Humor in Iowa

(Note: This originally appeared in 2014 on the defunct Des Mean website, to which I guest contributed anonymously on occasion).

Does Iowa rank number one on Forbes’ list of “Top 10 Most Humorless States in America”?

This is the question that I pondered with the three founding members of The Des Mean Editorial Board late one night last summer at our favorite neighborhood bar in Des Moines — which I am not naming here, because we all dread the thought of the Young Professionals discovering it and yup-yup-yupping the locals away by imposing signature cocktails and trivia nights.

That conversation prompted some other conversations, and then they put on their successful business-people hats to think about whether there was money to be made through exploring (and exploiting) the original silly question in a serious fashion. It didn’t really seem to be a “goer,” as they say in the biz, so they considered a nonprofit model instead — because Iowa is definitely the Number One State in America for Half-Assed Charities, according to any number of click-bait websites and a casual look at where the big philanthropic money flows around the State.

That avenue seemed promising, since they already knew of more than a dozen hucksters in Central Iowa with cushy “Executive Director” (heh heh!) jobs at “nonprofit” (giggle!), “charitable” (snnrrk!) “cultural organizations” (haw haw haw!!) that they founded themselves, filling no discernible needs, for no apparent benefit, and raising big bucks (for themselves) in the process.

Oh, wait, we’re sorry. Did we say “hucksters”? We meant “community engagement entrepreneurs.” (Pffftt!!)

The original Des Mean folks had decided that they’d be happy to declare themselves community engagement entrepreneurs too so they could slop at that bountiful trough, too, so last fall they organized the Des Mean Foundation for Humor in Education as a 501(c)3 charitable corporation and anointed themselves as the founding Board of Directors. (Note: I didn’t join them on the board, since I thought it would conflict with my real nonprofit job, and I didn’t want to bite any hands that fed me in my real job; it’s a small state, y’know?). The trio then collected some seed tax-exempt “gifts” (pfffbbbttttt!!!!) from their friends, hired crazy Swede Konrad Yüngermann to be their roving curator and man on the ground in Iowa, and got down to the serious business of being funny, for educational purposes. Which are charitable. Seriously. No smirking this time. All straight faces.

How do they satisfy their charitable mission nearly a year on? By offering five blog posts each week on the Des Mean website (Note: now defunct), Monday to Friday, with no advertising or any other commercial interests, plus regularly populating their popular Twitter feed and then analyzing the ways in which native Iowans interact with the information they present to them. It’s a lot of work, and it takes a lot of time, but they run a tight ship, in keeping with their 501(c)3 status, and I am happy to help out in a volunteer capacity as I am able.

They pay Konrad for his work (Swedes are not charitable, despite being Socialists), but they donate our time to the charity as volunteer board members, only claiming reimbursement for such necessary business expenses as lunch interviews, road trips to look at funny stuff (one of them drives a hybrid car, so that keeps costs down, though it’s a little embarrassing in some parts of the state they visit), phone bills, late night pizza orders, transcription services for their oral history project, and other similar office incidentals.

They’ve been serious and consistent about their output, and they’ve got a higher website update rate that the lion’s share of cultural organizations hereabouts, so I think they’re doing a good job on that front. They’re also carefully and thoroughly monitoring, analyzing, and processing traffic flows, referrals, and other social media buzz-word thingies in real time as they work through our ongoing search to divine the answer to the original formative question: Are Iowa and Iowans inherently funny or humorless?

What have they learned so far?

Executive Committee Meeting.

Executive Committee Meeting.

Since the Foundation Board members are all native Iowans, and Konrad the Swede has lived here long enough to have lost his native accent and to say things like “please put my pop in the sack” to the Hy-Vee bag girls, they have concluded that they collectively embody one key variable in the analytical work: They are all Iowans, trying to be funny. Can they do it?

Their traffic logs and targeted marketing campaigns make it clear that over 90% of their readership lives in the State of Iowa, so their followers embody the other key variable as they explore our their original core hypothesis: Are Iowans capable of laughing at themselves, and their home state?

Using an adaptation of simple Mendelian Inheritance principles, they posit that there are four possible humor interfaces between their Iowa writers and their Iowa readers here:

  1. Des Mean is not funny, and Iowans are humorous enough to know that.
  2. Des Mean is not funny, but Iowans are humor impaired and think that it is.
  3. Des Mean is funny, but Iowans are humor impaired and don’t get it.
  4. Des Mean is funny, and Iowans are humorous enough to laugh along.

They are desperately hoping that Scenario Number Four is the one that will be sustained by their research, but they will probably need a few big federal grants and a some more humor writers and a lot more late night pizza parties at Young Professional-free bars before they can state that confidently.

Let them know what you’re thinking. Let them know what you’re laughing at.

Most of all: let them know if Iowa and Iowans are funny.

Iowa Rhymes Some More: Poet’s Corner 3

“Paul Santomney Wins!”

Atop the Show Me State,
beneath 10,000 Lakes,
sits Iowa: The Capitol
of Caucus Count Mistakes.

“Bachmann’s Folly”

If pointless and absurd
engagement is your goal,
then please accept this invite
to the Iowa Straw Poll.

“Her Scenic View”

We climbed the Loess Hills.
We hiked the Driftless Zone.
But anything between those points,
she makes me walk alone.

“Breezy, With A Chance of Showers”

The wind blows from the west,
and leaves us to the east.
And for as long as we recall
it’s never, ever ceased.

2016 Iowa State Fair Improvements

The State Fair is the largest gathering of human beings in Iowa each year (though we’re still out-numbered seven to one by the hogs), and it truly is one of those “you have to see it to believe it” types of experiences. That being said, you can always make a good thing better, so The State Fair Trust will be rolling out the following improvements to make the 2016 edition the biggest and the bestest and the Iowa-est-est edition ever:

  • Open Carry Night: first 10,000 admissions packing visible heat receive commemorative shoulder holsters, available in either Hawkeye or Cyclone colors.
  • Caucus Candidate Octagon Death Matches will be staged in the new Joni Ernst Castratorium.
  • Pole dancing is officially qualified for its own “Varied Industry” booth.
  • An animatronic Terry Branstad will greet visitors at the Iowa Craft Beer Tent.
  • The Sheep Barn will be replaced with the Rhino Barn.
  • The Des Moines Register’s Tattoo Pavilion will provide free tramp stamps with each validated Fairgrounds parking ticket; no henna here, but real, permanent ink!
  • Cannibal Corpse and Insane Clown Posse will headline at the Grandstand for East Side Night.
  • All food booths will offer cheese-wrapped, bacon-filled, batter-dipped, deep-fried Cavatelli de Burgo. On a stick.
  • There will be Big Boar rides at the Kid’s Activity Center.
  • A Lion’s Den Adult Entertainment Pavilion will be located adjacent to the Campgrounds.
  • The Sky Glider has been turned into a thrill ride by increasing its speed ten-fold and requiring running mounts and dismounts.
  • The Butter Cow has been replaced with an anatomically correct Butter Bull.
East Side Night in the Grandstand.

East Side Night in the Grandstand.

Why Iowa First?

As the Nation gears up for its globally-admired quadrennial Presidential election process, the spotlight has turned toward Iowa and its inordinately influential “first out of the gate” Presidential Caucus. Of course, haters gotta hate, so there’s plenty of pundits out there at the Crazy Town Press and Courier (or similar rags) who will deny Iowa’s God-given right to bestow its potent blessings upon the most worthy of the competing candidates. Just in case you find yourself locked in an elevator with an Iowaphobe who fails to see the glorious logic and sensibility of this system, I offer the following ten inarguable answers to the question: “Why Iowa First?”

  1. Because Iowa Looks Like America if you watch FOX News.
  2. Because the weather would just be too hot and sticky in Alabama that day.
  3. Because an “uncommitted” result in 1976 so presciently launched Jimmy Carter toward a spot on Mount Rushmore.
  4. It’s the best way to fast track President Joni Ernst’s election, an important Biblical precursor to the Rapture.
  5. Because Iowans are the only people in America willing to stand in line to listen to Rick Santorum.
  6. Because Iowans guard the nation’s Strategic Bacon Reserve from invasion by hostile foreign powers, and should be rewarded for vigilance.
  7. Because it’s important for the President to be able to put a face on all of the Federal subsidies that Iowa collects.
  8. Because Iowans have clearly demonstrated superior political acuity and discernment each of the six times that they have elected Terry Branstad to be their governor.
  9. Because America needs another Bush or Clinton presidency, and Iowans are pretty okay, sort of, at picking those.
  10. Because it would be hard and expensive to re-create another State-wide mass delusion of superior political intelligence like Iowa has.

Violent Childrens’ Games

You know what I remember most about being a kid? I remember that we were all hard. Not hard as in mean, or in cheap, but hard as in tough. And it wasn’t work or school or chores or church or sports that made us that way. Nope, we got most of our hardness on the playground, when the grownups weren’t looking. Or when they were smoking and chitchatting, and just wanting us to leave them alone, anyway.

For example: all the boys in my town played this game called “Smear the Queer” for hours every day after our school. (Yeah, I know the name was bad and you couldn’t call it that today, but that’s what we called it then, and that’s what I’m telling you about now). Anyway, we would all gather in a field — big kids, little ones, fat kids and skinny ones, some tough girls sometimes, too — and someone would just toss a ball in the air and then the game was on! Whoever ended up catching it would run and dodge and weave to escape from the others, until someone caught them, and then they got jumped on and all beat up by everyone else. Then they threw the ball up in the air and it started again. That was it. That was the game.

If we weren’t playing Smear the Queer, then we were playing “King of the Mountain,” where the only rule was to get on top of whatever pile of dirt you had handy, and stay there. No other rules than that. We were playing King of the Mountain one time, and this kid was on top and another kid hit him in the face with a stick and broke both his front teeth. He got them fixed, but they were always a different color than his other teeth. It was a reminder of how serious a game of King of the Mountain could be, and to this day, when he looks at those different color teeth, I know he thinks “That was the day I became a man!” Well, an eight-year old man, anyway.

Another fun game we liked was called “Chicken Fighting,” where two kids would square off at opposite ends of any pole or branch or monkey bar they could find at the right height and advance hand over hand until meeting in the middle. Then they would kick each other until one would let go and fall to the ground. The higher the bar or branch, the worse the cost of losing, and the harder you hung on and kicked. If you got hurt, you didn’t run crying home to tell your Mom to call a lawyer to sue the other kid’s parents, you just sucked it up it and walked it off, and you never let anybody see you cry. That was hard. We were tough.

Kids today though? They’re not tough. They just wiggle a little plastic do-jobber around in front of a television screen and eat potato chips and call that “playing.” That’s not playing! Playing involves noise, and dirt, and sweat, and sometimes blood. Playing is everything you can’t do inside, and it’s the main reason you want to be outside in the first place.

Our moms understood that point, and they had stories they wanted to watch on the television, so most days after school, we just got tossed out of the house with nothing more than a cracked old plastic football that we found at the dump, and that was all we needed to get some real exercise, with fresh air and everything. We would use our imaginations and get tougher and tougher each day by having crab apple fights with slingshots, or sword fights with sticks, or rock fights where you were supposed to aim close to rather than right at the other kids, but it didn’t always work out that way.

We used to make clay balls out of the muck down by the creek and throw those at each other, too. When they hit you, they’d flatten like a pancake on your chest or back. Hidden rocks would cut the heck out of you. We also shot bottle rockets at each other and used BB guns with a two pump limit, unless your target was “out of range,” which was a very blurry distinction. I can also recall using weeping willow branches as whips sometimes. That was a fun one!

Oh, then there was the Creek War! That was fun, too! There was this creek just outside of town, groves of trees on each side. One group of kids had one side, one group of kids had the other side, and for about two years after school, we all fought it out down there. Rocks, sticks, BB guns, boards, bricks, they were all fair game. Forts got built up on each side of the creek, and then forts got torn down on each side of the creek. Why, there were some particularly useful pieces of cement and plywood for building stuff that must have crossed that creek 100 times over the years, at least.

The Creek War petered out after sixth grade, I guess, when some of us started getting bused to middle school across the county, and some of us started doing after-school stuff like football or marching band instead. By eighth grade, though, most of us were back at the creek most nights before dinner time smoking cigarettes we’d stolen from our parents and talking about girls. We just didn’t beat up on each other as much by then, I guess.

Speaking of smoking, we were always burning things up. My first ever brush with the law was when a friend and I almost burned down our town’s general store. We used a magnifying glass to torch a pile of leaves that had blown up into a corner of the building, without making sure that our smoldering handiwork was properly extinguished before leaving the scene. That was probably the hardest whipping my father ever gave me, since our fool move could have cost us the only source of supplies there was within ten miles of town. We made sure we put our fires out after that one. But we didn’t stop lighting them.

So that’s what I can remember about the games of my childhood. It was rough. The blood covenants of the playground were built on scraped knees, busted lips, burnt fingers, and black eyes. We were able to take a BB in the chest or a stick to the mouth or a rock to the kidney, and then to get right back up and give the other guy a full dose of what-for in return.

And we grew up to make a difference in the world, by gosh, one busted lip at a time.

Iowa Infrastructure Initiatives

Iowa’s legislators are back at work after a refreshing seven-month break from their elected duties, which most of them spent fundraising so they could get elected again in time for next year’s seven-month sabbatical.

One of the legislature’s most pressing annual duties is figuring out how to quickly distribute the tens of billions of dollars worth of Federal subsidies that will quietly flow into the State this year, as they did last year, and as they will next year.

A large portion will typically be doled out to farmers to grow certain crops, while another portion will be doled out to other farmers to not grow certain other crops.

But the best way to tie up the big bucks is to allocate them to massive infrastructure projects that stimulate the economy by generating jobs for campaign contributors, who then underwrite advertising in which our elected officials complain about Washington subsidies to fire up their voter bases.

It’s the Political Circle of Life, writ large. Hakuna Matata!

Here are eight Iowa infrastructure initiatives we can expect to see pulled from this year’s barrel of pork tenderloins:

quadcollider1. The Lamoni Skywalk: Will connect the Iowa Visitors Center at Exit 4 on I-35 to Maid Rite, Kum n’ Go, and the Super 8 Motel. Future appropriations will be earmarked for expansion to Quilt Country and Hardee’s.

2. Grease Trap Pipeline XL: A vast network of plumbing designed to capture all the grease from the State’s fried tenderloin industry and funnel it to Keokuk, where it will be loaded onto container ships, ferried to the Gulf of Mexico, and dumped at sea — thereby assuring that it cannot be recycled to undermine the State’s corn oil production quotas.

3. The Great Wall of Clive: A 10-foot high barricade will be erected around Clive City Limits to clearly identify — for the first time in State history — exactly where the city is located. Future appropriations will be earmarked to build a similar containment around Waukee.

4. The Cedar Rapids El: A raised roadway system that will ensure soy, hog and corn truckers have unimpeded access from Waterloo and points north to the Iowa 80 Truck Stop whenever Cedar Rapids is underwater.

5. The Burj Fort Dodge: A 635-foot office and residential tower in Webster County that will become Iowa’s tallest building. The Arabic name honors the strong cultural ties between Fort Dodge and Al-Shuwaib, its sister city in the United Arab Emirates. Future appropriations will be earmarked to house the Terry Brandstad Gubernatorial Library and Mausoleum in the tower. The Governor for Life will be embalmed after his passing and will lie in public display on the highest floor for 1,000 years.

6. Tinywood: A vast, Branson-style family entertainment complex designed to celebrate the life of Tiny Tim, who lived in Iowa for five years — making him a local son per the same statutes that allow John Wayne, Mamie Eisenhower, Johnny Carson, and countless others to be honored as Great Temporary Iowans.

7. Loess Hills Slope Easement: An important civil engineering project running from Sioux City to Council Bluffs that will bulldoze the steep, sandy hills on the State’s western border, thereby eliminating early inconveniences faced by RAGBRAI riders. Future appropriations will be earmarked for the Black Squirrel Golf and Recreation Complex, honoring the memory of the unique rodents that will unfortunately have to be exterminated as part of this project.

8. Quad Cities Super Collider: A massive proton smasher will be erected alongside I-80 and I-280 around the Quad Cities, taking advantage of gravitational pull exerted by the high speed traffic that already circles that route, never stopping within it.