Thursday, August 4, 2011

Life in SE Iowa: One Big Cultural Experience

My friends Sam and Lisa and their two kids (ages 8 and 12) visited from San Francisco last week. I gave them what has become the standard Southeast Iowa tour for all my house guests (and, oh, I have had many this summer). As we drove from place to place, through the wide open fields of corn and soybeans, past the pig barns and grazing cows, past the weather-worn barns and farmhouses with peeling paint, it was pointed out to me by the 12-year-old – in the blunt and direct way that only a 12-year-old can get away with – that I was prefacing everything we did and saw with the phrase, “It’s a cultural experience.”

I didn’t realize I had been saying this so often and I had to ask myself why. Am I rationalizing my city-girl background against my new life of simplicity in rural Iowa? Am I trying to justify my reasons for remaining here in a town of 927 when, in fact, yes, I do miss Starbucks and sushi, movie theaters and bookstores, overpriced trendy cafes and wine bars? Or am I, even after one year here now, still ├╝ber-fascinated with the lifestyle, one so vastly different from my expensive and hectic and hyper urban existence?
All I know is that we packed in a lot of activity – and a lot of local culture – into a three-day stay.
Make sure you order a shake
to go with that burger
Cultural Experience #1: The Canteen Lunch in the Alley in Ottumwa opened in 1936 and has remained unchanged since. The diner serves one thing and one thing only: loose meat burgers called "Canteens." The diner is in a tiny, cinderblock building, dwarfed beneath a city parking garage. The diner in the TV show “Roseanne” was modeled after The Canteen. When we ate there, Sam, Lisa and family were not the only Californians in the 20-seat place, proof to them that The Canteen is clearly high on the list of must-visit places in the area.
I've gone to the auction three times now and I can't wait to go back
Cultural Experience #2:  The Southern Iowa Produce Auction, where Amish sell their homegrown fruits and vegetables, is not a tourist attraction. But it should be. Twice a week, just outside of Drakesville, the local Amish pull their horse-drawn carts right up to the auction stand where customers sit in bleachers and bid on tomatoes, corn, peaches, and whatever else happens to be ripe. There’s a real auctioneer, the kind you’d find at a cattle auction, who talks so fast it’s impossible to understand what he’s saying. This is a chance to observe the Amish culture up close and personal – women wearing plain blue smock dresses and black bonnets, the kids running around shoeless while guzzling Mountain Dew, and the men, busy unloading their vegetables, sporting long beards, straw hats, trousers held up by suspenders, and white dress shirts. Interestingly, it was Sam and Lisa’s 8-year-old, Meleah, who was the object of observation -- a cultural experience in reverse! The Amish kids couldn’t take their eyes off her and her wild dark curly hair with the bright-colored thread braided through it. She was wearing a blue mini skirt and a T-shirt that read “Peace, Love, Ice Cream.” And flip flops with glitter. Maybe it was her footwear that made her so interesting to the Amish kids. They don’t wear shoes – ever – unless there is an absolute necessity, like a foot of snow on the ground. 
An Amish woman (actually, my new friend Pauline -- she's lovely!) walks
two miles to sell her angel food cakes at the twice-weekly auctions
Cultural Experience #3: The Milton Creamery in Milton (well, outside of Milton on Highway 2, sitting by its lonesome) is run by Mennonites. Here, we tasted cheese curds and purchased their World Cheese Championship winner: Prairie Breeze, which we found out is also sold in San Francisco at a store called Rainbow Grocery. Lisa, a journalist and TV producer, pumped the woman behind the counter with questions like why the Amish kids don’t wear shoes (Answer: to save money) and why the Mennonite women wear white bonnets when the Amish wear black (Answer: some Amish also wear white.) It would have been nice to stay longer and learn more, but we had to get home to the pie stand.

Cultural Experience #4:  The Dutchman’s General Store in Cantril, Iowa always provides several hours’ worth of entertainment to my out-of-town guests. There is plenty to stimulate the mind and senses in this store. The book section, filled with Amish romance novels, is to an outsider, well, novel. There are a dozen aisles of fabrics, ribbon, and buttons (no zippers allowed in Amish clothing --handmade clothing, of course). The clothing section boasts straw hats, bonnets, bib overalls, farm boots, and a long aisle of sensible shoes available in black only. You will find Amish dolls in the toy section. (Hardly Barbie and Ken, these decidedly anti-glamour dolls are clad in Amish-issue smocks and suspenders.) If you need spices there are a zillion to choose from packed in miniature plastic containers, all labeled and nicely organized in alphabetical order. You can scoop your own garden seeds from a self-serve shelf unit. And lest you think Mennonites or Amish or Iowans in general are health nuts, let’s not forget the entire aisle of candy bins – licorice, taffy, M&Ms, jelly beans,  you name it they’ve got it – in bulk. It’s not just the vast and unusual (well, unusual to people not from here) selection of items that fascinates the Dutchman’s shopper; it’s the prices. “We pay $7 for farm-fresh eggs at home,” Lisa gasped when she saw our humble little Iowa farm eggs go for a dollar a dozen. (“SEVEN bucks?!,” I gasped back.) Ditto for the locally produced organic milk – in SE Iowa it costs a fraction of what one pays in a big city. Among the many items brimming in their shopping cart, Sam and Lisa bought an apple peeler/corer/slicer as a useful souvenir for future pie making. And I bought three cases of peaches. A successful shopping trip.
Cultural Experience #5:  The Burlington Bees minor league baseball game was not on my standard tour. It wasn’t on my list at all. My guests, however, made the inevitable inquiry about the Field of Dreams. How far is it? Can we go there? And when they learned it’s a five-hour drive from Eldon, they opted for a real baseball game just over an hour away. (Seeing as I like baseball about as much as I like six-foot snakes in my bathroom, they came up with this plan all on their own.) Minor league teams all have an affiliation with a major league team and in a touching coincidence, the Bees happen to be the kid brother team to the Oakland A’s, so my San Francisco friends had a connection to home. No matter that it was 100 degrees in the shade and sitting squished together in the box seats only made the sweltering heat worse, we got free hot dogs and, why yes, a cultural experience! (By the way, the Bees lost.)
This is why my dogs don't like house guests.
Cultural Experience #6:  Of course, their stay at The American Gothic House was a cultural experience in and of itself. At first the kids pulled the kitchen curtain shut when they saw tourists swarming around outside. “You’ll get used to it,” I said. “You won’t even notice after a while.” Not only did they get used to it, once we opened the Pitchfork Pie Stand the kids ran to the windows whenever they saw people getting their pictures taken out front. They even went outside, regardless of stepping into the camera shot, to lure in potential pie customers. The kids also took their turn playing tourist. They dressed up for photos and even put the costumes on my dogs. Which was a first. And, as far as my dogs are concerned, hopefully the last.
By the end of their stay, my friends were considering this enlightened view of “Life as Cultural Experience” and started asking, “What would we show our visitors in Northern California that we would describe as a cultural experience?”
Lisa experiencing backyard
"culture" at the AG House
“The hippies in Berkeley?” I suggested. “Maybe the fish market at Fisherman’s Wharf. Chinatown. The Financial District.” My guess is that they’re still mulling over their own answers to this.
Meanwhile, I haven’t answered my own question about whether or not I’m trying to convince myself that living in rural Iowa is the right thing for me. That’s because there is no answer. I am here because I am still learning, stretching, growing, healing, and experiencing life in new and rich ways. I am here because I want to be. I am here because the real cultural experience is the generosity and kindness found beneath the layers of peeling paint, the pig farms, the horse buggies and bonnets. What makes a culture is the people and you can’t really know the people unless you stay a while. Which is why I just signed a new one-year lease.

* * * * *

ADDENDUM: After Sam, Lisa and kids left, I had a new cultural experience of my own, one I am sure my SF friends would not have found charming or fascinating, but rather appalling like I did. In a desperate attempt to escape the hundred-degree heat, I accepted an invitation to go boating on the Des Moines River with some friends. Except that their definition of “boating” was “parking.” We motored upriver and tied up on a sand bar next to five other boats. The other boaters were all standing in the river, in chest-high water, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. When the last sips and puffs were taken, the empty cans and butts were simply tossed into the river. Only to start the cycle all over again. More beer. More cigarettes. More litter. All day long. Every single summer weekend. I was fuming inside, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to come across as the uppity, righteous Pie Lady. It was bad enough that I was already “Pie Lady in a bikini,” I didn’t need “bitch” added to my boat-guest status. And I didn’t want to embarrass my friends. So I kept my mouth shut. For now. But when I figure out how to tackle this one, I’ll be back to influence this part of culture we would all be better off without.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Whatever Happened to The Beast?

The Beast: Happy in its new role as American Gothic House privacy screen/fence.
"What happened to The Beast?" some of you have been asking. The Beast is the nickname I gave the RV that Marcus left behind, the 24-foot-long camper that I was originally terrified to drive but proved not only a cinch to drive but a dream vehicle for long road trips. (When you get tired you don’t have to hobble into the next Motel Six, you just pull over and take a nap or make an espresso.) It also ended up being the genesis for the pie TV show concept. (Watch the 2-minute promo video here.)

When I drove to Iowa last August I made the difficult decision of driving my MINI to Iowa, leaving The Beast with my brother Mike in Southern California. My parting words were, "I'll be back in a month." Then I stumbled upon the American Gothic House and moved in. My plans to return to LA were stymied and thus my refrain became, "I'll be there at Christmas." But I ended up spending the entire winter in Iowa, writing my book and not really missing the California rat race. So, eventually, I promised, "I'll come and get it this spring, maybe drive it back to Iowa at Easter." But then spring came and went and the RV was still in California.

I didn’t feel much pressure as I sensed Mike wasn't in a huge hurry to part with it. He was getting good use out of the RV for surf trips, even just day trips to Huntington Beach where he could use the big rig for both a wetsuit changing room and a post-surf-session coffee house with an ocean view.
Even I was able to get in on the RV surf safari action
 when I snuck in a quick trip to LA in February.
He was also using it for his work, painting murals at schools around Los Angeles – “campus beautification projects” – with his non-profit called Operation Clean Slate. Turns out The Beast made a good scaffolding as well as overnight crash pad (he has to trace mural outlines with a projector and that can only be done in the dark).
It was free storage for me and a free work/play vehicle for him, a true win-win. Until the day that a disgruntled neighbor (seems we all have one!) reported that The Beast had been parked a little too long on his residential street. It was on my birthday in June he sent me an email that read, “The time has come.” Attached to the email was a photo of a big red piece of paper on the windshield with bold black letters stating: “Notice of Parking Violation.” It was a warning, not a ticket, there was no fine, but even so, reclaiming what was ultimately my responsibility became urgent.
Mike also used the RV for beachfront brunches with my parents.
Ironically, it was on that same day – my birthday, June 14 – that the mayor of Eldon paid me a visit to show me the Polaroid photos my own disgruntled neighbors had taken of my dogs in their yard. Evidence. Proof of trespassing. Something needed to be done. It might have meant actually having to put my two little terriers on leashes. THE HORROR! Or perhaps erect a fence on that side of the lawn to keep my dogs from sprinting after the bunnies and squirrels that seemed to favor that particular neighbors’ yard. Or, could it be? Yes! Get the RV to Iowa, park it on that side of the property and use it as both a barrier to the neighbors’ lawn AND as a privacy screen to keep their prying eyes off my back door comings and goings. (These neighbors have more of an issue with me than just my dogs on their grass and, as such, my life has become their number one source of entertainment -- and fodder for constant complaints to City Hall.)

With a little juggling of schedules and a lot of lucky timing, I was able to get the RV from LA to Phoenix, where friends from Eldon were vacationing, and they drove The Beast cross-country from Phoenix to Southeast Iowa. And now, I am happily reunited with my trusty travel rig. I cannot wait for a lull in this searing summer heat and this Pitchfork Pie Stand busyness to take it out on a road trip.

Until then, I am equally thrilled at how The Beast is serving this inadvertent purpose. My neighbors haven’t complained about my dogs since the RV arrived. Rather, I’m waiting for their next complaint: that I’m blocking their view. I have a response already prepared in anticipation: “If you need something to watch, there’s this thing called TV.”