Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.



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  • Midwestern Style, a la Gary Kroeger

    • Posted on Apr 28, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    This was first published on March 8, 1987, and it seems to hold up pretty well, given the passage of 27 years or so.  Gary Kroeger in fact has returned Cedar Falls, Iowa, --ever the Midwesterner.  He does seem perfectly suited to the "land in its working clothes," as poet James Hearst once called Iowa.  


    There’s no denying this: we’re all Midwesterners. How do we know that? Because we all act alike, as anyone from California knows.

    So when Midwestern characters show up in television programs, they behave in the expected fashion. Otherwise, don’t you know, the audience would get confused.

    A case in point is “Spies,” the new CBS adventure/comedy that stars Cedar Falls native Gary Kroeger and Mr. California Tan himself, George Hamilton as “Ian Stone.”

    Kroeger plays “Smythe,” a new spy for “the company” who idolizes Ian Stone, and through a series of plot strains, gets to be his partner.

    Smythe hails from the Midwest, (Kansas) and boy, and does it show? Let us count the ways:

    • His clothes. “If you’re going to work for me,” Stone tell him, “you’ve got to stop looking like an Amway salesman.” Stone buys Smythe (from their expense account) two thousand bucks worth of designer clothes.

    Oddly enough, pre-fashion wardrobe Smythe looks great to me: button-down shirts that almost fit, run-down loafers, semi-baggy pants. Smythe complains that he prefers Sears to Ralph Lauren. Ian Stone sniffs, “You think Cheryl Tiegs really wears that stuff?”
    So from now on, Smythe won’t look much like a Midwesterner. Instead, he’ll look like a Midwesterner in California clothes.

    • His language. He says “darn” a lot. “DARN?” asks Stone. “Where’d you get that expression?”

    “Kansas,” replies poor Smythe. “We say that a lot out there.” He also says “a lot” a lot. And if he had been writing it, he would have spelled it “alot.” That’s how my Midwestern writing students spell it.

    Smythe also speaks with the voice of a parent. Every other sentence contains “should” or “must” or “have to.” That’s the Midwest, through and through.

    • His conscience. This is the trait that “Spies” plays up the most. Ian Stone amounts to an American James Bond, always with the women, always seeming to put pleasure before business. He’s a playboy, an irresponsible high-living, big spending rake.
    Smythe, however, worries constantly about Stone’s wasteful lifestyle. “Couldn’t you drive a nice Pinto?” he whines, as they sit in Stone’s Ferrari. By way of reply, Stone shoots Smythe a withering glare. 

    Every Midwesterner who’s gone to California has seen such glares. I saw it several times last summer when I asked Riverside natives why they can’t use the municipal swimming pools, (instead of wasting precious water for backyard pools) or why they can’t build a decent mass transit system. I played Smythe to their Stones on a daily basis.

    • His frugality. Smythe constantly worries about money, counts up their expenses, calculates their budget. Stone, meanwhile, brings in blindfolded musicians to play for his private parties, rents whole skating rinks for his date, and draws ahead on his company salary. (He’s been paid ahead until 1997.)

    Smythe insists that they pay as they go. Stone seizes the day, and lets tomorrow take care of itself. Come to think of it, the federal deficit comes by way of a former Californian. It all makes sense.

    We can moan about having to live down these Midwestern stereotypes all we want, yet when people hear where we’re from, they see Gary Kroeger’s Smythe fashion-blind, conscience-stricken, frugal to a fault.

    Darn it all, anyway.  A lot.  
    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Personalities
    • Humor
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • Seven Fresh Thoughts on Christmas

    • Posted on Dec 22, 2013 by Scott Cawelti

    Published this morning (Dec. 22) in the Waterloo Sunday Courier--an attempt to find a few new things to say about Christmas.   At least it was fun trying.  

    Christmas for older folks becomes much like Groundhog Day.  Not the early February day, but the 1993 Bill Murray film, which creates a fantasy where the hero gets trapped living the same day over and over.  

    Everyone except the hero repeats themselves all day, both actions and words.  Life becomes a day-long treadmill until the hero figures it out.

    It’s a comedy, but a dark comedy that sticks.  Murray’s character, in despair at not getting anywhere no matter what he does, murmurs in a bar,   “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and everything you did was the same, and nothing mattered?”   And a guy next to him mutters, “That about sums it up for me.”

    And that about sums up the Christmas season for many people after a few dozen repetitions. The darkness and cold descends, the sun begins its slow return, familiar melodies and yard lights fill the air and eyes, the same Fox News puppets decry the “war” on Christmas.

    With minor variations, it does seem predictable. 

    What if someone came up with a few different Christmas thoughts, something fresh outside the gift-wrapped green and red boxes?

    I’m here to try.    

    Seven Fresh Thoughts about Christmas

    1. The best character to ponder for the meaning of Christmas?  Not the baby Jesus nor his blessed parents, nor Santa in all his whiteness, nor Tiny Tim with his “God bless us everyone.”  No.   It’s that ever-unpopular codger Scrooge. After a grueling night, he finally gets it.   All the other characters already know what Scrooge has to learn:  Good will toward men really means something.  We all learn from Scrooge. 
    2. Joseph and Mary, remember, were homeless, consigned to a stable. What can that mean?  Clearly, it’s the uncomfortable idea that the poorest among us may be the richest in spirit.  The well off seldom see beyond their riches, which makes them the poorest among us.
    3. The best Christmas song is “The Little Drummer Boy.”  It’s told from the point of view of another poor boy who can’t afford even a tiny gift.  All he can do is play his drum.  But that’s enough.
    4. If you need cheering up, take a minute and think back to the single best gift anyone ever gave you.  I’d bet a gold ornament that (1) it was a complete surprise; (2) it made you choke up or yelp when you opened it, and (3) it made you feel deeply grateful for the giver.  And you still are.
    5. What’s the true meaning of the Santa Claus story?  It’s simple:  there’s a character generous enough to freely give gifts to the world’s children once a year. It’s a story of global, unfathomable generosity.  We’re all too scroogy; we can learn from Santa.
    6. At its best, Christmas promotes both gratitude and humility.   Who can ponder the “true meaning” of Christmas without feeling part of a larger whole, dwarfing the pettiness and meanness in which we’re too often mired?   This comes with the spirit of giving on all levels, and has little to do with any cult, sect, or religion.
    7. Finally, once a year we feel encouraged to find our larger selves, beyond hypocrisy and the pettiness of politics, family squabbles, religion, ancient grudges, the gripes and whines that keep us small and miserable.   A hearty thanks to a holiday that reminds us we can be better.          

    A refreshed Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone.   

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Humor
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Christmas
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