Living in the Battleground

Did you know Joe the Plumber is running for Congress? He is, and guess what? He’s running in my district.

You remember Joe, aka Samuel Wurzelbacher. He had his 15 or 16 minutes of fame during the last presidential contest in 2008 when he questioned Obama about his tax policy. Back then, like now, Obama was talking about his plan to raise taxes on those making more than $250K a year. Joe didn’t like that. Obama’s opponents, Sen. John McCain and Sarah Palin, made “Joe the Plumber” an example of the hard-working Americans Obama wanted to exploit with his tax plan.

Joe has since written a book and gone on to become a conservative activist and is now, like I said, running for Congress in my district. He’s running against Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democratic incumbent, who is serving her 14th term in the House.

Now, I haven’t been following politics much since our move to Ohio a year ago, but one thing I find interesting is that living in this state, and in our previous state of Iowa, we have been afforded a glimpse into the political machinery of our two-party system. Both states are considered battlegrounds. In Iowa, we had the privilege of caucusing in 2008. That was a memorable and exciting experience. That state is still hotly contested. Media outlets in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, are raking in a lot of money from political ads.

Today, as I drove north from Toledo to Ann Arbor, I saw a billboard that read: “Obama supports Gay Marriage & AbortioGOP billboardn. Do you? Vote Republican” That was the second time in three days I’d seen that billboard. Well, I happen to agree with civil rights and a woman’s right to choose, so I’m not going to vote Republican. But, I liked how it laid out the GOP platform so straightforwardly. It’s so black and white. And so short-sighted.

There is a lot of money being spent in Ohio trying to sway voters to either side. It’s been apparent to me that the Republicans have more money because I’m seeing more ads. During the Olympic coverage on NBC about 3/4 of the ads I saw during the broadcasts I watched were political ads. The Republican ads blasting Obama and trying to unseat Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown were far more numerous than ads against Republican candidates. It was clear to me that the Democrats are being outspent.

All those emails I’m getting from the Obama campaign telling me so were not lying. Democrats are losing the money race. Just like in Wisconsin a few months ago. There, outside Republican money from wealthy donors like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, fueled the effort to defeat the campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker. I have had faith that money could not buy an election. But when Walker retained his seat, I was disheartened. Apparently if voters hear a message often enough, even if the facts are muddled, they will believe the message to be true.

And all that money now — including $10 million from Adelson — is going toward ads, like the billboards I saw around town.

When we lived in San Francisco, we saw a few very interesting political upheavals, including the recall of Gov. Gray Davis that put Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger in the governor’s seat. It was the first successful recall of a California elected official. And it opened up a whole new can of worms for that state. We watched California’s state government take a free fall from dysfunctional to non-functional, and then we packed up and moved to Iowa.

And now, living in the battleground of Ohio, I feel like my vote really counts. My  neighbor, unmoved by neither Obama nor Romney, disclosed she might not vote in this election. I can’t think of a worse outcome than that. And think of all that money wasted!

Transporting Myself

As I’ve moved eastward, I’ve become more suburban. Though I still consider myself a city girl, loving the amenities of urban life, I do admit the suburbs have some benefits, especially when kids are in the picture.

Today I came across a blog dedicated to researching and writing about smart transit. It got me thinking about my own progression from living in San Francisco using mostly my feet, bicycle and relatively reliable public transit for getting around to living in a suburb of a post-industrial Midwestern city where the garage doors go up, the cars go in and the garage doors go down. Now I drive every day. I have to make it a point not to drive to run errands, though it is hard to do when surrounded by sprawl. In San Francisco I rarely left my neighborhood except to go to work.

Coming clean, I don’t do a whole lot of blog surfing. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I do to find some real jewels. This blog, called Progressive Transit, is maintained by an electrical engineer who is passionate about the ways we get around.  He posts this:

Cars do not belong in cities.  A standard American sedan can comfortably hold 4+ adults w/ luggage, can travel in excess of 100 miles per hour, and can travel 300+ miles at a time without stopping to refuel.  These are all great things if you are traveling long distances between cities.  If you are going by yourself to pickup your dry cleaning, then cars are insanely over-engineered for the task.  It’s like hammering in a nail with a diesel-powered pile driver.   To achieve all these feats (high capacity, high speed, and long range driving), cars must be large and powered by fossil fuels.  So when you get a few hundred (or thousand) cars squeezed onto narrow city streets, you are left with snarled traffic and stifling smog.

Before moving to the Midwest in 2006, I walked or rode to the grocery store, local restaurants, bars and coffee shops and even took walks around the neighborhoods I lived in for exercise. I loved being mobile by foot or bike, not dependent on our single car other than for long trips.

When we moved to Iowa I continued to try to walk and ride my bike to run errands as much as possible, but it became more difficult on roads with heavy traffic, no bike lanes or poor or no sidewalks. Car transportation was so dominant, I regularly was the only pedestrian or bicyclist out and about. I tried to commute by bike to work a few times a week and walk to the grocery store when the weather permitted.

Now in Ohio, time transporting myself on my feet or by bike has sharply decreased. My neighborhood is safe, and the neighbors keep to themselves. The schools are good and though most everything we need is within a 10-mile radius, ditching the car has been harder than ever.

Destinations are so spread out here, and the roads aren’t very friendly to non-vehicle traffic. I often felt safer riding through the chaotic streets of San Francisco on my bike than navigating through the suburban sprawl of my town.

But, with everything, one needs balance and compromise. We traded a smaller carbon footprint for good schools, a safe neighborhood and plenty more time in the car. Still, we can work to reduce our impact on the environment, but it’s good to be reminded that I can still try harder to live a life less tied to my car.

Remembering the Caucus

In two days, the Iowa caucuses will convene once more. This time around, voters will come together to stand for their choice in the Republican presidential primary contest and I will remember the thrill of caucusing for my first and only time on a chilly January evening in Des Moines four years ago.

I wrote about it then, in a more personal forum than this blog–an email to friends and family mostly still voting the conventional way of filling in ovals or tapping a touch screen back in California. And, I pulled that old email out to remind myself how exhilarating that process had been for me as I stood with my neighbors in an elementary school gym standing up for my support of Obama. Here it is: democracy in action.

OK, I know you all (ok maybe not all of you, but at least three of you) are chomping at the bit to know all about caucusing in Iowa (Ok maybe not so much chomping as didn’t even think about it), so here’s a little rundown of how it all worked for this first-timer.

First off, I have to say that if you’re gonna be in Iowa, this is hands down the best time to be in Iowa–once every four years during a presidential primary race (or if you just can’t get enough of pork chops on a stick then it’s the Iowa State Fair, also a good reason to be here). The media spectacle in itself is a wonderment.

Since this summer every candidate (some more than others) has made a temporary nest here in central Iowa. Probably every town on the map got at least one visit from a candidate. So that was exciting, mostly that for a change Iowa and Iowans were being paid attention to. I don’t consider myself an Iowan if that’s what you’re thinking, but it was nice to see them getting their shoulders
rubbed by national media and important political people. Anyhoo, the buildup to last night’s caucuses was palpable. I have never physically witnessed so much political activity among normal people. On my street alone, which is a very normal, working class neighborhood, people displayed their political preferences via lawnsigns and bumper stickers for Hillary Clinton, Richardson, Obama and Edwards. And as I drove around town during the last few months I saw every single Dem and GOP candidate
represented on lawns, in windows on bumpers. It was very invigorating for me who enjoys the political process so much to see a community outside the Bay Area come alive with such fervor and diversity of opinion. Not only were people very interested in what was going on, they proudly shared their opinion on candidates with the rest of us. This dialogueing, even if in just the form of a lawn sign, was such a great thing for me to witness here because I’ve been so used to people either not talking about politics
because it’s such a touchy subject or because of a little media theory called the spiral of silence (which I won’t get into, and you can
thank me for that later).

Caucus night capitalized on the people’s ability to share their opinions on candidates in a public forum. At 6 p.m. Kurt and I walked the several blocks to the local elementary school where our precinct was to caucus. After a bit of uncoordinated rigmarole, we were cattle herded with our Democratic precinct mates into this little room where we were supposed to stand with people who are also voting (caucusing) for the same candidate. However, our small room was too small for the 425 Democrats from precinct 46 who showed up (they only expected 300). And the Republicans had a very large room for their 30 or so caucusgoers so we negotiated with them to switch. Look the bipartisanship in action in Iowa!

We are herded into the bigger room and fill it up as well, but not as much and there’s no where to go. So we’re about an hour past caucus starting time and finally the guy in charge (who is wearing an Edwards shirt and getting negative comments from the mutterings of Kurt) tells us we have to get ourselves in order. Kurt and I stand with the Obama folks and the Obama precinct
leaders instruct us to make single file lines and then the first person in each line (that’s me) count the rest and report to a guy walking by with a clipboard. So we did that. Our first count, Obama had 167 people (40 percent of the 425 in the room!) It was already a huge upset victory for the Obama campaign. We didn’t know yet that Obama by this time had already been
declared the winner in Iowa so the energy was still electric in that room. Edwards came in second with 77 or so and Clinton
in third, just barely viable, with 67 or so. (Huge surprise to us). In caucusing for the Democrats, a candidate has to receive I think
about 15 percent of the vote to get anything out of it. The Richardson campaign came just shy of the magic number of viability and Dodd, Biden and Kucinich had much fewer votes. Since those candidates weren’t viable, those who were standing in favor of them and others who were undecided were instructed to move to the groups of other candidates for a final tally of votes.

Some came to Richardson, making him viable, and some came to Edwards, Obama and Clinton. The final count was something like Obama: 175; Edwards 88; Clinton 77; Richardson 65. It was such an exciting process. You could feel the energy in the room. People were truly engaged and excited to be participating. Seeing your vote in this tangible format is incredible because you
can see who is with you and who is not. You can also persuade others to join your team. So instead of going to the polls and wondering who all those people are who voted with you or for an opposing candidate, you can actually see them, and see who is winning and losing. And you can talk to them, shake their hands, call them a sucker, yell at them for making a bad choice,
whatever. It’s a democratic thing and it’s fun!

Another interesting aspect to caucusing was seeing the people who came out to support certain candidates. Obama’s supporters were incredibly diverse. There were people of all colors and ages, many of whom had never caucused before or who had just registered to vote in order to caucus for Obama. It was clear he really had touched a marginalized population, and that was
great to see. Edwards seemed to draw mostly middle aged and older white men, though there were some middle aged white women standing for him. Hillary’s people seemed to be mostly middle aged and older white women, and some men. My grad
school friend who caucused in Ames where Iowa State is said that Hillary attracted a lot of gay men at her precinct. Richardson’s people, like Obama’s, were a pretty diverse set, and I didn’t get to see the Biden, Dodd and Kucinich people (one of the downfalls of being a short person in a crowded auditorium).

Now that the caucus is over and all the candidates and their entourages have left Des Moines, it feels a little empty. No more
political ads to entertain us on TV, no more tank-like media trucks taking up valuable parking spaces and making us feel important. I’m definitely feeling a little abandoned!!

It will be interesting to see how Obama’s momentum continues from his big win in Iowa next week in New Hampshire and then on Feb. 5 and how Hillary’s upset will affect her campaign.

Anyway, thanks for reading. I hope those of you who are in and around the Bay Area/Sacramento
area are doing OK. For a change the weather there is worse than here! It’s supposed to get up to 40
degrees today, I can’t wait. I’ve got to go get my bathing suit 😉

The Endless Winter

Just when I thought I was out….

Winter. I can admit that I didn’t know the extent of it until I moved to Iowa 3.5 years ago. This winter, however, is one for the record books.

So far, Iowa has received 57 inches of snow. This is the snowiest winter on record.

What this means in my world is that the ground has been covered with the frozen white stuff in either snow form or ice form since December. It’s February. I am tired of it. My house is tired of having 3-foot-long icicles hanging from its eaves. My snow shovel is tired of the daily plow. My car is tired of skidding around corners. My heater is tired of warming the house 60 degrees warmer than it is outdoors. And I am tired of being cold and stuck inside.

Some people revel in snow, as I have said before. But I don’t understand these people or where they come from. And I wonder if they experience the same winter I do.

All I know is that I wish Punxsutawney Phil had been a bit braver this year and stayed out of that hole! Or rather, I’d like to climb in with him and wait out the bad weather until spring.

Stay away Terminator

Today, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said out loud what many Californians (and probably a lot of other people around the world) have thought, or maybe didn’t think because why would they: “No matter where you go in the world, people still want to come to California,” Schwarzenegger said. “There’s no one screaming like, ‘I can’t wait to get to Iowa.’ That I can guarantee you. They want to come here to California.”

I had to laugh when I read this because, being from California I would have never considered Iowa a destination. In fact, Iowa never entered my thoughts except when I watched “Field of Dreams.

But now that I live in Iowa, I thought Schwarzenegger’s comment to be offensive and misplaced. There are far worse places than Iowa that get far less tourism and far fewer mentions in national media coverage. He had one thing right: California does attract more tourism. People think of it as a destination. And I, too, would rather spend time sunning on the beach in San Diego or running through Golden Gate Park than battling through another Iowa winter (or summer for that matter).

Iowa has some good things to offer, though. It has the Iowa State Fair, as pointed out in a rather snarky comment by a Des Moines Register reader. It has lots of open space and blue skies most of the time. It has Iowans, who have this remarkable ability to stay in Iowa and survive the winters, and it has lots of pork, if you’re into that.

One thing it does have that California doesn’t, and Schwarzenegger can read this as a direct, in-your-face stab at his policies during his tenure as governor, is a functioning state government. While this year has seen a steep budget cut for Iowa, its legislature and governor are working more or less in union to address the problem. There will be no IOUs. There will be no late budget.

No, the pragmatic and earnest Iowa politicians are aiming to push through the legislative session in record time–just to save the state a bit more money after it reorganizes government and trims the budget. I can’t imagine Schwarzenegger or any of the California state legislators making fixing the state a common goal and actually getting something accomplished.

And that is one good reason to come to Iowa.

Cold Weather Blows

Weather is a frequent topic nowadays. Actually, since we moved to the Midwest three and a half years ago, it has been the foremost topic of conversation. There’s just so much to talk about.

A passing motorist helps push a car out of a snow drift, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009, in Des Moines, Iowa. More than a foot of snow was expected in parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa, where the National Weather Service warned of "extremely dangerous blizzard conditions" and near whiteout driving conditions. Wind gusts of up to 50 mph could build snow drifts between 8 and 15 feet tall. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

I have never lived in a place where weather dictated your life. Coming from San Diego and San Francisco and being used to a constant temperate climate that never kept me indoors for more than a day at a time, moving to a place where the summers are so hot it feels like a sauna during the day and the bugs eat you alive at dusk and where the winters are so cold it’s actually hazardous for your health to be outside was and continues to be a challenge.

I spent the month of December in a town outside Sacramento. When I came back to Iowa, there was about two feet of snow on the ground and the temperatures hovered around zero (without the windchill). It was a shock, to say the least. But the one question that continued to circle in my mind was: How can people still live here?

I’ve discussed in this blog before how some people I know love winter. They love the cold and could not imagine  living in a place that didn’t have a winter.  It is really, really cold here.

Now, if we were a species that hibernates it would be a different matter. I am all for hibernating. In fact, the first year we lived here I practically did—only left the house a few times in three months. Unfortunately, people have to work to earn money to pay their heating bills. This includes me.

Monday through Friday I trudge through the snow, three miles uphill, to work. I brave the ice, the sleet and the sub-zero temperatures. But I, in no way, enjoy it.

People tell me: “Oh, you should take up cross-country skiing,” thinking that would be a good activity to get me out of the house and out of the winter doldrums. My response is always: “But it’s too cold to be outside!”

And then they say: “Oh, you’ll get warm skiing.”

I say: “Yeah right, after my face succumbs to frostbite.”

Mostly, I’m in agreement that the hearty Norwegians and other northern Europeans who settled here are genetically coded to weather this weather. My Mediterranean blood thinks it’s a bunch of hogwash.

Puritanical, indeed!

As I mentioned in a previous post, moving to the Midwest has made me more aware of the religiosity of Iowans. While religion has always been an interesting topic for me–I am a product of mixed religions–living in Iowa has alerted me to the depth to which Americans hold their faith.

The majority of those we have met here use religion as a compass. It is their community, their network, their foundation. To me, this is a revelation. In fact, I have been marvelling at the incredibly large amount of blog traffic I have received from my post related to praying before a triathlon.

So when I come across an Iowan who has as cynical a view on religion as me, I chuckle. And I cling. And I feel more at home.

I came across this blog post, by a University of Iowa professor, who aims to dispel the reality of the omnipresent devil. Here’s an excerpt:

The Puritan ghost believes that the devil is part of the “elect or non-elect” spiritual delivery system. And if you think you can’t argue with that, you’re right. In fact the only way you can win an argument with Puritans is by kicking them out of your country as the British did. And how thankful the Brits continue to feel about their ancestor’s wisdom each and every day.

California Dreamin’

Here I am in California, but it feels like purgatory.

My family and I are here for a month, in and out of the Sacramento-area, while my husband completes a medical school rotation. It’s been about a year since I’ve spent any length of time here, and right now it feels like such a tease.

We left California–the land of our births–more than three years ago. At the time we didn’t know what adventure lay before us as we made our way on Southwest Airlines to Omaha, Neb., and finally to Des Moines, Iowa. We had our twin boys, rapidly approaching their first birthday, and a household full of stuff to fill our new house on a quiet street in the northwest part of the city.

We have had many opportunities to come back to California to visit friends and family, and each time it felt great to come back, feel the sun on my face and enjoy the relative ease of slipping back into my California comfort zone.

This time has been different. It almost pains me to be here. I’d rather stay away and forget it exists for the time being–that time being the remainin year and a half in Iowa and subsequent residency years somewhere else.

I wonder if this is what a caged bird feels like, when seeing the vast space before it, wanting to fly around, perch on a tree over there, bathe in a birdbath over there. Freedom is so close, but unattainable.

So I wonder, how do you continue to forge relationships, build careers, keep on going full speed when you are stuck in a holding pattern?

Fall

There’s one thing that is nice about living in the Midwest when it has to do with weather. The fall. The colors are vibrant, the leaves are falling, there’s a chill in the air, and everything beckons a cup of hot apple cider. Currently we have one bright yellow tree and one flame red bush. The rest of our outside space is covered with leaves.

Covered with leaves.

Perfect for stomping.

Midwest Americana

This week marks the beginning of the annual Iowa State Fair.

This is the Fair of fairs, at least in my mind. Nothing else I have witnessed quite so succinctly captures American culture and spirit. It is a marvel.

First there is the journey to Des Moines’ east side. The east-siders are proud of their fair, and the fair is proud of them. It hosts an East Side night every year, where the fashion du jour is ripped cut-offs and halter tops. Not that this outfit escapes the fair on the other nine days.

When we go to the fair, we park in the residential neighborhood to the west of the fairgrounds. We usually end up walking about five blocks to get to the main gate, and that walk provides us with a good amount of local scenery. Many of the east-siders close to the fairgrounds open up their lawns and yards for fair parking, charging fairgoers on average $5 to park for the day. It’s a bargain.

Once you’ve winded through the streets and arrived at the main fair gate, you pay the entrance fee (or give them your pre-paid discount ticket) and bam, you have entered the Mecca of Iowa summers.

Straight ahead is the main concourse, lined with food concessions as far as the eye can see. It literally stretches for a mile or so straight east. To the right is usually some commercial displays and a path that leads you to a massive display of John Deere farm equipment. Combines, tractors, other doo dads and big thingies I don’t know the names of, stand 10 to 12 feet and look like they would squish you if they could. To the left there are other things, but I never have made it that far. The food stands straight ahead usually get the better of me.

Walking through this main drag, you have your choice of walking tacos, fried Twinkies, Oreos and Snickers bars, frozen lemonade, corn dogs, pretzles, turkey legs, pork chops on a stick, and pretty much anything you can imagine that can be fried and put on a stick. Last year I tried the inaugural edition of the pineapple on a stick, which was deep fried in funnel cake batter, glazed and handed to you for about $4. Yum.

As you navigate through the many culinary delights on either side, you will come across the carnival ride section. The Iowa State Fair boasts a magnificent display of rides, including huge roaring roller coasters, little kiddie rides, bounce houses, super slides and things that go whish, whoosh and wham, tossing your body (strapped to a contraption, of course) through the air, upside down, backwards, sideways and any other way it can go. I seem to avoid this area, mostly because I’m too busy eating.

Once your belly is full, take a rest and grab a seat at one of the many entertainment pavilions, where live music, dancing and other acts are taking place all day. I have seen talent shows, Klezmer music, Karaoke, Choir and a dog show. I also saw Bob the Builder, which, I have to admit was a little scary.

The best part of the fair, though, is the animals. Iowa, of course is known for its dedication to agriculture, and its rich agricultural history. The state fair pays homage to this, and it hosts four animal barns where show animals reside as they wait their turn to be judged. There’s the cattle barn, which is filled with cows and calves of all breeds. Most impressive is the enormous bull, weighing over a ton, that is kept at one end, caged up and surrounded by gawking spectators.

The horse barn is my favorite, because I love horses, and because the horses are pretty accessible. They each have their own stall, and will come over and say hi, let you pet their noses and stroke their manes. Every year there is a showing of Clydesdales, which, in person are larger than any horse you could imagine. The Budweiser commercials do not do these mammoths justice.

The sheep barn is generally a snooze, but I have been intrigued by the sheep shearing contest that happens each year, though have never attended.

The swine barn is also interesting in that it houses the largest single pig I have ever seen or should be allowed to exist. The pig lies on its side, panting, and I watch it, wondering how any animal that should be one-tenth or one-fiftieth this size is able to grow to such immensity.

After all is said and done, it is time to people watch. Any shady spot will do—as temperatures generally hover around the low to mid-90s (plus lots of humidity). People come from all over the state and the country to attend the Iowa State Fair. They come in families, they stay for the week, they come for an hour. They are an attraction in themselves, and my words cannot do the crowd justice in any description. But the fair truly is a people-watcher’s paradise.

This year will be my fourth year attending the fair, and, sadly, I will only be able to go one time. But it will be a guaranteed good time, and will help solidify my Iowa experience.

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