It's easier to have come from some states than others. There are some states that confer glamor, sophistication and sex appeal on those lucky enough to have been born in them. When these people announce where they're from they can expect to be treated with respect, admiration, the beginnings of veneration.
And then there are those of us from Iowa.
When we announce where we're from we can expect reactions to be a bit different. I have come to expect three categories of reactions. The first is a warm effort to show familiarity with our state, a proud recognition of just what and where "Iowa" is. It goes like this: "Oh, I've been to Iowa, I drove through it on my way to/from California once." (a) "It sure is flat." (b) "It isn't as flat as I expected."
The second category of responses includes what I call the blurts. These are the stereotypes and cracks that come to people's minds when they hear the word "Iowa" and which they often struggle to repress.
When they succeed all we get are silence and weak smiles. But a lot of people can't repress them and from their lips come remarks I can only hope they live to regret. One time I told a new friend where I was from; she responded with peals of laughter and then said, "Oh, come on, where are you really from?"
Another of these occurred when I had just moved from Iowa to Michigan and met a lot of people from the East Coast who kept remarking on their considerable accomplishment of being so far west. I, of course, was congratulating myself on being so far east, so the stage was not set for perfect mutual understanding. I was at a party and I told an acquaintance I was from Iowa. I could see her casting about for something to say; finally she said (warmly and interestedly? slyly and evilly?), "Oh, how fascinating! I've always wondered, how do you call chickens?"
The third category of responses is meant as a compliment and is intended to make us swell with pride:
"And tell me, where are you from?"
"Iowa!!!??? Goodness, I never would have guessed."
(Funny, you don't look like a hick.)
If happiness can only reside in being an exception to whatever is expected from those of us from Iowa, then it's time to look at just what is expected of us.
Expected by a few nerds at parties? Ah, if that were the case, I could shrug and ignore it.
Let's look at this collection of stereotypes. After all, we know that stereotypes have meaning. As well as telling us something about those whom they purport to describe, they also tell us something about those who have created them.
Iowans are supposed to be: Innocent, untempted, pure, virtuous, naive, ignorant, uneducated, inarticulate, stupid. Embarrassing, ungainly, awkward, oafish. Sexless, charmless, practical, matter-of-fact, humorless, stolid -- in short, bovine. Unfashionable, unsophisticated, wearing the wrong clothes, eating the wrong foods, reading the wrong magazines and books, expressing the wrong opinions. Insular, out of it, thinking their values are the best and that the values of others -- city folk -- are godless and evil.
Is there truth to any of this? Of course. Iowa isn't exactly the place of the dernier cri.
When I was in Iowa for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary celebration, we were at a restaurant, and three young men came in who had haircuts so short they looked bald. "Look at the punks," I said to my brother, who lives in Iowa. "They're not punks," he said, "they're Marine recruits." "No they're not," I said. "Yes they are," he said. (My brother's and my conversations still follow the form established in our early years.)
He asked them. They were Marine recruits. I asked how he could tell. He said there were no punks in Iowa. Well, I doubt that, but at least there aren't so many that one can be confident of spotting one in every restaurant.
So the stereotypes might tell us something about Iowans. What do they tell us about the people who hold them?
Look back through the list. Every one of those characterizations is what we felt about our parents when we were teen-agers.
What teen-ager doesn't think his or her parents aren't square, naive, behind the times, embarrassing, sexless and boring beyond belief?
Iowa is like the youth we have all, with painful effort and painstakingly acquired sophistication, passed beyond. It is like our prepubescent years when we were unhip, uncool, gullible and trusting.
It's a state we've passed through.
Iowa is like a past that everyone has outgrown but those who still live there. They embarrass us, these parents, these Iowans, because they remind us of our vulnerable youth and because deep down we're always asking ourselves, are we really cool? Are we sophisticated enough?
It's an understandable temptation to try to affirm our urbanity, our maturity, our separation from our parents, by putting down these people to whom sophistication seems to mean nothing.
Iowa also represents the youth of our nation when it was an agrarian society. We've outgrown farming; we're moving on through manufacturing to service industries, and here is this place where they still mostly farm.
Every stereotype has negative and postive sides. The positive side of this stereotype is that most Iowans are reliable, dependable, honest, polite, straight -- like parents.
Every state or region in the country has some set of stereotypes, the positive side embraced by those who live there, the negative side by those who don't. New York is either vital or inhuman, California is either free or outre', New England is either traditional or effete, the South hospitable or racist, Texas energetic or brutal, and so it goes.
But stereotypes are just stories we've made up to simplify and classify. They aren't real. And yes, they have the power to hurt.
I'm no longer an Iowan. I've lived in Michigan now longer than any other place, but just let me hear the word "Iowa" and my ears prick up and I hope that whatever is said will not embarrass me.
You'd think I could disown it now, but Iowa has left its mark on me -- maybe I just fell off too many turnip wagons.
In my case I could easily weasel out of an identification with Iowa; I wasn't even born there. I was born in a really sophisticated place, known throughout the country as the cutting edge of fashion. Would you believe Peoria?