Archive for the ‘Iowa’ Category

Cedar Rapids follow-up

February 18, 2011

So yesterday I wrote a post about the upcoming moving “Cedar Rapids.” Today’s Cedar Rapids gazette has an article about a local group who won tickets to a sneak preview. Sounds as if the movie got some good laughs and everyone had a good time. And here is the quote of the day: “It was funny–it really was. It made Wisconsin look worse than us.” And there you go. With endorsements like that I’ll admit I didn’t know what I was talking about.

“Cedar Rapids” the Movie

February 17, 2011

So in my last post I made some references to the upcoming release of “Cedar Rapids.” I should clarify that I don’t know that much about the movie and it may well paint Iowa in a good light; I don’t know. But I admit that I’m confused when, say, the editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette entertainment section, who also hasn’t seen the movie, refers to it as an “homage” to Cedar Rapids and how great that will be for our national image. Really? Was “Fargo” an homage to that town?

Even as I ask that question, I know that many of you will say it was in fact an homage. It’s true that the Cohens displayed great affection for the people of Fargo even as they severely ridiculed them. Masters that they are, the Cohens can deftly maneuver that fine line. And maybe this movie will do the same, but I certainly wouldn’t jump to conclusions that this is what the movie is trying to or will do. Rather than an homage, it’s better to think that the location of Cedar Rapids offers the movie-makers something helpful for their plot. And this is a comedy about an earnest but naive man from Wisconsin on his first adventure into “big-city” experiences. So you’ve got to think that the comedic value has to be the irony of “big city” and “cedar rapids,” no? What makes it funny to go to a convention in Cedar Rapids? Maybe our slogan, the City of Five Seasons, is enough (can we please get rid of this city motto–for those of you who don’t know: the fifth season is “the season to enjoy all the others” so it’s all year long. No, I’m serious).

Here’s the thing. I’ve said some less-than-flattering things about Iowa in this space, some of it fair, some of it not. But ultimately I don’t look down on Iowa or Iowans–Cedar Rapids is a good town and I feel good to be here. My heart broke and still breaks for its struggle following the flood. It’s a town filled with big-hearted people who are giving it everything they can to recover. I wish the community well and do what I can to help it along its way. On the other hand, it has always seemed to me that Iowa on the whole is about 20 years behind the rest of the world. Even that doesn’t really bother me. In the right light, this can have its own charm. What ultimately bothers me is that we don’t even see that we’re twenty years behind. If it’s a conscious choice, it may be kitsch but OK, I can live in a world of nostalgia as well as the next person, but if we live with our heads stuck in the sand then the process of recovery is always going to be stuck in the same sand.

Let me give one example (and then I swear this will be the last time I bring this up–or I will try): I’ve written more than my share about the crazy beer/liquor laws we’ve been living under before last year. So what happened during that time was a craft brewing explosion around the country. Now I would have been upset had we been aware of it but chose to not participate in that explosion. But the reality was that people in this state didn’t seem to get that the explosion was even happening, that we were actually losing money to those states around us that carried better beer. During the final debates about the issue, the real fear was that young drinkers would buy higher alcohol beers to get drunk. Proponents of course kept saying, look at other states please. Craft beers are also much more expensive. College kids are not buying these beers. And now we have a more reasonable law and our beer culture can slowly grow. But we’re twenty years behind everyone else. Most national breweries have unfavorable views of Iowa and aren’t too concerned with having us as a market–this will change, but my point is that we now have to sell ourselves to catch up. I say this not to rehash the beer debate but because this is the easiest example I have. We seem to be stuck behind the times in terms of food, movies, coffee, music, etc. And this makes it even harder to draw in businesses, or young professionals, or even keep the youth we have.

I’m looking forward to seeing this movie. And I hope it has some good-natured fun with Iowa. I also hope and trust that the people of Iowa will see it as good-natured. Part of me is skeptical, though, that we’ll necessarily even see what’s funny to people elsewhere. We’re an earnest lot we are. I hope the pundits are right and this movie will bring a little recognition to an area that’s been struggling and could use some help. Of course it won’t help that they had to actually film it in Ann Arbor.

Iowa City is Not Madison

February 14, 2011

Every few months, MB and I feel the need to go somewhere where we can eat and drink better than we do in Iowa, and somewhere where we can wander new neighborhoods or hike new trails–you know, just a different town. The goal is an easily drivable town, one we can easily do for just a few days for a reasonable cost. Fairly frequently–or whenever we’re able, really–we get to Saint Louis or Minneapolis. On occasion, but less frequently (see the comment about affordability) we get to Chicago. The easiest spot, and one that always fits the bill, is Madison. About a 2 1/2 drive, with Dubuque–an interesting river town–bluffs, the potential for a stop at New Glarus, and plenty of rolling farmland all along the way. It makes a great one- or two-night trip.

The last few years we’ve taken a very short mid-winter trip down to Iowa City for my birthday at the end of February, only a half hour away. It’s a nice town, and we love being able to eat a decent meal and then spend the evening at our favorite bar, The Sanctuary, with its nice menu of Belgian and other assorted beers. This year I will be in Africa for my birthday, though. We also just needed to get away, so we spent this last weekend in Madison. Once again I’m reminded of how much I love this small city.

What struck me, though, during this last visit was thinking of how many people in Iowa I’ve heard compare the two towns, Madison and IC. Yes, they are both Big 10 cities with a large midwestern university in the heart of town. But the comparison can go absolutely no further than that. Iowa City is a pleasant enough town, but it really has 3 or 4 good restaurants, the Sanctuary, John’s grocery (one of the better beer suppliers in Iowa), a below mediocre brewpub, and a few nice hiking trails. Yes, many will say, but it has the Iowa Writers Workshop, but I’d rather not get started on that. In general, I find the workshop atmosphere rather pretentious and cliquish (oh my god, there I’ve said it).

Madison, however, has a comparatively amazing array of restaurants (for instance, what a treat to be able to choose between the Tibetan or the Nepali restaurant that are just blocks away). While I love the Sanctuary, it was a real treat to spend the evening in Brasserie V, a real Belgian beer lover’s heaven with some decent food to boot. There’s Steve’s liquors for stocking up on all those beers we can’t get in Iowa (yes, we came home with the car loaded down). There is a fine brewpub, Great Dane, and an excellent brewery, Ale Asylum (they have a tap room, but I’ve yet to make it).  And the trails and lakes and outdoor culture of Madison can’t be beat.  Yes, the real point here is we had a great weekend. But I find myself scratching my head about the people who insist on making the comparison here. I get it that Madison is not only a big-10 university town but also the state capital. So, sure, that affects the culture of Madison so it’s the apples-oranges thing. But even more I wonder, then, why compare them? It makes me think of the recent local commentary about the upcoming movie “Cedar Rapids.” Local politicians are determined to point out how good this will be for our state giving it big-name recognition. An Ed Helms movie about an inept businessman who goes to a convention in Cedar Rapids that was actually filmed in Michigan because our film industry is so appealing? Really? I haven’t seen the movie but I’m not sure it’s going to be good press for Iowa.

I don’t know what my point here is (except maybe to say it’s worth visiting Madison if you haven’t). I’m not trying to downplay Iowa City (I’ve done enough Iowa bashing elsewhere). Maybe it’s just that we’re working hard to be something we’re not. Iowa City isn’t Madison. And Cedar Rapids certainly shouldn’t be hoping for movie recognition. Let’s just do what we do and do it well. So, to that end I’ll point to one positive change from earlier commentaries: now that Iowa has lifted the ban on higher alcohol beers, I’m pleased to say that Iowa now has a first rate beer. Peacetree brewing has shown some promise in early beers, but they are inconsistent and not all that great. But their relatively new Double IPA (which would not have been legal under the old laws) is quite nice. It’s a beer I’m happy to say comes from Iowa. It’s a beer I’ll share with friends from elsewhere. So get a few more good brews in state. Get a few more good restaurants. And then be happy to be small town middle America. A place where we can increasingly know the farmer who grows our food. Where education is valued. And where diversity is supported (oops, maybe I need to rethink that one after we recently voted out the judges who upheld gay rights and gay marriage…. a post for another time).

Iowa Beer Laws

March 9, 2010

News Flash:

Governor Culver will sign the state government reorganization bill, SF 2088, into law, 11:30 a.m on Wednesday March 10.

While this is not the original bill, SF 2091, that was designed specifically to change Iowa’s beer rules, the reorganization bill does include an amendment that raises the limit of alcohol in beer from 5% to 12%. The old limit meant any stronger beer was actually classified as a hard liquor and was distributed through the state. Great breweries such as Founder’s simply haven’t wanted to deal with Iowa at all–this should open the gates up to these breweries. It also levels the playing field for Iowa brewers and allows them to brew more varieties of beers.

A little economic and cultural common sense here.

A pint for all my friends!

The Ark, Part II

August 27, 2009

Just a while a go, I posted some comments about the current deluge. Well, I just drove from Cedar Rapids to Mount Vernon and several streams I cross are now 60 or 70 feet across, some tiny streams are rushing torrents, and the rain keeps coming down. All day, the radar has looked like we’re right at the end of the line of rain, but the line keeps forming. We’re over 7 inches now, and it looks like we could hit 10 by the time it’s all done. As I said, I’m building an ark…

Good Stuff for the 4th

July 8, 2009

MB had friday off work and then she took a vacation day on Monday, so we had a nice four-day weekend together. Friday was a kind of putzy day, painted a bathroom that really needed painting, got the last of the plants in the ground that we’ve been trying to plant for a month or so, drank some good beer (Left Hand Warrior IPA, semi-sweet but a pretty good hop bite at the end) and went out to dinner.

Saturday, our good friends John and Hilary from Minneapolis came to town for the night.  It’s always great to see them. The day was oddly rainy and kind of cool for the 4th of July but it was just right for us. We thought about going down to the I.C. jazz fest but decided we’d rather cook out and hang out with a good bottle of wine (or two) and talk. The weather cleared and it was a beautiful summer evening. Kebobs on the grill with cous-cous, a nice bottle of Chateauneuf-du-pape that John brought, lemon cake and berries, and good conversation late into the evening. Fireworks surrounded us but all at a distance, some lights arcing above the trees, but mostly flashes and lots of noise. Really a perfect 4th for us.

Sunday morning we went for a nice hike on the Sac and Fox trail with J & H, some pretty good birding considering how dense the foliage is now (and John taught me the Common Yellowthroat’s song so that now I can recognize it). After J&H headed up to Minneapolis, MB and I headed down to the Jazz fest. We saw just a bit of Chris Potter. It sounded good, but it was a little more dissonant than we were in the mood for at that point. But the combo of Bill Frisell followed by Dave Holland was brilliant all around.

I have been a long time Frisell fan. Now he’s not exactly what I’d call energizing music (for that, see upcoming comments about Dave Holland or last year’s fest with Bonerama and Medeski, Martin, and Wood). The music is rather hypnotic. It was really perfect for a hot summer afternoon with the sun setting behind him as he worked his loops, and echoes, and delays to sublime effect, circling around themes and teasing them out, easing in to strains of Americana classics and dissolving into some molten psychedelia and back out. As much as I’m a fan of Frisell, though, what really made this show was the cornet of Ron Miles. His sound was absolutely crystalline and fit in with Frisell’s guitar work brilliantly, at times the two of them melding into one distinct sound, at times perfectly complementing and counterpointing.Their version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come” was stunning, fresh and innovative while still carrying the emotional depth of Cooke’s original. As I say, it’s not jump out of your seats music, it’s much more about subtlety and sonic textures and landscapes. Really a lovely, lovely set. Here’s a video I found of Bill with Ron Miles. They didn’t have the sax with them, and this drummer is different (but Tony Scheer was on bass), but I wanted a video that caught Frisell and Miles, so enjoy:

Dave Holland I was not as familiar with. Certainly I know him from his famous work on bass with Miles Davis from the Bitches Brew era and know his name quite well, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. In the end, I think that made it an even better show for me. His band is simply stellar: Robin Eubanks on Trombone, Chris Potter on saxophone, Steve Nelson on Vibes, and Nate Smith on drums. Like Frisell’s set, this was also about exploring sonic landscapes, and they covered a wide range of textures and emotions, all of them were driven by Holland’s stunning basswork. But unlike Frisell, this music was at times jump out of your seats music. They received many long standing ovations throughout the show as the band played with an unbridled passion and energy. Each member of the band is an incredible soloist, but what really moved me was the ensemble work. When all went together, the musical textures created an amazing tapestry of sounds that would almost feel as if it were going to explode, that it would be impossible to pull back together but just at the edge of real chaos Holland would pull them back in.  “Secret Garden” highlighted some great improv solos and numbers like “Lucky Seven” and “Easy Did It” really highlighted the ensemble work. A great, great show. Here’s a clip of “Easy Did It” from last fall, unfortunately a very short clip and they’re really just getting rolling as it ends, but a bit of a sense of what the quintet sound is:

Then, finally, for Monday MB and I went biking along the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. A perfect sunny, warm, breezy day. We got back and made barbecued tempeh on the grill, put it in sandwiches with roasted poblanos and another really nice evening. As I said, the perfect long weekend for us. And we hope you enjoyed your holiday as well.

The Return of Spring Friends

April 27, 2009

It has been slow going, but over the last few days Iowa has started turning green again. More importantly, yesterday and today saw the return of some of our good friends: hummingbirds, orioles, and grosbeaks are now at our feeders again. We’ve also had kinglets, phoebes, and meadowlarks for awhile, and the Goldeneyes have moved through already.  This weekend also saw the return of thunderstorms, tornado sirens, and flash flood watches. Spring is here indeed.

But Cheers to the Iowa Supreme Court!

April 7, 2009

In my last post I suggested that Iowa has a tendency toward policy and law that keeps the state in the nation’s backwaters. I’m not one to tout progress without check; I think we accept the rapid rate of change as an inherent good, despite, for instance, what such progress is doing to our environment. But I think Iowa sometimes takes pride in being behind the curve in many ways. That said, I couldn’t be happier with the Iowa State Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of gay marriage. This is the right decision from many angles and I’m proud to say puts Iowa at the cutting edge for once instead of that rear-view mirror position we too often maintain. But I should point out that this is the ruling of a body entrusted with one obligation: to judge constitutionality.  The “people” of the state and their representatives, though,  are already working on undermining that decision, clamoring for a constitutional amendment. Please, give me a break.

There are three prime arguments against gay marriage:
1. Gay marriage undermines traditional marriage (the so-called “defense of marriage” approach). If this is really the concern, then it seems to me the bigger problem is the preponderance of people who have 3, 4, 5… marriages. If this is really such a concern, why don’t we just deny the rights of marriage to anyone after their first marriage? Wouldn’t that actually make more sense if the goal is to preserve the sanctity of marriage?  Who is more detrimental here, someone who marries and divorces, marries and divorces… or a gay couple in a long-term relationship? The defense of marriage is a disingenuous red herring in this debate.
2. Same-sex marriage some how infringes on the religious freedom of people who have a religious-based objection to it. Talk about having the argument backwards. The whole problem with denying same-sex marriage is that it is exactly a state decision made on a religious tenet. Whether anyone is granted state benefits (visitation rights, taxes, property inheritance, etc) should not be based on a religious belief. This problem doesn’t work in reverse, though: no one who disapproves of marriage will ever be forced to condone (no priest will be forced to perform a gay marriage for instance) or accept such beliefs. I respect everyone’s right to their own belief system. Just keep your church out of my government, please.
3. Same-sex marriage will repel new businesses. This is a fairly important one for Iowa, especially as we discuss recovery from recent floods. But I find it so ironic when we do everything we can to keep new businesses and money away from the state in other ways (hmmm, see the post below).  Seems to me that just as we risk losing some businesses with this ruling, we also open the door for other businesses. The question is really what kind of businesses we want to entice to the state. For me, I’d much rather have tolerant businesses move into the state; it will be better for everyone in the long run anyway.
So, cheers to the supreme court for making the right ruling. Boo to the lawmakers who are already making the move to embroil us in a lengthy and meaningless battle over a state amendment. As much as possible, I believe in direct democracy, but I honestly wonder about putting this decision in the hands of the people: history has shown people to be far too willing to strip populations of equal rights or justice. And that’s what an amendment would amount to here. Get ready, Iowa, it could all get ugly now.

Iowa’s Ridiculous Beer Laws

April 7, 2009

One of my goals over “spring break” (I put in quotes since the week consisted of six inches of snow on saturday, then a week of cold rain and wind and then blizzard warnings the next saturday–it’s cold and windy again today as we head back to class) was to go to Madison or Chicago for some serious beer hunting. At the least, I wanted to cross over into Illinois for some different beers, but alas the week slipped away from me, so I went down to Iowa City for a visit to John’s grocery for some good beer and, as much as I like John’s (it is a fine selection of beer, although I think that many beers stay on the shelf long past their prime), I found myself a bit depressed about it. What I was really in the mood for were some good west coast IPAs or Strong Ales, but really they barely make the shelves here.

The reason? Iowa’s stupid beer regulations. Now, I know plenty of states with silly laws on the books. For instance, when I was tending bar in Vermont, the law was that you could not have more than 16 oz at one person’s disposal. So no pitchers. No shots and a beer.  In fact, the latter meant that the bartender would hold the beer chaser while the patron took the shot and then the bartender could hand them the beer.  It was incredibly stupid since what I really saw was people drinking the end of beers pretty quickly when someone else wanted to buy another round–yes, very effective.  Here in Iowa, the stupid rule is that “beer” is defined as below 5% abv.  Wine is anywhere between 6% and 17% but anything over 5% for beer means that it is a liquor.  This means 25% markup/excise tax and that all higher alcohol beer is distributed by the state (and stored in very improper conditions in most cases) rather than by the private distributors.  In effect what it means is that beer lovers don’t have access to many, many beers that other states do.  Brewpubs can not brew stronger beers; it’s an exception to have a stronger beer brewed rather than a rule as it is in most truly great brewpubs–it’s too expensive.

What’s the effect of all this on the state? We lose income. People like me will gladly drive when we’re able to another state for a beer run. The Des Moines register recently had a fine article citing people who will drive to Michigan for their beer runs. And why is all this?  Supposedly it puts the brakes on binge drinking and underage drinking. Give me a break. Underage drinkers are not interested in higher alcohol specialty beers. These beers are by the nature (without the “help” of the state) expensive; college students and the party drinker is much more concerned with a cheaper beer that they can buy readily enough anyway. According to data from MADD, states with no alcohol by weight restrictions actually have a 6% LOWER RATE of alcohol-related fatalities than the national average. This doesn’t necessarily show  a causal link, but the data refutes the argument that allowing strong beers will increase the number of drinking-related incidents.

As notes, there are important reasons to Lift the Limit:

  • Improved business climate for breweries, brewpubs, wholesale beer distributors and retailers within our state.
  • Allows Iowa breweries and brewpubs to produce a wider variety of beer styles.
  • Increased availability and selection of “gourmet” beers.
  • Reduced prices by eliminating the State Excise Tax (25% price markup).
  • Increased sales — Volume increases in sales of the more expensive gourmet beers. Those who already consume beverages in this category (obviously), but also those who were simply deterred by the excessively high prices. If the price drops by just over 20% (elimination of the liquor excise tax) these beers will be more in line with mainstream beer prices.
  • New customer base, as borderline/occasional buyers of gourmet beers try and buy these beers. Sales of gourmet beers would be expected to increase dramatically.
  • “Fresh” Beer to Go.
  • Better image of Iowa from domestic and foreign visitors.

In my humble opinion, this law is just one more shortsighted policy that helps keep Iowa in the backwaters. If 17% is a reasonable limit for wine, then it’s just as fine for beer (and really, 20% is the virtual limit for beer anyway).  Come on Iowa, there are plenty of people who will gladly put good money into the system if you give them the option; otherwise, they’ll just go elsewhere.

Legion Arts Theft

July 15, 2008

Yesterday was a beautiful summer afternoon, perfect July weather. I took some pictures of our raspberry patch that’s really filling in after 3 years, and our flower gardens that are really coming into full bloom. I had every intention, then, of writing a nice summery post, show off the gardens, describe our wonderful grilled veggie, orzo, feta and herb dinner last night and talk beer. But this morning I read this really distressing news from post-flood world.

I have written quite a few times about Legion Arts in downtown Cedar Rapids, really the best thing going about this town. I had also posted some pictures of the building and was happy to report that the art gallery and performance space on the second floor were basically unharmed by the floods. This included thousands of dollars in sound equipment. If the building is structurally sound (it appears so but the final verdict isn’t in) and electricity can be restored, they could be up and running pretty quickly. The salvage work on the businesses on the first floor, though, apparently left the building unprotected. Yesterday, thieves used a gap where walls had to be torn down to steal $14,000 of sound equipment. Sure, they are insured and will be able to get back on their feet, but this just astounds me. The neighborhood is a complete disaster area and thieves are seeing it as opportunity. Legion Arts has always run on a shoestring and the hard work of countless volunteers. Directors Mel Andringa and John Herbert have put their lives into keeping this place afloat for over 20 years. As the centerpiece of the new Bohemian Arts District, it was the cornerstone of a new vision for Cedar Rapids before the flood and will be the anchor of whatever might come after the flood. And this is what it comes down to.

I’m mad. I’m sad. And I’m a bit scared of what this bodes for the future as these “opportunities” will be here for many months in this city. Right after the flood, the city was shocked by the news that vandals had broken into the children’s zoo in Bever Park and rounded up 50 ducks of a variety of species from the duck pond, herded them into the corner and stoned them to death. It was just stunning to think of what bad can lurk even in the worst of times (you know, when we all point to tragedy as the point when we come together and the good in people shows up). Nothing like kicking people when they’re down. I was happy to see the community response to that event, and hope there is a similar outcry and public assistance for Legion Arts.