JES Live: The Digital Tourist

I mentioned here a while back about having spoken at the State of Now Conference in Des Moines, on the topic of what I called digital tourism, which probably doesn’t mean quite what you might think it means. I was pleased to learn this morning that a high quality recording of my ten-minute remarks is now available online, so even if you weren’t there, you can learn what my secretarial position in the government of Cyber-Yugolslavia was. Seriously. So if you’ve only experienced my piffle and tripe in written format to date, here’s what it looks and sounds like when I deliver it live and in person . . . complete with a screen-capture that makes it look like I am about to attempt to fly, or deliver an interpretive dance . . .

Driving Beyond the Nanny State

I’ve spent a lot of time on the road during my first four months in Des Moines, visiting all 99 of Iowa’s counties by highway, and making forays into all of Iowa’s neighbor states. It has been quite a different experience than I had driving around Upstate New York for all those years, needless to say, though not necessarily in the ways that you might expect.

First and foremost, there’s far less regulation into what and how you drive out here. Speed limits are higher on both Interstate and State highways, cars don’t have to be inspected annually for emissions or basic road-worthiness, helmets aren’t required for motorcyclists, permits and  licenses are available to kids at a younger age, massive farm equipment and Amish or Mennonite horse-drawn buggies are welcome (and common) on many roads, you can talk on your cell phone while driving, and the Iowa State Department of Transportation is far less inclined than its New York counterpart to spend money putting signs up all over the State telling you things like “It is the LAW to turn on your lights while your windshield wipers are operating!”

There are no toll roads in Iowa, and few fully controlled access highways once you get off of the pair of Interstate Highways that cut Iowa into quarters (I-30 and I-85), with Des Moines as their crossing point. While people may assume that driving around out here in “flyover country” would be tedious, I can tell you categorically that there is no highway in Iowa as skull-crushingly boring as the New York Thruway, with its cookie-cutter, controlled-access rest areas, endless, unchanging screens of trees blocking the views of anything interesting, and complete lack of any sort of roadside vernacular available to keep the eyes and brain engaged.

Highways of Madison County. Do not drive off their edges.

Regarding the New York Thruway, it is mind-boggling to me how much toll money I spent over the past 18 years to travel on a highway that I hated, simply because the alternatives seemed to be designed with one purpose in mind: to slow my trip down so much that I would be forced back on to the Thruway in desperation. Which worked, most of the time. Iowa, on the other hand, does a much better job of making the transit through most of its towns pleasant. In rural areas, in fact, many of the town centers are situated slightly off the highways, for easy access if you want it, or easy passage if you don’t. Good deal.

The State of Iowa’s more permissive approach to driving also extends to highway engineering itself. There are very, very few guard rails out here, for instance, compared to New York, so if you want to get careless and drive off the edge of the road, well, Iowa’s usually going to just let you do that. While this isn’t a dire problem much of the time, since a lot of the state has relatively wide shoulders that bleed into relatively flat fields, I have seen some pretty hairy highways (see U.S. 52 between Clinton and Dubuque or U.S. 169 in Madison County, for example) where the road bed sits high above dells, valleys, gulleys, ravines, or other low spots, so that an inadvertent adventure off the edge would result in some serious airborne excursions onto tree tops or through open space. I can’t swear to this, but it seems like the primary factor in guard rail placement is whether or not an airborne car would hit something else on its way down . . . so if a silo, or a train, or a cow, or a house is in danger, then you get a guard rail. Otherwise, though, keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel . . .or else . . .

There is one flip-side to this where Iowa offers a road safety feature that didn’t exist in New York: rumble strips in front of stop signs at rural intersections. Since it’s pretty easy to drop into a state of driver’s narcosis on long, straight, rural highways where your horizon is so far in front of you that you don’t really see anything closer unless it’s moving, stop signs tend to sneak up on you when you’re roaring down a two-lane at 68 miles per hour. To alleviate this potential disaster, most rural cross intersections have three sets of rumble strips in the road bed as you approach them, so you see a sign saying “STOP AHEAD,” then you get a three-part sonic warning as you approach the point where you have to stop, its pitch changing as you slow: BRRRRRRRPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP . . . . . . Brrrrrrrrppppppppppp . . . . . . . bbbbbbrrrrrrrppppppppppp . . . [and . . . stop]. At this point, it almost seems weird to come to a full stop without those familiar three rumbles.

For a guy who likes to drive (which would be me), Iowa is great fun, and the grid layout of much of the State means that there are almost an infinite number of (almost) equally good ways to get from Point A to Point B. I’ll be headed back to Dubuque on Thursday, and will undoubtedly take at least a dozen roads that I haven’t driven before, just because I can. As long as you can keep your cardinal points straight (which isn’t hard, when the sun is up), it’s easy to know when you’re headed in the right or wrong direction, and the long horizons give you plenty of time to adjust, when necessary.

I won’t have to pay any tolls on my way to Dubuque, and I won’t experience a barrage of signs explaining the arcana of State Transportation Law. I will, however, be able to get off the road wherever I want, and choose my own gas stations and restaurants, rather than being limited to ones that hold State contracts. I think this is a better world to drive in, and am sorry for those of you who only get to fly over it.

Art Talk and a Desert Double Feature

Our visit to Manhattan’s Neue Galerie last weekend reminded me why it takes more than a great collection to create a stellar arts operation.

While Neue Galerie’s collection is indeed remarkable, no question about that, their $20 per head admission fee, small exhibition space, densely-packed hanging of the art, and lack of curatorial exposition on what we were seeing made the Galerie feel like it was something of an elistist, high-brow, insider operation. I’m well-studied in the arts, so I understood why some of what I was seeing was quite special, but I don’t think that an arts novice would be able to walk into the Neue Galerie unprepared and glean such an appreciation. And absent such a sense of deeper understanding after viewing the collection, I think a lot of people might leave feeling like they had not gotten their twenty bucks worth of illumination and inspiration. I didn’t myself, truth be told. Compare and contrast that experience to our last visit to a New York museum, when Marcia and I both felt like we got our money’s worth, and then some, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mirό: The Dutch Interiors exhibition.

Value for money notwithstanding, I tend to most highly value arts organizations that make it a priority to not only acquire great collections and traveling exhibitions, but to present them as widely and openly to the public as possible, while also providing expert curatorial context for those who may desire a deeper understanding of what they are seeing. During our many years in Albany, the magnificent Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in nearby Williamstown, Massachusetts provided us (and many others) with such value-added programming. In Iowa, I’ve been thrilled to discover that the Des Moines Art Center is equally adept at, and commited to maintaining, that community-enhancing balance between outreach, accessibility, education and illumination — all in support of an outstanding collection of fine art.

Simon of the Desert

Here’s a current example that, as it turns out, just happens to involve two of my very favorite films. Art Center Senior Curator Gilbert Vicario has organized a wonderful single-artist exhibition called Miguel Angel Ríos: Walkabout that will be on display in the Center’s Anna K. Meredith Gallery through April 22, 2012. Admission is free (though, as always in the nonprofit world, donations are appreciated), the curatorial value-added is high, and the art presented is evocative, both visually and in terms of the themes that underpin the exhibition: rites of passage, spiritual awakenings, and the self-awareness that come from solitary encounters in the desert landscape. It’s not just a collection of “important” art, but rather a holistic presentation that works on a variety of creative, intellectual and intuitive levels. Well done!

But it gets even better: this Sunday (March 18) at 1:00 PM, the Art Center will present a double film feature of Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965) and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) — both of which are films that I adore and highly recommend, either for first-time or repeat viewing. The Buñuel film is a mischievous satire from the father of film surrealism, based on the story of Saint Simeon Stylites, who lived atop a pedestal in the middle of a desert for years to show his devotion to God. Walkabout depicts an unexpected chance encounter in Australia between an aboriginal boy, who has embarked on his solitary rite of passage into manhood, and a pair of European children who are stranded in the Outback.


In both cases, the films’ protagonists set forth into the desert seeking purification and transformation. In both cases, they achieve those goals, though not in the ways that they might have expected or desired. While both films feature strong performances from their actors (especially Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil in Walkabout, the first major film for them both), the true star of both movies is the desert itself.

Nicolas Roeg had a long career as a cinematographer before he began directing his own films, and his painterly, attentive and radiant images of the Outback capture both its uplifting and destroying power, and its role as a crucible in the lives of those who enter it. Buñuel, still working in black and white when he made Simon, captures most effectively the gritty, grey, dusty and dirty aspects of the desert experience, where wind shapes the environment more than water, and the land is ever-changing and unchanging, at the same time.

The combination of these two powerful films, the strong curatorial effort by Gilbert Vicario, and the exceptional art and vision of Miguel Angel Ríos should make Sunday afternoon at the Des Moines Art Center a transformative desert experience for all those who participate. Plus, it won’t cost a nickel to attend — although I always encourage people to make contributions commensurate with the value of their experience, and their ability to give, as they leave nonprofit arts organizations’ spaces.

Personally, I’m thinking the experience this Sunday will feel like it’s worth well more than the twenty bucks we each spent last week in New York . . .

He Used to Cut the Grass

1. And then there were four . . . Counties in Iowa that I have not visited, that is. Marcia and I took a trip to Clinton, the easternmost city in the state, yesterday and today. While she was in meetings, I nabbed another six counties, most of them along the magnificent Mississippi River. I have only Grundy, Black Hawk, Buchanan and Benton Counties remaining before I complete my Full Grassley, and the weather is looking nice on Monday, so I’m thinking I might just get in the car and get it done then. Clinton awed me, because I am fascinated with heavy industry, and there were some massive plants and factories there that were simply mind-blowing, especially at night when their lights were visible from dozens of miles away. We had a great and fresh (though garlic-heavy, which I could do without) meal at the Candle Light Inn, overlooking the Mississippi River. I would recommend that destination should you find yourself in Eastern Iowa some evening, seeking sustenance and succor.

2. Seafood in Iowa . . . I live farther from salt water now than I ever have during my prior half century on this planet, and you know what? I am regularly eating better deep-water seafood than I ate during 18 years of living in New York, which actually had an Atlantic coastline. Take last night at the Candle Light: I had a beautiful seafood au gratin that had immense, sweet shrimp, perfectly prepped cod, langustinos and sea scallops in it, and they were all fresh, tasty, and huge. I have come to attribute this weird and unexpected regional benefit to the fact that the people of Iowa, living in a major agricultural center, expect things to be fresh. This means that the few restaurants and stores that stock seafood here seem to be more diligent about flying things in from the coast(s) than the distributors in New York were, since those guys could always get some fresh stuff, if you didn’t want the frozen, but why add the fresh expense if you’d settle for the latter? I may be wrong as to the cause, but I don’t really care, since the results are brilliant: Iowa rocks fresh fish.

3. The future of publishing . . . I was working on a proposal for a freelance writing job, and the employer asked that applicants answer this question: “What is the future of publishing? (200 words or less).” Such a huge topic, with such a small space to reply! How would you answer that question within those constraints? Here’s what I did:

In its traditional form, the act of publishing involves writers selling words to publishers, who in turn sell those words to readers. This model has been more effective historically than the direct sale of words from writers to readers, because publishers add two forms of value: quality control in the receiving function, and economy of scale in the production function.

This traditional model is now in flux. Blogs and related websites readily allow writers to communicate directly with interested readers. Some writers are even willing to give their words, for free, to commercial interests, who sell those words for profit. Print-on-demand mills, message boards, cell phone apps and countless other emergent technologies also seem to jeopardize the traditional role of the publisher.

I believe, however, that this period of flux will be finite and bounded. As the number of available information sources expands, the volume of inaccurate, incomplete, unedited and unreliable information grows equally quickly. Sophisticated readers will eventually seek more dependable sources, and sophisticated writers will expect to be compensated for their work.

Successful publishers will be those who develop the print and/or electronic platforms that allow both of these conditions to be met, thereby restoring their traditional role.

4. My current favorite band . . . Napalm Death released their new album, Utilitarian, this week. It is a spectacular disc. If you think that all metal sounds the same, then then disc would be a fine example to demonstrate why you are wrong.

Napalm Death, 2012 (Mitch Harris, Mark “Barney” Greenway, Shane Embury, Danny Herrera)

Planes, Golf Carts, and Automobiles

Marcia and I took a somewhat spontaneous trip to San Antonio, Texas last weekend, for a little warm(er) weather rest and relaxation. It was a bit rainy and cool by local standards, but still beat being in the middle of the blizzard that blew through Des Moines that weekend. We stayed in the great Contessa Hotel (right on the River Walk), visited the Alamo and the historic Missions, got in a nice round of golf at the Hyatt Resort, and did a lot of walking: around the downtown River Walk, and as far north and south as possible on the Museum and Mission Reach extensions of the walk along the San Antonio River. We had a nice dinner at Las Canarias and a great brunch at Cappy’s. I took fewer photos than I usually do, though I was particularly pleased with the one below, drawn as I always am to dying industrial sites. Click the photo for the captioned rest of the collection, or click here for the slideshow version.

When we got back from San Antonio, Marcia had some business up in Mason City, in the north-central part of Iowa (which we’ve visited before). I chauffered her up, then took her car and headest east toward Wisconsin, crossing over the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien, then working my way back to Mason City and (ultimately) Des Moines. In the process, I increased the total number of Iowa Counties I have visited to 65, about two-thirds of the way to a Full Grassley. A few snaps from this trip below, along with the updated conquered county map.

Morning sun over Native American ceremonial mounds, Effigy Mounds National Monument, Mississippi River in the background.

Mississippi River bluffs over Marquette, Iowa.

All God’s children, we all gotta die. (Gunder, Iowa).

River gorge, downtown Mason City, from the middle of the Meredith Willson Footbridge.

65 down, 34 to go. Probably one more day trip and two overnighters to finish. Not too bad.

37 Down, 62 to Go

During the campaign cycle before the Iowa GOP Caucuses, Senator Rick Santorum and Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann both completed “The Full Grassley,” visiting all 99 of Iowa’s counties. (The feat takes its name from Senator Chuck Grassley, who allegedly has visited all 99 counties in each of his 30+ years in elected office). Senator Santorum did his Full Grassley the smart way: he basically lived here for a year, took his time working his way around the state, got to see its sights and know its people, and reaped the benefit of his retail policking with a neck-and-neck finish with the better-financed favorite, Governor Mitt Romney. Representative Bachmann, on the other hand, tried to pull it off as a 10-day stunt, which was disastrous for her, as her chronic late appearances, visible fatigue, and lightly-attended campaign events made her and her team look inept, not connected at a grassroots level.

As a new Iowan, and given my penchant for punishing endeavors, I really like the idea of completing my own Full Grassley, and have already made several day and overnight trips around the state toward that end. I’m doing it all on the road (I suspect Senator Grassley flies in to some key cities around the state when he’s making his rounds), and trying to find a balance between the Santorum and Bachmann approaches: taking time between trips, but making every trip count. Sometimes Marcia and I travel together, and sometimes I venture solo. Here’s a graphic of the counties I have visited to date (we live in Polk County, fourth row from the bottom, sixth from the left):

I have visited the 37 shaded counties as of January 26.

While it would obviously be easy (or at least easier) in some cases to just drive over a county line, or walk a circle around the many “four (county) corners” in the state, then drive on to the next destination, I am making a fairly serious effort to experience the counties in more meaningful ways: either by spending a sizable amount of time in them by fully transecting them from side-to-side or top-to-bottom, or by visiting signature county landmarks, or by having meals in great local restaurants. The breadth and depth of variety around the state is wonderful, and I appreciate seeing it up close and personal.

Monday and Tuesday this week, I will be doing this, with an overnight stop near Donnellson, from where I also plan to visit Keokuk, in the far southeast corner of the state. That region is known for Bald Eagles, fossils, and geodes, so it fits in well with many of my geeky interests and pursuits. When I get back Tuesday night, I will have shaded the entire southeastern corner in the map above, bringing my county total to 54. I will dispatch a good chunk of northeast Iowa over the next month or so, too, via trips to and from Clinton and Dubuque (in Iowa) and Chicago.

My goal is to complete the Full Grassley before I start working again full time, which (hopefully) will be sooner rather than later. So I may end up doing a mad Bachmann dash at some point if one of several employment prospects pans out soon, though for now, I’m savoring the luxury of getting to spend quality time all around my new state. It’s doing wonders in terms of making me feel like Iowa and Des Moines really are home.