Brains, Brawn & Beauty

Commentary: February 2010
By Yale Cohn

When I first moved to Iowa City I would get knocked off kilter when attractive women I didn’t know would smile and nod at me when we’d pass each other by on the sidewalk or in an aisle at the grocery store or the public library.

This was a lot different from the “make no eye contact, keep your purse clenched under your arm like a football, keys in your hand ready to strike at the eyes” posture I was accustomed to seeing women adopt when I lived in Chicago. I’ve seen women in Iowa City walking down the street with with actual footballs clenched under their arm but they never looked like they were about to straight-arm me. I’ve also seen them clenching stacks of books and cases of beer and sometimes even bags of compost they were taking to their garden someplace–but always with good humor. From time to time they’ve even clenched my heart too, and however long they’ve held it for, I’ve always been better off for it.

Okay, perhaps the women back in Chicago they weren’t all quite so ready to attack but they certainly weren’t in the habit of smiling at strangers on the street. Maybe they would if they had a clipboard in their hands and were asking if you “had a few minutes for the environment” or whatever cause du jour they were shilling for that week, or if it were the kind of neighborhood that was in the news a lot for women being very friendly to strangers and were often arrested for it as a result.

The first dozen or so times this happened to me I actually turned around to look over my shoulder to see who it was they were smiling at.

When I saw no one there behind me and I realized that I was the intended recipient of their smile I’d respond with pointless, half-hearted waves to their backs that they never saw and a lot of them might have mistaken me for being shy.

I was simply not accustomed to strangers acknowledging each other on the street without some scheme being involved.

Though such friendliness is often referred to as being a “Midwestern” phenomenon, Chicago–where I’m from–is a part of the Midwest, and I certainly never experienced anything like this there.

There’s probably some dry sociological reason that explains this difference, but I just like to think that it’s because the women in Iowa City are uniquely wonderful.

They’re untainted by the cynicism and world-weariness and leeriness of strangers that women from bigger cities seem to have, which so often turns the act of getting to know someone well enough just to ask for their number into something only slightly less dangerous than a high-wire unicycle act performed above a mine field.

I moved to Iowa City to be with one amazing woman and stuck around to be with a second amazing one when the first relationship didn’t work out. The second relationship didn’t work out either, ultimately, but I have no regrets about either and I’m going to stick around for a while because there’s no place else in the world I’d rather keep trying to get it right.

A friend of mine who spent some time in the Army called our town a “target-rich environment” when he came for a visit once, and, numbers-wise, I suppose he was right.

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But it’s not the fresh batch of young co-eds spit out of a hopper someplace who arrive here each fall and turn the town into that Star Trek episode where they visit the planet of blond girls who all wear too big sunglasses and too tight black tights that appeals to me.

Sure, because of The University of Iowa, there are more drop-dead gorgeous women here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived–more than enough distracting eye candy to guarantee a legion of auto-body shops a brisk business all year round.

But whatever passing thrill that the mere sight of them may provide you with will ultimately be a fleeting one.

The best part about growing old with someone is the time you get to spend together while you’re doing it. The person who first caught your eye in short-shorts on the pedmall or shirtless while playing Ultimate Frisbee at age 20 would probably cause you to burst out laughing if you saw them wearing the same outfit 30 or 40 or 50 years later.

But that’s okay, because if you’re still together 50 years later I think you’ve probably impressed each other plenty enough already.

No, it’s not the quantity of women here or their beauty or youth that makes Iowa City such a wonderful place to live–it’s the quality.

All the women I’ve known in Iowa possess a certain kindness, practicality and intelligence I’ve never encountered anywhere else. They laugh out loud unabashedly. They’ll not only watch football with you without prodding, they’ll follow the game and understand what’s happening on the field and offer color commentary better than what’s on TV. Not only will they not balk at the idea of eating biscuits and gravy, they’ll make it for you. To me, these are uniquely Iowa traits.

Perhaps these qualities can be found in women from big cities. Maybe they’ve even existed in women from big cities I’ve dated. If so, I was either dating the wrong women or I didn’t date the right ones long enough to find out about it.

A woman I dated in Chicago once called to ask me to come hang some shelves for her. A woman I dated in Iowa City once called me to ask if she could borrow my table saw so she could cut her own.

I think that’s pretty damn cool.

Though it’s Chicago that’s immortalized as the “City of Big Shoulders,” none of the women I ever dated there actually had them and this is a vastly underappreciated quality when seeking out a mate, I think.

Nor did they have the broad hips and strong backs and solid arms and legs that women here have. Maybe a few of them did but only if it was only the result of time spent in soft lighting with some $75-per-hour personal trainer while sipping bottled water in a gym while hooked up to a Pilates machine that did all the work for them and they were barely breaking a sweat.

No, the women in Iowa City come by their impressive statures honestly, from hard work done in good humor because it was required of them and everybody has to pull their own weight out on the prairie.

None of the girlfriends I had when I lived in Chicago had ever bailed hay or used a post-hole digger to dig holes for a barbed wire fence or spent two hours lugging 50-pound feed bags into the barn in the middle of a blizzard.

Some of the women I’ve had the pleasure to know here in Iowa actually have. I’ve seen it.

This sort of honest labor cultivates an entirely different outlook on life than if you come from a long line of stock brokers, lawyers and art dealers and your doorman carries the groceries you ordered online into the lobby for you when they’re delivered to your high-rise by Peapod.

Because of these experiences, they know firsthand that life can be hard and often involves hard work. As a result, small, thoughtful, practical acts that can make it a little easier from time to time will be seen as the romantic gestures they truly are–not merely chores outsourced to the boyfriend.

Sure, flowers and candy may be nice but new tires last a lot longer.

I think of these things now that Valentine’s Day is upon us and men will be inundated with instructions on what to buy to express our “true feelings” for that someone special.

If you’re with the right person, just mowing their lawn for them while they’re at work or surprising them with an 80-pound bag of rock salt in the wintertime can do the trick.

Somehow I don’t think that small, practical displays of affection like these would carry the same weight in a place where people didn’t have to do these things themselves or hired out for them if they did.

Women in Iowa City don’t tend to put on airs. They put on sunscreen in the summer and chapstick in the winter and bug spray in between and that’s about it.

They don’t ask to be impressed with outlandish displays of wealth to demonstrate your affection, and they understand that bowling is a perfectly acceptable anniversary date, that ice skating can be just as passionate as Tango dancing if you’re good enough (or bad enough) at it and that spending an evening in with some rented movies is more than enough excitement for a Saturday night because hey, you’re that much closer to the bedroom staying in, and that was where you were headed all along, right?

Things like skyboxes and bottle service and V.I.P. rooms haven’t yet entered the everyday nightlife picture here and I doubt they’d catch on if they did. Any of the women I’ve known here in Iowa would see them for the gaudy and ostentatious extravagances that they are.

A few PBRs and some burgers at George’s is more than enough to make for a romantic evening if you’re with the right person. How could that possibly be improved upon?

So, if you have someone you’re spending Valentine’s Day with, go there together to celebrate it . Sit in a dark booth and lean in close and be thankful and laugh together and whisper sweet things in each others’ ears. They don’t even have to be true as long your feelings for each other are.

And if you don’t have someone special you’re spending Valentine’s Day with this year, just remember where you are and that it will be well worth the wait if you’re lucky enough to find that person here. When you do, remember it was Iowa City that brought you together and be thankful for that too.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Iowa City.

Yale Cohn is uncertain as to the true origins of Valentine’s Day but is glad there is something lighthearted to break up the wretched dreariness otherwise known as the month of February.