In Bloom

December 14, 2011

I met Stephen Bloom in my second year of graduate school. One of our playwriting teachers thought some cross-pollination between our department and others would be interesting and useful. At the time I didn’t know my work would become “journalistic” in its own sense- marrying interviews with my own life’s journey. I don’t really remember anything that he talked about. One of my classmates had been a NY Times Magazine writer and I remember he and Stephen got into it a little bit. But other than that, Stephen showed us a copy of his Oxford Project book- photographs and mini interviews with folks in Oxford, Iowa. He left, I graduated. And that was that.

***

It is 2009. I am sitting in the Whole Foods parking lot. This is downtown, Denver. I live with a woman named Jennifer. We are playwrights. We are dreaming of starting a theater company and a life together. We are poor. We are optimistic. We talk about where to move. I am a native New Yorker, she is from Toronto. The choices seem obvious.

She comes back a bag of bread, cheese, some wine, some really great chocolate… she says I look thoughtful. She knows I’m thinking about the future. She asks what’s up.

“I miss Iowa,” I tell her.

“Me too.”

***

Stephen Bloom lives on Summit Street. It is a block and a half from my house. It’s stunning. I run along its sidewalks each day, past the Deluxe bakery, a bakery that employs NY Times lauded authors as baristas. On this street are massive houses, as a kid I played a game where you could end up a with a shack, a house or a mansion. In my 4th grade mind Summit would be a street with mansions.

I often work around the state. I, like Bloom, do interviews. My interviews are often for theatrical productions. I drive out to towns like Colfax and Council Bluffs, I head to Keokuk and Clinton. The people I speak with are varied- lawyers to farmers to the unemployed and more… Many are white. I gather oral histories about topics from race to military service to labor and then some. I travel back roads.

I’ve never been met with shotguns or God.
But I am not a journalist.
I’m just a New Yorker in a Ford Focus.

***

I did a google search today: “People who hate the places that made them famous.” I was curious. Not much came up. There was a mention of Steinebeck and his book Travels With Charley. This was a death bed book, Steinbeck seeing the country he loved one last time before he died. It’s a love letter to a changing country.

The next most obvious listing were artists who disowned the songs that made them famous. On “Stairway to Heaven” Robert Plant says:

“I’d break out in hives if I had to sing that song in every show. I wrote those lyrics and found that song to be of some importance and consequence in 1971, but 17 years later, I don’t know. It’s just not for me.”

The Atlantic article is perhaps a nod to this phenomena. After all, for twenty years Bloom has been employed by the University of Iowa. His greatest success is Postville, a book about Iowa. He has, in a sense made a living off of Iowa- its stories and its institutions- perhaps its a good place for inspiration, those open plains…

***

“For 40 years as a journalist, I’ve tried to shine a light into dark corners. That’s what good journalists do. They don’t accept what politicians, government bureaucrats, corporate spokespeople say is the truth. Good journalism isn’t just reporting. It’s making observations, trying to make sense out of the world and its shadows — even if readers don’t agree with those observations.”- Stephen Bloom, the Des Moines Register 12/13/11

***

“20 Years in Iowa,” is categorized under Politics in the Atlantic. Politicians come to Iowa every four years, in the town I live in they head directly to the Hamburg Inn. “An Iowa Establishment.” The Hamburg is a wood paneled “homestyle diner,” it operates as a willing throw back: older menus, oak booths, black and white photos on the wall. Down the road 200 feet is a brand new building for the math department designed by Frank Gehry. Across the river from there is the damaged and soon replaced Hancher Auditorium bringing Lily Tomlin, Martha Graham, Laurie Anderson and so on and so on and so on to the ‘cultural wasteland…’

In Cedar Rapids the Opera is starting rehearsal. And all the way between the two- all the way to Des Moines and back are people living their lives. Complex and individual lives.

***

It’s 2010 and the following conversation happens in my house:

“Oh my God are you serious?”
“And I love this show…”

My wife and I are watching West Wing. We love West Wing (to be honest, we currently miss West Wing). It’s the election season and Bradley Whitford is in Iowa, polling…

People sing songs, people push God endlessly, people have their farms and diners… it’s caricature of a culture. “Iowa is as backwards as you think, Iowa is a corn maze that the inhabitants can’t get out of themselves!”

We watch and yet we forgive. TV is entertainment after all. It can’t always be factual. It’s entertainment in the end and it will give the people what it wants.

***

In NY my friends tease me and ask when “I’m heading back South.” It’s an easy mistake for them, Iowa is just part of the large red map on election day. North, South, East, West. It’s all red. It’s all the same.

***

It is December in Iowa. Rain is falling. I am in a McDonalds in Pella, Iowa- my friend Martin and I searching for free internet. We have been on the road all day getting materials for an art project. We talk about the Atlantic and about Bloom. In the booths are men in John Deere hats drinking coffee and talking sports. There are no billboards. There are no signs of hunting and trapping.

There are $4.99 chicken mcnuggets.

Martin has moved from Ohio to Iowa, just as I moved from NY. Both of us shake our head and laugh.

“Maybe Bloom knows what he’s doing. Maybe he’s making us Iceland. Keep telling them it’s cold and ugly. And they’ll go away. Tell them we’re guns and God and we can keep living however we want. No new folks driving the prices up…”

We drive off into open plains, we both have dogs and families waiting for us in homes we own surrounded by neighbors we know. No shotguns and sing alongs. And we laugh.

If they only knew the truth. Maybe we’d really be in trouble…

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg December 14, 2011 at 8:23 am

The article itself is schizophrenic–what’s so surprising is that the first 2 and 1/2 pages are pretty much fine–had he ended the article with the paragraph about suicide rates, it would probably be fine. It’s when he starts talking about his own life in Iowa that the weird stuff comes up. “None has been more foreign to me than Iowa.”

???????

I can assure Mr. Bloom, having lived in New York, L.A., and England that all three of those places felt far more foreign than Iowa, where I felt very much at home. “Grocery bags are sacks.” Yes. Yes, they are. “Indoor parking lots are ramps.” THIS IS BECAUSE THEY ARE SLANTED. THEY SLANT UP. WHAT THE HELL ELSE WOULD YOU CALL THEM. I can’t remember a single one of my students–or of the numerous Iowans I met–praising the smell of pig shit. And I can assure Mr. Bloom that the phrase “come to Jesus” has gone nationwide.

Oh, and in a state that gave Barack Obama a double-digit margin in the general election, I don’t think too many people were calling him “a black city slicker.” Come on, Bloom. What the hell happened?

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Marie December 14, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Hi, neighbor. I too live about a block away from Professor Bloom. I agree with your Iceland analogy, but don’t think Bloom has done this favor intentionally. Nevertheless, I accept his snarky drivel as a gift, an opportunity for Iowans to coalesce. It can be easy to feel a bit bruised, because I think for each of us, our choices about where we choose to live our lives are dear and personal. They are a reflection of who we are. There were times when I wondered what could have been if I had settled far from my home state. That often happens around the age of 40. But I now know that I made all the right choices. I have seen much of the world, but always want Iowa to be my home.

By the way, unlike Mr. Bloom, I have to say that while I do occasionally hear the word “bitch” in Iowa, I seldom hear anyone using it while referencing a dog. And I’ve never been stopped in the neighborhood by rednecks wanting to chat about my pets, not that there would be anything wrong with that.

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julie December 15, 2011 at 6:26 am

Thank you for this thoughtful, well written piece. As a native who moved away and then back to Iowa to raise my children; I am not at all opposed to journalism that exposes complex and difficult aspects of my home state, but it should be at least truthful. So many glaring fact-checkable mistakes, (at last count I’d heard over a dozen documented ones, mistatements critical to his premises) juxtaposed with a few truthful (possibly) personal experiences but which are then attached to a completely incorrect conclusion. It made me really wonder and think about the responsibility an opinion writer has, as well as the creative non-fiction writer. It made me feel like I was reading a very bad email, certainly not a finished piece for an established journal. And even worse, it’s coming from a journalism professor.

It makes me sad that he can hide behind valid criticisms of his piece and lump them in with the love it or leave it gripes as well as those who are threatening his family (if that is not hyperbole: he’s lost all credibility to me now and yes I read his previous books). I also live a few blocks from him and have a hard time imagining any such things happening. And there’s no way he didn’t have thousands of other interactions with his neighbors and his dog that would have clearly shown the ones he described as very unique. I nearly laughed out loud, had it not been so sad and out of touch, that he believed a “come to jesus talk” was “vintage Iowa” instead of popular slang among young people, propagated from the internet.

There was no light shown. Not even a glowstick.

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Sean December 15, 2011 at 7:17 am

Julie and Marie. Thanks for reading.

Stephen’s response is not any different than his article: it lacks complexity. He is showing “dark truths” but if someone states his article is generalized and steeped in stereotype he states “I only hope it’s not a love it or leave it type thing.”

I’m sure he found boar semen or whatever else. But he looked for it, he searched out that narrative and he made it representative of an entire state. I am originally from upstate NY and I could basically take Stephen’s article and change Iowa to NY and make it completely fit- his arguments and examples are so incredibly general and journalistically “soft.”

A guy said this about his dog.
A sign was hand written.
People had tans from their hats.
I saw this driving.

Where? Who? Basically, what are you even talking about?

It’d be funny if it weren’t so mean spirited.
It would be journalism if it were in fact an accurate journal or record of the time.
As it stands its a travelogue to the East Coast from a foreign country where God and Guns reign and open eyed social critics trudge on bravely…

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Carrie December 15, 2011 at 3:48 pm

This is beautiful. I think your phrase “complex and individual lives” nicely sums up why Bloom’s article hurt.

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Kristine December 15, 2011 at 7:13 pm

I once heard Stephen Bloom speak, and he said something I found striking: “What’s true and what’s accurate are two different things.” I got the sense he didn’t care much about truth, and that he thought he should always be believed about what was “accurate.” I have been in Iowa City for 17 years, and it’s the best place I’ve ever lived – and I have lived in Austin, Seattle, Boulder and Madrid. You _know_ he did this for the attention it would generate, and no other reason.

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Deborah December 15, 2011 at 8:35 pm

I had no idea that people from Iowa were so thin-skinned.

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Lacey December 16, 2011 at 1:00 am

I was born and raised in Iowa. I have lived elsewhere, but ended up back home. I reside in ‘Kingsland,’ aka Sioux City. I can appreciate some of his disdain and stereotypes, but I certainly cannot appreciate the prevalence he suggests, ESPECIALLY since I’ve shared his geographic experience. I’m upset for the same reason that most others are: a highly-paid JOuRNALISM PROFESSOR has been incredibly inaccurate and mean- spirited about the ‘folk’ that feed him. I had Bloom when I was a student. I used to live across the street from the bakery, and often saw him and his dog in our neighborhood and on a nearby dog trail that I walked my own dogs on. (They are dachshunds, so of course my hunting pastimes are centered around badgers and rats). For those of you not familiar with Summit Street, I can assure you that it is the LAST place you would find people in pick-up trucks yelling the hunting phrases that he suggested. I found this picture on the Deluxe website that pretty much paints a picture of the neighborhood. Notice the organic food for sale with hipsters buying it, and a fellow non-hunting dog owner in the background.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-zy3oVUV8iqw/TrX_3KU1woI/AAAAAAAAAxU/iRuxaaMeFwA/s1600/IMG_1936.JPG

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jamie December 17, 2011 at 4:36 am

Very nice article. A nod, a thumbs up and a free coffee and pastry are in order for you.

The owner of the pastry shop down the road……………..
Jamie

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Yale Cohn December 18, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Here’s our show about Bloom’s article:

“Yale talks with four native Iowans about the depiction of them and the state they call home in Stephen Bloom’s scathing and controversial article in The Atlantic Monthly, his motives for publishing it, the response its generated across the state, and its national implications with regards to Iowa’s first in the nation voting status.”

http://patv.tv/blog/2011/12/18/talking-with-stephen-blooms-observations-oniowa/

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Lacey December 19, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Yale:
Just watched the show. I loved the ending sentiments about world citizens CHOOSING Iowa/Iowa City. It has been my favorite place to live as well, and I REALLY miss it. Thanks for this piece. I used to live next door to Ryan O’Leary on Muscatine Ave in a house his family rented, and enjoyed the political conversations we used to have. I had forgotten about that until viewing this.

Jamie:
Do you remember me? I lived across the street. I was preggo, and in there every morning for petite fours. You had just given birth and your advice of ‘staying in the moment’ helped me have a natural birth myself. Thanks!

This has been a reunion of Iowa City characters for me. 🙂

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Erin January 24, 2012 at 11:00 am

I was away for awhile, and I’m just catching up with all the “20 Years” fallout now. Your post made me think of this one kid:

My mom taught elementary music in Eddyville, Iowa for 20 years. It was a small, poor town, and she loved it like family. She retired a few years after I had spent a year in England during college. While I was there, I stole a guitar (long story) and shipped it back home. I wanted to learn to play, but I forgot about it.

Right before she retired, a student in 4th or 5th grade came to her classroom and told her all about the feelings that music put in his heart. He got emotional talking about it, and it was a touching surprise for my mom, and so she gave him the guitar I had stolen.

The summer after her retirement, the kid called my mom and said he had won some kind of contest — on the radio or at the grocery store, I think — and the prize was two tickets to a piano recital at the local community college. The kid invited her to come with him. So she went to Eddyville to pick him up. His dad drove up in the family’s big, beater truck to the school parking lot to meet her. The kid climbed down from the front seat wearing his little dress clothes, and his hair was parted and slicked down. His dad gave my mom the steering-wheel pointer-finger wave and drove away. At the recital, my mom saw the kid following the lines of music, raising his eyebrows up and down with the rising and falling pitches, the crescendos and decrescendos. A 10-year-old.

A few years later, my family bumped into him at the Ottumwa movie theater. He was really excited to introduce his high school girlfriend. He said he was still playing that guitar.

I sure don’t know where his story ends. Maybe he’s a wasteoid meth head now. But whenever I feel drifty and not-at-home, I think about him playing that guitar. And I think of my mom going to Eddyville all those years, making each kid hear and love rising and falling pitches, crescendos and decrescendos — and never wondering how much dog hair might be on their dad’s truck.

And, you know, I wouldn’t have thought anything of this story. Dog hair, trucks, the kid’s little necktie and startlingly-combed side part — those weren’t details worth repeating until I left Iowa and met the Stephen Blooms of the world.

So I’m kind of glad those people are out there, looking down their noses and helping me see the specialness of the memories I land on when I’m most homesick.

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