“By the Iowa Sea”
“By the Iowa Sea” is a memoir by Joe Blair, a middle-aged Massachusetts-born motorcycle-lovin’ adventurer who examines how he became so profoundly unhappy with his life, his marriage, and with himself. In the summer of 1989, 25-year old Blair is trying to figure out what to do with his life when he decides to leave his hometown (Boston) and take a cross country trip on his motorcycle. With $1,500 in his pocket he spends two months exploring the US and decides he will always travel, never cave in to convention, or settle down.
Two years later in 1991, Blair meets Deb and they both decide they want to leave Massachusetts so they pack their belongings on his motorcycle and go cross country until they run out of money in Iowa. Iowa is beautiful. Everyone that visits Iowa and sees the black soil, green pastures, and rolling hills walks away thinking Iowa is magnificent and it is. My husband and his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are all from Iowa and every time I go back to Iowa and sit on the porch of his grandmother’s little brown house in that white rocking chair from Cracker Barrel, I look at the rolling fields of corn in front of me and think, “Iowa is God’s country” and then a car passes with an Iowa license tag that says “Life Changing” and I nod and wave. I digress though.
Blair and his wife, Deb fell under the spell of Iowa and decide to stay. They rent a house, get jobs, have babies (4), buy a house, get other jobs, buy a bigger house and settle into life. But life isn’t easy with four kids, one of whom is profoundly autistic, a house that needs constant maintenance, and a dog that needs to be trained under the guidelines that “everything should be treats and kindness. The same way we’re suppose to raise our kids. And, follow God’s Word.” In Blair’s hilarious and honest style, he also points out that “As far as I know, Jesus was a bachelor. He never had any kids. (Or pets either, for that matter).” So, a sense of failure is felt day-to-day by both Blair and Deb because nothing is as they thought it would be. Their lives become busy and riddled with routine; they react to the crisis of the moment which leaves little time for each other and as the years go by, Blair becomes profoundly unhappy and thinks the key to reclaiming happiness is to leave Iowa:
I didn’t want to be the old guy in the Boston bar who sighs heavily and says “I always wanted to leave.” Little did I know I’d become the guy in the Iowa City bar who sighs heavily and says “I don’t know why the hell I ever left.”
But, Deb won’t leave Iowa so Blair looks elsewhere – to another woman and nearly destroys his marriage. With his marriage crumbling, Blair also chronicles the flood of 2009 that put most of Iowa City and Cedar Rapids under water. When the flood waters subside and time passes, Blair notices that everything seems new and this seems to be a metaphor for his marriage. The crisis came, devastating lives and when it subsided, lives were rebuilt.
Often times, people think a geographic change will fix problems or make things better but what they don’t realize is that the problems will still exist whether they are in Massachusetts or Iowa. Blair doesn’t like the idea of getting older and realizes this on a weekend sojourn to Coney Island where he notices the once vibrant amusement park is no longer vibrant. “The carnival rides are rusting. The steel is growing older. Soon all the rides will break down.” Just like life but Blair doesn’t seem to grasp that where he lives isn’t nearly as important as how he lives his life.