jamesGuest Blogger: James Lambert

James is currently working on a PhD in English at the University of Iowa. He has a wife, three kids, and very impressive wiffle-ball stats. Described by friends as “an irrepressible entertainer,” James can hold a room captive with just one mouth. Another impressive thing about James is that he used to be Rebecca’s boss. (So he claims. Rebecca says he just earned more.)

Until very recently, I had little to do with the online phenomenon of good Mormon writers, primarily women, articulating the delight and wit of their lives for a niche public. Indeed, I am impressed, and intimidated, by the four glamour shots to my left. But as I have investigated the circle of posters, commenters, and admirers of the Apron Stage and like-minded blogs, I have noticed a wide gap that needs to be filled.

The gap I am referring to is not necessarily any gap of knowledge, gender, experience—the writers here clearly acknowledge their limitations, as any good writers do, but rather spatial: a geographical gap of several thousand miles. The conversation goes from New York to Washington to Utah (and its contiguous states, usually Colorado or Arizona) and back again, skipping the space of our good country with the brightest future, at least as far as the apocalyptic doctrine is concerned, of any place in the world. I’m speaking of the Middle West.

Part of this gap might be due to the BYU pipeline, which tends to spit smart people out to Salt Lake City, California, Colorado, Arizona, New York and D.C. But that is being geographically generous: the more ambitious go to New York in order to validate their place in the world and the more political go to D.C.’s Colonial Ward in order to validate their opinion in the world (and score an equally ambitious spouse). I am generalizing, and I can smell the defenses mounting, but bear with me. I have no problem with this—it actually seems kind of cool. But what results is a version of that old cover of The New Yorker in which the map of the United States has only two places labeled, New York and Los Angeles (or, in our case, Utah), and those places happen to be disproportionately larger than the wasteland in between.

Those who do go from BYU to the Midwest are usually going to medical school, dental school, or medical residencies, and they often form close-knit communities in a single apartment complex that eerily resembles Sandy, UT, in its racial makeup and cultural isolation. Many of the medical and dental folks (and especially their socially ambitious wives) count down the days until they can leave this cultural desert that they have never opened their eyes to and return to the drier pastures of the West. Pity, because these university towns in the Midwest are just like Provo, only one trillion times better.

I am not bitter, except that I am, and should be. The Midwest is an untapped gem—it is responsible for changing me from a U.S. history- and culture-hating skeptic to devoted patriot. It has given me new hope for the productivity and cultural progressivism of traditional families. It has even allowed me to distinguish between food and not-food: food grows in Iowa, which I know because I have seen it happen. Yes, I actually have the time and inclination out here to watch food grow—on my own property.

Sure, I don’t get to post photos of taking my hip-named child to eat falafel at Central Park, but I do get a backyard. I don’t get to relate quirky stories about reading Tolstoy in the subway, but I do get to discuss Iowa football with my shirtless neighbor. I don’t get to show my curly-haired multicultural children and friends the latest Matthew Barney installation at the MOMA, but I do get to take my traditionally educated kids to get cheese curds at the local dairy. (I understand that you can have a backyard in SLC, but it requires sprinklers, which pour out the scarcest resource in the West. You can also get cheese curds in Utah if you travel down to Beaver, but are those cheese curds from an Amish community? Didn’t think so, and the Amish are three steps up the hip ladder from Beaver Mormons.)

Since I’ve lived here (3 years), I have been astounded by the vibrancy of the culture, and the prevalence of what I will call a “moral progressivism”: many Midwesterners refuse the status quo and opt for change, but ground that in a deep-seated moral conservatism and honesty. The history of the Middle West is usually hidden under small market headings, so people forget the role that Iowa (and the states surrounding it) played in the abolitionist movement and in racial and gender equality in higher education. People forget that all the good presidents come from the Midwest (just think about it for a while) and that most sane progressive movements had their genesis here. I am convinced that had William James been able (he spent most of his time sick in bed) or willing (he was an eastern intellectual—why would he go anywhere else?) to leave his confines in New England to venture out here, his book Pragmatism would have been an anthropological study of Iowans.

Besides, the two best novels of the new millennium, Gilead and Home, are set in the Midwest, and in a recent talk with Marilynne Robinson, the author, she explained that the novels are all about place: the specific place and history of the heartland. One of the themes of the books, she added, was about our culture’s refusal recognize the history and potential of the region, and the country’s subsequent decline for it.

But let me conclude with hope for bridging this geographical gap: the intelligent conversations, debates, and commonplaces that characterize the writers of The Apron Stage and other blogs like it are exactly the kind of interactions that thrive in this geographic environment (minus the coy references to being hip by being not hip and the virtues of not owning a car or tv). So before Rebecca decides to start blogging from Paris (or wherever she ends up) about the shenanigans of taking her child to crepe-making lessons, let her and all consider moving back to the O.Z. (Original Zion) before the actual commandment comes around. Don’t go to New York or D.C. or Salt Lake, let those places come here. After all, you might be surprised to find that they’ve been here all along.

Read more from James at www.ido-iwill.blogspot.com.