Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Seed Catalogue Mania

At this still snowy and cold juncture of the new year, we've thankfully gotten past the 20 daily pieces of mail comprised of caucus fliers. Caucus duties are over now and the gardening catalogues are arriving fast and furious. They actually started showing up the day after Christmas and are continuing to appear pretty regularly.

As we always do in the snowy
throes of January in Iowa (when we ask ourselves will spring ever get here?), we sat down at the table last night and took a good look at some of the newer companies who took it upon themselves to come courting me. So, I thought I'd comment a bit about some of the handsomely produced catalogues we are getting this year. Some are obviously from 'old friends' resources, such as Park Seed, Thompson and Morgan, Select Seeds and Van Bourgondien, but there are some new companies this year who have piqued our interest and will probably receive some orders from us.

[So, with a disclaimer that I have no vested interest in, nor do I earn any commissions from any of these companies, I'd like to point to a few companies who really fill a unique niche in the gardening world. But if they'd like to send me a few bucks for writing nice things about them, I wouldn't object too much! But that's unlikely to happen, lol.]

First up, let's take a look at Wildseed Farms, a catalogue I just got in the mail last week. This is one serious outfit dedicated to promoting the cause of planting regional native wildflowers. They're based in Texas (yeah, that gave me pause too) but they put out a fantastic catalogue, complete with tempting regional wildflower mixes tailored to specific growing conditions, to great references about the individual species they offer. Best of all, they offer bulk seed at incredible prices that will allow the gardener to plant up large spaces (if they have them, alas we don't) and if you have the room to broadcast a whole field, they can provide you with great choices in their regional mixes. Most of these mixes run about $9-10 for a quarter pound of carefully chosen natives to your area and should help even the novice raise a good sized plot of wildflowers for not much money ... as long as you're willing to get them planted at the appropriate time and give them sufficient care to get them established. And hey, they tell you when and how to do that as well. But I think the most impressive thing I got from this catalogue (aside from careful and accurate considerations about hardiness) is that they provide you with a picture identifying the seedlings of each plant, so that you don't confuse them with weeds. I can't emphasize how important that is when growing unfamiliar seeds the first year! I'm sure many a gardener has cursed him/herself over the years for not knowing what was coming up and inadvertently pulled up the very seedling s/he wanted to plant.

Result of our joint perusal of this catalogue? We're going to order a North Central Plains mix of wildflower to give to Fernymoss' parents to plant in the abundant spaces they have in their rural property. We're going to buy an ounce (ahem!) of Foxglove seed to try in various places chez IVG to see if we can get them happy at long last, after many failed attempts. But no matter what growing situation you may have, these folks are worth a look for an economical solution to having a lot of varied flowers for the space you have. Believe me, the prices are more than reasonable, and if you go with one of the regional mixes, I think you're probably in good shape to liven up your plantable areas.

I think I've probably already (in some post) lauded Select Seeds, but they're more than worthy of another shout out. Their primary mission is to popularize heirloom varieties of flowers that have gone a bit 'mainstream' over the years. Their sheer breadth of species, as well as their attention to growing details really sets them apart from the larger companies. They have a fantastic selection of heirloom poppies and other striking varieties of flowers you might already be planting, but where they distinguish themselves is in providing things you just won't find in the typical venues such as nurseries and mass market stores.

Consensus planning from our end? We're going to order some more of the heirloom poppies we ordered last year (but alas planted too late) and give them another, earlier chance at taking hold here at Casa IVG. The Zanzibariensis variety of Castors we got from them last year (as well as Carmencita red Castors) was a real show stopper for us in the back yard last year and even provided us with ample seed for this year. My quick take? Not many seed companies offer Castor Bean seeds these days (due to the bad rep of being a Ricinus species, no doubt ... they are poisonous after all), they are doing us all a service by preserving this historically useful species. Oh yeah, I've read in many places that if you are plagued by moles, planting Castors will deter them from hanging around. Besides, when you live in Iowa and can grow a 12-14 FOOT tropical tree in your yard in a few short months, that's something to get excited about! At least take a look at their site if you're even remotely interested in heirloom varieties of common flowers, because I'm willing to bet you'll find something that you want for your own garden. And their prices, although not rock bottom, are reasonable enough you'll want to try a few. Service and speed of delivery were impeccable for us last year, but we were just too busy to get some of them in at the right time, so I'd recommend ordering (and planting) early.

Finally, the one other catalogue I wanted to highlight tonight is the R.H. Shumway 2008 catalogue, which definitely wins hands down in the retro nostalgia seed catalogue competition. This is the kind of catalogue my dad used to scour (except for us it was always Gurney's in Yankton, ND) to order his garden seeds. To peruse this catalogue is a fond trip into the past ... there are only full colour and black and white illustrations of the seeds for sale, interspersed with plugs for handy gardening tips, tools and such ... along with exhortations about the benefits of vegetables for one's health, and a wealth of fascinating growing trivia. It's a really fun read and even if you're not interested in many of the vegetables they offer, you'll learn a lot and want to plant some of their veggies, just to see what you can get.

Consensus? We really enjoyed the retro presentation of the catalogue and may order a few things from them to try (we were impressed by their offerings of broom corn ... a really nifty plant!), the nostalgia trip was definitely the main attraction for us, I have to admit. Worth a look, and if you have the space, they have a lot of really cool options for veggies. Flowers are definitely an afterthought here, so if you are concentrating on them, you're likely served better elsewhere. I'd definitely say worth checking out though! If seed catalogues of yesteryear get you going (I'm a sucker, I admit) this is a must see!

In my next post I'll address some of the 'big dogs' in the seed world and their relative merits. There's a reason they're still around and kicking, and they do have their reputations to bank upon with serious gardeners. After all, they didn't get to where they are today by supplying inferior seeds, and now that we can see it all online only increases the likelihood that they'll be around for use for a good, long time!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Orwell Was More Than Right

The other night, I learned on Countdown that recently appointed Attorney General Robert Mukasey keeps two portraits hanging in his new office. One is of a Supreme Court justice of whom I know nothing. It's the other one that startled me. Eric Blair, aka George Orwell has the dubious honor of sharing wall space with a Supreme Court justice in the office of the top arbiter of what masquerades as justice these days.

The irony is more than rich, as Keith Olbermann duly noted. For the new occupant of the AG's office, in the now thoroughly gutted and politicized Justice Department to be choosing this particular writer to hang on the wall is deeply disturbing. Though when asked, he reportedly praised Orwell's writing for its 'spare and concise' clarity. Nary a mention of his masterwork's nightmare vision in which we have appeared to be living for quite some time. Apparently this man, (who has yet to decide whether waterboarding is torture or not), was absent from school the day when simple rhetorical tropes such as irony were introduced. And, it appears, that he totally missed the dystopian warning Orwell so chillingly and dispassionately described in 1984. That is, if he ever read the book in the first place.

Olbermann, who has long been invoking Orwell with regard to the lawlessness and invasive tendencies of the $hrub administration, put it perfectly in one of his Special Comments last year (and I paraphrase): "Mr. President, Orwell's novel is not a how to manual!" Indeed. Of course, we all know that they never got that memo, or missed school the day when some brighter kid in the class gave the book report.

Yes folks, we've got a real life constitutional crisis going on here, and for those who have been willing to pay attention to the details of what's been happening to our constitution and basic rights to privacy and in particular the 4th amendment (anybody seen habeus corpus or posse comitatus lately?), there is much reason to despair. Honestly, there are many days when I dread getting up in the morning because I fear learning about something even more nefarious that will come to light about the activities of this government. The current Democratic 'majority' (such as it isn't) has been only too willing to cave, time and again, to the dictatorial whims of the Enfant Terrible who currently holds office as his sinecure from a tainted and unfair Supreme Court ruling.

Fortunately, and yet of some small, yet palpable, solace, we do have some constitutional defenders speaking out consistently against these increased, shameless usurpations of power. Olbermann frequently features Former (Nixon!) White House Counsel John Dean and Constitutional Law Professor Jonathan Turley on Countdown, and they, along with other notable guests such as Senators Chris Dodd and Russ Feingold have contributed to informing the willing public about our current dire state of affairs. Dodd, in particular, has become a hero of mine of late (alas his presidential ambitions fell short in our caucuses earlier this month) for his tireless efforts to defeat the current version of the FISA bill being pushed to the Senate floor by Majority (mis)Leader Harry Reid. Dodd and Feingold have been out front on this issue for quite some time and I gratefully thank them for it. Had Dodd made this his signature issue two years ago, I think he might have had a much greater chance in his presidential efforts. I hope he holds no rancor against Iowa and learned much during and enjoyed his time living in Iowa, because he has become truly a remarkable figure we can look to for his efforts to restore the Constitution. Now, with the Democratic field narrowing to the pre-ascribed media horse race narrative, it's even more important to get the remaining "front runners" on board. John Edwards has been there right along, despite his media-imposed 'invisibility' that has led to his diminishing perceived 'viability' as a credible candidate. (Full Disclosure: I proudly and enthusiastically caucused for Edwards on January 3.)

So that brings us to the 'inevitable ones,' Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

I've got my beefs with both of them, but I'm more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Obama at this point. Both have disappointed me recently with their votes (or lack thereof) on certain weighty issues, namely the Kyl-LIEberman act declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guards as 'terrorists,' a war-mongering act if there ever was one. Hillary voted for it, once again hedging her bets as the neo-neocon she is and capitulating to the god of political expediency. Obama just didn't show up to vote. Shame on them both. Well now, they both have an historic chance to prove their claims of superior leadership, and they'd better go into it full well knowing that at least some of us are watching how they weigh in on this issue. If not, there's no clothespin big enough for me to vote for either of them in good conscience. If Obama's smart (and I do think he is and I will enthusiastically support him if he is the nominee), he'll be there to cast a progressive vote against the Intelligence Committee's version of the bill (e.g. capitulation with immunity) and will join Dodd's filibuster in favor or the Judiciary Committee's version (e.g. no telecom immunity). Yes, this may take precious time away from the frenzy leading up to February 5, but in the larger view of things, wouldn't the support of Dodd's filibuster be the more important priority of the two? I think we should all be watching. And writing our senators about this issue. (So far mine, Tom Harkin, is on the good side. Grassley's a hopeless $hrub shill.) Pay attention 'Tsunami Tuesday' voters. Your privacy is at stake when you vote in your primary. Think about this seriously. And pay attention to these votes. I've already cast my lot in the much maligned Iowa Caucuses, so I can't vote again until fall. I'm just hoping that the Democratic primary and caucus voters start moving things in the appropriate, progressive direction we need.

I read an article published today in the Nation, calling on Senators Obama and Clinton to work to defeat the soon to be debated Senate version of the Telecom Immunity provision of the FISA domestic wiretapping act. This comes at a critical moment, namely because $hrub has threatened to veto even an extension of the current status quo (without immunity) that's already giving away too much of the store as it regards citizens' rights to privacy. This is a critical vote, and how Obama and Clinton weigh in on it will speak volumes about their worthiness to be the 'agent of change' they both purport to be. Yes, Obama has inspired me recently with his speeches in Iowa and South Carolina, but he's yet to seal the deal and close on this voter. Hillary? I have serious doubts, and may, for the second time in my life, elect not to vote if she is the nominee. But then there's that nagging Supreme Court Justice appointment nightmare I keep having ... I can say that I'd trust her more to make a sane appointment than the ResKunKliKans, but that's really pushing it hard for me. When it comes down to damning a candidate for President with faint praise, I tend to get a bit grumpy. I suspect that large clothespins will soon be available online. I hope I don't have to buy one.

The Nation article references the Democracy For America website, which is currently lobbying Clinton and Obama on this issue, and I give them a big shout out for their efforts. I'm inclined to throw them $20 towards their NYT ad on this vote. If you're so inclined as well, show them some love for getting out front of this during this contentious and very important vote.

DFA, I hope you don't mind I hijacked your graphic for this post.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Saturday Night World Cinema: From Russia With Sizzle

Tonight we chose a double feature of two recent Russian films that actually made a bit of a splash in the US market and have since achieved somewhat of a cult following: Night Watch: Nochoy dozor, (2004) and its "sequel," Day Watch: Dnevoy dozor (2006). Apparently, in Russia these two films managed to achieve phenomenal popularity approaching "blockbuster status," to the extent that people snapped up ringtones of the music from the film. Though they obviously didn't rise to such heights in the US, they did manage to crash quite flashily (and loudly!) through the language barrier (and the general US indifference to "foreign" films) to gain an enthusiastic following among sci-fi and action fans. We first heard of Night Watch a couple of years ago when one of Fernymoss' friends urged us to see it, saying only that any attempts to pigeonhole the film were useless and to trust him, it was excellent, and we should just give it an open-minded shot. So we did ... and we were dazzled and energized by its stunning visual pizazz and its epic scope.

The first film, Night Watch, defies most genre expectations, though it's pretty easy to identify solidly established filmic tropes and connections to more familiar material. It focuses on the epic centuries old battle between Light and Dark (or Good and Evil, if you prefer), has vicious vampires (of a sort), quasi-immortal beings among mortals, and an eye popping, yes "sizzling" visual style used to magnificent effect. The film roars into action (after a brief prologue setting the stage of the conflict) and never lets up until its stunning climax some 114 minutes later. The experience of seeing this film totally uniformed of its particulars is, I think, the best way to approach it, so I'll refrain from revealing too much other than the basic plot lines that can help guide an initial viewing. Although for many, it will probably recall such films as The Matrix, numerous martial arts spectaculars and even The Omen, it is far from a derivative film and I'd argue that it reorganizes such filmic tropes in such an engaging and original manner that in no way could one characterize it as a "rip-off" or even "homage" to any particular film. It clearly stands on its own and is well worth more than one viewing, even for audiences not normally attracted to such fare. It's that good!

Night Watch opens with an expository prologue centering on the climactic ancient battle waged between the Light Ones and Dark Ones (referred to as "Others"), which is so bloody and catastrophic that both commanders (Gesser and Zavulon) call a truce between the sides in order to avoid complete annihilation. Flash forward to Moscow, 1992, where we are introduced to its human protagonist Anton Gorodetzky, who will serve as our guide into the modern phase of the battle. Through a (literally) fateful turn of events, he learns he is an "Other" who must choose to serve either the forces of Light or Dark ... at this point he then experiences a conversion which grants him with extraordinary powers and he is compelled to make his choice. He sides with the forces of Light and the battle is engaged once again ... he works with the "Night Watch" team who struggles to maintain the balance between the two sides by counteracting attacks on humans by the Dark Ones. Flash forward again to Moscow, 2004, where Anton is fully trained and active in the "Night Watch" forces, this time working to avoid catastrophe caused by the appearance of a powerful destructive vortex threatening the city.

The film's mythic proportions now having been established, Night Watch barrels on through numerous breath-taking skirmishes, adding depth and dimension (for both humans and immortals) to the narrative. To its immeasurable credit, Night Watch does establish a surprising depth of character to what could have been (as would probably be the case in an American attempt) rather cartoonish protagonists. Some of the material may seem fairly familiar, but there's a clearly Russian flavor to the action that, to this viewer, was refreshingly original. And that's what takes Night Watch far beyond the boundaries of the typical sci-fi or action film.

By far, the most astounding feature of this film is its visual execution, which is so engaging, exciting and originally conceived that it merits a viewing for this aspect alone. The photography, editing and special effects are used to such an inventive degree that one is never bored and most often amazed by just how much they communicate about this foreign world into which we have been plunged, along with Anton. We see much of it through his eyes as he learns what his role is in the battle, and learn along with him how the "rules" of this particular battle operate ... and how the potential for the violation of these very rules governs the fate of the entire world, which he is fighting to save. The die is thus cast for an apocalyptic battle that the forces of Light work at all costs to avoid, while the Dark Ones plot to bring on in full force. In this sense, the parameters of the classic epic have been recast in strikingly modern terms, using the tropes of popular sci-fi/action cinema. The ride is exhilarating, if a bit confusing at times (a second viewing is as richly rewarding), but at no point should the observant viewer be bored ... the pacing in the film is so impeccably established, that even if certain details may at first escape the viewer, it makes little difference. Thanks to the boundless humanity of our protagonist Anton, we're gladly along for the ride, rooting for him all the way. And we're far from disappointed in him as the narrative hurtles to its inevitably mythic dénouement, which neatly establishes the premise of the second film in a grandiose, yet never cheesy manner. Night Watch ultimately leaves the viewer wanting more, anticipating the outcome of the ultimate battle between the forces of Light and Dark ... which the following film, Day Watch delivers in spades!

A note on viewing this film. The DVD available in the US market has an English version on one side, and the original Russian on the other. If you choose to view this film, do NOT choose the English version because you'll miss the most inventive use of subtitles I have ever seen in a foreign language film. Besides paying respect to the original language, these subtitles are executed so cleverly that they actually add to the intrigue of the film because they jump about the screen, indicating who is saying what, thus eliminating some of the inevitable questions one often has about dialogue points. They integrate seamlessly within the action and actually complement the pleasure of viewing this film. Unfortunately, the distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures chose not to incorporate this into the release of Day Watch and I must say, it does suffer a bit because of it.

Having voiced this minor quibble with the American version, I must say that Day Watch definitely lives up to the potential the first film so successfully establishes, though if a bit less artfully. It picks up right where the first film left off and even if it does come in at longer running time (2 hours and 30 min), it provides a more than satisfying conclusion to the narrative in the previous film. We're back in present day New Year's 2006, where Anton struggles to continue the fight against the Dark Ones, despite his son's defection into their ranks. He sports new colleagues in his battle, and one particularly powerful one who joins him in the battle. But here, instead of saving the city from the ravages of the destructive vortex, he's engaged in a fight for the existence of the world itself. If he loses, the world will be plunged into an era of unspeakable darkness and doom ... if he wins, it may be able to survive ... and it all hinges upon his loyalty to his son or the woman he has come to love over the course of the events of the previous film. These are classic narrative tropes: pitting the hero against blood relations (saving his son) versus his own "selfish" desires to save the woman he loves.

These personal conflicts play out within the parameters of the larger battle of the "Great Ones" in both camps and place our hero Anton squarely in the middle, conflicted and confused. We follow his seemingly contradictory actions throughout the film, often depicted without a clearly coherent rationale, as we witness the inexorable sequence of events that have been put in motion. In a crucial moment, he is literally torn between the two worlds and must make a decision to side with one or the other, when given a deus ex machina that ultimately decides the outcome. Without revealing the decision he makes, I must say that this film concludes its narrative in a quite satisfying fashion, which still leaves things open for a future addendum to the story.

I'm not sure that I really want to see yet another film (though it's been reported there will be one titled Dusk Watch, based on the third novel in the series), but given the sheer bravado and brilliance of these first two films, I'll probably be compelled to take a look nonetheless. Day Watch replicates a lot of what made Night Watch so engaging, yet I didn't feel the urgency and humanity that permeated the first film. Yes, it wraps everything up with a satisfying bow, yet it somehow lacked some of the surprising elements that made the first film so rewarding. That's not to say that it's not worth watching if you liked the first installment (au contraire!), just that one is left feeling that the narrative arc has been successfully completed. It's a satisfying conclusion that doesn't beg for more elaboration and leaves certain elements tantalizingly open for future development. After the ride we had in the previous two films, I just question the necessity of continuing the series. And as in many cases, my hunches say just let it be. We'll see, ultimately, what may come of this series, but given the first two installments, I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Caveats: Day Watch doesn't display the astounding visual virtuosity of the first film, but compensates with a great sense of humor. If you liked Night Watch you must see this "sequel." Whether you want to go beyond it depends on your degree of enthusia
sm for the ensemble so far. For me, the jury's still out. But no matter where the director Timur Bekmambetov decides to go, I'll be curious enough to follow him in his path. Compared to American sci-fi/action offerings of late, this series is way more interesting and engaging. And add in the subtle purely Russian details provided, it's a fascinating view into the world experienced by people we hardly know ... and for that alone, these films are worth watching.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Report from Precinct 69

As you no doubt now know, the 2008 Iowa Caucuses are history. I must say that my initial reactions to the results are pretty positive. Even though my man Edwards didn't end up on the top of the heap, it's just the kickoff. What's more important to me is who ended up on the bottom. I'm aware that might sound a bit uncharitable, but it's where I stand in this race and I offer no apologies for my position in what is necessarily a partisan process.

Barack Obama's post-Caucus speech was, I thought, electrifying. I feel much more positively toward him now, and honestly, during points in his speech, he brought tears to my eyes. Edwards' was definitely inspiring, though it was largely a recap of his campaign message. But it's a big, positive message, and I'm glad I stood for John Edwards this evening. And I will continue to support him as long as he remains in the race.

Anyway, you probably didn't come here for my ad lib post mortem analysis of the Caucuses, but I'll allow myself a wee bit in the overall analysis of my precinct ... I'm more interested in filing my report from Precinct 69 in Des Moines. So here goes ... our precinct has 750 registered voters. In 2004, 212 attended the Democratic Caucus to select the 9 County and State Convention Delegates. We met in the upper level of a middle school cafeteria, while Precinct 68 had the lower level.

We were in the same room this year. 480 people registered tonight. In a word, it was wall to wall people, mostly standing room only. Sardine cans came to mind. It was hot and extremely cramped, but people were incredibly civil (that damned Iowa gene!), in a great, energized mood and ready to caucus. At times some were even boisterous as the counts were announced. The mood you feel at one of these events is hard to characterize ... excitement, anxiety, elation ... you can really run the gamut depending on the outcomes. But given the overall cheering on the various sides, I'd say that almost everyone went away with a really energized positive feeling. At any rate we did ...

So here's the commentary on the photos. I was crammed in near the back of the room so I was able to capture a bit of the quasi claustrophobic feel ... and given that I'm just a guy of 5'9", it was not easy to get great shots. In fact, the last shot (of the hands) I got while holding up my hand to announce my number (at the end of the second count) and the camera in the other, shooting blindly in the air! Turned out pretty well, I thought!

Anyway, shot number 1 gives a view of the Caucus kickoff just before the first count. Here, the Caucus Chair is explaining the agenda and the basic rules concerning the counts, the viability threshold (it was 72) and the realignment period. It also should give you a good idea of just how jam packed the room was on all sides. (I was roughly in the center back, so there were groups to the left of me and Hillary on the Right, hehe).

The second picture was taken during the first count to determine viability. Here, the Precinct Captain is explaining how we will hold up our hands then count out loud and lower them to register our votes. It was chaotic, to say the least, but we easily passed the viability threshold with 82 votes.

I took the third shot during the realignment period, when the people in non-viable and uncommitted groups were allowed to make their second choices.
To alleviate some of the crush, the Chair allowed the Obama contingent to move into the hall during the realignment period. This lasted 30 minutes, during which people wheeled and dealed as much as they could given the limited mobility due to the crowded conditions.

And the final shot (which is actually my favorite, probably because I winged it and it turned out!) is near the end of the second count, where we picked up 18 more people from the realignment to give our group a total of 100. That earned us 2 delegates for Edwards to the convention.

Now for the nitty gritty, dweeby, wonky stuff!
Here are the results of the first count to determine viability:

Biden, 31
Clinton, 87
Dodd, 9
Edwards, 82
Gravel, 1
Kucinich, 11
Obama, 193
Richardson, 50
Uncommitted, 13

After the first count, the following groups were declared non-viable: Biden, Dodd, Gravel, Kucinich and Richardson.

After the 30 minute realignment period, the second count proceeded a bit less chaotically than the first and these were the results.

Clinton, 87
Edwards, 100
Obama, 209
Richardson, 72

Now, you're probably wondering how Richardson was declared non-viable after the first count, yet somehow ended up viable with 72 votes? Simple, during the realignment, the Richardson group hung tight and beat the bushes (so to speak) and came up with 22 more votes to become viable and earn 1 delegate for Bill Richardson.

The final delegate allocation:
Obama, 209 -- earned 4 delegates
Edwards, 100 -- earned 2 delegates
Clinton, 87 -- earned 2 delegates
Richardson, 72 -- earned 1 delegate

Now for a bit of analysis if you'll permit ... Richardson was the surprise of the night, as his group stuck together and gained 22 votes during the realignment period. Edwards picked up 18, Obama picked up 16, and Clinton picked up 0. It didn't strike me at the time, because I was so intent on getting the counts written down, but Clinton was unable to land any second choice caucus votes. I think this was telling ... aside from the minor Richardson miracle, the net winner on second choice votes was Edwards. Obama's showing was certainly respectable, but I found it fascinating that of the 65 people in the Uncommitted or Non-Viable groups, he only picked up 16. Edwards picked up 18, which to me shows he still has some strength out there ... Now that I give the numbers a bit more scrutiny, it appears that some people must have remained uncommitted (thus non-viable) or simply left during the realignment period. I'm going to have to give this some more thought, since these are only my rough numbers based on the announced counts. It's quite possible that some people came for a non-viable candidate and then left or remained Uncommitted, thus dropped, but the fact that keeps slapping me in the face is that Hillary had a net pick up of 0. Wow. So much for her electability.

Think about it. These were supposedly the "hardcore" Iowa Democrats in attendance, and none chose Hillary as their second choice. Though I couldn't get a reliable count on the number of crossovers (Independents and Rethuglicans -- and there were a fair number of both, including Fernymoss) I'd guess there were at least 30-40 in attendance. (And gee, we had a Rethuglican Caucus just down the hall ... hehe) None of them appeared to break for Hillary in the initial count or the realignment.

Granted, this was just one precinct out of some 1700+ in the entire state, but I think it shows something about Hillary's general (lack of) appeal. And these folks were the "hardcore" Democrats of our little slice of Des Moines. Of course, all the MSNBC pundits (except KO) were crowing later about the "Change" factor that drove the Caucuses tonight and they're not entirely wrong on singling that out. It remains to be seen in subsequent caucuses and primaries whether this will continue to drive the nomination contests. But the kickoff has begun, and it looks to be an exciting, if a bit bumpy, ride over the next month or so. We've done our part now, the airport was probably jammed with people on their way to New Hampshire tonight, and I'm soooo glad I don't need to go through there tomorrow (today!).

We had 5 messages on the machine today after work. Tomorrow, I predict 0. We've done our duty, now it's up to the rest of the country to keep the Change Train (as Edwards put it tonight) in motion. Ahhhhhhhh .... no more crammed mailbox ... we can answer the phone again without screening the calls. We feel good, even optimistic, about what happened tonight here in Iowa. Though I remain engaged in the campaign, I'm ready to take a break from politics for a while. The torch has been passed to the good people of New Hampshire and beyond. Don't mess it up, folks!

SIDEBAR: MSNBC was reporting (last I saw a few hours ago) that Democratic turnout was 236,000, up from roughly 120,000 in 2004. Rethuglicans were slightly over 100,000. The pleasant surprise for me in the Rethuglican Caucus (why not call it what it is? A STRAW POLL), was that Ron Paul came in with 10%, easily besting Rudy Giuliani at 3%. That's a result that warms the cockles of a Progressive's political heart. Of course, the big news was that Huckster-bee trounced Mittens 34% to 23% and the rest was, honestly electoral mush. That Democrats clearly came out in a 2-1 ratio compared to the Theocraticons also inspires hope that they won't be able to steal this one.

Biden and Dodd dropped out tonight, given their dismal showings. I really had come to like and respect Dodd the past month or two and hoped he'd have a better outcome. But I think he'd be wise to just keep his seat in the Senate, and run to replace Harry Reid as Majority Leader after the election when we will most likely pick up at least a few more seats. He's a solid guy, has restoring the Constitution and Habeus Corpus as top priorities, and really gave a good shot at it here. Biden? Well though I love the Joe of late (who could forget his quip that Giuliani's sentences "consisted of a noun, a verb and 9/11?") But I'll never forgive him his pushing that godawful Bankruptcy Reform Bill of 2005. Cabinet material maybe, but President, no. Besides, he's a gasbag. He certainly toned it down a bit recently, but he's still a gasbag. Richardson is a well meaning boob. He's got tons of experience (great stuff, too!) but he's a boob. Kucinich (my 2004 choice) is still a personal hero of mine, but his heart is obviously not in it this time. He hardly campaigned here this time around. He's pushing the debate in all the right directions, but I think he's still more valuable in the House, where Bob Wexler is helping push the movement for Impeachment of Cheney and Shrub.

And Mike Gravel? Bless his heart, the old curmudgeon ("You people scare me!") had a lone supporter tonight in our Caucus. I don't know where he went during the realignment, but I had to give him major props for speaking out. All in all, it was a great night at the Iowa Caucuses!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Twas the night before caucuses ....

Here we are, at the bitter end of the caucus madness, and I'm more than a bit peeved at how some of "our" bloggers are characterizing the imminent Iowa Caucuses. I read The Carpetbagger Report every day, and was especially upset by some of the acrimonious responses by commenters today at this post. (You can read my comment at the end of the thread, if you're interested.) Will Rogers once famously said, "I'm not a member of any organized party, I'm a Democrat," and unfortunately, this thread only goes to prove his point once again. Aren't we united in our desire to end this illegal regime? Don't we all want to end the domination by corporate interests, bat-shit crazy wingnuts, asshats, theocrats and the like? Are we united at all? Sometimes I really wonder if we can really mount a movement to take back the truly democratic ideals we all claim to espouse. And when I see folks on "our side" attacking Iowa for being first in the nation, I can only shake my head at what's wrong with these resentful people?

Yeah, we do like the attention for a little while, but we take our responsibility seriously. Much has been made in the MSM about the relatively few people who actually take part in the caucuses, yet they rarely acknowledge that these very people have the best interests of the nation at heart, and do their best to do what they see as best for the country. Of course we put up with the inevitable characterizations as "fly over country," "bumpkins" and "hayseeds" ... we're used to that. That doesn't mean that we are given a greater say in things (I don't think so!) than other states are, when all is said and done.

Yes, the system surely appears to be broken, but it's all we've got at this point ... so do we make lemonade or just walk away and grumble? Do we work harder to make it more inclusive or do we just bitch about it? Well, for one, I will work within what we have established at this point and work for future reforms. That's all we can do.

IF we are allowed to have a real election in 2008 (which in itself is a dubious proposition, given the current power elite), we need to make our voices known loud and strong to oppose the status quo. That's all that any individual can do, and if we do it in a way that is different from the "primary" system, then let us do it our way. If you don't like it, then tune out and STFU. Just remember that when your states report "Primary Returns" we'll be sitting here applauding you for spending 2 minutes in voting booth marking a ballot, remembering how we went out on a cold January night to spend our time off work, trying to send a signal where we think this country should move forward. If you don't like the message, then do what you can where you are to change it. Attacking Iowans as 'elitists' is a futile tactic, because even we don't ascribe that importance to what we do at the caucuses. We're just ordinary folks who turn out to express our best chance choices. If you're locked into regional stereotypes, then I pity you. If resentment so drives your opinions, then do something locally to make the difference where you are.

I would have so much more appreciated not being bothered throughout the holiday season by incessant phone calls, but thanks to states like FL, MI, SC and others, that was not to be. I don't mind so much, but I do resent the Iowa Bashing. We're good people here, and if you can't figure that out by now, then take your beer into the corner, cry crocodile tears and STFU!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Calendars and More Caucus News ...

First off, some disappointing news reported by The Nation regarding Kucinich's announcement today backing Obama as his recommended choice for the second count. See if you can find the annoying verbiage in this paragraph:

The arcane rules of the Iowa caucus require a candidate to receive 15 percent of the vote at a given caucus location in order to qualify for delegates. After the first round of voting, supporters of candidates who are not "viable" can choose their second, top tier choice. In '04 Kucinich urged his supporters, in a surprising move, to back John Edwards, helping to boost his margin in liberal areas. Edwards has moved to the left since then, yet this time Kucinich went with Obama. "Sen. Obamaand I have one thing in common: Change," Kucinich said in a press release today.

This just goes to prove my point from the post last night ... even
The Nation persists in using this annoying language! Makes me want to pull what's left of my hair out in frustration! Oh well, it will be over in two days and I can wait another four years to hear this claptrap make its comeback ... Maybe by then they'll have wised up ... yeah right!

Actually I wanted to show off the new calendar Fernymoss and the pups got me for Christmas ... We're going to put it on the dining room table and work our way through it one day at a time. I read recently that this was one of the top-selling calendars this season, so I know I'm in lots of good company owning it! I may even include some excerpts here if we find something particularly juicy (and I'm sure we will). All I can say is that I look forward to it getting skinnier and skinnier and skinnier ....

Happy New Year! (and some musings on the Iowa Caucuses)

So... here we are, fresh into 2008 and we just finished our second movie of the night, Stardust Memories, and I thought I'd drop by before bed to record my initial musings on the imminent Caucuses, Thursday 3 January. So all holiday festivities now aside, it's time to get down to doing what we Iowans are (in)famous for: our "arcane" Caucus system.

I'm constantly annoyed by media types and bloggers who repeatedly characterize our Caucus system as "bizarre," "complex" and overly complicated in its rules and execution. For the average Caucus goer, they might seem odd at first, but as to the actual degree of familiarity one must possess to caucus, it's really anything but complicated. Even a publication I respect (and read) as much as The Nation came out with this painful groaner tonight.
New York Senator Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards are both within striking distance of Obama as Thursday's caucuses approach. And Clinton and Edwards retain what could yet be decisive strengths among the most likely caucus goers.

What this means is that there is no clear leader, as the complex caucus process -- in which votes shift at the last minute as supporters of candidates realign on caucus night -- is virtually impossible to poll with the sort of accuracy that Americans have come to expect of surveys released shortly before actual elections.

This was clearly disappointing to me, a longtime Caucus goer (when I've actually lived in Iowa) who finds the whole process quite exhilarating, even (gasp) very democratic and anything but arcane. Those 78 pp. 'Instruction manuals' you've read about in the media --with the intimations that everyone must know them chapter and verse-- well, no average Caucus goer actually reads them! Those are for the party officials who conduct the actual Caucuses, because they contain the "real arcana" such as how to call a quorum, establish the 15% viability thresholds and the nuts and bolts on how to conduct the actual counts. One thing The Nation did get right (and it's no brilliant insight) is that they are notoriously unreliable to poll, due to the existence of the --recently deemed significant by the MSM-- "all important second choices" on Caucus night. Given the existence of a certain amount of 'horse trading' that can go on at a Caucus, the second choice is indeed a powerful feature of the Caucus. And one I consider an ultimately very democratic function of the Caucus, so bear with me.

Here's how it goes on Caucus night, so read along and see if you think you'd be capable of spending a couple of hours out on a cold January night making your best attempt to craft who will be the ultimate Presidential nominee of your party. It's serious business. And many dismiss the relatively low turnout as mere partisan manipulation on the part of the few, but that's a notion I reject out of hand. Yes, it's generally the party faithful who show up, but it's so much more ... citizens gathering in their neighborhood precincts come together and hear last minute arguments for candidates before they express their preferences in "The Count." But I'm getting ahead of myself and I suspect you might appreciate more the 'blow by blow' account, so here goes.

1) You show up where your precinct meets, (mine is in an elementary school cafeteria) at 6:30 p.m. on Caucus Night. You go in, you register with your name and address and are then considered part of the active pool of Caucus goers.

2) After that, you scope out the room for the tables occupied by supporters of your candidate and head on over, bearing any campaign regalia (t-shirts, signs, etc.) you may have in tow. (I'm going to take my camera this year so I can post some shots here.) You mingle with those you know, meet new people in your neighborhood, and generally enthuse in group praise of your candidate. Then you wait until the Caucus is called to order.

3) At 7:00 p.m. the doors are closed and the registration of new entrants stops. The officials in charge do a head count of those in attendance, perform some mathematical calculations to determine the 15% viability threshold (based on the number of people attending), the number of delegates available to the county and state conventions (those who are up for grabs by the candidates) and then call the Caucus to order. They explain what the basic rules are: there will be a minimum of 2 counts before the final results are tallied, and during the interim between the first and second count, any participants Caucusing for candidates who don't meet the 15% threshold are given a chance to regroup with other candidates or declare themselves 'Undecided.'

4) Some speechifying on behalf of each Candidate then takes place before the first count. Once that is completed, officials proceed to the first count. It's basically a procedure to the effect of All those who support Candidate X, now please make your preference known, and the people grouped for each candidate raise their hands.
What do YOU have to actually do? Stand up and raise your hand at the appropriate time when the count is being conducted. It's that simple. If you ever raised your hand in a show of hands vote in grade school, you can participate in the Iowa Caucuses! The officials make a count of the people in each group and then declare that candidate either 'viable' or 'non-viable.' This proceeds around the room until all candidates have been declared either 'viable' or 'non-viable.'

5) There's then an open period --I don't recall how long, but it's about 20-30 minutes maximum-- during which you can lobby (ack, how I hate that word, but it's what actually happens!) participants supporting non-viable candidates to join your group, using whatever skills you might have ... political savvy, gift of gab, or even a little friendly neighborhood pressure to convince people to come over to your side. There is an area for 'Undecided' participants who are ripe for the plucking (so to speak) which is a heavily lobbied table (I nearly got into a fight with a Kerry rep from MA at this table last time, lol). I truly pity these folks, because (besides being 'undecided' at this point? Come on!) everyone wants a piece of them. Bodies count. Every person you can woo to your side could mean the difference between losing or gaining a delegate, so these folks are valuable real estate, so to speak!

6) Then the Caucus is called back to order for the second count. At this point, everyone has regrouped according to their preferences and the same procedure is followed to determine the results of the second count. Everyone stands and raises their hands again and the (usually) final count is determined. I know that theoretically more counts could occur if the momentum shifts radically from candidate to candidate, but I've never seen this happen.

7) The officials perform some more mathematical calculations and determine the number of delegates to the county and state conventions who will be awarded to each candidate and announce the results. Some cheer, others are less cheerful. And voilà! If you're only there to express your presidential preference, you can pack up and go home at this point to watch the returns come in!

8) The rest of the evening is spent selecting candidate delegates from each group to the county and state Democratic conventions, and various resolutions that will be presented at the convention. This is where every one with a cause will present resolutions geared toward party platform planks regarding everything from women's choice issues, to labor issues to humane mouse killing. Honestly, it's usually pretty stultifying stuff, and only the diehard local politicos stick around this long. This time around I think I'll skip this part and go home, especially if I convince Fernymoss to actually attend this time, because I know his eyes would be glazing over at this point.

When people finally peter out on the resolutions and such, the Caucus is declared closed and they take off, either for home or for the after Caucus parties (or wakes, as it may be ... Howard Dean's was infamous in 2004) thrown by the candidates. As much as I'd like to do that again this time (I had a great time at the Kucinich party last time), I've got a very busy week at work, so we'll probably just head home to check out the TV (mis)coverage.

What you see reported as results are really the aggregate numbers of delegates won by each candidate in the Caucuses statewide. This is where the rural vote can really become important, because as they are generally much smaller gatherings than those in more urban areas, a smaller number of people can actually really count for much more. When all the delegates are pooled you get what is nominally declared 'the winner.' That's why candidates who are successful in more rural areas can make their big difference ... it was a big factor for John Edwards in 2004, and could be so again this time around. That's why you've seen Obama and Our Lady of Perpetual Triangulation making frequent visits to the more far-flung burghs of the state.

Yes, it's one big crap shoot that can depend on so many factors --weather notwithstanding!-- and why the Iowa Caucuses are near impossible to call in advance ... unlike people who, in a primary, only have to enter a voting booth and mark a ballot, it takes a real commitment to get out on a January night (especially early this year!) and make your position known in a very public way. To me, this is a much more democratic way of selecting candidates because it requires knowledge of them, commitment to them and a willingness to stand up and literally be COUNTED. Is this system inferior to a "National Primary?" I leave it to you to argue the point, but as far as I'm concerned, all the ridicule and general maligning that goes on relating to the Caucuses is unwarranted. Yeah, we uneducated bumpkins out here in the cornfields demand a lot of retail politics, but to me, that's proof we need to make such a weighty decision.

What it all boils down to me is that you can select candidates based on 30 second attack ads and a split second decision in the voting booth, or you can really educate yourself on each candidate ... make them prove their mettle and then make your decision. Would you rather select your candidate by drive through menu or have a serious sit-down meal before you make up your mind? Only you alone can answer that question.

I'm proud to be an Iowan, and yes, we do love the attention and hate the annoyance of not being able to answer the phone for the final few months, but when it's all said and done Thursday night, I think we'll all breathe a huge sigh of relief that the politicians, the media goons and everyone else will let us go back to our 'bumpkinhood' without the glare of the national spotlight on us. We'll pass the torch on, and hope for the best!

Disclosure: I've never been, and never will go, to a Rethuglican Caucus so I'm not sure what rules they operate by in their Caucuses. I suspect they're a bit dodgier and probably this year nastier, but I'll leave it to the knuckle draggers to anoint their theocratic choice. I just keep remembering that great quote from Ross Perot in 92 when he talked about a 'giant sucking sound' ... with luck, that will be the sound of the Reskunklicans going down the big electoral toilet!

Further disclosure: If you didn't know already, I'm PROUDLY Caucusing for John Edwards this time around and if you haven't given him a serious look before now, please do so now. He can beat HRC at her own game given a chance, and honestly, do we need more political dynasty building? America can rise again from the ruins of this Bu$h disaster if we act soon enough!

Plus, wouldn't Elizabeth Edwards make the coolest and smartest First Lady ever? Smart, tough, and I bet she'd be really fun to make cookies with talking politics!