fights with sticks, or rock fights where you were supposed to aim close to rather than right at the other kids, but it didn’t always work out that way.

We used to make clay balls out of the muck down by the creek and throw those at each other, too. When they hit you, they’d flatten like a pancake on your chest or back. Hidden rocks would cut the heck out of you. We also shot bottle rockets at each other and used BB guns with a two pump limit, unless your target was “out of range,” which was a very blurry distinction. I can also recall using weeping willow branches as whips sometimes. That was a fun one!

Oh, then there was the Creek War! That was fun, too! There was this creek just outside of town, groves of trees on each side. One group of kids had one side, one group of kids had the other side, and for about two years after school, we all fought it out down there. Rocks, sticks, BB guns, boards, bricks, they were all fair game. Forts got built up on each side of the creek, and then forts got torn down on each side of the creek. Why, there were some particularly useful pieces of cement and plywood for building stuff that must have crossed that creek 100 times over the years, at least.

The Creek War petered out after sixth grade, I guess, when some of us started getting bused to middle school across the county, and some of us started doing after-school stuff like football or marching band instead. By eighth grade, though, most of us were back at the creek most nights before dinner time smoking cigarettes we’d stolen from our parents and talking about girls. We just didn’t beat up on each other as much by then, I guess.

Speaking of smoking, we were always burning things up. My first ever brush with the law was when a friend and I almost burned down our town’s general store. We used a magnifying glass to torch a pile of leaves that had blown up into a corner of the building, without making sure that our smoldering handiwork was properly extinguished before leaving the scene. That was probably the hardest whipping my father ever gave me, since our fool move could have cost us the only source of supplies there was within ten miles of town. We made sure we put our fires out after that one. But we didn’t stop lighting them.

So that’s what I can remember about the games of my childhood. It was rough. The blood covenants of the playground were built on scraped knees, busted lips, burnt fingers, and black eyes. We were able to take a BB in the chest or a stick to the mouth or a rock to the kidney, and then to get right back up and give the other guy a full dose of what-for in return.

And we grew up to make a difference in the world, by gosh, one busted lip at a time.