The Ukrainian and I Go to Iowa!

I come from a large family of sportsmen. Almost every single man in my family has been one or more of the following:  hunter, airplane pilot, football player, track star, champion skeet shooter, world traveler, safari-man, fishermen and on and on and on. They also build their own garages and furniture, run their own businesses, butcher their own deer, tell their own tall tales, save damsels in distress — their own and otherwise — and, well… you get the picture.

So I don’t know why I was nervous about taking the Ukrainian to Iowa. All I needed to do was drop him off with the men in my family and he’d be kept busy.

Bow and Arrow Target Practice

First, my dad decided to teach him how to shoot a bow-and-arrow (my brother in Texas owns a bow shop):

My dad effortlesslessly hits the target. Now it’s time for a little instruction from the father-in-law to his new son-in-law. Shooting a bow and arrow is much harder than it looks. The Ukrainian needed some advice from my dad (and a little practice) to get the hang of it. But the Ukrainian didn’t do so badly for an urban financial analyst.

Dinnertime Pork and Astronomy

After target practice, there was some free time before dinner (which would consist of fried pork tenderloins that I would not eat, being a vegetarian and all) So, it was time for astronomy. My dad had recently won a telescope from Cabela’s, but knows nothing about astronomy. So this time, it was the Ukrainian’s time to shine. While the Ukrainian set up the telescope, I explained to my family the Ukrainian loves astronomy (and me) so much, he once named a star after me and then took me to the planetarium in Los Angeles to show it to me.

The Ukrainian begins his telescope assembly before a dinner of fried pork tenderloins (sorry, no picture of the fried pork tenderloins. I am a vegetarian. The Ukrainian completes his telescope assembly after the dinner of fried pork tenderloins ( The Ukrainian last year in August at the Griffith Observatory in L.A. showing me the telescope he will use to try to find the star he named for me.

Saturday County Fair

The next day, Saturday, was the day of our Iowa Wedding Reception — the whole reason for coming to Iowa in the first place. My parents wanted their friends to meet their new son-in-law. But the party wasn’t to be held until late afternoon. So the Ukrainian and I had some time to kill. Where did we go but to the Warren County Fair? — site of all the animals being showed off by farmers and their children in hopes that their livestock would be fat enough to go to the Iowa State Fair in August. (I have no idea if the losing animals were slaughtered any earlier than the winning ones — but I presumed that all would be dead by October.)

We started off with the cows:

The girl is in 4-H. An afterschool club for children who want to grow up and be farmers. Her dad helped her raise this cow organically (talk about father-daughter bonding). Believe it or not, this is the closest I have ever been to a cow despite almost 17 years of living in Iowa growing up. This boy is sleeping with his bucket cow. A bucket cow is a baby cow who has been abandoned by its mother (whether by the mother’s death or pure rejection). The boy has been looking after this cow as it grows up. When it’s done growing, the boy will kill it for food. As the boy’s father told me. “Yes, we love animals. But in 2 ways. One is to take care of them. The other is to eat them.” Humane, no?

We then moved on to the pigs. I once read a statistic that there are 8 pigs in Iowa for every 1 person. I wondered if this was before or after a slaughter. But I have since learned that a pig can start having its own babies at around 6 months old and can have 3 litters per year. So I imagine the pork population of Iowa stays somewhat consistent.

The pigs are cute, no? And very intelligent.  I’m not sure if they are loving or not, but they have very distinct personality. On Tuesday, Nicholas D. Kristof, himself a former farmboy, wrote an Op-Ed on Animal Rights in the New York Times. I invite you to check it out here: A Farm Boy Reflects

And for fun, just in case you think it’s ok to eat pigs, but not dogs or horses, then you should see this video of pigs racing and diving. You will see that a pig is just as intelligent.

The party and the after-party

The party was a traditional midwestern affair — albeit with a vegetarian twist. But the food consisted of a cheese tray, crackers, various dips and chips, cake, wedding mints, etc. We had some very nice California wine that my dad had brought home from the tour of Sonoma he took while in San Francisco for the wedding — but there was also the typical Bud Light, “pop”, and lemonade (not drunk *together! Silly!) . Everyone sat out back from the house (the food was kept inside to keep it away from the flies) and everyone sat around and talked hunting, fishing, the good ol’ days, babies, weddings, etc. Not a single person talked about the housing market or work or Burning Man as would be the case in San Francisco.

But the after-party, now that was something else. My dad decided that day to give my brother-in-law an antique hunting rifle that had belonged to my mother’s father (neither of my blood brothers are interested in guns). So we spent 3 1/2 hours sitting around the dining room talking about guns and trying to find out what exact year and make the gun being gifted was. While this doesn’t sound that exciting to non-sportsman (and it’s not really, but sometimes it’s nice to sit around and listen to the sound of your own family’s voices), it was no different than the long parties I went to in the Netherlands when people would spend hours sitting around talking about such exciting subjects as to whether the Albert Heijn (the Dutch grocery store chain) was next to the post office or next to the school. I don’t remember a whole lot of conversations about art and other urban interests except for my one friend who she and her boyfriend were both artists.

My brother-in-law examines the antique rifle as the Ukrainian looks on. Note:  The Ukrainian has never shot a gun in his life and never intends to. The gun has been in my family for generations. My Dad decided to give it to my brother-in-law while we were visiting Iowa. I don’t think it’s useable anymore.

Weekend finale: Baby Shower, airplanes, and the Ukrainian masters the bow

On Sunday, the sexes in the family separated as my sister’s friends hosted her baby shower. It was held at the local United Methodist Church. The party fare was very similar to that of Saturday night’s party (dip, cheese, crackers, cake, etc), but there was also meat. A lot of babies were crawling/running around and I learned why mothers do not wear expensive silk designer dresses in the presence of children. My Elie Tahari red silk dress will never be quite the same after I chased after my 14 month old nephew for 2 hours — but I think it’s still wearable.

The Ukrainian spent the day with my dad. They went up to a sportsman shop near Ankeny to look at more bows. My dad bought the Ukrainian a new shirt. I complained it was too big. All very typical. Then Sunday night, the Ukrainian and I went over to my sister’s house to see how she and my brother-in-law were doing on fixing up the nursery for the expected baby. While there, the Ukrainian checked out the planes that belong to my brother-in-law’s father who is in the crop-spraying business. By Monday, it was time to return to San Francisco. The Ukrainian took a few last shots with the bow and hit the target. His form had significantly improved over the weekend. Unfortunately, such skills won’t come in handy much in San Francisco. 😦

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The road to nowhere

I left rural Iowa at 18 — never intending to go back. For the most part I haven’t. Even at my worst, down, out, unemployed broke self, I used Iowa only as a staging ground. A place to store my bags while I booked tickets to either coast, looking for that place where I could most be myself. While the leaving was easy, the staying away has been hard. I miss my family. I miss reliable people. I fear waking one day and realizing that my parents are gone and I missed out on so many years of having them in my life.

And sometimes…I simply miss me. I miss the genuine midwestern friendliness I had. The curiosity. The excitement at being in a new place — even if that place was hell. I miss trusting other people — but I have since learned that you can only trust others if you trust yourself. I admire the people I know who have left similar spots and have held onto that integral core of goodness. For I have not.

These thoughts are not from nowhere. On May 10th, in celebration of the Ukrainian’s birthday, we rented a car, loaded it up with the dogs, and headed for a daytrip to Lake Tahoe. For the most part, the day was full of great fun and I will post the pics in a future post. But towards the end of the day, as we were trying to complete our sunset drive around the entirety of Lake Tahoe, we took a wrong turn and eventually found ourselves in Carson City — the state capital of Nevada.

I have driven across the U.S. a couple of times now. I’ve visited Latin America, Asia and have lived in Europe and other parts of the States. And while there are certainly worse places to live (a garbage dump in S. America comes to mind), I’ve yet to encounter a place more wretched than Nevada (and here, by writing this, I realize I will never, ever be able to run for politics. I’m ok with that). Once you get away from the casinos and shopping malls of Reno and Las Vegas, there is very little left in Nevada other than some federal prisons and a few nuclear test sites.

“I can’t wait to tell my mother we’ve been to Nevada,” exclaimed the Ukrainian jumping up and down in his seat as we drove.

“I don’t really think that Nevada is the most exciting place to write home about,” replied my jaded, bored no-longer-from-the-midwest self. Where is my sunset over Lake Tahoe, I wondered.

“Oh, but it is. It’s the site of the U.S. nuclear experiments during the Cold War. I grew up hearing about this place.”

And there you have it folks, the matter of perspective that makes cross-cultural marriages so refreshing (if challenging at times). What was a minor mention in some history class of mine at some point in my education — “Yeah, the U.S. performed nuclear tests somewhere. Nevada. And some atoll in the S. Pacific” — was the stuff of legend in my Ukrainian’s Soviet education. I’m sure my Ukrainian and his Soviet classmates got a map with the exact location of each test performed while midwestern schoolchildren got “Nevada. It’s out west. Nobody lives there — well, except some Elvis impersonators who will marry those rich, immoral, and impatient enough to forgo God, a blood test, and a 3 day waiting period”.

But outside of Las Vegas (and possibly Reno) there aren’t any Elvis impersonators. There isn’t really much of anybody really — as my history class proclaimed. And for the people who are there — how and why did they end up there? You can’t really set up a farm in Nevada. I suppose the Federal penitentiaries provide some employment, but who says “Hey Ma! Let’s pack up the family and move to Nevada. I am going to work security detail at a a federal prison!” (Hmmm…maybe they do actually).

Regardless, the people I have encountered in rural Nevada bear the face and carriage of ones who struggle to eke out a basic living. Their faces seem prematurely old — their skin tough as are their souls. The toughness frightens me. And each time I’ve pulled over at a gas station in Nevada, it has always been with the attitude of get in, fill up, and get out. Most of the people are probably quite nice, but they are much tougher than me. And I don’t want trouble.

But not my Ukrainian. He is so kind-hearted, so un-jaded, that he doesn’t see or chooses to ignore what I view to be the imminent dangers in the world. As we head out of the northern outskirts of Carson City, we realize that we may have missed the road back to California. Not one to be afraid of asking for directions, the Ukrainian does a u-turn and pulls over at a 7-11.

Great! I think. We’ll get pointed back to Interstate 80 and soon be on our way to San Francisco.

Great! the Ukrainian thinks. I’ll get some directions…some food…some Red Bull…stretch my legs…use the toilet…relax a bit. And then we’ll go back home.

While the Ukrainian is enjoying our time in Carson City, Nevada and I’m sitting inside the car with the doors locked fearing for my life and virtue, one of the tough local Nevadans approaches my Ukrainian.

“Are you the one who scratched my car?” the local asks. He is young man in his early 20s, looking like someone who is used to looking for trouble. He is accompanied by 2 young women, and driving a silver sports car with doors that open up rather than out. It’s not a Lamborghini.

My Ukrainian smiles. “No man. We are just sitting here having a rest and some dinner.”

The man and my Ukrainian exchange some more words. The man is trying to raise a ruckus. He wants to blame someone, anyone, for the scratch on his car. But my Ukrainian is oblivious. He keeps talking, smiling, laughing in the most kind-hearted, genteel away. As much as the Nevadan tries to find fault with my Ukrainian, he can’t. My Ukrainian has simply put him too much at ease. They exchange a few friendly last words, shake hands, and the Nevadan departs.

I am relieved, of course. My fear of finding trouble in Nevada has been ameliorated — for now. But more than that, I am jealous. I long for that innocent, good-heartedness that most people find hard to resist. I once had it — back when I was fresh from Iowa and not yet jaded with the world.

I do know that we look for in our lovers what we are missing in ourselves. And I’m glad that my Ukrainian possesses the good that I miss from what used to be me.