corn cribs, beer caves, kids on fire, taxi-leaping

I like a Sunday newspaper. Any local Sunday newspaper. I’m talking about an actual newspaper. A physical, hold-it-in-your-hand, lay-it-on-the-table. turn-the-page newspaper. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about the weight and heft of a Sunday paper.  Every other day of the week I’ll read the news online; I’ll weave my way through a couple dozen different news sources, national and international. But on Sundays, I go traditional.

It’s not entirely the physicality of the local newspaper that draws me. It’s the localness of the news. Since the Des Moines Register is Iowa’s only statewide newspaper, they have local stories from all over the state. Events that are important and/or meaningful to people who live in those communities. Here are some examples (these are all actual headlines and ledes from the first section of the newspaper):

Corncrib-Gazebo gets on neighbors’ nerves
Some residents of Carroll are annoyed when they look into a neighbor’s backyard and see a corncrib that’s been turned into a gazebo.

A neighbor said the gazebo ‘would look nice on an acreage or a farm, but just doesn’t fit the character of the subdivision.’ So he started a petition to have the gazebo removed. The city, however, informed him that the corncrib met municipal building and zoning codes since ‘it’s being used for outdoor entertainment, not to store or dry corn.’ Another neighbor stated the corncrib-gazebo was more attractive “than junk cars or an old boat.”

Better than junk cars or an old boat.

Better than junk cars or an old boat.

Or, as Buckminster Fuller said:

Let architects sing of aesthetics that bring
Rich clients in hordes to their knees.
Just give me a home, in a great circle dome,
Where stresses and strains are at ease.

And then there was this:

More investigation ordered of beer caves
More investigation has been ordered for the 150-year old beer caves recently rediscovered under Interstate Highway 380.

That’s right, beer caves. During the summer, a routine inspection of a highway bridge revealed a small sinkhole nearby. An examination suggested there might be a couple of caves below the highway. Some geologists were called in. Using some sort of imaging device, they found at least 11 caves, and maybe as many as 14. The caves turned out to be storage for the Christian Magnus Eagle Brewery and Bottling Works. Back in the 1850s a pair of German immigrants established the brewery, and at one point were producing around 25,000 bottles of 4.5% beer annually. The brewery was built by Cedar Lake, and during the winter months the brewery workers harvested ice from the lake, which they put in the beer caves where the beer was stored.

Christian Magnus Eagle Brewery and Bottle Works (circa 1870)

Christian Magnus Eagle Brewery and Bottle Works (circa 1870)

The brewery was shut down during Prohibition, and then demolished in 1937. People forgot about the caves, and eventually a highway was built over the area. After the discovery of the caves, the Office of the State Archaeologist was called in to explore them. An archaeologist who went into the caves described them as “impossibly dangerous.” After fifteen minutes in the caves, he returned to the surface with a few photographs. The caves will most likely be filled in to stabilize the highway and bridge.

Beer cave

One of the many beer caves hidden below the highway

In non-beer-related news:

Man catches fire, gets help
Dave Allison heard a boom inside his business’s building. “Then I saw this young kid rolling out on fire.”

Allison said “I just did what anybody would do.” And what, you ask, would anybody do when faced with a kid rolling out on fire? “I took off my coat and went over there and smothered the flames.” Obviously. Who was the kid? What caused the fire? Who knows? But the kid caught on fire and he got help. What more would you want to know? Happily, Allison did not take photos of the flaming kid before helping him. Not every news story has photographs.

Not every story in the first section of the Sunday newspaper was local. The Des Moines Register recognizes that important news takes place outside of Iowa. Which accounts for this (presumably beer-related) story:

Nebraska fan hurt after hurdling Wisconsin taxi
A Nebraska football fan is nursing an injured face after he tried to hurdle a taxi early Saturday.

So the headline is misleading. The Nebraska fan did NOT actually hurdle the taxi. He only made the attempt. I declare, modern journalism is in a sad state. Still, it’s a story worth reporting.

Mr. Bryce Consbruck, 22 years old and apparently a fan of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, was in Madison, Wisconsin to watch his team play against the Wisconsin Badgers. Seriously. Cornhuskers and Badgers are the actual names of two college football teams. At any rate, young Mr. Consbruck decided, at around two o’clock in the morning, to…well, let’s read the newspaper account:

[H]e ran into traffic and tried to leap over the taxi. He missed and hurt his face.

Madison police described Consbruck as “intoxicated.” Quelle surprise! When the police officers spoke to Consbruck, he “responded with a profanity-laced statement expressing his hope that the Cornhuskers would defeat the Badgers.” He also apparently promised not to attempt any taxi-leaping in the future.

Consbruck was cited for (and I swear I am not making this up) Sudden Pedestrian Movement. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment. Also? The Badgers beat the Cornhuskers 59-24, thereby completely ruining young Mr. Consbruck’s weekend.

There you have it. All the news that’s fit to print. I knew you’d want to know.

not a bad job

It’s eight-thirty in the morning. Dense fog and a deep, soaking mist. Cold, and getting colder. I’m walking around with my little Fujifilm X10, shooting manually because the fog and mist completely bitch-slapped the autofocus and light metering. Not many people on the street; not many people are stupid enough to be outside in that weather.

And I see this guy. He’s got a short broom — looks sort of like a modern version of an old-fashioned besom — and a long-handled dustpan. And he’s sweeping up trash off the street. At 0830 hours, in the cold, foggy mist. I shoot a couple of quick frames, thinking to myself “This poor bastard must be miserable.”

kent at work

I keep walking, he keeps looking for trash and sweeping it up. I nod to him and smile and say “You’ve got a cold morning for it.” He smiles and shrugs and says “I don’t mind so much, long as it’s doing this…” and he waves his hand up and down, like a karate chop “…and not doing this.” He waves his hand back and forth like he’s polishing a table. “Yeah, least there’s no wind,” I say.

His name is Kent. He’s been keeping the city streets clean for nearly three years. He says it’s not a bad job. “I like being outside. I get to meet people, walk around, don’t have to stay in one place.” He’s learned which business owners are nice, which ones ignore him like he’s not there, which ones are rude. He won’t identify any of the rude ones.

Kent says there’s about a dozen folks cleaning up the downtown area. He thinks most of his co-workers are pretty good or okay; a couple are lazy and some complain about the weather, but mostly they’re good people. He knows that most of the people he meets on the street don’t appreciate what he does, but he says clean streets sidewalks make the city a better place. He won’t say his job is important, but it’s clear he feels like he’s doing something worthwhile.


We talk for about ten minutes. We could have talked longer, but it’s obvious Kent feels he should get back to work. Sidewalks aren’t going to clean themselves, are they. I ask if I can take his photo. Kent sort of shuffles his feet, but nods. I take the shot, show it to him, and he grins. He tells me to stay safe; I tell him to stay warm. I go back to walking around, shooting photos; he goes back to picking up trash.

When people complain about their taxes — when they talk about cutting taxes and reducing the size of government — they’re talking about folks like Kent. Every single working day, regardless of the weather, this guy is out there making his city a more livable place. He’s making a meaningful contribution to the common good, which is a lot more than most of the folks complaining about their taxes do. Kent might not be comfortable saying his job is important, but it surely is.

And you know what’s really cool? You probably have somebody like Kent working in your city too. These folks don’t just exist in John Prine songs, you know. So take note of the people out there, and be sure to say hello to them.


Last week, rather against my will, I drank a shandy — a Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, to be specific. I’ve never liked the notion of a shandy. In the constellation of flavors, beer and lemonade seems a particularly perverse pairing. But again, last week, in an effort to be polite, I drank a shandy.

And I liked it.

shandyIt’s the fault of a Bavarian named Franz Xaver Kugler — a former railway worker who, for some unknown reason, decided to give up the rails and try his hand at innkeeping. In the early part of the 20th century, Herr Kugler opened a small establishment called the Kugleralm in the village of Deisenhofen, a few miles outside Munich. He appears to have been something of an innovator. Some of his innovations worked, some didn’t. For example, Kugler was an early adopter of a clear lemon soda, buying several thousand bottles, thinking it would be popular among the railway workers. It wasn’t. Those bottles ended up gathering dust and cobwebs in the Kugleralm cellar.

Kugler was more successful in his attempt to cash in on the bicycle craze which swept through post-World War I Germany. He helped create a bicycle path that ran through the forest, from Munich to Deisenhofen (and which, conveniently, passed directly by his inn). Herr Kugler hadn’t counted on the trail being quite so popular, however, and one summer afternoon in 1922 he found himself running short on beer. Out of desperation, he began to mix the beer with the unsellable lemon soda he had stored in his cellar.

The new concoction was different, it was refreshing, it lowered the beer’s alcohol content to the degree that cyclists could drink their fill and not fret about being able to ride without tipping over. Kugler the innovator decided to call the new drink Radlermass (radler meaning ‘cyclist’ in German).

There are LOTS of regional variations on the drink, each with its own regional name, but they’re all basically beer mixed with something like lemonade — which, to my ear, still sounds absolutely horrid. But what can I say? Now there’s a six-pack of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy sitting in the refrigerator (well, to be honest, by now it’s only a two-pack).

I know tap-heads will recoil in horror. Let them. I am (mostly) unashamed. A shandy may not be cool, but it’s cooling, and it’s pleasant to sit outside on a hot afternoon after a bike ride and read a good book and sip on a bottle of good Herr Kugler’s desperate drink. It was made for bicyclists, after all.

love and hope

I’d only walked about five yards into the woods when I saw the grave. I’d left the manicured, family-friendly part of the park and was wading into the scrub to search for morels, but the small grave marker made me pause for a while and reflect — which is, after all, exactly what grave markers are supposed to do.

This was a pet’s grave. A well-loved dog, I assume; it seems likely a person would walk a dog near those woods. The cross at one time had the pet’s name painted on it, but the weather had erased it some time ago. There was also a framed photograph, presumably of the pet, but the sun had bleached it entirely white. Still, a dog seems more probable.

RIP2It’s clearly an illegal grave. The land is public land — just over 1,800 acres owned by the county — and I can’t imagine county officials would allow folks to bury their pets there. Besides, the grave was in the woods, not visible from the part of the park maintained by park personnel. Whoever buried this dog had to bring its body to the woods at a time when he wouldn’t be spotted, carry the body far enough into the woods so the grave site wouldn’t be seen by park rangers, dig the grave, place his friend in it, and cover it up. That’s a lot of work. Whoever buried this dog had to love it enough to put its photograph in a nice cherrywood frame. Whoever buried this dog had to make the grave marker, and paint the dog’s name on it along with the letters RIP. Whoever buried this dog wanted it to rest in peace, under a Christian cross. Whoever buried this dog had to love it a lot.

There’s a sort of defiant audacity inherent in the Christian cross (and I say that as a non-Christian). Turning an instrument of governmental torture into a religious symbol is an act of insurrection. It’s an in-your-face statement of resistance. By co-opting the instrument of torture, Christians were saying to their oppressors “You can kill people, but you can’t kill an idea.” It wasn’t like the symbol of the fish — a secret code to be recognized by other Christians; it was an open display, a message to the Romans that despite the fact that he was tortured and executed, Jesus continued to live through his followers.

jesus livesThe Christian cross doesn’t really mean that anymore — at least not in its common usage. The four crosses in the photograph below, for example, aren’t symbolic instruments of torture. They’re not an expression of religious freedom or a token of a struggle against religious oppression. Those crosses are a simple expression of love and hope — love for the person who died, hope that the person is at peace in the company of their god.

in loving memoryAnd that’s why the cross is appropriate to mark the grave of somebody’s pet. It doesn’t matter that Christian theology denies the existence of a soul in animals. Nor does it matter that Christian orthodoxy says that without a soul, animals can’t be redeemed and thereby enter heaven. The cross over that pet’s grave has nothing to do with theology at all. That cross is an expression of love and hope — love for the dog, hope that it’s at peace, and hope that he’ll somehow be re-united with his friend in a better world.

You don’t have to be a Christian to see and appreciate the beauty in that.

eleven and thirty-three

I had two friends die in the attacks of 9/11. Not close friends, but friends. One was a member of the book club I was in. We met once a month for a couple of years. He was a nice guy, smart and funny, owned a pair of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels that he pampered ridiculously. I only saw him once outside of the book club — in a bar on the Upper West Side. He was with friends and I was with friends, so we just chatted briefly and that was it. He worked in the South Tower. Later I learned he’d called his sister from the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor to tell her they were evacuating his office as a precaution after the North Tower was hit. That’s about where the second plane hit. We figure he died immediately. Nearly a year he was officially identified as a victim. Basically that means they found some bit of flesh which they matched to his DNA.

My other friend was somebody I knew from graduate school in Washington, DC. We’d worked together briefly in the Social Science Research Lab. He’d taken a job as some sort of analyst for a research firm in New York City. His office was a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. We assume he left his office and went down to the scene to see what was happening, but that’s just a guess. All we know is he went to work that morning and sometime later his body was identified. He was probably killed by falling debris.

I’d moved from Manhattan a few months before that September. I’ve always felt like I should have been there, which is totally irrational and completely stupid. But there it is. Every September 11th since then I’ve felt a sense of loss — but I’ve also had this uncomfortable feeling that I should feel that loss more. That I should feel the loss deeper. I’ve felt that every September 11th until this year. This year is different.

Every morning, after coffee and a glance out the window, I turn on the computer to check the news. Every morning. I never used to do that. That changed on 9/11/2001. I didn’t know about the World Trade Center until a friend called to tell me about it. I turned on the television about five minutes before the second aircraft struck. So now, every single morning, I check the news.

Yesterday morning, tucked away in my email I saw this subject line: [New Post] thirty-three.

My friend Jamelah had her birthday yesterday. She turned 33. Every year on her birthday she writes a sort of summary of the preceding year — things that happened, things she’s learned, things that went well and things that didn’t, things she did or maybe didn’t do. And she posts a self-portrait.

So yesterday morning after I checked the news. I read Jamelah’s birthday post. And it reminded me that even when horrible things are happening over here, there are wonderful things happening over there. And that sense of loss I usually feel on 9/11 — I didn’t feel it yesterday. Wherever I went yesterday, I saw flags flying at half-mast, and of course that reminded me of the tragedy. But it also reminded me that it was Jamelah’s birthday, and that’s a sweet thought.

I usually chat online with Jamelah for an hour or so (with the emphasis on ‘or so’) every couple of weeks. I’m sure sharing a birthday with a national tragedy must be a massive pain in the ass for her, but yesterday I was glad for it. I’ve got two friends who died eleven years ago yesterday — but I’ve also got a friend who is alive today and given a choice between mourning and celebrating, I’ve got to go with celebrating.

So happy birthday Jamelah. I’ll chat with you in a week or so.

buying cheerios gets complicated

I put the camera away just before the police arrived.

I was just riding my bike to the market to buy some Cheerios, after all. My route took me by the former mobile home court. It’s ‘former’ because two years ago, this entire area was under two-to-three feet of water. The nearby creek had flooded for the second time in a couple years (each flood was consider a ‘once in a century’ event). I’ve written about the creek and the flood before. The people who lived in the mobile home court were evacuated, and eventually the entire area was condemned. The city bought the property, relocated the residents, set up some barricades and for a year and a half the mobile homes were inhabited primarily by sparrows. feral cats, and spiders.

After a year or so, the city sent in demolition crews and the mobile homes were reduced to trailer-sized piles of scrap metal and junk. The remains of the homes was hauled away, then other crews arrived and tided up the smaller scraps of metal and broken glass and scatterings of plastic.

And then…nothing. The weeds grew, the barricades were knocked over, there were fewer feral cats, but more deer and the occasional fox.

Yesterday, as I rode to the market, I noticed that the old barricades were gone and a fence with gates had been installed. There was a sign on the gate, and I assumed it was a No Trespassing sign. It was just a warning that dumping was illegal. The gate was cracked open. Just wide enough for a curious person on a bike to ride through.

I’m a curious person. I rode through.

It’s quiet; very little road noise after you’re in a hundred yards or so. It would be incorrect to suggest the area is beginning to look park-like. It looks more like a neglected yard behind a barn — only with a road running through it. It’s not particularly photogenic. But I’m playing with a new camera, so I shot a few frames. Then put the camera away and headed back for the gate.

And that’s when the police arrived. A squad car parked just outside the gates. I figured I was about to get a lecture about trespassing, but when the bald, bullet-headed officer stepped out of the squad car the first thing he said was “What’s up?” I told him I saw the gate was open and since there wasn’t any No Trespassing sign, I rode in and took a few photographs. He asked to see them. I asked why he wanted to see them. He gave me the standard ‘if you haven’t done anything wrong’ speech. I told him there was a principle involved.

I’ve been around the block a few times. One thing I’ve learned is that unnecessarily antagonizing a police officer is a mug’s game. I was willing to get into a pissing contest if it was necessary, but I’d rather avoid a situation where it becomes necessary. So I offered the officer a deal. “If you acknowledge you have no legal right to see the photos, and that I have no legal obligation to show them to you, then I’ll show them to you.” He seemed to find that amusing, but he agreed. He actually said it out loud; “I have no legal right to see your pictures and you have no legal duty to show them to me.” So I showed them to him. There were only seven of them.

After he’d looked at the photos, I asked if I could photograph him. He said “I can’t stop you, but I’d rather you didn’t.” So I didn’t. He got back in his car and drove off.

I got back on my bike and continued to the market. Bought some albacore tuna, a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, a couple of apples, and a pint of Red Velvet Cake ice cream.

limits of free speech

As I’ve said before, I’m pretty close to being a free speech absolutist. I’ve defended racist speech, hateful speech, misogynistic speech, ugly speech of every sort. I may not like it, but I defend a person’s right to say it. Most of my friends know this, so I routinely get email from folks with links to free speech issues.

Today I received a few emails referring to the Gary Stein case, one of which linked to a Gawker post that included this cartoon:

The case involves 26 year old Marine Corps Sergeant Gary Stein, a nine-year veteran. Stein made several disparaging remarks about President Obama on his Facebook page. He called the president “a coward,” he referred to him as an “economic and religious enemy,” he vowed he would never salute him and stated he wouldn’t follow his orders (which he later amended to say he wouldn’t follow “illegal orders”).

I completely support Stein’s right to have those opinions and to voice them as a private citizen. But here’s the problem. He’s not a private citizen. He’s a member of the United States Marines and however much he hates it, Barack Obama is his Commander in Chief. As a Marine, Sgt. Stein’s behavior is ruled by the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, not by the laws that pertain to ordinary citizens. Article 134 of the UCMJ says this:

[A]ll disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces, and crimes and offenses not capital, of which persons subject to this chapter may be guilty, shall be taken cognizance of by a general, special, or summary court-martial, according to the nature and degree of the offense, and shall be punished at the discretion of that court.

Insulting the Commander in Chief has always been considered conduct that brings ‘discredit upon the armed forces’ and detrimental to the ‘good order and discipline of the armed forces.’ Sgt. Stein could have been subject to a court-martial and, if found guilty, given a dishonorable discharge. Instead, he was given an administrative hearing and a three judge panel recommended he be given an administrative discharge.

I think that’s appropriate. Stein had served long enough to be familiar with the rules of conduct. He should have known better. It’s not uncommon for military personnel to talk trash about their superiors (hell, it’s almost mandatory), but it’s one thing to talk trash with your buddies in private and it’s altogether another thing to post comments on public social media.

The Gawker piece concludes: “However outraged you would have been had an Iraq war veteran Marine been dismissed for saying something bad about George W. Bush on Facebook, that’s how outraged you should be now.” I agree with that completely. When Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Butler called President Bush “contemptible and sleazy” and suggested the invasion of Iraq took place because the “economy was sliding into the usual Republican pits and he needed something on which to hang his presidency” (sentiments I happen to agree with), I believe the Air Force did the right thing in booting his ass out. Active duty military personnel DO NOT insult the Commander in Chief, no matter how passionately they may dislike him.

One of the reasons I always say I’m close to being a free speech absolutist is because there are situations like this. Being a member of the military carries some extra burdens, one of which is you can’t always speak your mind.

No–that’s not true. You can still speak your mind. You just have to accept the consequences. For Gary Stein, that meant being discharged from the Marine Corps.

But don’t feel too badly for him. His disrespect for the Commander in Chief may have ended his military career, but it’s kickstarted his career as a radio talk show host. Is anybody surprised to learn Citizen Gary Stein has been given a radio show?