Monday, August 9, 2010

Massachusetts Is From Mars, Iowa Is From Pluto

I thought I would be clever and give this blog entry a title parallel to my entry a couple of months ago titled, “Massachusetts Is From Mars, California Is From Venus”. But I wasn’t sure what planet would appropriately represent Iowa. I ended up going with Pluto for two reasons: 1) the Disney character Pluto is sweet and friendly and simple and endearing, just like Iowa, and 2) poor little Pluto isn’t technically considered a planet any more, so I thought that it, like Iowa, tends to be a bit underrated and neglected despite its charm.

Before I get into the meat of my story, let me provide a little backstory. This weekend was my cousin Bill’s 20th wedding anniversary, and he and his wife George celebrated with a combination family reunion/college reunion/block party in the backyard of their home in Mason City, Iowa, inviting literally hundreds of friends and family members to join in the festivities. Now, you may think that you know nothing about Mason City, but if you’ve ever seen the movie or the musical “The Music Man”, you’re more familiar with it than you think. The fictitious River City (as in, “Oh yes we got trouble, right here in River City”) is based on Mason City, which is the hometown of the composer and writer of “The Music Man”, Meredith Willson.

And in many ways, the city hasn’t changed much since Willson’s boyhood. Sure, the cars are more modern and there are some bigger buildings than there used to be, but in the most important ways, it’s still the same. The romantic footbridge still sees its share of lovers at twilight, kids still go fishing in the creek, there’s even a sign on the occasional porch that says “Piano Given”. But best of all, mothers still feed whatever children happen to be in their yard when suppertime rolls around, kids still ride their bikes to visit friends, families pick fresh tomatoes and corn and beans and squash and kohlrabi from their gardens for dinner, people still say “good morning” to strangers they see walking down the street, families walk to church together on Sundays, there are open-air band concerts throughout the summer, and it never really occurs to anybody to lock their car doors.

So unlike our visit to California a few months ago, when I felt like a fish out of water and like everyone was staring at me as if I were a zoo exhibit, being in Iowa made me feel like I’d come home to roost amidst a city full of kindred spirits. Everywhere we went we felt welcomed. The family members, who had arrived a few days before the party, joined in to help with party preparations. The church opened its kitchen and a dozen or so of us trooped in armed with boxes of cereal and pretzels and nuts to bake into gallons of party mix in the industrial-size ovens, we had plastic shopping bags full of cucumbers and rhubarb and kohlrabi ready to be cut up on giant mandolin slicers and brined into pickles or baked into bars or just chopped into unadorned, refreshing, bite-size nibbles. Neighbors dropped by to offer extra tables and chairs, or candles, or bug spray, or an extra parking space or two in a nearby driveway, or to make a quick run to the store for anything we’d forgotten. The morning of the party we set up chairs in the middle of the lawn and began shucking hundreds of ears of sweet corn, wisps of golden threads drifting lazily on the breeze along with the laughter and happy chatter of the shuckers.

But it was probably the kids who had the best time of all. Not only was there a huge yard to run and play in, there was a tree swing tied to a branch higher than the house. If you could sweet-talk one of the adults into giving you a big enough push, you would not only sail slowly and elegantly through the air, you would go crashing back into the bushes behind the swing on the backswing. And when it wasn’t your turn on the swing, there were crawdads in the creek just waiting to be caught in a leaky paper cup, or bats and fireflies to be chased at dusk, or a train set to be assembled and driven, or chalk for drawing on the driveway, or soap bubbles to be blown and chased, or aunts and uncles and cousins to roughhouse with. During the party, there was even a wonderful band and a square dance caller to dance to! Admittedly, at a certain point in time Uncle Brad's iPad was an attraction none of the kids could resist, but on the whole no-one was wishing they were inside playing video games or surfing the internet or watching TV. There wasn’t even an iPod in sight. It was just a couple of days of unplugged, unrushed, unplanned, unscheduled, good old-fashioned fun.

And of course, the crowning glory is that it’s peaceful enough for a nap, anytime, anywhere, even when the 3:04’s comin’ through.

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