[ed note: Found! In a dumpster behind Hamburg Inn, the first draft of University of Iowa professor Stephen G. Bloom's anthropology dissertation for Atlantic magazine explaining the bizarre cultural mores of the primative Aborigines who pay his salary.]
IOWA CITY -- On January 3, Iowans will trudge through snow, sleet, sludge, mud, ice, corn, beans, pig feces, flaming lakes of ethanol, gale-force blizzards -- whatever it takes -- to join their neighbors that evening in 1,784 living rooms, barns, community halls, recreation barns, silos, wigwams, and public-school Corn God sacrifice altars in a kind of Norman Rockwell-meets-HR Geiger old timey bygone-era past-that-never-was town-hall folksy-regular-folks go-to-town-meeting at which they'll eat and debate, and then battle with corn hoes and pitchforks to choose their presidential candidates along party lines. The local tribal elders call this "Kaukkassqaatsi," the Iowa word for "run on sentences."
We now know these as the Iowa Caucuses, which create a seismic shift in the presidential nominating contests. In 2008, after Obama catapulted to the top of the Democrats' rain-dance card, the resultant seismic tremors swept him to victory at the Democratic Convention. The tremors were also thought to be the cause of the volcanic eruption of long-dormant Mount Pleasant, which tragically destroyed over half the final term papers of my students in C3101, Introduction to Communication Studies.
Since Obama is the presumed Democratic candidate in 2012, this year it's the Republican candidates who must now woo the sad, semiliterate populace of this benighted barren outpost beyond the frontier of rational civilization. They're falling over each other in front of grain elevators and cornfields, over biscuits and hogslop in breakfast cafes, in ghost-haunted tornado-ravaged baseball cornfields, and at potluck dinners (casseroles are the thing to bring), under the covered bridges of Madison County with lonely sex-starved Italian war widows, glad-handing and backslapping and eyepoking as many Iowa voters they can. Great photo ops, you know. Hoisting a baby in the air is good politics. So's gulping down a brat (short for "bratwurst" - contrary to popular myth, Iowans seldom eat misbehaving children).
Considering the state's enormous political significance, and all the falling-over-slap-handing of hoisted babies, I thought this would be a good time to explain to those fortunate enough to live elsewhere a little about Iowa, including where Iowa is, and perhaps more importantly, in both a real and metaphysical way, and, at the same time, a postmodernly theoretical way, what Iowa is. And, possibly, why Iowa is. Because I have tenure.
For almost 20 years I've lived in Iowa, where as a professor at the University of Iowa I've taught thousands of university students. When I arrived I was mortified how few of them were prepared to write an impactful, 300-word, two-paragraph, fully-hyphenated sentence. After my initial shock subsided, I became curious about the strange culture that produced these fascinating young drunks. I overcame my agoraphobia and began walkabouts into Iowa's foreboding outback. I've written a couple of books on rural Iowa, traveling to all 99 counties, and have spent much of my time when not teaching or applying for safari supply grants, visiting with and interviewing Iowans from across the state of Iowa in Iowa. I haven't taken up hunting or fishing or methamphetamine, the main hobbies of rural Iowans, but I'm a fan of University of Iowa Hawkeye football, so I'm told I am a good third of the way to becoming an adopted Iowan. According to my students, the final two steps of my official Iowa adoption ritual involve challenging and defeating an Iowa State player in a bar fistfight. I even have a dog, born and bred in Iowa (more on that later) .
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Iowa is not flat as a pancake, despite what most people think. Northeast of Cedar Rapids is actually pretty hilly, like the undulating waves of a waffle, or perhaps a misshapened blintz or flapjack johnnycake. It's an agricultural (corns and soybeans), landlocked state, which may come as an unpleasant surprise to those, like me, who first come here in search of exciting urban beach vacations. While Iowa's landmass is a little larger than England's, its population is only three million, about 17 times smaller than Britain's, and with 786 times fewer castles. The state's name derives from the Ioway Indians, which translates as "casino people." Of Iowa's 99 counties, 88 are classified as rural, and God only knows why the other 11 aren't. Iowa's capital and largest city is Des Moines (pop: 203,000), whose primary business is insurance. The state is 96 percent white. So if you're looking for uncultured white insurance agents, you just hit the jackpot.
On the state's eastern edge lies the Mississippi River, dotted with towns with splendid names like Keokuk, Floopsboro, Quankadoorf, Chumbawumba, Bananarama, Kajagoogoo, Millivanilliville, and Right Said Fred. Each once was a booming city on the swollen turgid banks of that Ol' Man Ribbah, flowing down to dem' Ol' Cotton fields in Alabammysaw. Not much travels along the muddy and polluted Ol' Mississippi no mo' dese ol' days, no suh, ceptin' dem ol' rusty-bucket barges of grain and an occasional Eskimo kayaker weeping -- as only a noble, nature-loving savage can -- as he circumnavigates the garbage, beer cans, dead dreams and assorted debris left by the 96% white insurance agents who stole it from him.
Mark Twain once lived in Southeast Iowa, in Keokuk, working at his brother's printing press. He also was employed nearby as a reporter for the Muscatine Journal. That is pretty much the sum total collective highlight of Keokuk, as the Gateway City -- once a sought-after destination seriously considered a worthy rival to Chicago as a metropolis of culture and commerce -- has descended into a a depressed, skuzzy, crime-infested slum town, host to 73% of all North American murders in the past year. In the last semester alone, 8 of my students were forced to miss midterm exams due to the senseless Keokuk murders of their grandmothers.
On Iowa's western frontier lies the Missouri River, which girds a huge, sparsely populated agricultural region anchored by Sioux City (pop: 83,000) in the state's far northwest and Council Bluffs (pop: 62,230), across from the Nebraska hub of Omaha. Eskimo Pies, the original I-Scream Bar, was invented by a Danish immigrant in Onawa, a tiny town not far from the Missouri, and today you can visit an Eskimo Pie display at the Monona County Historical Museum there.
This concludes our break into folksy quaintness. Now it is time to resume our deep journalism dive into the psychic chasm of this rustic hell on earth.
In between the two great, garbage-clogged rivers, Iowa is a place of bizarre contrasts. The state is split politically: to the east of Des Moines, Iowa is solidly Democratic; to the west, it's rabidly Republican. Bizarre enough for you? Well. hold on to your hat because Iowa's two U.S. Senators are emblematic of this progressively solid vs.rabies-infested-evil Jeckyl-and-Hyde schizophrenia: Fundamentalist Republican Charles Grassley and Ultra-liberal Democrat Tom Harkin. Grassley is a decrepit 78; Harkin is a youthful 72. How's that for top-notch journalistic contrast?
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"; praying that Supreme Court Justices Stevens and Ginsberg "fall madly in love with each other and elope to Cuba"; and, craziest of all, voting against the University Faculty Lounge Remodeling Act of 2010. Keith Olbermann named King not only the worst congressman in the U.S., but the Worst Person in the World six times. Hopefully, the shame of being called out by America's favorite news anchor will jar King's stupid insular constituents to their senses.
Considering the above, not just a few Iowa heads turned when a District Court in Des Moines in 2007 declared same-sex marriages legal. 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, led by Steve King, forced the Iowa Supreme Court to elope to Cuba.
Whether a schizophrenic, economically-depressed, slum-pocked, rabid, baby-tossing, snaggle-toothed, Olbermann-disapproved, 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. Or, for that matter, any part of it. I mean, for God's sake, why would any country on planet Earth -- even, say, Uganda -- want to have such a jejune culture-free liquid hog waste cesspit in the middle of it, let alone choosing its leaders? Let's face 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; and, frankly, any sentient being still alive in this dump envies the dead. Especially junior faculty who couldn't find tenure track gigs at a decent urban school. 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. And, also, fuck that noise.
Maybe Ambrose Bierce described it right when he called the U.S. president "the greased pig in the field game of American politics." For better or worse, Iowa's the greasy, fetid squealing sow at this County Fair Carnival of Souls we call "democracy."
Rural America has always been homogenous, as white as the milk the millions of Holstein cows here produce, as white as a milk-guzzling Albino Grand Wizard in his Sunday-best go-to-cross-burnin' robe in the middle of a Cedar Rapids June blizzard. Many towns are so insular that farmers from another county are strangers. Historically, at least since 1900, few newcomers chose to knock on America's Heartland door. And why the would they? I mean, for crissakes, would you want to live in a place where people from two adjacent counties don't even know each other?
Iowa anchors the Upper American "Heartland," the rural interior that produces much of the world's corn, pigs, cattle, and soybeans. The corn grows so fast in Iowa -- from seedlings to 7-foot-high stalks in 12 weeks -- that it crackles nonstop throughout the summer months. The sound is like popcorn popping slow-motion in a microwave in your mind. That pop-pop-popping can be heard especially in the early morning hours, and especially if you've been out drinking and/or taking drugs. You look up from your vomit and see dew and fog cover the acres of gently swaying cornstalks that surround farming villages the way the sea encircles an island. And then the corn looks at you, in that corny way it does, and you're like "Don't you DARE judge me! I have a PhD!" And then, in a way that few urban minds can fathom, it flaunts and flirts and teases you with its leathery husks and silky tassels bending in unison to the shimmying breeze, begging for you to give it some hot corn sex, but then you pass out again.
In this land, deep within the bowels of America, on Friday nights it's not unusual to take a date to a Tractor Pull or to a Combine Demolition Derby. Then there are the frequent Shampooing Tournaments, and various other Friday night activities that have made it impossible for me to a find a Friday date since I arrived here 20 years ago. I mean, what's up with that? "Sorry, Stephen, I can't go to the Werner Herzog festival at the Bijou tonight, I've got another tractor pull." Yeah, whatever, bitch. See if I vote for you at your tenure hearing.
There are few billboards along the washboard-bumpy, blacktop roads that slice through the countryside, only hand-drawn primitive 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, which is the secret Iowa signal for "I've got a fresh batch boar semen." Which, I've also discovered, is a rich source of Vitamin E.
Just about every town, no matter what size, has a water tower with the town name scrawled or stenciled on the tank's side. Christ, talk about pathetic. "Ooooh, look at us, we've got a water tower!" Each summer, the 4H and Future Farmers of America sponsor contests for idiotic farmer bullshit like best pig, lamb, goat, roster or hen, and then the fat housewives compete for "best pie" (paging Dr. FREUD). A float pulled by a farmer's pickup showcases smiling and often-hardy girls waving, to be crowned County Fair Queen, Dairy Queen, and Pork Queen. And if you approach the float for a better view, then the various Queens compete in a cop-calling contest. Don't ask.
Iowa is these gently rolling plains, full of farms and barns and also millions of pigs and turkeys, and women who won't have sex with you, even if you've been on NPR and got a positive blurb in the Times Book Review. But there also are too-many-to-count empty storefronts (and not coincidentally scores of flourishing Wal-Marts). The region has suffered terribly, particularly since the 1980's when the ravaged farm economy started spinning out of control into free-fall. Serves them right.
After winning the Iowa Caucuses three years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama didn't mince words about the lingering impact of the Farm Crisis.
Speaking at a San Francisco fundraiser, Obama said, "Like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Instead of the praise he should have got for that insightful burn, Obama got scalded for his comments. I imagine many in the rural Midwest must have said a variation of this -- "Whaddayewww them-thar expect from an dangity dagnab pointy-haided egghaid Harvard black boy city slicker wouldn't know him a John Deere corn-o-mometer from an International Harvester alfalfarizer?" Also I imagine them shooting guns in the air randomly, nude, except for bib overalls, with swastikas.
Coastal elites love to dump on Iowa the same way Manhattanites trash New Jersey. And why not? It didn't rate even a speck in Sol Steinberg's classic 1967 New Yorker cover. And if you don't merit a mention by the New Yorker, it's time to take the Greyhound back to Des Moines and live with the humiliation, Elmer. Obama's comments went over without a second thought, until they wafted back to the Heartland. 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, cuz I is too trajamickly durn darn dumb fer the self-awareniss that that pointyhaid Professer Bloom just cleverly pointed out them thar analogies betwixt guns=huntin', religion=fishin' and Hawkeyes = that thar Nazi zee-no-fobia.
Obama might have been wrong for telling this undeniable truth, which seldom happens in politics, but the future president was 100-percent accurate when he let slip his comments on the absolute and utter desperation in America's hollowed-out middle, in particular in the state where I live.
There's the idealized version of rural America, then there's the heartbreaking George Harrison '74 Concert for Bangladesh Double Live Album version Obama was talking about.
Take One: The fairytale rendering is pastoral and bucolic; sandy-haired children romping through fecund, shoulder-high corn with Lassie at their side. It's Field of Dreams meets Carousel with The Waltons thrown in for good measure. And also, State Fair, and The Music Man, with 76 trombones marching through sunny streets of Pleasantville with highstepping girls in pinafores and button shoes, do-si-doing with apple cheeked boys in knickers. In short, a fairytale utopian Never-ever-land where you don't have to pay women for sex.
Take Two: The nightmare reality is Children of the Corn sewn together with the Hills Have Eyes in a Human Corn Borer at Motel Hell. Tens of thousands of laid-off rural factory workers, farmers who have lost their land to banks and agribusiness, legions of female graduate students who continue to ignore your emails even though they honestly aren't that attractive, and a relationship with you could probably help their career.
An illusionary, short-term salve has been the proliferation of casinos in the state. Sure, you go in, sidle up to a 25c machine, and some cute Iowa blonde waitress come by and asks you for a drink order. Next thing you know, two Ioway Indian security guards have thrown you out in a snow bank.
Many undocumented immigrants come to Iowa to work in the rural slaughterhouses. The only requirements are a strong stomach and a strong back, and a willingness to accept that the work and the pay don't match. They become knockers, stickers, bleeders, tail rippers, flankers, gutters, sawers, or plate boners, all of whom work on what amounts to a disassembly line. Even the women. And guess what? Even those women won't give you the time of day, either.
About the only possible bright spot in the rural Iowa economy is wind energy. Drive down Interstate 80 for any stretch in Iowa, and you'll meet wide-loads with 150-foot-long, 12-ton blades for wind turbines, driven by fat angry uneducated Iowa truckers, blowing their horns because you're driving a safe, fuel-efficient left lane 50 mph in your Prius. Thankfully, you'll also pass high tech green-friendly "wind farms," which, while expensive and frequently broken, help reduce the mortifying embarrassment of living here, especially when your smug grad school friend, the one who lucked out in the dotcom boom, is visiting from Napa.
But relatively few rural Iowans are employed in the business of wind energy. Most Iowans are not employed in anything. The bulk of jobs here are low-income ones most Iowans don't want. Most people have simply packed up and left, which tricks the unemployment number into thinking it's low. Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the demented elderly waiting to die, those too stupid or poor to rent a U-Haul, an assortment of waste-toids meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, and crypto-fascist retarded paint huffers with Alzheimers and leprosy. Then there are the bad ones.
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, elderlyness, alcoholism and machismo reign. Suicides in Iowa's rural counties are 13.55 per 100,000 residents; New York's suicide rate is 5.4 residents per 100,000, most of whom are probably Iowans who drove their tractors all the way to the South Bronx in search of a less-depressing place to end it all. Hunting "accidents" are common, perhaps spurred by the elixir of alcohol, which seems to be the drink of choice whenever a man suits up in camo or orange overalls. In his mind, this man secretly wishes those camo overalls were a sequined nightgown, and dreams of belting an Edith Piaf torch song in a West Village cabaret to an adoring audience instead of blasting innocent animals in a stubbly, frigid cornfield outside Webster City (population 8,070). Due to the draconian cutbacks in funding for rural mental-health clinics -- especially those specializing in the issues of transvestite/transexual pheasant hunters -- he enters a downward spiral of alcohol and shame fueled by extremist Lutheran fundamentalism and Bass Pro Shops. Soon, Iowa's morgues are overflowing with the reflective orange-wrapped, Schnapps-pickled corpses of closeted dairy farmer drag queens, denied by Iowa's sick culture to be who they were. Non, je ne regrette rien, Iowa.
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I live in Iowa City, a university town 60 miles west of the Mississippi, along Highway 80 (known as The Interstate to younger Iowans, and 'That Consarn Horseless Moto-Carriageway' to older Iowans). Eighty is America's Main Street, bisecting Iowa, like a scalpel on the fat belly of a biology class frog, connecting the intestines of the hollowed-out middle of Frogus Americana to the faraway coasts. Granted, I'm a transplant here, and when I lit out almost two decades ago for this territory, I didn't quite know what to expect. The first day I arrived from San Francisco, wandering about Iowa City with my ladder, during spring break, billed as a bustling Big Ten University town, I kept wondering, "Where is everyone?" I thought a neutron bomb had gone off; there were sorority houses, but not a single panty-clad coed pillow fight to be seen. I later learned from their diaries they were in Daytona, doing Jager Bombs with Rico Soave during MTV Spring Break '91.
Today, I still not quite sure what I'd gotten myself into. I've lived in many places, lots of them foreign countries, but none has been more foreign to me than Iowa. And this includes Bankok Fetish Fest on LSD during typhoon season.
They speak English in Iowa. You understand the words fine. (Broadcasters, in fact, covet the Iowa "accent," since it could come from anywhere, devoid of regional inflections.) But if you listen closely, after compressing the low band and running it backwards on a TEAC reel-to-reel, they are actually saying KILL YOUR MOTHER in Esperanto.
Indoor parking lots are 'ramps,' soda is 'pop,' lollipops are 'suckers,' grocery bags are 'sacks,' croquette mallets are 'lawn wackers,' cellars and basements are totally different places, chloroform cannot be found at the drug store, and girls under the age of 16 are commonly referred to as "underage." Almost every Iowa house has a 'mudroom,' so you don't track mud or pig shit into the kitchen or living room, as if anyone from Iowa would ever notice. The aroma of pig shit is absolutely venerated in Iowa: It's known to one and all here as "the smell of money." I learned this from a student who doused me with a bucket of Iowa money from his dorm window, explaining that in Iowa it is considered a great honor to have someone 'make it rain' on you.
Friday fish fries at the American Legion hall; grocery and clothing shopping at Wal-Mart; Christmas crèches with live donkeys, pterodactyls and an intergalactic alien playing Baby Jesus; hunters with Roman catapults stalking yetis in the fall. Not many cars in these here parts of America. They're vehicles, pronounced we-HAKE-loose -- 4X4's, pick-ups, snowmobiles. Rural houses are modest, some might say drab, and seldom have walls. Everyone strives to be middle-class; and if you have pig shit, by God you'd never want to make anyone feel bad by showing off it with. If you go to Florida for a cruise, or Bankok for a Fetish Fest, you keep it to yourself. The biggest secret often is -- if you still own a farm -- exactly which farmhouse window in is the daughter's bedroom. Ostentatious is chasing strangers out of town in a new Ford F-150 pickup.
The reason everyone seems related in small-town Iowa is because, if you go back far enough, many are, WINK-WINK. In Iowa, names like Yoder, Snitker, Schroeder, and Slabach are as common as Garcia, Lee, Romero, Johnson, and Chen are in big cities. Look, I'm not trying to be judgmental. Just saying that these Iowa Yoders and Snitkers wouldn't breed so many mental defectives if their daughters canceled prom night with Uncle Grandpa and hooked up with an intellectual from Iowa City.
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, and not until they've been gone at least ten minutes. Bar fights can be avoided by curling into a fetal ball. NASCAR, like bar fights and pig shit, 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. Afterwards, they are reluctant to tell you what they are wearing.
Hats are essential, particularly Homburgs and straw boaters. Men over 50 don't leave home without onion on their belts. Old Spice is often the aftershave of choice, second only to Axe Iowa Body Spray of Money. Everyone knows someone who has had an unfortunate and costly accident with a deer. Farming is a dangerous occupation; farmers frequently are shredded limb from limb in combines driven by revenge-seeking deer. Often, mad meth lab scientist sew together the strew parts of the victims of the senseless Deer-Farmer War into hideous inbred 7-legged Zombie Meth Head Antler Monsters, which have taken over the sewers of Ottumwa.
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 shotgun cousin weddings and farm accident funerals. Then there is the ultimate Iowa dish: Glazed Porktot & Jello Casseloaf Cake, with Pigshit Icing.
Religion is the glue that binds everyone, whether they're Catholic, Lutheran, or Presbyterian. You can't drive too far without seeing a sign for JESUS or ABORTION IS LEGALIZED MURDER or MCDONALDS. I'm forever amazed by how often I hear neighbors, co-workers, shoppers, and total strangers walk up to me at Hy-Vee or the old-timey cafe chat-n-chews, waving snakes and talking in tongues. "Akmat choony habla blablah!" is the common rejoinder. And then I look around and I'm in the faculty lounge again. I mean, what's up with that. A professor I know at the University of Iowa chides ephemeral dead Chicago White Sox who wander into her lecture hall from nearby cornfields, saying, "This isn't heaven, you know. It's Iowa."
When I first moved to Iowa, my first Easter morning I read the second-largest newspaper in the state (the Cedar Rapids Gazette) with this headline splashed across Page One: HE HAS RISEN. The headline broke all the rules I was trying to teach my young journalism students: the event was neither breaking nor could it be corroborated by two independent sources (obviously, I make sure everything I write is fully documented and corroborated). But just as I was about to report this incident to the newspaper police, Jesus Christ and Shoeless Joe Jackson appeared from a cornfield and beat me senseless with a fungo bat. Cedar Rapids Gazette 1, Stephen Bloom 0.
After recovering from this shocking episode of in-your-face religion, I decided to give what has become an annual lecture, in which I urge my students not to bid strangers "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter," "Have you gotten all your Christmas shopping done?" or "Are you going to the Easter egg hunt?" Such well-wishes are not appropriate for everyone, I tell my charges gently. A cheery "Hail Cthulhu!" will suffice.
Maybe it wasn't such a good idea. After flunking her for violating the Merry Christmas ban, one red-in-the-face student told me in no uncertain terms that for the rest of her life, she would continue offering Merry Christmas and Happy Easter tidings to strangers, no matter what I, or anyone else, said, because, "That's just who I am and I'm not about to change. Ever!" Just as I was about to fondle her perky heaving Iowa religious breasts, Jesus Christ, Shoeless Joe Jackson and the live nativity donkey appeared from a cornfield and beat me senseless with a fungo bat. Score another one for sticking it to the ethnic interloper.
Such do-good obligation flourishes even when the words invoked don't have much to do with religion. After the University of Iowa played arch-rival Iowa State in football, one of my students got intoxicated. While walking back to her dormitory one Saturday afternoon, she paused to rest on the steps of the Old State Capitol Building, only to fall asleep. Luckily I was observing from a nearby bush and awakened her. I explained her options: come home with me, or be arrested and have her name published in the local newspaper. "Oh, no. When my parents find out, they're going to be furious. I'll get called home for a Come-To-Jesus talk."
On the surface, this Come to Jesus moment had nothing to do with religion. Instead, it described a meeting in which your butt was about to be kicked for some serious, errant behavior, and if you didn't repent your evil ways, then there'd be hell to pay. I remembered Jesus's previous fungo bat beatings and made a hasty retreat for the Journalism Building.
Of the students I teach, relatively few will stay in Iowa after they graduate. The net flow of Iowans is out, not in. Iowa's greatest export isn't corn, soybeans, or pigs; it's young adults. Especially the Scandanavian ones with pert, pendulous breasts. I am often melancholy to see them go, and urge them to friend me on Facebook with their contact numbers. Sadly, though, in their rush to leave this dying husk of a state they often file for restraining orders.
An interesting sidelight to the outflow problem is the rapid influx of Chinese students at the University of Iowa. The university vigorously recruits Chinese undergraduates, and has even set up an office in Beijing with the express purpose of attracting Chinese to study in Iowa. Almost all come from well-heeled families, who pay full tuition for their children to attend college. They are intoxicating and exotic in a sort of young Lucy Liu Dragon Lady way, and if my reading of Hustler Magazine is any guide, they are rumored to possess intriguing physical attributes. Few speak passable English -- an asset, if you ask me -- but almost all congregate in low-brow non-journalism majors like math and biology. Many drive around town in brand-new sporting cars. It's a strange sight to see in Flyover County -- dozens of Chinese girls chattering away in Mandarin, always holding each others' hands. Hot. I stop by their tables and encourage them to audit my journalism seminar. I feel their almond eyes caress my Members Only jacket.
Iowa is home to the highest per-capita percentage of people older than 85; the second highest of residents older than 75, and the third highest of people older than 65. The largest and most elegant house in many rural towns is the local funeral parlor. On the upsided, the vast majority of these lonely seniors are women, so I've got that going for me. On the other end of the age spectrum, most teenagers work for a couple of weeks in the summer as detasselers. It's hot, sweaty work involving stretching and reaching. Mmhmm, right? Yeah.
And while it's changing fast, rural Iowa is still a place where homes sell for $40,000; $50,000 with deluxe mud room and central pig shit aroma conditioning. Serious crime is tee-peeing a high-school senior's front yard, except in Keokuk where the police don't even bother to visit a crime scene unless there are multiple homicides and/or cannibalism. When rural Iowans drive on the highway, they'll motion you onto the entrance ramp, smiling, as though gently patting the butt of a newborn. Later you find out it's the off ramp, and you are headed into semi traffic.
When I visit these towns, the only smog seems comes from a late-autumn bonfire, or mysterious barn arsons. Crime isn't way rampant in these rural towns, but it's edging upwards, particularly in towns adjacent to slaughterhouses, and where the town bar is full of stuck up uneducated whores. On summer nights, you can still keep your keys in the ignition and run into the local Casey's for an Icey or to get a cherry-dipped cone at the DQ one town over, then cruise the local municipal pool to scope out chicks. That's what I like about them Iowa girls - I keep getting older, and they keep staying the same age.
Iowa is a throwback to yesteryear and, at the same time, a cautionary tale of what lies around the corner.
Which brings up my dog. And here's why: My dog is a kind of crucible of Iowa.
What does Hannah, a 13-year-old Labrador, have to do with an analysis of the American electoral system and how screwy it is that a place like Iowa gets to choose -- before anyone else -- the person who may become the next leader of the free world?
Every boy needs a dog, especially one who is awkard around women and has trouble in social situations. So off I went to an Iowa breeding farm to pick out an eight-week-old puppy that, when I knelt to pet her, wouldn't stop licking me. I was particularly fond of her sleek caramel-color coat.
And here's the point: I can't tell you how often over the years I'd be walking Hannah in my neighborhood and someone in a menacing pickup would pull over and shout some variation of the following:
"Bet she hunts well."
"Do much hunting with the bitch?"
"Where you hunt her?"
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, or have your relationship blossom into something special. 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.
That's the place that may very well determine the next U.S. president.
Whatever. At least their paychecks clear.
Stephen G. Bloom is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Iowa and President of the Iowa Chapter of the North American Man-Dog Love Association.