August marks my 48th anniversary as an Iowan. That’s a somewhat roundabout way of saying my birthday is fast approaching.
But, hey, this column’s called “In Iowa,” not “In Middle Age.” And, fact is, I’ve been in Iowa my whole life, with the exception of assorted trips, vacations and that time I took a wrong turn into South Dakota.
Normally, I shrug at my birthdays. Turned 30. Swell. Turned 40. Meh. Turning 48 should be even less exciting. Look, my birthday cake is like a U.S. flag, pre-Alaska and Hawaii. Huzzah.
And I know 48 is not all that “old.” Checked with my 86-year-old dad for a ruling on that. But this year, for some reason, “old” is tapping me on the shoulder. Trying to get my attention.
Within the last month I’ve written columns bidding farewell to former Gov. Robert Ray and longtime Iowa newspaper columnist Donald Kaul. These were iconic figures for a kid growing up in Iowa, and now they’re gone. History. Their faded press clippings and old photos look so dated, and yet, most fit within the brackets of my own life. I remember neckties that wide.
The moderate, measured and mellow politics of Bob Ray is long gone, trampled into oblivion by Trumpian tribalism. The widely read newspapers that carried Kaul’s fearless voice across Iowa and the nation are fighting an uphill battle to innovate and retain relevance as technology marches on. It’s enough to make a guy of a certain age, tribe-less and ink-partial, wonder where he might fit in, or if he still does.
It has been 25 years since I first walked into a newspaper office to start a full-time gig in June 1993. Back then, I was just a cub enemy of the people, covering high school sports, maybe a meeting or two. But I always dreamed of being a columnist for a daily paper.
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And it happened. Sure, my work now stands on equal Facebook footing with dispatches from Russian robots, but the dream did come true. And after all this time and tumult I’ve still got a job writing in a newspaper, in Iowa. Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are.
I’d like to stick around until I’m really old. Like, say, 50.
Sadly, if it turns out I need a new interview suit, it won’t be coming from Younkers. The proud, polished department stores where I bought my first grown-up suits and a few ties I didn’t have to borrow from my dad are closing for good. Hard to believe, Iowa without Younkers.
Or is it, as I sit, typing, in clothes I bought online?
Sears is on its way out, too. All the Saturdays I spent in Mason City’s Sears store, trying on Toughskins and Garanimals at my mom’s insistence, waiting for my dad to explore all the aisles of tools and outdoor equipment. Ah, the smell of man-made fabrics and tires. My family’s first hulking microwave, video game and home computer all came from Sears.
And on Sears’ store model computer displays, I could show off my mad coding skills.
10 PRINT “(Super funny expletives)”
20 GOTO 10.
Now, I have more computing power in my toothbrush. More access to merchandise in my pocket. And I can swear all I want on Twitter.
I’m actually OK with change. Much is necessary, some is good and all is inevitable. But with these and other melancholy passages, I’m feeling a little outdated — less like a new model and more like a hack on the discount rack. My born on date, long ago. My sell by date, as yet unknown.
I guess the good news is that Iowa isn’t exactly a quick-change state. This fall I’ll be looking at a ballot with state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, first elected in 1982, and Attorney General Tom Miller, first elected in 1978. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley still is on duty. Terry Branstad is now a global brand.
And yet, a wave of new blood certainly would be welcome under the Golden Dome of Wisdom. Please remember in November, or as soon as the voting starts.
And if you’re feeling like a relic, there’s always the State Fair, starting any minute now. It’s a 10-day celebration of Iowa relics, stuffed with enough fried food to shorten your wait for that sell by date. There will be tall corn, hulking vegetables, a giant boar, a massive crowd and a cow made of butter. You can count on it.
All I need is a cold beer, a pork chop on a stick and a bag of mini doughnuts to set me straight.
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And a golf cart ride back to the car. It’s a long walk, and I’m not getting any younger, in Iowa.
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