A Southern transplant to the Hawkeye State explains the fuss over his article, and the Iowa rules he broke.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Last week, as I was entering a strip-mall clothing boutique, I held the door for a woman I didn't know. She did a little trot to arrive at the door a fraction of a second earlier, expressed her thanks and then erupted in laughter. In answer to my raised eyebrows she explained: "We had family from Florida for the Thanksgiving holidays and they kept asking us, 'Why does everyone here hold the door for everyone else?' I told them that holding doors was just nice and a part of who we are. We like to do little things like that for each other. It's just respectful."
I nodded and smiled, understanding exactly the "Iowa nice" point she attempted to explain, probably without success, to her out-of-state guests. After all, I've also tried, equally as unsuccessfully, to explain to my out-of-state family the gut-instinct recoil from rudeness or public conflict that plagues Iowans. This seemingly innate quality is no doubt part of the reason why my fellow Iowans are exasperated by a recent article by journalism professor and author Stephen Bloom that graced the website of The Atlantic a few days ago.
In the South, my birth-home, many will recognize the reaction as "bless his heart" syndrome. That is, in the South, it is generally acceptable to say pretty much any thing you like about a person provided you follow such an observation with "bless his heart." For instance, "Merv's and Alice's boy doesn't have the smarts God gave a piss ant. Bless his heart." Following such a pronouncement, listeners are most likely to agree with solemn nods and regretful head shakes.
MORE ON IOWA
Provided in such context, the statement offers truth tinged with affection -- an acknowledgement that no matter what we may think of each other, how spattered another's life might be when viewed through our eyes of experience, we still understand that a certain level of respect for a fellow human is warranted. Bloom broke the rule.
Shortly after moving to Iowa, I took a reporting job at a local newspaper. The article announcing my addition to the staff began with the sentence, "When you hear her talk, you'll know she's not from around here." They were referring to my Southern accent. Thus began a series of phone calls that continued for months with each new caller offering me the latest "redneck" joke. (Thank you, Jeff Foxworthy.) I heard them at school board meetings, the police station and once screamed from the other side of Main Street. Often accompanied by hearty back-slaps or chin-chucks, such exchanges marked the foundations of friendships that continue to this day -- and sometimes still include a phone call with the latest redneck offering.
Looking back, I guess it would have been easy for me to turn cynical about the unorthodox and consistent community outreach. I was raised by a man who was perhaps the King of Rednecks -- a fact well-known to anyone who ever joined him for hunting, fishing or swimming and had caught a glimpse of his blindingly white chest and back, which appeared in stark contrast to the roasted skin of his neck. The youngest of a very large family, I'm convinced that my father had wanted his last child, originally mistaken by my mother for menopause, to be a boy. But he refused to allow the fate of ovaries and breasts to have the last laugh, and chose to carry through with his plans of power tool lessons, snake avoidance in the hen house and long evenings of stink-baited catfishing. Perhaps in his most progressive coup d'etat he taught me girls could do anything boys could do. On good days, I'm convinced I taught him girls could do better.
But my upbringing by the King had not prepared me for life as an Iowan. Although I spent my first Christmas in Iowa dreamily staring out picture windows at the largest snowflakes I'd ever seen, I soon learned those same flakes would be my constant and unwanted companions for weeks on end. Even now, when I see the leaves begin to turn, I first curse them with words of Dylan Thomas ("Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage! Rage against the dying of the light!") and then commence six months of pacing and worry, hoping against all hope that this winter will be different -- that maybe I'll get ambitious and home-school my children (to avoid early morning car starts) or win the lottery and be able to hibernate under sun lamps until April. To date, this hasn't happened, but since the ground remains sans snow as I type, the dream lives on.
* * *
It was during my first excursion into the town where I would soon become a reporter that I initially learned the extent of the incorporation of politics into daily life in Iowa. Two female state lawmakers -- unusual even today in the state -- stood in the local town square handing out miniature ice cream cones and discussing policy. What I've come to understand in the many years that have followed is that one cannot have an opinion of Iowa and its people without also acknowledging the importance of politics. Maybe it is because of those long, dark winters I so dread -- or maybe it is in spite of them -- but I've yet to meet any person who has lived in Iowa for more than four years who has not enjoyed playing the political ponies or who hasn't formed strong opinions on one or more public policy topics.