Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Flannery O'Connor and Iowa City as a City of Literature

I'm planning to do an interview with Brad Gooch and a review of his new biography, "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor," in time for his March 5 reading at Prairie Lights.

I've been thinking that his reading might be as good a time as any for talking about how Iowa City should make use of its City of Literature designation. There are two chapters on O'Connor's time in Iowa City -- as well as two photos that I'm going to reproduce. But I'm struggling with how Iowa City can lay claim to O'Connor as a figure. Sure, her MFA thesis is in UI Special Collections, and sure we can mark the homes she lived here -- maybe even put up a marker on the exact spot in which Paul Engle had his little talk with her about the inaccuracy of her sex scenes. But we can't claim her in the same way that Milledgeville and Savannah can.

So, what claim can Iowa City make on her legacy? Other than celebrate O'Connor as an early writer who helped make the Workshop famous, what should a City of Literature Cultural Development Director (or Writer University Liaison or Iowa City Cultural Entrepreneur) be doing to build on (or even monetize) the city's connections to writers like O'Connor? How should UI Press be brought in? How should Prairie Lights be brought in? How should current Workshop faculty or the English Department be brought in? How should city governments be brought in?

I'd love to print some guest columns (up to 700 words) -- or even some shorter letters -- that would offer some possible answers to these and other questions. And if I could get responses by 9 a.m., Monday, March 2, I could put them on the same March 4 page with the Gooch interview and review.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Iowa City in Literature: “24,” “The Simpsons” and Richard Yates’ “Easter Parade”

The Press-Citizen was filled a few weeks ago with news that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop had made it into the pop cultural prime time – suggesting that being continuously hailed as the nation’s best MFA program and being recently recognized as an UNESCO City of Literature weren’t low enough cultural accomplishments to matter to the average newspaper reader.

The first recent pop cultural nod was the news that the FOX TV show “24” features the character Ethan Kanin, named after Ethan Canin, a Workshop professor and author of “America, America” (“Canin finds place on '24' show,” Jan. 19) . The second came when “The Simpsons” offered a short shout out to the Workshop in an episode in which Lisa and her newest best friend wrote a “Chronicles of Narnia” spoof called “Equalia.” Lisa’s co-author described the novel as, “An ambitious first novel by the two brightest young writers this side of the Iowa Writers' Workshop” (“Iowa Writers’ Workshop gets mention on ‘The Simpsons,’” Jan. 26).

Neither reference is particularly surprising. Canin, who has a memorable name, is friends with some of the producers and writers for “24.” About the only deeper question to ask was why they decided to change the first letter of his last name from a C to a K. The “24” connection, in fact, is far less impressive than how Canin already has had several of his novels and stories adapted for either the silver or the small screen, including: “The Year of Getting to Know Us” (2008), “Beautiful Ohio” (2006), “The Emperor's Club” (2002), “Emperor of the Air” (1996) and “Blue River” (1995).

And “The Simpsons” … well … it’s surprising that the Workshop hadn’t yet been mentioned in swirl of low-, middle- and high-brow cultural references tossed out scatter-shot over the past two decades. I can’t imagine anyone would be surprised to learn that some of the show’s writers had applied – and been turned down – for the Workshop. It wouldn’t even be surprising to learn that the writers were Workshop graduates who haven’t been able to find other work.

No, neither a character’s homonymic relationship to a creative writing professor nor a throwaway line on a comedy show convey much information about the Workshop and its host city. All such references prove is that, when comedy writers need to think of bright and ambitious writing, they think that everyone will think of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Readers looking for more substantial – and highly critical – fictional descriptions of Iowa City have a number of books to choose from. Back in 1991, Earl Rogers wrote up a long list of fiction set in Iowa City, which now is available online at www.lib.uiowa.edu/spec-coll/Bai/rogers.htm. The Web site notes that the list has been updated as recently as May 2008, but it doesn’t include many more recent works, such as:

*Workshop grad Steven Rineheart’s “Built in a Day” (2003), which Rineheart originally wanted to set in New Paltz, N.Y., but figured that would give his anti-hero too much access to a major metropolitan area;

* former Iowa City Councilor Larry Baker’s “Athens, America” (2005), a must-read for anyone everyone interested in Iowa City politics;

* former Press-Citizen staffer Mary Ann Madden’s “A Campus Death” (2008), which tries very hard but ultimately fails to recapture Iowa City in the 1970s; and

* Workshop grad Steven Lovely’s “Irreplaceable” (2009), a heart transplant novel that alternates between Chicago and the fictional Athens, Iowa.

Rogers’ list does include the book with the most scathing fictional description of the Workshop I’ve yet read: Richard Yates’ “Easter Parade” (1976). Yates, who died in 1992, had his share of success as a writer. He was a finalist for the National Book Award for his first novel, “Revolutionary Road” (1961), which has just been adapted into the wonderfully Oscar-nomination-denied film of the same name. And he parlayed his success into teaching gigs at Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, Boston University, Wichita State University, the University of Southern California and, of course, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But his descriptions of Iowa City – printed years after he taught here – transfers his own experience as a fiction writer into that of a middle-aged poet, Jack Flanders, who is shacking up with Yates' main character, Emily Grimes.

After arriving in Iowa City in the second chapter of Part Two, Jack says of his Workshop colleagues, “I don’t mean to depart from my customary boyish modesty, baby, … but I happen to be the best poet they’ve got out here. Maybe the only one. Jesus, you ought to meet these other clowns – you ought to read them.”

The sentiments help define the character of Jack, one of the many less-than-perfect men who become involved with Emily over the course of this short novel. He describes one colleague as, “okay, I guess. He wrote some good stuff twenty years ago, but he’s washed up now.” But such a description ends up falling back on Jack, whose fourth book is every bit as bad as it fears it is.

Yet the criticism of the Midwest doesn’t just come from Jack; it also comes from Emily and the omniscient narrator himself. The chapter begins, “Iowa City was a pleasant town, built in the shadow of the university along a slow river.” Even though Emily comes to appreciate some of the bucolic scenery, she can’t think of any positive comments when she tries to write a magazine piece on “A New Yorker Discovers the Middle West.” Once she finally settles in, she writes, “Was it any wonder that all the famous writers born in the Middle West had fled it as soon as they could? Or they might indulge themselves in sad rhapsodies about it afterward, but that was only nostalgia; you never heard of them going back there to live.”

And the petty bickering that Jack both disdains and participates in doesn’t seem too far off the mark from the drunken, real life teacher-student exchanges Blake Bailey describes in his biography, “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates” (2003).

Yates’ bitterness over his experience in shadowy Iowa City thus becomes a necessary part of an amazingly condensed novel in which he narrates 30 years of Emily Grimes’ life in a mere 220 pages – and manages to do so without skimping on any of the important details. The result is a very un-Workshop-like novel – one that tells a story as simply and as quickly as possible.

As a cultural event, the Iowa City chapters in Yates novel are not quite on par with, say, “24” naming a character Richard Yatezz or with Lisa Simpson working in clever paraphrase of Esther Grimes’ final line, “And do you know a funny thing? I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.” But in just a few pages, Yates simultaneously invokes the obviousness and the preposterousness of Iowa City being hailed by UNESCO as an International City of Literature.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The debate over Roosevelt school

Recently University of Iowa officials acknowledged that they have a series of problems communicating with the public. Their answer was to create a new high-salary position — vice president of strategic communications — and then to hire to consultants to work until that position is filled. My answer is to have them just speak more plainly, be more forthright and provide the public information that people ask for.

After many conversations about the Iowa City School Board's facilities plan, I'm starting to see a few similarities in the way that school officials are responding to some of the questions. Because I definitely don’t want the district to have to hire high-priced help to craft their message, I'd like to submit the following as an example of how I think the district should respond to the many good questions raised by the guest columnists in tomorrow's (Saturday's) Opinion Forum.

Here's an example of what I wish they’d say:

The Press-Citizen Editorial Board is right: the Iowa City School Board’s plan is to close Roosevelt. Any talk about “replacing” the school or “relocating” it to Camp Cardinal Boulevard has been deliberate message crafting.

So let’s say it plainly and not get hung up on semantics: Because of Roosevelt’s condition and limitations, it is not a building that the district should invest in right now. But let’s also say plainly that we are convinced that changing the attendance areas and opening a new school will help right the "wrong" of busing low-income students past Horn for more than three decades.

Yes, it’s somewhat is duplicitous for us to say we are closing Roosevelt because it has too many poor kids. After all, our district policies are partially responsible for creating those conditions. It’s important that we own up to our part in those bad policies before we explain how the new plan would make the situation more equitable for all west-side schools.

But unfortunately the fervor over Roosevelt — a decision that is years down the road — is being fueled by concerns for the long-term plans for other facilities, namely Longfellow and Mann. As a result, too much time and attention is being taken away from the most pressing issue facing the district: Because of state budget cuts and declining revenues, Iowa City area schools are facing a budget crisis that is daunting at a time of continued growth.

It’s important for everyone to remember that school funding is always based on the student numbers from the year before. That may make sense for the districts in the state that have a steady enrollment. But districts experiencing growth — especially those growing as quickly as we are — are always stretching dollars to make funding based on last year’s numbers work for this year’s students.

To break even with where we were last year, the district would have to cut nearly $1 million from our current year budget, which ends June 30. That simply isn’t possible, and it probably means we will have to dip into an already very low reserve fund.

For next year, we are looking at having to possibly cut $6.8 million from the budget. That’s not just a “tightening of the belt” cut. It means many hard decisions about our general fund dollars will have to be made and made quickly (the PPEL and SILO funds will remain stable in comparison). It could mean increasing property taxes, bigger class sizes, bell schedule changes, less extra services and even staff cuts — which we all pray won’t happen.

Amid these hard short-term decisions, we also need to decide how to redistrict the high school attendance areas before we run out of room at West High in 2012. Unfortunately, given the state budget situation, we don’t have anywhere near the money needed to build and to staff another secondary building.

None of these questions have easy answers. They all require a complicated balance between addressing the needs of individual schools and making decisions that are in the best interest of the district as a whole. It is always easy to come up with answers when you are concerned and focused on your own children; it really is much more difficult when you have to keep your focus on what is best for all of the children.

In order for you to trust us to make those decisions, we need to make sure that your concerns are being heard and addressed. Please read through the plans on the district Web site and share your thoughts at one or both of the public forums on the proposed changes to elementary school boundaries: 7 p.m., March 2 at West High, and 10 a.m., March 7, at Northwest Junior High.

The above statement wouldn’t alleviate everyone’s concerns — nor would it make the Roosevelt community feel any better about the decision to close the school. But at least it would set the tone for a candid conversation about some very hard decisions that need to be made soon.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It’s the closing, not relocation, of Roosevelt

There's been some concern that this "Our View" focuses too much on what amounts to a semantic difference. But I think it's important to call public officials whenever they try to minimize the impact of their decisions through euphemisms.

The sometimes passionate discussions about the Iowa City School Board’s Strategic Facilities Improvement Plan have brought up a number of important questions the Iowa City area needs to address as community:

* What is the value of maintaining a “neighborhood school” philosophy?

* What constitutes a “neighborhood school”? Is it geographic proximity alone? Can a school still be described as a “neighborhood school” when a large portion of students are bused in from homes that are geographically closer to other schools?

* How big is too big for an elementary school?

* How committed should the district be to keep existing facilities functioning as long as possible? At what point it is in the district’s best interest to tear down an existing facility and to rebuild it somewhere else?

* How well is the school board living up to the promises made before the 2007 SILO vote?

* And how might the decisions facing today’s school board bind the hands of future school boards?

The facilities plan (which can be viewed at www.iowa-city.k12.ia.us/district/SFIP.html) already has inspired a number of critiques from Press-Citizen readers. Those critiques have focused both on what’s not included in the plan — no major upgrades to district’s oldest schools and no clear plan on how the district should move forward to alleviate high school over-crowding — as well as on one major component included in the plan: Closing Roosevelt.

Over the next few weeks, the Opinion page will include many more letters and columns attempting to answer the questions raised in these critiques. But to aid that discussion, we think it’s important to clear up some of the language used to describe what’s being proposed for Roosevelt elementary.

Even though school officials would prefer everyone use phrases like “replacing Roosevelt” or “constructing a new Roosevelt,” it’s more accurate to say that the proposal amounts to “closing” Roosevelt.

The facilities plan suggests:

* Decommissioning Roosevelt’s existing building (to be sold or used for another purpose),

* Constructing a new Roosevelt building along Camp Cardinal Boulevard,

* Expanding Horn from 280 to 400 students and

* Redrawing all the boundaries among all westside elementaries.

School officials say that the plan is a better deal financially than other options — such as expanding Horn while either fixing Roosevelt or rebuilding it on its present site — because the district will need to construct a new school at The Crossing regardless of what happens with the other schools. While the proposed plan would cost about $13.8 million, remodeling Roosevelt and constructing a new school at the Crossings would cost about $16.6 million — and it would cost millions more for the district to tear down Roosevelt, to lease a facility for a year or two and then to construct a new Roosevelt on the Benton Street site.

Even as school officials try to discuss the different options, they often trip over how to refer to the different Roosevelts being proposed: the “existing Roosevelt,” the “new Roosevelt at the Crossing” or the “rebuilt Roosevelt.” Their semantic and linguistic awkwardness all seems an elaborate way to avoid saying what the proposed plan actually means: The district needs to close Roosevelt and to build a new school in a new neighborhood that will bear no relation to the existing Roosevelt, even if some Roosevelt staff members and students relocate to the new school.

The Press-Citizen Editorial Board is making plans to speak with district officials next week to discuss how their plans would affect busing, school size and other features of “neighborhood schools.” And it may be that, after more community discussions, the proposed plan turns out to be the best option for helping the district:

* Address the infrastructure needs of an aging facility,

* Respond to the continued growth on Iowa City’s west side and

* Ensure the racial and socioeconomic diversity of all west side elementaries.

But school officials are not being honest — neither with themselves nor with the community — when they pretend their proposal is anything other than an outright closing of Roosevelt. If school officials decide to move forward with this plan, they’ll need to stop insulting the intelligence of the Roosevelt community.

Their first step should be to own up to the implications of their plan and to start calling the new school at The Crossing something other than “the new Roosevelt.”

Iowa should fill senate seats by special election

Here's the Feb. 18 "Our View" ...

Last year’s election of two sitting senators to president and vice president — along with the appointment of senators to become secretary of state and secretary of the interior — hasn’t led to any real “good” examples of why governors should retain the authority to appoint U.S. senators. The situation instead has offered a “bad” example (in New York Gov. David Patterson’s efforts to replace Hillary Clinton) and a blatantly “ugly” example (in former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s efforts to replace Barack Obama).

Even the now moot negotiations over the non-appointment of Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to secretary of commerce shows how much wheeling and dealing can be done to ensure that new senator is of the right party (different than the governor’s in Gregg’s case) and of the right duration (not willing to seek re-election).

Considering that the average age for a U.S. senator is 62 — Iowa’s Chuck Grassley is 75, and Tom Harkin is 69 — it’s easy to understand why 55-year-old Sen. Russ Feingold has proposed a Constitutional amendment calling all states to follow the example of Wisconsin by filling vacated senate positions by special election rather than by gubernatorial appointment. Although elections don’t always provide a clear winner — just look at what’s happening in Minnesota between Norm Coleman and Al Franken — they do offer more legitimacy than the mere whim of a state’s chief executive.

We support Feingold in concept, but we can’t agree with his call for a Constitutional amendment.

That’s why we hope that House File 200, which was introduced by Democrat Rep. Mark Kuhn of Charles City, gets more than mere lip service from the Iowa Legislature. Yes, to hold a special election for a vacated senate seat could cost the state as much as $1 million, but it’s a necessary price to ensure that Iowa senators don’t require any asterisk next to their names. And, considering that it’s been more than seven decades since the state had a vacated senate seat, it’s not an expense that occurs very often.

If other states want to continue to use gubernatorial appointment as the means for choosing their representative in the upper house of Congress, then that’s their prerogative. But Iowa should show that it can learn from its neighboring states — both from the good example of Wisconsin, and from the ugly example of Illinois.

Iowa’s Democratic leaders should also keep in mind that Illinois has become an international laughingstock not only because its governor allegedly tried to peddle off Obama’s old senate seat, but also because its Democratic leaders refused have their next senator decided by special election. They were more afraid of losing the open seat to a Republican reformer than they were of letting the now impeached Blagojevich make his own selection.

Celebrating Lincoln and Darwin Day

I rather like how this Feb. 12 "Our View" turned out ...

As a prime example of the aberrant synchronicities that punctuate our otherwise chaotic universe, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin shared a birthday 200 (or 10-score and zero) years ago today. For the past few months, this random conjunction of two 19th-century Aquariuses has had many 21st century pundits and public intellectuals sparring over which man had the more profound impact on the world as we now know it:

• The politician or the scientist?

• The emancipator of slaves or the observer of evolutionary processes?

• The man who saved the union or the man who shook faith itself to the core?

Adam Gopnik, in his new book, "Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life," clearly favors Darwin in this political-scientific smackdown -- calling Darwin a "world maker" because of the far-reaching consequences of his legacy. And we, in agreement with President Obama's Inauguration Day call to "restore science to its rightful place," don't mind admitting that the legacy of America's greatest president plays second fiddle to that of the British author of "Origin of the Species" -- a book that turns 150 this year.

But that slight qualification doesn't take away from how much our current leaders could stand to learn from the example of our 16th U.S. president. The man contemporaries once dismissed as a "first-rate second-rate man," now gets hailed as America's greatest leader. As pragmatic politician, Lincoln sought to have his fellow citizens substitute dispassionate reason and obedience to the law for the zeal and "culture of honor" violence that too often defined mid-19th-century politics. And as a martyred leader, one we remember more for his poetic outbursts than for his complex legal arguments, Lincoln managed to surpass the cultural limitations of his day and to help move America closer toward that "more perfect union."

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. recently wrote in answer to the question, "Was Lincoln a racist?":

"He certainly embraced anti-black attitudes and phobias in his early years and throughout his debates with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Senate race (the seat that would become Barack Obama's), which he lost. By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was on an upward arc, perhaps heading toward becoming the man he has since been mythologized as being: the Great Emancipator, the man who freed -- and loved -- the slaves. But his journey was certainly not complete on the day that he died. Abraham Lincoln wrestled with race until the end. And ... his struggle ultimately made him a more interesting and noble man than the mythical hero we have come to revere" (www.theroot.com).

Lincoln's complicated legacy isn't one for the angels, but it is one for the ages.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Give homeowners options other than just walking away

During his speech Monday in Elkhart, Ind., President Obama suggested that one way to help the millions of Americans with upside-down mortgages — mortgages in which they owe their lender more than their house is worth — would be to change the bankruptcy laws and give judges the authority to modify the terms of a mortgage for someone’s only home. Right now, the law allows judges to modify mortgages for additional homes, but not for someone’s sole residence.

“Now, that makes no sense,” Obama told the crowd. “What that’s doing is it’s forcing a lot of people into foreclosure who potentially would be better off, and the bank would be better off, and the community would be better off if they’re at least making some payments, but they’re not able to make all the payments necessary.”

We were disappointed that such practical legislation wasn’t included in the stimulus compromise agreed to Wednesday. Bankers and others in the mortgage industry worry that such a change would all but dry up the market for second mortgages and could raise rates for all new homeowners. But the industry and the broader economy have much more to lose if these struggling homeowners can’t work out a compromise with their lending institutions.

Iowa City bankruptcy lawyer Steve Klesner said he thinks it’s necessary to grant judges this authority because so many mortgages have been repackaged, rebundled and resold to so many different lenders that it’s sometimes impossible to figure out which — or even how many — of the lenders need to sign-off on the modifications. And some lenders simply never agree to any modifications.

Empowering judges to be decision-makers would increase the possibilities of finding an agreement in the best interests of the lender, the borrower and the neighboring landowners.

When is it right to walk away?

If Congress doesn’t move forward with granting judges this authority, far too many people over the next few years could have to decide whether it’s in their best interest just to walk away altogether from their mortgage.

Klesner said many homeowners view the option as ethically dubious at best and wouldn’t even consider following through with it. Others who eventually hope to find jobs in management or in public service will need to decide what’s more costly to their long-term goals: paying off the mortgage or enduring the stain on their credit record.

And even the remaining homeowners — those who, after looking at their situation dispassionately, decide that walking away makes sense — need to know what they are in for.
Iowa law gives lenders two options when deciding to foreclose on property:

* If lenders choose to use foreclosure without redemption, they just go after the legal title to the property and don’t go after the borrower to make up any shortfall between how much is owed and how much the property eventually sells for. After being served with a foreclosure without redemption notice, the borrower can ask for six months to vacate the property.

* If lenders choose straight foreclosure, then they reserve the right to go after a borrower to make up any shortfall. But the process takes longer because the borrower can ask for one year to vacate the house.

Because most lenders don’t want to have their properties sitting around depreciating for an entire year, foreclosure without redemption is the dominant form in Iowa. Before the current housing crisis, it was almost assumed that, if a foreclosed home only had one mortgage on it, the lender wouldn’t go after any shortfall.

Klesner said in the past year, however, there’s been a noticeable increase in the number of lenders using straight foreclosure even when a home doesn’t have second mortgage — probably because lenders facing increased numbers of mortgage defaults need to make up the money somehow. It’s not a huge increase, but it’s no longer an absolutely safe bet that lenders won’t go after people who decide to walk away from a first mortgage.

Help homeowners avoid the dilemma

But the bet still is safe enough for some.

If Iowa City flood victims are facing a mortgage costing more than the post-flood appraisal of their homes, and if they’re also facing more than $50,000 in repairs on top of that, they might want to consider walking away if their property only has one mortgage on it.

If their lenders choose foreclosure without redemption, they can absorb the devastating financial loss and try to move forward with their lives — even though they’ve probably lowered the home values of their neighbors’ properties. If their lenders choose straight foreclosure, they’ll need to declare bankruptcy anyway and try to protect their remaining assets.

With the proposed change in bankruptcy law, judges could help many homeowners avoid facing this dilemma in the first place. It wouldn’t keep every home out of foreclosure, but it would give homeowners more options.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Lincoln and Darwin

Thursday's "Our View" for the Iowa City Press-Citizen Editorial Board.

As a prime example of the aberrant synchronicities that punctuate our otherwise chaotic universe, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin shared a birthday 200 (or 10-score and zero) years ago today. For the past few months, this random confluence of two 19th-century Aquariuses has had many 21st century pundits and public intellectuals sparring over which man had the more profound impact on the world as we now know it:

• The politician or the scientist?

• The emancipator of slaves or the observer of evolutionary processes?

• The man who saved the union or the man who shook faith itself to the core?

Adam Gopnik, in his new book, "Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life," clearly favors Darwin in this political-scientific smackdown -- calling Darwin a "world maker" because of the far-reaching consequences of his legacy. And we, in agreement with President Obama's Inauguration Day call to "restore science to its rightful place," don't mind admitting that the legacy of America's greatest president plays second fiddle to that of the British author of "Origin of the Species" -- a book that turns 150 this year.

But that slight qualification doesn't take away from how much our current leaders could stand to learn from the example of our 16th U.S. president. The man contemporaries once dismissed as a "first-rate second-rate man," now gets hailed as America's greatest leader. As pragmatic politician, Lincoln sought to have his fellow citizens substitute dispassionate reason and obedience to the law for the zeal and violence that too often defined mid-19th-century politics. And as a martyred leader, one we remember more for his poetic outbursts than for his complex legal arguments, Lincoln managed to surpass the cultural limitations of his day and to help move America closer toward that "more perfect union."

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. recently wrote in answer to the question, "Was Lincoln a racist?":

"He certainly embraced anti-black attitudes and phobias in his early years and throughout his debates with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Senate race (the seat that would become Barack Obama's), which he lost. By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was on an upward arc, perhaps heading toward becoming the man he has since been mythologized as being: the Great Emancipator, the man who freed -- and loved -- the slaves. But his journey was certainly not complete on the day that he died. Abraham Lincoln wrestled with race until the end. And ... his struggle ultimately made him a more interesting and noble man than the mythical hero we have come to revere" (www.theroot.com).

Lincoln's complicated legacy isn't one for the angels, but it is one for the ages.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Iowa City in Literature: More questions about Stephen Lovely's "Irreplaceable"

Sure, we all know that Iowa City is now internationally recognized as a City of Literature, but I’ve long been interested in how Iowa City gets portrayed as a city in literature.

That’s really why I was so interested in Stephen Lovely’s new novel, “Irreplaceable,” which is set in a thinly fictionalized Iowa City called Athens. My column in today’s Press-Citizen (“Lovely’s debut novel has lots of heart”) focused on “Irreplaceable” as a heart transplant novel — which was appropriate since the reader I was interviewing is the recipient of both a heart and a kidney transplant.

But if I were to interview Lovely directly, these are the questions I’d ask:

* How do you describe this novel? Is it a literary novel — like those of your Workshop predecessors, a novel that will be studied in classes for generations because of its attention to language and form as well as plot and character development?

Or is it a didactic novel — a novel with a clear teaching purpose? And, if a didactic novel, besides length and readability, what’s the difference between the “Irreplaceable” and an extended, well-written pamphlet that provides a host of accurate information about the procedures and complications involved in a transplant operation? (Although my interview with Gregory Calvert would suggest that that “Irreplaceable” is simply too dark and complex for your average informational tract or pamphlet.)

* In a novel in which you go to great pains to be as detailed as possible about medical procedures, I find it interesting that you have to disguise the novel’s Iowa City setting while providing GPS clarity for where your characters are in Chicago. Why the need to change Iowa City to Athens, even though Iowa City residents can recognize the geographic features you describe so clearly?

Was the change of Iowa City to Athens in any way a nod to Larry Baker’s Iowa City novel, “Athens, America” (2005), in which Baker makes a similar change?

* The cover, title and first two paragraphs of plot description on the book jacket make “Irreplaceable” seems like it is going to be a romance. The next paragraphs show that its going to be — at least — a very complicated romance that involves a host of complicated characters and the consequences of their complicated decision-making. What steps to you take to ensure that you weren’t allowing yourself to fall into sentimentality when writing this novel? Or did you assume that the framework you set up would keep you from ever going too far into the sentimental?

* As the character responsible for the death of Isabel Howard, Jasper seems to be the character most prone to being a stereotype. You could have easily made him an upstanding citizen, a regular guy with a steady job and a stable life, and then explored how the guilt of causing the crash devastated him. But if Jasper was that kind of guy, he would have never approached Isabel’s husband or mother asking for information about who received Isabel’s heart — meaning that you wouldn’t have a story. To what degree is the completely socially inappropriate Jasper based on real people, and how much is he just a necessary feature of the plot?

* I’ve spoken with one transplant patient who said he knows stories — including his own — that would make the craziness described in “Irreplaceable” seem tame. Are you planning to continue writing about the group of people whose lives have been so disturbed and changed? Are you planning to branch out into, say, stories about people who have had face transplants? Or is this your definitive transplant tale?

Eight months out, flood victims still treading water

Charlie Eastham, the president of the Housing Fellowship board of trustees and member of the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission, has long had a broad perspective on housing issues. But the retired university employee’s perspective has grown even broader during the nearly eight months that he and his wife, Karen Fox, have been displaced from their flood-damaged home at 37 Colwyn Court in the Idyllwild neighborhood.

The couple’s story serves as a timely reminder that, although the floodwaters receded months ago, many area families are still struggling to get their heads above water and that many area agencies need more donations of time, money and labor to help meet these families’ long-term needs. It also illustrates how many displaced families are moving back into the “500-year” floodplain — not because they don’t know better — but because they think they have no other financial options.

Eastham and Fox — with the help of friends and family — managed to remove all the furniture and appliances before their condo filled with 40 inches of water last June. But they’ve had both their lives and their finances turned upside by the devastating financial loss of their primary investment: their home. The couple didn’t have flood insurance — Eastham said they were told in 2004 that they didn’t need it and couldn’t get it — and they do not qualify for any buy-out program. So they continue to face the hard, seemingly inevitable decision of having to borrow even more money, apply for state funds and ask for even more help to rebuild their home in a spot that is likely to flood again sometime in the next decade.

Eastham said the couple paid $182,000 when they bought the condo in 2004 and that the last assessment before the flood valued the home at $196,000. Although the appraisal after the flood valued the house at $113,000, the couple is still paying off a $122,000 mortgage with Hills Bank and facing about $65,500 in repairs in addition to clean up costs of $21,700.

With the numbers so upside down — and with rent to pay on top of the mortgage — Eastham said the couple seriously considered simply walking away and allowing the bank to have the property. Sally Cline, president of the Idyllwild condominium association, said that, of the 86 units in Idyllwild, there already have been four foreclosures and one bankruptcy since the flood. Other owners have sold their units for as low as $10 and as high as $85,000. But Cline also said one of the units, which had been sold to a developer at a very low price, was cleaned up and resold for $125,000.

Eastham said he feels he has little choice but to go forward with repairs. Because 37 Colwyn Court is a one-story unit — which is one of the reasons why the 67-year-old Eastham bought it in the first place — the couple doesn’t have the option of moving their furnace and other essential features to an upper floor. Instead, the only protection they have against the ravages of the next flood is flood insurance.
Eastham said he probably won’t move back into his Idyllwild condo until his rental lease ends this summer. Cline said only 17 of the 86 units have been reoccupied. She moved back into her unit on Monday, even though the condo has neither carpet nor countertops and even though she also has to pay rent until her lease runs out.

Johnson County’s Long-Term Recovery Committee is working to ensure that people like Eastham, Fox and Cline eventually can find some other options. And the different agencies represented on the committee are also coordinating volunteer efforts to help out all flood-affected families as their needs continue to evolve.

For information on how to ask for or to offer help, call 337-VOLS (8657).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Asking a transplant survivor what he thinks of Stephen Lovely's new transplant novel, "Irreplaceable"

Gregory Calvert had a major heart attack that should have killed him back 1996. That was followed by an unsuccessful emergency balloon procedure.

An emergency quadruple bypass three months later gave him a 50-50 chance of survival.

Calvert said he lived, but the surgery didn’t help. And when he tried to go back to work, he was told he was “no longer needed.”

That’s when Calvert was referred to University of Iowa transplant service. About nine months later, he had to go into the UI Cardiovascular Intensive Care, where he lived for four months hoping to get a heart. After nearly dying a few times, he received a new heart in June 1997, only to have his pulmonary artery burst as soon as it was put in.

Thirty-two units of blood and five days later, he woke up with a new heart and a bovine patch on his pulmonary artery.

But when he went home a couple a few weeks later, he found his life wasn’t made any easier with a new heart:
* His 20-year marriage ended 18 months later after his wife also had a near death experience with Strep pneumonia.
* A year later his kidneys failed, and he had to start dialysis for next 3½ years — until he finally received a kidney transplant in 2004.
* And he had renal carcinoma in his native kidney in 2007.

Calvert said he’s been good ever since — other than skin cancers and the other “normal post transplant things.”

I became interested in Calvert’s story because he — like the protagonist, Janet Corcoran, in Iowa Writer Workshop graduate Stephen Lovely’s new heart transplant novel, “Irreplaceable” — ignored all medical advice and found out the name of his donor.

Because Lovely is scheduled for a Prairie Lights reading at 7 p.m., Thursday, I thought Calvert would be a good critic for a debut novel that:
* Has sparked much lively discussion on transplant forums like www.transplantbuddies.org and
* About which a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly states — and I agree with — “Lovely does a great job of staying out of sappy melodrama as the gravity of Isabel’s death pulls the cast together in memorable fashion. The delicate handling of loaded material, attention to detail, and depth of character make this a standout.”

Calvert had a completely different reaction to the novel than I do, though.

Q: How true to life does this novel feel to you?
A: The short answer is, ‘Not very.’ … Parts of this book were very hard for me to read. I had to stop a few times. The needlessly gruesome detail of the procurement process was gratuitous. More “Sweeney Todd” than the truth of the reverence of this process, and the people involved. … And the idea that those waiting for a heart would watch the weather report hoping for a storm was way beyond the pale.

I had to wonder why — with all the people at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop who helped with this book — nobody asked Lovely to consider more than just process and making the story work. Did it not occur to anyone that the thought of having your loved one disassembled like a slab of beef at the butcher shop and then being hounded by a killer and a deranged recipient wouldn’t affect the donor process?

Q: How would your transplant experience have been different if you have read able to read this novel ahead of time?
A: The real process involves screening and education, which deals with the issues you will have post transplant. Great care is taken to make sure that you know that you will have a new reality. You’re life will not be as it was before. I don’t think there was anything in this book that would add to that.

Q: Which characters do you relate the most to and why?
A: Well, Janet, obviously. But I’ve never met nor even heard of a recipient so oblivious to or disrespectful of the process. Wouldn’t happen in a million years. The privacy and wishes of the donor families are sacrosanct. Period.

Q: What are some of the experiences with a transplant that someone who hasn’t gone through the procedure might have a hard time understanding?
A: The overwhelming theme of the transplant experience is that someone, during a time of terrible tragedy in their own lives, chooses to do something to help someone else. It is a message of love and compassion. A testament to the best of human nature. Being on the receiving end changes you forever.

Q: What other books have been helpful for you in dealing with the aftereffects of the transplant?
A: “The Heart’s Code: Tapping the Wisdom and Power of Our Heart Energy,” by Paul Pearsall. It’s a book by a counselor who has worked with transplant recipients.

And “Sick Girl,” by Amy Silverstein. It’s a realistic description of life post transplant.

I have to wonder about Lovely. … He can write, but there has to be more somehow.

Each year we have a transplant picnic. Last year a donor family who had met and become friends with their recipient attended. I wish Lovely could have been there. The donor family was embraced with heartfelt emotion from a hundred recipients as though they had saved everybody’s lives. It was the most moving experience of my life.

The gift of life is a sacred thing and deserves to be treated with dignity.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

What price for the Pollock would be an offer UI shouldn't refuse? $200 million? $500 million?

Draft of Saturday's "Our View" for the Iowa City Press-Citizen Editorial Board:

Last month, the University of Iowa Museum of Art announced that Jackson Pollock’s famous “Mural” would be returning to Iowa. Sometime in mid-April, the painting — which has been stored in an undisclosed Chicagoland location ever since floodwaters first threatened the the museum last summer — will be on display at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport. The painting will be part of an exhibit titled, “University of Iowa Museum of Art: Pollock’s Mural and Modern Masterworks, a Legacy for Iowa.”

But some Iowa lawmakers already are beginning to count up how much money the state could make by selling off the most valuable and highly recognized work in the university’s collection.

State Sen. Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines) has suggested that selling the painting could provide up to $200 million and would help the Iowa state Board of Regents keep tuition costs as low as possible for Iowa students. (Click here for story ).

“If the college believes that owning up to a $200 million painting is more important than keeping tuition low they’ll continue to retain it,” McCoy told the Des Moines Register. “If they decide keeping tuition low and helping students find a job in the toughest economic downturn since the great Depression is more important, then sell it.”

It hard to believe that the Des Moines senator is correct in his belief the university could get more than the $150 million that the painting is insured for. McCoy and everyone else who is salivating over the prospects of selling this painting should keep in mind that works of art — like houses — are really only worth what someone is willing pay for them. Just as the housing market has fallen drastically, so has as the market for expensive works of art.

If McCoy is suggesting that the university offer its most famous assets at fire sale prices, then his suggestion seems more of a chance to make some quick political points at UI’s expense rather than an opportunity to spell out any practical solutions in these hard economic times.

Those looking to sell the painting for a quick profit should learn a lesson from Brandeis University, which is in the middle of taking an even more drastic step. Last month, Brandeis’ trustees approved a plan to close the Massachusetts school’s 48-year-old Rose Art Museum. According to the Wall Street Journal, Brandeis also intends to sell the museum’s entire 7,180-piece art collection, which was last appraised in 2006 at about $350 million — UI’s 12,000-piece collection is insured for about $500 million

Brandeis’ decision has been meet with almost universal condemnation by educational, art and museum associations. Although the trustees might be willing to ride out such bad publicity, they now have to worry that current and future donors may be less likely to give to the institution because of how it has become so mercenary in its attempts to turn treasured donations into quick cash.

But perhaps McCoy is right to get UI officials and the regents thinking about whether there is a dollar amount that, if a collector was willing to pay, they could not refuse: $200 million? $300 million? $500 million? Maybe the economic situation has reached the point that the painting should be put up for sale with a secret, extremely high reserve price. If a collector were to go over the top, then UI should take the money.

Pollock’s “Mural” has been a part of UI’s identity for three generations, and we hope it will remain part of Iowa’s legacy for generations to come. But — to invoke a car analogy — owning a Ferrari isn’t wise if you can’t afford to pay for gas. UI officials are facing high gas prices, and they can’t drive a mural — even a Pollock.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

UI tops Yale for number of best dissertations in the country

What does Press-Citizen Poetic License contributor Mike Chasar have in common with Jessica Horst, Susan Behrends Frank, Matthew Anderson, David Lasocki?

They are all winners of the University of Iowa’s best dissertation award — the D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize — who have gone on to win the nation’s top dissertation prize: the Council of Graduate Studies/UMI Distinguished Dissertation Award.

That means, for each of the years that they’ve graduated, each one has written the best dissertation in the nation in one of four broad fields — biological sciences; social sciences; mathematics, physical sciences and engineering; and humanities and fine arts.

When Chasar won last year — for his English dissertation, “Everyday Reading : U.S. Poetry and Popular Culture, 1880-1945” — he helped UI tie with Yale University as the school with the most Distinguished Dissertation Awards received in the entire country. Each school had received four awards.

This year, Jessica Horst — who won for her pediatric psychology dissertation, “Turning novel names into known names” — brought UI’s total to five and helped the university clinch one of the most difficult and most underappreciated titles in academia.

Frank won in 1997 with an Art History dissertation on collaborations between Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel. Anderson won in 1993 with a Physiology dissertation on the “Function and Regulation of the Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator.” And Lasocki won in 1984 with a Music dissertations that focused on “Professional Recorder Players in England, 1540-1740.”

In the past decade, UI also has had many finalists for the national dissertation prize — including Angela Hess, Anatomy and Cell Biology (2003); Michael Tavel Clarke, English (2003); Nathan William Brixius, Computer Science (2002); Christopher Otrok, Economics, (2000); Daryl A. Scott, Genetics (1999); Eric Griffin, English (1999); and Razvan Gelca, Mathematics (1998).

Common sense and rushing local opinion sales tax elections

I’ve already received a few “thank you” comments about today’s “Our View” (“County voters not ready for local option tax”).

The comments took me by surprise because it seems like just common sense for the Editorial Board to say the Iowa City Council shouldn’t rush with wild abandon into calling for a March 3 election for a Local Option Sales Tax when — as far as I can tell — the council hasn't spent five minutes discussing the issue nor has it received a single briefing from staff.

But it turns out that the councilors deserve to be thanked for following common sense because there has been a lot of overt and behind-the-scenes pressure placed on them to call for a special election or lose out on $4.6 million dollars. That’s the difference in revenue that local governments would receive if a sales tax were approved in March as opposed to in May.

I don’t have any reason to doubt that figure, but it’s misleading for anyone to bandy it about as if it were a done deal.

Not surprisingly in this business, I’ve also heard a complaint about today’s editorial. If we’re going to criticize those who speak about the $4.6 million as if it were a certainty rather than possibility, the complaint goes, then we shouldn’t let ourselves write with such certainty that the voters would vote down a local option sales tax on March 3. Nor should we — the complaint continues — be able to write that putting the issue on the ballot for March would be a waste of the taxpayer money it would take to hold the special election.

But that's the Editorial Board’s consensus opinion, and it’s our best prediction on what the results of rushing this decision would be.

Once the council has time to collect accurate information, to deliberate and to make an informed decision, then the Editorial Board probably would be willing to back a decision to move forward with a May election. And then we, after careful deliberation, would look through the plan and advise voters whether we think they should vote the measure up or down.

But I simply can't understand how we — or anyone else — could suggest that the council rush blindly into a decision that would cost the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and could have a host of negative, unintended consequences for the region. Nor do I think the $4.6 million figure should be used as an “Act now, or you’ll lose out on this special offer” sales technique.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley is right on waste, wrong on science

Here's a draft of the Press-Citizen Editorial Board's "Our View" for Monday:

We’re pleased that Sen. Charles Grassley represents Iowa so well when it comes to ferreting out misuses of tax-exempt status.

When Grassley questions how university athletics departments give out luxury box tickets in exchange for large “donations,” and when he begins scrutinizing televangelists for how they use the millions they rake in, he brings his Iowa common sense to bear on potential tax abuses. (It almost lets us forgive his attempts to secure a nearly $50 million earmark grant for the failed rain forest project.)

And we want Grassley to speak out when he discovers such an egregious example of government waste as one senior staff member of the National Science Foundation spending as much as 20 percent of his time during a two-year period at lurid Web sites and in sexually explicit chat rooms. According to a semiannual report that described numerous investigations into the misuse of the Internet by foundation employees, that time cost taxpayers more than $40,000. Other employees were alleged to have watched, downloaded and e-mailed porn over years.

We’re glad that Iowa’s senior senator takes his watch-dog responsibilities so seriously that he sent a letter to the NSF’s Office of Inspector General asking for all the documents it has related to the inappropriate use of the foundation’s network. Grassley understands that sometimes these abuses are so widespread that there needs to be an investigation into “the culture of an organization where this occurs.”

But Grassley goes too far when, in interview with the Associated Press Thursday, he called on Congress to reconsider the $3 billion in funding to the NSF that’s included in the current stimulus bill. He wants Congress to wait on the funding until his questions are answered.

Because the NSF provides about 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by the nation’s colleges and universities, it hardly seems appropriate for Grassley to try to hold up funding for researchers throughout the nation because of the bad Internet habits of foundation employees.

And it hardly seems a productive way to “restore science to its rightful place,” as President Obama said in his inaugural address.

Besides, spokesman Jeff Nesbit said the foundation is cooperating and already has taken steps to address the inspector general’s report. Several employees have been disciplined and at least three staffers were fired because of their inappropriate use of the Internet.

“NSF immediately implemented additional IT systems controls to focus in particular on enforcement of the foundation’s long-standing policy prohibiting the use of its IT systems to access sexually explicit, gambling and other inappropriate Web sites,’’ Nesbit said in a written statement.

Any employees found to have broken this policy — especially as blatantly as the report alleges — should be fired. But the broader cultural change we’d like to see involves the entire federal government, not just the NSF. It’s time to ensure that the government’s stances on topics ranging from abstinence-only education to stem-cell research are based on scientific rigor rather than on pre-determined ideology — as they were during the Bush administration.

If “science is restored to its rightful place,” then maybe those in charge of allocating scientific funding would recognize that they have much more important things to do with their time than watch Internet porn.