Thursday, January 8, 2009

Special Edition #2: The Meaning of Iowa

I have not lived in Iowa for overtwenty years now. I'm not even from Iowa: was born in South Dakota, moved to Washington state (I hate it that i always have to say "state" when I say Washington--east coast bias) when I was five, then lived in Tennessee from ten to thirteen or so. THEN I moved to Iowa. To Des Moines. But my father was from Iowa (Red Oak, though actually was born in Nebraska along the Little Blue River). I went through most of Jr High and all of High School in Des Moines. Went to the great U of Iowa for college and was in the Iowa Writers Workshop for a spell.
But Iowa--Des Moines in particular--was my crucible. It was my axis, my prism, my home of knowledge from which all else was judged and compared to. And since I didn't have a high opinion of Des Moines (then), when I went elsewhere in this country, say Lousiana or Wyoming or Chicago, it was a wonderful wonderment.
Not a wonderment in the sense that I was awestruck or anything, but in that I was acutly aware of the differences in my surroundings, in the temperature the trees and plants, small cultural things. It inspired me, made me alive because Iowa was so plain (in my eyes). It was, so. . . normal. So driving through the San Juan Valley of southern Colorado was like being in a wild landscape painting. Or walking the fog-rainy-hilly streets of Seattle--the smell of Puget Sound, the clothes people wore, the old and new buildings--was as good as being in London or Stockholm and such. It made me tingle and made me want to write or draw or paint.
That was fun.
In many ways, it's still there. Iowa is still my crucible. But I haven't lived there, have been out of the midwest, for a good twelve years or more. I really didn't live in Des Moines since my third year of college in Iowa City, and really quit living in Iowa, for good, early in 1984. But now, when I go back or when I go to Champaign, Chicago, Minneapolis--anywhere in the midwest, really--it's semi-exotic to me. Not the exoticism of the tropics or mountains or a foreign nation, but the deciduous trees, the hardwoods, the leaves turning and dropping, the farm fields of corn and soy and farm animals, the surprising hills and undulations and dark rivers, the regular sidewalks and slowish traffic, people polite and competent and doing what they're supposed to do every day, the hard soil and "real" grass, the little bars and businesses with their small windows and brick, their beef sandwiches and pork tenderloins--all that stuff--is different and not different and a great pleasure to me. The Midwest is the comfort food of my mind.
And Iowa--Des Moines and Iowa City--is often the best of any eating I can get these days.

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