On the last day of our family’s summer trip to Cedar Falls, as we scurried about collecting wayward Legos and socks from under the furniture, I paused in my parents’ kitchen. I glanced through the bay window looking out at the bird feeders in their backyard. I watched a black-capped chickadee land on the tallest feeder’s ledge, peck at some seeds, and flitter away as quick as my sixth-grade crush rolled away after the couple’s skate at the Black Hawk Rollerdome. (They probably played “Love of a Lifetime” by Firehouse.)
Four weeks prior, on the first day of our vacation at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, our family of four sat at the table in the same kitchen watching the assembly of birds that alighted upon the cluster of feeders. Jet-lagged from our plane fight around the world, we watched sunrise over cups of coffee and apple juice. Back home in Singapore, where there was a 13-hour time difference, they were watching the other side of the twilight sun disappear over the horizon.
The native Iowa birds we saw that first morning were like the attendees at the opening reception of your buddy Trent’s crypto art exhibition. The house finch with its ruddy throat and noggin was the other NFT artist there to promote their own exhibition. The female cardinal was the giddy housewife stuffed in a mini-skirt whose haughty ex-banker husband hovered in the corner wondering if anyone brought coke.
The black-hooded chickadee was the eccentric sound artist that drowns out conversation with incessant noise*. The gaudy goldfinch – the state bird of Iowa – was the influencer sending pictures of their beak to their 700 followers. Robin red-breast was the paunchy art blogger, with a blob of ketchup on his shirt, stabbing at juicy earthworms twiddling their tails in the morning dew.
We as a family celebrated over our bowls of cereal when the chubby chipmunk skittered out from under a bush to scrounge through the discarded shells on the ground. The magnum opus came as the rising sun reached the treetops. The ruby-throated hummingbird buzzed in and bobbed about, sipping at the nectar in the exclusive hummingbird feeder, and like an Eastern-European model fidgeting at the Champagne queue, absconded into the green abyss of the surrounding flora from whence it came.
We sat there for hours on that first day, marveling at the menagerie of wildlife that browsed through my parents’ backyard in this snapshot of Midwest suburbia. Over the next few weeks we saw a mama deer with her twin foals, rabbits, squirrels, and a wild turkey. Our sons, ages 5 and 7, learned not to open sliding patio door to get a closer glimpse of the animals, because otherwise my parents’ heeler-shepherd-hybrid Pepper would dart outside to chase away the skittish creatures and the show was over.
We have folders of blurry iPhone photos of these animals if you care to see.
By the end of our visit, we had become blasé towards this morning ritual. It was old hat. The swaths of green Iowa cornfields, the forests, and restored prairies were no longer novel wonders of nature, but mundane scenery rushing outside the window on long car trips to the likes of Coralville, Minneapolis, and the Wisconsin Dells.
On our final three-and-a-half-hour drive to the Minneapolis airport we obligatorily called out, “Look a cow,” whenever we saw a herd in the distance. The boys no longer excitedly jumped to the window for a glimpse of these majestic queens of the Iowa cornfields.
Our boys grew up in Tokyo and Singapore. This was their first visit to my hometown of Cedar Falls. The coronavirus pandemic canceled our planned trip from two years prior. It was my first time home in eight years. At different times during our trip both boys said they wanted to move to Iowa. The youngest so he could play with Pepper every day. The oldest because he wanted to get his driver’s permit at age 14.
However, neither of them ever experienced Iowa’s Hoth-like winters.
Iowa winters provide the most clear childhood memories. Dad waking us up at 6am on school days to shovel snow. Leaping from the garage roof into head-high snow drifts. Snow forts and snowball fights. That time my junior high friends and I built a giant snow penis at the park and it froze solid overnight. It stood there for days.
Memories are like leaves sticking out of the snow. There is no rhyme or reason as to which memory will poke out from the dense layers beneath.
Cedar Falls, Iowa, is where I lived from ages 6 to 18. During my college days at the University of Iowa and during my first full-time gig in a rural Iowa river town, Cedar Falls was the hospice where I recuperated on holidays and weekends when the emotional batteries were drained. These recent memories were the ones that got drudged up most frequently as I dragged my family through the city of 40,000 residents.
The changes made to the city in the last decade were obvious. Every time we drove south down Hudson Road to buy snacks or flip-flops at Target my parents would point out where they are building the new high school. The old school seemed to be in tip-top condition when I attended there – 25 years ago.
Downtown Main Street has been revitalized. The power-washed brick buildings look straight out of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Growing up, Main Street was run down and haggard. My friends and I used to skateboard to the candy shop and buy sour bombs. Maybe we would wander through the hobby shop full of model trains and cars 20 years past their prime.
In 1999 the lobby of the Black Hawk Hotel is where my brother and I waited with our duffel bags for the Greyhound bus to San Diego alongside chain-smoking men who rented a room and a mattress at a monthly rate.
The Cypress Lounge, with pinkish-orange shag carpet instead of wallpaper, used to be on the first floor of the hotel. It was notorious for not carding and it’s where I was served my first rum and Coke at age 17.
Now the Cypress is a hipster hangout in a new location two blocks away (with an excellent jukebox from what I remember). The renovated “historic” Black Hawk Hotel bills itself as the second longest continuously operated hotel in the US, with a bar that serves “prohibition-inspired craft cocktails.”
There are craft beer breweries on Main Street, an American trend that has jumped the shark. Outdoor beer gardens are timeless, but while browsing through a beer menu of watermelon IPAs and piña colada golden ales, I wanted to ask the visibly stoned waitress, “Can I just have a regular beer? Or a piña colada?”
The Ray Gun T-shirt shop is a nice addition to Main Street and we returned to Singapore with luggage full of Iowa-themed shirts, coasters and fridge magnets. My T-shirt has the slogan, “Saved By the Hill.”
The Hill being College Hill. College Street runs through the campus of the University of Northern Iowa. On the north side of campus the street rolls down a hill that is lined with college bars, sandwich shops, and hair salons. I remember one drunken New Year’s Eve when the streets were nothing but a sheet of ice my friend and I slipped and careened on our asses as we ascended the Hill.
For the second half of 1997 my life revolved around College Hill. I moved in to a soon-to-be-condemned house at the bottom of it. The pizzeria where I learned to toss dough was just a few doors up. It has also since moved to a new location, but the memories are fresh as the green peppers I sliced in the basement alongside the elderly owner. “You gotta chase the dirt, kid,” he would yell at me as I scrubbed under the prep table with a toothbrush.
I used to get my haircut on College Hill. My old barber Larry, who used electric clippers he bought when he was stationed in Okinawa during the Vietnam War, has since retired. However, a friend from back in the day opened a barber shop-slash-comic book store on the Hill, and my kids were able to have a one-of-a-kind Cedar Falls haircut experience.
I took my kids to play at the same parks I played at as a kid. My oldest son is the same age I was when I chased after the bullfrogs in Birdsall pond. He got to see the playing field where I dominated at flag football.
We helped my 12-year-old nephew practice for baseball tryouts on the same diamond where I tried out for the Lion’s League. It was the first time I experienced fast pitch and my Major League dreams were dashed when the umpire called strike and I didn’t realize the pitcher had thrown the ball. Thankfully my nephew doesn’t have my eyesight and he was able to lace line drives to all sides of the field.
In the summer of ’00 I worked for the Cedar Falls parks department, hefting around a Stihl weed whacker for eight hours a day, whacking every weed in every city park. Every once in a while I got a turn on the rider mower, particularly at the new Prairie Lakes Preserve, where native prairie grasses are being restored.
Twenty millenia ago when the first Paleolithic hunter-gatherers walked across the Bering Land Bridge and down into America, Iowa was covered by glaciers. When the ice melted, the massive flooding left behind soil as rich as the Fertile Crescent. When settlers arrived in Iowa 150 years ago, according to Laura Ingalls Wilder, they found a sea of prairie grass taller than their covered wagons.
Farmers promptly plowed the fields and planted corn and today 90 percent of Iowa is farmland, with 50 percent of the topsoil eroded into the Mississippi River. One day Iowa will look just like Iraq.
Prairie Lakes Preserve has restored a smidgeon of Iowa’s native plants. I used to ride the lawnmower through the grasses with the blades high. The barn swallows flitted about, like disgruntled emo girlfriends of NFT artists named Trent.
An image of an abstract swallow is tattooed on my back. When I walked the Prairie Lakes trail with my wife and sons, we saw the swallows again, and I could explain to them in better detail why there is this weird tattoo between my shoulder blades.
In Iowa, the topic of the pandemic is a lip rash you hope no one will discuss. In Singapore, 93 percent of the population is vaccinated. Mask wearing is ubiquitous. In Iowa, 60 percent got the poke. Parents picket outside Iowa schools protesting mask mandates for students.
Making conversation with family at my grandma’s 95th birthday party was like flying a kite in a tornado. You gotta hold the line tight to keep the discussion from nosediving into face masks, Cuba, and the deep state.
Iowa wasn’t like this 10 years ago. It used to be that only the whackos on the fringes were the ones that might slash your tires over an op-ed written about tax increment financing and washing machine factories. Today it could be Aunt Charlene, the church secretary.
At the end of the day, this trip back to Iowa wasn’t about me and the barrage of fuzzy memories. It was about my kids getting to meet their two-year-old twin cousins for the first time. It was about them getting to visit with Great-Grandma Georgia and Great-Grandpa Joe while they still have their health.
It was them getting to swing in my parents’ backyard and run around with Pepper. It was about them learning where they come from and creating their own memories in the truly beautiful state of Iowa.
Thankfully I’ve matured past my younger adult days, when I would carouse at night with the few high school friends who remained in town, evading police who knew exactly what we were up to and pestering young girls whose futures were much brighter than ours.
In those days I was like Billy, the main character played by Timothy Hutton in the criminally underrated ‘90s flick Beautiful Girls. Hutton is a 20-something musician back in town for a high school reunion who slips into old patterns with high school buddies who are stuck in a perpetual time loop of immaturity.
A young Natalie Portman plays Hutton’s pre-teen neighbor, who represents the idealized objectification of youth. While ice skating on a frozen pond, Portman shyly gushes about her crush on the much older Hutton, which cracks the naive façade he built for their flirtatious chats.
“You’ll change and I’ll be Winnie the Pooh to your Christopher Robin,” Hutton tells Portman. “Christopher Robin outgrew Pooh. When he matured he didn’t need him anymore.”
“That’s the saddest thing I ever heard,” says Portman.
“It’s true. You don’t realize it, but you’ll do some changing. And I can’t be your Pooh.”
“I think I’ll skate away,” she says.
Just like the goddamn Black Hawk Rollerdome.
It’s now my kids’ turn to build their life and it is my job to facilitate. To be the guiding narrator rather than the eternal goofball. My identity is now Sei’s dad, or Jin’s dad, depending on which sporting event we are attending. It’s an identity I embrace. It is better than being the 40-something balding dude leering at college girls on the dance floor of Shag Nasty’s (never say never).
Being a dad is like being the last lime on the shelf after all the Margaritas are gone. And that’s OK. Some day someone’s gonna need that lime to make a kickass guacamole.
All being said, it’s time to brush off the past, save the tabs for the good memories, and take care of the family, wherever we may be.
Says Winnie the Pooh, “I always get where I am going by walking away from where I have been.”
*The chickadee’s song is actually quite lovely. I do hate sound artists.