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Friday, May 6, 2016

Positively Iowa

Monday, April 22, 2002

Geography, as they say, is destiny.

I arrived in Iowa City in 1961, a graduate student bum in the Writers' Workshop. Three years later, I entered the Army, and in 1965 I returned to teach. Iowa was the farthest west I had been. Iowa became our permanent address then, and it still is.

I liked Iowa from the start. Some places just seem right when you get there. It may be the feel of the air on one's skin. I have come home from places where people bragged about how dry it was, and I wondered why they preferred it. Iowa's air has the right weight, the right feel, for me.

Sometimes friends elsewhere tell me how hot Iowa can be in the summer, as if there were no south. They tell me how cold Iowa can be in the winter, as if there were no north. Iowa drives them crazy because it is in the middle.

I grew up on eastern Long Island. During my pre-Iowa years and sabbaticals since, I have lived in upstate New York, Vermont, Chicago, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Seattle, Honolulu, central Mexico and southern Spain. My wife Dorothy and I have sons in Signal Mountain, Tenn., and New York City.

I have traveled to all the 50 states and a dozen other countries. This is a great and various nation, and my impression is that most people feel that the town and the region where they live is one of the best places to live. Many insist that they live in THE best place. Dorothy and I just smile.

The poet Richard Hugo came here to teach from Montana, where license plates read, "Big Sky Country." Dick took a look at the Iowa sky and said, "No, no, THIS is the big sky country."

Iowa's skies are huge. Iowa's clouds are a marvel of nature and a spur to the imagination that changes hourly. Iowa sunshine in a blue sky can warm up a winter.

I want seasons. I want change. I could do with less weather reporting, but I am ever thankful for the ever changing Iowa climate that presents a multitude of looks, feels, sights and smells. Anyone who isn't stirred by the Iowa landscape as it evolves through the seasons can accurately be called stupefied.

Iowa is its land, sky and weather. Iowa is also the people formed by its land, sky and weather. Iowans are what the computer people first identified as WYSIWYG, meaning "what-you-see-is-what-you-get."

In Iowa, there is room to move, and, more than that, the feeling of accessible space that makes a body feel easy and free, psychologically and emotionally. Being west of the Hudson and east of the Rockies, Iowans generally lack the hubris of those who define themselves by real estate.

It's a cliche that Midwestern kids are valued by employers in the dense cities of the coasts. I dare say that Midwesterners make good employees, and, one could argue, good spouses too, because they spend less time thinking about themselves than do those who must live where the spotlight of fame trolls constantly for victims.

Iowans are said to be generally agreeable, and they truly are. Iowa is its Amish, who, unbidden, help their neighbors. I like the way the co-ops begin here. I like it that the new state of Iowa established a university right out of the gate, and that its university was the first state school to admit men and women equally. It's been that kind of place.

Yes, I love our friends in the groovy west and the bare-knuckled east, and in all the authentic regions of this land. I love them for what they know and what they think they know.

I love them when they tell me Iowa is flat. When they mistake Iowa's politics for Nebraska's. When, on learning I live in Iowa, they say, "Oh, I have a friend in Columbus."

Everyone knows that Iowa is a terrific place to bring up children. Iowa grows big hearts. It grows independent values. It foments individuality and encourages a person to see each day clearly. Iowa is a place to grow up in.

Iowa is also a place for those who have come through. It's for sitting on the back porch in a lightning storm, spotting the fireflies, then listening to the crickets as you doze off, feeling that, if it isn't Heaven, it must at least be Iowa.

And, yes, it makes me smile.



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