Archive for April, 2011

Interview with the writer Vu Tran

April 27, 2011 1 comment

Vu Tran

I conducted a long interview with the writer Vu Tran last summer in Las Vegas. He is now teaching creative writing at the University of Chicago. Click here to check it out on the Las Vegas Review of Books website.

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A Louis Sullivan design in Algona, Iowa

April 17, 2011 6 comments

Louis Sullivan building in Algona, Iowa.

The famed skyscraper architect Louis Sullivan designed this building in Algona, Iowa. It is known as the Henry Adams Building, or the Land and Loan Office Building. It was designed in 1912 and opened in 1913.

Although it was never a bank, this building is considered to be one of Sullivan’s “Jewel Boxes,” a series of banks built in the Midwest between 1909 and 1919. There are at least two others in Iowa. This building has many windows, drawing natural light into the workplace.

The Algona Chamber of Commerce occupies the building today. When I visited Algona last week, I didn’t get a chance to go inside, but I’ve been promised such a visit in the future. I’m told the interior is very cool.

Sullivan, a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, is the guy who coined the phrase “form follows function.”

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Midwest Adventures #2

April 16, 2011 2 comments

I’ve been in Ames for two weeks now. Although I miss my family terribly, I enjoy living here. Iowa is interesting. It’s not chaotically interesting like Las Vegas, or exotically interesting like some other locales, but I’ve enjoyed learning about the history of certain places and institutions, and about the economic, political and social happenings and trends in this part of the country.

The presidential race is heating up, and Iowa is ground zero at this early stage. The Republican wannabes are showing up for events and hiring people to run their Iowa operations. The Des Moines Register is doing a good job of keeping track of their comings and goings. I’ve been talking with our editor at the Ames Tribune, and I think I’m going to write some columns over the next 18 months or so dissecting the presidential candidates. The Ames Tribune will cover the candidates who come through Ames, of course, but we don’t have the manpower to cover the campaign on a regular or statewide basis. My task will be to offer a, you guessed it, voice of reason, separating the nutjob candidates from those who live within this little realm we like to call reality. Should be fun.

You might have heard that some tornadoes rolled through Iowa last weekend. There were between 10 and 27 of them, depending on how they’re counted. One particularly nasty one destroyed a good portion of a small town called Mapleton, which is about 125 miles west of Ames, and also did some havoc in a small town called Early. (On that day, we didn’t have any notable weather at all in Ames.) Nobody was killed in Mapleton, and the worst injury was a broken leg. Register columnist Kyle Munson summarized the effect on the town: “The tornado decimated Mapleton’s west side but spared most of the homes in the eastern half. Mother Nature remains fickle down to a matter of city blocks.” The tornadoes also caused some damage in other towns and areas north and east of Mapleton. Our company owns the newspaper in Algona, and our publisher there told me a tornado was sighted about three miles outside of town. The tornado sirens sounded for hours in Algona, I guess, which tends to prevent people from getting a good night’s sleep.

Here are other some random items I’ve picked up from my travels and reading:

– The Amish have a pretty healthy population in Iowa (seventh highest among the states). Not in the Ames area, though. They mostly live in southern and eastern Iowa. Only one Iowa county saw an increase in population in the 2010 Census, and it was one (Davis) with a large Amish population. The Amish are, as you might imagine, a rustic lot, with their horses and buggies, and machinery operated without electricity, but they’re an economic engine in places like Davis County. But not from farming. Register writer Mike Kilen writes: “Ninety businesses, selling wares from horse collars to bakery rolls, from harnesses to salvage flim-flam of discount stores, dot the gravel roads between tiny Drakesville and the county seat of Bloomfield, nine miles away. Homemade signs advertising greenhouses and country stores stand on the corner with arrows to direct mostly non-Amish to their stores.” The Amish tend to be good businessmen. They keep their overhead low, and they develop relationships with their customers.

– Iowa newspapers seem to be full of little feature stories about charmingly quirky old people. The Cedar Rapids Gazette published a story about a woman in Traer, Iowa, who collected salt and pepper shakers. Ruth Rasmussen, 87, collected 14,500 sets, which is a lot by any standard. They outgrew her house, so she started keeping them in a “milk shed” and a mobile home in her backyard. She recently sold her collection, for $25,000, to the city of Traer, which set up a public display in hopes of drawing tourists. I find this fascinating, but I don’t have any interest in traveling to Traer to look at the salt and pepper shakers.

– A 90-year-old woman in Clear Lake, Iowa, is still working three days a week making beds at a Best Western. “I need the exercise,” Jean Morris told the Mason City Globe-Gazette. “I need to get out. It’s important. I am not ready to sit in a rocking chair.” I hope there aren’t any 90-year-old ladies making beds in Las Vegas hotels, considering the workload I know is expected of Las Vegas hotel maids.

– Have you watched the eaglets on the web? Millions of people have checked in on the eagle cam here. They’re an Internet sensation, more popular than Charlie Sheen. They’re located in Decorah, in northeast Iowa. If you haven’t checked them out, you might want to do so soon, because eventually they will fly away. The three eaglets are expected to start flying around in July, and they’ll leave home sometime around September.

– Back to Algona, where our company owns the Algona Upper Des Moines. I made a trip up there this week, and I came away with a book (naturally). It’s a self-published, stapled pamphlet really, but the content is incredible. It is titled, “A Collection of Memories of the Algona Prisoner of War Camp 1943-1946,” and it was compiled by Wes H. Bartlett in 1994. Basically, it’s an oral history of memories of people, most of them still living in the area, who had experiences with the POW camp where thousands of Germans and Italians were held and worked in local industries. The big hook to the story is that a group of German prisoners created a half-life-size nativity scene and presented it to the people of Algona at war’s end. The nativity scene still exists and is on display in Algona. The figures are made of plastered concrete over wooden and wire frames. I plan to write a column for the Tribune about this, but I haven’t actually seen the nativity scene in person yet.

Looking back at this post, I realize there isn’t much here about my Midwest adventures. I’ll try to rectify that in my next post, but in the meantime I hope this one offers a little taste of the flavor of life in this part of the world.

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Midwest Adventures #1

I am here. I have been here for two days. Here is Ames, Iowa, in a furnished rental condo formerly occupied by the previous publisher of the local newspaper, the Tribune. Starting tomorrow morning, I am the publisher of the local newspaper.

It took three days to get here from Las Vegas. I drove, obviously. A direct flight is all of three hours. I drove because I need my car and my stuff. All told, including a few minor detours, I traveled 1,645 miles. I took the so-called Southern Route, traversing Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. I did this because my wife was concerned that I might get caught in a dangerous snowstorm in Colorado. Definitely possible this time of year. In any case, I didn’t mind taking the Southern Route, because I’d been on the Northern Route twice in the past few years. Wanted to see something different.

The driving was pretty easy. I enjoyed the use of cruise control much of the time. I made it to Albuquerque the first day — 588 miles. On the second day, I decided to cut a hundred miles or so from my trip by leaving Interstate 40 and instead taking U.S. 54 northeast from Tucumcari. It was two lanes instead of four, and therefore slower going. I had to slow down to 45 through the many farm towns. The driving wasn’t bad, but the scenery was not impressive. I expected more charming small towns, along the lines of classic Route 66, but that’s not what U.S. 54 offers. It was amazingly flat and boring terrain through northeastern New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and western Kansas. The towns were ugly, with no evidence of any efforts to make them aesthetically engaging. Texas and Oklahoma, in particular, were forgettable, and western Kansas wasn’t much better. Not an area of the country I would want to live in.

Things got a little more interesting once I reached Pratt, Kansas. Pratt is an attractive town. The natural terrain also became more varied and interesting once I passed Pratt and cruised in to Wichita, where I stayed the second night. From Wichita to Kansas City, you take toll roads — the Kansas Turnpike system. I ended up paying $8.25 for the privilege, but it was great. The highways were in good shape, and they weren’t busy. Every so often, there is a “service area” along the highway, with a convenience store, gas station and fast-food restaurant. It’s only for motorists on the toll road. I got to KC very quickly. Then pressed on to Ames, arriving in the early evening.

I have spent the past two days unpacking my stuff, putting it in place and buying things I need. I’ve been to Target, Walmart, Kmart, the Hy-Vee supermarket and a few other places to get what I need. I’m all set, I think.

I miss my family. This does not surprise me. I have never lived on my own, really, and only a few times have I been apart from my wife and kids for more than a few days. But I know they are coming to visit in a couple of weeks, and I know they will be moving here with me in late July. I gotta believe I will visit them in Las Vegas sometime in May or June. That will be a long stretch by myself if I don’t.

I traveled to Des Moines today. I checked out the big mall on the west side of the city, and visited three different bookstores (two Barnes and Nobles and a big used place, Half Price Books). The mall is very nice. My wife and younger daughter will like it.

I start work tomorrow, and I know this will be an all-encompassing experience, especially for the first few weeks. It’s a big job, encompassing not only the daily newspaper but a dozen other publications (weeklies and shoppers) in the area as well. There are challenges to deal with right away.


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