Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Is this the real Iowa?

A University of Iowa professor has created quite a ruckus inside (and outside) his state for his portrayal of life in Iowa. Here's his essay, as it appeared in The Atlantic.

And here are some excerpts that are drawing attention:
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. It's been this way since 1972, and there are no signs that it's going to change. In a perfect world, no way would Iowa ever be considered representative of America, or even a small part of it. Iowa's not representative of much. There are few minorities, no sizable cities, and the state's about to lose one of its five seats in the U.S. House because its population is shifting; any growth is negligible. Still, thanks to a host of nonsensical political precedents, whoever wins the Iowa Caucuses in January will very likely have a 50 percent chance of being elected president 11 months later. Go figure. ...
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'!"). There are few billboards along the washboard-bumpy, blacktop roads that slice through the countryside, only hand-drawn signs advertising sweet corn, cattle, lemonade, or boar semen. Driving through these throwback towns, a stranger might receive a slight nod from a farmer on the side of the road, or a two-finger driver's greeting from knobby fingers atop a pick-up's steering wheel. Strangers are rare in these parts. Why would they be here? What would bring someone with no business or family to such a remote pocket of America, where car alarms are as unheard of as home burglar alarms? Locals don't bother to put on their turn signals because everyone knows where everyone else is going. Some rural counties in Iowa don't have a single traffic light. ...
About the only possible bright spot in the rural Iowa economy is wind energy. It's a huge on-the-come bet that may actually pay off. Iowa is the second largest producer of wind energy in the U.S. (Texas is the first). Twenty percent of all electricity in the state is generated by wind. Drive down Interstate 80 for any stretch in Iowa, and you'll pass wide-loads announcing what's in front and behind: 150-foot-long, 12-ton blades for wind turbines. You'll also pass "wind farms," surreal grassy outposts with row after row of huge white turbines, their blades spinning. It's the windmill updated, but this time for the masses.
But relatively few rural Iowans are employed in the business of wind energy. The bulk of jobs here are low-income ones most Iowans don't want. Many have simply packed up and left the state (which helps keep the unemployment rate statewide low). Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that "The sun'll come out tomorrow."
It's no surprise then, really, that the most popular place for suicide in America isn't New York or Los Angeles, but the rural Middle, where guns, unemployment, alcoholism and machismo reign. ...
Rules peculiar to rural Iowa that I've learned are hard and fast, seldom broken: Backdoors are how you always go into someone's house. Bar fights might not be weekly occurrences, but neither are they infrequent activities. Collecting is big --whether it's postcards, lamps, figurines, tractors, or engines. NASCAR is a spectator sport that folks can't get enough of. Old-timers answer their phones not with "hello," but with last names, a throwback to party-lines. Everyone's phone number in town starts with the same three-digit prefix.
Hats are essential. Men over 50 don't leave home without a penknife in their pocket. Old Spice is the aftershave of choice. Everyone knows someone who has had an unfortunate and costly accident with a deer (always fatal for the deer, sometimes for the human). Farming is a dangerous occupation; if farmers don't die from a mishap (getting a hand in an auger, clearing a stuck combine), they live with missing digits or limbs.
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. ...
So, is the author correct? Bitter? Confused? Overly blunt? Honest? About to get run out of town?




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