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Down on the Farm

Iowa's attempt to lure me back only remind me why I left in the first place.

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It came in the mail about six weeks ago, disguised as a wedding invitation: cream-colored envelope, embossed lettering, expensive.

Iowa wanted me back.

I never knew it loved me. I'd felt captive in its arms for 21 years. Suddenly, a decade after leaving, I discovered Iowa was quite fond of me, and apparently anyone like me--the children of the corn. Last week the state's new governor, Thomas Vilsack, plied former Iowans with food and drinks at the Hyatt on Wacker in an elaborate ruse to entice us to return.

Things would be different, he promised. The good times we remember--the hay rides, the trips to the Tastee Freeze, the tadpole races--are all still there. But now Iowa has opportunities for growth and no one to take advantage of them. The New Iowa needs us. You could almost hear the desperation: Pretty please?

To understand the perversity of the pitch, you'd have to return to the place where our relationship had soured: Colfax, Iowa (pop. 2,500), 30 miles east of Des Moines.

Living in Colfax was like being in a pot of complacent crabs. Instead of instinctively struggling to escape, most everyone sat and stewed. Ambitions were exchanged for curling irons and drives out to the EZ Mart near I-80 with the Loverboy cranked. When these folks said high school was the best time of their lives, they meant it.

Branding is the prevailing dynamic in the rural midwest, a vestigial transference from our years in agriculture, picking out the good heifers, slapping tags on their ears, and shunting off the runts to the slaughterhouse as soon as they reach break-even weight. Iowans brand their young early. Most get stamped with the coveted "normal," but there's always a poker warmed for the intrepid "faggot" or "dirtbag" or "geek."

My mother tells me I was a curious, smart, happy little girl until my first day in grade school. There would be few new people joining my class of 65 and little hope of a simpatico seeker arriving to huddle with. Forget the John Hughes parallels--cliques were impossible by virtue of the numbers.

At a picnic table outside our farmhouse, I'd sit spinning a tin globe of the world, flitting my fingers over exotic lands. I watched the cars pass by on the interstate and knew each one was going somewhere beyond Colfax. One day I would pick a place to go too.

The New Iowa wants me to forget the past. As the state with the third oldest population, it's tired of watching its 2.9 million souls dropping like flies. The smart kids won't stick around--60 percent of Iowa's college grads flee with their sheepskins. And with unemployment running at a slight 2.3 percent, the state's economic engine is choking.

The scramble for bodies spurred politicians and the business elite to form the Iowa Human Resource Recruitment Consortium last fall. Public relations firms came on board. A Web site went up at SmartCareerMove.com. In the spirit of Field of Dreams, the legislature earmarked $300 million to build attractions like a NASCAR track in Des Moines and a rain forest education center in Cedar Rapids, figuring if they built it we would come. Governor Vilsack started putting on road shows for alumni of Iowa colleges in New York, San Diego, and Los Angeles before hitting Chicago last week.

A measured, perky panic runs through the consortium's pitch materials. The New Iowa wants me to believe it's an exciting place to live by virtue of its 377 golf courses, ample pheasant hunting spots, and top-notch entertainment like the recent stint of Phantom of the Opera at the Des Moines Civic Center. (This is where the PR pros screw up the spin.)

Placidity is Iowa's greatest asset. As Governor Vilsack says, "Should you choose to make your life and career here, you will join others who value excellent public schools, safe neighborhoods, a civil lifestyle, short commutes, and affordable living costs."

Iowa is sensible.

I decided to call my only Colfax friend, Brad Hagarty, who had arrived in junior high as a Texas transplant.

Brad joined his father's dental practice six years ago and now finds himself a civic leader at the age of 31. He and his wife, Susan, serve in school councils, church boards, and the soccer and T-ball leagues. They're active in the Kiwanis Club. "It's gratifying to be 'The Man,'" he says. "I'm able to influence a lot of people around here and see the results of what I've done."

They seem happy. Brad speaks proudly of his rehabbed four-bedroom house, with its 15,000-square-foot yard and tall trees. They bought the place for $100,000 as a starter home. Eventually they'll build their dream house on the 20 acres just south of town they picked up for $50,000. Susan chuckles at the provincial pleasures of visiting the downtown drugstore every afternoon with their three daughters. "There's always one old man or other who'll buy my girls a Cherry Coke while we're there," she says.

What about a social life?

"It's boring and it's lonely," admits Brad. No other professionals live in Colfax, he says; no one else has a postgraduate degree or even a passport. "We have to make our own fun as a family. We go out to the Golden Corral for dinner sometimes. It costs maybe $25 for the five of us."

So what's the most fun they've had recently?

"We took a canoe trip, floated down the Turkey River up in northeast Iowa," Brad says. "It's one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, I think. That was a blast."

I hung up the phone and felt a twinge of sentimentality. Iowa is rife with simple pleasures. Time for a call to another sensible Iowan, Mike Clark, a family friend, who grew up 15 miles from Colfax and remains in the greater metropolitan area of Prairie City (pop. 2,400), not far from his parents' farm.

Mike's no rural romantic; he's a businessman exploiting agriculture's turn toward mass production. His biotech company, Midwest Best Genetics, trades in a hot global commodity: pig semen. We catch up, discuss his bachelor status, and toss off possible pickup lines: "How about, 'I sell cum. Wanna come on over?'" he says laughing.

For Mike, Iowa's future is no laughing matter. "We need highly skilled, highly motivated, innovative people, no doubt about it," he says, noting his own need for savvy "stock seed" salespeople.

But he doesn't think the governor's recruitment program is the answer. "It's a joke," he says. "All the touchy-feely bullshit things won't bring people to this state. There's no reason to live here right now unless your family is here." Tax reform is the answer, according to Mike, an aspiring politician himself. Make money flow away from government and into the hands of clear-headed entrepreneurs and watch the U-Hauls pour over the border.

Cash flow hasn't been a problem for him, though, since he graduated from Iowa State in 1990. Iowa is cheap. "When I was working in Keota I only needed 7 percent of my income to cover all of my expenses," he recalls.

All of them?

"Hell, I was making 60 or 70 grand a year and my apartment cost $125 a month. I saved beaucoup bucks!" Enough to buy his current three-bedroom farmhouse on three acres for $65,000.

So, money aside, why did Mike stay?

Primarily strong family ties, he says. But the desire to give back to his community comes in a close second. "I'm going to be involved and I'm definitely going to make an impact."

Both pals hit the bruised spot found in many hayseed-gone-city-slicker hearts. We go away with the intention of making it where it counts--New York, LA, Chicago--only to find that as small fish splashing in the big pond we barely make a ripple. The romance of urbanity is plagued by impotence.

That creamy little invitation had started to work on me.

The second-guessing multiplied on my way to the Iowa Alumni and Friends of Iowa Reception. I had come to Chicago because it offered the possibility of reinvention. I would no longer be taunted as "Boy Joy" (a smirk at Boy George), the girl who liked new-wave music and black clothing. I wanted to walk these city streets and meet fascinating men by chance instead of hounding them at statewide science fairs. I wanted to haunt nightclubs tinged with danger, eat food that smoldered on my tongue, find interesting work, and make friends--the kind that would like me for myself, not because geography forced the issue. And that's what I did.

But now what? Why stay? Work remains interesting if not particularly important. Nightclubs are crowded with the uncouth, not the enigmatic. I order my books and music off the Internet, and I suppose I could do the same for my guajillo chile addiction. My friends are all either looking to ditch town or gripping tightly to their hopes of still "making it" here, nervously laughing a lot.

Maybe it's the age thing. Or maybe Chicago really has lost some of its sizzle to an amenable, dare I say, Iowa-like blandness while retaining all its expensive and corrupt horrors.

I stood in my Uptown kitchen and glanced down the alley. A man stood still, looking around suspiciously. He dropped his pants, squatted, and began laying logs. This would never happen in Iowa, I thought. But then again, this would never happen in Iowa: I could never evaluate this scene without the lessons Chicago has taught me about human degradation and survival. Was I going mad, enjoying this spectacle?

Thank goodness for C.J. Niles. She restored my clarity a couple of hours later in the Grand Ballroom of the Hyatt.

For 45 minutes 875 guests had milled about the four "Opportunity Stations" while eager employers and chamber-of-commerce types set their eyes on nametags and solicited indiscriminately. "Hi Bob! Can I tell you about the great things we're doing in Pella?" asked a sweet young thing from the community of window makers.

A jazz quintet played. The buffets stayed well stocked. At the state's coastal shindigs, guests consumed quaint Iowa products: pork loin, Maytag blue cheese, pasta. But a reverse psychology seemed to be at work here. Sushi and quesadillas were featured, subliminally suggesting, "You can eat these in Iowa too." An ice sculpture dripped the message "IOWA+."

Dissenters were scarce. Guests appeared willing to entertain the idea of Iowa. If a good-paying job exists, they'd consider it because Chicago has become, in the words of one woman, "too excessive." Excessive traffic, excessive anger, excessive spending, excessive one-upmanship, excessive noise, excessive crime, and, surprisingly, excessive choices.

As Joe Shannahan, the governor's communications director, put it: "They remember the good times, like, hey, it's pretty nice to be home in ten minutes instead of being stuck in traffic. That simplicity of life, they remember it and want it for their own families."

All this earnest logic was making me dizzy. I watched Iowa's sharp-looking first couple, Tom and Christie Vilsack, work the room with sincere comments about inclusion, diversity, and opportunities to meaningfully contribute to your community. Maybe I've got Iowa pegged all wrong, I thought. Maybe I'm bitter about my lot. Maybe I made a big mistake moving away. Oh, what have I done?

Then C.J. Niles, a recruitment consortium organizer, took the podium to start the formal presentation. An infinitely sensible-looking woman in a turquoise jacket and short haircut, C.J. began by leading us in a cheer.

"Gimme an I!"

"I," moaned a few guests.

C.J. kept at it. "You can do better than that. You're Iowans! Come on, gimme an I!"

The subsequent video montage of heartland tugs, the governor's heartfelt speech, the heartwarming free wine, none of it would override C.J.'s miscalculated pluck. Iowa and I were finished for good. It's just too damn wholesome, and I'm just not that damn sensible.

But the place has improved. If someone wants to raise a family in predictable, pleasant surroundings, I'd highly recommend the Des Moines or Iowa City areas. And give Brad and Susan a call in Colfax. They'd drive half an hour for a decent conversation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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