When I’m back home — really, when I’m anywhere but here — people always ask me what Iowa’s like. Sometimes they say, “So what’s Iiiiooowwaaa like??!” as though it’s on another planet, but even if I give them the benefit of the doubt by assuming a normal and appropriate level of curiosity, there’s still the fact that they think they know the answer already. And the expected answer is this one.
“Everyone is SO. NICE! HERE.”
Because everyone knows that New Yorkers are mean meanies — if it weren’t true, why would anyone say it, right? — and frankly, how much better can the cannibalistic football field of modern politics that is Washington, DC really be? Iowa, Natalie! Iowa must be such a change, such a breath of friendly fresh air! Such a brush with real America! (I exaggerate, but fondly, and only a little.)
This is a problem. I’ve already harped on how this line of reasoning, which posits Iowa as the country’s literal heartland (except during the primaries, when it suddenly becomes too white to be a proper bellwether for tomorrow’s political fortunes) is (a) silly, if you actually think about it, and (b) destructive. Because friends, it is a slippery slope from “All Iowans are wonderful, salt-of-the-earth folks!” — so complimentary! what’s wrong with a compliment? — to “All New Yorkers are despicable, out-of-touch socialites.” And so on, on, on until you become Bill O’Reilly (scroll down to the sixth video clip).
So it’s hard to answer “What is Iowa like?” It is, right now, very cold. There’s three feet of compacted snow on the side of my driveway. There are some frankly unimpressive meringues on the counter that I made last night. There is a hippie co-op downtown, a famous independent book store, and everyone wears college sweat pants. But lest you get the wrong idea, the art museum is mostly Grant Wood Regionalism, not Picassos and Ab-Ex. Yet our two newest exhibitions are on minimalist drawings and conceptualism. And lest you get the wrong idea, if I drive fifteen miles in any direction, I land in real country fields. In one direction, the fields turn into a religious community, Amana.
I’ll throw you a bone: many people are nice. Our taxi drivers always chat with us. I saw a man entering the grocery store ask the Salvation Army Santa if he’d like a cup of coffee. And a student, unsolicited, offer a homeless man a cigarette. (Yes, there are homeless people in Iowa.)
But that’s just one part of it. If you get bowled over in New York by a speed-walker, that’s just one part of it too. This new home is just as complicated as yours. This is what we talk about when we talk about Iowa.