Keep Iowa Weird
Growing up, the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” was plastered everywhere – bumper stickers, signs, the back of tie-dye t-shirts. I lived in the “blue dot in a very red state” for eighteen years before deciding to come to the Midwest, Iowa specifically, for college. Despite Austin’s reputation and unique qualities, I never really thought any of it was out of the ordinary. After all, I was used to it. It felt normal. Life in the Midwest, however, is another story.
Let’s start with the weather. Seasons here are majestic compared to back home in Austin. Leaves turn red instead of brown, and they fall from the trees around you like confetti. When the temperature gets cold enough, rain turns to snow and I can hardly pay attention in class because I’m too busy looking out the windows, mesmerized. It’s like living in a snow globe. Snowflakes made of tufts of feathers float around in the wind, and my gang of Texas friends and I run around outside gleefully, earning strange looks from those native to the North.
To say that I wasn’t prepared for the weather is an understatement. I knew it was going to be cold, much colder than the winters I was used to, but I wasn’t mentally ready for snow in October, that’s for sure. I feel five years old again, learning how to dress myself in layers, heavy coats, scarves, hats, gloves, and vests. I’ve still yet to figure out how much I need to wear in order to stay warm while I speed-walk to class as quickly as my short legs will carry me. There are days when fifty degrees feels positively balmy, and other times when I want to walk around bundled up like Randy from A Christmas Story. About half of my closet should be boots – rain boots, snow boots, cute boots, tall boots, and short boots as opposed to the uniform of tennis shoes and sandals I used to keep tucked away in my closet back home.
Regardless of the weather, or apparently, the state, there’s still an unspoken pact between boys to go out in thirty-degree weather wearing shorts. This happened all the time back home — you’d spend so little time in the cold that guys never thought it was worth breaking out their pants for warmth. I’m fairly certain that some of the boys who wore shorts in that cold of weather in Texas didn’t even own a pair of pants because it’s practically summer all year round. Despite the differences in the seasons in the Midwest, I can be shivering my way to class, coat pulled tightly around me, breath huffing out in frosty clouds like a dragon, fogging up my glasses and still there will be people, namely guys, waltzing around campus dressed for a hundred-degree day at the beach. If I attempted anything like that, I’d be frostbitten within seconds.
Efficient heating has been a truly revolutionary thing that I’ve come to find in the Midwest. Back home, the temperature rarely seemed to warrant any type of heat, and our fireplace spent most winters vacant. In addition, my dad is a firm believer in saving electricity by not using the heater or air conditioning, so I’ve grown accustomed to sleeping under multiple blankets in the winter to keep warm or with the fan on in the summer. I’ve recently discovered the Midwest has steam-powered heating systems for buildings, something that is completely mind-blowing to me because it actually seems to generate heat. I have found one drawback to this heating system, however. At the beginning of the semester, my room was always a little too chilly for my liking and turning up the thermostat did very little because the heating had yet to be turned on. Now that the temperature outside is lower and the heat is on, my room is now perpetually warm at night. I can’t sleep under my comforter most nights because it’s too hot, something that is strange getting used to considering the temperature outside of the building. I also have four extra blankets in my room, two of which my aunt gave me for the weekend when the heat would be turned off in the dorms (again, it was perfectly warm and cozy despite that), and I’ve still yet to actually use them because of how toasty our room is 24/7. Coming from Texas, I’d rather be hot than cold, but it’s definitely a challenge that I wasn’t prepared for.
While the temperature both inside and outside has taken some adjustment, the people who live in the Midwest are just as perplexing as the thought of actually having four seasons every year. I thought that being from Texas, people would point out if I ever uttered “y’all”, or comment on my lack of a deep, Southern accent. However, I’ve come to find that people here have more of an accent than I ever could have picked up back home. My mom, born and raised in Nebraska, was always quick to notice anytime I drew out a word with the slightest southern twang to the point that I can’t even attempt a decent sultry Southern accent. The Midwest, on the other hand, is home to people who say “ope, sorry” and “beg” instead of “bag”. When I was younger and we’d come up to Iowa to visit my cousins, my mom always warned us not to say “y’all” because she said our they would laugh at us for being so Texan. For that reason, and my mom’s general disapproval of the word itself, “y’all” never found itself in my normal vocabulary. Upon coming to the Midwest, I’ve met several people from up here who say “y’all” more than I do, a tidbit that in hindsight is pretty humorous.
Almost as entertaining as Midwestern accents is the idea of Beggar’s Night, which is pretty much just a knock-off Halloween, and for some reason, they seem to celebrate both. It’s essentially trick-or-treating, although it takes place on October 30th instead of the 31st. My roommate, who’s also from Texas, had it explained to her by a Des Moines native, who argued that it was very different from Halloween Trick-or-Treating. On Halloween, kids dress up in costumes and walk around their neighborhoods, knocking on doors and saying, “trick or treat” in exchange for candy. Beggar’s Night, in contrast, occurs the day before Halloween, and consists of kids dressing up in costumes, walking around their neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and saying, “trick or treat” in exchange for candy. No similarities there. The only real difference between the two spooky nights is that on Beggar’s Night, it’s a tradition to tell the people who give you candy a joke, which sounds like fun until you really think about it. As much as I’d love to open my door to some little kids dressed up as princes, princesses, superheroes, and whatnot and have them tell me jokes, it doesn’t sound as entertaining in practice. I love dad jokes as much as the next person, but to be told jokes every few minutes, likely the same ones over and over again, would be pretty tiring, not to mention you’d have to burst out laughing and pretend that it was the most hilarious thing you’d ever heard in order to make the kids happy.
People here also have the strangest fascination with corn. There’s corn everywhere, and after that corn is harvested, the stalks are made into a corn maze, which people then wander aimlessly through. People play a game called cornhole, which I’ve only played up here, and the University of Nebraska’s team is the Cornhuskers. My uncle even owns a giant corn-shaped hat. Color me confused. I’m a fan of corn, don’t get me wrong, but I still have no clue what’s so special about Iowa corn other than the fact that once you get out of the city, that’s about all you can see.
Like Texans, Iowans definitely have a lot of pride in their state but about the most obscure things. Here, they’re proud of having more pigs than people, of their corn, and of their weird obsession with Ranch dressing. I haven’t really seen the latter in action, but if it’s on a Ray Gun shirt, it must be true. In Texas, students have to take a Texas history class where they learn all about the Native Americans who used to live on the lands, the Spanish missions, and the six flags that flew over the second largest state in the U.S. It hadn’t really struck me that other states didn’t have as comprehensive an education about Texas until I almost burst out in class to correct my professor when he said that Texas was “seized by the United States” along with California, New Mexico, and the rest of the land that the United States acquired from Mexico. Let me set the record straight once and for all – Texas was not seized. We were our own country, thank you very much, until we decided to join the United States, and my fourth and seventh grade Texas History teachers would be very disappointed in me if I didn’t remember that fact.
The change that I’ve come to love the most about Des Moines in particular is the traffic. In Austin, it would take me at least half an hour to drive downtown on the freeway in stop-and-go traffic. All four or five lanes would be full of cars looking to speed up, pass, merge on, or exit. It’s like a labyrinth learning how to navigate through not just the narrow, one-way streets of downtown Austin, but also the car crash prone roads on the way there. Traffic in Austin is only getting worse, and the commute from my house to downtown is slowly stretching into a forty-five minute drive. The idea of traffic in Des Moines is laughable compared to what I’m used to. The term’s meaning has morphed into being stuck at a stoplight behind a relatively short line of cars. It’s become cars on the freeway with ample space between to change lanes. So yes, I love Des Moines traffic.
Even my habit of binge-watching YouTube videos isn’t untouched by my change in residency. Now, the app pulls up presidential ads, one after another, bombarding me with election promises and calls to action. I could probably recite Tom Steyer’s environmental ad by heart if I wanted to. As far as Austin goes, we’re pretty removed from federal politics. The liberals in town vote for the democratic candidates, and then watch their votes get washed away by the sea of red that encompasses the rest of the state. Iowa, and Des Moines especially, plays an active part in United States politics, which I heard about numerous times on my visits to campus, but never really took to heart until I returned from a club soccer game and two of my friends had taken a selfie with Elizabeth Warren. The inundation of campaign ads aside, you can go to Steak Fries and rallies and be just feet away from people who could potentially be the next President of the United States. My brother has even told me what I need to say on his behalf if I ever meet Bernie Sanders. While my friends attending UT are posting videos of Matthew McConaughey, David Dobrik, or Jimmy Fallon, who visited campus this past week, I’m standing face to face with the people who could be running our country in a little over a year.
Austin, Texas has always been considered to be the epicenter of weird, but I propose that every city has its own unique quirks that separate it from life anywhere else in the world. Even the Hawkeye State (and I have yet to figure out what that really is) has its own traits that no other state can lay claim to. After living here for three months, I can proudly attest to the fact that life in Iowa is weird, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.