Feb 9, 2022–My first inkling that I was a product of “white bread” culture came in 8th grade. We had a student teacher assigned to our small rural Iowa school. He was from New York, so to us he might as well have been a Martian.

The incident: He chided me in front of the class for citing an article from Reader’s Digest.

For those who don’t remember when magazines came in the mail, Reader’s Digest was simply that: a collection of condensed articles from the major publications at the time. Every Iowa farmer had a subscription right alongside Wallace’s Farmer, and every farmer’s wife had a shelf filled with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books–classics and popular novels, only less filling.

Those were my earliest cultural influences:

My reading was Reader’s Digest.

My music was The Lawrence Welk Show.

My “google” was 20-year-old World Book Encyclopedias.

My sustenance was Wonder Bread, washed down with whole milk.

My first drinking of alcoholic spirits was white wine, ironically named Blue Nun.

Our big holiday was a white Christmas. A guy named Bing sang it.

My first favorite bluegrass band was The Whites.

Our first funk group was Average White Band.

Of course this is all silly. Erudition doesn’t flow from color or culture.

Reader’s Digest actually was an efficient way to sample a range of opinions and writing styles in one handy magazine. The Condensed Books introduced me to many classic novels and authors otherwise unavailable to a boy growing up in a town with a one-room library.

Musicians in Welk’s band were tops in their field. Constrained as they were in style and presentation, they were good.

The Iowa culture was not so much about being hip or anti-hip; it was more about being safe and non-threatening. “Iowa Nice” is one of the names for it. We were raised to be nonconfrontational. Everyone agreed to say the positive greeting, make the obvious observations. Both conversation and cuisine were not spicy, and we didn’t use words like “cuisine.” The weather was a safe conversational topic, with the added bonus of being critical to the farming lifestyle.

There was just too much risk to have anyone speak their mind or share their true feelings. I guess that’s why my high school never offered debate–no one felt comfortable arguing with classmates. We generally got along, even with those we didn’t care for. And used euphemisms such as “didn’t care for” rather than say “hate.”

In one way, avoiding confrontation is a comfortable way to live. So much energy is wasted trying to argue your point constantly, to always be right, to always say, “In my opinion…” When you were trying to get through a day, there were so many more important things to pay attention to.

On the other hand, “Iowa Nice” could be stifling. How many times did we stuff our feelings or avoid doing the right thing because we, gosh, just didn’t want to rock the hay wagon?

I’ve thought about this a lot. Part of my personal perspective stems from growing up in the middle of 9 children. As a kid you quickly learn it is not worth fighting every battle or reacting to every challenge. With eight siblings swirling around, you just don’t have the energy. It is much more efficient to not sweat the small stuff. You learn which battles are important, and which slights will evaporate in the next morning’s chores.

On the other hand, you also learn when and where to draw the line. I seldom rose to the bait, but when an issue challenged my principles, I dug in and surprised myself with my stubbornness and fearlessness to do the right thing. I couldn’t define or predict where that line was drawn, but I knew when someone toed it.

Life is a great balancing act between getting along with those around you, while standing up for your beliefs when it matters. Knowing when it matters is the challenge and the secret no one ever solves for anyone but themselves.

Weirdly, those lessons from an Iowa childhood seem more important than ever in today’s political and social climate.

We are all part of a very large family.