Monday, July 19, 2010

Much More Than Just Cornfields: Iowa City

I never had any desire to come to Iowa, had never thought much about it. I think that’s true of a lot of people, which is why Iowa is great. It is authentic. It is not burdened by a tourist board version of what to expect from the State, of what it is. It just is.

“We grow three crops here: corn, soy and writers,” said playwright and University of Iowa professor Kate Aspengren to the crowd of eager writers at the kickoff of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival weekend I attended.

I had passed many fields filled with corn and soy on my way in to Iowa City from the airport in Moline, Illinois, fields I had seen from the air as we landed. The intense greenery had made me giggle, plots empty as far as the eye could see being such a distinct and dramatic change from the Big City from which I’d flown. That the two coexist mere hours away from one another by air is amazing.

I had put my friend and former boss, a native of Iowa and the tour guide for my trip, on the job of seeking out an old turquoise pick-up for me upon my arrival. He had not found any but as we drove, I found not one but two on our path. I'm still in the process of considering whether or not to pick one up for real, to drive it home to Brooklyn filled with the awesome rusty vestiges of the lives lived here.

As Ms. Aspengren had noted, the University of Iowa was the first to offer degrees in creative fields like writing and music. That heritage is alive and well in town, as the arts are well represented, more books and music and art than most cities have across a far larger span. A piano sits in the pedestrian mall outside my hotel, beseeching passersby to play, which we did.

A man stopped to listen.

"Beautiful..." he said. "How long have you been playing together?" We smiled and laughed.

"This is the first time," I said.

The man, Mark, a self-named "spiritual poet," commented on us, on how "alive" we were. And, indeed, playing piano on the pedestrian mall, practicing my writing "voice" in the terrific class I took with professor Gordon Mennenga, I did feel very much alive. I gave Mark a gold star for his appreciation of our efforts and for his own efforts, for his meditations and examination of his own and others' lives.

Iowa City in general gets a HUGE gold star, not the least for its bread, which is thick, grainy, buttered and lightly toasted to absolute perfection, the best I've ever had, and for the sheer genuine nature of its people, like the waitress who served us the famous oversized pork tenderloin sandwich and shrugged when I asked if we could get a mix of fried cauliflower and mushrooms. "I don't give a shit..." she said.

For those and many other reasons, I will definitely be back.

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