Signs, signs, everywhere signs… Why I Love Iowa City.

For readers of a certain age, the headline (from the song ‘Signs’ by The Five Man Electrical Band), will take you back to 1971. Those lyrics will also rent space in your head all day, I’m guessing. You’re welcome.

This post is simply about Iowa City Iowa, and the reason I love this progressive little burg so much. Iowa City is a tiny blue spot in a sea (an ocean? An expanse? Which is bigger? I dunno.) a sea of red these days, which is why I love living here. The signs posted around town reinforce my attraction to it. In this little village of 70,000 hardy, left-leaning souls, I found my tribe, and that’s always a serendipitous occasion.

Years ago, when I lived in Iowa City the first time, I was invited to write a monthly column for the local newspaper, The Iowa City Press Citizen. In one of my pieces for the paper I discussed the leftie bent, and the politically correct default of folks living here, noting that even the newspaper’s initials were PC. In these parlous times, especially now with the political and coronaviral churn we’re witnessing, the signs and postings are proliferating. Everyone, it seems, regardless of stripe, sensibility, or preference, feels the need to announce their opinions. As I drove around taking these photographs recently, I noticed pretty quickly that many of the signs were hand made, and posted pretty much all over.

This sign speaks for itself, and also its owner’s/creator’s spot on the left-right continuum. On a ball cap the inscription would be MAS&S, I suppose. And the hat would be green. And recyclable. And union made. And knowing Iowa City as I do, the sign itself would have gone through a stringent vetting process for content, and size, and neighborhood acceptance, and environmental impact. And the paint would have to be child safe and eco friendly.

In Iowa City, wearing a mask really is a political statement. But then, in Iowa City choosing a parking spot, buying cat food, or choosing a brand of Kombucha is a political statement, so… One would think that the hyper-sensitive posture of Iowa Citians would become tiresome. The reason it appeals to me is that I’ve seen the alternative. I’ve seen what happens when consideration for others, and blindness to differences, and insensitivity to needs and desires and cultural considerations are dismissed and relegated to lower status. None of the seeming obsequiousness and PC culture here bothers me; what bothers me is the assumption of privilege for white, male, heterosexual, christian, wealthy people who own a boat. That offends me. I should mention that in my cruise around Iowa City I saw exactly one sign promoting he who shall not be named and his lap-dog Veep. That sign was planted close to the house. It was manufactured, likely in China, not hand made. It was ensconced among other right-leaning candidates’ signs. And in Iowa City, as further proof of my attachment to this accepting town, the sign was unmolested, however much I fantasized skipping the curb and crushing it with my car. Oh, the photo on the right above? That’s U of Iowa mascot Herkie the Hawk, en mask, of course.

Being hopelessly caucasian, I can’t speak for my black & brown neighbors, but from what I gather, Iowa City is a wonderfully accepting, diverse, anti-racist place where folks from around the world (literally, thanks to the University of Iowa) can thrive and feel wanted. As far as I can tell our black friends & neighbors can even leave their homes, drive their cars, sleep in their beds, and allow their children outside to play, and not expect mayhem or murder. Radical concept, I know.

Yard signs pop up like tulips in springtime, especially now. I included the gun safety sign because I see a lot of them here, and also because, this being Iowa, the well-armed center of heartland America gun culture, attaching these tiny stickers to ones vehicle is truly a political act here. I suspect these tiny black and white stickers are rarely spotted in, say, Ottumwa, or Spencer, or Waterloo.

Not much question about this leftie’s position!

Another reason I love Iowa City is that it’s a highly literate, well educated, amazingly urbane place in a sea of corn and soybeans. Home to the best writer’s school in the world, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, many well known and widely read authors have inhabited Iowa City. Authors such as Marvin Bell, Clark Blaise, TC Boyle, John Irving, Raymond Carver, Sandra Cisneros, Rita Dove, Andre Dubus, Gail Godwin, Jorie Graham, WP Kinsella, Flannery O’Connor, Ann Patchett, Jane Smiley, Mark Strand, and numerous others have studied and perfected their craft here. It would not be unusual to bump into Marilynne Robinson, or Chris Offutt, or Kent Haruf at Prairie Lights, the best bookstore in the known universe. (Even though Mr. Haruf is deceased, sad but true.)

Go Cubs!

I had to include this, yet another reason I love living in Iowa City. Here I’m surrounded by Cubs fans. There’s a smattering of Cardinals and White Sox fans, of course, and the odd Minnesota Twins insignia here and there, but the Cubbies and their Fly The W signs are dominant.

In closing, a picture that says it all this political season. There are a number of these signs posted around Iowa City. My fellow IC dwellers are not without a sense of humor.

Thanks for reading. Stay safe, mask up, and please, please, please VOTE! Thanks for reading.

Devonian Dreams

Devonian Fossil Gorge, Coralville Iowa

The picture above may look like a weedy, rock-strewn expanse that resembles a waste area laid bare and useless. But the interesting thing about this picture is that in June of 1993 the ground was several feet higher than pictured here, the soil and rock 17 feet thicker. Three months later, in September of ’93, it looked like it does here. The tan colored wall in the background is the spillway of central Iowa’s Coralville Dam, a retention dam built in 1958 by the Army Corps of Engineers to hold back the Coralville Reservoir, and to provide water to several cities below.

Today the pictured expanse of rock and grass is the Devonian Fossil Gorge, a veritable classroom for geologists, paleontologists, and also for those of us enduring a pandemic that looms as a potential natural catastrophe that threatens human life on earth.

The Devonian period stretched between 416 to 358 million years ago. It was named for Devon England, where rocks from that particular paleozoic era were first discovered and studied. Devonian rocks and fossils, and my afternoon at the gorge, are what brought me to write this mid-pandemic blog post. (I hope it’s mid-pandemic, we’ll see.)

Iowa’s monsoon summer of ’93 brought far more water into the Coralville Reservoir than the dam could contain. In late Spring, the spillway overflowed for the first time in the dam’s operational history. The water’s overflow rate at times exceeded 24,000 cubic feet per second. That’s 1.5 million pounds of water every second, and the deluge lasted for nearly a month. In its raging rush, the water scoured away seventeen feet of ground and rock below the spillway, opening the Devonian fossil bed buried beneath, exposing its diorama of ancient life after 358 million years.

The flood of ’93 removed 17 feet of earth & rock

When the ’93 flooding subsided, the fossil bed showed an ancient beach 350 million years after high tide. It was a snapshot of geologic history, a slice of ground embedded there fully 60 million years before dinosaurs roamed the earth. The flood of ’93 opened it to human view for the first time. It showed what scientists had long believed, that much of Iowa was once underwater, a tropical zone populated by trilobites, crinoids, and various other prehistoric sea beasties. It also proved the theory that Iowa was once situated below the earth’s equator. It would have been much warmer at that point, I can attest.

Iowa would be (roughly) at the ‘N’ in Laurentia

Iowa was once a tropical seascape

Pictured above, crinoid, brachiopod, and coral fossils are evidence of Iowa’s once warm, marine past. The buried Devonian treasure trove may have been the only good news from the great flood of ’93, but it was indeed a gift, in many ways. Geologists and paleontologists from the University of Iowa, and from several other schools, saw the exposed Devonian fossil bed as a research and pedagogical bonanza.

Favocites and corals

Long stem of a crinoid, ancient sea algae

So here’s my takeaway, and the reason behind this post. The coronavirus pandemic may not, at first glance, appear to be connected in any way with Devonian fossils, or tectonic movement, or ancient sea beasties that popped up near Devon England. But standing atop actual remains of actual creatures that actually lived, and breathed, and ate, and pooped, and reproduced 80 million years before the dinosaurs can engender a bit of reflection. These fossilized critters had little control over their environment…and neither do we. The difference is we do have some control, but we often ignore it, or use it badly.

As I took these pictures, I imagined the rainy summer of 1993. The flooding, the property damage, and the destruction caused by all that water and no place to put it was truly astonishing. The deluge was ascribed to so called 100 year flooding, the 50 inches of rain that fell on Iowa between April and August. But a portion of it was attributed to the Corps of Engineers’ creation of levees and dams, including the one in Coralville, humankind’s attempts to tame various rivers and bend them to our will and needs.

Likewise, the coronavirus has shown us what can and does happen when our interactions with nature ignore the fragile balance between us and the environment. I suspect that humankind will last another few Millenia, at most, probably less if Trump wins. Then, in that latter day far, far away, like the crinoids and brachiopods underneath my shoes as I walked the fossil gorge, we, too, will vanish, swept away by a powerful event likely of our own making. Maybe I’ve got too much time on my hands due to the pandemic, but that’s what I conjured at the fossil gorge, mankind’s fragility, and our hubristic nonchalance as extinction stares us down, and we stare back, dumbfounded, one could say fossilized in our lethargy to act.

It’s an amusing mind game picturing whatever sentient creatures follow us eons hence. This future being will no doubt sport a massive brain, with a highly evolved sense of sight, and hearing, and taste, and touch. This hyper-evolved creature will be much more aware, more intelligent, better able to project outcomes and perils, much more insightful in tending to its surroundings, a kind of Post-Anthropocene Jane Goodall, in other words.

I imagine ‘Jane’ poring over a weedy patch of ground, scanning fossils of humanoid bones from 100,000 years before, way back in 2020. She recognizes (from cranially stored texts and images) the items she sees: Remains of a so called ‘roadway’ complete with skid marks, the imprint of a discarded Domino’s pizza box, a fossilized iPhone 347, the carcass of an ancient laptop, (with error 404 intact), a well preserved Smart Car, a damaged but readable WalMart sign, an oddly granitized, tiny circular button that reads ‘MAGA’. ‘Maybe that’s what wiped them out,’ she muses.

‘Jane’ is aware of the pandemics that once ravaged humankind during the Anthropocene, various viral epidemics that, it’s alleged, wiped out the human race. She shakes her head, wondering what dangers her own species is overlooking? What peril in Jane’s natural environment must be treated with more dignity, more respect, she wonders? What barrier are we breaching, she thinks, that may eventually sweep us away to fossil beds and ancient texts? What elements in our surroundings have we lost touch with, and which may come to bite us in the tenderest of spots?

Here’s hoping Jane’s society is smarter than ours, and that by the time she posts her own blog a millenium hence, the creatures who replace us are more self aware, better caretakers of the earth, gentler with their resources and each other. Here’s hoping they understand—in their bones—that, just like us, they’re not separate from the fossils at their feet, but connected in ways no flood or virus can erase. Good luck, Jane. Here’s hoping. Thanks for reading. Comments welcome.

Now’s your chance…

This is a rant. I make no apologies. If you don’t like political essays, personal opinions, and heavily personalized proclamations, you should probably stop right here. Go read your Readers Digest, or Breitbart, or National Geographic. But if you care at all about the parlous state of the United States just now, as I do, then perhaps you might keep reading, ponder this post, and gather your thoughts, whatever they may be. But this ain’t happy talk, or politically correct pabulum, just sayin.’

Here’s the thing. With what’s at stake in the upcoming U.S. national election, I feel it’s not just a right, nor a ‘good idea’, nor even an ‘opportunity’ to speak up about values, and attitudes, and viewpoints. It’s a sacred obligation to do so. With that in mind, here’s my contribution, my chance to speak out, as I feel I must.

The upcoming election will be your chance to show what your values really are, not just what you say they are when the pressure’s off, and the sun’s shining, and no one’s asking, and you’re safely surrounded by your tribe. In normal times we’re rarely called upon to speak up and to announce to the world who we truly are, and what we truly value. These are not normal times. These are times when our way of life, and our American democracy, as hypocritical, and feckless, and fragile, and duct-taped together as it often is, that system we claim to cherish is in grave danger from a man who some among us chose four years ago to lead the American people. And lead us he has: off a cliff. If we don’t rid ourselves of Donald Trump, American democracy may very well wither and die. And the only way to avoid that tragedy is via the voting booth, hence our chance to announce our values. Call us values voters. November 3rd will show what those values truly are. I should mention also that I believe there are no non-voters. It’s never been true that 40%, or 50% of Americans don’t vote. Staying home on election day is voting! And this year not voting is a vote for Trump. Also, this is not about party, or ideology, or voting history; this is about morality, and ethics, and values. This election will show the world who we truly are. Vote him out!

You say you ‘support our troops. Great. After wearing the uniform for 30 years of my life I appreciate your spoken support. If you truly mean it, you will not under any circumstances vote for Trump. From his avoidance of duty, his utter lack of values, his serial lies, his disregard for the gravitas of the office, and especially for his cozy attitude toward our sworn enemies and various dictators, every day of his miserable life Trump lifts his leg on my service. He welcomed assistance from Russia to win in 2016, and actively sought help from Ukraine to help him win this one. When the Saudis executed an American journalist in one of the world’s hot spots, Trump did nothing. He demanded the removal of faithful, loyal trans troops who are at least as committed to the U.S. as anyone else, likely more so given the obstacles thrown at them. Trump removed the American presence from the Paris climate accords, ultimately a national security issue.If you vote for Donald Trump, you no longer have the right to say you support our troops. Find another slogan. Meantime, Vote him out!

You claim to be a christian? Good for you, we need more people committed to love and compassion, social justice, care of our lesser served, and our more needful citizens. More Christ-like people, in other words. Here’s your chance to show—not just say—that those christian values you claim are real and meaningful. Supporting Trump tells the world you’re okay with kids in cages, and disrupted families, and overtures to white supremacy, and the molestation of women, and disregard for our black and brown and latino(a) and LGBTQ+ citizens. You’re okay with a man who mocks disabled people. You’re on board with serial lying, and a seeming affinity for every one of the seven so called deadly sins: Pride, Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth. Trump wallows in them. And don’t you dare hide behind the ‘abortion is democrats killing babies‘ canard. How many abortions do you think Trump has arranged and demanded in his reckless sexual past? Also, how many Americans are dead from a virus largely because of Trump’s incompetence? Christian? Great. Ask yourself if Christ would vote for Trump. Show us your christian values. Here’s your chance. Vote him out!

Conservative? Good. Conservatism has been a counterpoint and an anchor during social upheaval throughout our history. I subscribe to many conservative principles myself. I believe in fiscal responsibility, adherence to the Constitution, observance of property rights, the rule of law, obeisance to our sacred documents, transparency in public office, a strong military, and firm alliances overseas. I believe in the observance and protection of open public discourse. I believe, as Thoreau said, ‘That government is best which governs least.’ If you support Trump, you support a man who has increased our national debt by trillions of dollars. A man who cares not a whit for our Constitution, and is instead nettled that it interferes with his greed and overreach. A man who tramples on others’ property rights in his blind ambition. A man who scoffs at the rule of law, while heading the most corrupt administration in American history. A man who would shred our sacred documents to get what he wants, and then want more. A man whose lies make a mockery of the term transparency. A man who has attempted, with some success, to dismantle the institutions that make our system of government the envy of the world. A man who has made us a laughing stock on the world stage. Conservative? Show us. We need more true conservatives. Here’s your chance. Vote him out!

Patriotic? Great, So am I. Here’s your chance to show just how patriotic you really are. Supporting Trump means affirming a man who used his wealth and position, his laughable ‘bone spurs’ deferment to avoid serving in uniform. Instead, he claimed that his ‘Vietnam’ was avoiding VD after screwing Manhattan socialites while guys like me were getting our asses shot at in South Asia. Supporting him means you’re okay with a president who hears reports of a bounty on U.S. soldiers, but brushes them off as fake news instead of demanding a thorough investigation. A man who unleashes private thugs to disrupt legal protests in a nation where citizens’ rights to protest are sacred. A man who wraps himself in the flag, and uses the bible and a church as props to stir his base to violence. A man who has literally stamped his brand on the WhiteHouse as if it’s one of his tacky commercial properties. A man who hawks products from the Oval Office! A man who refers to nazis as ‘fine people.’ Supporting Trump means you’re okay with efforts to demonize and disrupt lawful protests, and to label those citizens as enemies to be attacked. Patriotic? Here’s your chance to show us if that statement is true, or not. Vote him out!

Pro-American? Great. Me, too. Pro-American means support for the concept of America, the idea of liberty, and justice, and the rule of law, and that no one—not even the president, especially the president—is above the law. Pro-American does not mean fealty to a president or political party. Indeed, it means holding our leaders accountable for their actions, not giving them a pass, regardless of party or ideology. It means holding their feet to the fire, demanding truth, expecting a very high level of competence in our departments, not the placement of political hacks and cronies and flagrant nepotism. Supporting Trump means enabling his crude and tawdry behavior, his casual dismissal of our long time allies, and his reckless transactional approach to leadership, while ignoring experts, and facts, and hard science. Pro-American means recognizing that our diversity is what makes us strong, not the exploitation of differences to sow chaos. Supporting Trump means voting for a man who’s been endorsed by every white nationalist, white supremacy, anti-semitic, neo-nazi organization in the U.S. Here’s your chance to repudiate all that filth. Vote him out!

Law and order? Yep, me too. America was founded on the principles of equality, justice, and legal protection for everyone, regardless of position or power. If you support Trump, you’re dismissing those sacred tenets as so much useless blather. You’re affirming the right of the wealthy, and the positioned, and the influential to make the rules in order to further their own narrow interests, and to enrich themselves without accountability. If you vote for Trump you’re showing us you believe the president is above the law, and that regardless of his blatant corruption the U.S. Congress has no basis or ability of reining him in. You’re stating that you no longer subscribe to the balance of power theories that are in place in our government to keep abuses in check. If you support the rule of law, here’s your chance to show us. Vote him out!

Are you a parent/grandparent? So am I. Fun, isn’t it? And a great deal of responsibility as well. That’s why I’d never vote for a man I’d be ashamed to have as a role model for those kids. How could I justify supporting a man who says and does what Trump has done? How could I explain voting for an amoral man who brags about molesting women, cheats on everyone close to him including his three wives, and pays off porn stars? A man who steals creditors’ money and attacks them for trying to get it back? How to explain to your child supporting a man who believes anyone ‘different’ is bad, that apologizing is stupid, that being nice is for losers, that truth isn’t important, that what you can get away with is. How to tell your child that you support a man who says it’s okay to hurt others if it benefits you, that it’s alright to never take responsibility, and that people who are poor or indigent are ignorant and lack value? How do you tell your child it’s okay to cheat if it helps you win, that women are less important than men, and that money is all that’s important? Do you refuse to support a man like this? Or do you simply enable him and tell your child ‘it is what it is? Here’s your chance to live up to those high values and expectations we try to represent to our kids and grandkids. Vote him out!

Finally, if you believe in the American experiment, as I do with all my heart and soul, here’s your chance to show that. Vote! I would never for one second advise anyone how to vote. But I don’t hesitate to advise anyone how not to. If you still believe in American democracy and the promise it holds, you will not under any circumstances vote for a man who tramples on our sacred documents every day, who lies as necessary to enrich himself, who ‘takes no responsibility’ for nearly 200,000 dead Americans. A man who brandishes a bible he never reads while standing by a church he never visits as a prop to inflame the hatred of his already angry base. A man who uses the people’s house to enhance his own portfolio. A man who refers to our fourth estate as ‘the enemy of the people’, just as Hitler did. A man who dismisses revered experts when critical decisions are needed, and then when the devastating fallout from that dismissal inevitably happens he goes golfing! A man who brags about abusing women, and faces numerous charges of molestation. In short, this November 3rd, if you believe in America, you cannot in good conscience vote for Donald Trump for president.

These are not normal times, and this is not a decision taken lightly, or to delegate to standard political party affiliation. This has nothing to do with party, or ideology, or past voting practice. This has everything to do with morality, and ethics, and the values we claim to adhere to. Here’s your chance to publicly proclaim those values. Your kids, grandkids, and great grandkids are watching. The rest of the world is, too. Thank you for reading.

Vote him out!