by: Luke Neff
I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which makes being Quaker quite difficult.
Have you heard about the study where researchers found that if you’re holding a warm mug, you have more positive feelings about the people you meet? And if you’re holding a cold cup, then you have more negative feelings? My childhood was like that. But instead of a cold cup, there was a smell, a vile, invasive smell, a stench even.
Where I grew up, the east side of Cedar Rapids, not infrequently—not frequently either, but much more frequently than we would like—the wind would blow in from the west. And it brought with it a stench that was awful, absolutely awful. And I blamed the Quakers.
Here’s why: Cedar Rapids was the home of the Quaker Oats Factory, the largest cereal factory in the world. At least that’s what the postcards said. (And Wikipedia confirms this, as much as Wikipedia can confirm anything.) While some—a rare few who likely took up this position in an attempt to put a positive spin on the gritty facts of life—would claim that the factory smelled of delicious Crunch Berries, I was not and could not be one of those people. For me, it was burnt, rotten corn, and it was nauseating. And the factory said QUAKER, right there on top, in big red letters.
The most basic, simple fact of my childhood: Quaker = bad smells.
The Quaker Oats Factory.
I didn’t imagine Oompa Loompas and chocolate rivers inside this factory. Instead, the smells made me imagine bubbling vats of blotchy, partially-congealed, liquid corn ooze that would sporadically fizzle and burst into hazy, malodorous cloudlets that would then slowly waft over the interstate, over neighborhoods, and into my backyard, forcing me indoors.
Now that I think about it, this probably has something to do with why I grew up to love reading and playing on the computer. I didn’t want to be outside inhaling that Quaker smell. I do love reading and computers. And these loves have served me well. My former job, English teacher, involved reading great books with students and encouraging their reading, and my current job—“instructional technology coordinator”—blends technology and education.
So in both work and play, I find myself at the intersection of books and computers. The bad smells of my childhood have somehow led to the highlights of my adulthood. This all reminds me of a favorite line in a favorite book. A character describes his own mental condition—and it really does seem to be something of a mental condition; the other characters think he’s crazy because he’s so happy: “...if I’m anything by a clinical name, I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.”
He’s a “paranoiac in reverse,” so he’s someone who is paranoid, obsessed, looking over his shoulder constantly. But it’s in reverse, so instead of being worried that someone or something is out to get him, he’s paranoid that someone is sneakily plotting to make him delightfully happy.
Perhaps, now, more than twenty years later, it is time for me to rethink my entire stance toward my childhood associations with the word Quaker. Maybe things happen that stink, but twenty years later, it’s possible to feel deeply grateful for them. If only I was more of a paranoiac in reverse, I might have figured out sooner that a smelly factory was a key part of the plot that has landed me here, happy amongst the Quakers.
And, for the record, you all smell very nice.