Thursday, June 18, 2015

Top-15 Takeaways After Completing My Tour Of Iowa

Going back unofficially to the late 1980s and officially since 2006 when I moved here, I've been slow-walking my way through a 99-county tour of the state of Iowa.  While I don't find Iowa to be anywhere near as interesting generally as my home state of Minnesota and didn't have nearly the level of passion in visiting every nook and cranny of my adopted home state as I did my actual home state, it was a fun and educational adventure that produced a lot of memorable moments.  In honor of completing my tour, I thought I'd make a list of my top takeaways--some very general and some very specific--from touring the state and came up with a list of 15....

#15.  Lakes Are The Exception Not The Rule--Growing up in Minnesota, I'm used to a culture of lakes.  The average Minnesota county probably has two dozen of them, and while all of them are a big deal in their own way in terms of settlement patterns and tourism, it's quite a contrast with Iowa where a lake that would be deemed rather ordinary in size and depth in Minnesota is viewed as a state treasure in the Hawkeye state.  It's almost rather amazing how the prevalence of lakes shrinks dramatically pretty much exactly at the state line.  Northern Iowa is definitely the region of the state with the most lakes, but even there, the top tier of Iowa counties has at least 50% fewer lakes than the southern tier of Minnesota counties.

#14.  College Sports Overshadow Professional Sports--I learned this more living in Iowa than by simply road-tripping my way through the state, but it still bears mention.  Iowa is a state without any professional franchises, and while I had always heard murmurs about places in the country where college sports are of greater relevance than professional sports, it never really occurred to me till I get here that Iowa was among them.  The rivalry between the University of Iowa and Iowa State University in particular generates passion every bit as electric among Iowans as a trip to the postseason would for home state fans of the Minnesota Vikings, Twins, or Timberwolves.  This college sports fascination trickles down outside the state as well, with Iowans seemingly more interested in college football and basketball even when the hometown boys aren't playing than they are with the NFL or NBA.

#13.  Country Music Rules--I've often heard it said by locals and long-distance visitors alike that country music dominates the radio dial in Iowa more than just about anywhere else.  I like the music so I'm fine with that, but have heard numerous stories from frustrated visitors who don't like country music that they were driving through Iowa and found themselves repeatedly scanning the dial looking for something other than country music and often were unsuccessful in doing so.  I'm less than sympathetic to this grievance given the dirt roads and cornfields surrounding them should make the culture pretty obvious and limit their expectations of hearing much jazz or light classical.  Curiously though, I've found that even walking through the most urban mall in Des Moines--and specifically past an alternative tattoos and piercings store--you still hear country music playing on the radio inside.

#12.  Amish And Maharishi Bring Vitality And Color To Small Communities--There's a surprisingly large number of Amish communities in rural Iowa.  Hundreds of Amish households are scattered throughout the state with a half dozen or so counties home to the majority of them, counties scattered from the northeast corner to the southern tier of counties.  Amish vendors and businesses can be found on remote country roads peddling their wares and providing choices to locals that otherwise wouldn't exist.  I'm not sure when most of these Amish settled in Iowa, but I'm guessing they bought up a lot of low-cost land during the 1980s farm crisis.  Either way, it appears to have been a good deal for rural Iowa.   A more concise local impact was felt by the settlement of the Maharishi in and around the small southeast Iowa city of Fairfield.  The Maharishi are a group resembling modern-day hippies with a very specific doctrine of enlightened thinking who established a college in Fairfield and have become a large percentage of the population in Jefferson County in recent years, increasing the area's population and keeping construction in the county vibrant putting together new Maharishi-friendly homes and businesses at a time when most of the area's neighboring counties have been in decline.  Aside from the impact on locals, it's a treat a visitor to encounter the curveballs that the Amish and Maharishi bring to an otherwise homogenous region.

#11. Waterloo Isn't As Bad As Advertised--Anybody loosely familiar with Iowa cities has probably heard a lot of bad things said about Waterloo.  Certainly there are parts of town that are dirty and that should be avoided by visitors, but if you explore beyond the north and northeast sides of town, it's not such a bad place.  I have a couple of good personal associations with the city that have boosted my impressions since the first time I was there in 2000, but even looking as objectively as possible, the totality of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area doesn't qualify it as the armpit of Iowa.  I can think of a half dozen other Iowa communities of stature that I would give a lower mark to overall.  It's rather unfortunate that a few neighborhoods on the north and east side of Waterloo--and in all honesty, probably some racial stereotyping--have been allowed to define the city.

#10.  The Dutch Define The State's Evangelical Reputation--Iowa is nationally renowned for its first-in-the-nation status in Presidential primaries and caucuses, and its critics frequently cite how unrepresentative the state is because it's so much whiter and so many more evangelicals than the rest of the country.  Certainly, Iowa would rate among the five whitest states in the country, but it's reputation as a hotbed for evangelical voters is inflated because of the overrepresentation of Dutch-Americans in the Republican caucus.  The Dutch are a fairly small percentage of the state's population and are mostly centralized in the state's northwest corner and a patch of towns in and around Pella east of Des Moines, but their relative wealth and monolithic allegiance to the most conservative reaches of the Republican Party make their footprint in Iowa seem larger than it is, as evidenced by the fact that despite being such an alleged hotbed of evangelical voters, Iowa has gone for the Democrat in six of the last seven Presidential elections.  Regardless of politics though, the Dutch towns are fun destinations for visitors.  Between the tulip festivals, the ethnic bakeries and meat markets, the attractive and tall blond gals, and the impressive architecture in their towns (in Pella every commercial building has to conform to Dutch building codes...even the McDonald's and Pizza Huts!) there's a lot to be admired when visiting Iowa Dutch country.

#9.  Dubuque Is One Of The Midwest's Most Unique Cities--River towns usually have more character than non-river towns generally, but the Mississippi River town of Dubuque in northeast Iowa is far and away the most memorable of Iowa's river towns.  For the most part, that's a good thing with the city's numerous college campus and even more numerous Catholic churches dotting the landscape atop the hill and in the valleys, and its numerous bridges and vantage points of the river and the bluffs surrounding it.  But what stood out the most for me in Dubuque is the neighborhood of Brooklyn/Baltimore-style row houses on the narrow streets just north of downtown that look like they're from a city in New England rather than Iowa.  Some of these streets are kind of dingy as you might expect given the age of the neighborhood, one of the oldest in Iowa, but it gives the city real character.  Dubuque has long been a bit run-down generally, but the city has made tremendous efforts to rise above its history as a dirty meatpacking town and restore its historic downtown and sell it as a tourist destination, with above-average success. 

#8.  Meth Is A Major Problem--Iowa and neighboring Missouri have made a lot of headlines in the last 20 years about the surge in methamphetamine use, particularly in the state's rural areas.  It's hard to quantify the fallout from that epidemic just driving through the state, but when driving through counties and communities known to have the most prolific meth use, it isn't hard to identify the despair by the faces you see on the streets and the derelict properties lining the streets and farmsteads.  Southern Iowa has the longest and most tangible problem with meth use, and while it's often hard to discern where general issues of localized poverty end and the meth problem begins, it isn't hard to tell that something is very wrong in the culture of several of those communities just passing through or stopping for gas.

#7.  Northern Iowa=Minnesota South--Culturally, ethnically, and politically, you can drive 20 miles south of the Minnesota line into northern Iowa and not tell much difference.  As a general rule, northern Iowans are of Scandinavian stock with a little Irish, German, and Dutch thrown in.  They think similarly, vote similarly, farm similarly, and worship similarly to their counterparts in southern Minnesota.  Growing up in southern Minnesota and going to college in northern Iowa, I took for granted that pretty much all of Iowa was an extension of Minnesota....a land full of Norwegian Lutherans who leaned center-left politically and all cheered for the Minnesota Twins and Vikings.  Moving to Des Moines and exploring the rest of Iowa on my road trips shattered that caricature.  I'm not sure where the dividing line is where "real Iowa" begins, but Highway 20 connected Waterloo to Fort Dodge is probably as good of a nexus point as anywhere.

#6.  Southern Iowa=Missouri North--You don't have to go far south of Des Moines before you notice a twang in people's voices, more people wearing bib overalls with their lower lips swollen with tobacco dip, and cars up on blocks in considerably larger numbers than anyplace else in Iowa.  The running joke among Iowans is that we should give our southern two tiers of counties to Missouri and it would raise the average IQ of both states.   This would seem cruel if southern Iowans didn't so openly embrace their "redneck and proud" profile.  There's a certain country charm to visiting the area, especially its more remote rural areas, but between the poverty, the meth, and the culture connection to the Show Me State, I would never want to live in southern Iowa.

#5.  Iowa's Largest Cities Are Undistinguished But Have High Quality Of Life--You hear a lot of generally good-natured jokes on TV sitcoms and from media elites at the expense of Iowa, and particularly its largest cities, as being emblematic of Middle America bumpkins.  Those of us from flyover country have come to accept this cultural frame and generally brush it off, but having visited all of Iowa's biggest cities and having lived in its largest metro area for more than nine years, I'll concede that there's little to distinguish Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Ames, and even Iowa City from cities and college towns elsewhere in the country.  From an outsider perspective, it's pretty easy to dismiss them as generic.  But hidden in that lack of distinction are fast-growing metro areas with strong, diverse economies with relatively low rates of poverty that seem to rate among the top-10 or top-20 cities in the country for quality of life almost every survey.  Let Hollywood and the Beltway keep yukking it up while we eat their lunch in terms of growth.

#4.  Iowa Has A Lot Of Old Industrial Towns--Outsiders would not necessarily consider Iowa as part of the "industrial Midwest" but the state has a surprising number of old-line manufacturing towns more reminiscent of what one may expect from Michigan or Ohio.  Iowa's manufacturing towns have a legacy in agriculture production, with giant meatpacking plants, tractor factories, and railroad hubs scattered about the state.  The state's southeast corner is most densely packed with gritty, declining blue-collar communities such as Ottumwa, Burlington, Fort Madison, and Keokuk, but the rest of the state has its share of smaller cities defined (often visually so to the semi-informed visitor) by their industrial past as well, including Mason City, Fort Dodge, Charles City, and Oelwein.  If Iowa's thriving major cities are an impressive look into the state's future, its blue collar towns are a depressing look at the pillars of its past that will never come back, and is denying thousands of its residents a middle-class living as a result.

#3.The Two-Sided Coin Of Modern Meatpacking And Immigration--While I mentioned Iowa's overwhelmingly white population earlier, there are numerous dots on the map all over the state with considerably more diversity.  In particular, the Mexican-American population has exploded in the last 25 years, and their settlement in unlikely rural communities in Iowa is the direct result of prolific jobs in the food processing industry.  This has been a controversial development in Iowa.  It's undeniable that the Latino population has revived a lot of moribund downtown business districts with new businesses, frequently catering to ethnic-themed businesses such as Mexican grocery stores.  But the surge in Hispanic workers at these food-processing plants originally came as a result of union-busting that dramatically cut wages in packing houses.  Long-time Iowans lost middle-class jobs before new immigrants came to town to take those jobs at considerably lower wages and benefits.  The transition happened a quarter century ago but its legacy continues as some of the communities with the earliest and more numerous immigrant settlements are approaching or have already become majority-minority, which is easy to see driving through scattered little towns in every corner of Iowa and observing the residential foot traffic.  Whatever one may think about the cultural effect about the migration, and people have strong opinions on that, it's hard to argue that the economic effect has been anything other than a huge net negative for rural Iowa.

#2.  The Town Square--I had always heard general references to the idyllic "town square" in folklore but hadn't really experienced it until I started thoroughly exploring Iowa.  Having visited 87 county seats in the state of Minnesota, only one has the traditional "town square" with the courthouse surrounded by a square of downtown businesses.  In Iowa, particularly the southern half of Iowa, almost all county seats have it.  And even in the poorest counties, those town squares are charming, well-maintained, and boasting a thriving Main Street business sector.  I'm actually a little envious for my home state that Iowa has had the success it has with this format.  And I wonder how many other places in the country feature the town square in their county seats.  Is it as prolific in the south, the border states, and the lower Midwest as it is in the southern half of Iowa?  I guess I'll have to do quite a bit more exploring in those directions to find out for sure.

#1. Agriculture's Boom Hasn't Trickled Down--One of the prevailing themes in America today is the diverging trendlines in income distribution, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, a phenomenon defined by an investor class devouring the overwhelming majority of growth in the country and paying microscopic tax rates on all of their dividend, even as good jobs go overseas and wages fail to keep up with inflation for workers.  Iowa may not fit the stereotypical template in the way our inequality is occurring, but it's still happening here at least on par if not ahead of the national average.  In the past quarter century, most sectors of American agriculture have been in a sustained boom period, with increased production efficiencies collaborating with historically high crop prices being the new normal.  Being in the heart of the heartland, a lot of rural Iowa counties went from having zero millionaires 25 years ago to dozens of them today, almost all farmers (or heads of agribusinesses posing as farmers).  How has this impacted the 90+% of the population of these counties that doesn't till the land?  Not all that well actually.  Factories in their towns have closed or moved to Mexico.  The food processing operations in the countryside usually employ immigrants at as low of wages as possible.  And most strikingly, the main streets of small farm towns across the state are lined with the Cadillacs and new trucks of farmers for morning coffee or lunch at the local cafe, but the business sectors of those streets are otherwise in considerably worse shape than they were a quarter-century ago when the farmers were far less rich, in many cases with most of the storefronts boarded up.  There's a reason why, despite having some of the best per capita economic growth in the country in the last 20 years, Iowa has also had amongst the slowest population growth in the country, and the trend shows no signs of changing.

I have visited all but one county in the state of South Dakota.  I've visited all but a handful in North Dakota.  I've been to the majority of counties in Wisconsin.  And I'm about to do some thorough exploring of Missouri and Illinois in the years ahead.  We'll see if I'm compelled to speculate on overarching themes in any of those states when the time comes, but my hunch is that I've already completed the tours of the two states the left the most diverse set of impressions on me.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Comparing Past Mays

Well it's been fun but it's time to wrap up my comparative analysis of past months with a look at the month of May.  I've always typically enjoyed May as a gateway to summer so there will be some solid options in that last batch of 30 years...

May 1984 vs. May 1994 vs. May 2004

Winner:  1994--Easy choice here as I had a spring in my step in 1994 for a variety of reasons.  The most memorable recurring themes from the month was my escalating immersion in country music during its peak creative period.  And the long-awaited "MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis" movie finally aired on ABC, sadly wasted on a weak Saturday time slot where it nonetheless did reasonably good numbers.  The movie disappointed a bit but I still enjoyed it.  I was on the precipice of my first major revisit of 1980s TV by month's end, one of a few reasons why I was poised to have my best summer of my high school years.

May 1985 vs. May 1995 vs. May 2005

Winner:  2005--Two good choices here as 1985 was the dawn of my baseball card collecting era and the month where I went to my first Minnesota Twins game.  But 2005 was better as I went back to the folks' place for an extended summer break, complete with unemployment, after getting the heave-ho from the newspaper in March.  It felt good to reconnect with my rural upbringing and to relax after three years of running nonstop with very little vacation time.  A top memory was heading up to the Minnesota Capitol with my dad to take in a day watching the Minnesota Legislature in action, foreshadowing the new job I would start months later with the Iowa Legislature.

May 1986 vs. May 1996 vs. May 2006

Winner:  2006--No dominant winner here but my first legislative session in Iowa ended early in May 2006 and I got my first taste of the laid-back interim period for the rest of the month, with the backdrop of exciting seasons of "Prison Break" and "24" on TV and the most engaging midterm election cycle of my life.

May 1987 vs. May 1997 vs. May 2007

Winner:  1997--It's very seldom I face three choices this great at the same time.  I had my first experience with a girl I was crushing on returning the favor in May 1987 as my third-grade classmate who just found out I liked her was flirting with me pretty hard in the final weeks of the school year in a way she never did the following school year.  In May 2007 I got to go on an unforgettable southern Iowa road trip with a girl I had really strong chemistry with, despite the road blocks ahead for her and I.  But the ladies of 1987 and 2007 ultimately lose out to the elated feeling of liberation I felt in May 1997 when I finished my dreadful freshman year of college and began to embark on the first-rate summer back home that followed, complete with a summer job I loved at the rural electric coop that I started the day after Memorial Day.  Hard to express the jubilation and sense of release I felt walking off campus that day in mid-May and knowing that, at least for the next three months, I'd be able to reconnect with my comfort zone.

May 1988 vs. May 1998 vs. May 2008

Winner:  1988--From three excellent choices to three mediocre-to-poor choices.  Pretty sad when the best option of the three is the month you were punished for forging your mom's signature to a fourth-grade report card and got "MacGyver" taken away for the rest of the school year!  The upside was in the absence of great TV I was able to reconnect with my baseball card collecting in what was arguably the peak year for the hobby.  One specific memory from May 1987 was going to a baseball card show with my dad and his friend in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and hitting every gas station on the drive home looking for wax boxes of Fleer sold at 45 cents a pack despite their scarcity inflating the places to more than double that most places.  We scored a couple of wax boxes too, both at Kwik Trip stores.

May 1989 vs. May 1999 vs. May 2009

Winner:  1989--Going into May 1999 it seemed pretty likely that would be the slam-dunk winner of this trio as I was returning home from my junior year of college planning to return to my mail-carrying job from the summer before and reconnect with the coworker I had hit it off with the summer prior....until 10 minutes after I got home and realized both the job and the girl would be returning to my life and the bottom fell out of May 1999 very quickly.  By contrast, 1989 was a slow and steady month where I had one of my best academic performances (straight A's in fifth grade) and where we took a class trip to Valleyfair and "MacGyver" was wrapping up its best season so it was a pretty good time.

May 1990 vs. May 2000 vs. May 2010

Winner:  1990--As always, plenty to love in both 1990 and 2000, but as is the case more often than not, 1990 wins.  I was on the precipice of my favorite summer of all-time, the first where I wouldn't have to to spend the days at the babysitter's, the first when I had Nintendo, the first when I had "MacGyver" on videotape, the first when I fell in love with road-tripping, and the first where I had a sneak preview of the new fall TV season before Memorial Day.  Not sure I really knew at the time how much I was gonna love that summer but it was definitely a place and time where there was something in the air.

May 1991 vs. May 2001 vs. May 2011

Winner:  2001--None of these were great across the board but 1991 and 2011 both had ups and downs while 2001 was a more mundane but steady drumbeat towards better times, with the longest winter in Upper Midwest history finally yielding to warmer weather.  I was at peak road trip fever at this time, living at the folks' place and plotting out my adventures years in advance.

May 1992 vs. May 2002 vs. May 2012

Winner:  1992--The best part of the spring of 1992 was my semiregular visits to my grandma's place where I piecemealed a VHS collection of USA "MacGyver" reruns episode by episode after the series officially ended on ABC (with the "lost episode" airing this month).  The Democratic primary fight had passed by that point so my politics fascination had waned, but replacing that on my daily routine was listening to baseball games on the radio from the world champion Minnesota Twins.  Ending eighth grade and being about to embark on another boyhood summer also excited me.

May 1993 vs. May 2003 vs. May 2013

Winner:  2003--I got an unexpected treat in an otherwise lackluster period when "the new girl" at work, a 21-year-old blond who caught my eye right away, started dating me.  There were extenuating circumstances that kept me from letting my excitement build too high, but it was a needed ego boost and has little competition from its peers.

So that wraps up the month of May and my yearlong "contest" overall.  It was a fun experiment even if it occasionally got tedious mining some of the same territory that wasn't all that different from previous subsets of months.  I will say that 30 years from now I suspect it would be much harder to do this for the years 2014 to 2044 simply because as an adult approaching middle age I've fallen into a predictable routine where it's harder to distinguish month to month.  With that in mind, don't put it past me to dream up an alternative venue to categorize nostalgic months of the past again at some point in the future.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Comparing Past Aprils

Only two more months left of my semi-amusing experiment.  I usually welcome the month of April as it's the arrival of spring and have had some good ones over the years...

April 1984 vs. April 1994 vs. April 2004

Winner:  1994--Easy pick here.  For whatever reason I just had a spring in my step by this point in 1994 as things were looking a little bit brighter in a number of different realms, some of which I touched upon in my March 1994 review.  Between analyzing "MacGyver" with a couple of buddies every day in 10th grade study hall, eagerly anticipating the upcoming "MacGyver" movie scheduled to finally air in May, and stumbling into country radio at its peak creative period, there was just a lot going on to get excited about.

April 1985 vs. April 1995 vs. April 2005

Winner:  2005--At one level it was kind of scary to be out of a job following the previous month's termination from the newspaper where I had worked for three years, but more than anything else it was a relief to have that burdened lifted from me.  Since I was living in the boonies and wanted to focus my job search elsewhere and find something good, it was helpful to get unemployment from the newspaper that canned me, and frankly it was kind of nice forcing them to pay me a little "severance".  With all my extra free time during the day, it was fun watching some "Magnum, P.I." reruns on daytime TV and take my annual April road trip across the Minnesota River Valley on a weekday.  After nearly 156 weeks of nonstop stress at the newspaper, it just felt good to have some downtime more than anything else.

April 1986 vs. April 1996 vs. April 2006

Winner:  2006--Meh.  None of these three were great but I was enjoying my new life working for the state of Iowa in the final throes of my first legislative session, with great seasons of "Prison Break" and "24" lighting up my TV screen, and, at the end of the month, taking my first road trip of what would be an annual event exploring new territory in (mostly) Iowa and Missouri.  For this maiden voyage in late April, I took to the highways to explore a bunch of towns in southern Iowa and northern Missouri that my dad talked about during the years he worked on the railroad.  Despite being a rainy day, it was a good trip.  It was also, interestingly, the same day I activated my very first cell phone, late to the party to that as I am with most everything technological.

April 1987 vs. April 1997 vs. April 2007

Winner: 2007--A couple of tough choices here.  Back in 1987, my first schoolboy crush was confirmed as my cousin revealed my interest in my favorite third grade girl and she started behaving differently towards me--in a good way--for the rest of the year.  But April 2007 was the month I met Elise, arguably the ex-girlfriend I connected best with, as unlikely as that seemed the night I was introduced to her over the television by the girl I was dating at the time who I had no interest in.  My long hours working the legislative session the last week of the month slowed our momentum some as I missed a date with her, but we regained that momentum the following month.  Never was I more thrilled at the moment session ended than I was around midnight that Saturday night knowing how great the rest of spring and summer seemed poised to be.

April 1988 vs. April 1998 vs. April 2008

Winner:  1988--Ewww.....three rotten choices this time, and 1988 definitely wins by default.  The first two months of 1988 would have been an easy choice between my going-well elementary love affair and my ascendant Nickelodeon obsession, but I crashed into a wall one Wednesday evening in late April when I got in more trouble than I ever did as a boy with my parents for forging my mom's signature on a letter that was sent home to her from my fourth grade teacher and was leveled a punishment that lasted the rest of the school year in which--cue screams of terror--"MacGyver" was taken away from me!  The fact that this month was the best of the three should speak volumes of how terrible my 1998 and 2008 was, struggling through a miserable semester at college and working extra overtime at peak overtime season to make up for sidelined co-workers in those respective years.

April 1989 vs. April 1999 vs. April 2009

Winner:  1989--I only competed once at the regional Cub Scout Pinewood Derby in Albert Lea.  I won three years in a row at the local pack meetings in New Richland but never moved onto the regional derby facing off against over 100 other cars until April 1989....and I won!  On top of that, I was acing my studies with straight A's in fifth grade and was enjoying the peak creative period of "MacGyver" on TV.  Things were going much better for me in the spring of 1989 than the previous spring!

April 1990 vs. April 2000 vs. April 2010

Winner: 2000--Three pretty good choices here.  Even 2010 wasn't bad as I started seeing Courtney back then.  But far and away the best was April 2000, when I was in the final months of college with a group of enjoyable classes and the end in sight after a not-all-that-enjoyable four years of my life.  My best memory from April 2000 was my all-time favorite road trip to the Buffalo Ridge on a steamy upper-80s Saturday in late April.  My mom came with on that trip and made for good company, and the energy was just electric for whatever reason even though I had visited most of these places at least once before.  I've logged on around 200 road trips over the years and this one still ranks among my top-five best.

April 1991 vs. April 2001 vs. April 2011

Winner: 2011--All decent choices but my fateful meeting with Lizz in mid-April 2011 helps that month rise above its challengers (although by the time April 2001 came after the longest winter of my life, that was pretty awesome too).  By all conventional metrics, Lizz and I should not have connected and even though we only lasted a couple of months it was a pretty intense couple of months and I definitely look back fondly at those days when I kept wondering if this was really happening.

April 1992 vs. April 2002 vs. April 2012

Winner:  2002--Working at the newspaper was still new enough at this point that I hadn't yet grown to hate it, but just living on my own at my own place has an exciting allure at the time, particularly with growing prospects of a summer encounter with Dana and with my aggressive revisiting of the musical stylings of 80s country crooner Sylvia with a special tape that an obsessed fan graciously made for me.  To this day, when I recall those early weeks working at the newspaper, the music of Sylvia accompanies those memories.  A solid runner-up to 1992 when I finally got to see the last episode of "MacGyver" and was excitedly piecing together USA reruns of the show on videotape whenever I visited my grandma's place.

April 1993 vs. April 2003 vs. April 2013

Winner:  2013--Seems like this grouping always sucks and this year is no exception.  I got back together with Courtney this month which was a little exciting and helps this one rise above its miserable competition.  That's about all I have to say about it though.

One month left and my experiment is complete.  It's been fun and I look forward to revisiting May in another 30 days or so.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"Mississippi America": Why Our Political Future Is Likely To Be As Polarized As The Magnolia State

The state of Mississippi is far and away the most racially polarized in the country, and it's been getting much worse in recent cycles.  Back in 2004, it would have seemed hard to top the Presidential race exit polls where George Bush got 85% of the state's white vote while John Kerry got 90% of the black vote....until 2012 when Mitt Romney got 89% of the white vote and Barack Obama got 96% of the black vote.  These diverging voting patterns along racial lines obviously got their start in the Civil Rights Era.  Prior to that, the relatively small number of southern blacks who voted (lots of barriers to voting in the pre-Civil Rights Era Deep South) were more likely to be Republicans, although not nearly as lopsidedly as they are Democratic now.  Meanwhile, whites were overwhelmingly Democratic, even though their allegiance to the Democratic Party began to wane some as the party liberalized. 

Fast forward to 1964 and the politics of the South in general and Mississippi in particular realigned very quickly.  I don't have a specific finger on the pulse of the state's culture then and now, but it's folly to think lingering racial animus wasn't a driving force in the polarization of voting habits then and now.  But it's also a fair bet that whatever racial polarization that continues to exist today is less overt than it was in the 1960s, and that the divide is now fueled by dog whistles and code words.  The "us versus them" driving Southern politics today is less likely to be "black vs. white" than "makers vs. takers", at least rhetorically, but it doesn't take a degree in psychology to discern who the sweet tea-swilling bubbas have in mind when they're raging about "freeloading parasites living off of my tax money!!!!" as inaccurate as the stereotype all too often is.

But what is most disturbing is recognizing that the template is in place for the rest of the country to follow the racial and ethnic political polarization of the Deep South, and in fact we're already likely in the early stages of that kind of political realignment, fueled by a subtle class-based resentment that is playing out largely along racial and ethnic lines.  Mitt Romney's "47%" comments were the most tangible dog whistles of the last couple of years representing the rupturing fault line, and from a cynical perspective of purely partisan political gamesmanship, it's brilliant.  Millions of voters who are part of that "47%" that Romney is so condescendingly sneering at is certain that Romney's talking about "those people", and rewards his attacks against their livelihood with their political support.  They just assume he's speaking to their cultural tribe. 

While there's nothing new about exploiting cultural resentment for votes (Nixon introduced it and Reagan perfected it in modern times),  it seems as though we're approaching critical mass as a society.  Barack Obama won as small of a proportion of white voters in 2012 as Walter Mondale did in 1984, yet because of the country's diversification that statistic represented a decisive four-point popular vote victory for Obama rather than a 20-point defeat for Mondale.  Still, the erosion of support from white voters was jarring, and continued to be jarring in the 2014 midterms when it sunk even lower, down to 35% among white males.  Yet the Democratic Party continues to be wildly overconfident about its long-term prospects based on fast-rising racial diversification.  While on the surface that would seem to portend a brighter future for the Democratic Party electorally, it doesn't seem to cross their mind that the white vote which has been drifting decisively to the Republican Party over the past generation may continue to consolidate in the GOP camp in larger and larger numbers, offsetting Democratic gains among nonwhite voters. 

It might be cynical to think this way, but I think the natural downside to a multicultural society is politics that stratifies along tribal lines, even when it doesn't make sense.  Mississippi may well prove to be the rule and not the exception when it comes to a racially diverse region, albeit perhaps slightly exaggerated based on the civil rights history.  But most concerning is that this brand of tribal politics is already proving itself spreading beyond the South.  The best example is in the state of Illinois, and particularly last fall's gubernatorial race.  Now the race was complicated some by an unpopular Democratic incumbent, but it was still jarring the extent to which Republican challenger Bruce Rauner, running every bit as a crimson red conservative rather than a squishy moderate, managed to win 101 out of Illinois' 102 counties and pull out a decisive victory.  Rauner let it be known in no uncertain terms that crushing the livelihoods of union workers generally and state employees in particular was his top political priority if elected.....yet dozens of heavily unionized downstate counties full of voters who Rauner promised to ruin still voted for him.  Why?  Because Illinois elections are increasingly becoming a referendum on "Chicago". 

Indeed the only county Rauner didn't win was Cook County, home to Chicago and nearly half of the state's population, a pattern that has been showing up with increasing regularity in the last three cycles in Illinois.  Rauner's positions on issues scarcely mattered to downstate Illinois voters as it was simply understood that he was on "their side" of the cultural scrimmage railing against "Chicago".  Similarly, it doesn't matter what Haley Barbour's positions on the issues are in Mississippi....he'll still have the votes of 85+% of white voters because of an unspoken cultural alignment.  He's a member of their fraternity....protecting the "makers" from having everything stolen from them by the "takers".

Even in Iowa where I live, a long-standing center-left state that is recently showing troubling signs of realigning Republican, the Senate race highlighted a maiden voyage into tribal politics.  Republican candidate Joni Ernst is nothing more than a slightly less annoying version of Sarah Palin, yet her odious policy platform and nowhere-near-ready-for-primetime resume was ignored as she stitched a crafty campaign yarn selling herself as an "Iowa farm girl" and demagoguing her challenger as an "elitist lawyer".  And it worked like a charm, scoring her an eight-point victory that limited Democrat Bruce Braley to 14 of the state's 99 counties, most of them the urban centers.  Farm counties and small cities consolidated around Ernst with eyebrow-raising numbers in comparison to the baseline of those counties in other recent elections.  Was this a fluke or the new normal in Iowa politics?  Sadly, I'm more inclined to think the latter than the former.  And if the tribal lines are drawn nationally along racial and ethnic lines, 90% white Iowa will almost certainly drift to the red.

If one looks through the returns from recent election cycles they could compile some formulation of this same pattern in the majority of states, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line.  More than anything else, I think these realignments simply foretell that the American electorate should always be expected to "revert to the mean".  The natural state of the country going back generations has been a fairly evenly divided electorate.  While there may be a few cycles in a row where one party dominates, the act of governing creates fault lines within the majority party's coalition that the opposition party can exploit and rebuild its own coalition.  With this in mind, the irony of the Democrats' smugness about growing its political base with a rising minority population is that the existing majority is starting to see the Democratic Party as defining itself by that minority population, and thus questioning its own placement in the party. 

It's hard to defend this philosophy on the merits, but it appears to be happening and begs the low can the Democrats go among white voters?  They're already below 40%.  Can they drop to 35%?  Or 30%?  Or even 25%?  I certainly think it's possible, particularly with the median ages between the races so divergent and ultimately transcending all racial lines.  In a pending era of budgetary scarcity, should we have any expectation that a nation of older whites trying to secure retiree entitlements will see eye to eye on anything with a majority-minority younger generation vying for public funds for education and for assistance to offset the quality of life that the low-wage, McJob economy of America's future fails to provide for them?  Such a scenario portends much deeper political polarization a generation into the future and the real possibility of Mississippi-style voting habits where the best indication of your voting tendencies can be deduced by the color of your skin.

Now this is by no means carved in stone.  American politics is very unpredictable and issues not even on anybody's radar today could trigger a complete political realignment 20 years from now and completely turn the red state/blue state configuration on its head.   But barring a radical change in the issues environment, the likelihood is that the Democratic Party will be made up almost entirely of nonwhites and a small cohort of white liberals from college towns and urban liberals while the Republican Party will be made up of......Middle American whites.  Tribal politics never make sense in terms of governance, but we're already in the early stages of an America where the Democratic Party is the party of Lloyd Blankfein and Al Sharpton and the Republican Party is the party of the Koch Brothers and William Jennings Bryan, and every indication we'll continue moving in that incoherent direction.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Comparing Past Marches

March is the most bipolar month of the year in the Upper Midwest.  It can be so sweet one day and so cruel the next!  Of course that's primarily from a weather perspective.  Let's see how things stack up based on a more comprehensive set of memories...

March 1984 vs. March 1994 vs. March 2004

Winner:  1994--There was kind of a renewed energy in the air for me in the spring of 1994, with the first of the two "MacGyver" TV movies FINALLY scheduled to air and with me really latching on to country music in its finest year of my lifetime.  Beyond that, I was in a study hall with two of the biggest "MacGyver" fans in high school and we poured over every episode every study hall with in-depth analysis.  I was at the very beginning of my creative writing surge and started cranking out some of the earliest of my "Alex Burrows" adventure stories.  We watched the memorable 1970s Charlton Heston movie "Soylent Green" in biology class.  Just a good all around vibe that spring which foreshadowed my favorite summer of my high school years ahead.

March 1985 vs. March 1995 vs. March 2005

Winner:  2005--It would seem unlikely that the month in which I was coldly relieved of my duties at my first professional job thanks to a smooth-talking new hatchet man editor would end up winning its grouping, but not when you acknowledge that the professional job I was dismissed from was the dead-end, high-stress newspaper industry, a field I desperately tried to avoid being plunged into coming out of college and a field I was trying to work my way out of at the point in time when my employer did the work for me.  The timing worked out well since I was able to qualify for unemployment given the questionable terms of my termination and have a more wide-open platform to pursue a different job, which ultimately landed me in my current line of work which is a night and day improvement over newspaper writing.  The first 18 days of March 2005 were horrible, living under the thumb of the new tyrant editor during the busiest time of the year at work, but the feeling I felt Sunday evening on March 20, 2005, as I crashed on my couch to watch some mindless spring break shark TV movie of the week without any stressful Sunday night gut-ache about assembling the puzzle pieces to meet the next fast-approaching newspaper deadline was one of the most satisfying feelings I've had in the last decade.

March 1986 vs. March 1996 vs. March 2006

Winner:  2006--A relatively nondescript trio of months to pick from but in 2006 I was still riding high from the new job I scored for the state of Iowa where I settled in quickly and connected nicely with most of my coworkers.  Beyond that, new "MacGyver" DVD sets were coming out every few months and I always looked forward to reading the online reviews and engaging with the review writers via e-mail.  Also, season 5 of "24" was heating up, the last season of that series that I considered "great" before it began to deliver shrinking rewards for me.  But better yet, season 1 of "Prison Break" was in its final half and I still marvel at how brilliantly executed that season of television was.  Having "Prison Break" and "24" back to back on Monday nights was TV paradise.

March 1987 vs. March 1997 vs. March 2007

Winner:  1987--The fondest memories I have of this place and time are my escalating elementary crush feelings on my first "girlfriend" who I always hoped to see at tae kwon do classes and took every opportunity to sit next to in third grade.  I bantered about her a lot with my cousin, who would end up spilling the beans to her one short month later.  Beyond that, MacGyver's hit man archrival Murdoc was introduced this season was introduced on that series this month.  The other two months in this grouping were pretty terrible so 1987 wins pretty handily by default.

March 1988 vs. March 1998 vs. March 2008

Winner: 1988--Not nearly as many distinctly awesome memories from March 1988 as there were in February 1988, but my fascination with the Nickelodeon cable network pressed forward and I got plenty of opportunities this month to spend Saturday mornings at my grandma's place (she had cable) and immerse myself in their weekend lineup, which being 10 at the time I was just at a perfect age to appreciate.  It wasn't often during the original run of "MacGyver" that there was a TV novelty that intrigued me more but that particular window in 1988 was an exception.  I still loved "MacGyver" at the time though too, deep into its impressive third season at the time.  And this was the peak month with my aforementioned elementary girlfriend, where rumors abounded from other girls in the class who went to her 10th birthday party and said she was gushing about me the entire night.  While I have plenty of terrible memories from March 1998, one good memory was my first Buffalo Ridge road trip during spring break from college that year, the beginning of a long-standing tradition that's worthy of mention.

March 1989 vs. March 1999 vs. March 2009

Winner:  1999--While things were going pretty well for me in the spring of 1989, the spring of 1999 was my best semester of college where I had a three-day weekend and a bunch of classes I really enjoyed-- (philosophy, film, and geology--the latter of which by this point in the semester took us on field trips to quarries and waterfalls in the general area and where I got to banter with the class hottie who was my partner and took a shine to me!  I took a second fun and memorable spring break road trip to the Buffalo Ridge that March and was looking forward to returning to my summer job as a mail carrier that next summer (spoiler: major pending disappointment on that one).  It was one of the few times during college where I was really enjoying myself.

March 1990 vs. March 2000 vs. March 2010

Winner: 1990--Tougher call on this one as each month in the grouping has its own sets of pros and cons, but the spring of 1990 was just one of those times I look back at with fondness as I would venture to say most people do looking back at age 12.  I was coming of age but life wasn't yet particularly confusing.  My purchase of Super Mario Bros. 3 early that month obviously defined the month in a positive way.  And this was the first year I really got into the Minnesota boys basketball tournament, always broadcast on the local ABC affiliate during the week I was on spring break.  As a Minnesota geography nut, for me the tournament was always most interesting from the "small town taking on bigger school" perspective than the actual game of basketball which I've been generally lukewarm about.  The downside was that the decade-old collapse of the meatpacking industry finally caught up with my dad and the Farmstead plant he had worked at for a quarter century was going under.  I was only half checked in about this at the time given my age, but it was a very scary time for him and I obviously picked up on some of that.

March 1991 vs. March 2001 vs. March 2011

Winner:  2001--Meh!  Three pretty weak choices.  The winter of 2000-2001 was the longest one in history in Minnesota, with no high temperatures above 40 degrees between early November 2000 and late March 2001, leaving a permanent snowpack outdoors for five full months and leaving my unemployed ass with intense cabin fever.  Desperate for a job, the month before I had nearly gotten swept up in an insurance sales job that would have been all wrong for me, but reading some shady fine print in the job description led me away from that venture, which was secretly a relief.  I killed much of my free time by continuing to obsessively pouring over data from the razor-thin 2000 election down to the precinct level.  I can't sustain my interest in election statistics that long after the election anymore but it sure was exciting back then.  Still, I was excited to take to the highway for my road trips when the weather got nicer, but the stubborn continuity of winter this month really started to wear me down by month's end.

March 1992 vs. March 2002 vs. March 2012

Winner:  2002--While 1992 deserves a hat tip for finally being the trigger month where I began to videotape old "MacGyver" episodes on USA whenever I visited my grandma's place, the big event month of this trio was easily 2002 when I finally got a professional job.  Now it was a low-paying, high-stress job at a small-town newspaper, a field I had tried everything to avoid but finally had to hold my nose and accept a few and far between job offer.  The upside was that it was a small town in southwest Minnesota that I had some loose ties to growing up and had a fond attachment to.  It was a friendly town where I was mostly welcomed and it was exciting to finally have that first job and move to my first apartment, despite some early vindications of my fears about management at the workplace.  I was happier yet to get out of there three years later, but looking back to March 2002 it's hard to deny the excitement of finally breaking through.

March 1993 vs. March 2003 vs. March 2013

Winner:  2013--Every year this grouping is pretty drab pickings, and this grouping is some of the drabbest pickings yet.  Yuck!  March 2013 wins by default simply because I was merely operating at ho-hum autopilot with few memories good or bad as opposed to being miserable as I was for the other two.

Down to my final two months of these groupings and must admit they've been pretty fun.  Moving deeper into spring in T minus 30 (or so) days.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Comparing Past Februarys

February has always been one of my least favorite months as I'm usually over winter by this time of year even if winter is nowhere near over me.  With that said, I've had some good and memorable Februarys over the years that stand out among the crowd.  Here are the best in each category...

February 1984 vs. February 1994 vs. February 2004

Winner:  1984--Nothing overly significant here as I was a little to young to appreciate the Sarajevo-based 1984 Winter Olympics and was more annoyed than anything else that it was responsible for taking "The Fall Guy" off the air for a couple of weeks, but between the obsession with memorizing the weekly TV grid that continued from the month before and my afternoon, after-kindergarten viewings of "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe", this boyhood February narrowly edges the equally modest rewards of its rivals.

February 1985 vs. February 1995 vs. February 2005

Winner: 1985--After a few weeks of escalating interest in baseball cards brought on by the 1984 All-Star team cards available one at a time in cereal boxes that winter, my dad laid the gauntlet for a longer-term baseball card fascination one Saturday morning when I woke up with a fever.  On his way to the store to buy medicine, he picked up a couple of packs of Topps baseball cards.  A monster was born that defined most of the years ahead but 1985 in particular.  A sport I couldn't have cared less about in years prior suddenly became my primary fascination of the first half of 1985 until it got upstaged by a certain new TV show I became interested in that fall.

February 1986 vs. February 1996 vs. February 2006

Winner:  2006--I have a couple of great options this year.  In most groupings, 1986 would have won with my obsession with Ian Thorne's "Monsters" book hitting its peak, but in February 2006 I was still buzzing from my late January move to Des Moines and scoring of a new job (where I still work).  I felt like I found my place right away and enjoyed immersing myself in my new city, visiting the Baskin-Robbins ice cream store in town--after years of watching every other Baskin Robbins in Minnesota and Iowa close--and sampling their legendary chocolate fudge cone for the first time since September 1997!  I also really got into the 2006 Winter Olympics, something I get into every four years but which had more resonance for me that year than most given the memorable place and time in my life.

February 1987 vs. February 1997 vs. February 2007

Winner:  1987--Given that 1997 was the beginning of my spring semester of my miserable freshman year of college and 2007 was the month my dog died, February 1987 wins by default.  It was a good month though, with my memories guided largely by my growing boyhood crush on a third-grade classmate along with my favorite TV nights, which included "MacGyver" and the Saturday night bloc of "Wonderful World of Disney", "Sidekicks", and "Sledge Hammer!" on ABC.

February 1988 vs. February 1998 vs. February 2008

Winner:  1988--A slam dunk champion here, my favorite cousin came down for a long weekend visit the first weekend of the year and on top of our visits to the arcade in the mall, we also found plenty of time to watch multiple hours of the Nickelodeon cable channel.  I had been dabbling in Nickelodeon viewings for months when I went to my grandma's place (she was the only one I knew who had cable at the time) but that weekend really solidified the ascendancy of an obsession that defined the months to come.  And later in the month of February 1988 came the first Winter Olympics I got into....and I surprised myself the extent to which I did get into every event except figure skating.  Definitely one of the most memorable Februarys of my life.

February 1989 vs. February 1999 vs. February 2009

Winner:  1999--It's not typical that the winter months of my college years beat out the competition, but far and away my best semester at college was spring semester of my junior year which began in February 1999.  I had a lineup of classes I really enjoyed and got to work closely with some friends in the class, and maneuvered a schedule in which I had a three-day weekend that began Friday morning at 10 a.m.  I managed to drive my car into a ditch on an icy road early in the month but walked away with a relatively easy lesson and a $55 towing charge.  Beyond that it was smooth sailing, however, with my favorite months of the semester still yet to come.

February 1990 vs. February 2000 vs. February 2010

Winner:  1990--Most years of 1990 were outstanding but this one wins by default.  I have good overall memories of sixth grade being a new owner of a Nintendo that I was enjoying the hell out of and with "MacGyver" going strong.  This month in particular was sweet because after getting his teeth kicked in by "ALF" for the better part of four years, "MacGyver" finally starting to win its time slot and beat "ALF" as the latter was in the middle of one of the quickest and most dramatic meltdowns in modern TV history.  All that said, the best months of 1990 were definitely still yet to come.

February 1991 vs. February 2001 vs. February 2011

Winner:  1991--Pretty close race here with 2001 as I enjoyed both but 1991 wins the day, in the throes of the first Gulf War which was essentially had won by month's end.  On a lighter note, I purchased the Nintendo game Mega Man 2 in a catalog that month and got enjoyment out of that and also had my most enjoyable ski trip to Mount Kato with a friend's church group.  It was also sort of an end of the innocence moment for me personally as in the months ahead I slumbered through a period of early teen angst that wasn't much fun, and also the end of the innocence for my beloved "MacGyver" as the series was starting to lose its edge and that was soon reflected in declining ratings.  But just in terms of February 1991, things were still good.

February 1992 vs. February 2002 vs. February 2012

Winner:  1992--I bounced back quickly after "MacGyver" was yanked from the airwaves at the end of December 1991 primarily because of the excitement surrounding the 1992 Presidential primaries and my preferred candidate Tom Harkin's candidacy, which got off to a great start with a landslide win in his native Iowa.  Things came back down to Earth quickly with a fourth-place finish in New Hampshire and disappointing subsequent numbers out of South Dakota.  It was still an exciting time though, even though I wasn't gonna like the outcome the next month had in store for me.

February 1993 vs. February 2003 vs. February 2013

Winner:  2003--Ick!  This particular grouping always seems to have three pretty lousy choices and this one is no exception, although I will say that resurgence of former girlfriend Dana at this point in 2003 improved my mood a little.  I was also pretty excited about the TV schedule at that point with some new series such as "Miracles" and "Mr. Sterling" premiering that intrigued me.  I had a weird lark late in the month, as I approached my one-year anniversary at the newspaper, to put in my notice and look for a new job after an unsettled period halfway through the month, but thankfully I didn't follow through with quitting one job before finding or even searching for another.

Anyway, I have spring fever right now and that spring fever will accompany the spring months ahead in my decennial comparisons.  Only three more months to go.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Comparing Past Januarys

Beyond the holiday season and in the dead of winter, I have less nostalgia for January than I do most of the months we've already reviewed but there were a few really good ones and I'll press forward with my reviews until May when I've completed the series....

January 1984 vs. January 1994 vs. January 2004

Winner: 1984--Easy victory here as this was the first year I really got into TV, going so far as studying the local TV listings printed in the paper and reviewing which shows were on which channel, broadcast and cable.  I didn't have cable growing up, but my grandparents and other friends and family did, so I was intrigued when I visited their place and explored their selection of channels.  Of course, the transition to 1984 was right at the epicenter of the mid-80s action show trend, where every nonaction show that was removed from the schedule seemed to be replaced by an action show and they dominated the airwaves for the next 2 1/2 years.  January 1984 was also the first month with our new Irish setter Luke, who we picked up on New Year's Eve.

January 1985 vs. January 1995 vs. January 2005

Winner: 1995--Eleven years earlier, my family picked up the aforementioned Irish setter Luke but it was January 1995 when the legendary German shorthair Pokey joined the Hagen household.  He was a nine-month-old hellraiser who brought some spunk to a lethargic residence.  Beyond that, January 1995 was the final month of my junior year "fall semester" in high school, the semester I remember the most fondly of my high school years.  Unfortunately, it was January 1995 when the angst of pending graduation more than a year away began to fill my heart with the early stages of dread.  Without question, it was the last hurrah of my carefree youth years.

January 1986 vs. January 1996 vs. January 2006

Winner: 2006--Certainly in my adult life, few months have been as consequential as January 2006, the month I started my new life in central Iowa with a plum state job.  I had been unemployed for several months and ran out of unemployment checks when I drove down to Des Moines for a job interview that I assumed was for a session-only position.  Imagine my surprise when I found out it was a permanent, full-time job.  I had to start the job ASAP given their timeline which meant the need to find a place and be moved in just five days after getting the job offer.  It was a very manic couple of weeks but exciting to move to a new town and get a solid new job that felt like a good fit for me.  I knew immediately that I had found my place.  While my peak weeks of "Monsters books"-mania in January 1986 was noteworthy, they're light years beyond January 2006 in terms of overall impact on my life.

January 1987 vs. January 1997 vs. January 2007

Winner: 1987--No clear winners here but between my first Cub Scout Pinewood Derby win, the peak weeks of my Saturday night "Wonderful World of Disney, "Sidekicks", and "Sledge Hammer!" trifecta on KAAL, and my blossoming elementary romance, 1987 tops its rivals.

January 1988 vs. January 1998 vs. January 2008

Winner:  1988--Here's a classic win by default.  There was little to get too excited about in January 1988, aside from the very earliest stages of my Nickelodeon obsession that would come to full fruition the following month.  Beyond that, I won another Pinewood Derby and was excited about the reconfigured network TV schedule that began the new year.  Not a ton to get behind but still better than its rivals.

January 1989 vs. January 1999 vs. January 2009

Winner: 1989--Tougher call on this one as January 1999 was pretty good as well, but I was finding my groove in January 1989 at school, improving my grades and getting in less mischief.  It was also the peak period of my recess computer games on the old Apple IIe, particularly Word Munchers and Oregon Trail.  "MacGyver" was right in the middle of its best season and all was generally well in the world.

January 1990 vs. January 2000 vs. January 2010

Winner: 2000--My college had a one-class January semester called J-Term, where students could take a single class for three weeks in January and get three credits.  This was my best J-Term, a Paideia II class that got into debates on race and illegal immigration where I was far more engaged than usual during my college classes.  I was also fairly active in creative writing this month, beginning a nightly fix of "A-Team" reruns on TV Land, and had the excitement of the 2000 primaries and caucuses to keep me amused.  I had a little bit of trepidation about my pending college graduation but nothing like my angst about the end of high school four years earlier.

January 1991 vs. January 2001 vs. January 2011

Winner: 2001--A couple of good choices here as January 1991, the dawn of Operation Desert Storm, was also a very pivotal and interesting month, but January 2001 was my first January ever that I had off and it was kind of cool to be chilling every day in the dead of winter with no schedule.  I was hitting it off with a couple of girls at the time and it was exciting to chat with them at my convenience....and in a long, cold, and snowy winter, I had plenty of opportunities to put on some boots and trek the snowy fields surrounding my parents' place that January.  I would say that I got in on the full Minnesota winter experience more in 2001 than any other January, ironically at age 23.

January 1992 vs. January 2002 vs. January 2012

Winner: 1992--Meh.  No great choices by any means but definitely was the best was the lead-up to the 1992 Presidential primaries and caucuses, my first year of actively tracking the primaries and the most exciting as I was fully invested in Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's candidacy, waiting for his campaign to catch fire at any given moment even though it never did.  While this was exciting, it was hard to get over "MacGyver" being pulled from the airwaves in December 1991 and having nothing to watch at the sacred 7:00 hour on Monday nights anymore.

January 1993 vs. January 2003 vs. January 2013

Winner: 2013--Oh sweet Jesus!  They're all terrible!  Nothing good to say about January just wins by default against two months that are even worse.

Overall I've had a few decent Januarys over the years.  We'll see if I can say the same next month about Februarys past.