Sunday, July 26, 2009

Is this heaven?

No, it’s Iowa

Just before Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), in the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, trotted back into the cornfield for the first time, he turned and asked Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner),“Is this heaven?”, to which Ray answered,“No, it’s Iowa”.

Although there may be folks on the East and West coasts who consider the state simply as a dull place to fly over, Iowa is noteworthy for a number of reasons:

The first presidential primary in the nation

Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, and a number of other famous Americans

Home to “The Bridges of Madison County” (in Winterset)

Home to the REAL “Field of Dreams” (in Dyersville)

Host to the RAGBRAI

In the beginning, when a few friends got together for a casual bike ride across Iowa in 1973, no one imagined that a tradition would be born, let alone that it would become the longest, largest and oldest bicycle touring event in the world.

My kids and I are “bicycle nuts”. All of us own multiple bicycles, and my wife Sharon, after a 20 year absence, recently acquired another bicycle of her own. During the summer months, Kelly earns a living as a bicycle tour guide in downtown Chicago.

As a result, it was inevitable that one of us would eventually decide to tackle the RAGBRAI.

Kelly (who is currently signed up for her second Chicago Marathon) was the first one to go (in 2008), and she had so much fun that she signed up long ago for a return trip in 2009. Now that she has completed her second RAGBRAI, she is determined to participate in the event for the rest of her life.

This year, Kelly and her friends borrowed a 29 foot RV for the trip from her friend Joey, who drove it all the way from California, and they “hired” a driver - her mom.

Joey, Judy, and Gary all came from California, and Sharon, Kelly, Jenny, Ryan, and Brett came from the Chicago area.

Jenny, Ryan, and Kelly are all members of chainlink

On the same day that the 15th stage of the Tour de France was heading uphill through the Alps, and the International Cycling Classic Grand Prix was held in downtown Evanston, my “little girl” hit a blistering 40.1 miles an hour during the “first stage” of RAGBRAI.

Although the route varies slightly from year to year, the RAGBRAI covers approximately 470 miles over 7 days. It's safe to say that the people that sign up for this event know how to "go the distance".

Contrary to what you may think, Iowa is FAR from a flat state. The western portion of the state (due to ancient glaciers) is extremely hilly, and so is the portion immediately west of the Mississippi River.

One of Kelly’s teammates hit 44 miles per hour this year coming into Burlington ..

with his brakes on the whole way.

The last leg of the RAGBRAI is actually the hilliest part of the entire tour.

Although the safety record of the tour has been good through the years, those dangerous hills claimed a victim this year when 69 year old Donald Myers, a professor of engineering management at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, crashed on the last day of the RAGBRAI.

Eight host communities are selected each year – one each for the beginning and ending points, and six overnight stops. RAGBRAI tradition calls for riders to dip their rear wheels in either the Missouri or Big Sioux River at the start of the event, and their front wheels in the Mississippi at its conclusion.

The RAGBRAI is more than just a bike ride. It’s really a celebration of community. That “community” includes not only the 8500 riders from around the world (the 2009 event included folks from South Africa, Scotland, and England) who completed the week-long journey, but also the countless host families scattered along the route.

This year, those host families included people like Bob and Jeanne from Red Oak (owners of the fire pit), Bill and Deb of Indianola (parents of the little twins who drove the riders around in golf carts) and Tom and Alice from Ottumwa (don’t ask their neighbor about the mailbox that Sharon knocked over with the RV), who have a HUGE house and a pond in their back yard.

Along the route, the riders ate lots of homemade pies, had a few cold beers, and (on the third day) marveled at the sight of a field full of hot air balloons (the 40th Community State Bank National Balloon Classic was held this year just east of Indianola).

Since its inception, the RAGBRAI has had some interesting characters, like 83 year old Clarence Pickard of Indianola, who completed the first one riding a used ladies Schwinn bicycle, while wearing long underwear, a long sleeved shirt, long trousers, and a silver pith helmet. In 2007 and 2008, Lance Armstrong and his team, LIVESTRONG, participated in the event, and the team (without Lance) was also here for the 2009 event. Banana man was back again this year, and so were the Elvis impersonators.

This year, five college boys mooned the crowd in Mt. Pleasant, and someplace in the middle of the state, one of this year’s riders got hit by a deer. The bicyclist picked up a few scrapes, but Bambi didn’t fare quite as well.

To bring this story to its conclusion, and in answer to the question, “is this heaven”, all I can add is this:

If you’re a long distance bike touring enthusiast, and you’re in Iowa during RAGBRAI, yes it is.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Are you going to cruise the miracle mile?

When I was in high school, it was impossible to imagine that anyone would want to own, or drive, a car that didn’t have white sidewall tires.

The car that all of us drooled over in high school was the ’57 Chevy, and it looked like THIS with white sidewall tires:

Few of us knew, or cared, when white sidewall tires were first introduced, or by whom, but here’s the answer to that question:

6th April 1934 : The Ford Motor Company becomes one of the first car makers to announce the option for white sidewall tires on its new cars at a cost of $11.25 per set

Billy Joe recognized that fact that white sidewall tires used to be a BIG DEAL, so he included a reference to them in a 1980 song titled “It’s still rock and roll to me”:

What’s the matter with the clothes I’m wearing?
Can’t you tell that your tie’s too wide?
Maybe I should buy some old tab collars?
Welcome back to the age of jive.
Where have you been hidin’ out lately, honey?
You can’t dress trashy till you spend a lot of money.
Everybody’s talkin’ 'bout the new sound
Funny, but its still rock and roll to me

What’s the matter with the car I’m driving?
Can’t you tell that it’s out of style?
Should I get a set of white wall tires?
Are you gonna cruise the miracle mile?

Nowadays you can’t be too sentimental
Your best bet’s a true baby blue continental.

Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk
Its still rock and roll to me

Oh, it doesn’t matter what they say in the papers
'cause its always been the same old scene.
There’s a new band in town
But you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine...
Aimed at your average teen

How about a pair of pink sidewinders
And a bright orange pair of pants?
You could really be a beau brummel baby
If you just give it half a chance.
Don’t waste your money on a new set of speakers,
You get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers.
Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
It’s still rock and roll to me

What’s the matter with the crowd I’m seeing?
Don’t you know that they’re out of touch?
Should I try to be a straight A student?
If you are then you think too much.
Don’t you know about the new fashion honey?
All you need are looks and a whole lotta money.
Its the next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
Its still rock and roll to me

Everybody’s talkin’ bout the new sound
Funny, but its still rock and roll to me


Owning a car equipped with whitewall tires meant that you had to occasionally clean them with either Comet cleanser or Wesley's Bleche White, which (as it turns out) is a VERY harsh chemical.

Although the majority of the cars that I've owned in my lifetime had whitewalls, the truth is that the look is now hopelessly out of style, and you don't need them anymore ...

to cruise the miracle mile.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A tale of two cities - epilogue

I have a friend who works as a parole officer for DuPage County.

In order to protect his privacy, I’ll call him “Officer H”.

Since he has been a parole officer for nearly 25 years, I assumed that he would be a good source of material for a story about crime and punishment.

In brief, this is what he had to offer:

Although his “client base” covers a wide range of ages, the vast majority of them are young males between 16 and 25.

Within that group, 15% are undocumented residents (illegal immigrants), and an astounding 98% of the convictions for drug use are young black males.

In the 16 to 25 age group, fully 50% come from a single parent household, and HALF of the young men arrested already had children of their own.In our general population, 31% of all births are to unmarried mothers. For Hispanic mothers, that percentage increases to 50%, and for young black women, the rate is currently at about 75%.

As you might suspect, my friend’s clients aren’t particularly well educated.

The illegal immigrants from Mexico have achieved, on average, only an 8th grade education. For the “young crooks” who were born here, the average number of years completed is two years of high school.

After their first convictions, it’s as difficult for this group to find gainful employment as it is for a one handed carpenter in Iran. As a result, the recidivism rate is close to 75%, and they turn to gangs for support.

65% of the young men in my friend’s “care” are gang members.

Although I took a criminology course in college (where three murderers were introduced on the first day), I’m not an expert on the best way to treat criminals.

Common sense would seem to tell me that overly severe punishment usually is counter-productive, and that education, above all else, is still the best remedy. When George Ryan was Governor, the Chicago Tribune uncovered the fact that HALF of the people on death row had been wrongfully convicted. Although George Ryan had plenty of faults, and eventually went to prison because of them, the suspension of the death penalty in Illinois was probably his most honorable act as our governor.

Since 1976, the state that has executed the most “criminals” is Texas, and the “Lone Star State” has executed FAR more people than the state that’s in second place, which is Virginia.

The state that has the MOST people on death row is California, but the number of people executed each year in California is actually fairly low.

It has been estimated that it costs the state of California $1 billion dollars to execute FIVE people. In view of the fact that California has a horrific budget deficit, a number of people have advocated that California should drop the death penalty altogether, and reduce sentences to life in prison without parole.

As a country, the United States has an incarceration rate that is the highest in the world. The second place country, China, is FAR behind the U.S.

Due to the fact that we’ve long had a fascination with “the Wild West”, there are still a number of Americans today who still believe that the brand of justice practiced by ”Hanging Judge Roy Bean” (or even “Dirty Harry”) is the best solution, but I’m not convinced that that’s the case.

When Dickens published “A Tale of Two Cities”, he described, in detail, the abuses that were suffered by the French peasants immediately prior to the French Revolution. In brief, listed below are some examples of what the peasants encountered, and WHY they revolted:

Social injustice

Charles Dickens was a champion of the maltreated poor because of the terrible experience when he was forced to work in a factory as a child. His sympathies, however, lie only up to a point with the revolutionaries; he condemns the mob madness which soon sets in. When madmen and -women massacre eleven hundred detainees in one night and hustle back to sharpen their weapons on the grindstone, they display "eyes which any unbrutalized beholder would have given twenty years of life, to petrify with a well-directed gun".
The reader is shown the poor are brutalized in France and England alike. As crime proliferates, the executioner in England is "stringing up long rows of miscellaneous criminals; now hanging housebreaker ... now burning people in the hand" or hanging a broke man for stealing sixpence. In France, a boy is sentenced to have his hands removed and be burned alive, only because he did not kneel down in the rain before a parade of monks passing some fifty meters away. At the lavish residence of Monseigneur, we find "brazen ecclesiastics of the worst world worldly, with sensual eyes, loose tongues, and looser lives ... Military officers destitute of military knowledge ... [and] Doctors who made great fortunes ... for imaginary disorders".[

The Marquis recalls with pleasure the days when his family had the right of life and death over their slaves, "when many such dogs were taken out to be hanged". He won't even allow a widow to put up a board bearing her dead husband’s name, to discern his resting place from all the others. He orders Madame Defarge's sick brother-in-law to heave a cart all day and allay frogs at night to exacerbate the young man's illness and hasten his death.
In England, even banks endorse unbalanced sentences: a man may be condemned to death for nicking a horse or opening a letter. Conditions in the prisons are dreadful. "Most kinds of debauchery and villainy were practiced, and ... dire diseases were bred", sometimes killing the judge before the accused.
So riled is Dickens at the brutality of English law that he depicts some of its punishments with sarcasm: "the whipping-post, another dear old institution, very humanizing and softening to behold in action". He faults the law for not seeking reform: "Whatever is right" is the dictum of the Old Bailey. The gruesome portrayal of quartering highlights its atrocity.
Without entirely forgiving him, Dickens understands that Jerry Cruncher robs graves only in order to feed his son, and reminds the reader that Mr. Lorry is more likely to rebuke Jerry for his humble social status than anything else. Jerry reminds Mr. Lorry that doctors, men of the cloth, undertakers and watchmen are also conspirators in the selling of bodies.
Dickens wants his readers to be careful that the same sort of revolution that so damaged France won't happen in Britain, which (at least at the beginning of the book) is shown to be nearly as unjust as France. But his warning is addressed not to the British lower classes, but to the aristocracy. He repeatedly uses the metaphor of sowing and reaping; if the aristocracy continues to plant the seeds of a revolution through behaving unjustly, they can be certain of harvesting that revolution in time. The lower classes do not have any agency in this metaphor: they simply react to the behavior of the aristocracy. In this sense it can be said that while Dickens sympathizes with the poor, he identifies with the rich: they are the book's audience, its "us" rather than its "them". "Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind".

In general, I would tend to side with the compassionate approach favored by a trio of aging singers that all us know very well.

THIS is what they would have to say:

Slack your rope hangman, slack it for a while
I think I see my father comin' ridin' many a mile
Father have you brought me hope or have you paid my fee
Or have you come to see me hangin' from the gallows tree?

I have not brought you hope, I have not paid your fee
Yes I have come to see you hangin' from the gallows tree.

Slack your rope hangman, slack it for a while
I think I see my mother comin' ridin' many a mile
Mother have you brought me hope or have you paid my fee
Or have you come to see me hangin' from the gallows tree?

I have not brought you hope, I have not paid your fee
Yes I have come to see you hangin' from the gallows tree.

Slack your rope hangman, slack it for a while
I think I see my brother comin' ridin' many a mile
Brother have you brought me hope or have you paid my fee
Or have you come to see me hangin' from the gallows tree?

I have not brought you hope, I have not paid your fee
Yes I have come to see you hangin' from the gallows tree.

Slack your rope hangman, slack it for a while
I think I see my true love comin' riding' many a mile
True love have you brought me hope or have you paid my fee
Or have you come to see me hangin' from the gallows tree?

Yes I have brought you hope, yes I have paid your fee
For I've not come to see you hangin' from the gallows tree.

In closing, I’d like to quote another Dickens character.

THIS is what HE had to say:

“God bless us every one”.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A tale of two cities - part 3

When Dave and Denise got back to their hotel room in Tehran, Dave noticed that he had forgotten his camera in the park.

He quickly returned to the bench where they had been sitting, but the camera was no longer there.

Although they had forever lost the pictures that they had taken with the camera, they eventually purchased a replacement camera, after paying a $100 deductible to their insurance company.

Amjad was not as lucky.

Unknown to him, he had been spotted by a policeman in the park, who reported him to the local authorities.

Since Iran practices Sharia (formal Islamic Law) the teachings of the Holy Book are taken seriously, and his right hand was cut off as just punishment for his transgression. Given the fact that people in Iran can be executed for trying to practice their own religion, his punishment was not considered to be extreme by many people.

Since jobs for one handed carpenters are non-existent in Iran, he and his family now rely on support from family members, but on most days, he and his family are hungry and poorly dressed.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A tale of two cities - part 2

Amjad Latipour was born in Tehran in May of 1983, just a few hours after a young woman named Neda Soltan was born in the same hospital.

His father, Shafiq, was born in 1960, halfway through the reign of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

For most of Shafiq’s youth, economic conditions in Iran were prosperous, and he and his family lived in a comfortable middle class home in Tehran.

On February 11, 1979, his older brother Tahir was riding with some friends near the U.S. Embassy.

Traffic in the area was very slow, and the air conditioning in their car was not working, so they got out of the vehicle to watch the demonstration (later called the Iranian Revolution) that was raging near the embassy.

Suddenly, a shot rang out. In seconds, Tahir was on the ground, mortally wounded.

None of the Iranian revolutionaries took responsibility for his death, and neither did the contingent at the U.S. embassy.

Since the young revolutionary guard no longer allowed public funerals, he was quietly laid to rest in a small plot of land the family owned on the eastern side of the city.

For the last 30 years, Shafiq has never said another word about the incident, but he often finds himself softly sobbing in the middle of the night.

Like his father and his grandfather, Amjad is a carpenter, but current economic conditions in his country have made it difficult to support his family – his wife Dorri, and their infant daughter Farah.

Throughout the Middle East, the unemployment rate is over 13%, twice as high as it is for the rest of the world. In Amjad’s age group, however, the unemployment rate is much higher. Currently at 34%, it is projected to be over 50% in less than two years.

The springtime was a good time for Amjad, since there were a number of projects under development in Tehran at the time, but since the first of June, the jobs have been few and far between.

He’s not sure how he’s going to feed his family, or even how to keep his house.

One day, not long ago, he was on his way home after another fruitless day of looking for work, and he cut through a city park near his home.

As he walked through the park, he noticed a brand new camera bag sitting on a bench, unattended.

He knew that it was wrong to steal, and the punishment prescribed for theft in the Koran (Sura 5.38) was severe, but he was hungry, and he knew that he could sell a good camera on the black market for almost 1,000,000 rial, roughly $100 U.S dollars. In a country where the average annual wage is $2700, his brief stray from the straight and narrow could feed his family for many weeks.

He took a quick, furtive, glance around the park, and without any further hesitation, put the camera in his backpack,

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A tale of two cities - part 1

Dave and Denise Robinson live in Flushing, New York, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. Originally settled by the Dutch in 1645, it is considered to be the most diverse community in the New York City area.

Nancy Reagan, Ronald’s second wife, was born here, and the great “Satchmo”, Louis Armstrong, is buried here.

what a wonderful world

Dave was born On May 7, 1946, and Denise was born on April 1 of 1949. Due to a series of happy coincidences, they both were able to retire early, and now work only on a part time basis to augment their retirement income. And, yes, Denise has heard ALL of the April Fool’s jokes.

Like his father and grandfather, Dave has been an active participant in the stock market, and has done well financially over the years because of his penchant for sound and reasoned research.

Denise was a librarian for a number of years, and now maintains a connection to her old industry through a business that she founded a few years ago.

Dave’s parents, Elaine and Jack, were in their 50’s when the movie, The Graduate, was released, and for the last few decades of their lives delighted in playing the theme song as often as they could:

I've come to look for America

Denise’s younger brother Mark (five years younger) hasn’t been as lucky financially as his older sister. After working for many years at the local Chrysler dealership, he recently became just one of thousands of people nationwide who lost their jobs when Chrysler filed bankruptcy.

He’s not sure how he’s going to feed his family, or even how to keep his house.

Dave and Denise have always loved to travel.

When they were newlyweds, they took a cross country bus trip to Kansas

we've all come to look for America

As they grew older, they took trips to the Azores, Israel, and Ireland, and recently decided to travel to Iran because of their interest in Persian art and rugs.

The Robinsons have always been methodical planners, and are well aware of the risks involved when traveling to Iran. Months ago, they contacted the Swiss consulate in Iran for their advice, and have now been assured of safe passage.

Due to time restraints, they had decided to travel only to the ancient cities of Qum (second holiest city in Iran, and burial site for the lady of Fatima) and Tehran.

Since his old camera was no longer reliable, Dave decided to invest in a brand new Sony Alpha A350 digital camera. Although the camera retails for $589.88, Dave was able to purchase the camera at Costco for slightly more than $500.00.

On their arrival in Qum, they were greeted by members of the Swiss embassy (who were on official business in the city) and enjoyed an educational, and uneventful, stay in the city.

On their third day in the country, they flew to Tehran, and were again greeted by Swiss embassy personnel. Due to heightened security following the recent election in Iran, they weren’t allowed to visit all of the sites that they wanted to, but they were able to see most of the significant ones.

At the end of their first day in Tehran, they sat down on a park bench for a while, and talked about the sites that they had been to.

When they got up to leave, Dave accidentally left his brand new Sony camera sitting on the park bench.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities - prologue

Current world events, as well as recent conversations with a few friends, put the idea for this story in my head.

For no particular reason, A Tale of Two Cities seemed to be the most appropriate title.

For a little variety, my thoughts had been to post the story in a series, and to include an interview at the end in the epilogue section.

Although I originally had read the novel when I was in high school, I’ll have to admit that the passage of more than 40 years has caused the details of my first exposure to the book to dim a bit.

It wasn’t until this morning that I discovered that the novel, originally written by Charles Dickens in 1859, was ALSO issued in installments. The first weekly installment was released on April 30, 1859, and the last (and 31st) was released on November 25 of the same year.

In the case of the novel, the two cities were London and Paris, and the basic theme centered on the treatment of “criminals” just prior to the time of the French revolution.

For literally thousands of years, the debate within societies has been whether crime should be treated harshly or compassionately. Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky actually came up with the idea for a novel titled “Crime and Punishment” in 1865, when he was penniless, and the book was published a year later. However, he was far from the first person to write about the topic

In modern America, the “compassionate” approach has led to misguided outcomes like Willie Horton and Hurricane Carter, and the “tough on crimes” approach has led to such miscarriages of justice as the California “three strikes” law.

You can draw your own conclusions about which approach is the best one to use, but the thoughts presented in parts one, two, and three, and in the epilogue, may provide some useful guidance to you.

Almost exclusively, the characters in the story are fictional, but the dates chosen are all historically significant.

Part one of this journey will take you back in time to the year 1645, and part two will take you back even further.

Let the journey begin.

.. for whenever I am weak, them I am strong ..

The second reading at church on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, taken from 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, ended with the line shown above.

When Pastor Dan started his sermon, he quoted the phrase in the title above, and then used it as a segue to go to the poem that is attached to the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Since its founding, our country has truly been a land of immigrants, many of them coming to America at a time of great peril in their homeland (the Irish during the time of the potato famine, Jews during the early stages of WWII, and Bosnians in the early 1990’s, to name a few).

Ironically, the natives of America (the Indians) were not allowed to vote until 1923, three years after women secured the right to vote.

Based on current demographic trends, it is predicted that by the year 2035, the “minorities” in America will actually be the MAJORITY in this country, which is a strange state of affairs for a lot of Caucasians that I know.

Our strength as a country has always been the fact that we ARE a great melting pot, and the “huddled masses yearning to be free” (who are the “weak” of their homeland), have helped the United States to become the largest economy in the world, as well as a champion of individual rights throughout the world.

When “Lady Liberty” was first unveiled to the public on October 20 of 1886, the statue also functioned as a lighthouse, but was deactivated in 1902.

It was the first lighthouse in the United States to use electricity.

The “Black Tom” explosion of 1916 nearly took the whole thing down.

The design of the statue is actually taken from the ancient Roman goddess Libertas, the goddess of freedom from slavery, oppression, and tyranny.

After 9/11, the statue was closed to the public, but portions were re-opened on August 3, 2004. The crown itself was not open for public viewing until July 4, 2009.

Since the erection of the statute in 1886, there is no recorded history of a marriage proposal taking place inside the statue, but that history changed on July 4 of 2009, when Aaron Weisinger of Danville, California got down on one knee, and proposed to girlfriend Erica Breder (a first generation American).

She said “yes”.

The rest of their story can be found in the July 5, 2009 edition of the Chicago Tribune by typing “statue of liberty” into the search box.

When the World Trade Center was under construction, I had an opportunity to travel to New York, and used the occasion to travel to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Even today, that visit still carries fond memories.

From very humble beginnings, our country now finds itself as the sole remaining “superpower”, as well as the world’s largest economy. In fact, if California were a sovereign nation, it would have the 8th largest economy in the world.

Since this story opened with a Bible verse, it also will close with one, taken from Matthew 5:5:

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.