Thursday, December 15, 2011

Observations From 21 Years of Iowa Life

The sun sets  over the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. Not a pig or cornstalk in sight.

In Iowa, I learned to speak Italian. In Iowa, I learned an appreciation for contemporary art because of a tremendous museum that specializes in it. In Iowa, I learned to play field hockey from Olympians.

But the most important thing I learned from living in Iowa for a big chunk of my adult life is this: Look beyond the stereotypes; nothing ever is what it seems.

This week, Atlantic magazine published a massive essay, the snappily titled "Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life,"  by a University of Iowa professor who conveniently is teaching in Michigan right now. Not a native Iowan, he felt compelled to explain this place to others since it plays such an important role in the political process. Its caucuses are the first-in-the-nation decision in an election year, a situation that pretty much ticks off the other 49 states.

Once the professor’s essay hit the Internet, the gloves were off. My friends, Iowans by birth and by choice, let their rage fly as did people throughout the state and nation. Snarky T-shirts are already on the market. The poor professor, whose $100,000-plus salary is paid for by the people he just characterized as meth-heads who love pig manure and are going to die alone, just doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.

It takes thick skin to live in Iowa; it seems to be targeted for this kind of mockery more than similar rural states -- and there are many of them. It takes even thicker skin to not be from there and choose to stay there. People look at you as if you are insane.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it. They have corn there. They have pigs there. There are no pro sports there, yadda yadda yadda.

Iowans know what’s there. What drove most of them so crazy by the Atlantic piece are the sweeping generalities with which the place was described.

“Elevators in rural America raise and lower grain, not people,” went one phrase.

Yes, when I went to the top of the 45-story Principal Financial Group's headquarters in Des Moines about 15 years ago, I remember cursing the fact that People Elevators had not yet come to our part of the world.

“Almost every Iowa house has a mudroom, so you don’t track mud or pig shit into the kitchen or living room,” went another well-turned phrase.

In 21 years, I had seven different residences and not one mudroom. Not even in the Victorian home I owned that was so beautiful a national magazine came in and did a photo shoot there.

I learned to love Iowa, but I left. Despite the joy I have with where I live now, leaving Des Moines is a decision I will question for the rest of my life. I didn’t dislike it, I think I just became restless the same way I had when I left the small town of my birth, another perfectly fine place that I just felt compelled to leave because that’s what life was telling me.

I left Iowa with friends I will keep forever and an understanding that every place is someone’s home. You live in Indiana? I'm not going to make fun. You're moving to Walla Walla, Wash.? I'm not going to snicker.

I came to love Iowa, to love Des Moines and they became my home. I learned that way too many people have a way of judging every place, and learned it’s irritating to be on the receiving end of it no matter where you are.

That knowledge served me well after I moved to a small town, my hometown no less. I see the quizzical looks of people who wonder why I wouldn’t want to be in a city, and then follow with a patronizing, “Oh, it’s where you grew up" comment, as if that means I didn’t have the nerve to leave.

These days, I think it takes nerve to stay. Some of the bravest people I know live here: gay couples who live their lives openly; people who open businesses on the faith the customers will come; volunteer firefighters and rescue workers who always know that the person they're pulling from a burning building or twisted wreckage could be a friend or neighbor.

Perhaps there's a reason I found my greatest happiness in the kinds of places most people disdain. Perhaps there’s a certain smugness to knowing you know what is good even if other people can’t figure it out. Sort of like digging that band no one else has heard of yet.

Maybe it’s a topic I’ll discuss with my Iowa friends the next time I visit. While we’re sitting in their mudroom, of course.

In Iowa, they have funky art. And tall buildings with elevators -- that carry people.

Friday, December 9, 2011

They Called It Puppy Love, and It Still Hounds Us

The face that made so many girls swoon, so many moons ago.

Today is Donny Osmond’s birthday.

I don’t point that out because I am throwing a party for him later and expect him to stop by. I just point it out because I know it.

It’s the same way I know that David Cassidy’s birthday is April 12 and Susan Dey’s is the day after Donny Osmond’s. I wish I didn’t know this, but I do.

I have a weird Rain Man-like quality for remembering some numbers, but I know in this case I am not alone. On this day every year, inevitably, one of my friends will comment that it is Donny Osmond’s birthday. We just know. If one of us dies on Dec. 9 some day well into the future, someone, somewhere will say, “Wow, she died on Donny Osmond’s birthday.”

In the case of David Cassidy and Susan Dey, we were helped in this knowledge by a Partridge Family album cover that had all their birthdays on it. In the case of Donny Osmond, it probably was just puppy love.

The things we loved as teeny-boppers have a way of following us through the decades, for better or for worse. I’m a little perplexed by the women my age or older that you see screaming at oldies concerts performed by the former object of their affection, but still.

I learned how to spell Albuquerque because Keith Partridge wanted me to point him in that direction. I thought the bluest skies I’d ever see would be in Seattle because Bobby Sherman said so. I thought there couldn’t be anything better in all the world than maybe one day singing and dancing with my brothers and sisters and cousins because that’s what Donny, Jay, Merrill, Wayne and Alan and Michael, Marlon, Jermaine, Tito and Jackie and sometimes Randy did.

And of course I thought they were all so cute and I wanted to meet them and of course if they just met me, they would love me, too. It's something young girls have felt from Elvis to David Cassidy to New Kids on the Block to 'N Sync to the Bieber.

I once spoke to a child psychologist for a story I was writing about that phase of life for young girls. Those posters on the wall, that love of a stranger far away, that 10-year-old form of desire for what can best be described as an abstract concept is actually a good thing, the psychologist said. Girls start feeling that earlier than boys do, the psychologist said, and the teen idols are a good target for that energy since the boys they know can’t be bothered at that age.

And if you’ve ever been to a concert of any teen idol, you can see why boys that age would – and should – be terrified.

Now I see these former idols as a happy memory of childhood, something that I loved the way I loved my Spirograph or Boxcar Children books. The difference is, these are real people with real lives.

And real birthdays, that we no doubt will remember for the rest of our lives. 

Sadly, the world never got to learn the birthday of the other Chris Partridge.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Little Bit of Old School

The old school building in Mount Horeb. (T. Hegglund photo)

“I want to run through the halls of my high school. I want to scream at the top of my lungs.” – John Mayer, singing a song I can’t stand.

Movies do it, songs do it, websites like do it.

They focus on the nostalgia people supposedly carry for high school. That just brings up one big question in my mind:

High school?

It’s not just that high school can be a treacherous place, but recent events made it clear to me that when people have wonderful memories of school, it’s grade school.

An old school building in my town, something that in 1918 was built as a K-12 and now just has first- and second-graders, is shut down for a year because it is being gutted on the inside and renovated. I had the chance to go in it with the local historical society to see if there was anything we wanted to take before the proverbial wrecking balls started swinging.

How much did I want to see this school? I took the day off of work to get inside it and explore.

Strangely, people didn’t think that was weird; most people I know were jealous. They, too, wanted a look at the school they hadn’t seen in decades before it looks entirely different.

I posted photos on Facebook; they were shared and spread like wildfire so much that a woman I know in Colorado who is from my town said her 90-something mother had told her there were pictures floating around somewhere on “the computer” of the old school.

Other people’s enthusiasm for seeing the inside of the place made me think of two things. For starters, what a lost opportunity this was for somebody to make some money off all the old alums by offering tours. But mostly, the overflow of affection for this school made it clear that while high school can be a horror for most, grade school could be something to love.

It’s grade school our brothers and sisters marched off to when we were left at home wondering when we, too, could go. It’s grade school that is so important that our parents must take our pictures the first days we attend. It’s grade school when we get recess and take milk breaks twice a day. At least in Wisconsin.

We were clean slates when it came to grade school. Learning and reading and writing were something we couldn’t wait to do. And often we LOVED our teachers, as if they were the most wonderful beings on the face of the Earth. I recently bumped into my third-grade teacher, introduced myself and got a sort of sideways arm around/hug that could only come from a woman who is used to hugging people much smaller than she is. Hugs are de rigeur in the grade school world. High school, not so much.

Grade school was not perfect, to be sure. Kids very early on can recognize “the other” and for some the teasing starts at a mercilessly young age. I know I think back to the kids who already were ostracized at a young age and wonder whatever became of them. (Courtney Love, a talented but troubled soul, once commented that she was the target of that heinous “germs” game kids liked to play, and probably still do.)

In my community, part of the affection for the school stems from the building itself. It has a beautiful setting and exterior, but had a goofy design inside that was probably screaming to be gutted and renovated decades ago. There were a couple classrooms where you had to go up about five stairs and then down about five stairs just to get to. Back stairways wound around to various rooms and offices. I always felt sorry for the kids on crutches.

People who had to send their kids to school here nowadays have way less affection for this building than the natives, and I understand that. It was a mess, it had hazards and was built at a time when people thought disabled kids shouldn’t be out in public, much less at a public school.

That made for quite a divide when it came time to decide what to do about the school. I expressed my affection for the building and was smacked down with a “Oh, you’re one of THOSE people,” from a young mom in my neighborhood. Indeed, many people who wanted it saved probably hadn't seen the inside of it for decades. Something had to be done.

For the record, I just didn’t want the building razed; it didn’t much matter to me if it remained a school or not. It sits on the crest of a hill with a beautifully landscaped “campus” that can be seen from my neighborhood six blocks away. Part of the town was built around it. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its Prairie School design came from noted architects Claude & Starck, and if those names don’t ring a bell perhaps the names of their friends and associates Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright do.

Preservation never comes without a furious debate, and the school was no exception. It will remain the same on the outside, it will be completely different on the inside and nothing anyone does will ever change the memories of those who once loved being inside that school so very much.

So yes, I want to run through the halls of my grade school. Especially once they get all those funky staircases out of there.

Stairs that must have shaken every time dozens of children went up and down them.

The fate of this beautiful vintage tile, in a hallway by the gymnasium built in 1941, is unknown.