Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fire fighters vs. public sculpture

Here's a draft of tomorrow's "Our View":

We love the idea of the Iowa City Council preparing for an uncertain economic future by listing out every program and service funded by the city and ranking them according to priority. If done right, the process could help ensure that the city remains committed to the functions of local government that matter most. And once done — sometime in May, most likely after the local option sales tax election — the process will allow the council to know which programs and which services it can cut in order to trim $250,000 in expenses from the fiscal year 2010 budget and $1 million for fiscal years 2011 to 2014.

After Tuesday’s city council meeting, however, we’re not sure if the council is up for this difficult task. We were disappointed when the councilors unanimously decided that the current economic downturns means they need to renege on their recent promise to staff a long needed fourth fire station in the city’s northeast corner. Our disappointment turned to sheer astonishment, however, when every councilor except Matt Hayek and Amy Correia then voted to spend $80,000 on a public sculpture for Waterworks Prairie Park.

What kind of prioritization is that? How can any voter or taxpayer trust councilors who decide to renege on their commitment to fund firefighters during the same meeting that they decide to commit themselves contractually to pay for a public sculpture? And how can the majority of the council make those two decisions in the same meeting at the very time they need to be convincing city voters to fork over an additional 1-cent sales tax to pay for flood recovery?

We’ve heard this all before

We get that this is the worst budget climate in 30 years. We get that the recent revenue estimates are getting more and more dire. And we’re glad to see that the FY2010 budget still sets aside the money necessary for constructing — but not staffing — a new fire station.

But that’s basically where the fire station issue has been stuck for years. Throughout this decade — in budget years that now seem lush in comparison to FY2010 — we’ve heard repeatedly how the city has the money to build a fourth fire station but doesn’t enough money to pay the salary of the additional firefighters. At the same time, we’ve heard city staff provide statistic after statistic to explain why building a new fire station is the No. 1 priority for increasing public safety in the area. In fact, it’s hard for any public safety official to make a case for any other project until this No. 1 need gets met.

We’ve praised this city council for trying to come up with creative solutions to this funding impasse. And we were thrilled when the councilors finally decided to listen to their public safety officials and to commit to funding the positions in the next budget. But Tuesday’s decision to remove that promised money for staffing from the FY2010 budget just sets everything up for another round of rationalizing why this public safety need can’t be met this budget year.

Reneging on a necessary public safety commitment

Now councilors say that they haven’t reneged on their commitment. They say they’ve just decided to throw the staffing of the new fire station in with all the other programs and services that need to be prioritized. They say the funding for the new firefighters could be put back during the prioritization process — or if money from the federal stimulus bill becomes available. And the process will make clear what cuts need to be made to fund the firefighters.

But councilors would have done better to reaffirm that they view the fire station as a No. 1 priority. Otherwise all their talk seems the equivalent of saying that the money could possibly be put back if, say, all the stars were to align correctly. Or if, say, the entire community comes out, claps their hands and shouts loudly enough, “I believe in fourth fire stations.”

In fact, the only way this money will be put back into the budget is if the community raises enough of a hue and cry to provide the councilors with enough political cover so that they can do the right thing: Cut some discretionary quality of life staffing and programming in order to pay for this long overdue public safety necessity.

Committing to a discretionary public art expense

We’d be more comfortable with the council throwing the fire station staffing into the prioritization process if the councilors were treating all expenses equally. But no sooner did the council unanimously decide to defund a No. 1 priority public safety issue for FY2010 when a majority of council decided to commit at least $37,000 of FY2010 money.

Because of public art’s existing obligations, $43,000 of the sculpture’s $80,000 price tag will come out of public arts’ FY2009 money and $37,000 is to come from the program’s budget for FY2010. By voting Tuesday to accept the contract, the council committed the city to pay that $37,000 to the artist even if the councilors later decide to reduce or even to cut the public art program’s funding. That means, a majority of the council decided — before the prioritization process began — that the city’s public art budget will have at least $37,000 in FY2010; otherwise, the city will be in breach of contract.

We question the judgment of city councilors who decide that budgeting $520,000 from FY2010 for nine firefighters isn’t of a high enough priority to decide right now, but who then decide that budgeting $37,000 from FY2010 for a public sculpture is of such high priority that the contract needs to be signed right away.

How do these decisions give voters confidence that this council can make good use of the limited money it has — let alone make good use of additional revenue from a local option sales tax?

Roosevelt: Plugge's Vietnam?

I thought Saturday’s public forum was 1,000 times better than the public discussion portion of last month's Iowa City School Board meeting. But I'm beginning to agree with the people who predict Roosevelt will wind up being Lane Plugge's Vietnam — a quagmire that offers Pyrrhic victory at best.

The biggest issue facing the district right now is the millions it needs to cut from the operational budget over the next two years. There's no way Plugge and the board can cut that deeply — without cutting off their own voter support — unless they have a massive amount of good will from voters and tax payers. (And there's no way that they can keep saying that Roosevelt is too far gone without raising the question, "Why did you let it get that bad in the first place?" A question they've yet to answer adequately.)

If Plugge and the board decide to spend all that good will by moving forward with a controversial plan to close a neighborhood school (forget for a moment that the nearest elementary school is less than a mile away), then they'll have nothing left for the bigger battle. Plugge and the board, if they want to, can win the battle over Roosevelt, but the homeowners and the parents are going to fight them every step of the way (and those homeowners and parents will join with the other "worried about our neighborhood" folks and fight like true-believing insurgents rather than like top-down bureaucrats).

If that fight gets drawn out — which it's sure to become — it will taint any other controversial plans the district needs to implement in the name of cost savings. The people who worry that the district hasn’t lived up to its SILO promises will be watching carefully to see how much this first draft of a facilities plan changes because of the public discussion. They’ve already noted how district's planning department (Plugge and Jim Behle) and the board's leadership seem pretty well invested in the plan already.

Good Iowa City novelists who didn't study or teach at the Workshop

Yes, UNESCO recently named Iowa City as an international City of Literature. And, yes, that designation for the most part is due to the many famous names that have come through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: from Marvin Bell to Kurt Vonnegut.

But lately I’ve been interested in documenting a literary history of Iowa City that is not directly tied to the Workshop. I’m interested in good novelists (a subjective category, I’ll confess) who spent significant time in Iowa City for reasons other than to teach or study at the Workshop — even if the novelist spent all his or her free time at the Foxhead trying to pick up Workshop lessons through osmosis.

The list of such novelists that I have right now include:

* Leslie Pietrzyk (a novelist who was born and raised in Iowa City but no longer lives here): “Pears on a Willow Tree” and “A Year and a Day.”

* Sarah Prineas (a young adult novelist who lives in town): “The Magic Thief.”

* Bart Yates (an Iowa City area musician): “Leave Myself Behind,” “The Brothers Bishop” and “The Distance Between Us.”

If you have anyone to add to this list, please post a comment or drop me a line at

What happens when government starts getting treated like the public ...

When requesting information about alleged workplace abuses at the Henry’s Turkey Service plant in eastern Iowa, some state government officials discovered firsthand recently what news organizations experience repeatedly: That government employees and agencies drag their feet when asked to release public information that would paint them in a negative light.

Rather than err on the side of openness — which is the intent of both Iowa’s sunshine laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act — government officials have a host of delay tactics at their disposal for keeping public records from public inspection, including riding out the clock, complaining that a request is too broad, claiming blanket exemptions for thousands of documents, failing to acknowledge the original request and, when all else fails on the federal level, citing national security concerns.

We in the media have come to expect such stonewalling, but we had hoped government inspectors would have better luck.

The U.S. Department of Labor, however, has been less than cooperative in telling Iowa officials whether Henry’s Turkey Service had federalcertification to some workers less than minimum wage. Both state and federal authorities are investigating the alleged exploitation of mentally disabled employees who worked for the company and were housed in a dilapidated bunkhouse in Atalissa. Records show the workers were paid as little as 44 cents per hour, plus room and board and the old bunkhouse — which the state fire marshal recently closed.

Gail Sheridan-Lucht, an attorney with Iowa Workforce Development, told a task force on Friday that the labor department refused to provide the information without a formal, written request. Nor would the local office provide a list of other employers in Iowa that have similar certificates.

“We’re treated like the public,” Sheridan-Lucht said.

The Iowa Workforce Development was given the option of filing something called a “sharing letter,” which is a different form of written, formal request. But Sheridan-Lucht said the agency has taken that step and is still waiting for the information.

We at the Press-Citizen applaud the state inspectors for publicly criticizing the federal government’s unwillingness to release public information that would help the inspectors perform their watchdog duties. Now that some Iowa officials are getting a sense of what such stonewalling tastes like, we hope they and other state officials will be less likely to use such tactics when they receive information requests in the future.

Donohue's second novel blurs line between dreams, fantasy and reality

Here's my review of Keith Donohue's second novel, "Angels of Destruction." Donohue will read from the novel at 7 p.m., Friday, at Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa City.

When a nine-year-old girl wearing threadbare clothes knocks one bitter winter night on the door of Margaret Quinn, readers of Keith Donohue’s second novel are left to wonder what kind of unexpected visitor this will be. Perhaps she will be something like Mrs. Whatsit in Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” a disguised angelic character who leads the young heroes into a physics-inspired fantasy battle against ultimate evil. Or — considering the novel is titled, “Angels of Destruction” — perhaps this thin waif will turn into something more along the lines of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in the novel of the same name, a murdered infant who returns to home to haunt the mother who killed her rather than have her taken back into slavery.

By the end of Donohue’s first chapter, however, it’s pretty clear that the girl — wearing a note that says only N-O-R, which Margaret assumes is a failed attempt to spell, “Norah” — is going to be something between those two preternatural extremes. We learn that Margaret feels instantly maternal toward the freezing girl, giving her buttered saltines because there is no longer any other kids’ food in the house. We learn there is an old soul in this young body when the orphaned girl speaks her first words, “‘I was frozen,’ she answered in a phlegmy voice. ‘Cold as the point of an icicle.’” And we learn that Margaret’s own daughter has been gone 10 years and has disappeared in such a way that her room has been left empty and all but untouched.

Given the instant camaraderie between the abandoned mother and the strange girl old enough to be her granddaughter, it’s no surprise when Margaret decides to pass off the girl as the granddaughter she never had. Nor is it a surprise when an equally mysterious man in a fedora starts asking questions about the Quinn widow and her prodigal daughter, Erica, who had run off in 1975 — a decade earlier than the novel’s present — with her radical boyfriend who wanted to join the holdover revolutionary group Angels of Destruction. Nor is it a surprise when Norah’s presence begins to transform the lives of her new family and classmates — simultaneously reopening and healing old wounds.

But the surprise comes in how well Donohue has crafted this novel to help push his readers through the 10 years between when Erica left and Norah arrived. Breaking the novel into four sections — Book I, set in 1985; Book II, in 1975; Book III, in 1985; and a short epilogue set in 2005 — Donohue doesn’t provide the details of the Erica’s decision to runaway until long after both the characters and the readers have accepted Norah as part of this fractured family. His narrator never provides inaccurate information, but the narrator can’t be relied upon to help readers sort through the fine line between memory, fantasy and reality.

And Donohue is right to leave that line blurry. We don’t want a lengthy explication of the degree to which the phrase Angels of Destruction refers to the fictional stand-in for Hell’s Angels and the Symbionese Liberation Army and the degree to which it refers to Norah and the dark stranger asking so many questions about her. Nor do we want a deus ex machina to magically fix a decade’s worth of family turmoil and two generations’ worth of cultural conflict.

We want what Donohue gives us: A compelling story about complicated characters who eventually leave us at peace about the questions left unanswered.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Flannery O'Connor and the City of Literature II

Here's the complete text of my interview with Brad Gooch, author of "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor." Gooch will be reading at 7 p.m., Thursday at Prairie Lights in downtown Iowa City.

Q: If your audience members had time to read only one Flannery O’Connor story before your reading, which would you recommend?

A: That depends on if they have ever read an O’Connor story before. If so, then I love “Revelations.” Everything just seems to come together in that story. You begin with that quaint snapshot of Southern life, and then you end with this Dantesque image of souls going up to heaven. You get both in one.

If they’ve never read an O’Connor story, then “A Good Man is hard to Find” is the best introduction — because it such a vivid shocker.

Q: Are you religious?

A: Well, sure. In a neutral way. I go to the Episcopal Church. I have a spiritual tourist sense.

Q: Is that sense what first drew you to O’Connor?

A: Actually, I first started reading the stories in my early 20s — just because I loved the stories. Frank O’Hara was my favorite poet, and Flannery O’Connor was my favorite fiction writer. And now I’ve gotten to write biographies on both of them.

Then her letters came out in “Habit of Being.” I always knew there was some medieval Catholic thing going on in her stories, but it seemed subtle until the letters made it overt. It was the combination that made me interested in the biography — figuring out how her life related to her art.

I stopped after I learned that Sally Fitzgerald was doing a biography and I waited impatiently for more than two decades. I started working on my own biography about six years ago.

Q: You nicely contrast 1) those artists who met O’Connor, experienced her religiosity firsthand and then found themselves pleasantly shocked by the power of her stories and 2) those artists who read O’Connor, experienced the power of her stories and then were awkwardly shocked when they met her and experienced her religiosity firsthand. Which O’Connor do you resonate with more?

A: The stories stand on their own. I teach a lot of freshmen for whom Flannery O’Connor winds up being a favorite author. It’s the stories’ vividness — and their violence — that makes them work so powerfully.

The oscillation between the letters and the stories becomes an even bigger puzzle. Flannery herself seemed to sense this and developed a sort of madness to explain herself. That’s part of why she gave so many lectures — 60 in a decade — while on crutches. It’s part of the tension in her work that makes her so fascinating.

There are people, especially in Milledgeville, Ga., who say people should read the letters first and then read the stories. Then there are those who think we should just read the stories and ignore the letters. Then there others who find no disconnect between the two.

I want to stress that she was not a character in her own stories. She probably was more normal and more sophisticated than people give her credit for.

Q: Surely every O’Connor fan has heard her famous statement, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” How essential was it for you pull from the archives and to help correct the image of O’Connor’s childhood? You linger on her girlhood for longer than other biographies do.

A: It interests me how so much of her character and training seems so intact so early on. In the anecdotes from other children, it’s evident that her personality is so strong.

A lot of times in biographies, the childhood of a person doesn’t seem to have that much connection to the person we are interested in. It becomes a lot of genealogy. But she was just as comic and snarky and compelling when she was five as when she was older. You look back at her cartoons and the books she was writing about the characters in her own family, and she already was very productive in a singularly idiosyncratic way.

Plus, there are so many children in her work. There is almost a young adult quality — especially in the fact they are less about sex than about violence. It makes her girlhood interesting — rather than just a necessary part in the process of writing a biography.

Q: If O’Connor were breaking on the literary scene today, do you think her stories would be classified as young adult literature?

A: I think she would have much the same problem she had when she was alive. The original reviewers had a terrible time trying to figure out what to make of her. She wasn’t a best-selling author, and the reviewers often misunderstood her work. She’s similar to Frank O’Hara in that respect as well.

Many authors get celebrated in the publishing industry while they are still alive but then drop out of sight soon after. But she’s the opposite. She has endured and, over time, come across as the real thing. The writers and artists who are most difficult to package when they are producing often have the longest shelf life.

She had a sense of that and had a pretty extraordinary confidence in her own work.

Q: O’Connor is obviously queer — meaning that her sense of sexuality must have been something other than heteronormative — but how did her understanding of her own sexuality evolve throughout her too short adult life?

A: I had to accept at a certain point — and I wish others would come to accept it, too— that sex didn’t seem the driving force in her life. When I published my Frank O’Hara biography 20 years ago, people complained that there was too much sex, specifically too much gay sex. Now I have a biography in which there is no sex.

It’s important to remember that she had a sense of spirituality that meant something important to her and that she had lupus. Now, she was very good at making lemons out of lemonade, and after Erik Langkjaer, she probably figured a sexual relationship wasn’t in the cards for her. … When Betty Hester sent her a letter declaring her love for her, Flannery is completely nonplussed. She may be more sophisticated about sexuality than we realize, but she never talks about it.

There was a moment in which she reacted positively to the idea that there is a connection between sexuality and the violence in her work, but I don’t know how much she understood it. And, always a critic of trendy ideas, she also was committed to the idea that creativity and chastity were not some form of primitive backwardness.

Q: Did O’Connor ever bore you over the past six years?

A: No. She’s is a riddle. At the end of the day, there is always going to be something enigmatic there. Trying answer all the questions continued to keep me interested because I never could quite get to the bottom line.

Q: This is your second biography of a literary artist who died young and only later grew to iconic stature. Is that the best way to write a biography? When the people who “knew her when” are still alive and able to comment on the “larger than life” public reputation?

A: It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I was aware of trying to get interviews with her contemporaries before they were no longer with us. I thought it was important to include their thoughts alongside the letters, manuscripts and published stories.

I interviewed one of her fellow Workshop students who said that Flannery gave looks so cold that they scared her. Those relationships are interesting because they remind you of who the person was when they were alive. Of how people were always wondering what to make of her.

Q: What is Iowa City’s legacy on Flannery O’Connor?

A: For her, the Workshop was invaluable. It was there she changed from “Mary Flannery O’Connor” to “Flannery O’Connor.” When she same to the University of Iowa, she was enrolled in the School of Journalism and wanted to be a political cartoonist. It was with Paul Engle and the Workshop that she found her craft, her vocation. It was also where she found the attention she had been seeking. The Southern writer was important at that time. That’s why people like John Crowe Ransom picked out her work and helped along her career. As self-reliant as she was, the Workshop helped her she gain the confidence she needed to decide to be a writer.

She talked about her legacy to the Workshop; even overplayed it. She said he hadn’t read any great writers before Iowa, but if you look at her high school and college records, she was reading Faulkner and Joyce long before then. But the time in Iowa was definitely transformative.

It’s also important to remember that the Workshop was offering the first MFA for creative writing in the country. So she was pioneering in that sense and benefited from the university’s vision.

I think it was very brave of her, as a person from the South, to go north. I remember that scene of her standing with a 15-pound muskrat coat that she thought she needed to wear in order to stay warm.

And I think it was very brave of her to enter a writing program that was filled with young men, former GIs, who were writing Hemmingway knockoffs. Yet this girl, who seemed much younger than her years, succeeded with the encouragement of her instructors.