Midwest Americana

This week marks the beginning of the annual Iowa State Fair.

This is the Fair of fairs, at least in my mind. Nothing else I have witnessed quite so succinctly captures American culture and spirit. It is a marvel.

First there is the journey to Des Moines’ east side. The east-siders are proud of their fair, and the fair is proud of them. It hosts an East Side night every year, where the fashion du jour is ripped cut-offs and halter tops. Not that this outfit escapes the fair on the other nine days.

When we go to the fair, we park in the residential neighborhood to the west of the fairgrounds. We usually end up walking about five blocks to get to the main gate, and that walk provides us with a good amount of local scenery. Many of the east-siders close to the fairgrounds open up their lawns and yards for fair parking, charging fairgoers on average $5 to park for the day. It’s a bargain.

Once you’ve winded through the streets and arrived at the main fair gate, you pay the entrance fee (or give them your pre-paid discount ticket) and bam, you have entered the Mecca of Iowa summers.

Straight ahead is the main concourse, lined with food concessions as far as the eye can see. It literally stretches for a mile or so straight east. To the right is usually some commercial displays and a path that leads you to a massive display of John Deere farm equipment. Combines, tractors, other doo dads and big thingies I don’t know the names of, stand 10 to 12 feet and look like they would squish you if they could. To the left there are other things, but I never have made it that far. The food stands straight ahead usually get the better of me.

Walking through this main drag, you have your choice of walking tacos, fried Twinkies, Oreos and Snickers bars, frozen lemonade, corn dogs, pretzles, turkey legs, pork chops on a stick, and pretty much anything you can imagine that can be fried and put on a stick. Last year I tried the inaugural edition of the pineapple on a stick, which was deep fried in funnel cake batter, glazed and handed to you for about $4. Yum.

As you navigate through the many culinary delights on either side, you will come across the carnival ride section. The Iowa State Fair boasts a magnificent display of rides, including huge roaring roller coasters, little kiddie rides, bounce houses, super slides and things that go whish, whoosh and wham, tossing your body (strapped to a contraption, of course) through the air, upside down, backwards, sideways and any other way it can go. I seem to avoid this area, mostly because I’m too busy eating.

Once your belly is full, take a rest and grab a seat at one of the many entertainment pavilions, where live music, dancing and other acts are taking place all day. I have seen talent shows, Klezmer music, Karaoke, Choir and a dog show. I also saw Bob the Builder, which, I have to admit was a little scary.

The best part of the fair, though, is the animals. Iowa, of course is known for its dedication to agriculture, and its rich agricultural history. The state fair pays homage to this, and it hosts four animal barns where show animals reside as they wait their turn to be judged. There’s the cattle barn, which is filled with cows and calves of all breeds. Most impressive is the enormous bull, weighing over a ton, that is kept at one end, caged up and surrounded by gawking spectators.

The horse barn is my favorite, because I love horses, and because the horses are pretty accessible. They each have their own stall, and will come over and say hi, let you pet their noses and stroke their manes. Every year there is a showing of Clydesdales, which, in person are larger than any horse you could imagine. The Budweiser commercials do not do these mammoths justice.

The sheep barn is generally a snooze, but I have been intrigued by the sheep shearing contest that happens each year, though have never attended.

The swine barn is also interesting in that it houses the largest single pig I have ever seen or should be allowed to exist. The pig lies on its side, panting, and I watch it, wondering how any animal that should be one-tenth or one-fiftieth this size is able to grow to such immensity.

After all is said and done, it is time to people watch. Any shady spot will do—as temperatures generally hover around the low to mid-90s (plus lots of humidity). People come from all over the state and the country to attend the Iowa State Fair. They come in families, they stay for the week, they come for an hour. They are an attraction in themselves, and my words cannot do the crowd justice in any description. But the fair truly is a people-watcher’s paradise.

This year will be my fourth year attending the fair, and, sadly, I will only be able to go one time. But it will be a guaranteed good time, and will help solidify my Iowa experience.

Sunday Outing

Today we took a family field trip to a nearby dairy. We drove down a dirt road off a small highway into the “country” and were immediately greeted by a dozen Jersey and Holstein cows. One twin was afraid the cows would want to eat his pizza, so we headed off to a remote corner to finish lunch.

Nearby three baby Holsteins were being swarmed by little girls. A friend wondered aloud why the majority of kids in attendance were female. “Maybe girls like cows better than boys,” I replied. pfcThe twins, who are boys, definitely liked the old red tractor better than the cows. But we went to say hello to the three calves anyway. Only one was willing to be social, and she was being tended to by a girl around 10 years old who informed us that not only does her family own the dairy, but cows have four stomachs.

The dairy was having a customer appreciation day, and workers were offering samples of locally-grown foods and on-site made milk and ice cream. We obliged. There is something about this creamery that may change the way I drink milk from now on, sort of the way that the beer served at the Guinness brewery changed the way I drink beer. When we leave Iowa I may not be able to drink milk that doesn’t come from grass-fed cows, not ridden with hormones and antibiotics.

We made the switch to organic milk when the twins graduated from breast milk and formula to cow’s milk. It was an expensive transition, but it was time to say enough to the white liquid that passes for milk packaged and sold by big agribusiness. Soon I discovered that buying organic was more than avoiding conventional milk. It was a statement.

The friend mentioned above turned me on to this dairy in central Iowa. She raved about the milk, saying she and her roommate drank a glass of whole milk a day. I nearly gagged. Whole milk! I couldn’t imagine drinking anything above 2%. She said, go to the grocery store on Tuesdays when they get their shipment in and get this milk. You will be transformed.

So I did. And I was. Not just for the organic factor (their milk isn’t certified organic, but is just as good), but for the taste. It tasted like…well, like what milk is supposed to taste like. The added benefit came with this milk originating from a local farm. This farm sets its cows out to pasture, feeds them grass and hay, and takes good care of them. When we saw the cows today they looked healthy and happy. Not crammed into feedlots or hooked up to machines in a sterile room. It all seemed so real. So natural. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? Isn’t this how we are supposed to live and generate food?

I think about this a lot. In fact, when I was traveling back from southern Minnesota earlier this week, I thought about it even more. I passed a sign somewhere around Winnebago about cattle ranching. But I saw no cattle in the fields. They were filled with corn. I imagined the cows to be confined to a feed lot, something along the lines of the ill-placed lot along I-5 somewhere in the middle of California that you can smell for miles as you speed through at 70 mph. Why has the industrialization of cattle become so inhumane? Isn’t it healthier for the humans who eat beef and drink milk and for the cows who are raised for this purpose and in the long-term more sustainable (which I am told is a hippie word) to let the cows graze on actual grass in actual pastures?

I feel great about supporting local dairies that treat their animals with dignity and their customers with enough respect to give them quality, healthy products. It’s a shame that, according to the New York Times, organic dairies are struggling through this economy. Buying organic products and supporting local farmers should not be contingent upon the health of the economy. It should be a community effort that enhances our health, humane treatment of animals and the environment. Some things are worth a little extra, even if it means cutting back on another.

It was great to see the dairy’s parking lot overflowing and families so enthusiastic about participating in this local venture. It’s funny when being progressive seems like returning to our roots.

Women on Writing Women

This article spun out of a series of Tweets from Susan Orlean. It’s a great view into the life of a writing mother:

http://www.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/feature/2009/06/11/susan_orlean/index.html

Locally Grown

It hit me today as I was wandering through a small town in southern Minnesota. With the clarity of a cloudless day I understood the economic reality of the Midwest.

Since I moved here three years ago (35 months ago, to be exact) I have been struck by the vast number of American cars that populate the roads. Being from metropolitan California, I was used to seeing mostly foreign cars—Toyotas, Hondas, VWs, BMWs and the like. Noticing the majority of drivers behind the wheels of Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs and Chryslers made me wonder a) if Midwesterners were aware that American cars were inferior and b) if they knew American cars were inferior did they just buy them to support the American auto industry. It also made me wonder if they would sneer at me driving my Toyota (imported from Oakland, Calif.). I watched “Roger & Me.” I knew the history. But it still seemed so backward knowing that most American cars were so inferior.

As time passed I did much less wondering about this topic, as others became more pressing—like what do those tornado sirens mean anyway, or what will happen if I go outside when the windchill is -30?.

But the recent catastrophes of The Big Three recirculated this topic into my consciousness.

Back to this small Minnesota town. Lake Crystal, population 2,502 (the 2 being my two friends who just moved there two weeks ago). Not a foreign car in sight. Except for mine, and my friend’s—also a Toyota. And that’s when it hit me: the powerful importance of buying local.

Midwesterners are keenly aware, so much more so than their West Coast counterparts, how much the economy depends on the American auto industry. The people who live here work for them. In some way, shape or form, the Midwest is tied to General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler. I recently heard a statistic that every GM job directly or indirectly supports three other jobs. So a loss of 10,000 GM jobs would result in the loss of 30,000 jobs.

So what if the American auto industry had been supported by the West Coasters and the East Coasters and the Southerners with as much enthusiasm as the Midwesterners? Would the companies’ profits be large enough to offset plant closures, outsourcing jobs overseas, a federal bailout? It’s tough to say. Especially when their product has been inferior for so many years. Seems like a flawed business plan to me. But we, the taxpayers and unemployed, are the ones to ultimately suffer the consequences.

In California there is a great push to buy locally grown produce. Farmers’ markets are numerous and well attended, as well as well stocked with locally grown fruits and vegetables, and local crafts and eats. There is an awareness that supporting local farmers through these markets directly effects the California economy. It is not so unlike the mentality of the Midwestern affinity for the American car, though it is on a much smaller scale.

Yet, while the local produce market is expanding and gaining popularity in California, the local auto market is shrinking and plummeting into bankruptcy. Buying local is important. But when an industry becomes so massive it loses touch with its customers, loses its ability to innovate and compete do we continue to support it just because it is local? Or do we cut our losses and move on?

It seems the American auto industry should have held its own farmer’s market long ago, bringing its goods and pleasantries to its customer base, a touch back so to speak. It’s sad to think that the failure of these behemoth companies will have a trickle-down effect on places like Lake Crystal, MN that don’t appear sturdy enough to weather the changing landscape of industrial America. We can only brace ourselves and hope to withstand the coming storm.

…The Worst of Times.

Like the millions of NPR-o-philes out there, ears glued to the local public radio station while maneuvering through afternoon/evening traffic, I heard a story that made me wonder if the country would ever recover from this economic meltdown.

The story was about the long-term unemployed: those who have been looking for work for six months or longer. While I admit to being somewhat of a pessimist and cynic, I really do want the economy to turn around. I am hoping to not become one of the long-term unemployed, but the prospect is becoming more evident.

It’s difficult to swallow the economic reality of the United States, especially with historical perspective. As the country continues its transformation from an industrial country to a service and leisure country I get more nervous. I get this feeling like the country can’t run on Starbucks and gas stations. There needs to be more girth, more meat. We need to sustain ourselves. And that might mean turning inward.

In this globalized economy it’s foolish to think that a country can become isolationist, especially a country with the GDP and consumer power of the United States. But America is in trouble. People need to work. People need to work without having a higher education degree. Someone needs to figure out how to put America back to work in a meaningful way. That equals well-paid, stable jobs with good benefits. Americans need a job that they can actually live on and perhaps earn enough to support a family. It happened once, and it seems it can happen again. Maybe if we stopped buying so much cheap crap from China. Maybe if we curbed our consumer appetite. Maybe if we concentrated on long-term objectives rather than instant gratification.

When the housing bubble burst it was a shocking correction, but a correction that was desperately needed. It signaled need for reform, not just of the financiers who helped to cause this mess, but for the way our society operates and the stock it places in the intangible. President Obama’s election was another signal for change.

I see these signals and I try to push aside my cynicism and pessimism with optimism. I try to believe that we can change, we can progress, we can move toward a more sustainable way of life. And it’s possible, that with more time on their hands, the long-term unemployed, and the newly unemployed will find opportunity for creative restructuring. Revolution begins with a few, and revolution brings change.

Transitions

It’s that time of year again. People come and go. Like an airport terminal, only with less urgency and more tangled webs caught on their pant legs.

Our lives are set apart in chapters. We arrive. We live. We leave. In late spring, many of us find ourselves leaving or being left behind. I fall into the latter category. These ideas have been ruminating for a while in the dusty attic of my brain that does not deal well with transitions. It’s time for some spring cleaning.

I always thought I dealt with transitions without much angst or worry. One thing led to the next. And then to the next, and so on, until I found myself here: a mother of twins, wife of a medical student, landlocked in the middle of Iowa (read: unemployed in Greenland). It sounds romantic, I know, a life picked up and moved in a freeing sense of adventure and wanderlust. But the dizzying glitter and confetti that rained down on my transition quickly cleared to illuminate the truth of my situation. Transience.

We bought a house. That very move would signify setting down roots. But the nature of our path determines another course. Our timer had already been set, and when the bell rang we would be off on a new adventure: medical residency. No matter who we met or what relationships we formed during our four-year tour of Iowa, there would always be an expiration date. And there’s something there that makes it a little easier and a little harder to see people come and go.

It’s May, so graduations are happening left and right. People we know and have had time to get to know are graduating, getting married, moving to find better jobs. They are progressing to the next chapter of their lives. Yet we remain in purgatory waiting for our time to come. Nevertheless, lives go on. They must. But the fate of the relationships we have formed between us are not so certain. And this is where the crux of the ruminations lies. If life is about relationships, why is it that our culture enables us to so easily pick up and discard our friends like we do our golf clubs or tennis shoes? How deep of a connection can you form and maintain with another person if one of you is planning to leave?

My world has become one of impermanence, and it creates an aura of unsettling discomfort. It creates loose bonds, and it feels like lost time. Yet, it is May, and I must say goodbye to some friends who feel like family. From past experience I know the separation will erode this closeness, and I wonder who will take their place. But the truth is I don’t want anyone to take their place. I want them to stay with me in purgatory just a little bit longer. But they can’t. They must move on. There is no escaping life’s transitions.

Soon my time will come. I will leave, and I will arrive. My choice will be, do I dust off the tangled webs caught to my pant legs and start fresh, or do I bring them with me and incorporate them into my new life? I suppose there will always be some residue that carries over from one chapter to the next.

From Ani DiFranco:

everybody's in a hurry
here in purgatory
except for me
i'm where i need to be
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