Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Death of a Town

I have found myself living in the middle of a large social experiment and no, this time it isn't about the Maharishi. This time I'm talking about four lane highways and bypasses around the city.

For many years, when someone talked about a four-lane road, you knew that they were talking about the Interstate. However, in the 80's things changed and non-Interstate two lane roads were being expanded. One in particular started carving its was southeast of Des Moines into this rural country towards where I reside mile at a time. By then end of next year, it will finally have been completed.

Over the years as I have traveled on the two lanes and then the four lanes as it crept ever closer, I have noticed the impact it has on those around it. Besides the obvious of people who used to live near a quite two-lane road having to move as their house gets pushed in to make room for progress, other less subtle things have happened. Literally dozens of towns along the new four lanes began dying and their death always started with the completion of the bypass around the town. The bypass around Fairfield will be completed next year and thus I find myself on the inside when for almost 30 years I have been on the outside looking in.

When a bypass is completed, the town begins to shift ever so slightly. A new gas station is built out by the bypass followed by a restaurant and/or a hotel. Soon another restaurant follows and then a big box store like Wal-Mart heads out there. Wal-Mart in and of itself is a wave makers and soon dozens of buildings shift out to the skirts of town leaving behind a large void. This void allows rot in the form of urban blight to set in and thus begins the death process of the town. Eventually the only venues in town that people use are the big box store, gas station and fast food joint and slowly the town begins to lose diversity as other stores close up shop. Finally all that remains of town is a gas station on the edge out by the bypass because the big box store and fast food joint have all moved to new victims.

Town size depends a lot on the length of the death process and how vulnerable it is. When the bypass around my hometown went by, all it took was one gas station built along side the town. That combined with the fact that people aren't as likely to stop by when they have to slow down and get off the "faster" road and the town collapsed. Now some 40 years later every single business on Main Street is closed, the school is gone and the only viable business in town is still the single gas station out on the bypass.

Another larger town west of here by the name of Ottumwa was thriving in my early youth with a vibrant downtown. Wal-Mart came and built a big box store north of town and soon businesses flocked to be nearby leaving this large void in the center. Then the road south of town was expanded to four lanes and Wal-Mart built a huge store outside of town along that road. Businesses again flocked over there drawing the town in the complete opposite direction leaving the old "new" area of town to rot which is has started to do as businesses get boarded up. (Downtown has long since been forgotten and boarded up or turned into bars and x-rated theaters.) And I haven't even yet got to the kicker. The bypass going around Fairfield where I live now is also going around Ottumwa… to the north. Already gas stations are being constructed and perhaps a fast food place but I know Wal-Mart probably won't be far behind.

It's ironic that businesses want to be where the traffic is and we want to route the traffic away from the towns. A prime example is Muscatine along the Mississippi River. The bypass long ago was built around the town and up on top of the hill away from the river. Now everything is built up along the bypass and it takes longer to drive through the bypass complete with almost a dozen stoplights now than it ever did to drive through town. I'm just waiting for the day they begin building a bypass around the bypass.

Already in Fairfield the dying process has begun and the first concrete will not be poured for another month. The local hospital is moving out near the bypass in order to garner state money. A gas station and hotel are already slated to be built. A furniture store long since dead from the days Wal-Mart built their store on the other end of town is now being turned into a strip mall now that it is back to being on prime property. One of our grocery stores has already closed up shop and rumors consistently fly around that Wal-Mart is looking at property out near the bypass. The town will shift, a void will happen, rot will happen and the death process begins. This time, I have a front row seat.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

We Took the Farm Using Eminant Domain From the Indians First!

At the risk of boring people one more time, I thought I would provide an update on the Maharishi use of eminent domain on a local farm. A public "open mike" meeting was held in the center of Maharishiville and according to my inside sources, it was packed to the gills full of "townies" as they call us. The Maharishi board of supervisors opened up the mike and let the people speak their minds.

Evidently mostly townies spoke and most of their speeches were about rights, freedoms and emotions of taking someone's property. Even a few gurus stood up and said they were opposed to the idea of using eminent domain to take the Palm property. With the exception of the gurus against this, there was nothing out of what I would have expected until the last few speakers.

One speaker was a well-respected local politician and organic farmer that was booted from his position on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission by incoming governor Culver for no real reason other than to make room for a political favor. He is a neighbor to the Palms said that they had indeed gone to the county board of supervisors to ask about building a hog confinement building not because he had any intention of doing so but because he wanted to "stir the pot" so to speak. As we all have seen, he succeeded well beyond probably his own dreams and may not be paying the price by having to defend himself against an improper use of eminent domain. So I will have to take back what I said about the local paper not fact checking themselves because there may be reason to believe that Mr. Palm has been speaking from both sides of his mouth.

Another speaker was a local Arabian horse raiser and said, and I paraphrase him here, "Now we all need to remember that before Vedic City uses eminent domain here to turn this farm into a city park that 'we' used eminent domain to take if from the Indians." After a few minutes of befuddled thinking by the crowd, he was booed from the stage.

An hour and a half later, the Maharishiville board of supervisors voted to table the topic for a week before voting because they obviously didn't want to vote in front of a largely hostile crowd and I can't say I blame them. Jefferson County Board of Supervisor Dick Reed stood up and said that they should table it for a longer time than that if they realistically want to study the issue as they claimed. The Maharishiville board of supervisors immediately changed the table motion to 30 days at which point again Reed stood up and said that thirty days wasn't anymore realistic than 7 days had been. The gurus decided to table the motion as long as informative discussion was still being held. The local rag reported that the Maharishiville board of supervisors tabled the motion for 30 days at the request of Reed so maybe my accusation that they don't check facts still stands after all.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Maharishiville Wants To Condemn Private Landowner's 100 Year Old Farm For a City Park... Outside of Town?

Eminent domain is necessary for a strong country because not everyone can differentiate between what is good for the country and what is good for themselves. However our founding fathers realized that there was a lot of potential for abuse and were very specific on how the power of eminent domain could be used. That changed in 1954 due to the Supreme Court ruling in Berman v. Parker and was made even less specific more recently in 2005 in the ruling Kelo v. City of New London. Such an out cry arose over the loose interpretation that many states have now enacted tougher requirements to use eminent domain to prevent abuses by governments. Suddenly a government right next door is trying to abuse the use of eminent domain and I have a front row seat.

Maharishi Vedic City (a.k.a. Maharishiville), which is located just north of town, is trying to condemn private property and turn it into a city park. Here are the facts:

1. The property that Maharishiville is trying to condemn consists of 148.95 acres outside the current city limits. Over 1500 acres of undeveloped land that also could be used remain inside the city limits.
2. Maharishiville made a "fair" offer for the land at $2675 per acre. According to the Jefferson County Assessor's Office, the land is worth $5000 per acre according to a recent sale by the same landowner of adjacent lands.
3. Maharishiville has only been in existence for six years and was incorporated in 2001. The farm that they are trying to condemn has been owned by the same family for over 100 years and is listed as a Century Farm on the Historic Register of Iowa.

So why all of a sudden are the gurus wanting to use brute force to take over a historic farm to turn into a city park outside of city limits when 1500 acres within city limits exists and is unused? It is because the Maharishi disagree with how the owner of the land intends to use it.

The Palms have been farming for over a hundred years in a rural area and that means livestock. They want to improve their livestock capability by buildings some state of the art buildings with moderated climate and feeding systems. However, the gurus decided six years ago that they were going to build their utopia right in the middle of all this agricultural land and now are offended when someone wants to use it as such. Initially they lied and said that they had that land marked out as a park all along but when word got out, they now admit that they just don't want it next to where they chose to locate their city. The farm existed first by 94+ years and yet they think they have the right to take it.

Even by today's loose federal standards of the use of eminent domain, they haven't a prayer of winning the case. The government has allowed eminent domain cases to proceed based on the argument that the taxable value would increase. In the case of the Palms, it would decrease by turning it into a city park that is tax-free on county tax rolls. Even more fortunate, Iowa was one of the states that passed a stricter interpretation of eminent domain after the badly ruled Kilo v. City of New London ruling a couple years ago.

The gurus are on the losing end but that isn't stopping them. They voted to proceed and are going to have an open meeting before condemning the land. That will then force the Palms to hire a lawyer and defend their land in district court costing them time and money. The Palms have said they would and I pray that they do. When they win, I hope they turn around and sue the ass off of Maharishiville right before they build their hog buildings on the upwind side. I also hope that this will serve as a lesson that when you choose to build your utopia house or city out in the country, you have to take the good AND the bad along with it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


I'm eating supper and the sweat is just starting to bead up on my forehead from the spicy yellow rice we are eating along with the fish. My wife is gulping down water with every bite and blowing air through her mouth to cool off the heat from the spices. Little Abbey is pounding fistful of fistful of the spicy concoction into her mouth with gusto. I've come to the conclusion that Little Abbey absolutely loves spicy foods, which makes me wonder why all baby foods you get from the store are so bland. Time and time again she has shown us that she loves and has no apparent side effects from eating spicing food so we just let her have whatever it is and let her make the call. On this particular night there was rice on one side, fish on the other and a lumpia shanghai (pork filled Filipino delicacy) at the top. She immediately ate the lumpia after much gumming and chewing with her five teeth and then ate all the rice. She only ate a little bit of the fish but I think that was mostly because she was full.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Love Is Thicker Than Blood

On the drive back home after our visit with three generations of my ancestors, talk naturally gravitated towards others in my family tree. We started talking about the history of my biological father's side of the family. The Schmitz family came to Iowa early after Iowa joined the union but only the last three five generations or so have lived in a nearby part of Iowa. My wife curious to see their farm and me wondering if I could still find it after 25 years of absence, decided to drive by it.

For those new to my blog, my biological father left when I was only six years old and never came back. Though he only lives about 40 miles from where I currently live, I still have not seen him in over 25 years. His parents, my grandparents, stayed in contact with me until my teen years but time gradually caused us to drift apart. I saw my grandma on my high school graduation day in the receiving line and haven't seen her since. A few years ago my grandfather died and after finding out several months after the fact, I wrote to my grandma offering my condolences. A gradual correspondence of a couple letters a year has begun since then.

My memory of the location was correct although nothing looked familiar. Only a sign on the mailbox with the Schmitz name assured me that we were in the right place. As I drove by, there was a car in the garage signaling that someone may be home so on the spur of the moment, we found a place to turn around and drove up the drive to the house. Before we could answer the door, one of my aunts opened it and stepped outside to greet us. At first she didn't recognize me but within a few seconds I could see that she did and we hugged. My grandmother was working in a nearby town but we stayed for a half hour anyway and talked a bit.

We decided to drive by where my grandmother worked since she would be on a lunch break at the time. When I stepped in the door, there were only two others in the entire place and I could immediately see which one was my grandmother. She had her back turned to us as she was getting her food. She walked over to a table, sat her food down and glanced up at me. I asked her if she remembered me and after a few puzzled seconds, she rushed forward and gave me a teary hug. I introduced her to my wife but because she had a friend with her for lunch and it was probably short, we only talked a couple minutes before leaving.

My father was her oldest child and I am the oldest grandchild so I know I hold a special place in her heart. But because my father chose to leave and never come back, I never had a complete or normal relationship with that side of the family. The only people that I really remember are my grandmother and the aunt that answered the door because they were the ones that came for those Christmas visits in my younger years. My grandfather and father are but blurred memories.

My grandmother of course said that I need to come again and perhaps I will. She would like for me to come to a family reunion and meet everyone and though unmentioned, my father, but I doubt that I will. I have no emotional ties to him and nothing physical other than some DNA. However the biggest reason is that my stepfather is my father and has been for the last 25 years. I do love him dearly and I wouldn't want him to think otherwise by pursuing a relationship with my biological father for really no reason.

So the day had been bittersweet. I had "met" three generations of Abbey's that had produced the man that became my father. I also rediscovered the grandmother of my other father, a man whom I really don't know. After it all, I have come to the conclusion that although blood is thicker than water, love is thicker than blood.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Finding Three Generations of Abbey's All In One Place

I look at my body as a battery that occasionally needs recharged. Weekends are especially refreshing in that I can usually find enough downtime in-between "honey do" projects to recharge my internal batteries for the upcoming week. The last few weekends however hadn't been that way and I was on empty. I needed a charge in the worst way so I took Monday off for something I have wanted to do for about a year now.

A year ago while doing some genealogical work, I found out that my great grandfather Abbey was buried in a cemetery about 80 miles away. Within days, I found out that three generations of Abbey's were buried there all the way back to my great great great grandparents, along with assorted uncles, aunts, and other relatives. I wrote down some notes in my mental filing cabinet and then pushed it out of mind until this past Monday.

With the powers of the internet and especially Google, I was able to not only find out the location of the cemetery but the names and rows of the inhabitants. So after a pleasant drive, I pulled into the cemetery located on a gentle hill across the road from a tiny baptist church of the same name. It was bigger than expected and I thought I would have to count rows to find the graves when I saw the name Abbey out of the corner of my eye. As I walked towards it I saw that it was the grave of my great great grandparents William and Elizabeth.

I wasn't sure what I would feel standing there by their grave, the closest I had ever been to them. Although I had thought I might feel satisfaction or happiness, I instead just felt as if I had come home to a family I have never known. I knelt there at their grave picking some moss out of the lettering of the tombstone for a bit and just wondering what they would have been like to talk too right then. They died in the early 1920's so I don't think it would have been too much of a shock to them.

After awhile I walked on over the crest of the hill counting rows and once again, my eyes saw the Abbey name long before I got there. This time it was the grave of my great grandparents James and Ramie whom I wrote about a little over a year ago. Mostly I thought about the story of Ramie's death and then how James died a few months later. Its funny how so many people die with in short periods of time of each other after having been married for so long.

The grave of my great great great grandparents Alexander and Sarah were a little harder to find. Being well over a hundred years old, the engraving was hard to read. Sarah's stone had fallen over and was laying face up on the ground. Alexander's stone had broken in half and someone long ago had leaned the top half against the bottom half and cemented it into place. Forever lost are the words of the epitaph on the lower half.

We poked around a little, reading nearby stones of probably great great great aunts and uncles on down. I carefully scraped at some of the moss here and there to see what words lay beneath. A few of the graves in the old cemetery were decorated still from Memorial Day so I knew some people still came out here but all my relatives graves were bare so after awhile, we drove on to a nearby town and found a store where we bought some flowers and some plastic drinking cups. Not sure if there had been a water hydrant, we also bought a case of bottled water too. Back at the cemetery, we decorated the graves and took some pictures to show to other interested relatives.

My wife and I stood over the graves of Alexander and Sarah for a while as I told her what history I knew. They were the first Abbey's in Iowa having moved from Tennessee well before statehood came. In fact, both were in their 40's before Iowa joined the union. Finally we bid our farewells and drove off towards home. Little did I know that before I would get home, I would find another relative that I hadn't seen in quite some time. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Good and the Bad News

Well I have good news and bad news. The good news is that my mother-in-law was able to get a 10-year multiple entry visa to visit the United States. The bad news is exactly the same as the good news.

As I have blogged about in the past, getting a Visa to enter the United States as a foreigner from a third world country is very very difficult, expensive and time consuming. Most of the difficulty comes in showing proof that the foreign resident has reason to return to their country of origin. On our first couple attempts, we tried showing documentation from my MIL's employer, her church, charities, and other assorted people stating that she was planning on returning. We also documented the fact that she has rental property that needs my MIL's presence for upkeep. Both of those attempts to get a Visa were denied.

Through various websites, I discovered that one of the best ways to show proof that a foreign individual will return to their country of origin is a large bank account. To me this makes little sense because I can transfer money from one account to another anywhere in the world without ever setting foot in either of the two countries involved. What's to stop my MIL from transferring her account once she got over here is a mystery to me. But over the previous two attempts and off and on through the years, we have sent her money that she deposited in her bank account. On the third attempt at a Visa last year, she was granted one but only for a single entry within six months. Though we hadn't sent any extra money since now and then, this time she got a ten-year multiple entry Visa. I guess she got the embassy official reviewing her case on a good day.

Fortunately for us, that means she will probably travel here to visit us in a couple months which is a darn sight easier than the three of us trying to get clear over there, especially with Little Abbey just slightly over a year old. I think hell sounds a lot better than spending 24+ hours in a plane with a one year old who can't go ten minutes in a car seat without getting bored. Unfortunately, it means my MIL will be able to come for an extended visit, perhaps up to two months in length. I know I couldn't live for two months with my parents again so I suspect that living two months with her mom might make my wife go crazy. The one saving grace is that there is an uncle (brother to my MIL) down in Dallas, Texas whom we could send her too for a while. I hope he is prepared for the long haul.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Lordy, Lordy, Look Who Is One!

About twelve hours from now a year ago, my life changed forever. Little Abbey came into this world and suddenly my label changed from husband to husband/father. My responsibilities increased and my stake in the two bathrooms in the house went from 50/50 to somewhere around 40/60. I imagine as the teenage years approach, my stake will probably dip again to somewhere around 10/90. A lot has changed in this last year both in my life and Little Abbey's life. Here are some of the things that she can do now.

She knows how to shake her head no is she is full and doesn't want anymore of whatever we are trying to feed her. If she is feeding herself, as she most often does, she signals that she is food by playing with her food and testing gravity.

I think she is weaning herself from milk as her delight in whatever we are eating increased. On average she probably drinks about 12 ounces of milk a day, down from the days when she could polish off 36 ounces. But she makes up with it in her other food intake. She will eat at least two cups of whatever we are eating three times a day plus several snacks throughout the day and all this with four teeth that barely poke through her gum line. She also drinks a juice box with her supper and water with the other meals. Although she will shove a pre-loaded spoon into her mouth, she hasn't shown interest in learning to eat with utensils yet and still prefers her hands. She does eat out of bowls or plates but we mostly only allow her to do that when she is on the floor to prevent her from testing gravity with our dinnerware.

Although I would say Little Abbey's life is all about recreation, recreationally her favorite toys are whatever happens to be near where ever we are. She has a whole box full of toys already from her ring stack that she unstacks and restacks to the sound of songs, blocks that she also stacks, to stuff from the adult world that she has confiscated like Tupperware lids. But still she spends most of her time playing with whatever is handy. Lately while I am finishing up the basement remodeling details, it has been my cordless screwdriver, hammers, pencils, etc. She plays with bags, a paintbrush, baby monitor, CD's, and her favorite toy of all… the computer keyboard and mouse. She loves to type a way on the keyboard and run the mouse all over the floor while clicking buttons. Today, I will be giving her a bicycle with fat plastic tires to prevent tipping over that I hope she learns to push around the house.

She has mastered going up the stairs and does so every time she gets the chance but has yet to master going down them unless she is only part way up. If she is only part way up she can climb down the stairs and if I get her started she can climb down the stairs but she hasn't figured out how to turn around yet and get herself started. I find this puzzling since she has mastered getting down from the couch on her own and it is as tall as two or three stairs. She simply lies down on her stomach, slides her feet over and lowers herself to the floor. I can't wait for her to master going down stairs so I can start reliving the life I used to have without baby gates blocking my every move.

Although she has been pointing at objects for several months, she has lately started holding out both arms to us when she wants to be picked up and held. For me this is especially heartwarming to know that she loves being held. She also has this habit of crawling up to my foot and laying her head down on it as if to bless me. She only does this to me and never my wife for some reason. Another thing that she mainly only does to me is to touch foreheads as I say "solid". This came from watching the Filipino movie Dubai where the two main characters who are brothers do it. We both enjoy doing 'solid' to each other.

Little Abbey is already showing more independence. When she first started crawling she would crawl out of sight but only for a few seconds before coming back to check on us. Now she will crawl out of sight and if she finds something interesting, it will be a long while before she crawls back. I always keep an ear towards her direction so I can keep track of where she is and mentally think of what kind of trouble she can be getting into around there. If she goes into silent mode, I go running to see what she is doing because when she is quiet, it is never a good thing. Now that our remodeling projects are wrapping up, she pretty much has the run of the entire house and I think that suits her just fine.

One activity she likes to do when we are preoccupied is to crawl to the front door and watch cars go by on the street. The louder the car, the better she likes it. The unfortunate side effect of this is that every glass surface is completely smudged with handprints from the bottom three feet down. After getting down on her level once to watch cars with her once, I am starting to think that she is going to grow up thinking everything outside is smudgy and smeary. Little Abbey loves being outdoors with us as we are doing some yard work but still has not liked the touch of grass on her feet. If you try to stand her in the grass she coils her feet up as high as she can to avoid the touch. So she mostly just sits in her rocking chair and watches us when outside which in a world full of things that can fit easily in her mouth, is a good thing.

So this afternoon she is having a small birthday party at her daycare followed by another party at my parents place in the evening. Since Saturday was already someone else's birthday in our circle of friends, we are having the huge obligatory Filipino first birthday bash on Sunday after church. Who knew that turning one year old was so much work for the parents?