how to tell a true story

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.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ksenia on March 22, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Iowa begins to look a little different when you think of its sprawling fields as cities of corn, the land, in its own way, settled as densely as Manhattan for the very same purpose: to maximize real estate values. There may be little pavement out here, but this is no middle landscape. Though by any reasonable definition Iowa is a rural state, it is more thoroughly developed than many cities: A mere 2 percent of the state’s land remains what it used to be (tall-grass prairie), every square foot of the rest having been completely remade by man. The only thing missing from this man-made landscape is… man.

    (Michael Pollen, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 37-38)

    I thought you would appreciate this… 🙂


  2. Not sure what part of Iowa you’re in, but I’m from the Northwest part where conservative Christianity runs rampid with very little room for progressive ideas. To describe Iowa is just as complicated as describing Colorado where I live now or New York as you wrote. People are nice as people are nice here in Colorado. However, people, often under the name of God, are incredibly unforgiving, damaging, hurtful, and can be more awful than getting run over by a speedwalker. I am an open lesbian, atheist, and independent politically. When I go back to Iowa, I’m literally gawked at and nearly shunned. In that way, New Yorkers are “nice”, because they could care less what labels I have taken on or who I love. They care about what you are in that moment and are ready to keep moving on to the next moment. Many Iowans hold grudges that last for decades.


    • Posted by iowasthinking on July 15, 2010 at 2:36 pm

      Here in Iowa City, I haven’t encountered the sort of grudge-holding and meanness you write about (yet?). Just goes to show how widely the experience of one state and its citizens can vary. That seems like an obvious statement, but I’ve found most people consider Iowa a monolith of corn-eating, salt-of-the-earth farmers. The existence of a cosmopolitan college town or (on the other hand) a judgmental, ultra-Christian presence never really enters the picture. It should — no place is a monolith!
      Thanks for sharing your experience. Adds another dimension to talking about life in Iowa, and the Midwest generally.


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