Sunday, September 12, 2010

Iowa: You Make Me Smile*

I’m a Midwesterner well-trained in Midwestern social graces. You’re so nice, my spunky friend Kate, from Portland, likes to say. Kate loves me, but she doesn’t necessarily tell me how nice I am as a compliment. In fact, she recently remarked on the understated fury in my graduate thesis: “You Iowa’d it up.” Meaning I was just a little too nice to characters who deserved such rage. While the jury’s out on that, Kate’s comment holds an inherent criticism of our Midwestern modus operandi: we’re so nice we don’t always say what we feel.

Don’t get me wrong. Iowans are wonderful people. When my friends move to the country’s coastal areas, they complain that the people there aren’t friendly, that they do not say hello or move their shopping carts out of someone’s way at the store. They say they miss Iowa and Iowans. And it’s true that we do have our own charming brand of being in the world—a sort of generic Judeo-Christian kindness, easily identified. Of course, not everyone exudes the Iowa aura, and it’s dangerous to generalize about anything these days because there are a million exceptions and outliers. Still, stereotypes exist, at times, for good reason:

You see, Iowa defers to people in line at the post office and asks, “How are you?” when jogging past another exercise enthusiast on the street. Iowa smiles and coos at the children of strangers; she pets unfamiliar canines and asks after names and pedigrees or lack thereof. When sitting in a doctor’s office, Iowa does not balk at a fellow patient presenting her with photographs of grandchildren or instructions on canning tomatoes. Iowa bakes muffins. She brings meals to the sick and post-partum. She goes to church/synagogue/temple/Habitat for Humanity on Sundays. She volunteers, coordinating grass-roots movements, flood clean-up, feeding children, and subsidizing electric bills for low-income families. If Iowa says she’ll be there, she’ll be there. If Iowa says she’ll do it, she will.**

If one is too forward, out of touch with the rules governing social etiquette—perhaps they ask to borrow Iowa’s chapstick, or they do not tuck away the photos after a moment and return to the magazine on their lap—well, Iowa smiles anyway (if a bit discouragingly) and with grace because, for the most part, Iowa enjoys small talk with strangers, and can muster a sincere response to the picture of a dimply child presented for her admiration.

Yet, I think Iowa hates to be on the asking end of lawnmower borrowing (she wouldn’t mind loaning her own). And as far as cars go, Iowa would really rather not lend hers, but feels it’s the right thing to do when she has a friend in need. She’ll worry, Iowa will, about the friend’s driving record but feel impolite asking after it. Instead, she’ll hold her breath and genuflect, praying the vehicle returns to with four doors and a pristine windshield. In the doctor’s office, Iowa dissuades herself from proffering pictures of her own children to random strangers because, well, why would they care? Wouldn’t that just encroach on the time/space/boundaries of said strangers? And while Iowa works so very hard at taking care of everyone else, she can’t always take care of herself.

You see, sometimes the excess rain ruins a harvest or the company lays her off or her father gets sick with cancer and she needs to take time off work to care for him. Then, it’s hard for Iowa to ask for help, for a meal, for a ride. You see, she thinks she should have it together. She grew up on the Protestant work ethic. You work hard and you are kind to others who are down and out, though the reason others are down and out, well, it might have to do with drugs or sex out of wedlock or just plain laziness; there’s usually someplace they went wrong--you can trace their demises back to one-too-many casino trips, a shady business deal, or what they did after the senior high hayrack ride, behind Farmer Lotz’s barn.

When Iowa struggles to care for herself, she doesn’t want the rest of the world wondering where she went wrong. What went wrong. What moral failure led to her current financial predicament or broken marriage. And she certainly doesn’t want people musing aloud, behind her back, which they certainly will do. So she stays silent as long as she can bear it and chins up and buckles down and still helps the neighbors, the poorer, the postpartum and the sick.

Am I too hard on Iowa? I don’t mean to be. I admire her courage, tenacity, and a generous spirit that affirms humanity in its essence. She is a little too judgmental (of herself and others), a little too gossipy, and she stubbornly clings to this Herculean notion that she must brave the fierce and choppy waters of hardship alone, lay a smooth finish on all the rough-and-tumble. Thing is, she really doesn’t have to. Sometimes I just want to wrap an arm around her shoulders and whisper, There there, you can let it out now. Just say what you really feel.

*An Iowa state slogan

**Lutheran pastor Don Thompson describes a Midwestern work ethic in this way:

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