Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Big Man on Campus

One of the more toxic things I do every fall for my self-esteem and body image is to compare my approaching middle-aged physique to that of the herd of 18-year-old undergrads who descend upon our town to attend Big Midwest State University. Normally, this is one of those depressing exercises where I feel horrible about my lack of abs and the 30 pounds (okay, 40) I've put on since graduating high school. This year, not so much, mainly because:

1) I received a stack of photos of myself when I was 18, and I was sickly thin. 20 of those pounds are keeping my bones from protruding.

2) I also received a stack of photos of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents, and even though there is a notion that people who worked the land from sun up to sun down every day did not get fat, these people did. I come from a line of obese farmers. The fact that I'm merely 10 pounds overweight is an accomplishment.

3) I'm slimmer than the undergrads. I see them leaving the dorms, and I'm thinner than they are. Instead of me feeling bad about myself, I feel bad for our entire country. Because if you are starting out your adult life this way, what is it going to be in 10 or 15 years? Right now, 33% of children are overweight or obese. This does not bode well for the future, unless there is some kind of cultural shift in the direction of... I don't know what... I am not sure how many Food Plates and Let's Move! campaigns can do any real good. Unless we adults start leading the way, I'm not sure what we can expect the kids to do.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Divorce in Dixie, Part II

This is the second post on this topic. For the first post, please click here. Mississippi in general is a wealth of posts on What Not To Do. It is tempting to create a separate blog on everything that is screwy with that state, but an occasional blog post here will suffice - to make me glad I don't live there.

A man staggers into a bar. The first patron screams, "OMG! You are bleeding! Can I get you a Band Aid?" He staggers further. The second patron screams, "Seriously, you are bleeding! I think you might need stitches." He staggers further. The third patron grabs a gun, and proceeds to shoot a bear who has the man's head in his mouth. She says, "Well, that should take care of the mauling, but I think you may want to stop that bleeding now."

The US Census Bureau "Marital Events of Americans: 2009" report is my favorite thing right now. Shout out to the Census Bureau, in my top 3 government agencies, along with the National Parks and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It seems to be picked up by a number of news outlets, the most recent being PBS NewsHour last night. Looking at the data, there does appear to be a relationship between children of divorce and growing up in poverty. It does not indicate whether poverty caused the divorce or divorce caused the poverty. However, if you want to design the project, there's a dissertation in Public Policy in there.

Not being able to isolate the dependent and independent variables does not prevent some politicians from attempting bad policy moves. If divorce causes poverty (unproven), then the solution is to make divorce harder. Enter the Covenant Marriage. Adopted by the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona (and no where else... think on that), the Covenant Marriage is a separate legal category of marriage which makes it difficult to divorce with cause, and almost impossible without. Measures have been introduced in a number of states to create a similar system, including such forward-thinking and enlightened states as Mississippi, Florida, Georgia South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. (Also: Minnesota, Indiana, and Iowa - I have my eyes on you three... you are on notice, especially with your love of Michele Bachmann.) Remember the good old days when there were no No Fault divorces, and divorce proceedings often involve one spouse relocating to Nevada for two months? Neither do I - then again, I don't live in New York, the closest state to having Covenant Marriage without adopting a cutesy quasi-biblical name for it.

Back to the Quasi-Biblical: Isn't that the main problem here, and also with the CNN article? If divorce was just something you did on a whim, like getting a belly button ring or eating an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's, then yes... you may have a point that the way to decrease divorce is to make divorce harder to obtain in a land where our moral compass has gone astray, yadda yadda yadda. If divorce is a symptom of a larger problem, then the issue will not be solved. What needs to occur is an examination of the root causes: poverty, gender inequality, lack of education, and moral prudishness. Instead, three states have legislated a two-tiered system of "I'm Better Than You" marriage without looking at the hard evidence as to why marriages breakdown.

I believe it was the great 1970s Hoosier philosopher, Franklin M. Burns, who summed up the problem best in his landmark theory: "Marriage is probably the chief cause of Divorce." Maybe the answer to making divorce harder without changing the laws is to make marriage harder to obtain. Think about all of the steps involved in getting a drivers license: prove your identity, take a class, log a certain amount of classroom time, driving time, supervised driving time, and submit the paperwork, take and pass a written exam, take and pass a supervised road test, fill out more paperwork, pay a fee, have your picture taken. To get married: Be 18, head to the courthouse with your birth certificate and another adult with a birth certificate who isn't your cousin, fill out a form, pay a fee, and have a third party mail back a form to the courthouse. Why is it that a marriage is easier to get in most states than adopting a kitten from the shelter? Maybe that's where the problem lies - make it more difficult to get a marriage license than to apply for community college.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Divorce in Dixie

CNN has a special section on their website called "Defining America", with a collection of stats and charts and colored maps with stats overlays. It's like someone sat down and said, "What would Patti want in a website?" and then delivered.

One of the headlines that grabbed my attention was the "What's Fueling Bible Belt Divorces?" - it's source material being the US Census Bureau Marital Events of America 2009 survey, released earlier this month. US Census Bureau - giving stats lovers something else to look at after your baseball team has been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. There are many charts and colored maps with stats. While I would normally look at CNN's Southern States = High Divorce rates conclusion as overly simplistic when looking at the complexity of the data, it's really an apt conclusion. Table 1 on page 3 breaks out the marriage and divorce rates by region, and top on the list for divorces is the South.

CNN looks at some anecdotal personal stories to determine what's behind the stats, but they boil down to the obvious: education and economic opportunity. Their Southern Divorce Case Study (or, you know, Lynn) got married young without a college degree in an area of depressed economic opportunities and high drop-out rates in high school. Meanwhile, Married Northern Case Study (Jennifer), delayed marriage, got a college degree, started a career, then married and lives in a state with a thriving economy (or, within commuting distance of two major cities).

Where the CNN article fails is by examining the ties between Southern States, Divorce, and Bible Thumping. What's not discussed is that as a region, the South has fewer major cities, fewer industries, and higher rates of high school drop-outs and poverty. While the high rate of divorced mothers living in poverty is highlighted, it is not discussed whether the mother was living in poverty before the divorce or only after. The tie between poverty and social disintegration needs to be explored.

I'm looking over at my husband right now, and with pure statistics, our marriage should be fine. We're both college educated, married in our late 20s, live in the Midwest, white, and have parents who are still married (I don't know how mine managed, but there they are). Neither one of us are perfect - he has a tendency to leave cabinet doors open... I'm crazy lazy when I come home from work. These things are easy to let go during the day-to-day. But... remove an income and see what happens. I bump my head on an open cabinet door and we spend our food money on stitches. Or, I'm sitting around the house instead of working. THEN, see how the domestic bliss evaporates. Now, remove the income that has the health insurance attached to it and you have the basis for reality TV should one of us need stitches. Divorce? Probably not. We're educated, after all, so any loss of job would probably be temporary, and both sets of parents have a spare bedroom within an hour of a city where jobs could be found should things get really bad. (Hooray for Middle Class parents and resources!) However, take away the sunny long-term outlook and a Plan of Last Resort, and it's not hard to see why someone may want to get out of that situation, even if it means leaving a spouse behind.

I think that's enough for today. I'll write more about how Southern politicians address divorce tomorrow, but writing about me being lazy makes me think that I should make breakfast for the husband... 'cause he is kind of awesome, and is better than I deserve.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday Morning Papers: Hurricane Irene

Sunday Morning Papers

Once again, weather dominates the Sunday Morning Papers. A hurricane formed, drifted across the Atlantic, and obviously, this is the first sign of global warming.


One data point does not make a trend. It doesn't even make a line. Freak occurrences have been known to happen (Donald Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns... which was a very valid point, and probably the only time I've agreed with the former Defense Secretary). However, this is just a hurricane. Hurricanes happen, they happen in the Atlantic, they happen in August, and they have hit New York City before. We just haven't had one for a while, but that does not make it prescient of future calamities. Between 1900 and 1996, 9 hurricanes hit New York State, or about once every decade. We were due.

This doesn't mean that I don't believe in climate change. I think the evidence for it is overwhelming, while the evidence against it pretty much doesn't exist in the scientific community. All I see is disagreement as to how rapidly the Earth is warming, not that it isn't. The EPA mentions that over the past century, sea levels have risen a minimum of 4.4 inches, and the rate of rise appears to be increasing. The EPA also mentions that if the seas rise 2 feet, 10,000 square miles of land will be lost, probably sinking New Orleans for good, and destroying existing coastal marshlands, making the new seashore more vulnerable to tropical systems than current seacoasts. Barrier islands will be gone, instead becoming sand bars until the next major storm.

There's a number of reports of what climate change could do to the New York area. (If you want to say goodbye to Giant Stadium, it's only going to take 1 meter of rise, 2 tops.) While we may lose Delaware before we lose Central Park, this weekend's hurricane should highlight some tangible problems that climate change will cause. With a rise in sea levels of ONE FOOT (the projected storm surge), New York City was forced to shut down the subway system. By noon today, the Holland Tunnel was closed for flooding. FDR Drive was flooded. If a two foot storm surge occurred (occurs? still?), then the bridges may be out of commission. One foot of flooding was enough to anticipate widespread failure of the electrical grid, causing most buildings to shut down their elevators.

So while we look at the Maldives succumbing to rising sea levels right now, and do not take action, think about what one foot of water in New York does to the infrastructure, and then wonder what's taking everyone so long to get on board with environmental legislation. South Carolina recently passed the Incandescent Light Bulb Freedom Act, which allows South Carolina to remove itself from Federal bans on wasteful light bulbs. Keep that in mind, because without doing simple steps to stop climate change, Charleston and Myrtle Beach will both be gone with a 1.5 meter rise in sea level. That can't be better for the state's economy than letting a pair of light bulb manufacturers do business in the state.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Goodnight, Irene

I have never been in a hurricane, having lived in the Midwest my entire life (or close enough to it). The closest I have ever come is the outer bands of a Tropical Storm while in Florida, and the remnants of many tropical systems have a tendency to snake up the Mississippi Valley. Katrina stuck around long enough to make the lawn muddy, but nothing more than a long-lasting thunderstorm.

That said, the prospect of spending 3 days or more in the dark would have been enough of an excuse for me to spend a long weekend in Cleveland. 8 hour drive from New York... Spend Saturday night at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Sunday at Cedar Point, figure out if my house is under water Monday morning... if not, home in time to go to work on Tuesday. If yes, well, at least Cleveland has power. Sounds better than living on the 40th floor of a high-rise without electricity or elevator service, flooded streets and trying to find food. This from the person who has always lived with a tornado kit in the house.

Friday, August 26, 2011

50 DTSBYD: #42 Catfish

Part of my 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die Challenge.

This may be a short review, mainly because I didn't really enjoy this movie. As for a documentary, it may or may not be true, or at least unfolded in the way portrayed in the movie. But, sadly, giving away too much will ruin the movie, which is why this will be short.

The movie is about one of the filmmakers meeting a family online, then becoming more involved with their lives, before starting to question if everything he knows about them is true. At this point, this stops being a good documentary. The filmmaker is too involved, and he becomes a world class butt hole. That's my problem with the movie. Near the end, the filmmakers get mean.

I used to see documentarians as journalists... there's an air of detachment that should be there, even if they do have a point. There's something about seeing a group of adult boys gleefully talking about bullying people they barely know that just doesn't sit right. Especially when the last portion of the movie is the strongest part of the movie. Oh well. #42 on the countdown means that even Current TV admits that there are a lot of better documentaries out there.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Anti-Capitalism and Bad Environmental Policy

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Gov. Quinn has okayed the development of a coal gasification plant in Jefferson County, Illinois. While it's true that this may be good news for the people of Mt. Vernon (which could use some economic stimulus), it still seems to be part of a growing trend in the United States. In neighboring Indiana, the same type of coal gasification plant was proposed in the southern town of Edwardsport. However, not only do both projects involve burning fossil fuels to transform one type of fossil fuel needlessly into another fossil fuel, but the deals also involve state mandates that utilities purchase the coal-based natural gas over cheaper naturally occurring natural gas. Oh, and we'll still be fracking. That's still on the table. And mining coal in the Ohio River Valley. Or, moving train-loads of coal from Wyoming.

Back to gasification...

According to the backers of these plants, the only way they are viable is if the utility boards of the states are required to purchase the product of the plant. Somehow, both the Republican Governor of Indiana and the Democratic Governor of Illinois have decided to suspend a fundamental law of capitalism and allowed these deals to go forward with the state's blessing, forcing rate payers of both states to pay for the financial risks of these schemes, instead of the investors. What it brings are jobs to poor areas - dangerous jobs, as these gasifiers have been known to explode. I'm not sure where the upside is. I'd almost wish they would refocus Ohio River Valley energy creation to retrofitting flood control dams with hydroelectric capabilities. Or, increase the number of windmills in the Central Plains. Create some competition in the marketplace. Be pro-business.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Just noticed the leaves. The maples outside my front door are changing. The greens are darker, and a slight rust tinge is gracing the edges. We're not in autumn yet, but I can feel it coming.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dear Class of 2015,

(Please choose the applicable response as you read along)

Dear Member of the Class of 2015,

Congratulations on moving to (Macomb/Terre Haute/Kalamazoo/Winona/LaCrosse/Iowa City)! I'm sure that you are excited to begin a new school year here at [insert name of large public university here], and are ready to begin rooting for the [name of mascot]s this coming Saturday. Great tickets are still available at the box office - don't miss out on your chance to be part of a great campus tradition!

Please bear in mind that while your years at [name of large public suburban high school] have prepared you for the rigors of the classes you will be taking [stop laughing], there may be some skills that living in [Buffalo Grove, Carmel, Bloomfield Hills, St. Louis Park, Waukesha, name of an Iowa suburb if Iowa had suburbs] may not have fully prepared you for. Below is a guide of practical information that you may have missed.

1. You do not have to drive to school. You may have noticed that we have strategically placed our dormitories very close to campus. So close, in fact, that you can even see your classrooms from your bed. We did this on purpose. We know it's the only way we have a shot in hell of getting you to your 8am Econ class. Yes, the dismantling of intercity public transportation in the United States may mean that the only realistic way of getting from [Medium sized Midwestern City] to [Affluent Suburb] is by car, the best way for you to get from your room to class is by walking. It's three blocks - really you'll be fine. Unless your parents were so freaked out by the idea of you sharing a shower with a stranger that you are living in a private dorm half way across town. Don't yell at us for your parking tickets - we still gave you a bus pass.

2. We have labelled all buildings and rooms. With room numbers, the first number is the floor where you can find the room. If you are looking for room 307, do not ask someone in office 104 if this is room 307. Now, if you find yourself on the third floor between room 305 and 309, then sure... look around for an extra sign or double check to make sure you are in the right building. Seriously, we do not have that Harry Potter platform 9 3/4 thing going on. We're too busy messing with you in other ways to do something that cheap.

3. Not only have we labelled all buildings and rooms, we even print a map with the locations on them. Please consult this map before you ask us where the library is. Especially when you are standing 20 feet from a giant sign that says [Name of old wealthy dead couple] Library. I know you think you won't look cool walking around with a map in your hand, but I assure you that no Freshman looks cool asking random people where the union is.

4. No, YOU don't pay my salary. Collectively, the tuition of all of you students put together covers a percentage of my salary. The majority of the operating expenses of this department comes from a grant from [Name of wealthy alumnus] when he donated the money for the new building for the [Name of the new "IN" thing on campus... indoor football training facility, cinema, campus gym and tanning facility], as funding for general administration. Additional funding is provided by the State, but a larger portion of our budget comes from the good folks at [name of giant Pharmaceutical Company] and [name of large bank or accounting firm], especially due to the large cuts from the State [Legislature / General Assembly / Senate / Governor] and pressure to keep tuition low. So, please consider a career in pharmaceutical sales and support financial deregulation. Also, only 4% of students are as much of a pain in the ass as those who resort to the "I pay your salary" excuse for treating me like shit, and I'd take a 4% pay cut not to deal with this 4%. Gladly. And really, it's only like a $2.50 rebate because I'm underpaid and if it wasn't for my wife's tenure-track position teaching Comparative African Literature, I would be in a town with better job opportunities and making a hell of a lot more money with my MBA. I haven't had a cost of living increase in 5 years in order to keep your tuition lower than the 10% increase you've seen in that time, so really, YOU owe ME.

5. Target will still be open next week. I swear, it will.

6. Dorm food really isn't that bad. If it were, there wouldn't be the Freshman 15. The problem is that all of you, when you got your housing contracts, picked the cheapest meal plan, and then complained about how expensive it was. Plus, once you get to campus, you are now going to complain about the quality, that there are not enough healthier options, that it should be local, that it should be organic, that there needs to be a vegan Kosher option in every dining hall, and that the dining hall needs longer hours. All of this requires money, which you aren't willing to pony up. So, none of you are going to starve, but just remember that you get what you pay for. This will be the first in a lifelong series of disappointments caused by underfunding government programs. ENJOY!

7. Similarly, while your professors will be amazing, awe-inspiring, and life-changing, you will not see them until your Senior year. Instead, you will be taught by academic temps, ABD's, random grad students, and people from the community who will teach based on "life experience". This means that you may have a pharmacist teaching you emergency management, or a political science grad student teaching statistics, but in our defense, the poli sci student is Chinese, and you know how the Asians are good at math. Just remember than while tenured professors are engaged and actually interested in teaching, they are expensive. Perhaps if you paid $200 per credit hour instead of $125, maybe we could hire some more.

8. Those random 8-sided red signs at intersections mean something. They aren't the same kind that you see in the suburbs that tell you to yield before turning onto a main road from your subdivision. These are used to actually control traffic at the intersection. You do not get to slow down and continue. You have to stop. In many cases, you may have to let 3 whole cars pass through the intersection before proceeding. This will require something called patience. Work on it.

9. Townies are not hicks. University staff probably are not. Many of us grew up in the same suburbs you did. I may have graduated from your high school. I know there many not be another liberal around for 50 miles, but it's because we've all banded together in some type of post-hippie commune community where we have community gardens and three local theater companies. Stop looking at us like we drive tractors to work. Did you see our hybrids out in the commuter lot? Did you notice that we recycle? We have a huge Farmers Market in town? And, really, do you think that the undergrads are visiting the sculpture garden down the street from [Name of Giant Sports Bar]? Those bike lanes that run all over town are not for you - they are for us. Stop acting like we're uncivilized, unsophisticated hicks. We do control your financial aid and transfer credits, after all.

10. Please... let your parents kiss you goodbye. Even if it is in public. You won't understand, but in 30 years, when your daughter is part of the class of 2045 and heading off to Youngstown State, you'll completely understand.

Try not to drink too much too often, and do learn something - even if it's just something about yourself. And, as always, please swing by the athletics office and buy some football tickets. We have a huge athletics academic support complex that needs to be paid off, or we all lose our health insurance.

The Administration

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Quick trip to the Farmers Market this morning yielded a full chicken, football sized zucchini & summer squash, cucumbers, plums, quart of cherry tomatoes, a couple green zebra tomatoes, a variety of bell peppers, a cantaloupe, but sadly no eggs or sweet corn, because these had sold out at a time where I was still firmly asleep. Still, a mountain of fresh local produce and meat for $30.

Thankful for a bounty of fresh, affordable food.

Friday, August 19, 2011

50 DTSBYD: #50 Spellbound

Number 50 on Current TV's "50 Documentaries to See Before You Die" is the story of the 1999 National Spelling Bee, "Spellbound".

Spellbound is a sweet, intriguing movie that answers the age-old question, "How the hell did those kids get there?" Following the paths of 8 kids from different parts of the country, only one child had the crazy kind of parents you'd assume to be behind this kind of insanity. Neil's parents drill him in 7,000 words per day, hire foreign language tutors just to work on spelling, and his grandfather hired 1,000 people to chant for Neil around the clock. I want this kid to lose. I want him to lose so badly.

But for the others... the ones who just always liked big words... each one seems so, er, normal? Don't get me wrong, they are smart. Brilliant. They sing, they ride horses, they play violin, and they do them all well enough that you feel like it's not for the camera (unlike Neil's basketball playing), and spelling words is just something that they happen to do well. Sure, Angela has flashcards, and Nupur really studies hard, but besides quizzing the kids, the parents are proud and supportive. Ted's parents even say they'll knock him down a peg if he gets a big head about that Spelling thing.

They are like your neighbor's kids. Except Harry. Who I want to punch in the face.

I remember misspelling "balsam" in front of my entire school in 4th grade after winning my classroom competition. My mom even showed up to watch. She tried to console me with her failed attempt at spelling a word in a spelling bee when she was my age. I probably would have gotten over it - but in 5th grade, I was camping in a cabin named after a tree where the placard read "Balsom Cabin". BASTARDS! 20 years later, and I'm still angry at that campground.

I'd love to see a follow up on these kids. I see one had a teenage pregnancy, and one may have died in 2007, but for a weekend, you see the hope they have, the excitement at their own potential, and the pride of their parents. Except Neil's.

50 Documentaries to See Before You Die: The Challenge

Current TV has ranked 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die. I'm sure that's not hyperbole at all - that you have to see all 50 before you die. Or, the moment you have seen the fiftieth, you shall die. In either case, I found myself casually watching the first two installments (Docs 50 - 31) before a night of epic insomnia, and thought, "Hey, I've seen a bunch of these already! Way to reinforce my taste in movies, Current TV!" However, this also made me think about trying to see all 50 again. Even if I've already seen them, or if the DVD has been gathering dust on my shelf since 2006, I should try to pull them out and watch them. Maybe comment on them in Blog Posts. Maybe on Fridays, when I'm trying to think of something to do for the weekend.

So, here is the challenge: Watch all 50 Documentaries by August 31, 2012. That's one per week, with a couple weeks off for vacation and what not. They don't have to be in order, but I do have to track down all 50:

50. Spellbound                                                                    Reviewed 8/19
49. Madonna: Truth or Dare                                               Reviewed 10/7
48. The Kid Stays in the Picture                                         Reviewed 11/4
47. One Day in September,                                                 Reviewed 9/2
46. Little Dieter Needs To Fly                                            Reviewed 12/16
45. Decline of Western Civilization: The Metal Years
44. Burma VJ
43. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts      Reviewed 10/14
42. Catfish,                                                                         Reviewed 8/26
41. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters                    Reviewed 12/9
40. When We Were Kings
39. Biggie and Tupac                                                         Reviewed 10/28
38. March of the Penguins                                                 Reviewed 12/9
37. Inside Job                                                                     Reviewed 10/21
36. Taxi to the Dark Side
35. Paragraph 175
34. Brother's Keeper
33. Tongues United
32. Dogtown and Z-Boys
31. Jesus Camp
30. Farenheit 9/11
29. Man on Wire
28. Gasland
27. Tarnation
26. Murderball
25. Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room                   Reviewed 12/16
24. Paradise Lost
23. The Eyes of Tammy Faye
22. Shut Up and Sing
21. Exit Through the Gift Shop
20. Capturing the Friedmans
19. Touching the Void
18. Food, Inc.
17. Street Fight
16. Bus 174
15. Crumb
14. Dark Days
13. The Fog of War
12. Bowling for Columbine
11. Paris is Burning
10. Grizzly Man
9. Trouble the Water
8. An Inconvenient Truth
7. The Celluloid Closet
6. The War Room
5. Super Size Me
4. Waltz With Bashir
3. Roger and Me
2. The Thin Blue Line
1. Hoop Dreams                                                             Reviewed 9/9

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Shining Example of Healthy Living Found In (Wait, That Can't Be Right)

I happened to catch a story by CNN's Sanjay Gupta on an elementary school in Illinois that received a Gold Award by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation for their healthy living program aimed to fight the childhood obesity problem. Only three schools have ever been awarded Gold, and one of them is Northeast Elementary in Danville.

(Are there two Danvilles in Illinois? No? It's the Danville I'm thinking of? Weird...)

Students at Northeast had their school lunch menu overhauled. No more fried foods, fish actually gets served multiple times per month, and fresh produce is making a comeback. In addition to the 30 minutes of mandatory gym class per day, Danville students are taking yoga breaks in the middle of class.

(Yoga. In Danville. Take a moment. Soak it in.)

All kidding aside, when you think of Danville, Illinois, healthy living is not even on the radar. Rather: Last town before Indiana - Cheaper hotel rooms for Illini games - That big blue abandoned factory along I-74 - Hometown of Gene Hackman and Dick Van Dyke - Giant VA Hospital. Danville is typical of so many small, struggling cities in the Midwest with the crumbling infrastructure, giant prison, abandoned buildings, and sagging economy. So, if Danville (seriously, DANVILLE) can turn around their schools like this, what's stopping the rest of the country?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I have sunflowers drying in my house right now. I have never tried to grow sunflowers before, but seeing the cost of roasted sunflower seeds in the store, and the number of jars that my husband eats in a year, I figured it would be worth it.

Having never grown these before, I wasn't sure what to do. When is a sunflower ready to be harvested? Enter the Land Grant College! Major love is going out to the University of Illinois and University of Minnesota Extension Services. In exchange for free land for your schools, you have provided me with a valuable service: the ability to troll the internet from the safety of my house and ask the dumbest of dumb questions - Is it ready yet?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Iowa: When Eastern Politicians Appear to be Folksy

I've lived 32 years in the Midwest, and I can't remember being around a hay bale in August.

Keep that in mind if you take a look at this video of Mitt Romney in Iowa explaining that Corporations are People. What the hell is with the hay?

It's August. Any hay-related recreation I have ever enjoyed has always been in October, during harvest and pumpkin festivals and possibly on the back of a hay wagon. Early August is not hay season. It's not harvest time... it's the time where you can have an entire dinner of butter-drenched roasted sweet corn. Even if you grew up on a farm, unless you have livestock, you won't have hay lying around. It's one of those things that is slightly maddening, and how you know that the audience for this video is not the good people of Iowa, but those who don't live in the Midwest, and have a mental image of what the Midwest is like.

Even though he grew up in Michigan, he should know better. Then again, he grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, so maybe he doesn't. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and I can still tell you that when the pasture is still green, you don't need to feed the cows hay. Instead the hay is symbolic. It means, "I'm folksy", "I'm down to Earth", "I'm agrarian." What it also means is "I'm pandering to you hicks for the guys back home", where ever that may be.

Never trust a politician who is around that much hay in the growing season. He's listening to his image consultants too much.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday Morning Papers: Indiana State Fair

While today I was completely prepared to write about the coverage of the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, my mind is singularly focused on the stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis.

It's too early to assign blame for the collapse, but that's not going to stop me from trying. The biggest problem is that officials saw that there was a fast-moving line of thunderstorms approaching, a severe thunderstorm warning in place, a covered shelter adjacent to the venue, and most importantly, a break in the concert. Normally, I don't enjoy standing in the rain doing anything, and I'd assume that would work for watching stage hands set up for a band after the opening act had finished.

If I had been in charge, seeing a fast-moving line of thunderstorms that would clear the area in under an hour, I'd probably have asked those on the ground, unsheltered from the rain, to either go inside the Grandstand, the Coliseum, or under a pavilion. I would have made it clear to the crowd that the concert would start after the storms had abated. That's me - because I wouldn't want to stand in the rain, perform in the rain, generally get wet and soaked when it's 60 degrees out. Hypothermia sucks. That's all I would have done: told everyone the concert would be delayed, and hope that enough people would voluntarily evacuate the grounds so that when a mandatory evacuation would be called, there would be fewer people to move. Even without knowing that the stage would collapse, would I want to be responsible if 3,000 people (or 12,000 if the wind went sideways) were pelted with golf ball sized hail?

This is the Midwest, after all. We're used to hail storms and tornadoes, and fierce gusts of winds when they accompany violent thunderstorms. Thunderstorms in the summer with hurricane force winds? Yes... these are fairly routine occurrences. In fact, perhaps we should rate hurricane winds based on Midwestern thunderstorms. Are the winds equivalent to an EF-2 tornado or an EF-1?

So, while the news story comments are talking about how it was a freak wind gust of hurricane strength, why are people not pointing out that the stage should have been designed to withstand a strong thunderstorm, which would be a completely plausible event? This may have been a temporary venue, but perhaps we need to question whether a temporary venue poses more risks than a permanent facility. Then again, the Coliseum that was supposed to be used as a safe shelter is also the site of a propane explosion that killed 74 people in 1963. However, as stories continue to point out, stage rigging collapsing during strong thunderstorms have already happened twice this year. Just last week, I watched a Weather Channel special on the collapse of the Dallas Cowboys practice facility. It sounds eerily similar to what happened last night in Indy. Which leads me to believe that these are real concerns with real, tangible, predictable, lethal consequences which should no longer be ignored.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

And Today, At The Iowa State Fair...

Unless you've been too glued to CNBC for the past week to notice anything else but the rise and fall of your stock portfolio, you may have heard that something very important is going on in Ames, Iowa today: The [historic?] Iowa State Fair. If you are planning to go to the fair, today is the day. Heart opens for Def Leopard, crowning the State Fair Queen, and the Battle of the Butter Sculptures.

This year marks the 100th year of the Iowa Butter Cow. Although long-time Butter Sculpting Queen Norma Duffy Lyon passed away in June, we can rest assured that the tradition of dairy-based medium in the art world continues. However, they still lag behind Illinois in ButterCow Webcam Technology, where one can log on and view the butter cow from the comfort of one's own home.

Of course, there's also a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party in which Iowans are bribed to support possible candidates before the field is set in some kind of side show that's supposed to mean something. What, I do not know, but the media seems to be intent on trying to figure something out.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Living Seasonally

One thing that the Midwest has going for it is four distinct seasons. Sure, Spring may only be a two week span between a snow storm that cancels a Cubs game in late May and a heat wave that happens in June, but it's still there. In the last 48 hours, the sweltering heat that signifies High Summer broke, and we're back into the lazy summer days where you can actually stay outside for more than 5 minutes without burning or dying of heat exhaustion.

The transition has now happened in the garden. Cool-weather loving seeds are back replacing the summer herbs. Fall lettuce, parsnips, radishes, beans, and peas are all in the ground. It may be 80 out, but one can tell that autumn is around the corner.

There are still a couple of weeks left to enjoy a New Belgium Sommersault Ale and indulge in my all-time favorite chicken recipe, the Beer Can Chicken. I've mentioned my pampered local free-range chickens before. So, grab your Weber Grill, some real lump charcoal, and be prepared to give that pampered bird the treatment it deserves.

Step 1: Yes, it has to be a Weber Charcoal Grill. Ed over at Gin & Tacos really explains why, but it boils down to the fact that it is simply the best grill out there. Plus, made in Palatine, Illinois. Support Midwestern manufacturing!

Step 2: Grab a charcoal chimney. Fill the top part with charcoal that closest resembles actual lumps of wood. Add newspaper to the bottom, light, wait. About 10 minutes. Really. Wait.

Step 3: Set up your coals - you want to add them around the edge of the kettle. Under the middle, place an aluminum pie pan or piece of foil to catch the drippings of the bird. It will keep your grill clean, and will create extra steam and smoke to the interior of the Weber.

Step 4: The Bird. Grab a 12 ounce can of beer. It does not have to be good beer. Drink about 4 to 6 ounces. Spray the beer can with Pam (or brush with olive oil). Shove the beer can up the bird's cavity so that it sits upright on the can. Season the bird with a dry rub of your favorite spices (Bacon Salt is good, Lawry's, McCormick's Montreal Steak, or Cavendar's Greek Seasoning also work).

Step 5: Making sure that you have a good ring of charcoal, place the bird on the upper rack, directly over the pie pan/foil that's on the lower rack with the coals. Place the lid on CAREFULLY. If your bird is over 5 pounds, the lid may rest on the bird (clean the lid first). Wait 75 minutes. Bird will be awesome.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Indiana State Fair

The Indiana State Fair has unveiled it's signature item for the 2011 Year of the Soybean: Deep Fried Ice Cream. I'm not sure if I totally understand how soybeans and ice cream go together, but, heck, why not. However, the deep fried ice cream has led others to think, how else can I use ice cream? The answer appears to be the Ice Cream Burger, which is the perfect compliment to a menu that also includes the French Toast Burger and the Chicken Eggo.

In what I am sure is a totally unrelated event, Dr. Oz will be at the fair today. If you've ever wanted to plan a heart attack, make your way to Indianapolis.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Our Godless Communist Founding Fathers

Found on my Facebook Feed:
The U. S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.-
Benjamin Franklin
Two problems: First, I'm pretty sure that Ben Franklin said no such thing (despite quote aggregators on the internet claiming this - not appearing in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations doesn't bode well), and second, I believe that's the Declaration of Independence you are thinking of.

I've always been fascinated by the writing of the Declaration of Independence. It's kind of a masterpiece the way it was crafted. It draws substantially on the same body of English political theory that was used to justify the Hanoverian Dynasty's rise to power to justify Hanover's ouster. While I may have to save the Glorious Revolution for another post, I do want to point out one little thing from John Locke's Second Treatise on Government. (No, not the guy from "Lost".) Locke wrote that people give up their individual rights and consent to be governed "for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I [Locke] call by the general name property." Jefferson took this idea, and interchanged property for The Pursuit of Happiness. Damn Hippie. What exactly does it mean that one of our Founding Fathers would rather have us pursue happiness than have individual possessions? To take such a lovely capitalist idea as defending individual property rights and replacing it with a touchy-feely idea of pursuing happiness... there's only one conclusion to make: Thomas Jefferson was a Communist.

Thomas Jefferson, your Godless, Hippie, Communist Founding Father. Which makes sense, given the company he kept:
(Photo from Wikipedia)

Monday, August 8, 2011

When Trees Get In Your Way of Appreciating Nature

The National Park Service is preparing to do something stupid. The LA Times is reporting that the NPS is getting ready to cut down 100 foot pine trees in Yosemite because they are blocking the views.

The Park Service, which often competes with the Bureau of Labor Statistics as my favorite government office, states that the valley floors have always been open, with Native Americans regularly setting fire to clear trees. However, this is still land management at work, even when done by someone other than the federal government. What is happening at the NPS is short-sighted. At work is a valley floor trying to recover from thousands of years of clear cutting and man-made burns. It seems that tourist pictures are taking precedent over nature.

Truthfully, the problem at the National Parks is that the majority of visitors never actually hike anywhere in the parks. I can't find a firm number, but if you google "national parks trails 'never venture further than' ", you'll see the percentage of visitors is over 80%, and the furthest distance is less than a mile. I experienced the phenomenon at Rocky Mountain National Park at Bear Lake. Beautiful, crowded Bear Lake. Squeezing by tourists to stay on the wide trail before simply starting an ascent... and finding the trail suitable for a peaceful afternoon's walk.

To see the 5,000 foot granite rock faces above a 100 foot pine tree, the obvious solution would be to climb 100 feet. That would involve getting out of the car... and hiking.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sunday Morning Papers: S&P

Today's papers are filled with articles on S&P downgrading America's debt from AAA to AA+. This goes along with my Facebook feed having a number of anti-government/politicians/Obama postings about the S&P, many of them by people who have 1) no idea what S&P stands for, and 2) had not heard "S&P" before Friday.

For those of us who understand what Standard & Poor does, there are two items of information that are slightly consoling. First, that S&P is just one of many credit rating agencies and the others are not following suit. The Treasury Department is pointing out flaws in the report's methodology already. Secondly, these are the same groups of people who never saw sub-prime mortgage bundles as junk investments, and we all know how that worked out. With their track record, perhaps being downgraded is a good thing, since they cannot read the future.

I'm not going to get into what caused the downgrade right now, but I'm thinking it's a combination of the Tea Party being willing to hold the economy hostage, the unwillingness to increase revenues (i.e. taxes), and the rippling effects of cutting government spending to income and health of private sector business (and their ability to pay taxes). What gets me, is that if US Government bonds are no longer the safest possible investment, what is?

Prepare for a bumpy ride, my friends.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

You Don't Like Us, Either

On August 1, the Congressional Approval Rate in a CNN/ORC Poll was at 14%. That's low, even for Congress. In the abstract, public polls show that most Americans dislike Congess, but they love their individual Congressman. Your incumbent Representative is voted back to Washington year after year because he does a good job and brings money and projects back to the district. Now, when the guy down the street brings money and projects back to HIS district, that's just Washington waste, and someone needs to vote the guy out of office.

However, with a 14% approval rating, Congress needs to take note: not even your own constituents like you at this point. There was some talk that punting the debt ceiling to 2013 was to allow the 2012 Presidential race to play out without this as the main point of debate, but Congress should be collectively sighing... there's a good 14 months between this debate and the next time that the 86% of Americans who don't approve of their job performance to be swayed by pretty bridges, educational initiatives, and a giant defense contract for the factory down the street. Except... that the debt deal just cut any chance of these things being brought back home.

Screw you, constituents!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Budget for Food

The Associate Press had an article out today on a study in the journal Health Affairs on the increased cost associated with purchasing food that will satisfy the new American Food Plate guidelines for potassium, fiber, vitamin D, calcium, etc. According to the researchers, getting all of these nutrients in the new amounts will cost each American an extra $380 per year, or $1,520 for a family of four. The AP tries some tips for how to cheaply increase your potassium intake by eating more potatoes and beans, and interviews some public health experts, and makes a great point... deeply buried: "Recent estimates show 49 millions American make food decisions based on cost."

When I first read this article, I was completely ready to do a quick post on cutting your food bill. The standard, garden, eat fresh foods, stop buying junk food, embrace leftovers, plan your meals, shop sales, use coupons, yadda yadda yadda... but there are plenty of these types of articles out there if you look for them. Instead, I was wondering, "What do you do when you've done all of this, and still can't buy food?" While it talks about the money budget, eating fresh foods involves prep time. If I'm working both a full-time and part-time job, do I have time in the budget to chop up vegetables and make a special run to the farmers market?

With over 45 MILLION Americans currently receiving food assistance (no, that's right, about 15% of the population), there is a substantial portion of the population that just can't find extra money for food. Food banks are finding their budgets slashed from federal grants, and state and local sources. So... where WILL Americans find the money to eat well? Especially since a poor diet is often contributing to the chronic diseases that are inflating health care costs? Answer this question, my friend, and I will personally nominate you for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Meanwhile... if you want to eat more beans to increase your fiber and potassium intake, try my recipe for White Bean Chicken Chili (along with prices):
  • 3 small onions (grown in my garden, bulbs cost 1c/each: $0.03)
  • 4 cups chicken broth (from leftover chicken bones: cost = time)
  • 6 assorted peppers (also grown in garden, with one 50c from farmers market)
  • Half a bag of frozen corn ($1.00 for bag, 50c used)
  • 2 cans of white beans (Great Northern and White Kidney, 60c each)
  • Cumin, tumeric, paprika and other spices from the rack that smell good
  • Half a leftover roasted chicken. ($6.50 in chicken from the free range organic local farmer, but half a grocery store rotisserie chicken will work at $2.50)
  • 2 tomatoes (Grown in garden. If you live in the Midwest in August, at least one of your neighbors is complaining about having too many tomatoes. Steal 2 from them.)

Saute the onions in a little olive oil until they stop making you cry and are a bit translucent. Add chicken broth, diced peppers, frozen corn, beans, and spices. Shread chicken. Add to pot. Let this simmer for 20 minutes. Dice tomatoes. Add, and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Eat. Enjoy.

Cost: $8.73. $4.73 if you go cheaply. The big cost with this is time. Time to shop the farmers market for deals, making giant batches of chicken broth, plan a garden, start seeds, transplant, weed, water, and harvest plants. So, make sure you budget for it.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

It's Cream Puff Day

Today marks the beginning of the Wisconsin State Fair, and the first of 11 days in which I try (desperately) to come up with a good excuse to get to Milwaukee to purchase a dozen Cream Puffs.

Mmm... cream puffs...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Tea Party is no Preston Brooks

No matter how uncivilized we think today's political climate is, no one has risen to Preston Brooks level yet.

Aw yeah... segue to one of my favorite acts in American Congressional history...

Think back to the magical year of 1856. The United States, just five years away from The Civil War, is voting on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This was a battle over the very soul of our country: shall we open new horizons in our country to expand slavery, or shall we attempt to contain slavery to the places where it already is practiced. The act was so divisive, so contentious, that two years later, Stephen Douglas (D-IL), a co-sponsor of the act, would face a daunting re-election campaign against a state legislator and lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Only one of those guys has a PBS American Experience episode with Doris Kearns Goodwin providing commentary.

Yet a verbal showdown against one of the most gifted orators of the 19th Century was preferable in comparison to what happened to the other sponsor. Andrew Butler of South Carolina found himself in a terrible situation. Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) took to the Senate floor, and produced a tirade the likes of which have seldom been equaled, no matter how much Ted Stevens tried. Seeing a favorite uncle so maligned, Butler's nephew, Preston Brooks, decided that the only rational thing to do was to grab his cane and bludgeon Senator Sumner on the floor of the Senate.

This wasn't in the heat of the moment, Representative Brooks sat down with his friends to debate what to do next, and grabbing his cane and assaulting a Senator was the result of this deliberation. He even brought along a fellow South Carolina rep to hold the rest of the Senate at bay with his pistol while he (Brooks) beat Sen. Sumner until his cane broke. Sumner was a man whose opinions of the equality of the races was miles ahead of his time, if you believe this interview with David McCullough on The Colbert Report (about minute 20, before he reads some lyrics from 'Baby Got Back'). Rep. Brooks was fined $300, but his pistol-wielding friend was censured. Senator Sumner, having suffered head trauma, spinal cord injuries, and PTSD could not return to the Senate for three years.

So, no, we're not at the point yet where a Tea Party member calmly and rationally decides to beat a member of the opposition within an inch of life. But I can't say I'd be surprised if it did happen. The difference is that while the Kansas-Nebraska Act literally effected peoples' lives - whether they could live as free men or not - today's debate uses such heightened rhetoric that it elevates mundane things like earmarks for transportation projects to the level of outlawing slavery. God help us if we do have another Preston Brooks over the debt ceiling deal.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Zucchini Season

Right now, the going rate of zucchini at the local farmers market is 3 for $1. Each zucchini is approximately the size of a football, and can feed a family of four for a week and a half. This is a very, very good thing. Sunday dinner has become a gentle saute oof green and yellow zucchini, some home grown tomatoes, and a slight handful of rotini with a dusting of Trader Joe's Organic Vodka Sauce and some shaved Parmesan. Crack open a bottle of chilled Pinot Grigio, and that is summer. Right there.

Found a quick recipe on Eating Well for Tortellini & Zucchini Soup (medium zucchini? What is that?), which sounds like a fabulous way to combine the pasta-zucchini-tomatoe triumvirate in a slightly different way. Need to swing by the local bakery for some crusty bread. Served with a basic salad topped by some cucumbers and olives, and I really have been eating well this summer!

Monday, August 1, 2011

I can feel it coming in the air tonight: It's coal.

Two weeks ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council listed the 20 states with the highest levels of toxic air pollutants. For Midwesterners, the list looks somewhat familiar: 1. Ohio
2. Pennsylvania
6. Indiana
7. Michigan
17. Illinois
18. Wisconsin
20. Iowa

Besides Minnesota, am I missing a Midwestern State? (No, Missouri doesn't count, but they were #16.) The cause that is cited is coal fired power plants.

Coal, burned in the Midwest, while increasingly, the farmland looks more and more like this:

There are detractors who say that the windmills are a blight on the landscape. Um, what exactly are they blocking? More endless sky and flatness? Normally, visiting relatives around the Midwest, there are three of these wind farms that I have to pass through. I cannot remember ever seeing these windmills standing still. Day and night, they are moving, producing power, and the only adverse effect is blocking the horizon and paving some access roads.

Meanwhile, a study at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis... because Indianapolis State University was too long?) on soil samples near coal fired power plants found mercury deposits. With coal, we are poisoning our air, soil, and water. With wind, there's a swooshing sound and the ability to be hypnotized while driving between Rockford and Madison. So why do we still subsidize coal to the tune of $345 billion (according to a Harvard study)? Sure, we get cheap energy, but the cost of that cheap energy is being borne in higher health costs by the entire population, not just those who leave too many lights on around the house.