Observations from 12 Years of Iowa Life

If you aren’t friends with people from Iowa, you may have missed Stephen Bloom’s Atlantic piece on Iowa and the fury it is inciting. The issue is mostly that Bloom, who is a teacher at University of Iowa that is currently teaching in Michigan, has portrayed Iowa as how everyone outside of Iowa thinks of Iowa. It seems as though Bloom decided to write the piece, “Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life,” to try to explain why such a podunk little state would have such importance in the presidential election.

The problem is that rather than painting a portrait saying “Yes, Iowa has some issues, but it’s not a backwards hick state like everyone thinks it is,” Bloom has mostly created broad stereotypes or reinforced those stereotypes.

Now, as someone who spent 12 years living in Iowa, I will dissect Bloom’s piece.

1). “Iowa is not flat as a pancake, despite what most people think.” This is actually very true and I can say with certainty that no one in Iowa should ever own a single speed bike since Iowa is very hilly.

2). “The state is split politically: to the east of Des Moines, Iowa is solidly Democratic; to the west, it’s rabidly Republican. Iowa’s two U.S. Senators are emblematic of this schizophrenia: Fundamentalist Republican Charles Grassley and Ultra-liberal Democrat Tom Harkin. Grassley is 78; Harkin 72; both have held seats in either the U.S. Senate or House since 1975.” Yes, but there are still some very staunch conservatives who represent parts of the eastern portion of the state in the house.

3). Insular Iowa is also home to the most conservative, and, some say, wackiest congressman in America, Republican Rep. Steve King, who represents the vast western third of the state. Some of King’s doozies: calling Senator Joe McCarthy a “hero for America”; comparing illegal immigrants to stray cats that wind up on people’s porches; and praying that Supreme Court “Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsberg fall madly in love with each other and elope to Cuba.” I can’t deny that Rep. Steve King is maybe the craziest congressman out there.

4). Iowa, at the time, was the second state in the U.S. to allow gays to marry each other, a decision the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld two years later. In retaliation, Iowa conservatives in 2010 mounted a successful campaign to oust three of the justices who ruled on behalf of same-sex marriage. And that is why I dislike Bob Vander Plaats.

5). Whether a schizophrenic, economically-depressed, and some say, culturally-challenged state like Iowa should host the first grassroots referendum to determine who will be the next president isn’t at issue. As someone who spent four years reviewing theater in Iowa, I can say that Iowa is not culturally challenged. One of my favorite restaurants in America is in Waterloo, Iowa.

6). Iowa’s not representative of much. There are few minorities, no sizable cities… I think that there are starting to be more minorities in Iowa than when I first moved there, although the town in Iowa where I lived has fewer people than the neighborhood where I reside in Chicago.

7). In this land, deep within America, on Friday nights it’s not unusual to take a date to a Tractor Pull or to a Combine Demolition Derby (“First they were thrashin’, now they’re CRASHIN’!”). Everywhere I’ve lived in Iowa, Tractor Pulls have only occurred during county fairs. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a Combine Demolition Derby. Then again, I lived in parts of Iowa where one could take a date to the symphony, a nice play or to see a movie.

8). I imagine many in the rural Midwest must have said a variation of this — “Whaddaya expect from a Harvard-educated, black city slicker who wouldn’t know a John Deere tractor from an International Harvester combine?” Pardon my language, but what the fuck was that?

9). If the audience wasn’t primarily vegan, gluten-intolerant foodies, what came out of Obama’s mouth was some of the most succulent red meat he could have tossed their way. I know quite a few celiacs and vegans in Iowa, many of whom do theater. In fact, my favorite natural foods store is located in Cedar Falls.

10). What Average Joe in Iowa wants to admit he clings to anything — except hunting, fishing, and the Hawkeyes? Guns, religion, xenophobia? Them’s fightin’ words. Iowans also are fans of the Cyclones, the Panthers, the Norse, the Knights and other college teams.

11). There’s a huge section where Bloom discusses immigrants and slaughterhouses. Nowhere in this portion does he discuss the huge raids that have occurred at slaughterhouses in Iowa.

12). They speak English in Iowa. This might be the funniest sentence in the entire piece. But in all seriousness, portions of Iowa also have other prominent languages. Outside of the public library in Waterloo there’s a no smoking sign that’s written in English, Spanish and Bosnian.

13). Indoor parking lots are ramps, soda is pop, lollipops are suckers, grocery bags are sacks, weeds are volunteers, miniature golf is putt-putt, supper is never to be confused with dinner, cellars and basements are totally different places, and boys under the age of 16 are commonly referred to as “Bud.” In the 12 years I lived in Iowa I never heard anyone call a grocery bag a “sack,” weeds “volunteers” or miniature golf “putt-putt.” But I do confuse some people in Iowa when I call soda “soda.”

14). Almost every Iowa house has a mudroom… I never lived in a house in Iowa with a mudroom.

15). Comfort food reigns supreme. Meatloaf and pork chops are king. Casseroles (canned tuna or Tatertots) and Jell-O molds (cottage cheese with canned pears or pineapple) are what to bring to wedding receptions and funerals. Everyone loves Red Waldorf cake. Deer (killed with a rifle is good, with bow-and-arrow better) and handpicked morels are delicacies families cherish. I never had Red Waldorf cake nor have I ever had a Tater Tot casserole or deer, but I have had rabbit with gnocchi in Chicago. Comfort food in my house was rice pilaf.

16). You can’t drive too far without seeing a sign for JESUS or ABORTION IS LEGALIZED MURDER. You also can’t drive too far without seeing a billboard with overbloated statistics on smoking. I actually think those are more common.

17). When my family and I first moved to Iowa, my wife and I recall, our first Easter morning the second-largest newspaper in the state (the Cedar Rapids Gazette) had this headline splashed across Page One of the edition we got in Iowa City: HE HAS RISEN. Although The Atlantic has made a correction, the headline Bloom described never happened.

18). Come to Jesus was a nonsectarian, equal-opportunity expression that could just as easily involve Jews, Muslims, or Hindus (if you could find any in Iowa) as it involved Christians. I actually know quite a few Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Athiests from Iowa. Many of them went to school with me and I went to the public school in the town, not the lab school.

19). Most, if not all of these teenagers, have worked for a couple of weeks in the summer as detasselers, when they remove the pollen-producing tassel on the top of each corn plant, letting it drop to the ground, so that two varieties of corn will cross-breed and make a hybrid. The job has become an absolute rite of passage for rural Iowa kids. It’s also a rite of passage for suburban Iowa kids, although I once spent the summer doing statistics research.

20). Bloom’s whole story involving his dog being asked about being a hunting dog is weird. No one asked me if my father’s greyhound was a hunting dog and someone I worked with on a show in Cedar Rapids pointed out on Facebook that no one ever asked if her lab was a hunting dog.

21). To me, it summed up Iowa. You’d never get a dog because you might just want to walk with the dog or to throw a ball for her to fetch. No, that’s not a reason to own a dog in Iowa. You get a dog to track and bag animals that you want to stuff, mount, or eat. No really, I know a lot of people in Iowa who own dogs for the same reason the plethora of dog owners on my street own dogs. They own those dogs because they can walk the dog, play fetch with the dog, have their faces licked by the dog. They don’t own dogs to help them hunt. Similarly, I know some people in Iowa who own cats to eat mice who get into the barns, but most of the people I know who own cats have taken that cat in as a nice companion, someone to pet and comfort.

22). That’s the place that may very well determine the next U.S. president. Have we forgotten that Mike Huckabee won the Republican Caucus in 2008?

4 thoughts on “Observations from 12 Years of Iowa Life

  1. Thanks for writing this–I was surprised to hear little from my dozens of Facebook friends from Iowa. Yes, his piece doesn’t fit with my experience of Iowa much at all–however, I grew up in Ames and lived in Iowa City a year, so my experience is only college-town Iowa.

    I’m not familiar with those foods or terms either, with one exception: every time I visit Iowa from Chicago I’m taken aback a little when asked if I want store purchases in a “sack.” It must be common in central Iowa, at least.

  2. I also lived in college-town Iowa—Waverly and Cedar Falls—but I have relatives in Readlyn and Maynard, which is why I can’t deny some folksy things he described. And living in Waverly is why I know that some county fairs have tractor pulls because there is always a tractor pull at the Bremer County Fair and I believe it’s on Saturday evenings.

    “Sack” might be more common in central Iowa because I don’t recall ever being asked in northeastern Iowa if I wanted a sack.

  3. I’ve heard of combine demolition derbies… in Wisconsin.

  4. This at least answers my rhetorical question of “Why have I never heard of combine demolition derbies?”

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