And Then I Fell Out the Window

Life, examined and punted around


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On the Road: Our State Fair is a Great State Fair

The Iowa State Fair might be the most famous in the country. Hey, the state that’s most famous for corn, soybeans, and pigs ought to at least have that. Every year the fair creates the next fried innovation – fried Twinkies and Oreos being a standard now, along with fried Snickers and Milky Ways. This year, the fair debuted fried apple pie and fried fruit kabobs drizzled in chocolate sauce. Let’s not forget all the meat: Long stretches of people waiting for a pork chop, or a tenderloin the size of their face, or maybe a dubiously-named Hot Beef Sundae (don’t worry, the “ice cream” is mashed potatoes, it just looks like a sundae). Good thing you usually have to park far away and walk a good deal in the fair.

I’ve lived in Iowa my whole life, yet the state fair is where every Iowan gets to be a tourist in their home state. Do you want to see the USS Enterprise carved out of butter? Want to pet a tortoise? Want to sample some Iowa wines, sweet to the point of being medicinal? Want to ride a spinning ride until you almost throw up those fried Oreos? You can. You can do it all.

I haven’t been to the State Fair since I was a teenager, dragged along with my parents and our bemused foreign exchange student from Bangkok. What must she have thought of the spectacle? In many ways, it’s a big conglomeration of Midwestern stereotypes. Overweight people in scooters eating fried dough. Blue ribbon pigs, napping in their pens. Ranch dressing and hamburgers.

These rural stereotypes are all alive and well at the fair, but even though I’ve lived in Iowa my whole life, the whole thing is foreign to me. I watch 4H teenagers give their cows showers and hold their sheep’s heads up for a judge’s inspection, and I know their understanding of the world and life experiences are so different from mine. We come from the same state, but we are worlds apart. But this is our State Fair.

I saw a woman in a rhinestone Confederate flag baseball cap, right by a man who had a shirt with a deer on it that said “I like ’em with long legs and a big rack.” I do not understand them, and if we stopped to chat, they probably wouldn’t understand me either. We would probably shout and continue to not understand each other, but we don’t, because right now we are all in line to get a corn dog or a paper bowl of tater tots. Women on scooters cool themselves with Trump-Pence paper fans. I do not know where they have been and what has led them to be right here with these items. I don’t know how I got here myself. But here we are, at our State Fair. We are Iowans together, even if that is our only commonality.

I sound so bemused and alienated, but we had a great day, my friend and I. We rode the gondola, our legs dangling over the parade crowds. We  watched animals being judged for criteria beyond our understanding (all the sheep looked like nice sheep to us). We ate adventurous foods and walked around with wobbly plastic cups of beer (something I definitely couldn’t do as a teenager). We made it to nearly every corner of the fair, looking at the many exhibits (baby ducks! miniature houses! photography! gourd displays!), and left sated.

The tagline for this year’s fair was “Nothing compares to my State Fair.” Can it be mine, even though I pass through it without understanding the ins and outs of agriculture, of sheep bone structure, of what makes that tenderloin different from this one? Maybe I’m overthinking it. We’re all tourists here, Iowans and outsiders. Pass the fried Oreos- I might be able to stomach just one more before I go into diabetic shock.

 

 


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A Tuesday Off With a History Buff: Iowa Backroads to Des Moines

The great thing about working at a museum is that every day is different, and not just your workdays, but sometimes your days off, too. So, with an unexpected Tuesday off, my friend Jerry, who works at another local museum, and I took off for Des Moines from Iowa City.

It’s an easy trip. All you have to do is shoot across I-80 and blammo, pass a few scores of semi trucks and commuters and you’re there. Or you could take the back roads, winding your way down Highway One, onto Black Diamond Road (Where did that name come from? we wondered), and along a slew of hard-to-follow county roads. You know the kind that say F67 or F53 on the map, but the real deal is noted by more unique names.

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Names like..Orval Yoder TPK SW. Hold on. What is TPK supposed to stand for? Trailer Park? Turnpike? Tupac spelled wrong?

Jerry and I got an early start at 7:30, and I actually TOOK PHOTOS (something I am horrible at), which means that this blog will be more photo-heavy than most or any that I write.

Less than an hour in we found this beautiful old church in a little town called Windam. Well, I say town. It’s listed as a town on a map, and maybe a row of houses with a church they can claim is enough to make it so. I can’t imagine growing up somewhere so small, surrounded by nothing but farmland. And yet, the rush of I-80 is only a few miles north. The interstate doesn’t even feel in the same era, let alone the same county.

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Look at all those history on them there stones.

The church has an adjacent cemetery, full of Civil War-era tombstones, all with Irish last names. We walked past rows of McKillins and Kellys, O’Donnells and Ryans. Beyond the tombstones, endless green, the gentle rolling hills of crops still less than a foot tall. It was a great find. Jerry pointed out the G.A.R. stars placed for Civil War soldiers. My history knowledge is lacking, and his encyclopedic. But I pack snacks and bring good tunes to listen to, so we make good road trip buddies.

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The tallest statue in the cemetery by far. This family had it GOIN ON. And I captured a nice lens flare. 

Except when I got us really lost not soon after this stop.

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Your intrepid navigator with the (mostly) trusty Cherokee Jeep and a REAL ACTUAL MAP. (No cell phone reception out in these here parts)

We ended up doubling back on our route, getting closer to Kalona as I cursed my rusty map skills. The delay was worth it, though, as we got to another small town, Wellman, and discovered the AWESOME CORNER. It’s at the corner of Awesome Corner and Awesome Corner, don’t you see. So I guess that makes it the Awesome Corner Corner. …Don’t think about it too hard.

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Fact: Hanging underneath the Awesome Corner sign increases your awesomeness exponentially.

We were back on track before long, admiring the rolling countryside and listening to an old Violent Femmes tape. We stopped at an historic site in Lynnville, Wagaman Mill, a scenic little spot for a picnic.

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The actual mill was closed, by a guy across the way was enjoy it as a fishing spot, and we probably ruined his hour with our WASP-y picnic across the way.

At this point, we were nearing Des Moines, but we had one more stop along the way before we got to the capitol city: A trip to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, where the bison roam! 62 bison, to be exact. The refuge was HUGE, acres of untouched prairie, and neither Jerry nor I even knew it existed before Jerry spotted it on his Iowa map. We had good fun driving along the road tour trail, and at each crest of the hill I belted out the Jurassic Park theme, waiting to spot a herd of bison, or even just one little guy…

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Oooo, sounds exciting. Cue the John Williams score!!

…But no matter how loudly I sang (or maybe because of the loud singing and the rickety old Jeep), no bison revealed themselves to us. Stay hidden, you elusive, endangered beasts of the prairie.

Jerry did get to bond with one bison at the (very modern and impressive) visitor center, though.

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Jerry, becoming one with (stuffed) nature

At this point, it was nearing 1:00 and we were ready for the big city. Des Moines truly felt like a metropolis after all those small towns and opens fields, and we flipped a 180 by visiting Terrace Hill, an historic mansion and residence of the Iowa Governor, Terry Branstad and family. Jerry also works in an historic house (the impressive Brucemore Estate), so he wanted “to compare the Victorian style to the Second Empire style.” I shrugged violently at him. Second Empire, when was that? Ah, okay, right, the second French Empire, Napoleon III, all that stuff. …I swear I know things, just not all the History Things.

Terrace Hill was appropriately fancy, inside and out.

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Ooooo.

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Ahhhhh. (My Huawei didn’t take this picture, obviously- no interior photos allowed on the tour, so I did an image search.)

But, you ask, how do they give tours of an actual residence? And why does the governor of Iowa live somewhere so fancy? Doesn’t he fear a peasant’s revolt the likes of which unseen since the French Revolution??

Well, no. Terry and his family live in a modern but not crazy-royal apartment on the third floor, the former servants’ quarters. I was kind of bummed by this, because seeing the servants’ quarters is always my favorite parts of house tours like these, maybe because it’s the only part of the house I can imagine actually living in. The tour was mostly about architecture and the history of the artifacts in the house, and Jerry was twitching and cringing as the tour guide touched every object on the tour. I didn’t notice, and after the tour, Jerry and I debated if this had been a bad practice or not; at Brucemore, nearly every artifact has a rich history and connection to one of the families who lived there. The furniture in Terrace Hill, though, is still used for events sometimes and there’s only one piece of furniture original to the first family who lived there. Still, I wound up working at a museum through good timing and stars aligning, so my knowledge of artifact handling procedure is woefully lacking.

We left Terrace Hill (no Brandstad sightings- Our governor is as elusive as the bison) and headed to East Village, Jerry grumbling about how to the tour guide handled the artifacts without even any GLOVES.

I dragged Jerry to the tea store, Gong Fu, and got my chance to shine in the nerdy sun for a while, going foamy at the mouth over Yixing clay teapots and aged Puerh tea. Jerry nodded politely and read the newspaper, muttering about the Templeton Rye controversy (up until recently, the label said it was a “Prohibition-Era Recipe” and that it was distilled in Templeton, Iowa, when it’s actually switched to a distillery in Indiana, where it is made in considerably larger batches. Scandal! It is a shame, though. It was highly-lauded Iowa whiskey, and now it’s not even Iowan. What a waste.

Speaking of Iowa, what trip to our fair capitol would be complete without a trip to the State Capitol building? Then again, the last time I was in the Capitol, I had a disposable camera in hand. I probably still have my horribly underdeveloped picture inside the library, with its spiral staircases and symmetrical levels that reminded 5th Grade Me of the library in Beauty and the Beast. The only problem with it, I had decided, was that all the books were law books. Now THAT is a terrible waste.

Ok, PHOTO DUMP!!

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Oh, so fancy! The only fact I remember from my 5th grade tour of the capitol is that if you took all the gold leaf from the dome and wadded it up, it would be about the size of a baseball.

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I didn’t lie on the floor to take this, but I bet if I worked here, and I had a dime for every time some tourist did lie down with a big old camera… well, I would have several dimes, I’m POSITIVE.

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The library, just as fairy tale-esque as I remembered! Except for all those damn law books, of course. We’ll pretend they’re forgotten fables and lore.

IMG_20160607_160558Ooooo, ahhhh. It truly is some astonishing architecture. Vertigo-inducing, even, if you’re me. But I have a soft spot for the less-impressive corridor with some cabinets that don’t get quite as much attention and care… Behold!

IMG_20160607_161303 Yep. Someone, somewhere, made China doll replicas of each Iowa First lady in their inaugural ballgowns! The thing is, they all have the exact same face, only with different hairstyles and gowns. *shiver* A truly wonderful collection for any creepy doll afficionado.

Right across from this “Case of Doll Clone Horrors” is the “Case of Lame Presents That the Governor Clearly Didn’t Want To Keep But Has To.”

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“Oh, Wow! A book about a volcano I can’t pronounce! That’s so sweet.”

“A picture of me with some other people? How did you know??”

“Wooden shoes? What a unique gift from the Netherlands!” (Plot twist: They were from Pella. At least I hope so.)

But best of all was this gift:

IMG_20160607_161521I give you: Things Made of Corn! A present fit for a state governor! (But c’mon, no Everclear?)

We left the Capitol as it neared to five, and at this point I was DROPPING. We’d been all over the map and I was ready for some respite. But we still had one final stop, one piece of unclosed business.

Jerry had to check and see if he still held the high score on Ms. Pacman at Up/Down, the arcade downtown. We waited until it opened, then went down the staircase and into the basement that was a 90’s arcade dream…with local beer. Jerry raced with baited breath to the locked display case with the high scorers displayed on Polaroids. Everyone was listed with their initials, except for Sean Lennon, who has a score of over 1,000,000 (yes, One Million) points on a game I hadn’t heard of. Yes, John Lennon’s son is on the wall of the Up/Down Arcade in Des Moines. And you said famous peoples’ kids never did anything noteworthy.

“NOO!” Jerry wailed.

Poor Jerry. A local young woman had beaten him substantially, with over 300,000 points. He resolutely pulled out his game tokens that he’d trucked all this way and I ordered us a couple of pilsners.

Did I mention that I’m really terrible at arcade games? I played a few rounds of regular Pacman and a few on Tetris, cheering Jerry on as he collected slews of fruit (and a pretzel?) and dots upon dots. He finally submitted defeat, though, and he asked for his old Polaroids back, relics from his glory days.

“If I was here for hours, I could beat it, but I have to step away.” A wise choice. Fame is fleeting, especially if you only ever get to Des Moines once a year to compete against some local woman who can saunter in any time and beat the score with one quarter.

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Gone but not forgotten: These high scores will be remembered. 

So it was with bittersweet solemnity and hungry stomachs that we left Des Moines for Grinnell, where we had some delicious food at the Prairie Canary and stopped to look at the exterior of a beautiful historic bank.

IMG_20160607_183308Then we relented to I-80 to get home. By the time we reached Iowa City, we had been road tripping for nearly 14 hours, had put around 400 miles on Jerry’s Jeep, and had listened to 5 episodes of the radio show Cabin Pressure. When he dropped me off at my house, I could only grunt a tired thanks and stumble out. But it was a day well-spent- I got to see a corner of Iowa I don’t usually see, and there’s nothing so satisfying as falling into bed exhausted from a full day.

 

 


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Hello, Old Friend: On Sunday Morning Walks and Missing My Dead Brother

It’s cloudless, clear blue days like this that make me miss my brother the most. Has it really been almost six months since he died? It’s odd how time doesn’t seem to make sense in relation to loss and grief. One day everything changed, and everything since is the same and different. Sometimes it feels like I’m finding out for the first time, and other times it feels like it’s a heavy fact that I’ve lived with for years.

 

I have the luxury of having Sundays off, for the most part. Today I get out of bed at a decent hour and walk to the coffee shop on the Northside to meet a friend for writing. I pass the local Ace Hardware, with legendary sandwich shop attached. I pass an elementary school, an old brick edifice that looks like the one I attended back in Cedar Falls, one that has long since been torn down. The building is empty, for Sunday and for summer, and the full leaves on the trees flutter and swing, birds and passing cars and rushing leaves and church bell peals all melding together, the summer soundtrack.

 

Days like these remind me that he’ll never see a day this beautiful and clear again. I’m learning that grief can be swift and unpredictable, a summer thunderstorm. Torrential rain out of nowhere, then sun again. Two or three minutes of intense, raw missing, then it’s dormant again, or sometimes the bitter ache gives way to a gratitude for this life, this moment, the beauty in front of me. I must enjoy it, partially because he cannot, and partially because I won’t always be around to enjoy it, either. For whatever reason, these moments seem to happen at times like these, when I’m walking downtown in good weather.

 

I forget things about summertime until it comes around again, the same surprises every year. Unearned sweat from sitting still. Anthills- how do I always forget that sidewalk cracks turn into venues for these incredible miniature edifices? The way the fan at the end of my bed can make my sheet billow up and stay suspended for a few seconds like a dome  above my skin. And this summer is different, with John gone. I didn’t get to see him often, but summer was always our best bet. This summer I won’t get to reunite with him. I won’t get to hug him, get to let him look through my sketchbook, get to sop up his praise that he so easily doled out to everyone, including his little sister.

 

I pass shaded porches, some still lined with burnt-up candles and empty tallboys and cigarette butts from Saturday. It’s a staple of summer here, people chilling on their porches night and day. At night you hear the laughter, see the small red glow of a cigarette, the flash of a beer bottle in the porch light, but rarely the light of a phone. The pastime feels intact from generations past. It’s so straightforward – crack open a cold one, light a cigarette (because apparently people still smoke these days, which baffles me), and shoot the shit with a friend. I doubt even the beer can labels have changed much in 50 years. Some things outlive us.

 

The students are mostly gone, and the ones that remain are free for several months, no longer hunched over tables in the coffee shops, no longer walking in thick clumps around the Pentacrest, backpacks on, phones out. Even though most of the city is still working, it feels like a holiday. This weekend is the arts festival, and only a few blocks away from the coffee shop, the roads are blocked off and swarmed with people, strollers, art tents, food trucks, and dogs on leashes, so many dogs. After the coffee shop, this festival will be my next stop.

 

I pass the Haunted Bookshop, a two-story historic stone house full of tall shelves crammed with used books. The shelves wind into nooks, and occasionally you might find one of the two resident cats. I pass Friday’s barber shop, which is also closed, the snakelike, jumbled plant in the window pressing its spiky limbs against the glass. I pass Bluebird Café and El Banditos, which will be swarmed with brunchers in an hour.

 

John never made it down to Iowa City while I’ve lived here. I would have taken him to the best coffee spots and at night, the bars with the most knowledgeable bartenders, where he would have made quick friends and talked shop. He would have paused somewhere in the middle of our drinks, turned and looked at me, and taken a moment to appreciate everything, the fact that he was there hanging out with me. He was very good at gratitude. I’m trying to learn from that.

 

By the time I reach the coffee shop and wave to my friend, I feel the overloaded sensory thrill of traveling in a new city, though I’ve been home all along, walking a route I’ve made countless times. There’s a special, tender thing about grief that wakes me up from time to time. I am, for the moment, alive, and I know how fragile that is. I can’t be the tour guide for John, show him around my favorite spots. But sometimes I think he’s still teaching me how to look at things with new eyes.