12.2211: Late to the Party, or Iowa vs. Stephen Bloom



It snowed today! Just a dusting. Hardly much. But it was enough to give the world a frosting it’s lacked for weeks. It’s a Christmas Miracle.
In most of the stories about Christmas Miracles, don’t they usually happen towards the end of the day? If it’s something that involves people in dire straits, yes - and they happen on Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve. So the optimal time for a CM would seem to be between 7 PM and 10:00 PM; any later and people will be getting sleepy. Still seems rather late. Unless we’re talking about Santa-related miracles, which always happen around 5 PM Christmas Eve, when Christmas is Saved After All, meaning the distribution of merchandise can proceed apace. Because unless it happens on the 24th, everything’s off. There’s a story in there somewhere: The Day Santa Showed Up Around Noon on the 26th.


Spent the day working at home waiting for a package; had to sign for it, and wanted to get it in my hands as soon as it arrived. The tracking site said it would arrive around 10:30 AM, but it didn’t show up until 3 PM. You spend all your time in between afraid to commit to anything that would keep you from springing to the door instantaneously. When it arrived I fled the house as quickly as I could, keen to be out, and that’s when the snow began. Went to the Expensive Grocery Store, which is festive in a way that the warehouse joints aren’t. The warehouse stores have enormous quantities of commercial cookies stored in pre-fab manufacturer-supplied displays with the appropriate festive symbology, as well as stacked boxes of off-brand stuff with one side cut out. Hoho. The Expensive Store has nine-dollar tubs of white-chocolate-coated pretzels or gummi bears - nine dollars! - and stacks of expensive chocolate in foil next to artisanal candy canes or hand-dipped marshmallows. I think the point is to make you feel better about buying the $4.50 tubs of pretzels. Why, I’m saving money.


There’s been some sport made with this interminable Atlantic piece about the horrors of Iowa, and the perils of trusting rustics to cast votes in influential primaries. I’m late to this, but just discovered it yesterday. Four thousand words, but I’ll boil them down for you: smart, clever, urban fellow has been stuck in hell for two decades; the offer from the Atlantic, I'll bet, was like a blast of the golden trumpet from heaven above. Someone will listen! I can speak to the right people, the good people, the ones who'll understand! A few things stuck out, including this windy opening:

On January 3, Iowans will trudge through snow, sleet, sludge, ice, gale-force blizzards -- whatever it takes -- to join their neighbors that evening in 1,784 living rooms, community halls, recreation centers, and public-school gymnasiums in a kind of bygone-era town-hall meeting at which they'll eat and debate, and then vote for presidential candidates along party lines. Chat 'n' Chews, they are called.

This gets into the Atlantic? The insertion of “whatever it takes” would work if it was preceded by, say, this: “On January 3d, Iowans will head into the teeth of the bitter winter on foot, on sled, in trucks and buses - whatever it takes - to join their neighbors for a Chat ‘n’ Chew. That’s the homey name ascribed to almost 2,000 meetings in living rooms, community halls, and school gyms . . .” and so on. “Kind of bygone-era town-hall meeting” is not exactly crisp or precise, especially since they’re not kind-of town-hall meetings but actual town-hall meetings, and hardly bygone since they’re occurring now, and repeat every four years.

The author is a professor of journalism.

Students, take note: watch those figures of speech! They can pile up into odd images:

These Iowa Caucuses create a seismic shift in the presidential nominating contests. Obama catapulted to the top of the Democrats' dance card when he captured 38 percent of Iowa voters in 2008, and then swept to victory at the Democratic Convention eight months later. Without such a strong initial showing in Iowa, Obama might not have been able to steamroll through subsequent state primaries to win the presidency.

So we have an earthquake that throws someone to the top of a dance card, after which he drives a steamroller.

Since Obama is the presumed Democratic candidate in 2012, this year it's the Republican candidates who have trained their attentions on the state these brisk, late-autumn days. They're falling over each other in front of grain elevators and cornfields, over biscuits and gravy in breakfast cafes, and at potluck dinners (casseroles are the thing to bring), glad-handing and backslapping 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).

In case you want to hang on to this info for future reference, here are the specific, evocative places in which they are falling over each other:

grain elevators
in front of biscuits and gravy

We also learn that casseroles are the Thing to Bring - those delightful natives with their quaint cuisine - and that a bratwurst, a thick savory juicy sausage, is something gulped. I have eaten many brats in my life, sometimes in haste, and the word “gulp” applies to the process of brat consumption as accurately as “slurping” a steak or fletcherizing a smoothie.

Even if you give him a pass on the prose, the opening paragraphs have done nothing but state the obvious, peeling back the withered skin of this wither fig to reveal the author’s alienation from the subject of his piece. He’s lived there for 20 years, but like a plant that sits in a pot on the ground, the roots somehow never made it into the soil. Apparently this makes him the ideal person to explain Iowa to the rest of the world through the pages of the Atlantic.

You suspect at the start that the piece exists to comfort the smart sets living on the coastal crusts: your assumptions of the lumpendorken wandering around the empty innards of the land, one hand scrabbling their goolies while the other digs for nose-gold, are pretty much correct. And these people choose the Republican president! Well, who better?

Considering the state's enormous political significance, I thought this would be a good time to explain to the geographically challenged a little about Iowa, including where Iowa is, and perhaps more importantly, in both a real and metaphysical way, what Iowa is.

If you find yourself having to tell your audience where Iowa is, please don’t expect me to be impressed by their opinions on other matters of the day.

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. 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, visiting with and interviewing Iowans from across the state. I haven't taken up hunting or fishing, the main hobbies of rural Iowans, but I'm a fan of University of Iowa Hawkeye football, so I'm a good third of the way to becoming an adopted Iowan. I even have a dog, born and bred in Iowa (more on that later).

He even has a dog.

Maybe I was too hasty in dismissing this. Let’s dive into the meat of the piece and gulp the insights - whatever it takes - with our eyes.

The next section discusses the state’s peculiar schisms - it has lots of towns with delightful names; the Mississippi is polluted, and the towns along its western bank are “some of the scuzziest” he has seen. (That word suggests he grew up in the seventies, and perhaps the vocabulary of the era is not the only thing he hasn’t outgrown.) The section reminds us that Keith Olbermann disapproves of one of its Congressmen, and that the state’s gay marriage laws may overturned in the future.

In a perfect world, no way would Iowa ever be considered representative of America, or even a small part of 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; any growth is negligible.

Too many white people and gay marriage? Rev. Jeremiah Wright probably thinks it’s hell, too.

Well, let’s get to the corn.

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.

Hey, I live in the city. I don’t know what that sounds like. Help me out.

The sound is like popcorn popping slow-motion in a microwave.

Still not getting it.

That pop-pop-popping can be heard especially in the early morning hours, as dew and fog cover the acres of gently swaying cornstalks that surround farming villages the way the sea encircles an island.

Oh! Now I get the sound, but hey, I live in a city, and can’t quite comprehend the immensity of it all.

Rows upon rows stretch further than most urban minds can fathom, leathery husks and silky tassels bending in unison to the shimmying breeze.

Your average rural doofii can fathom the scale of a major city, but it seems their urban counterparts cannot comprehend just how much AMERICA there is out there. Who’s the provincial again?

(The corn is) meant for pigs, not humans, and tastes that way. Almost all of it gets stored in an elevator (elevators in rural America raise and lower grain, not people.)

It’s odd: I’ve never lived in New York, but I know enough not to call 6th Av the Avenue of the Americas. On and on it goes in this vein, a parade of cliches about those John-Cougar-Mellencamp types with their Monster Tractor rallies and hand-scrawled bull-semen ads on washboard roads.

Them. Iowa is full of them.


I haven’t been to Iowa in a while. It’s close, so I needn’t bother. The geography of southern Minnesota melts into Iowa, the flat land of the upper midwest warping and waving into the hills that ripple down through corn country. (Or, as the journalism professor puts it, “Northeast of Cedar Rapids is actually pretty hilly.”) A few years ago I drove down to Iowa City to do a story on college towns. Took the backroads, since the Interstate just whisks you along through a frictionless corridor - it’s a road built to be a road, not a road laid down by people making a path from one place to another. (This is why interstates feel so antiseptic and remote: most were built in places where no one had ever needed a road.) It was a summer of construction. They’re all summers of construction. In the days before GPS, you had a gas station map to guide you. Detours meant a right turn or a left, fifteen miles straight, then a jog south, then another turn along another ruler-straight two-laner. Big-city folk may think of Heartland byways as a capillary network confusing to all buy the inter-married locals - one wrong turn, and you’re in a glen with your pants around your ankles while pappy commands you to squeal like a sow - but it’s more like a grid out of Tron.

It had been decades since I was in Iowa City. Spent two summers there in high school for debate camp, and fell in love with the city. College towns have architecture from every era; you’ll find a Moderne facade, overwrought Classicism, stern ascetic Federal architecture, serene 50s modernism and its idiot children from the 60s and 70s. Bookstores, coffeehouses, a movie theater downtown, summer nights and girls -

But this has nothing to do with the reality of Iowa, does it? Just long-gone recollections of a summer diversion. The reality is poverty, manufacturers leaving for some reason that probably has to do with some guy on Wall Street looking for something to ruin between moustache twirls. But hey, they have wind energy! That’s good, right?

But relatively few rural Iowans are employed in the business of wind energy. The bulk of jobs here are low-income ones most Iowans don't want. Many have simply packed up and left the state (which helps keep the unemployment rate statewide low). Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that "The sun'll come out tomorrow."

I hate to keep making these niggling stylistic carps, but the -toid suffix is another 70s tic. You have to admire how he pairs waste-toids with optimists, though. I’m sure there’s a name for this sort of rhetorical dishonesty, but I’m not a J-school prof. Anyway: I was talking about Iowa City. Eventually, so does he.

I live in Iowa City, a university town 60 miles west of the Mississippi, along Highway 80 (known as The Interstate to younger Iowans, just The Highway to older Iowans). Eighty is America's Main Street, bisecting Iowa, connecting the hallowed-out middle of Corpus Americana to the faraway coasts.

Hallowed-out? Is this a play off “Hollowed-out,” with a religious meaning added by swapping a vowel? Given the general icky-icky-jeesus-germs! tone of the piece, it’s possible. Students, be careful: if you’re attempting a clever play on words, make sure the double meaning is so clear people don’t mistake it for a typo.

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 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 buildings but few, if any, people.

So he arrived in 1992. This was before the Internet, so it would be difficult to find things like “Spring Break Schedule,” but I imagine a local might have leaned across the counter, peered at the outsider, said “Yer not from ‘round here, are ya? Well, ‘round ‘bout this time of the year, the younguns leave to go home and help with th’ plantin’. They find the newest, sweetest, freshest baby in the county, and sacrifice it to the goddest of fertility. We call her Agnes.”

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.

He used to report from Brazil. So Brazil is more foreign than Iowa. At this point you wonder why you want to keep reading; it’s like the point in a Perry Mason drama where the witness has discredited himself, and is dismissed from the dock. But we must.

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, though, it's a wholly different manner of speaking from what folks on either coast are accustomed to.

Are you ready? Loins, girded? Preconceptions about all that is right and true and decent cinched tight, lest they dissolve in the blizzard of bizzare-toid taste-scuz to come:

Parking garages are ramps, pop is soda, suckers are lollipops, grocery sacks are bags, those green things in sidewalk cracks are weeds, softball is stickball, supper is a meal in a paper bag consumed in solitude instead of shared with a family, and boys around the age of 16 are commonly referred to as “baby daddy.” Almost every apartment has a bloodroom, so you don’t track blood into the house, even though the aroma of gunfire is absolutely venerated: it’s known to one and all as “the smell of money.”

Sorry; ran that through the Big-City filter. He actually wrote:

Indoor parking lots are ramps, soda is pop, lollipops are suckers, grocery bags are sacks, weeds are volunteers, miniature golf is putt-putt, supper is never to be confused with dinner, cellars and basements are totally different places, and boys under the age of 16 are commonly referred to as "Bud." Almost every Iowa house has a mudroom, so you don't track mud or pig shit into the kitchen or living room, even though the aroma of pig shit is absolutely venerated in Iowa: It's known to one and all here as "the smell of money."

Everyone who thinks that the visitors to the house of the University of Iowa journalism professor track pig shit into the kitchen or the living room - whatever it takes - raise your hands.

The litany of horrors continues:

Friday fish fries at the American Legion hall; grocery and clothing shopping at Wal-Mart; Christmas crèches with live donkeys, sheep and a neighborhood infant playing Baby Jesus; shotgun-toting hunters stalking turkeys in the fall (better not go for a walk in the countryside in October or November).

Grocery AND clothing shopping at Wal-Mart! These maroons wouldn’t know what to do if you led them by the hand to Zabar’s or Armani’s and pressed a black Amex gently in their palms. As for all that Jeebus stuff:

I'm forever amazed by how often I hear neighbors, co-workers, shoppers, and total strangers talk about religion. In the Hy-Vee grocery store, at neighborhood stop-and-chats, at the local public school, "See you at church!" is the common rejoinder. It's as though the local house of worship were some neighborhood social club -- which, of course, it is.

That last line is typical of the piece, and perhaps the content of his classes: state something that is obvious, dress it up like an insight, use “of course” as way to shield yourself from people pointing out what an obvious observation it is. Confidence in one’s perceptions is fine, but unfortunately it can lead to moments like this:

After years and years 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 "Happy holidays!" will suffice. Small potatoes, I know, but did everyone have to proclaim their Christianity so loud and clear?

Reminder: this is a journalism class. He lives in a place that is culturally Christian, and he’s telling his students to knock off “Merry Christmas” and other “in-your-face” manifestations of their culture. Fine; he’s welcome to do so. If I was paying for this fellow to teach me journalism I would ask that he confine himself to the subject, just as a student might think it would be inapt to turn in a series of Bible verses as a substitute for a reporting assignment.

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea. One gutsy, 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!" Score one for sticking it to the ethnic interloper.

He talks about the phrase "come-to-Jesus moment," and understands that it's not meant literally, but it's still SPOOKY AS ALL HELL because " it was vintage Iowa, invoking the name of Jesus as though everyone believed in the good Lord's son and his providence." Imagine his crushing disappointment should he go to a Big, Sane City and someone says "So help me God." But maybe the speaker will be Indian, and it'll be, like Vishnu or someone; that would be gloriously mosaical, no?

If they’re not babbling about God and football, they’re seeing the world through the red-tinged mist of death and violence. The piece ends with a note about his dog:

I can't tell you how often over the years I'd be walking Hannah in our neighborhood and someone in a 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. 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.

Uh huh. Shaking in my muddy boots. Apparently Mr. Bloom has fled Iowa in terror, but he told Romanesko:

There is a long, proud American tradition of the kind of journalism I practice. It involves humor, parody, satire, observation, and reporting. It goes back to Findley Peter Dunn (who coined the expression I live by as a journalist, “the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”)

Journalists love that line. I remember getting it from a guy who pulled down the equivalent of the President's salary in 1980. Never occurs to the people who quote it with such smug self-approval that it's completely at odds with the idea of fairness and objectivity. It presumes that someone who is "comfortable" - defined by the journalist in his Olympian wisdom, of course - deserves to be afflicted. If we take it to mean that the journalist should hound the plutocrats and bosses and everyone else with their boot on the next of The People, then the word "comfortable" exists only to provide the symmetry that gives the aphorism the ring of profundity.

What's more, the Iowa he describes is profoundly afflicted, and there's hardly a molecule of comfort in anything he wrote.

I'll grant that the piece involves all those things, but it's unfunny humor, easy parody, dull satire, rhuemy-eyed observation, and reporting. Good reporting? Some of it, yes; there are facts and statistics. Tut the first comment on the Atlantic website points out a rather significant factual error; the next comment comes from the piece’s author, who notes the correction and says the piece has been changed. There’s also a debate about his recollections of the front page of the local paper on Easter Morn. The original version of the Atlantic story said:

When my family and I first moved to Iowa, our 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. The editors obviously thought that everyone knew who He was, and cared.

Turns out, no. The version online now has a different account, with a link to the story that corrected the mistake. I have no idea if the printed version will have the original mistake.

I repeat: Professor of Journalism. Explains a lot, doesn't it?



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