If you’re stuck in an airport because of weather delays, you’ve got plenty of time to meditate, read, text, do yoga, think about the state of your life, judge strangers, get drunk or sleep; but there’s no escaping the boredom of waiting. And you just might keep circling back to the same niggling, tail-chasing threads of thought that might drive you as crazy as a box of papers you haven’t had the energy to go through since before the pandemic started, but still can’t bring yourself to throw away. This holding pattern is artfully depicted in Joseph G. Peterson’s novel, “Memorandum from the Iowa Cloud Appreciation Society.” It becomes an opportunity for the protagonist, a traveling salesman, to reflect on his life.
Jim Moore travels all over the country for work 300 days a year. Born in Iowa—which he describes as a place where you wait for things to happen, and one he couldn’t wait to leave once he grew up—he’s grown tired of being on the move all the time. Though he’s spent his adult life mentally disparaging his home state, that childhood grass was mighty green in retrospect; those idle hours spent lying in the grass looking up at cloud shapes had been blissfully happy.
Clouds didn’t just serve to drift by on unremarkable childhood afternoons, they were a point of connection with his father, a cloud enthusiast who taught him the names of different kinds and the weather they ushered in. Jim gets lost in thought about his father, their hunting trips together, the car trip the family drove out west on with teenage Jim at the wheel, and the vacuum left by his father’s suicide. Feelings of remembered connection and love reverberate with those of loneliness and acute loss. He comes up for air to find he’s still at the gate, mumbling the names of clouds as if reciting a rosary, while the lady across from him is still yammering away on her cell phone.
The gate is the intersection of here and elsewhere, now and the past, numbness and pain, futility and meaning. Jim’s mind wanders from observing the eating and parenting behaviors of his fellow travelers to musing about old girlfriends who refused to believe nothing ever happened in Iowa. He finds solace in dreaming of an archetype hero of a Woodsman he admires for living alone high in a treetop, away from the meaningless bustle of modern life.
Peterson masterfully weaves the restless meanderings of the mind of a solitary traveler yearning for connection and home and validation for his life choices with the shabbiness and inescapable yet temporary community of an airport setting. Jim is both relatable and aloof, seizing opportunities to interact with fellow strandees like a gambler with mixed results of yearning and defensiveness. Like all of us at some point, he chafes at where he is versus where he wants to be. May we all just find our way home.
“Memorandum from the Iowa Cloud Appreciation Society”
By Joseph G. Peterson
University of Iowa Press, 190 pages, $19
Kate Burns is a writer, musician and voiceover talent living in Chicago. Her voice haunted the elevator in her gynecologist’s building until by chance the practice moved. She taught preschool Spanish for three years and, like a bartender, grew to rely on the security of having a guitar, or a bar, between herself and the patrons. It’s only a matter of time before she succumbs to her family’s lobbying for a dog. You may see her walking this dog on Chicago’s wintry sidewalks with a leash in one mittened hand and a tissue in the other. She enjoys knitting rectangles in large font while binge-watching TV. She rues the fact that she hasn’t been to a movie in several adjacent seasons, but give her a book and she’s golden. She likes gardening. Plants are quiet. Her one and only child challenges her daily like the Mack truck of karma. Her favorite animals are seahorses and hummingbirds and her favorite food is popcorn. She decided on these as a teenager and hasn’t revised her opinions.